Waiting for baseball weather in Washington, DC is maddening. There is asylum for the snow weary fan to be found at AFI Silver that is running a special series of baseball films through early April. I took in “Damn Yankees” the other day to celebrate the coming season and add whatever karmic energies my attendance could provide. It is a wonderful tale and its hero, Joe Boyd–the dedicated fan who sells his soul to the devil to become the mythic Joe Hardy and lead Washington to its first pennant in decades–should inspire us all. What would you do to raise the NL pennant flag over Nationals Park at the end of the 2014 season, to see the Nationals in the World Series?
The Lerners and GM Mike Rizzo have answered the question rather impressively. They have added the intensity and gameness of new manager, Matt Williams, and have added to an already impressive roster one of the best pitchers in the American league in Doug Fister along with key bench players in Nate McClouth, Jerry Blevins and Jose Lobaton. In the spring every team is a pennant winner, every player a Joe Hardy waiting to blossom, but there are many legitimate reasons to believe the Nationals can play with the best of them this year.
Several writers have observed that the Nationals are no longer a young team. It is quite true. The Washington Nationals are a team in their prime. Former stars in waiting like Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and even the now 21-year-old Bryce Harper, have proved themselves over the past two seasons. The coming seasons will be the best that this aggregation of players will see and there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the prospects.
The best reason for excitement is Fister, the right-handed pitcher acquired from the Detroit Tigers whose performance in 2013 ranked him among the top 10 pitchers in that league. Neither his 14 wins, nor his 3.67 ERA tell the story adequately. He is not an overpowering pitcher in the mold of a Strasburg. He is more noted for his consistency–only 44 walks in 208 innings–and his ability to keep the ball in the park–only 14 home runs–that made him the eighth best pitcher in the AL by some statistical evaluations. As good as Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann have been the past two seasons, most analysts believe Fister will be the best 2014 pitcher in Washington not named Strasburg.
The deal for Fister left many scratching their heads. Why did Detroit trade Fister for Steve Lombardozzi, Robbie Ray and Ian Krol? No disrespect intended for any of the Washington players going over to Detroit, but Mike Rizzo got a proven top level pitcher without giving up any top tier prospect other than Robbie Ray who projects as a potential No. 3 starter if all of the cards break right.
Rizzo continued to trade for the pieces that the team needed to address its 2013 weaknesses. He got a proven left-handed reliever from Oakland in Jerry Blevins for Billy Burns who has never played higher than A-ball. Then he brought in back-up catcher Jose Lobaton along with two minor leaguers for Washington pitcher Nate Karns. Both of those minor league players–Felipe Rivero and Drew Vettleson–will rank among the top talent in the Nationals’ organization. In all of these trades, Rizzo was the one GM who successfully pounced on another team’s need to lighten its salary structure and did not have to rob the piggy bank of minor league talent to do so. Taken together, the trades are a remarkable performance by Rizzo and one has to wonder whether he had help from the nether regions in pulling them off.
Regardless, the new talent leaves Washington in remarkable shape as it heads into the 2014 season, so much so that Commissioner Bud Selig has joined others in predicting that the Nationals will win the NL East and in so doing make the playoffs. All well and good, but it is the beginning of March. The games still need to be played; the crocuses still need to find their way through the soil.
But there is no shortage of optimism about the 2014 season. As the exhibition season begins in earnest this week it is time to Damn the Yankees and full speed ahead.