Oh the Humanity!

Honestly, I just haven’t had the energy to post lately. It’s a combination of getting into the final month of studying for the CFA and the continuously horrible outings of the Nationals. As if the weekend when we lost three to Florida in three consecutive ninth inning blow-ups wasn’t enough, I watched last night’s game as we hammered the Phillies for 11 runs and it still wasn’t enough as the bullpen, again, came out throwing garbage to the heart of the Phillies’ order. They gave up two grand slams in one game, which would be unbelievable if I didn’t see it with my own eyes.

Last year, the team suffered deficiencies in almost every aspect of the game (hitting, slugging, scoring, defense, starting pitching, relief pitching). This season we have no trouble scoring runs…it’s the pitching and defense that remain elusive. Although to be fair, last night’s conflagration was all a lack of pitching, as the Nats ended the night without committing an error. I sat and watched the final two innings, deep down knowing that without Joe Beimel to set up the eighth, the bullpen was well-prepared to screw the pooch. And sure enough, in 15 minutes I witnessed one of the worst displays of relief pitching thus far as Mock and Hanrahan pitched around batters and ended up walking them or allowing them to advance by wild pitches. Nobody’s going to swing at a slider that hits the groub a foot in front of the plate…only in cricket.

In 15 minutes not only was the 4 run lead gone, but it had morphed into a 2 run deficit. We hit five home runs last night and that still wasn’t enough to prevent the bullpen from handing the game to the Phillies. As a fan, I know my knowledge of the team has a natural upper bound, so my prescrptions for what ails the Nationals is going to be ill-informed. But really, we’ve played at least 5 games this season that we should have won and that were lost by poor relief pitching. It’s really as simple as that. Defense has been a culprit as well, but when your pitcher gives up the only hit that could spell disaster for your team night after night, it’s evident there are big problems in the bullpen. Should Hanrahan be taken out of the closer’s role? Maybe. Although who do you put in there? Beimel is fantastic as a set up man, but he’s also on the DL for another week so let’s set him aside. Perhaps using a closer by committee would have to do for the next week, although Wells or Tavarez could fill in thanks to their veteran status.

Regardless, Hanrahan doesn’t have the mental toughness right now to be the closer and end a damn game. He does have it, but for some reason it’s gone right now. Put him as a middle relief guy for a while, anything to get him away from the ninth inning where he’s been so helpful to opposing batters.

For the love of God, I can’t watch us play6 or 7 good innings because that will lead to a loss, well, 14 times out of 18, apparently.

Reflecting on 0 and 7…

What a terrible week to start the 2009 season, for both the Nats and baseball at-large. An 0 and 7 record means nothing in light of the tragic deaths of Nick Adenhart, Harry Kalas and Mark Fidrych all in one week. That certainly gives some perspective on a young baseball season.

Nonetheless, as a Nats fan it’s impossible not to feel disheartened at the state of play these past seven days. I watched a few of the first games but couldn’t bear to carve out time from my schedule to watch the atrocious games late last week. Being 0 and 7 is embarassing, but no more so than losing 102 games all last season, so that doesn’t really matter. Just about every team goes through years they’d just as soon forget so am I really embarassed about being a Nats fan given their terrible start this year? No.

I’m frustrated that a team with such talent is playing so far under their abilities. Are the Nats going to win the NL East? No, not this season. But they can beat the Marlins and the Braves consistently. Everyone waits in line to talk about how those teams can hit, but any team can hit against the lackluster pitching put up by the Nats last week so let’s not annoint either team as the next Murderer’s Row quite yet. If I had to hear Bob Carpenter say, “Man, this team can hit, can’t they?!” one more time last week, I was going to swear off MASN for a month. You’re the announcer for the Nats…at least try to act like you don’t want to make out with the Marlins and Braves each time they get a hit against poor pitching. Geez.

I was happy to see that the Nats got some gumption and sent Milledge to Syracuse. As Boz says in his most recent column, showing up just before team stretches and late to team meetings and acting like the club owes you playing time is a bad precedent. Plus we have other outfielders (i.e. Dukes and Willingham) who want to play and are hitting. Get them out there! I still think Willingham will work out as a nice 4th outfielder (maybe a starter if Kearns can’t get the bat going and earn his way to a trade soon).

