May Jose Fernandez live forever

fernandez_o967wnri_7zsln5k2I woke up this morning intending to write something on the Nationals 2016 NL East Championship.  Sadly, reality cancelled those plans.

The death of Jose Fernandez hit me hard, and it’s difficult to articulate why.  Celebrities die all the time.  It’s become commonplace, along with the (possibly excessive) public mourning associated with the news.

But there’s something exceptional about Jose Fernandez’s death.  He was the best baseball had to offer.  If you didn’t enjoy watching Fernandez pitch, you’re not a baseball fan.  His talent was incomparable, and he had only started to scratch the surface.  Fernandez was 24.  His talent and trajectory suggested a Hall of Fame career.  More than that, his electronic personality gave baseball a charismatic character it so desperately needed.

More so than his talent, age, and personality, Jose Fernandez represented what’s great about our society.  Forgive me for going there, but Jose’s tragic departure seems particularly salient in 2016, when almost half the country appears poised to vote for a Presidential candidate with reckless disregard for the dignity of human life and the diversity that’s always been America’s greatest strength.  Fernandez came to the county like so many thousands of refugees unfortunate enough to be born in a country with considerably less freedom and prosperity than the United States.  He barely survived his journey from Cuba at age 15, saving his mother’s life in the process.  If you haven’t read about Fernandez’s journey to America, I suggest you do so.

Baseball, rooted in history, has always represented the progress and evolution of our culture.  Ethic minorities–Honus Wagner, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente–have always represented something greater than their contributions on the field.  Jose Fernandez built on that tradition. Unlike many of his fellow refugees and immigrants, Fernandez was born with the physical gifts to immediately find success in his new country.  Every strikeout belonged to the Cuban American community rooting him on.  His success was was theirs.  His success was ours too because–put simply–the immigrant story the American story.

Jose Fernandez’s death is unspeakably and unconscionably sad on every level.  For his family, his teammates, his community.  He was taken from us too soon.  But his story should live forever in the replays of his devastating slider and magnetic smile.  More importantly, his story should live forever in the vibrant and ethnically diverse society he leaves behind.  God bless America and God bless Jose Fernandez.

Can the Nationals win without Stephen Strasburg?

It was a small crowd at Nats Park last night, but the groan was loud enough. When Stephen Strasburg made his all-too-familiar walk of shame back to the dugout, glove over his face, trainer in tow, every Nats fan in attendance started to picture a 2016 playoff run without him.

A day later, we all received a temporary reprieve when Strasburg’s MRI came back clean, relatively speaking. The UCL is fine–or so they say–but Strasburg nonetheless has a flexor mass strain sidelining him for an indefinite period. With the playoffs set to begin in less than a month, Strasburg doesn’t even need to have Tommy John surgery again to miss the rest of the year.

So where are we? If there’s one thing that’s certain, the Nats will be cautious. Aren’t they always cautious? It’s not even worth discussing whether the team throws Strasburg back on the mound before he’s 100 percent, just for the sake a pennant run. If Strasburg was shut down in 2012 as a matter of routine, the Nats will surely take their chances in the 2016 playoffs without him, for the sake of his future with the team. Don’t bother holding your breath for the deadline to announce playoff rosters. Just assume Strasburg is done. Trust me, it’ll be healthier for you mentally. Any Strasburg the rest of this season is a bonus.

If there’s one thing that clear, it’s this. It’s on Max now. Scherzer was signed to be the ace of this staff–to take the ball in Game 1 of a playoff series and shove it. He always had a critical role, but now he’s operating without a safety net. With Joe Ross hurt and Gio turning into a rookie again, the Nats starting pitching was looking tenuous enough–before this injury. Now the team has Max in Game 1, Tanner Roark in Game 2 and then what? Gio in Game 3 is a revolting thought given his predictable command and control issues. Behind him are a bunch of rookies.

Max was signed to be The Man. Now, he’s probably the only hope. With a battle against Clayton Kershaw probably looming in Game 1, he’ll need more than a little luck.

Insta-reaction: Nationals trade for Mark Melancon

I don’t remember who made this observation–Boswell probably–but the Lerners run their team like they run their business.  They treat players like they treat real estate.  Developers acquire undeveloped property and hold on to it until it has reached its full potential.  For better or worse, the Nationals top prospects will almost always stay put.

