Observations and analysis of the biggest developments at Nats camp
1. What’s the biggest concern for the Nationals this coming season?
Second baseman Daniel Murphy on Wednesday (March 21) admitted what many of us have suspected for months – he will not be ready for Opening Day, which is March 29: “I think it’s reasonable to expect I won’t be in the opening day lineup.”
We learned on Oct. 20 – the same day on which we learned that Dusty Baker was out as Nats manager – that Murphy had undergone microfracture surgery on his right knee that day. I said going into Nats camp that Murphy was a far bigger injury worry than left fielder Adam Eaton, who suffered his torn left ACL and torn left meniscus (and a high-left-ankle sprain) last April 28. We learned very early in spring training that he should/will be ready for Opening Day. Murphy is a different story. His recovery has been slow and, while he is expected to be ready at some point during the first month of the season, he will not be ready for the beginning.
Now, this is not a huge deal, especially when you consider that the Nats have Howie Kendrick (119 OPS+ over 334 plate appearances with the Nats and Philadelphia last season) and Wilmer Difo who can play second base. The Nats also could have Difo play shortstop, at which he had 14 Defensive Runs Saved over 473 1/3 innings last season, and move Trea Turner back to second base during Murphy’s absence.
But what if Murphy’s right knee plagues him the entire season? This is a guy going into his age-33 season. He is tied for eighth in the majors with a 146 wRC+ over the last two seasons. Plate appearance for plate appearance, he has been an elite batter over his two seasons with the Nats. Murphy not being this coming season what he has been over the last two seasons would be a problem.
Here are two other guys worthy of concern for the 2018 Nats, who, on paper, are loaded for another 90-plus-win season:
1. Matt Wieters – He is set to be the Nats’ no. 1 catcher for a second consecutive season despite having been terrible last season. Wieters’ 2017 bWAR was a woeful -0.6. He was the worst hitting catcher in the majors last season: wRC+ of 62, which was no. 33 out of 33 catchers each with at least 300 plate appearances. His framing numbers were terrible again: Baseball Prospectus ranked Wieters no. 108 out 110 catchers with -13.6 Framing Runs Above Average.
The good news is that Wieters has lost considerable weight and has had a good spring training. Also, it’s worth noting that he had a 1.9 bWAR as recently as 2016.
But you can’t ignore not just how bad Wieters was last season but also that the Nats tried to move on from Wieters over the last few months in multiple ways. The team reportedly tried to trade for Miami’s J.T. Realmuto and nearly traded Wieters to Oakland earlier this month according to A’s insider Jane Lee of MLB.com.
2. Tanner Roark – He struggled again this spring-training season on Thursday (March 22), allowing nine runs in 3 2/3 innings in a 12-5 loss to the Mets. Roark now has a 7.23 ERA over six starts this spring-training season – 15 earned runs in 18 2/3 innings.
Something that still sticks with me is what Roark said after making his Grapefruit League debut in a 3-2 loss to Miami on Feb. 24. It was after the outing that he opened up about his struggles last season, during which he had a 4.67 ERA over 32 games (including 30 starts): “I was just in my head, just thinking too much. And when you think, you suck.”
There are two things that strike me with Roark going into the 2018 season. The first is, yes, him coming off a down season, what was in fact a second down season in three years. Roark has alternated between really good and bad over the last four seasons. He was terrific in 2014 and 2016; he struggled in 2015 and 2017. 2018 is an even-numbered season, so maybe that’s a good sign.
If you look at the peripherals of his 2017 season, you don’t exactly see a bunch of signs indicating that a bounce-back season should be coming. His hard-contact-allowed percentage last season was a career-worst 27.8. His soft-contact-allowed percentage last season was a career-worst 16.7. His average fastball velocity was 92.8, down nearly a full mile-per-hour from 2015’s 93.7. His BB/9 was a career-worst 3.18. His WHIP was a career-worst 1.335.
All of that said, Roark did have a career-best K/9 of 8.24 last season. And this is a guy who, again, was really good in 2014 and 2016. Roark was fourth in the majors with a 151 ERA+ in 2016. That shouldn’t be forgotten.
