Rich Tandler's Nationals blog.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Skip The Poetic Waxing, It's Time to Play!

Ahhh, spring. The warm breeze, the emerald green grass surrounding the cocoa-brown dirt of the diamond, the. . .

The heck with it. No poet am I. It’s time to Play Ball!

The Nationals take the field for the first time today in a game that doesn’t count and will soon be forgotten. But, for today, it’s baseball played by a team that calls Washington home and that’s all that matters.

All eight of the projected regulars will start and get one or two at bats and pitcher Tony Armas will go the first two innings.

For a team that lost 94 games last year, the lineup is surprisingly set with the only battle being Endy Chavez against, well, Endy Chavez. Yesterday in an interview on a Washington area radio station, general Manager Jim Bowden called Chavez out.
His numbers are not good enough to win at this level. When someone’s done something two years, you don’t give him a free ride the third. . .He knows he has to adjust. . .We’re not going to put up with it, he has to change.

A few days ago in the Washington Post beat writer Barry “I’d like to buy a vowel, Alex” Svlurga went into more detail as to exactly what Chavez needs to improve upon.
Last year, he couldn't hold onto the leadoff spot -- one he acquiesced to Wilkerson -- because he walked just 30 times in 547 plate appearances, a horrific rate. He hit .277 and stole 32 bases, but it hardly mattered, because his on-base percentage was just .318, including an unforgivable .291 when batting first. The result: He scored just 65 runs. This year, the goal has been clearly stated. The Nationals want Chavez to score 100 times. Doesn't matter how. Just think that way. Make it happen.

It seems that hitting coach Tom McGraw likes to preach old-school techniques when it comes to batting. Perhaps it would help if he made a challenge that a hitting coach made to a hitter with problems taking pitches like Chavez does. It was many years ago and I can’t remember the names of the player or coach, but it doesn’t matter.

The batter would hack at anything within the same zip code as the strike zone, as does Chavez. The coach made a deal with the player. Every time the player swung and missed at a pitch, he would have to pay the coach $10 and every time the player took a strike the coach would pay the ten spot back to the player. They would settle up weekly and it served as an incentive to the player to be more selective.

Today, of course, these guys are playing for more than $14,000 a year so the stakes would have to be increased to $100 or so. If every time that Endy swings and misses there is somewhere in the back of his mind that he just cost himself $100 he just might be inclined to take a few more pitches. Threats to his job and moving him down in the order don’t seem to have served as sufficient incentive to get Chavez to be more patient. Maybe a little pocket money is the carrot that will do the trick. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

Last week, when told he needed to work on getting on base more he took bunting practice. No, Endy, we’re not looking for a half dozen more bunt hits, although it would behoove you to get out of the box more quickly so that you can take advantage of your speed and beat out a few more infield hits. No, you need to draw more walks, a lot more, like 50 more. Pitchers need to know that they have to do better than throw in the same neighborhood as the plate is in to get you out. Make them work.

The problem is that the threats to Chavez’ job security have a somewhat hollow ring to them. The alternatives are not quite as unattractive as having an out-making maniac at the top of the lineup, but they’re not very good, either. The current Plan B is to have Brad Wilkerson, a great defensive left fielder, move over to center, where he’s s bit better than adequate, and put Terrmel Sledge in left. Sledge isn’t a hack in the field, but he’s average at best.

In addition to the defensive problems, there is the question of the alternative to Chavez at the top of the order. Christian Guzman, who has good speed, has numbers remarkably similar to those of Chavez. Wilkerson has the requisite OBP but his power is wasted in the leadoff spot. There has been some speculation that at some point prospect J. J. Davis might get a crack at the leadoff spot, but that would be almost a desperation move.

But desperation can wait for August. Today, it’s Batter Up!

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