As the Expos beat reporter for the Montreal Gazette, Stephanie Myles gained a great amount of insight about the team. She talked to us at Capitol Dugout this week about the Nationals.
Brian Schneider is a young catcher who “is still learning about handling pitchers” according to Myles. He got too much experience last year, she said. In catching over 130 games, he “started to wear down. Hopefully, they will have more confidence in his backup.
His strength that led to him throwing out some 46% of opposing base runners attempting to steal last year? “He’s very accurate, although he doesn’t have a gun for an arm. He puts the ball right where it needs to be.” Myles added that we shouldn’t ignore the other part of the equation when it comes to nailing potential base thieves: “It was a cooperative effort. The pitching staff did a very good job of holding runners on. It’s something that the work on a lot and they were very effective at it.”
Despite his relative lack of experience, Schneider has served as the team’s player rep for the past couple of seasons. “Nobody ever wants that job,” said Myles, “but on this team it was worse. He had to deal with the moving issue, with the playing in Puerto Rico issue, having to play there anyway after (the team) had voted no.”
That side job and his position on the field have helped him become one of the team’s leaders. Although Myles doesn’t think that leadership in the traditional sense is as critical in baseball as it used to be—“The way modern baseball is, there really isn’t the guy who’s going to stand up in the clubhouse and give the guys a bunch of crap when they’re not playing well”—she thinks that Schneider and Livan Hernandez fill the bill on this ball club.
“As Livan has grown into a veteran player, he takes his role more seriously. He’s one of the smarter players on the team. When the club started to acquire some more Latinos, especially pitchers, he stepped up and was great at taking them under his wing.”
The number one thing that has been gathered from this perspective after talking to people who have followed the Expos closely over the past few years is that Livan will be something special to watch. “He’s a great athlete,” said Myles.
About the optimism expressed about the health of the likes of Tony Armas, Zach Day, and others who spent so much of 2004 on the disabled list, Myles cautioned fans that they should be, well, cautious. “Last spring it seemed like everyone was fine at this point, too, But you have to realize that they haven’t done a thing yet.” Most baseball injuries either occur or recur because of the cumulative effect of playing inning after inning, day after day, week after week.
Among the players on the injury watch is second baseman Vidro. According to Myles, the type of knee surgery he had—if you’re squeamish skip to the next paragraph—involved cutting the patellar tendon in half and then scraping away some junk that has developed in the knee.
“Fernando Tatis (former Expos third baseman) had that surgery and essentially was done. He tried to come back afterwards, but couldn’t. Mark McGwire has the same surgery and it pretty much ended his career.”
This has to be of concern when you’re talking about a player who just signed a four-year, $30 million contract extension last May. Vidro was widely praised then for giving the Expos, the only major-league team he’s played for in his seven-year career, a “hometown discount”. Myles suspects that his signing the extension may have been driven in part by his loyalty to the team, but also in part to the fact that he knew he would need to have this particularly invasive surgery to treat the tendonitis in his knee.
Vidro is among about a half a dozen players whose positions in the field and in the batting order are pretty well set—he’ll play second and bat third. Terrmel Sledge does not enjoy similar security but he’s still hoping for a spot in the everyday lineup. His “problem”, in Myles’ view, is that he does many things pretty well but nothing exceptionally well.
“He hits the ball well but has some weaknesses at the plate. He has some power but not a lot. He’s a good outfielder but not a great one and he has some speed but he’s not much of a stolen base threat.” That his manager has confidence in him, according to Myles, will go a long ways towards his success.
Overall, Myles thinks, the team will be very good defensively if Brad Wilkerson plays every day in left field, Vidro’s knee is OK, Endy Chavez is in center and Nick Johnson is at first, a lot of “if’s” she admits. Should this work out, “The pitchers can be confident to let the hitters hit the ball, knowing it'll be caught, and therefore can be more aggressive.”
When asked about potential first-time All-Stars on the team, Myles said that Wilkerson was a possibility “if he plays left field every day” as was Tony Armas “if he’s healthy”.
It’s likely that all of the “if’s” and “maybe’s” surrounding this team have prompted Myles say, “I am done in the prognostication business.” Still, she thinks that while the division is tough, the other teams “will have injuries and underachievers too.” Four out of the five teams in the division will finish at over .500, Myles said.
“I just won’t tell you which ones.”