How will the Washington Nationals handle Joe Ross in 2019?

How will the Washington Nationals handle Joe Ross in 2019?

Joe Ross made six starts across a few levels in the Washington Nationals’ organization as he worked his way back from Tommy John surgery, posting a 2.39 ERA in 26 13 innings pitched before he was called up in September for his first major league outings since July of 2017.

Ross was (0-2) in three starts in the Nationals’ rotation, with a 5.06 ERA, 5.85 FIP, four walks, and seven Ks in 16 innings, but the fact that he was able to come all the way back was more important than the results, at least as far as Washington’s GM Mike Rizzo was concerned.

“I look past the performance and look at the stuff,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies during the final week of the regular season, “… and how he’s progressed in his rehabilitation, and he’s 92-to-96 with his sinker, his slider has got some snap to it at 86-88, and he’s really developed a changeup that we think is going to be a weapon in the future.”

“I’ve got a lot of things to work on,” Ross said after his third and final start, a five-inning, 81-pitch outing in Coors Field, “but I’d say the biggest thing is just being healthy, feeling good, at least being on the mound is the biggest thing for me, but I’ve got a lot of stuff to work on.

“Work on the slider, obviously it hasn’t really been there for me, command and everything, just honestly getting the stamina up so I can go deeper into the game, but I mean for now just happy that I feel healthy and feel strong, but I’ve kind of just got to take it one step at a time.”

“Obviously he’s got to get the ball down,” Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez said. “He’s got to be more consistent and get ahead of hitters. His slider, so far, has come and gone, and he’s got a really good one. When he’s on his slider is really good. He threw a couple today that were really good, and he’s just got to get that back and be consistent with it.”

“I think he looks great,” shortstop Trea Turner said after playing behind Ross in Colorado.

“Tonight, tough ballpark to pitch in, but for the most part I feel like he’s shown flashes of really good Joe. I think the velocity is obviously back too, which is nice.

“Before he got hurt I think he was down quite a bit, and just to see him strong and healthy and comfortable I think is a great thing.”

Ross was asked after his last outing if it will be a relief to go through a normal offseason after he spent the last winter rehabbing so he could make it back late this season.

“I mean I still wouldn’t say it’s normal,” Ross explained, “probably won’t take much time off, but I mean to not be able to throw is a big difference than it was last year, but you know, I’ve still got to get after some things and set some goals for myself going into Spring Training.”

Having Ross back in the rotation should help the Nationals, for whom starting pitching was an issue this year, with Stephen Strasburg and Jeremy Hellickson both missing time on the Disabled List, while both Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez struggled through up and down 2018 campaigns, but they are going to have to supplement the starting options with both Gonzalez and Hellickson headed for free agency, and the organizational depth in terms of major league-ready arms a concern.

Adding Ross back into the mix gives them one option, but as Rizzo explained to the Sports Junkies, he’s going to be limited somewhat in his first full season back from Tommy John.

“We’re going to have to control his innings,” Rizzo said.

“He’ll be in Year 1 post Tommy John protocol as we have here with the Nationals, but we’re looking for big things from Joe and hopefully we can manage those innings correctly and he can really be a factor for us.”

Ross will help, but the Nationals are going to need to add to the rotation and their starting depth this winter if they want to avoid some of the same issues they dealt with this season.

Washington Nationals' 2018 Season in Review: Nats draft Mason Denaburg…

Washington Nationals' 2018 Season in Review: Nats draft Mason Denaburg…

In his senior year at Merritt Island High School in Merritt Island, FL, Washington Nationals’ 2018 1st Round pick Mason Denaburg went (5-1) with a 1.27 ERA in eight outings and 35 1⁄3 innings pitched, striking out 73 batters and walking only ten.

Denaburg, 19, dealt with biceps tendinitis before the draft, however, though it didn’t stop the Nationals from picking the right-hander, who was selected 27th overall.

“It’s not an injury that for us was going to scare us off,” Assistant General Manager & Vice President, Scouting Operations Kris Kline told reporters on the night of the 2018 Draft.

