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Confident Nats can't lose

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Confident Nats can't lose

PHOENIX -- They trailed early by three runs, facing perhaps the NL Rookie of the Year frontrunner. Their two best setup men were shelved for the evening due to overuse. The relievers who replaced them wound up putting the tying runner in scoring position in three consecutive innings.

Yet, not one uniformed member of the Nationals appeared to break a sweat during Saturday night's 6-5 victory over the Diamondbacks. (And, no, that had nothing to do with the 108-degree dry heat outside Chase Field.)

What gives? Do the Nationals ever worry about losing a ballgame? Evidently not.

"The confidence is at an all-time high right now," right-hander Ryan Mattheus said.

And why wouldn't it be the way things are going for the best team in baseball? This nailbiter resulted in the Nationals' eighth consecutive win, the last six of them coming on the road. They're now 71-43, a full 28 games over .500, knowing they can go 24-24 the rest of the way and still finish with 95 wins.

And maybe most importantly, they've managed to play their very best ball of the year precisely while the team chasing them in the NL East has played its very best ball.

On July 24, the Braves sat 4 12 games behind the Nationals. They've since gone 14-3, a roll that should have catapulted them to the top of the division. Instead, they remain those same 4 12 games back because the Nats have gone 15-4 over the same time frame.

"It's impressive that they're not falling behind at all," said first baseman Adam LaRoche, a former Brave himself. "They're a really good team. They had some streaks earlier in the year where they were struggling. Like you said, they're playing just as good as we are right now, but that doesn't affect us."

Nor does a shaky start from Edwin Jackson, who dug his teammates into an early 4-1 hole, only to watch as they climbed their way out of it during a five-run fifth against Diamondbacks rookie left-hander Wade Miley.

Clutch hits were aplenty during that rally, from Jayson Werth's RBI double to Ryan Zimmerman's two-run single to Michael Morse's RBI double to Jesus Flores' RBI single. This is the norm right now for a Nationals lineup that has transformed from one of the sport's least-productive groups to one of its most-dangerous assemblages of hitters.

On the morning of June 24, the Nationals as a team were hitting .238 with a .304 on-base percentage and .389 slugging percentage. In 45 games sine then, they're hitting a collective .283 with a .339 on-base percentage and a .453 slugging percentage.

Obviously, the return of Morse and Werth from injuries and the reemergence of Zimmerman as a premier offensive player after receiving a cortisone shot in his ailing shoulder has made a huge difference. But manager Davey Johnson believes it's about more than personnel. It's about approach.

"The makeup of this lineup is totally different: It's in attack mode," Johnson said. "They're not up there defending like a goalie. We're out there trying to do some damage, and it's fun to watch. I tip my hat to Rick Eckstein. He's done a great job with the offense and getting a little more aggressive. I know he's been on the gun here in years past, but he's one of the best hitting instructors I've ever met."

That revamped lineup managed to give the Nationals a lead, but a reconfigured bullpen still needed to preserve that lead to ensure this victory. Johnson didn't have Drew Storen or Sean Burnett available after excessive work over the last week, but the manager calmly called upon other relievers to come through with some big outs.

Tom Gorzelanny replace Jackson with two outs and a man on second in the bottom of the sixth and immediately struck out Stephen Drew looking at a 3-2 fastball at the knees. Mattheus then got two important groundballs with another man in scoring position to escape a seventh-inning jam. And Michael Gonzalez pitched around his own wildness to strike out Drew and yet again strand the tying run on second in the bottom of the eighth.

"I just think that speaks about the talent that's down there," Mattheus said. "Sean Burnett got a night off tonight, and Mike Gonzalez threw a perfect eighth inning and got us out of there and got the ball to closer Tyler Clippard. That's big that someone can step in and do that job when Burnie needs a day off. And Drew can close games when Clip's not here. It just speaks volumes for the talent."

