Monday, May 10, 2010

Big stretch ahead

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Luis Atilano will look to get this road trip off to a good start.
NEW YORK -- Good morning from the Big Apple, the City That Never Sleeps, the Town So Nice They Named it Twice. Or for our purposes, the site of the Nationals' three-game series against the Mets.

This probably didn't look like all that important of a series six weeks ago. In fact, when we were here just one month ago, the prospect of watching 18 games between the Nats and Mets seemed pretty daunting. These two teams didn't look so good coming out of the gates.

Well, much has changed since then. The Mets went on a tear, winning nine-of-10 at one point. The Nats, of course, have consistently played solid baseball since the season's second week. And now these two division rivals (who most figured would battle for last place in the NL East) square off tied for second place. Both clubs sit at 17-14, two games behind the Phillies.

This three-game set is merely the first leg of a tough road trip for the Nationals. After this, they move on to Denver for four games against the Rockies, with Ubaldo Jimenez slated to pitch Friday night. (Of course, the Nats have their own ace, Livan Hernandez, on track to start that game as well, the second time these two right-handers will face each other in a span of weeks.) From Colorado, the Nats head to St. Louis for an abbreviated, two-game series with a Cardinals squad that currently own the NL's best record at 20-12.

So this could be a pivotal stretch of games for the Nationals. Should they post a winning record on this trip, say 5-4, they'd be sitting pretty coming back home to face the Mets and Orioles. Should they falter a bit, going 3-6, they'd still come home with a .500 record. But should they fall flat on their faces and win two or fewer games, the momentum of the season's first month-and-a-half could be totally wiped out.

The way these guys have played to date -- holding all losing streaks to two games or less -- you've got to think they can at least hold their own on this trip. The test begins tonight at Citi Field, with Luis Atilano on the mound against John Maine.

In the meantime, a couple of minor-league items to report...

-- Derek Norris, the organization's top catching prospect (and No. 2 overall prospect behind Stephen Strasburg) has been activated off the DL and has joined the roster at Class A Potomac. Norris was still feeling some effects from the wrist surgery he had last fall (for a broken hamate bone) so he remained in Viera getting that taken care of. Now that he's back healthy, this will be an important season for him. With Bryce Harper perhaps looming as this franchise's catcher of the future (assuming he's drafted No. 1 and signs) Norris could suddenly be running out of time to make his case. By the end of this season, he needs to have shown he can keep up his offensive pace at high-Class A and head into 2011 as the starting catcher at Class AA. He'll have a leg up on Harper at that point and perhaps could crack the big-league roster by Sept. 2011. But this requires Norris to 1) stay healthy, and 2) continue to produce the way he has the last two seasons at lower levels of the organization.

-- Matt Chico is heading to Syracuse, after a brief layover in Harrisburg. The left-hander, who tossed five strong innings Saturday against the Marlins, was to be sent back to Class AA. But a spot in the Syracuse rotation has suddenly opened up. (No, not the one occupied by Strasburg. Not yet, at least.) Collin Balester, once thought of as the top pitching prospect in this organization, has struggled mightily, so the Nats are going to covert him to a reliever. Balester will actually go to Viera first to ease his way into that new role, then conceivably he'd had back to Syracuse at some point to join the Chiefs' bullpen. Seems like a last-ditch attempt for Balester, who just hasn't been able to pitch with any consistency at the big-league level.

-- Jason Marquis, meanwhile, will make a rehab start for Potomac tomorrow night. Assuming that goes well, he'll likely make one more start in the minors before the Nats activate him off the DL.

24 comments:

Richard said...

Mark, thanks for the very interesting information. It's great to read a journalist who actually provides it.

Section 222 said...

Funny how that opening stretch of the season seemed so daunting, and now the next few weeks look really tough as well, with only the Orioles providing a respite from some very tough teams -- Colorado is barely under .500, and SF, SD, and the Mets are well over. The Cardinals have the best record in the NL, but the Padres and Giants are right behind them. Who would have expected that? The rest of this month is a real test for the Nats. If they are at .500 on June 1, I think we'll be able to say, "The Nats are for real!"

JayB said...

Mark,

Why are they holding off on Storen? It is not that much money. Add up what they are paying Brian B and T. Walker to fail and that is about the cost of letting Storen get to to Arb status one year early. They are in fact trading wins for money if they do not move Storen into the mix and is that not the definition of cheap?

Anonymous said...

If the Nats are at .500 at the end of the road trip, how can I realistically complain?

Anonymous said...

While money may play a part in holding Strasburg off, that's not the case with Storen. The reason Rizzo is holding Storen back is the same as the second reason he's holding Strasburg back - because as he has said repeatedly, once he brings them up it's going to be for good, not to send them back down if they falter. So while Storen may look good so far, he's only just now made it to AAA. He needs time there to show that he has mastered that level before he's brought up to the show and given the instant expectation that he'll have no problems upon arrival. There's nothing cheap about such an approach, but there's a lot that's smart about it.

Anonymous said...

Any chance that Norris might be converted to play RF?

Ephesius Remsen Hammersley said...

Mark,

It was a great homestand now let's see if the 2010 Nats can play road warrior, I am looking for a 6-3 roadttrip as a harribinger of good things to come this summer!

markfd said...

Any more news on the roster moves made in the minors, it looks like Bally is getting his wakeup call as is Zincola, Rhinehart and Mike Daniel was released. Would love to hear any updates.

Tedv15 2 said...

Thanks for the great posting Mark.
You mentioned Norris and Harper's potential but, what about Flores? What do you think his status is in the organization? If he can get healthy, I believe he is our catcher of the future.

alexva said...

