Zuckerman & Hughes

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Point/Counterpoint: Does Harvey in WS change view on Strasburg?


Point/Counterpoint: Does Harvey in WS change view on Strasburg?

THIS WEEK'S DEBATE: Does the Mets' successful use of Matt Harvey this postseason make you view the Nationals' shutdown of Stephen Strasburg in 2012 any differently?

MARK ZUCKERMAN: No. I know it's trendy to bring up the Strasburg shutdown again now because the Mets have taken the complete opposite approach with Harvey and now are heading to the World Series, but it's way too simplistic to make an apples-to-apples comparison here. Yes, both pitchers had Tommy John surgery early in their major-league careers. And yes, both pitchers are represented by Scott Boras. But that's really where the comparison ends. People don't point this out, but Harvey had considerable more professional experience than Strasburg at the time of his injury. Harvey was in his third pro season, was 24 years old and had thrown 483 1/3 total innings. Strasburg? He was still in his first pro season, had just turned 22 weeks before blowing out his elbow and had thrown a total of only 123 1/3 innings. The shutdown wasn't just because Strasburg was returning from surgery. It was because he had never thrown that many innings before. Harvey had. Look, every pitcher is different. No two are the same, and so what's best for one may not be best for another. On top of all that, we don't know what the long-term effect of this will be on Harvey. He may very well pitch the Mets to a championship, but we simply don't know yet how his arm will respond next year to this much workload. Maybe he'll be fine, maybe he won't. Regardless, it doesn't change my opinion of Strasburg's usage in 2012.

CHASE HUGHES: I wouldn't go as far as to say the Harvey situation specifically has changed my thoughts on the Strasburg shutdown, as the Mets didn't exactly handle his innings limit smoothly this year and, as Mark notes, much of it depends on how Harvey performs over the next several years. But, the way things have transpired for the Nationals over the last three seasons has definitely altered my view. First of all, I agreed with the decision to shut down Strasburg at the time and I commended the Nats for how they stuck with their plan. And I am not saying they made a mistake by doing what they did. But with the benefit of hindsight, I think it's clear they should have handled the situation differently. I'm not saying they should have simply let him continue pitching to 200 innings or whatever it would have been. If you believe that, please show yourself out of the room because that involves ignoring doctors and decades of established medical research. That is by far the worst argument of all. I do now think, however, that they should have done something creative to make him available for the postseason. I don't know if that's skipping starts, giving him an extended All-Star break, going to a six-man rotation, or simply beginning his season later. A lot of it would depend on advice from doctors. But not having Strasburg for what could end up being the Nats' best chance to win a World Series in this era looks worse and worse as each year passes. Harvey pitching in the World Series is just perhaps another reminder of what could have been.

MZ: The problem, though, is you're assuming Strasburg's presence alone would have made a significant difference for the Nationals in the 2012 postseason, when all the evidence suggests it wouldn't have done that. The guy simply wasn't pitching well prior to the shutdown. He was, arguably, the team's fourth-best starter at that moment, behind Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson. What reason was there to believe he would have pitched well against the Cardinals in the NLDS? And if you'll recall, only one member of the Nats' postseason rotation recorded a quality start in that series: Ross Detwiler, who only got the chance to start Game 4 because of Strasburg's shutdown. But now we're delving into an argument that should've run its course a long time ago. The point is this: There's no way to know with any certainty how best to use young pitchers coming off major elbow surgery. Maybe letting them pitch a whole lot is best for them. Maybe restricting their innings is better. We simply don't know the answer, and probably won't for years to come. This we do know: Matt Harvey is likely to end 2015 having thrown roughly 215 big-league innings, the last 24-to-28 of them in high-stress situations. That's a really big workload, given the fact it comes in his first season back from a torn elbow ligament. Is it worth the risk for a shot at a World Series title? Maybe. But we just don't know yet.

CH: I get the argument how Strasburg perhaps would not have made a difference in the NLDS against the Cardinals, as Detwiler was their best pitcher in the series and he would have been bumped from the rotation if Strasburg was in there. And I do not think the way the Mets have handled Harvey should be followed step-by-step by other teams in the future. They didn't necessarily get it right, either. But I think the way the Nats dealt with Strasburg also fits that description. Teams are still trying to figure out the best way to do this and both situations have perhaps become cautionary tales to varying degrees. I think it's telling how the Mets decided after watching what the Nationals did in 2012 to choose a different course. I would imagine many around the industry feel the same way. The unfortunate thing for the Nats is that the what ifs and questions of what could have been may never be answered if Strasburg leaves in free agency after the 2016 season. I think we all realized at the time that the argument would never truly be settled until the Nationals did something in the playoffs with Strasburg in store. With his contract up after next season, that debate could live forever. I think one thing we can all agree on is that's not good.