“Mason missed some time with some bicep tendinitis,” Kline continued. “I ended up going there and seeing him, well, actually Alan Marr, our area scout there, saw a three-inning simulated game after he came back and it was really good, he didn’t show any signs of fatigue or any signs of an injury and then I ran in there in a playoff game and he looked really good.”

“I got back on the mound after the injury and I pitched in the last three games of the year and then I kind of chilled out for a little bit, but I’m feeling good now,” Denaburg said after he signed for an above slot $3M bonus. The assigned value for his spot was $2,472,700.

“Before they drafted him we kind of had a good bearing on what his financial values were, what the team’s were,” Denaburg’s agent, Scott Boras, explained.

“We had an alignment on that and so it was a very smooth transition to what both sides felt was a common value point for Mason.”

It’s not just the Nationals, or Boras, who were impressed with Denaburg, who, Boras said, is a gifted athlete,” who, “… has the velocity.”

“But the real thing is he has a feel to pitch,” Boras added.

“He has very repeatable delivery, very durable, and has been kind of hidden in the baseball markets,” Boras said, because Denaburg, “… didn’t do a lot of the showcases and things, but the scouting industry kind of caught on to him late in his junior year.”

“He’s been up to 97 mph in the past with his fastball,” MLB.com’s Pipeline scouts noted in their write-up on the pitcher, who’s ranked as the top pitching prospect in the Nationals’ organization on their list.

“Sitting around 94, throwing it with good life down in the zone,” the scouting report goes on.

“When Denaburg stays on top of it, his power breaking ball has nasty break and finish to it, and he shows feel for a solid changeup as well.”

Nationals’ ace Max Scherzer reportedly, according to MASN’s Dan Kolko, also liked what he saw from Denaburg when GM Mike Rizzo asked for the three-time Cy Young award winner’s opinion on some of the prospects Washington was considering taking with their top pick.

Denaburg got to meet Scherzer when the Nationals had their new prospect visit the nation’s capital to sign his new deal in July.

“I met Max actually downstairs [in Nationals Park],” Denaburg said, “and I’ve always loved watching him pitch, and I always thought that like, not our stuff, but our body and our windup and stuff like that was kind of similar, so it was cool to see him and hear from him.”

While MLB.com’s Pipeline scouts project a 2022 debut for Denaburg, Kline said on the night of the draft that there was a high ceiling for him if he pans out and is able to meet the Nats’ projections/expectations.

“Denaburg profiled as a — if he slid into LSU or one of the big programs of the country he slides into the Friday night role,” Kline said, “… and so we see him as a potential frontline starter in the big leagues.”

The Nats kept their prospect on a throwing program instead of sending him out to one of the minor league affiliates this summer, but he did go to the Instructional League, and he has impressed, according to Director of Player Development Mark Scialabba.

“Mason has made a great first impression here in camp,” Scialabba told MLB.com’s Mike Rosenbaum.

”He threw a sim game the other day and is scheduled to pitch in games later this week. He’s strong, healthy and getting his feet wet. He’s been a sponge here so far … getting to slowly build a foundation for his future.”

What's to blame for the Nationals' lost season? Part V: The players

What's to blame for the Nationals' lost season? Part V: The players

The Washington Post is examining the issues and characters that contributed to this disappointing Washington Nationals season – and how the team can avoid similar disappointment next season.

– – –

After his Washington Nationals were officially eliminated from playoff contention in late September, Ryan Zimmerman understood he would have to face questions. Always willing, he stood in front of his locker – the face of the franchise, the quiet leader – and answered them.

“It’s not what you want to do, but you can’t win every year,” Zimmerman said. “. . . A lot of good things happened this year. Obviously not what we wanted to happen, but you can’t do it every year.”

And yet, this team was supposed to do it every year. This team was built to win again – not every year, but definitely this one. This team was built to win in 2013 and 2015. No one can win every year, but for stretches, some can. By all accounts, quantitative and qualitative, this team was talented enough to do that. And once again, it did not.

