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Eventful week for Nationals


Eventful week for Nationals

And so I have returned from my week-long respite. Mrs. Z and I had a wonderful time on our vacation, thanks for asking. But it's time to get back to the daily grind, and I see there was plenty of Nationals news in my absence.

The manager finally has a contract for 2013. He's got a new coach on his staff, as well, not to mention a new piece of hardware for his mantel. As does the no-longer-19-year-old outfielder. The 21-game-winning left-hander, was not as fortunate.

So let's rehash the major events of the last week...

Not that there was ever any doubt this would get done, but it's nice to finally have some resolution to this lingering issue. Johnson and the Nationals agreed late last week to a new contract that ensures he'll return as manager in 2013 ... but then ensures he won't return in 2014.

To be honest, I was a bit surprised Davey came right out and said next season will be his last. I didn't think he'd want to manage more than one year, but I suspected he'd at least leave the door open just in case. I mean, what if the Nats reach Game 7 of the World Series and then lose? Are you telling me Johnson wouldn't want to take one more shot at glory? Evidently not.

Given all that, two thoughts: 1) How motivated is Davey going to be to try to win it all in 2013? Very. 2) How many sets of eyes will be on Randy Knorr over the next year, trying to determine if the popular bench coach really is ready to ascend to the managerial position in 2014? Plenty.

Stop for a moment and contemplate this: When Harper made his big-league debut on April 28 at Dodger Stadium, would you have predicted he'd wind up winning Rookie of the Year? Perhaps there was some thought he could achieve this, but no one really knew how the 19-year-old would perform in his first trial at this level.

What Harper did accomplish was noting short of remarkable. It wasn't just the 22 homers, 98 runs scored, 57 extra-base hits, 18 steals and eight outfield assists. It was that he took his game to an entirely new level in September while the Nationals were in the midst of a pennant race and often was the best player on the best team in baseball.

History is littered with one-hit-wonder Rookies of the Year who never amounted to much else after their award-winning debut performances. Something tells me that's not going to be the case here. Harper only scratched the surface this season, and there's really no limit to what he could do in 2013 and beyond.

This was probably the easiest selection out of all the BBWAA awards this year. (OK, aside from Mike Trout as AL Rookie of the Year.) With all due respect to Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy (the other finalists), Johnson was unquestionably the manager of the year in the NL.

This award almost always goes to the guy who's team most exceeded expectations over the course of a season. And certainly the Nationals exceeded expectations. But Davey deserved the honor for much more than that.

Let's not forget just how many injuries devastated the lineup through most of 2012. And let's not forget what a masterful job Johnson did in helping his team overcome those injuries. He wasn't afraid to play unproven rookies, even if they were out of position. He wasn't afraid to tinker with his bullpen roles when the situation called for it. And he once again proved to be the ultimate player's manager, understanding how best to communicate and relate with everybody on his roster.

Though he was named a finalist last week, Gonzalez didn't really seem to stand a chance against R.A. Dickey, who wound up winning the award with 27 of 32 first-place votes. That's taking nothing away from Gio, who had a fantastic season and deserved his top three finish.

I had a Cy Young vote this year, and I had Gonzalez second on my ballot behind Dickey. (I had Clayton Kershaw third, Craig Kimbrel fourth and Johnny Cueto fifth.) My reasons for selecting Dickey ahead of Gonzalez? There were many.

In addition to his 20-6 record and 2.73 ERA, Dickey led the NL in innings (233), complete games (five), strikeouts (230), quality starts (27) and a category I call "dominant starts" (two or fewer earned runs allowed over seven or more innings). Dickey had 18 of those, tops in the NL. Gio only had eight.

Dickey also had the fewest "bad" starts in the league, failing to complete five innings only twice. (Gonzalez failed to do it six times.)

