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Archive for October, 2011

ESPN Films “The Real Rocky” — a review

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Hmm. Turns out Stallone had some inspiration for the Rocky franchise. Photo screen-grab from Rocky I.

(latest in an ongoing series of “reviews” of ESPN films releases.  See here for Wikipedia list of all the original 30-for-30 films plus the add-ons).

“The Real Rocky” was an entertaining look into the life of Chuck Wepner, interspersed with snippets from the ongoing saga of his lawsuit against Sylvester Stallone, with Wepner narrating his life and all its ups and down in a matter-of-fact manner.  All the while, a treasure trove of old boxing clippings, never-before-seen video of fights from the 60s and 70s and other classic boxing memorabilia were shown as supporting graphics and gave the documentary a very nice feel as it played out.  The documentary does a good job of capturing the story of Wepner; a rather amazing story of a talented but relatively unskilled former marine who sold liquor by day and somehow ascended to be ranked the #8 Heavyweight boxer in the world in his spare time, during a time when Muhammad Ali ruled the sporting world and boxing never was more popular.  He picked up the sport on a whim and quickly won a Golden Gloves championship, rocketing him into the professional ranks in his mid 20s.

The documentary also serves as a great reminder of just how far the sport has fallen in the wake of corruption, unethical promoters, multiple sanctioning agencies, and general American attention spans turning to MMA/Ultimate Fighting in the wake of Mike Tyson‘s downfall and a lack of highly ranked Americans in the sport.  People forget that boxing used to be as popular a draw as the modern day “big-4″ sports, with its champions regularly making front page sports news.  Perhaps this was mostly attributable to the incredible self marketing ability of Ali himself; certainly the sporting world has yet to really see someone like him since.

Throughout the movie, a small band of (mostly New York-based) newspaper writers held court in a dark, smoky bar setting and opined about Wepner, his fights, and the golden age of boxing in general.  I would have loved to see ESPN’s excellent set of boxing analysts be included in this round-table, as Bert Sugar, Teddy Atlas, Max Kellerman and Brian Kenny all are excellent analysts and have great opinions to add about boxing of yesteryear.  It was surprising that an ESPN production didn’t seem to use any of its own people, perhaps something they decided not to force on the film-maker.

One takeaway point that I found fascinating was the attempts (both covert and overt) by Ali to turn the fight into a “racial war;” he reportedly asked Wepner to call him the “N-word” in a press conference, and when Wepner declined Ali forced the issue by alleging it on a talk show live and “inventing” some conflict.  Clearly an act of showmanship, and an attempt to drum up even more interest in the fight.  I would have loved to see an interview with Ali himself; clearly his declining current physical condition prevented this.  But I’m surprised an attempt wasn’t made to at least get some film time for the former champ.

Wepner held his own when the fight eventually occurred, sticking to an aggressive game plan and even knocking down Ali before taking a barrage of punches from the champion and eventually being overcome in the 15th round.  The image of Wepner, who had such a reputation for bleeding that his nickname in the boxing world was “the Bayonne Bleeder” (he lived, and still resides, in Bayonne, NJ), bloodied and literally unconscious on his feet after the fight was stopped was gripping.  To me it was a clear example of why even a blood-sport needed to go from 15-rounds to 12-round competitions so as to protect its boxers.

The Stallone-Wepner connection, which was the subject of a lawsuit finally filed nearly 30 years after the first Rocky movie aired, became more and more clear as the movie went on.  Stallone clearly attributed his inspiration for the screen play to Wepner, and over the years called him frequently, met with him and freely spoke of using life experiences of Wepner’s in subsequent movies (both in and out of the Rocky franchise).  When it became clear that Wepner never had made a dime off Stallone’s success, and at the urging of his 3rd wife, Wepner filed suit to get some compensation for a lifetime of having his stories turned into profit centers for others.  Amazingly, in the face of a preponderance of evidence, Stallone was deposed and claimed to have never even considered Wepner as a source.  It was of little surprise to note that Wepner eventually settled out of court, though apparently the monetary settlement was “not very large.”  Wepner continues to work to this day, in the same liquor outside sales job he always worked, despite being in his 70s.  He has been able to cash in on his fame, and seems to enjoy the speaking engagements and appearances that he gets on a consistent basis.  That was great to see, and unlike so many other retired athletes who go bankrupt or who lose their earned fortunes in failed business deals or via shady advisers, Wepner lives a happy, comfortable life.

In conjunction with the release of the film on October 25th (one week earlier than it was supposed to air), Grantland’s Michael Weinreb posted a great story on the new ESPN off-shoot site, worth a read.  And the documentary itself is worth a watch, even if you’re not a boxing fan.

Written by Todd Boss

October 31st, 2011 at 9:19 am

Tell me again why Holland wasn’t the game 7 starter?

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Would game 7 have gone differently if Holland had thrown on full rest? Photo unk via businessinsider.com

I know this is going to sound like a classic “hindsight is 20/20″ post, but you can ask my wife (who listened to me ask this same question when Derek Holland came in to pitch relief in game 6 and Matt Harrison took the mound to start game 7) for confirmation that I was already asking this question prior to the outcome of last night’s game 7.

Why didn’t Ron Washington use the extra day off gifted to him by the rain delay on October 26th and use Holland on full rest as his 7th game starter?

I’m sure the answer you get from the old-school Washington is that Harrison did nothing to “lose” the opportunity to take his normally scheduled rotation spot, despite taking the loss in game 3 and giving up 5 runs (3 earned) on 6 hits in 3 2/3 innings.  However, in the post season you ride the hot hand and you go with your best arms.  That’s why Chris Carpenter was on the mound in game 7 on 3 days rest instead of Kyle Lohse (the starter opposite Harrison in Game 4 and the scheduled starter) and that’s why Washington should have gone with Holland (on a short leash) instead of Harrison.

Instead, we got a predictable result; Harrison knocked out of game 7 after a 4 innings and 3 runs and took another loss.  Washington had to go to his shredded bullpen early again, and it cost him.  Scott Feldman walked 3 guys, CJ Wilson forced in another run by hitting a batter with the first pitch he threw and the game was effectively out of reach.

