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

Fan’s Guide to Watching The Washington Nationals (revised 6/19/2008)

It isn’t just about the expectation of wins (and losses). It is now, and has always been, about building for the future. The problem is, from where the fans sit, it isn’t entirely clear that the Nats are really building.

In fact, thirty seconds of thought will indicate that they are; one only has to look at the minors to see that the pipeline is at least partially stocked with something other than cobwebs. Moreover, the Nationals minor league system has the best combined record in baseball. Admittedly, minor league baseball may not be all about winning, but if nobody is out there trying to win as their primary goal, but rather to foster the growth of young talent, one could reasonably make the argument that won-loss record is at least a partial indicator of success.

But little of that is consoling after watching the Nats flail in Minneapolis. Even when they’re winning, there is something a bit unsettling about the team. I feel very fortunate to have seen the Nats in Seattle, where they caught a team that was struggling as badly as they are. It was fun to watch, but I never got the sense that I was watching a juggernaut, even when sweeping the Mariners in Safeco. So there’s something very ‘MSG’ about our Nats diet as of late. An hour after a win, we’re hungry again.

So this is what I suggest: Stop watching the Nats with the expectation of a particular outcome, which is to say, that the Nats are going to win. Instead, look at the individual moving parts, and lets watch how they grow and develop. And with that in mind, here is my list of things to watch for the rest of this season:

  • Watch for a lack of personnel changes at the top: Don’t expect Bowden to be fired before the end of the season. If you ignore the won-loss record this year, and simply look at the acquisition of personnel, Bowden has done a pretty good job as GM. The Nats have drafted and traded for prospects rather well, and in doing so, provided the foundation for a winning club, if not this year, in a year or two. What Bowden hasn’t done well this year is manage the 25-man roster. Admittedly, the roster problems are even more severe than usual, with all the injuries, but there has been a lot of playing with a short bench. I predict that Bowden will be fired at the end of the season, and it will signal an important organizational change for the Nats. It will signal the transition from the ‘acquiring the pieces’ phase to the ‘putting the pieces together’ phase. Bowden has some important shortcomings that, in my opinion, make him unsuited for the latter task. If I am wrong, and Bowden is fired before the end of the season, it will almost certainly be because other MLB teams are trying to court Mike Rizzo into GM positions, and the only way the Nats can keep Rizzo without crippling Bowden in the trade market is to fire Bowden and make Rizzo the GM.
  • Watch the Nats designate Wily Mo Pena. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened today or tomorrow. If you’re Bowden, and you still love him, send him down (he’ll clear waivers) and let him get his 300 AB in Columbus, and then bring him back in September… maybe. Who would you bring up instead? Well, there are all sorts of choices. Pick one.
  • Watch the development of Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge. It is hard to really appreciate the growth that they’ve experienced thus far, when it rains in our hearts every day, but give Bowden credit on these two acquisitions. Milledge is already as good as Church would have been on this team, and Schneider would be spare parts, with the emergence of Jesus Flores. Dukes has some growing up to do yet, but at least in public, he’s been a good citizen, and he’s flashing the leather and getting good ABs.
  • Watch the team develop some synergy as the injured veterans clear the DL. When healthy, we have a middle-of-the-pack roster, that without the clutch bats of Zim and Nick Johnson, and the steadying presence of Austin Kearns, is exposed and easily pitched around. Clearing the DL will go a long way towards creating more sunny days in our hearts.
  • Watch the development of our starting pitchers. Shawn Hill sure struggled today, but looking back at recent pitching performances, for the most part, the scores and the won-loss record belie the fact that the Nats have pretty good starters. Lannan is going to be spectacular, Bergmann has his flashes of brilliance, Redding and Perez have both been more than serviceable, and when Hill is on, he’s amazing. But all of them have been hung out to dry by their offenses, and while one might say that what happens at the plate is not related to what happens on the mound, the question is, how long can a pitcher pitch with no margin of error? When our bats give the starters a lead, the pitchers will be dazzling… and none of that addresses the talented arms in the minors waiting to come up.

I am disappointed that the Nats are not on the road to 85 wins this year. Before I started blogging, I was Professor Emeritus in the “Glass Half Full Department”, and as you can see, I revert to my roots. But that being said, I think we will soon see the end of the Bowden era, and for no other reason than it will shake up the clubhouse a bit, a change in the coaching staff, particularly with regard to Lenny Harris. But there are other lessons to be learned this season and chemistry to build, so don’t expect too much change before October. Making changes now sends the message of panic and instability, neither of which is what the Nats need.

