Feb 262012
 

With the long-term extension of Ryan Zimmerman’s contract, the landscape for Nationals prospects has changed. Things just got a little tougher for infielders in particular. The current starters at second, short, and third are now under team control through 2016, 2015, and 2019 respectively. They will be 28, 30, and 31 by the end of the 2015 season.

The biggest difference is how folks may view Anthony Rendon. Well, at least by Nationals fans; prospect gurus still believe in him as a future third baseman. Prior to the extension, he could be legitimately viewed as a hedge against Zimmerman leaving via Free Agency. Now, it appears he’s going to be a bat in search of a position, a contender to push one of the incumbent MIs out in a couple of seasons.

Take the Baseball America projection of the 2015 Washington lineup, for example. Here’s a refresher, with some obvious tweaks (yada yada yada Gio Gonzalez):

C Wilson Ramos #1SP Stephen Strasburg
1B Michael Morse #2SP Jordan Zimmermann
2B Anthony Rendon #3SP Gio Gonzalez
3B Ryan Zimmerman #4SP Alex Meyer
SS Danny Espinosa #5SP Matt Purke
LF Jayson Werth CL Drew Storen
CF Brian Goodwin Italics = Not under team control in 2015
RF Bryce Harper Bold = Currently in minors

That’s presuming, of course, that the BA projection is even close to accurate. Three years ago, BA predicted an IF of Chris Marrero, Esmailyn Gonzalez (*ahem*), Christian Guzman, and Zimmerman. But that was following a 102-loss season (2008) with players that wouldn’t be starting anywhere else (e.g. Willie Harris) and/or were in decline (e.g. Aaron Boone).

As several of the beat writers have pointed out, 40 percent of the projected 25-man roster (10 players) is under team control through 2015, with five players under control through 2016, two through at least 2017 (Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper), and Zimmerman through 2019.

This is highly reminiscent of the 1990s Cleveland Indians, which are often credited with the strategy of buying out the arbitration years, beginning with Charles Nagy, Carlos Baerga, and Sandy Alomar Jr in 1992, and continuing with the likes of Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Bartolo Colon. The difference is that, contrary to constant carping common belief, Washington is a top-third market (#8 according to the most recent Nielsen DMA) whereas Cleveland is middle-third market (#18).

Getting back to the prospects… the net effect is that it appears that more of them are going to be blocked for the immediate future. But as we all know, competition has a way of working these things out. Espinosa and Desmond may be the incumbents for the DC middle infield, but Steve Lombardozzi is waiting in the wings now, and there are nearly half-a-dozen others on the radar (a.k.a. the watchlist) that could be in his situation over the next three or four springs.

Likewise, even though Werth and Harper are likely to be in the outfield mix for the next few years, centerfield is still a position that’s yet to be claimed for the long term. The Nats drafted three last June (Brian Goodwin, Caleb Ramsey, Billy Burns) while converting a SS (Michael Taylor) and protecting a 21-y.o. that’s just now about to play AA (Eury Perez).

Ultimately, this all a good thing. Just as I wrote a couple of weeks ago that the lack of agonizing over options is a sign of progress, that the path to DC isn’t so clear for prospects as it used to be is also a positive. It means that it’s going to take more than just being younger and cheaper to get out of the minors. They’re going to have to be better.

Feb 232012
 

This is the pitching staff to watch this season because it’s likely to have the youngest starter in full-season ball, two Top 15 prospects (per BA), and the bulk of the 2011 pitching draftees.

The X factor of course is whether or not the Washington Nationals plan to shorten the workload (and avoid the coldest weather) as they did with Robbie Ray and A.J. Cole a year ago. It’s certainly possible, especially with the shoulder woes of Matt Purke, the TJ surgery of Jack McGeary, and the age of Wirkin Estevez (20).

STARTERS SWINGMEN RELIEVERS
Bobby Hansen Chris McKenzie Greg Holt
Wirkin Estevez Taylor Hill Blake Monar
Christian Meza Colin Bates Ben Hawkins
Nathan Karns Kylin Turnbull Aaron Barrett
Matt Purke Tyler Hanks
Luis Chirinos
Jack McGeary

I’ll be happy if I get half of these right. Basically, I’m trying to predict which pitchers will get the bump from Auburn mixed in with signed-too-late draft picks and repeats. Again, not a task that I envy the Nats brass to make, nor do I have any special insight. Let’s face it: Even if I were credentialed, Byron Kerr’s reports have certainly demonstrated how forthcoming the officials are(n’t).