Coincidentally, Wilson finishes off a post season where he was the “ace” starter yet issued a post-season record number of walks and had a 5.79 era.  He had one effective start and three awful ones.  Please, Mike Rizzo, think long and hard before throwing ace money at this guy.  I’ve said it in several spaces before; I think Wilson is a good, effective mid-rotation pitcher who will get vastly overpaid this summer (think John Lackey) and will fail to live up to the contract.  You can see this coming a mile away.  With one Nats player already fitting that contract description (ahem Jayson Werth), lets not saddle the team with another.

As for the series itself, I didn’t feel the need to write my own “Game 6 was the best ever” post after waking up and reading 20 others from every baseball columnist that I follow in RSS.  But i’ll say it here; Game 6 was the best baseball game I’ve ever personally witnessed.  Several times I stated aloud that the “game was over,” only to follow that up with an audible “wow” when the Cards hitters would reach back and get a clutch hit to tie the game late.  Game 7 featured more clutch hitting, with David Freese picking up right where he left off the previous night and keeping his team (and the crowd) in the game early.  You have to hand it to both teams; they slugged their way into the World Series and the series featured a ton of power, lots of clutch hitting, lots of offense and little in the way of clutch pitching.

Side note: I hate the trend of naming things that just happened or current players “the best ever;” we saw it when Albert Pujols hit 3 homers earlier in the series (despite their being relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of that blow out victory) and we saw it again within hours of the end of Game 6.  Does Game 6 stand up to the immortal World Series games played in 2001, 1991, 1988, 1986, 1975 or 1960?  We think so, but we won’t really know for years to come.  Why isn’t it enough to just say, “Wow, that was one of the best games i’ve ever seen” and leave it at that?

What does Texas take away from this World Series?  Despite having a great 7th-8th-9th inning set of relievers in Mike Adams, Darren Oliver and Neftali Feliz, their bullpen failed them badly this off season.  Ogando had an era in the 11′s for the post season.  So did Oliver.  Their bullpen blew THREE save chances in the infamous game 6.  All credit to the team for making it back to the World Series after losing Cliff Lee, but clearly the team needs a bit more starting depth to outlast a 7-game series against a quality team.  To that end, look for Texas to work long and hard on retaining Wilson, moving Feliz to the starting rotation and supplementing their bullpen for next year.

Welcome to the off-season!

Nats Off-season News Items Wrap-up 10/28/11 edition

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Here’s some of the more recent Nats-themed news items I’ve read this past few days, with some thoughts sprinkled in.

  • The team spent some time adjusting the delivery of 2011 draftee Alex Meyers in the instructional league.  I like seeing this; the scouting report on Meyers basically says a) he as a great arm, and b) he’s going to struggle to contain it.  If the team sees some adjustments that make his delivery more repeatable, perhaps Meyers goes from a reliever projection to a starter projection.
  • Been reading rumors and posts about how the Nats are going to go after Jose Reyes in the off-season.  Here’s the problems I see with going after someone like Reyes.  The team likes Ian Desmond and he has been improving … and he’s cost contained.  Reyes is going to cost, what, $15-18m/year?  Is it worth signing a big contract for someone when you’ve got a serviceable and improving prospect in place?  Here’s the other thing that really worries me about Reyes; his clear “contract year” production.  Check out his 2011 slash line versus his career: .337/.384/.493 versus career of .292/.341/.441.  That’s a clear jump of at least 40 points in each category.  He’s injury prone (missing at least a month’s worth of games in each of the past two years and most of the 2009 season) and his speed is declining (going from .4875 SB/game at his peak to just .30 sb/game this past season).  I know there’s no statistical “proof” of contract year production going across ALL contract year players … but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen.  When a guy playing for his one big FA contract suddenly improves across the board, and, oh he happens to be playing for a franchise that is going nowhere but down … you can see how the incentives are to play well and get out.
  • Matt Purke‘s first AFL start?  Not good.  22 pitches, just 10 for strikes, sitting 89-91 on his fastball and getting hit hard (line: 1/3 IP, 7 ER, 5 H, 1 BB, 0 K, 1 HR).  Keith Law’s tweet said “Washington LHP Matt Purke 87-91 in first, nothing sharp, has given up five runs so far after seven batters.”  Now, its clear he’s got quite a bit of “rust” from not facing live pitching since May, so we won’t over-react TOO much.  But 87-91?  That’s not good.  His subsequent appearances have been rough as well.
  • My alma-mater James Madison University gets to host the CAA baseball championships for the first time in 25 years in 2012.  JMU baseball has always been solid and has made the 64-team field several times over the past two years (though almost always being stuck in a regional hosted by someone like UNC or UVA).  Their claim to fame is one CWS appearance in 1983 (though this article is clearly dated … it talks about how JMU is the only Virginia school ever to make the CWS).  They have a beautiful new baseball complex in Harrisonburg and my dad and I may just go see this tourney.
  • This isn’t Nats related, but this is an absolutely fantastic Sports Illustrated story about 50′s minor leaguer Jack Swift, the last minor leaguer to win 30 games in a season.  9-parts, great read, a reminder of what baseball used to mean in this country.
  • The Phillies (not surprisingly, in this opinion) declined their option on starter Roy Oswalt on 10/25.  On the same day they declined their option on deposed closer Brad Lidge as well.  Lidge’s option rejection was always going to occur; nobody wants to pay $12.5M for an unreliable closer when history shows that you can mostly throw just about anyone into that role and be successful.  Meanwhile team also has a closer-quality FA in Ryan Madson who they could re-sign at 1/3rd the price of Lidge.  Now, do I think the Nats should go after any of these guys?  Oswalt should be incentivised to return to the Phillies on a more reasonable 2 or 3 year deal commensurate with his advancing age and declining performance.  If things don’t work out?  I’d certainly be willing to give him a Jason Marquis type deal (albeit with more money…) and bring him on board as the Nats #3 starter.
  • Yu Darvish‘s name keeps coming up and the Nats continue to be associated with him.  Latest rumors come via Rizzo’s press conference this week, where he admitted that the Nats had some scouts in Japan watching Darvish this season.  So what?  Half the teams in the majors have scouts in asia now.  Mark Zuckerman‘s thursday post lends some sanity to the discussion.  I continue to agree with Zuckerman; for the amount of money and the amount of risk that comes with Darvish, the Nats should look elsewhere to spend dollars.  Perhaps not this off-season (where the starting pitching FA crop is relatively weak) but NEXT year when its pretty strong.
  • Talks continue with Chien-Ming Wang, but nothing is close, per Amanda Comak on thursday.  This is probably nothing new and just a one-off story from Rizzo’s press conference.  I’m glad the team is already talking to Wang though and hope they work it out.
  • From the department of the obvious: Davey Johnson will be retained as the manager for 2012.  As if there was ever any question.
  • Under considerably less fan-fare than the ongoing NBA talks, MLB and its players union are working on an extension to the existing labor agreement, which expires in December.  The main issue according to this scribe will be negotiating signing bonuses for its draftees.  I’m of the belief that the commissioner wants a slotting system simply because he’s a shill for the owners, and the owners know that a slotted system basically eliminates the ability of agents for amateurs to negotiate and gain leverage over their teams.  Its a restriction of free trade for these amateurs, most of whom will never make the majors and most of whom need the signing bonuses to live on while they earn pennies for their hours ($800 a month for lower level minor leaguers??) for the next few years as they rise in the systems.  One thing that I (the fan) do want to see is a far earlier signing deadline.  Enough of this BS where 1st rounders get drafted in June then don’t bother trying to negotiate until the 2nd week of August.  My solution?  Push the deadline up for anyone signed in the first 10 rounds to something almost immediately after the draft dates.  Keep the existing deadline for anyone signed AFTER the 10th round.  Why?  Because most of the people signed after the 10th round are either college seniors who have no leverage and will get miniscule signing bonuses anyway, college juniors who are ready to start playing pro ball and who want to sign quickly anyways and won’t be holding out forever, and fliers on HSers who may or may not want to go to college, but the extra time gives teams a chance to watch them play in the summer and negotiate.
  • SI.com’s Jon Heyman tweets that the Nats plan on going after CJ Wilson.  *sigh*.  Why do I think that’s going to be a mistake?  My feeling is that he’s a #3 (perhaps barely a #2) guy who’s going to get #1 money and will severely disappoint his new team.  Of course, there’s going to be so much demand for Wilson this off-season, the Nats may get scared off by high bids from big-money teams who are desperate for pitching.
  • Game 6 of the World Series may have been the best game i’ve ever witnessed.  Not “best played” necessarily (because of all the errors, and the mental errors by players on both sides), or even “best managed” (you can fault both managers for their bullpen and bench management during the game).  But in terms of pure excitement and suspense, it is hard to beat.
http://www.washingtontimes.com/blog/nationals-watch/2011/oct/21/first-purke-impressions-and-word-caution-panic/

