Five questions: Washington Nationals

The bright side about being a Nats fan is that after this last year—from “Natinals” to the GM resigning in disgrace to, well, the terrible record—things have to be looking up. And with Stephen Strasburg looming, they almost certainly are.

So that leads us to…

1. What’s going to happen to Stephen Strasburg this season?

The Nats have announced—rightly—that their phenom is going to begin the year in the minors. If you’re a lucky fan of the Altoona Curve, you’ll be able to catch his first minor league start on April 11.

Was sending him down the right decision? Almost certainly. Does it kind of stink for Nats’ fans? Sort of.

He was the team’s best pitcher in the spring. He’s clearly got the stuff to hang with major league batters. Despite that, there’s a legitimate argument to be made that sending him down to work on a few things would be beneficial.

But we all know it’s the off-the-field stuff that’s driving this. First, keeping him down a few weeks gives the team an extra year of control. It’s far better to have a fully developed Strasburg in 2016 than a still-learning one toiling for a should-be last-place team in 2010. Second, it’s about the money.

While the contract that Strasburg signed reduces the temptation for the team to game the system a bit, keeping him down still means millions more saved in the future. As the Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin lays out, keeping him down is the difference between three years of arbitration salaries or four. Translation: it could mean a minimum of $15 million for the Nats.

So Strasburg’s not likely to make the majors until June, and Nats fans are getting excited, even the casual ones waiting around for the team to just do something interesting.

In the end, Strasburg will likely get 15 or so starts in the majors. And if he’s anything less than 15-0 with 165 strikeouts, it’ll be a major disappointment.

2. Is Ryan Zimmerman really a superstar?

Last year, you could’ve made an argument that Ryan Zimmerman was an MVP contender. Sure, he wasn’t really Pujols, but without straining yourself, you could’ve made an argument that he was the next best player in the National League. The shorthand version of that argument: his Silver Slugger and Gold Glove. Few players in the game put up such great numbers at both facets of the game.

Defensively, there probably aren’t any third basemen with better instincts and range. The only knock on him defensively is his errors. When he has too much time, he tends to take an extra look at the ball, throwing off his timing: his footwork goes astray, and the ball whips past the first baseman for an error. If he could halve those throwing errors, he’d simply be the best.

But it’s the bat that took a huge step forward. And whenever that happens, everyone runs to BABIP to explain it. Not in this case. His .310 is right in line with his career numbers. What improved was his eye and his health.

He bested his career high in walks by 11, and his overall rate crept up to 10.4 percent. We’ll chalk that up to Adam Dunn’s influence.

But it’s really his health that made the biggest difference. He was coming off seasons ruined by a frayed shoulder and a hamate bone removal. Both likely affected his swing, especially his power. With rest and rehab, he finally showed what he was capable of.

Maybe expecting a pure repeat of last year’s offensive performance isn’t realistic. But even if he drops a few ticks in slugging, he’s still among the most valuable players in the league.

3. What does the bullpen look like?

One of the reasons last year’s Nats did so terribly compared to their Pythagorean record was their terrible bullpen.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

After starting out 0-7, the Nats won one before starting a three-game series with the Marlins.

Game one: Joel Hanrahan gives up a homer in the ninth that tied the game at two before Saul Rivera gave up an RBI single in the 10th in a 3-2 loss.

Game two: Hanrahan gave up three runs in the ninth, including two on a Jeremy Hermida homer, (he later hit a three-run bomb) on the way to a 9-6 loss.

Game three: Rivera, who had failed in the first game, tried for the one-run save, instead giving up an RBI double followed by a bases-clearing double in what turned into a 7-4 loss.

Three games, three blown saves. That was a microcosm. But it wasn’t quite rock bottom, because the Nats’ pitchers kept finding new and interesting ways to lose.

So the Nats kicked most of those stiffs out, and they’re coming into 2010 with a bullpen led by Matt Capps, he of the 5.80 ERA and 4.90 FIP, Sean Burnett, he of the -0.1 WAR, and Brian Bruney, he of the career 6.22 BB/9. Cherry-picking, of course. But the larger point remains. These guys aren’t very good.

But even not very good is going to be better than last year. Even if you don’t like ERA, especially in evaluating relievers, the 5.09 bullpen ERA or the 5.71 ERA in save situations paints a thorough enough picture.

