Pitchers and catchers have already reported and the rest of the club is soon to follow. The sun is beginning to peak up above the palm trees and the statue of Casey at the Bat is ready to set his sights on a new spring. It's spring training time in Vierra, and after a rocky football and basketball season, Washingtonians couldn't be more enthused.
While for the next few weeks all we will be reading about are pitchers and catchers, soon spring training will be in full bloom and there will be story lines to follow. Here are my top five things to look for at Vierra this spring.
5. How does Riggleman handle the top spot?
The last time Jim Riggleman entered spring training as a head coach the year was 1999 and he had just helped the Cubs win 90 games and reach the playoffs for the first time since Don Zimmer had led them to the NLCS in 1989. It was a disappointing return to October as the Cubs got swept in the divisional series 3-0 by the Braves. It was a team that had been spurred by two unexpected stars, Sammy Sosa who had just broken Roger Marris's home run mark by smacking 66 bombs, and a 21-year-old phenom fireballer named Kerry Wood. Riggleman would only lead the Cubs to a 67-95 record that year before getting fired. Later many would question Riggleman's handling of the team, as Woods arm fell off due to overuse and Sosa became part of the steroid scandal that rocked baseball.
4. Will we see the return of Matt Chico?
Chico faired well, but not great, in his rookie season for the Nationals in 2007. At 24, Chico posted a 7-9 record with a 4.63 ERA in 31 games started. The metrics say Chico may have been the benefit of good defense as he posted an FIP of 5.56. Chico, however, is a junk ball pitcher who doesn't fit the norm and if he could return to his 2007 form he could be a good back-of-the-rotation starter for the Nationals, and a filler until Detwiler, Zimmermann, and Strasburg are ready to rock the big league show.
3. The ridiculousness of a closer competition in spring training
In the spring, at least for the first three-quarters of it, very little is based on competition against the opposing teams. Hitters are trying to find their timing, pitchers are working on hitting their spots, umpires and broadcasters are shaking off the rust, and managers are just trying to organize a game that will have 10+ substitutions and no one playing over three innings. In fact, one time when I was down in Florida with Pappa Yodes, we saw Tom Glavine throw 12 straight fastballs to the same location. Sure enough, he got rocked, but all he was doing was getting work on hitting that location for when the games mattered.
Among other things that happens in spring training is the closer will pitch in the 4th, 5th, or 6th inning. This is usually so they can pitch against hitters who will be playing above AA ball in 2010, and because the teams stars usually are allowed to finish their day first. Either way, if the Nationals are looking at Capps, Bruney, and Storen at the closer position, they will be pitching against inferior talent and not in the ninth inning. So really, what will the numbers tell us?
2. The coverage of the WaPo's new beat writer
As Chico Harlan has moved on to "greener pastures," the Post has finally announced his replacement as Adam Kilgore. Kilgore, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former WaPo intern has spend the last seven years writing for the Boston Globe covering the Red Sox and the Patriots. It should be interesting to see how he takes over the beat after Nationals bloggers and fans had a less than perfect relationship with Chico. While he had a certain "character," we should remember Chico as a great wordsmith and someone who helped carry the beat to his own drum.
1. Steven Strasburg madness
Ok, ok, I know people are going to be sick come April about all the press coverage Strasburg will be getting down in Vierra. Yes, no matter how well he pitches he wont likely make the team and yes it will only lead to fanaticism and band waggoning. I get it. But from a fan's point of view I'm rather excited to see him pitch against Major League talent for the very first time. Sure, they will be meaningless at bats and the batters may still not have their timing, but to see a guy who is our supposed savior going up against the cream of the crop for the first time, oh that's very exciting.
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The Nationals finally inked Chien-Ming Wang friday afternoon, putting a signature on a deal that could end up giving them their most effective pitcher in 2010. Of course there are a lot of obsticals to still overcome, most notably rehabilitating his arm and finding the sinking action in his fastball. This is what Wang's agent said at the signing yesterday:
"When Chien-Ming became available, the first team we heard from was the Nationals. And shortly after that we started hearing from other teams. There was a total of 15 teams that showed interest right from the beginning. But the process was pretty laborious. Everybody had to do their homework But the Nationals were the most sincere, they were the most aggressive, they were ahead of the pack. They did all of their due diligence and were very confident along the way. And any time you make a decision -- this was a big decision for Chien-Ming -- the spirit of it matters. It's kind of like dating. You don't enter into a relationship unless you feel real good about it. The Nationals seemed to care the most and they seemed to want him the most."
