Gettin close to decision time for the bullpen

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I think the team brain-trust has been very concerned recently about the bull-pen.  In my opinion. THAT is the Nat’s weakest link right now, and is the main reason for the decision to put Detwiler in that key group.  He has what is needed for that role, experience and high heat.  He also brings the pen a second lefty as well as the ability to play a variety of roles from long-relief as well as possibly closing a game or two.

The way I see it right now, six of the seven bull-pen spots are set.  Here are my picks for those six:  Soriano, Storen, Clippard (photo above), Detwiler, Blevins and Stammen. Unfortunately only two of this group have put up good numbers in spring training thus far: Blevins and Clippard.  Soriano, the nominal “closer,” has looked like anything but that!  The same goes for Drew Storen, the very effective closer a couple of years ago.  So the chances are good that we may see Clippard closing games soon.

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So, are you wondering who has the inside track on the remaining bull-pen slot?  Glad you asked:) Aaron Barrett.  Aaron was the closer last year for the Harrisburg Senators, the Nats’ AA team.  He had a great season in that role.  He also played in the Arizona Fall league for the team Matt Williams managed!  A look at the outstanding numbers Aaron has put up this Spring, and I expect to see him throw an inning in today’s game; it will be televised:)  The team brain-trust is talking a lot among themselves about this guy, trust me!

p.s. Click here to read about Clippard and the bobblehead campaign.

This Blog is not about The Danny (not much)

A lot of Gnats fans are wondering how the competition to fill the fifth starting pitcher slot is likely to be resolved.  Well, here is my humble opinion.  And I’ll preface it (as an experienced gamer) by saying such competition is very healthy and the Nats are extremely lucky to have so much talent in Spring Training Camp!

Ross “Det” Detwiler:  I think this is his to lose, and I say this for several reasons.  First, he has the most quality major league experience.  Second, he is out of options (he can’t be sent back to the minor leagues–there is a rule limiting the number of times a player can be sent down to the minor leagues).  Third, he was VERY EFFECTIVE early last season, until he got injured.

Roark pitching last season. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Roark pitching last season. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Tanner Roark:  Many will argue he should get the nod, as he was arguably the Nats best pitcher over the last 6 weeks of the season last Fall.  I too was impressed with his success last year.  And this will likely mean that if Det is the fifth starter, Tanner Roark will be the “long man” in the bullpen.  So the team wins either way!

Taylor Jordan:  With the least amount of major league experience, unless Jordan really lights up the scene in Florida, the best thing for his development would be to start the season with the Nats’ AAA team in Syracuse , pitch a lot and be ready if someone gets hurt on the parent team.  This is a talented kid with beaucoup upside potential who may actually be ready for THE SHOW if the team had a space!

On to the “Danny Watch.”  Whoopee, he got his first hit yesterday.  It’s only Spring Training, and the new manager has to give Danny Espinosa a chance, but I think the hand-writing is out there.  After 2+ seasons in the bigs, Danny just cannot hit big-league pitching.  Meanwhile, among the infielders in camp, Zach Walters can, Anthony Rendon and Jamey Carroll can, and some of the other “kids” are looking good too.  I recommend Mike Rizzo call Bo Porter (Houston manager and former Nats’ third-base coach) and work something out to ship Danny to Houston.  They need lots of new blood in Houston!

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.”

Breaking News: Washington Nationals’ 2014 Roster

In the past week, there has been a minor flurry of meaningful activity that will bolster the Washington Nationals’ propects for success in 2014. While Anthony Rendon will be the likely starting second baseman, every team needs backup players. Former Nat, Jamey Carroll, was signed to a minor league contract. I predict this master utility infielder will make the major league roster. Besides having all the tools to really help the Nats, the team is far from confident infielder Danny Espinosa will make the roster; he cannot hit big league pitching.