And speaks volumes about the confidence oozing out of the Nationals' clubhouse these days. They've held the top spot in their division for 82 consecutive days now. And they're showing no signs of giving it up.

"It's a calm confidence," Clippard said. "Nobody gets too high or too low. Nothing changes. We're not walking around like: 'Oh, we're the best.' We're just keeping our heads down and going about our business, playing each game like it's a must-win game.

"It's a lot of fun, man."

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Stand pat or hunt for replacements at second base?

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Stand pat or hunt for replacements at second base?

Mike Rizzo is wading through the offseason with two separate to-do lists. One covers everything Bryce Harper and the other three distinct gaps in his roster: catcher, second base and the third spot in the starting rotation.

The Harper list will ultimately be decided by ownership. Rizzo wants him back. It’s up to the Lerner family how much they are willing to spend on a return. They were the decision-makers on Max Scherzer’s contract. They will again be so with Harper, weighing many of the same things he will, such as legacy, winning and off-the-field futures.

The other list is more mundane. However, it may be more important. The Nationals have multiple quality solutions if Harper signs elsewhere. And no matter where he ends up, they needed to work on the secondary list. Monday, the Nationals reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with catcher Kurt Suzuki, making headway there. So, let’s first take a look at second base before checking on the third rotation spot later in the week:

The in-house option: Split time between Wilmer Difo and Howie Kendrick

Rizzo told reporters at the general manager meetings he felt good about using the above combination to take care of second base next season. Kendrick would, theoretically, provide a steady bat. Difo would, theoretically, provide athleticism the lineup needs and solid defense at a spot where it did not exist the last three seasons with Daniel Murphy.

The platoon line appears clean: Kendrick would be a right-handed option, Difo, though a switch-hitter, a left-handed choice since he is better against right-handed pitching. Difo could also carry more of the load early in the season assuming the Nationals slow play Kendrick in his age-36 season when coming back from an Achilles tendon tear. Nationals medical staff informed Kendrick he would be “back to normal” if he followed the post-surgery protocols.

“And that’s very refreshing to hear something like that, especially if you have an injury of this caliber,” Kendrick told me in September. “Years ago, it might not have been the same. But now with the advancement of technology and the way they do surgery I feel really confident I’ll be back to normal and playing. Just the process, I’ve got to stick with the process and trust it. “Mentally, I really don’t have a problem with it. I know it just takes time because I’ve had injuries before. So, it’s like, all right, just follow the protocol and I’ll be where I need to be when it’s time.”

Kendrick is doing most of his rehabilitation work at Banner Health in Tempe, Arizona. The facility is just down the road from his house. It also allows him to work with physical therapist Keith Kocher, who Kendrick knows from his time with the Los Angeles Angels. Kocher also knows Nationals director of athletic training Paul Lessard and athletic trainer Greg Barajas. Barajas previously worked for Kocher.

Difo, entering his age-27 season, is nearing the end of the line with the organization. He had just a .649 OPS last season in 408 at-bats. There’s little to indicate an offensive uptick is forthcoming. Both he and Kendrick, who will become a free agent, are likely gone after this season.

Should the Nationals choose this platoon path, they would have to live with Difo’s lack of offense and occasional in-field brain freezes. Davey Martinez likes to hit him ninth when he plays, bumping the pitcher in front of him. He would like Difo to calm his swing and have a more measured approach at the plate.

Relying on Kendrick following the injury is a gamble. But, this pair is an option if the organization believes everything else is in place. A team .723 OPS at the position would qualify for middle of the National League pack last season. Kendrick and Difo combine for a .703 career OPS.

The free agent choices: Old, but reliable

Two of the six Gold Glove finalists at second base in 2018 are on the market. Jed Lowrie, who reinvented his offensive effectiveness during the last two seasons, and DJ LeMahieu, who won his third Gold Glove this year.

