Familiar Problems Plague Nats

Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond makes a fielding error on a ball hit by Philadelphia Phillies' Aaron Harang, who was safe at first after the play was reviewed, during the third inning of a baseball game at Nationals Park, Saturday, April 18, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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It’s an annoying phenomenon. After praising the Nationals for changing their approach completely and ushering a new era into the season, the only offense provided since has relied on solo home runs, which have been far and apart, the bullpen has gone into complete turmoil and the errors from the early season have returned. Great stuff to see in June from one of the World Series favorites, right?

The Nats, for so long have been on the verge of greatness, of consistency and of dominance. It’s showed up in periods, and lasted for decent amounts of time, but it’s never been the way the magazines and websites and tweeters predict it in the early season. The Nationals’ struggles continue to baffle and annoy their fans. The team’s hitting almost is reminiscent of a high school boyfriend or girlfriend, always saying how they want to be better, and how they will be soon. Just like the Nationals, the solution works for a little bit of time, and falls apart later. Ryan Zimmerman, a career .282 hitter, is hitting a measly .213. Since the last expose on the brilliance of the Nationals batting this year, the Nationals have averaged roughly 2.5 runs a game.

It’s an infuriating sequence that fans have become all too familiar with over the past few years. But somehow, miraculously, the Nationals sit a mere 0.5 games behind first place, even with a record only two games above .500. There’s no question the subpar NL East deserves a lot of the credit, with the Mets’ current record only exceeding the Nationals in the wins column, by one game.

Many may argue that the loss of Jayson Werth is a large factor in this sudden offensive decline. It certainly is. But blaming an entire team’s batting average falling off of a cliff on one injury seems a bit excessive. And despite the return of Anthony Rendon, there’s still a lot missing from him we know he’s capable of, which will sooner or later appear. But a team must be able to pick up not having two bats in the lineup.

The bullpen, in a word, has been abysmal. Four spots on the board have been common, if not normal.

So, once again, Nationals fans are left with one question: is it time to jump the ship?

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Nats fans looking for wrong things, getting wrong things – but also what they need.

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It’s hard to believe that the season is nearly two months in, but the numbers don’t lie (as they rarely do). As May begins to come to a close, the Nationals, for the first time in three years, look poised to finish the month atop the NL East. For the past two years, the Nationals have underperformed in the early months of the season, hovering at or below .500, but this year, the offense woke up early enough to provide a meaningful impact, and the Nats sit at an uncharacteristic third in the MLB in runs, with 207, and tied for ninth with the L.A. Dodgers in batting average, with a team average of .260.

None of this could be made possible without Bryce Harper’s early power display (sixteen home runs and counting), which all started on Opening Day against Bartolo Colon, exploded in his three home run game against the Marlins, and sat at a consistent pace after his walk off home run against the Braves in a euphoric afternoon for D.C. Sports (Paul Pierce called game).

The Nationals are on an unprecedented tear, and are in the midsts of a six game winning streak. Harper is finally playing like the player the Nationals expected when they drafted him. But the most exciting part of this team, going down to the wire, isn’t actually Harper.

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Certainly Not Perfect, But It’ll Do

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Despite being considered among the most powerful cities in the world, and certainly the most powerful politically, when it comes to sports, DC has long been considered a city filled with lovable losers. Something is certainly shifting, as the Capitals and Wizards have both advanced to the second round of their respective playoffs, and the Redskins are finally showing sense in the front office. Logic would suggest that these positive experiences should be rubbing off on the Nationals, right? Well, not exactly, but for the most part, yes.  Continue reading

Harper’s early power, discipline, coming at right time

MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals
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Yes, it is still early. Yes, we still can have fun with small sample sizes. Yes, there will be slumps, alongside miscues and errors. But with what we’ve seen so far from Bryce Harper, this may be the year he finally silences critics.

Although we’re only 11 games into the season, less than ten percent, Bryce Harper has started the season doing what everyone expected him to do when he was a prospect. Harper has had disciplined at bats, unreal power, and has shown the fire that made him so popular while simultaneously toning it down enough that he is no longer making plays that put his health at risk.

And while this (albeit, expected) advancement in Harper’s development is exciting and important, it’s even more exciting and important especially right now. Continue reading

The injury bug is biting the Nationals at the right time

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It’s not ideal, to say the least. The Nationals have fallen to what you could argue has been their worst foe over the past few years, once again – the injury bug.

This year has been marked as the last year when a core group of players will all be together before free-agency. This year has possibly the most “World Series or Bust” connotations no matter what the management or players tell you. However, it’s going to be pretty hard to win without a 1-2-3 punch. The Nats have lost their players in the top three spots in the lineup due to injury, all of whom were incredibly productive last year and a key reason why the ballclub made it as far as they did.

