Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mid-Season Thoughts From Phil Wood

With the 81st Edition of The Major League All-Star Game now behind us, the second half of the baseball season for Our Washington Nationals comes better into focus. With Washington sporting a 39-50 record and just over two weeks remaining before the non-waiver trading deadline of July 31st, Nats320 checked in with MASN's Phil Wood to gather his thoughts concerning the first half finish for D.C.'s Team and to look ahead as to what to expect by the conclusion of the 162nd scheduled game of 2010. As always, Phil was generous with his time. The conversation lasted a good 40 minutes and touched on a variety of subjects.

Hence, Mid-Season Thoughts From Phil Wood will be a two-parter.

With that, here we go with the first installment:

Nats320: Jim Riggleman said in the final post-game press conference before the All-Star Break that’s it’s time to make real progress. Do you think he is saying that because he feels the team has under performed? Or, is he feeling pressure to win?

Phil Wood: I suspect he thinks they have underachieved. After the start they got off to when they were five games over .500 (after 35 games), he and probably Mike Rizzo as well, felt they had reached the corner. Maybe they hadn’t turned it yet, but then they fell back. It’s funny, I was just looking at the league stats and I had just read on one of these message boards that The Nationals should trade Adam Dunn to get pitching because their pitching is so terrible. Well, the National League earned run average is 4.11. The Nationals ERA is 4.22. So it’s pretty close to the league average. I don’t think the pitching has been awful. It’s hasn’t been great, but it hasn’t been dreadful.

Obviously, the bullpen is much better (than 2009). Hitting wise, the Nationals average is .257 and the league average is .259. The big difference being in runs scored because of the huge number of unearned runs they have allowed. And because of the absolute offensive shutdown you saw over the last couple of weeks before the All-Star break. So yeah, there are some problems and they have underachieved. The best case scenario going into the All-Star break, they might have been four or five games under .500. But I am a firm believer in precedent. And there is not much precedent for a team losing 103 games one year and winning 85 the next. It just doesn’t really happen often. I think the (The Nationals) are on track and I think the changes coming to the pitching staff for the second half--with (Jordan) Zimmermann coming back, (Jason) Marquis coming back--there are going to be some changes made. I also think that (John) Lannan will get back at some point too. I look at a guy like (Luis) Atilano as kind of a place holder. He got by for several starts because a lot of the hitters didn’t know him. But I don’t think any of his stuff blows anyone away.

Nats320: I’ve had a similar impression at times about J.D. Martin.

Phil Wood: But I think that J.D. Martin, and to a lesser extent, Craig Stammen, are back end of the rotation types. J.D. Martin at times looks brilliant. At times looks much less than that. And the same can be said for Stammen, who had a great start against The Braves and then stumbled the next couple of times out. There are times when they get two outs rather quickly and then they lose focus, start nibbling (around the plate), or whatever--getting that 3rd out is a real challenge. But this is still a staff that is in flux and in transition. And I believe one year from today, we will be having a very different conversation about it.

Nats320: Do you feel that Mike Rizzo has found a core of players to win with in the long run?

Phil Wood: You can look at a lot of the really good clubs, whether that be The Yankees, The Red Sox or The Rays, and you can identify seven or eight guys that are your true core players. Now a third of that roster will contain some players and a couple of pitchers. And I think they are getting there. I actually see Jordan Zimmermann being a part of that core, although he’s hasn’t pitched at all this season (in the Big Leagues). Certainly, (Ryan) Zimmerman is that. Adam Dunn could be that if they are able to re-sign him, but I don’t think they (baseball management) want to give him more than three years, preferably two. They want to see what else is coming down the pike, in terms of their own players. And when push comes to shove, that might get in done. There are going to be so many free agents, or potential free agents available, first basemen on the market who all field the position better than Adam does. In that sense, I think they recognize--I know they recognize--the value of him in the middle of the lineup. And the value that he brings to the clubhouse. He and Ryan, with lockers right next to each other--everything seems to come from that corner of the clubhouse.

But as far as the rest of the core, (Ian) Desmond will certainly get better, defensively. I would hate to think if he got worse (chuckling) in terms of making the throw. He’s an aggressive player. It’s certainly disappointing that (Jesus) Flores is having such a slow recovery and obviously, inside the office, they are considering alternate plans down the road--whether it’s Derek Norris or somebody else.

Outfield wise, they want to keep Josh Willingham around. He certainly would be one of those core players heading into his early 30’s. And I look at a guy like (Roger) Bernadina as a guy that is showing more and more that he can play. I still see him more as a centerfielder than a rightfielder.

Nats320: On Desmond, you believe his errors will come down over time. The team has stated the same thing. Is it safe to assume that from any player over a course of time?

Phil Wood: Look at the numbers, all young shortstops in the majors stumble when they first get there. As his offense improves, his defense will improve. Either that or his offense will improve so much that his defense will not become an issue.

Nats320: Do you think Bernadina can replace Nyjer Morgan?

Phil Wood: Yeah. I think that, while I like Nyjer a lot and he had a lot to do with the turnaround late last season, we’ve seen that Nyjer is like so many other players in the Major Leagues these days. He’s got some tools, but he’s not hugely instinctive. There are times when he just looks like one of the Waner Brothers (Hall of Famers) by putting the ball into play. But the tough left-handers can still get him out. There are times you wish he would bunt and he doesn’t. And times when you think he is not going to bunt here--and he does and it doesn’t work. They’ve given him a lot of independence to do what he thinks he can get done--and I think that is a plus. It shows some faith in his skills. But do I see him here long term? No. I did a year ago, but not so much now.

