The SportsTalk Shop: Nationals/Phillies Season Outlook & Interviews

We had an opportunity on last week’s “SportsTalk” show to get insights and predictions for both the Washington Nationals

…as well as interviews with some of the Phillies top prospects on spring training performances and their thoughts on opening the season in Triple-A…

 

 

 

For more of these interviews and videos on both of these teams, be sure to watch last week’s “SportTalk” through RCN On-Demand or check out our podcast: rcn.com/rcntv/sports-talk

 

A few more points/observations about both the Nationals and Phillies’ 2017 expectations…

*  Like last year, there are completely different expectations for both teams.  As I predicted (correctly, I might add) at this time last year, I will once again predict the Nationals will win the NL East and the Phillies will improve their win total from last year (I’m looking at 73 victories for 2017).

*  I think both the Phillies and the Nationals have greatly improved their bullpen staff.  After a few years of various question marks, Washington has about as solid a 7-reliever set as anyone in the National League—with both flame throwers and guys who have really good stuff.  Joe Blanton’s addition during spring training gave the Nats a veteran presence who can pitch multiple innings.

The Phillies also increased their depth this offseason with the additions of proven, late-inning guys Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit to join youngsters Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris.  While neither Blake Treinen nor Jeanmar Gomez has a solid track record as a closer, both teams have options (and neither team’s pen has the “Papelbon-esque” ego) which could allow for a rather seamless transition if needed.

*  While the rest of the NL East is improved, I think both organizations front offices made solid moves that will keep the Phillies and National ahead of the curve overall in the division.  The Nats should outlast the Mets thanks to Washington’s deeper pitching and more offensive weapons (and New York has more injuries to content with).  Meanwhile, the Phillies’ offseason improvements should give them an opportunity to pass the Marlins this year and give the team a decent shot at finishing third in the division—even if they don’t play .500 ball.

 

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Finally, after a slow start for the spring sports teams (for the ones that play outdoors, anyway), local high school baseball and softball teams finally got a few games in under their belt this past week.  Our cameras recently stopped by the Dieruff/Northampton girls softball game for their thoughts on the season thus far…

 

 

You can catch more local sports interviews on this Thursday’s “SportsTalk” program.

One note for our scholastic sports readers:   I’d like to encourage athletic directors, coaches or parents to pass along outstanding achievements by the student-athletes in the RCN viewing area by emailing me awards, honors or other special accomplishments at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com and we’ll try to highlight those young people both here on our blog and on the television show!

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Chiefs ’16 Primer/Nationals Prospects

It wasn’t the typical start to the baseball season for the Syracuse Chiefs—the top minor league affiliate for the Washington Nationals!

While the parent club posted some nice wins during the first week of the regular season, their Triple-A team, the Chiefs, had to play their “home opener” in another state, and only got two games in (both part of a seven-inning doubleheader) during the first week of the regular season.  Despite that, Syracuse got off to a good start to its season as well.

We had a chance to speak with Syracuse Manager Billy Gardner and a couple of their players to ask them about this year’s team and about an unusual start to the 2016 season.

The Chiefs manager also talked about one of the organization’s top pitching prospects, A. J. Cole, who started their season opening game.  Their first game of the season was supposed to be the previous Tuesday in Syracuse, before it was moved due to unsafe playing conditions at their stadium.  Gardner speaks about Cole pitching in 40-degree temperatures and also talked about how the strong finish to the 2015 campaign can benefit him this season.

One of the top young players in the entire organization is shortstop Trea Turner, who we caught up with to ask about his style of play, his reaction to some high praise from his Triple-A manager and his goals for the 2016 season, which, he (and many Washington fans) hopes will result in a quick call-up to the Nationals.

The Chiefs should be a fun team to watch as they feature a mix of both up-and-coming prospects along with seasoned veterans that should add a lot of depth to the organization overall.   In terms of the team’s success, they do have an opportunity to finish among the top teams as currently constructed in the International League.

As far as prospects, the Opening Day roster features Turner (ranked #2 in the organization according to mlb.com), Cole (ranked seventh), pitcher Austin Voth (ninth), catcher Pedro Severino (tenth) and third-baseman Matt Skole (29th).  Fortunately, the Nationals have not suffered nearly the number of injuries that they had at this time last year, allowing the Chiefs to benefit by holding on to just about everyone on its roster thus far.