LeMahieu is the top option for the Nationals if they want to make a hefty investment. He’s 30 years old, a two-time All-Star, the league’s best defender at the position and the 2016 National League batting champion (hello, Coors Field: .391 at home and .303 on the road that season).

What’s interesting is his career OPS-plus, which is adjusted for a hitter’s park, is well below that of Kendrick. Kendrick has a 107 career OPS-plus, LeMahieu 92. And Kendrick didn’t earn the gap only earlier in his career. He put together a 118 OPS-plus in 2017 when being used properly by both the Phillies and Nationals in a reduced role. However, LeMahieu would be a significant fielding upgrade for a team that needs to be better at cutting 90 feet here, 90 feet there from the opposition.

Lowrie is going into his age-35 season. He delivered two of the top seasons of his career in the last two years. Both earned a 120 OPS-plus. He’s shown more power and more patience at the plate. The question is how much to pay him for those last two seasons, the usual paying-for-past-performance risk. The significant dips in Lowrie’s average and slugging percentage following the All-Star break last season can be viewed as red flags.

Asdrubal Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Brian Dozier and Murphy are also among the lot available. None are getting younger.

The trade options: Limited.

To reiterate: Limited. First, the Nationals’ assets have dwindled in recent years. Second, Carter Kieboom could be ready to play second in 2019 if he is still in the organization. Third, there’s no reason to burn an asset to fill this spot now.

A recommended path

Signing Suzuki will help patch catcher. Another move is likely coming there. Perhaps a second low-cost veteran. Remember, the Nationals allotted roughly $11 million to the position last season. Suzuki will cost half that, which leaves room for further investment without increasing the year-over-year payroll in regards to the Competitive Balance Tax. The salary cost stays the same, the tax threshold rises, you find savings at that spot.

Resolving the catcher position, at least in part, delivers second base as one of the few remaining uncertain spots on the roster. Which in turn provides the Nationals wiggle room when making a decision this offseason. So, the recommendation is to stick and wait. Shoring up this spot could be a move for July or even August at a much lower cost. In the interim, the Difo-Kendrick platoon is surrounded by enough current talent to hover near league average without being a significant hole.

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Reports: Nationals sign catcher Kurt Suzuki

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Reports: Nationals sign catcher Kurt Suzuki

The Nationals took a step Monday morning toward fixing one of their largest ailments.

They signed veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to a two-year deal, according to multiple reports. Suzuki gives the Nationals at least a partial solution to a spot which spent most of the season as a distinct problem. Nationals catchers finished 14th in the National League in OPS last season.

The question around Suzuki is not if he will be an improvement -- it’s hard not to be -- but if this signals the Nationals have again given up on trying to acquire Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto. Everything indicates the Marlins’ asking price to be extremely high, think Juan Soto or Victor Robles to start, and this signing ostensibly withdraws the Nationals from the Realmuto chase.

Washington could pair Suzuki with an in-house defensive option like Spencer Kieboom. The problem with that approach is the likelihood of injury. Suzuki is a 35-year-old catcher enter his 13th season. Even if he’s not injured, he’s unlikely to play more than 90 games. If he is injured, that leaves the Nationals with the same troubling situation of last season when Kieboom and Pedro Severino were splitting time when Matt Wieters was out.

At the least, Suzuki will be an improvement. His 2.1 WAR from last season severely outpaces the -0.1 WAR compiled in 2018 by Kieboom, Wieters and Severino. Though, he is not the “front-line catcher” Rizzo said at the general manager meetings the team would pursue.

Another thing to note here: It’s just Nov. 19 and Rizzo has done a lot of chipping away at the Nationals’ problems without spending big money. Reliever Kyle Barraclough was acquired for international slot money the team was unlikely to use anyway. Reliever Trevor Rosenthal is on an incentive-laden deal to likely be the setup man with a baseline price lower than that of Ryan Madson last season. And Suzuki’s last deal was for one year and $3.5 million. Expect this deal to be in that neighborhood. That’s significant filler early and at a low cost.

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