by Amanda Comak
As the 2014 MLB Winter Meetings head into their second day, Washington Nationals Manager Matt Williams will meet with the media this afternoon in San Diego. The National League Manager of the Year enters his second season at the helm looking to help the team improve on what was a very successful 2014 season.
Before Williams meets with the media, he spent a few minutes catching up on the year that was and more:
From where you were last year at this time, how do you reflect on how everything has gone?
I think it was a successful season for us. I think it was satisfying, yet unsatisfying at the same time because we weren’t the last ones standing — and that’s why we’re all here. So, a very positive step in the right direction and hopefully many more steps to come.
Do you feel more focused or sure of what you’re looking for at these meetings than maybe you were in 2013?
I think I’m a little more comfortable because I know everybody. Last year was a sort of “getting-to-know-you” process. This year, I’m a little more comfortable with our group and our fantastic group of scouts and front office folks. But I still have butterflies, like everybody else does, in anticipation of the upcoming season so I’m excited and looking forward to February.
What do you think your biggest accomplishment of the past year?
I just think the ability to understand our players, and help them, and put them in a position to succeed. We had a lot of guys who had great years and I think that’s probably the biggest accomplishment I can point to — and ultimately my job is to put them in a position to succeed and do the best they can. If each individual can do that then we have a very good chance of succeeding as a team.
What are you most looking forward to in 2015?
Just the opportunity to get back to the postseason. We want to play meaningful games in September and October. We had a little bit of a taste of it this year and we want to certainly get back there and see if we can go further this time.
What was your reaction to being named the 2014 BBWAA NL Manager of the Year?
I’m extremely proud of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) Award as well. It means to me that we have a fantastic organization and that everybody is on the same end of the rope, pulling as hard as they can to have success and be a championship club. I’m proud to be able to go to New York in January and represent us and accept that award on behalf of our organization.
The Nationals have added Tommy Shields to their Minor League staff, naming him co-field coordinator on Tuesday. Shields, a Fairfax, VA, native, joins Jeff Garber in that role.
Shields comes to the Nationals after spending three seasons as the manager of the Burlington Royals in the Kansas City Royals’ chain. Shields earned the Appalachian League Manager of the Year honors in 2012.
He played parts of eight Minor League seasons in the Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Chicago Cubs’ organizations. A left-handed-hitting infielder, Shields made his Major League debut in 1992 with the Baltimore Orioles but earned his first MLB plate appearance with the Chicago Cubs in 1993.
The MLB PR Directors announced their annual Winter Meetings auction on Monday, with a litany of incredible, unique experiences up for bid with all of the proceeds going toward LUNGevity, the largest national lung cancer-focused nonprofit.
The charity, which was the personal cause of Orioles PR Director Monica Barlow, who passed away in February at age 36 after a lengthy battle with lung cancer, works to change outcomes for people with lung cancer through research, education, and support.
The Nationals have two great experiences up for auction this year: lunch with Matt Williams and his coaching staff inside the Nationals’ clubhouse one day this upcoming season, and a grounds crew experience. You can bid on these, and many other great items here. And all of the donations will go to a fantastic cause, and in Monica’s memory.
by Amanda Comak
As Ryan Zimmerman and his wife, Heather, wrapped turkeys in aluminum foil on Tuesday morning, the Washington Nationals infielder looked around the kitchen. Volunteers and employees bustled around the Food & Friends facility on Riggs Road in Northeast Washington, D.C., and as Zimmerman and his wife helped prepare Thanksgiving meals, he took in the scene.
“It’s pretty amazing to see how many people help,” Zimmerman said after he finished his turkey-wrapping duties. “We met one couple who works here every Tuesday.”
The Zimmermans joined roughly 20 front office employees in volunteering at Food & Friends, helping to prepare and package Thanksgiving meals for many in need.
This was the seventh year that the Nationals visited Food & Friends, continuing the team’s tradition of assisting the organization in its effort to provide home-delivered meals, groceries and nutrition counseling to people living with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other illnesses throughout the Washington Metropolitan area.
