Talking With The Enemy: Braves at Nationals

I recently exchanged questions with blogger Patrick Reddington who manages the Washington Nationals' SBN blog Federal Baseball. Here are 5 questions I asked him:

Q:  The Nationals are coming into the series with a record of 13-12 and have been one of the biggest surprises of the early season. What has gone well for the Nats early in the 2010 season?

A:  I don't think anyone thought Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez would be hitting .400 through his first 19 games, considering he was signed to share time behind the plate with Jesus Flores, whose recovery from surgery has taken longer than expected. Pudge has unexpectedly ended up as the Nationals' (just about) everyday starter. I'd also guess that Livan Hernandez winning three of his first four starts while anchoring the starting rotation is a surprise to some. Adam Dunn's not hitting much, but when he does he doubles or goes deep and the rest of the time he's walking and even playing respectable defense at first to compensate for his lack of production. But the biggest improvement is in the Nats' bullpen where Matt Capps has converted 10 of 10 save opportunities with the help of set-up man Tyler Clippard and some at-times exceptional defense from Willie Harris and Nyjer Morgan. Pitching and defense to put it simply, that's what's gone well.

Q:  The Braves will face Livan Hernandez on Tuesday and he's 3-1 with an ERA of 0.87. What in the world is he doing to be so successful?

A:  My own opinion is that a proud veteran Livan Hernandez found himself unemployed long after Spring Training had started this year and has used what he sees as disrespect to motivate himself to show the baseball world, the Nats included, that they were wrong to think he was done. From all reports, Pudge Rodriguez and Livan have clicked too, in terms of pitch calling and their approach to retiring batters, with Livan using the same slow stuff, location and an ability to avoid the barrels of opponents' bats to limit solid contact and help him strand the majority of runners he's allowed on.

Q:  For the next 5 years, take your pick: Tommy Hanson and Jason Heyward or Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman. Why?

A:  I've said a couple times that if Stephen Strasburg ends up as good as Tommy Hanson has been so far for Atlanta the Nationals will be lucky. The fact that a no.1 overall pick will have to overachieve to match what Hanson, a 25th Round pick in 2005 has done so far in his career in Atlanta's organization tells you all you need to know about the random results the First-Year player draft can produce. With Ryan Zimmerman you have a Gold Glove-winning power hitting third baseman vs Jason Heyward, who looks now like he could be a dominant power-hitting outfielder for years to come. I'll take my chances with Strasburg and Zimmerman, though the Hanson/Heyward tandem has youth on their side. Zimmerman's already firmly established as a franchise player, and one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball and Strasburg's considered by scouts everywhere to be the best pitching prospect in a generation. You can't go wrong either way though...

Q:  Most Atlanta fans know about Zimmerman and Adam Dunn. Besides these 2 guys, who has hit well for the Nats this season?

A:  Pudge, as mentioned above. Josh Willingham has slowed some recently, but he carried the Nats for a stretch where Zimmerman was out and Adam Dunn wasn't hitting. Ian Desmond has been getting on and providing some of the power (not to mention defense) that the Nationals weren't getting out of Cristian Guzman, who lost the starting job at short to the young infielder. But it's really Pudge's unexpected production at the plate that's been the biggest change for the Nats, who got little or no offense out of catchers Wil Nieves and Josh Bard last year when hard-hitting Jesus Flores went down with injury. The two-year deal the Nationals gave Pudge is looking prescient right now...

Q:  What would be considered a success for the Nationals this season? 70 wins? 81? A non-last place finish?

A:  From the start I've said 70-72 wins, or an 11-13 game improvement over last year's 59-103 record would be a reasonable goal. An improvement to a .500 record, or a twenty-two game jump is really a big leap forward, and more than you'd expect from most teams from year to year. The Nationals, however, have been quick to point out that this isn't the same team that lost 100+ games in each of the last two seasons, so judging them on the win totals they've posted in those campaigns doesn't necessarily make sense. I think, thanks to Stan Kasten's constant references to what the Braves were able to do between 1988 and 1991, some fans of the Nationals are waiting for a sudden, dramatic jump in the standings, but with the sort of wholesale rebuilding Washington's done, I'd expect a gradual improvement and maybe Wild Card contention in the next year or two, as opposed to a World Series appearance in the next few seasons.

A big thanks to Patrick Reddington for his great answers to these questions.

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