Ranking dead last in the majors with a 5-16 record after April (technically 5-17 after the May 1 loss to the Redbirds), it's time to take a look back at what's gone right (very little) and what's gone wrong (a whole bunch of things). One month is still a relatively small sample size, but the Nats are about 15% of the way through the season.
- Of course, those of us following the Nats are well aware that Ryan Zimmerman is the cornerstone. What's important about Zimm's performance in April is that it's something that we simply haven't seen before. What am I talking about? After this April (.289/.354/.544), Ryan's career April numbers are .251/.310/.402. Simply put, he's been a slow starter throughout the early part of his career. A twenty game hitting streak and numbers more in the range of his career norms this April (post-April.... .291/.350/.482) certainly point to the fact that he should at least come close to keeping up his torrid start. Expect .290+ with a .350+ OBP and a slugging percentage around .500. I doubt he hits 30 homers, but 25+ are likely, and he'll be back to the 100 RBI range.
- The rookie starters (Shairon Martis and Jordan Zimmermann) have certainly surpassed expectations so far. Expect the usual ups and downs, but both certainly look to have some staying power. Martis is the bigger risk in that area, given his (and I'm not necessarily saying this is a bad thing) preference to pitch to contact a bit more often. The new forum nickname for him (appeared to be "Smarty") makes sense, as he's not attacking hitters so much as he's trying to out-think them on the hill. Good off-speed stuff, great approach on the mound. Zimmermann is a strike-throwing machine (read 14:3 K:BB ratio in 17 innings) and seems considerably more confident than the average rookie pitcher on the mound. His stuff has proven to be outstanding early on, and I really see a bright future for the kid. Confidence is key.
- Nick Johnson has not only stayed healthy, but he's living up to the hype. He's always going to be a little light in the power department for a first baseman, but he's capable of hitting for average with decent power and a great batting eye. He's done so thus far, batting .350/.422/.463 through the season's first month.
- Elijah Dukes has showcased the power, but there are also some negatives. He's an outstanding presence at the plate, but needs significant work on the basepaths, and (while he's got an absolute cannon) his defensive skills in the outfield (and his effort, on occasion) seem to be problematic.
- I have to bring it up, even though it's not with the big club. For all of the bullpen problems (see below), Tyler Clippard's move to the 'pen in Syracuse has been nothing short of spectacular so far: 2-0, 0.79 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 16 K, 2 BB in 11.1 innings for the Chiefs. Though I'd love to see him up with the big club, I think the former Yankee farmhand may have found his niche. Let him develop into a reliever and work from there. As for the other competent bullpen arm in the system, Joe Beimel (1.23 ERA, 0.95 WHIP) was terrific until he got injured.
- The bullpen as a whole has been godawful, and the management of the bullpen hasn't been much better by Acta. The Hanrahan closing experiment was an absolute disaster. The move to call up a few of the AAA bullpen members (Bergmann [already back in AAA], Wells and Mock) to take over for Saul Rivera (who, simply put has been terrible [not a bad effort Friday in mop-up duty]), Steven Shell (who I actually consider part of the team's future in the 'pen), and Wil Ledezma) didn't bear much fruit either. The Kensing addition (2 ER in his first two outings) hasn't been all that spectacular either. It'd be amazing if (acting GM) Mike Rizzo could find a way to poach an above average middle reliever (not great... above average... might become the best bullpen arm outside of Beimel) for some of the outfield surplus.
- No moves made on the corner outfield/1b surplus front. I certainly believe that Rizzo and the Nats have been trying to move a Willingham/Kearns/Johnson, and simply haven't had a whole lot of luck. I expect that with Kearns (an albatross of a contract), though I should think that Nick's hot (healthy) month and the Hammer's relatively low investment would make them more movable. While you'd love to see the team get legitimate prospects, a servicable bullpen arm that could even (at best) work in a setup role when Beimel returns would be acceptable at this point. With the economy in the state that it's in right now, a lot of teams that realize they don't have much of a shot are going to decide to become sellers earlier than they ordinarily would. That makes striking while the iron's hot (before said teams accept that they're not going to contend) even more important in 2009. They have to get something done.