Zimmerman and his teammates are the highest-paid employees of the Nationals and yet, in seasons such as this one, they tend to escape the bulk of the blame. Rizzo assembled an inadequate roster, the arguments go. Ownership didn’t shell out enough money to improve it, some say. Rookie manager Dave Martinez didn’t put them in the right places, others holler.

Player responsibility falls down the ladder, to some bottom rung no one seems to think can support that kind of weight. But in reality, no one has more control over this team’s performance than the players. Perhaps on a team that is constructed so well that it is expected to contend for a title, no one should carry more responsibility. The Nationals had the fifth highest payroll in baseball by season’s end.

Zimmerman is one of the most dogged contributors to the D.C. community, a stand-up person by all accounts, and never seems devastated or surprised by much. His mindset embodies the feeling around this team, the one it cannot shake, and that is no indictment on his character.

But this team, as a whole, seems to subscribe to a similar theory: Either you win or you don’t win. You play how you play, and sometimes it works.

That mentality is entrenched here. Four very different managers led this team over the last six years and couldn’t change it. Rizzo acquired gritty players including Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy, and they didn’t alter it. A strange determinism lives in that clubhouse, one the Nationals themselves do not always recognize – one as apparent to those on the outside as it is invisible to those on the inside.

“I think not necessarily the biggest contributor, but the biggest thing we all should take out of this year – and I think we knew it, but it probably gets more clear now – is that it doesn’t matter what people write. It doesn’t matter what goes into a season. You’ve gotta play the games,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “We had some tough luck and some tough injuries this year, but the bottom line is we just didn’t play good enough in the games to win.”

Wieters did not grow up a National, so his perspective qualifies as that of an outsider. And his statement touches on something outsiders have identified about this team for years, an unwritten, hard-to-explain feeling that this clubhouse just doesn’t have the edge it needs.

As Max Scherzer pointed out, the Nationals do the big things well, but so does everyone else. Their lineup generated the seventh-most runs in baseball, and compiled the seventh-best OPS. They accumulated the sixth-best OPS with runners in scoring position.

Their rotation underperformed, unable to match its usual standards, which is always damning for this team. In 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017 – division-winning years – the Nationals finished in baseball’s top five in starter ERA. In 2013, 2015 and 2018, they finished seventh, seventh and 13th, respectively. Stephen Strasburg missed substantial time this season. Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark had down years. Perhaps Mike Rizzo and the front office should have bolstered that rotation, which is only one of the issues.

“I think that we have to work on the small aspects of the game, the attention to detail, really embracing and realizing every 90 feet is important, every base is crucial,” Rizzo said. “And it’s really shown us and our fan base and our ownership group and our front office is that winning in the big leagues isn’t easy. It’s a difficult task. . . . The margin of error is razor-thin, and you have to compete pitch to pitch, inning to inning.”

Rizzo admitted that his team’s 18-24 record in one-run games proves that point. The Nationals were not a debacle. But while their propensity to stage late-game comebacks and climb back into games at times felt like consolation, it could also be seen as an indictment. Too often, they could not complete the climb.

“I think a lot of things are gray, not black and white,” Trea Turner said. “. . . There’s so many more plays that happen during the course of the game. Obviously there’s turning points, but I feel like that’s kind of our season. We’ve been grinding and we’ve been playing pretty well, we just can’t be on the right side of it. It’s a small hump. I couldn’t tell you what that hump is.”

One theory about that hump is that teams do not know how to win until they do, which is why Jayson Werth’s leadership helped elevate this franchise so much, and why the intensity of players such as Eaton and Scherzer stands out so much. Over and over, for years, people in the Nationals clubhouse suggested that, at the end of the day, the numbers would be where they should be – that early losses would work themselves out in the end. But for this team, early losses have never been overcome by an easy finish.

The Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and others seem to find a way.

“It comes down to the small stuff. That’s how fine-tuned [MLB is]. This is the majors. There’s no freebies anywhere,” Scherzer said. “Every inch has to be taken and earned. You have to sometimes find those opportunities and create advantages for yourself. That’s the only way I can articulate it at this point in time.”

