Nationals Retrospective: Week 17

 

“It’s been done before.”

Those were the words of Mike Rizzo in a phone interview he gave to CBS’s John Morosi when commenting on the Nationals’ (52-54) ability to come back from their current 8 ½ game deficit to the Atlanta Braves. There is no doubt that this is a factual statement. But if it’s going to be done, the Nats need to string together a scorching August if they have any hope of staying in the race. I said going into the week that 6-2 was the ideal record coming off this 8 game homestand, with 5-3 being the absolute worst case scenario. They ended up going 4-4, which is what they deserved considering they were absolutely dreadful in their opening 4 game set against the Pirates (in which they lost the first three) before rebounding nicely to take three of four from the reeling Mets. At this point in the season, 4-4 just won’t cut it. True, the Nats have now won four of their last five games. But everytime the blogosphere thinks this team has turned the corner, the Nats have two or three rocky games that essentially kill whatever momentum they acquired in the prior series. I believe in this Nats team, and I believe in their talent, but they need to string together more than 5 games for me to believe that they have a fighting chance. Fortunately, they get Strasburg and Gio on the mound for a two game set in Detroit, before a three game set against the Ryan Braun-less Brewers, who have been pretty dreadful of late. I think they need to finish this week above .500, so 4-1 should be the expectation – and it is doable considering their facing Annibal Sanchez, a struggling Justin Verlander, former National Tom Gorzelanny, long reliever Donovan Hand, and Kyle Lohse. That’s not a murderer’s row. It can be done.

All that being said, this more than an eventful week in Natstown. Rick Eckstein was fired as the hitting coach, against the wishes of manager Davey Johnson. Former closer Drew Storen was demoted to Triple AAA Syracuse after another rough outing on Friday (don’t worry – I have a lot more to say on this). Taylor Jordan earned his first professional win on Sunday after the 14-1 massacre that was the highest offensive output for the Nationals all season. Jayson Werth had the best statistical month of his professional career this past July. And Dan Haren may have pitched his best game as a National, going 7 innings of one run ball to earn his first win in his last ten outings on Saturday. There were definitely some positive takeaways from this 4-4 week, so without further ado, let’s take a closer look at some of the outstanding, the mediocre, and the terrible from this week in Natstown.

THE TERRIBLE: ADAM LAROCHE

Adam Laroche’s career slash line: .266/.336/.477. Adam Laroche’s 2013 slash line: .235/.317/.409. Adam Laroche in the month of July: .173/.250/.307. Adam Laroche this past week: .111/.200/.296. Per traditional metrics, it’s fair to say that given Laroche’s above average defense and well below average offense, he’s having a mediocre to bad season. Advanced Stats also back this up. Per Fangraphs, he is worth exactly 0 WAR and has a WRC+ (Runs per PA scaled to where 100 is average, league and park adjusted and based on his .319 wOBA) is sitting at 101. His BABIP of .282 for this season sits well below his career average of .307 and the customary .300 average for a major league baseball player. I could go on, but I sense you’re getting tired and want me to get to my point. And it’s more than just a belief that Laroche is having one of the stinkiest seasons on the ballclub this year.

The point is this: I think the Nats should be shopping him with the trade deadline of Wednesday afternoon looming large. For one, he is never going to revert back to last year’s numbers: It was a career year for a guy playing in a contract year who became obvious regression candidate number one this past offseason. He’s 33 years old (aka the wrong side of 30), and under team control for one more year at a bad, but not outrageous price of $12 million with a mutual option for an additional year. There are teams chasing a title who would want a power lefty bat in their lineup, whether it’s to play first base or DH (the Boston Red Sox, who chased Laroche hard in free agency this past offseason, reportedly had a scout at Nationals Park this past Friday, for what it’s worth). And he’s not part of the young core that the Nationals are building around to contend for years to come. They can bring up Tyler Moore (who, since being sent down on July 10th, has put up a .423/.531/.615 slash line that suggests he’s ready to help contribute to this team in the home stretch), Chris Marrero, or slide veteran Chad Tracy into the role to finish out the year. There are contingencies in place and Laroche’s bat has been more of a hindrance than a help this year for a team with the 28th worst offense in baseball. I doubt it will happen, but if the haul is right, the Nats should really try and move one of their most expendable pieces.