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After a disappointing 2015, what's next for the Nats?


After a disappointing 2015, what's next for the Nats?

The 2015 season was a massive disappointment for the Nationals, who fell short of the playoffs and a World Series title they were expected to compete for. In attempt to make sense of what went wrong for them and how they can prevent it from happening again, we've put together a three-part series on the 2015 season. In our third installment, we look at what the Nationals have to accomplish this offseason...




Mark Zuckerman:

If this was the most eventful season in Nationals history, this very well might be the most fascinating offseason in Nationals history. There is so much that needs to be done, so much more that could be done and so many different directions the club could go to try to make it happen.

Consider everything on Mike Rizzo's plate in the days and months ahead...

— Hire a manager and coaching staff
— Replace four key free agents
— Reconstruct a bullpen
— Gauge the trade market for Drew Storen, Yunel Escobar and others
— Figure out what to do with Jonathan Papelbon
— Potentially start negotiations with Bryce Harper on a long-term deal

What makes this winter fascinating for the Nationals is that there are no simple answers/fixes to any of those issues.

Is the search for a new manager as simple as Bud Black vs. Ron Gardenhire, or does Rizzo give a long, hard look at guys without big-league managerial experience but years in the minors on on major-league coaching staffs?

Do the Nats use in-house replacements for Jordan Zimmermann (Joe Ross), Doug Fister (Tanner Roark), Denard Span (Michael Taylor) and Ian Desmond (Trea Turner) or do they look outside the organization to fill some of those holes?

How do you reconstruct a bullpen? Free agency? Trades? Promotions from within the system? All of the above?

Do you try to sell high on Escobar, or do you need the veteran to be part of your 2016 infield? What is Storen's value on the trade market right now, and might he be more valuable in the end to your team?

Are you willing to eat $11 million to dump Papelbon, or might somebody out there be willing to give up something for him? Or is there any possible way you bring him back and hope all is forgotten?

And how serious do you want to get right now into extension talk with Harper, who is three years from free agency but is only going to cost more with each passing day?

Ultimately, I think you can lump all of this into one overriding issue: This is an offseason in which the Nationals need to restore their good name.

This franchise was held in high regard not long ago, but the events of 2015 (especially over the final month) put a serious dent into that reputation. Rizzo and the Lerner family have an opportunity to correct that this winter, both by making smart baseball decisions but also by establishing an organizational philosophy for everything they do.

Do they really value character above all else? Do they have faith in their home-grown talent? Are they willing to spend the money it will require to address roster holes, hire an experienced manager and lock up the best young player in baseball for years to come?

That's a tall task for one offseason, but the Nationals left themselves in this position through their on-field performance and the manner in which they handled things off the field.

It's up to Rizzo and ownership to make significant strides toward fixing that overarching problem during what promises to be a fascinating winter.

Chase Hughes: 

Several of the Nationals' objectives for this offseason are obvious. For one, they need to find a new manager and ideally one who will be around for a while. Their bullpen is an absolute mess and will likely need a complete overhaul. Not only do they need to add a large group of relievers, they may have to sell low on both their setup man and closer in trades.

The Nationals, however, do still have plenty working in their favor. They have one of the best players in baseball to build around and another wave of young pitchers emerging in their system. Their payroll is also dropping considerably with the expected departure of four key players who combined to make $47.9 million in 2015.

The Nationals have financial flexibility even with Max Scherzer's contract and even with the salaries of Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. Even though they have few holes on their roster, the Nats can pretty much do anything they want to retool and reload.

Speaking of money, that Bryce Harper guy is someday going to command a lot of it. One would have to imagine the Nationals will at least try to have a conversation this winter about a long-term extension. Getting something done three years before he can test free agency is unlikely, but the attempt has to be made. Perhaps a seed can be planted, a foundation can be laid to get an extension done next offseason or the following winter.

As far as actually adding players, the most obvious non-bullpen hole is outfield depth. They signed Nate McLouth two years ago to be their fourth outfielder. They thought he was a starting-caliber player who could fill in for the inevitable 100 games or so that would be up for grabs with the dubious health histories of Werth, Harper and Denard Span. That didn't work out, of course, but expect the Nationals to be on the hunt for a similar player this offseason with the hope for better results. Maybe they circle back to Ben Zobrist, whom they have long been known to covet.

In terms of the outfield, could the Nationals go bigger than we think and sign a marquee name? There is a lot of depth at there with Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes, to name a few. It would be surprising if they bumped Michael Taylor from the lineup, but I thought Tanner Roark's rotation spot was safe at this time last year. And, with Werth's durability issues - he's played in only 68 percent of their games over the last four seasons - there could be plenty of at-bats to go around. Plus, with Werth's contract expiring in two years, outfield is technically a long-term need.

