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When will Werth return?

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When will Werth return?

The Nationals open tomorrow what promises to be the most compelling second half to a season since the franchise arrived in town in 2005, owners of the NL's best record but saddled with several major questions that need to be answered.

Over the course of the day, we'll count down the five most significant storylines to the remainder of the Nationals' season, beginning with storyline No. 5: Jayson Werth's return from a broken left wrist...

The image from May 6, of Jayson Werth writhing in agony on the ground in right field after a failed attempt to make a diving catch of Placido Polanco's sinking line drive, is hard to forget. Everyone in attendance at Nationals Park and everyone watching the nationally televised Sunday night game knew the injury was serious, and the only question was whether it was serious enough to prevent Werth from returning to play this season.

Ten weeks later, Werth is inching closer to a return to the Nationals lineup. His wrist is healed, and he's resumed some baseball activities, though he hasn't yet swung a bat. That milestone should come soon, and once it does the 33-year-old could be on a fast track back to the active roster.

The Nationals and Werth have targeted Aug. 1 for his return. That may be a bit too optimistic, but the club fully expects to have its veteran right fielder back for the stretch run. That return, however, raises two important questions:

1) What kind of player will Werth be upon his return? Can he pick up where he left off, hitting .276 with a .372 on-base percentage? Or will he not have regained enough strength in the wrist to swing an effective bat?

2) If Werth does enjoy a successful return, who's the odd man out of the Nationals' lineup, and who will lead off? Steve Lombardozzi has been the biggest beneficiary over the last two-plus months, essentially assuming leadoff duties and the starting left fielder's job. Werth's return, though, should bump Michael Morse from right to left field, and that could bump Lombardozzi to the bench. That, however, would force Danny Espinosa (or Werth or Bryce Harper) to lead off most nights. Perhaps Lombardozzi ends up splitting time at second base with Espinosa, with manager Davey Johnson taking advantage of their contrasting splits. If you combine Lombardozzi's left-handed stats with Espinosa's right-handed stats, you get a .299 batting average, .364 on-base percentage and .423 slugging percentage. That could make for a solid platoon at second base.

First things first. Werth needs to make progress in his rehab, go play in minor-league games and then return healthy to the Nationals' lineup. That process and potential resolution, though, promises to be one of the club's most-compelling storylines the rest of this season.

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Nationals on periphery at Winter Meetings this week as they appear all but out on Bryce Harper

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Nationals on periphery at Winter Meetings this week as they appear all but out on Bryce Harper

LAS VEGAS -- Marlins Man walked into a modest eatery Sunday here in Las Vegas to look over the options. His bright orange jersey stood out among the cowboy hats and zombie-like Sunday exodus inside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

While another Las Vegas weekend closed, sending an army of roller bags across the casino floor toward the exit and airport, baseball started to creep into the home of the 2018 Winter Meetings. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo wandered across the marble floor. Media members from cities across the country became situated. Television stations raised their studios and radio talkers began to ramble. Everyone is wondering if the show in Vegas will be filled with drama or just another stall along the way to the offseason’s biggest news.

We know Rizzo turned in his homework early. Patrick Corbin’s money and introduction arrived late last week. Corbin, presumably, is the Nationals’ largest offseason expenditure. Surprising comments from Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner to 106.7 The Fan on Friday made that seem to be the case. He described Bryce Harper as all but gone, speaking wistfully, if not definitively.

Which means Rizzo is here for smaller shopping and the rest of baseball waits on Harper and Manny Machado.

A look through the Nationals shows few remaining gaps. Rizzo publicly contends he feels all right about starting the season with a Wilmer Difo/Howie Kendrick platoon at second base. The outfield is clear without Harper. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde will fight for the final rotation spot. Two new catchers have arrived. The bullpen was upgraded. Rizzo didn’t wait and watch what other teams were doing.

“We like the club we have at present,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington last week. “But, we’re never satisfied. There’s tweaks and combinations we can go after. We’ll be looking for values out there. What works for us, how do we construct the periphery of the roster. You can never have enough pitching and we’re always on the look for good starting and relief pitching. That could be something we attack either via the free agent market or trade market.”

One thing the market remains full of is left-handed relievers. The Nationals currently have three. One of which is Sammy Solis.

Washington decided to tender him a contract and the sides reached a one-year deal. There was consideration not to tender him a contract, which would have ended Solis’ time with Nationals. Instead, he’s back despite two back-to-back poor seasons following a strong 2016. Last season was a wreck. Solis finished with a 6.41 ERA. The other two lefties, Sean Doolittle and Matt Grace, were excellent. So, are the Nationals in the market for one more left-handed reliever to be sure?

