Results tagged ‘ Spring Training ’

This One’s for the Birds

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The Nationals held their first team work out of Spring Training Thursday. And while Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond put on a power display in batting practice, it was a wild osprey that stole the show.

Clutching a large fish in its talons, the bird of prey flew low over the field as it headed for its nest atop a nearby light tower. Center fielder Denard Span spotted it immediately.

“I saw the bird with something attached to its claws,” Span said. “At first, everyone was trying to figure out what it was. Then once I saw it was a fish, I realized he was gonna drop it.”

Ian Desmond: slick-fielding, 20-20 shortstop and... wild game warden?

Ian Desmond: slick-fielding, 20-20 shortstop and…wild game warden?

Span, known for his eye at the plate, was correct in his prediction. Out came the fish, falling to the turf about 25 feet beyond the cut of the grass in shallow center field.

“I could tell what the bird was thinking,” Span said, mimicking a person with his face in his palms. “I just dropped my dinner.”

But the osprey wasn’t ready to give up its meal. It circled back, as nervous fielders kept one eye on the rest of batting practice and one eye on the skies. Span tried his best to deter the bird from returning.

“I was just screaming,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not an outdoorsman. I didn’t want him to attack me.”

Desmond, who later picked up the fish and tossed it over the fence, didn’t think twice about the incident.

“I’m from here, so I see stuff like that all the time,” the Sarasota native said. “I’ve seen osprey flying with fish, rats or whatever. Never seen them drop in the middle of the field, though.”

“It was a pretty big fish,” he continued. “I think it was a crappie.”

Asked why he would pick up the fish and carry it off the field, Desmond got straight to the point.

“I’ve been fishing my whole life,” he said. “I’ve grabbed plenty of fish before.”

Signs of Life

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For the majority of Nationals fans around the country that are not in Florida right now, the knowledge that pitchers and catchers have reported provides comfort that the baseball season is right around the corner. However, most of them will not see their favorite players actually throw and catch and hit until the team migrates north back to the banks of the Anacostia for the regular season. For all Nats fans, but especially for those stuck in colder climates eagerly awaiting spring, this is for you.

Pitchers and Catchers

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People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. – Rogers Hornsby

Look outside. It has been cold and blustery here in D.C. Your bones may creak and your muscles may ache in the morning as you prepare for your day. The prospect of spring may still seem a distant light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. But today, everything should feel a little warmer inside. Today is first day that truly matters on the baseball calendar. Today, Nationals pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.

It's finally time for Spring Training to begin.

It’s finally time for Spring Training to begin.

It has been a difficult winter for many Nationals fans, who saw the magical 2012 season end so abruptly. But with a longer season, one that stretched into October for the first time, and an early report to Viera thanks to the World Baseball Classic, this winter seemed shorter than those before it.

Perhaps that was due to the strategic, piece-by-piece additions of Denard Span, Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano, as the team addressed its most pressing winter needs. Perhaps it was simply the ever-quickening nature of our perception of time. Think about it: as euphoric the aftermath of Game 4 and heartbreaking that of Game 5, doesn’t it all seem like a bit of a distant memory?

That’s because baseball is back. Sure, we’re a very long way from another October, with a more youthful Atlanta squad, a Phillies club looking to rebound from their first missed postseason since 2006, and 27 other teams standing in the way. But none of that matters yet. Not today.

Look outside again, at the sun shining through the clouds. If it’s beginning to feel like spring, it should. It is time to begin again from the beginning once more, but with prospects as bright and expectations as high as they have ever been.

It’s time for baseball. Finally.

Your Jr. Nats MVPs

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As some of you know, we held a contest in the run-up to NatsFest encouraging fans to nominate the Jr. Nationals MVP in their life for a shot at a free membership for the 2013 season. Well, after pouring over well more than 100 entries, we finally picked our winners. And while the winning entries were excellent, we were most inspired to see just how much energy each of you out there put into nominating the Jr. Nationals fans with whom you enjoy the great game of baseball here in The District.

For those who didn’t win, registration is now open for the 2013 Jr. Nationals Kids Club. Get over $400 in benefits for the youngest Nats fans in your family for just $15 per child. Read more about all the great benefits and sign your child up to be a Jr. Nationals MVP today!