ESPN Films “The Dotted Line” — a review

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Scott Boras is probably the most well known agent to Nats fans, representing roughly a quarter of our 40-man roster. Photo Ezra Shaw/Getty images via espn.com

(this is an ongoing series of personal reviews of ESPN film’s newly released documentaries.  See here for some previous discussions).

ESPN Film’s latest documentary, by excellent film maker Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame), discusses sports agents and their role in the sports industry.  It is an excellent documentary and vaults into the upper echelon of the films that have been part of the original 30-for-30 series, in this person’s opinion.  Spurlock touches on the agent process for non superstars, talks to some big-name agents about corruption and problems in the industry, analyzes why agents exist and their role in professional sports, and takes a look at how sports agents (specifically David Falk) have enabled athletes to go from, well, athletes to world-known figures by virtue of negotiated advertising and sponsorship contracts.

The documentary first followed a smaller sports agency (ETL) as he recruited lower level football prospects, giving a pretty interesting viewpoint into the business of smaller-time agents not named Scott Boras or Drew Rosenhaus.  The cutthroat-ness of the industry came through loud and clear as one of ETL’s clients freely ditched the signing agent for a larger company after he had been drafted, despite ETL having nursed the player through the process and invested thousands of dollars in his draft preparation.  There’s no regulation, and seemingly no ethics, in the representation contracts that are signed and broken as easily as junior high school students date and then break up.

The interview with Michael Jordan super-agent David Falk was indeed eye-opening, if only because most of us now take sports commercials, Nike, Gatorade and Under Armour for granted.  In the early 80s, there was no such sports commercial market.  Falk and Jordan invented the genre and made each other rich and filthy rich in the process.  There was a telling quote; Nike expected to sell 3 million pairs of Air Jordan sneakers in the first two years.  They sold 150m instead.

Spurlock also talked about shadiness on the agent’s side, interviewing Josh Luchs, the former sports agent who disclosed years of shady practices in an eye-opening Sports Illustrated article in October of last year.  In typical Spurlock fashion, he took Luchs back to the “scene of the crime,” and Luchs showed how easy it remains to this day for agents to have access to players for recruiting.  I’m not sure what point he was making, proving that access to a public university campus is rather easy, but the intent was to Luch’s often repeated point about how the Ncaa and schools have done little to address the issues that Luchs himself admitted to.

For me, the salient point in the documentary was a quote towards the end of the piece, after discussing all the shadiness.  David Falk, when prompted, basically said that (i’m paraphrasing) “He didn’t see how it was possible to get started in the sports agent business without giving payments to athletes.”  That line appeared just before a commercial break and I audibly said, “Wow” to myself upon hearing it.  To have one of the most clean-cut agents in the business basically admit that rule breaking is nearly a requirement to break into the business was alternatively shocking and amazingly honest to hear.

I don’t think this documentary was powerful enough to actually cause its subjects to change their behaviors (McDonalds changed their menu options and decreased the sizes of their drinks and french-fry packages not long after the film embarassed the restaurant chain).  But it was an interesting watch into an industry that we often only see when a pro athlete has done something reprehensible.

Written by Todd Boss

October 27th, 2011 at 9:10 am

Ladson’s inbox 10/24/11 edition

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Are the Nats going to go after Jose Reyes? Photo unknown via wpix.com

Here’s my latest personal answers to Bill Ladson’s inbox, 10/24/11 edition.