Now, you can certainly make the case that Gonzalez pitched all season in the thick of a pennant race while Dickey pitched for a 74-win team. Shouldn't Gio get extra credit for pitching in far more pressure-packed games? Yes, and I did give him extra credit for that. But it wasn't enough to topple Dickey's complete resume. In the end, I would say Dickey deserved the Cy Young because of his consistent dominance over the entire season. Gonzalez was occasionally dominant, but not on nearly as regular a basis as the New York knuckleballer.

The Nationals had one vacancy on their coaching staff following Bo Porter's departure to Houston, where he'll get his first career shot to manage. Though the initial thought was that they'd simply hire a new third base coach, there was the potential all along to hire a first base coach instead and shift Trent Jewett to the other side of the diamond.

Jewett has plenty of experience coaching at third base. He spent three seasons there with the Pirates (2000-02), not to mention 10 seasons as a Class AAA manager (a job that includes third base coaching duties in its description).

Tarasco's addition to the big-league staff certainly makes sense. He had been serving as the organization's roving outfield instructor and was influential in helping Harper learn his new position. He'll continue to work with Harper on a daily basis now, as well as take over the Nationals' baserunning duties.

Nobody expected the veteran first baseman to win the whole thing -- that honor went to Buster Posey, and deservedly so -- but it was nice to see the rest of the baseball-writing world recognize just how much LaRoche meant to the Nats this year. He actually received more fifth-place votes (six) than any other, but wound up settling for a sixth-place tie with David Wright (behind Posey, Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Yadier Molina and Chase Headley).

Can't find fault with the way the top five shook out, nor with the fact three other Nationals received top-10 MVP votes. Ian Desmond finished tied for 16th, named on six of the 32 ballots. Gonzalez actually finished tied for 20th despite appearing on only two ballots (one voter had him fifth). Ryan Zimmerman finished tied for 24th (also received one fifth-place vote). And Harper finished tied for 30th, receiving one ninth-place vote.

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Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Majestic’s reign as the maker of MLB jerseys are about to come to an end. 

In 2020, Fanatics and Under Armour will be teaming to make on-field jerseys and apparel for all MLB teams, according to a Sports Business Journal report. 

The news outlet also reports that the deal means the MLB’s licensing relations with Nike will be over as well. 

Under Armour will produce the jerseys starting in Spring Training of the 2020 season, and “broad apparel rights” will go to Fanatics. 

New Era will continue to be the maker of MLB hats. 

Given that Maryland native Kevin Plank founded Under Armour, and that the business' headquarters are in Baltimore, it’s sure to be a splash with baseball fans in the DMV.

You can read the full Sports Business journal report here. 

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Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Here is an early look at the biggest questions facing the Washington Nationals as they embark on another offseason in their quest to build a championship team...

What to do with Wilson Ramos and the catcher position?

The Nationals' biggest question entering this offseason is without a doubt at catcher with All-Star Wilson Ramos on the mend after having the ACL in his right knee repaired on Friday. Not only is the recovery a long one - he could be out until well into the 2017 season - it is the second time he's had the ligament fixed. At 29, his viability as a primary catcher moving forward is a real question. Even Ramos admitted he may have to transition to the American League with his next contract.

If Ramos does leave, behind him will be a significant hole on the Nationals. They have several in-house options, but none that are anywhere close to Ramos, who emerged this season as the best offensive catcher in baseball. Pedro Severino is a nice young player, but has a career .632 OPS in the minors. The drop-off on offense from Ramos to him would be significant. The same can be said about Jose Lobaton.

It won't be easy replacing Ramos with an external option, if that's the way the Nats opt to go. Catchers who can hit and play defense like him are a rarity. Matt Wieters of the Orioles would be the best option in free agency, but he's a year older and is also a step down offensively. Unless they like Wieters - who does happen to be represented by Scott Boras - they may have to trade for a new backstop, and that won't be easy either. 