This is a great source of frustration for some Nats fans, who watch offseasons and trade deadlines come and go without a “big” move.  Instead of netting Yoenis Cespedes last year, the Nats let him go to a rival.  Instead of trading for Aroldis Chapman last offseason (and this year), he went to more aggressive teams willing to part with their elite prospects.  For better or worse, the Nats won’t mortgage their future, just like a real estate developer won’t sell an empty parcel of land.

This is why rumors of Andrew Miller and Chapman coming to the Nats were never realistic.  The market was too hot.  The price was too high.  Since their cost would have been at least one of the Nats top prospects–Giolito, Lopez, Robles, or Turner–they were never coming here.

Therefore, Rizzo sniffed around until he found the best reliever he could find without liquidating his non-liquid assets.  And he found a good one.  Mark Melancon is a former journeyman reliever who quietly turned into one of the best closers in baseball. An All-Star three out of the past four seasons, he’s put up ERAs of 1.39, 1.90, 2.23, and 1.51 in that time.  He features a devastating cutter that’s thrown hard and is difficult to hit.  He’s a shut down reliever and exactly what the Nationals need right now.

Felipe Rivero and Single-A prospect (and 2015 5th round pick) Taylor Hearn go to Pittsburgh in return.  I like Rivero, probably more than most, and I’m sad to see him go.  He’s had some rough outings this year, and there’s no way the Nats could have depended on him down the stretch, but I see his appeal to the Pirates.  He’s under team control for five more seasons, and he has the raw stuff to become an elite closer himself.  Nats fans saw glimpses of that this year and last.  He’s got talent.

But the price here is more than right.  When you consider the Yankees expected more than top prospect Lucas Giolito to get Andrew Miller, this Melancon trade looks like a steal.  Hearn isn’t even a Top 20 prospect in the Nats system.  The Nats got what they wanted–a man to lock down the 9th inning–and they didn’t even dent their farm system.  Mike Rizzo probably danced in celebration after completing this trade.  Given the closer market, it’s really hard to imagine him doing better.

The bigger question from this trade is Jonathan Papelbon, last season’s deadline deal rent-a-closer, who quickly became a nightmare.  Papelbon demanded the closer role before agreeing to a trade to DC last year.  Melancon will displace him, starting tomorrow.  Drew Storen couldn’t handle a demotion out of the closers role last season–both mentally and physically.  I won’t even venture a guess how Papelbon will respond.  And no, I don’t think the Nats cut him outright.  They’ll try to make it work.

Finally, I want to point out this trade follows a typical Rizzo pattern of seeing secondary trade pieces becoming major assets down the road.  Rivero, if you remember, came to the Nats in the Nate Karns-Jose Lobaton trade back in 2014.  He was one of the two minor leaguers who where, at the time, footnotes to the trade.  Now, two and a half years later, he headlines a major deadline deal for an elite closer.  This isn’t the first time Rizzo has done this.  Ian Krol was literally the “player to be named later” in the 2012 Mike Morse trade, and become a key piece in the 2014 Doug Fister trade that helped win the NL East that season.  For all his faults, Rizzo is a pretty good scout.  His best trait might be bringing in relatively unheralded talent with the capability to mature and become valuable assets.

You may have wanted Chapman or Miller.  You’re getting Melancon instead, and you’re getting him cheap.  I won’t complain.

3 proposed rule changes for baseball

Buster Olney published nine proposed rule changes for baseball today.  They’re pretty much all bad, running the gamut from sacrilegious (7 inning games) to confusing (using real pitchers in the home run derby, which would pretty much remove home runs from the event).

Rather than complain about Olney’s ill-conceived project, which was done with the input of Mike and Mike listeners (which explains everything), I’m giving a list of three things I’d do if I was Commissioner of Baseball.

First, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with baseball.  The only thing wrong with baseball is that when you watch a game, you often have to wait too long to actually watch baseball.  There are too many delays in the modern game.  Late-game pitching changes and replay reviews are the biggest culprits.  Therefore, all my changes are designed to move the game along.

