Monday, February 19, 2007

10 Burning Questions: Spring Training Edition

Position players are due to report tomorrow in beautiful Viera, Florida, and spring training will finally be in full bloom. It's going to be an interesting six weeks (yes, only six weeks 'til opening day!), but not necessarily exciting ones. The Nats, as we all know, have a lot of chaff that they have to sort through to construct some semblance of a major league roster. Making any sort of prediction at this point is sheer folly. But there are a few things we need to look at, and a few big questions that need answers.

1) So is it really Patterson and someone and someone and pray for a forfeit?
Since day one, the tired refrain of Jim Bowden has been, "Pitching, pitching, pitching." Yet with each successive transaction the pitching has successively gotten worse. Nobody can know what to expect out of this year's version -- or even WHO to expect. With 10-15 guys who have a legitimate chance at heading north with the club, certainly one of them is going to excel for a short time, and one is likely to have a surprisingly good year. But it's likely to take quite a while for that person to emerge.

Unless someone really takes a huge step forward this spring, we can probably make some safe guesses as to who heads north. With a large amorphous blob of roughly similar pitching talent, it behooves the team to use it as a resource, maximizing the number of arms they have. Which is a long way of saying that they're likely to use these guys depending on their roster and contract status.

Tim Redding and Jerome Williams are on the 40-man roster. I'm not going to do the math on it, but I suspect that both are out of options, so if they didn't make the opening day roster, the team would have to expose them to waivers and could lose them for nothing. So unless they completely crap the bed, they're in the rotation. Matt Chico, on the other hand, is young, and there's no real need to start his service time clock, or to waste an initial option year (if he stays down in the minors for the entire year, no option year is used -- or, depending on semantics, he gains an extra year), so unless he looks like '99 Pedro Martinez, he's going to the minors.

If Shawn Hill is ready to go, that's four starters there, and there's room for a 40-man guy like Jermaine Van Buren, or to stretch out Emiliano Fruto or Lavelle Speigner, who would have to stay on the 25-man roster (barring a trade with MN) because he was taken in the Rule-5 draft.

When/if any of these guys flame out or get injured, then the NRI and minor league guys like Colby Lewis or Jason Simontacchi would get their chance.

2) Is Patterson truly an ace?
If you look at his 2005 performance, the answer is 'probably.' But an ace needs to stay healthy, which he's never done. Patterson's strengths are his breaking pitches -- a decent slider, but really a curveball. Sure, he's got the high, riding fastball, but it's those other pitches that make the batters clench their sphincters. Unfortunately, it's those two pitches which are most affected by the elbow/nerve problem he had last year.

Patterson's surgery wasn't as bad as we feared, but it's been 9 months since he's thrown a ball competitively, and it might take him some time to shake the rust off -- especially with the precise feel a pitcher needs to properly spin the ball. If you get a chance to see him pitch, look for the sharp downward snap of the curve. If it's there, dropping to the bottom of the zone consistently, he's back. If it's rolling, and falling to either side of the plate, it's going to take some time. Watch his K/BB rates. He'll likely walk a few more batters than usual while shaking off the rust, but if he's going well, the Ks should be there.

Supposedly, as he was last year, he's working on a changeup. With that as a fourth pitch, he really could take the next step this year, giving him a powerful weapon against left-handed batters. He just needs to be healthy. (Sound familiar?)

3) Who's on first?
Nick Johnson is out 'til at least June. Hell, let's make it the All-Star Break. Larry Broadway, the Nats pseudo-prospect really should be given a mile-long leash to see whether he sinks or floats. But the team has brought in Travis Lee (praising his glove) and Dmitri "Wife Beater" Young.

This is really one of Manny Acta's litmus tests -- and the test for "The PLAN!" Travis Lee shouldn't ever make the roster. He's an offensive zero. Sure he can field well, but that's all he does. It'd be like making Billy Traber the closer because he's the best distance runner on the team. I can sort of see the argument for giving Young a chance, but I see three straight years of decline, and it's not like the prospect the Nats would get back IF (a big if) he hit is going to be a star. If they wanted a prospect that badly, they should've given a few extra bucks to Shawn Black.

Will Acta give Broadway the job, showing him patience even as he may struggle to adjust to the majors? Or will he go for the quick fix, going with the fat bat or, worse, the impotent glove?

4) Is Endy Chavez 3.0 worth upgrading to?
For the third spring in a row, the team has their hearts set on a slap-hitting speedster winning the centerfield job. Manny Acta has made him the presumptive favorite and discussed how valuable he thinks his glove is going to be. There's little doubt that Nook Logan is a pretty good defensive CFer -- although the amount of praise he's receiving for his D is starting to border on the level of over-compensation. But it's his bat that's really the question. Other than a handful of ABs last September, Nook has never really hit anywhere he's played, majors or minors. A lineup like the Yankees can afford to carry a waterbug, but in this lineup, it creates a few too many easy innings.

