Saturday, March 13, 2010

Drawing some conclusions

Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Drew Storen has allowed one hit --a cheap one -- in three appearances this spring.
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- We've passed the midway point of the spring, and though there are still three weeks' worth of exhibition games left to be played, we can already draw some significant conclusions.

Stephen Strasburg is the best pitcher in camp, though that won't ensure him a spot on the Opening Day roster.

Drew Storen may be right behind Strasburg in ability, and he very well could wind up in Washington on April 5.

Other than Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond may be the best all-around position player on the roster, and he's determined to force a difficult decision at the end of the month.

The rotation remains a huge question mark, with few guys in the running for three open spots distinguishing themselves as worthy big-league starters.

Let's begin with that final point, because it is the foremost dilemma on the Nationals' hands at this moment. Sure, it's nice to know Strasburg, Storen and Desmond all look major-league ready, but what good does that do when you still can't come up with a reliable starting five?

Scott Olsen and Matt Chico each had opportunities to step up and state their cases today against the Astros. Neither exactly made a definitive statement, particularly Chico, who got shelled in his relief appearance and sounded lost about it afterward.

"The offspeed just wasn't there today, so I had to rely on my fastball," he said. "And up here, you just can't throw fastballs. That's the only thing I could throw for a strike today."

The end result: six runs and eight hits allowed in one-plus inning, by far the biggest factor in the Nationals' 8-7 loss at Osceola County Stadium.

It was a discouraging outing for Chico, who looked sharp his previous time out against the Mets, giving a glimmer of hope that he's returned all the way from Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately, as any pitcher who has gone through that procedure will tell you, it takes a long time to get your "feel" for pitching back. Your arm may feel great, but it can take another year after that before you feel like anything resembling your former self.

"He just didn't have it today," manager Jim Riggleman said in the understatement of the afternoon.

Just like that, we may need to reconsider whether Chico is a legitimate candidate for a rotation spot. Perhaps the guy still needs some more time in the minors to get his "feel" back.

The decision would be made easier if only someone other than Strasburg was pitching like he wanted the job. Garrett Mock has made some strides and at this point probably looks like a safe bet to make it. But Craig Stammen and J.D. Martin have had nondescript springs to date, and Scott Olsen is still trying to work his way back to top form.

Olsen took some more steps in that direction today, allowing one run and four hits in three innings. He opened the afternoon allowing a triple and a double (both somewhat wind-aided) and then allowed three more flyballs before escaping the first inning. He got better as the day went on, though, and tossed a pair of scoreless innings to end what he deemed a positive outing.

"Very encouraged," he said. "My arm's still attached. Nothing broke today. So we're still pretty happy. The results were good today. But most importantly, I feel good right now."

What about Olsen's velocity? Well, it was up a slight tick today. One scout in attendance had his fastball clocked between 86 mph and 88 mph. That's better than it was last time, but it's still not good enough. For Olsen, who had shoulder surgery last summer, to be successful, he needs to be at 90 mph or higher.

He's got perhaps four more starts this spring to make the jump before it counts for real.

"I feel as though I'll be 100 percent, ready to go whatever day they decide to give me the ball," he said. "That was the plan last year with the training staff. They haven't led me wrong yet. So everything they've been saying would happen, has happened. We're still right on schedule with what we agreed on last July. Everything health-wise is right where we need to be."

If other members of the great rotation derby were distinguishing themselves this spring, perhaps the Nats couldn't afford to be patient with Olsen and wait for the velocity (and the results) to come. But with few other viable options at the moment, they have to just assume it'll happen and tentatively pencil him in as the No. 3 starter behind John Lannan and Jason Marquis.

And the rest of the rotation? At this point, Mock and Livan Hernandez probably get the nod, with either Stammen or veteran Miguel Batista serving as a long man in the bullpen and possible spot starter.

Then again, if the decision comes down to keeping one of those two as long relievers or keeping Storen as a set-up man ... well, it's going to be tough to pass on the rookie. In three appearances, he's yet to allow a run. The only hit off him was as cheap as they get: a misplayed pop-up to first base in the wind that Chris Duncan couldn't handle. And Storen's secondary pitches, especially his slider, have been dynamite, leading to a pair of strikeouts today.

At this point, Storen hasn't looked overwhelmed by any aspect of professional baseball, even if he won't admit that.

"Every time I've been out there has been a challenge," he insisted. "I've just been lucky enough to get good results. But there's no easy day when you're facing those kind of hitters."

Desmond hasn't come close to looking overwhelmed, either. He had a couple more hits today (a double and an RBI single) and has looked very comfortable wherever Riggleman has played him in the field: shortstop, right field, center field.

"Ian has just been outstanding, both offensively and defensively, running the bases, providing energy," Riggleman said. "He's doing a great job."

Enough to wrest away the starting shortstop job from Cristian Guzman? It's not out of the question.

Put it this way: If the Nationals actually took their 25 best players north at the end of the month, Ian Desmond will be there.

So would Drew Storen.

And so would Stephen Strasburg.

Which we all know isn't going to happen. Teams don't take their best 25 players north. They take the ones who best suit their needs in April. The challenge now facing Desmond and Storen -- and, to a lesser extent, Strasburg -- is to show the Nats they would best-suit the club's needs from Day One.


Wally said...

Mark - are you hearing anything on the trade front? Ladson said something about trading for a top of the rotation starter, which I find impossible to believe, but there are some surplus starters available like Chad Gaudin that may be an improvement from the current candidates.

Sunderland said...