 

The International League always plays a competitive brand of baseball, and the Chiefs, who have won five of their first nine games, seemed to have ‘weathered’ their rough start to the season and look to be competitive all summer long.

 

We’ll have more on Washington’s top minor league affiliate, along with interviews with their top prospects during the course of this season, both here at “The Shop” as well as on our Thursday “RCN SportsTalk” show.  Also, you can catch more of these above interviews by viewing the April 14th edition of “SportsTalk” through RCN On-Demand.

 

Feel free to give us your feedback and send us your sports comments and questions via email (rcnsportstalk@rcn.com) and tune in to our weekly show/podcast to hear us read and respond.

The SportsTalk Shop: Nationals, Phillies Spring Training Issues

Spring Training baseball is underway, and the Nats and Phils have two opposite perspectives on what to watch for this month during the exhibition season as they get ready to accomplish distinct different goals in 2016.  Here’s a look at key issues for both teams as the pre-season unfolds.

 

Nationals…

 …continue to look for and add depth.

 

This, in my mind, was one of the biggest issues with the 2015 Nationals.  When injuries came, they had one or two “backup” plans, and when they didn’t pan out, there were major issues.  Acquiring players as the season unfolds, both quality bench personnel, along with high-character guys, are key for this team to make it to the next level.  Washington does not want to get painted into a corner where they have to make a move for someone like another Jonathan Papelbon out of necessity, but should be continuing to look for ways to add depth into and throughout the season.  Just ask the Phillies how important a “minor” addition like Matt Stairs turned out to be.

 

Speaking of depth, the Nats need to bring up at least one or two players from the minors that will contribute.  With the number of injuries players sustain today, it isn’t realistic to think that five, or even four, members of the starting rotation will make it through an entire year—no matter how good they are.  Plus, they need players to come up and challenge the veterans.  Guys like Trea Turner, Wilmer Difo, Lucas Giolito and others must continue to improve and push the more established players at the Major League level (both Difo and Giolito had nice performances last Friday).

 

Finding a couple players to contribute as the season wears on is key to driving this team forward–if, for the purposes of just this year, that role is simply to light a fire under a current player who’s underperforming.

 …the return of Rendon—the REAL Rendon.

 

Anthony Rendon was one of a number of injured players during 2015.  He did play last season, but he wasn’t the Rendon that people wanted…needed for the Nationals to play a legitimate playoff run.  Instead of building on a tremendous 2014 campaign, a string of issues (starting in spring training and lingering throughout the year) kept the third base-turned-second baseman from ever truly hitting his stride last summer.  This spring, following the acquisition of second basemen Daniel Murphy, he’s been returned to his natural defensive position and hopefully will lead the team offensively in the way the team needs him to be.  The Nationals have done a great job, in my opinion, building an offense around the core.  But Rendon is that special player that, if healthy, is the guy who can carry a team during team-wide struggles and also is the guy I’d want at the plate with the game on the line.

 

Getting him ready for the season is nice, but, perhaps more than any one position player, a healthy exhibition season and a clean, injury-free, path to Opening Day is one of the most important issues for Washington this month.

 

 

Phillies…

 Maikel Franco MUST continue improving.

 

Much like Rendon, Franco, right now, looks to be the centerpiece of the Phillies position players and will be looked to (until proven otherwise) as the team’s “go-to guy.”  The Phillies have done a great job of building a collection of great prospects, with the knowledge that, while some young players won’t live up to their potential, an increase in the number of blue-chip players in the organization strengthens the chances that SOME of these players make a significant impact.  The organization has been hedging their bets and not riding all their hopes on one player.  However, Franco—a home-grown entity—has been touted as the one key player to build around.  If he regresses, it won’t end the rebuild, but any lack of progress this summer will be tough for Phillies to deal with, especially from a PR-standpoint (see the 76ers situation).   Franco is the guy who Phillies fans can see–right now–in Philadelphia, and he’s shown flashes of amazing ability.  The fan base can be patient if they have some hope that they can see in close proximity.  Philadelphia’s starting third-baseman is off to a great start (he’s already hit as many home runs the first week of spring training as the two previous pre-seasons combined.)  As long as he continues to flourish at the Big League level this summer, it is easier to sell the fact that more players like him are coming down the pipeline.

