Second Thoughts

Second Thoughts For NPP
This is probably overdue, but after a long stretch of baseball (14 games in 17 days from June 21 to July 7), it’s been “catch up” time at the home office of

A little more than two months ago, I predicted that the Potomac Nationals were on the verge of breaking out. Turns out I was right, but by no means did I foresee a team that’s been winning roughly two out of three ballgames since then (38-19). What’s been perhaps more interesting is that it’s been done despite a suspect bullpen (though it’s been better of late) and some significant turnover via promotions.

A year ago, there was considerable bitc…er, complaining about the lack of promotions, particularly with Matt Skole, Brian Goodwin, and Alex Meyer. While injuries have played a part in a lot of guys “movin’ on up,” this year has seen a lot more movement than in previous years. I’m not entirely backing off my mantra of a level per year, but it’s enough for me to not scoff (now, just sniff) at the suggestion of any more promotions this summer.

Enough vamping… let’s revisit the P-Nats position-by-position:

Defensively, Kevin Keyes doesn’t get enough credit for the strides he’s made. I suspect a lot of that has to do with the stagnation on offense and the drop in power from last summer. Still an all-or-nothing hitter, and the K rate has actually crept up.

Adrian Sanchez has recently reversed what to my eyes has been steady decline in defense, particularly in his throwing. He’s put in time at 3B and SS, too, but 2B is where he belongs. Offensively, he also seems to be stuck in gear. He’s become more of a singles hitter, quite good actually at placing the ball to the gaps, but it’s clearly cost him what little power he had shown previously.

Since the departure of Jason Martinson, this has become something of a revolving door — veteran IF Francisco Soriano, Cutter Dykstra, Sanchez have all played there. Soriano is the best choice if your focus is on winning vs. development, but I suspect it’ll continue to be a rotation of sorts until/unless an infielder is brought up from Hagerstown.

Cutter Dykstra has played here the most, but has been played at 2B and SS more frequently since his return from the DL. He continues to be a streaky hitter and his defense at third has had some hiccups lately. Like Sanchez, the power has dropped while the average has risen and has shown a “knack” for hitting into double plays.

It seems that Billy Burns has been trying some to get away from the small ball, and he’s had mixed results. For every gap line drive there’s been a weak flyball to the opposite field. I suspect this will be an ongoing process as the team prepares him to play for the next level where the fielders and pitchers will be much more difficult to bunt on and slap-hit against.

Michael Taylor had a tremendous stretch from mid-May to mid-June, but has cooled off in July. He’s gotten a lot better at taking outside pitches the other way versus waving and missing. The defense remains strong and steady, perhaps not quite up to the standard of his predecessor (Eury Perez) but above most of his peers in the Carolina League.

This remains a split with Caleb Ramsey and Randolph Oduber, though “the Groovin’ Aruban” seems to be losing time to Ramsey, and in part to Adrian Nieto, as he’s spending less time at DH when he’s not starting in right field. Defensively, it’s no contest — Oduber is capable of playing anywhere in the outfield with decent range and strong, albeit sometimes erratic arm. Ramsey is merely adequate and best suited to LF. Offensively, Ramsey seems to be passing Oduber in terms of consistency and power. He seems to never give less than 100 percent, which explains in part why he’s gotten so many mentions the past couple of seasons. One gets the sense that Ramsey has to compensate for his shortcomings with that kind of doggedness. Likewise, Oduber hasn’t been able to stay on the field long enough for his skills to catch up to his potential. Time, however, is not either one’s side.

Barring an injury (and that’s a huge qualification for the position) Nieto will set a career high for a single season in games caught, played, and just about every offensive category (well, maybe not nose hairs). He’s really turned a corner on offense, though it’s been nearly all as a left-handed batter (.315/.397/.493, 8HRs vs. .217/.245/.326, 0HRs). Defensively, he does everything well but keep the ball in front of him.