- Lastings Milledge's Funhouse in center field. Milledge proved so poor with the glove (and got off to a poor start with the bat) that last season's team leader in home runs, stolen bases, and RBI was sent to AAA in the middle of the month. While I'd be lying if I said he was crushing the ball in Syracuse, he has recovered from a poor start after the demotion. Through Friday, Milledge is batting .292/.333/.375. He's yet to homer, and he's still not drawing a lot of walks (3 in 51 plate appearances). He's horribly miscast as a leadoff man because of his lack of patience, but there's not much reason for him to be in AAA at this point unless it's just to learn how to play center. You have to think that Kearns (.231/.403/.500... maybe Dunn's patience has finally worn off on him? He has 14 walks in 66 PA) and the Hammer (an awful .143/.302/.257) are only in the bigs ahead of him so that they can be showcased for a trade.
- I wrote a post about the middle infield situation the other day, but I'm going to limit it to the second base situation (with the return of Guzman). It's worth noting that Anderson Hernandez went on a little hot streak to close out April (5-12 in his final three games of the month). It's also worth noting that he seems to love Philadelphia pitching. Hernandez is 20-39 lifetime against the Phillies, good for a .513/.548/.667 line. In 180 at bats against... well... any team other than the Phillies, Hernandez is a .189/.259/.239 hitter. I hate to say he limits his damage to one team, but it sure seems that way. Six of his ten career doubles have come against the Phillies. It's a small sample size, but he's also a 26-year-old with a ton of minor league experience... there's a reason he hasn't been in the majors much. Alberto Gonzalez's lack of an arm made him a poor fit at shortstop, as he made a ton of errors. That could be masked at second. Ronnie Belliard would seem to be the best starter of the bunch offensively, though his range is somewhat limited.
- The pitching, the defense, and (most specifically) the fundamentals. The Nationals led the majors in both walks (96) and errors (22... last with a .974 Fielding %). The sad thing is that the poor field percentage was far from an accurate reflection of how the defense played.... they were worse than that fielding percentage suggested. There have been some serious questions about the efforts (or, at the very least, the range) of some of the Nationals' players in the field. As for the walks, remember the praise above for Zimmermann's pounding the zone. John Lannan is the only other member of the rotation maintaining a BB:9 IP ratio of less than 4.00. Combined with the poor defense, the extra baserunners are a recipe for disaster. While the players are paid very well to give 100% on the field, I have to blame Acta for some of the non-chalant play. He also has to take some of the blame for the lack of fundamentals (coaching or not), as he's responsible for the coaching staff. Randy St. Claire, the longest tenured National (going back to the days in Montreal), has to take quite a bit of criticism for the failures of the pitching staff as well. It's one thing if they're getting beat. It's quite another if they lack the mechanical fluidity or the confidence to attack the strike zone.
We'll also toss the baserunning errors (specifically from Elijah Dukes, who has been picked off twice in the past week and made yet another brutal baserunning error in May's first game Friday night, trying for third (after the ball had gotten past him) on a ball hit in front of him) in with the errors/lack of fundamentals. Dukes isn't the only offender, though he has certainly been the most frequent one.
What to Do
Based on the solid offense and a defense that looked like it would be below average (but not this horrible), I projected 75 wins for the Nats in the preseason. As of May 2, if they were to play .500 ball the rest of the way, they'd finish with 75 wins. With quite a few younger players on the roster, the expectation is that the team should be significantly better later in the season than they are early, but going 5-16 in the season's first month is certainly unacceptable.
1) Sorry Manny... It's time to show you the door - This isn't simply because the team started 5-16. It's not just because of the questionable managerial decisions regarding the bullpen (quick example off the top of my head - the home opener when he bypassed two lefties in the 'pen [and used a third on a switch hitter in the previous inning] and went with Saul Rivera against the lefty-hitting trio of the Phillies [Utley, Howard, Ibanez], only to watch him allow two homers and hit the other one). It's not only because of the fundamental errors that the team is seeing day in, day out on the field. It's because he seems to have lost the team. I'll always applaud effort. Simply put, outside of a handful of players, I'm not seeing a whole lot of effort from the team right now. While you can blame some of the other decisions on some of his coaching staff, the lack of effort falls squarely on the manager's shoulders. Furthermore, the players who are often considered "Manny's guys" (former Mets farmhands Anderson Hernandez & Lastings Milledge) have done everything they can to fall out of favor with the organization.
2) Call up Tyler Clippard - Thinking long-term, I can certainly appreciate the belief that he should learn to pitch out of the bullpen in the minors first. The fact of the matter is that he seems to be doing so with great aplomb. To say the big league bullpen has holes would be a bit of an understatement at this point. The entire bullpen is a hole. Be it as a starter or a reliever, Clippard is a part of the future of the organization. Asking the team to contend in March was too optimistic, but after a 5-16 April, it's definitely not going to happen. See what you've got.
