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CHICO, LEFAVE BRING HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

[September 15th] -- Well, I certainly enjoyed my little mini-vacation away from blogging. You know, warm temperatures and water everywhere. Too bad the warm temperatures came from my body (102 degrees) and all that water kept streaming out of my nose. One of the worst cases of the flu I've ever had.

That being the case, I still watched the Nationals ply their trade, though my ever-lasting sneezing and wheezing made those three losses in a row especially hard to watch. Hard not because they lost, but because they could have - perhaps should have - won all three. Had they just won those two extra inning affairs, the team would have a record of 68-80 record this Sunday morning and be in great shape to surpass last year's 71 wins. As it is, the Nationals need to go win six of the teams final 12 games to reach 72 wins. If they play .500 ball the rest of the way - something they've done since their 9-25 start, they'll end the season with a record of 74-88, which is just too much to ask.


Isn't it?


One thing to remember, though. The Nationals have yet to win even a single game in either of their two final series, In 2005, they went into that final series with an 81-78 record and seemed sure of a winning record. Last year, a sweep would have given the team a 74-88 record, certainly respectable considering all the injuries the team had to deal with.


What will happen this time around? Well the good news - I guess - is that they are concluding their season on the road, something new for the team.


My prediction (for what it's worth considering I'm so full of NyQuil that I can't see straight): The Nats split their final homestand (five wins) and win two of their remaining six road games.


With that, the Nationals will end the season with a record of 74-88. And that, my friends, will be something to be proud of (for the record, I predicted a 63-99 record on opening day).


Matt Chico showed me a lot the other night against the Braves. After giving up three runs in the first inning - and looking like he reverted to overstepping on his delivery - Chico shut down the Braves effectively the rest of the way. What could have been a real blow to Chico's chances to return to the starting rotation next year ended a quality start: three runs in six innings.


Take a look how Chico has faired in his three starts since returning from Columbus:


Starts: 3 -- IP: 19 -- H: 16 -- ER: 4 -- BB: 3 -- K: 12 -- % of pitches for strikes: 66% -- ERA: 1.89


Pretty amazing, huh? Now, compare that to his previous three starts before getting sent down:


Starts: 3 -- IP: 14 -- H: 15 -- ER: 11 -- BB: 14 -- K: 10 -- % of pitches for strikes: 56% -- ERA: 7.07


And that is the proverbial "night and day difference." Why? How could a few games in Columbus straighten out something that took most of the summer to occur?


You got me.


Some pitchers slowly get better and the transformation from young and inexperienced to a master of their domain is almost seamless. Others toil for sometime before finally "getting it." Jim Palmer was the former, Sandy Koufax the latter. Koufax was just another National League pitcher from 1955-1961, when he went 54-52 with a 3.80 ERA. Then, as if someone threw a switch, he became the most dominant pitcher of his era, going 111-34 with an unbelievable 1.98 ERA (the league average then was 3.22). How'd he do it? He basically cut his walks in half. After averaging nearly 100 walks per season before 1962, he was down in the mid 50's over his final five years.


How did Chico manage his turnaround (at least so far)? He cut his walks down from one an inning in his August starts to one ever six innings since his return. He's no Sandy Koufax, that's for sure, but he just might be that solid number three starter that we had hoped for.


NOTE: Jason Bergman's return from the minors/DL has also been successful, but for a different reason. His four July starts were horrid; he he gave up 23 hits in 18 innings and had a ERA of 8.00. Since his return, Bergman has been much better, going 3-0 with a 3.66 ERA. He's allowed just 22 hits in 25 innings and three of his four starts have been "quality starts." But take a look at his control: both his walks per 9 innings (3) and % of strikes thrown (64%) are the same in July (8.00 ERA) and since his return (3.66 ERA). His problem, unlike Matt Chico, has been location, not control.


Andrew Lefave for Ray King? Wow. I know, I know. He was a 23 year old last year in a league full of 18 and 19 year olds. True, but so was Justin Maxwell, and he seems to be doing very well for the Nationals. What I can't figure out is why this good a hitter didn't get drafted, and why his first opportunity to play professionally was in the end-of-season Arizona Fall League at the age of 22. None of the scouting web-sites shows that he even went to college which makes his age even more of a question. Where was he all that time?