Meanwhile a former teammate of Ryan Zimmerman at University of Virginia, slugger Mark Reynolds, was rumored to be a possible Nationals’ addition. That would have been a mistake (but an understandable one since Nats General Manager, Mike Rizzo, had signed Reynolds for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004). Reynolds has proven to be a human strikeout machine, setting several all-time major league records in that department! Luckily for the Nats, Reynolds signed Friday with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Also on Friday, January 17, the team reached agreement on two-year contract extensions with Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmerman. Desmond will also get another $500K bonus if he wins the National League MVP award (he was considered for the award last year). Both players had been negotiating for longer-term deals, but ran out of time as the arbitration deadline loomed. Four others were also signed by the deadline to one-year deals: Drew Storen, Ross Detwiler, Wilson Ramos and new relief pitcher Jerry Blevins.

Apparently General Manager Mike Rizzo agrees with me that the bullpen needs more. He is talking with Grant Balfour, who is expected to decide any day now which team he will play for this season. Balfour was the closer for Oakland in 2013 and saved 38 games. If the Nats grab him, the move may presage a trade of Drew Storen.

A Preview of the 2014 Nationals

Compared to the 2012 Nats, the 2013 team was a disappointment. They won the most games in the majors in 2012, but 12 fewer last season. What’s worse, they did not get to the playoffs. Former manager Davey Johnson, who retired just after the 2013 season (and is a Trinity University grad), predicted before the season that the Nats would get to the World Series. I think this created needless pressure on the players, and led to the offense taking almost half the season to really get rolling. (Note: The most important thing that affects batting is being very RELAXED! I’ve been playing this game for 60 years and it has taken me a big chunk of that to be truly relaxed at the plate.)

They aim to improve in 2014. Matt Williams, the new manager, appears to be an exciting upgrade. Though this is his first crack at managing, I think the team could not have made a better choice. Matt is a no-nonsense, hands-on type. As a player (and I watched him play frequently) he worked hard to excel, setting the bar pretty high for himself, and he is likely to expect the Nats to do the same.

Going into the 2014 season, the team needed a better no. 4 starting pitcher, a better “bench” and a better bull-pen (especially left-handers). They recently acquired Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers as the 4thstarter. He is likely to be more effective than Dan Haren, last year’s 4th starter. Doug is young, did well in Detroit, and has the potential to get even better with time. Tyler Roark and Ross Detwiler will likely compete for the 5thstarter spot. There is a chance Ross could be used as another lefty in the bullpen too.

The Nats also acquired Nate McLouth, a very capable, fast outfielder from Baltimore to bolster the bench. The fact that Nate bats from the left side is good as the other bench outfielder, Scott Hairston, bats right-handed. Nate is also a potent base-stealer, so he could do lots of pinch-running! The Nats still need at least one more backup infielder. They lost Steve Lombardozzi in the Fister trade, and he will be greatly missed, I predict. In a “stealth signing” just before Christmas, the Nats picked up veteran infielder Emmanuel Burris. He grew up and played high school ball here in the nation’s capital.

The bull-pen has added one new left hander, Blevins, but needs one more. They also need to replace Ryan Mattheus, who was not very effective last year.

The coaching staff so far has not changed much from last year, but the new manager has added a new position, that of defensive coordinator, staffed by Mark Weidemaier. I think this is a great idea.

Besides the remaining moves I have recommended, another issue Matt Williams needs to address in Spring Training is the glaring inability of the team’s pitchers to hold runners on base–this is simply unacceptable in the major leagues.

I predict the Nats will win 88-92 wins, depending on what additional moves they make. Two very significant things that happened last season are reasons for optimism: (1) the Nats were the best team in baseball over the last 6-8 weeks of the season (they almost made the playoffs); and (2) the new hitting coach, Dick Schu, who was hired mid-season in 2013. He likely was one of the reasons Jayson Werth almost won the national League batting title!

And then we have the “Racing Presidents“. They added one more in early 2013, William Howard Taft. “Teddy” Roosevelt needs to work harder on the basics.

P.S. The price of beer at Nats Park is outrageous! I’m contemplating trying to get in with a hiking “flask” under my shirt.

P.P.S. If anyone is wondering whether the Nats will seriously enter the circus-like chase to grab the Japanese star pitcher, Tanaka, I say “no way.”