As always, I edit the questions for clarity, and write my own response before reading Ladson’s.

Q: You talk about the Nationals needing a leadoff man. Who better than free agent Jose Reyes? Do you think there’s any chance the Nationals might pursue him? He can hit, get on base and steal.

A: Reyes has good numbers, no doubt.  However, the difference between his 2011 numbers and his career numbers is scary.  He screams “contract year” over-production.  At least he’s not on the wrong side of 30 yet.  Problem is, the team likes Desmond and needs a center fielder, not a SS.  I don’t think they go after him.  Ladson suspects that the Nats will stick with the DP combo of Desmond and Espinosa and look elsewhere for FA talent.

Q: I was curious as to what the organization had in store for right-hander Shairon Martis. I know that he had not been lights-out when he was called up to the big leagues, but I think most people are unaware of how young this individual is. He is only 24, and he had a solid season this year. Is Martis under the radar or is he only future trade fodder?

A: I think Martis became an “organizational guy” the moment he passed off our 40-man and passed through waivers successfully.  He’ll need to be “lights out” and more in AAA before the team considers him for anything other than roster filling.  Ladson notes that he could be  minor league free agent this off season (I hadn’t noted this before, but sure enough he’s got six years of minor league service after signing as an international free agent.  He may be moving elsewhere this off-season).

Q: With Stephen Strasburg on an innings limit next season, wouldn’t it make sense to stretch out his season by going with a six-man rotation? This way, if the Nationals are good enough to play October baseball, Strasburg and potentially Chien-Ming Wang — if he re-signs — would be forces for the entire season. It also opens another rotation spot for one of the pitchers.

A: A good idea … and one that won’t fly with the rest of the veteran starting pitchers.  A 6-man rotation means an extra day of rest for everyone, throwing them off their normal schedules.  Its ok to put a bunch of rookie call-ups into a 6-man rotation pitching in meaningless games in September, but I can’t see the team going this route.  A better way to stretch out Strasburg would be to stash him on the DL for a few weeks mid-season, which should stretch him through September on his innings limit.   Ladson says that Davey Johnson isn’t going to do a 6-man rotation, Gorzelanny probably is your spot starter and that the Nats would “find a way” to have him pitch in a playoff race.

Q: What do you think of Rick Eckstein’s performance as the Nats’ hitting coach? I do not think he has had the success as a coach, for the Nats were one of the worst hitting teams in the National League last year. Will the Nats look for someone new?

A: While i’m not sure you can lay the entire team’s hitting inadequacies on Eckstein, I do think the team needs to shake things up and may move in a different direction.  Ladson thinks the team likes Eckstein, notes the improvement in Morse, and predicts he’ll be back in 2012.

Q: In the last Inbox, you brought up Brett Gardner’s name as a possible trade target, and I have to admit I was intrigued. After a few days of seeing the reaction in the blog section of the story, I was wondering what you thought it would take for the Nationals to acquire Gardner’s services.

A: For the Yankees to give up Gardner, we’d probably need to give them starting pitching prospects.  I’d think it would probably take someone like Ross Detwiler and Brad Meyers.  Gardner would fit what the Nats need; centerfielder who can lead-off.  He didn’t have the best 2011 stats but does have a pretty good OBP and gets a ton of steals.  He’s arbitration eligible for the first time in 2012 so his price will be rising.  Ladson agrees with my guess on what it would take to get him in trade.

Q: Would the Nationals ever consider doing a throwback game in which they wear Expos uniforms? I know that many people in Washington want nothing to do with Montreal, but I’m confident it would attract some attention to the team. It would be super cool to see the old uniforms once again.

A: I think it would be neat to see them in Expos uniforms as well, but the team seems to want to distance itself from the whole Expos debacle.  Throwbacks go WAY back, to the time of the Senators generally.  Ladson agrees.

Q: Besides Morse and Ryan Zimmerman, it seems to me that the Nats aren’t exactly overflowing with power bats. Are the Nats planning on searching for a power bat this offseason?

A: One can certainly make an argument that one or two more power hitters in this lineup would have turned the team from an 80-81 team into a wild card contender.  So I’d like to see this team add some more offense.  But, the big bats on the market are going to be expensive.  Is this team, which seemed to get burned on the Jayson Werth big contract, be willing to take another risk?  Ladson says they are focusing on power off the bench and seem ready to stand pat on most of their lineup.

Q: What are your thoughts on trading a young pitcher for a player like Lorenzo Cain of the Royals? Is he on the Nats’ radar or are the Nats looking for someone more established? Or is Cain just not that promising?

A: I’ve never even heard of Cain, frankly.  We have plenty of young arms though, in fact we have too many and the likelihood is that both Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock are starting the year in AAA (to say nothing of Meyers, Maya and a decent set of prospect starters set to arrive within 2-3 years like Solis, Meyer, and Purke).   Ladson said he’s never heard about Cain either.








Boswell Chat 10/24/11: My answers to his Baseball questions

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Hall of Famer? Yes. Best hitter ever? Almost. Photo: unknown via fantasyknuckleheads.com

Tom Boswell did his monday morning chat on 10/24 after a week off; in-between taking questions about the death of the Redskins, he managed to fit in some baseball and Nats questions.  Here’s how i’d have answered them…

Questions are edited for clarity and space, and I write my answer before reading Boswell’s.  We’ll only address baseball-related questions.

Q: Is there any question at this point that Pujols has joined Ted Williams and Babe as the three best hitters ever?

A: (side note; this is just AFTER Pujols‘ 3-homer performance in game 3 of the World Series, just the third time that’s ever been done).  If Pujols retired tomorrow here’s what his career lines would look like: 455 homers, .328 career hitter, 170 career OPS+, 3 MVPs and another six times in the top 5 candidates (four times coming in 2nd place).  That by itself is Hall of Fame worthy, no doubt.

By the time he retires?  I think clearly he’ll be mentioned as either the best or 2nd best right-handed hitter of all time (Willie Mays) and in a small grouping with Mays, Ruth and Williams as the best all-around hitters to ever play the game.  Absolutely.  I don’t think Pujols needed a 3-homer World Series game to cement that status either.    Boswell agrees, saying that Pujols joins the list just behind Ruth.