“A lot of people aren’t as fortunate and don’t have a Thanksgiving, really, to speak of,” Zimmerman said. “For them to get a meal for four or five people, I can only imagine what it means to them. It’s fun to be able to come and help them.”
While they helped package approximately 60 cooked turkeys in one hour, the Zimmermans won’t be making the traditional feast themselves this Thanksgiving holiday. They will travel with their 1-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, from their Virginia home to visit family.
But before they departed, they recognized the importance of giving back to their community.
“We packed some big turkeys,” Zimmerman said with a laugh. “It made me hungry.”
“We did a ‘Friendsgiving’ one year where we had friends over, and we cooked the turkey,” Heather Zimmerman said. “It came out perfect. So, we went out on top, and we’ve never made a turkey again.”
As for the hamstring that sidelined Zimmerman through much of the season’s second half, the infielder said he’s feeling strong and should begin his usual offseason training soon.
“I’ve done a lot of resting,” Zimmerman said. “I’m good and rested. I’ll probably start my routine next week.”
In the aftermath of the Washington Nationals’ 2014 National League East Division Championship celebration, Nationals President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo was asked what comes to his mind first when he sees his team accomplish this type of feat. How, a reporter wondered, did he feel when the possibility to reach the sport’s ultimate mountaintop suddenly becomes far more tangible?
Rizzo, who has built the Nationals into a division winner twice in the last three years, said he thinks first of the two 80-year-olds in his life: Nationals Managing Principal Owner Ted Lerner, and his father, Phil Rizzo — and how much these championships means to them.
Phil Rizzo currently serves as a Senior Advisor to the General Manager (his son, Mike) for the Nationals. And his opinions and evaluations are as integral as ever for the younger Rizzo.
Among Phil Rizzo’s notable moments as a lifelong scout are filing the first report on University of Kentucky right-hander Brandon Webb, who won the 2006 National League Cy Young Award and represented Arizona in three All-Star games, as well as signing players such as Mike Matheny, Dick Schofield and Mark Loretta.
Happy 85th Birthday, Phil!
by Amanda Comak
The Washington Nationals added four prospects to the team’s 40-man roster on Thursday, selecting the contracts of right-handed pitcher A.J. Cole, infielder Wilmer Difo, outfielder Brian Goodwin and left-handed pitcher Matt Grace.
All four prospects are now protected from the Dec. 11 Rule 5 Draft.
Cole, a fourth-round pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, was rated by industry expert Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in the Nationals minor league system prior to the 2014 season. The 6-foot-5 righty went 13-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 25 starts between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse, including a perfect 7-0 record in 11 starts for the Chiefs. He ranked among Nationals minor league pitchers in wins (T1st, 13), strikeouts (T3rd, 111) and ERA (4th, 3.16).
“A.J. has made a rapid ascension through the organization,” said Nationals Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Player Development Doug Harris. “He’s on the cusp of accomplishing his, and our, ultimate goal, and we look forward to his contributions going forward.”
At 22, Cole features a mid-to-upper 90s-mph fastball and front-end-of-the-rotation potential. He owns a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.24 and has struck out 9.1 batters per nine innings over the course of his career.
Cole was a significant piece of the six-player trade with the Oakland Athletics on December 23, 2010 that netted the Nationals left-handed pitcher Gio Gonzalez, among others. Washington then reacquired Cole, along with right-handed pitcher Blake Treinen, and left-handed pitcher Ian Krol in exchange for outfielder Michael Morse on January 16, 2013.
Difo, 22, set career marks in nearly every offensive category in 2014, hitting .315 with 31 doubles, seven triples, 14 home runs, 90 RBI, 37 walks and 91 runs scored in 136 games for the Hagerstown Suns. He was named the South Atlantic League’s Most Valuable Player after leading the league with 176 hits while ranking second in total bases (263), second in stolen bases (49), fourth in RBI (90) and fourth in runs scored (91). His 90 RBI were the most among Nationals farmhands, while his .315 average was good for second behind only Steven Souza Jr.