1. Limit Replay Reviews to 30 seconds.  Listen, I hate replay.  I think it’s unnecessary.  But I’m realistic enough to realize it’s here to stay because the chance of an umpire missing a game-changing call scares people into accepting it.  So here’s my solution: 30 second replays.  That’s it.  If the call isn’t obviously wrong–and it should be immediately apparent within 30 seconds that it is–keep the game moving. Replay isn’t there to forensically dissect every play  like the Zapruder film.  It’s there to fix an obvious mistake the umpire didn’t see.  Here’s a baseline: when relievers feel obligated to throw warm-up pitches during replay reviews, replay reviews are too long.

2. Eliminate Warm-up Pitches for Mid-inning Pitching Changes.  You’ve just been throwing in the bullpen for 10 minutes.  You don’t need to warm-up again when you get to the mound.  You’re already warm.  Now, I realize relievers use the warm-up pitches to acquaint themselves with a new mound surface.  Too bad.  Your uncertainty about throwing off a new rubber surface shouldn’t make me sit around for 5 extra minutes in the DC humidity.

3.  All Relievers Must Record One Out.  Mid-inning pitching changes are the biggest time drag on baseball.  Watching teams use three different relievers on three different batters is a soul-crushing experience for the fan.  Here’s the compromise: use as many relievers as you want, but if they can’t get an out, you’re stuck with them.  This rule incentivizes managers to give relievers full innings to work so they’re not stuck with a highly unfavorable matchup when their LOOGY or ROOGY reliever doesn’t retire the first hitter.  In addition to cutting down on idle time watching relievers run in from the bullpen, this rule change increases the likelihood of more offense and more late-inning comebacks, which are both fun. It’ll be harder for teams to neutralize hitters like Bryce Harper since they can’t play “match-up” baseball late in games.

The Matt Harvey-Stephen Strasburg Tommy John Debate

There is no shortage of narratives this season.  Last week, Jordan Zimmermann returned to Nats Park on the night Max Scherzer–Zimmermann’s de facto “replacement”–tied a major league record striking out 20 hitters.  Last night provided an even juicier narrative–Stephen Strasburg shutting down the Mets (pun intended) on the same night Matt Harvey’s season hit a low point, giving up 9 runs before being pulled in the 3rd inning to boos.

Strasburg and Harvey, of course, are on opposing ends of the Tommy John spectrum.  Their teams facing identical situations, approached UCL surgery recoveries in completely opposite ways.  The Nats shut down Strasburg for the season in September even though the team was likely to make the playoffs.  The Mets continued putting Harvey on the mound, all the way through the World Series.

People are locked into their positions on this.  Debating Strasburg’s shutdown is likely to have the same effect as debating gun control at an NRA rally or abortion with people holding signs outside the Supreme Court.  The opponents of Rizzo’s Strasburg plan are locked in.  They think it was foolhardy to shut down a “healthy”* pitcher when elbows are such an inexact science.  Or worse, they realize it’s a risk but don’t care, thinking a playoff run is worth the potential cost of blowing out a pitching arm worth $100 million ($175 million in Strasburg’s case, it appears).

*I don’t acknowledge Strasburg was “healthy” in 2012.  People recovering from injury aren’t healthy, they’re recovering.  Tommy John surgery takes more than a year to recover from.  

It was fun to poke fun at the Mets last night, but I don’t think Harvey’s bad game, or even bad April/May, has a lot of impact on this debate.  It’s possible Harvey’s arm is tired from last season’s extended workload, but it’s equally possible Harvey didn’t adequately prepare for the season (remember was sidelined in early April due to some ailment allegedly–and unbelievably–tied to holding his bladder too long).  It’s also possible, if not likely, this is a temporary blip in performance common among MLB pitchers.

I’m a fan of the Strasburg Shutdown.  Actually, “fan” is the wrong terminology.  I acknowledge it’s a crappy thing to do, but I thought it was wise nonetheless.  It was the lesser of two evils.  There are so many unknowns in elbow ligaments, the safest course in the safest course.  I think it’s a mistake for teams to make up their own recovery schedules like the Mets did with Harvey, and the Braves did with Kris Medlen.  Do what the doctors recommend and, most importantly, what has worked in the past.  People focus on the Strasburg Shutdown because the Nats made the playoffs that season, but the Nats shut down Jordan Zimmermann in 2011 and Joe Ross in 2015 in almost the same way.  Indeed, every Nats pitcher undergoing Tommy John surgery follows the same recovery plan.

