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August 9, 2009

On the Beat

Weekend Roundup

by John Perrotto

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It would certainly be understandable if the Nationals were ready to pack it in by now. They have the worst record in the major leagues at 39-72. Their season has been turbulent from its start, with general manager Jim Bowden resigning on March 1 because of a scandal involving bonus skimming in the Dominican Republic that rocked the organization, and continuing on to when manager Manny Acta was fired after the final game before the All-Star break.

Normally, the dog days of August would mean the absolute worst part of the season for a team like the Nationals. Yet, they are playing with a renewed vigor. "Our attitude has changed and it's a good sign," left-hander John Lannan said. "We're finishing this year strong. We're not giving up, which is a good sign for the rest of the year and going into next year."

Simply put, the Nationals refuse to be pushovers in the season's final weeks. "Winning fixes a lot of things," first baseman Adam Dunn said. "Kick our record out. We're having fun."

The record, of course, can't be kicked out. As the great football philosopher Bill Parcells once said. "you are what your record says you are." However, the Nationals are showing some spark, having won seven in a row, and 11 of their last 15 games. That may not make much impact on this season, but assistant general manager and vice president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo feels the hot streak confirms his belief that the Nationals are not far away from being competitive. That is why he declined to trade Dunn and left fielder Josh Willingham at the July 31 non-waiver deadline despite getting heavy interest on both sluggers. "We are in a building process, not a rebuilding process," said Rizzo, who assumed the duties of general manager without the title when Bowden stepped down. "There is a difference. We don't want to subtract from what we already have-we want add to it. This is a team that, in my opinion, is not far away from being a good, solid baseball team. We've got some good core players who we feel can win in the very near future."

The two players at the heart of that core are third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Jesus Flores, both 24. Zimmerman is 17th in the National League with a .306 EqA, while Flores seemed primed for a breakout year as he had a .309 EqA in 103 plate appearances before suffering a season-ending stress fracture in his right shoulder in May. Rizzo showed his belief in Willingham, third in the NL with .337 EqA, and Dunn, sixth with .327 mark, by not trading them, and his faith that shortstop Cristian Guzman (.264) can continue to contribute.

Rizzo also feels that center fielder and leadoff hitter Nyjer Morgan (.305) has become the team's lynchpin since being acquired from the Pirates in a June 30 trade. "Nyjer's been great on the field," Rizzo said. "There is no doubt in my mind he can steal 50 bases a season when healthy, and the scout's eye will tell you he's been as good as any center fielder in the game defensively this season and sabermetrics back that up. But that doesn't tell the whole story about Nyjer. He's just an incredibly upbeat guy. The first thing he said to me when I met him was, 'Hey, I'm going to make this trade look good for you.' He has transformed our whole clubhouse with his personality. He walked into our clubhouse and lifted the dark cloud that had been hanging over us all year with that smile of his."

What gives Rizzo and interim manager Jim Riggleman even more reason to smile is a starting rotation in which Lannan continues to emerge as the ace at 24 with a 4.1 SNLVAR. Rookies have combined to start 66 of 111 games this season. "Not only is our starting pitching young but it is talented," Riggleman said. "Anytime you have potentially good starting position, it gives you reason for hope. When I see the type of talented young areas we have, I can see us becoming good quicker than you might think if you just looked at our record this season."

The Nationals' bullpen was beyond awful during the early part of the season but even that part of the team has settled down into at least a passable unit. "We've done a lot of shuffling there," Rizzo said. "None of the seven relievers we have started the season with are still with us. We've looked at a lot of different guys in a lot of different roles, and it's been painful at times, but we've gotten beyond that and things are really solidifying."

The situation in the front office remains fluid, as the Nationals say they won't make a decision on whether Rizzo will be promoted until after the season. Those close to the Nationals' situation believe Rizzo will get the job if the decision is left to club president Stan Kasten. However, there is a feeling that the owners of the team, the Lerner family, may want to make a splash by bringing in both a big-name GM and manager. "The Lerners are very smart people and I know they will make the right decision for the long-term success of the franchise," Rizzo said. "I've been in the game 30 years and I've worked in every role in a front office that would prepare me to be a GM and I've basically been the general manager this season. I feel those experiences have prepared me for the next step and I'd very much like to continue on and see this franchise have success."

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WARP, Baseball Prospectus' stat for 'wins above replacement player,' expresses a major leaguer's overall value in one nice and tidy number. However, you don't need to tell that Diamondbacks right-hander Max Scherzer-he knows what WARP is. His goal in this his first full major league season is to finish with a WARP of 4.0 or better. As Scherzer told the Arizona Republic's Nick Piecoro, "My brother sends me text messages all the time saying, 'Why can't you be a four-win pitcher?'"

It was Scherzer's younger brother Alex, currently a business economics major at the University of Missouri, who got him interested in sabermetrics. Now, Scherzer uses some of the advanced metrics from BP and other sources to prepare for starts and analyze his outings. "They are a different way to look at the same game and realize what the driving forces are that make a pitcher successful," Scherzer said. "If I want to go out there and lower my ERA, I've got to do certain things that are driving forces. At the end, it really comes down to the same thing: get ahead of the hitters. It goes without saying if you can throw strike one well and get ahead of hitters with two strikes, you're going to pitch well."

Scherzer first became a believer in statistical analysis during his freshman season at Missouri where the coaches stressed first-strike percentage. "When you have to ride the bench because you're not throwing strikes, you learn real quickly to throw strikes," Scherzer said. "That's when I think I bought into taking a systematic approach to pitching."

