COMMENTARY | The Washington Nationals' pitchers and catchers reported to Viera about three weeks ago and for the most part, the news from camp has been overwhelmingly positive. The team has seen prospects Anthony Rendon and Erik Davis impress, and Bryce Harper and Danny Espinosa both having early success at the plate.
In addition, the starting rotation has made a strong first impression, and players rehabilitating from offseason surgeries like Wilson Ramos and Ryan Zimmerman seem to be progressing well. This is in stark contrast to last year when the Nationals experienced significant, long-term injuries to Mike Morse, Drew Storen, and Chien-Ming Wang early in spring training and most discussions revolved around the potential Stephen Strasburg shutdown.
Fortunately, for an organization with a "World Series or Bust" attitude, spring training has been relatively quiet and business-like for the Nationals. But as we hit the midpoint of spring training and the first groups of players are beginning to be reassigned to minor-league camp, I thought it might be an interesting time to look at a couple of the very few disappointments from Viera in the first few weeks of camp.
After dominating in the minor leagues last season, which forced a September call-up and an eventual place on the postseason roster, Christian Garcia entered spring training in competition with Henry Rodriguez, Ryan Mattheus, and others for a place in the bullpen.
However, a partial tendon tear in his pitching forearm has not allowed him to throw yet and has put his availability for opening day in serious jeopardy. The 27-year-old Garcia has undergone Tommy John surgery twice already in his career, and returning from a third surgery is virtually unheard of, so any injury to his pitching arm causes trepidation throughout the organization. Possessing three above-average pitches in a curve ball, changeup, and high-90s fastball, along with the ability to pitch multiple innings, Garcia provided the bullpen last September with a 2.13 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings. The Nationals could benefit from his addition to the relief corps.
Similarly to Garcia, Henry Rodriguez entered this spring expected to compete for the last space in the bullpen and figured to have an inside track, considering he is out of minor-league options and must be exposed to waivers in order to be sent to the minor leagues. With an elite 97-plus mph fastball, an inconsistent but devastating slider, and a strong propensity to walk hitters, Rodriguez can look outstanding one day and can frustrate even the most patient pitching coach the next day with his uneven performances.
Rodriguez has struggled to recover from offseason elbow surgery and has yet to pitch in a game this spring, a terrible break for a pitcher who desperately needs innings to help refine his command. Rodriguez is expected to see game action any day and will be given every opportunity to seize a place in the bullpen, as the memory of trading away similarly inconsistent Joel Hanrahan a few years ago remains in general manager Mike Rizzo's mind.
The Nationals would greatly benefit from Garcia or Rodriguez getting and staying healthy this season, as their blazing upper-90s fastballs and ability to generate strikeouts gives manager Davey Johnson an asset in the bullpen and a stark contrast to sinker-ball middle relievers Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus.
2) Non-Roster Left-Handed Relievers
In search of a replacement for Mike Gonzalez as the team's left-handed relief specialist, none of the minor-league free-agent pitchers the Nationals brought to Viera have pitched particularly well. In fact, aside from Fernando Abad, who had a few good outings early in camp before stumbling the other day, this group of non-roster left-handed relievers has been largely discouraging, as evidenced by the reassignments of Bill Bray, Will Ohman, and Brandon Mann to minor-league camp earlier this week.
Particularly disappointing amongst this group is Bray, a former 2004 first-round pick of the Expos, who has held left-handed hitters to a .218/.312/.331 career batting line and was seen as having an excellent chance to be the second lefty along with Zach Duke in the Nationals' bullpen. Although there is still time for one of these pitchers to catch fire and make the team, the fact that none of these guys has started especially well makes the odds pretty strong the Nationals only take one lefty reliever north with them later this month.
3) Tyler Moore
Tyler Moore finds himself on this list based on his slow start at the plate this spring, hitting .226/.226/.290 with 11 strikeouts against no home runs or walks in 31 at-bats. Moore, 26, capitalized on his opportunity in Washington last season to bat .263/.327/.513 with 10 home runs in 156 at-bats in 2012, proving himself as a capable right-handed power hitter and giving the Nationals' front office the confidence to part with Mike Morse over the winter.
Without question this is a small sample size, but Moore will be an integral part of the team this season, providing occasional days off at first base and left field and intimidating right-handed power off the bench. A poor season from him would significantly hinder the team's offensive production in 2013.
Ryan Sullivan is Editor-in-Chief of NatsGM.com, a critical analysis website analyzing the Washington Nationals and other topics around baseball. He also does a weekly Podcast and contributes to RedPorchReport.com. You can email Ryan at NationalsGM@gmail.com and Follow him on Twitter @NatsGMdotcom.
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