Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Vignettes With The Nationals--2/20/07
When Our Washington Nationals traded away Livan Hernandez last August to Arizona, the move signaled the beginning of a re-birth. A decision by new management that Washington was nowhere near ready to compete on a yearly basis. In return for Livo, General Manager, Jim Bowden received two upper tier pitching prospects from The Diamondbacks--Garrett Mock and Matt Chico.
After an excellent 2006 season playing AA ball and finishing his season at Harrisburg, Chico is now on the 40 Man Roster, determined to make the most of The Nationals wide open competition for starters in 2007. The African Queen and I caught up with him as he left the practice fields today. Matt was generous and excited to talk with us. And, you could tell, Chico is confident he can make a difference on The Major League Level in April, 2007.
Its early in Spring Training, I asked Matt. What are you doing right now to work your way into shape?
"Right now, I need to work on my pitches, build up my arm strength. I have some good off speed stuff and usually I can mix it up and keep hitters off balance with my fastball. The off season is always tough, sometimes its like starting over."
Have you had the opportunity to sit down with Manny Acta and Randy St.Claire to see what they are expecting from you?
Matt replied: "I have not talked too much with the coaches. But, we have talked a little in some of my bullpen sessions. And, we worked on my mechanics. They want be to be more fluid, use my legs more."
With the uncertainty of Washington's starters early in 2007, are you looking to step up to the big club?
"I am hoping to make the major league team, definitely. (as a starter, this year?- SBF) YES! That is my goal. My only goal for this season. I went up there (to DC) for my physical, right when I got traded. I went downtown and just loved it. No doubt it’s a special place, and my eyes opened to the opportunity. Being traded was tough, but in the long run, I could not be happier. I have a good chance here."
So, you really didn't expect to be traded?
"Yes, the whole deal was a total shocker, definitely. I was actually told three or four days after the trade deadline ended, I would definitely not be traded. It was not even brought up. Then, lo and behold, I got a call about 12:30 to get on a plane in 24 hours and head to Washington. But, it is a business, I understand that. I was actually happy to get out. I didn’t see a great opportunity in Arizona. I left a lot of good friend there, but I was stuck there, not moving forward. But, I got to tell you, going to Harrisburg was tough. The humidity was terrible. I was not use to it. (Wait until you get to DC!!--SBF, Laughing) Yeah, that’s what I hear, so I better get in the best shape I can."
The African Queen and I really enjoyed our moments with him, especially when Sohna told him that we sit in Section 320, behind the 3rd Base Dugout. Matt asked if thats the group that does all the cheers and songs. Yes, we replied, thrilled at his knowledge!
During this past winter's Rule V Draft, The New York Mets exposed one of their very best power hitting, catching prospects, Jesus Flores. And, General Manager Jim Bowden swooped in and nabbed him. Many scouts believe Flores is a definite Major League Prospect, not only at the plate, but behind it. Under the rules of that draft, Flores must remain on The Major League Roster all of 2007 or be offered back to New York. Bowden told me a few weeks ago, it would be foolish to allow Jesus to return to The Mets. Although Flores does not speak English well, nor I Spanish decently, we still were able to communicate with each other. Jesus is happy for the opportunity, his following comments are paraphrased. Its the respectful thing to do.
Are you excited with your chances to play in Washington?, I asked Flores. Jesus responded: “I am waiting for the games to begin. The Nationals want to see how I develop. They think I can do the work. I have the talent. They have a lot of confidence in me. I need to work on my game, mentally. The game here is a far different game from the Minor Leagues to Major League Baseball. It’s a big adjustment I have a lot of skills that I have shown. (Will major league hitting be tough for you?--SBF) I really don’t know yet, that’s what I am here for—to see what I can do. But, I love the challenge."
As I posted earlier, Rookie Prospect Kory Casto seems a little disappointed over possibly being shut out in the competition for The Left Field job for Our Nationals. These were his complete comments:
I asked Kory whether this was going to be his year to make the big club?
“it’s a great opportunity to get some at bats and compete for the Left Field spot. Although, it doesn’t appear that I will be playing out there much. I will be playing more 3rd base to get even more at bats this spring. It’s a good opportunity, if its not going to happen for the beginning of the year, then for the middle or the end of the year. ( Have Bowden or Acta talked to you about these modified expectations--SBF?) No, not directly, but, I need to go out there and do the good things I have been doing for the past couple of years and hit the ball well."
