I know Nats fans, I know. We love Manny Acta. He is a stark contrast from the stoic Frank Robinson and brings a sense of energy to a ball club that desperately needs some. He is the never-ending optimist, he earned votes for manager of the year in 2006, and by all accounts is a hell of a guy and an even better baseball mind.
However, as the team broke camp and headed north, just a little over a week ago, that same Manny Acta seems unfit to run this ball club. Manny's opening day roster composition and how he plans to utilize these players, leaves one to question his tactics, which clearly lack common baseball knowledge; inevitably costing our beloved Nationals valuable wins at the beginning of the season.
Manny can ill afford to carry 3 catchers out of the gate. Adding both Bard and Nieves to the roster comes at the expense of a bat or an arm that could help this team in the two weeks prior to the much anticipated debut of JZ. Just a few nights ago, Manny was forced to send Nieves to the plate in a critical bottom of the ninth, bases loaded situation because he was the last available bat. Nieves swung at ball four and the Nats squandered a golden opportunity to take control of the game the Nats so desperately needed to win (Milledge would later get a hit and the Nationals would lose in extras).
Nieves is a career .214 hitter, with a .257 OBP and a .286 SLG%. Not exactly the guy you want hitting with the game on the line if you're Manny. To contrast, Bard is a career .265 hitter, with a .332 OBP and a .394 SLG%. Even though Nieves is coming off what many consider a "successful" year, he only hit .261, with a lone HR, 20 RBI's, a .309 OBP% and a .341 SLG%. While Bard only hit .202 last year, when you look behind the numbers you see the true story. Nieves had a .306 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), while Bard had an extremely unlucky .230 BABIP. Bards two previous years, '06 & '07, average to the following stat line: 319 AB's, .304 BA, 7 HR's, 45 RBI's, and a .377 OBP. Add to the fact that Bard is a year younger in a position that takes a significant toll on a player's body, and it is a clear choice that he should be the backup/platoon(?) catcher on your Washington Nationals.
From the backstop we travel to the mound, just a short skip and small hike of 60 feet and 6 inches. However, after drawing comparisons to a "young Greg Maddux" and projected to be a front of the line starter at his peak, the Nationals decided Shawn Hill would no longer be staring in at Flores from their mound. This move was as surprising as it is idiotic, and the alarm went off when Manny claimed that it was "probably the toughest decision I've had to make since I've been here."
Why would Manny make such a decision? We all know Shawn Hill has had his ups and downs since being drafted by the Montreal Expos back in 2000. Its no secret and its well documented. But if you stick with a guy for that long, and want to sell your fans on a solid young rotation, why rid yourself of a guy who can be a quality major league pitcher? Manny called Shawn "the type of guy every manager wish to have" and deemed it a "baseball decision." Manny also stated that "this is where he (Hill) wants to be. It wasn't easy for him or for me. He'll be fine. He is going to move on."
Huh? If he is the type of guy every manager wishes to have, he's going to be "fine," and Washington is where he wants to be, why is he winning games in San Diego while Daniel Cabrera and Scott Olsen lose games in Washington? If there was any doubts about Hill's arm Friday's win over the Giants (which if you're keeping score is one more win then our entire staff combined), surely answered those questions and more as he proved that he can still be productive, viable option in a good rotation. Shawn Hill was committed to being a National and at one point had significant upside, with one week left in camp why let some one else reap the benefits of all your development and medical staff dollars? We need wins here in Washington. We need all arms possible to build this staff.
From the mound all the way to right field in the Nationals' bullpen, Manny will have a hard time justifying why he has chosen to take three left handed relievers with him to Washington. There is no room in the bullpen for Joe Biemel, Mike Hinkley, and Wil Ledezma. Under no circumstance should any team carry three lefties, two of them being of the bottom feeding quality variety. Under the assumption that the starting pitching provides a decent start, going 5-6 innings, Manny needs at the absolute maximum two lefties to play match-ups throughout the rest of the game. Having three burns a roster slot every single night, and because lefties can throw on back to back days because they are limited in the amount of batters they face, durability becomes a non issue. Who should go? Ledezma does have a power arm but he has been passed around the Bigs, and after seeing him get smacked around for earned runs in each of his three appearances, I think it should be him rather than Hinckley, although he has already walked 4 batters with 0 strikeouts (eeek!).