Along with a change in arms, a change in management might help here. Manny Acta never really seemed to grasp how to use the guys he had. Notably, on opening day last year, he brought Rivera in to face Ryan Howard, even with at least two lefties sitting in the pen. His explanation? Saul was his “seventh inning guy.” A big homer later, and the game was over.

While there wasn’t much talent to mine from those arms, Acta consistently seemed to find ways to use the talent in the worst possible way.

So while Capps, Bruney and Burnett aren’t going to make anyone miss the Nasty Boys, there’s hope for some marginal improvement here.

4. How loud will the clanks off Adam Dunn’s glove be?

The guy that everyone wants to be a DH has found a home at first base.

We know he’s not going to be a great first baseman, but everyone likes to point at his terrible UZR numbers (-25 per 150 games last year) to say he’s the next Dick Stuart. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn’t. But half a season’s worth of UZR, even when combined with fractions of seasons before it aren’t really enough to tell.

Piecing together those partial seasons and drawing a conclusion from them makes no more sense than picking out a batter’s statline in April and August and drawing conclusions from that.

Nats fans have seen some truly horrid first base defense, including a morbidly obese Dmitri Young and a short-armed Ronnie Belliard. Anyone who watched Dunn regularly at first didn’t see someone as terrible as those guys.

Dunn’s not going to have great range, but he’s a great target. With his size, if he can figure out the footwork around the bag, he’ll cut down on bad throws, something that’s not necessarily captured by UZR. I have zero belief that he’ll be a good first baseman, but it’s hard to believe that someone with his size and athleticism would be the absolute worst in the league.

If he shows he’s only costing the team five to 10 runs at first, he’s a valuable player.

5. How important is a good showing this season?

With everything that’s gone on to this team—much of it self-inflicted—the answer is “very.” Nobody’s expecting a pennant winner, or even really a .500 team. But they absolutely cannot afford to have another 100-loss team. There are plenty of casual baseball fans who just want to cheer for a decent team, but they’ve had absolutely nothing to root for, at least since September ’05.

The Washington Capitals are Cup contenders. The Washington Redskins are always the dominant force in town, and after a few years of futility, they finally have adults in place making football decisions. There’s a lot of competition for the sports dollar and rooting time. And so far, the Nats have given no reason for most people to care.

75 wins isn’t going to make anyone stand and cheer. But it would be a step forward. They could go into the off-season, talking about the 15-win improvement they had. They could point to Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, John Lannan, Drew Storen and Jordan Zimmermann as the core of a potential championship contender — and do such without really stretching the truth.

Fans need to be convinced that the team is building towards something, not just with the words the team utters (which have typically been hollow), but with their actions and results.

So while some mocked the team for signing a pitcher like Jason Marquis, they’re missing the point. He’s not here to bring a championship to DC, he’s here to bring stability to the team — to keep the bottom from dropping out as it’s done the last few seasons. He’s here to stabilize, help younger pitchers develop (if only through absorbing a workload), and to keep the team in games.

Hypothetically there’s no difference between 62 wins and 75, but that couldn’t be further from the truth in DC.

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D Leaberry
12 years ago

Excellent analysis.  As a lifetime Washingtonian, let me add that it is ironic that Adam Dunn has transitioned from left-field to first-base.  Frank Howard, Washington’s baseball hero of my youth, did the same in the 60s.

fra paolo
12 years ago

I’m not as optimistic as Chris about Dunn. I fear he’s going to fall in the -10 to -15 UZR, which will probably be bad enough to be worst in the league among regulars, and bad enough to raise questions about whether his bat makes up the difference. I’d prefer to keep him in LF, and stick a defensive replacement out there when close and late.

The bullpen is key to getting that improvement Chris writes about in Q5, although it will be interesting to see whether the release of Dukes has an impact on the lineup’s ability to produce runs. It may very well have little impact. If so, then some of those games the bullpen lost in 2009 are the ones the 2010 bullpen needs to win in order to rally the spirits of the Washington baseball fan.

Dave Studeman
12 years ago

I’ve deleted several comments that are not related to the article.  Please stick to the topic at hand.


12 years ago

Brian Bruney, when he is right, is a really good pitcher.  He can have dominating stuff to the point the Yankees made him a key setup man on several occasions.  Unfortunately, he gets hurt a lot and when he returns from the DL he tends to struggle something awful, especially with the walks.  You may be pleasantly surprised with him, or you may forget he is on the roster after he gets hurt in May, then comes back briefly to walk the ballpark, and then goes down again in August, never to be seen again.  He’s worth a gamble though.

