Welcome to the first 2018 installment of our Washington Nationals off-day mailbag. The goal is to engage with readers by periodically answering the best questions we solicit whenever we can — most Nats off days, ideally.
This week, we’ll talk injuries, whether the Nationals lie about them, Trea Turner’s walk rate and the team’s catching situation, among other important Nationals news.
Where in the world is Brian Goodwin?
— Anna (@NatsFan48)
Chelsea Janes: I’m going to take this opportunity to answer multiple questions that are roughly the equivalent of “where in the world is X injured National?” I’ll start with Goodwin.
Goodwin injured his wrist diving for a ball in the second week of April and didn’t want to go on the disabled list. But it turned out the injury was much worse than he expected — basically, a sprained wrist, as I understand it. He began swinging a bat last week for the first time since the injury, which means he was unable to swing for a few weeks. He will likely need a rehab assignment before returning. Since he has been able to run and keep himself in shape otherwise, he probably doesn’t need as much time as, say, Adam Eaton will when he is cleared to play. But for now, Goodwin is in West Palm Beach, Fla., though probably not for much longer.
He’s there with Koda Glover, who is still trying to work his way back from inflammation in his throwing shoulder. As of last week, word was Glover was still throwing. This spring, Glover indicated the Nationals were trying to limit the relative violence in his mechanics, which are built for maximum effort from a guy not used to holding back. He wants to throw hard, and he has yet to learn how to do so without hurting himself. But all indications are that, though shoulder problems include a lengthy rehabilitation process, his will end at some point this season.
Veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit is also down there with them. The Nationals moved Benoit to the 60-day disabled list to clear room on the 40-man roster for Mark Reynolds, meaning he will not be eligible to return until June. They signed Benoit to a major league deal when it became clear that Glover would not be ready for the season, and given that the deal guarantees Benoit $1 million this season, the Nationals intend for him to pitch. But like Glover, he is still on a throwing program. His injury is officially listed as a forearm strain, the kind of injury that often foretells some other kind of structural issue — the kind of injury that can be related to elbow trouble. But for now, the Nationals believe the righty will be in their bullpen at some point this season, though it won’t be this month.
Finally, Joe Ross is not yet 12 months out from Tommy John surgery, and the Nationals are careful not to rush their Tommy John pitchers. I would be surprised to see him back this season, but he’s an important part of this team’s calculus moving forward, and his status will probably go a long way in dictating how the Nationals attack the starting pitching market this offseason.
When Adam Eaton had surgery, most pundits/writers/commentators I listened to said he was done for the year. But it doesn’t sound like Eaton thinks he’s done for the year? Pollyanna or possible? Along the same lines, any chance Murph is in worse shape than the Nats are letting on?
— Eric Flack (@EricFlackTV)
Jorge Castillo: We can’t speak for other people, but we never got the impression Eaton’s season was over after the arthroscopic ankle surgery. As you mentioned, Eaton was very optimistic when he spoke with reporters Tuesday, even floating out a six-week timetable for his return. Six weeks after the surgery is June 21, so a return by the end of June seems in play.
Of course, the Nationals hardly ever publicly offer specific timetables for injuries; timetables create expectations, they reason, that could create second-guessing if not met. I asked Dave Martinez if six weeks was the timetable. His answer: “I have no timetable. I know that when we get him back now, we fully get him back, and that’s nice to know.”
As Martinez hinted at, there’s a sense that the knee and ankle injuries are both finally behind Eaton. The surgery discovered and eliminated the problem plaguing his ankle since going first to home in the home opener. After weeks without answers, Eaton and the Nationals finally had one, and it wasn’t terrible.
As for Murphy, he traveled to West Palm Beach on Tuesday to begin playing in games, and the sense is he’s going down the final stretch. Running has been Murphy’s final obstacle, and the Nationals were encouraged by the progress he made in that department over the weekend in Arizona. When he went to Florida last month, he accumulated at-bats but didn’t run the bases or play the field in games. Martinez said he’s going to handle all three facets in games this time around.
Why do the Nats always lie about injuries (Werth, Zim, Rendon, Eaton, etc.)?
Janes: Answering this question does not mean I fully accept its premise, but it’s one I get all the time, so it’s worth addressing.
First of all, I don’t think they always lie about injuries. I don’t even think they lie the majority of the time. I think, occasionally, they withhold the full extent of a player’s injury. To be honest, I’m not sure why. That we just found out Eaton dislocated and tore up his ankle on the play that tore his anterior cruciate ligament is insane to me. Since he had to have surgery anyway, I’m not sure why that wasn’t something they were willing to share — particularly not long after the fact. But they were not. Stuff like that puzzles me, but remember, player privacy comes into question, too. Stuff like that also makes me feel like an idiot. We ask. We prod. We pry. And we don’t enjoy it.
Consider the case of Matt Wieters. The official team word comes through Dave Martinez, who gets his talking points from the team. He said the Nationals didn’t have any more information about Wieters as of Wednesday afternoon. Perhaps they didn’t yet. But if they did, and knew he needed surgery, why not say so? It’s confusing, to be sure. Those are the situations where not being forthcoming confuses me.
But that Eaton’s diagnosis for his ankle CHANGED is a whole lot different from the team lying. He had a bone bruise. They didn’t know what else was going on, and it took numerous tests and scans for them to do so. I think, more often than not, that’s the problem. The Nationals have to give an initial diagnosis: Werth, bone bruise in his foot, out indefinitely. His foot was so swollen, no fracture showed up on the X-ray. Rendon, bruised big toe, shouldn’t be out long. At the time, that’s what the Nationals thought. Initially, swelling masked a fracture. Then they found it. Once they did, it was small enough that treatment wouldn’t change, so they didn’t say anything, thinking people would hear “fracture” and assume the worst. I understand the logic. I also think it makes them look deceptive in hindsight. I think the whole thing is tricky.
