RISING APPLE: Which team in the National League East do you believe has the most potential? Not necessarily to unseat the Nationals, which doesn’t appear likely this season, but to make the most noise?
RICKY KEELER: Even with the Zack Wheeler injury, I do think the team that has the best chance to challenge the Nationals is the New York Mets. The key to that is the return of Matt Harvey, who as you know, brings confidence and leadership into that clubhouse. New York’s offense has been very good this spring with the acquisition of Michael Cuddyer and if they keep Juan Lagares in the leadoff spot, he is a good spark for them. One of the unheralded coaching moves of the offseason was made by New York in hiring Kevin Long as their new hitting coach.
Long needed a change of scenery after his long stint with the Yankees, but he had a great impact on fixing Curtis Granderson’s swing a few years ago. While the bullpen is a concern, New York has the starter depth and a good offense to at least make the division interesting. Plus, you have to think they will have a better head-to-head vs. the Nats than the 4-15 record they had a season ago.
RA: Were you surprised that the Nats parted ways with Tyler Clippard? He’s been such an integral part to the success of the bullpen for so many years, and that trade caught most fans of other teams off guard. With Clippard now gone, how is the bullpen shaping up?
RK: The Tyler Clippard trade was a surprise, even though he will end up making $11 million this season with the A’s. I liked the signing of Casey Janssen as a reliever who has closer experience in case Drew Storen stumbles and could also be a solid setup man. However, on Monday, Janssen got an MRI on his right shoulder after feeling soreness. If this injury is serious, then Washington has a big hole in that spot. The closer spot isn’t an issue because other than the two postseason stumbles by Storen, he has proven to be a pretty good regular season closer.
Now, the Nats have a solid group of young arms in Aaron Barrett, Craig Stammen, and possibly Blake Treinen who could fill that spot, but it would be a new role for them. With the Max Scherzer signing, Tanner Roark is moving to the bullpen, but I see him as more of a long man than an eighth inning guy. As far as left-handers go, Washington has the depth in that spot with Matt Thornton. Thornton will be interesting to watch because after coming over from the Yankees last August, he did not give up an earned run in his final 18 games of the regular season.
RA: There have been a number of injuries so far in Nationals camp. Which one worries you the most? Building off that, which player can the Nationals least afford to lose for an extended period of time?
RK: As of right now, the most worrisome injury for the Nationals for me is Anthony Rendon. Two weeks ago, Matt Williams thought that Rendon’s knee was just sore and he would only be out a couple of days. Now, Rendon has a sprained MCL and his progression back to the lineup has been slower than expected. He has had two MRI’s and according to the Cardinals radio broadcast Monday, he has gone to see Dr. James Andrews to get another opinion on his knee. Rendon had a great season last year, when he hit .287 with 21 home runs and finished in the top four in NL MVP voting. As far as backups goes, Washington will either use utility man Kevin Frandsen or second baseman/shortstop Danny Espinosa, who has not played one game at third in his career.
All in all, the Nationals don’t have any long-term injury issues yet. Yes, Denard Span is out till probably mid-May after core muscle surgery, but this gives the organization a chance to see how top prospect Michael Taylor can handle center field with Span hitting free agency at the end of the year. With Jayson Werth probably coming back shortly after the season begins, that is not a huge concern because Tyler Moore has had an excellent spring training. However, an injury to Rendon leaves a huge hole at third base for the time being.
RA: If you were Mike Rizzo, would you have rather signed Jordan Zimmermann long-term or given the deal to Max Scherzer?
RK: Going into the offseason, I always thought the Nationals would have traded Jordan Zimmermann if they had signed Scherzer. Now, Washington has a super rotation, but I would have given Zimmermann the long-term extension. The team did not need Max Scherzer to be a postseason contender and Zimmermann was coming off a great season last year, which ended with a no-hitter in the regular season and a near complete game shutout in Game 2 of the NLDS vs. the Giants. In his last 13 starts of 2014, he went 8-0 with a 2.18 ERA. However, I do like the Scherzer deal for the team going forward because it gives them insurance in case Zimmermann and Doug Fister both leave for free agency. It shows the team is going all-in on a championship in 2015. Plus, according to MLB Pipeline, eight of the Nats’ top 15 prospects are pitchers. Washington has young pitchers to fill in the rotation in the future. I still would give the deal to Scherzer, but I am sure in the back of their minds, they are hoping that the mega contract doesn’t turn into what Bobby Bonilla is still doing to the Mets.
RA: What are your feelings on Bryce Harper, who comes off to fans outside DC as pompous without having a right to be? Is this the year he finally puts it all together?
RK: I know Bryce Harper is seen as overrated by many fans and even the players, but to me, Harper is more over-hyped than overrated. He’s not Mickey Mantle or Mike Trout, but he’s only 22 years old. While Harper hasn’t been able to stay healthy during the season, his coming out party came in the postseason last year when he hit three home runs in four games vs. the Giants. So far, this spring, I have liked what Harper has done from this standpoint. He is becoming more pitch selective.
Yes, he has four home runs, but he also has drawn 12 walks in 15 games, which is tied with Brandon Belt for the most walks this spring. If Harper is not chasing bad pitches and becomes more disciplined at the plate, then this could finally be his year to challenge for a NL MVP. He will need a great start with all the nagging injuries for the Nats so far, so his health to start the season is going to be crucial.
RA: If Trea Turner is tearing it up in the minors and is somehow ready for a callup by the summer, do you think Mike Rizzo would consider trading Ian Desmond in order to cash in before he leaves via free agency?
RK: It will be interesting to see where in the system Trea Turner is when he arrives to the Nationals in June. However, my best guess would be that he will be in high-A Potomac, meaning I don’t see a call-up this year. Turner and Wilmer Difo, who had a solid spring for the Nats, could be the double play combination of the future in 2017. I don’t see the team trading away Ian Desmond because as I mentioned earlier, this a championship or bust year. You can’t rule anything out with Mike Rizzo, as evidenced by the Scherzer signing, but I highly doubt the Nats trade Desmond away unless they are out of the playoff race.
RK: Trading Jerry Blevins wasn’t a real surprise because of the surplus the Washington Nationals had in terms of lefty relievers. When you look at the 31-year old’s numbers, he had a 5.04 ERA in the second half of the season last year. However, he was very good against the Giants in the NLDS (3.1 hitless inning). Clearly, he should be only used against lefties when you consider right-handers hit nearly .300 against him last season as opposed to lefties, who hit .160. In six games against the Mets last year, Blevins held their hitters to a .105 batting average. This moves makes New York’s pen better because it gives them a veteran left-hander they can rely on to get a tough lefty out.
RA: What’s your overall prediction for the Nationals this season?
RK: Even with the injuries, I do think the Nationals are a 95-win team and will win the NL East. Their rotation is arguably one of the best in baseball and they do bring back most of an offense that was top five in the league in runs scored. However, I am hesitant to say this team will win the World Series mainly because of the concerns in the bullpen and if this team can stay healthy over a 162-game season. The Nats are one of a handful of teams that can represent the NL in the Fall Classic, but I think they will come up just short.
More from New York Mets News