Tyler Clippard turned his career around when he accepted a similar role so Colin could do the same. He has the power arm that Rizzo likes in the pen. That being said he appears to be lost at the moment.

Chris said...

It's amazing what a month of decent baseball does to people.

There's no sense in rushing Storen to the majors right now. The kid has pitched less than 4 innings at AAA - and he's been touched up a bit at Syracuse.

If Walker and/or Bruney continue to struggle on this roadtrip guys like Severino and Peralta (who has already pitched in the bigs) deserve a chance to fill that 7th inning role.

Let Drew develop properly and continue to close games in Syracuse for the next few weeks.

Chris said...

@markfd

Where did you see that Mike Daniel was released? Must have missed it.

Mark Zuckerman said...

Anon 12:41: There's been some talk about Norris converting to another position, though to be honest there's more talk about Harper doing it. In either case, it'll be a while before that happens. Right now, the Nats just want to see guys develop and push their way toward the big leagues. Once they reach the majors, then they'll figure out where everyone plays.

TedV15: Flores' status within the organization certainly remains up in the air. If he can come back healthy this season, he can re-establish himself as the No. 1 catcher because those other guys will be several years behind (though if Pudge keeps playing like this, Flores won't unseat him). If Flores doesn't make it back this year, his stock takes a huge hit and suddenly his future is in serious doubt (if it isn't already).

Tedv15 2 said...

Thanks Mark.

Aeoliano said...

Flores and Norris, Nieto would have to be considered "ahead" of the game when compared to Norris. Here's one for all you who think Willingham should be in right field. What position did he spend most of his time at in the minors? That's right, catcher. In other words of the bat is "mature" they want you up in the majors as quickly as possible. Willingham also played some third base. He ended up in left field which is where the Nats have him now after some unhappy experimentation moving him between right and left last year.

If Harper is drafted and "IF" his bat is mature you will likely see him quickly moved to another position.

Aeoliano said...

"the game when compared to Norris."

mean to say:"when compared to Harper".

Steve M. said...

JB said "Trading wins for money [with keeping Storen in the Minors]? "

Are you that convinced that he can step into Bruney's shoes right away?

I'm not.

I think Bruney has until June 1st to get his stuff together and if he doesn't, buh bye!

Like MarkFD said with regards to "Bally is getting his wakeup call as is..."

Mike Rizzo seems to be tough on anyone who isn't cutting it from the "prior" administration!

Anonymous said...

Norris just needs to bring his bat, they'll find him a position if he plays at the higher levels like he did in Hagerstown

Bigger challenge will be dealing with Rizzo/Kasten/Lerner practice of slow promotion through the minors for anyone who's not a top draft pick

Steve M. said...

A followup to my own comment about the "prior" administration.

It is far easier to cut ties and demote guys that someone else picked.

What will happen with his own struggling pickups like Bruney, Batista, and Tyler Walker and of course Jason Marquis.

JayB said...

Yes he is better right now than Brian B. He does not walk guys like that...he is useless at those walk rates!

JayB said...

Yes he is better right now than Brian B. He does not walk guys like that...he is useless at those walk rates!

Anonymous said...

Mark and All,

I saw this post over on the MASN site and I'm pasting it here. A Virginia guy was in Md and report his findings on how little the Md people (around the DC Beltway, not suburban Baltimore people) knew about where the Nats were on TV or radio:

NatsDNA | May 9, 2010 11:49 PM | Reply

I live in Arlington, but went to Silver Spring today for Mother's Day with my wife's family. There was a Jr. student from UM there--knew nothing about how the Nats were doing. A MD realtor from College Park and a construction type from Hyattsville were there--they all asked me how the Nats were doing as if they were asking about a team that plays overseas. This is a sports-crazy family where ESPN is on 24/7 and they talk Redskins day and night. Also a 10th grader and senior from Woodson High in Fairfax were there. All these men in one room--and when Pudge came to the plate, not a single one of them even knew he was on the Nationals. They all knew what Comcast was, and of course all the ESPN channels, but no one had heard of MASN.

I didn't go over there to conduct some kind of focus group, but what I did learn depressed me. When I had to leave their house around the 7th inning, I said I'd listen to the rest of the game on the radio. The brothers from Woodson asked me what station it was on, and I said 1500 AM, WFED. They looked at me like confused collies and said, "a.m.?" People under 30 don't listen to a.m. radio. To them it's like a 78 record or something. The middle-age guys heard of WMAL and 980 but none of them ever heard of WFED.

I get home and see the pathetic "Where's the game?" ad in the upper right hand corner of the Post's sports page. Can you imagine this in a Major League city?

Then I get home, the game's over, and I check MASN for a Nats replay. Nothing. I get an Orioles Classic all afternoon, then this evening they run the replay of the O's losing 6-0 today to the Twins. NOT the Nats thrilling win over Florida. NOT the Willingham homer to put us up in the 8th. I get the crappy Orioles and turn the whole thing off.

Soon we'll get the results of another survey telling America about the Nats lousy TV ratings and attendance. It's like they're being sabotaged.

Richard said...

Yes, and another example: The other day in the Post Kilgore included the gratuitous comment that "what was left of the crowd" of 21K applauded the Nats at the end of the game.

Cwj said...

Anon 3:31 - that is very sad indeed. I live in Harpers Ferry WV now, but when I lived inside the beltway I used to listen to 980 AM and they didn't give a crap about the Nats. Nothing but NBA and Redskins. Very sad.
Fortunately I do get MASN out here, so I can watch all the games. When the Nats aren't playing though, it's all Baltimore sports on MASN.

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