Bristol, CT - March 10, 2013 - Studio A: Alex Cora on the set of Baseball Tonight (Photo by Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)
The Washington Nationals will be playing the New York Mets on Sunday Night Baseball on Sunday at 8 pm ET on ESPN2 (WatchESPN, ESPN Radio, ESPN Deportes), and I had the opportunity to talk to Baseball Tonight analyst and former Nationals infielder Alex Cora about the Nationals season so far. You can catch baseball tonight at 7 pm ET tomorrow before the game.
Cora spoke about his time in the organization and where he thinks the organization is going. He also provided great insights on Ryan Zimmerman’s fielding issues, Jayson Werth’s value to the team, and the Nats managerial search. He even spoke about his own managerial aspirations.
While 6.5 games back in the NL Wild Card chase, Cora also believes the Nats’ deficit isn’t insurmountable, despite the team’s offensive and defensive struggles this season.
The Nats Blog thanks Alex for his time and candor and ESPN for providing us with the opportunity to interview him. The transcript of the interview follows.
Joe (TNB): You played with the Nationals in 2011. How do you think the organization has changed since you’ve left?
Alex: I think the plan was already set. Mike Rizzo, one thing he always mentioned is that there was a plan in place, and it was just a matter of time to see the results. Those kids, they grew up. In 2011, when Davey came in, he made a conscious effort to let Ian [Desmond] play and Danny [Espinosa] play, regardless of their production. Obviously, he had other pieces in place with Jayson [Werth] coming in and [Ryan] Zimm[erman], Wilson Ramos. So, it was just a matter of time. They had a lot of talented players. The bullpen was a plus in 2011; it was just a matter of… we didn’t have Strasburg that year. When he came in, Jordan Zimm[ermann] was shut down. It was just about being patient, and they did.
Obviously, last year was a great season for them. One thing I’ve always said is what happened last year, I think was supposed to happen this year, not last year. Last year was supposed to be another step toward making it to the playoffs, but they played so good from the get-go that they got ahead of the plan, I guess.
The thing that really tells me that [they were ahead of the plan] is Rizzo saying before Spring Training that he was going to shut down Strasburg. I understand the medical part of it and all that, but Mike said it loud and clear before the season started that that was the plan. Obviously, they can use the whole medical stuff and whatever, and surgery, but if they expected to be the team that they were last year, they probably would’ve had Plan B already planned out to see how they could use him in the playoffs.
Joe (TNB): Speaking of Strasburg coming off of the shutdown last season, some people think that he doesn’t seem to have the same stuff that he had before his Tommy John surgery, whether that’s a conscious decision on Strasburg’s part to kind of hold back a little bit. Do you think he’s being scrutinized too closely on his expectations, or is the criticism of his season so far this year fair based on his performance?
Alex: I think, with everything that happened last year, obviously people were going to pay more attention to what he was doing and what he was “supposed to do.” He’s still throwing the ball good. I was one that thought that early in the season, he probably could’ve been better. Everybody feels he is the ace of this team, and he needs to go deeper into games.
But it’s not that he was struggling, I think the defense was struggling behind him, and obviously that doesn’t help. For me, personally, he’s had a good season. He still has a lot of room to improve to become the pitcher that everybody expects. But, I’ll be honest; I’ll take Strasburg every five days. I’ll take my chances.
Joe (TNB): You mentioned defense struggling behind him. It does look like Ryan Zimmerman has started to make some better throws on defense and his glove has always been there, obviously. His throwing motion certainly does still look like there’s some reason for concern there, and his power numbers are down from his career averages. Do you have any thoughts about what’s going on with him?
Alex: One thing about the defensive part of it, and obviously we can see with his arm angles that he’s not getting where everybody wants him to be as far as his release point. I think, and I got to be honest, I even mentioned it to him, he needs to get his feet going. I mean, defense everything we do, or used to do, I guess, in this game starts with the base. Everybody is focusing on his arm angles and whatever, I think he was lazy with his footwork. He was still conscious of getting rid of the ball because his arm strength wasn’t there, and he forgot that he needs to get his feet going to throw the ball. And lately, he’s been doing a better job of it.
