December 7, 2019

Something Stirring Beneath the Surface

September 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The younger set cannot remember one of the iconic pictures of my youth: Nikita Kruschev, Russian Premier and head of the original Axis of Evil in Moscow, angrily banging his shoe on the desk at the United Nations, screaming to the US envoy to the UN, “We Will Bury You!” It was the headline in all the papers the next day. As I look at the stirrings beneath the surface of the major league standings, remembering how Texas and San Francisco surprised everyone last year, I wonder whether that early run by the Pirates is a portent of changes to come, whether there is some angry manager from palookaville waiting to bury the big boys this October.

The Pirates will not make the playoffs this year and manager Clint Hurdle–angry or not–will have to wait until next season. But the Pirates continue to stock their organization with blue chip talent as do other notable organizations like the Blue Jays. The Pirates picked up two of the best young players in the recent draft in Josh Bell and Gerrit Cole. Cole could be pitching in the major league rotation by June of next year and could anchor their staff Justin Verlander-style for years to come. He could be enough to keep Pittsburgh in contention next year in the weak NL Central.

Of course such speculation is easy when one is well away from the pennant races and the media frenzy. But one might look beneath the surface of that Phillies lineup at the ages of all their stars. They go into the playoffs as one of the favorites, but they are almost to a man in their mid-thirties and the cupboard is bare once the feast is over.

The Yankees rotation puts on more weight every day and there are a few senior citizens on the Yankee roster as well. Maybe Mick Jagger crooning the old Rolling Stones tune, “Time-i–i-ime is on our side,” is a better picture to make the point than Little Nicky at the UN. However you paint it, there are several major league organizations, like Pittsburgh and Toronto, that are building for a future that may be a lot closer than anyone might imagine this September.

The gold standard for minor league organizations has been the Atlanta Braves. They have developed talent as well as anyone so that over the past two decades they have been in the middle of almost every pennant fight.  The Tampa Bay Rays for the past few years have been almost as good. While the Braves have Julio Teheran, I think I could be happy with new Durham Bulls ace, Matt Moore. Tampa’s rotation of Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and David Price may soon be better than Halladay, Hamels and Lee.

Teams like the Braves and the Rays have enough pieces that even a challenging conundrum like smoothing the exit of a star like Chipper Jones can occur with the slow ascension of a replacement piece like Freddie Freeman in the middle of the batting order.

The Washington Nationals are not in the same league with Atlanta or Tampa Bay–the latter at least not literally. But when the talent in each organization is evaluated during the off season to come, Washington will rank with the best of them, ahead of Pittsburgh and Toronto perhaps.

Several years ago the Washington Nationals organization was rated 29th overall by Keith Law at ESPN. Baseball America has consistently been more sanguine about the new kids on the block, cutting them some slack and ranking them number 13 last spring. Law was not convinced and placed them 19th. I asked Jim Callis of Baseball America if BA’s positioning of the Nationals were a function of depth of talent or just Bryce Harper.  His answer rhymed with Splice Marker.

But now Harper is in danger of losing top billing even within the organization. Does Anthony Rendon have more power potential than Harper? Where does highly touted college pitcher Alex Meyer fit in an organization that has Tom Milone as its top pitcher by the numbers. Do you bump Milone aside just on the strength of Meyer’s “large” potential? And newly acquired center fielder Brian Goodwin fits in where vis-a-vis Steve Lombardozzi? Which one—if either—will be hitting leadoff for the Nationals in 2013?

The questions are far more intriguing than anything on the table just a few short years ago when the topic of the day was why the Nationals failed to sign Aaron Crow and just how old was that skinny kid from the DR?

GM Mike Rizzo has managed to turn things around in remarkably short order. Bryce Harper has friends now atop the prospect rankings that will be compiled during the off season. Rendon will likely be there and Matt Purke could rise to the top quickly as well. And there is more. If a Top 100 prospects were announced tomorrow, Brad Peacock, Steve Lombardozzi, and Tom Milone would belong there whether they make the cut or not. A.J Cole and Robbie Ray were just drafted in 2010 but looked impressive in their first exposure at Hagerstown in the Low-A Sally League. They are the truly quality depth that lurks just behind the bigger names at the top of the organization.

Then there is Tyler Moore who has 30 home runs for Double-A Harrisburg. He looks to be leading them to the Eastern League Championship just like he did last season when his 31 home runs at High-A Potomac brought home the Carolina League Championship. His prodigious power ranks among the best across the minors. Of course there is no shortage of guys with 30 home run seasons in the minors who barely played a game in the majors. But Moore’s teams somehow manage to win, a trait that might transplant well to DC.

Harrisburg leads the Eastern Division of the Eastern League and swept four games from Western Division leaders New Hampshire last week.  They did it not with the bat of Moore so much as with their pitching. Their best pitcher is probably Shairon Martis who has rebounded from being promoted to the majors too soon in 2009. How good is he? The gaudy strikeout totals–148 in 128 innings–and the third best ERA in the league give the twenty-four year old credibility. He has a no-hitter under his belt this year as well. He is just a tick behind Brad Peacock and Milone when quality arms are discussed.

The success that players like Peacock, Martis and Lombardozzi are having speaks well for the coaching that players are getting along the way as they move up the food chain for the Nationals. None of them were high draft picks. Lombardozzi as a 19th rounder was the highest of the trio. Tyler Moore was a 16th round pick and Milone a 1oth rounder. So they may not make the Top 100 because their upside will always be handicapped by their relatively low initial evaluations. But major league rosters are filled with stars who never made Baseball America’s top 100.  Jim Thome was a 13th round pick and 600 homers later, he is hardly waiting for a better initial scouting report to come in.

But how do all of the pieces in the puzzle fit for Washington? DC loyalists wonder how Rendon fits into an infield anchored by Ryan Zimmerman. The Z-man was just in the papers yesterday talking about the need to renew his contract. Since coming back from surgery, he has regained much of gold glove form and is hitting over .300, slugging.460. He has not regained the slugging form of 2009 when he hit 33 homers, but he is headed back in that direction.

Rendon was not drafted to put pressure on Zimmerman, but he will start the season at third base next spring according to the Nationals’ brass. Baseball is a business and it is fueled by winning teams.  How Washington will get to that point is still open to question.

There is no doubt however, that for now the gold standard is Zimmerman and Strasburg. Yet soon there may be enough talent to push even the best. And that is hardly a bad thing. And the kids are learning to win. Harrisburg is the only Nationals affiliate sitting atop their league. Yet it was just five years ago that the overall organization had a winning percentage hovering at .400.  Now the minor league affiliates have a winning record overall and it is not even close.

The pieces are there. The Nationals have only to develop them. Harrisburg has taken the championship baton passed on by the Potomac Nationals from 2010. Next year it should be in Syracuse and after that…

It is still baseball. There are still plenty of games to play. But watching the games not being played in New York or Boston is just as much fun. Some would argue that away from the big city lights and all the hype, you can almost see the game as it was meant to be. I am going to take in those Eastern League playoffs. Bowie==the Orioles Double-A affiliate may be playing Harrisburg in one of the early rounds.

The PA system will just tell you who is batting. There is no sound track, no powerfully modulated voice booming out a version of “Heeeeeere’s Johnny.” No, there is just the noise of the fans in the stadium. Bring on that old fashioned baseball, where you can hear the crickets chirping between innings as if they are just out there waiting for a ball to fly over the fence, where you can see the kids tearing off into the dark in search of a foul ball, a treasured keepsake to take home from a game they love.

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