I’m not about to give up on them, of course. In fact, if I could go to every Nats home game (with good seats, of course), I would because it’s obvious the team wants to win…I don’t see any display, aside from episodes of nonchalance from Milledge, from players that they aren’t trying to win or working hard. That doesn’t excuse mistakes made, but when Adam Dunn hits a home run, a double and walks once and takes the blame for the 9-8 loss to the Phillies because of a missed ball, well, I think that should say something to the rest of the team.

Check out this article by Dave Sheinin from today’s WaPo regarding Opening Day and fans’ reaction to it. My general thought is that it’s going to suck to be a Nats fan for a while. Our team isn’t going to blow the doors off the NL for a while and the process is going to be slow. But I have confidence in the FO and in Manny and in the players that they will work to create a great team and franchise. It won’t happen tomorrow or even by September…but these are the seasons when the groundwork for later successes can be laid. A big part of that is being a fan, even if you can’t go to the ballpark. It’s fine to gripe and complain and voice opinions that are different…

I’m not saying mindless acceptance is the way to go here. I definitely think Stan Kasten should not go to Philly or New York and tell fans to come to DC because the tickets are easier to acquire than they are in other cities. Then we’d have the same problems as the Orioles, also known as Fenway South when the Red Sox come to town. Or the Yankees. There are more New York or Boston fans in the stands than O’s fans and that’s sad for Baltimore fans. Personally, I wear Nats gear when I go to any game, so I contribute in a miniscule way to that, but more people are willing to fly to see the Red Sox than drive to see the Orioles in Baltimore, that’s a problem and it’s something I don’t want to see happen at Nationals Park. Selling tickets is one thing. Setting out to sell tickets to opposing team fans is another.

Anyway, I digress. I’m not giving up on the Nats and think sending Milledge down to the minors to sit in time out is a good sign that Manny and the coaches aren’t going to sit around and wait for something magical to happen to rescue what can still be a very good season with lots of improvement. THey are going to take the bull by the horns and try to keep this team from falling into the 6-month funk that beset the Nats last year. And I for one intend on watching as many games as I can…but only if Bob Carpenter stops salivating over other teams’ batting orders. 

Why I’m Thankful for the WaPo Nats Coverage

In today’s Wall Street Journal, I read an article (I put the link at the bottom of the post) about the thinning ranks of baseball beat writers. Specifically, the decline of reporters who are tasked solely with following the paper’s hometown team. It was an interesting article that highlights an interesting trend in baseball writing that you don’t really see with other sports. Baseball columnists have been around practically since the dawn of the game, for better and for worse. As a result, papers have carved out select niches for their baseball writers and have been, until recently, loathe to touch the third rail of sports journalism: cutting baseball coverage. This same trend can be seen in towns with crazes about other sports too, like Detroit with hockey. But baseball is the usual suspect. Almost every major daily newspaper has cut content in various sections, including Sports, but I don’t know of any major paper (in a major city) that has cut its baseball reporter’s coverage. Maybe that’s wrong so please feel free to correct me.

At any rate, the article is saying that the contraction in the newspaper business is finally cutting deep enough into papers’ budgets that baseball writers are starting to thin out in larger numbers. Small and medium sized papers have been the hardest hit for obvious reasons. And even major papers are looking for innovative ways to cover more baseball with fewer resources. The example given in the article is the content-sharing agreement between the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. The Post covers everything Nationals while the Sun covers everything Orioles. This also extends to football as well. I like that arrangement because it allows each city to concentrate on covering its home team. And, with the web at your fingertips, you can easily keep up with the Nats while living in Baltimore (as I do) or vice versa.

In my opinion, this agreement actually benefits Nationals fans more than O’s fans because the WaPo, while struggling along with other newspapers, is known as one the premminent national and international newspapers, particularly for political reporting (thanks Woodward & Bernstein. In a strange way, Watergate may save WaPo sports coverage…weird). The result is that while times are tough, they aren’t as bad as times for the Sun here in Baltimore. I rarely read the Sun and instead get my B’more news from local news (awful), the Sun’s website (rare), or City Paper. The Sun’s website is pretty terrible and the sports coverage is not very good. They have columnists, but there’s just a dwindling ad revenue stream to fund it so it’s been getting worse every year. If I were an O’s fan, I would probably get more of my team news from MLB.com or the major sports sites instead.

At least with WaPo, I have Thomas Boswell, who I think is an incredible asset to have as a Nats and baseball writer. But then I also am lucky to have several reporters who write articles and blog posts on Nationals Journal and Baseball Insider (another WaPo sports blog) several times per day. Despite Chico-gate from a few weeks ago, Chico, Dave, Barry, Tracee and Amy are all doing a great job, in my opinion, and I consider it a luxury to have such a large staff writing about my favorite team. Boz isn’t going anywhere anytime and fans (like me) complain enough as it is when the Sports editors even imagine for a moment cutting space for the Nats at the expense of DC United (seriously, soccer? horrible) that I think the Nationals coverage is here to stay…hopefully!