Difo, a native of the Dominican Republic, was signed as a non-drafted free agent on June 2, 2010.
“Wilmer is coming off a breakout season, in which he was honored accordingly with the South Atlantic League MVP,” Harris said. “He burst onto the scene and we expect him to continue on this upward trajectory.”
Following the season, Difo became the second recipient of the Bob Boone Award, which is granted annually to the Nationals minor leaguer who best demonstrates the professionalism, leadership, loyalty, passion, selflessness, durability, determination and work ethic required to play the game the ‘Washington Nationals Way.’
Goodwin, 24, is considered one of the top position player prospects in the Nationals minor league system. He is an elite athlete with the ability to play any outfield position. During his first three professional seasons, Goodwin posted a .362 on-base percentage and has drawn a walk every 7.42 plate appearances. He advanced to Triple-A Syracuse for the first time in 2014, hitting .219 with 10 doubles, four triples, four home runs, 32 RBI, 50 walks and 31 runs scored in 81 games for the Chiefs.
Goodwin was selected in the supplemental round (No. 34 overall) of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft.
“We’re excited about Brian’s potential,” Harris said. “He shows five tools, and we’re looking forward to his future, and his ability to impact the game in a variety of ways.”
Grace went 5-1 with three saves and a 1.17 ERA (10 ER/77.0 IP) in 50 appearances between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse in 2014. He was promoted to Syracuse on June 16 and posted a 1.30 ERA (6 ER/41.2 IP) and a .194 batting average against in 28 appearances at the highest level of the Minor Leagues. Following the season, he was selected to play in the prestigious Arizona Fall League as a member of the Mesa Solar Sox.
“Matt has made significant strides and really found his niche in the bullpen,” Harris said. “He’s performed extremely well in a relief role and we feel like he’s got a bright future as a left-handed bullpen guy going forward.”
The 25-year-old Grace features a heavy, sinking fastball, and induced ground balls at a rate of 69 percent in 2014. He was selected by the Nationals in the eighth round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft out of UCLA.
To make room for these players on the 40-man roster, infielder Pedro Florimon was claimed on waivers by the Pittsburgh Pirates, right-handed pitcher Ryan Mattheus was placed on outright assignment and elected free agency while catcher Jhonatan Solano was granted his unconditional release. With these moves, the Nationals’ 40-man roster is now full.
Nationals sign LHP Matt Purke to Minor League contract with invitation to Major League Spring Training
by Amanda Comak
The Washington Nationals re-signed left-handed pitcher Matt Purke to a Minor League contract with an invitation to Major League Spring Training on Monday.
Purke will now remain with the organization that drafted and developed him, and will continue his rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery (May 29, 2014) without any interruptions to his prescribed plan.
The Nationals, who have a wealth of experience in successfully rehabbing pitchers after the ligament replacement surgery, look forward to Purke continuing his progress in their organization.
“We are excited to keep Matt in the organization and to keep his rehab on track,” said Nationals President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo. “We look forward to seeing him rebound from his surgery during the upcoming season.”
The 24-year-old left-hander was drafted by the Nationals in the third round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft as a highly-touted prospect out of Texas Christian University. Injuries have limited him to 29 Minor League appearances in the past three seasons.
On Friday, the Nationals released Purke from the Major League contract he signed shortly after he was drafted, with a plan in place to re-sign him and keep him in the organization.
by Amanda Comak
The Major League All-Stars tour through Japan is about to hit the home stretch with five of the seven games they’re slated to play already in the books. And Washington Nationals reliever Jerry Blevins has not wasted a minute of his trip.
While he’s been enjoying sightseeing and soaking in the culture, Blevins has also been summoned to pitch three times in the five games. So far, he’s been superb.
Blevins has thrown three innings, allowing just one run (and no earned runs), off three hits and two walks with one strikeout.
