Year round interleague play is upon us. In just the third series of the season the White Sox will travel to Nationals Park to take on the upstart Nationals. The Nationals are in it to win it, they went out and added Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano to a pitching staff that already features one of the most talked about pitchers in the league, Stephen Strasburg. They’ve got just as much young promise on the offensive end with Bryce Harper leading a lineup that includes Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. As the Sox head to our nation’s capital, I exchanged a few questions with Andrew Flax of Washington National’s site District on Deck.
Matt Adams: The Nationals are picked by many to win not only the NL East but to also represent the league in the World Series which is kind of a new spot for them. How are fans adjusting to their new team identity as “winners”?
Andrew Flax: Such high expectations are definitely something Washington fans in general are pretty unfamiliar with. The fans have adopted it pretty well, however. The team is better supported than ever, as evidenced by the fact that Opening Day was the second-most attended game in stadium history. There’s been a huge shift in the mindset of the fans too, from cynically mocking every “Natinals” folly and never expecting to win, to really taking the team seriously and expecting a win every game. It’s a seismic shift, but absolutely for the better.
MA: You’ve got two of the most exciting young players in all of baseball right there to grow up and develop before your eyes. What are the ceilings for Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg? Or are we already seeing what we’re going to get?
AF: Harper and Strasburg are both nowhere near their ceilings yet. Harper had a great rookie year in 2012, but he has a lot of room to grow. He has 40-50 homer power, and will only improve as he learns to play more like a veteran and less like a rookie. For example, he needs to learn to hit cutoff men, as opposed to simply trying to gun down every runner with his cannon arm. He will also improve his batting average from last season, and should end up as a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate. For Strasburg, his stuff is nearly as good as it will ever be, but he needs to improve, as he himself has said, on working deeper into games. A lot of that can be attributed to the kid gloves the Nationals are handling him with in his extended Tommy John surgery recovery, but he has expressed a desire to become a workhorse like Justin Verlander, and I think that’s a reasonable ceiling for him if he can stay healthy.
MA: Davey Johnson is an interesting guy, but I don’t think there are a lot of people outside of the DC area, or perhaps some of the more experienced baseball fans from Queens, that know much about him. What can you share about your skipper?
AF: Something a lot of people don’t know about Davey is that he’s a very mathematical and analytical guy. As a 70-year-old manager, some might expect him to be very traditional and shun stats and sabermetrics, but he’s just the opposite. He majored in mathematics at Trinity University, relies heavily on computer simulations, and was one of the first pioneers of sabermetrics in baseball in the 1960s. While playing for the Orioles, he once created a lineup optimization program and showed it to manager Earl Weaver, who promptly threw it in the trash.
MA: After the series with the Nationals, the White Sox are going up against the rest of the National League East as well for interleague series’ throughout the year. Which teams are you keeping the closest eye on as far as competing with the Nationals for the division title?
AF: The Nationals’ biggest division competition absolutely has to be Atlanta. We only took the division by four games over them last year, and they improved in the offseason. They lost Chipper Jones, who’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but they have an incredible amount of power with the Upton brothers. Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, and Andrelton Simmons are only getting better as they get older, and the rotation has some promising young players too, like Kris Medlen, whose team won 23 of his starts in a row, and Brandon Beachy, who led the NL in ERA before needing Tommy John surgery last season. The Phillies could be a threat on paper, but with Roy Halladay‘s ineffectiveness in Spring Training and his first start, and the team’s general early struggles, they’re a distant second behind Atlanta unless something major changes.
Be sure to check out the other end of the conversation at District on Deck!