As season ends with 12-0 loss, Nationals know they 'earned the record that we have'

As season ends with 12-0 loss, Nationals know they 'earned the record that we have'

DENVER – As a handful of teams played Sunday to determine their postseason fate, and a handful of others readied for the start of their playoff journeys, the Washington Nationals played nine innings of baseball entirely devoid of meaning to them. In those nine innings, in which the Colorado Rockies outscored them, 12-0, the Nationals received a message they have been internalizing, bit by bit, for some time now: Whatever talent they amassed on paper this season, the Nationals never looked like a playoff team.

Sunday’s ending – one of the few blowouts they’ve experienced, one of the few games in which they provided no counterargument to their futility – provided a fitting ending to a season that might as well have been a 162-game reality check. They finished the season 82-80, their worst record since 2011.

“You play 162 games. It’s a marathon, and it shows you who you are,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “I think this season has shown us who we are. We’ve earned the record that we have.”

Dave Martinez seemed to feel the end most, but not because he thought it all might come to an end. Before the game, Rizzo reiterated that he has not considered any scenario in which Martinez does not manage this team next year. For now, it seems, he will get a chance to grow.

Martinez’s eyes welled when he talked about Bryce Harper, as well as when he talked about the season, rattling off positives he saw in player after player, expressing how proud he is of this team and that it never fell apart.

But other than Martinez, and the rare reflections Rizzo offered, no overwhelming disappointment or sentimentality gripped the clubhouse. Perhaps preparation makes all the difference. The Nationals have been ready for this day for weeks and had already passed through most of the stages of baseball grief.

The past few days qualified as laid back, with players piled on couches watching football, occasionally tearing their eyes away to sign a jersey for a teammate. Many of those jerseys had No. 34 on the back. Many of the requests were directed to Bryce Harper. After all, he might not wear a Nationals jersey again.

They took the field Sunday in front of a screaming, near-sellout crowd, which had packed Coors Field to see whether the Rockies, who began the day tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers atop the National League West, would finish the day alone there. They did not; both teams won, so the Rockies and Dodgers, both playoff-bound, will play a tiebreaker game for the division title Monday in Los Angeles.

In Milwaukee, Gio Gonzalez threw five scoreless innings in the most important game of the year for the Brewers, who began the day tied with the Chicago Cubs for first in the National League Central. In Chicago, Matt Adams and the St. Louis Cardinals tried to knock off Daniel Murphy and the Cubs and send them to a tiebreaker, or even the wild-card game.

But the Nationals were insulated from the hype, their minds wandering through statistics and mistakes, to flights home and vacations on the horizon, detached from Sunday’s outcomes. Their plans, long since set in stone, were not subject to change.

Victor Robles hit the first pitch of a chilly afternoon up the middle. Two pitches later, the Rockies picked him off. These are the things the Nationals did too often this season, the unnecessary little mistakes that feel small until they happen again and again. Those are the little things that everyone in that clubhouse agreed undid the Nationals this year, the things that will require conscious correction in spring training. For years, those things have fallen by the wayside here. This season changed everyone’s perspective.

“I think that we have to work on the small aspects of the game, the attention to detail, really embracing and realizing every 90 feet is important, every base is crucial,” Rizzo said. “And it’s really shown us and our fan base and our ownership group and our front office that winning in the big leagues isn’t easy. It’s a difficult task. We’ve made it look pretty easy the last seven years.”

For the seventh straight season, the Nationals finished the season with a winning record. And they did not play a season entirely devoid of positives. Trea Turner became the first National to play in all 162 games since Ryan Zimmerman in 2007, and he led the majors with 43 stolen bases. Juan Soto became the most prolific offensive teenager since Harper, second only to Tony Conigliaro for home runs by a teenager in a season with 22.

Anthony Rendon compiled the best season of his career, which is saying something. He hit .309 with 24 homers and 92 RBI despite missing three weeks with a broken toe. Max Scherzer became the sixth pitcher in 25 years to strike out 300 batters. Harper recovered with a monstrous second half to collect the first 100-RBI season of his career, just in time for free agency. And yet, as 53 players shuttled in and out of the clubhouse amid injuries, trades and other circumstances, they didn’t win enough. Injures didn’t help, but the details doomed them.

