2013 Nats: Are they better?


Paul Casanova

Paul Casanova was released three times — twice by the Indians — before he had played more than a dozen minor-league games and before he had turned 21. It’s a good thing he couldn’t take a hint. Signed by the Senators after the 1962 season, Casanova was in the majors three years later, and the Senators’ starting catcher four years later. Casanova defected from his native Cuba in 1961 when he was only 19 (the Indians had already released him once). Months later, the Indians released Casanova again, and after the Cubs signed him, they released him in April 1962. Casanova, despite being away from his native country, was undeterred. In between releases, he played in 1961 with the Indianapolis Clowns, a “barnstorming club,” that “kept the memory of the Negro Leagues alive,” according to his bio at sabr.org. Casanova, according to sabr.org, got a hit off Satchel Paige and homered off former Brooklyn Dodger Rookie of the Year Joe Black (Joe Black was also the first African-American to be the winning pitcher in a World Series game: 4-2 in Game 1 of 1952 vs. the Yankees, a complete-game 6-hitter). Casanova had his best season as a rookie with the Senators in 1966, hitting .254 with 13 homers and 44 RBIs. A year later, he hit .248 with nine homers and a career-high 53 RBIs, placing 21st in the MVP voting, thanks in part to his throwing out 49% of opposing base stealers. But after that, Casanova never hit better than .229 or more than seven home runs. Not even Ted Williams could coax offense from Casanova — his.216, .229 and .203 averages from 1969-1971 gave Williams something to swear at. And if Casanova was a lover, it was not of walks — he had 101 of those for his entire 10-year career, and a lifetime .252 on-base percentage. Casanova was traded to the Braves in 1972 and he spent three seasns there as a backup. His final numbers: a .225 average, 50 home runs, .571 OPS, a 1.2 WAR (4.3 in his first two years; perhaps he should have quite while he was ahead) and a 6.6 defensive WAR, thanks to 40% of opposing base stealers thrown out.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Anthony Rendon was called up because of injury, which is more than ironic, given Rendon’s history of the same. Between Ryan Zimmerman and Rendon, the Nats should be good for 140 games at third base. After that, the Nats have another third base prospect: Matt Skole, who hit 27 homers and slugged .559 with a .986 OPS last year. One problem. Skole, who is at AA Harrisburg, started the year with a broken wrist. Sounds like he’ll fit right in.

What is this man doing here? Zach Duke has led the National League in two categories in his nine-year career: hits allowed (255 in 2006) and losses (16 in 2009). His ERAs from 2006-2011 were 4.47, 5.53, 4.82, 4.06, 5.72 and 4.93 and his lifetime batting average against is .305. I’m not sure who looked at that body of work and thought signing him was a good idea, but they also probably endorsed drafting Brian Bullinger and Luke Hochevar No. 1 and Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. Zach Duke may be a nice man, but he’s a bad pitcher. Not a bad hitter, though, as his career .175 average and nine extra-base hits attest. Imagine what he could do if ever got to hit off . . . Zach Duke.

What he said: Nats’ starter Dan Haren, after his fourth straight non-quality start: “I gotta be better.” What he meant: “Even Zach Duke won’t keep me in the rotation with a 7.36 ERA.”

Outlook: The Nats won 98 games last year but it’s they one the didn’t win that made them go out and overspend on Rafael Soriano. Who can blame them? Blow 6-0 and 7-5 leads in a deciding game and get beat by Daniel Descalso and Peter Kozma in the ninth inning and you’ll overreact, too.

Soriano is a luxury, but not a bad one. The question is whether all the accolades and faith in GM Mike Rizzo are warranted.

Superficially, it seems so: Rizzo’s Nats have won more games every year since he’s been GM: from 59 in 2009 to 69 to 80 to last year’s 98.

That probably stops here, given the the Nats’ 12-11 start. But the question, though, is how much of the Nats’ improvement is organizational, and how much is the good fortune of having the No. 1 picks when Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were up.

It doesn’t mean you’re a great card player just because you picked up four aces.

Charlie Finley could have cut the budget for scouting to a year’s subscription of Baseball America and still drafted Strasburg and Harper.

The Nats’ farm system is ranked 25th, misleading because Harper was a major leaguer at 19, and because so much of their young talent has been traded.

It’s hard to argue with 98 wins. The A’s used the young talent the Nats traded to them to win the AL West, but Gio Gonzalez won an NL-high 21 games and nearly the Cy Young. The Nats had four 20-plus home run hitters — Harper, with 22, was fourth — and five 10-game winners.

But are the Nats better in 2013? April doesn’t seem so, but it’s the cruelest month. Also the first.

The Nats traded another No. 1 pick, pitcher Alex Meyer, for Denard Span, a centerfielder who can run but can’t walk, rather than play Mike Morse, a leftfielder who can trot (31 homer sin 2011) but can’t walk. They re-signed Adam LaRoche, signed Soriano and Dan Haren off a 2012 that was a failure, and rehabbed catcher Wilson Ramos, who’s hurt again.

Is it enough? Not sure. The Nats were second in ERA in 2012 and they won’t be that good again if Haren doesn’t return to pre-2011 form. They were 10th in runs scored in 2012 but they sacrificed potential offense in dealing Morse.

The Nats are certainly very good. But they’ve also been lucky, and being lucky, as anyone in Vegas can attest, isn’t a strategy.

Team song: Ray Charles: That Lucky Ol Sun

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