The Nats' starting rotation may already be set with Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross and Roark returning. Throw Lucas Giolito in and that's a solid six with a very high ceiling, depending on the development of Ross and Giolito.

But, if we have learned anything about Rizzo, a good rotation on paper entering an offseason does not mean he is comfortable. Each winter Rizzo has had something up his sleeve whether it be signing Scherzer or trading for Doug Fister or Gio. Don't be surprised if another trade like that is in the works. He has financial flexibility and a farm system stocked with young arms to deal from.

The one other area where I think the Nationals could pull off a surprise move is at catcher. Wilson Ramos was healthy this season, but his production at the plate was not what many expected it would be if he could stay on the field. Does that now highlight the catcher position as a spot they could improve? Matt Wieters, who happens to be represented by Scott Boras, is the best free agent at the position.

The Nationals' roster has few holes outside of the bullpen, but that hasn't stopped Rizzo and their front office from being aggressive in the past. I fully expect the same this time around, for them to load up both in free agency and through trades to restock and revitalize a team for 2016 in what should be an improved NL East division.



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What was the turning point for the 2015 Nationals?


What was the turning point for the 2015 Nationals?

The 2015 season was a massive disappointment for the Nationals, who fell short of the playoffs and a World Series title they were expected to compete for. In attempt to make sense of what went wrong for them and how they can prevent it from happening again, we've put together a three-part series on the 2015 season. In our second installment, we look at the turning point for the 2015 Nationals...



Mark Zuckerman:

There were any number of moments throughout 2015 when the Nationals squandered an opportunity to do something big that might alter the course of their season. But I'll forever point to two series that defined this year and prevented this club from winning the NL East. One came as July turned to August. The other came during early September. Both came against the Mets, with not a single win recorded by the Nats.

When the Nationals arrived at Citi Field on July 31, they held a 3-game lead in the division. They had been in sole possession of first place every day since June 20 (a day remembered more for Max Scherzer no-hitting the Pirates) but hadn't been able to seize complete control of the NL East.

The Mets had just completed a tumultuous week that included a blown save with two outs in the ninth against the Padres and a botched trade that would have brought Carlos Gomez to New York and sent Wilmer Flores to Milwaukee. They were in complete desperation mode.

The Nationals had just made a bold, somewhat head-scratching trade of their own, bringing in Jonathan Papelbon and bumping Drew Storen to a setup role. But they weren't showing much sense of urgency otherwise, refusing to align the top of their rotation to face the Mets. As the team in front, they felt the pressure was on New York to catch them.

Then, as they prepared to take batting practice at Citi Field, the Nationals learned the Mets had completed a blockbuster acquisition minutes before the 4 p.m. trade deadline: Yoenis Cespedes. All of sudden, New York had the big bat its lineup had sorely lacked all season. All of a sudden, that franchise was reinvigorated. All of a sudden, the Nats wondered if they were in trouble.

They wouldn't have been, had they merely been able to finish off games that were there for the taking. The opener of that series was a low-scoring, nail-biter, a 1-1 game that went into extra innings before Felipe Rivero (pitching his third inning of relief) gave up a walk-off homer to Flores of all people. The next night, the Nats led 2-1 in the seventh, only to blow that lead and lose. Sunday night's nationally televised series finale saw Jordan Zimmermann serve up three home runs in rapid fire, all but ending that game.

Just like that, the Nationals and Mets were tied for the division lead. Just like that, the race was on. Just like that, the Nats felt pressure for the first time.

They didn't handle that pressure well. Over the next six weeks, they stumbled and bumbled their way through some torturous stretches, unable to score runs during a brutal West Coast trip, unable to protect leads with a bullpen that was now imploding. The Mets, meanwhile, went on an insane run (31-11) with a lineup that had morphed from baseball's worst to best seemingly overnight thanks to the Cespedes acquisition.

Yet when the two rivals met again on Labor Day in D.C., the division was still there for the taking. The Mets led by 4 games and were teetering on the brink a bit, having just lost 2-of-3 in Miami and having seen Matt Harvey incite a firestorm by declaring he would be adhering to a strict innings limit in his first season back from Tommy John surgery.

Momentum was turning back in the Nationals' direction, even more so after Wilson Ramos' grand slam gave them a 5-3 lead in the bottom of the fourth in the series opener. But Scherzer couldn't hold that lead, giving up three home runs, and then the Nats' bullpen couldn't keep the game close, giving up three more runs in the seventh during what wound up an 8-5 loss.

