Washington Nationals: Wait a year, or more


Ed Brinkman

Ed Brinkman was the Washington Senators' shortstop from 1963-70 for his glove; he never hit more than .266, and usually less. Much less. Career average was .224, career OPS was .580 -- good thing no one was paying attention to it.


Time goes by like pouring rain: Colin Balester was one of the Nationals’ top prospects for the last half decade, which while true, isn’t the compliment it appears to be. Balester did little to validate that status — racking up minor league ERAs over 4.00 and maintaining a modest strikeout rate. But a funny thing happened on the way to Balester’s release. The Nats moved him to the bullpen and Balester pitched like Stephen Strasburg. Or close enough. He fanned 28 over his last 21 big-league innings with a 2.57 ERA. Balester won’t be 25 until June, and there’s no shortage of vacancies on the Nats’ staff. It’s about time he filled one.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Hold off on the Bryce Harper banter for just a minute — he won’t be 19 until after the 2011 season (although he did hit .389 in an abbreviated spring-training look; pretty impressive for an 18-year-old). The Nats are rich in something other than injured pitchers — Derek Norris is a 22-year-old catcher with power and patience, giving the Nats an overload at a position where they already have Jesus Flores and Wilson Ramos. At catcher, three young ones is a good thing. Norris has yet to play above Class A and has only a .261 career average in four minor-league seasons, but his offensive attributes bode well at a position where they’re rare.

What is this man doing here? Who knew utilityman Willie Harris would be so hard to replace? The Nats have even invited Alex Cora to spring training, which given Cora’s .652 career OPS, may not be a great idea. Cora is one of those players about whom it’s often said they know how to play, but knowing and doing are different things. Cora is 35, doesn’t hit (.244 lifetime), doesn’t walk (.311 on-base lifetime), doesn’t steal bases well (21 caught in 66 attempts) and lost whatever power he had seven years ago (career-high 10 homers in 2004 for the Dodgers, just 11 since). He doesn’t do much of anything but move around. No reason he should stop in Washington.

Outlook: The Nationals paid $126 million to Jayson Werth, goes the party line, for credibility. Whoa. Talk about overspending in Washington — they couldn’t have bought it any cheaper?

The Nats would have been wiser to invest in good fortune or injury prevention, because the 2011 version of the team would be far more imposing were Stephen Strasburg not out for the year and Jordan Zimmermann not returning after missing most of 2010 (Zimmermann’s 7 strikeouts in 15 spring training innings raises concerns, but not panic).

GM Mike Rizzo said the Werth signing signaled the Nats were moving on to phase two of their development, which means contending for titles. Surely he didn’t mean 2011 because the Nats aren’t contending for anything but 75 wins. If that.

But in 2012, if Strasburg returns, and Zimmermann rebounds, and Harper develops, Rizzo may seem prescient. Two other acquisitions support it:

  1. Wilson Ramos came from Minnesota for Matt Capps, a decent if expendable reliever. Ramos is a 23-year-old catcher who hit .317 in AA and .288 and 13 homers in the Florida State League. He did little in AAA last year until traded, where he perked up.
  2. Henry Rodriguez is a potentially overpowering reliever who’s just 24. He came from Oakland for Josh Willingham, and while he’s wild, he also fanned 102 in his last 65 AAA innings, and 33 in 29 major-league innings last year.

Yes, signing Werth was a gamble, but more with time than money. It wins Rizzo credibility, if not the Nats, because at least he tried to do something. If the Nats start winning in 2012, they’ll start drawing (they averaged 33,400 fans for Strasburg’s home starts; not quite 21,600 for the home games he didn’t start).

If they don’t win, Rizzo probably won’t be there much longer anyway. And whose money is it Werth will be getting $20 million of per year when he’s age 40? Not Rizzo’s.

Remember when: The Washington Senators: first in peace, first in war and last in the American League. But not always. Let the record show the Senators were first in the AL three times — 1924, 1925 and 1933, even winning the ’24 World Series (the great Walter Johnson lost both his starts in ’24, but won Game 7 in 12 innings with four shutout innings of relief).

The city lost the team twice — once after the 1960 season to Minnesota (where the Twins won the ’65 pennant) and again after the 1971 season to Texas. From 1964-1975, the Senators/Rangers managers included Gil Hodges, Whitey Herzog and Billy Martin (with four years of Ted Williams mixed in) — they all won elsewhere, but not with this franchise.

Perhaps they didn’t have heart.

Next: N.Y. Yankees

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