Nationals Arm Race

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Ladson Inbox 4/25/16

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Treinen looking like a closer in the making  Photo via zimbio.com

Treinen looking like a closer in the making Photo via zimbio.com

I’m digging the frequency of Bill Ladson’s inboxes this year.  It prompts me to write something when i’m otherwise slammed and distracted with that silly thing called work.  Here’s 4/25/16’s edition.

Q: As April comes to an end, what has been the most pleasant surprise for the Nationals?

A: I’ll go with the relatively injury-free spring and April; we havn’t had someone major break or pull anything.  Only Ben Revere has gotten bit by the bug, and that’s no great loss b/c it forces more playing time for Michael TaylorLadson goes with the Bullpen, who admittedly has been great.

Q: In your recent Inbox, you said No. 3 prospect Victor Robles will be Bryce Harper‘s teammate in a couple of years. Do you think Harper will still be a member of the Nats? I watched Harper all spring, but my guess is I’ll be driving cross state to Tampa to see him with the Yankees.

A: Harper hasn’t even hit arbitration years yet.  But the timing of Harper hitting free agency and Robles likely arriving could be a “dovetailing” event. I think the assumption that Harper is automatically going to go to New  York is silly; the Yankees aren’t highest spending franchise right now, and Steinbrenner‘s sons seem like they’re more interested in avoiding luxury taxes right now than they are in winning.  The big question the Nats will have to ask themselves is whether they’re willing to put 25% of their payroll for the next decade on one player…. when the time comes anyway.  They’re already kicking $15M/year down the road for a decade longer than they have to with Scherzer‘s contract.  Ladson thinks the Nats will “find a way to pay Harper.”  Really??  Do you not know who his agent its?  Harper is GOING to go to FA, no matter what his opinion of Washington is.

Q: What is Plan B for the ninth inning if Jonathan Papelbon gets hurt or doesn’t perform? Seems like there isn’t a replacement.

A: Actually, its looking more and more like there’s TWO options: Treinen and Rivero.  I gotta admit; i like what Dusty Baker is doing with the bullpen so far.  Both these guys are looking like closers in training.  And that’s good b/c there’s not a ton of help at AAA right now.  A quick glance at the Syracuse stats isn’t entirely promising on this front: I don’t see a “closer in training” anywhere in AAA.  As far as relievers go;  Trevor Gott has ok numbers but not good K/9 rates.  40-man guys Grace and Solis are both doing great … but they’re loogies.  Rafael Martin and Sam Runion have struggled.   Two guys that could be interesting (Erik Davis and Abel de los Santos) have done well … Davis especially, finally healthy after all this time.  But again, not a closer.  So, if Papelbon went down we’d probably be looking at Treinen as the closer, Rivero as an 8th inning guy and likely bringing up Davis or de los Santos to fill in earlier.  Ladson also says Treinen and Rivero.

Q: Why doesn’t Matt den Dekker get more starting opportunities? He has speed, power and is great defensively.

A: It might just be a matter of time, if Michael Taylor continues to struggle and Ben Revere is slow to come back.  But at this point, based on limited sample sizes, even den Dekker might be “behind” Chris Heisey were the Nats to need another starting outfielder.  Just no room at the inn.  Ladson thinks Taylor and den Dekker could platoon.

Q: Why wasn’t Gio Gonzalez pitching in this first home series? He’s a veteran pitcher who seems to have been squeezed out of the starting rotation during the first two weeks.

A: Clearly Baker looked at Gio Gonzalez as his 5th starter coming out of Spring Training and that’s what it meant to have been skipped the first time through the rotation.  I don’t think its a stretch to say that the other four guys have outperformed Gonzalez lately, either in potential (Joe Ross) or in 2014 performance (Tanner Roark).  Baker basically said that Gonzalez’s starts tax the bullpen so he had to consider when to use him.  Ladson notes that Gio struggled in spring training.

Q: With Trea Turner of to a nice start, when do we expect to see him in the big leagues?

A: Man that’s a good question; every additional week he’s hitting .350 in AAA and Danny Espinosa isn’t hitting his weight is another week where it becomes tougher and tougher to keep him down.  I still think he’ll hang out down there until the Nats regain a service year.  Ladson makes a good point; the Nats are winning without him so why change anything?

 

 

Ladson’s Inbox 4/8/16

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Werth looking shaggy; i'd like to see this beard in the leadoff hole. Photo via fansided.com

Werth looking shaggy; i’d like to see this beard in the leadoff hole. Photo via fansided.com

Wow, a ton of Ladson inboxes so far this year!  This is great!  Here’s the 4/8/16 version.

Q: I noticed on Twitter that you want to see Jayson Werth as the leadoff hitter now that Ben Revere is on the disabled list. Isn’t Werth best suited for the middle of the order?

A: Wow, Ladson and I agree!  I absolutely want Jayson Werth in the lead-off spot right now.  Why?  Because more and more it seems like Werth’s power has left him in his advancing age.  I’ve said it before in this space several times, but yes I believe Werth would be a great lead-off hitter.   Short version: sees a ton of pitches (4.16 P/PA last year, which would make him top 10 if he qualified … and that’s WAY down from normal).  Great OBP (.365 for his career, and while 2015 was an aberration the three years before he was in the .380 to .390+ range), and when he was coming back from his wrist injury and batting lead-off for the team in 2012 his splits batting lead-off were fantastic (.309/.388/.450).  When you put Werth in the middle of the order, he’s going to try to hit like a middle-of-the-order bat.  What if he can’t do that anymore?  Then you end up with a guy who we may be seeing right now; flailing at the ball, trying to drive it at the age of 36-37).  If you put him at the top, and ask him to be a leadoff hitter, I think his advanced bat skills make him a great option there.  Ladson says the same things I do; working the count, seeing lots of pitches.

Q: When are you going to give Danny Espinosa some credit? He is off to a good start. You always write about Trea Turner.

A: Yeah, great start.  He’s 3 for 9.  But he was awful all spring.  Can you spell “Short Sample Sizes?”  Nobody in the league or the organization has any question that Trea Turner is the future and Danny Espinosa is just holding the spot for now.  If he continues to earn playing time, so be it.  I’ll take an extra year of control if Turner hangs out in Syracuse for 2-3 months.  The fact is though that at some point somebody’s getting hurt (Ryan ZimmermanAnthony Rendon?  Both are good bets) that will require some infield coverage/shifting around, and at that point Turner makes perfect sense to bring up and see what he can do with full time playing time.  Ladson gives Espinosa some love.

Q: With Bryce Harper saying that he doesn’t view himself as a leader on the team, who do you think is the “official” leader of the Nationals’ clubhouse?

A: I’m pretty sure this is Harper‘s way of being deferential to the veterans on the team without proclaiming himself as the leader.  But lets not kid ourselves; this franchise has had one MVP and he’s it.  Who is the leader?  I think there’s several leaders; there’s four significant veterans on this team: Werth, Zimmerman, Max Scherzer and Jonathan Papelbon.  Not all of them have been here forever like the FotF has, but they’re the ones that have been around the league, who are on the 8-figure deals, and they’re the ones who seem to dictate the pace of the clubhouse.  Ladson also mentions Murphy and Ramosarguable.  I only name Papelbon because in the span of a few weeks he went from being the last guy hired to being the unquestioned leader in terms of tenure both here and in the league.  

Q: Were you surprised Sean Burnett wasn’t put on the 25-man roster?

A: Yes and No.  On the one hand, the team had two solid lefties in Felipe Rivero and Oliver Perez already under contract, and keeping Burnett would have meant sending down Treinen basically thanks to options issues.  And that would have been a non-starter.  If Burnett had 8th inning stuff, perhaps.  No, i see the Burnett signing and tenure as a “favor to a long standing former player” trying to help him get back on his feet in this league.  Ladson mentions we already had two good lefties.

Q: What do you think of outfielder Victor Robles?

A: I think he’s young, apparently talented, on pace to perhaps be a solid 5 tool player.  I also think he’s years away from helping this team.  So its great that he’s potentially great … but that doesn’t do much to help this current team win while it still has Strasburg and Harper under contract.  Ladson has glowing words for the 18-yr old.

