washingtonpost.com
Washington Nationals are due some luck on their 'question marks'

Tuesday, March 15, 2011; D01

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.

The Nats don't even have to unearth a miracle star like John Smoltz, Roy Oswalt, Brian Wilson or Raul Ibanez, who were picked 574th, 684th, 723rd and 1,006th in their draft years. Yes, Mike Piazza was No. 1,390.

The six Nats who are currently making the biggest splash in spring training are not obscure players who were never expected to succeed. Just the opposite: Detwiler, Zimmermann, Morse, Desmond and Espinosa were taken with the sixth, 67th, 82nd, 84th and 87th picks in their drafts. None is worse than a third-round pick. The Cuban ex-patriot Maya got $8 million.

Which are gold, which just fool's gold?

Detwiler actually has a pedigree similar to the Giants' pitching heroes of the World Series; Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain were first-rounders picked at Nos. 10, 10 and 25 in their drafts.

In '07, Detwiler arrived with lots of electric-stuff hype and bad across-body throwing mechanics. The Nats changed him. And he immediately lost his fastball. Oh, great. Then, last spring, he ended up needing hip surgery anyway. Now, the Nats think Detwiler finally has the best of both - a delivery that's "only" six inches off line, plus his old 92-mph fastball and the "plus" breaking stuff and changeup that made him so sought after.

Is he durable? Tenacious? Does he leave too many pitches over the heart of the plate? Too skinny? We'll see. But, at last, the Nats have the 6-foot-5 lefty with quality stuff and a funky delivery that they bargained for in '07.

Zimmermann is simpler. If he stays healthy, he's in the rotation for years. He has three "plus" pitches in his fastball, curve and slider, as well as good control. Does he have command within the strike zone? Not yet. Is he a bit gopher-ball prone, leaving pitches up? Maybe. Can his changeup improve? Nits to pick. The Nats only wish they had more just like him.

Maya's a longer shot. He nibbles too much, pitches backward and doesn't yet show the 90- to 93-mph heat that supposedly surfaced in winter ball. At least he loves to pitch inside.

Morse and Espinosa look like the best bets to break out. I'm in the tank for Espinosa. I have to muzzle myself. Just wait and watch. If you haven't seen the "Ridiculous Bazooka Arm" clip on the Internet, do so immediately.

Will he strike out? Yes. Do you care? No. This guy is going to hit 15 to 20 homers someday and keep you from going to the "Five Guys" line for years whenever the Nats are in the field. He's a price-of-admission talent.

Wish I were as sure of Morse. He's easy to root for. Since the day he put on a Nats uniform in '09, his power numbers are almost as good, per at-bat, as Werth's. Morse's slash line in D.C.: .289/.352/.519. Werth as a Phillie: .282/.380/.506. Morse can't be that good, can he?

Since he's apparently nailed down the regular left field job, Morse may finally get to show what he can do with 500 at-bats. Last year, by September, he'd adjusted so he could handle good fastballs on the fists. His power is to all fields. He won't approach Werth on the bases or in the field. But he might be a healthier Josh Willingham and just as productive.

Will Morse be a poor man's Werth at 1 percent the price? Will Espinosa and Desmond combine for 30 homers? Will Zimmermann and Detwiler become middle-of-the-staff starters to back up Strasburg next year?

Nobody has that much good luck at once, not even the Yanks. But, right now, the Nats have at least 10 young players who have "'Bout to Bust Out" written on them. If none of them - not one - actually become a star, then it will be consistent with local tradition. But it will also defy baseball probability.

What's far more likely is that one or two standouts, maybe even future stars, are about to appear. But nobody, not even the Nats, knows which ones they will be.

Post a Comment


Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company