The Nationals bullpen ranked last in the Majors with a 5.04 ERA in 2009. In 2010, the revamped bullpen was the Nats knockout punch. They posted a 3.33 ERA, good enough for fifth in the Majors and fourth and the NL. It was a night and day difference from last season. Contrasting bullpen ERAs from ’10 to ’09, the Nationals paced the Majors with an improvement of -1.71. San Diego was second with an improvement of just under one run. Doug Slaten was one of the reasons for the improvement.
The 30-yead-old lefthander was claimed off waivers in October and earned a spot in the bullpen in May, after a dominate performance at Triple-A Syracuse, pitching 17.0 scoreless innings of relief.
“He’s was outstanding down in Triple-A,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He earned his way up here. We try to reward success down there, and certainly he’s pitched well.”
Slaten was lights-out after July 24 for the Nats. He went 2-0 with two holds, a .176 BAA and a 2.29 ERA (5 ER/19.2 IP) in 23 appearances. Overall, he wasn’t the go-to pitcher in pressure situations but he pitched well when his name was called. He didn’t allow a run in 37 of his 49 outings and only allowed 15.4 percent of the inherited runners to score, bested only by Drew Storen’s 14.8 percent on the Nationals.
After the best season of his career, Slaten proved he can be a lefty specialist–lefthanders hit just .151 (11-for-73) against him this season–and a strong sixth or seventh member of a bullpen.
Scott Olsen is once again eligible for arbitration and the Nationals are once again left with the decision on what to do with him. Last year, they didn’t tender his contact and he became a free agent, only to later sign with the Nats. It was strictly a financial move and it saved the Nationals a substantial amount of money. The Nationals now have to answer the same question this offseason: to tender or not to tender, that is the question.
When the Nats acquired Olsen from the Marlins before the 2009 season, he was a durable pitcher that started at least 31 games the previous three seasons and had never been on the DL. It hasn’t been the same story with the Nats. Olsen has been plagued by a nagging left shoulder injury and in two seasons with the Nationals here are his numbers: 6-12 with 95 strikeouts and a 5.76 ERA (92 ER/ 143.2 IP) in 26 starts (28 games).
In 2008 with the Marlins, Olsen went 8-11 with 113 strikeouts and a 4.20 ERA (94 ER/ 201.2 IP) in 33 starts. It isn’t proof that he can be a No. 1 starter, but if the Nationals can get those 2008 numbers out of him as a fourth or fifth starter, they wouldn’t complain.
At times during the season, Olsen was great. He took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Braves in May, at the same time extending his scoreless streak to 20.0 innings. But the high points were few and far between and the low points seemed to keep getting lower. He experienced shoulder tightness in the middle of May and was sent to the DL once again. Olsen came off the DL on July 29 but he never could settle into a comfort zone. He went 1-6 with 8.72 ERA (32.0 IP/ 31 ER) and a .331 BAA over seven starts.
“As a starting pitcher, getting into a rhythm of every five, six days, I would say it’s more difficult to come off the DL, be up and down, do all this stuff,” Olsen said. “By no means is that an excuse. When I’m out there, I’m out there. I’m feeling fine. I just got to be better. It’s just the bottom line.”
Olsen was moved to the bullpen in September and he pitched four perfect innings in his first relief appearance. It was an impressive outing but Olsen doesn’t see himself as a reliever.
“I’d like to start,” Olsen said. “I don’t want to be a bullpen guy.”
If he is healthy in 2011, he won’t need to worry about pitching out of the bullpen, no matter where he is playing.
It was a few minutes before a game and there were a handful of fans circled around the photo well at Nationals Park, adjacent to the Nats dugout. They were waiting patiently–lined up three, four, five deep. There were kids with baseballs, dads with jerseys and a mom with a pink bat. There was just one player present and it wasn’t a surprise that it was Ian Desmond. He has made it a daily practice to give fans what they want–jaw-dropping defensive plays and his autograph. No one walked away empty-handed.
Everyone got an autograph and everyone left smiling. It is the Ian Desmond way: no shortcuts and stay until the job is finished. That’s why he takes extra ground balls. That’s why he practices the minor details of his position like throwing the ball sidearm to second base instead of overhand to save precious milliseconds.
His ability to make unbelievable plays and his production at the plate earned him the starting position after Spring Training, and he showed he can play every day at the Major League level. He batted eighth the majority of the season but when Cristian Guzman was traded to the Rangers at the end of July, Desmond moved into the two hole and with it came better pitches. He saw more fastballs and strikes, a benefit for a free swinging hitter. His numbers improved drastically and from July 27 to September 22, Desmond hit .335 (62-for-185) with four home runs and 22 RBI in 51 games.
“There’s no way around it–you get better pitches to hit when you’ve got Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman hitting behind you,” Desmond said.
He also improved defensively too but Desmond is somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to his defense–he makes the ‘how-did-he-do-that,’ Gold Glove play look routine but he has occasionally made the routine play look challenging.