PS: I was heading to the game today before they cancelled it due to … the threat of snow?  I dunno; its chilly right now but clear.  We’ll have to wait to get to our first game :-)

Ladson Inbox 3/22/16

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Michael Taylor has been lighting it up this spring. Photo via wp

Michael Taylor has been lighting it up this spring. Photo via wp

Bill Ladson‘s inboxes seem to now just be sporadic Spring Training devices.  I should do more post-Boswell chat reaction posts to drum up conversation.  Nonetheless, here’s Ladson’s latest mailbag and how i’d have answered the questions he took.

Q: Former Nationals general manager Jim Bowden believes Michael Taylor should be the starting left fielder over Jayson Werth. What is your take on it?

A: My take is, “thats why Jim Bowden isn’t a GM anymore.”  Or even a manager.  Yes Michael Taylor has had a great spring.  He also struck out, a lot, in 2015, (158 Ks in 511 PAs for a nifty 31% clip) and (per his splits) didn’t really improve much as the season progressed.   Meanwhile Jayson Werth put up very, very good numbers in 2013 and 2014, the two most recent seasons when he wasn’t hurt.  In both of those seasons he put up oWAR of 4.7 (his total bWAR figures being drug down by his idiot manager continuing to play him in RF instead of left).

Of course, Werth isn’t getting any younger.  There’s not guarantee that he hasn’t fallen off a cliff of performance.

So what’s the answer?  You let Werth play his way to the bench.  The odds are that someone’s getting hurt in our OF and Taylor is going to get 400-500 ABs anyway.  So he’s gonna get playing time.  But there’s just no way that Dusty Baker the “veteran’s manager” is going to sit a long-time vet and team leader by virtue of a few weeks of Florida ABs.  It may take half a season of under-performance, but eventually these things sort themselves out.  This is basically what Ladson said too.

Q: What do you think is Baker’s toughest decision before heading north?

A: What socks to wear on opening day?  Honestly, there’s really very little to decide upon with this team.  They’ve had a very injury-free spring.  The rotation was basically settled upon months ago.  The trades that Mike Rizzo made to solidify the roster also had the effect of basically locking up the roster going north.  Maybe there will be a surprise in the bullpen but that seems unlikely too; the team acquired all these guys for a reason and it wasn’t to compete for a bullpen slot.

The obvious answer prior to spring training was “who starts at Shortstop” but I’ve never thought there was any question that Danny Espinosa will be the starter.  That’s not to say I don’t recognize the potential of Trea Turner (he’s not a top 10-15 prospect on most pundits’ sheets for nothing), but returning to a theme, I just had a hard time thinking that a manager like Baker was going to go with a guy with 5 weeks of service time over a guy with nearly 5 years.  As with Taylor/Werth though, this situation likely sorts itself out.  If Espinosa hits .200 for April, then he’ll switch places with Stephen Drew and the team will start thinking hard about bringing back up Turner (especially if he’s hitting .320 in AAA).

I think there’s still some question at the edge of the bench; do you go with who I think they’ll go with (Tyler Moore and Clint Robinson) or do we get a surprise DFA so they can stick with someone like Matt den DekkerLadson also says its the last bench spot, where Moore is the incumbent but a number of guys could stick based on spring performance, specifically Scott Sizemore, who might be a bit more positionally flexible than Moore.

Q: What is your biggest concern about the Nationals?

A: Bullpen.  We’ve talked about how the Nats, despite all their injuries on offense last year, really struggled in terms of run prevention as the core reason they went from 96 to 83 wins.  Now they’re rolling out nearly a 100% changed bullpen from opening day last year.  How will it perform?  Will it be able to hold down the fort?

We also likely are taking a step back in the rotation, unless Strasburg remembers his September form and brings that from day one.  But, we hopefully counter this with a step forward in offense, with healthy seasons from Anthony Rendon and the veterans.  Ladson also says Bullpen.

Q: Who do you see having a breakout year in the Nationals’ farm system?

A: Well, do you count Giolito at this point?  Probably not.  I’m going to go with the prospects who are getting publicity but who are still in the lower minors.  Guys like Victor Robles, Anderson Franco.  I’d like to see what Max Schrock can do.  I’m excited to see what Taylor Hearn can bring to the table with a full season.  The two Lees: Andrew Lee and Nick LeeLadson mentions Severino; meh; i think we know what we have with Severino by now; great catcher, no hit, #8 hitter in the majors.  I think you see this team let both Ramos and Lobaton go this coming off-season and find a new starter with Severino as the backup.  But that’s a year away so lots could change.

Q: Should the Nationals consider trading Stephen Strasburg before the non-waiver Trade Deadline since it seems he has no interest in returning to Washington next year?

A: Nope.  You try to WIN when you have guys like Strasburg, not flip them away like you’re some small market team stashing away prospects for the future.  This isn’t Tampa Bay; this is the #5 market in the nation.  Besides, who said Strasburg has “no interest” in returning to Washington??  I’ve never read that.  His agent is Scott Boras, who always advises going to free agency, and next year’s FA class is weak, meaning Strasburg will probably get into a bidding war for his services.  Its the modern game; he’ll be overpaid, he’ll get too many years, and he’ll likely get priced out of the comfort level of Ted Lerner and company.  But that’s not the same as implying that Strasburg doesn’t want to be playing in Washington.  Would you give Strasburg 8yrs/$200M?  Because that’s the going rate for an Ace-quality guy like him on the market.  Ladson agrees.

Q: What do you think of Blake Treinen? Is he a starter or reliever?

A: I think  he’s a starter at heart but a reliever in reality.  That is unless he can actually develop a 50-55 grade third pitch that he can reliably get lefties out with.  If that’s the case, then he could become a very effective starter.  And it does seem like the Nationals are thinking the same thing.  He’s definitely pitching this spring like he’s a starter; perhaps the team is thinking about Treinen as the longer guy instead of PetitLadson says he’s showing progress and his spring stats are good; is he the 6th starter over A.J. Cole or Austin Voth at this point?  If someone goes down with injury, are you trying out Trienen or are you calling up the kid Giolito?

 

Ladson’s Inbox 2/21/16

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We need Rendon to hit in 2016. Photo Nats Official via espn.com

We need Rendon to hit in 2016. Photo Nats Official via espn.com

Wow, no inboxes for months and suddenly two in two weeks??  It must be spring training! This is great!  MLB.com’s Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson on 2/20/16 has published more reader questions.  Here’s how I would have answered them.

Q: Without a doubt, Bryce Harper will be the best hitter on the Nationals this year. Who do you see as being the second-best hitter on the team?

A: Anthony Rendon.  If this team is going to win in 2016, Rendon needs to return to form.  Everyone else at this point in the lineup will be a table setter for Rendon and Harper.  Ladson says Zimmerman, who I admit i’ve begun to lose faith in.

Q: How does the front office justify bringing back Jonathan Papelbon after what happened last year with Harper? Papelbon has proven time and again that he is not a good teammate, yet he’s back for 2016?

A: I guess the questioner didn’t know that Papelbon was still *signed* for 2016.  So it wasn’t so much about “bringing him back” on purpose as it was the team “not being able to get rid of him.”  I put the Papelbon acquisition as one of the worst of the Mike Rizzo tenure; not so much for who we gave up (a good but not game changing prospect in Nick Pivetta) but for the incredible mis-calculation of the acquisition’s affect on the rest of the team.  I’m sure the team desperately tried to move him in the off-season but (with echos of “Lerner’s are cheap” abounding) probably weren’t willing to dump him for no return.  So here we are; its 2016 and Papelbon is here in lieu of the home grown popular (and team union rep) Drew Storen.

I’ll bet Rizzo doesn’t make this mistake again.

Nonetheless, Papelbon said the right things in his first media interviews since the interview, actually managing to appear humble and contrite while talking about how he was in the wrong and flat out apologizing to the fans.  I say good for him; even I couldn’t help but applaud his performance last last week.

