A fan's observations on the Washington Nationals, from across the virtual divide.

Will History Repeat Itself?

I make an effort not to put myself in the position to be an armchair General Manager. I figure that there are probably fifty people in the world who are qualified to be a Major League GM, and I am not one of them. For me to comment would be a little like me commenting on major surgery – Take that spleen out! You can live without a spleen, right?

But there are aspects of being a GM that isn’t about evaluating talent or negotiating contracts.

One of them is, what happens when one (or more) of the Nationals’ prospects ends up playing themselves onto the big club’s roster?

The gaudy (in a bad way) start of spring training is setting up the scenario where it is entirely possible that a player like Ian Desmond or Drew Storen so handily outperforms the incumbent that Mike Rizzo’s biggest April worry is what to do with Cristian Guzman and Jason Bergmann. It wasn’t so long ago – 2008 – that this very scenario played out as Jesus Flores played himself onto the big team’s roster, even when his ticket seemed irrevocably punched for AAA.

Back in November, I traveled to Arizona for Arizona Fall League, and I interviewed Drew Storen about his plans for spring training. At that time, he said his plan was to come to Florida and make an impact. While he’s had only one appearance so far, it was notable for both its success and brevity. He’ll pitch again tomorrow – and while his appearance may be overshadowed by Stephen Strasburg, a strong performance will almost certainly get the attention of the front office. An impact, indeed.

Ian Desmond is doing the same thing… and as a position player, he’s getting a chance every other day or so to show that perhaps Syracuse isn’t the place for him.

The problem that Rizzo faces is that the business of baseball – assigning players to the minors in order to both foster their development and slow down the arbitration clock – seems to be in conflict with the actual performance of the players. I suspect it is tempting to not let a player’s emprical performance on the field interfere with a perfectly good business decision. But the fans don’t see it that way, and people like me are rooting for Drew Storen and Ian Desmond.

I am not saying that Storen or Desmond… or any other Nationals rookie… deserves to make the team. What I am saying is, if they have game, they don’t deserve to ride the bus in the minors because the Nats have expensive contracts with veterans. The fans don’t deserve it, either. I think we deserve the best available team… and I think that the take home message from 2009 is that  it is a mistake to assume that any player on the team is a lock at his position on the first day of spring training (see Milledge, Lastings). Albert Pujols comes to spring training believing he needs to earn his spot. It seems to work out for him.

So will history repeat itself?

Let’s hope!

The Quiet Revolution

Before the Nationals game last Thursday against the Pirates, Manny Acta held a team meeting.

Since that time, the Nationals bullpen has an ERA of 2.30 (4 earned runs in 15 2/3 innings). Of those four earned runs, two were charged to Kip Wells, who gave them up in the twelfth inning of last Friday’s game against Baltimore. He was pitching his second inning in relief, and after a fluke base hit by pitcher Danys Baez of the Orioles, Wells gave up two doubles.  The bullpen has  struck out nine while walking eight – and if you throw out Daniel Cabrera’s performance last night, they’ve walked only five. Joel Hanrahan has two saves. Jason Bergmann, Kip Wells (despite giving up those two runs Fiday night), Ron Villone and Joe Beimel have pitched very well. Even Jesus Colome had a scoreless inning last night.

The team as a whole has had two errors, and given up no unearned runs.

That is quite a turnaround, and we would be feeling a lot better about it if the Nats were hitting the way they have been all along this season. What we’ve seen instead is a struggling offense. My theory is that the Nationals sorely miss the bats of Elijah Dukes and Jesus Flores. In the meantime, we’re left with a team that looks a bit like last year’s team -  a team that opponents can pitch around a bit, leaving our lineup without protection. The Nats are a very different team at the plate with Flores and Dukes in the lineup.

Add to it all the strong performances by callups Craig Stammen and Ross Detwiler – both of whom have pitched well as starters, and suddenly the Daniel Cabrera situation seems a bit less urgent. Cabrera didn’t make a strong case for himself last night… but at the same time, that probably means he could probably be DFA’d without risk of losing him, and perhaps some time in Syracuse would be good for him. And maybe that would be as good for him as time in Washington has been for Stammen and Detwiler.

The Nats rotation has enough depth to survive an injury or two. We’re playing better defense, and our bullpen has started to show their stuff. Later this week we should have two big bats back in the lineup.

I am not crazy enough to declare the disaster over… but there are certainly lots of reasons to be hopeful.

It may have all started in the Nats clubhouse last Thursday.

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On a different topic, Chico Harlan posted in Nationals Journal about the Reviewed, Debated Home Run. Here is what I commented:

This situation is the shame of instant replay.

It isn’t that the umpire made the wrong call. In my biased opinion, he did make the wrong call. But instant replay gives umpires the opportunity to make a mistake twice, under the guise of trying to get it right once.

With no instant replay, mistakes are made. With instant replay, mistakes are affirmed. And in fact, the instant replay rule detracts from the game. It isn’t as if instant replay eliminates bias – it eliminates a random event.

I don’t think it was a home run. But nobody is served by instant replay in this situation. The kind of remedy that instant replay gives you here is the same kind that technology might one day automate the calling of balls and strikes. It offers the illusion of objectivity… and it is just that, an illusion. Baseball is the most human of sports. Adding technology to the mix does not make the game better. It separates us from the game.  That the umpire made a mistake last night isn’t nearly as bad as the idea that technology only served to affirm that mistake.

I’ll take my chances with the umpires.

