Why Thom Loverro gives Nats the edge over Phillies in 2019

Chris Lingebach
March 07, 2019 - 4:19 pm
Why Nationals may have the edge over Phillies in 2019

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Many figure the Phillies to be in the driver's seat of the NL East in 2019 after signing Bryce Harper, Vegas included.

But Thom Loverro has reason to believe the Nationals still have an edge, partly stemming from how the front office handled a turbulent trade deadline last summer.

GM Mike Rizzo set a forceful tone around last year's non-waiver trade deadline, jettisoning reliever Shawn Kelley from the club for showing up then first-year manager Dave Martinez.

Brandon Kintzler, too, a suspected leaker to the media, was traded to Chicago despite being a fairly reliable bullpen arm.

"You're either in, or you're in the way," Rizzo bluntly told reporters after designating Kelley for assignment. "I thought he was in the way."

"Mike Rizzo caught a lot of grief for shipping out the relief pitchers, getting rid of Shawn Kelley when he threw his glove on the mound," Loverro told Chad Dukes on 106.7 The Fan on Wednesday. "Relief pitchers, they're like babies. They really are. They complain about everything."

"But that went a long way to solidifying Dave Martinez's place in that clubhouse," he said. "Because the general manager said the manager is the boss, not the player. They may have been relief pitchers – he wasn't coming down on Bryce Harper and all that – but still, what happened last year was very rare. You don't see front office guys shipping out players for showing up managers anymore.

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"You used to see it a lot. That's what Mike Rizzo did, and I think that strengthened Dave Martinez's status in the clubhouse."

Loverro does have tangible reasons for believing in the Nats, citing starting pitching off the top. With Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg already at the forefront, they shed a withering Gio Gonzalez, replacing him with Patrick Corbin, a younger lefty who finished fifth in Cy Young voting in 2018.

They added Anibal Sanchez, who had a great rebound year in 2018, pitching to a 7-6 record with a 2.83 ERA. Joe Ross is another wild card, a young, steady arm prior to being derailed by Tommy John surgery in 2017.

Philly's rotation – spearheaded by Aaron Nola, *third in Cy Young voting in 2018 – falls off after Jake Arrieta and Nick Pivetta. 

"Starting pitching doesn't stack up," Loverro said. "And their manager is kind of a wild card. People still think he's a bit of a lunatic, Gabe Kapler."

As important, Loverro says, is how both teams finished last season, momentum that can carry over into 2019.

"They faded fast last year," he said of the Phillies. "They were in first place for a lot of the year, and then they finished behind the Nationals at the end of the season, so they did a big fade last year.

"Whereas the Nationals scraped and clawed their way – and I know people will dismiss this as foolish, but in August and September, it was important for them to finish with a winning record. They didn't think they were going to win a Wild Card, and they knew they weren't gonna win the division, but at that point, they didn't want to finish with a losing record, the first team with a losing record since 2011 for this franchise. So I think the Nationals' finish last year, in a way, strengthened Dave Martinez."

Loverro also pointed to Washington's defensive upgrades as a sign for positive growth. The Nats added Brian Dozier, a veteran second baseman with pop, and two new catchers. One, Yan Gomes, was an All-Star in 2018. The other, Kurt Suzuki, is a veteran who's hit 31 homers – and slashed .276/.341/.485 – over the last two seasons.

"I don't think we realize how big of an albatross Matt Wieters was at catcher last year, behind the plate and in the lineup," Loverro said. "We didn't realize that Daniel Murphy would never, ever really be himself again last year. Already a liability at second base when he's healthy, defensively. So they suffered at second base as well with Howie Kendrick out for most of the year, too."

"And then because they had the injuries in the outfield," he said. "Victor Robles, they couldn't call up, because he was hurt. (Juan) Soto, you can't put in center field. He played left field for the first time in his life last year. And Adam Eaton coming back, he couldn't play center field anymore because he was coming back from an injury.

"So you had to put Bryce Harper out in center field. Not a good center fielder. And I give him credit for doing it in a contract year, because it didn't help him. He made a lot of bad plays in center field, but he did it because the team needed him to do it."

That's not even to mention their bullpen additions of Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough.

*Correction: This story, as originally published, credited Aaron Nola with winning the NL Cy Young in 2018. It's been corrected to accurately portray him as the third-leading voter-getter.

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