Ladson says the team “made a good decision” in not moving Papelbon; yeah right.  If they could have gotten *anything* for him he’d be gone.  You worry about “finding a closer” in the current bullpen?  Uh, how about anyone?  We don’t need to go into more historical reviews of the uselessness of closers vis-a-vis teams holding leads after 8 innings.

Q: Why did the Nats not re-sign Craig Stammen? Before last year, I thought he did a great job as a middle reliever.

A: It all came down to risk mitigation.  Stammen absolutely did a great job for this team for many years … but he’s got a lot of innings, is coming off of a season-long injury, has (to be fair) rather funky mechanics, and the team just couldn’t justify guaranteeing him what probably would have been $2.5M or so for the unknown.  The industry felt the same way: Stammen ended up with a non-guaranteed minor league deal with Cleveland instead of either a major league deal or anything of significant value.  Trust me I was bummed; we met Stammen years ago at a golf event and he was awesome; hate to see these long-time Nats leave.  Ladson basically says the same thing.

Q: Don’t you think it’s time to improve left field? Jayson Werth is not the player he used to be. He makes a lot of money and doesn’t provide much in return.

A: And do what with Werth?  Magically trade him for valuable assets and get his payroll off your books?  The asker clearly thinks that the rest of the league are run by morons and the Nats can just magically get rid of the likes of Werth for value.  Yes he’s costing you more than 10% of your payroll.  It is what it is; veteran FA contracts all end up like this.  Honestly, I think Werth still has a ton of value if you use him properly; that means batting lead-off where you take advantage of his high pitches-per-plate appearance and high OBP.  We’ll see if Dusty Baker thinks outside the box like this (doubt it).  Ladson says Werth is a comeback player of the year candidate.

Q: What are the chances the Nationals make a trade for someone like Carlos Gonzalez to protect Harper in the lineup?

A: I like Carlos Gonzalez … but his home/away splits are pretty distinct.  .972 OPS in Denver, .758 OPS elsewhere last year.  I’m not sure he’s anything more than a mediocre outfielder if he’s not playing half his games at altitude.  Besides, the team made its play for the outfield when they acquired Ben RevereLadson thinks Rizzo could still “make a deal for a slugger” during Spring Training if he doesn’t like what he sees.  Uh; trading season is over, dude.  How many big-time sluggers can you think of that moved in spring training?

Q: A prime component of the Mets’ rotation is the ability to throw hard and get a bunch of strikeouts, but how unique is the Nationals’ rotation and how could it help them win the NL East next season?

A: Indeed, the Mets have a plethora of big-time arms throwing big-time heat.  But the Royals buzzed through their staff with ease in the World Series.  Why?  Because the Royals were the best team in the league for not taking a strikeout and putting the ball in play.  So once it became apparent that the Mets starters couldn’t close out games by themselves, the Royals (with their superior bullpen) outlasted them.  So Ks are important but not the end-all/be-all.

What makes the Nats rotation unique?  Two part answer for me: they (still) have one of the best 1-2 punches in the league in Scherzer and Strasburg.  What other 1-2 starters would you take over them?   So then past their 2 aces, they have three other guys who are dangerously under-rated.  Gonzalez was a Cy Young finalist just a couple years ago and he still has the same stuff.  Ross is a complete find, a guy who would be most teams’ #2 starter this year despite just having a handful of MLB starts.  And (as often repeated) Roark was a 5-win guy two years ago.  So the potential is there for this to be a top rotation end-to-end.

How does the Rotation help them win the NL east?  By staying healthy, pitching to potential, and outlasting the Mets own powerful rotation when its crunch time.

Ladson doesn’t really give much of an answer here.  He just says what he’d like to “see” each of our starters do this year.

 

 

Ask Boswell 3/30/15 … and Blevins move, and the Storen injury, and the Janssen MRI

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No respect for Harper. Photo: Sports Illustrated

No respect for Harper. Photo: Sports Illustrated

WP columnist Tom Boswell has been putting out some interesting content recently, and was sure to be asked about it in his 3/30/15 chat.  Lets review his baseball-specific questions.

Q: Can you give some examples of big time pitchers having a second Tommy John after eight years? Is the sample size big enough?

A: I cannot off the top of my head, but would immediately say that, no matter what examples pop up, it isn’t a large enough sample size.  If just a handful of guys have had X procedure done and Y% were successful, its kind of hard to project that percentage onto the entire population of baseball-throwing pitchers in the world.  You can certainly draw inferences though.  This is the age of the internet, so sure enough there’s someone out there who has collected every TJ surgery that’s ever occurred.  Searching down this list for “2nd” or “3rd” you can find a list of players who have had multiple TJs.  And for the most part you’ve probably never heard of them.  But then again, most of them are also middle relievers from 15 years ago.   But some of the more recent names  have shown themselves to be problematic.  What’s needed is an “average time to 1st” TJ, then average time to 2nd, then average time afterwards.  Of course, if you have your first at 28 and your second at 34 … who is to say that you weren’t that much closer to retirement anyway, so its kind of hard to draw inferences to pre- and post- surgery performance the older you are.  So we may be mixing aging with surgical concerns.  Boswell talks about how teams like to model everything these days.

Q: Nats Bench: who’s in and who’s out?

A: We’ve talked at length about this already, but my take (given the reading of the tea leaves *today*) is as follows: (link to spring training stats at b-r.com)

  • Werth, Span, McLouth and Rendon on the DL to start.
  • That means that (in order) Moore, Taylor, and Frandsen are in the starting lineup instead of these three.
  • Zimmerman and Escobar healthy enough to start the season.
  • With no injuries your bench was Lobaton, Espinosa, Frandsen. McLouth and Moore (arguable; maybe a lefty hitter instead of Moore).
  • But with 4 injuries, that means to me that Gwynn Jr, Taylor, Stewart and maybe Robinson make the team to start the season.
  • I don’t think the team keeps Uggla.  I think the likes of Carp and Ka’aihue have failed to impress this spring and are due to be released any day.
  • I could be entirely wrong about Uggla and Stewart.

Boswell just says that with three regulars out, “the whole world” will make the bench. 

Q: Given Bryce Harper’s very average offensive stats (career .272BA), why the continued hoopla?

A: Man, talk about someone who just doesn’t get it.  I was reading someone talking about Dodger’s phenom Joc Peterson the other day, talking about his great spring and how he might be the 2015 ROY.  Pederson is SIX MONTHS OLDER than Harper, who will be entering basically his fourth full pro season in 2015.   No, Harper’s career stats aren’t Mike Trout‘s.  Whose are?  If Harper had “played by the rules” and graduated HS on time (in May 2010), and then attended college, played 3 years there, and then would have been drafted in June 2013, played a handful of pro games in 2013 and would have played his first full pro season in 2014, likely in A-Ball.  Instead of what Harper was doing; hitting 3 bombs in the NLDS to single handedly attempt to keep the Nats in the playoffs.

Harper’s achievements are *historic* for someone at his age.  If he had a full, un-injured season, maybe we’d be talking about MVPs instead of whining about what he is or isn’t.

Boswell’s first sentence reaction says it all: You’re kidding, right?  Maybe we both took the bait.

Q: When do these NRIs have their opt-out dates?  Will any stay in AAA as depth?

A: I’m sure someone closer to the team knows, or has asked each guy.  I’d guess most have opt-out dates just prior to when they’d get sent down.  Maybe a couple of the vets would stick around as depth, but not likely; if I was their agent i’d be scouring the injury lists looking at teams with holes at the corners (or in Uggla’s case 2nd/DH) and looking for a move.  Boswell doesn’t know either, saying the beat writers might.

Q: When will Washington get an All-Star Game?

A: Good question; up to now I had assumed the snubbing was thanks to the questionable areas around the stadium.  Between 2008 and now, lots has changed for the better, so the area will show better to fans.  There have been plenty of parks to open *after* Nats Park but to have already been awarded games though, and it is kind of insulting to the team.  Boswell says that the commissioner coming to DC for opening day may be the day that he announces that we’ll get the 2018 game.

Q: How do you reconcile Pete Rose’s banishment with MLB’s recent partnership with DraftKings?

