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Craig Kimbrel could help any NL East contender solve a division-wide problem

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Craig Kimbrel could help any NL East contender solve a division-wide problem

WASHINGTON --  Progressively, the lines of desperation and declined price will have to intersect.

At least it would seem. Craig Kimbrel’s demands reportedly are receding during his extended unemployment. The needs of contenders in the National League East’s rock fight continue to increase day by day. The sides should be on a path to merge. Right?

Take this week. 

Atlanta announced closer Arodys Vizcaino underwent right shoulder surgery. He’s out for the season. This the day after his would-be replacement, A.J. Minter, gave up three earned runs in ⅔ of an inning. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos acknowledged he heard the chants from Braves fans Tuesday night demanding he sign Kimbrel.

Philadelphia placed reliever David Robertson on the 10-day injured list because of a flexor strain (initially labeled elbow soreness). It used Hector Neris to close Wednesday afternoon. He entered with two runners on base. Neris struck out the first batter, gave up a soft single, hit Wilson Ramos to load the bases, then struck Keon Broxton to end the game. That’s an interesting path to the end.

The Mets are living similar to the Nationals. They have a closer -- Edwin Diaz -- who can be relied on. It’s getting to him which has been such a challenge. Seth Lugo (5.06 ERA), Jeurys Familia (6.48) and Robert Gsellman (3.48) are often dispatched to drag New York to the ninth inning.

All five members of the National League East are in the bottom half of bullpen ERA entering play Friday. Philadelphia is 15th, Atlanta is 22nd, Miami is 24th, New York is 27th and Washington remains last by a wide margin -- almost a run-and-a-half worse than 29th-ranked Baltimore.

The Nationals’ bullpen toiling around with the have nots is endangering the team’s season as a whole, the $190 million payroll investment, the demands of the Lerner family to be better than first-round playoff exits. But, few paths are available to fix it without relinquishing a commodity -- whether human or financial.

Multiple reports claim Kimbrel’s asking price has come down in both years and cash. It may never reach a point of intersection with the Nationals if team ownership remains steadfast against surpassing the competitive balance tax threshold for the third consecutive year. Passing the $206 million roster mark would result in a 50 percent tax on every dollar spent from there on. 

Kimbrel would also cost the Nationals a compensation draft pick and international draft money because he declined a qualifying off from Boston. In all, four layers of cost exist around Kimbrel: salary, luxury tax, a draft pick and international money.

Financial stances can change when circumstances do. Though, the Nationals’ leverage with Kimbrel has evaporated. Owning the league’s worst bullpen is not a promising negotiation point for a team preferring to restrict this final portion of spending. Imagine their pitch: “We’re desperate for your services, but don’t want to spend much.” 

Whichever lagging bullpen signs Kimbrel still needs to subsist until he is ready. In Washington’s case, it continues to hunt for solutions ahead of a six-game road trip which starts Friday in Miami. Trevor Rosenthal’s lost early season, a better way to match up with left-handed hitters, help in the middle and a way to use closer Sean Doolittle less -- he’s on pace for 86 appearances -- are all on the docket. 

“Things haven’t gone the way we envisioned them coming out of camp,” Doolittle said this week. “Part of being a reliever -- you don’t get to this level without having taken some lumps; without having taken some punches. So guys, they might be in the jungle a little bit right now, but they know how to get through this. We’re working on it. Guys are talking to each other about things they can do, whether it’s pitch selection or mechanics or straight up execution to try to get things smoothed out. 

“We’re in it as a group. As a reliever, you can’t have an ego. You have to be ready for whatever the team needs, whatever the group needs and be ready to pick your teammate up.”

Doolittle’s words could have come from the leader of any NL East bullpen. Four contenders with the same problem populate the division. One big name looms. Day by day, the tussle for a fix and leverage goes on. 

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Washington Nationals mailbag: baseball cards, nuances of the game and Luis Garcia

Washington Nationals mailbag: baseball cards, nuances of the game and Luis Garcia

It’s time for another round of the Nationals mailbag. Interesting questions this week as we all wait to see if baseball will begin this season. If you have a question for a future mailbag, send it to todd.dybas@nbcuni.com or fill out the form here.

Q: If the podcast crew were to recreate the back of a baseball card to be the most informative to fans, would you keep it the same or add /take away some stats?
Yitz Taragin

I feverishly collected baseball cards as a kid. At one point, I had every Harmon Killebrew card from his 22-year career. My parents bought me his then-expensive rookie card one year for Christmas. Why him? I still don’t know. But, there was something magical about the cards and the back of them.