Jeremey Greenhouse of The Hardball Times defends local hero Brady Anderson in his post on THT Live. Greenhouse's article is a respons to Joe Posnanski who wrote a piece claiming there were groups of players that we know used steroids, groups we probably know who did, and groups we know who did not:
"It’s fall of 1996, and Anderson, having realized the magic of performance enhancing drugs, is coming off a 50-homer year. He’s heading into his final year with the Orioles before he hits free agency. But he comes to the decision that he doesn’t want to be remembered as a cheat, so he dramatically throws all his pills and vials into the trash, possibly with the help of an intervention from Zack Morris. So Brady hits 18 homers in 1997, but he does it clean. Or maybe you think that he didn't have a moral renaissance. You just think he wasn't smart enough to realize he could have been the most prolific home run hitter in baseball had he continued down the path of Bonds. Remember, in your world, Barry Bonds was not the greatest player of the 1990s. That was Ken Griffey Jr. Bonds only became great because of the juice. In your world, Saved by the Bell is a go-to television show reference."
I'm not sold either way, but Greenhouse has a great ponit.
In what may be one of the best deals of the late winter, the Cleveland Indians signed first-baseman Russell Branyan. Branyan, who started his career in Cleveland, will get the chance to build upon his resurgent season last year where he hit .251/.347/.520, bashed in 31 home runs (16 coming at SAFECO) and posted a UZR/150 of 2.4. While Branyan is 34, a one-year, $2 million deal is still a good buy. Espessially when you consider the Nationals gave Ivan Rodriguez two-years $6 million.
Nationals pitcher Ross Detwiler underwent surgery to repair a partially torn hip flexer last week and will be out at least three months. Mark Zuckerman, former Washington Times reporter turned independent blogger, reported the story:
"Detwiler had surgery Monday to repair a torn hip flexor and will miss about 10 weeks, according to a source close to the left-hander. The injury occurred sometime during the last month while the former first-round draft pick was working out in Viera....
UPDATE AT 4:28 P.M. -- The Nats have now confirmed Detwiler's surgery and say he is scheduled to begin a throwing program in six weeks and 'should be able to return to competitive pitching in three months.'"-Nats Insider
This injury may be a lot bigger than most Nationals fans think.
Detwiler is often overshadowed within the farm system by names like Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Storen, but there are many scouts who believe that Detwiler has the talent to be a big league ace. In fact even last year Baseball Prospectus said that despite Zimmermann's great track record, Detwiler had the most potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starter.
After being drafted with the sixth overall pick in 2007, Detwiler struggled when the Nationals tried to change his delivery. The Nats felt that he could benefit from a more traditional delivery which would improve his fastball and add more movement to his off-speed pitches. All it did was confuse him and the talented pitcher struggled for two years.
Given the opportunity to return to his old delivery in 2009 Detwiler exploded through the system recording 28 strikeouts in 27 innings. Injuries at the big league level earned Detwiler a promotion to Washington without any experience in AAA. While Detwiler only posted a 1-6 record with a 5.00 ERA in Washington, he was the victim of some bad luck and some bad defense. In 75.2 innings pitched he posted a .330 BABIP and a 3.86 FIP, which indicates that he really pitched a good deal better than his 5.00 ERA.
Of course there are a few things Detwiler really needs to work on, first being his control. Much of Detwilers bad luck was inflated by the fact he allowed a lot of batters on base due to free passes. He allowed 3.93 walks per nine innings in Washington last year which didn't do him any favors. It's a problem that has been with the hurler since the beginning, throughout the minors he has posted BB/9 numbers of; 4.14, 3.29 and 3.65. He had great stuff, and gets a lot of strikeouts, which helps him make outs at lower levels, but he needs to gain more control. Unfortunately, that's something he could have been spending these next three months doing.
Detwiler also needs to allow less line drives to produce more batted outs. This is likely a result of poor control as well, which allows for missed spots and harder hit balls. Detwiler allowed 25.1 percent line drives in 2009, which had he earned enough innings, would have led the major leagues. If Detwiler can hit his spots, he has the stuff to make a lot of outs.
Now out three months, Detwiler loses a great deal of development time. It was the Nationals hope that he could use the first half of this season to really hone his skills while others held his place in the bigs. Ideally the Nationals would hit 2011 running with three top young arms, Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Detwiler, and veteran arms in John Lannan and Jason Marquis. Now two of those three young arms will have to spend 2010 recovering from surgery, not preparing to be a big league star.