Nats320: Constantly, you read about players’ ages at this time of the year when the trading line approaching. It doesn’t bother me that Dunn and Willingham are both into their early 30’s. But others feel those are ages for players you can’t build a team around. I don’t necessarily agree with that. What do you think?

Phil Wood: That’s all based on whether a player is in his prime from ages 27 through 32 and there are statistics to back that up. Nothing is etched in stone, but when you look back at some of those Yankee teams from the 1950’s and ’60’s you had a lot of guys on those clubs who were in their 30’s. If you have the right guys, with a right mix of younger guys, you should be OK. If the average age of your ballclub isn’t 33, you should be fine because you have so many younger guys in the mix. Here’s Zimmerman who has been a full-time player--although he was injured that one season--since 2006. He’s still a young guy. He came out of college and came almost straight to the Major Leagues. You bring in him and Stephen Strasburg and obviously (Bryce) Harper, once he’s signed and get’s a couple of minor league seasons under the belt, and he will still be a very young man.

So, I don’t see much of any issue with hanging on to Dunn and Willingham. At some point you have to ask yourself, do we want to put together a team primed to compete in the post-season long term? Do we want to put a team on the field that is going to be up for a couple of years and down for three or four--then back up for a couple. I think they (The Nationals) would prefer the former to the latter. And I think you’ve got to have a pretty strong mix of capable veterans if you want a club like that. Look again at The Braves and the run they had and look at those rosters. And you are going to see guys that were in their late 20’s to mid-30’s. And you are going to see a lot of kids coming along as well. That’s probably the model for this franchise.

Nats320: Last week, I was talking to Matt Capps and he expressed surprise that the moment he was named to the All-Star Team, words started to be written that his value will never be higher and it’s time to trade him. His response was that was silly. But he also said that’s what always happened in Pittsburgh. Every time someone became good, The Pirates would trade them away and the team never became good because of that.

Phil Wood: The difference in Pittsburgh is that they never have the funds to keep their better players, basically. That was one of those situations where the market there wasn’t providing enough revenue streams to maintain a decent sized payroll. The Pirates would then get rid of those guys before they would walk away as free agents. It’s not that way in Washington. Now, why I think it’s true his trade value will never be higher than it is right now, are they ready to hand that closer job over to Drew Storen? I don’t think they are. The whole idea when they signed Capps to one year plus a club option for 2011, I think, was to make sure Storen had some type of apprenticeship and maybe worry about (that position) mid-season next year.

I think it’s become an almost knee-jerk reaction by a lot of people who think that if you are a 2nd Division Club, anytime you have a player whose a young veteran and maybe overachieves, you have got to trade him. You’ve got to get rid of him and bring in more prospects. That’s kind of a self-defeating cycle. You are almost saying: as soon as we get anybody who is good and over 25 or 26 years old, we are going to move him and bring in two guys who are 17 and 18, or 21 and 22. The Nationals are not in the same boat as The Pirates are in terms of economics. And as you’ve seen in the past two years, The Nationals have spent more on signing their own draft picks than any team in baseball. But no one ever wants to bring that up.

Nats320: You mentioned Bryce Harper briefly and Jesus Flores’ latest setback--which is resonating throughout the team as to what they are going to do long term catching. Do you think Mike Rizzo would decide that if Flores wasn’t coming back--they might consider moving Bryce Harper back to his natural catching position?

Phil Wood: You never say never, but I don’t think that is on the agenda right now. The reason they opted to draft him as an outfielder was the idea he would develop more quickly into a Major League player after playing the outfield in the Minor Leagues. You know about Derek Norris, who can swing the bat, but needs to be a better receiver. That may have delayed his development, but he’s got more of a catcher’s type body (husky) than Harper does. So yeah, I would be surprised if they moved Harper back to catcher.

Nats320: Can Rizzo do anything about 2nd Base or even right field now where they are short?

Phil Wood: This is not a year, and certainly you want to win as many games as you possibly can, where I think you are going to concern yourself trying to upgrade rightfield for the rest of this season. Like last year, when The Braves traded Jeff Francouer (to The Mets). If you can make a trade like that--Francouer would have been a nice role player here. A guy with a strong arm, who comes up with the occasional timely hit, and seems to be a pretty good guy in the clubhouse. That was a deal in which The Mets traded Ryan Church and Atlanta had no intention of keeping Church.

But when you look at the available rightfielders (in 2010), are they looking at guys they might want to make a run at in the off-season? Oh yeah, I think so. But as far as doing something in the middle of the season, I don’t see them doing anything between now and the end of the month as far as rightfield or second base.

Nats320: I remember Rizzo saying the guy you really want might not be available now, but you can target him in the off-season or next season. And you have to do play what you have for the time being.

Phil Wood: Yes, that is right.

With that final answer, Mid-Season Thoughts From Phil Wood (Part One), concludes. In Part Two coming tomorrow morning, Phil and Nats320 will discuss Jim Riggleman as manager, Washington's starting rotation and what can, or needs to, be accomplished by the end of this season. We will touch more on the upcoming trading deadline and whether or not Our Washington Nationals should push ahead with their present nucleus of core everyday players--including Adam Dunn & Josh Willingham to bat and play alongside Ryan Zimmerman.

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