The focus, like many of Mike Rizzo’s moves, is on the long-term.  Long-term, Jordan Zimmermann was healthy enough to deliver four more healthy seasons after his shutdown, and then net the team a first round pick after signing with Detroit.  Joe Ross is now pitching in his first full season after Tommy John and it’s easy to imagine him doing something similar.  The Nats are so confident in their approach to UCL recovery, they draft players other teams won’t even touch like Lucas Giolito who is now the best pitching prospect in baseball.  Giolito followed the same recovery schedule as Strasburg/Zimmermann/Ross.

The Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg amid great criticism in 2012.  Four years later, the winds have not shifted.  The external pressure for the Mets not to shut down Harvey last year, if anything, seemed greater than what the Nats faced with Strasburg.  Rizzo will keep shutting down his pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery, however.  It must be tempting to amend his policy to include an “unless we make the playoffs, then we’ll ride him like a horse” clause, like the Mets did with Harvey, but they won’t.  In their minds, it’s not broken and they won’t fix it.

What offends me most about Harvey isn’t that the Mets pitched him into October, it’s that they did it without much thought at all.  The Mets made the playoffs, so he pitched.  He was available, so they used him.  This is the way baseball teams have approached recovering pitchers since baseball was invented, and likely why Strasburg Shutdown critics are so offended by any other approach.  I would be a Shutdown critic too, if the Nats did it arbitrarily.  They did not.  It was a carefully managed recovery plan, blessed by doctors, and proven to work.  There was nothing arbitrary about it.

Harvey’s terrible start to 2016 doesn’t settle anything.  Strasburg’s health since his surgery since 2012 doesn’t settle anything either.  I’m happy, though, to have a team taking an educated and enlightened approach to recovering elbows.  It’s possible the Nats have just gotten incredibly lucky the past 6 or 7 years with their pitchers’ health.  But since luck is the residue of design, I expect that luck to continue.

 

Reaction: Stephen Strasburg signs contract extension with the Nationals

I remember being in Nats Park the night Stephen Strasburg was drafted in June 2009.  The team was terrible back then, 16-40 to be exact.  There weren’t a lot of fans in attendance that day; the newness of a baseball team in DC had long since worn off.  The road to baseball relevance looked very, very long.  When the Nationals put Strasburg’s image in the big screen that night–effectively introducing him to the DC fans for the first time–I remember thinking if Nats ever become a winning baseball team, this guy will be a big reason why.

It was not surprising, then, when I found myself again at Nats Park a little over one year later for Strasburg’s first major league start.  It’s hard to explain “Strasmas” to anyone who wasn’t there in June 2010.  It was the strangest sporting event I ever attended.  Strasburg received a standing ovation when he walked from the bullpen to the dugout before the game.  Fans stood and applauded for every Strasburg pitch.  It was a playoff atmosphere for a meaningless June game.  It was the first time baseball in DC felt like big league baseball.

Ryan Zimmerman is often thought of as the face of the Nationals franchise.  He was their first ever draft pick and their first legitimate star player.  Zimmerman signed two contract extensions to stay in DC, and he’ll probably be a National his entire career.  It’s fitting, then, that Strasburg signed a contract extension too.  If Zim is the Face of the Franchise, Strasburg is the Face of the Turnaround.  He, too, now has the potential to be a National for life.

Soon we’ll learn why Strasburg decided to forego the free agent market this winter.  Almost everyone expected it.  To be honest, I was shocked when I heard the news about the contract extension last night.  Almost every Scott Boras client goes to free agency, and we had no reason to expect Strasburg to be any different.  For some reason, he decided to stay here.

Perhaps Boras did a full survey of the market and concluded Strasburg was unlikely to get a 7-year deal anywhere else.  Maybe Boras had concerns about Strasburg’s health, and concluded it was wise to grab $175 million while it was still on the table.  After all, no Tommy John pitcher has ever come close to that kind of contract (the previous record was Jordan Zimmerman this past offseason for $105 million).  When you’re one ligament tear away from getting no contract extension whatsoever, $175 million has to very tempting.

