The Unknown Crisis also known as Max Scherzer

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Like his eyes, Max Scherzer seemingly had two different seasons in 2015 – one powerful, striking and attention-grabbing, like his blue eye, and one mediocre, flying under the radar, like his brown eye. Even though Scherzer posted a 2.79 ERA, starting 33 games and pitching a career high 228.2 innings, the stats that will forever be associated with his historic campaign last season which included two no-hitters, there was still a hugely problematic span for the big righty.

From April to June, Max Scherzer headlined the NL Cy Young Award Conversation, holding steady to a 1.75 ERA, striking out 130 and holding opposing batters to a meager .179 clip, all on top of a no-hitter that was one out away from a perfect game. But when the calendar turned from June to July, something clicked in Scherzer’s head – or rather, unclicked. His starts went from must-see events and guaranteed wins to a decent start and a good game, to a serious problem. From July 7th to September 7th, the “ace” posted an ERA of 5.11 in an average of 5 innings per start, numbers, that for two months, certainly doesn’t look like it should belong to someone who commands a $210 million contract. All of this was forgotten in late September and early October, when Scherzer posted a string of incredible starts, capped off by yet another no-hitter, against another playoff team, the New York Mets.

Nats fans ended the season with the notion of Scherzer as an incredible pitcher who enjoyed a historic season. While two no-hitters are an accomplishment that is unprecedented, the biggest factor in the Nationals rotation worked against them for two months, and that’s not acceptable.

But what, if anything, was behind this sharp decline that took the most dominant pitcher in the league to a mediocre starter who could barely last five innings?

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Winter Meetings bring possibility, anxiety

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In D.C., mentioning the Nationals on the street right now would be a crime, with the 5-6 Redskins poised to make a mediocre run into forgettable history. (The Capitals? What Capitals? The Wizards? Is that some new fringe card game like Pokemon? ). But months from now, when the hot summer sun is beating down and the ballpark is alive once again, with fans, music and baseball, this week will be an important one to look back on – in fact, it may be the biggest factor in those summer months. So go ahead, talk about the team. Just don’t be worried when you get some crazy looks. Because, believe it or not, despite the temperature and the date, the Nationals are at a critical junction, possibly more critical than any they’ll face all season, and it’s unclear to everyone, maybe even including the General Manager Mike Rizzo, where they’ll go from here.

The Lerners, who sit up in ownership, have serious decisions to make about how they’ll use their money – whether it’ll be taking on an already bloated contract, trading a fan favorite (yes, your favorite player, be worried) or adding a free agent. Mike Rizzo has some serious decisions to make as well, regarding the cutting and trading of Papelbon and Storen, respectively, adding to the bullpen, and adding offensive pop as well as figuring out who it’s okay to part with. And in all likelihood, if the Nats feel like making a huge splash, it’s going to happen this week, at the Winter Meetings in Nashville.

If there was ever a moment for front office staff to feel like players on the first day of Spring Training, full of belief and hope that they can really go all the way this year, it would be at the Winter Meetings. The Winter Meetings, which for reasons unknown, are run by Minor League Baseball, have no boundaries. For one time, and only one time during the year, everything and everyone seems to be on the table. Rumors fly rampant and only the most elite of the stars are left out of them. Free-agents meet with teams (paging Ben Zobrist…) For the Nationals, they’ve been linked to everyone from O’Day to Chapman, Zobrist to Rollins and everyone in between, including Jonathan Lucroy. Players on the table have ranged from Strasburg to Ramos as well as Espinosa and Escobar. Papelbon and Storen, two players ironically linked, have come up in every conversation. It’s a given that some moves will be made. However, the question of what the right moves are still looms.

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A function of dysfunction; Nationals get a manager, but questions about ownership are raised

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We now conclude the most interesting twenty four hours the Nationals have had since they signed Max Scherzer this past January. Thank you for watching.

After a day when nothing, and I mean nothing seemed certain for the Washington Nationals, the fans can go to bed with one certainty – the biggest issue the Nationals may be facing right now has nothing to do with who will manage their team.

After an embarrassing season filled with gaffes and poor decision making, the Nationals chose to fire their manager, Matt Williams and start the search for a new one. General Manager Mike Rizzo, who’s status had quickly gone from an irremovable messiah to an executive on the hot seat after the disappointing season, noted that the Nationals “certainly would lean toward someone who had some managerial experience, particularly at the major league level.” (C/O Adam Kilgore, The Washington Post) Soon, after not-so extensive interviews, the Nationals seemingly had their guy, Bud Black. Black, who had been recently fired by the Padres, was not set in his ways, shifted, but was still high up on the experience scale. The other finalist for the job, who in a quote to the San Francisco Chronicle, said that he thought he didn’t “think anyone would have been as good for the job as (he would’ve). It seemed like a perfect fit.”, and later explained how he handled the disappointment.