Q: Thanks for pointing out he did all his damage after the Cards were ahead in Game 3. We’re so quick to pronounce “best ever…” these days that it was good to get some context.

A:Very fair comment.  Pujols may have a 3-homer game, but it doesn’t nearly have the significance of Reggie Jackson‘s 3-homer game.  Also fair about pronouncing current stars “the best ever” without much context to those that came before.  Ruth’s domination of baseball and the country at large is so difficult to understate that we’ll never really be able to draw a modern comparison.  Boswell agrees, at least with the first part.

Q: Game 5 prediction (on the night of this chat)?

A: I’d pick Carpenter and the Cardinals.  I don’t trust CJ Wilson and don’t think he’s nearly the pitcher that Carpenter is.  I stick with my St Louis in 6 predictionBoswell goes against logic and says that Wilson will outpitch Carpenter.

Q: Do Lefties with high-heat give a significant advantage over right-handers with comparable velocities?

A: Absolutely.  Lefties are already rare enough and effective enough that any left hander with velocity in the upper 80s can usually find work in this league.  There’s a reason for that.  Add a few more mph and the cache of left-handers who can reach the mid 90s in this league can be counted on one hand.  They are special, and they are valuable.  Boswell doesn’t have a good explanation.

Q: With all the issues in Boston, should the Nats be calling the Red Sox to see who they might get in trade?

A: Sure.  But the Red Sox are prospect hounds and will want our farm system depth in return.  The guys they’re probably willing to trade are probably not going to be the guys we want anyway.  Boswell didn’t really answer the question but mentioned that Ellsbury will be a FA after 2013 … gee, only 3 years too late for the leadoff/CF that we need!

Q: Boswell had previously described baseball Managers as one of four types: Little Napoleon, the Peerless Leader, the Tall Tactician, and the Uncle Robbie.  Who are the best four examples of each type now in the modern game?

A: Interesting question.  Here’s a list of 2011′s baseball managers to choose from.  I’ll guess that Ozzie Guillen is the Napoleon manager, Tony LaRussa is the peerless leader, Ron Roenicke is the Tall Tactician, and Joe Madden is little Robbie.  Boswell’s answers werent’ close to mine; perhaps because its his manager classifications to begin with.

Q: Was the strike zone in game 4 inconsistent?

A: I thought it was; in the bottom of the first a strike 3 was called on Elvus Andrus that had been a ball earlier in the count.  And that wide zone continued throughout.  Its no wonder Holland looked so unhittable.  Boswell blames the TV strike tracker as being misleading.

Q: Could Albert Pujols go to the Rangers?

A: I guess he could … but that doesn’t seem to be the way he’s going.  He seems set to stay in the NL and stay in the mid-west.  I think he’s either staying in St Louis or going to save the Cubs.  Texas might as well light Michael Young on fire if they got Pujols and, for the 3rd or 4th season in a row, asked their franchise leader to move positions for incoming talent.  Boswell predicts Pujols stays in StLouis.

Q: Should Texas have pulled Holland after the 7th to retain him for the 7th game?

A: Nope.  Texas’ bullpen was shredded and its much more important to have a fresh Feliz than a starter on 2 days rest.  Of course, Washington USED Felix in a non-save situation to finish off the game.  Waste.  At least the rest of the bullpen got a night off.  Boswell disagrees with me, saying the team should have pulled him in the 7th to have him in game 7.

Q: What are the odds of the following players returning next season: Livan Hernandez, Ivan Rodriguez, Chien-Ming Wang, Jonny Gomes, Laynce Nix and Rick Ankiel?

A: Livan: 10%.  Ivan 1%.  Wang 80%.  Gomes: 25%.  Nix: 40%.  Ankiel 40%.  Boswell didn’t offer percentages, just saying that he thinks Wang will be back and that Johnson loves guys like Gomes and Nix on the bench.

Q: How long does it take Theo Epstein to turn around the Cubs?

A: I’ll say most of the 5 years he’s signed up for right now.  His starting pitching is a MESS, he’s got an aging, expensive team with big contracts and little wiggle room, and he’s got very little in terms of young players.  He needs all his bad contracts to age off, he needs to scout and draft better, and he needs time.  Boswell punted.

Nats Off-season News Items Wrap-up 10/21/11 edition

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A quick wrap-up of news items floated lately with a Nats interest in mind… and some opinion on each bullet point.