As for Wang, I am pulling for him to make a comeback but he was utterly horrible last year.  He has such a small margin for error that if there is anything wrong with him, you might be better off putting a pitching machine on the mound and praying no one bunts.

Todd Boss
12 years ago

Anyone who criticized the moves the Nats made in the offseason (Pudge, Marquis, Capps, Kennedy, Bruney) basically missed the point that Chris makes here very well; these guys are incremental improvements to what we had last year (man by man, Bard, Cabrera or any number of bad starters, Hanrahan, Ahernandez, and Rivera/Taverez).  They’re all signed to one or two year deals for manageable money.

I think just the presence of Riggleman improves this team; a worse lineup last year posted a .440 winning percentage after he took over for Acta.  .440 equates with 71 wins which i think is a great goal for this team.

Unfortunately, they look like they might start the season about 5-20 b/c of their April schedule…

Chris Needham
12 years ago

That’s a great point about the schedule.  They can play better than last year and STILL have a worse record in the early part of the season.

That’s also why I think Nats fans have to write off the first half.  It isn’t ‘til July—with Strasburg, maybe Wang and Storen—that this team will have all the right players in the right positions.  We hope.

D Leaberry
12 years ago

To pick up on Todd Boss’ note, I think 71 wins is a proper goal for this team.  If things go right- and they rarely do of course- the Nats could push for 75 wins.  The Nats will only improve as well as their pitching pans out.

Brian Cartwright
12 years ago

I just printed out my tickets for Strasburg’s start on the 11th. I was already going to the game on the 10th, but I couldn’t persuade them to throw Strasburg that day instead.

Positively Half St.
12 years ago

Fair points all, Chris. I’m still hoping that C-M Wang is the wild card that makes 75 wins all the more likely, and 81 even possible.

Chris Needham
12 years ago

It’s possible, I suppose.

But I’m not completely sold on a finesse guy (that’s basically what he is) coming back after another shoulder surgery.  If he loses just a little bit of stuff or a tiny bit of command, those balls that used to be ticked lightly into the ground, now get lined past the fielders.

Can he get all the way back?  Not just part of the way back?

Wooden U. Lykteneau
12 years ago

Chris, Fair weather. Fair weather, Chris. Don’t you two know each other?

D Leaberry
12 years ago

Although right-field appears to be a committee affair this season with Willie Harris likely to get most of the starts, Josh Willingham is the left-fielder and will bat fifth.  If healthy all season, a 100 RBI season should be expected by Willingham if Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman come close to duplicating their performances of 2009.

12 years ago

“Anyone who criticized the moves the Nats made in the offseason (Pudge, Marquis, Capps, Kennedy, Bruney) basically missed the point that Chris makes here very well; these guys are incremental improvements to what we had last year (man by man, Bard, Cabrera or any number of bad starters, Hanrahan, Ahernandez, and Rivera/Taverez).”

I don’t disagree, and I see next off season as make or break time for the Nationals.  Best case scenario after this year is that the Nationals have a core of Zimm (3B), Desmond (SS), Dunn (1B), Morgan (CF), Harper (C), Strasburg, Lannan, Storen, and hopefully Jordan Zimm.  That still leaves gaping holes at the corner OF spots and a need for 2-3 decent SPs.  The problem is the farm system is not close to filling those holes, which means Uncle Teddy is actually going to have to spend money to fill them.  The big question is will he do that.  If he does not, then it could be a few years before the team is respectable. 

Tampa did a great job building through the draft, but how long did it take them?

12 years ago

Chris- This was an excellent column.  I couldn’t agree more on Zim being one of the most valuable players in the league.  When his career is done, hopefully a long time from now while he’s still a Nat, we’re all going to look back and realize what a privilege it has been to watch him play day in and day out.

12 years ago

July: Strasburg, Detwiler, Thompson, Storen … probably more.
August: Jordan Zimmermann.

Rotation: Strasburg, Lannan, Olsen/Detwiler/Thompson, Jordan Zimmerman, Marquis.

By then a trade to acquire a decent right fielder has likely occurred.

Dunn is probably a lot better than top 1st base prospect Chris Marerro in the field.

D Leaberry
12 years ago

I don’t think Marerro or Burgess will make it.  The system is rather barren in the field positions.  Espinoza may be ready in two years.  Norris and Lombardozzi may be ready in three.