Well, he didn’t have to deal with it for too long. The Nationals, despite having the news of Bud Black’s hiring breaking, never announced his hiring. At first it seemed trivial, and they were just waiting for the World Series to end. But as other teams made their announcements, the Nationals stayed quiet. Fans went to bed on Monday night with the managerial post occupied by Bud Black, and woke up with Dusty Baker. Talks fell through with Black, and Baker was offered the job.

This should seem abnormal, but not completely problematic. And then the numbers come out. The Nationals offered Bud Black $1.6 million for a one year deal. Offering Bud Black, the experienced manager who they wanted, $1.6 million dollars and one year, the number closest to zero, to a manager who at least deserves two guaranteed to put down an anchor in the clubhouse, while Don Mattingly, Black’s former counterpart in Los Angeles, received four years and ten million dollars in Miami is like offering Bryce Harper $100 million while Mike Trout makes $400 million. Has one been better overall during their career? Yes, but there’s not a drastic difference.

So, they turned to Dusty Baker, who immediately accepted a two year deal, which, according to MLB Network Radio, is worth $3.7 million, more than the salary of Black. Ted Lerner, upon hiring him, said in a press release that “During (the Nationals’) broad search process, it was clear that Dusty’s deep experience was the best fit for our ballclub.”

That leaves one critical question: why attempt to hire Black in the first place, if you know you want another guy?

More and more, it seems like the Lerners are controlling the team beyond what’s appropriate. And frankly, that should be more worrying than whoever manages the team. 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.

The End of The Line

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Down Half Street lies the Navy Yard Metro Station. Board a train 81 days from April to October and the train will be packed with fans dressed in red, white and blue, bearing the names of Strasburg and Harper. Ride it for long enough, and you’ll eventually reach Branch Avenue, the final stop on the line before turning around and starting all over. Only one team out of thirty is lucky enough to be the team that can happily leave the train before Branch Avenue, the stop known as the World Series. The Nationals were not that team this year.

The train that looked to be going the perfect speed, to for the first time, finish ahead of everyone else, couldn’t. On Wednesday, October 7th, the San Francisco Giants eliminated the Washington Nationals from postseason contention. The Nationals managed a meager 9 runs in four games, and lost the series in four games after being heavily favored to advance to the next round.

Maybe you should blame the loss on Tanner Roark giving up the home run in the eighteenth inning to Brandon Belt in Game Two. Maybe you should blame Gio Gonzalez for giving up two runs in four innings, or Aaron Barrett for throwing the wild pitch that created the winning run. Maybe you should blame Matt Williams for not taking Barrett out of the game soon enough. But excepting the two youngest and brightest stars on the team, the blame rests on the offense.

The Nationals offense all year long thrived on the ability of the tag-team combo of Denard Span and Anthony Rendon to get on base, and then for Adam Laroche, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper or Wilson Ramos to drive them in. All of them hit higher than .258 in the regular season. In the Postseason, Adam LaRoche hit .056 and Desmond had the highest average in the top seven spots excepting Harper and Rendon at .167. Harper and Rendon combined to bat .331. However, even when Harper and Rendon got on base, nobody drove them home, as the Nationals lost one-run game after one-run game.

While the pitching wasn’t as superb as it had been in the months leading up, giving up 2.25 runs a game should be a recipe for success. However, the bats completely died in the five day break between Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter and Game one of the NLDS. While Harper and Rendon showed incredibly promising signs, the rest of the team continued to go quietly each and every time, letting hanging breaking balls fall in for a strike, swinging at balls in the dirt and popping up consistently. While Game 3 showed momentum changing, the Nationals simply couldn’t ride Bryce Harper alone to the next round. Errors they hadn’t made all year proved costly the one time it truly mattered. And instead of something escapable to run away from, the World Series station passed, and Branch Avenue became a reality with Ramos’ groundout to end the game.

And so the train turned around and went back. Half Street was just a blur in an underground tunnel. The signs proclaiming that the Nationals had reached the postseason had quietly disappeared. The government offices were no longer red, and back to their normal states. And even on a day where the temperature was warm and the sun was out, the chills of winter were blowing, not to stop for a long, long time. The train pulled into the airport, and the team left, all going their separate ways. And for the train itself? It will sit underground for the winter and avoid the cold. And one morning in April, it will pull out of the station, starting another journey.