And now, with no further ado, here were the winning entries:

Paige, nominated by Jessie

Particularly over the past year, Paige has grown to become a huge Nats fan. She’s quickly picked up on the intricacies of the game: strike zones, switch hitting, ground rule doubles. She keeps score at games. She follows injured players’ progress as they rehab and prep for a return to the big leagues. Over the winter, every day or two she asks if there have been any roster moves. Like so many of us, she shed a tear reading about Michael Morse being traded. I was so excited to break a rule and let her stay out late on a school night to go to an NLCS game with me. Then, well, you know what came next… What pleased me most is what I cannot confess to her or to my wife. Shortly after bedtime, Paige will often creep into our bedroom and complain that she doesn’t feel well. Don’t worry about her health; she’s faking. It only happens when I’m in there watching the Nats. She’s just looking for an excuse to check the score. If that’s not worthy of MVP status, I’m not sure what is.

Benjamin, nominated by Eric

I wasn’t sure how my 8-year-old son Benjamin would react after watching the Nats lose Game 5 to the Cardinals in heartbreaking fashion. We were at the stadium that night, and he refused to miss even a second of the game.  Instead, to the delight of everyone around us, he announced each National to the plate, as if he had the mic.  Every time a Nationals pitcher had a two-strike count, he stood on his chair and waved his towel. Not surprisingly, there were a few tears after the game. The question was, after watching his heroes come up short, how long would the hurt last? The answer came just a few days later. We were in the car when he spoke up from the backseat. “You know what, Dad?” he said. “We had one inning of saditude, but we had a whole season of Natitude!” That’s why Benjamin deserves to be a Jr. Nationals Kids Club MVP.

And as if you didn’t already know, pitchers and catchers report to Viera on Tuesday…

The Late Additions

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While this year’s Washington roster seems mostly set, it is important not to underestimate the potential impact of Non-Roster Invitees on the structure of the club that will break camp at the end of March. Sandy Leon, Carlos Maldonado, Rick Ankiel, Corey Brown and Brett Carroll all played small roles for the Nationals in 2012, and Chad Tracy – yes that Chad Tracy – was himself an NRI last year. Tracy staked his claim as one of the best pinch-hitters in the game and earned a contract extension for 2013 near the end of last season.

The Nationals announced three more additions to their list of Major League Spring Training Non-Roster Invitees this week, adding Jeremy Accardo, Micah Owings and Chris Snyder. All three have interesting storylines or ties to the organization, but perhaps none is more compelling than that of Owings, who came to terms with Washington on Wednesday.

Owings has always been known for his bat, and will report to Viera as a position player.

Owings has always been known for his bat, and will report to Viera as a position player.

For those unfamiliar with his Major League exploits, Owings is most well known as one of the best hitting pitchers in baseball over the past six seasons. While his career ledger on the mound is 32-33 with a 4.86 ERA in 138 appearances (68 starts), he has batted .283 (58-for-205) with an eye-popping .503 slugging percentage. To put that in perspective, only Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Tyler Moore (and Jhonatan Solano, in limited time) posted a higher slugging mark for the Nats last season than Owings’ career line.

His first season was his best, as he posted a .333/.349/.683 line to win the National League’s Silver Slugger Award in 2007, the same hardware Stephen Strasburg laid claim to last year. However, the 30-year-old Owings has shown enough continued promise at the plate that he will now attempt the same transformation as former National Rick Ankiel, moving from the mound to become a hitter.

“He’s worn all of the opposing clubs out at one point or another,” said Nationals Assistant General Manager Bryan Minniti of Owings. “So if you’ve seen the guy swing the bat the last couple of years, you’re intrigued. He’s a decent athlete as well.”

As you may remember, Ankiel had a pair of very strong seasons in his first two years after making the switch, hitting 36 home runs and driving in 110 over 167 games, posting a very comparable line to that of Owings, batting .270 with a .515 slugging percentage. Like Ankiel in 2007, Owings plans to focus entirely on his future as a hitter from here on out.

“We’re going to give him a go as a position player and see what happens,” explained Minniti. “We’re committed to it. He’s committed to it. We’ve got a couple of people here who know him from the past, including our hitting coordinator Rick Schu.”

Snyder, another former Diamondback, has experience catching Dan Haren.

Snyder, another former Diamondback, has experience catching Dan Haren.

Of course, just as he knows Chad Tracy (another player he drafted with Arizona) going into last year, Nationals EVP of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo is very familiar with Owings. He was in charge of the Diamondbacks’ drafts when Arizona selected the Gainesville, Georgia native in the third round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. Likewise, Rizzo was at the helm of the draft when his former organization selected Snyder back in 2002, the catcher the Nationals acquired earlier this week.

Snyder brings veteran depth with a decent eye (with a career on-base percentage 104 points above his batting average) and a little pop (hitting double digit home runs three times) to the Washington catching corps. The former Diamondback, Pirate and Astro provides a little extra insurance behind the plate as Wilson Ramos completes his rehab process heading into Spring Training.