They have changed over the years, much like baseball’s statistical priorities. Slugging percentage and OPS is on the back of Topps 2020 Series 1 cards. Card manufacturers, like reporters, have to balance the information they use because their audience’s statistical knowledge remains broad. Not everyone is staring at Fangraphs eight hours a day.

But, I would put games, at-bats, home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS-plus, WAR and WRC+ on the card. At times, it seems we overthink the aforementioned balance between those who would instantly know those acronyms and those who do not. The latter group may be prompted to learn about them if they were displayed instead of sheltered.

Oh, and of course add a stale stick of gum.


Q: Hi Todd — thanks for the great Nationals coverage — I’m sure the lack of baseball is killing you ten times more than it is me, and I’m suffering.

I know it’s become a common refrain that the Nats did baseball a huge favor by pulling out game 7 and preventing the third World Series in a row from having a cloud over it, and I agree. But they also did Joe Torre and MLB a pretty big solid by pulling out game 6, and ensuring that the bizarre call against Trea Turner for running “out of the base path” on the way to first didn’t play a factor in the game/series outcome. Despite the attempts by Torre to provide clarity, there is a clear ambiguity in the rules, and even more so a clear departure from common sense regarding the call against Turner. A right-handed batter should obviously have every right to take the most direct route to first. If that had been a Series-deciding play there would have been an uproar second only to the trash can controversy.

I haven’t seen this addressed since the Series, and I’m really curious — were there ever any discussions at MLB about clarifying the rules regarding the legal path of runners to first base?
Jason Mahler

Hey, Jason. Thanks for reading. And, yes, we’re all desperate for baseball to come back once everyone is safe.

There has been limited discussion about this. Turner remains baffled by what he should have done. Here’s what he told us when we sat down for the podcast at Nationals Winterfest (which now seems a generation ago) and was asked if it was the wrong call:

“Wrong or right, I don’t know. But, I don’t know what else I was supposed to do. I don’t feel like I veered off into fair territory. I said many times that the batter's box is in fair territory, at least half of it, then the base is also in fair territory. So, if you’re going to run in a straight line, which everybody does, you’re going to be a little bit in fair territory. Me personally, I felt like the pitcher got rewarded for a bad throw. Usually when you make a mistake, it goes against you. Kind of went in their favor. So, it is what it is. We won. I don’t care. If we lost, I’d still be hurt about it.”

And, you’re right to point out the ambiguity in the rule. Here it is:

Rule 5.09(a )(11) Comment (Rule 6.05(k ) Comment): The lines marking the three-foot lane are a part of that lane and a batter-runner is required to have both feet within the three-footlane or on the lines marking the lane. The batter-runner is per-mitted to exit the three-foot lane by means of a step, stride,reach or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base.

So, as this pertains to Turner, there is judgment: He was on the fair side of the lane. But, he was also right in front of the base. And, most crucial in my view, his point about the throw is correct. A good throw keeps Yuri Gurriel’s glove in an expected place and clear of Turner. So, obviously there would have been no issue there. So why was Turner penalized for running into a space he, by rule, seemingly has a right to?

It’s a tough call in the moment. It’s also tough to alter the language in the rule. I suppose they could add a caveat about responsibility for the flight path of the ball. Maybe that would help.

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Q. What's your advice for watching baseball more intelligently? Aside from listening to the Nats Talk podcast, because I already do that. :) I don't need "Baseball for Dummies", but maybe, like, "Baseball Watching 201". What should I be looking out for? What strategic things could I be noticing? In particular, how can I be a smarter observer of pitching and pitching strategy?

Thanks, and go Nats!
Katie Newmark

Hey, Katie. Thanks for listening to us dummies on the podcast.

This question immediately makes me think about the times I hear, “There’s nothing going on.” Whenever someone tells me that, I politely tell them they are not looking at the right things, so they don’t realize how much is in fact going on.

Take outfield positioning. Players are armed with cards, but a good center fielder is also moving himself with knowledge developed in-game. For instance, a step or two in either direction can happen because Stephen Strasburg is throwing more changeups than curveballs. And, this particular batter’s swing path typically drives off-speed pitches in a certain direction. Plus, the wind, etc. All this in the end can be a difference between an out and a double.

To the pitchers: They receive the same heat maps we can access on the Internet. So, their path to exploiting a certain spot against hitter X with their particular repertoire is always compelling.