That extra arm in the pen could be occupied by the ever so bi-polar Jason Bergmann. Like Shawn Hill, anyone who hasn't been under a rock knows the love-hate affair the Nationals have with Jason Bergmann. Bergy is notoriously streaky and inconsistent, but when he is hot he is good. Real good. Just ask the Mets last year at Shea Stadium where he outmatched Mike Pelfrey in a 1-0 duel (Willie Harris saved that game with a miraculous catch in left in the ninth). His line that day: 7 innings, 3 hits, 0 runs, 2 walks, 9 K's. Jason Bergman is not that good. But he is not that bad either.
This begs the question as to why he has been sent to Triple-A Syracuse after being our best pitcher in spring training, posting a line of 11.1 innings, 7 hits, 0 earned runs, and a 3 to 1 K/BB ratio? If he was hot in spring, shouldn't Manny try to ride some of that in the regular season as well? Trust me, Manny should not clear room in the rotation for the likes of Jason Bergmann. But he warrants a look in a bullpen desperate for middle relief help to bridge the gap to Hanny.
Finally, we hop the fence and wind up in right field where Austin Kearns inhabits. This begs the obvious question, why? Does anyone really think we can unload Austin Kearns and his 8 million dollar salary without eating almost its entire value? Even if they found some way to unload him, which can only be achieved if he produces at a high level (a feat he failed to accomplish all of last year), the Nats would still only receive a mid-level prospect at best. Is this worth putting your fans through the agony of watching him bounce into double plays, and having to hear about how much of a "gamer" he is, and all of the "potential" he has?
All valid questions left without answers from Manny. In fact, the only answer that he has given is that Austin had a productive spring, while Dukes struggled. Be that as it may, Spring Training stats have proven to be widely unreliable as an indicator of performance within the regular season. Plain and simple, Manny is basing his decision on grounds that couldn't even hold Jamey Carroll before breaking. The Austin Kearns ship has sailed and sunk. Get off it Manny, or you'll surely drown.
However, we do have a player who's stock is actually rising. Elijiah Dukes issues are well documented, but he has potentially turned a corner by staying out of substantial trouble with the law this past year. The Nats got a good look at him in '08 and he responded by posting a rubust line of 13 Hr's, 44 RBI's, 48 Runs and 13 SB's, with a .264 BA and a .386 OBP% in only 276 AB's. Doubling those numbers to reflect a full season, approximately 550 AB's, would put his numbers at 26 HR's 88 RBI's 96 Runs and 26 SB's. You can count on one hand the amount of players that go 25-25 (homers/steals) in any given year in the MLB. The Nats have the potential to have one of them.
Instead we get the delight of seeing Austin run out there for the bulk of the time. Why would the Manny, and the Nationals, bench that kind of production for potentially up to a half season for Austin Kearns' level production? Those of you who are wondering what that exactly entails, here's Kearns' '08 line: 313 AB's, 7 HR's, 32 RBI's, 40 Runs, 2 SB's with a .217 BA and a .311 OBP. At best the Nats move Austin and receive a mid-level prospect while eating most of the money anyway, at worst he falls flat on his face; which then makes this experiment a waste of time because there will be clearly superior players for less money on the trade block around the time of the deadline. All at the expense of the talented, young player Elijiah Dukes.
Even if Kearns produces reasonably well it would still be a far cry from the type of numbers Elijiah can produce with the same at bats. Furthermore, Kearns' ceiling, at this point in his career, is about as high as a basement apartment, while Duke's may as well be the Vatican itself. There are very few players with the kind of upside Elijiah Dukes has. At nothing else, Dukes' is a better fielder and has a stronger arm, which the fly ball happy bullpen much appreciates (and in Friday's game they did when Dukes made a strong one hop throw to gun a man at the plate). Dukes is the only National with the true 5 tool potential and deserves to be in the lineup everyday.
Don't kid yourselves Nationals fans, these are not the answers to winning a World Series. But these are steps in the right direction for a team that desperately needs a path. Games in April look the same at the end of the season as the games in August and September. Allocating your already limited assets in this manner is irresponsible and detrimental to this ball club. If it continues Manny must be held accountable. Playing from an 0-6 record for a club that is projected to be in the cellar (sigh) is not an easy thing to come back from. Manny may have put this club in a position where it was set up for defeat from the first pitch. The lack of leads in the first 6 games that the Nationals have had speak to this issue. Here's to hoping they have the spine (questionable at best) and the talent (which is who on the pitching staff?) to bounce back.
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