As we’ve seen from the early dispatches, this year’s camp is mostly about getting ready and getting in shape, with Davey Johnson freely admitting that just three spots are unsettled. The Grapefruit League doesn’t start for another nine days, so settle in for more stories about Bryce Harper (will he or won’t he?), Ryan Zimmerman (sign me now or shut up until November), and Edwin Jackson’s ride (yes, really).

Thankfully, Adam Kilgore filed a story about three of the Gio Gonzalez Four. In case anyone is wondering, Oakland visits Baltimore the last weekend of April and the last weekend of July.

Feb 222012
 

I wanted to do this roster last because it’s my understanding that it’s the last roster to be finalized, but decided to stick with the high-to-low order that I established with the first two parts.

As alluded in the previous installment, Potomac had several pitchers spend time in both the ‘pen and the starting rotation last season, but only one seems likely to me to get the call to Harrisburg. The rest will either repeat, spend time in purgatory extended Spring, or will be released. I’m not inclined to make calls on the latter, but I will say that these folks are relatively safe.

STARTERS SWINGMEN RELIEVERS
Robbie Ray Paul Applebee Neil Holland
Matt Grace Matt Swynenberg Rob Wort
Brian Dupra Ryan Demmin Ben Graham
Alex Meyer Trevor Holder Dean Weaver
Kyle Winters Mitchell Clegg
Cameron Selik
Robert Gilliam
Erik Davis

About the only column I’m confident in is the relievers. Not that they’ll stick, but if they make an Opening Day roster, that’s how they’ll be used. Generally speaking, I think the younger swingmen have a better chance of making it back into the rotation, but as you can see, there are a lot of SPs to contend with.

As teased yesterday, the two 2011 draft picks that I feel have a chance of making it to Woodbridge in April are Alex Meyer and Brian Dupra. That’s probably too aggressive for Meyer, but I felt like taking a gamble with one of the late signs and Meyer seemed the best choice. Dupra is simply another gut choice: I feel like one of the Auburn collegiate picks is going skip western Maryland.

Next up: The fourth and final installment in this exercise of looking at the pitching candidates for Hagerstown.

Feb 212012
 

The pitching staff for Harrisburg is only marginally easier to scope out the candidates than Syracuse. Most of the FA pitchers signed this past offseason seem destined for upstate New York, but it’s indeed possible for some of them to end up in central PA — especially if the brass wants them to work with Sens pitching coach Paul Menhart.

When I assess the possibilities, it seems easier to select the starters and swingmen versus the relievers. Potomac had eight pitchers start 10 or more games, but that wasn’t a function of injuries or promotions. It was reassignment due to failure in the role.

Most of those P-Nats starters-turned-middle-relievers I don’t see coming to Harrisburg. Unfortunately, the bevy of MLB-fringe relievers is going to make it hard for last year’s men in the Sens pen (sorry, couldn’t resist) to make the jump. In other words, it’s not that some of these guys aren’t good enough for AAA — there’s simply not room for them all in Syracuse.

STARTERS SWINGMEN RELIEVERS
Danny Rosenbaum Evan Bronson Pat Lehman
Paul Demny Jimmy Barthmaier Hassan Pena
Sammy Solis Cory VanAllen
Tanner Roark Patrick McCoy
Adam Olbrychowski Hector Nelo
Josh Smoker
Marcos Frias
Joe Testa
Christian Garcia

That’s 16 candidates for 12 spots, and that’s not counting the guys that might get pushed down from Syracuse. Presuming I’m even close to calling the field, figuring out the bullpen usage will be a tough task. Even with Josh Smoker or without Cory VanAllen, the bullpen is likely to be one of the oldest in the league, which has been a trend under the Rizzo FO due to drafting so many college seniors and the numerous reclamation projects in recent years (e.g. Segovia, James, Bisenius, Perez).

Next up, we look over the possible pitchers for Potomac — a group which might have some 2011 draft picks (but probably won’t).

Feb 202012
 

With spring training finally here, it’s time for us to find/create stories as the pitchers and catchers filter into camp (along with a few position players, who are universally praised for showing up early; never mind they may just be bored). The retirement of Mike Cameron has added some intrigue… for the fourth or fifth outfielder’s spot, creating an opening for a outfield prospect or a AAAA guy to make the club.