A: Not a bad question.  Is the answer simply the parsing of gambling involvement as a direct participant (Rose as manager of the Reds betting on his own games) versus some nerd in his cube playing a daily fantasy game?  Boswell doesn’t really answer … but admits that he’s giving a “get off my lawn” answer.  Wow.

Q: How much of Spring Training is legitimate getting ready for regular season and how much is local tourism dollar generation?

A: Pitchers say they need every minute.  Hitters probably could cut a couple weeks out and be ok.  Its always been this way; i doubt it has much of anything to do with local pressure.  Boswell seems it could be a future column.

Q: Even with the possibility of TJ2, if Strasburg has a great season and contributes to a winning one for the Nats, isn’t it worth taking a chance on him rather than relying on unproven prospects.

A: I’m not sure it is so easy.  Strasburg is a Boras client.  That means he’s going to get to FA.  No ifs, ands or buts.  Strasburg is from Southern California.  There are several wealthy baseball teams that spend a lot of money in southern california.  The Nats could pretty easily get priced out of the market for Strasburg and opt to keep a hitter (ahem, Harper?) instead of a pitcher for their spare gazillions of dollars.  Especially since (and here I’ll disagree with the questioner) we have more than a few very highly touted prospect pitchers on the way.  There’s a difference between “unproven prospect” and “top 100 prospect,” and the Nats have a few of them.  If one of them pitches just as well as Strasburg but costs the team just the MLB min salary …well that’s quite a bargain.

Q: Should we ever again believe that Nat’s payroll budget is ‘topped out’?

A: Fool me once … yeah I dunno what to make of this.  I thought the proclamation of $135M as “the top” meant that the Nats were in line to move one of their $16-$18M players this past off-season.  Didn’t happen.  And then they committed $210M to Scherzer.  So who knows.  Boswell doesn’t know either.

Q: Do you see Gio getting traded during the season?

A: Nope, nor do I ever see him getting traded.  He’s a #3 starter getting paid #5 veteran money.  Great deal, workable enough arm,  you keep him and he’s a part of the rotation until his contract is up.   Boswell agrees.

Q: Does Michael Taylor start on opening day?

A: Yeah, I think he does.  Boswell agrees, and thinks he’ll lead-off too.

Q: How is the front office consistently wrong with the timetable back for injured players?

A: Misdirection, Stan.  Misdirection.  (link NSFW – language).  What benefit is it to tell the media the truth about anything?  Bill Bellichek is the master of lying to the media about his player injury statuses.  That being said … the Nats do seem to be a fragile bunch who take much longer than initially projected to heal.  Is there a problem with the medical staff?  How would you “prove” such an assertion even if you thought it was true?  Boswell tells some parable from his early Orioles days.

 


Last thing: as I was penning this masterpiece, I saw the Jerry Blevins trade float across the wire.  My initial reactions here:

  • Blevins was pretty good against lefties, but otherwise wasn’t great in 2014.
  • The team probably likes what they have in Thornton, Cedeno and Grace.
  • Blevins was out of options.
  • As is Cedeno.
  • The team’s OF crunch means they could use a guy who can play CF, and that’s what Matt den Dekker can do.
  • There might be some small bit of ego-driven animosity from their arbitration hearing, as noted in the Ken Rosenthal tweet in the above link.

End result; team saves a bit of cash and gets some flexibility, again dealing from a position of strength and thus enabling them to “keep” a guy in Cedeno who was on his way out the door yesterday.

Of course (in another bit of breaking news monday afternoon) it probably wasn’t the best day to be dealing a reliever.  Drew Storen left a ST game with an “apparent injury” and Casey Janssen is having an MRI on his shoulder, never a good thing.  Hey guys, Rafael Soriano is still a FA!

What the heck is going on with this team this spring injury wise?

 

Written by Todd Boss

March 30th, 2015 at 4:28 pm

Ask Boswell 3/23/15 Edition

14 comments

Scherzer is your 2015 opening day starter.  Photo via Scherzer's twitter account.

Scherzer is your 2015 opening day starter. Photo via Scherzer’s twitter account.

So, I’ve been quiet on the blog front lately.  Not much to write about right now, other than the injury bug that seems to be going around camp.  Max Scherzer named the opening day starter; I guess that’s news for a Monday.

Lets peek at today’s Tom Boswell 3/23/15 chat to see what kind of questions he fielded.  Despite it being post-March Madness, there’s still some baseball talk going on.  As always, I answer here before reading Boswell’s answer and edit questions for clarity.

Q: Say the Nats are under .500 after a couple of weeks. Will a full-scale panic start, or are team and fans’ nerves stronger than that?

A: Maybe the media’s panic will set in, but probably not the fans.  If the team is sub .500 after two months … you’d have to start asking some questions.  Same kind of questions we asked basically all of 2013.  Of course, that being said, the Nats’ early-season calendar isn’t exactly challenging:  10 of their first 11 series of the year are against teams that were sub .500 last year.  Now, we are expecting some of these teams (especially Boston, San Diego, Miami) to be much improved from last year … but the point remains.  The team has no excuse to not come out of the gates firing.  Boswell notes that if all the current injured Nats remain hurt on 4/1 … that fans will expect a long April.  He then goes on a long tangent about how screwed up the Dodgers are right now.

Q: Notwithstanding Taylor’s excellent weekend; I don’t understand why Williams would bat him lead-off (regardless of Taylor’s leadoff “skills”) but wouldn’t bat Harper higher than sixth.  Does Williams have a double standard for prospects not named Harper?

A: A good question.  Certainly some people have questioned Matt Williams‘ ongoing public criticisms of Bryce Harper.  Why call him out, in the media, for his supposed transgression of baiting the runner into trying for second?  Dude; its the 2nd week of March; it isn’t a big deal.  Except by calling him out in public, it *becomes* a big deal since Harper is such a lightening rod in the National media (deserved or not).  My two cents: there’s no lack of evidence coming out of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization over the last few  years about the institutional bull-headedness concerning “the right way to play” and other old-school baseball idioms, and it seems to me that Williams has continued his dogged old-school ways as the on-field leader of the Nats.  Is this a good thing?  Probably not.  Harper is talented enough to back up his actions (see last year’s NLCS when Harper was one of only two Nats hitters to bother making the trip to SF).  But will this conflict become a distraction?  Will it drive Harper from this team eventually?

Sorry for that tangent.  To answer the question at hand; with Denard Span out, *someone* has to bat lead off, and if you’re an “old school” guy who do you pick?  Do you pick the skinny, fast center fielder?  Or do you take a smarter look at your hitter capabilities?  I guess we’ll see.  Boswell says that Taylor batted leadoff in the minors, so he’s ok there.  Uh; the bush leagues playing infront of a few hundred people isn’t quite the majors.  Oh, and Boswell conveniently “explains” why Harper was batting 6th too.  Williams, the old-school manager for the old-school baseball writer Boswell.

Q: Why is Pete Rose back in the news with regard to reinstatement?

A: Because new commissioner Rob Manfred was dumb enough to engage Pete Rose‘s request?   The Dowd report was a pretty galling chronicle of Rose’s activities.  I think Rose appears as a sympathetic figure because of the ardor to which former commissioner Bart Giamatti pursued his penalty.  I too was sympathetic to Rose, feeling like baseball went far out of its way to rid themselves of him at the time.

But, now with time and retrospection, Rose’s sins were pretty bad.

I think the best way for baseball to deal with the likes of Rose, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens and perhaps others will to eventually create a special election with large caveats to their enshrinement.  Yes these players were among the best in the game … but broke cardinal sins against the game.  Imagine a veteran’s committee designed to create a permanent special exhibit in Cooperstown dedicated to great players who have clouds surrounding their names.  I dunno.  The cynical part of me says that the museum based in upstate New York has no incentive to *ever* stop the rhetoric surrounding these guys.  It gets tiresome to argue about the *same things* over and over … but we do it anyway, year after year.

Boswell coincidentally advocates for Rose for the HoF but not an active role in the game. 

Q: With the Nats celebrating ten years in the District, do you have any random memories that stand out since they’ve been in town?

