Nationals looking to bolster bullpen at the trade deadline
The Nationals’ bullpen has been one of their biggest strengths this year, but that won’t stop them from trying to make it stronger for the season’s stretch run.
As the July 31 trade deadline approaches, one National League general manager familiar with the Nationals’ thinking said the Nationals have focused on adding young shortstops to their minor league system and relief pitching to fortify their big league roster.
On the surface, another reliever would rank among the Nationals’ least important needs. Their bullpen ranks third in the majors with a 2.64 ERA. It has not been especially taxed — at 293 innings, Nationals relievers have thrown the 18th-most in the majors. They have no particular weakness. Jerry Blevins owns a 4.84 ERA, but left-handers have batted .123 against him. Ross Detwiler has been used least often in high-leverage situations, but since June 1 he owns a 1.89 ERA over 19 innings.
The Nationals would not add a reliever to patch a hole. Rather, they would trade for a reliever to bolster depth. In 2012, the Nationals’ pitching staff wore down in the face of their first pennant race, and even with a 98-win team the Nationals limped to the finish. From Sept. 14 through the NLDS, they went 10-12. The Nationals want to avoid tiring again.
If the Nationals can consummate a trade for another reliever, they would face the challenge of making room for him, because their bullpen is already stacked with effective pitchers. But they would prefer a roster crunch to getting caught without a fresh staff in October.
As for their targeting of young shortstops, the Nationals lack depth at the position throughout their system. Beyond Class A Potomac’s Stephen Perez, a highly regarded fielder who’s improved his offense this year, the Nationals have no candidates who could fill Ian Desmond’s shoes should he leave in free agency after the 2015 season. More urgently, they have no one who could play shortstop behind Danny Espinosa, and if Desmond suffered an injury they would be exposed.
With the best record and run differential in the National League, the Nationals can afford to make deals with the fall in mind. Dealing for a reliever would be one of them.
Danny Espinosa takes advantage of rare opportunity
One more day, and it would have been a month, a full month, without a hit for Danny Espinosa. When he stepped to the plate in the fourth inning Monday against Franklin Morales, Espinosa’s last hit had come in June 22. He usually didn’t play. He couldn’t get a ball to drop. He still kept showing up with the same attitude.
“Having the bench role, you have limited opportunity,” Espinosa said. “You still have to come to the field and prepare and go about your business. If you’re feeling sorry for yourself, no one else feels sorry. You just go back to work.”
The work finally paid off for Espinosa on Monday. He went 2 for 4 with an intentional walk, blasting a double off the center field fence from the right side of the plate and a triple off the wall in right-center from the left side. Both extra-base hits scored a run. The double snapped an 0-for-27 skid that began June 22 and included 15 strikeouts.
The slump grew largely due to lack of use. Espinosa’s at-bats were few and far between. He became the odd man out once Bryce Harper returned from the disabled list. The all-star break helped Espinosa regroup, “just to step away from a second,” he said. He got his first start of the second half Monday, and he took advantage.
“In BP, [my swing] was starting to feel better,” Espinosa said. “The true test is facing a live arm. Facing 50 miles per hour compared to 95. It felt good to take my swing into a game.”
Espinosa has especially been working from the left side. Batting right-handed, Espinosa has been quite good, hitting .275 with an .831 OPS. From the left side, though, he has struggled, hitting .193 with a .561 OPS. Matt Williams started him Monday in part so he could face a left-handed starter. But the Rockies summoned right-handed relievers late in the game, and in the ninth Espinosa drilled a triple off LaTroy Hawkins.
“My at-bat before felt good, too,” Espinosa said. “I just felt shorter, felt more free. That’s kind of what I’ve been working on with [hitting coach Rick] Schu, trying to free me up. Just see the ball and hit the ball. That’s kind of been the main goal: simplify. When I get an opportunity to go out there, just take it into the game.”
The Nationals’ best offensive weapon? Base running.
The Nationals gathered Monday evening for their usual advance meeting, the planning session they employ before the start of every series, and talked about grass. Turf grows thicker and higher at Coors Field than it does at other parks, Manager Matt Williams told his players. They could be on the alert for balls that die quickly, opportunities to bolt an extra 90 feet on the base paths.
This season, the Nationals have used every detail available to excel at running the bases. By most any measure, they have been the best base running team in the National League, running with aggression while giving away few outs.
The Nationals have not hit exceptionally well — their .249/.315/.388 slash line entering Monday night was nearly identical to the National League average of .249/.312/.385. But their 4.19 runs per game ranked third in the NL. The difference between their average hitting and elite scoring derives primarily from their base running.
“It’s DNA,” Williams said. “We established that in spring training. We established that it’s really important to steal bases when we can. And part of our DNA is going first-to-third. We have the capability of doing that. It sets our innings up. Guys are aggressive. That takes a lot of thought, too.”