As far as the hitting, I think, they’ve been swinging the bat a lot better as a team in August. Everybody struggled. And sometimes, when everybody struggles, you want to be the guy instead of letting the game dictate what you do. Probably, and I don’t want to jump to conclusions because I’m not in the clubhouse, but he was probably trying to do too much. And now that the he’s taking what they give him, you start seeing him drive the ball and get a few extra base hits. He’ll be fine.
Ryan is one of the best offensive third basemen in the big leagues and his numbers will be there at the end of the season. Probably his power numbers will come down, but it’s a whole team thing. Sometimes, when you’re struggling, as an offense, as a team, you’re not getting the pitches that you’ll be able to drive. I won’t point to his shoulder, but he struggles with his power numbers.
Joe (TNB): Bryce Harper, obviously have to talk about him. He has a great rookie season and the numbers in his sophomore year have gotten even better. How do you evaluate his career so far, and where do you see his ceiling if everything continues to go right for him?
Alex: He’s still learning. One thing that I really like is his on-base percentage is going up. You can see the last few months after he came off the DL and he struggled a little bit, he’s driving the ball to left field. He’ll be a great big leaguer. The team is built around him, let’s be honest. He’s that guy. He’s so versatile. He’s leading off, hitting second, hitting third, and that helps you as a manager. I have no doubts that he’ll be a key guy for this organization. Obviously, he needs to still get better against left handed hitters, but we have to remember, he’s still very, very young.
I hate to compare players. I hate the comparisons about Trout and Machado and Puig. There’s only one Mike Trout, one Manny Machado, one Yasiel Puig, and there’s going to be only one Bryce Harper, and I think that’s positive. This guy, he gets it. Everything’s about winning. He’s not afraid to speak his mind. He’s born in a winning environment last year. This year they had their struggles, so it was another growing experience for him. He’ll be okay. He’ll have a good career.
Joe (TNB): With Jayson Werth, he’s really had an incredible year. Some people think, since coming back from injury, he’s been better than he ever was in Philadelphia. What adjustments have you seen him make in order to have this unbelievable year that he’s put together?
Alex: He said it was a slight adjustment, I think it was a huge adjustment moving his hands. Now, he’s got his hands higher. I’ve noticed it, I think it was in a doubleheader that they had probably like two months ago. Jayson, he studies the game. He’s a proud man.
I played with Jay in 2004, and I’m a big Jayson Werth fan. Not because of what he’s doing now, but how much he cares about winning. And forget the numbers. He’s been great in the sense that in that clubhouse, he’s been very consistent with the message that he’s been sending. He knows where they’re at, and he understands that, but he doesn’t give up, and he keeps working at getting better. He’s the guy that last year he led off, then hit second this year. They move him around, and also now he’s hitting fourth.
He’s one of the best hitters in the last two months, and putting his hands up, it gives him the chance to get on top of the ball. He’s such a good athlete that sometimes, even when you put yourself in a bad position to attack, he could get away with it, because he’s such a good athlete. Now that he’s found that slot and it’s not that he’s getting away with being an athlete. He’s got the mechanics. We’ll see what happens, but I like where he’s at. I love the fact that he can handle a lot of pitches now, especially the high pitch. We’ll see, but he looks great right now.
Joe (TNB): Now, more on the team as a whole. On paper, the Nats had a great team as you alluded to earlier, that this was kind of supposed to be the year that they were going to surge, and it ended up being last season. They’ve underperformed until this point in the year, even though they seem to be doing a little bit better right now. Do you have anything you can point to that you think caused the sharp decline from last season? Is it related to what you were saying about Zimmerman that the whole team was trying too hard? Do you think that the Nats can do anything to improve themselves for next season, whether that’s in personnel or anything else?
Alex: Well, first of all, they’re still in it, let’s be honest. Six-and-a-half, I know is kind of like, ahh… But you never know. The schedule kind of helps them out, all the way until the last week of the season, which it gets tough again. If you subtract the Braves from the big leagues, they’d be in the hunt. I mean it’s amazing what the Braves have done to the Nats. It’s why they are where they are. It started the first week of the season with that sweep, when the Braves got to 12-1 after sweeping the Nationals, it looked like they never got up from that one.
