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Nats in April: Encouragingdiscouraging


Nats in April: Encouragingdiscouraging

After a rough trip out west that ended with four consecutive losses to the Padres and Dodgers, the Nationals are enjoying a much-needed day of rest. So let's use this off-day, as well as the fact it's the final day of the month, to take a look at both the encouraging and discouraging developments of the season to date...

ENCOURAGING: The Nationals rotation has been, plain and simple, awesome. We're running out of superlatives to describe this group of starters, so let's just run through the stats. The rotation's collective ERA now stands at 1.78 (the Cardinals rank second in the majors at 2.57). Opponents are hitting .186 against Nationals starters. They rank second in the league with 129 strikeouts while issuing the second-fewest walks in the league (32). In 16 of 22 games to date, Nationals starters have surrendered zero or one earned run.

DISCOURAGING: Despite all those sparkling numbers, the Nationals' rotation has a collective record of 8-4. That's what happens when you've got a weak lineup and a bullpen that has blown four saves.

ENCOURAGING: Adam LaRoche just completed the best April of his career. The notorious slow starter has been the Nationals' most-productive and most-consistent player so far and enters May with a .329 average, a .415 on-base percentage, a .549 slugging percentage and a .964 OPS that ranks sixth among all qualifying hitters in the National League. Oh, and for those wondering, Prince Fielder's OPS right now is a pedestrian .832.

DISCOURAGING: With Michael Morse out since Opening Day with a strained lat muscle, the Nationals have received virtually zero production out of left field. Their combined stats from that position: a .111 average, .215 on-base percentage and .148 slugging percentage. Bryce Harper may struggle at times in his first taste of the big leagues, but he can't put up worse numbers than that, right?

ENCOURAGING: Remember when the Nationals were far and away the majors' worst-fielding club? Not anymore. They've committed only 11 errors in 22 games, tied with the Phillies and Cardinals for the fewest in the NL. If they handed out Gold Glove awards today, no fewer than five Nats would get serious consideration: LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Rick Ankiel.

DISCOURAGING: The defensive play has not been as crisp behind the plate, where Wilson Ramos has struggled. Ramos has had a difficult time holding onto throws from the outfield, he's had trouble preventing wild pitches from reaching the backstop and he's only thrown out 1 of 13 base stealers. That's in stark contrast to a year ago, when he gunned down an impressive 32 percent of runners.

ENCOURAGING: They don't get a lot of attention, but relievers Craig Stammen and Sean Burnett have been outstanding so far this season. Stammen has really taken to his first prolonged stint in the bullpen and boasts an 0.84 ERA, plus 12 strikeouts in 10 23 innings. Burnett, meanwhile, has picked up where he left off at the end of 2011. He's yet to allow a run and has put up a stellar 10-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The lefty has also stranded five of six inherited runners.

DISCOURAGING: As good as the pitching staff has been overall, the Nationals face a potentially tenuous situation in the ninth inning moving forward. Drew Storen had a bone chip removed from his right elbow and won't be ready to return until midsummer. Brad Lidge blew two of four save opportunities and now is on the DL with an abdominal strain. And Henry Rodriguez, who was brilliant for much of April, suffered a meltdown of epic proportions Saturday night in Los Angeles. The Nationals desperately need H-Rod to get back on track, because they're running out of viable options to pitch the ninth inning.

ENCOURAGING: The Nationals end April with a 14-8 record and share first place in the NL East with the Braves. Their .636 winning percentage represented their second-best month of baseball since arriving in Washington, bested only by the 20-6 (.769 winning percentage) mark the Nats produced in June 2005.

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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]