The medicine tastes awful, doesn’t it?

Things I Got This Weekend

I am back in Anchorage after a weekend in Seattle. I went to Safeco Field for each of the three games, and here’s what I got:

  • I got a nasty sunburn on Sunday. Aparently Alaskans are not designed for temperate latitude sun.
  • I got to see the Nats sweep the Mariners. I came away from the first game thinking that it was mostly the luck of a poor pitcher, but my opinion has changed some. The Nats got some timely hitting in the second inning Friday night, and made the most of it… though I think the Nats don’t win that game without the DH (Pena singled in the second, pitcher would have bunted). Most of the moving parts worked well on Saturday and Sunday.
  • I got an Adrian Beltre Bobblehead.
  • I got Ryan Zimmerman’s autograph (and John Lannan, Tim Redding and Wil Nieves. Good thing I got Nieves, never know what is going to happen to him).
  • I was convinced (yet again) that Jesus Flores is the real deal.
  • I got to impress some Seattleites by predicting (at three different games) a Felipe Lopez groundout, 4-3, a Jose Vidro groundout, 4-3 and a Wily Mo Pena strikeout. How hard can any of those predictions be? In all three cases, they came up with runners on base.
  • I got to enjoy Safeco Field. All the things that people say about the place are true. Plus, when you walk around wearing Nats gear, they treat you like a guest. One of the hosts gave me her secret route out from the ballpark, which worked like a charm. Lots of people asked where I was from, and if I had come from DC to watch the games. Everyone was friendly and courteous. Reminded me of 1/(Citizens Bank Park).
  • I got to see JimBo on the field with his gal pal and another couple. He was wearing some ratty jeans, but his girlfriend looked nice. I didn’t say hello – I am not sure I want to be seen in public with him.

I couldn’t have asked for a better trip to Seattle. But I am still conflicted about our boys. But I am starting to think that when people get healthy things may start to change. A healthy Kearns spells the end for Wily Mo. Dukes (despite his run-allowing error today) has locked up an outfield spot, though I think that he might be a better centerfielder than Milledge. A healthy Zim spells the end for Lopez – and by the way, I would love to hear from the SABRmetricians out there about how much of a difference there is defensively between Zim and his replacements. My non-scientific answer is, a ton.

Know what else I got this weekend? Some reason to hope that things are going to get better.

Saturday Night At Safeco

I don’t remember if it was the third or fourth inning, but at some point during last night’s game, I came to the realization that Tyler Clippard was breezing through the Mariner’s lineup, getting by with ten to fifteen pitches an inning. Except for a couple of solo homers in the fourth – and yes, solo homers are just a base hit or a walk away from a game-busting run deluge – it was a very efficient and serviceable performance.

Add to that a 9-4-5 putout on Ichiro’s first inning leadoff double-stretched-into-an-out, some very good relief pitching, some timely double plays, and Jesus Flores’ two-run homer, and the Nats actually looked like a major league team last night. The “Glass Half Empty Department” points out, however, that the Nats were playing the Mariners, so one shouldn’t get too excited about it all.

To  be sure, there are a number of reasons to be skeptical of last night’s performance. While Clippard pitched into the seventh inning, he left with no outs and two on. Saul Rivera came on, and nearly walked Yuniesky Betancourt. Betancourt, trying to bunt, took three pitches to get ahead 3-0. The crowd seemed to sense a big inning coming on, and now Rivera had no room for error. Rivera followed his first three balls with two strikes. At 3-2, Betancourt attempted to bunt again, and sent a foul tip into Flores’ mitt for a strikeout. The next batter, Ichiro, grounded into a very uncharacteristic 4-6-3 double play. So the Mariners seventh went single, walk, strikeout-while-bunting, double play. As Craig Ferguson would say “Remind you of anyone?” The Mariners faithful started to head for the exits.

From there, it was just a matter of getting the next six outs, a task that was very easily handled by Ayala in the eighth and Rauch in the ninth.

Safeco Bound

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Wigi @ 3:00 pm June 12, 2008

Just a quick note – What do the Nats and I have in common? We’re both headed for Seattle for the weekend.

I’ll be taking in the series with the Mariners, and I’ll bring a camera and post my thoughts from the Great Pacific Northwest – which is what I normally do, anyway, but at least this time, I’ll actually be at the game.

For the superstitious among you, the Nats play much better when I wear my red Nats stuff, so I am bringing all of my red Nats apparel, and leaving the blue at home. Also, the Nats are 3-0 this season when I am in attendance. Last year they were 0-7.