  • Baseball America posted a wrap-up of the 2011 Nats draft.  In short, BA thought the Nats had the best draft in 2011, getting the draft’s best hitter in Anthony Rendon, a big arm in Alex Meyer and a potential steal in Matthew Purke.   Nothing we didn’t already know…
  • Speaking of Rendon, this news item reports that he may not make it to the AFL after all.  This concerns me, honestly.  Just how bad was his shoulder injury??
  • Interestingly, the Nats returned 2011 rule-5 pickup Elvin Ramirez to the Mets after having him languish on our 60-day DL all season.  I’m slightly surprised by the move, in that the team obviously wanted to give him a shot when they took him earlier this year.  Now, after paying his freight all year without ever really seeing him perform in a game situation (he did throw in the instructionals though) we’ve given up on him.  My guess is that the team knows its bullpen is going to be competitive in 2012 and don’t anticipate being able to carry a youngster.
  • Ken Rosenthal has a quick primer on the issues remaining to be haggled over in the next MLB deal.   Some things of interest that could be included are draft slotting, an earlier signing deadline date, earlier free-agency, more wild-card teams and a balanced league schedule.
  • Si’s Jon Heyman had a quick blurb about Phillie’s closer and FA Ryan Madson being a possible Nats off-season target.  More interestingly he reports that Jayson Werth is trying to pitch Madson on the team.  I’m guessing that the pitch job would include an understanding that the Nats already have a pretty good closer in Drew Storen (who just came in 3rd in the 2011 Rolaids Reliever of the Year award) and that Madson would be a setup guy.  In a crowded closer FA market, perhaps Madson needs to keep his options open in case he can’t get a closer guaranteed job.  I’m hoping that Werth’s “pitching” his former teammate isn’t interpreted as a lack of confidence in his current closer … a bit of press hype that certainly isn’t out of the realm of possible to be overblown so as to start a New York-style press issue.
  • A couple different news sites along with MLB’s beat reporter Bill Ladson are reporting that the team is close to signing Chien-Ming Wang to a new deal.  This isn’t terribly surprising to those of us that have read every bit of Nats news this off season, and I’m all for signing him for 2012 after he’s been paid to re-hab for two years by this team.  It would be a refreshing bit of FA business to see someone like Wang take a lesser-monied deal to stay with the team that nursed him back to health.  Wang would probably slot in nicely as our #4 starter next year but would mean that the team faces a tough decision next spring training for the back end of the rotation.  Ross Detwiler is out of options and seems set to compete right now with Tommy Milone for this 5th starter spot.  This also leaves no room for additional FA signings (CJ Wilson anyone?).
  • Thank god we don’t live in Boston.  Terry Franconia scapegoated for his team’s collapse in September and then absolutely denigrated by his owner (stay classy Mr. Henry).  Theo Epstein (who you may put more of the September collapse on than the manager by virtue of leaving the team rather thin in terms of quality starting pitching) reads the tea leaves and escapes for Chicago.  Now the whole “beer drinking” story that won’t die; starting pitchers would drink some beer and eat chicken on their off days, or maybe they were drinking beer in the dugout during games.  I dunno; a starter in-between starts has little to nothing to do during the games; in fact veterans are often allowed to travel home early to be with family.  It seems to me to be the Boston press playing into the hands of a rather cowardly news source, looking to grind a personal axe with the named players.  Not a very healthy organization, the Red Sox, right now.
  • Bryce Harper finally exploded in the AFL with a homer, 2 other hits and 2 walks for a pretty good game.  I wouldn’t read too much into his struggles in the AFL, or in AA for that matter.  I think he’s exhausted after his first full season and it should be more telling to see how he starts 2012.
  • Bill Ladson had a quick interview with Adam LaRoche, who reports that he’s recovering, starting baseball activities soon and that the team hasn’t promised him any playing time in 2012.  What??  I’m sure that quote is being blown out of proportion; why would the Nats have signed him for 2 years if they didn’t want him, for 2 whole years??  Of course the team wants him to play next year, to be the 25homer/100rbi left handed middle-of-the-order plus-defender player that they paid for in the off-season.  I suppose its possible the team will make a splash for Fielder or Pujols, but don’t think for a second this team doesn’t plan on just flushing LaRoche’s $8M salary in 2012.  Follow up comments from GM Rizzo seem to indicate the team plans to stand pat.
  • Please, please Nats do not get involved in the Yu Darvish madness.  They got burned on Maya; the Red Sox got burned on Dice-K.  It’ll cost many tens of millions of dollars just to “win” the posting, then even more money to sign the guy.  Is he worth $80-$100M?  Wouldn’t you rather get a known quantity for that kind of pitching outlay?

What is the “ceiling” of the various Nats pitching prospects?

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Will Matt Purke fulfil his former Ace-starter promise? Photo AP/Nati Harnik

Its nearly impossible to project high-end pitching prospects, the further they are from the minors.  Think of someone like Colten Willems, our #1 draft pick in 2006 who retired before ever getting out of high-A.  Or perhaps Josh Smoker, a supplemental 1st rounder in 2007 who struggled with injury and is now a situational lefty in the high-A bullpen, four-plus years into his pro career.

But, it is fun to think about the upper-end, best case scenario and what it would mean for this team.  I’m sure that this post will garner a ton of disagreement; feel free to make your case in the comments pro or against what i’ve posted.  I know that some people are already drinking the kool-aid on September call-ups Peacock and Milone, but I’m not (read below for more).  I’ve included all our current starters and most of the upper-end draftees over the past few years.

(post-publishing note: a commenter asked what I “meant” by a #1 or a #5 starter.  Here’s text pulled from the comments as to how i’m defining each of these level of starters:)

  • #1 starter is one of the best 15-20 pitchers in the league, someone who you’re genuinely surprised if he performs badly on a given day, mentioned in Cy Young conversations.  Verlander, Lincecum, Halladay.
  • #2 starter: a slight step down from your elite, but still a reliable starter.  The “robin” to the ace’s “batman.”  I’m thinking Matt Cain, Chad Billingsly, Cole Hamels, Clay Buchholz as examples.  Not the best guy on their rotation but a great #2 guy.
  • #3: better than your league average pitcher, someone who is solid, consistent innings eater and who routinely gives you quality starts but not much more than that.  I’m thinking someone like a Jonathan Sanchez, Derek Holland, Edwin Jackson, someone like that.
  • #4: is basically someone defined as someone who’s a slight step above the back-of-the-rotation guy, a mlb veteran guy who knows how to pitch but doesn’t have the best stuff to really go much beyond.  John Lannan is a great example of a #4 starter.  Freddie Garcia, John Lackey, Jon Garland, Jason Marquis are other examples.
  • #5: just good enough to fill out your rotation.  Starters at the back end who all you’re hoping for is 6 innings and keeping your team in the game.  On our team, Livan Hernandez, Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen in past years.

Nationals Starter prospect Ceilings (per scouting reports, personal observations)

#1: Strasburg
#2: Zimmermann, Cole
#3: Purke
#4: Lannan, Ray
#5: Detwiler, Turnbull, Solis
4-A starter: Milone, Meyers, Rosenbaum
MLB bullpen: Meyer, Peacock, Stammen
Minors starter: Maya, Martis, McGeary, Jordan, Grace
Minors bullpen: Holder, Smoker

Discussion.

#1 Starters: Stephen Strasburg, in my mind, is already an “Ace” starter in this league, ranking up among the 15-20 best arms out there.  When he’s healthy.  In 2010 he posted MLB-best k/9 rates and would have clearly led the league in some sabremetric measures of pitching in his debut season had he qualified.  But health is the big question mark; is he going to become the next Justin Verlander or the next Mark Prior?  Only time will tell.

#2 Starters: Jordan Zimmermann has achieved Robin to Strasburg’s Batman in this rotation, and seems set to be a pretty good rotational guy for the next few years.  AJ Cole pitched well in his first full season, is a big kid who was touching 96 in HS.  He could be a big arm who slides into the rotation as a dominant arm.  Some think his ceiling is even higher than a #2 starter.