THE BAD: DREW STOREN

Drew Storen had a rough week. On Monday, he threw a wild pitch with a man on third base that, while charged to Ian Krol, scored and proved to be the difference in a 6-5 Pirates win. On Wednesday, Storen gave up three runs in the 9th inning of a 1-0 game that again proved to be the difference, though to be fair the offense was anemic except for Jayson Werth’s 2 run homer in the bottom half that sparked a potential comeback. But the ultimate calamity came in the first leg of Friday’s doubleheader where Storen, plagued with a 102 fever and supposedly needing an IV during the opener, was forced into the game where he immediately surrendered 5 runs (3 charged to him) in an 11-0 blowout that had little to do with him and plenty to do with the bad National’s offense. But still – 3 outings, each one getting worse and worse, with runs given up in each? Yeah, that will earn you a demotion.

With all that said, I fully support the quotes that came from Storen’s roommate and best friend Tyler Clippard, who ripped the Nationals organization for their handling of the maligned reliever. Per the great Amanda Comak of the Washington Post:

“I think there’s a lot of things that led to this that could’ve been prevented. You know, you basically send a guy a message this offseason for having one bad game that he’s not the guy for the job. He’s only human. I mean, it’s going to get to anybody."

The rest of his quotes are worth reading. Through the 2011 and 2012 seasons, Storen had amassed 47 saves in 110 appearances, posting a 2.64 ERA, a 7.98 K/9, 2.38 BB/9, and a 2.86 FIP. In other words – pretty fricking bueno. This year hasn’t been pretty: An improved 9.14 K/9 is marred by his 5.95 ERA, 2.76 BB/9, and a 4.15 FIP. But he’s being held accountable for one bad game he had in the playoffs when he was pitching with a bad back and on his third day in a row. He was a missed strike call away from advancing the Nats to the next round. And the organization has made him the scapegoat for the missed opportunity by bringing in Rafael Soriano, who has not endeared himself to fans and has been, how should I put it, rocky in his Nationals tenure thus far (in 20 appearances since the beginning of June, he’s faced the minimum three batters only three times). I think Storen will figure it out and that he will be a stud closer for years to come. They will regret trading him if that’s the route they take.

THE MEH: JORDAN ZIMMERMANN

I know he only pitched once this week, but ZNN’s last two outings have been a little discouraging. While he got roughed by the Dodgers last Sunday, bad outings happen and ZNN attributed it to over rest, not his stiff neck. In the first leg of Friday’s doubleheader, ZNN got touched for 5 runs on 6 hits, including 3 uncharacteristic walks. He also gave up 2 homeruns, both to Daniel Murphy of all people; the 4 HR’s he’s given up in his last two starts are equivalent to the number he surrendered in his eight starts previous to Sunday’s calamity against LA. It was encouraging that he had 8 K’s, and Kurt Suzuki tried to take some of the blame off ZNN by admitting to calling a couple bad hanging sliders that resulted in the homers. But two uncharacteristic outings in a row is a little surprising, and something Nats fans will hopefully see rectified when he takes the mound on extended rest against Milwaukee on Friday.

THE SUPERB: JAYSON WERTH

With apologies to Wilson “The Buffalo” Ramos, Bryce Harper, Ryan “Mr. Walkoff” Zimmerman, Steve Lombardozzi, Ross Ohlendorf and Ian Desmond, I need to be fair and give Werth his props on what has been a sensational month for the biggest free agent signing in Nationals history. Werth’s .385/.467/.962 on the week, which included 5 HR’s, was simply terrific, and served as a pretty good sample for what he’s done in the month of July, posting a .366/.443/.646 that are all career highs for a one month stretch. He was the sole reason the Nats were in Monday’s 6-5 loss, hitting two HR’s and amassing four RBI’s, but his performance in the second leg of Friday’s doubleheader was equally outstanding, going 3-3 and smoking singles to right, center, and left that kept the pressure on the Mets all night. From 2012 to 2013, the biggest change to Werth’s game has been his HR/FB rate, which is at 19.2% on the year – last year, it was a paltry 5.3%. Werth has found his power, and it has been much needed for a team looking to ride any hot bat possible to a division race.

THE OUTSTANDING: DENARD SPAN

I’ve been equally hard on Denard Span in earlier weeks, but since his move to the 7 hole, he’s been pretty fantastic, putting up the bizarre statistical line of .400/.400/.700. He’s found his power, hitting his first two homeruns of the season in back to back games on Saturday and Sunday for the first time in his career. He’s still only hitting .146 against left handed pitching, and I know he’s going to regress back to the mean at some point. But for a guy who has led the league in groundouts to second base this year, he turned on the offensive jets at a time when the Nats desperately needed the production. Here’s to hoping he reverts back to slightly better than career norms, not the ghastly .250 hitter he was masquerading as when he hit in the leadoff spot.

