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71 AND COUNTING

[September 26th] -- It wasn't easy, but the Washington Nationals won their 71st game of the year last night. With four games to go, they will in all probability end the season 73-89 or some similar figure.

Most predictions last March were in the 59-64 win range. I came in at 63-99.

It's a very strange formula that Jim Bowden has followed. Strip virtually every star and every pseudo-star from the team, halve the payroll and fill the roster with players no one else wants and - voila! - you have a better team.

That the Nationals of 2007 will surpass last year's team is something. That they did it so easily is something else.

With the game 10-3 in the top of the 9th, I took my daughter for a walk around the neighborhood. I came back a half hour or so later and saw that final 10-9 score on my laptop. I am sooo glad I didn't have to watch that almost-comeback. My bum heart has a hard enough time without having to watch adreneline filled cliffhangers like the one last night.

Justin Maxwell. Wow. He could easily have a .300 batting average along with 4 homers and 8 RBI's in limited play. No question, he's not ready for the big leagues; he gets fooled on the breaking stuff too easily. But that'll change with time. But he's already able to hit mistakes a long, long way. How amazing it is that he started the season at low-A Hagerstown and is now hitting homers at Shea Stadium in New York. He won't be starting in center next year, but I think he'll be there come 2008.

Jason Bergman didn't have a quality start, but he came close, allowing three earned runs over 5.2 innings. No, that isn't great, but you have to look at the Mets' lineup to realize that they just aren't going to get shut down that often. From one through eight, they have players who can hurt you (you know a team is good when their #8 hitter is Shawn Green). So, based on who he pitched against, Bergman did well, pitching well enough to allow the Nationals a chance to win the game. Bergman, along with Matt Chico and Shawn Hill, have to be considered locks for 2008. If they continue to progress, if they continue to get better, than that's a good start. But that "good start" is only 60% of a major league starting rotation. Tim Redding and Joel Hanrahan, after good starts, are now showing why multiple teams have given up on them. Redding, however, would be a very good #5 starter if the other four pitchers are solid.

Forget those 24 errors committed by Ryan Zimmerman; they don't mean a thing. That double play he turned against friend and former teammate David Wright, that means everything. Had that been me, I would have likely gone home and tried to get the runner trying to score from third. He probably would have gotten him. But instead he did a pirouette and threw a bullet to second while falling backwards. Amazing.

For the next decade, Zimmerman will be compared to Wright. Without a doubt, he's a better a fielder (Wright has averaged 21 errors per year). I don't think anyone else playing today could have made that throw (Brooks Robinson could have; I've seen him do it several times). But will Zimmerman be as good a hitter as Wright? At 22, in his first full year in the majors, Wright batted .306-27-102. At 22, in his second full year in the majors, Zimmerman is on pace to hit .268-25-92, good enough numbers for an average defender but superb stats for a gold-glove caliber fielder. Zimmerman isn't going to be a super-star, he's not going to hit like Albert Pujols. But remember he's only 22. My guess is that his ceiling is somewhere around .310-35-120 or so. But guys who field like Zim don't need to be sluggers. Brooks Robinson averaged .267-15-76 over a 23 year career. If Zimmerman just duplicate Robinson's offense, the team will be much stronger having him there at third. But he'll hit better than Robinson did, and he will likely be more important to the Nationals than Brooks Robinson was to the Orioles. And that's all that matters.

Wily Mo Pena has become a singles machine. Don't get me wrong, now, he's not the next Pete Rose. But he is finally beginning to realize that hitting isn't "all or nothing," that singles aren't like small fish caught on a hook that should be thrown back. He had 35 hits with the Red Sox in 2007, and has 35 hits so far with the Nationals. 55% of his hits with Boston were singles while 69% of his Nats' hits are singles. He's still swinging for the fences early in the at-bat, but is now trying to go the other way after he gets two strikes. As a result, his batting average is higher and his strikeout ratio is lower. Over his career, Pena has struck out 34% of the time. Earlier this season, with the Sox, he struck out 37% of the time. With the Nationals, he's fanning "just" 25% of the time. His numbers with the Nats are remarkable; based on a full season, he's on pace to hit .297-30-100 with a .357 OBP.

Looks like he's the real deal and is now a fixture in left for years to come.


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