Still, in the majority of cases, I do not believe they are being intentionally deceptive. I think part of their new medical staff’s emphasis on prevention comes with a nuanced sense of what is actually causing a problem. For example, the Nationals said Matt Grace went down with a “hip injury” initially because he told his coaching staff that was what was bothering him. When the medical staff got in, treated the area and tested his mobility, they found it was the adductor in his groin that was causing him problems. Being thorough means not assuming the first diagnosis is the right one, and admitting that those diagnoses change is not a sign that someone lied in the first place.
But I do think that, when they do change, the Nationals tend not to go out of their way to clarify, and that’s a habit that fosters distrust. Am I perpetually skeptical when I hear, “It’s only going to be 10 days?” Absolutely. But I think that would be true anywhere. And my understanding is that some of their decision-makers are skeptical about being totally forthcoming because they feel that when they outline timetables and players do not meet them, they look like they’re lying or that their medical staff is incompetent. I understand that logic. I do not always understand their logic. But I do not think they “always lie” about injuries, or even that they do so more often than not.
What explains Trea Turner’s walk rate being double his career number, and is it sustainable? Also hi.
Castillo: Que lo que, Jake. I asked Turner if he could explain his high walk rate about a month ago, and he reasoned it’s not entirely unexpected because he walked more than he struck out each of his three seasons at N.C. State. Of course, college ball isn’t pro ball, and that flipped once he started his professional career. His 14.6 percent walk rate in 43 games this season would mark a career high at any level; his current career-best rate is 11.1 percent, which he posted in 46 games for the San Diego Padres’ Class A Advanced affiliate in 2014.
What explains it? Maybe it’s as simple as a 24-year-old adjusting to improve his strike zone discipline and patience. Most numbers don’t indicate any substantial changes in plate discipline from last season, though. According to FanGraphs, Turner is swinging at 24.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, compared to 25.2 percent last season, when his walk rate was 6.7 percent. Further, his overall swing percentage (42.7 to 43.5), the percentage of pitches he’s seeing in the strike zone (46.4 to 47.6) and his percentage of swinging strikes per pitch (8.0 to 9.4) between this season and last season are not very different.
The biggest difference in Turner’s FanGraphs plate discipline numbers is his contact rate on pitches outside of the strike zone; this season it’s 71.4 percent, compared with 59.8 percent last year. Given the other numbers and his walk rate, that could mean Turner is fouling off more pitches to prolong at-bats and draw more walks, which matches our anecdotal impressions.
Is it sustainable? His recent track record says no. But players, at least the better ones, adjust with experience. And it seems like Turner is one of the better ones. Now that he’s hitting for power — something he’s been able to add in recent weeks while still accumulating walks — he’s clearly the best healthy shortstop in the National League, at least offensively. Walking adds to his value — it gives him more opportunities to wreak havoc on the base paths — but he only walked 4.3 percent of the time in 2016, and he was pretty good that year, too. So even if his walk rate sinks some, Turner should remain a productive piece moving forward.
Any word on what the Nats might be looking for at the trade deadline?
— Joe (@jmert14)
Janes: I haven’t heard a lot of rumblings yet, but I do know this was about the time of year that Mike Rizzo started targeting Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson last year. So the cogs will start creaking into motion again soon.
For now, I’d say the most obvious need will be bullpen help — not so much a closer, like they’ve needed by July in the past few seasons, but certainly reliable depth behind the big three. Compared to needing to find a low-cost closer for three years, obtaining that kind of depth should not be difficult.
I also wouldn’t rule out the acquisition of a catcher, but I haven’t heard anything specific there, either. Those things usually start to solidify themselves in June, though the Nationals will be adding Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton around that time, which will probably provide more help to them in the second half than any acquisition could.
Has there been any update on Matt Wieters’s injury? If he’s facing an extended absence, do you see the Nats making any moves for a catcher?
Castillo: Just as we were about to publish this, the Nationals announced that Wieters underwent surgery to repair his left hamstring. They said they will have more information when he returns to Washington and is evaluated by the team’s medical staff, which indicates he had the procedure done elsewhere. The announcement came less than 24 hours after Martinez said he didn’t have an update on Wieters’s MRI result.
We don’t know how much time Wieters will miss. Everything is speculative. But hamstring surgeries usually are not minor. There’s a good chance he will miss a big chunk of time, which leads me to believe they will be in the market for a catcher.
Pedro Severino has been very good this season. The problem is the Nationals don’t have much catching depth beyond him. Raudy Read is serving an 80-game suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. Miguel Montero was designated for assignment two weeks into the season because he isn’t a good major leaguer anymore. Jhonatan Solano is on the 60-day disabled list with an elbow injury.
Spencer Kieboom, who wasn’t on Washington’s 40-man roster, was called up to replace Wieters, leaving Tuffy Gosewisch and Jake Lowery with Class AAA Syracuse. Gosewisch, 34, has appeared in 137 major league games but has batted .190 with a .499 OPS in those games. Lowery, who was promoted from Class AA to replace Kieboom, hasn’t appeared in a game above Class AA yet.
For now, Severino has the chance to prove he’s an everyday catcher. His minor league numbers suggest his .274 batting average and .743 OPS in 25 games aren’t sustainable, but he’s an improvement behind the plate, and pitchers have lauded his progression as a game-caller. If he proves he can hold his own, maybe the Nationals will feel they don’t need to flip significant prospects to acquire a very good starting catcher. Maybe they set their sights lower if Wieters is out for a long time.
Again, this is speculation. We’ll have a better idea once we know more details about the severity of Wieters’s hamstring tear and the surgery. But it’s another blow to a club that has been dealing with blows all season.
Read more on the Nationals: