As mentioned in an earlier post, Sunday was Blogger Day II at Nats Park, and we were there. We got there around 11AM and were quickly brought in by Nats Director of Baseball Media Relations, Mike Gadza. We all squished inside the elevator and made our way to the press room, where manager Jim Riggleman had just finished his press conference with the real media folks. With us on the way was Bob Cohn of the Washington Times. You better believe I was quoted! As Kasten later said, it was a reporter doing a story on bloggers doing a story on baseball, and someone should write a blog about it.

We were given the opportunity to ask Riggleman some questions and without getting in to trying to quote, here were a few highlights:

  • He has been really happy with the hitting, their job is to establish consistent pitching now.
  • Hitting is great, it was hard to manage against the Rangers of the last few years. But those teams never sniffed the playoffs. But now the Rangers can pitch, and they hit much less, and they’re in the thick of the hunt.
  • It is a big concern for him to balance the workload of the young pitchers while getting good pitching so the team can win.
  • Media has changed drastically. Even when he was managing in a big city like Chicago, in the late 90s, there were 2 or 3 beat writes and a radio station. Certainly no blogging, and there just wasn’t as much scrutiny.
  • They are really working hard to improve the defense, going out and practicing before games, but this was actually Acta’s idea. The problem was under Acta, it rained so much early on, that they couldn’t consistently go out there.
  • He thinks Dunn has played well at first base. They’ve got to get him to read the ball a little better off of the bat, to help his range (the hole between 1B and 2B has been an issue), but he’s made all the scoops he should and has been energized by the switch.

After Riggleman, some of the Nats PR staff came in. Jackie Coleman, Dave Lundin and Tom Davis were kind enough to give us some of their time. They did say that the president’s race is most certainly not choreographed before the game, but they have a general idea of what crazy things they’re going to do. That is to say, Abe isn’t designated the winner, but they know that Teddy’s going to ride out on a tricycle that day.  They all seemed to take their job of on-field entertainment seriously and I think anyone who has seen a Nats game would agree they do a pretty good job.

We then switched gears back to baseball as Josh Willingham, Garrett Mock and Collin Balester came in to chat with us. Willingham seemed the most vocal, but he was also the only one who had been in major league baseball prior to last summer, so he was probably the most comfortable. A few highlights from that:

  • The differences in the pitching coaches are noticeable to the pitchers. Randy St. Claire was more into video than Steve McCatty, and that St. Claire stressed pitching to hitters weaknesses while McCatty was more about pitching to your strengths and trusting the defense. They seemed to think that was a better atmosphere
  • They said they didn’t get too wrapped up in the Strasburg signing but at the same time wanted the team to get it done, like they would have for any first rounder. They didn’t seem to think it had the same affect on the team as if they were picking up a Cy Young award winning free agent in the offseason
  • In terms of playing the role of spoiler to some of these other NL teams in the last month, Mock said that he was much more concerned with doing his job, that the pressure wasn’t on them to be a spoiler, it was on the other team. Willingham did say that in the past, playing in a potential “spoiler” game on the road was fun because of the crowd, it was like a playoff atmosphere

After the players, we were visited by owner Marla Tennenbaum, daughter of Ted, and Chair of Nationals Dream Foundation. They are doing a great deal to help out the community, include building a Nationals Diabetes Care Complex, which should break ground next year, and neighborhood initiatives. Perhaps the most interesting project is the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, to be set up in Ward 7. Building it was part of the deal with the city to bring the Nats to town, so DC is on board. Unfortunately, the National Park Service, a federal institution, is causing some difficulties with giving up the land for usage. When completed, the academy will “teach the fundamentals of baseball and provide after-school educational programs for children in the DC region.”  Click here if you want to donate to the Dream Foundation.

Our last guest in the press room (I don’t know what it was really called, but it’s that room you see the manager interviewed at with the MASN logos behind him) was Mark Scialabba, who’s name I wasn’t close to spelling correctly until I looked it up. He is the Assistant Director of Player Development and knows everything about everyone in the system (he’s so good at this it’s kind of scary). A few highlights of that

  • Arizona Fall League decisions have been made, and while they can’t release the names yet, you’ll know some guys on the team. Kasten later said that this may be one of the best group of players ever sent to the AFL.
  • While most people need to succeed at each level for a while, they feel that Drew Storen is a special case, which is why he’s moving up so fast.
  • AAA shortstop Ian Desmond has plus range in both directions and a great arm. They like his bat speed a lot, too and think he can hit. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him called up in September.  He noted that when a player is compared to Derek Jeter like Desmond once was that it puts a lot of pressure on the player.  All of that said, he felt good about Desmond’s future. Speaking of that, an Ian Desmond sidebar, from Baseball Prospectus yesterday:

This just might be an example of a genuine late bloomer. A third-round pick in 2004, Desmond’s tools and athleticism has had many projecting him as the Nationals’ shortstop of the future for years, but there was one big problem with that: he didn’t hit. Showing a much better approach this year in terms of both plate discipline and a focus on contact over power, Desmond hit .306/.372/.494 at Double-A this year, and by batting .406 in his last ten Triple-A games, he’s now hitting .328/.413/.400 in the International League. He should be up in September, and as he doesn’t turn 24 for another month, he’s still a prospect

  • Derrick Norris, great catching prospect can really hit but has been criticized for his defense. Mark said they are planning on having him catch, and that he didn’t start catching until his junior year in high school so he is still learning.  He’s 20, so he’s only been catching for about 4 years.
  • Chris Marrero, possibly the #1 prospect in the organization other than Strasburg, was recently moved up to AA. While they aren’t betting on it, they do see a scenario where he plays well enough early on next year to get called up towards the end of 2010. But he is so young that they don’t want to rush him, and don’t want to set him up to fail.

Finally, we were taken up to the lavish Blogger Suite, where we were actually a room over from the rest of the media. Mike Rizzo and Stan Kasten came up and spoke with us in a much more informal session in the suite. As I mentioned yesterday, two of the biggest takeaways from that conversation is that Rizzo is interested in acquiring a veteran pitcher in the offseason. Not an Ace per se, but someone who can come in and help the team as well as the young guys. He also mentioned that as the young guys near their innings limits, they will be given lighter workloads, and this will make room for some other guys, like Ross Detwiler, to get a few starts in before the year ends.

One of the interesting things that Rizzo commented on was the Strasburg process.  He made a point to say that Strasburg wanted to be here and that he really drove the process towards the positive outcome.  This speaks volumes in a small way about the type of guy the Nats have gotten and what we as fans can expect from the #1 pick.  Of course, Kasten and the rest of the team officials throughout the day joked around about how they didn’t really relax until 14 seconds before the deadline.

From there, the live blogging began, which you can read all about in yesterday’s post. Again, a big thank you to the Nationals and Mike Gadza for setting this up, it was a great experience and we’re looking forward to the next one!

By Charlie