May 072013
 

After a dozen home games across three homestands, it’s time for the first assessment of this year’s edition of the Potomac Nationals.

This the eighth season I’ve been following the P-Nats, fourth for this site. Just twice in that time have they won the first half (2008) or break .500 (2009). That, of course, is the fan talking — the one who wants to see playoff baseball in September and saw the 40+ win second halves go for naught in 2007 and 2009.

There is, however, the sense that the .500 (15-15) team so far is on the verge of breaking out. The offense, which has already been good, can get better. Likewise for the defense, with the exception of the outfield, which may be the strongest ever seen, thanks to multiple players capable of playing CF. The starting pitching has been sensational, but the bullpen has been anything but. To steal from “Mayflies and Big Flies,” it’s a box of chocolates.

Here are my takes, position-by-position…

FIRST BASE
Kevin Keyes – The focus has been on the defense thus far, and yes, it’s steadily improving. Light years ahead of Chris Marrero at the same stage of conversion (though that’s not a high bar to clear). The offense, however, has lagged. This is not unusual, he started very slowly last year, too.

SECOND BASE
Adrian Sanchez – The nagging feeling is that this is not his position, watchlist notwithstanding. It’s not just the errors, but the range, which actually seems to be decreasing, even as he continues his habit of cheating towards the hole and playing unusually deep. Offensively, he’s become quite good at serving up singles to all fields, but at the cost of power, which is not good.

SHORTSTOP
Jason Martinson – Obviously, he’s cooled off. That was bound to happen after putting up Nintendo numbers in the first two weeks of the season. Now, the question is whether or not he can adjust back. A lot will be made of the K’s but he’s still drawing walks, and as long as that’s the case, I suspect the Nats brass will let it slide (see: Espinosa, Danny). Not as much has been made about how his defense has improved, which may actually be why he’s been DH lately (i.e. others need the defensive reps more than he does).

THIRD BASE
Cutter Dykstra – The biggest difference between the 2011 and 2013 is not the two years of age but the strike-zone judgment. And that’s not just drawing walks, but working the count. Two years ago, it seemed like he was three pitches and out. This year, every at-bat is a grind, and he’s getting better pitches to hit. The question about where he fits defensively still remains. About the only thing I’m sure of is that shortstop isn’t his position.

LEFT FIELD
Billy Burns – Sorry to repeat what’s been in the comments lately, but here it is. Burns is a CF playing LF because Michael Taylor is on the roster. Consequently, for a LF he has outstanding range which has been sorely missing in Woodbridge the past 2-3 seasons. Offensively, he’s a low-power, high-contact speedster with terrific small-ball skills. That’s fun to watch in the minors, but hasn’t been valued at the major-league level for quite some time.

CENTERFIELD
Michael Taylor – Folks that haven’t seen him in person are dismissive, but those of us who have can understand why he’s been touted. Good range, strong arm on defense, quick-twitch at the plate, runs like you’d expect a wiry kid (22 y.o. but looks 12) with long legs (he’s been listed anywhere from 190 to 205 lbs, which would be accurate only when wearing multiple layers of wet, woolen clothing). Still has a habit of waving at pitches on the outside corner rather than taking them.

RIGHT FIELD
Caleb Ramsey – There are times when he looks really good, driving the ball to the gaps and making the most out of his average speed. Then there are times when he looks like a backup giving someone a day off. Defensively, the weakest of the bunch in Potomac, playing right field for his arm but has the range of left fielder.

Randolph Oduber – The Groovin’ Aruban is still struggling with strike-zone judgment (27K, 2BB in 17G) and has had his moments of brilliance, but seems to have hit his ceiling. Using him at DH instead of the OF raises questions about his health, which are both fair and natural given that injuries have prevented him from playing much more than half a season in full-season ball.

CATCHER
Adrian Nieto – Once touted as glove-first backstop, often in the same sentence as Sandy Leon, but hasn’t shown it aside from throwing out baserunners. Has had four passed balls charged to him already, which is even worse when you consider that official scorers tend to dole them out sparingly in the minors, much like errors.

Cole Leonida – Perhaps it’s a backhanded compliment, but when it’s Leonida catching instead of Nieto, it’s not all that noticeable. He hits as well, fields as well, and makes the routine defensive plays. Obviously, there’s a reason why he hasn’t been given more playing time in the past, but it’s not immediately apparent in the limited time I’ve seen him thus far.

BENCH
The shuffling of players between Low-A and High-A and AA has severely limited the Potomac bench’s appearances. Khayyan Norfork had been 10th in games played until his return to Hagerstown today — with 11. Leonida is 11th with 10. The remaining four players (Miller, Soriano, Kelso, Piwinica-Worms) have as many ABs as Norfork and Leonida combined (65).

STARTING PITCHERS
Robbie Ray – After a dreadful 2012, Ray seems to have put it behind him. The most noticeable change is that he seems to be sacrificing speed for the sake of command. That may not please the velo-hungry folks, but instead of trying to throw 92-94 inaccurately, he’s having success with working 88-90 and hitting his spots.

A.J. Cole – Until last Friday, I wasn’t too impressed with Cole, but could always understand that the excitement is in part the projection based on the live arm on a tall, lean body that even now you can see isn’t done filling out. It’s easy to like a pitcher when he’s “on,” though. I’ve seen the good and bad on the same day, so my biggest caution to folks is that I have a feeling this streakiness will continue.

Taylor Jordan – This is the first full season after having had TJ surgery in 2011 and as such there are expectations that he should pick up where he left off. He has. The velocity seems as good as it ever was, likewise for command and control. Appears to have shelved the curve in favor of the change, but that’s an observation, not a criticism

Taylor Hill – Last year he finished 2012 with Potomac but wasn’t particularly impressive. This year, he’s shown some promise though ironically as a flyball pitcher, not a groundball artist, which is how he was touted. Obviously, that’s a byproduct of his approach, which seems to be more fastball-curve than sinker-slider.

Blake Schwartz – Just one start, which you can read about here.

RELIEVERS
“If we can just hang with these guys and get into their bullpen, we’ll have a chance.”

That’s the kind of thing Potomac fans have said for years about the opposing teams. This year that sentiment applies to the P-Nats ‘pen.

It’s been better of late, but it’s still a Maalox moment when manager Brian Daubach takes the ball and gives it to the man coming in. Unfortunately, a lot of that is a function of the starters being so good. On the nights when the ‘pen was needed for more than three innings, it hasn’t been pretty.

As is always the case, the sample sizes here are tiny. Matt Grace, for example, got knocked around on Saturday night but prior to that he had five straight scoreless outings with multiple innings pitched. Richie Mirowski has managed to appear in each of the games I’ve had to miss, thus I’ve only seen him once.

Like all of the above, let’s check back in a few weeks and revisit these first impressions.