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I want to be optimistic about the Washington Nationals.
Really, I do. The city of Washington
deserves a major league team, especially after what Bob Short did to the
Senators franchise in the early 1970s. The Nationals play in an attractive new
ballpark. I like their uniforms, especially their new road outfits. They have
several intriguing players, including Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Lastings
Milledge, and Jesus Flores.
In spite of all these positives, I’m finding it hard to find
a silver lining in D.C. Given the Nationals’ youth, lack of depth, and general
front office turmoil this spring, I felt compelled to pick the Nats to finish
last in the National League East. After three games of regular season play,
there seems to be little reason to change that prediction. A 6-4 loss on
Wednesday capped off a miserable three-game sweep at the hands of the
All three Nationals starters pitched poorly in the series.
John Lannan, the “ace” of the staff (by default, if nothing else), set the tone
by being rocked by Hanley Ramirez and Co. on Opening Day. Scott Olsen and Daniel
Cabrera (the ex-Oriole) received thumpings in games two and three. Offensively,
the Nats did nothing special. Zimmerman struggled against Marlins pitching, as
did Milledge and Elijah Dukes. And to make matters worse, controversy has
already begun to brew in the clubhouse. Josh Willingham, newly acquired from
the Marlins, met with new GM Mike Rizzo to discuss why he didn’t start in
either of the first two games. The Nats originally planned to play Willingham
in left field and Dunn at first base, but the inability to trade Nick Johnson
has created a logjam on the right side of the infield. With Nick the Stick
planted at first, Dunn will receive the majority of his playing time in left,
while Willingham, a talented offensive player who can jumpstart an offense,
gets cozy with the bench.
What a mess. Right now, some older Washington
fans might be reminiscing nostalgically about the way they stormed the field on
the final day of the 1971 season to protest the Senators’ impending move to Texas. Given the current
state of affairs in the Capitol
City, those might seem
like some good old days by comparison.
Those who read this blog faithfully have probably noticed that I have written virtually nothing about the World Baseball Classic this spring. That’s because I refuse to take this event seriously–at least until Team USA takes it seriously.
Oh, I’ve enjoyed watching the coverage, both on the new MLB Network and ESPN. I’ve watched with interest games played by Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and, of course, the United States. I’ve found it interesting to observe the different styles of play, along with the mix of established major leaguers and virtual no-names. I’ve also watched with frustration as Team USA has approached this tournament as nothing more than a glorified exhibition, while all of the other teams have played it with the idea of actually winning it. The biggest USA culprits have been the pitchers, who have worked these games while trying to build up arm strength–ala the usual exhibition season mentality. Then there have been the managerial decisions and the construction of the roster, with both elements leaving something to be desired.
Let’s take a look at the problems one by one:
1) Jake Peavy and Roy Oswalt, ostensibly two of the best pitchers on the planet, each turned in awful performances in this year’s WBC, with Oswalt’s fourth inning meltdown essentially eliminating the USA on Sunday night. Both men had ready-made excuses prepared by the media. They were both building up their pitch counts and working out the kinks, as is usually the case during the middle of spring training. Unfortunately, that doesn’t cut it for games carrying higher ticket prices and the prestige of world competition. All of the USA pitchers need to push up their training regimens and start throwing in January or February, so that they are ready to handle the requisite pitch counts at each level of the March competition mandated by the WBC. If that’s not feasible–or if it’s just not possible for the USA pitchers to do this–then the United States should withdraw from future WBC competition.
2) The manager of the USA team, in this case the respected Davey Johnson, made decisions based on political reasons, rather than being guided by the basic principle of putting the best team on the field. Case in point: Johnson handled the shortstop situation with a compromise solution that succeeded in compromising the possibility of winning. Johnson alternated Derek Jeter and Jimmy Rollins, giving each man playing time at shortstop and each time at DH. In the semifinal game against Team Japan, Jeter played shorstop while Rollins DHed. Jeter also made a costly throwing error that led to an extra run scoring for the Japanese team. As much as I like Jeter, this should never have been allowed to happen. Rollins is the better defensive shortstop of the two, with more range and a stronger arm. Rollins should have played every one of the WBC games at shortstop, with Jeter either serving as a DH or coming off the bench. If the USA is to continue playing the WBC in future years, then their managers need to stop doling out playing time to satiate egos and avoid bruised feelings–this isn’t Little League, for crying out loud–and instead put the best nine-man lineup on the field each game.