I'd be delighted, and shocked, if Desmond was made the starting SS. If Guzman gets playing time, and plays fairly well, maybe the Nats can move him (Mets?), eat a bunch of that $8MM contract and move on. But if they just bench him, they're flushing $8MM, and that doesn't seem like the Lerner way of doing things.

If our rotation is Lannan, Marquis and 3 warm bodies, it will kill our bullpen, and we'll be right back where we were a year ago.

peric said...

JD Martin has given up 2 runs on 3 hits. NO HOMERUNS. NO WALKS in 5 innings pitched. He has 3 strike outs. He has the same ERA as mock but a lower WHIP.

Mock has given up 2 runs on 8 hits, 1 HOMERUN and 3 strike outs in 5 innings pitched. He also has NO WALKS.

Please explain the logic of stating that Martin's spring is "nondescript" while Mock's is good enough to put him on the 25.

I don't see it Mark.

peric said...

If Mock isn't good enough? then ... it is well known that Storen, unlike may recent Nats closers, has more than one pitch in his arsenal. I think he has good command of 4.

Maybe its time to consider using him, along with Strasburg, as a starter.

Now you come out of the box with Strasburg, Lannan, Storen, Marquis, plus Hernandez.

What's more important at this point? The Closer or getting quality starts? Storen looks like he might make a great Stopper as well as a Closer. Why waste him on "set up". Why not just start him?

They have Bruney, Capps, Burnett and perhaps some in the minors will step into that role sooner rather than later.

Doc said...

Great analysis MarkMeister! Give us a run-down on some of the outfielders, and subs.

Nats fan in NJ said...

Mark - Good job, thanks for this write-up. I can see Storen and Desmond both going north with the big league club. I am disappointed in Chico's start today; I've been plugging him as my dark horse for the #5 spot. Hopefully, he can shake it off. JD Martin, Mock and Stammen don't scare me if any of them go north as part of the rotation.

Anonymous said...

If Guz's arm is in question and Desmond has locked up a starting spot, any chance the team would revisit the idea of moving Guz to 2nd?


Wally said...

Peric makes a good point about Storen. I have heard that the Nats have talked about trying him at starter, but any idea what is holding them back, Mark?

Anonymous said...

Mark, great stuff, I was at the game and I agree with everything. Any feedback on Chris Duncan and his attempts to play first base?

peric said...

One thing is sure: they aren't going to let an extra year before arbitration go ... so your real opening day for this team won't be until June. Given the early part of the schedule they may be too far behind for changes to make much difference. Making themselves even less attractive to future (and currently on the team) free agents.

Nevertheless, "old school" Riggleman is going to play the eight million dollar man Guzman even though he probably should be benched. He is going to throw starters in who aren't going to generate quality starts. He looks to have a bull pen that is going to be rocked. Riggleman will be fielding a very suspect middle infield. Catcher is also not really solid ... and Morgan is having a miserable spring.

One could almost see the guy losing his job ... probably to his friend McLaren before the season is out. Thus allowing the two friends to completely swap roles.

D'Gourds said...

Do the Nats get another year of control of Storen if they keep him down in the minors like they would with Strasburg?

Mark Zuckerman said...

D'Gourds: Yes, the same service time rules apply to Storen. If he starts out in the minors, he wouldn't be eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season.

Anonymous said...

Mark, any idea how Thompson, Balester, and others pitched in the intrasquad games. Just wondering if any of these guys still have a chance.

Anonymous said...

Wally, don't trust anything that Ladsen says. He is on the MLB payroll and is paid to make the Nats looks good, even (actually, especially) when they aren't. If you don't believe me, see one of his previous stories this week, titled: "Nats inspiring confidence." Pfft, please.

peric said...

Why I believe that Mike Rizzo will not draft Harper.

Someone tried to predict a 2012 lineup in NJ. Its gotten pushed out to
2012. Here's my take based on what prospects there are, and the plan in place remains as it appears to stand now:

1. Eury Perez CF
2. Jeff Kobernus 2B
3. Ryan Zimmerman 3B
4. Adam Dunn 1B (The sign him long term this year)
5. Ian Desmond SS
6. Derrick Norris LF/C
7. Destin Hood RF
8. Adrian Nieto C
9. Steve Strasburg SP
Deck McGuire SP
John Lannan SP
Ross Detwiler SP
Aaron Thompson SP
Nathaniel Karns SP
Trevor Holder SP

Bench: Steve Lombardozzi MIF, JP Ramirez OF, Mike Daniel OF,
Leonard Davis UTIL, Chris Marrerro OF, Sean Rooney C,
Michael Burgess OF , Mike Morse IF/OF.

Bullpen: Tyler Clippard, Rafael Martin, Jack Spradlin,
Closer: Drew Storen

Anonymous said...

Well, with the pitching staff we will probably have going into the regular season, it looks like another 100 loss season.

tomterp said...

Anonymous - according to spinman posting on WNFF - "Balester threw 3 innings today giving up 2 hits, 1BB, 0 Earned Runs and 2 K's throwing 45 pitches in a intersquad game."

Anonymous said...

Peric, Stop posting about ridiculous and unrealistic lineup combinations. No team prepares 2 year from now with only their minor leaguers especially if a few of them are mediocre. Why are you projecting for Nieto and Perez to be in the big leagues in 2012? No way do they make it up that fast. Also, your lineup suggests you want the Nats to get the #1 draft pick for 5 straight seasons.

Stop with all the Trevor Holder hype. The guy is not a prospect. He's mediocre with mediocre stuff and mediocre numbers. There's a lot better players in the system to tout instead of a guy who was clearly drafted too high.

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