#3 Starters: Matt Purke was a 1-1 talent (1st round, 1st overall draft pick) before suffering shoulder bursitis, and the Nats took a gamble on him.  But its a great gamble; he has Ace material, throwing mid 90s from the left hand side with completely dominating stuff.  He was rated BA’s #14 prospect coming out of high school and had a $4M signing bonus deal turned down by MLB.  He allowed the Nats medical staff to do a dye-injection MRI and were satisfied with the results.  His deal could be remembered as a steal of the 2011 draft if he pans out.  However recent scouting reports have listed his stuff as “ordinary,” so a #3 starter seems like a good middle ground for now.  If his arm is really ok, he’ll start to show it next spring (hopefully at high-A) and he’ll rocket up the prospect lists soon enough.

#4 Starters: Perhaps one could argue that John Lannan is a #3 starter but I don’t believe so; I think he’s a solid, underrated #4 starter on a decent rotation.  If you compare Lannan to the #4 starters on a number of teams, he compares favorably, and you’d clearly take Lannan if given the choice.  The problem is; he’s just not flashy.  We’ll never get appropriate trade value for him because his W/L numbers are mediocre and his K/9 rate isn’t that impressive.  I’d guess that he sticks in our rotation until he reaches free agency, at which point its likely that some of our developing power arms will be ready to take over.   Robbie Ray had a fantastic debut season and may even be better than a #4 ceiling; certainly he put up as good of numbers as his 2010 draft classmate AJ Cole, but his stuff doesn’t project as highly.

Here’s where a number of arguments are probably to be had, starting at the #5 ceiling.

#5 Starters: Ross Detwiler really has yet to fully show his full capabilities, but lefties that throw mid 90s don’t grow on trees.  2012 is a make or break year for him with this organization, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him moved in the off-season so that the team doesn’t have to deal with his option status when constructing the rotation next spring.  I put him with slightly better stuff than the 4-A guys below.  I’m still not sold on him as a MLB starter, but saw a lot out of him this season that shows improvement over where he was in the organization in 2010.   2011 draftee Kylin Turnbull was overshadowed by the high-end talents drafted ahead of him, but he’s lefty, throws well and is projectionable.  Thanks to Sean Hogan‘s excellent draft research, some scouting reports are here.  Right now it sounds to me like Turnbull has a bit more power than someone like Milone and perhaps can get more missed bats.  For now i’m listing him as a #5 starter ceiling; if he was a righty he’d probably be in the MLB bullpen category.  Lastly Sammy Solis projects thus far as somewhere between a a #3 range starter, a mid rotation guy who has 3 plus pitches and can be a lefty work horse out of the rotation and a back-of-the bullpen guy with mediocre stuff but good constitution.  He may not have the best stuff, but being lefty and being a solid, Mark Buehrle build could mean he’s a slightly better version of John Lannan for this team.  We’ll see how he does in AA in 2012.

4-A starters: (for those that don’t know what is meant by “4-A or AAAA,” it means someone who is better than a AAA pitcher but not quite good enough to get out major league hitters on a consistent basis).  Tommy Milone had a great September debut and has impeccable control in the minors, but I don’t see him having good enough stuff to consistently get major league hitters out.  Now, I could be wrong and he could have Greg Maddux-esque control, at which point he doesn’t need mid-90s heat.  But from what I saw in his September starts, I don’t think he’s got what it takes to stick in the majors.  Brad Meyers could end up in the same position as Milone; a guy who dominates in the minors but who can’t cut in the majors.  It doesn’t look like he’ll even get a shot at the 2012 rotation with the crowded 40-man roster.  Lastly Denny Rosenbaum seems cut from the same cloth as Milone; a softer-tossing lefty without great K/9 rates in the low minors but who is effective enough at getting guys out.

Bound for the bullpen (but good enough to stick in the majors): 2011 draftee Alex Meyer is going to go one way or the other: he’s either going to be a wild man out of the bullpen or a near #1 starter.  Scouts seem to be pretty split as to which way he’s going to go.  Right now, based on the struggles he had early in his college career, I’m guessing he struggles to maintain his forward momentum and ends up a Cole Kimball-esque hard throwing option out of the pen.  Meanwhile, what to make of Brad Peacock?  I know he just finished off a fantastic minor league season and had two effective September starts (giving up just one run in 12 innings over two starts).  But to me I see a guy with good life and heavy reliance on one pitch (a 4-seam fastball), a good 2nd pitch (change-up) no confidence in his third pitch (loopy curveball) and no fourth pitch.  To me, that says bullpen.  Lastly i’m clumping in Craig Stammen here, who couldn’t really cut it as a full time starter in 2010 and spent the entire 2011 season starting in AAA.  I think he can be an effective guy out of the MLB bullpen if he’s given the shot.  I like Stammen and perhaps this is a bit high of a ceiling for him; i wouldn’t be surprised a bit if he misses out on the 2012 bullpen and slips into minor league free agency frankly.

Minors starter: This list of guys looks like they’re destined to be “organization guys” for this team.  Yuniesky Maya was clearly not the pitcher the team thought he was when he got his 4-year contract; he’s gotten a couple shots at the majors over the past two seasons and has not capitalized.  I think he’s going to be ensconced in the AAA rotation for the near future, unless someone can figure out how to trade him.  He certainly isn’t a better MLB starting option than any of the guys listed above him.  Shairon Martis mostly earned this fate when he successfully passed through waivers and off our 40-man roster.  His worth ethic and conditioning came into question in the organization, and he went from a 22yr old starter in 2009 to a AA starter in 2011.  He had pretty good numbers in AA, but that doesn’t really prove much for a guy who was in a MLB rotation two years prior.  Jack McGeary is finally back from two years of mediocracy and Tommy John surgery, but faces a pretty steep climb back into future rotational pictures.  For now, i’m guessing he struggles to ever make it, topping out as a minor league starter once he hits his free agency period.  For now, i’m also classifying both Taylor Jordan and Matthew Grace as org guys, continuing to rise up as 4th or 5th starters but never really making an impact.