In terms of what makes or breaks any baseball team — you guessed it: pitching — little has changed. The Nats still have a perceived surplus, and as discussed last week in the options post, quite a selection of pitchers that can be added to the 40-man with, in essence, three open slots with Cole Kimball a virtual lock to be added to the 60-day DL while he recovers from shoulder surgery.

But options aside, there seems to be consensus that the parent club’s five-man rotation will be Strasburg-Gonzalez-Zimmermann-Jackson-Wang with the bullpen being LHPs Detwiler-Burnett-Gorzelanny and RHPs being Lidge-Storen-Rodriguez-Clippard. John Lannan seems to be the trade bait with Ryans Perry and Mattheus and Craig Stammen on the outside looking in.

Which brings us to Syracuse.

Last year, Yunesky Maya, Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen opened the season in the Chiefs’ rotation (along with Tom Milone and Garrett Mock). Two of those pitchers appear headed back to upstate New York. But how will the staff fill out from there?

STARTERS SWINGMEN RELIEVERS
Yunesky Maya Craig Stammen Ryan Perry
Erik Arnesen Austin Bibens-Dirkx* Ryan Mattheus
Matt Buschmann* Ryan Tatusko Atahualpa Severino
Mitch Atkins* Rafael Martin
Gaby Hernandez* Waldis Joaquin*
Mike Ballard* Josh Wilkie
Jeff Mandel
Lee Hyde
Bold = On 40 Man Roster Italics = Non-Roster Invitee * = ’11-’12 Minor-League FA Signing

That’s 17 pitchers for 12 spots. I’m already presuming that NRIs Chad Durbin and Jeff Fulchino are likely to be cut loose rather than accept a position in the minors. Unfortunately, while it’s tempting to simply state that the five guys that don’t make it to Syracuse will necessarily get pushed down to Harrisburg, the harsh reality is that it’s also a possibility that some will be released, too.

I’ve handicapped the field with bolding, italics, and asterisks to indicate some obvious tea leaves (presence on the 40-man, an invite, new to the organization). The category of “swingmen” is simply a hedge: Guys that have both started and relieved and could be used in either capacity.

Let’s discuss in the comments where you think the chips will fall. Next up: Harrisburg.

Feb 192012
 

It was just two weeks ago that the Nationals announced the signing of Rick Ankiel, creating a three-man race for the CF position and two-man race for the backup spot. Today, Mike Cameron announced his retirement, opening the door of opportunity for an outfielder prospect to make the team.

The white phone is for you, Corey Brown.

Of course, I am toying with you: Nothing I can write will convince the impatient that this doesn’t increase the odds of Bryce Harper making the Opening Day roster. Because, on paper, I have to agree that that’s true.

But I can remind folks that Harper has mostly played left field since his promotion from Hagerstown to Harrisburg (all 37 games in LF) and made six errors in 25 AFL games last fall. None of this is all that surprising considering Harper is a converted catcher. To assume that Harper is ready on defense, however, requires not only a leap of faith but perhaps even the ingestion of a foreign substance.

Never mind whether Harper is ready on offense, with less than a third of a season of AA and zero (0) games of AAA experience.

Working against Brown is his handedness. A platoon of Cameron and the winner of the Ankiel/Berndina battle seemed to be the storyline, with the loser manning the bench. Now, as Bill Ladson noted in his story linked above, the odds of Jason Michaels and Brett Carroll also have improved — especially this late in offseason, when a thin crop of FA outfielders has been largely picked over.

Feb 172012
 

It’s two more days until pitchers and catchers report, roughly four days until the Panera Bread references from the beat guys become a tired meme.

MLB Network has yet to release its ST broadcast schedule, but even with the increased respect the Nationals have been getting lately, the safe bet is to look at the games involving Boston and the New York teams that aren’t already listed below (April 2 for Boston, March 16 for the Yankees, March 10, 20, 28 for the Mets) and hope that one of them gets picked up. ESPN is not televising any Nationals games. The Nationals and Phillies do not play at all this spring.

Unless it has an asterisk, the games on MASN are also broadcast on the radio. The March 15th radio broadcast will be on 1580AM (double-asterisk). The March 24th TV broadcast (triple asterisk) will be with the Orioles broadcasters, but WJFK will be broadcasting that game.

