It’s the pitching, honey :)

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Nationals Park Tuesday, July 2, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Nationals Park Tuesday, July 2, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The top four Nats starters are (as a group) the best top four in baseball!  Stated another way, of the top 20 ERA (earned run average) pitchers in baseball, the Nats have four.  No other team has more than two.  Adding Doug Fister in the off-season was arguably (according to FanGraphs) the best trade in all of baseball. On the other hand, last season’s Nats pitchers (with a couple of exceptions) were downright terrible at holding runners on base.  So it was refreshing to see that new manager Matt Williams had them working on that detail right from the start of Spring Training!  And this is a skill where Fister excells; he has only allowed 15 runners to steal off him IN HIS CAREER!  So his teammates can learn from watching him at work.Covering first is another area where the pitchers need to improve.  I remember seeing Jason Werth getting on Gio Gonzales in the dugout over this last year on nationwide TV. Gio looked like he forgot to cover first on grounders to the right side numerous times last year.  This can’t happen in professional baseball; kids learn it in high school!

In another bit of good news the team has hired former Nats starter and fan favorite Livan Hernandez to work with the pitchers during Spring Training.  I’m hearing that this has been a very popular move with the players, especially the younger guys.

The bullpen needs some work still;  1-2 slots are yet to be decided.  Spring Training will be interesting for this part of the team.

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Mike Rizzo Strikes Again

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Josh Roenicke (photo courtesy of the FanHub)

He knows a team can never have too many pitchers.  The Nationals (Nats) just signed another relief pitcher to a minor league contract.  And this one, Josh Roenicke, is shortstop Ian Desmond’s brother-in-law!

On his way up through the minor leagues (in 2007) Josh played for one of my favorite teams, the Chattanooga Lookouts.  He has pitched parts of the past 6 seasons in the major leagues.  Last year he was on the mound for 62 innings with the Minnesota Twins.  Command has always been an issue for him.  For his first appearance in the “bigs” he struck out the first batter, walked the second and hit the third with a pitch.

Josh comes from a blue-ribbon baseball family:  his father Gary played for the Orioles (76-88), brother Jason is now playing in the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system, and his uncle Ron is managing the Milwaukee Brewers.

I remember watching his father play in Baltimore.  In 1979, he and John Lowenstein were part of a platoon that covered left field and produced 37 homeruns and 86 runs batted in!  The Orioles went to the World Series that year.

I wish Josh good luck vying for a spot in the Nats bullpen.

Better Late Than Never

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New Nat Felipe Lobaton (photo courtesy of Tampa Bay Times).

(Sidenote: Yes, the Lobaton acquisition was first reported 2 days ago.  Why was I late?  My excuses are many, but mainly I’m doing this for fun, and I have NO INTENTION of letting it become a JOB!)

Here’s the story in a nutshell:  The Nationals (Nats) have been talking with the Tampa Bay Rays since before Christmas about catcher Jose Lobaton.  He appears to be an ideal backup for starting Nats catcher Wilson Ramos.  First, they are both Venezuelans and have played together in the winter league down there.  Second, Mike Rizzo prizes very highly a catcher’s ability to “frame” pitches, and Lobaton is a master at this important skill.  What is this, you ask?  It is the art of subtly (and quickly!) pulling a pitch that is slightly off home plate back into the strike zone (the “frame” as in picture frame!) without the umpire noticing.  Sabermetricians (think moneyball) rank all catchers in many skills, including this one! What does Wilson Ramos say about the trade;  “good guy, good teammate.”

So who did Rizzo give up in the deal?  Nate Karns.  Karns was in the mix to compete for the 5th starting pitcher slot this Spring.  Honestly he had little chance of winning that one.  He came up from AAA Syracuse and started 3 games last September for the Nats, but results were underwhelming.  The Rays also gave up a pitcher, southpaw Felipe Rivero, who was impressive at high Class A ball last year.

Whew – The One That got Away

A.J. Burnett (2012 Season). Image courtesy of the Associated Press and msn.foxsports.com

Thank goodness!  I’d been hearing rumors for about a week now that the Washington Nationals (Nats) were talking with pitcher A.J. Burnett about coming to the Nats to be in the starting rotation.  Though I know A.J. is a very good pitcher (gritty, tough, lots of “heart”, etc), I was hoping it would not happen.  Well, today the MLB XM radio station reported he has signed with the Phillies, so I can exhale!  I’m happy for Philadelphia, they need him and he can help them a lot.

A.J. pitched for the Pirates in 2012 and played a key role in helping them make the playoffs.  I watched him pitch several times and he really had everything working!  I have no idea why he did not stay with Pittsburg, but he made it clear he only wanted to play for a team as close to Pennsylvania as possible, and he preferred to play in the National League.  That meant he didn’t want to play for Baltimore.

So why was I hoping AJ would not end up with the Nats?  Because of the shockwaves it would send through the Nats system that prides itself regarding the excellent job it does in developing talent from WITHIN!  Though the Nats have their top four starting pitchers (Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzales, and Fister) all set, they have a healthy competition going for the fifth spot from among several young arms who have come up through the Nats minor-league system.  I’m talking about Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark, and Taylor Jordan.  All three had stretches in 2012 as the fifth starter where they performed like they truly BELONGED in that role.  Roark was arguably the best pitcher on the team over the August-September period!  So while the above “drama” was going on I was thinking “don’t mess with success.”

The 2014 Nationals Bullpen

Pitcher Luis Ayala in 2008 (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

Pitcher Luis Ayala in 2008 (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

There’s more good news for the bullpen of the Nationals (Nats); the weakest part of the 2013 roster. Apparently Mike Rizzo is still “wheelin and dealin” trying to continue upgrading. They are rumored to have offered pitcher Luis Ayala a minor league contract. He was with the Nats from 2005-2008, and initially was one of the mainstays of the pen. In his nine years pitching in the majors he has a 3.34 ERA. He was very effective last year for the Atlanta Braves. I think Ayala may have a shot at replacing Ryan Mattheus. Ayala would be the second returnee from the 2005 roster (Jamey Carroll was the first). The 2005 Nats bullpen was excellent, with Ayala usually pitching in the 7th or 8th inning for a “HOLD.”

I think all they need is another utility player/pinch hitter.