The second thing that strikes me regarding Roark going in the 2018 season is how his 2017 season ended. He wasn’t used at all during the Nats’ five-game NLDS loss to the Cubs. I though that he and not Gio Gonzalez should have started Game 5. That was a first-guess, and we saw what happened with Gio in that game. But how could Roark not have been angry off not being used at all in that series? How could he not harbor at least some resentment toward the team for that? I talked about this with Nats insider Mark Zuckerman of MASNSports.com shortly after the end of the Nats’ 2017 season, and he agreed. Roark is set to be a free agent after the 2019 season. He needs to pitch better this season than he has in two of the last three seasons, no doubt. I wonder if some anger might be fueling that.
2. The no. 5 spot in the Nationals’ rotation is set – for now
Nats manager Dave Martinez announced on Friday (March 23) that A.J. Cole will begin the season as the Nats’ no. 5 starter. But how long that lasts for is anyone’s guess.
It was hard to ignore what went down in the Nats’ two split-squad games on Friday. Cole struggled in a 3-1 loss to Houston, giving up three runs in four innings on five hits, five walks and two wild pitches. Meantime, Jeremy Hellickson, who was signed to a minor-league deal on March 17, shined in a 6-3 win over Miami, allowing one run in four innings with four strikeouts.
The buzz at Nats camp in West Palm Beach, Fla. remains that Hellickson has a great chance of overtaking Cole as the Nats’ no. 5 starter. Personally, I still don’t get this. It’s not that Cole is great. It’s that Hellickson has been really bad. Over 134 games (including 133 starts) over the last five seasons, he has a 4.69 ERA and 87 ERA+. He’s not a strikeout pitcher. He gives up home runs. The Orioles acquired Hellickson from Philadelphia last July, and he was horrendous for them over 10 starts (6.97 ERA). Hellickson’s 2016 season with the Phillies is his lone good season since 2013. Mike Rizzo gets a benefit of the doubt that most other general managers do not, so perhaps he and his staff have reason to prefer Hellickson over Cole. But how in the world can you ignore Hellickson’s bottom-line results over the last five years?
Also this week was the Nats optioning their top pitching prospect, Erick Fedde, to Triple-A Syracuse on Thursday (March 22). Fedde never seemed like he had much of a chance of winning the no. 5 spot due to him still having minor-league options, him not having pitched well over three major-league starts last season and him having been shut down in September due to a right forearm flexor strain. But Martinez had high praise for Fedde, whose velocity was quite good this spring training. Fedde should still very much be considered a factor for the Nats’ 2018 rotation.
3. New Nationals manager Dave Martinez is open to batting Bryce Harper in the leadoff spot
Martinez revealed this openness on Thursday (March 22). As Jessie Spano once sang on Saved By The Bell, “I’m so excited!”
One of my biggest complaints about Dusty Baker over the last two seasons was the extent to which he didn’t optimize his lineups. Now, did this prevent the Nats from winning back-to-back National League East titles? No. But that’s not the point. Dusty batted Ben Revere and a then-struggling Michael A. Taylor in the top two spots in lineups way too often in 2016 and then batted Brian Goodwin in the no. 1 spot, Wilmer Difo in the no. 2 spot and Anthony Rendon in the no. 6 spot way too often in 2017. The basic idea with optimal lineup construction is to get your best hitters the most plate appearances possible, as each spot in the batting order is worth about 17 more plate appearances per season than the next lineup spot. A manager should have his best batters high up in his lineup. It’s as simple as that. That Martinez is at least open to this is great news.
And it’s hard not to think that where Martinez has been has nothing to do with this openness. Martinezz spent the last 10 seasons as Joe Maddon’s bench coach, including the last three seasons with the Cubs. Do you know who had the most plate appearances for the Cubs the last two seasons in the no. 2 spot? Their best batter, Kris Bryant.
And less-than-optimized lineups can hurt a team. Look no further than the Nats’ 3-0 loss to the Cubs in NLDS Game 1 last Oct. 6. Dusty had Matt Wieters in the no. 7 spot ahead of Michael A. Taylor. Taylor was light years ahead of Wieters last season. And I don’t care that Taylor is faster and thus potentially easier to bunt over for the pitcher, or that Wieters is a switch hitter. Those things don’t matter nearly as much as getting your best batters the most plate appearances possible. Did you notice what happened in the bottom of the fourth? Jayson Werth worked a two-out walk, but Wieters then struck out on four pitches to end the inning. Taylor should have been batting, not Wieters. Runs were scarce in that game. Lineups matter.