Day Date Time (ET) Opponent Network
Sat. Mar. 3 1:05 p.m. Houston 106.7 FM
Sun. Mar. 4 1:05 p.m. Houston MASN
Mon. Mar. 5 6:10 p.m. NY Mets MASN
Tue. Mar. 13 6:05 p.m. Detroit MASN*
Wed. Mar. 14 6:05 p.m. Atlanta 106.7 FM
Thu. Mar. 15 1:05 p.m. NY Yankees MASN**
Sat. Mar. 17 1:05 p.m. Miami 106.7 FM
Sun. Mar. 18 1:05 p.m. Detroit 106.7 FM
Wed. Mar. 21 1:05 p.m. Atlanta MASN*
Sat. Mar. 24 1:05 p.m. Baltimore MASN***
Sun. Mar. 25 1:05 p.m. NY Mets 106.7 FM
Fri. Mar. 30 6:05 p.m. Miami MASN*
Tue. Apr. 3 3:05 p.m. Boston MASN

As always, if you’re able to access MLB Audio wherever you are during the day, you can listen to additional broadcasts during the week.

Feb 152012
 

One of the most consistently frustrating exercises each spring is determining who has options left. As I mentioned in my previous post, this may be one of those rare springs where it might not matter that much. I believe this to be a sign that the team is on the upswing.

Simply put: Winning teams don’t agonize over these kinds of decisions because they’re not choosing between young and marginal players.

In a nutshell, once a player is added to the 40-man roster during the 25-man period (a.k.a. Open Day to August 31), the team has three years that they can bounce him back and forth between the minors. Steve Lombardozzi, for example, has three options left because he was added to the 40-man in September, while Chris Marrero has only two because he was added in November 2010 and optioned to Syracuse in March 2011.

Think you got it straight? Well, then there’s the 20-day exception. An option year is any year in which a player spends more than 20 consecutive days in the minors. I suspect that this was originally intended for rehab assignments (try sifting through that set Google results; I dare you) but has since morphed into a means for teams to stash a position player (or No. 5 starter) at AAA for three weeks in April. Hence, Roger Bernadina’s upstate New York furlough in 2010.

Finally, there’s the fourth-option exception (hey, that rhymes!) that’s likely to become a relic: Teams can petition for a fourth option year if a player has less than five seasons of professional experience. This has mostly been the case with guys added to the 40-man immediately upon being drafted or those who have had significant injuries. Now you know how Ross Detwiler was able to start 2011 at Syracuse.

As I wrote in the previous post, the competition for the 25-man roster is most likely going to be at the fringes of the roster: the 12th man out of the bullpen and last spot or two on the bench. Here’s a look at who’s out of options but still has less than five years MLB service time (another rabbit hole), based on this post from Todd Boss and the work of our intrepid volunteer SpringfieldFan on the BigBoard:

  • Roger Bernadina
  • Sean Burnett
  • Tyler Clippard
  • Ross Detwiler
  • Tom Gorzelanny
  • Michael Morse
  • Henry Rodriguez

Sure, I think most of us can pick a name or two here that could potentially not make the 25-man, but is any of them a starter? Now take a look at another subset: Non-prospects not on the 40-man with options:

  • Mike Ballard
  • Gaby Hernandez
  • Waldis Joaquin
  • Ryan Perry

Do any of these guys look like they’ll beat out the aforementioned “one or two?” Maybe. But then there’s this list of established players that still can be optioned down:

  • Ian Desmond (2)
  • Danny Espinosa (3)
  • Jesus Flores (1)
  • Gio Gonzalez (2)
  • John Lannan (1)
  • Wilson Ramos (2)
  • Drew Storen (2)
  • Stephen Strasburg (1)
  • Jordan Zimmermann (2)

I think you can see that between these groups GM Mike Rizzo has his coveted “contingencies.” And why most of the non-Harper prospect drama might just be about making noise, not making the roster.

But that’s okay I’ve been professionally trained to manufacture drama.

If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m not drawn to the destination so much as the journey. Which is good because as the parent club gets better, the draft picks get lower and the prospects become less of a sure thing. A fair knock on the Nationals is that any idiot could have picked Strasburg, Harper, and Rendon [insert Jim Bowden joke here], let’s see how well they do when they’re picking 30th.

Well, it certainly looks like that chance is coming, doesn’t it?

Feb 132012
 

This may be the spring training with the least drama, if not the fewest players, of the eight spring trainings for the Washington Nationals. As of this writing, there are just 15 non-roster invitees — a far cry from the days when there were 70+ guys in camp.