The Sun’s O’s coverage…probably stays around on life support for now.

Anyway, check out the article using the link below…it’s worth the 10 minutes to read it.

Baseball Writers Brace for the End 

Tuesdays With Moping

I got home from work yesterday in time to see the back third of the Nats’ Opening Day game against the Fish of Miami. I had sat down with a beer and some Tacos at Midnight flavored Doritos (best flavor, bar none, other than the original Nacho Cheese) when Adam Dunn hit a ball to Orlando and cut the Marlins’ lead to three runs. I was excited! This was a great sign! Three runs…we can do that! We can win. Oh wait, two errors, a walk and a grand slam later I’m back to reality.

It’s possible that the Nats would have lost yesterday’s game no matter what had happened in the bottom of the 6th, but certainly that half inning was calamitous. The errors were just terrible to watch from one of my favorite players, and I know it had to eat at him when Ramirez hit that grand slam. But am I paniced? Am I expecting the rest of this season to be one long bottom of the sixth? No, and I have a coupel reasons. First, there’s no way you can predict how a team will do by the outcome of their Opening Day game. Or, rather, you can’t predict a season by how a team plays in their first game, regardless of outcome. If the Nats had won yesterday by some miracle of modern sports, that would not have indicated the poor way in wich they would have played the vast majority of the game. Now, if they’re still playing like this at the All Star break…Second, I refuse to be one of those fans who goes through the season moping about as if they were some Russian serf who believes that they were born to be fans of a terrible team and that the czar creates electricity (that’s true, you know. Old Russian serfs believed the czar had created electricity and given it to them as a gift when homes and cities and villages were first being electrified at the turn of the century).

No, I won’t hang my head because the team I root for and have rooted for since it’s inception has (since its inception, really) been bad. Besides, one bad game does not a season doom. And really, I’m not looking for a pennant…I want progress and as long as I see that in the Nationals this year, I’m happy.

So anyway, I’m not giving up on the season quite yet, unlike some other fans who seem to delight in oscillating between mild support and outright lamentation for the future of baseball in Washington. However I fully realize this is not unique to Washington fans.

We’ll be OK. The Nats will win more than 59 games this year. This season will be better than last.  We will make progress. It won’t be like being a Phillie or Met fan. Don’t mope…it’s not even the second game of the season yet! Only mope if nothing improves.

Monday Can of Corn: OPENING DAY 2009!

It’s finally here! After what has seemed like years of waiting through the cold, dark months of winter, baseball season is finally here. Opening Day for the Nationals is but a few hours away! It’s been raining here in Baltimore all day, but should be clearing up just in time for the O’s games against the Yankees today at 4:05 PM. I can see Camden Yards from my office high on the 23rd floor of our building and they’ve had the lights on all day, probably getting everything ready.

With the season just hours away, I thought this would be the ideal post for my 2009 season predictions. In addition to predicting the divisions, I’ll give a handful of Nats-specific predictions courtesy of Nationals Journal. If you want to see other fans’ predictions for the Nationals this season, head over the Nationals Journal. Here are my overall standings predictions:

NL EAST
1. New York Mets
2. Philadelphia Phillies
3. Washington Nationals (yeah, that’s right…bold predictions)
4. Atlanta Braves
5. Florida/Miami Marlins

NL CENTRAL
1. Chicago Cubs
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Milwaukee Brewers
4. Cincinnati Reds
5. Houston Astros
6. Pittsburgh Pirates

NL WEST
1. L.A. Dodgers
2. Arizona Diamondbacks
3. San Francisco Giants
4.Colorado Rockies
5. San Diego Padres

AL EAST
1. Boston Red Sox
2. Tampa Rays (I know, catching lightning in a bottle twice)
3. New York Yankees
4. Baltimore Orioles
5. Toronto Blue Jays

AL CENTRAL
1. Cleveland Indians
2. Minnesota Twins
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Detroit Tigers
5. Kansas City Royals