“But it’s plays that are made that maybe some other people don’t make that’s impressive about Desmond,” Riggleman said. “Last year, there were plays that weren’t made that aren’t scored errors that were killing our pitching staff. Guys are making plays now, Desmond especially.”
Riggleman was never short of compliments about his rookie shortstop. He glowed when he talks about him and thinks Desmond is a special player with a charismatic personality that will make a difference in the Nats clubhouse.
“I absolutely think it’s infectious,” Riggleman said. “That’s what’s going to get us over the hump, that type of mentality, that type of attitude. It’s a real pleasure to have him.”
It hasn’t been easy for Desmond but it wasn’t easy getting here either. It took five years, a broken hand and a Single-A demotion. But it was the up-and-down journey in the Minors, that gave him the wisdom and the knowledge to know that he can’t take it for granted. But you can take it for granted that Desmond will always be exciting to watch.
Buy low, sell high. That’s exactly what the Nationals did at the trade deadline when they turned a non-tendered, All-Star closer Matt Capps into one of the game’s top catching prospects–Wilson Ramos. The Twins solved a short term problem while the Nats could have their catcher of the future. Ramos went from learning from arguably the best catcher in the game today, Joe Mauer, to being mentored by the best catcher of the past 20 years and his childhood idol, Pudge Rodriguez. It isn’t a bad way to get prepared for the Majors.
“When I came here, I couldn’t believe it,” Ramos said. “Me and Pudge?”
He didn’t make it a secret either. On the first day with the Nationals, he told Pudge he was his favorite player. The two formed an immediate bond in September and the two talked about the intricacies of catching, calling a game, how to attack certain hitters and working with the pitchers.
“He’s special back there,” Jason Marquis said. “He’s definitely got a bright future. Real big target, real soft hands. He’s confident in what he’s doing back there. It makes you a little more confident on the mound. I enjoyed throwing to him.”
Ramos is a defensively sound, power-bat backstop and was the Twins best trade chip due to Mauer being entrenched behind the plate in Minneapolis. Ramos is regarded as one of baseball’s top prospects and entered 2010 rated as the Twins’ best power hitting prospect, best defensive catching prospect and No. 2 overall prospect according to industry insider Baseball America.
The 24-year-old batted .241 with 14 doubles, five home runs and 30 RBI in 71 games with Triple-A Rochester but he hit .316 with three home runs and eight RBI in 20 games with Triple-A Syracuse. Ramos debuted at the Double-A level last season and paced all Twins full-season farmhands in batting average (.317). He threw out 42 percent of would-be basestealers and was subsequently named the Eastern League’s No. 8 prospect.
The 6-foot-0, 220 pound Ramos is built like a linebacker and has legs like Secretariat. He made his Big League debut with Minnesota in May and went 4-for-5 and followed it up going 3-for-4 the next night. He will enter the spring as part of the Nats’ catching platoon with Rodriguez, much like how they rotated starts in September but he could become the No. 1 catcher.
“Ramos will come to Spring Training with an opportunity to be with Pudge,” Jim Riggleman said. “As the season would go, the hope would be that Ramos would get more and more playing time as the season goes next year and evolve into the No. 1 guy.”
Right now he is focused on playing winter ball in Venezuela for the Tigres de Aragua. He just started on Tuesday but he went 4-for-5 with two doubles and four RBI in his debut.
It didn’t take the Nationals much time to find a replacement for Pat Listach who accepted a job with the Chicago Cubs as their bench coach.
Former player and coach Bo Porter will be the new third base coach. Porter spent the 2010 campaign on Arizona’s coaching staff, first as third base coach before he was elevated to bench coach when Kirk Gibson was named the Diamondbacks manager on July 3. Porter returns to the NL East, where he served as the Marlins’ third base coach and outfield/base running instructor from 2007-09. While in Florida, Porter worked extensively with current Nationals left fielder Josh Willingham. Porter played portions of three Big League season with the Cubs, Athletics and Rangers from 1999-2001.
The Nats also announced that Bench Coach John McLaren, Pitching Coach Steve McCatty, Hitting Coach Rick Eckstein, First Base Coach Dan Radison and Bullpen Coach Jim Lett–everyone else–will return next season. Last month, the Nationals announced that Riggleman would return in 2011 for a third season as Nationals field manager.
Double-A Harrisburg Manager Randy Knorr, the Nationals bullpen coach last season, saw Ross Detwiler grow up before his eyes in 2009. When Detwiler made a start, he wouldn’t talk to anybody and his face was as motionless as a staring contest in a prefight weigh-in. He thought being a Big Leaguer meant you couldn’t have fun. It didn’t quite lead to success and the Nats sent him to Triple-A Syracuse in July. He was called up when the rosters expanded in September and Knorr noticed a difference right away.
