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Sunday Night Baseball taking ratings chasing a bit too far in snubbing the Nationals

Sunday Night Baseball taking ratings chasing a bit too far in snubbing the Nationals

What about the champs?

ESPN released its Sunday Night Baseball lineup for the first half of next season and the World Series champion Washington Nationals aren’t on it. At all. 

Instead, baseball fans will watch a season opener on March 29 between…the Cubs and Brewers? We get it. ESPN is running a business here. Ratings matter. They should matter.

But Major League Baseball and its television partner are taking things a little far here chasing the golden goose. The Yankees are, of course, going to be on Sunday Night Baseball. You didn’t need to wait for the schedule to come out to know that. And, of course, they’re going to play the Red Sox. But ESPN is making that its main national game twice in five weeks (May 10, June 14). 

This isn’t really about the Nationals because, honestly, you can’t argue that Washington will pull in the kind of ratings they will in Chicago, New York, Boston and…Milwaukee? Really? 

Yes, those same Brewers who lost to the Nationals in the N.L. wild card game not only get to host the season opener against the Cubs at Miller Park (March 29), but they play an SNB game at the Mets on April 19 and host the Cardinals on May 3. 

We know they love their sports in Wisconsin and that the Brewers have an underrated history, a nice ballpark and the 2018 N.L. MVP in Christian Yelich. It’s a fun team. But are they really such a ratings behemoth that you’d have them on three times in 36 days? Maybe this is more about who Milwaukee plays (Cardinals, Cubs, Mets) because other fun, talented small market teams didn’t get the same respect. 

According to an Oct. 15 story on, Milwaukee’s regional ratings on FOX Sports Wisconsin were up 14%. The Nationals certainly can’t say that. Their local ratings on MASN dropped 10% from 2018. 

That also explains why the Minnesota Twins, who won the A.L. Central, have the most homer-happy team in baseball and boasted a 65% local ratings increase on FOX Sports North, are on SNB…never. Zippy appearances. Just like the Nationals. 

And so we’ve come to the heart of the problem. ESPN is in the business of making money. Major League Baseball is, too, but it at least has the added challenge of growing its own product. And this Sunday schedule isn’t doing that at all. 

You don’t have to put the A’s and Rays on SNB just because those are two good teams. Let’s not get crazy. But exposing a broader group of teams and players is still important. ESPN doesn’t appear to care. MLB should. 

The network paid $5.6 billion for its television package in 2014. It knows that Red Sox-Yankees early in the season will draw viewers from those markets and that the rivalry is enough to pull in added casual fans. The logos on those iconic hats are enough to stop anyone flipping past to pause in their tracks for at least a second. The Nationals and Twins aren’t doing that.  

But there has to be a balance here. Yes, SNB should feature the Cubs. And it’s to be expected that in a year when the A.L. East plays the N.L. Central in interleague play, you are going to have both the Cubs-Yankees (June 28) and the Cubs-Red Sox (June 21) on your show. But if ESPN is allowed to simply chase those ratings with four Chicago appearances in three months, the sport itself loses out. 

The Angels stink. But there is no way you can justify leaving a star like Mike Trout off SNB if the goal is to showcase your best players. The same goes for Bryce Harper in Philadelphia. The baseball audience that tuned in to watch the World Series was immediately enamored with Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, the leg-sweeping, crotch-grabbing, train tracks-hitting phenom who plays with such joy. 

Maybe all three of those players, if their team is in contention, will see time on SNB the second half of the season. Those games from Jul 26 on will be announced two weeks in advance. It’s not good for the sport if they don’t. 

The schedule plays a part in this. MLB announced it in August and ESPN makes its Sunday choices well before the playoffs conclude. That is a lame excuse, though. The network couldn’t wait until after the World Series to decide? Come on now.  

Any true baseball fan this May will tune in back-to-back weeks to see the Astros thump trash cans from the dugout while Yankees and Red Sox pitchers plot which batters to drill. Maybe they’ll use Apple Watches to coordinate the beanings. If rules-bending Houston is allowed to field a team this year, you can see those games on May 17 and May 24. That is true and right. ESPN isn’t running a charity and big markets and big fanbases matter. 

But it isn’t interested in balance, either. So you won’t see Soto and the Nationals. No chance at Stephen Strasburg or Max Scherzer or hilarious dugout bits. You definitely won’t see the Twins or Indians. Both drew huge local ratings last summer and that’s exactly where you’ll mostly catch 19 of MLB’s 30 teams for the first three-and-a-half months of the 2020 season. ESPN and MLB made sure of that.


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Nationals will enter Spring Training in familiar territory with fifth-starter competition

Nationals will enter Spring Training in familiar territory with fifth-starter competition

For a team that rose to contention behind the strength of its pitching staff, the Nationals have never been afraid to leave the back end of their rotation up to chance.

It started with John Lannan vs. Ross Detwiler in 2012. Then Tanner Roark edged out Taylor Jordan for the fifth spot in 2014. AJ Cole and Erick Fedde battled it out for the fifth spot in 2018 before Jeremy Hellickson leapfrogged them both two weeks into the season.

This year, three familiar faces will be in the mix for that coveted No. 5 spot: Fedde, Austin Voth and Joe Ross. All three pitched in hybrid spot-starter/long-relief roles while jumping back and forth between the minors and major leagues. Each had their struggles but also showed flashes of what their potential could be.

“It was a year where I got to do a lot in the sense of starting and relieving,” Fedde said at the Nationals’ annual WinterFest event last weekend. “Kind of just been the same old role of whatever I can do to help this team. It’s a benefit to be on a winning team where they just try to fit you in wherever you can help. Just trying to taking things one step at a time this year.”

