March 24, 2023 [LINK / comment]
Japan wins the World Baseball Classic
After a dramatic comeback win over Mexico, Japan edged the USA team 3-2 to win its third World Baseball Classic championship title on Tuesday. The final game was a tense, very close contest all the way through, with two former Washington Nationals players -- Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber -- hitting solo home runs. It was Turner's fifth homer of this year's WBC, and he almost carried the American team to a championship single-handedly. It ended on a fitting note when Shohei Ohtani struck out fellow L.A. Angels player Mike Trout in the top of the ninth inning. Attendance at LoanDepot Park in Miami was a very impressive 36,098 -- far more than the Marlins draw to their home games other than Opening Day.
Indeed, the 2023 WBC overall set new records for attendance (over one million altogether, nearly 25,000 per game on average), as enthusiasm soared. Earlier rounds were played at the Tokyo Dome, Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium in Tapei, Taiwan (formally referred to as "Chinese Taipei" to appease Red China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province), and Chase Field in Phoenix. This year's WBC expanded to 20 national teams grouped into four "pools" (A, B, C, D), including some teams (e.g., China, Czech Republic, and Israel) that were clearly just not up to competitive standards. Maybe next time?
Japan had won the first two WBCs (in 2006 and 2009), while the Dominican Republic won in 2013 and the USA won in 2017. Oddly, the USA only made it as far as the semi-finals one other time, in 2009. The covid-19 pandemic forced a cancellation of the event in 2021. The next one will presumably be held three years from now, in 2026.
But it easily could have been Mexico rather than Japan in the final game. Mexico advanced to the WBC semi-final game (played on Monday) for the first time, and thanks to a two-run rally in the top of the eighth was leading Japan 5-4 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. That's when Shohei Ohtani hit a leadoff double, and before you knew it two runs scored on a double by Munetaka Murakami to end the game in dramatic fashion. in the came within a hair's breadth of reaching the final matchup. In the quarter-final game, played last Friday (March 17), Mexico scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to beat Puerto Rico, 5-4. In the other semi-final game, which was played on Sunday, the USA easily defeated Cuba 14-2, with Trea Turner hitting two home runs.
Mexico's big success was due in part to the slugging performance of a certain 30-year old "rookie" player for the Washington Nationals: Joey Meneses. In Mexico's 11-5 victory over the USA on March 12 (Pool C) he hit two home runs and batted in five runs! While he was being interviewed after that game, one of his team mates put a huge Mexican sombrero on his head. In the WBC overall, Meneses went 10 for 27 at the plate, a batting average of .370!
Play ball: Spring training is almost over!
Where does the time go? Believe it or not, only six days remain until Opening Day: Friday, March 30. The pitchers and catchers reported to spring training camps in mid-February, followed by the rest of the players a few days later. The first practice games of the year were played on Saturday, February 25. The Washington Nationals got off to a good start one month ago by winning their first two spring training games of the year.
The results of spring training games mean next to nothing, but it is nevertheless worth noting that (excluding the March 15 rained-out game) the Washington Nationals won four games in a row last week! They continued to play well this week, and they briefly had a very respectable 12 - 9 win-loss record. But on Thursday against the Houston Astros, Kyle Finnegan gave up four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, blowing the lead and losing the game. In today's game the Nats were within one run of the Cardinals going into the top of the ninth inning, and then Willy Peralta gave up five runs, all but guaranteeing defeat. And so, heading into the last weekend of spring training, the Nats are barely clinging to a winning record, 12 - 11. The Cardinals have the best record (15 - 6) in the Grapefruit League, which is no surprise given their perennial strong roster, while the other Missouri team -- the K.C. Royals -- are atop the Cactus League with an 18 - 11 record.
