The Nationals' latest problem is Bryce Harper saying it was "brutal" for their fans to leave in the seventh inning of Monday's 8-5 loss to the Mets. Harper should know better than to criticize the paying customers, but the Nats' issues run far deeper than a petulant star.
Rival executives continue to wonder whether ownership will initiate major changes if the team fails to make the playoffs -- changes even above manager Matt Williams.
For now, all of the talk is speculation, and not necessarily informed speculation. Some believe that the Nationals could pursue a Dave Dombrowski type, but as I wrote last month, a club president is superfluous for a team with numerous voices in ownership. And contrary to reports, the Nats never even contacted Dombrowski before he went to the Red Sox, according to major-league sources.
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Nats GM Mike Rizzo signed a long-term contract of unspecified length in Aug. 2013. He communicates regularly with managing principal owner Ted Lerner, sources say, and Lerner is not the type to pay a GM to go away. Besides, it is difficult to find anyone in baseball who believes that Rizzo has done a poor job.
Still, the Nats opened the season with a club-record $164 million payroll, according to the Associated Press -- the sixth-highest in baseball. Ownership has every right to be restless -- for as much as the Nats boast about the success of the Stephen Strasburg shutdown in 2012, they have yet to win a postseason series.
Williams would be the most obvious change -- his latest misstep occurred Monday when he stuck too long with Max Scherzer, who allowed his fifth run in the sixth inning, tying the score. Rizzo is loyal to Williams, his handpicked choice for manager after the 2013 season. But would the GM fight to retain a sinking, increasingly unpopular manager?
The answer might be yes; Rizzo can be willful, according to those who know him well. The situation bears watching; extreme disappointment can lead to extreme measures. But for now, the rumblings are just that. Rizzo figures to retain control unless a major personality conflict with ownership forces him out.
AND IN ATLANTA . . .
One theory on why the Braves extended manager Fredi Gonzalez through next season is that they wanted him to serve as a one-year bridge to the opening of their new ballpark in 2017. Once Gonzalez completed that task, the team could thank him for his services, then enter the new park with a more heralded manager.
Such an idea makes sense, considering that '16 probably is a lost cause for the Braves, anyway. But I've been hearing all season that players are frustrated with Gonzalez, that he essentially has lost the clubhouse. If that is the case, why should president of baseball operations John Hart wait to make a change? And why did he give Gonzalez an extension in the first place?
Obviously, Gonzalez is not to blame for the team's collapse -- Hart and assistant GM John Coppolella left him with precious few competent major leaguers after parting in July with Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, and then with Jim Johnson, Alex Wood and Luis Avilan, plus top prospect Jose Peraza.
On the other hand, the Braves had a minus-101 run differential during their 1-19 stretch entering Monday; the 1939 Athletics were the only other team since 1900 to be outscored by 100 or more runs over a 20-game span, according to research by Keith Costas of MLB Network.
If the youngsters are not improving and the veterans are disenchanted, shouldn't the Braves at least examine whether Gonzalez is part of the problem?
Coppolella, in an interview Saturday with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said it was "unfair" to judge Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell, but declined to say definitively that both would be back.
The Braves talk about becoming the next Royals, the next Pirates, the next Astros, the next Cubs. All of that is fine, but with their trades they essentially purchased one tech stock after another. Some will hit, some will not, but lots of luck if the plan is to compete by '17. And if the manager is doing more harm than good.
DANGER FOR YANKEES' EOVALDI?
The Yankees, who are shutting down right-hander Nathan Eovaldi for two weeks with right elbow inflammation, can only hope that is the extent of his problem.
Eovaldi, 25, underwent Tommy John surgery in 2007, when he was a junior in high school. The restructured elbow ligament generally lasts 8 to 12 years, so he could be right at the start of the danger zone.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman said he was aware of Eovaldi's previous procedure when the team acquired the pitcher last offseason, but was not dissuaded by the risk, considering that it remains something of an unknown.
At the time, Eovaldi was under club control for three more years. His ligament could remain intact for that entire period, and possibly beyond.
One other note on Eovaldi:
The Yankees wanted him in large part because he was young and capable of throwing 200 innings. But their analytics department identified something else -- the Marlins' principal catcher last season, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, was the worst pitch framer in the majors.
Eovaldi had a 4.85 ERA in 21 starts with Saltalamacchia, a 3.58 ERA in 12 starts with his backup, Jeff Mathis. The Yankees believed that pairing Eovaldi with Brian McCann and John Ryan Murphy would be beneficial. Though neither Yankees catcher is a superlative framer, both are better than Saltalamacchia, who is rating better this season.
YANKEES' BELTRAN: STILL KICKING
Carlos Beltran said that he sometimes mentions to his wife that playing 20 years in the majors would be a great accomplishment. He needs to play two more seasons to get there, and by then he will be 40.
Will Beltran actually last that long? He isn't sure.
Recently, Beltran was talking with Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis, an old switch-hitting acquaintance who played 19 years in the majors. Beltran said that Davis told him he should keep playing until they "kick you out."
