Saturday, March 27, 2010

Things coming into focus

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Craig Stammen continued to make his case for a rotation spot today.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- A Nationals club that seemed filled with uncertainty not long ago has actually managed to sort plenty of things out over the last couple of weeks. And with nine days still remaining until the season opener against the Phillies, there may not be many more issues left for Mike Rizzo and Jim Riggleman to sort out.

Sure, the Nats GM and manager need to decide who's going to start at shortstop, how to divvy up playing time in right field and whether to carry a seventh reliever or an extra bench player. But when you think back to how many pressing questions they faced back when the Grapefruit League commenced, they've really managed to answer just about everything of consequence.

And even more things came into focus this afternoon, both here in Port St. Lucie (where one split-squad beat the Mets, 7-5 in 10 innings) and in Lake Buena Vista (where the other club was shut out 4-0 by the Braves).

Let's begin with the back end of the Nationals' rotation. Riggleman said after the Braves game he wants to make his final decisions on Monday, giving Scott Olsen one last shot to make a case tomorrow against Atlanta. But let's be honest: This race is over. Livan Hernandez and Craig Stammen have earned the final two spots behind John Lannan, Jason Marquis and Garrett Mock.

Hernandez ensured his job when he mowed down the Yankees' "A" lineup on Wednesday in Tampa. Stammen all but wrapped up his job this afternoon when he escaped a dangerous first inning and wound up holding the Mets to two runs over five.

One of the most encouraging developments of the spring was Stammen's return from minor surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow. The right-hander has re-emerged as a solid starting pitcher, one who has the ability not only to retire batters via groundballs on his heavy sinker -- he recorded 10 groundouts with only one flyout today -- but also to strike guys out on a regular basis.

Stammen proved that again today in the first inning. After putting himself in a world of trouble, allowing three of the Mets' first four batters to reach and one of them to score, he fought back and struck out Jason Bay on a high fastball and Gary Matthews Jr. on a nasty change-up to get out of the inning.

Stammen has now struck out 10 batters over his last 13 innings. This from a guy who only struck out 48 in 105 2/3 innings last season.

"I think it's important," said bench coach John McLaren, who managed the game against the Mets while Riggleman was in Lake Buena Vista. "When you have the ball in play all the time, bloops might happen, whatever. When you have the ability to strike somebody out, that's one less problem you have. He's got a good assortment of pitches, throws some great breaking stuff. He really keeps them off-balance the way he mixes up his pitches."

Stammen (3.14 ERA in four spring outings) has done just about everything he can to lock up the No. 5 starter's job. All he can do now is wait for official word from his superiors.

"The key for me is to not think about it. But easier said than done," he said. "You've got to keep your mind on other things, I guess. I mean, you think about it, but it's not to the point where I'm rooting against other guys. I'm rooting for them to do well, for our team to win."

The battle on everyone's mind remains the one between Cristian Guzman and Ian Desmond for the starting shortstop's job. As much as Desmond has done to make his case this spring -- and he did it again today in Lake Buena Vista on a diving stop to his right, hopping to his feet and firing to first to nail Omar Infante -- Guzman isn't going down without a fight.

The veteran had a very nice day at the plate against the Mets, going 3-for-4 with a double and a stolen base. In the field? Well, he had four grounders hit his way in five innings today and made all the necessary throws, though none was particularly challenging. He didn't make an especially impressive turn on a potential double play in the first, though even a great throw might not have nailed speedy Luis Castillo.

"He looked fine," McLaren said. "He made a couple really nice plays. I still haven't seen him cut loose on his throws. But he gets rid of the ball well. He charged the ball and everything. He's looked fine."

More and more, it's starting to look like both Guzman and Desmond could make the club. How the playing time would be split up in that scenario remains to be seen, though you've got to believe Desmond would get most of the starts at shortstop, with Guzman starting there a couple of games per week and also playing some second base.