3) Once Kevin Youkilis went down with injury, Team USA had no reliable first baseman available to step in. Johnson tried converted outfielder Adam Dunn (a butcher no matter where he plays) or the versatile Mark DeRosa (who tried hard but is a middle infielder/outfielder by trade). Both players made critical errors during this tournament. Given the fact that Team USA was able to draw from 30 major league teams, management should have had better contingency plans in place. I understand that Team USA tried to bring in Derrek Lee, but he was coming off an injury at the time, which made him reluctant to play. What would have been the harm in carrying a legitimate first baseman-outfielder from the start, in the event of a Youkilis injury? After all, the same principles that apply to creating a roster for a major league team should apply to the World Baseball Classic.
4) Finally, we may need to reexamine some of the priorities current major leaguers place in the way they play the game. I saw too many Team USA hitters strike out with men on base (especially with runners in scoring position), in contrast to the Japanese players, who take a much more diligent two-strike approach, almost as if they are embarrassed by the consequence of striking out. Several other teams, including the Japanese, also flashed much better defensive play throughout this tournament, with better quickness and range than some of their USA counterparts. While it’s true that the USA talent level remains the highest of any team, shortcomings on defense and in situational hitting can be killers in a double-elimination format like the WBC. Even moreso than in the American postseason, defense, fundamentals, and pitching rule in a format where two consecutive losses result in the end of the tournament.
Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done. If the USA is prepared to make at least some of the proposed changes, then I’m on board for the next WBC. If not, if building up arm strength, playing politics, and an inability to execute some of the game’s finer points remain the norm, I’d just as soon not watch Team USA embarrass itself again on the global stage that is the World Baseball Classic.
What a bargain! That was my initial (and subsequent) reaction to hearing that the Angels had signed Bobby Abreu to a one-year contract worth $5 million–quite a paycut from the $16 million that the Yankees paid him last season. Now Abreu does have his faults; he’ll never again hit with the power that he did during his Phillies prime and he’s become a horrendous defensive right fielder whose problems go well beyond his notorious fear of outfield walls. Still, at $5 million he’s a steal, a durable and consistent performer who will reach base 40 per cent of the time and hit the century marks in both runs and runs scored. Even at 35, he’ll be a good fit in the Angels’ lineup, hitting in front of Vlad Guerrero and behind Chone Figgins. One suggestion for the Angels: give Abreu a first baseman’s glove this spring and make him take hundreds of grounders as a hedge against Kendry Morales completely flopping at first base…
The Nationals paid more than the Angels did in signing Adam Dunn to a two-year deal worth $20 million, but it still ranks as another winter bargain on the freefalling free agent market. The “Big Donkey” has become a remarkably consistent player. He’s a lead pipe cinch to hit 40 home runs (he’s hit that exact mark four years running), drive in 100 runs, and walk 110 times. Dunn will also help balance a Washington lineup that leans precariously to the right, with nary a left-handed power bat to be found. I just hope that the Nats have the good sense to put Dunn at first base, where Nick “The Stick” Johnson has become unreliable because of a long injury history. The Nationals already have six major league outfielders–Elijah Dukes, starting center fielder Lastings Milledge, Austin Kearns, Josh Willingham, Wily Mo Pena, and Willie Harris–with at least four capable of playing every day. Given his immobility, Dunn will cause less damage defensively at first base, while allowing Manny Acta to better sort out the playing time in the outfield corners…
The Yankees open up spring training on Friday, which will result in Tampa turning into the Alex Rodriguez Question Show for the weekend. The mainstream media might be obsessed with the story regarding A-Rod’s failed steroids test and his pseudo-admission of guilt, but this issue will likely blow over by May. A far bigger question affecting the Yankees’ playoff chances will involve one of the catchers arriving in Tampa on Friday. That would be Jorge Posada, whose return from shoulder surgery ranks as New York’s No. 1 concern. The number of games that Posada can catch in 2009 will serve as a gauge to the Yankees’ success this season. If he can play 110 games behind the plate, the Yankees could be a 100-win team. If he can play only 90 to 100, the number of wins could fall off by two or three. If he plays fewer than 90, that could mean third place in a stacked division–and no postseason for the second straight summer.