He appeared on Sunday, Nov. 16, in a 6-1 MLB victory, on Friday, Nov. 14, in an 8-4 loss, and on Tuesday, Nov. 11, in an 8-7 MLB win.
Blevins has been keeping fans in the loop on his Asian adventure via his Twitter feed (which was listed by Sports Illustrated as one of the 100 must-follows).
Last workout on American soil. Then heading to Japan!
— Jerry Blevins (@JerryBlevins_13) November 8, 2014
So there is a Harry Potter world here in Osaka. Been to Orlando's. Too much culture to see 1st, but would be cool to compare them.
— Jerry Blevins (@JerryBlevins_13) November 10, 2014
It's 6am Tuesday morning here. I'm not actually in the future. It just means I have to watch MNF on Tuesday morning. pic.twitter.com/YI5BWmVNSl
— Jerry Blevins (@JerryBlevins_13) November 10, 2014
Took bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo. Saw Mt. Fuji. Now have a wonderful view of Tokyo. Life isn't too bad. pic.twitter.com/vhKi4p6HbQ
— Jerry Blevins (@JerryBlevins_13) November 13, 2014
Kabuki is a classical Japanese dance-drama performed in a highly stylized manner — from the dancing to the costumes and the makeup. It has been a significant theatrical form in Japan for almost four hundred years. And it looks like Blevins and Santiago were naturals.
The MLB All-Stars have two games left in Japan and they will return to the states following their finale on Nov. 20.
by Amanda Comak
The Nationals agreed to terms on a Major League contract with infielder/outfielder Kevin Frandsen on Friday, avoiding arbitration and securing the affable utility man for a second season in D.C.
Frandsen, 32, hit .259 with a team-leading 11 pinch hits for the Nationals in 2014 – ranking him 10th in the National League in that category.
An exceptionally versatile player, Frandsen appeared in 105 games for the Nationals last season with time at third base, second base, left field and first base. He started 42 of those games, filling in wherever needed when the Nationals were struck by injuries while also excelling in a bench role.
Frandsen is a career .259 (320-for-1235) hitter with 57 doubles, five triples, 15 home runs and 110 RBI in 507 big league contests spanning eight seasons with the Nationals, Phillies, Angels and Giants. Against left-handed pitching, Frandsen is a career .291 hitter with a .337 on-base percentage and .415 slugging percentage.
With the signing of Frandsen, the Nationals now have 10 remaining players eligible for arbitration: LHP Jerry Blevins, RHP Tyler Clippard, LHP Ross Detwiler, INF Danny Espinosa, RHP Doug Fister, C Jose Lobaton, C Wilson Ramos, RHP Craig Stammen, RHP Drew Storen and RHP Stephen Strasburg.
by Amanda Comak
On the heels of Washington Nationals Manager Matt Williams taking home the 2014 BBWAA National League Manager of the Year award, the Nationals announced Wednesday morning that they will welcome back all of their coaches from the 2014 staff.
In keeping bench coach Randy Knorr, pitching coach Steve McCatty, hitting coach Rick Schu, third base coach Bobby Henley, first base coach Tony Tarasco, bullpen coach Matt LeCroy, and defensive coordinator/advance coach Mark Weidemaier in the fold for 2015, Williams will have stability and continuity on his staff as he enters his second year at the helm.
McCatty, the longest-tenured member of the Nationals’ Major League staff, returns for his seventh season. Knorr returns for his fourth season as the Nationals’ bench coach, and sixth year on the staff, while Tarasco and Schu will begin their third seasons on the coaching staff. Henley, LeCroy and Weidemaier will all be back for their second campaigns.
Six of the Nationals’ seven coaches had experience coaching in Washington’s system before earning their Major League assignments, making the Nationals’ an exceptionally “homegrown” staff.