Minors bullpen: Lastly, i’m listing both high-end draft picks of the past few years Trevor Holder and Josh Smoker as topped out as minor league bullpen guys.  Smoker seems like he’s already there, having come back from an arm injury but still only having risen to high-A in his fourth pro season.  He put up good numbers as a loogy/bullpen guy this year, and perhaps his real ceiling is the MLB bullpen, but getting a loogy out of a first round draft pick is still a major disappointment.  Holder was clearly an over-draft in the Strasburg year, getting picked up in the 3rd round when he wasn’t even in some team’s top 10, and has done nothing to earn his draft position.  He posted a 5.77 era in high-A this year, repeating the level and leaving the team clearly in a conundrum as to what to do with him.  I think he is destined for a bullpen role in 2012, perhaps in high-A again, and may be short-lived for the franchise.

Is there someone I’m missing?  Agree, Disagree?  Discuss in the comments section.

WS Prediction

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So far, I’m basically 50/50 on predictions, having gone 2-for-4 in the DS and 1-for-2 in the LCS.  So i’m no better than a coin flip.  It has been really surprising, the offense in these games thus far, especially from St. Louis.  They scored 43 runs in 6 games against a pretty good Milwaukee rotation and are getting a ton of help up and down the lineup.

Because both series ended after 6 games, both teams have their ideal rotations setup to go for the WS, so we get some great pitching match-ups.  Here’s how the rotations probably stack up;

1 10/19/2011 Tex-Stl Wilson Carpenter Stl
2 10/20/2011 Tex-Stl Holland Lohse Stl
3 10/22/2011 Stl-Tex Garcia Lewis Tex?
4 10/23/2011 Stl-Tex Jackson Harrison Tex
5 10/24/2011 Stl-Tex Carpenter Wilson Stl?
6 10/26/2011 Tex-Stl Holland Lohse Stl
7 10/27/2011 Tex-Stl Lewis Garcia Stl?

After watching St. Louis pound Milwaukee pitching, I worry for the Rangers pitchers in this coming series.  Of course that being said, Texas’ offense is in full blown “go” mode as well.  I see some decent advantages for St. Louis though, especially having home series advantage and getting a Carpenter start in Texas.  I can see them holding serve at home then stealing one in Texas, similarly to what they did against Milwaukee.  I really see Texas’ starting pitching as being vulnerable and St Louis taking advantage.

Prediction: St. Louis in 6.

Written by Todd Boss

October 17th, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Ladson’s inbox 10/10/11 edition

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Here’s my latest personal answers to Bill Ladson‘s inbox, 10/10/11 edition.

As always, I edit the questions for clarity, and write my own response before reading Ladson’s.

Q: Why is there constant talk of the Nationals pursuing Rays outfielder B.J. Upton? The Nationals have a crowded outfield with Michael Morse, Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper. The Nationals are getting killed in on-base percentage, so why trade for Upton who barely bats .250 with a less than impressive OBP. Wouldn’t a better route be to pursue an infielder with a traditional OBP and trade either Ian Desmond or Danny Espinosa?

A: Good question.  The Nats like B.J. Upton b/c he fills two needs for this team; plus defense CF and lead-off hitter.  In theory anyway; I agree with the questioner that Upton may be more hype than hope.   His 2011 was better than his career line, but was less than impressive .243/.331/.429.  He’s slugging the ball more, hitting for more power, but a .331 OBP isn’t that much better than what we were getting out of our own lead-off hitters.  Lets not forget either that Bryce Harper isn’t going to be in the opening day 2012 lineup, so its not like he’s ready to go.  We still need a CF solution for 2012 and i’m guessing that we go with another year of Rick AnkielLadson more or less agrees, predicting that the team acquires two outfielders this off-season.

Q: With the Nats still looking for pop in the lineup, is it out of the question for them to pursue first baseman Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder and keep Morse in left?

A: I don’t think its out of the question, but I would be really surprised if either marquee first baseman is pursued or signed.  They’re both going to command massive, major financial commitments and for a team that has held steady at $60-$68M in payroll, I have a hard time seeing them sign off.  Remember, we still have Adam LaRoche coming back, and Rizzo didn’t sign him for the hell of it.  Ladson thinks the team may actually pursue Fielder to add lefty pop to the lineup.

Q: Do you see Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner as a possible trade acquisition for the Nationals. What have you heard?

A: Why in the world would the Yankees trade Gardner?  Pre-arbitration, decent lead-off option and gold-glove defender in left.  We have a left-fielder.  It would take a severe prospect haul to get him, and I don’t think we really need him long term.  Ladson thinks he’s a great fit and that it is an intriguing deal.

Q: This may sound crazy but what about putting left-hander John Lannan and outfielder Roger Bernadina in a package for a quality starter? Lannan, in my mind, hasn’t been a quality starter and Bernadina hasn’t improved during his time with the Nats.

A: Bernadina is value-less in a trade; he’s out of options and teams know it, so all they have to do is wait until April 1st, 2012 and they can have him for free.  Lannan IS a quality starter already; he’s not going to ever get us value in return near what he gives us already.  I don’t think either guy is really someone that helps us in terms of trade.  Ladson agrees.

Q: Do the Nats conduct “exit interviews” whereby they suggest offseason training, workouts and how the player should work on his deficiencies?

A: I’m sure they do for returning players; i’d guess FAs are just told thanks and we’ll see you.  These players are investments, and if the player is motivated he’ll want to do in the off-season what guarantees the most success in 2012.  Ladson says that Davey Johnson spoke to every player on the last day of the season, reviewed their performance and talked about 2012.

Q: Behind the scenes, was the Nats’ coaching staff holding the players accountable for the high number of strikeouts that were accumulated in 2011?

A: I don’t know if you can “hold a player accountable” for strikeouts.  I think strikeouts come with the territory for some hitters; i’ll take a guy that hits 20 homers with more than his average number of Ks.  However, a high strikeout guy who is a slap hitter for no power?  Bad news.  That’s the kind of guy that needs adjustment to his game.   Ladson notes that Johnson clearly wants the team to take less strikeouts, especially called 3rd strikes, and mentions three guys in particular.  Werth, Desmond and Espinosa.  Fair enough.