On a truly glorious spring afternoon, Saturday I was fortunate enough to watch a minor league doubleheader between the Lynchburg Hillcats, the High-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, and the Potomac Nationals. In addition to the many talented prospects on both teams, Washington Nationals OF Jayson Werth was continuing his minor league rehabilitation assignment as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.
Werth played in both games Saturday, batting third in the order and playing left field in game 1 and acting as the designated hitter in game 2. For the day he received six at-bats, going 1-4 with a home run and two walks and easily converted his two plays defensively in the outfield.
In Werth’s first at-bat of the day he specifically went to the plate with the purpose of seeing pitches, as he let the first two pitches go with little interest in swinging. Then when he had fallen behind in the count (on a questionable strike call on 0-1), Werth swung on 1-2 and grounded out relatively sharply to the second baseman.
In the 4th inning Werth came up and again worked the count, looking almost disinterested in the first two offering from Hillcats starter Adam Plutko. Werth worked himself into a hitter’s count, and pulled an 86mph grooved fastball over the left field wall for a home run. Although this was nearly a BP fastball, it was good to see the bat speed and strength to hit a home run into a stiff breeze.
In his final at-bat of Game 1, Werth had a particularly impressive AB, continuing the trend of watching the first few offerings. Werth fouled off a tough outside fastball and a decent slider before walking on 9-pitches. In many ways, this was exactly what Werth wanted in a minor league rehab stint and was easily his best AB of the day.
In the bottom of the 1st inning in Game 2, Werth came up with the bases empty and had an at-bat that reminded me why he was on a rehabilitation assignment. Continuing his trend he watched the first two pitches go by and got himself behind in the count. After fighting back, Werth was badly fooled by a slider in the dirt and struck out swinging on six pitches. Frankly, it was a poor AB from a hitter who should outclass his counterpart in this matchup, the pitcher.
On his 5th at-bat again Werth watched the first two pitches, though they were both balls. Then on a 2-1 count, Werth ripped a pretty solid line drive fly out to the center fielder. The defender was shading him perfectly and the relatively strong wind gave the ball no chance to fly over his head. The swing was quick, short, and he swung at a good hitter’s pitch and made solid contact – this was a MUCH better AB than the previous one, and gave me confidence he is rounding into form.
In his final at-bat of the afternoon in the 6th inning, the Lynchburg relief pitcher was struggling with a bad case of “can’t throw strikes” disease and walked Werth on four pitches, none of which were particularly close to the strike zone. Werth walked to first base and was immediately lifted for a pinch runner, swiftly ending his day.
There are several positives and negatives to take away from Werth’s outing on Saturday. As expected, physically Werth looks fit and he is running and throwing well, so defensively and on the bases, he appears ready to return. Offensively his keen batting eye remains and he has the strength to turn on a baseball and hit it with authority, even home run power to the pull side. Unfortunately he still looks rusty seeing pitches and was not facing top quality velocity or offspeed stuff, so he is still in for an adjustment period when he returns to the majors.
Werth will likely struggle for the first 40-60 at-bats back in Washington, as it should take him another 10+ games to get himself comfortable at the plate. I would expect him to perform well once this time frame elapses, though I doubt he will hit for his much power until the 2nd half of the season.
In an ideal world, the Nationals would let Werth spend the next 7-10 days in the minors to allow him to round into form. However, because of the woeful and often times inept performance of the lineup thus far in 2015, the Nationals are expected to recall Werth early this week, perhaps even Monday. Look for him to struggle initially, but his ability to get on-base and see pitches will be a welcome boost to the offense even upon his return.
* Special Tip of the Fedora to Bryan Holland and the Potomac Nationals staff for their hospitality Saturday afternoon… Thanks! *