January 2014

Span looking to do better in ’14

By Bill Ladson
WASHINGTON — Nationals center fielder Denard Span looked more relaxed at last weekend’s NatsFest than he did a year ago. When he attended last year’s event, he appeared shy and was looking for somebody to talk to. This year was a different story.

“I walked into the room, and [I’m] comfortable with the guys and the guys have been comfortable with me as well,” Span said on Saturday. “It’s definitely a big difference. I’m looking forward to this year. I really am.” 

After a slow start in his first year in Washington, Span hit .302 after the All-Star break and had a Major League-leading 29-game hitting streak. Span hit .371 (46-for-124) with two homers and nine RBIs in that span.

During that stretch, the Nationals went 22-7, and Span raised his batting average from .258 to .282. Span’s streak was a game shy of tying the franchise record set by Ryan Zimmerman in 2009.

Span hopes his great second half can carry over into this coming season. The first order of business is to improve his baserunning. First-year manager Matt Williams told Span that he plans to be aggressive on the basepaths. That could translate into more stolen-base attempts for Span, who had 20 last year and was caught six times.

“I like that. That’s what I want to do. I haven’t been as successful in stealing bases in my career, but that is something I strive to get better at everyday,” Span said. “I will get better. I will get more than 20 this year, I’ll tell you that.”

Span, who hired a speed coach, spent the offseason watching film of some of the great basestealers in history, such as Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman. 

“I’m trying to improve anyway I can. I’m working on reaction time, little drills. Hopefully, I’m confident it will translate into the field,” Span said. 

Span could be a free agent after the season if the Nationals don’t pick up his $9 million option. But the 29-year-old indicated that he would love to stay in Washington. 

“If it’s my will to be here, this is where I want to be,” Span said. “I’m just looking forward to going out this year, building off my last month and a half of the season doing bigger and better things. I’m excited.”

              

Tyler Moore ready to fight for job

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Describing last season as a “wakeup call,” Tyler Moore is preparing for Spring Training with the mindset that he will need to win a spot on the Nationals’ 25-man roster.

Moore, who turns 27 on Thursday, burst onto the scene with a strong rookie season in 2012 but struggled throughout much of ‘13, enduring a demotion to the Minor Leagues along the way. He figures to be a part of Washington’s bench again this year but isn’t taking that job for granted.

“I’m not given anything,” Moore said on Saturday at FanFest. “I definitely have to earn what I’m gonna get. I’m just looking forward to it, looking forward to competing.”

Moore knows that playing time could be scarce this season. Adam LaRoche remains as the starter at first base, and while the right-handed Moore could get some starts there against lefties, The Washington Post reported in December that the club plans to have third baseman Ryan Zimmerman work out at first this spring. If Zimmerman takes some starts at first, and with Scott Hairston providing an extra righty bat in the outfield, Moore likely would be relegated mostly to a pinch-hitting role.

That puts the onus on Moore to produce in more limited opportunities.

“I think last year maybe I was a little too lackadaisical in spring, and that’s what I want to kind of correct this year because I know I don’t have an everyday job, obviously,” Moore said. “I have to be ready to come in and hit when I have a chance, and when I have that chance, I have to take the best advantage of it.”

As a rookie, Moore hit .263/.327/.513 in 171 plate appearances, with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs. But in ‘13, he posted a .222/.260/.347 line in 178 plate appearances, seeing his walks drop and his strikeouts rise while collecting four home runs and 21 RBIs.

Then-manager Davey Johnson talked frequently about how difficult it can be for a young player, used to being in the lineup every day in the Minors, to fill a bench role in the Majors. Although he enjoyed some success as a pinch-hitter in ‘12, Moore went 1-for-18 with 12 strikeouts last year.

“Physically, I definitely know how. Mentally it’s still a challenge,” Moore said of coming off the bench. “I think it’s still a challenge, even for the veteran guys, and it’s something you have to figure out every day and your own personal way to do things. The biggest thing for me is just to slow the game down and really just get locked in when I’m watching the game on the bench, to stay in the game and not lose myself.”

Moore spent about a month and a half at Triple-A Syracuse last summer, but when he returned, he was clicking. Making the most of some chances to start, Moore went 21-for-61 (.344) from Aug. 17 on, with four doubles, a homer and seven RBIs.

With that finish as a springboard, Moore intends to come to Nationals camp in Viera, Fla., with a sense of urgency as he looks to put 2013 behind him.

“It was tough. But at the same time, it was kind of a wakeup call, like, look, you can’t just roll in here [to the Majors] and think you’re gonna do good all the time,” Moore said. “This is a tough and humbling game, and it’s an eye-opener, makes you a little bit more hungry, because a lot of people are talking bad and you just want to prove them wrong, but at the same time you want to prove to yourself that you belong here and you want to stay.”

Nats’ Gonzalez playing catch with idol — Posada

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON — During the offseason, Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez had bullpen sessions every Tuesday at the University of Miami with former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada.

“I think Jorge is a great mentor, a childhood dream,” Gonzalez said. “I always dreamt about pitching to Jorge Posada. It’s not that often you get a guy that is more than happy to catch a bullpen for you. … He is an inspiration as an idol. He is everything you could possibly think of and more. He is a true definition of an athlete.”

Gonzalez put photos of him and Posada on Twitter and had some people believe that Posada was  possibly  making a comeback. But Gonzalez wants everybody to know that Posada will remain retired. In the meantime Gonzalez is getting sound advice from Posada, who teaching him about pitching mechanics, patients and hitting his spots in the strike zone.

