Quick Links

Nats feel like 'sky's the limit'


Nats feel like 'sky's the limit'

They have every reason right now to pat themselves on the back, to go watch fireworks explode over the National Mall knowing they've got the best record in the NL by three games and the best record in the NL East by 4 12 games.

On Independence Day, a traditional milepost during the baseball season, the Washington Nationals are 15 games over .500, thanks to a 9-4 pasting of the previously red-hot San Francisco Giants.

Surely, someone inside the clubhouse on South Capitol Street is gloating over all this. Right?

"We don't really think about it," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We enjoy playing. Literally, just go out every day to play, and the goal is to win each series. ... There's a lot of season left. What we've done so far is great, but it doesn't mean anything until we finish the job."

For three months, the Nationals have played well enough to put themselves in this position. Now, with the season about to transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2, they can start focusing on finishing that job.

If they need a road map for success, they need only look back at the last week's worth of games, because this team is firing on all cylinders at the moment. A lineup that struggled to produce on a nightly basis has averaged 8.6 runs and 13.4 hits over its last eight games (the last five of those against quality pitching staffs from Atlanta and San Francisco).

The pitching staff has perhaps regressed a tad during that span, but as a whole that unit has continued to perform well enough to take advantage of all that run support and win six of its last eight games.

"It's no secret to us in here," said right-hander Edwin Jackson, today's beneficiary. "We know what these guys are capable of. The last week or so, they've been showing what they can really do."

Production has come from nearly every position in the lineup, but Davey Johnson knows where this all begins.

"I always put it back to the middle of the lineup," the manager said. "Those are the guys who are your best hitters, and when they struggle it has an effect on everybody else trying to do too much, trying to pick it up. ... But when they're doing their thing, everybody else is just looking for a pitch to hit hard and, consequently, you get better pitches to hit and you're a better hitter."

Thus, the lion's share of the credit continues to be heaped upon Zimmerman and Michael Morse. Over their last 10 games, that duo is hitting .391 with six doubles, seven homers and 25 RBI.

Both sluggers were at it again today. Zimmerman came within inches of a three-run homer to left in the bottom of the third, settling instead for an RBI double. Two innings later, he cleared the fence in right-center, a two-run blast. Morse immediately followed with his own opposite-field homer, one of four the Nationals hit in this game.

With the heart of the lineup raking at the plate, everyone else feels less pressure to carry the load. Which leads to all-around efforts like this one, which saw Ian Desmond deliver a two-run single, Rick Ankiel deliver a two-run homer and backup catcher Jhonatan Solano (now hitting .393) deliver a solo blast.

Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper, meanwhile, each reached base three times, setting the stage for the big boys behind them.

"I've said it all along: It's hard to shuffle the lineup all around and have guys doing different things all year and be consistent," Zimmerman said. "Now that we're starting to get healthy and people are starting to find out what their roles are, it's a lot easier to get comfortable. And we're scoring a lot more runs."

Feeling more confident in their own ability to score runs, the Nationals don't worry so much when they give up a few early runs. There was a time not long ago when Jackson's three-run top of the first would have created an insurmountable deficit. Not anymore.

"There's no way that this offense was going to be cold all year," Jackson said. "It's just a matter of time before they get hot, and they've been in a groove and showing what they've been able to do."

And so the Nationals find themselves today in a position unfamiliar to most around these parts. Yes, the inaugural 2005 Nats also held a 4 12-game lead on Independence Day, but that team built around fading veterans collapsed shortly thereafter.

This team doesn't feel the same. This team has believed since Day One it could win. And now the rest of the baseball world is catching on.

"You look back at the beginning of the year, and we all talked about it," Morse said. "And now, the same people that asked the questions are coming back, and you give them the: 'I told you!' kind of thing.

"There's a lot of baseball left. What's good about this team is we really don't know how good this team can be. I think that's what makes us so great: The sky's the limit."

Quick Links

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. 

Quick Links

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]