If you made it this far, I salute you. Let’s take a quick look at the rest of the NL East

ATLANTA BRAVES (60-45)

A really solid 5-2 week for the Braves, who split four with the Mets before sweeping one of the best teams in baseball in the Cardinals. Chris Johnson has emerged as the NL batting leader, overtaking Yadier Molina by going 3-4 on Sunday to bring his average to .338, only .004 higher than Molina. Unfortunately, the Braves took a hit on Wednesday when veteran pitcher Tim Hudson fractured his ankle on a play at first that will leave him on the DL for the rest of the year. With southpaw Paul Moholm missing at least his next start with a bruised wrist, the Braves are turning to Brandon Beachy to fill Hudson’s shoes – Beachy hasn’t pitched in over a year due to Tommy John surgery and subsequent inflammation in his elbow. Despite back to back fantastic starts from Julio Teheran and (Vanderbilt alert!) Mike Minor, The Braves are reportedly in the market for pitching help as the deadline looms, and it would not surprise anyone if the Braves made a move for White Sox righty Jake Peavy to shore up their chances at a World Series run.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (49-56)

The Phillies got destroyed this week, going 0-6 and extending their losing streak to 8 games, the longest in Charlie Manuel’s tenure with the ballclub. Considering they were hanging with the Nationals last week, their 11 game deficit in the standings has more or less taken them out of the division race for the foreseeable future. To be fair, they got swept by two playoff teams in the Cardinals and Tigers on the road, so it’s not like these were unexpected results. The worst of it came in Sunday’s 12-4 loss to the Tigers. Despite a Miguel Cabrera ejection in the third inning for arguing balls and strikes, the Phillies surrendered eight unearned runs in the 8th inning courtesy of a Jacob Diekman throwing error that culminated with Biogenesis target Johnny Peralta’s monster grand slam. Jonathan Papelbon is on record as wanting out the door, and Cliff Lee’s name has also been dangled in trade talks, but GM Ruben Amaro has been adamant that he will not blow up the team at the deadline. It will be very interesting to see how the Phillies handle the next couple days, but their schedule does not get any easier, as they have two three-game sets with the Giants and Braves.

NEW YORK METS (46-56)

A split with the Braves followed by losing three of four to the Nats leaves the Mets with a 3-5 record on the week. The most impressive performance of the week belonged to 23 year old Jenrry Mejia’s, who has by far the coolest spelling of Henry I’ve ever seen, but was more importantly dominant in the first leg of Friday’s doubleheader against the Nats. His 7 innings of shutout ball with 7 K’s to boot were the best numbers put up by a youngster in a shutout performance since Jason Isringhausen did it in 1996 (Matt Harvey, in case you were wondering, is 24). Mejia threw 32 of his 49 breaking balls and changeups for strikes, which the Nats swung on and missed 15 times (all stats courtesy of Mark Simon at ESPN New York). He was sensational in his outing, and the Mets will look to continue his development as they continue to groom their solid young pitching core. As far as the trade deadline goes, manager Terry Collins indicated that the Mets would be quiet this year, so don’t expect to hear their name in any rumblings and grumblings in the days ahead.  

MIAMI MARLINS (40-63)

A solid week for the Marlins, who went 5-2 by taking three of four from the Rockies before taking two of three against the biggest surprise in baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates. Still, that didn’t stop the Marlins from getting bad national press when it was reported that hitting coach Tino Martinez was physically and verbally abusive to players, with one report suggesting that he choked second basemen Derek Dietrich during an altercation. He resigned on Sunday, but that is not the kind of press you want to get when your season is as bad as it is. Still, there were some positives. Jose Fernandez had a freak show of an afternoon on Sunday, going 8 scoreless with no walks and 13 k’s en route to a 3-2 win, outdueling another promising pitcher in Gerrit Cole. Fernandez joins the unique company of Dwight Gooden, Gary Nolan, and Kerry Wood as the only pitchers to put up that kind of line prior to their 21st birthdays. All signs suggest Fernandez will be a Cy Young contender for years to come, providing the Marlins something to be optimistic about that doesn’t rhyme with Fianmarlo Banton. 

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