The Washington Harpers had the best record in baseball in 2012, winning 98 games. They took a two-run lead into the ninth inning of Game Five of their NLDS against theÃ‚Â WLBs. Closer Drew Storen retired two of the first three hitters he faced. He then got within one strike twice of the third out before surrendering the lead and ultimately the series.
After the game, the Harpers fans, their manager, their ownership and their Hall of Fame local sportswriters all said “Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So the club didn’t make any significant off-season moves. Other than trading for Denard Span to start in CF and lead off. Other than signing Dan Heran ($13 million/1 year) as a starting pitcher. And other than signing Rafael Soriano ($28 million/2 years) to be their closer. They also have starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg healthy and able to pitch the entire season (and post-season). Despite being the best team in baseball in 2012, the Nationals should be vastly improved this season. Even though it wasn’t broken.
The Harpers (3-0) stride into in the Queen City after beating up on the hapless Miami Marlins. They’ll finally be facing their first big league test when they take on your Cincinnati Reds who, as you know, are fresh off of winning a series over the decidedly major league Los Angeles Angels.
Washington is the top-rated team in the ESPN power rankings. Get used to thinking about them as one of the best teams in baseball because their key position players and pitchers are young and under team control for years to come. And the family that owns them has a lot more money than yours, unless you’re worth more than $4 billion. (And if you are, can we convince you to pop for an extension for Shin-Soo Choo?)
WASHINGTON’S LIKELY LINEUP
Washington acquired Denard SpanÃ‚Â (29) from the Minnesota Twins to play CF and bat lead-off. He has solid, but not elite on-base skills. He steals about 20 bases a season and hits as many home runs as the Reds’ pitching staff. Span is known for his above-average defense in CF.
Sure, on paper,Ã‚Â Jason WerthÃ‚Â (33) might be an elite #2 hitter. He has a career OBP above .360 and a threat to go 20/20. But can he lay down a sacrifice bunt and hit behind the runner?
OMG!Ã‚Â Bryce Harper (20) is on pace for 108 home runs and 162 RBI.Ã‚Â
Ryan ZimmermanÃ‚Â (28) is probably Washington’s best all-around hitter, with a career line of .288/.354/.480 and 153 homers. He won a Gold Glove for third base a couple of years ago. He’s struggled with injures the past few seasons, but is healthy now.
Adam LaRocheÃ‚Â (33) quietly had a great 2012 for Washington, hitting .271/.343/.510, with 30 home runs and winning JoeyMVP’s Gold Glove for NL first basemen. The Harpers signed him to an extension ($24 million/2 years). He’s gonna love the short right field porch in GABP.
The middle infield combination of Ian DesmondÃ‚Â (27) and Danny EspinosaÃ‚Â (25) offers speed and power, with 41 stolen bases and 42 home runs last year. By comparison, Zack Cozart and Brandon Phillips combined for 19 and 33 respectively.
PROBABLE STARTING PITCHERS
- Fri. 7:10 – Dan Haren (R) vs. Homer Bailey (R)
- Sat. 1:10 – Ross Detwiler (L) vs. Mike Leake (R)
- Sun. 1:10 – Stephen Strasburg (R) vs. Johnny Cueto (R)
Try to take your eyes off of Sunday’s match-up for a second while we discuss Friday and Saturday.
The expectations for Dan HarenÃ‚Â (32) this season are like a box of chocolates. From 2005 to 2011, Haren won 103 games. In three of those years, 2007, 2009 and 2011, he was flat out an ace. So if his odd-year streak continues, the Harpers have one of those dark-chocolate coated candies with a creamy vanilla center, and easily the best four-deep rotation in the major leagues.
But Haren’s velocity andÃ‚Â strikeout rate have been dropping and his home run rate is rising. He had a 4.33 ERA (4.24 FIP) with the Angels last year and they chose not to resign him. So maybe he’s milk-chocolate with that sickly sweet cherry juice filling. On the other hand, he’s changing leagues. So who knows.
Ross Detwiler (27) is almost certainly the best #5 starter in the majors. He’s made 56 starts for Washington with a 3.74 career ERA (4.17 FIP). He has a low strike-out rate but as an extreme ground-ball pitcher, he keeps it in the park. Detwiler pitched four scoreless innings as Brandon Phillips’ teammate on Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
Stephen Strasburg (24) finished his college pitching career the same year (2009) as Mike Leake. It was Leake, not Strasburg, who that year was named theÃ‚Â National Player of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association. It was Homer Bailey, not Strasburg, who has thrown a major league no-hitter. And it was Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo who have received votes for Cy Young, not Strasburg. But for some reason, the kid from Washington gets all the hype.
Strasburg had Tommy John surgery in September, 2010 and returned to throw 24 innings in 2011. Billions of pixels lost their lives in the controversy of how the Harpers limited him to 159 innings last season. He didn’t pitch in the NLDS. [Trying hard to not make an Aroldis Chapman comment here.] On Monday, Strasburg pitched seven shutout innings in his first start against the Marlins, meaningless because Miami is profoundly awful.
But seriously, the pitching match-up on Sunday is crazy good.
Washington had one of the league’s top bullpens in 2012, finishing seventh in ERA (the Reds were first). Tyler Lee ClippardÃ‚Â (28) from Lexington, Kentucky, closed for most of the year, converting 32 out of 37 (86%) save opportunities. Drew StorenÃ‚Â (25) has saved 52 major league games (87% conversion) and ended the 2012 season as the team’s closer. He was the presumptive favorite to fill that role again this year until Washington surprisingly signed Rafael SorianoÃ‚Â (33) to a 2-year deal. Soriano has closed before, for the Braves, the Rays and last year for the Yankees. He converted 42/46 (91%) of his save opportunities for New York. So yeah, it’s hard to find a guy who can close 85-90% of games. The Harpers only have three.
Washington seems to favor talent to handedness as a criteria for their bullpen. Zach DukeÃ‚Â (29) is the only lefty and manager Davey Johnson has described Duke’s role as the long-relief guy, not LOOGY. So unless they call up someone for this series, they don’t have a lefty match-up against Shin-Soo Choo, JoeyMVP or Jay Bruce. Craig StammenÃ‚Â (29) is still in the Washington bullpen and is noteworthy because he was kryptonite for the Reds last year. In 6.1 innings, Stammen struck out 12 Reds batters.Ã‚Â Soriano has two saves already this season. The Harpers’ bullpen did not give up a run in the three-game series against Miami.