The Nationals have stolen 50 bases and been caught only nine times, an 85-percent success rate that ranks best in the majors. Entering Monday night, they had taken an extra base — two bases on a single, three bases on a double — on 45 percent of their chances, second in the NL and fifth in the majors. And yet, they had made only 28 outs on the bases, four below the league average.
According to FanGraphs.com’s base running metric, the Nationals have accumulated 5.7 runs above average on the bases — best in the National League and trailing only the Indians (6.8) and Royals (6.3) in the majors.
“It’s just their overall tenacious attitude,” first base coach Tony Tarasco said. “I think that attitude was set from spring training on. Matt Williams decided to make our base running a huge part of the DNA of our team.”
The Nationals reinforce their base running philosophy in every advance meeting. Third base coach Bobby Henley taught base running as a roving instructor in the Nationals’ minor league system prior to this year. He aimed to promote aggression, and it has carried over with him in the third base coach’s box. Monday night, Henley windmilled home Wilson Ramos as he lumbered from first and tested Carlos Gonzalez’s strong arm with Ryan Zimmerman. Both scored.
“Having been a part of it, I learned how much of an impact Bobby Henley had on that overall attitude and mentality,” Tarasco said. “Having him at third base definitely helps us keep that attitude.”
The Nationals focus on their secondary lead, gathering momentum as a pitcher releases the ball. During batting practice, once they finish swinging, Nationals hitters take one trip around the bases, simulating how they would do so in a game. They practice their steps around second, trying to cut the angle with precision.
“They’re taking it seriously,” Williams said.
Per FanGraphs’s base running metric, Denard Span has been the Nationals’ best runner. He ranks 11th in the majors at 4.2 runs above average, key by his 16-for-18 success in stealing bases. He’s also taken an extra base 59 percent of the time while making three outs on the bases.
Jayson Werth, though, has had the most remarkable season on the base paths. He ranks 15th at 4.0 runs above average. Werth has gone first to third on a single 17 times, more than any player in the majors, out of 32 chances. In five chances to score from first on a double, he’s done it three times. He’s scored from second on a single nine times in 13 opportunities.
Overall, Werth has taken an extra 20 bases on a hit — 58 percent of the time, well above the league average of 41 percent. He’s also stolen five bases. All of that aggression has come at precisely zero cost to the Nationals: Werth has not made a single out on the bases all season.
“He’s a fantastic base runner,” Williams said. “He takes pride in it. He leads the charge, too. It’s important to him. He feels better about doing something like [going first to third] than he would stealing second. Because that’s things he can do. He can help us win in that regard.”
Base running has also been one more thing Anthony Rendon does exceptionally well on a baseball field. He ranks 17th in FanGraphs’s measure at 3.8 runs above average. Rendon has advanced an extra base 62 percent of his chances, an even higher clip than Werth, though he has made two outs on the bases. He also has nine steals in 10 attempts, including his swipe of second in the first inning Monday night.
The Nationals will try again Tuesday to exploit any advantage they can find, searching for the smallest detail to help gain another 90 feet.
“They established it,” Williams said. “ ‘This is how we want to play, Matt.’ Great, let’s do it. I’m with you. Don’t vary from it. Play that way. They’ve taken the bull by the horns and done it, and they’ll continue to do it.”
FROM THE POST
The Nationals beat the Rockies, 7-2, and survived Coors Field after a big out by Aaron Barrett.
Rafael Soriano uses a hyperbaric chamber to recover from relief appearances, James Wagner writes. This is the good stuff.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Pawtucket 4, Syracuse 3: Sandy Leon went 1 for 4 with a double. Tyler Moore went 1 for 1 with a double. Emmanuel Burriss went 2 for 5. Aaron Laffey allowed two earned runs in six innings on eight hits and one walk, striking out one. Former Nat Corey Brown hit a game-winning homer for the Red Sox.
Harrisburg 4, Bowie 3: Drew Vettleson went 1 for 4 with a home run. Rick Hague went 2 for 5. Bryan Harper, Bryce’s brother, pitched a scoreless innings for the save.
Potomac 5, Salem 2: Tony Renda went 2 for 5. Oscar Tejada went 4 for 5 with three doubles. Pedro Encarnacion allowed two runs in four innings on four hits and one walk, striking out four. Austin Voth was named the Carolina League pitcher of the week for the second straight week. In five starts since Potomac debut June 24, Voth has a 0.27 ERA in 33 innings, having allowed 10 hits, walked five and struck out 36.
Hagersotwn 3, Delmarva 1: Rafael Bautista went 1 for 3 with a walk and stole his 53rd base. Wilmer Difo went 1 for 3 with a double and a walk. Hector Silvestre allowed one run in six innings on nine hits and two walks, striking out five.