For instance, Freddie Freeman hit .154 against pitches up, in and still a strike last season. But, middle in and down and in? Freeman hit .308 and .419, respectively. Further in, off the plate, Freeman also had trouble (if he swung). Which means Max Scherzer’s cutter would be a crucial pitch for him against Freeman, but only if it’s up or in and off the plate. So, Scherzer has to hit one of three places, and, if he is throwing middle or lower in, he has to cross the danger zones to get there. This is what he is referring to when he talks about “driving” his cutter in. Three inches to the right, Freeman smashes it. Three inches in, it’s a ground out to the short side of the field. And, Freeman knows Scherzer knows Freeman knows this is the case. Freeman also knows Scherzer throws a truckload of strikes. Here’s what he said last year at the All-Star Game:

“If he throws a ball to you, you know he’s setting you up for something else,” Freeman said. “That’s the hardest thing.”

Think about that conceptually: Freeman believes if Scherzer throws him a ball, he is almost exclusively messing with him. But, maybe he just missed his spot for once. Or did he?

This is the epic cat-and-mouse game which comes with repeated, high-end opponents. In this case, Freeman has a hard time. He’s faced Scherzer 45 times and has a .693 OPS. However, he’s faced Strasburg 66 times and has a 1.050 OPS. During, and after, a series, you can see how each pitches to Freeman. Often back-to-back. A guess, without going pitch by pitch, is this could be caused by Strasburg’s two primary off-speed pitches feeding into Freeman’s hot zones -- down or middle and in. He, like Scherzer, could chase the up-and-in hole with a fastball. But without a specific pitch to drive hard under Freeman’s hands, Strasburg has a more difficult time. That’s a guess, and probably just birthed a future blog post.

One other anecdote: The first time Scherzer faced new teammate Starlin Castro this spring during live batting practice, he would not throw him a curveball. Why? Castro hit a 2-2 curveball into the left field stands in the fourth inning, July 7, 2018. It’s his only home run against Scherzer, which Scherzer of course remembers.

So, watch stuff like that. Patterns, location, repeat opponents. And, the reverse is true, too. All those strikes Scherzer throws can cause the hitters to “ambush” him suddenly in the third inning or so, when they start swinging at the first pitch. How does he adjust to that?

I could go on forever here. But, those are some ideas. Hope it helps.


Q: Question about Garcia. Read a nice article about him going over his swing with Soto in spring training. He was also hitting very well to start the spring. What kind of prospect does he project out to be, especially if he improves his bat like he has thus far?
Brandon Drury

Hey, Brandon.

The Nationals are intrigued by Luis Garcia. They like his positional versatility, expect him to get bigger (he’s a 6-foot-2, 190-pound, 19-year-old) and think he has good work habits.

He was in major-league camp for a spell last spring and said he wants to be the next Juan Soto. That doesn’t mean hit at the same level. He was more talking about reaching the major leagues rapidly and staying. As you point out, he was having an excellent offensive spring (1.003 OPS). The good spring came after Garcia spent most of last season improving at the plate while playing for Double-A Harrisburg. He finished August with a .758 OPS, hit three home runs and doubled nine times. That kind of ascension suggests more power could be lurking.

However, if he wants to be like Soto, his plate discipline needs to rise significantly. Garcia struck out 86 times and walked 17 last year. He needs to fix that.

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Ryan Zimmerman can't wait for 'most unique World Series celebration of all-time'

Ryan Zimmerman can't wait for 'most unique World Series celebration of all-time'

April 2 was supposed to be a historic day in Nationals history.

It was scheduled as their home opener against the Mets and the day they would raise their first World Series championship banner. But with coronavirus delaying the start to the season, Nats fans, players and personnel will have to wait a little longer. 

No player has had to wait for a World Series title in DC longer than Ryan Zimmerman, and he didn't hide his disappointment in an interview with 106.7 The Fan Thursday

"The bummer is today," Zimmerman said. "Today was going to be the day we all thought would be the one day where we actually look back on [the World Series].

"It's a beautiful day outside and it’s tough to look outside and think of what could’ve been," he said. 

Looking on the bright side, it's not like the wait will diminish anyone's excitement. Zimmerman also made an interesting point. The fact that the Nationals had an unforgettable and unprecedented run to a World Series title, it makes a little sense the celebration would be delayed for unforgettable and unprecedented reasons. 

"It'll be the most unique World Series celebration of all-time," he said. "A lot of things will not be forgotten about our 2019 season. The way we won it, the comebacks in the playoffs and it's only fitting that it won't be forgotten how long it took us to celebrate it."

We still don't know exactly when baseball will begin again, but when it does Nats fans will have plenty more to celebrate than just a World Series banner going up. 

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