A: I put out a post periodically that talks about “Best games” in Nats history.  This question kind of feels like the games captured in this post and in the comments.   No need to re-answer.

Q: Who deserves the opening day start?

A: You can make a pretty cogent argument for any of the three of Strasburg, Scherzer or Zimmermann.  Strasburg since he’s gotten three straight such starts and normally you don’t replace the home-grown “Ace” of a team.  That’d be my choice and my argument, coincidentally.  Zimmermann b/c of his no-hitter last year and generally accepted stance as the “actual” best hurler on the team.  But its now known that Scherzer is getting the nod (not a real big surprise once you saw how the rotation was laid out starting from early spring).  For me (as noted in the prior thread’s comments), Scherzer is the only guy with a Cy Young to his name, so it isn’t surprising that players’ manager Williams goes with the veteran with the most career accomplishment in that ceremonial spot.  Works for me; we just bought our opening day tickets (we’re in section 131 I think) so I look forward to seeing him pitch.  Boswell says that Strasburg’s sore ankle cost him the spot.  BS. 

Q: With the likelihood of multiple starters starting the season on the DL, how do you see that effecting the bench players on the roster.

A: We’ve talked about this before, but clearly it means that at least one, perhaps two NRIs are getting opening day jobs.  And it means that some options-limited guys are getting shots too.  If Span is out a month, Werth can’t make opening day, if Rendon is down and out, if Escobar can’t get enough reps … that’s a lot of spots to fill.  For me, just guessing, i’d say the team heads north with Tyler Moore, Tony Gwynn Jr, Michael Taylor and maybe Ian Stewart to start the season.  Dan Uggla?  Numbers are good; lots of walks.  But he can’t play 3B (not well, presumably) and its 3B where the team might need some cover.  Boswell is more bullish on Uggla, thinking he’d be a huge steal.  I dunno; can’t play SS, doesn’t bat lefty. 

Q: Are there going to be any longer-term impacts to demoting Tanner Roark to the bullpen?

A: Maybe.  Is it a coincidence that Roark has the worst starter stats of any pitcher this spring?  Probably not; spring training NRIs have a tendency to be uber aggressive, and minor league defenders aren’t always adept at catching the ball when playing out of position.  Maybe not; Roark’s attitude has sounded great, and he’s hopefully being told that he’s first in line and likely will get a big number of starts filling in for the inevitable injuries.  He’ll have his rotation spot back next year for sure.   Boswell doesn’t think so.

Q: If the Nats don’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs this year (assuming they will make it), do you think the fans develop the same anxiety that Caps fans have over the years?

A: Yes.  Two playoff appearances, two “best record in the majors” and two impotent first round exits to wild cards.  If the Nats fail in 2015, then  yeah we may begin to wonder what’s going on.  Boswell points out that the Caps have one of the worst track records in professional sports.

Q: What is your opening day lineup (including who leads off) given the injury spate?

A: If it were me?  If we assume that everyone who is  hurt is *not* making it to opening day, I’ll go with something like this:

Escobar-Desmond-Harper-Zimmerman-Ramos-Moore-Frandsen-Taylor pitcher.  Escobar at 2B, Moore in LF, Frandsen at 3B and Taylor in CF.  Not a great lineup.

A better assumption is that Rendon and Werth will make opening day, which makes the lineup a lot easier.  Escobar-Rendon-Harper-Zimmerman-Werth-Desmond-Ramos-Taylor-pitcher.  When Span returns, put Escobar at #8 and that’s that.

Boswell doesn’t give a leadoff-suggestion, but using induction by reduction, he’s likely pushing for Escobar at lead-off too.

Q: Is it time to cut the cord on Espinosa?

A: Not until you find someone else who can play short stop in a pinch who isn’t already slated to start.  Boswell gives a non-answer too.  I don’t feel bad.

 

Ladson’s inbox 3/1/15

35 comments

Roark; the lost starter.  Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Roark; the lost starter. Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

I havn’t posted something in weeks.  I was facing writers block.  What is there to really write about in the early weeks of Spring Training?  Thankfully, MLB.com beat reporter Bill Ladson piped up with an inbox!

As always, these are (presumably) real questions from (presumably) real Nats fans who took time out of their busy day to email Ladson personally.  And as always, i write my response here before reading his so as not to color my own opinion.


Q: Would the Nationals consider a six-man rotation so Tanner Roark isn’t left out?

A: Uh, no.   You don’t commit $210M to Max Scherzer and then immediately tell him and all the other veterans in the rotation that their entire work preparation process is going to be adjusted, for the first time ever by any MLB team, to account for a guy with a year and a half of service in Tanner Roark.

By going to a 6-man rotation for an entire 162-game season,  you’d be lowering the number of starts for each guy by at least 6.  What would you rather have, 6 less starts by the likes of Scherzer and Strasburg, or 20-some starts for Roark?  I like Roark too, and trust me I wouldn’t mind a bit for a trade to enable him to be the 5th starter again, but this team has made its bed with this contract.

Ladson says that Roark will be in the bullpen as the long man when the season starts.  Cutting-edge analysis!

Q: If the Nationals and Jordan Zimmermann cannot come to an agreement and he signs somewhere else, what kind of effect will this have on the Nationals in general?

A: Not as much as you might think.  Yes, losing a near-Ace is never good, but this team has a 5-win starter pushed to the bullpen right now, and has significant depth in AAA.  I’m of the belief that a lot of the Scherzer signing was about providing rotation stability through the next few years as the team (likely) parts ways with a significant portion of its current rotation through free agency.  Two years from now you’re probably looking at a rotation that goes Scherzer, Gonzalez, Roark, Cole and Giolito.  And the Nats will have likely acquired a whole slew of upper-level prospects either by trade or by virtue of supplemental draft picks.  Ladson confidently says “there will be no effect at all” because Matt Williams “won’t allow it.”  Beat reporter bravado?  Of *course* there will be an effect; we’re talking about what will probably be a difficult and nasty separation when all is said and done.

Q: Why is Gio Gonzalez starting over Roark? Roark is clearly better. Gio won’t throw strikes.

A: Simple answer: because Gonzalez is lefty.  Secondary issue; Gonzalez is getting paid more than 20 *times* what Roark is in 2015.  I’m not entirely in disagreement here; I’ve been a Roark believer ever since he got called up.  But he’s going to be the odd man out in this competition no matter how good he looks this spring.  Ladson says Gio was his good ole self after getting past his shoulder injury.

Q: I like Drew Storen and his numbers are, overall, excellent. I have to admit, though, I worry about him in close games in the postseason. Am I overly concerned about the fact that 2012 and ’14 playoffs saw him blow saves in key games?

A: Three words for you: Short.  Sample.  Size.  Like it or not (and I too fall victim to this), you just can’t look at a couple of outings in the post-season and judge a guy.  Exhibit 1a: Clayton Kershaw‘s career post-season era is 5.12.    I killed Storen‘s 2014 NLDS performance too, but in reality he was rather unlucky to blow Zimmermann’s gem (Posey kind of fisted the ball into center and then Sandoval hit a down-and-away pitch for a very well-placed double to tie the game).  Storen’s regular season record speaks for itself right now: he had a frigging 1.12 ERA last year!

I say, lets worry about *making* the post-season first, then lets see how the games go.  At some point you have to think the Nats will, you know, hit the ball in a post-season series to the point where it won’t matter whether our closer will pitch a 1-2-3 ninth.  Lets you forget: the team slash line in the 2014 NLDS was .164/.222/.258 and in the 2012 NLDS was .232/.290/.393.  That’s not very good.

Ladson basically says the same thing.

Q: Do you expect a significant contribution from any of the players signed to Minor League contracts?

A: We already talked about the NRIs in depth.  Short answer is this: *maybe* one of the veteran right handers might have an impact but not immediately.  And we might very well see one of the lefty-hitting vets pushing Tyler Moore for the last spot on the roster.  Ladson thinks Mike Carp in particular is going to contribute off the bench … which means he’s predicting Carp to make the 25-man roster?

Q: Which Minor Leaguers could get called up during the season?