 

 

…the pitching watch.

 

Through all the horrible 2015 baseball seen in the Delaware Valley…it was made dreadfully worse by poor pitching.  Again, new GM Matt Klentak has done a great job of building an abundance of low-risk, high-reward players, in the hopes that a few can be serviceable major league hurlers—either to be traded away for more prospects, or as veterans to help hold a future pitching staff together with experience.  There’s a number of pitchers to keep an eye on as spring training and the regular season unfolds, and a finding a few gems this season could really help the rebuilding efforts along.

 

Keep in mind, even the older veteran’s success—pitching or position players–can impact and have a significant influence on the future.  If one or more players is having a solid season heading into July (and approaching the trade deadlines), a contending team may be desperate to add a necessary piece (see the Nats’ with Papelbon a year ago).  Players that don’t figure in as regulars in the Phillies lineup two-to-three years from now (Carlos Ruiz, Cody Asche, Darin Ruf, Charlie Morton and others) might get you a diamond-in-the-rough prospect that helps Philadelphia in future seasons?

 

 

Join us on “RCN SportsTalk” in the coming weeks (Thursdays live, 7-8pm on RCN-TV or catch our podcasts here) as we get updates on the Phillies and Nationals’ spring training updates from the team’s beat writers.  We’ll also have discussions on this weekend’s Pennsylvania and Washington, DC high school playoff action on this week’s program.

The SportsTalk Shop: Harry Kalas, Charlie Slowes & the Nationals

We are right at the 1/5-th mark of the Major League Baseball season.  While that might not seem like an impressive number, it is a key time in a team’s season.  Once you pass the“30-games” mark, the excuse “well, it’s still early” starts to wear thin and teams start having to take some long looks at players’ abilities.  It’s also the time that teams have to start realizing that early season surprises, whether positive or negative, may just be for real.

This week, we’ll take a look at the Nationals season to date (we’ll next look at the Phillies’ issues and question marks in an upcoming blog entry).

To help us break down Washington’s first 30-games, I had a chance to speak with Nationals Play-by-Play Voice Charlie Slowes about their outstanding starting rotation, an extremely wild game against the Braves and their upcoming schedule.  A few weeks back marked six years since the passing of the late, great broadcaster Harry Kalas, and Charlie gave us some unique perspectives on the legendary announcer.

A couple additional notes about the Nats.

All things considered, the team’s slow start (the Nats lost 15 of their first 23 games) hasn’t really hurt the team.  Considering the injuries to hit the bullpen and to their lineups, they’ve survived most of those “bumps” and have bounced back strong.  Both Jayson Werth and Denard Span—two keys on offense and defensively in the outfield—came back earlier than some had expected.  Span has not missed a beat since his return, flirting with an impressive slash line (.305/.354/.525 heading into this past weekend).  While Anthony Rendon’s oblique injury continues to linger, Bryce Harper, with (finally) an injury-free season to date, has blossomed into the star the team expected him to be.

The bullpen, led by closer Drew Storen and his nine saves, is beginning to flesh out its respective roles following the loss of Craig Stammen to a season-ending injury.  Tanner Roark has made a successful transition back to a reliever’s role, with three holds heading into the Atlanta series.  Aaron Barrett has been solid from the right side, holding opponent’s batting averages under .200 (and a WHIP under 1), and southpaw Matt Thornton having success so far against both right and left-handed hitters.  Sammy Solis also looked impressive holding the eighth-inning lead in the series finale against the Braves.

Also, despite an incredibly hot start by the Mets, Washington is still playing in an incredibly weak division this year, and they should be able to beat up on their divisional opponents quite a bit, even if Rendon continues on the disabled list.  When the Nats’ offense—which has shown a propensity to be streaky—goes through another lull, they should be able to avoid any long losing stretches thanks to their starting pitching depth as they look to move up in the standings over the next few weeks.  Here is a look at their upcoming series:

May 11-13 :         at Arizona
May 14 – 17:       at San Diego
May 19-20:          vs. Yankees
May 22-24:          vs. Philadelphia
May 25-27:          at Chicago
May 29-31:         at Cincinnati

The Nationals still have many more games coming up against NL East teams, and I can’t imagine Washington not compiling a better-than-500 record against them going forward.