This marks the first time since 2007-2008 that the Nationals have returned their entire coaching staff in successive seasons.
by Amanda Comak
After leading the Washington Nationals to their second National League East title in the last three years, Nationals manager Matt Williams was named the 2014 National League Manager of the Year Tuesday night by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Williams received a total 109 points, including 18 first-place votes. Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle finished second in the voting, and San Francisco Giants Manager Bruce Bochy was third.
Williams, who joins Davey Johnson to become the second manager in Nationals history to earn this honor, had an exceptionally successful rookie season in the dugout as he led the Nationals to an NL-best 96 victories and the division title.
“On behalf of the Lerner Family and the entire Washington Nationals organization, I want to offer heartfelt congratulations to Matt on this well-deserved award,” said Nationals President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo. “His first year in the dugout was excellent, and it was a pleasure to watch him grow throughout. He is a respected leader, and the steady hand that navigated our team through many challenges this season.
“What we accomplished this season would not have been possible without the right man at the helm. That was Matt this season, and we’re all looking forward to 2015.”
Since the inception of the award in 1983, Williams is just the fourth first-year manager ever to win it. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he joins Hal Lanier (Houston Astros, 1986), Dusty Baker (San Francisco Giants, 1993), and Joe Girardi (Florida Marlins, 2006).
“I am incredibly honored and humbled by this award,” Williams said. “This was a very special year for us, and I am proud of what we accomplished in my first season at the helm. For me, as a newcomer to the managerial fraternity, it is a privilege just to be considered amongst the best in our game. Clint and Bruce are certainly that.
“While this is an incredible acknowledgement by the writers, I know we have bigger goals to accomplish in Washington and I look forward to the challenge that the 2015 season will bring.”
The Nationals, though besieged by injuries, won their division by the largest margin (17.0 games) of any in the Major Leagues under Williams’ watch. Over the course of the season, the Nationals saw 948 total games missed due to stints on the Disabled List, with Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, Adam LaRoche and Denard Span – all key players — accounting for 284 of those games.
While the Nationals withstood that barrage, Williams’ guided them toward steady improvement as the season progressed.
After playing to a .500 record (27-27) through the season’s first two months, the Nationals were at least four games over the .500 mark in each remaining month of the season, finishing 69-39 from June through September. That stretch included a 19-10 month of August that featured a 10-game winning streak from Aug. 12-21, the longest winning streak in the National League this season.
On Sept. 16, the Nationals clinched their second National League East Division title, and they finished the regular season with a 96-66 record.
Williams, 48, was named the fifth field manager in Nationals history on Oct. 31, 2013. The five-time All-Star third baseman was also voted by his managerial peers as the 2014 Sporting News Manager of the Year.
by Amanda Comak
Jerry Blevins had been to Japan before. Back in 2012, when he was a member of the Oakland Athletics, the lefty traveled to the country as part of their season-opening series vs. the Seattle Mariners. He’d seen some of the iconic sights and had some unique experiences – like putting on a clinic for soldiers’ children at an army base and getting a chance to fly around that base in a helicopter.
He soaked in as much as he could in the week or so that the A’s were there.
And when the Major League Baseball Players Association put out an inquiry during the 2014 season for players interested in participating in the 2014 Japan All-Star Series, Blevins didn’t hesitate to throw his name into the ring.
Then he waited, and hoped.
“I put my name in a long time ago,” Blevins said last week as he packed for the trip that would take him to Los Angeles for two days, and then to Japan through Nov. 20. “As you can tell from the talent on the roster, there are a lot of guys who wanted to do this. I’m just so honored my name was picked.”
The Nationals’ versatile lefty spoke excitedly of what was ahead of him: a chance to play with former teammates again and an opportunity to meet new ones, to soak in another international experience and sightsee while representing MLB, and to go through it all with his fiancée, Whitney.
“For the most part, I’m just excited to be in Japan and experience that culture from a different standpoint,” Blevins said. “(Whitney) has never been, and we’re really excited to go. I’ve been almost more excited for her to go over there, and have her share that experience with me, than I am for myself, really.”