This is all not to rule out the Nationals re-signing Ramos, but right now it's difficult to project what type of contract he will garner and whether that could fit in their plans. Surely it would be tough for them to offer a long-term deal, but maybe they make sense if he decides to take a short-term contract to reset for free agency either next offseason or the one after that.

Any major upgrades needed?

The Nationals are in an interesting spot, having won 95 games and the NL East, but with yet another disappointing end to their year. General manager Mike Rizzo loves to make big splashes in the offseason. Every single winter he does something aggressive and unexpected. What will he do this year? There aren't many areas where he could potentially upgrade, but that hasn't stopped him in the past.

If Ramos leaves, catcher is obviously the biggest need. But beyond that, the two major problem areas in their lineup this season were at shortstop and first base. Danny Espinosa played solid defense and hit 24 homers, but held an unsightly .209 batting average. His .552 OPS in the second half was worst in baseball among those with at least 165 at-bats. 

Espinosa is always looking over his shoulder this time of the year and just this past winter appeared to be the odd-man out when the Nats traded for Ben Revere and signed Daniel Murphy. Espinosa managed to overcome the odds and play 157 games. He has one year left on his contract, so one way or another the Nats will need to start thinking long-term about his position.

Shortstop is an easier situation to evaluate than first base, where Ryan Zimmerman is due to make $14 million each of the next two seasons and $18 million the year after that. He had the worst season of his career with a .642 OPS through 115 games. Bringing in a first baseman to flat-out replace Zimmerman seems unrealistic, given his contract. But perhaps they can find someone who plays both first base and left field, with Jayson Werth having just one year left on his deal.

Who will be the closer?

The Nationals found success in the ninth inning with Mark Melancon after they acquired him at the trade deadline in a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But it was just a rental. Now Melancon is due for free agency and the Nats once again have questions at the position. They could opt to re-sign Melancon, or go with another free agent option. Aroldis Chapman, whom they have coveted in the past, will be available. So will Kenley Jansen, who just helped end their season with the Dodgers. It's an unusually deep crop of star closers and it would be a surprise if the Nationals didn't snag one of them. Another option would be to promote Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen, but that would be out of the Nationals' character.

Are they content with the rotation?

If one were to pick the biggest reason the Nationals lost their NL Division Series against the Dodgers it would have to be the starting rotation. It was their most glaring weakness and it wasn't even close. This is despite the Nats being built on starting pitching and boasting one of the best regular season rotations in baseball. Losing Stephen Strasburg to injury didn't help, but they still had four capable starters left over. Max Scherzer struggled in Game 1, while Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross combined to pitch just 11 1/3 innings in their respective outings. 

If you look at the year as a whole, starting pitching was not a major concern. But the Nats are always aggressive in addressing their needs, whether big or small. They have top prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, but neither distinguished themselves this season. Do they sit tight and hope things improve, or do they try to make another game-changing move? With a weak free agent class, any outside upgrade would have to come through a trade. Also, Gonzalez' $12 million team option is definitely something to watch this winter.

Will extension talks with Harper heat up?

Both the Nationals and Bryce Harper, one could argue, may have incentive to back away from the negotiating table this winter, given the Nats have to be less confident in giving Harper a record-setting contract after his disappointing year, and that Harper may not be wise to sign his new deal when his stock has lowered. But if the Nats and Harper do not come to terms this winter, that sets up a lot more pressure for the following offseason. Harper has two years left on his contract. Heading into next offseason without a deal, with just one year remaining, would create a lot of uncertainty for all sides involved, including the fans who certainly want to see the 2015 MVP remain in Washington for a long time. The storyline would dominate their offseason.

This upcoming winter always seemed like the best time to broker a deal to avoid that scenario, but the timing has not worked out with Harper's production on the field. Also, would anyone be surprised if it turns out Harper was dealing with an injury this season that held him back at the plate? If it were a serious one, he wouldn't have kept playing. But any injury has to be factored in those discussions.

[RELATED: Bullpen, baserunning leads to Nats heartbreak]