"I don't know if I want that," Beltran said. "I have pride. I want to go out on my own terms. And hopefully I can do that."
Beltran, one of the game's more thoughtful, insightful players, also had a refreshing take on his chances of making the Hall of Fame.
"If it happens, it will be a beautiful thing," Beltran said. "If it doesn't happen, I still will feel so proud of the things I accomplished in baseball. It won't take anything away from it."
Beltran, 13 homers shy of 400 and 72 hits shy of 2,500, ranks eighth all-time among center fielders according to Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, which measures a player's worthiness for the Hall.
One of the more interesting questions of the offseason concerns the contract that White Sox right-hander Jeff Samardzija will command on the free-agent market.
Samardzija, 30, is under-performing, but still will exceed 200 innings for the third straight season. He's durable, yet he still will have thrown fewer major-league innings and pitches than virtually every starter on the market.
Not long ago, it appeared inevitable that Samardzija would exceed Homer Bailey's six-year, $105 million contract. Something along the lines of James Shields' four-year, $75 million deal might be more realistic now.
Shields was 33 when he entered the market, and had pitched nearly 1,000 innings more than Samardzija has thrown.
Speaking of Samardzija, the principal player that the Athletics acquired for him, shortstop Marcus Semien, has made only five errors since the All-Star break compared with 28 before that.
Ron Washington, a renowned infield instructor, joined the Athletics' coaching staff in late May.
NEW APPROACH FOR THE RAYS
The generally impotent Rays, after deciding that their hitters were taking too many pitches in the strike zone, turned more aggressive in August with impressive results.
The team averaged 3.74 pitches per plate appearance, its lowest monthly mark of the season, and produced a .781 OPS, fifth highest in the majors. The trend has continued in six September games, an admittedly small sample -- the Rays are averaging 3.67 pitches per plate appearance, and their .841 OPS is ninth in the majors.
"Let's get 'em early (in counts)," manager Kevin Cash, describing the Rays' revised philosophy. "(Pitchers) have such good stuff, they're so powerful, why would you even want to hit with two strikes anymore?"
Cash continued, "We're not looking to walk. We want guys to put themselves in position to impact the ball, hit it hard. More times than not, that comes in hitter-advantage counts -- 1-0, 2-0. We figured out that to get in those counts, you have to be aggressive (early) and get pitchers out of the zone."
Others in the sport have spoken about how the strategy of driving up pitch counts to force starters out of games no longer is effective; the bullpens are too good.
The overall numbers, however, do not reflect a change in offensive philosophy.
Major-league hitters are averaging 3.81 pitches per plate appearance, down slightly from the previous two seasons but well within the range of the past 10 years.
AROUND THE HORN
* I've heard scouts and even players talk about how the Blue Jays could be at a distinct advantage if they face the Astros in the Division Series, considering the way the Jays crush left-handed pitching.
We're getting ahead of ourselves -- the postseason matchups in the AL are far from set. Besides, the Astros' two left-handed starters, Dallas Keuchel and Scott Kazmir, both are effective against right-handed hitters.
Kazmir, in fact, has been more effective against righties this season, holding them to a .593 OPS and lefties to a .686.
Keuchel has held lefties to a .390 OPS, lowest in the majors among starters. But he also has been highly effective against righties, limiting them to a .600 OPS.
* For all the talk of Matt Harvey, Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom is headed toward a career-high in innings and possibly showing signs of fatigue.
deGrom threw 178 2/3 innings between Triple-A and the majors last season. He currently is at 169, and his opponents' OPS -- which was .440 from May to July -- rose to .690 in August and was .826 in his first start in September.
While deGrom is much further removed than Harvey from his Tommy John surgery -- his was in Oct. 2010, Harvey's in Oct. 2013 -- he, too, would benefit from the extra rest that a six-man rotation would provide. Skipping him also would make sense.
* Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier says his catch to rob Manny Machado of a home run leading off the Aug. 31 game in Baltimore was the finest of his career.
It's impossible to practice robbing home runs, but Kiermaier says that he messes around in batting practice, measuring his steps on the warning track, testing walls to make sure that he can spring off them. He explained that the wall at Camden Yards doesn't give, so he knew he had to jump straight up. And jump he did.
* If the Diamondbacks intend on making the playoffs next season, manager Chip Hale likely will need to apply a softer touch with his bullpen.
The D-Backs lead the majors in relief innings, in part because their rotation is young and inexperienced. The wear and tear, though, is showing; over the last 15 games, the team is 4-11 and its bullpen ERA is 5.23.
* Yes, the Cardinals have another big arm coming -- Double A right-hander Alex Reyes, who reminds team officials of Carlos Martinez with the way he carries his velocity deep into games.
Reyes, who recently turned 21, missed time with a sore right shoulder, but for the season he has struck out 151 and in 101 1/3 innings at three levels. He also has walked 49, but his opponents' batting average is .197, his ERA 2.49.
He likely will return to Double-A to start next season.