Each winter brings outrageous free agent demands by players and their agents. At the start of the current off season, Scott Boras let it be known that he wanted a ten-year, $250 million contract for prized client Mark Teixeira. Last week, Boras “settled” for an eight-year deal worth $180 million. But even Boras’ initial demands don’t represent the most outrageous request by an agent or player this winter. No, that honor belongs to Jason Giambi, who has had the gall to insist that the A’s give him a three-year contract running through the 2011 season. That would be a three-year contract for a 38-year-old, one-dimensional slugger with a bad body and a severe lack of athleticism. That would be three years for a guy who plays first base with all the dexterity of a stone statue, and will be limited to DH duty for the balance of the contract. That would be three years for a streak hitter who disappears for long stretches, making him an offensive non-entity because of his lack of foot speed and inability to make contact. Is Giambi out of his mind? How did A’s GM Billy Beane prevent himself from keeling over with laughter after hearing that particular demand from Giambi’s agent? I mean, you can’t write this stuff…
Because of Giambi’s desire a three-year deal, the A’s have turned to two other free agents of left-handed vintage, Bobby Abreu and Garret Anderson. Abreu makes some sense because of his ability to maintain a high on-base percentage and steal bases, but Anderson is harder to figure. Never a patient hitter, Anderson doesn’t draw walks the way the A’s would like their sluggers to do. He also has a bad reputation for failing to run out grounders and pop-ups, a criticism that dates back several years with the Angels. Frankly, I’m surprised the A’s haven’t made a run at underrated free agent Adam Dunn, whose combination of power and patience makes him the consummate “Moneyball” player. Dunn also has seen his market shrink this winter, making it possible for the A’s to sign him to a three-year deal at reasonable terms. With Dunn and Matt Holliday in the middle of the Oakland order, the A’s would have their best one-two power punch since the hey day of Giambi and Miguel Tejada…
Dunn’s former team, the Reds, made a risky signing over the weekend. They inked the non-tendered Willy Taveras to a two-year contract, thereby committing themselves to him as their new leadoff man. Taveras is a good defensive center fielder with plenty of range, but his .320 on-base percentage is less than satisfactory in the leadoff spot. And while he did lead the major leagues with 68 stolen bases, it’s always a bad sign when your stolen base total exceeds your runs scored total; Taveras scored a mere 64 runs in 2008. He’s really only a slightly upgraded version of Omar Moreno, which is fine when you have players like Bill Madlock, Dave Parker, Willie Stargell, Bill Robinson, and Mike “The Hit Man” Easler batting behind you, but the Reds don’t have that assemblage of talent backing their leadoff man. In an ideal world, Taveras should be batting eighth in a National League lineup, but the Reds don’t have anyone else who fills the bill properly…
With Taveras in place, the Reds now have two-thirds of their outfield set: Taveras’ presence in center and allows Jay Bruce to move to right field, where he’ll be a better long-term fit. Still in need of someone to play left field, the Reds are considering moving Edwin Encarnacion from third base to the outfield, but they’d first have to sign Ty Wigginton. The Reds have also made contact with the Yankees about one of their spare outfielders, either Hideki Matsui, Xavier Nady, or Nick Swisher. Let’s rule out Matsui, mostly because no one knows whether his two surgically repaired knees will hold up playing the outfield. IT could come down to a preference for either Nady (who can be a free agent after 2009) or Swisher (who is signed long term), with the Yankees likely looking for two solid bench players in return. A package including a catcher (Ryan Hanigan?) and an infielder like Jeff Keppinger could get it done, or perhaps Keppinger and a B-level prospect.
It’s become plainly evident that the Mets can no longer trust Aaron Heilman to close out games during Billy Wagner’s tenure on the shelf. After watching Heilman blow a save on Monday afternoon against the lowly Pirates, Jerry Manuel has to try someone else–anybody for that matter–in an effort to clot the bleeding. While there is no slam dunk choice, given the bullpen’s ERA of more than 6.70 since the All-Star break, I would nominate Pedro Feliciano. The lefty specialist has been arguably their most consistent set-up reliever over the past three years, and while he’s certainly no sure thing against right-handed bats, he’s more deserving of a shot than Scott Schoeneweis. The only other option for the Mets is a waiver trade. Omar Minaya should put in a claim for any serviceable reliever who is put on waivers. Perhaps a team looking to shed some salary will just say, “Take him,” to the Mets, and ask for no trade compensation in return…
Assuming that neither of the players to be named later are top prospects, the Diamondbacks did very well in securing Adam “Big Donkey” Dunn in a waiver deal with the Reds. The D-Backs need offense in the worst way, particularly in the form of a left-handed bat who can balance their righty-heavy lineup. Dunn is a two dimensional player–he hits home runs and draws walks–who does nothing else well, but his power and patience are so exemplary that he’ll lift the spirits of Arizona’s offense. The D-Backs plan to use Dunn in right field while Justin Upton works his way back from the disabled list; once Upton is ready, Dunn will move back to his more accustomed position in left field. The trade will also give the D-Backs, if they’re so inclined, a head start on negotiations for a long-term contract with the impending free agent. Good move on all fronts for Arizona…
Finally, it’s time to change the baseball card image on our home page. We’ve had Willie Mays (the greatest living ballplayer) up for more than a month, but we’re now ready to move on to another selection. If you’ve got a card you’d like to nominate, just post your suggestion here, along with your reasons. Perhaps you like one of the 1973 Topps cards we’ve featured on “Card Corner” (like Norm Cash, Dave McNally, or Joe Rudi), or perhaps you’d prefer something completely different. Just let us know.