“His second time there, he was laughing and joking around with teammates before his starts,” Knorr said. “He understood that doing it the other way wasn’t working.”
After a productive September, the Nationals hoped 2010 would be a breakout season for Detwiler, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2007 draft. That changed in the middle of February when Detwiler underwent preseason surgery on a torn labrum in his right hip. Instead of a breakout season, it was a rehab season.
Detwiler returned to the Majors on July 25 and made three starts. He never felt comfortable or confident in his hip and he returned to the DL on August 8. He returned to the Majors in the beginning of September and pitched well. He threw three scoreless, two inning appearances out of the bullpen and made his first start on September 23. He pitched 6.0 solid innings against the Astros, allowing just two runs. His last start of the season didn’t go as well. He allowed seven runs in 4.2 innings against the Phillies. But don’t get too invested in the statistics.
“Obviously, I’m going to be a lot better in Spring Training with everything completely healed,” Detwiler said after his last start. “It’s not too bad right now. It was major surgery, so it just takes some off-time. There is no structural damage right now.”
Pitching Coach Steve McCatty said he wants to alter his delivery–particularly lengthen his stride–to help alleviate stress on his hip.
“One of the things we are working on is his stride, so he could get a little more leg push,” McCatty said. “When he came back the first time, he had a short stride and put a lot of stress on that hip. We’re trying to get that lead leg out a little further and take out a little bit of the stress.”
Now, the Nats are counting on the cool and calm 24-year-old to be the pitcher they expected when they drafted him and relieve some of the stress on the starting rotation.
Nyjer Morgan was finally getting comfortable at the plate. After struggling in May and June, Morgan turned the corner at the end of June–right about the same time he started to heat up in 2009 when he was acquired by the Nationals from the Pirates. From June 29 to August 22, Morgan was the player that made him an instant fan favorite in Washington. He batted .300 (39-for-130) with nine RBI, 15 stolen bases and a .348 OBP. He was the hard-nosed, 100 percent effort ballplayer that made a difference with his glove and on the base paths. But right as Morgan was playing his best baseball of the season, there were a series of unfortunate events that unfolded in a 10 day span. It was a strange week to say the least. Any of the events looked at alone were rather minor, but each incident was magnified due to the proximity of the previous episode.
Here is a recap:
· Morgan was suspended on August 25, for seven games because of an incident with a fan in Philadelphia–he appealed the suspension and continued to play.
· On August 27, he was picked off of first base in the bottom of the eighth. Willie Harris would hit a home run on the next pitch.
· On August 28, Morgan was moved to eighth in the lineup. In the eighth inning, he barreled into the Cardinals’ catcher Bryan Anderson at home plate despite the fact that there wasn’t even a play at the plate. Morgan actually missed home plate and cost the Nats a run.
· He was held out of the game on August 29 because of that play for what Manager Jim Riggleman referred to as an “unprofessional play.”
· On August 30, Morgan expressed his displeasure with Riggleman for publicly criticizing him. “He just basically did a cardinal sin,” Morgan said. “You don’t blast your player in the papers.”
· On August 31, in the top of the tenth inning in a scoreless game against the Marlins, Morgan plowed over catcher Brett Hayes on a close play at the plate.
· On September 1, as expected, the Marlins retaliated. Marlins pitcher Chris Volstad didn’t throw at Morgan when he led off the game. It was a little surprising he wasn’t hit in the first inning but when Morgan batted in the fourth inning with the Marlins leading 14-3, Volstad plunked him with a 92 mph fastball in the ribs. Morgan flipped his bat to the dugout, took off his elbow protector and ran to first base. That’s baseball and Morgan knew it was coming–it’s a game that polices itself. What would have been a dead issue was quickly reignited when Morgan threw gas on the fire by stealing second base on the next pitch and third base two pitches later. Morgan was out to prove a point. The Marlins believed he was breaking one of the unspoken rules of baseball.
· When Morgan returned to the plate in the sixth inning, the Marlins were determined to teach him a lesson, once again. On his next at-bat, Volstad threw a 91 mph fastball behind Morgan. He charged the mound, igniting a brawl that could have qualified for a pay-per-view event.
· He was suspended eight games for the fight, and for those counting at home, it increased his total suspension to 15 games. He appealed both suspensions and the League eventually threw-out the seven game suspension from Philadelphia. On September 17, he began serving his eight game suspension for what was dubbed “The Malice in Miami.”
Now, it is just water under the bridge and Riggleman and Morgan have settled their differences but it was a contentious time for the two of them. “Let’s just say we weren’t double dating at the time,” Riggleman said.
It was that kind of season for Morgan: it was a fight from the beginning to the end–figuratively and unfortunately, literally. So what is next for Nyjer Morgan? For as bad as it was at times for him this season, he proved in 2009–be it just a few months with the Nationals–that he can be a solid leadoff hitter and create havoc on the base paths. Morgan plans on doing that in 2011.