For the most part, the drama appears to be more of the “normal” variety: who’s gonna man the bench, who’s gonna be the 5th starter, who’s gonna be the last man out of the bullpen, etc. Some of the beat guys are already making predictions on who the final 25 will be and it seems rather reasonable to me.

I’m not downplaying the Bryce Harper madness, which I know will play a big part of the 2012 story line, but I’m not going to feed that monster, either. I think the Nats brass will serve up all the usual bromides about “the best 25,” with perhaps even Davey Johnson playing the good cop and Mike Rizzo playing the bad cop. We’ll probably see some (breathless) stories comparing him to Ken Griffey Jr. and/or Alex Rodriguez in the past and Mike Trout in the present. Or perhaps we’ll get a cautionary tale about Jason Heyward, especially if the 2010 N.L. Rookie of the Year starts very fast or very slowly in Buena Vista.

What will change things in a hurry is if there’s a trade of an existing starter or two. It’s no secret that the Nats are hurting for a CF and that they have a perceived surplus of starting pitchers (pay no attention to those two guys that have had Tommy John surgery the past year or two). Perennial punching bag Ian Desmond is another trade option (as long as you’re convinced that Danny Espinosa will revert to first-half form). But I don’t anticipate such a trade happening any earlier than the last week of March (if at all).

Aside from Harper, I think most of the prospect drama this year will be whether or not Steve Lombardozzi makes the club as a bench player. The only potential wrinkle I can foresee is Johnson deciding on a platoon, which I can’t recall happening recently with two switch-hitters. I put it out there only because Espinosa’s splits finished so severely last season (.222/.312/.390 vs. RHPs; .283/.361/.496 vs. LHPs) while Lombardozzi was closer to the ideal of being even. The safer bet is to see Lombardozzi return to Syracuse so he can play everyday (and maintain trade value).

Of course, there’s an outside shot that Corey Brown can displace Roger Bernadina as a spare outfielder. Perhaps Mike Cameron will start too slowly again for the Nats to carry him. Or maybe Adam LaRoche won’t be fully healthy or effective after nearly a year off.

It’s also possible someone will shock us from the bullpen, but I think the lack of options for most will be the deciding factor. Dan Cortes and the Ryans (Perry and Mattheus) are your top candidates for the Syracuse-to-DC shuttle (formerly known as the Balester back-and-forth). Otherwise, we’re looking to see if anyone can move up from Harrisburg (Rafael Martin, Erik Arnesen, Pat Lehman).

As always, my hope is to dig up what I can while watching from afar and keep the conversation going until the minors start up on April 5th.

Feb 102012
 

Our last installment in this little exercise takes a pass at the position players for the Harrisburg roster. For the folks that are new here, I can’t help but repeat that the jump from Low-A and High-A is relatively short, but the gap between High-A and AA is often a chasm for a lot of players.

If I’m right that most of the ’11 P-Nats will become the ’12 Sens, this could be the youngest AA team since the early “aughts.” If you value continuity, a lot of these guys will have been teammates for multiple seasons with manager Matt LeCroy at the helm. But if you worry about this group starting slowly, as it did last year, there’s no half system to wipe the slate clean.

So here’s a crack at the Sens:

CA – Sandy Leon
1B – Steve Souza
2B – Jeff Kobernus
SS – Chris McConnell
3B – Carlos Rivero
DH – Justin Bloxom
OF – Eury Perez
OF – Destin Hood
OF – Chris Rahl
BIF – Francisco Soriano or Tim Pahuta
BIF – Stephen King
BCA – Devin Ivany or Beau Seabury
BOF – J.R. Higley

This came together too easily. Even with the hedges, there’s still room for me to be wrong:

…I’m not hopping aboard the Carlos “Me llaman Guillermo Rowell” Rivero train, it’s still possible he could make it to AAA.

…The same goes for Chris Rahl, but both are competing against more-established players (e.g. Jarrett Hoffpaiur, Brett Carroll) that could accept assignments to Syracuse.

…That same “pushdown” could put Higley at Potomac, though I still think his defense will keep him in the backup OF mix.

…Beau Seabury has a reputation as a catch-and-throw receiver that’s only recently started to hit, but Ivany is more of a known quantity in both the role and at the level.

…McConnell gets the nod over King, but I feel stronger about King being kept than McConnell. Always possible for Josh Johnson to return for third season.

As always, discuss in the comments. We’ve still got another nine days until the voice of the turtle will be heard.