“We like to go to camp with the proper amount of catching, and we felt like we wanted to add one more,” said Minniti of the Snyder addition. “We’ve got a couple of young guys that are very capable, but it just gives us a little more flexibility, having a good veteran to compete.”

A right-handed reliever, Accardo is the only one of the late additions who hasn’t played previously under Rizzo. However, he provides the Nationals with an interesting statistical note, as the fourth pitcher entering camp with a season of at least 30 saves under his belt in his career. While the former Blue Jay and Giant accomplished that feat back in 2007, he nevertheless merits inclusion with Tyler Clippard, Rafael Soriano and Drew Storen as the only such foursome reporting to a Major League camp this year.

From the Desk of Mark Lerner: Celebrating NatsFest

Happy new baseball season everyone.

As usual, I find myself again counting the days until Spring Training: just 14 more days! Yes, on February 12, our pitchers and catchers will report to Viera to get everything started once more.

I have said it before, perhaps in this blog, but there is nothing quite like Spring Training.

Nearly 8,000 Nats fans young and old turend out for NatsFest last Saturday.

Nearly 8,000 Nats fans young and old turned out for NatsFest last Saturday.

Optimism abounds. And, as the cliché goes, everyone is in first place. Well, at least until the Grapefruit League slate begins on February 23 in Port St. Lucie against the Mets. Incidentally, we begin our home schedule one day later, on Sunday, February 24, hosting the Marlins at Space Coast Stadium.

But before I get ahead of myself, I would like to thank all of our fans, players and staff for what was a first class NatsFest last Saturday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

As most of you know, this was our first offseason foray outside of Nationals Park, and honestly, I could not be more pleased. Judging by the crowd of almost 8,000 fans and their enthusiasm, the venue and expanded program were well received. How about our new Racing President William Howard Taft – “Bill” – that we introduced at NatsFest? I see the rivalry between Teddy and Bill picking up where it left off after the election of 1912.

I was delighted to meet and/or reconnect with so many of our wonderful fans. Many of you were longstanding friends. Others were new, having hitched up your wagons during the special 2012 campaign. It was great to rub elbows with such a fantastic group and talk some baseball as we collectively waited out the cold winter.

Incidentally, the players were tremendously excited by the size of the NatsFest turnout. There were too many positive comments to count. I do remember, however, that Denard Span and Dan Haren were both quite impressed. NatsFest gave both gentlemen a perfect opportunity to jump-start their relationships with their new town, fan base and teammates. Rest assured, Denard and Dan are not only terrific ballplayers, but class acts off the field. Our fans will be proud to support both.

Before we can begin our journey in the Sunshine State, we have one more football game to enjoy.

Congratulations to Baltimore Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti, General Manager Ozzie Newsome, Head Coach John Harbaugh and the entire Ravens organization on their run to the AFC Championship. Sunday’s Ravens-49ers Super Bowl should, as usual, provide great pageantry and theatre. Go Ravens!

I’d be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to congratulate our Washington Redskins on their 2012 NFC East Championship. And best wishes to QB Robert Griffin III on a quick and complete recovery. He is truly an amazing talent and a fine young man.

Please enjoy the Super Bowl everyone and I hope to see many of you down in Viera in the coming weeks.

I am already packed.

Feeling Bullish About The ‘Pen

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The Nationals made it official on Thursday, inking right-handed reliever Rafael Soriano to a two-year deal with a vesting option for the 2015 season. The 33-year-old Dominican hurler has eclipsed 40 saves in two of the past three seasons, including 42 last year for the American League East Champion New York Yankees.

Soriano gives the Nationals arguably the strongest bullpen in the Major Leagues.

Soriano gives the Nationals arguably the strongest bullpen in the Major Leagues.

Soriano fortifies an already strong Nationals bullpen, joining Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen to form a trio as strong as any in the league to shut down opponents at the end of ballgames. All three have served as closers at different points in their respective careers. In fact, average each pitcher’s most recent season in the closer’s role (Soriano in ’12, Clippard in ’12, Storen in ’11) and you get a 2.92 ERA, 9.5 K/9.0 IP and 39 saves, at an 89 percent conversion rate.

Most any team would jump at the opportunity to sign that player to pitch the most important single inning of the game. Your Nationals have three of them.