As the 2011 Phillies found out, it’s not how many you win during the regular season.  The big key is for Washington to continue to play well, stay near or at the top of the division, and try to keep everyone healthy through the summer.  Hopefully Rendon comes back with enough time to find his stroke and the lethargic start to the season becomes a distant, if not forgotten, memory.

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Special programming note.  Mark your calendars and be sure to come out to see “RCN SportsTalk” as we broadcast live from Buffalo Wild Wings on Grape Street in Whitehall, PA.  This will be the first of several shows we’ll be broadcasting on location this summer.   Keep checking back to the RCN-TV website for updates on these special programs as SportsTalk “goes wild” this summer!

The SportsTalk Shop: Mike & Brian Schneider

Keith Groller is one of my heroes.

Seriously.

Let me explain…

I was covering Philadelphia pro sports teams in the early 90s and would frequently chat with him at the old Spectrum when he had the 76ers beat for the Morning Call. As many sports fans know, the Sixers’ squads during this time period were some of the worst teams in modern day Philly sports. I was still thrilled to be covering pro sports teams for local radio stations, and thought I had a healthy jump on the “normal path to success” as a sportscaster by covering a pro team in a major market—even if the team was pathetic and the players were less-than-exhilarated to be interviewed each night on the new ways that they had discovered to LOSE games. Quite frankly, many players I interviewed showed little desire to play basketball—let alone deal with the same media members night in and night out.

Long story short. Keith did the unthinkable and committed what I thought at that time was career suicide by giving up his pro sports beat and instead, focused his work on high school sports. Once I got married and started to raise a family, I realized that Keith might actually be onto something, and that there were actually rewards to NOT covering pro sports. One of those advantages was the chance to deal with people who actually ASK a writer or broadcaster coming to their events. Subsequently, I found out that covering local sports gives you an opportunity to get to know and understand athletes on a much better level than the abrasive “stick-a-microphone-in-their-face” style of interviewing that is conducted with most major leaguers.

Enter the Schneiders.

Mike was…is…and may forever be one of the most helpful people on the planet. In numerous ways over the years, he’s helped myself, as well as other media members, in ways too many to mention in one blog post. One of his many gifts was that of a coach and an educator, and one of his greatest “products” was his nephew, Brian, who this January retired from Major League baseball after an 18-year professional baseball career that included stops in New York, Washington, and even for his hometown Phillies. Ironically, he was also one of the first high school stars I had the good fortune to cover in my role as a ‘non-pro sports’ media guy, only to have him become one of the greatest MLB players who grew up here in Northampton County.

Through his experiences, which included playing for Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, being the catcher for Barry Bonds’ record-breaking home run, playing in the World Baseball Classic, catching the greatest Phillies pitching rotation of all time, et al, he has continued to remain classy and speaks of great pride when he discusses his hometown of Northampton. He has continued to reach out to the community, donate his time to local charities and, as I learned from speaking with him, finds great rewards in trying to help young catchers and potential major league players by sharing his baseball wisdom. In a way, I felt like I had come full circle by having the pleasure of him being on our show to discuss his career, both on-and-off the field. Here’s a clip of our “SportsTalk” show in which he discusses what it was like to catch the first ball thrown out by then-President George Bush at the first-ever Washington Nationals home baseball game:

Brian Schneider and President Bush

Brian also has developed a close relationship with one of the greatest players in Phillies history, Chase Utley. Ironically, Brian was in the locker room (as a visitor) and talked with Utley about his recent injury, just a few hours before Brian appeared on our show. We asked Brian about Chase’s injured oblique, the truth about his sometimes “distant” persona with the media and whether Utley—a free agent after this season—would return to Philadelphia next year:

Brian Schneider Discusses Chase Utley

Thanks (AGAIN!) to Mike for helping us in setting up the interview (the entire show is available on RCN’s video-on-demand for free for several weeks). Because of people like Mike and Brian Schneider and the professional way they conduct themselves as individuals, it can rejuvenate ‘local’ sports fans, in more ways than they can probably imagine.

Feel free to post comments about your memories of Brian as a amateur athlete from the Valley, and as a Major League ballplayer, and let us know if there’s other “home grown” athletes you’d like to mention that “made it big.”