Lowell 10, Auburn 2: Dale Carey went 1 for 3 with a double.
Nationals-Rockies discussion thread: Game 97
The Nationals have the best winning percentage (.552) and the best run differential (plus-65) in the National League, and they have a chance to augment both against the horrid Rockies. At 40-58, they own the worst record in the NL, and that doesn’t even portray how bad they’ve been. Since May 8, having weathered a confluence of injuries, the Rockies are 18-44. Their currently riding a five-game losing streak, their third skid of at least five losses this year.
It’s Doug Fister vs. Franklin Morales. Talk about the game right here.
Matt Williams rests Bryce Harper against a left-handed starter
Before the Nationals arrived in Colorado, Manager Matt Williams explained to Bryce Harper how he planned to use him. Harper had busted loose in the first series of the second half, using his new stance to rip five hits, draw two walks and a smash a homer in 12 plate appearances. But for myriad reasons, Harper would be sitting in the series opener, his second time out of the lineup in six games.
“I’m totally fine with it,” Harper said. “Of course, I’m a guy that likes to play. I always try to battle my way into the lineup. But I totally understand it.”
In a series in which the Nationals will face three left-handed starters, Williams sat Harper — one of the Nationals’ hottest hitters and their most dynamic offensive player — Monday night against Franklin Morales. Danny Espinosa will start at second base, which bumped Anthony Rendon to third and Ryan Zimmerman to left field in the league’s most spacious outfield.
After Harper went 5 for 10 with a double and a homer against the Brewers, will the day off affect his suddenly pristine timing at the plate? Harper said it “absolutely” would not.
“I feel good where my swing is at,” Harper said. “I don’t think a day off is going to hurt that at all. Of course with how I’m feeling, I’d like to be in there. But I feel good in BP. I felt good in the cage. It’s more of a feel thing, and I feel good.”
Williams gave three reasons for why to benched Harper on Monday:
>>> Nationals starter Doug Fister induces gobs of groundballs, so Williams wanted Espinosa in the lineup to give the Nationals their best defensive infield. Espinsoa has also been much better hitting from the right side, posting an .803 OPS compared to .546 from the left side.
>>> In Williams’s view, Harper has not seen left-handed pitchers well recently. Harper is actually 14 for 39 (.359) with four extra-base hits against left-handed pitchers this season. But Williams said Harper lately has been chasing pitches low and out of the strike zone from lefties.
Harper also sat Harper two days before the all-star break against Cole Hamels. Williams said he does not plan to turn Harper into a platoon player.
“It’s just a day,” Williams said. “It’s not like he’s not going to play against lefties. The fact that we’ve got three of them, it allows us to get Danny in there tonight. We’ll look at tomorrow, tomorrow.”
>>> Williams believes Harper needs to rest after he returned from left thumb surgery. “He’s going to get days off,” Williams said. Ryan Zimmerman has played all 41 games since he returned from a broken thumb. Williams drew a distinction between Harper’s ligament damage and Zimmerman’s broken bone, which tends to heal with fewer complications.
“Balls down out of the strike zone, not seeing those as well,” Williams said. “We’ve got to get him some days, too. He’s coming off a very serious injury. If we want to get Danny some time, we certainly want to give Bryce a day when he needs. And the fact that he’s been swinging at some balls down, out of the strike zone against lefties in the last couple of days, allows us to give him a day off if we can.”
Williams could have sat Denard Span, who’s hitting .247 against left-handed pitchers this season, and moved Harper to center. He also could have given Adam LaRoche, who has hit .243 off lefties, a day off and moved Zimmerman to first base.
LaRoche has played all 46 games since he came off the disabled list in late May. He has been one of the Nationals’ best hitters all season, but this month he is hitting .140.
“It’s a little bit of a mechanical thing,” Williams said. “He stands up at the plate. And if he doesn’t stay on top of that baseball with his top hand, [his bat] can dip a little bit. You start to see balls kind of lofted to left field. That’s what I see when he’s not right. I talked to him today. He feels good. Health-wise, he’s great.”
With the Nationals scheduled to face lefties Yohan Flande and Jorge de la Rosa the next two days, Williams said both Span and LaRoche could “potentially” take turns on the bench.
Either way, Harper will return Tuesday night. In his mind, he’ll still be just as locked in then as he is now.
“I’m trying to get my work in in the cage and do what I can,” Harper said. “Of course I want to be in the lineup every day. But seeing three lefties, it’s kind of hard. I feel good. I feel good where I’m at. We’ll see where I’m at tomorrow. I’ll get my work in today and hopefully pinch hit late, see if I can get a hit.”