A conversation with John Kruk on the Nationals

VIERA, Fla. - ESPN’s tour bus rolled into Viera on Sunday to preview the Nationals during a special midday presentation of “SportsCenter.” Buster Olney and John Kruk of “Baseball Tonight” and anchor Bram Weinstein interviewed several Nats players, including Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer, throughout the morning.

Afterward, I had a chance to sit down with Kruk on the bus for a conversation about the Nats and the upcoming season. Kruk, of course, played in the majors for 10 seasons as a first baseman and outfielder. The three-time All-Star owns a .300 lifetime batting average and retired with exactly 100 home runs. His career began with the Padres in 1986 and ended with the White Sox in 1995, but it was the six seasons he played in between with Philadelphia that were the most special. In fact, Kruk was inducted into the Phillies Wall of Fame at Citizens Bank Park before a game against the Nationals in August 2011.

zimmerman-infield-spring-training-sidebar.jpgQuestion: You bounced back and forth between the outfield and first base in your career, so how do you see Ryan Zimmerman making the transition?

Kruk: “I think it’s going to be good for him because of the shoulder issues, one. But, two, when you get older as a player, you need different motivations, but you also need to get back to where it’s fun and something new. And I think moving from third to first and knowing that he’s going to be their everyday first baseman, sometimes spring training gets boring doing the same thing every day, but learning a new position, I think you’re going to see a reinvigorated Ryan Zimmerman.”

Q: What do think will be Zimmerman’s biggest challenges at first base?

Kruk: “When I learned how to play first base in the big leagues, I was telling Ryan, my second baseman was Robbie Alomar and Robbie said, ‘You get the line, I got everything else.’ He has three now that he has to try to figure out in a short period of time how much range they have to their left and his right, when does he go for balls and when does he stay back and go to the first base and trust that they’re going to be there. And that’s going to come with time. It’s not going to come in spring training because, you know, it’s spring training. I mean, how many balls are going to be hit there? It takes a while and having to break in with three guys now with (Yunel) Escobar, (Dan) Uggla and (Danny) Espinosa. That’s what’s going to be the challenge for him, I think.”

Q: What was your reaction when the Nats signed Max Scherzer?

Kruk: “Ha. Well, all the rumors we heard that said the Nationals were talking to him, but they said the only way they could sign him is they would have to trade one of their other starters, possibly Jordan Zimmermann because he’s a free agent at the end of the year. And then when they signed him and I kept looking, ‘OK, where’s Jordan going?’ And when they said he’s staying here, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ You talk about Gio Gonzalez, (who) two years ago was a Cy Young candidate, and Tanner Roark won 15 games last year. When that’s your only battle for a starting spot, you’re in good shape.”

Q: There’s a lot of talk floating around that this Nationals starting rotation has the potential to be historically great. Do you think they’ll be in lofty company when the dust clears?

Kruk: “Well, yeah. They have a chance to be special. The National League East, there’s not great offenses. The Phillies offense is going to be OK. The Braves offense, they tried to revamp it by trading Justin Upton and Evan Gattis is gone, so how’s that offense going to be? The Marlins are going to be better. They added some speed and of course they still have the big guy there in the middle, Giancarlo (Stanton). The Mets offense, no one knows how that’s going to be. So they could put up some historic numbers.”

Jordan-Zimmermann-no-hitter-arms-out.jpgQ: If you have to win a deciding game in the World Series, which one of the Nats starters are you giving the ball to?

Kruk: (Laughs) “Whoa, man, that’s a tough one there because I’m going to be upsetting about four of them. You know, I love Jordan Zimmermann. After what I saw last year in the division series, the game he pitched against the Giants, he would be the guy I would take. Thankfully, I don’t have to make this decision, but if I had to win one and they were all at full rest, I think I would take Jordan.”

Q: You were a terrific hitter with a .300 career average, so what do you see in Bryce Harper as a hitter? What does he need to do to make that next step that’s been expected?

Kruk: “In talking to him, he said, ‘You know, my Aprils are always good, but then I get hurt and have to battle through injuries and play with injuries until I get healthy again.’ But I think there comes a time, and he’s still very young and that’s what people forget - you’d think he’s been around for 10 or 15 years. But I think he’s learning when to be aggressive and when to hold off a little and let things play out. And if that happens, you know, his bat speed is just unbelievably incredible (and) the way he hangs in against lefties is, you know, not a lot of young left-handed hitters have that ability. I think this year we’re going to see what all the hype has been about Bryce. I think this year he’s going to be as good as everyone thinks he could be.”

Q: You played with some characters on those Phillies team. At times, it was an explosive clubhouse filled with competitive personalities. The way that Harper plays the game, does it remind you of any of your former teammates?

Kruk: “He’s a little bit like Lenny Dykstra. He’s a smart player, which Lenny was, one of the smartest players I ever played with as far as breaking pitchers down and knowing what to expect. Of course, different hitters. ... If I had to compare Bryce to anyone I played with, it would have to be Lenny.” (For those who might not know about Dykstra, he was one of the game’s most fiery competitors and earned the nickname “Nails” for his intense and fearless style of play.)

Q: When you look at the landscape in the National League, do you have Washington sitting at the top in the end?

Kruk: “Yeah, absolutely. When you have that starting pitching, of course. The Cardinals’ starting pitching is going to be good, but not as dynamic as these five or six guys or however many Matt (Williams) decides he wants to use. I think the biggest concern is the bullpen. Losing Tyler Clippard, who was a guy who could pitch multiple innings seemingly every day, that’s tough to replace. I know they brought in some guys to see if they could ease that load. A lot of pressure on Drew Storen this year. You know he had a good year last year, but he needs to be that good again this year.”

williams-instense-standing-sidebar.jpgQ: You and Williams played against each other in the National League for nine seasons. Did you interact much? I would imagine you at least had some conversations over at first base after he reached base.

Kruk: Matt didn’t talk. I mean, he was on all the time, it seemed like, so we talked. You know, the first time I ever played against Matt was when he was at UNLV. I was in Triple-A in Las Vegas and we played them in an exhibition game and he still to this day hit the farthest ball I’ve ever seen hit - with an aluminum bat, but it was a bomb. I mean I was like, ‘Holy ... .’ And he played shortstop in college, and so I was like, ‘No wonder everyone is talking about that this kid has a chance to be a first-round pick.’ But, yeah, Matty didn’t talk a lot. But friendly, it wasn’t like he was a jerk. He was just so intense. And to me, when you have a young team like the Nationals have with (Anthony) Rendon and Bryce and others, you know he’s perfect. He’s not going to put up with it.”

Williams told me he still remembers the home run Kruk referenced. He said he got it good, but confirmed he had the benefit of an aluminum bat.

Weinstein is from Silver Spring, Md., and spent many years as a sports talk show host and reporter at 980 AM in D.C., before making the jump to ESPN seven years ago. He was excited to make the trip to Nationals camp, not only to get out of the piles of snow in Bristol, Conn., but also to get a first-hand look at his hometown team.

“There was a reasonable amount of deserved confidence,” Weinstein said. “I came down to take the pulse of the team everyone has playing in October. And the pulse was strong in a good way. This feels like the team has a healthy level of belief all the while knowing how long this season is. And of course being a native, it was a real pleasure getting a chance to talk to the team about what a lot of us diehards hope is a special season.”

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