June 11, 2006

King of the Hill

The Washington Nationals have a problem. This is not in and of itself an unusual state of affairs. But for once, the club has a good problem, an embarrassment of riches (as opposed to the embarrassment of having 4 back-up first basemen and no back-up catcher.) The Nats problem is fifth starter Shawn Hill.

Hill pitched a gem today, a 7 inning, 2 hit shutout performance against one of the better lineups in the National League. After 3 starts he's sporting a 1.80 ERA and a WHIP of 1.05. And he's averaging more than 6 innings per start, so the bullpen usually gets a break when he's pitching. Yes, he still walks too many guys (7 in 20 innings) and he's not a dominating strikeout pitcher, but as of this afternoon, right-handed batters are hitting .100 off him. That's right, 1 for 10. In spite of all this Shawn is first in line for a demotion if staff ace John Patterson comes off the DL at the end of the week as anticipated.

On the surface this seems blatantly unfair. Hill has done everything that you could ask of a young pitcher. He has taken the ball every 5th day and pitched effectively. He's more than made up for the loss of Zach Day. Surely the Nats could reward him by keeping him around and letting him pitch out of the bullpen in long relief. But I'd much rather see him starting in New Orleans than coming out of the pen in Washington.

If this team is serious about building for the long haul guys like Hill ought to be groomed as starters. We already have 3 effective young relievers in Cordero, Majewski and Bray. Jon Rauch has been good in long relief when used properly, and 6th relievers like Saul Rivera are a dime a dozen (though Saul has been a pleasant surprise in limited action.) I don't have anything nice to say about Mike Stanton, so I won't say anything at all. But Shawn Hill would add very little to the bullpen right now.

The only starting pitchers who are reasonably assured of being with the Nats in 2007 are Livan, J-Patt and "Irish Mike" O'Connor. Ortiz, Armas, Lawrence, Astacio, Drese and Day are all potential free agents, and Hill is younger and cheaper than the lot of them. Send him down to New Orleans or Harrisburg, let him start, stretch him out, have him focus on getting back the command to go with his velocity. If Livan, Armas or Ortiz get traded in July bring Shawn back to DC. Otherwise, be sure he knows he's in the mix for a starting spot next spring, when he'll be all of 26 years old and two full years removed from Tommy John surgery.

It's a shame to have a major league-ready hurler languishing in the minors waiting for a callup, but it sure beats not having one to call up.

Chipwiches for All!

Sunday was also the Nationals first-ever "Picnic at the Park," an on-field meet & greet event for Nats season ticket holders and anyone else cagey enough to snag an invitation. Watson and I attended, along with Watson's S.O. (Dave was on the road to Boston for a Microsoft conference. Once again, Dave chose poorly, though rumor has it he will get to wander the field at Fenway, so that's alright.)

Several other Nats bloggers, including social butterfly MissChatter were in the house, though we didn't cross paths. Watson took a ton of pictures, which will be posted here in the days, weeks and months to come. I shook hands with Frank Robinson, who isn't nearly as crusty in person. Nick Johnson autographed a hat for us in the player's parking lot, where he stood and signed for nearly 2o minutes, making him the inaugural member of the Nats Triple Play "Good Guy Hall of Fame." Nice to know he's locked up to a long-term deal.

Notable no-shows included Alfonso Soriano, who cruised out of the parking lot just as fans were making their way to the field. Certainly didn't seem like a guy anxious to endear himself to his newest fans.


Chris Needham said...

I was thinking about the Hill conundrum, too. I think you dismiss the bullpen too easily. Dump Saul, and give that slot to Hill. Rauch is the only reliever who's capable of going multiple innings and (if his arm isn't hurt, which I think it might be) he's best in late-inning situations.

Hill could come in in the fourth when Armas has thrown his 120 pitches and serve as a bridge for 3-4 innings.

The picnic was great, even if I couldn't figure out where all the goodies were. Silly me, who sits in the shade, didn't think to bring sunscreen. Ouch!

Nate said...

I think Hill probably would be an upgrade to the bullpen, but I worry about how it would affect his development, particularly since he's still rehabbing that arm injury.