Thomas Boswell

Washington Nationals are due some luck on their 'question marks'

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Michael Morse has the highest slugging percentage of any player in the big leagues in spring training. Danny Espinosa is second in the major leagues in RBI (12). And Jordan Zimmermann is one of only three pitchers with more than 10 innings who has not allowed a run. The others are Roy Halladay and Carl Pavano.

Oh, very amusing, you may say: March flukes. Morse, Espinosa and Zimmermann are lowly Nationals. So, how good can they be? Boiled to hard stats, they are still nobodies. Morse is a 28-year-old journeyman. Espinosa is a rookie. This is Zimmermann's first full year back from big elbow surgery.

If you sneer at their prospects, then you'll surely get a laugh out of Ross Detwiler (career 2-9) who has a 2.00 ERA and a 10-1 strikeout-walk ratio in Florida. Or Ian Desmond, who made 34 errors as a rookie, but is hitting .314 this spring. Or Yunesky Maya (career 0-3), who was the top pitcher in Dominican winter ball and now has a Grapefruit ERA of 1.04.

But you would be wrong to mock. As on most teams, these are exactly the kind of players who make the difference between a franchise being a winner or a loser. They are not $126 million free agents like Jayson Werth or No. 1 overall draft picks like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper or Gold Glove face-of-the-franchise third basemen like Ryan Zimmerman.

They are the huge Question Marks who make baseball so fascinating. Call them secret stars or stolen jewels or unexpected good fortune. But every team in baseball has to have several of them to be a winner.

Yes, even the Yankees. Over the last 15 years, the Bombers won five World Series. Their core stars through that run were Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter.

Pettitte and Posada were the 594th and 646th players picked in the '90 draft - spots reserved for bums. The Yanks signed Rivera, but not as a teen, as you would a hot prospect, but at 20. And they signed him as an infielder. Only Jeter was bound for glory the day he was picked sixth overall.

Recently, Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo looked at the sea of players in Viera, Fla., and said, "We're due to get lucky. Since we came to town, we haven't been lucky on even one important player."

Rizzo was a career scout. So is his dad. This is blasphemy. What about player evaluation and development or even statistical analysis? Nope.

"Just lucky," he said. "Everybody has to have some of that, too."

Isn't it time for Washington to get its share? Everybody who "might be very good some day" can't turn out to be Lastings Milledge, can they?

At least the Nats finally have numbers on their side. Others who are prepping for a first or second full major league year include catcher Wilson Ramos, outfielder Roger Bernadina, relievers Drew Storen and Cole Kimball.


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