“You just sit there and listen,” Gonzalez said. “How many times [do] you have a [five-] title guy coming up to you with the information he has.”

Espinosa expects to win job back, says he shouldn’t have played with broken wrist

By Andrew Simon
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — In talking to Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Matt Williams this winter, Danny Espinosa has come away with one clear message.
“Matt and Mike Rizzo both called me in the offseason and told me I’m going to get a fair opportunity to win my job back, and that’s all I can ask for,” Espinosa said on Saturday at NatsFest. “I’ve never asked for anything to be handed to me. But if I get a fair opportunity to win my job back, I feel like I can do it.”
 
Espinosa began last season the same way he spent the previous two, as the Nats’ everyday second baseman. He finished the injury-marred campaign in Triple-A Syracuse, unable to make it back to Washington to try to lift his .158 batting average, and with his future role in the organization seemingly uncertain.
 
After rookie Anthony Rendon grabbed hold of the second-base job in Espinosa’s stead last season, Espinosa will enter Spring Training with a shot to at least make the club as a utility man. But according to Espinosa, Rizzo has talked to him only about winning back his job, not filling a backup role.
 
Williams indicated Espinosa will have every opportunity to earn playing time.
 
“I just think there’s great potential there. I’m not alone,” Williams said. “There were multiple calls, as I understand it, from teams across baseball this offseason [interested in a trade]. So the Nationals aren’t the only ones who are thinking that. Now, he’s got to put it together and he’s got to play and play well and be effectively, so that’s the objective going in.”
 
Better health figures to play a significant role in Espinosa’s comeback.
 
The 26-year-old spent last offseason unable to lift weights because of a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder that he suffered late the previous year. Then, on April 14, he was hit by a pitch that caused a small fracture in his right wrist. Espinosa played through what originally was diagnosed as a bone bruise and didn’t go on the disabled list until early June. After less than two weeks off, he began a rehab assignment at Syracuse and spent the rest of the season there, hitting only .216 with a .566 OPS in 75 games.
“There was times I couldn’t pick my bat up with one hand,” said Espinosa, who believes his rotator cuff wasn’t a problem. “So my wrist was just in a bad place, and I shouldn’t have been playing on it, but I made the choice to try to play on it.
 
“I shouldn’t have been playing. But at the same time, I’m not the doctor reading the film. So I shouldn’t have been playing on a broken wrist the whole year. But you’re told you have a bruise, you have to play through a bruise. Everyone plays through bumps and bruises. I’m not gonna play through a broken wrist. If I’d have known it was a broken wrist, I wouldn’t have been playing.”
 
The Nationals and team physician, Dr. Wiemi Douoguih, were not available for comment.
 
Espinosa had worked with a trainer for the past five five years, but this offseason hired him to be his personal trainer. He’s back lifting weights, and his shoulder and wrist both feel good.
 
“I’m probably stronger at this point in my career than I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. “My trainer has done an unbelievable job, he’s put me in a really good place. I feel physically I’m at the top of where I could ever be, almost. He’s done everything for me to get back to where I was and get beyond that, strength-wise. So I feel great.”
 
But even if Espinosa comes to camp in great shape and performs well, he may have a tough time winning an everyday job. Rendon, a top prospect, capably handled a shift from third base as a rookie and showed promise with the bat, hitting .265/.329/.396 with 23 doubles and seven home runs in about 400 plate appearances.
 
A utility role could prove to be a good fit for Espinosa, even if he is aiming higher. Williams believes his defense at both second and shortstop is “Gold Glove-caliber” and that he could handle third base as well, while also having 20-home-run power.
 
Williams also said he can empathize with Espinosa, having gone from leading the league in RBIs with the Giants in 1990 to batting .227 in ‘92.
 
“Sometimes it starts going that way, and you can’t stop it, so I understand that,” Williams said. “What got me out of it, or what gets most guys out of it, is the ability to relax and play. That’s what I want him to do. We’re going to get him a lot of reps at short, a lot of reps at second base, he’s gonna get a lot of at-bats and get his stroke feeling good and if he can do all those things, then he’s got a chance to be a really integral part of the team.”

Rizzo on Balfour, backup catching situation

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON — Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo spoke to the local media at Saturday’s NatsFest and he acknowledged that the team had interest in reliever Grant Balfour, who recently signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Rays. Rizzo said Balfour wanted to be closer to home .

“We thought there was a value there. I think sleeping in his own bed and being near his home over road what we were trying to get for him,” Rizzo said.

Had the Nationals acquired Balfour, they most likely would have traded reliever Drew Storen, who said he was not bothered by the trade rumors this offseason.

“You don’t take it personally, it part of it. It’s flattering that other teams want you, too,” Storen said.  “You look at it from all angles. [The Nationals] are a great team. Obviously, I don’t want to go anywhere. It’s just part of the business. Nothing new.”

Meanwhile Rizzo hasn’t ruled out acquiring a backup catcher. The Nationals are looking for someone who can fill just in case the starter, Wilson Ramos, misses a lot of time because of injury.

“If a backup catcher fits what we are trying to do and becomes available, we would certainly look into it,” Rizzo said.

The Nationals are looking for a guy who can drive in runs. As of now, Sandy Leon,  Jhonatan Solano,  Chris Snyder  are battling for the backup  role. All were not impressive in the batter’s box last year.

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