Welcome to the debut of our Nationals mailbag. The goal in this space is to engage with our readers by periodically answering the best questions we solicit whenever we can. We envision doing this on most off days.
For this first edition, we took questions via Twitter. But we encourage you all to also send some to us by email for future mailbags. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org (this is Jorge, by the way) and Chelsea is at (you guessed it) email@example.com. If Twitter is your thing, reach us at @jorgeccastillo and @chelsea_janes. Thanks and enjoy!
When will Joe Ross return?
— Amy McCarter Fuhr
The Nationals don’t need a fifth starter again until April 22 against the Mets in Queens because they have off days Thursday and Monday. The choice, barring an unexpected turn of events, will be Ross. Ross was always Washington’s fifth starter, but the schedule afforded the Nationals the opportunity to begin the season with a player elsewhere, which they used for the bench, and require just one spot start to compensate. That spot start went to Jeremy Guthrie because Washington couldn’t recall Ross within 10 days after sending him to the minors unless he was replacing an injured player on the active roster.
Now, one can debate whether carrying an extra bench player over a fifth starter or extra reliever was worth it, especially when hindsight is crystal clear 20/20. Guthrie’s start was a debacle, the bullpen has a 6.75 ERA, and Michael A. Taylor, presumably one of the final bench guys to make the Opening Day cut, didn’t register a plate appearance until Wednesday — after he had already been sent down for bullpen help and promoted again when Trea Turner went to the disabled list. One could also debate if sending Ross down will have a negative impact on his psyche.
The Nationals, coincidentally, optioned Ross to Syracuse on April 2, which gives them the full 20-day window to recall the right-hander before an option year is burned. The 23-year-old is scheduled to make his second start for Syracuse on Thursday afternoon, which could be his final outing in the minors before joining the Nationals. He allowed four runs, three earned, on six hits and three walks across 2 2/3 innings in his season debut April 8.
What are some of the reasons for Ryan Zimmerman’s early-season success?
— Matthew Brown
For all the talk about exit velocity, launch angle, and the tweaks Zimmerman could implement to marry the two, the fundamental reason for Zimmerman’s success through nine games, Zimmerman has repeated, is that he’s healthy. And it’s not just being injury-free starting on April 4. It’s that he was healthy from the time he reported to spring training and stayed healthy throughout the Grapefruit League slog. That is considerable because the effects of a previous foot injury slowed Zimmerman for some of spring training last year before a few nagging injuries surfaced over the course of the season, never allowing him to discover a rhythm. The result was quite possibly the worst statistical season for a regular starter in baseball in 2016.
Again, it’s early, which will be repeated throughout this space, but Zimmerman has looked like Zimmerman through nine games. He’s 13 for 34 with three home runs and three doubles. He’s hitting lasers and finding holes. He won’t hit .382 with a 1.152 OPS over a full season, but if Zimmerman can be more like the Zimmerman of just a few years ago, when he slashed .275/.344/.465 with 26 home runs in 147 games in 2013, the Nationals’ lineup should be one of the deepest in the majors.
Is Brandon Snyder a viable option in case of injury or as a bench guy?
— Joe aka @4seams
The short answer: yes. The long answer: yes, depending on who’s injured. Snyder is as versatile as any player in the Nationals organization. The Westfield High School graduate and former All-Met has played first base, third base, left field, right field and catcher at the major league level. This season, he’s started at second base twice and left field twice for Syracuse. Beyond the versatility, Dusty Baker pointed Snyder out for his performance multiple times during spring training. Snyder impressed him.
But as Baker indicated Wednesday, when Stephen Drew went to the disabled list and Washington was left without a shortstop behind Wilmer Difo, the Nationals debated whether they should bring up someone who has played shortstop or go with someone else who could provide more value in other areas. Snyder, as versatile as he is, hasn’t played shortstop as a professional, so the Nationals opted for Grant Green.
Snyder isn’t on the 40-man roster, yet all signs point to him getting a shot in Washington at some point during this marathon, as long as he stays healthy.
Do you think Harper will get the $400 million contract he says he wants?
— Sam Mostow
(This is Chelsea now, so you know where to direct your … feedback).
To be fair, Harper has never said publicly he wants a deal worth $400 million. He probably will not say something like that because it simply doesn’t serve his interests. But to your broader point, I do think Harper will get his $400 million for two reasons, pending a caveat.
First of all, Harper is a uniquely marketable player who has embraced his marketability in a way most baseball players do not. Those antiquated and unspoken clubhouse rules about putting one’s self above the team and things like that seem to deter some players from seizing or soliciting endorsement opportunities. Harper helped put a brand on the baseball map (Under Armour), launched a few bat companies into prominence (Marrucci and Victus), and does work with Gatorade, Jaguar, New Era and many others.
It’s funny, whenever the Nationals play the Marlins and Max Scherzer faces Giancarlo Stanton, we see a matchup of two of the highest-paid players in the game. No one blinks. When LeBron James and Steph Curry match up, it’s on in prime time. Legitimate, transcendent superstars are rare in baseball, and Harper qualifies.
Secondly, the teams that can afford such a deal will have money to spend. As has been well-documented, the Yankees have hurried through a rebuild while cutting costs so as to be able to spend on the epic free agent class of 2018. The Dodgers, nearest to Harper’s hometown of Las Vegas, are not exactly discerning spenders. The Phillies will have ample money to spend. Perhaps the Red Sox will find room to bid, too. In short, most of the big-market teams that would be able to absorb a deal like that will have money to spend when Harper hits free agency. Whatever the Nationals’ role in the process will be — and, given that Harper is a Scott Boras client, it seems almost certain they will be involved somehow — $400 million seems like a reasonable number for the youngest unanimous MVP in history.
That being said, here’s the caveat: Harper must stay healthy, and he must produce more than he did last year. He turned in a solid season last year, an all-star season — a perfectly acceptable season for just about anyone else. But Harper is not everyone else, and not everyone else gets $400 million to play baseball. If he stays healthy, and produces near what he did in 2015 — or at least more than last year — he seems likely to hit that $400 million mark, particularly with Boras on the case.
Can you explain Dusty’s hesitation for batting Turner second after Eaton when needed?
I never want to speak for another person’s thought processes, and in Dusty’s case, what he shares does not necessarily constitute the whole of what he is thinking. But on a basic level, it seems his hesitation is as simple as, ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ Turner emerged as one of the most dynamic leadoff men in baseball last year. Eaton has proven he can hit second. Why mess with that?
I think there are people within the Nationals who would like to experiment with Turner in the second spot. Maybe, ultimately, Dusty will. I think it’s far too early to read anything into lineups now. He, like us, is trying to figure out what the best combination is. We’ve seen seismic lineup shifts midseason before. Jayson Werth seems to always jump up. Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy flip-flopped now and then. I don’t think Dusty’s hesitation is a hard-and-fast aversion, and given his reluctance to stack lefties, I would not rule out the possibility of him putting Eaton leadoff so Turner could break up the trio of Eaton, Harper and Murphy.
But to answer the basic question, no I can’t entirely explain his hesitation, other than to say I think he likes what he sees from Turner in the leadoff spot, and tinkering with rookies is more dangerous than shuffling experienced veterans. Perhaps we’ll see Eaton lead off at some point. I wouldn’t rule that out at all.
Email your Nationals question to firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com, with the subject line, “Mailbag question,” and it might be answered on the next off day
Fancy Stats: The hitting-form adjustments Murphy made are working