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Over the last two seasons, the Washington Nationals bullpen has become a place of limbo for players on their way out of the league (or those who never had the talent to be in it) to dawdle a little longer. Players like Kip Wells, Wil Ledezma, Jorge Sosa, Jesus Colome, and the ever eccentric Julian Tavarez. Last season, the bullpen seemed more like a free flowing game of musical chairs for "has-beens" and "never-will-bes" than a source of pitchers that could provide relief. The only true "reliever" that Nationals fans found last year was located in their refrigerator, ice cold. This season, look for a revamped and better bullpen, maybe better than any one the Nationals have had in D.C. thus far.
Consider this, last season the team started the season with a bullpen of Joe Beimel, Julian Tavarez, Saul Rivera, Joel Hanrahan, Mike Hinckley, Steven Shell, and Wil Ledezma. Of those, maybe only Beimel and Rivera were not question marks. Beimel had just come off a good season with the Dodgers and Rivera had been mostly solid in his time with Washington. Unfortunately, it appears Rivera was overused in the WBC and was never able to regain his form. The rest of those guys were either on their last legs in their career or mostly unproven at the major league level. None of those players, except for maybe Beimel, were in their prime. Over the course of the season, the Nats trotted out an assortment of AAAA'ers and senior citizens to mostly the same result. Some were able to survive (MacDougal, Villone), but most were just downright horrible (Colome, Kip Wells, Logan Kensing). The bullpen finished with a league worst 5.09 ERA, 4.96 BB/9, and 1.58 WHIP. Only three teams had more blown saves.
No one will deny that the bullpen was one of the Nationals biggest problem areas in 2009, which is one of the reasons why they drafted a large proportion of likely relievers (Holder, Morris, Weaver, Bronson) in last June's First Year Player Draft, including Drew Storen with the 10th overall pick. I can imagine first year GM Mike Rizzo, after what he witnessed last season, made a resolution to never again let such an abysmal set of relievers run out to the mound with a curly W on their cap. In addition to retooling the farm, Rizzo traded for Brian Bruney and Sean Burnett, signed Tyler Walker and likely closer Matt Capps, and brought in guys like Eddie Guardado, Ryan Speier, Miguel Batista, and Doug Slaten to compete for the remaining spots with younger guys like Tyler Clippard, Jason Bergmann, and any of last year's starters that do not make the rotation.
Just for comparison's sake, I will make an early prediction on what the bullpen will be this year: Matt Capps (closer), Brian Bruney, Sean Burnett, Tyler Walker, Tyler Clippard, Eddie Guardado, Miguel Batista. A bullpen comprised of those seven would have combined last season for totals of 3.86 ERA, 4.12 BB/9, and 1.38 WHIP, remarkably better than last year's group. Now obviously, this is a crude comparison that does not account for many different factors. Some of these players could play much better (or much worse) than they did last year. And most certainly, the Nationals will be forced to use at least five more pitchers in some capacity from the pen at some point this season, making depth at the position all the more important, but it is clear that the ceilings on this year's group is higher and more attainable than last year's. As the questions surrounding the bullpen slowly die off, attention will be shifted towards the other weak areas this spring, the defense and the rotation. But Nats fans can rejoice in the fact that they will not be seeing Kip Wells closing for them at any point this season.
Phil Naquin is a guest writer for The Nats Blog who will be be appearing weekly with analysis of the Washington Nationals using sabermetrics, pitch f/x tools, and scouting observations. He also runs a blog, Half Street High Rise (link:http://halfstreethighrise.blogspot.com/)
The Nationals announced today what we had long expected, they have officially signed Chien-Ming Wang:
This is confirmed: Chien-Ming Wang's contract will pay him $2 million in 2010. He can earn up to $3 million in incentives. Also, he's already passed a physical -- yet another sign that this deal was days in the making." - Chico Harlan, Nationals Journal.
The base salary is a little bit higher than I would have liked to see. Wang is a player who has been a 20-game talent in the past but the potential for him to fall apart following shoulder surgery this season is far higher than him matching his old form. $2 million for a player that holds a high risk of pitching less than 50 major league innings next season is a bit high, but it's nothing to really fret about.
For the Nationals, however, the real key to getting Wang on track will not only be making sure he's healthy, but also to help him regain the mechanics that made him successful from 2006-2007. As you can see, he was a groundball master in that span, but something cause him to be way less successful in the previous few years: