BY ROB SHAW
It was a lively off-season in the Big Leagues for certain as the best leadoff hitter and two of the best sluggers moved to new teams this winter. While a great deal of the attention turned to the Marlins who unveiled a new logo, new jerseys, a new stadium, and new acquisitions, the quiet Nationals should attract the most attention because of their sudden rise in expectations in the NL East.
The news with the greatest impact coming from the Nationals during the off-season wasn’t the trade for Gio Gonzalez or even the latest news from top phenom Bryce Harper. Instead, the it came at the end of February when the face of the franchise, Ryan Zimmerman, signed on the dotted line to a six-year $100 million deal. The deal sends an important message to the Nationals that they are not just about developing young talent, but keeping that talent around for the years to come to compete with the best in the NL.
The star third baseman told us, “I’ve been here through the not too good years, I wanted to make sure to be here for the good times that are about to come.” Zimmerman added, “They’ve done it the right way, they drafted good, they built out their farm system, kind of made it so that we won’t be good for one or two years, but 10 or 15.”
The fact that Zimmerman opted to stay long-term with the Nationals was met with affirmation from his teammates. Hurler Jordan Zimmerman said, “Yeah he made it clear that he wanted to stay here and stay here for the long haul, and build a team around him. The owners are all for it and I think it is going to be good for the club in the long run.”
There are a lot of household names on the Nationals this season. Jayson Werth did not meet expectations last season, we discussed Zimmerman, Michael Morse is now a star after what he did last year, but one guy who is sneaking under the radar despite the fact that he posted sensational numbers last season was Jordan Zimmerman.
Zimmerman is an ace. Last year, he actually truly was the number one, and maybe that explains why his record is not as impressive as his ERA and his WHIP. On the other hand, this year he will be matching with a lot of number twos and threes since Strasburg is the opening day starter. This is really big for the Nationals, because that gives them an advantage in every game that he pitches. Maybe 15-17 wins is a realistic target for the young hurler.
Zimmerman is optimistic about the team’s chances of clinching the division. “We had some key pickups this year and I think we are going to have a great starting staff and picked up Lidge and a couple of other guys in the bullpen who are going to help out big time. So I am pretty excited to get going this season.”
I see Washington as the favorite in the NL East. The Phillies may have that big three, but there’s a big three in Washington now that is younger and perhaps will end up more durable this season. You look at the offense for the Nationals, they took away Jayson Werth from the Phillies and with the Phillies having injuries to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, there are some serious concerns there. I think the offense is better for the Nationals, perhaps the numbers won’t reflect that because of the pitcher’s park.
The Braves are a good team. I don’t think they have the rotation that the Nationals have. The Marlins are a good team too. They don’t have the depth in the rotation. Also, the Nationals bullpen ace is Tyler Clippard, one of the best middle relievers in baseball, and when Drew Storen comes back healthy, he could be lights out yet again.
This Nationals team should be the favorite in the NL East. And it’s great because it’s going to surprise a lot of people. So as far as expectations, they should be sky high. Washington fans, you have something to be excited about this season.
by Eno Sarris //
We already talked about what happened in Octavio Dotel’s wake in Pittsburgh. Now it’s time to examine the new closer situation in D.C.
Matt Capps left for Minnesota and left an open job behind him. It’s not entirely clear who will assume the mantle there, though there is an early favorite. Drew Storen is thought to be the guy to become the closer in Washington, because he was drafted in the first round and was given the title of Closer of the Future. Was the hype warranted?
Yes and no. The no first: Storen is not currently showing any elite results. His strikeout rate (7.62 K/9), walk rate (3.84 BB/9) and groundball rate (37.9%) are all below average. He does have what might be described as a ‘closer’s arsenal,’ with a 94.5 MPH fastball, an 84.4 MPH slider, and an 82.5 MPH curveball. All three pitches rate as net positives according to the Pitch Type Values at FanGraphs.com, which use changes in the state of a game to evaluate each type of pitch. It’s also important to remember that Storen is only 33 innings into his major league career, and had a double-digit strikeout rate in the minor leagues (10.7 K/9).
Elsewhere, Tyler Clippard has finally turned a nice strikeout rate from the minor leagues (9.2 K/9 career, with most of it starting, higher as a reliever) into good numbers in the major leagues this year (10.18 K/9). On the other hand, he has a scary walk rate, both this year (4.24 BB/9) and for his career (4.80 BB/9). Also, if Storen is a slight flyball pitcher (and this at risk of giving up deadly home runs) Clippard is ridiculously so (55.1% flyballs this year, 56.3% for his career).
Last but not least is the man that actually garnered the first post-Capps save: Sean Burnett. Burnett has no obvious flaws – his strikeout rate (8.38 K/9), walk rate (3.26 BB/9) and groundball rates (56.6%) are all better than average for a reliever, and passable for a closer. On the other hand, there’s the fact that his career rates (6.05 K/9, 4.17 BB/9 and 52.6% groundballs) are all below his current performance. Also worth noticing is his handedness. Southpaws are sometimes shunned by managers when it comes to picking a closer – there are only two lefties in the top 25 in saves right now. It probably has to do with the fact that lefties are more often used as specialists. Burnett’s platoon splits are also troublesome: In his career, he has struck out 11.15 per nine innings against lefties, but only 6.56 per nine against righties.
This is not an open-and-shut case. Storen doesn’t have the obvious flaws that Clippard does, and he also doesn’t have the platoon split that Burnett has shown so far. Those factors, plus Storen being the 10th pick in the draft and thus someone the club would more likely lean on, make him the man to pick up. Burnett may steal the odd save when a lefty-heavy lineup comes up in the ninth, but Storen should get most of the Nationals’ saves for the rest of this season, and in future seasons.
For more on Drew Storen and other closer candidates, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.