The Dawn of the Rizzo Era

There’s a lot to say about the Nationals fourteen games into the season. Unfortunately, a lot of it will sound like words from The Oracle (or Alan Greenspan) – truthful, but intentionally ambiguous:

What’s five minutes between friends? A good question. For Lastings Milledge, the ramifications of his tardiness were delayed, but for Elijah Dukes, he was asked to pay swiftly. Fortunately for the Nats, those events happened in the proper order; if Dukes’ punishment was followed by Milledge’s skate (in the short term), there would definitely be some problems regarding the appearance of equity. As it is, we may be seeing Rizzo assert his vision for the team… among them, that nobody is above the rules.

As much as it appeared that Dukes was giving back to the community on this Saturday morning, he was in fact, moonlighting. He was paid for his appearance at the Great Falls Little League. Benching him and fining him was the right thing to do.  Dukes has become a rather sympathetic character as of late, and it is tempting to want to cut him some slack,  but Thom Loverro urges that we not fall too deeply in love. What does this tell us about the organization? I don’t know. This is one of those cases where two points don’t make a line.

Produce or ride the bus. That would be the theme after half the bullpen traded their digs in DC for upstate New York late Sunday night. In some respects I think that the move was a little simplistic – the bullpen was put in a leaky rowboat by the poor fielding of the infield. But the beneficiaries of the move, particularly Garrett Mock and Jason Bergmann deserved to be in Washington in the first place, and in shuffle, two of Bowden’s projects, Wil Ledezma and Steven Shell, found their way out of the organization. It would have been a good move regardless of the circumstances. Timing the announcement after a third game blown in the ninth inning simply allowed Rizzo to bang his new drum a bit more loudly.

The Zims. Ryan Zimmerman has a new long-term contract. You would be hard-pressed to find an unhappy voice on this topic, except perhaps from a certain personal injury lawyer. If Bowden is the GM, this deal doesn’t happen… at least not now. While all of us fans see the wisdom of it, there’s a certain business sense to the move, too. As for the other Zim, JZim, N**2, Jordan Zimmermann, there are a lot of fans grumbling about the rain-delayed start of his Major League debut game. It is a shame that people were inconvenienced, but really, there was too much at stake to do anything other than what the Nats did. It was good for Zimmermann to get his full game in, and it was good from a public relations standpoint – at least for the vast majority of the fans who weren’t there. In a year, we’ll all remember his stellar start, and hardly a soul will remember that the actual  game didn’t start until 9:15.

More Rizzo fingerprints.

Indignant Manny. It is no coincidence that the Manny Acta we’re hearing at post-game press conferences has lost his teach, learn, roll-with-the-punches rhetoric, and replaced it with, well, Indignant Manny. After Sunday’s loss to the Marlins, I was talking with Mike Henderson of NationalsPride.com, and I mentioned to him that Manny’s original mandate has ended. Sure the Nats are a young team, but managing the Nationals is no longer about transforming a bunch of rookies into Major Leaguers. It is about learning to win. And this raises a question: Is Manny the guy to teach our team how to do that? Since the mandate has changed, so will his demeanor. Should Manny be worried about his job? No more or less than the other twenty-nine managers in Major League Baseball. But now all thirty are being asked to do the same thing: Win. Who do you suppose instigated this change? His boss, Mike Rizzo. That’s my guess, anyway.

We may be witnessing a transformation. As long and as slow as every one of those torturous Marlins games seemed, the change is actually occurring at a lightning pace. Players are being held accountable. Managers are being held accountable. The internal expectation is higher. What we’re seeing now is the demonstration of which members of the organization have more to give, and which are just spare parts.

… and this is exactly how it was always supposed to be. Stan Kasten’s plan was to build a professional organization from top to bottom. One that nurtured the growth of prospects and furthered the success of the Major League Team. Instead, what we got was a used car lot, with a segway-riding salesmen at the helm.

Will the Nats win more games this year?

Who knows. It is certainly going to be different with Mike Rizzo at the helm of the organization. One thing is for sure – almost certainly, we’ll feel better about the outcome… no matter what it is.

One last thing: Excellent game, John Lannan. You deserved to win.

Pitchers Duel

Jason Bergmann is a Stud.

I fantasized to myself, in about the fifth inning, that he’d allow a baserunner just before Hamels came to the plate, just so that the Phils would pinch-hit for the pitcher. Bergmann would erase the runner, and the pinch-hitter, be into the bullpen, and then cruise to victory.

There are two things wrong with that fantasy. The first is, a team should never put themselves into a situation (if they can avoid it) where they have to get into the opponent’s bullpen just to get a run. The second is, that scenario was just the one that beat the Nats last night.

Don’t get me wrong… in terms of entertainment value and excitement, the game was definitely one of the better ones to watch this season, and Bergmann appears to be ALL THE WAY back (which is good, because who knows about Shawn Hill). But I didn’t shut down my MLB.TV yesterday evening with a sense of ‘warm and fuzzies’.

It is hard to know from watching last night if the Nats’ impotence was their bats or Cole Hamels. But even if you throw out last night’s performance, one is hard-pressed to see signs of life in the Nats’ hitting game. I find that a bit disturbing, mostly because the hitting issues appear to be systemic in nature, rather than just slumps. There are a few bright spots, both in terms of games where they hit well as a team, and individuals who seem to be hitting consistently. But for the most part, the team is starved for offense, and Guzman, Flores and Dmitri can’t carry the team (especially since they aren’t batting adjacent to each other).

The Nats are very fortunate that their starting pitching is doing so well. Chico Harlan was effusive in his praise for the Nats’ rotation in this morning’s gamer, and I am inclined to agree – the Nats’ starters have been more than most expected. The hitting is a problem… and it’s more than a slump.