Can he slap his way to a .300 average, which would make him marginally useful? Or is he going to come closer to the .261 career minor league average, which he put up in 6 seasons and nearly 2,300 ABs?

If it's the latter, what's the teams plan? What if he's a complete zero during the spring? Would they put Ryan Church back in center after badmouthing his defense for the last 4 months? Would Alex Escobar, who's hurting already, be the next choice? Or will they suck it up and let him stink the park up, all in the name of defense? Even the Mets fans grew tired of Rey Ordonez after a few years.

4) Whither Church?
The darling of us outsiders who know nothing but statsheets, Ryan Church is the presumed favorite to win the left-field job. The team wanted him to go to Mexico to work on hitting breaking pitches (though the efficacy of going to a crappy league and hitting against crappy pitchers could be debated). He didn't go, but instead worked with a visualization specialist to recognize spin better. We'll see. Regardless of his faults, at the end of the day he's put up very solid numbers -- all the more impressive when you consider the near-minimum salary he's been playing under. When you're getting league average offense at a minimum salary, you have a steal.

If he just does in a full season what he's done in a bunch of parts, he'll be one of the team's 2 or 3 best offensive performers. And if he's doing that, he becomes a very tradeable commodity. But will his performance this spring allow him to have the opportunity to become an asset?

5) How much can one shortstop stink?
Despite not playing one inning last year, Cristian Guzman's '06 was better than his '05 season. He's supposedly still experiencing some shoulder pain after having season-ending surgery early last year. Coming off shoulder surgery, a year's layoff, and one of the worst statistical seasons of the last decade, what can we expect? As I said a number of times last year, even if he 'improves' to his previous next worst season, he's still about 2 wins better than his '05 performance. And, even if he does that, he'll still be the worst shortstop in the league.

He's supposedly still a little sore. Will he be able to hit this spring? And what about his defense? It's talked about now as if he were a gold glover, but that wasn't my perception back in '05. (Ever notice that the worse a player bats, the more they talk about his defense? The converse is true, too, it seems.) Will his shoulder allow him to make the tough throws? How are his fielding instincts after a year's layoff?

6) Will Felipe not FLop at second?
Felipe Lopez was clearly a below-average shortstop. He was probably a notch below average with his range, but what killed the team was the ghastly number of errors. I'm not sure what the breakdown was, but it seemed like the majority of those were on poor throws.

Given that, is he really going to make a good defensive second baseman as everyone with the team assumes? Second baseman have the luxury of not having to make a clean initial play on the ball. They can usually boot it and still have time to make the shorter throw. But on a double-play pivot, that return throw needs to be strong and accurate. That doesn't sound like Lopez' forte, so I'm skeptical. But we'll see.

7) How's the elbow, Luis?
Luis Ayala seems like he's rushed back from last year's Tommy John surgery. It certainly takes different players different amounts of time to heal, but it also takes pitchers different amounts of time to be fully healthy. With Ayala, there's a chance that he may have to alter that low, sling-arm delivery, which likely placed tremendous stress on his elbow. If that's the case, it might take longer for him to develop some consistency. Watch his control in the spring. If he's walking a bunch of batters, he's not going to be the Ayala we're expecting for a few months.

8) Is Jesus really the answer?
Rule-5 steal Jesus Flores is the presumptive backup catcher for the Nats. Flores has never played above A-ball, and is going to have the duel pressure of having to learn how to hit major league pitching while trying to prevent the other teams from teeing off on his guys. He really could use some more developmental time, but can't be sent down without the Mets taking him right back (barring a trade).

This spring, he's going to have to tether himself to Brian Schneider's side, watching and learning anything and everything he can do to make himself a major-league catcher.

9) Who has options?
Just as with the pitching staff, option status is likely to make a few roster decisions. Outfielder Chris Snelling, who does merit a starting spot, is guaranteed to stick since he's out of options and would have to exposed to waivers before being sent down. A more marginal player like Mike Restovich (who's also likely out of options) would stand a greater chance of clearing waivers. And Kory Caston, because he has options left, is the longest of the long shots to make the Opening Day roster.

As the end of spring draws near, you'll hear options discussed, and they'll greatly shape who makes the team and who doesn't.

10) How does the bench look?
There are a number of veterans competing for backup spots on the team. Besides the clustereff at first, newly signed Ron Belliard stands a good shot of beating out the other stiffs for a backup IF job. The team might want to carry an extra shortstop, which could be the chance for one of the team's younger options like Josh Wilson. Robert Fick is fighting for a spot and could make a good third catcher/1B/corner OF utility guy, especially with Jesus Flores' inexperience.

Watch the battles in the spring. See who's hitting, and listen to Acta's words carefully to see the things he's caring about and which players seem to be praised most often. Those will go a long way towards solving the roster puzzle.

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