But I’m going to lie to myself and conclude Strasburg signed with the Nats the same reason the fans wanted him to stay here.  I’m going to think Strasburg values his role in the Nationals franchise turnaround.  In my mind, I imagine a conversation between Strasburg and Tony Gwynn, his college coach, back in 2008.  Tony Gwynn was the rare star player to stay with one team and one city his entire career.  Somewhere along the line, maybe Strasburg picked up the value in that.

Too often we think of baseball as a business.  To the fans, it’s not.  There’s an emotional element to keeping Strasburg in a Nationals uniform.  If you don’t understand it, there’s probably no way I can explain it to you.

All 11 Nationals Home Openers, Ranked

The Nationals may or may not play their 12th home opener in modern history this afternoon. Here is a definitive ranking of the previous 11 home openers.

11. 2010 – The Nats are blown out 11-1 by the Phillies. Worse, the stadium was filled with Phillies fans thanks, in part, to Stan Kastan’s policy of selling block tickets to out of town fans before individual tickets went on sale to the public. Coming off two horrific seasons in 2008 and 2009, there’s a good argument this day was the low point in Nationals history.

10. 2009 – The Nats entered the game 0-6 and left the game 0-7 after losing to the defending champion Phillies, 9-8. By the time this game ended we were all on notice that the 2009 season would be just as painful as 2008. One bright spot: Christian Guzman went five for five.

9. 2011 – It was cold. It wasn’t even April yet. Livan Hernandez turns in a quality performance in his last opening day start. But the Nats lose a lackluster 2-0 game to the Braves.

8. 2007 – The last opening day at RFK. John Patterson got rocked and the Nationals lost 9-2 to Dontrelle Willis and the Marlins. It was an inauspicious start to the beginning of the Manny Acta era.

7. 2006 – Everything about the home opener in 2006 was a little bit of a bummer. The team was already 2-5 on their way to 91 losses. Opening Day starter Ramon Ortiz gave up four runs and the Nats lost 7-1 to a superior Mets team. The excitement of the previous years home opener had already started to wear off. Can anyone name the leadoff hitter from the home opener in 2006? Anyone? Brandon Watson.

6. 2014 – Not great weather as the Nats lose 2-1 to the Braves in part due to the Justin Upton ground rule double fiasco. The loss wouldn’t be nearly as bad if it didn’t breathe more life into the annoying “the Nats can’t beat the Braves” narrative.

5. 2015 – Last season’s home opener started well. Great weather. Bryce Harper homering in his second at bat. Max Scherzer beginning his Nats career with 5 shutout innings. Unfortunately, a critical miscommunication between Dan Uggla and Ian Desmond on a routine pop-up opened the door to some Mets runs and the Nats bats were silenced by Bartolo Colon and the Mets bullpen (including recently traded Jerry Blevins). It was a foreshadow to a disappointing 2015 season. The Nats lost 3-1.

4. 2012 – Nationals win a 3-2 walk off against the Reds in the 10th inning after a blown save by closer Brad Lidge (spoiling a nice start by Gio Gonzalez). The win moved the Nats record to 5-2 to start the season. After quality end to 2011, we started to get the feeling that the Nationals were actually playoff contenders.

3. 2008 – The first game at Nats Park. The excitement of a new stadium puts this game high on the list. But Ryan Zimmerman’s walk off homerun in the 9th inning puts it higher. Unfortunately the temperature dropped steadily throughout the game. By the time Zim hit his homer, the stadium was half empty and freezing. Also, while the Opening Night walkoff provided a signature moment for the new stadium, nobody in that park thought the Nats would be contenders that season dampening some of the enthusiasm.

2. 2013 – Almost everything about Opening Day 2013 was perfect. Bryce Harper hit the first two good pitches he saw out of the ballpark. Stephen Strasburg nearly threw a shutout. And the game was over in record time. That season didn’t turn out as planned but on that day it looked like the Nats would be cruising to their second straight National League East title.

1. 2005 – This will be #1 forever. Everything was perfect. The President threw out the first pitch (and didn’t bounce it). Livan Hernandez threw a gem. Vinny Castilla almost hit for the cycle (thanks Lance Cormier). The stands were bouncing. Most importantly professional baseball was back in Washington DC.  It’ll never get better than Opening day 2005.