However, in Rodriguez’s case, as well as on much of the Nats’ roster, those gifts are only partially tamed. Yet at times Rodriguez seems very close to his arrival date. He hasn’t done much so far, except raise eyebrows, but he might do a lot. That’s where the entire Nationals franchise stands right now.
This is how “pretty frickin’ bueno” the Nats are on opening day: Their cleanup hitter, closer, center fielder and a starting pitcher are on the disabled list but, even without Michael Morse, Drew Storen, Rick Ankiel and Chien-Ming Wang, they look like a perfectly plausible playoff contender.
The Nats want those players back badly, and all may return in a couple of weeks. But this team’s ability to find in-house alternatives is merely a symptom of the Nationals’ new place in baseball. They are one of the sport’s young, rising and gaudily gifted teams. But they also have tons to learn. Many of them have flooded in over the last two years and shown dazzling abilities or made highlight plays, but they haven’t had a winning year yet.
Few teams in baseball have more power arms than the 10 swing-and-miss men on the D.C. staff. And 6-foot-9 Alex Meyer, a 2011 draftee with a near-100-mph fastball, is in the pipeline as well as lefty Matt Purke, who’s rated better. A groundball pitcher like John Lannan, the $5 million lefty who was optioned to AAA on Tuesday, is an archeological find.
Instead, the Nats want to see more of Ross Detwiler. “The two best things that have happened this spring are Detwiler and Bryce Harper’s progress playing center field,”Rizzo said. Wang looked so good just before his hamstring injury, hinting at his old Yankees form, that Manager Davey Johnson told Rizzo, “That’s a fifth starter? Looks like a number three.”
Few teams look more destructive in batting practice, with muscle men like Morse, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche, who’ve all had over-30 homer seasons. Wilson Ramos matches any of them in BP while Danny Espinosa ripped 21 homers as a rookie. Yet they all still strike out by the gross in games and are, so far, a below-average offense.
At almost every spot, you can see that Rizzo and Johnson want a team that, if it ever jells, will have something akin to the brute presence of the 108-win ’86 Mets or the ’01 Diamondbacks, where Rizzo earned his chops, with Randy “Big Unit” Johnson, Curt Schilling and 57-homer slugger Luis Gonzalez. They want players whom other players watch.