So much for the philosophy that it’s easier to pitch in the cold weather than it is to hit. The Yankees have tried to disprove that longstanding theory all by their lonesome through the first week of the season. Their starters have surrendered 24 runs in 22 and a third innings, giving them an ERA of 10.00 through five games. Joe Torre has had to call on his relievers a remarkable 22 times through those five games; at this rate, Torre will have blown out his bullpen by the end of the month. While the horrid pitching will only raise the clarion call for Roger Clemens and increase the temperature on Ron Guidry’s hot seat, the Yankees may have to expedite a third (and most immediate) option: dipping into the deep pool of pitching prospects at Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Under ideal circumstances, the Yankees would like to wait until at least June before placing a call for either Phil Hughes or Ross Ohlendorf. They may have to move the recall date to sometime in April or May, especially if Hughes continues to pitch as well as he did in his minor league opener, when he allowed only two hits and two runs in five innings…
The state of the Yankees’ bench is almost as scary as the starting rotation. On Sunday, the Yankees started two of their reserves–Wil Nieves behind the plate and Miguel Cairo in left field–giving the bottom of the order a look that was too reminiscent of those awful Yankee teams from the early 1990s. For all the good that Brian Cashman has done in reducing the age of his team, recruiting young pitching, and adding flexibility to the 25-man roster, Cashman continues to stumble in the area of constructing a bench. The Yankees haven’t had a top-drawer backup catcher since Joe Girardi or a truly effective utility infielder since Luis Sojo. And with Cairo clearly out of place in the outfield, the Yankees’ decision to carry only four outfielders looks like another early-season mistake. Heck, the Yankees have almost as many first baseman (three) as they do outfielders. It’s a far cry from the days when the Yankees had so much depth in the outfield that they could start games with Sweet Lou Piniella, Oscar Gamble, and Bobby Murcer available to come off the bench…
While the Yankees are concerned about the ghastly state of their starting pitching, whispers out of Boston express some worry about the Red Sox’ sudden lack of patience at the plate. Red Sox batters failed to work the count throughout their weekend series against the Rangers, a trait that runs completely counter to recent Boston teams and the preferred philosophy of general manager Theo Epstein. Some critics are pointing to the change in hitting coaches. Former batting instructor Ron Jackson preached the important of patience and walks, yet was let go in favor of current hitting coach Dave Magadan. While I understand the reason for worry, I find it hard to believe that Magadan is the culprit. Magadan was an extremely patient hitter throughout his major league career; if anything, he took criticism for being too passive at the plate. I can’t fathom that he’s changed his philosophy so radically that he has Red Sox hitters swinging wildly at pitches ala Yogi Berra and Manny Sanguillen…
The dull starts experienced by the Red Sox and Yankees represent the disappointing end of the major league spectrum. On the other side, we find surprising teams like the Twins, Pirates, and Reds, who have raced out to good starts despite lackluster winters. (Hey, why couldn’t the Pirates have started out like this last year, when I was trying to sell copies of The Team That Changed Baseball? Oh well, the book has sold well anyway.) Those three small market teams are a combined 12-5, with expected bottom feeders Cincinnati and Pittsburgh leading the way in the NL Central, and Minnesota doing the same in the AL Central. The Pirates’ play has been arguably the most impressive. They’ve won four of their six while playing on the road, survived most of the first week without the injured Freddy Sanchez, and have watched their bullpen work to near perfection, having stranded every inherited baserunner. Salmon Torres is four-for-four in save opportunities and making a case to be this year’s version of Joe Borowski…
The Reds’ bullpen has actually been just as good as Pittsburgh’s. Reds relievers didn’t give up their first runs of the season until Sunday’s loss to the Pirates. And then there’s been the early play of Adam Dunn, who has shown hints that he might be able to take the step from one-dimensional slugger (like Frank Howard) to All-Star mainstay (think Reggie Jackson). Dunn banged out two more hits on Sunday to raise his early batting average to .381. The “Big Donkey” also has three home runs, an .857 slugging percentage, and two stolen bases thrown in for good measure…
The Twins initially seemed like an afterthought in the stacked AL Central, but their pitching beyond Johan Santana has been remarkably poised. Ramon Ortiz and Carlos Silva both turned in good starts during the first week, successfully holding the fort until more talented young pitchers are deemed ready for recall. For all of their critics, Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan remain one of the most effective manager-GM teams in all of baseball.