Denard Span, after a Sports Hernia Surgery, felt pain in a right core muscle and had to undergo surgery. He’ll won’t return anywhere from the third week of the season to mid-May. Anthony Rendon went down and is doubtful for opening day with a sprained MCL.  Jayson Werth underwent surgery on his shoulder over the offseason and will be sitting out for a few days or a week from Opening Day barring a sudden spur in recovery speed.

The lineup is now left with three replacements preparing for Opening Day and new spots opening up. It may not look bright, but this may be the best thing to happen to the Nationals all season.

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Looking at the lineup (48 days in advance)

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The Nationals haven’t had a lack of hype surrounding their last two seasons. The magazines were filled with predictions of parades on the National Mall, banners on South Capitol Street and a Curly W in the books for the last game of the season. We all know the rest of the story –  two seasons, one regular season disappointment, one 18-inning heartbreak.

Despite the incorrect predictions, there are still two large and legitimate reasons that in the past two year’s baseball previews, in big, bold letters, under the “World Series Champions” label, the words “Washington Nationals” have appeared more often than nearly any other. One is their talented rotation, which analysts like me and those on MLB Network could babble on about for hours. The other is the depth of their lineup, the “Red Line”. The Nationals possess what many would call the most dangerous lineup from 1-8, with offensive weapons at every stop.

Given the changes in the lineup made over the offseason, the lineup has the possibility to be different. It’s hard to believe Matt Williams and Mike Rizzo would mess too much with last year’s success excepting an injury.

Last year, the Nationals lineup eventually stacked up like this:

1. Denard Span, CF

2. Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B

3. Jayson Werth, RF

4. Adam LaRoche, 1B

5. Ian Desmond, SS

6. Bryce Harper, LF

7. Wilson Ramos, C

8. Asdrubal Cabrera/Danny Espinosa/Kevin Frandsen, 2B

9. Pitcher

Despite early season woes, this lineup took the Nationals to an NL East Championship. The majority of the players remain – all but two. Even so, Ryan Zimmerman will move to 1B but it does give Matt Williams a couple options on how he wants to shape his lineup. Here’s (barring any trades or injuries) the official Side of Natitude prediction. Continue reading

Max Scherzer’s deal looks crazy – is it?

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At the beginning of November, if you looked any Nats fan in the eye and told them with a straight face that Max Scherzer was going to sign a 7-year deal worth $210 million with the Nationals, they would’ve laughed at you. They would’ve laughed so hard, that they cried. They would’ve told you to break the news while you were flying to the moon on your unicorn.

While nobody has flown to the moon on a unicorn, the Max Scherzer deal shocked the world. Not only was it from a team nobody expected, but the deal’s value went beyond expectations.

The Nationals now have an ace – a Cy Young Award winner – a 20 game winner for the next seven years. They have a pitcher with playoff experience, a pitcher that is tested and proven. They also have a pitcher who they owe $210 million.  The deal goes against almost everything Mike Rizzo stands for and everything the Nationals have done in the offseason since 2010. And yet, it still happened.

The 14-year plan

Scott Boras, Scherzer’s agent, does not leave money on the table. Ever. But Scherzer’s deal had an interesting little caveat, deferring half of the deal, meaning the Nationals are holding off on $105 million dollars for the next seven years and are instead paying the righty $15 million a year for the next fourteen years. The money never went back onto the table – its just a slower process.

This frees up $105 million dollars for the Nationals. $105 million dollars could extend Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond or Doug Fister, the three hot-button issues for the Nats this offseason. Also, with $105 million off the payroll, every executive can breath a little easier when they sign other free agents.

But what about the kids?

While the deal does free up space to extend one of the three players on contract years that will command more than $100 million, it’s assumed that one pitcher will be leaving. Unfortunately, one of those pitchers will be Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister or maybe even Stephen Strasburg, all vital pieces to the ball club. But the time to freak out is most certainly not now.

Jordan Zimmermann and/or Doug Fister and/or Stephen Strasburg won’t be on the Nationals come 2016, which is fine for multiple reasons. It gives the Nationals first round draft picks, a commodity they haven’t enjoyed since 2012. Even so, extensions shouldn’t be a huge issue considering that the Nationals have two of the best pitching prospects in the minors in Lucas Giolito (ranked as the 8th overall prospect in the league by MLB.com) and A.J. Cole, who are expected to be in the Majors by 2017 and 2016 respectively.

But, Giolito and Cole may not be ready by 2016 or 2017. So, who’ll help fill the void? That’s where Scherzer comes in – he would take over the lost spot. The Nats are deep enough to still have an outstanding rotation, even without Strasburg, Fister or Zimmermann.

The question has been thrown around all offseason – “Mike Rizzo has built a winner, but can he maintain it?” $210 million and seven years for Max Scherzer may look like the craziest thing the Nats have ever done and the opposite of trying to maintain a winner. But in reality, it might just end up being the smartest.