The Soriano signing was certainly the biggest player news of the week, but it wasn’t the only development out of The District. In addition to the deal that netted three minor leaguers from Oakland including the return of A.J.Cole, the Nationals also announced that pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training on February 12, with position players on the 15th and the first workout coming two days after that. Washington also signed five players to Minor League deals, and released its Non-roster Invitee list for Major League Spring Training, including five more players already under contract. Here are the names:

Minor League Deals/Non-roster Invitees:

LHP Fernando Abad

LHP Bill Bray

LHP Brandon Mann

RHP Ross Ohlendorf

INF Will Rhymes

Additional Non-roster Invitees:

LHP Pat McCoy

RHP Tanner Roark

C Carlos Maldonado

INF Matt Skole

INF Zach Walters

Some fans may remember Maldonado from his short stint in D.C. in 2012 and Bray from his 19 appearances with Washington back in 2006 before pitching for the Reds the past six seasons. Abad and Ohlendorf both have big league time as recently as last year, and the latter is no stranger to D.C. – the Princeton grad interned for the Department of Agriculture back in the winter following the 2009 season. Meanwhile, Skole and Walters should also be names familiar to those who follow the Nationals farm system, as we have profiled each of them, the former taking home organizational Minor League Player of the Year honors.

As we reach the middle of January, the roster is starting to take shape. Of course, that should come as no surprise – pitchers and catchers report in just 26 days.

No Clown Questions, Bro

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It’s been a whirlwind first big league offseason for Bryce Harper. Following his stellar inaugural campaign in which he helped the Nationals to their first-ever National League East crown and postseason appearance, the now-20-year-old was honored with the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Just last week, he was named as a finalist for the cover of the popular video game MLB ’13 The Show, despite having played just 139 Major League games, less than half of the next youngest nominee (Buster Posey, 308). And Tuesday night, Harper will be exposed to a different kind of national audience, as he makes his late-night television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Harper makes his late night debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live Tuesday.

Harper makes his late night debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live Tuesday.

“I’m really excited to go on Jimmy’s show,” Harper said. “It will be a really fun experience. I hope all the Nationals fans can tune in.”

Both host Kimmel and guest Harper are fellow natives of Las Vegas. The young slugger will be the second interview of the night, following actor Rob Lowe. It’s a nice reminder that, while the NFL winds down, the NBA is in full swing and the NHL gets ready to drop its first puck, pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training in less than a month.

“It’s been a great offseason,” said Harper. “I’ve been able to spend time with my family and friends, while continuing to get my work in each day. I’m excited to get to Spring Training and build on what we did last year.”

So are we.

From The Desk of Mark Lerner: Meetings Complete

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Hello everyone. I am back in D.C. after a successful stay in Nashville for MLB’s annual Winter Meetings.

Obviously, our biggest strike came with the signing of right-hander Dan Haren. When word of the signing began to leak out on Monday, there was a palpable buzz resonating from Nashville. Everywhere I turned at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center (and trust me, there are a lot of twists and turns due to its EXPANSIVE layout), there was someone from the media or from another club complimenting the signing. Most commented on the ideal length and quality of our rotation.

Haren fits and he really wanted to be here. He was born just outside of Los Angeles and played the vast majority of his career on the West Coast. He had other offers, but in the end, he saw an opportunity to win with us here in D.C. That really closed the deal.

Mike Rizzo and company strategize in the Nationals team suite at the Baseball Winter Meetings.

Mike Rizzo and company strategize in the Nationals team suite at the Baseball Winter Meetings.

There is a belief that Stephen, Gio, Jordan and Ross will really learn something about pitching from watching Haren. He is a three-time All-Star and pitched in two postseasons. And at the same time, Haren might just benefit from the jolt that comes with keeping up with our four young guns.

– I had the opportunity to have breakfast with Bo Porter while in Nashville. Both personally and organizationally, we are so proud of Bo. He is obviously very excited about the opportunity with the Astros. He knows that they have some work to do and the switch to the AL will present its own unique challenges. But the Astros picked the right man, in my opinion. And he’s a hometown manager to boot.

– I very much enjoyed our annual Affiliates Reception on Tuesday night. Most don’t know this, but Minor League Baseball’s 150-plus affiliates actually account for the vast majority of the 3,000 that annually attend the Winter Meetings. I enjoyed chatting with our extended family from Syracuse, Harrisburg, Potomac, Hagerstown and Auburn. The Nationals are very thankful for their warmth, kindness and professionalism in welcoming players as they migrate through our system.

– Unofficially, most in baseball view the Winter Meetings as the offseason’s midpoint. So, take note … Spring Training is coming quick.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL!! (CLICK FOR VIDEO)

Down on the Farm: Erik Davis

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Before we get too deep into our next Down on the Farm report, let’s explain the significance of the recent roster designation of a couple players. Both Erik Davis as well as Nathan Karns, who we profiled last week, were added to the Nationals 40-man Roster, guaranteeing them an invitation to Major League Spring Training in February. In the meantime, though, the moves had a more immediate purpose: they protected the two players from potentially being snagged away by another club in the Rule 5 Draft, an annual ritual which took place Thursday morning in Nashville.

