Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 24, 2011

It’s Hope Versus Reality As A New Season Awaits

With one week left before Opening Day, it’s the time of year when every team’s early spring fantasies start to bump up against reality. Hopes are still high and optimism is prevalent; but without exception in every camp there is also something, or in more dire circumstances some things, sowing seeds of doubt and concern.

The most frequent element threatening to make a GM’s best-laid plans gang aft agley is a Spring Training injury. Injuries are never welcome, but when they strike a key player before a single meaningful game has even been played they can be especially demoralizing.

In Scottsdale, the defending champions Giants are contemplating putting their star closer and resident madman Brian Wilson on the disabled list to start the season due to a left oblique strain. Wilson’s Wednesday bullpen session was cut short after he felt discomfort despite sitting out six days. To add to San Francisco’s concern, right fielder Cody Ross left Wednesday’s game with a strained right calf muscle.

Meanwhile in Florida the Phillies, the team most pick to replace the Giants atop the National League, are exhaling again after x-rays of right hander Roy Oswalt’s neck came back negative. Oswalt was struck and knocked to the ground by a line drive off the bat of the Ray’s Manny Ramirez. The Phillies already expect All-Star second baseman Chase Utley to start the season on the DL because of tendinitis in his right knee.

A short drive from the Phillies’ spring home in Clearwater is George Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, where the Yankees are preparing to break camp and head north to their home opener in the Bronx next Thursday. But they face the prospect of doing so without center fielder Curtis Granderson, who strained an oblique during batting practice on Tuesday. Granderson was the fourth Yankee to suffer an essentially identical type of muscle strain this spring, causing management to undertake a review of the team’s conditioning program.

Of course it’s not just injuries that can be cause for alarm. While every fan knows better than to put much stock in the numbers that either individual players or entire teams put up during the Grapefruit and Cactus League seasons, sometimes particularly bad performances are hard to ignore. Which is why Red Sox Nation is a bit antsy about Jonathan Papelbon. Entering the final season of his contract, Boston’s closer is coming off a down year in which his eight blown saves matched his total from the two previous seasons combined. So far this spring his ERA is a bloated 12.60.

If fans of the teams that constitute the Great Game’s royalty can find something to worry about, imagine the issues facing the faithful of squads usually at the other end of the standings. Which brings us to Florida’s Space Coast and Viera, the Spring Training home of the Washington Nationals. Since playing before large crowds and finishing at .500 in their first year in the D.C., the Nats have averaged more than 95 losses over the last five seasons. They lost 102 games in 2008 and 103 in 2009, while attendance at their beautiful new ballpark within sight of the Capitol Building first shrank, and then shriveled.

But lately there have been signs that owner Ted Lerner might finally be learning that the necessary sequence in pro sports is to first spend the money to put a quality product on the field, which is then followed by fans paying to watch and not the other way around. First Lerner agreed to give 2009 overall #1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg a record $15.1 million. The phenom raced through the Nats minor league system and made his major league debut last June, striking out a team record 14 in 7 innings. Every Strasburg turn through the rotation was an event until he went down with a torn elbow ligament in August. Despite that setback Washington finished the season with 93 losses; by itself an awful number but in reality a healthy ten game improvement over 2009.

Meanwhile the team inked 2010 overall #1 draft pick Bryce Harper to a five-year deal worth nearly $10 million last August. They then made the first big splash of the off-season, signing Phillies’ free-agent outfielder Jayson Werth to a 7-year contract worth $126 million. The Nationals almost certainly overpaid for Werth’s services, but they tacitly acknowledged that’s what a team with a pattern of losing 100 or more games has to do to attract top talent.

So it was that little more than a month ago Nats’ fans were thrilled to see Werth wearing the Curly-W as Spring Training opened. When Strasburg appeared and began tossing a baseball again for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery, they could dream of a glorious future. And when Harper faced major league pitching and batted .389 in early games fans could almost believe it when the 18-year old prodigy said he intended to break camp with the big club.

Such a short time later and reality intrudes. Strasburg has been placed on the 60-day disabled list; a formality to free up roster space, since if he pitches at all in 2011 it won’t be until September. GM Mike Rizzo certainly never had any intention of allowing the promising but raw talent that is Bryce Harper to begin his first full pro season at the major league level. Harper was optioned to the Nats minor league camp on March 12th and will begin the year at Hagerstown. Whether he will do so when the Single-A Suns begin their season on April 7th is uncertain, since Harper sprained his left ankle running out a hit during an intra-squad game on Monday.

While Nats fans wait for the return of Strasburg and the maturing of Harper, their hopes for the present are best kept in check. At bat and in the field the team should be a bit better than last year. Werth is certainly a plus with both the bat and glove. New first baseman Adam LaRoche won’t match the departed Adam Dunn’s 38 homers, but if he can replicate his 25 HR, 100 RBI numbers from his 2010 season with the Diamondbacks that will be fine, because he is a definite upgrade defensively. At the other corner, Ryan Zimmerman has 58 homers and 191 runs batted in over the last two seasons. In 2010 his average topped .300 for the first time. And he’s only 26.

But on the mound it’s another story. The five pitchers who appear likely to comprise the Nats’ starting rotation have a combined ERA this spring of 4.40. That’s a pretty representative number. Except for 24-year old Jordan Zimmermann, the rest have been around long enough to have track records, and none has a career ERA under 4.00. The bullpen is not appreciably better. Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, two young right handers who might one day form the back end of the Nats’ ‘pen, both have been less than impressive in camp.

The best evidence of Washington’s pitching concerns was Wednesday’s announcement that they had signed former Met Oliver Perez to a Minor League contract. Over the past two seasons Perez so lost his ability to find home plate that the Mets chose to part company with him even though they remain on the hook for his $12 million salary in this, the final year of his current contract.

So it is that Spring Training comes to its annual close. For all thirty teams, hope and reality inconveniently collide. Going into tonight’s game against the Tigers, Washington’s Grapefruit League record was an even 12-12. If they can possibly match that over the course of the longest season in sport, it will be significant progress. But the reality is that it might not feel like that to fans, and in any event doing so will be extremely difficult.

And yet tonight the young Zimmermann scattered five hits over as many scoreless innings and struck out six to lower his spring ERA to 2.70. The spark that was lit but a month ago in the heart of the fan says reality be damned; what if, just imagine what if?

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