“We’ve got right now on the roster three really competent left-handed pitchers,” Rizzo said, “in Doolittle, Grace who had a magnificent season last year and Sammy Solis, who we feel is a bounceback candidate. We feel good about the left-handed spot. We feel good about our bullpen as a whole.”

The Nationals were mid-pack last season in relievers’ ERA in both the National League and Major League Baseball. Their bullpen does appear close to done: Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Koda Glover, Grace, Solis, Justin Miller and Wander Suero are eight quick spots down there.

One upside here for Rizzo is he can wait. He doesn’t need to jump at the flush reliever market, which includes several decent left-handed options, because of the team’s prompt signings. A discount may arrive later. A factor to remember in regard to Solis is the Nationals would only be on the hook for 1/6th of his salary if they cut him in spring training. That’s a small penalty if someone in West Palm Beach appears more capable.

Washington also needs a left-handed bat off the bench that can play first base. Matt Adams, Justin Bour and Lucas Duda are names that could fill that slot. None will rattle the meetings.

This is life on the periphery, as Rizzo puts it. Will they talk to a lot of agents here? Yes. Will they consider an upgrade at second base? Of course. Are they part of the gigantic Harper and Machado storylines unlikely to conclude in Las Vegas but en route to dominate the conversation? Not really. At least not if Lerner’s public declaration is filled with flat facts. They offered Harper, he can do better elsewhere, and now life is quieter, even in Las Vegas.

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Nationals double-down on starting pitching by signing Patrick Corbin

Nationals double-down on starting pitching by signing Patrick Corbin

NATIONALS PARK -- A small break in the midst of the hoopla brought together $525 million in starting pitcher salary when Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin said hello for the first time Friday.

Scherzer and Strasburg sat in the front row during Corbin’s press conference. Scherzer shuffled a few seats down from his original landing spot to make more space. New catcher Yan Gomes filled in to his left, Ryan Zimmerman next to him and Strasburg on his side. 

Those top three in the rotation represent Mike Rizzo’s steadfast belief. Winning in the major leagues starts with foundational pitching. Every year. All year. And in the playoffs. 

“I think bullpenning in the playoffs is much different than bullpenning in the regular season,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington.

“The marathon that is the 162 is, I think, dependent and driven on starting pitching. Our philosophy is, how we built what we built so far is pitching, athleticism and defense. I think being strong up the middle and being able to catch the ball as you pitch it not only improves your pitching staff but limits the outs of the other team. Pitching has always been important to us. Starting pitching I think is our key and will continue to be so and developing them and signing them is important to us.”

The Nationals view Corbin as an ascending player. Three consecutive years of ERA reduction, helped by a new breaking pitch that is sort of a curveball, vaulted Corbin to a 3.15 ERA last season and a six-year, $140 million deal with a contender this offseason. That contender is the Nationals, who have more than a half-a-billion dollars tethered to three pitchers, who will be together a minimum of the next three years.

“The payroll's the payroll,” Rizzo said. “We all have budget restrictions and payroll restrictions. We've allocated a lot of resources to our front of the rotation and I think that elite starters, middle-lineup bats and back-end relievers is where I think you spend your money and you try to get values along the periphery of your roster.”

Corbin’s second off-speed pitch pushed him toward elite status. He talked with former Arizona slugger Paul Goldschmidt about what gave him trouble. He watched Clayton Kershaw round off and drastically drop speeds with his curveball. Both made Corbin think another layer would benefit him after years of mediocre results with his changeup, which has been shelved.

Enter the curveball. In essence, it’s just a slower slider. The speed gap -- about nine mph -- couples with an arm angle and release point that directly mimics his slider. He doesn’t even change the grip. Corbin just twists his wrist ever so slightly to slow the pitch and change its shape to the plate, providing a heftier vertical break.

“The slider has always been my pitch coming up from the minor leagues,” Corbin told NBC Sports Washington.

“It was a grip that my father showed me when I was really young. It’s kind of neat I was able to keep that up to this point in time. I have a great feel for it. Able to change speeds and location on the slider. Then adding a slower breaking ball helped just keeping some hitters off-balance.”

The length of the deal gave him assurance and critics pause. The Nationals believe Corbin’s 2018 uptick is closer to who he is as opposed to the prior two years following Tommy John surgery when he struggled.

Corbin was impressed with multiple things from the Nationals: that someone from the ownership level came to dinner with them (principal owner Mark Lerner); that they were willing to annually invest to be competitive; and, despite being an upstate New York native, Washington appealed to him and his wife, Jen, as place to be for several years.

Corbin’s presence takes a rotation that plummeted to 13th in starter ERA among National League teams last season and puts it back toward the top. Tanner Roark will slot in behind the uber-rich trio. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde are among the contenders for the final spot. Rizzo took the organization’s cash and dumped it into his annual priority. He hopes it pays them back. 

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