A few examples: The Nationals finished second in the NL with 69 homers allowed on two-strike pitches. They led the majors by surrendering 15 homers on 0-2 counts. When they are ahead 0-2, good pitchers bury their pitches. When they have two strikes in more hitter-friendly counts, good pitchers pitch to minimize damage. After he allowed a two-run homer to Nolan Arenado in the first inning Sunday, Erick Fedde surrendered an 0-2 single to counterpart Tyler Anderson in the third. A batter later, Charlie Blackmon homered to make it 4-0.

Fedde lasted four innings and finished with a 5.54 ERA. He and many other young pitchers received on-the-job training this year. It did not always go well, and Austin Voth and Kyle McGowin allowed the Rockies to pile on runs late, bludgeoning the Nationals to the very end of a season that was over long before this.

The Nationals have been looking forward for weeks, and by the time Sunday’s game ended, they were well into the admitting-we-have-a-problem stage – a stage they have not confronted often of late, for better or worse.

“I think we’ve all learned a lot about what it takes to really, really win and become a world champion,” Martinez said. “This was a lesson learned.”

Nationals change plans, won't start Max Scherzer against Rockies even though NL West is up for grabs

Nationals change plans, won't start Max Scherzer against Rockies even though NL West is up for grabs

Saturday did not go well for the Colorado Rockies. They were blown out at home by the Nationals (WAS 12, COL 2), and because the Dodgers beat the Giants (LA 10, SF 6) earlier in the day, the Rockies and Dodgers enter the final day of the regular tied atop the NL West.

Because that wasn’t bad enough, earlier in the day the Rockies heard the Nationals would start Max Scherzer on Sunday if they had a chance to ruin Colorado’s division title hopes. The Rockies need a win and a Dodgers loss Sunday to clinch the NL West. They’d have to beat Scherzer to do it.

The Rockies have caught a break though. Following Saturday’s game, Nationals manager Dave Martinez announced Scherzer would not start Sunday even though the game is meaningful for the Rockies. Mark Zuckerman of MASN Sports has the details:

“I really feel Max did his job,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He threw 220 innings. And if anybody knows Max, he gives it all he’s got every time he goes out. I want to make sure that he finished up the way he did, has a healthy winter and comes back ready for 2019. I understand integrity of the game, but both (the Dodgers and Rockies) are in it. I got to take care of my player, Max.”

“I was mentally ready to pitch, but I completely understand where Rizzo was coming from with this decision,” the 34-year-old said. “I said from the beginning that this was his call, because of the nature of the beast that we’re playing for nothing. So at the end of the day, he felt this was the best thing to do for the Washington Nationals, and that’s all there really is to say.”

Ultimately, the Nationals don’t owe the Dodgers anything. They’re not obligated to start Scherzer or even put their best foot forward Sunday. The Nationals have to do what’s best for the Nationals, and having Scherzer start a meaningless game (for the Nats) on the final day of the regular season is unwise. They have to plan for 2019 and beyond. It’s an unnecessary risk.

Scherzer’s Cy Young case is already as strong as it’s going to get. He reached 300 strikeouts in his last start and he’d have to throw 107 2/3 scoreless innings (!) to catch Jacob deGrom for the ERA title. The Cy Young isn’t on the line, and besides, pitching in Coors Field is no way to strengthen a Cy Young case.

Rookie right-hander Erick Fedde will start Sunday’s season finale in Scherzer’s place. Fedde has a 5.24 ERA with 43 strikeouts in 10 starts and 46 1/3 innings this season. A more favorable matchup than Scherzer? Absolutely. But that hardly guarantees the Rockies a win.

Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman: Sits again Saturday

Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman: Sits again Saturday

Zimmerman (back) remains on the bench for Saturday’s game against the Rockies.

Zimmerman sits for the second straight game while battling a back issue. With just one game remaining and the Nationals out of the playoffs, he could be done for the year. Mark Reynolds will start at first base in his absence.

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