And how is Scherzer progressing on his goal of being a four-win pitcher this season? His WARP1 is currently 2.3.

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The Indians won six American League Central titles in a seven-year span from 1995-2001 while also appearing in two World Series. However, in the wake of trading left-hander Cliff Lee and catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez last month, and also claiming that the Indians will lose $16 million this season, club president Paul Dolan says another run like that for the franchise is now impossible.

"The big-market teams have manipulated the draft and the international free-agent markets," Dolan said. "So you've got a team like Boston that brings in the elite international free agents and also the elite prospects in the draft. There needs to be a worldwide draft with a slotting system similar to what they have in the NBA. That's going to be a priority in the next collective bargaining agreement. We'll never get a level playing field but the gap needs to be closer than it is now."

The Indians also traded left-hander CC Sabathia to the Brewers last season before potentially losing him as a free agent. Dolan believes a low-budget team will never be able to keep a star of Sabathia's magnitude over the long haul. "Unless the baseball world changes, when you look at CC's situation, there was no chance that Cleveland or Milwaukee or any team in our size markets will ever be able to afford to sign free agents of that level," Dolan said. "That's the reality for us and we need to learn how to operate as successfully as we can within that reality."

The Indians were expected to be a strong contender in the AL Central this season. Instead, they are 47-62. Frustrated fans want to see general manager Mark Shapiro and manager Eric Wedge fired. Dolan would not guarantee that either will be back next season. Shapiro is under contract through 2012 and Wedge is signed through 2010. "We'll look at everything," Dolan said. "We're all disappointed about the last two years but you've got to look at their full body of work. The last four seasons we are fifth in the American League wins, behind only the big-market teams. That's a significant accomplishment in today's baseball economy. If every four or five years we get a shot at making it to the World Series, which we did in 2007, and maybe contend in another one of those years, that's about as good as it gets for a team in our market. Having said that, we did feel we had the talent to do better in the last two years than we've done. We'll make the changes we need to make to correct those problems."

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The Padres' record isn't much better than of the Nationals', as they are 47-65. However, ownership is not holding that against manger Bud Black, instead giving him a one-year contract extension this past week that takes him through next season. Jeff Moorad, who took over as the Padres' chief executive officer earlier this season, has quickly become fond of Black, and believes that he is the right man for the job despite a 199-238 record in three seasons skippering the San Diego squad.

"The young guys on the team like Bud," general manager Kevin Towers observed. "They respect Buddy and play hard for him. And Bud handles himself well. He's bright. He's open to new ideas. I've never seen Buddy have a bad day. Jeff really liked Buddy a lot. Jeff is the guy who said, 'Let's get this done.' Personally, I think this has been Buddy's best year. He's done a nice job of working with what he has to work with. I'm excited. I'm totally wrong but I don't think this rebuilding process will take as long as we thought."

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Blue Jays are considering allowing the White Sox to take outfielder Alex Rios and the $59 million left on his contract on a straight waiver claim if they are unable to work out a trade. … There is growing feeling around baseball circles that Mets GM Omar Minaya will be fired at the end of the season. ... Reds manager Dusty Baker's job is safe despite his team's freefall. … The Phillies will likely find a phantom injury to hide Jamie Moyer on the Disabled List to make room in the rotation for Pedro Martinez, but there is also a chance the 46-year-old left-hander could be traded or released. … The Orioles are considering releasing third baseman Melvin Mora, who they will not be bringing back as a free agent after the season. … Twins left-hander Franciscio Liriano, just a shell of his pre-Tommy John surgery self, is in danger of losing his spot in the starting rotation. … Cubs catcher Geovany Soto has come off the disabled list, but Koyie Hill is expected to continue to get considerable playing time behind the plate. … The Tigers are considering going with Alex Avila, just called up from Double-A Erie, as their primary catcher, and relegating Gerald Laird to backup. … The Blue Jays aren't letting the absence of closer Scott Downs on the DL get in the way of their reviewing alternatives; they will take a look at such pitchers as Jason Frasor, Brandon League, and Josh Roenicke in the closer's role. … Right-hander Scott Mathieson, shining at Double-A Reading after undergoing two Tommy John ligament-replacement surgeries on his elbow, could provide relief help for the Phillies down the stretch. … The Braves are on the lookout for bullpen help through a waiver deal.

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Three series to watch next week, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

Tigers at Red Sox, Monday-Thursday (August 10-13)
Edwin Jackson vs. Brad Penny, 7:10 p.m. (ESPN); Rick Porcello vs. Junichi Tazawa, 7:10 p.m.; Armando Galarraga vs. Josh Beckett, 7:10 p.m.; Justin Verlander vs. Clay Buchholz, 1:35 p.m. (MLB Network)

Dodgers at Giants, Monday-Wednesday (August 10-12)
Hiroki Kuroda vs. Jonathan Sanchez, 10:15 p.m.; Randy Wolf vs. Joe Martinez, 10:15 p.m.; Chad Billingsley vs. Tim Lincecum, 3:45 p.m.

Phillies at Cubs, Tuesday-Thursday (August 11-13)
J.A. Happ vs. Rich Harden, 8:05 p.m.; Cliff Lee vs. Jeff Samardzija, 8:05 p.m. (ESPN); Joe Blanton vs. Ryan Dempster, 2:20 p.m.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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