The Japan All-Star Series will begin Wednesday and run through Nov. 18, but the MLB All-Stars will play an exhibition game on Tuesday (4 a.m. ET), and on Nov. 20. MLBNetwork will broadcast all seven games.
Here’s a breakdown of the schedule:
Before Blevins left for Japan, we caught up with him about a host of topics. Here’s some of what the affable lefty had to say:
What do you know about the Japanese style of baseball?
They’re very business-like, in a good sense of the phrase. They go about batting practice and make sure they’re trying to get better with every swing. They take the game very seriously, but they also have fun playing it and they play it in a positive manner. You can see that with a lot of the Japanese players who come over.
Their hitters put the ball in play. They put pressure on the defense. They’re not always trying to swing for power. There’s a lot of finesse in their game. Facing Ichiro Suzuki, like I have a lot in my career, that guy can put the ball in play from any different angle. He basically could, where I could throw a ball and hit a spot in the outfield right behind shortstop, he could do that with a bat. It’s just something that they take pride in, being able to have that kind of control.
Do you know any Japanese?
No, not really. I know ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye.’ In 2011, Hideki Matsui was on my team and whenever we were on the road our lockers would be really close. His translator, Roger, had the locker right next to mine so I talked to him all the time.
I consider myself a fairly intelligent person who learns well – but the Japanese language did not come easily to me. I got frustrated and gave up early, even with him trying to help me out. It’s very complex. There’s a lot of pitch and tone and inflection. If there was an alphabet for me to learn off of, that would be easier but they don’t have that.
What has the process been like to get ready to pitch in a competitive situation in November? Did you have to look at your shut down period after the season differently? What have you been doing to prepare your body for that and are you concerned it will affect your offseason routine?
I’m not worried at all that it’s going to affect my preparation for next season, but I did have to make some adjustments because after our season ended — prematurely, in my eyes — there was a gap between when I knew I was going to be on this team or whether I was still in limbo because they were finalizing the roster. So I had to keep throwing just in case. Nothing super intense, but if I had to ramp it up, I could.
When they decided I was going to be on the team I talked to the pitching coach about what my role was going to be and what I need to be prepared for. So, because I had planned on pitching through October with the Nationals, that was easy for me. My body was in shape to do that and my arm is pretty resilient just throwing year round. Being from a cold-weather place, I throw more in the offseason than most guys do anyway, I’ve come to find out. So, this will not affect me for next year in my preparation, but I did have to adjust and be ready for this.
Is there anyone going who you’re excited to play with again or get to play with?
I played with Evan Longoria with Team USA after the season in 2007, we went to Taiwan. I’m excited to be his teammate again. There’s just a full roster of guys who I’ve admired in baseball who I get to play with. It should be fun.
Are you bringing the amazing CATS sweater (purchased at the Mall of America) to Japan with you?
— Jerry Blevins (@JerryBlevins_13) November 5, 2014
I will not be bringing it to Japan… It’s a purchase that I’m proud of and I break it out probably once a year. The back of it has little paw prints so it’s pretty nice. I don’t know if you can tell, there are yarn balls the little cats are playing it. The string that connects that is an actual string.
Was it cool for you to find yourself listed on Sports Illustrated’s Twitter 100?
Yeah, so cool! Completely shocked by that because I do tweet, but I don’t tweet a ton. But I admire the Twitter world,and to be mentioned by Sports Illustrated was very cool. I think there were only three ballplayers on there, so I’m pretty honored to be a part of that.
A little pressure going forward. But, no, that’s what I love about Twitter. There’s no pressure to perform. It’s just your personality. If people don’t like it they can unfollow me. That’s what’s great. That’s what I love about it. I’m glad the people over at SI understood my sense of humor and get what I do with it.
I asked for the Jayson Werth BEARD for the playoffs and got this instead. pic.twitter.com/mgPU4tEojy
— Jerry Blevins (@JerryBlevins_13) September 30, 2014
— Jerry Blevins (@JerryBlevins_13) September 17, 2014