I had one concern coming into the season. I think Bernie was a big loss for them, let’s be honest, [Sean] Burnett. And, not having that guy in the bullpen, I know they went with Zach Duke. Zach Duke is not a left-handed specialist. And I know they talk about our righties can get lefties out, but without having that lefty, it didn’t force the opposition to make moves, you know what I mean? You could go with your left-handed hitters, and in the middle of the game, you didn’t force the opposition to pinch hit for a left-handed hitter or platoon. I think that was a big hole for them.
And obviously, the defense has been disappointing. When you have a great pitching staff like they do, but you’re still giving the opposition more than 27 outs a night, I mean, we’re talking about big league lineups. They’re going to take advantage of that. Defensively, they have struggled. I think Danny [Espinosa] struggling offensively hurt them more defensively, because when he goes down, you bring Anthony [Rendon], who is a good hitter, but he’s learning to play second base in the big leagues. And out of all of the positions in the infield, second base is the toughest one, and you’re asking this young kid to learn the toughest position in the infield at the highest level. And defensively, it hasn’t worked out, let’s be honest.
So, I think there’s struggles obviously, offensively. Yeah, you can point out situational hitting and all that, but I think with their pitching staff… Look at the Braves. I mean, the Braves, they pitch, they catch the ball, and they win 2-1. But with [the Nats] struggles defensively, you were down 2-0, 3-0, giving the opposition more than 27 outs, I think the offense paid the price, and you put the pressure of catching up, you know what I mean?
Joe (TNB): Oh, right. Definitely. It’s hard to play that catch up game, especially, like you said, when you allow a team to get more than 27 outs.
Alex: And in the National League, it’s a lot tougher than in the American League, because you’ve got the pitcher hitting, you know? And it’s tough. I heard Davey talking about their bench struggling this year. It’s kind of hard, especially when you fall behind, to trust those guys, to get them those starts here and there to keep them sharp. Last year, they go to Chicago Opening Day, and it was full speed ahead for 162 games, and you could use your bench in other ways other than pinch hitting and all that, and they fell behind and all of a sudden it’s like, can I use this guy tonight?
You second guess yourself because you’re like, is this a better option for us to start a winning streak? So, I think the whole thing put everyone in a bad situation. They’re still talented. People need to understand that this is a team that everybody thought that would go to the World Series, so that’s why I feel that they’ve still got a shot because if you look at the other teams around, they’re still the most talented team in the National League. It’s just a matter of can they put it together for two straight months and see what happens at the end. That’s the way they’ve got to see it.
Joe (TNB): Well, I appreciate your time, Alex, and I’ve just got one more question for you.
Alex: Am I going to manage next year? Yeah, I’ll manage the Nationals.
Joe (TNB): You read my mind. So, the Nationals are going to be hiring a new manager for 2014. What type of candidate do you think the team should target for a manager next year? Do you have any names in mind, up to and including yourself?
Alex: A 38-year old Puerto Rican that played there two years ago?
Joe (TNB): Exactly!
Alex: Obviously, that’s a dream. There’s no secret that I would like to manage in the big leagues. I mean, everybody’s talking about it towards the end of my career, so why not? Hey, I mean, that would be a great place to start with a talented team, you know?
But, besides that, there’s a few guys out there. Obviously, Joey [Cora], my brother. I’m biased with that. I think he’s ready to go. He has been around baseball for a lot of years, and that learning experience being around Ozzie Guillen for a lot of years. I think that qualifies, that makes you a candidate.
The other guy is DeMarlo Hale in Toronto. His knowledge of the game and his preparation, you know, I saw it in Boston and I really like what he brings to the table.
And the other guy is Tim Wallach in LA, the third base coach. Wallach was our hitting coach in 2004 in LA, and I like the way he goes about his business. I know Jayson knows him. He had him in LA, and I like the way he thinks the game and how he is as a person. But we’ll see. We’ll see what happens.
Randy Knorr, obviously. Randy was there in September in 2011. I had a lot of baseball talk, we talked a lot in September. I really picked his brain, and I like the way that he looks into the game and how he feels about the game. So, those are the guys that I think deserve a shot.
But Alex is the number one choice. Alex Cora.
Joe (TNB): Always, always. Well Alex, I really appreciate your time, thank you for answering all the questions, I really appreciate it.