Winter Meetings bring possibility, anxiety

Standard

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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

The End of The Line

Standard

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.

Murphy’s Law Strikes Again, Takes Harper

Standard

Less than a week ago, Harper left the game for not hustling enough in Matt Williams’ opinion during a routine groundout. The Nationals eventually lost.

Six days later the Nationals lead by two against the Padres. Bases loaded. Harper hit one deep into right, off the scoreboard. The runners scored, and after his briefing with Matt Williams, Harper wanted a triple. He slid headfirst into third, safe.

But when the next inning began, McClouth replaced Harper in left field. Fans assumed he had just jammed his thumb, and would come back soon. But on Sunday, the Nationals announced he would go on the fifteen-day DL.

Where have we heard this story before?

Oh, wait, we all know. Opening Day, with Ramos. Against the Braves on April 11, with Zimmerman. Fister in his second to last spring training game.

Lady luck has not smiled upon the Nationals with injuries so far this season. Starters have already combined for more than roughly 43 games lost this season, all big blows.

Many things with the ability to go wrong went wrong. Harper sliding into third. Zimmerman with second. Ramos on a foul ball. Fister on a pitch.

But here’s the good news.

The Nats have won 56 percent of their games without Ramos’ big bat, and have gone 7-6 against two very good teams after the Braves series without Zimmerman. Desmond & Werth are stepping it up while Espinosa, LaRoche, Rendon and Lobaton continue to hit. Plus, the time left on the DL remaining for Fister runs out soon, and Zimmerman and Ramos can both come back by mid-late May.

Nats est. DL time left (C/O NatsWX)

Nats est. DL time left (C/O NatsWX)

Harper’s sprain hopefully won’t mean ligamental damage, and the Nats may pick up where they left off very soon.