By Alan Zlotorzynski Viera Florida: Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson made a bold statement about what his team’s goals were for the upcoming 2013 season. During winter meetings this past off-season, the current N.L. Manger of the year and former World Series winning manger with the 1986 NY Mets, proclaimed this to be a “World Series or bust,” season in the nations capital. “That’s probably the slogan this year. But I’m comfortable with that.” Johnson said.
Johnson and his defending N.L. East Champions are in full preparation now in Viera Florida, as Spring training is well underway in the Sunshine State. The Nationals are looking good and while it is early, the goal is clear not just to Johnson, but his players.
I asked several Nats players how they felt about Johnson’s bold prediction and every one of them have their managers back. “How can it be anything but the World Series after last season”, Jayson Werth said. “All Davey said was exactly what everyone knew coming into camp, the World Series is the goal”.
With his son Drake by his side so far this spring, Adam LaRoche also feels the World Series is the only goal for the 2013 Nationals. LaRoche, who signed a new two-year $24 million deal in early January returned to help ensure the Nats accomplish their goal. “I knew this was the place to be and I wanted to be a part of what is going to be something special this season”. “Davey knows what he’s doing and if he feels its World Series or bust, then World Series or bust it is”.
Johnson’s group has come to camp with the right mix of focus and fun. Spring training is a time to get in shape, work on the fundamentals and get your timing down in the cage and on the base paths. Johnson is leaving nothing out of the mix.
On Tuesday, the Nats practiced run-downs, pick off plays as well as different scenarios in terms of outs and runners on base. On another diamond, catchers were practicing fielding bunts and foul pops behind the plate and next to the dugouts. All stuff you hear announcers say in August, “They practiced that in spring training”.
THE STAFF ON PAPER:
What makes this Nationals team uniquely qualified to carry out Johnson’s goal is that they possess arguably the best rotation in all of baseball. Perhaps even the best rotation on paper since the 1985-86 and ’88 New York Mets, the 1996-98 Atlanta Braves and the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies — all of which have gone down in history as great staffs. Each, except for 11’ Phils won a World Series. The Phillies did win one in 08 but not with the staff, they had assembled two short seasons ago.
You know you have a great pitching rotation when more fans are watching the pitchers and catchers than the position players at spring training and that is exactly what is occurring on most occasions in Viera. Autograph chasers can be overheard plotting their course on how they are going to get to Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and company before they get into the white cargo van that hauls them up to the stadium complex.
When you consider that this week’s Sports Illustrated cover boy, Bryce Harper is on the field that is saying something. When Dan Haren came to terms with the Washington Nationals on a one-year, $13 million deal, the rest of the National League also probably felt like it was World Series or bust for the Nats.
Haren will join a staff that already helped produce the best winning percentage in baseball last season. At 98-64 in 2012, the Nationals finished as the best team in Major League Baseball last season with an overpowering pitching rotation of Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler and the innings-limited Stephen Strasburg. Washington did not disappoint in regular-season play but the playoffs were a different story. Enter Haren and throw in a full season for Strasburg and you have the makings of greatness as a group.
The Nationals pitched their way to the second-best team ERA in all of baseball and finished with the second-best WHIP and fourth-largest amount of strikeouts in baseball in 2012. The group is young and throws hard as evidenced by the fact that the led league last year with an average 93.1-fastball velocity as a starting staff. They also led the league throwing those fastball 65.4 percent of the time.
Nats starters won 68 games during the regular season but none in the N.L.D.S. Do not worry Nats fans; this club is over the excruciating loss to the Cardinals in the N.L.D.S, Drew Storen especially. I know because I asked them.
When I asked, Storen simply said,” That was a tough learning experience but I’ve moved on”. “The goal is to stay healthy and get back to that spot and well beyond this season”. Storen would be the likeliest Nats player affected the most by the Game 5 collapse. Up 7-5 with two outs in the ninth, Storen had the Cardinals down to their final strike twice but he walked both of those batters and the rest is history.
No other team had ever comeback in a winner-take-all postseason game, according to STATS LLC. No other club in this sort of ultimate-pressure situation had come back from more than four down. The Nationals could have entered this spring understandably shook but they did not.
With a rotation of Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmerman, Haren and Detwiler, plus a bullpen, that has Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen as set-up men for new closer Rafael Soriano, the Nats appear poised to run away with the National League, and that’s the feeling one gets when they watch the Nats work so far this late winter in spring training. I have watched several bullpen sessions and all is well with the arms on the staff. Strasburg, Gonzalez Detwiler, Jordan Zimmerman and Storen are all throwing with velocity and great location.
New Nationals closer Rafael Soriano reported to camp late because of visa issues but showed up Saturday and threw his first bullpen session on Monday. He looked sharp and catcher Kurt Suzuki who caught the session supported that. “He hit every spot, I never moved my glove”, Suzuki told me.