A: I think we’ll see at least three of the AAA starters at some point during the  year (guessing Treinen, Cole and Jordan).   I could see Matt Grace getting some MLB time.  I’m sure we’ll see a backup catcher in Dan Butler at some point.  If Michael Taylor doesn’t start out on the 25-man roster to replace Jayson Werth, then i’m sure we’ll see him at some point.

Perhaps a better question would be this: what non-40man roster guys could you see getting call-ups mid-season?  Rafael Martin comes to mind, as well as someone like Emmanuel Burriss or Matt Skole if the team gets stuck on the injury front.

Ladson mentions Cole and Grace … and then says that he could see Giolito getting a September call-up.  That’s the dumbest thing i’ve read in a while.  Why in god’s name would we want to start Giolito’s clock early like that??  If he’s MLB ready by the end of 2015 …. then you sit on him in AAA for two weeks in 2016 and call him up mid-April.  That’s it.  Every day he spends pitching useless innings in Sept 2015 would be another day the team has to wait for him in 2016. 

Q: Do you see Danny Espinosa on this team in 2016? It seems like he has gotten a lot more slack than anyone on the team. Additionally, what are the team’s long-term plans for second base?

A: I see no reason for Espinosa not to be on this team in 2016, if he continues to serve as an adequate backup.  There’s no reason to cut him, and there’s not really anyone better who is that close to the majors.   I’m not sure if i’d characterize the way the Nationals have handled him as “slack;” in fact the Nats have now gone out of their way to replace him as the starter both with the Cabrera trade mid-2014 and with the Escobar trade this past off-season.  Long term you have to think the team is waiting for Wilmer Difo as the long-term 2B solution .. if he can step it up and advance two levels in 2015 he may be ready by mid 2016.   I’m not as convinced that Tony Renda (who is “ahead” of Difo on the org 2b chart) is a real MLB prospect at this point.  There’s practically nobody of interest at either AAA or AA right now who rates as a prospect.  There’s also a possiblity that newly-acquired-but-not-yet-with-us Trea Turner could be a solution … but the team is hoping he can stick at short.  Ladson basically agrees.

 

 

Ladson’s inbox 2/2/15

49 comments

Scherzer is on everyone's mind.  Photo via Scherzer's twitter account.

Scherzer is on everyone’s mind. Photo via Scherzer’s twitter account.

Love it; another inbox to analyze.  In the wake of the Scherzer signing, lets see what kind of questions MLB.com beat reporter Bill Ladson fielded this week.

As always, I answer as I write before reading Ladson’s answer, and edit questions for clarity as needed.

Q: How much better will the Nationals be now that right-hander Max Scherzer is on the roster?

A: Well, if you play the “WAR analysis” game, then Max Scherzer replaces Tanner Roark in the rotation for 2015.   Scherzer posted a bWAR of 5.5 in 2014 while Roark posted a bWAR of 4.8.  So on the face of it, assuming that both players provide identical value in 2015 as they did in 2014, perhaps Scherzer won’t immediately impact the team.  This is the essence of those immediate-post signing blogs and columns that questioned why the Nats needed to make this acquisition.

However.  I offer some counters.

  1. Roark immediately becomes your spot-starter to cover for injury.  Lets say that Gio Gonzalez (bWAR in 2014 of just 2.1) gets hurt and Roark covers for him; well that’s nearly a 3-WAR improvement.  Certainly Roark is going to be better than whatever AAA cover we could promote to provide injury relief.  The Nats only gave 12 13 starts to non-core rotation guys in 2014 but more than twice that number in 2013; the odds are that an injury is going to hit the rotation at some point.
  2. Scherzer will be better in 2015 than he was in 2014.  Why?  He moves to the NL, gets to face pitchers instead of DHs, faces generally weaker lineups, plays in a weaker division and pitches in more parks that are pitcher friendly.  You can make the argument that his K/9 is going to increase significantly (if he faces the pitcher 60-70 times in a season, he likely strikes them out at least half of that), and his ERA likely falls at least a half a point.  That will boost his WAR for 2015.
  3. Scherzer going twice in a seven game playoff series is going to be better than having any one else getting that second start.  In fact, a 1-2-3 punch of Strasburg, Zimmermann and Scherzer is one heck of a daunting task for any opponent.
  4. And there’s this: not to completely re-hash my post on the Scherzer signing, but i’ll note that this signing (to me) seems like a way to bridge the gap and guarantee an “Ace” in the rotation through the next two off-seasons of rotation transition (where the team likely loses Zimmermann, Fister and Strasburg).  The Nats rotation looks an awful lot better after these three guys are gone if Scherzer is leading the line.  So to me this isn’t a move about 2015 as much as it is about getting this team to 2017 and maintaining competitiveness.

Ladson said very little about answer the question, using his answer to immediately talk about the offense and the bench.  Yeah we know there’s issues there.  And we all remember how the middle of the order went like 1-for-the NLDS.  Wasn’t the question.

Q: Why didn’t Espinosa work on hitting right-handed exclusively after the season ended? If Espinosa made that transition successfully, he would be the answer at second base.

A: A good question.  Not the first time this topic has come up.  We’ve discussed it to death here but the reasons seem to fall along the following:

  1. Espinosa may be getting “advice” from his agent (Scott Boras) to put his own interests first.
  2. Espinosa may be “stubborn” about maintaining his switch hitting, given that it is a differentiator in the marketplace for him.
  3. Espinsoa may just be uneasy about suddenly facing right-handed curve balls from the right-hand side, probably having not faced such a situation in more than a decade (a fair point).

We all know about his splits lefty versus righty.  We all know he has not chosen to try RH-only.  I think its also safe to say that the organization has gone out of its way (Asdrubal Cabrera last season and now Yunel Escobar) to replace him in the starting lineup despite his defensive skills.  It is what it is; we now have a backup infielder on the roster to cover both 2B and SS and who has some pop from the plate in a backup capacity (and the associated K-rate of course).  Not the worst thing in the world to have.  Ladson says … well he stated the obvious (Escobar is the starter) and then says that the “Nats hope Espinosa cuts down on his strike-outs.”  Non-answer.

Q: How come Jeff Kobernus is not being considered for the starting second-base job? Why not have a young, cost-controlled guy play every day?

A: Because Kobernus hasn’t played 2B basically since college full-time since a half-season stint in Harrisburg in 2012.  The team moved him to the OF and he’s mostly stayed there.  Even if you thought he could play second effectively, he’s got a career minor league slash line of .285/.331/.363.   He is what he is: a utility guy who can cover in case of a slew of injuries and makes for a good 9/1 pinch running/6th outfielder call-up, but that’s about it.  I don’t think you can count on him to produce at the major league level day-in and day-out.  Ladson says Kobernus has a chance of making the bench out of spring training this year, which I disagree with.

Q: Asdrubal Cabrera signed with the Rays for one-year, $7.5 million. Why couldn’t the Nats make that deal? Or something close to it?

A: Probably because Cabrera wanted to play short-stop, and the Nats have a short-stop.  Besides, Escobar at $5M is a good deal.  I mentioned at some point in the off-season that Cabrera’s offensive output with Washington wasn’t too much better than Espinosa’s frankly (Cabrera’s split line with Washington in 2014 was .229/.312/.389; Escobar brings more to the table.  Ladson agrees, and says that the Nats weren’t willing to bring Cabrera back at his asking price based on what he showed last year.

Q: Why didn’t the Nats consider Tyler Clippard as their closer?

A: Hmm.  Good question.  Perhaps because when Clippard was given the closer job in 2012, he really struggled with it as compared to his typical 8th inning performance.   ERA in 2012 as closer: 3.72.  Career ERA: 2.88.  Besides, there was more in play for Clippard’s trade than just who was going to be the 2015 closer.  Clippard’s got a ton of miles on his arm, Clippard was set to make nearly 8 figures as a reliever, and the Nats felt like they could afford to part ways with him to acquire a player who filled a need.  Ladson notes what I noted, and said that Clippard’s pending free agency played into the decision.  That’s a great point that I didn’t mention; Clippard wasn’t going to be offered a qualifying offer (likely worth $16M next off-season), so he’d depart to no compensation.  With this trade, the Nats got some compensation for him.