At 1:00 next Friday, the Nationals will take the field at Nationals Park, hosting the Atlanta Braves to begin the 2023 regular season. The Braves' ace Max Fried will face the Nats' default top starting pitcher, Patrick Corbin. It seems like a very uneven matchup. At the same time, the Yankees will host the San Francisco Giants in New York, and as the day progresses, 13 other MLB games will be played, including two other interleague games. The increase in the number of interleague games in this year's schedule irks me; it seems that the Comissioner Manfred and other MLB honchos don't seem to care much about the historical identity of the American and National Leagues.
Nats' roster takes shape
The Nationals made only two or three significant roster moves during the off-season: In December former Mets pitcher Trevor Williams signed a two-year contract worth $13 million, and former Detroit Tiger third baseman Jeimer Candelario signed a one-year contract worth $5 million. (He was born in New York City but decided to play for the Dominican Republic team in the World Baseball Classic.) In both cases they had played for several years with those respective teams, and then declared free agency after the 2022 season was over. Another former Met free agent, Dominic Smith, will be the usual first baseman, playing on a one-year, $1 million contract. Those represent modest improvements, nothing more. Earlier this month the Nats' first-string catcher Keibert Ruiz signed an eight-year contract worth $50 million. That was a good indication that at least the Nats front office is planning for the long term.
As noted nearly two months ago, the Nats are entering this year with the lowest expectations since 2008 or 2009. Other than Joey Meneses, there are no real sluggers on the team, so it is unlikely that they will be high scorers this year. The pitching staff is a "work in progress," with a few decent starters and a bullpen that would at least appear to be more dependable than in most recent years.
Among the returning position players, center fielder Victor Robles remains an enigma. His motivation is often questioned, and the fact that the arbitration settlement did not work out in his favor adds to the doubts. All other arbitration-eligible Nats players reached agreements with the front office. Lane Thomas and either Alex Call, Corey Dickerson, or Joey Meneses will fill the remaining outfield spots. Former Padre C.J. Abrams (shortstop) and Luis Garcia (second base) both show great future potential at the plate, but much improvement on defense is essential for the team to do well this year.
One of the expected members of the Nats' 2023 pitching rotation, Cade Cavalli, had to leave the game after tweaking his elbow last week. After being examined, he underwent Tommy John surgery, which means he will miss all of the 2023 season. For the moment it appears that Chad Kuhl will replace him on the mound. Patrick Corbin had a couple bad days in spring training, but seems to have improved recently. That's good news after his awful performance in 2022. Josiah Gray and Trevor Williams are expected to do well on the mound this year, whereas Mackenzie Gore (obtained from the Padres in the trade for Juan Soto and Josh Bell last August) remains a question mark. Frankly, I have no idea who the closing pitcher will be. As for the once-great Stephen Strasburg, he could barely make it through one day of spring training before the pain in his side came back, and it appears that his career is very likely over. In his case, thoracic outlet surgery either did very little good, or it may have made things worse. Here is the tentative pitching rotation:
- Patrick Corbin (6.31)
- Josiah Gray (5.02)
- Trevor Williams * (3.21)
- Mackenzie Gore (4.50)
- Chad Kuhl * (???)
* = new player this year
Silver Slugger nostalgia
One measure of how far the Nationals have fallen over the past two years is in the number of their former players who won the Silver Slugger award last year: Trea Turner (SS, LAD), Kyle Schwarber (OF, PHI), Juan Soto (OF, SD), and Josh Bell (DH, SD). That's four out of the ten positions, including desginated hitter and utility player.
Looking back (in horror) at 2022
The Nationals finished the 2022 season with their worst-ever win-loss percentage, a measley .340. (Their second-worst year was 2009, during which they were below .300 before for several weeks improving in late July and finishing with a .364 win-loss percentage.) In looking at the year as a whole, it is striking how they consistently hovered around the .350 mark for much of the season. Faint hopes arose in late May, and then as the likelihood of Juan Soto being traded away become stronger in July, the grim reality was reflected in a dismal string of losses. The graph below can be compared to earlier years on the updated Washington Nationals page, which also includes roster and contract information.