Detwiler has announced he will pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. That now makes two of the Nats starting pitchers heading to play in the World Baseball Classic for Joe Torre and Team USA. Gio Gonzalez will also be there but not before he makes three spring training starts first, according to Nats Skipper, Davey Johnson.
Detwiler, 26, won a career-best 10 games for the Nationals last year and posted an ERA of 3.40. He, along with Dan Haren are expected to anchor the Nats rotation as a fourth or fifth starter. Outfielder Roger Bernadina, who will play for the Netherlands, in the event that begins March 2, makes three Nats players in all.
It is important to note that Detwiler played for Team USA jersey in the 2006 World University Baseball Championship in Cuba. He told Joey Nowak of MLB.com, “It was amazing and we actually won the championship,” Detwiler said. “I have the ring on my nightstand, so I see it every night when I’m at home. It’s amazing, somebody asking you to represent your country playing baseball.”
OH, BY THE WAY—-LINEUP NOT TOO BAD EITHER:
The pitching staff is not the only part of the team that needs to do their part if this team is going to get beyond the division round.
Bryce Harper, the 2012 N.L. Rookie of the Year winner (22-59-18-270/.818ops), also struggled in the playoffs—-But Harper looks bigger, faster and stronger this spring. He reported to camp 15 to 20 pounds heavier than his 215 listed weight and is hitting the ball a ton so far this spring.
According To the Washington Post, “Since mid-November, when he started lifting again, Harper set his alarm for 4:50 a.m. four times a week, was up by 5 and was at Soder’s training facility in Las Vegas by 5:30 to join a group of minor league and major league players. The intense, non-stop workouts last between 90 minutes and two hours, a little longer on leg days. His older brother, Bryan, 23, a Nationals minor league pitcher, accompanied him.
“It gives me a good time to relax and hang out and clear my mind,” Harper told James Wagner of the Post. “Lifting and stuff really helps me clear my mind. I love it.” Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche are focused leaders that seem to be having fun while preparing for the long 162 game haul.
Even 70-year old Skipper, Davey Johnson is working with players personally. On Tuesday, he spent a great deal of time working with the Nationals new leadoff man, Denard Span.
In November, Nats GM Mike Rizzo ended his teams search for a centerfielder and leadoff hitter by trading pitching prospect and hard throwing right-hander Alex Meyer to the Twins for Span.
The 28-year old former first round pick (20th overall) of the Twins in 2002, is signed through the 2014 season with a $9 million team option for 2015. This gives the Nationals more flexibility in center field going forward than they would have had they signed a free agent such as Michael Bourn, whom many thought was heading to D.C. The Nationals have tried since 2010 to trade for Span, and now they have their man, a career .284 hitter with a .357 on-base percentage.
Span is working on his swing this spring with Davey Johnson. Johnson is helping him try to regain the form he had back in 2009 when had a career year in several important offensive categories. Span batted .311, with a .392 on base percentage and a .415 slugging percentage with the Twins in 09. He also had a career high eight home runs and 10 triples.
Catcher Kurt Suzuki along with Wilson Ramos, who is recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee, looks good behind and at the plate. On a breezy Saturday and cold Sunday morning, Suzuki and his backup Ramos hit ball after ball over the fence at the Nats spring training complex. Ramos is catching bullpen sessions and even blocking balls in the dirt, which he initially thought would cause pain.
Ramos told Bill Ladson of the Nationals web site, “The knee feels good. My knee is strong. It didn’t get tired at all,” Ramos said. “We are going step by step. Today, it was another step. I don’t feel any pain.”
Manager Davey Johnson is optimistic Ramos will be ready for Opening Day, when he is expected to serve as the backup to Kurt Suzuki. “I just go by what I see,” Johnson said. “[Ramos] was blocking balls, bouncing well. He looked normal.”
Speaking of hitting them over the fence, at one point on Saturday Bryce Harper took eight straight and 12 out of 16 batting practice balls yard. With his bulked up look, Harper looks primed for a great sophomore season. Maybe an MVP year.
OTHER NATS SPRING NEWS AND NOTES:
Manager Davey Johnson announced that right-hander Stephen Strasburg will start Washington’s first Grapefruit League game against the Mets on Saturday afternoon in Port Lucie, Fla., while right-hander Jordan Zimmermann will pitch the second game against the Marlins at Space Coast Stadium on Sunday.
Left-hander Gio Gonzalez will start the third game Monday against the Mets in Port St. Lucie. It will be the first of three starts for Gonzalez before he leaves camp for the World Baseball Classic.
General Manager Mike Rizzo said speaking to Bill Ladson: “Nothing has surprised me [during Spring Training]. I’m pleased with the physical conditioning that everyone has showed up in. They are in shape. They are getting their work in. You guys go past the weight room all the time. It’s jam packed and guys are willing to go in, they want to go in there. I think it shows on the field where guys can get their throwing in, get their running in. There are very few guys that are curtailed at what they can do.”