For those not well versed in this process, allow us to explain how the process works, and why it can be a very big decision. The Rule 5 Draft stands in contrast to the Rule 4 Draft, which takes place in June and is more commonly referred to as the First-Year Player Draft. It is a process in which any Minor League player who was 18 years or younger when drafted who has accumulated four years of service time (or 19 and up at time of selection with three years service) becomes eligible to be taken by other teams. However, that team must keep said player in the Major Leagues for the entire season to follow, or else the player is returned to his original team. Due to that requirement, in the last 60 years, a range of just three to 24 players has been taken per year.

Davis was recently added to the Nationals 40-man Roster.

Davis was recently added to the Nationals 40-man Roster. (Will Bentzel/Harrisburg Senators)

So why does all of this matter? Well, both Davis and Karns are Rule 5 eligible, so the Nationals added them to the 40-man Roster in order to protect them. That means they are safely in the farm system for another year, and each could be called up to the Major Leagues at any time without making a 40-man roster move. For Karns, who topped out at High-A last year, that possibility may seem more remote for the 2013 season. But for the 26 year-old Davis, who put up impressive numbers at Double-A in 2012, it could mean much more.

We spoke recently with Harrisburg Senators Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations Terry Byrom, who shed some light on the skill set Davis brings to the diamond. A former starter who throws downhill with a great off-speed pitch and a solid curveball, he has drawn some comparison to current Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard. But Byrom had another member of the Washington bullpen in mind.

“I would say at this point that he and Christian Garcia are very similar,” he explained. “Garcia probably has better stuff, but I’m not sure I would say it’s a lot better. Erik’s stuff is good enough to play in the big leagues, absolutely, no doubt about it. He could make that roster out of Spring Training.”

Those are likely reassuring words for Davis, who saw Garcia’s ascent first-hand, both as a teammate and a roommate at various stops in the minors. And with Washington still sorting out its final bullpen spots for 2013, Byrom’s projection is not such a stretch. Given the organization’s track record of converting starters into quality relief arms once they reach higher levels of the Minor Leagues (see: Clippard, Craig Stammen, Zach Duke), there is no reason to believe Davis couldn’t follow the same path.

“I think that’s something that the Nationals have been incredibly successful at,” said Byrom, who has seen many of those pitchers make their way through Harrisburg. Especially the Minor League (instructors), they do a really good job of migrating guys from starting roles.”

After shining in Double-A, Davis was even more impressive in the Dominican Winter League.

After shining in Double-A, Davis was even more impressive in the Dominican Winter League. (Will Bentzel/Harrisburg Senators)

Once a promising starting prospect in the Padres organization, Davis won 16 games for Low-A Fort Wayne back in 2008, and owns a career Minor League record of 45-24. The former 13th-round selection out of Stanford was acquired prior to the 2011 campaign for infielder Alberto Gonzalez, and ran into his first trouble as a starter, going just 5-12 between two levels of Washington’s farm system.

After that disappointing 2011 season, Davis moved to the ‘pen and rebounded with a very strong 2012 campaign. In 40 relief appearances with Double-A Harrisburg, Davis went 7-3 with five saves and a 2.52 ERA (18 ER/64.1 IP), striking out 69 while walking just 18 and stranding 20 of 25 inherited runners. He was promoted to Triple-A Syracuse for a short stint in August, but might have put up his most impressive showing in the Dominican Republic this fall. Pitching for Los Gigantes del Cibao, Davis went 3-0 with a 0.47 ERA, holding opponents to a .149 batting average while fanning 19 in 19.0 innings pitched. Davis credited a greater comfort in his second season with the Nationals as a reason for his improved numbers.

“When you go into a new system, obviously it’s a good thing because they traded for you, so that means they want you,” he explained. “But it’s tough not to put extra pressure on yourself to go out and do more than you’re capable of.”

Given a second chance to make a first impression, Davis has made the most of it. And despite a longer road than he may have initially expected, pitching in the Major Leagues is as close a reality as it has ever been before.

“I have the same goal with the Nationals that I did with the Padres,” he said. “I still haven’t really accomplished that goal of getting there and staying there.”

Byrom believes Davis’ continued improvement is certainly possible given his talent, and explained that if the pitcher can maintain his big league work ethic in 2013, it could very well lead to big league results.

“If he chooses to put the time and effort into it, I think that Erik Davis is going to be a guy that pitches for a long time in the bullpen in the Major Leagues.”