The Mets head down to Washington D.C. to face off against the upstart Nationals, meaning that it's time for Amazin' Avenue's Five For Five Series Preview. The Nats are just a half game ahead of the Mets in the NL East coming into tonight's game, with a record of 30-22. I spoke with Patrick Reddington, manager of SB Nation's Nationals blog Federal Baseball and this is what he had to say about the club:
SS: Who or what has been the biggest success so far this season and conversely, the biggest disappointment? Any big surprises?
PR: The Nats' starting rotation as a whole has been the biggest success so far this season. For a team that routinely had cattle calls in Spring Training just to fill out the rotation in years past, to have a top three of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann this year with some depth too in the form of Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler, Chien-Ming Wang and John Lannan has been a huge difference. To have the top three pitching as well as they have has made it that much more enjoyable to watch. The biggest disappointment has to be all the injuries the Nationals have dealt with. Drew Storen's elbow has kept him out all year. Michael Morse just started playing this week. Chien-Ming Wang's only been back for two weeks after a hamstring injury in ST. Jayson Werth's broken wrist. Ryan Zimmerman's shoulder issues. Wilson Ramos' ACL tear. That's got to be the biggest blow and the biggest disappointment of the season thus far. A significant (and worse than originally feared) knee injury to a 24-year-old catcher who had already firmly established himself as a no.1 catcher is just a huge blow. The big surprise so far has been the fact that the Nationals have managed to win as much as they have without having their intended starting lineup together on the field once this year. Speaks well of the depth D.C. GM Mike Rizzo assembled this season.
SS: Ryan Zimmerman is off to a really slow start, at .240/.321/.342 and has missed time with injuries. What have you seen from him so far and do you think the injuries are sapping him or is something else going on?
PR: I'm convinced Zimmerman's back and playing at less than 100%. The power's not there. There are more weak grounders than we've come to expect on pitches he's pulling to short when he would've lined them to right in year's past. He missed significant time with inflammation of the AC joint in his shoulder and hasn't been the same since he returned [and wasn't the same before the injury was diagnosed]. The reason I think his performance at the plate is related to the shoulder/power is that he's been fine defensively. [Go ahead make jokes about his "form" on overhand throws.] Everything seems 100% on the defensive end but there's just no pop at the plate so far and for the first time I can remember you're starting to hear frustration with Zim from Nats fans. My personally opinion is that both Zimmerman and Michael Morse may have come back sooner than they should've. Think some time building up strength before they rushed back might have been a better idea.
SS: Closer Drew Storen has been out all season, while Brad Lidge got hurt early and Henry Rodriguez has struggled. How has the pen looked so far without these guys performing up to standard?
PR: There was a lot of talk about the depth in the bullpen and how it was constructed more to Davey Johnson's liking than the pen he inherited. As Johnson and Nats' GM Mike Rizzo have explained it in the past, Davey likes to use an A and B pen, so the idea of Storen, Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett as the A-pen with Henry Rodriguez and Brad Lidge as the B set-up man and B closer made sense. Unfortunately the injuries to Storen and Lidge forced Rodriguez into the closer's role. He was strong early, but never got that much work before and kind of wilted under the pressure after giving up some big walk-offs to the Pirates and Reds. The Nats were then forced to move Clippard out of the set-up role he's excelled in over the last few years, which has worked out nicely since he's well-nigh unhittable. The Nats' relievers have the best combined ERA, FIP, xFIP, highest K/9, second-lowest HR/9, third-lowest HR/FB%, the lowest BABIP and highest fWAR in the NL. I'll take it. [And honorable mention goes to long-men Tom Gorzelanny and Craig Stammen, who've been solid all season.]
SS: The Nationals lost catcher Wilson Ramos a few weeks ago and almost immediately lost prospect Sandy Leon soon after. What is the team's plan behind the plate and how much do you think the Ramos injury will hurt the Nats' chances?
PR: I should have read all the questions before starting to answer them, sorry. Covered a lot of the Ramos stuff above. The Leon injury immediately after Ramos' was another huge blow. Leon was one of the catchers in the system that provided the depth that made the Nationals comfortable trading their top backstop prospect [Derek Norris] this winter in the deal that brought Gio Gonzalez from the A's. 26-year-old Jhonatan Solano is now up working with Carlos Maldonado and former Mets' prospect Jesus Flores, who's making the most of the time he's getting with Ramos out, but clearly the Nationals had planned on Ramos getting the majority of the time behind the plate. There's still some depth in the system, but no one that's close to major league ready. After Leon, David Freitas, a 2010 pick is hitting well (.288/.388/.415) at high-A ball this year, and after that there's '08 5th Rounder Adrian Nieto, so there's still some depth, but if Ramos isn't able to come back at 100% that's something they'll need to address sooner rather than later. Losing Ramos will definitely hurt their chances this year. Ramos/Flores is a better pair than Flores/whoever they slot in there.
SS: Thanks to some excellent starting pitching and solid offensive performances from Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond and phenom Bryce Harper among others, the Nats find themselves at the top of the division in early June. Give us your thoughts on this team and whether you think they can stick around and potentially pull out a playoff berth this season.
PR: The Nationals talked all winter about the goal of playing "meaningful games in September" this year. [Davey Johnson said he wanted a "pennant".] I'm not sure even they thought they'd be sitting atop the NL East at this point. [Davey Johnson probably did.] The big thing for me this year, whether or not they make their first postseason appearance is that they have the younger guys like Harper, Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond [who pushes the boundaries of the term "young"] and others up learning what it's like to play meaningful games and win in a competitive atmosphere. Much as some people mock talk of Jayson Werth changing the "losing" culture in D.C., I think there is something to that. There were so many losses in the first few years in D.C. and they were out of contention so early that it was tough to get through the season at times, though players always have something to prove. But this year, the team they've put together is built to compete for the next few years, not just this year, so even if they don't break through and get to the postseason, they'll be better off for the experience of fighting for a playoff spot. I'm not going to predict the first playoff appearance, but it wouldn't surprise me at this point especially with that extra Wild Card spot this year.
Thanks again to Patrick Reddington for taking the time to give us some insight into the Nationals' season. First pitch from the Nation's Capital is at 7:05. Jordan Zimmermann throws for the Nats, while Chris Young makes his season debut for the Mets.