Monday, June 20, 2011
Future starting to look bright for Nationals
By Steve Berthiaume
I like the Nationals. I like their Expos origins and I appreciate the way they embraced Washington, D.C.'s baseball past by resurrecting the Senators' old curly W logo. I think their ballpark is quite nice and underrated, actually. The president's race is a fun idea and at some point we have to see relief pitcher Todd Coffey, all 6-foot-4, 240 pounds of him, apply his trademark full sprint from the bullpen in a race with the Mount Rushmore four. When the Nationals put eight straight "curly Ws" in the books to get within a game of .500, it seemed like the latest brief hint of progress. Then the Nats committed three errors in Sunday's 7-4 loss to the Orioles. The streak was over, but it did confirm that the compass may at last be pointing north.
The Nationals are still two games under .500 and tied with the Mets for third in the NL East. I get it. Remember, however, that the franchise is in its seventh year in D.C. and has finished last in all but one of its previous six seasons, so third place on June 20 is tangible evidence of improvement. Washington is 12-6 in June and there is more to do than simply wait for Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
Jason Marquis has posted a 7-2 record so far this season.
The rotation has held together while Strasburg recovers from Tommy John surgery. To begin with, it's a durable bunch: the Nationals have had only six pitchers start games this season. Twenty-five-year-old Jordan Zimmermann, himself a Tommy John patient, has emerged as the leading candidate to become Strasburg's rotation wingman next season. Zimmermann's record over his past nine starts is 4-2 with a 2.33 ERA and he's allowed two or fewer earned runs in eight of those nine starts. He's 3-0, 1.32 in four starts this month.
Washington is second-to-last in the National League in strikeouts, ahead of only the Pirates, but Jason Marquis and John Lannan have been effective. Marquis turns 33 in August and at 4-1 in his last eight starts could yield some prospects at the trade deadline. At 26, Lannan is likely next season's No. 3 starter in Washington. The Nats have won six of Lannan's last eight starts and he's put up a 2-1, 2.44 record over that span while allowing 43 hits in 51 2/3 innings.
The bullpen can light up radar guns. Drew Storen, the Nationals' "other" first-round pick in 2009, is 17 for 19 in save opportunities after making some mechanical changes this spring. Tyler Clippard has allowed only 23 hits in 41 2/3 innings with a 53 to 15 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Henry Rodriguez has been more unheralded than Aroldis Chapman, but more effective: routinely throwing 100 mph and averaging better than a strikeout per inning.
Yes, giving Jayson Werth, who turned 32 last month, a seven-year, $126 million contract was a poor decision. In 47 games hitting third in the order, Werth batted only .241/.340/.391. On June 11, manager Jim Riggleman put Werth in the leadoff spot, where in eight games he's gone 5-for-33 with two home runs, four RBIs and four runs scored. Sunday's loss was the Nationals' first since Werth began hitting leadoff -- with the pitcher batting eighth -- but Werth was handed all that money to hit homers and drive in runs, not bat .152 as a leadoff man.
"He works very hard on his offense and puts the time in," Riggleman said. "I think he's gonna get it together here. He's too good an athlete to not, so I think we're gonna see a lot of good things from him here soon."
With Werth slumping Michael Morse has provided the power. Acquired in June 2009 in a trade with Seattle for Ryan Langerhans, Morse is 29, but his 293 plate appearances last season were a career high. This year, he's already had 224 PAs and has batted .309/.357/.564 with a .921 OPS. Morse has 13 home runs, just two shy of his career high, and with Adam LaRoche lost for the season after shoulder surgery, Morse has taken over first base, despite only 12 career starts there prior to this season. Since becoming Washington's starting first baseman on May 22, Morse has been one of baseball's best hitters, batting .355 with 11 HR, 32 RBI and a 1.193 OPS.
All-Star Ryan Zimmerman has hit safely in all six games since his return from abdominal surgery, going 7-for-28 with a home run and four RBIs. Zimmerman had been out since April 9 and has had to alter his throwing mechanics from third base to avoid another injury to his midsection. His wild throw in Sunday's loss to Baltimore was the first of three Nationals' errors, and when asked if the changes were still a work in progress, Riggleman answered, "He's changing some mechanics of his throwing so, I guess you can use that terminology but Zim's doing fine."
Despite Sunday's miscues, the Nationals are third in the National League in fielding percentage. Danny Espinosa has become a defensive star at second base and could potentially move to shortstop in the future, should Washington need to find an infield spot for this year's sixth overall draft pick, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon. Regarded as the best collegiate hitter available in this year's draft, Rendon could be on the 25-man roster as early as next season. Last year's deadline trade of Matt Capps to the Twins for catching prospect Wilson Ramos may go down as one of the best in Nationals' history. Ramos turns 24 in August and looks like he'll be one of baseball's best catchers for the next decade, having won the job from future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez.
Morse could just be a late bloomer. Jayson Werth has been too good a player not to improve. Ryan Zimmerman is a proven star and Ramos, Espinosa and Storen are stars in the making. Strasburg, Harper and Rendon are coming soon. Soon, too, will come the day when third place for the Nationals will be a disappointment.