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Instant Analysis: Strasburg shuts down Marlins

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Instant Analysis: Strasburg shuts down Marlins

Game in a nutshell: Stephen Strasburg was stuck in a three-game losing streak. Ian Desmond was out of the lineup with a lingering oblique strain. The Nationals were silenced at the plate. Reason to worry? Um, no. Strasburg tossed six scoreless innings to improve to 10-4 for the season. He also chimed in with another RBI single, setting in motion a two-run rally off Ricky Nolasco in the top of the fifth. The Nats added two more runs off Nolasco in the sixth, with Michael Morse driving in one run and Danny Espinosa driving in the other. Tyler Clippard got himself into a big jam in the ninth, loading the bases with nobody out. But he escaped it and thus secured the Nats' fifth shutout victory of the season.

Hitting highlight: With Desmond on the bench, the Nats needed an offensive spark from somebody. So they turned to their best hitter ... Strasburg. Seriously, nobody has consistently put up better numbers at the plate than the All-Star pitcher. Strasburg drew a two-out walk in the third, becoming the first player to reach base against Nolasco. Then with two outs in the fifth, Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen decided to intentionally walk Jhonatan Solano and take his chances with the pitcher. Won't they ever learn? Strasburg laced an RBI single to right to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead. He's now hitting .385 (10-for-26) this season with four RBI, a .448 on-base percentage and .654 slugging percentage.

Pitching highlight: Strasburg wasn't in top form today. He gave up six hits and a walk, bounced multiple pitches in front of the plate and put himself in trouble several times. But when he really needed to make pitches, he did. And that's how he still wound up tossing six shutout innings. With two on in the second, he struck out John Buck. With the bases loaded in the third, he struck out Logan Morrison and got Hanley Ramirez to ground out (with Ryan Zimmerman making a nice play). And with runners on second and third in the fifth, he struck out Ramirez on a 2-2 curveball. That's called rising to the occasion, and that's what the ace of a playoff staff is supposed to do.
Key stat: All seven of the Nats' hits today were singles, which means their consecutive streak of games with at least one extra-base hit ended at 85.

Up next: This series isn't over yet, folks. We're wrapping around the weekend and concluding with a 7:10 p.m. Monday game. Edwin Jackson will take the ball for the Nationals against the always-combustible Carlos Zambrano.

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Nats could add another catcher beyond Suzuki, but don't expect it to be J.T. Realmuto

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Nats could add another catcher beyond Suzuki, but don't expect it to be J.T. Realmuto

The story of his signing was simple: Mike Rizzo came to Dan Lozano, Kurt Suzuki’s agent, early and with a direct offer. He told Lozano that Suzuki was “their guy” in this offseason’s hunt for a primary catcher. Suzuki, 35, was pleased Rizzo offered a two-year deal instead of one. His former team, the Atlanta Braves, also offered him a contract at the end of the season. Suzuki declined, hopped into free agency, and decided promptly to return to Washington.

Boom. The end. 

“[Rizzo] told my agent from day one that I’m their guy,” Suzuki said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “Whether I’m a guy that catches 120 games or 90 games, or whatever they want me to do, I just told them I will be ready to do whatever you want. And he said I am going to play, obviously. I just said, ‘Whatever you need me to do.’ So whether that’s 80, 90, 100, 120, it really doesn’t matter to me.”

The question is what the Nationals will need him to do. Room remains for another veteran catcher since Suzuki will reportedly average $5 million annually on his contract. That long-rumored Nationals target J.T. Realmuto could be that veteran catcher is doubtful. There is little reason to pay Suzuki and then trade a high-end prospect in a deal for Realmuto, since that trade would put Realmuto behind the plate for roughly 130 games. A $5 million backup is an ultra-expensive one, especially for a team shaving pennies. Which is why Suzuki is in line to be the starter throughout the season.

“I think at this point of my career, I got no ego. I’ve never had an ego,” Suzuki said. “It was just the point where [Rizzo] said I’m their guy, whether I’m a guy that’s going to catch 50 games or I’m a guy that’s going to catch 120 games. He made it clear that he is going to bring me in to help the team win. And that’s the bottom line.”

He will help. Nationals catchers were among the worst in the league offensively last season. Matt Wieters was injured much of the year. Pedro Severino showed he had no chance at the plate. Spencer Kieboom hit .333 in September. That run was only good enough to pull his average to .232 and his on-base percentage to .322. Not great.

Suzuki’s offense has improved the last two seasons. His OPS+ was above 100 each year in Atlanta, marking two of the three times that happened in his 12-year career. He was an All-Star the other season he reached triple digits. 

Suzuki is not an analytics buff. He didn’t change his offseason routine that focuses on exercise and clean eating via food supplied by his wife, Renee. So, what gives at the plate?

“Honestly, I have no idea, just being honest,” Suzuki said. “Obviously, I started my career off doing pretty well and then kind of hit a little slump. And then the last two years at age 33 and 34, kind of had like a renaissance I guess. And I really haven’t changed much. I go out there and I don’t really think about launch angle and all these analytical things. I go out there and I just try to do some damage.”

He did mention an interesting idea. Suzuki explained relaxing at the plate is crucial to him. Pitchers throw harder now. Much harder on average than when he arrived in the major leagues in 2007 as a 23-year old playing for Oakland. Which means he is going to let them do the work by supplying velocity. He just wants solid, not Herculean, contact. The plan has worked the last two seasons.

But how Suzuki is defensively will be in question. Baseball Savant provides catcher “pop” times, which measures the time from the moment the pitch hits the catcher’s mitt to the moment the ball reaches the fielder’s projected receiving point at the center of the base, and Suzuki was 93rd out of 108 (Kieboom was 36th, though he played much less).  

All of which hints another veteran catcher could be coming along, the same way the Nationals opened last season with Wieters and Miguel Montero. Suzuki is the start. A coming veteran is a backup. Kieboom and Severino are the emergency plan. Realmuto is a dream lost.

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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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