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Struggling Desmond gets another day off

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Struggling Desmond gets another day off

Ian Desmond got his first day of the season off last week in Milwaukee, but the Nationals shortstop still spent much of his time at Miller Park in work mode, whether in the batting cage or the dugout, trying to fix what has been ailing him all year.

So when he decided to give Desmond another day off Friday, manager Matt Williams made it clear what he expects from his struggling veteran this time around.

“The last day off, he refused to rest,” Williams said. “He took extra batting practice, back to the grind. I want him to rest. Take a blow. He’s been an everyday player for a long, long time. And things have not been good so far for him this season. There is a bunch of baseball left, so I want him to relax and freshen up a little bit and get back at it. That’s what I hope for him. It’s difficult to do that with him, because he’s a worker. I just hope he takes it easy for today and clears out. Let it clear and get back to work.”

Mired in a prolonged slump that has included a .129 batting average and 23 strikeouts in his last 19 games, Desmond has yet to find a consistent groove at the plate, bearing little resemblance to the player who won three straight NL Silver Slugger Awards over the previous three seasons. He also has struggled in the field, though, with only seven errors committed over his last 54 games after he was charged with eight in his first 12 games.

Williams speaks regularly with Desmond and made sure his shortstop understands a day off isn’t a sign of a permanent change. But he also recognizes the need for an occasional breather for a player under the kind of stress Desmond (a pending free agent at season’s end) now finds himself.

“We talk all the time,” the manager said. “We have to understand that, 1) he needs a day. If it turns into two, then it turns into two. He needs some rest. He’s playing a demanding position every day. If that’s the case, then that will be the case. He understands what’s going on and that he needs to get a day off. We’ll see where we go from there.”

Through it all, Williams insists he sees a player in a good frame of mind, one he believes will snap out of his prolonged funk and return to the form he displayed in the past.

“There’s a lot going on,” Williams said. “But he is ready to play every single day and eager to play and goes out there with a good attitude every time he takes the field. When things aren’t going the way you want them to, sometimes it’s good just to hang out, get a day, relax and not do much. Get some good treatment, get a nice lift in, whatever he needs to do. And then get back to work. This game, over the course of 162, is a grind. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s really true. When you’re an everyday player and are trying to fight through something, sometimes it’s good to have a day.”

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The Yankees have so much money, they are thinking about paying Bryce Harper to not play outfield

The Yankees have so much money, they are thinking about paying Bryce Harper to not play outfield

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that the Yankees might have interest in Bryce Harper this offseason. The Harper-to-the-Yankees narrative has been ongoing for years, going back to Harper’s high school years. It’s also driven by a long and storied history of New York flexing their financial might over the rest of the baseball world.

What is surprising, however, is hearing that the Yankees might have interest in Harper as a first baseman.

Would a potential $300 million contract be worth it just to have Bryce Harper play first base? New York seems to think so. 

Harper mostly played catcher in high school, though his prodigious bat made a position switch a long-term inevitability. Outfield was the natural landing spot, as it’s considered to be the easiest position to learn and would allow Harper to focus on realizing his vast potential at the plate.

In his seven seasons in the big leagues, Harper has played more innings in right field than every other position combined, and the overwhelming majority of his other defensive innings have been in left and center. He is credited with one career game at first base, coming in 2018, though the inning count there is zero.

If he is going to head to the Bronx, however, another position switch might be a necessity. The Yankees are one of the few teams in baseball who already have two power-hitting behemoths in the outfield, in Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. 

Either Judge, Stanton or Harper would be miscast in center field, especially considering Harper’s extreme defensive struggles in right last season.

Plus, it would take away at-bats for 2018 breakout Aaron Hicks and potential 2019 breakout Clint Frazier. Additionally, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are still hanging around.

There’s always the option of using one of three as the designated hitter, but the Yankees already have too many power hitters to find at-bats for, and not everyone responds well to not playing in the field.

The one position where the Yankees don’t seem to have a clear answer is first base, hence the recent speculation. Most fans haven’t quite bought in on Luke Voit’s out-of-nowhere 2018 season, and Greg Bird has never been able to put together a full, healthy season.

First base is generally considered to be even easier than the outfield. At the very least, it requires less range, which could be beneficial to Harper as he enters his prime and starts to slow down. It would fill a hole for the Yankees, both in the field and in the lineup, as the bulk of their power comes from right-handed hitters.

Obviously, this speculation is very preliminary, though the prospect of Harper taking aim at the short right field porch in Yankee Stadium is enough to excite any New York fan and haunt the nightmares of fans of the other 29 teams.

At the end of the day, the Yankees may end up interested in Harper playing first base, and in fact, they definitely should be interested in it. But it will come down to what Harper is interested in. If he really wants to wear the pinstripes, he may not have a choice. 

Much like 2018’s other mega free agent, Manny Machado, Harper will have to weigh the idea of playing in New York versus moving off his favored position. If the Yankees can pull it off, then Major League Baseball will have a new superteam to deal with.

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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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