So you don’t sound hopeful, do you have a chance this spring?
"Yeah, there is always a chance. I am fighting for at bats, stuff like that, and sometime during the year, I will be able to get up there and make a contribution. That’s really what a lot of guys need, the opportunity, the chance to get up there (to the Majors). Getting there is the hardest part about it, for that first little bit. And, to do that, someone (Coaches, Management) needs to have faith in you.”
George Washington University Product, Mike O'Connor is recovering from elbow surgery and is not expected to begin the 2007 season. I asked Mike how long much longer he will be recovering?
"I need to get healthy and in shape, those are my most important goals right now. Its not 100% up to me (getting back on the mound). They (the coaches) tell me what I am going to do each day and how quickly this (recovery) is going to progress. No one is putting any type of pressure on me, to rush me back. The coaches tell me my throwing work each day. And, I go do that. I don’t want to be set back, and they don’t want to see that happen."
"No one has gotten to far ahead to tell me (when I will be 100%), or set a date. No one wants to set a date, then a setback occurs and you are left disappointed. No one gets too far ahead. The focus is two weeks at a time. When I progress that far, the new program begins. If I know a date is set and I am not ready, I would be very frustrated."
As we concluded our brief chat, Mike was heading off to lift weights, I finish up by asking him, whether he would be joining any of his teammates on the golf course this afternoon? O'Connor immediately stopped, turned and said: “No, I need to stay away from that right now (laughing). I don’t want to do something stupid until I am completely healthy. That would hurt me, big time."
Another injured pitcher, not looking to make any appearances for Our Washington Nationals anytime soon, is Brandon Claussen. Claussen is recovering from a torn rotator cuff. Signed as a free agent pickup, in the brief moment I had with him, Brandon almost gave the impression, his career was near an end. Responding to my question whether he may pitch in 2007, he stated:
“I can’t pick a date on that. I am trying to get healthy. I can’t even say I will be back (at all). If everything goes well, maybe the first part of May, but maybe not. Although, I am excited to be here with The Nationals. It’s a great opportunity. They seem to be starting over. A new young core. A new young manager. A new ballpark going in. I really think this is all something the fans should get excited about. Hopefully, I can be a part of the success."
Are you happy to be here? "Yeah, get in shape, enjoy the weather. Shoot, just have fun. Its baseball, its spring. And, as we all know, spring is eternal." His response was in the mood of a surfer dude. Very casual, almost uncaring. Brandon Claussen was strange.
Finally, as Manager Manny Acta stepped into his golf cart, and signed autographs, we started chatting about his first full day workout. Did everything go as planned?
Acta, charasmatic as always, said: "Today was outstanding. I think the first day sets the tone for the rest of spring training. Everybody was upbeat. And, I think I have to thank my coaching staff, because everything was organized. (A lot of people are saying your camp is far more upbeat than the previous two seasons?--SBF) I was not here the past two years, so I can’t comment on that. But, this is the type of camp we want to run. We need to create a happy atmosphere for everyone and today was a very good start "
What did you tell the everday players in their first meeting with you on the field?
“We not only have to get the players into shape, but we must also install a winning attitude that will help us win. We will not come out here (to practice) just to do things, to do things and head out to the golf course. They need to learn about our expectations that will help us win. If everyone responds positively, we are heading down the right road. Nothing less will be tolerated."
I noticed you worked with Ryan Zimmerman a few times today during infield practice. What were you two working on?
“I am just giving him a couple of pointers. I was an infield instructor by choice, and he’s still young, and willing to learn. He still needs a lot of things to improve on. We will be here for him, whenever he needs support. I realize he doesn’t need that much help on his hitting. But, we got an infield coach here, we got a batting coach here. We are going to do everything we can to help make Ryan the very best player he can be. He is special, we need to nurture him."
Finally, two of my favorite brief comments of the day.
New Nationals Bench Coach, Pat Corrales, was passing me at the end of today's workouts, when I asked him how strange is everything, for him, after so many years in Atlanta working with The Braves. "I don't know ANYBODY!!--truthfully," he proclaimed. "Its like starting all over again. I am the lowest guy on the totem pole."
Chris Snelling after I thanked him for stopping to talk with me: "No worries, MATE!!"