This is not new, unfortunately. His 12 passed balls in 56 games as a catcher is similar to the 15 in 70 last year, and 15 in 50 in 2010 (in 2011 he had eight in 41). This is significant because minor-league scorekeepers are often blase about differentiating between passed balls and wild pitches. Given that this is the first year he’s seen significant time as a DH, I suspect the Nats care more about getting his bat ready now and will worry about plugging this hole in his game later.

Cole Leonida remains a decent backup and continues to show good pop, but while playing more often, the gap between him and Nieto has begun to show itself. Still, I’ll take a backup who’s reliable on defense and can hit .250-.270 and slug .500-.550 versus the .210-.240, .300-.350 that’s more typical.

Soriano, Justin Miller, and Mike Gilmartin rarely sit more than two games in a row. There doesn’t appear to be a system of platooning, so absent knowing the precise directives being handed down from the powers that be, manager Brian Daubach gets the credit for shuffling guys in and out and keeping the engine running smoothly.

Three of the team’s April starting five are gone — Taylor Jordan, Taylor Hill, and Robbie Ray. Yet the organization has replaced them with relative ease, which is very reminiscent of 2008, when a slew of pitchers came and went before Memorial Day, most notably Jordan Zimmermann, Adrian Alaniz, and Craig Stammen. Only Ross Detwiler stayed the whole year.

A.J. Cole seems to be the Detwiler for this year’s club, though not quite as inconsistent or maddening (Cole, for example, has yet to get lifted for hitting the pitch limit for a single inning). Two months ago I cautioned folks that he’s liable to be streaky, and indeed he has been: five quality starts out of the last ten, but also five-inning starts where he’s given up five, six, and seven runs.

Blake Schwartz has followed a common pattern… early on, the league was baffled by his ability to change speeds. After getting a look, they’ve done better the second time around. Still, this is dropping down from 7-8IP, 1-2R outings to 5-6IP, 2-3R efforts. Still more than good enough to win in this league. He’s given up some longballs of late, but the walk rate remains steady, which is critical for a pitcher that doesn’t have blow-you-away stuff.

Beyond these two is a bit of mystery right now — Brian Rauh has started four games after spending most of his time in Hagerstown as a reliever. Ivan Pineyro, went three times before getting traded. Matt Purke has gone twice. Sammy Solis has begun throwing in the GCL, and may return, but quite frankly, it’s entirely possible that Brad Meyers could make an appearance as well.

Roughly 15 guys have appeared primarily as relievers. Only three have managed to stay here the whole time — Richie Mirowski, Greg Holt, and Colin Bates. As good as the P-Nats have been, it’s frightening to think how much better they’d have been if the ‘pen had blown half as many saves as it did in the first half.
Considering that the starting pitching is probably not going to be as strong, they’re going to have to be if the team is to take both halves and/or do some damage in the playoffs.

So far, so good. Holt and Mirowski have done better in the second half. Bates hasn’t been quite as good, but gets a pass since he was on the DL for three weeks in June, not to mention how one bad outing takes a long time to even out. Robert Benincasa, who essentially swapped places with Derek Self, has converted every save chance he’s gotten thus far, though it’s been marked with some Cordero-esque flair (luck).

Veterans such as Rob Wort, Marcos Frias, and Rafael Martin have been added more recently. How long they’ll stay is another matter. In years past, it’s been a starter that’s been dropped down to fill the void (e.g. Erik Davis in 2011, Rob Gilliam in 2012), but with Harrisburg not in need of relievers, it’s possible that they’ll be the ones to act in that capacity.

Author: Luke Erickson

Since 2009, Luke Erickson has been chief writer, editor, and bottle-washer of Potomac is his home base as a season-ticket holder, but he has visited every affiliate north of Florida at least once, with multiple trips to Hagerstown and Harrisburg.

2 thoughts on “Second Thoughts”

  1. I predict another team will come to appreciate Billy Burns’ talent for fielding, running and “slap” hitting long before he rises in the Nationals ranks. And Luke I think folks don’t give him enough credit for his walk to K ratio.

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