Q: I know he’s had plenty of success as a general manager, but I’m surprised Mike Rizzo doesn’t feel any sense of urgency to try to sign Desmond or Jordan Zimmermann to an extension. What are your thoughts on this?

A: I think Mike Rizzo has been trying to extend these guys for more than two years.  “Sense of urgency?”  What else do you want to ask of the guy?  He by all accounts has offered both guys 9-figure deals, and has been rebuffed.  Do you think Ian Desmond is worth a 7yr/$100M deal?  Do you think Zimmermann is worth a 6yr/$150M deal?  Clearly to me the two players are valuing themselves higher than what the GM is valuing them, the GM has made what he thinks to be fair market value deals, and both guys have opted to test the market.  Baseball is a business, both on the player side and the team side.  Ladson thinks Rizzo will step up discussions once spring training happens.  I don’t; I think that the ship has more or less sailed on extending these guys at this point.  Now, will the team move Zimmermann?  I think we may see offers once James Shields signs…. if there’s teams out there that want to improve but miss out on Shields, they may come calling to the Nats with deals we cannot turn down.  We’ll see.  Overall thougth I’m doubtful any trades occur at this point.  My prediction: the juggernaut rotation goes into 2015 in-tact.

 

Ladson’s inbox 1/5/15

70 comments

Desmond is the hot topic today.  Photo Drew Kinback/Natsnq.com

Desmond is the hot topic today. Photo Drew Kinback/Natsnq.com

Well happy new year.  After going 9 months w/o a mailbag, MLB.com Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson has put out two in a row!

Here’s his 1/5/15 version.  I love doing these things.

Q: Do you see Trea Turner as a future leadoff hitter for the Nationals? If so, when? Ian Desmond has one year left on his contract, so I have to think the front office is counting on his rising through the Minor Leagues quickly like Anthony Rendon.

A: Yes, I can see Trea Turner as a lead-off hitter in the majors.  Blazing speed (some scouts have rated his speed at 80 on the 20-80 scale … which is a real rarity), excellent bat skills during his 3 years at NC State (a career college slash line of .342/.429/.507 playing in the nation’s toughest baseball conference), and in short sample sizes in the pros he’s got good OBP numbers.  Everything you want in a lead-off guy.  In college he had power (8 homers in 54 games his junior year playing with BBCOR bat, 2nd in the ACC); that’s a nice combination if it translates to the pros.

The question I have about Turner is whether he can stick at short.  Or, more to the point, if he’ll be a good enough shortstop to appease the defensive-minded Mike Rizzo.  All the scouting reports I’ve seen say the same thing: good fielder, great range … and an iffy arm that may push him to second.  Well, you have to think Rizzo acquired a guy like Turner specifically because he thinks Turner *can* stick at short, and is a ready-made replacement for Desmond.  Otherwise; why get him?  Its a heck of a lot easier to find a second baseman than a shortstop in this league (current issues replacing Danny Espinosa notwithstanding).

Can Turner be a fast riser? Well, he’s not nearly as accomplished a college player as Anthony Rendon (who, lets not forget, was College Player of the year as a sophomore).  Rendon ended his first pro season in AA and hit his way to the majors permanently by June of the following year.  That’s a pretty amazing trajectory.  And it included lost time to injury.  Turner ended his first pro season in low-A by way of comparison, and needs a two-level jump in 2015 to have a shot at a 2016 debut, and a 2-level jump next  year is going to be severely hampered by the fact that he’s likely to be languishing in San Diego’s spring training facility until June, when he can officially be traded.  He’s losing a half of year of development time most likely.  So, late 2016 to me is a more realistic goal, if everything goes well.

Meanwhile, that leaves a gap in the shortstop coverage if Ian Desmond leaves.  Here’s a thought; if Desmond leaves in FA after 2015, you put Espinosa back at his natural shortstop position, find a second baseman (Dan Uggla anyone? :-) ) and then wait for Turner to arrive.  If Turner can play short, so be it.  If he can’t, you put in at 2nd.  I like that plan.

Ladson says the Nats have “been quiet” on Turner since he’s not technically a Nationals player; makes sense; you wouldn’t want tampering charges.

Q: How is Desmond not locked up, or even the No. 1 priority? I understand Jordan Zimmermann is a staff ace, but shortstop is a prime position and every team desires one. Desmond is one of the best in baseball and can’t be replaced.

A: Because Desmond took a step back both offensively (from a 113 to a 103 OPS+) and defensively (UZR/150 from 4.4 to 0.1) in 2014 from the previous year.  I’d be slightly hesitant too.  I used to think that Elvis Andrus‘s contract was a fair comp for Desmond.  But now it looks like the Andrus contract was actually a massive over-pay, and valuing Desmond may be more difficult than we thought.

When I think about roster construction, you go up “the spine” of the team.  Catcher, Pitchers, Short and Center Field.  Those are the key positions to lock up with quality players.  So no arguments that Desmond and Shortstop in general are huge priorities.  But now the problem becomes this: is Desmond’s 2014 decline a one-off or a concern?  And, what is he worth?  If you think Andrus is an overpay ($15M a  year through 2022), and if Troy Tulowitzki is the best offensive shortstop in the game (at $20M/year for the next four years with annual injury issues), then where does Desmond fit in?  Some sampling of shortstop contracts: J.J. Hardy is 3/yrs/$40M for AAV of about $14M/year.  Jose Reyes makes $22M/year for the next three years, which seems rather high to me.   Jimmy Rollins is on an $11M option for 2015.  Jhonny Peralta is on a 4yr/$53M deal for an AAV of about $13M.  So clearly the market is at least $15M/year for a quality shortstop.

Based on who the Nats have in the pipeline at short (past Turner … practically nobody) and based on who projects to be available in FA in 2016 (also practically nobody), yes I think Desmond is a priority.  My guess is that the front office is juggling all sorts of stuff right now, and just hasn’t come to any conclusions.  I’d be perfectly comfortable offering him 5 to 6 years at an AAV of $15M (6yrs/$90M) with a club option; that’s clearly not enough as the team has offered him *more* than that in the past apparently and he’s turned it down.  He’s entering his age 29 season; that’d lock him up through his age 34 season … a gamble for a shortstop, but a good one for a franchise player who has been with the organization since he was 18.   I would have postulated that perhaps Desmond (with his Florida ties and the heavy Yankees presence down there) wanted to slide into the vacated Derek Jeter spot … but the Yankees just acquired a long term SS in Didi Gregorius, so maybe Desmond’s agent and him are strategizing.  Besides; Washington seems like a better positioned franchise right now than the Yankees (as hard as that is to write) for post-season positioning.

Ladson points out the Nats offered Desmond in excess of $100m and then cryptically says “lets see what happens in the next few weeks.”

Q: I noticed Rafael Furcal is a free agent. Might the Nats sign him as a veteran middle-infield stopgap until Turner and Wilmer Difo are ready?

A: Rafael Furcal?!  Wow,that’s a heck of a pull.  You mean the same Furcal who has played in a grand total of 9 major league games since 2012 thanks to injuries and will be 37 next season?  He hasn’t played a full season of injury-free baseball since 2009.  Why would we possibly consider this guy?   No way; there’s younger, more reliable middle infield options out there.  Difo, by the way, played in low-A last  year.  I don’t think we’re seeing him anytime soon.  Mid 2017 maybe?  Ladson says that Furcal *tore* his hamstring in Winter Ball; geeze.  He also states the obvious; we’ll see lots of Dan Uggla and that we should trade for Ben Zobrist.  Thanks for the scoops there, Bill.

Q: What are your predictions as to how the NL East will stack up in 2015, especially given personnel changes and improved health throughout the division?

A: Nats win the division with 90 wins.  Marlins 2nd with like an 83-79 record.  Mets in 3rd at about .500.  Braves in 4th at about 75 wins.  Phillies last place, with somewhere in the 68 range of wins.  Ladson seems to go Nats-Marlins-Mets too.

Q: I’m frustrated by Desmond’s strikeouts. If he could make contact for 20 percent of his strikeouts, he would be all world. What can the Nats do to help him make more consistent contact — just patience at the plate for better pitch selection?