If the Nationals keep both guys, they'll probably only keep one other infielder, either Eric Bruntlett or Alberto Gonzalez. Bruntlett is a solid veteran who has played in the World Series with both the Astros and Phillies and can play just about anywhere in the field. Gonzalez is an infielder, nothing more, but he has made a strong (and surprising) case for himself at the plate this spring. With a two-run homer in the 10th inning today, he's now batting a cool .389 (14-for-36) with eight RBI, four extra-base hits and two sac bunts. Can the Nats really cut a guy with those numbers?

Then again, Rizzo and Riggleman may need to reserve their final roster spot for a seventh reliever. We already know Matt Capps, Brian Bruney, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Jason Bergmann are making it. And Riggleman all but said yesterday that Miguel Batista will make it as a long reliever. Batista further solidified his place this afternoon by retiring all six Mets he faced.

The 39-year-old certainly has a strong ally in McLaren, who managed the right-hander in Seattle in 2007-08.

"He might be the most versatile pitcher in baseball," McLaren said. "I've said that for several years. I scouted him in '06 when I was in Tampa Bay. I had him two years in Seattle. He can do every role you need. He's got a rubber arm. Still in great shape for his age. He can give you multiple innings. If you need to bring him back on short rest, he can do that. If you need a spot starter, he's there. He can do it all for you."

So Batista is in. But what about Tyler Walker? Yes, he was awful in his first two outings this spring, allowing an astounding 11 runs and 14 hits in 2 2/3 innings. But since then, the veteran right-hander has righted his ship, allowing only two runs over his last six outings. Against the Braves today, he struck out three of four batters faced.

So perhaps Walker gets the last spot in the bullpen, even if it means the Nationals have to carry one less bench player. That decision may prove to be the last one Rizzo and Riggleman make before setting the 25-man roster.

In retrospect, given everything else they were worried about four weeks ago, a 25th man dilemma doesn't sound too bad.


Bill C-H said...

Does Sean Burnett have any options left?

Suicide Squeeze said...

When do they really have to have a 5th starter? If I remember correctly, their off days in the first couple of weeks means they could get away with 4 starters, giving them a chance to keep the extra pitcher and bench player for a short period -- maybe just enough for the situation to resolve itself during games that count. Besides, it's not like anyone is 100% confident in the starters or bullpen right now, so having the extra guy in the pen and batter off the bench might be a nice luxury for the first fortnight.

Farid in Idaho said...

Gonzalez should make (or not make) the club based on 80% of what he did last year and 20% of what he did this spring.

Anyone watching the game knows that his homerun was pushed over the fence by a strong right-to-left wind (need proof? Luis Castillo who has hit just 28 career home runs smashed one over the fence at the exact same spot).

But he is a better hitter than Bruntlett and he sure looked good defensively at third today.

I think Alberto comes north.

Mark Zuckerman said...

Bill C-H: No, Burnett doesn't have any more options. So he's making the team. Plus, he's going to be the only lefty in the bullpen, further solidifying his place even if he hasn't had the greatest spring.

Suicide Squeeze: They need the No. 5 starter on Sunday, April 11 (sixth game of the season). So they could maybe go for five games with an extra player on the roster, but they can't do that for long before they need the pitcher.

Anonymous said...

What about Jesse English? Is there any inclination that they would put in the BP over Tyler Walker?

Mark Zuckerman said...

Anon: They really like English, but he's never pitched above Class AA, and I think they'd like him to get a bit more seasoning. Definitely expect him to reach the majors sometime this season, though.

CoverageisLacking said...

Mock and Stammen "won" rotation spots based on 14 innings each of work? This organization remains a joke.

Mark, how much rope do these guys get one the bell rings? If they have 3 or 4 bad starts, does the next shmo down in Syracuse get a shot? Why not, right? They "won" their starting job based on that type of limited Spring Training, no less.

Wily Mo Peterson said...

Mark, what about the 4th outfielder?

Sean said...

wily mo: the platoon in right field means there is no real 4th outfielder, just RF1 and RF2

Anonymous said...

Mark, I'm assuming Chris Marrero is already in minor league camp. How'd he look? Also Roger Bernadenia. Any chance he makes the team?

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