According to some, Lefave is an anomaly, his career .347 average not withstanding. The USA Today reported the trade and said that Lefave "doesn't have a chance to reach the major leagues."


Really? Based on what?


Now, I shouldn't be too hard on them; apparently the Brewers don't think he has a chance either or they wouldn't have traded him to the Nationals for a rental player that can't even play in the post-season, a guy who said he'd love to return to Washington next year (though the way Arnie Munoz is playing ....).


Here are his 2007 stats converted for a full major league season (minor league numbers are deceiving because of the fewer games played):


G:158 -- AB:592 -- R:126 -- H:204 -- 2B:35 -- 3B:0 -- HR:24 -- RBI:110 -- SB:17 -- AVE:.345 -- OBP:432


Very impressive, indeed.


At first blush, his numbers have a John Olerud or Sean Casey feel to them. In 1998 while with the Mets, Olerud batted .354-23-93 with a .447 OBP. That said, Olerud only played three games in the minors and made it to the majors at the age of 20.


Sean Casey's first 550 at bats produced similar numbers at Class 'A.' He batted .331-14-94 with 48 doubles and a .402 OBP. Casey was 21 playing against teenagers.


I'm not suggesting that Lefave is going to be a star, but neither can I say that he doesn't have a chance to play at the major league level. Yes, his age is a bit of a concern, but Lefave has shown he can hit (.354 & .345 in two minor league seasons) and if he continues at that pace - or close to it - he'll make up for the late start. He'll almost certainly start at 'AA' Harrisburg, replacing Josh Whitesell who will almost certainly replace Larry Broadway, who is almost certainly on his way out of the organization. If he hits .320-15-80 or so with an OBP over .400 next year, he'll likely be given a shot at making the major league roster if (if if if) Nick Johnson is no longer a viable option for the Nationals.


Lots of if's, but then, lot's of hope too.

NATS NOTES: With the explosion of Ryan Braun in Milwaukee, I have begun to wonder if Jim Bowden made a mistake by choosing Ryan Zimmerman as the team's 1st round pick because he was "most ready" to make it to the major leagues. Braun, who has played in only 98 games, is on pace to hit .324-35-95 this season. The Brewers took him with the next pick in the 2005 draft. In other words, the Nationals could have had him if they wanted him.

Poor choice?

No way.

Zimmerman has never been looked at as a slugger. He'll likely bat .300-32-120 over the next decade, ideal for a #3 hitter. Braun will likely be a better slugger.

It's defense, however, that makes Bowden's choice of Zimmerman sound (I'm forgetting those 23 errors; it's an aberration). Let's compare the two third baseman's stats for the year (I have extrapolated Braun's 98 games out to 147, the same number Zim has played):

Putouts: Zim:123 -- Braun:78

Total Chances: Zim:459 -- Braun:318

Assists: Zim:313 -- Braun: 207

Errors: Zim:23 -- Braun:33

Fielding %: Zim:.950 - Braun:.896

Their minor league stats are almost identical as well. Braun has a .898 fielding percent in 182 minor league games while Zimmerman has a .965 percent in 47 games (Zim's .965 is identical to his 2006 stats, numbers that more closely resemble his real ability).

Zimmerman is a sure-fire future gold glover while Braun is going to hurt the Brewers with his bad defense. So, the Brewers can have Ryan Braun, though there is little doubt that Braun will become a 40-40 player.

40 homers, 40 errors, that is.


Comments:
On Lefave: I also think he's intriguing, but it's likely he'll end up as a Rick Short-type player, capable of putting up big numbers in the minors year after year without ever really getting a shot in the bigs.
 
You could be right. Guys like Short sometimes run the misfortune of playing a position that is well stocked within the organization.

Lefave, on the other hand, has no real prospects in front of, or behind, him (Josh Whitesell just might be one of those guys you described).

Nick and Dmitri's contracts run through 2008. Would the Nationals dare try to re-sign Johnson even if he returns next year considering his age and fragile nature?

Lefave will be 25 then, and will be ready to take over if his talent allows.

It'll be interesting to see if he can take advantage of the situation.
 
Just a little more background on Lefave. He played two years of junior college ball for Edmonds (Washington) CC where he was also a pitcher. He was named league MVP. He then played at an NAIA school in Missouri where he was an all-american as a junior, grades kept him off the field for his senior year and signed as a non-drafted free-agent.
 
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