Fedde started his career higher on prospect rankings than his fellow competitors did, but he’s mostly failed to deliver on that promise in three years since breaking into the majors. In 2019, his up-and-down performances continued, with four quality starts mixed in with three outings in which he allowed 5+ runs.

But the biggest hurdle to Fedde making the Opening Day squad might be his rare fourth option. Both Ross and Voth are out of options heading into 2020, meaning the Nationals must place them on waivers if they don’t make the active roster out of Spring Training. Fedde, despite being optioned in three separate seasons, accumulated a fourth option due to his lack of service time at the major-league level.

So that puts the spotlight on Voth and Fedde. With the addition of the 26th man to the active roster this year, the Nationals have already said they’ll be expanding their bullpen to eight pitchers. That means the loser of the fifth-starter competition likely gets relegated to a relief role.

“I’ve done both before,” Voth said at WinterFest. “Obviously, I’m used to starting more often but if I was a reliever as well, long-relief guy, I’d be fine with that. Just want to have a role on this team and be a part of this team.”

Based on last season’s results alone, Voth would appear to be the frontrunner heading into the spring. The former fifth-round pick posted a respectable 3.30 ERA and 9.1 K/9 over nine appearances (eight starts) in what qualified as his rookie season. A shoulder issue prevented him from making the World Series roster, but he insists he’s healthy heading into this year.

Voth’s injury paved the way for Ross to make the World Series roster and thus fill in for Max Scherzer in Game 5 after the ace was scratched with a neck spasms. He pitched admirably for being given the ball on both short notice and short rest. Overall, Ross’ 2019 numbers weren’t stellar, but he was also in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.

Both pitchers will enter Spring Training looking to showcase improvements they’ve made over the offseason. For Voth, he wants to improve the effectiveness of his sliders against righties, working to increase its depth and add more velocity to better differentiate it from his curveball. For Ross, he will look to show that he’s fully healthy and capable of returning to his 2016 form when he made 19 starts and accrued a 3.43 ERA.

Fedde shouldn’t be counted out, but he’ll have to have a lights-out start to Spring Training in order to garner serious consideration. The Nationals probably have more roster questions entering this season than they’ve had in a long time, but the fifth-starter competition is a game they’ve certainly played before.

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Victor Robles is the X-factor of the Nationals’ lineup

Victor Robles is the X-factor of the Nationals’ lineup

Ever since Anthony Rendon signed a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels at the Winter Meetings, the biggest storyline surrounding the Nationals has been who will be replacing him at third base.

That question was seemingly answered Tuesday, when Josh Donaldson inked a four-year deal with the Minnesota Twins and became the last of the all-star-caliber third basemen in free agency to decide which jersey he’ll be wearing in 2020.

While some combination of Asdrúbal Cabrera, Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick and Carter Kieboom will do well to ensure third base doesn’t become a hole in the lineup, Rendon’s offense won’t be replicated by one single player.

That means the big question isn’t how the Nationals are going to replace Rendon at third base, but how they’ll replace him in the lineup. Juan Soto could continue his ascent from a young star into an MVP-type player, but then who protects him from the cleanup spot?

No, Washington is going to need several hitters to take a step forward if they’re going to replace that lost production. Trea Turner is a logical choice given that he’ll be playing with all 10 fingers instead of nine. Castro altered his swing and saw a significant uptick in his power numbers over the second half of last season. Perhaps Adam Eaton will have a career year as he reaches the end of his prime.

Yet no single improvement would have the potential of impacting the Nationals’ lineup than that of Victor Robles.

The center fielder had a mildly disappointing season at the plate as a rookie, posting just a .745 OPS with 140 strikeouts in 155 games. His defense earned him a spot as a Gold Glove finalist and he stole 28 bases, so his campaign wasn’t a wash by any means. But Robles’ spot in the lineup wasn’t one to be feared by opposing pitchers, and that alone makes his improvement critical to the Nationals’ offense in 2020.

“He’s got power, he got the ability to drive the ball in the gaps, he’s got speed on the basepaths,” Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long said at the team’s annual WinterFest event last weekend. “He can fine-tune some things. I think his strike zone discipline can get better and I think he can learn from what pitchers did to him last year and make those adjustments accordingly.”

Robles met with the media at WinterFest as well, speaking through team interpreter Octavio Martinez. He said being patient at the plate was the most important facet of his game that he hopes to improve this season. The numbers agree, as FanGraphs reports that he swung at 31.9 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last season, about 2 percent above league average.

Changeups in particular were hard for Robles to pick up. Brooks Baseball found that not only was he swinging at changeups more often than any other pitch, he was also whiffing at them 18.8 percent of the time (also his highest rate vs. a single pitch) while only managing to make weak contact even when he did get his bat on the ball.

Robles mentioned that one of his biggest takeaways from last season was recognizing how relaxed his veteran teammates were during their playoff run. It helped him feel more relaxed as well and that’s something he says he expects to continue into this season. That would be important, because a relaxed player would probably be less likely to bite on changeups and wait the extra half-second to recognize the ball is breaking.

By OPS, center field was the Nationals’ second-worst area of production last season ahead of only catcher. And with steady veterans Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes returning behind the dish, the pressure will be on Robles to take a step forward.

He doesn’t turn 23 until May, so there’s still plenty of room for Robles to grow. If he can take his 88 OPS+ (a metric that finds he was 12 percent below league average at the plate last season) and turn himself into a solid offensive contributor, it will go a long way in helping the Nationals move forward without Rendon.

“Victor is gonna get better and better,” Long said. “I think he learned a lot last year and I think his future is very bright. He held his own. If you asked him, he’s gonna tell you he can do better and I believe he can and I think we’ll see that.”

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