AL WEST
1. Oakland A’s
2. Anaheim Angels
3. Texas Rangers
4. Seattle Mariners

NLCS
New York Mets beat L.A. Dodgers

ALCS
Minnesota Twins beat Cleveland Indians

WORLD SERIES

New York Mets beat Minnesota Twins

NATIONALS PREDICTIONS

1. 2009 win total – 76-86
2. Attendance at Nationals Park (81 dates; last year’s was 2.32 million) – 2.51 million
3. All-star representative(s) – Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman
4. Adam Dunn’s home run total – 35
5. Date of Stephen Strasburg’s major league debut – 2010
6. Nick Johnson’s total games played – 125 (I know, this would be an upset)
7. Wins for John Lannan – 10
8. Percentage of season Dmitri Young spends in big leagues, not on DL – 15%
9. Josh Willingham’s total at bats – 300 (come on, he HAS to get played or traded)
10. Innings pitched for Daniel Cabrera – 192
11. Team ERA leader – Among starters: Olsen Among bullpen: Tavarez because he’s nuts. 
12. Team batting average leader – For everyday players: Dukes (this is his year! maybe.)
13. Biggest surprise – Austin Kearns plays well…and gets traded along with Da Meat Hook and Willie Harris
14. Biggest disappointment – Nick Johnson gets hurt…more than once…again.  
15. Current minor leaguer (not counting Zimmermann) who will make an impact – Jason Bergmann 

There you have it. We’ll revisit these predictions later in the season and see who I’m doing. And then of course, we’ll compare these predictions to what actually transpires.

Monday Can of Corn: Why Keep Da Meat Hook Anyway?

We’re just a week away, basically, from Opening Day and I am getting excited! Spring Training is tough for fans and players alike because you start out in February really excited that the new season has started and Opening Day is just a few weeks away. However, ST seems to drag on by the third week of March (it’s been worse this year because they added a week due to the WBC). Fans and players alike hit that “dead” phase. Fans eventually grow tired of reading box scores for games that don’t matter, seeing players that have little chance of making the team, etc. Sure, we like seeing the potential stars of tomorrow, but my opinion is that unless you’re actually AT the ballgame, that magic is severely diluted by newspapers, blogs and TV. Players get dead legs, pitchers get dead arms around this time each ST, so we’re all itching for the season to begin.

The Nats have had what I would term a pretty solid ST. Nobody has gotten terribly injured (Anderson Hernandez and Ronnie Belliard will both be back either by Opening Day or shortly thereafter at 100%) and the rotation and bullpen have solidified to a certain degree. I remain convinced that the Nats will add to the bullpen within the first two months of the season and will trade an outfielder or two for some relief.

Here’s another prediction, although this one I am less sure of: The Nats are going to bring Da Meat Hook to the majors (this is not the prediction since it’s already been announced, obviosuly) in the hopes that he’ll perform well enough in a pinch-hitting roll or some variation thereof where he will be marketable to other teams in need of a solid bat. Then they’ll trade him away and offload that multi-million dollar contract. I wouldn’t be surprised if they do something similar with Austin Kearns. Nobody is going to want to acquire two expensive contracts like Young’s and Kearns’s if they’re playing AAA ball. But maybe if they’re hitting well against major league pitchers, a team will want them. Then you can trade for something you actually need (pitching!) and unload the millstones around your neck that are YOung’s and Kearns’s contracts. Like I said, it’s low-probability, but it could explain the mysterious decision by Rizzo, Kasten and Manny to keep Da Meat Hook on the roster. My inclination is that they couldn’t give a crap about any gentleman’s agreement between Bowden and Young…but it provides nice cover for their desire to ultimately trade him away and get younger talent in the system with that money. The same goes for Kearns, sans the handshake agreement. You ahve to provide evidence that another team will benefit from taking these guys off your hands. Nobody enters into a transaction unless they think they’re gaining something from it. Showing that both these guys still can hit at the major league level is all the evidence some teams may need.

I was sad to see Colin Balester sent to Syracuse but he’s just not ready for the majors yet. I realize he’s running out of seasons to become ready, but some of his outings were just not solid and lacked control. Too bad, but maybe he’ll improve and get called up later in the year. His poor ST was Jordan Zimmermann’s opportunity and is largely why (outside his great pitching performances, of course) he’s in Washington and not Syracuse for the start of the season. I’m interested to see how he does. He’s shown good poise thus far and will hopefully adjust well to the demands of being in the rotation full-time. I didn’t draft him in my fantasy league (joined my step brother’s league literally two hours before the draft so I’m really not expecting the No Talent *** Clowns to be a contender but it was free to join!) but did pick him up off waivers as his outings have remained constant. Who knows, maybe that will be a nice sleeper for me. For the Nats, I hope he really shines.