As bad as that was, the Nationals still had a chance to take the remaining two games in the series and keep the pressure on. They once again were in fabulous position to do just that when Cespedes misplayed Michael Taylor's bases-loaded single to center into a 4-run Little League grand slam. Up 7-1 in the seventh inning, they merely needed to close this one out ... which they couldn't do. The most disastrous inning of the season saw Nationals relievers (headlined by Storen) give up six runs on only three hits.

The mood in the home clubhouse that night was as down as any non-postseason loss in team history. Players knew that might well have been the end of their season right there. They certainly knew it 24 hours later, when Storen was brought in to face Cespedes in the eighth inning of a 2-2 game and immediately served up a 2-run homer, completing the Mets' series sweep and leaving the division deficit at an insurmountable 7 games.

Two series. Six games. Six losses. Four games lost after a lead was blown in the sixth inning or later. Flip the outcome of those four games, and the Nationals end up 87-75 with the Mets 86-76.

Yep, flip the outcome of four games they led late, and the Nats are 2015 NL East champions.

Chase Hughes: 

The trade deadline series against the New York Mets was clearly a defining weekend for the Nationals, who entered the matchup with a division lead and afterwards never led again. That was the weekend where the Mets took control of the NL East and didn't look back. They had just acquired Tyler Clippard and Yoenis Cespedes and were a rejuvenated team better equipped for the pennant race.

I remember being in the visitors clubhouse at Citi Field where the Nationals were waiting to play that Friday game. MLB Network was on all the TVs and they broke the news of Cespedes trade to many members of the Nationals. Several players expressed surprise at the deal, which occurred right up against the 4 p.m. deadline, especially given the relatively low price tag for such a talent. A group of veterans playing cards at a table in the middle of the locker room paused their game to watch the coverage. They all knew it was big.

The Mets series was bad and certainly shifted momentum in the NL East, but I think what happened next was just as pivotal, and it perhaps epitomized the Nationals' inability to take advantage of opportunities when they desperately needed to in 2015.

The Nationals left New York for Washington with a seven-game homestand awaiting them. Their opponents were the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, two teams that by then were clearly not heading to the playoffs. The Nats, on the other hand, were a first-place team for most of the season up until that point and had just gotten Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman back from the disabled list.

The opportunity ahead of them was to reset against some bad teams while at home. That plan was even more important given the stretch that followed the homestand, their longest West Coast trip of the season including trips through Los Angeles to see the Dodgers and San Francisco to face the Giants.

But instead of beating up on Arizona and Colorado, the Nats went 3-4 on that homestand. The week began with Doug Fister giving up five earned runs (including three homers) in the first game against the Diamondbacks and ended with Max Scherzer getting outdueled by Rockies pitcher Yohan Flande in the finale before they hit the road.

That homestand was also the beginning of Drew Storen's downfall. He blew two games against the Rockies during that stretch, the first of which featured a jawdropping grand slam by Carlos Gonzalez.

Storen was never the same after that series and, I would argue, neither were the Nationals. They lost six of their next seven games, including a sweep to the Giants at AT&T Park.

The biggest reason why I think that homestand was the turning point, though, is how the Nationals reacted to it. It was clear to most that they underachieved by going 3-4 during that stretch and it was clear that one of the most difficult parts of their schedule was awaiting them.

But the Nats themselves didn't see it that way. Manager Matt Williams wouldn't assess the homestand as a whole and got testy when pressed on how his team could possibly improve if they never looked back:

"That’s what you would think. But what I would think as the manager of this club is that we must play tomorrow. And if we don’t win tomorrow, or have the plan to win tomorrow, then what the hell are we doing here? That’s what I think. So, for me, it is in the past," he said defensively.

I asked Werth how disappointing the homestand was, especially given the road they had up ahead. He took issue with me calling it "disappointing" and didn't fully answer the question.

Even Zimmerman was more defiant than usual in his postgame availability, saying the Nationals just needed to "stay within striking distance" of the Mets. He was frustrated with several questions about what many of us thought were emerging problems for the Nats.

"You can’t look at baseball on a day-to-day basis. That’s why it’s so hard for you guys. You guys have to write things that really don’t matter because you can’t talk about stuff every day in baseball. I’m glad I don’t have your job," he added.

I walked out of the clubhouse that day and thought for the first time in the season that this team was in trouble. Sticking to a season-long message is one thing, but they seemed yet to realize what many fans and those who cover the team had already been saying, that the time to turn their season around and play to their capabilities was running out.

Yes, they were still in the race because the NL East was the worst division in baseball, but that shouldn't have been enough. It was only a matter of time before somebody figured it out and went on a run. Despite the Nats' optimism on that particular day, it was the Mets who instead became that team.