3) Bring Milledge back up by the end of May - See (directly) above. I know there was quite a bit of reactionary bashing of Milledge immediately after the club sent him down. I believe (and think Rizzo believes) he's still a part of this club's future... if not in center field, then in one of the corner spots. While he was rushed to the majors a bit back in his Mets' days, there doesn't seem to be much he can learn (at least about hitting) in the minors at this point. For the Nats to be contending by 2011, they need (the majority of) those young players that they expect to be part of the team at that point to be learning more at the big league level now.
4) While the OBP has been nice in the first month, it's time to cut bait with Kearns - I've been a fan of the Expos/Nats organization since the early 1980s. It's always been clear that they don't have the luxury of eating a contract (even now, in a considerably better market) that the big boys do. That said, I could probably name about 25 teams that would have just written him off as a loss by (at the latest) July of 2008. If you want to think long term, Kearns is simply blocking a handful of other players (Milledge, Maxwell, [the injured] Bernadina) from having an opportunity to learn what it's going to take to succeed at the big league level. If you can trade him for a bag of baseballs, do it. If you can't, place him on waivers/release him.
5) Make anyone not named Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan, Elijah Dukes, and Shairon Martis (among current members of the 25-man roster) available for trade - Yes, Cristian Guzman, this includes you. I'm a fan of Guzman, and I think he's an outstanding slap-hitter who's above average with the glove. I know he's very well-liked by the Nats faithful as well. He's making $8 mill a year, which certainly isn't peanuts (it wouldn't hurt the club financially to take that off the books), but it's also not a ridiculous sum to most of the contenders around the league. More importantly, he'd probably fetch the biggest return of anyone the Natsdon't have either under contract (or still under the reserve clause) through 2011. While most of the players on the roster that they could deal (including the surplus: Kearns [albatross], Willingham [poor start], Johnson [injury risk], the Donkey [awful defensively]) wouldn't be likely to fetch an upper tier prospect, Guzman could probably net a return of an upper tier and a low-level prospect right now.
The White Sox are said to be interested in Willie Harris? Great. While I'm sure he couldn't net you a stud reliever like Matt Thornton, I'm sure that he could be a big part of a deal for a Clayton Richard (nice starting prospect) or even net you a potential temporary (read: 2009 and maybe 2010, until they can develop someone) closer like an Octavio Dotel. Are Guzman and Willie fan favorites? Yes. Do I think the team could be better served with taking those (somewhat) replacable parts and using them to acquire in areas of need? You bet! New fan favorites can be built by turning out some more wins.
6) Move Cabrera to the bullpen. Call Balester up - There was a post the other day about making Daniel Cabrera the new closer. While I don't necessarily agree with that (too many walks), it would be interesting to see them try to experiment with him in a bullpen role. As the poster had mentioned, Cabrera is very intimidating. He can certainly bring the heat. It's all a question of his command. Start him out as a middle man and see where it goes from there. It's my opinion that Cabrera has always struggled with anything resembling pressure (and he's certainly struggled to throw strikes regardless of the situation) and he'd have to completely change his warmup routine. While it couldn't be worse than what we've seen so far out of the "closer" situation (don't know... we've seen a combined two actual saves, right?), it could also completely ruin him (and he's always looked pretty close to the edge to start with). Give him a low leverage role, and take it from there.
Colin Balester hasn't been great in AAA, but he's another guy who is clearly a part of the club's future. While the majority of the pitching prospects in the system are starters (personally, I see Bally and Martis as virtual equals down the road, and well behind Zimmermann, Lannan, Olsen [assuming he sticks around at least through his remaining arby years], and some other guy who shall remain nameless until he's [don't screw this up] both drafted and signed), either Martis or Balester figure to have some kind of role with the big league club. He's one of the better pitching prospects in the organization, and there's not much to prove down in the minors for him at this point. He should be up, whether it's working as a swing man or in the rotation.
Admittedly, I'm down on the start (it's hard to imagine anyone not being down on it), but there are still plenty of positives moving forward. The simple fact of the matter, though, is that with the team already well out of contention (I'm a firm believer in the theory that you can't win anything in April, but you can lose it), any young player who is (presumably) big-league ready has to be getting regular reps with the big league club. If that means the boys are in for another 100+ loss season (and I'm still convinced they're not), so be it.
Those are my thoughts. I'd love to hear what everyone else thinks.