And with that, I leave you with a link to a story in the New York Times this weekend about the decline of the left-handed first baseman over the past sixty years. As a lefty myself and a former first baseman, it’s sad that this tradition (and arguable defensive advantage, according to the article) is going by the wayside. The article says that a lefty with good defensive skills and mobility is wasted at first…it would be interesting to run an analysis of all the right handed first basemen and all the left handed first basemen and compare fielding percentages or maybe how many ground balls hit to the gap between first and second were reached by righties and lefties…I don’t know. There’s a baseball PhD thesis in there somewhere.

The Decline of the First Baseman – Stuart Miller – NYT

Monday Can of Corn: If a Baseball Beatwriter Doesn’t Like Baseball, Does That Matter?

**Link to the article at Washingtonian Magazine added here.**

I was looking for a topic for today’s post all weekend and it wasn’t until about 8 PM on Sunday evening, as I watched the USA vs Japan WBC semifinal game that I found my topic, albeit reluctantly. The game is in the 9th and Team USA is down to three outs and are down 9-4…not good.

Anyway, I was perusing Nationals Journal this evening and came to this post, titled “An Apology” by the WaPo’s beatwriter, Chico Harlan. I have a limited knowledge of the background of Nationals Journal, but do know that up until the beginning of the 2008 season it was largely written by Barry Srvluga. Starting last season, Barry moved off covering the Nats day-to-day and Nationals Journal is now written largely by Chico Harlan, and is assisted by Dave Sheinen, Tracee Hamilton and Amy Shipley in a sort of platoon arrangement.

Harlan was interviewed for Washingtonian Magazine’s April edition and gave the following quotation, which I don’t think, from the post on NJ, is taken out of context:

“I don’t like sports — I am embarrassed that I cover them . . . I can’t wait to stop. It is a means to an end and a paycheck.”

And so that brings us to the Can of Corn topic for this week: is it important that a sportswriter, specifically a baseball beatwriter, enjoy the game his/her beat in order for the writing to be good and for readers to actually find value in what they write?

My unedcuated opinion is “Yes.” But there are exceptions, of course.

If you read Harlan’s post, he mentions that he was trying to convey that he had other interests besides sports and was loathe to be classified as just a sportswriter. While that may be true, I am skeptical that this was his main goal in choosing those particular words for the interview. Granted, my opinion is from the outside looking in and that I’m speculating. I should also note that I have not read the actual interview…I can’t find it on the Wahsingtonian’s website, so I don’t know the actual contents, beyond that which is Harlan mentions in his post and which is talked about on other Nationals blogs.

My general thought is that Harlan doesn’t actually like baseball very much and doesn’t see himself as a sportswriter the rest of his days. Perhaps he took the gig at the WaPo sports desk because it was the one he was offered. That’s definitely understandable as many people take jobs they see as footholds to a different career…like he says, as a means to a paycheck.

That’s fine, I suppose, but actually articulating your dislike of your job to your customers and employers just doesn’t make any sense to me. There’s no logic in it, other than Harlan just got carried away and/or thought that his comments might actually send his displeasure up the WaPo totem pole where he would be moved to whatever other assignment he really is interested in covering. I don’t know. But certainly his comments show that his heart really isn’t in it. Sportswriting is, uniquely, a genre where readers innately demand that writers love the sport they write about. I guess it’s because so many fans would give their right arm to be able to write (with their left arm, obviously) about their favorite sports team or just about their favorite sport. Regardless, baseball fans are nortorious for this demand and they tend to react strongly when this is not the case or when they believe the writer doesn’t really “get” the game. Some of the comments regarding Harlan’s post levy this exact compaint against his writings, although it’s hard to say how much of that is hindsight.

My opinion is that in a perfect world, everyone would love what they do, but in the real world, how many people love working as a fast food cook or working the graveyard shift at a factory or some other not-so-glamorous job? More times than not, however, this does not stop people from working hard at their jobs and taking steps to find something more to their liking down the road. My thought is that Harlan doesn’t like his job and was never a big baseball fan. That’s OK. And I really don’t think it’s made his writing suffer, although his lack of interest in the sport means his insight into the team is limited. My opinion is that this interview will only speed along Harlan’s departure from the WaPo’s sports desk and that we’ll be seeing Dave, Tracee and Amy doing more posts in the coming weeks. Saying you hate your job is not exactly the best way of encouraging your boss to give you a better job…