A: Welcome to modern baseball.  Swing for the fences all the time; strikeouts be damned.  Nobody remembers you struck out 180 times when you  hit 20+ dingers from the short-stop position.  Now … strike out 122 times in 119 games and hit .220?  Then you’re in trouble, Mr. Espinosa.  As far as the question goes; maybe you park Desmond further down the order, tell him he’s not a run producer any more and tell him to focus less on homers, more on solid contact.  Maybe that helps.  Maybe not; the Nats offense is seemingly always a man down, which means Desmond is always pushed into a 3-4-5 hole spot, where he’s looking to drive in runs.  I expect similar numbers in 2015.  Ladson reminds us that Desmond had the flu last  year.  

 

Ladson’s Inbox 12/27/14

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Espinosa continues to be the leading player on the minds of Nats fans. Photo AP via mlb.com

Espinosa continues to be the leading player on the minds of Nats fans. Photo AP via mlb.com

Happy Holidays!  What a nice surprise; mlb.com Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson posted his first mailbag/inbox column since January 2014.  He must have been bored during the holiday lull in baseball news.

As always, since its been like a year since I did one of these, I write my response question by question before reading Ladson’s, and sometimes edit questions for clarity.

Q: Assuming the Nationals don’t make any acquisitions via trade or free agency, what is their in-house solution for second base?

A: Well, in order they’d likely start Danny Espinosa and bat him 8th.  And, if the fans’ had their choice, he’d abandon switch hitting, bat righty only and probably have a career resurgence.  Just a reminder: Espinosa’s career lefty split is .213/.283/.362 while his career righty split is .271/.343/.460.  Espinosa is so good defensively that i’m not entirely opposed to him being the starter; he can spell Ian Desmond at short (in fact, I’ve always thought Espinosa was a better shortstop defensively) and makes up for his awful switch hitting by being so good defensively (but not nearly enough to prevent the team from shopping).

After Espinosa, you have utility guy Kevin Frandsen having stated publicly he wants to be considered for the job.  Problem with Frandsen is this; he’s been even WORSE offensively the last two years than Espinosa; he has a .624 OPS in the last two years.  I hope there’s not anyone who thinks he’s a better solution.  Youngster Wilmer Difo was just added to the 40-man roster, but he’s never played above low-A.  That’s basically the roster of middle infielder options on the 40-man roster.  Jeff Kobernus played 2B in college but has long since been converted to an outfielder in this organization, so he’s not really an option either.  Looking deeper into the minor leagues, there’s some MLFA options at AAA (the likes of DC-native Emmanuel Burriss, current MLFA and Virginia-native Will Rhymes, or maybe even our own long-time org player Jose Lozada), and a couple of Nats draftees who have yet to pan out (Rick Hague and Jason Martinson).  But none of these guys are better options than just sticking with Espinosa.

Hence, the reason the team is looking at trade/FA options.  There’s a ton of 2B options that are likely available in trade or still on the FA market; its arguable that any of them are better options than just staying the course though.  So it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the team stood pat.

Ladson reviews the same three 40-man options and comes to the same conclusions as I do, and says he sees a trade.  He likes a trade for Ben Zobrist, like I do, but Tampa is notoriously hard-bargaining.  What would we be willing to give up to get Zobrist?

Q: Why are the Nationals willing to trade their best pitcher, Jordan Zimmermann? Wouldn’t Stephen Strasburg get them a better return?

A: I’m sure Strasburg would get a better return; he’s got two years of control instead of just one, and is scheduled to make a third of what Zimmermann will make in 2015.  I feel Strasburg is in some ways actually under-rated; despite a pedestrian 14-11 record in 2014, here’s his ranks in the entire majors in some quick categories: 13th in fWAR, 3rd in xFIP, 13th in FIP, 5th in K/9, and 5th in SIERA.  Teams are now smarter when it comes to acquiring control; a year of Zimmermann at $16M+ isn’t going to bring back that much anyway (see what the Rays got for David Price, for less money and TWO years of control).

And then there’s this: teams that are trying to win do not trade pitchers like Strasburg.  Plain and simple; it would be fan-relations suicide to move Strasburg right now.  The team just won the division by 17 games and their closest rival is having a fire sale; why on earth would the Nats look to move someone like Strasburg?  So that being said, why are they willing to trade Zimmermann?  I think it comes down to several reasons:

1. Money: As i’ve discussed in the past, the Nats payroll was at $135M at the beginning of 2014 and projects to nearly $150M without any subsequent moves.   150M minus Zimmermann’s 16.5M 2015 salary looks an awful lot like the payroll from 2014….

2. Practicality: You don’ t need to win your division by 15 games.  You can still win by 5 games and make the playoffs.  If the Nats can trim payroll, turn Zimmermann into something that look better than what we may get in a supplemental 1st round pick, AND still win the division in 2015?  Wins all around.

Ladson says several things I disagree with; he thinks Zimmermann would bring back a “kings ransom” and he thinks Rizzo is going to “get a deal done” with Zimmermann this off-season. 

Q: Given that he’s at an age where he needs to play regularly, does Tyler Moore have a chance of backing up first baseman Ryan Zimmerman in ’15?

A: Not sure what Tyler Moore‘s age has to do with anything; if you’re 22 or 42 you’re going to get ABs in the majors if you can play.   To the question at hand; right now i’m projecting Moore to be the 25th guy on the active roster.  That doesn’t mean he’ll make it, but he does fill a position of need; right handed power off the bench.  Had the Nats not traded Stephen Souza Moore might be a goner.  Now?  He could still make the team.  But somehow I sense that perhaps the team will look to flip him and/or bring in veteran competition for his bench spot.   Ladson states the obvious, saying the team will look to trade him since he’s out of options.

Q: Since it appears Michael Taylor is considered the future center fielder, can you see the team holding on to Denard Span beyond ’15?

A: In a word; nope.  I’m guessing that Taylor will get some experience as a backup in 2014 (and frankly may get a ton of at-bats, since our outfield isn’t exactly an injury-free haven), and soon the team will have a guy who can play a better CF than Span, hit with more power and run with more speed.  All in all, I think Taylor will be an improvement over Span in nearly every category and for 1/20th the cost.  Ladson says it depends on how Taylor does.

Q: Last year, the Nationals’ pinch-hitting average was terrible. Any hope it gets better?

A: So far … not really.  The bench is still projecting to be basically the same guys as in 2014.   Frandsen, Loboton, McLouth and Moore.  The only change is the dumping of Scott Hairston for Taylor.  But Taylor’s K rate is still high, which means we’ll likely see continued crummy pinch hitting.  Ladson points out the Nats havn’t had a good bench since 2012. 

Q: How is Lucas Giolito doing? Will he fill a rotation spot if Zimmermann or Doug Fister is traded?

A: Not in 2015.  Maybe by mid 2016 if Giolito has a two-level jump this year.  Giolito’s best case is to completely shut down high-A in April and force a promotion to AA by mid-season.  If that happens, then maybe we’re looking at a mid-April call up in 2016, just in time to replace the potentially departed FAs Zimmermann and/or Fister.  But this is a very heady dream; remember; Giolito is still on an innings limit, is still just 20 years of age (he turns 20 in July of 2015), and most pitchers his age are still in college,  yet to even be drafted.

If we move Zimmermann or Fister this off-season, then we’re looking at drawing from our AAA rotation for the 5th starter.  One of Treinen, Hill, Jordan or Cole.  Probably in that order, thanks to 40-man and experience implications.

Ladson is bullish on Giolito; thinks he’ll start in AA and get a call-up in September.  That’d be pretty aggressive.

Q: Why didn’t the Nats go after Russell Martin? Their catchers are less than adequate. Is Wilson Ramos still the guy?

A: Disagree here.  When healthy Ramos is a beast.  Remember he was the frigging opening day 2014 clean-up hitter.  The last thing the Nats needed to do was spend millions on someone like Martin.  Lobaton is more than adequate of a backup, cost-controlled and we traded a hefty price (Nathan Karns) to acquire him.  Ladson agrees with me.