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Roark commits to pitch in WBC: why this is potentially Bad News for the Nats

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Roark's playing in the WBC; beware Nats fans. Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Roark’s playing in the WBC; beware Nats fans. Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Word came out that Nats under-rated star Tanner Roark has committed to pitch for the US in the World Baseball Classic (WBC) coming up this spring.  He was invited earlier but had yet to commit, and his participation comes on the heels of word that Max Scherzer would be bowing out of the WBC thanks to a stress fracture in one of his fingers.  (Which, as a side note/tangent, is pretty distressing news that may be under reported; our $200M ace has a fractured knuckle??  Should we be worried?  anyway, back to the post).

Four years ago, I wrote a post titled “Gonzalez to play in WBC: why this is really Bad News for the Nats” and I’m recycling that post (and title) here, because the message is the same: This is not good news for the Nats and t heir 2017 season.

Simply put: Every Nationals pitcher who has *ever* participated in the WBC has regressed from previous performance in the season following.

Here’s a quick table showing every Nats WBC pitcher with their ERA and ERA+ the season before their WBC participation and subsequent to it:

WBC YrPitcher NameERA Season beforeERA season AfterERA+ season beforeERA+ season after
2006Luis Ayala2.66inj153inj
2006Chad Cordero1.823.19225134
2006Gary Majewski2.934.6113996
2009Joel Hanrahan3.954.7810989
2009Saul Rivera3.966.110970
2013Gio Gonzalez2.893.36138113
2013Ross Detwiler3.41184.0494

As you can see; every single one of our pitchers was either injured or regressed (mostly significantly) after playing in the WBC.  The worst case was Luis Ayala, who pitched against the wishes of the team and blew out his elbow on the field during the WBC.  That injury cost him the entire 2006 season.

But this is just our team’s experiences.  How about Baseball wide?  MLB has endeavored itself to argue that participation in the WBC does not lead to an increase in injuries amongst its players and especially pitchers.  But we’re not talking about injuries here; we’re talking about performance.   Here are two very well done studies that show the negative impact of pitching in the WBC:

  1. This July 2010 study on Fangraphs
  2. This Feb 2013 study from BaseballPress.com
  3. A 2014 study at BeyondtheBoxScore that does really in-depth studies of all three WBCs that uses better numbers than I do.

The BaseballPress study shows some of the same numbers I’ve shown above, but conducts the analysis across every pitcher who participated in both WBCs prior to the 2013.  And the results are pretty evident; across the board on average pitchers regressed both in the year of the WBC and in the year after.  The BeyondtheBoxScore tries to do a much more scientific approach using control groups and finds less significant/trivial regression, but depends on projection systems and not year over year performance, which is kind of the point; we live in the real world, not projection systems.

It isn’t hard to figure out why these guys regress; playing in the WBC interupts the decades-old Spring Training plans for getting a starting pitcher ready for a season by slowly bringing him along in terms of innings and pitch counts.  And, suddenly exposing both starters and relievers to high-leverage situations in February/March that they aren’t ready for either physically or mentally puts undue stress on these guys that (as we have seen) manifests itself later on down the road.

Nonetheless, as much as I like the WBC as a concept I think its “bad” that one of our key pitchers will be participating.  At least we now know that Roark’s time may be limited thanks to new rules that allow roster augmentations.  If Roark throws one 5 inning stint maybe it won’t be so bad.

I just wish the WBC would be played AFTER the season (you know, like the World Cup does it; AFTER the pro seasons have ended) instead of before it.

 

What the Cuban embargo easing means for baseball

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No more death-defying defections for cubans like Yasiel Puig.  photo mlb.com

No more death-defying defections for cubans like Yasiel Puig. photo mlb.com

With the sudden and surprising announcement that president Barack Obama plans to “normalize relationships” with Cuba on 12/17/14, one cannot help but wonder how this move will affect the market for Cuban baseball players.

Here’s a smattering of links to post-announcement baseball industry impact analysis:

If you read any of these links, read Olney’s.  Its ESPN insider only, but he extensively quotes one Joe Kehoskie, who has worked as a player agent within Cuba for years.  Kehoskie states some important points, namely and most importantly, the US-Cuba embargo is NOT what was preventing Cuban players from playing in America; it was always the Cuban government.  Proof?  Cuba does not have an embargo against it with any other country with a large organized league (i.e., Japan, Korea, Mexico, Europe, any of the winter league countries, etc) yet their players were barred from playing even in them until just recently.  The Cuban government took these steps just recently to enable its players to play elsewhere; in Sept 2013 Cuban players were allowed to play in foreign leagues, which has subsequently led to a number of additional defections (and rising player contracts) here in the states.  But as Kehoski points out, there’s still huge hurdles to foreign ownership of property in Cuba (preventing the immediate building of academies by MLB teams for example), and it is worth saying that the country is still a communist dictatorship, with huge amounts of government control over the activities of its people.

Lets dream a bit though, and imagine that the Cuban government relents and releases the market for baseball players.  Immediate questions from a baseball perspective include:

  • Can MLB scouts immediately (and freely) travel to Cuba to scout?  It seems so: the Obama press release talked about immediate easing of travel restrictions and stated limits on import/exports (they had to answer multiple questions about bringing back cigars in the press conference :-) )
  • Will the Cuban league negotiate a posting system similar to what MLB has with the Asian leagues?
  • Or, will MLB teams set up their own academies similarly to what they do in the Dominican Republic?

MLB teams will want the academy route clearly; it won’t take but a few million dollars of infrastructure to setup teams and dormitories, and 16-yr olds could be signed for a few thousand dollars outside of harsh international FA spending limits much as they are in the DR.  But the Cuban government may want to do a posting system to help protect its local leagues and to earn much-needed money.   Not to mention the fact that Cuban culture values education and they’d likely be aghast if kids started dropping out of conventional school in their mid teens to enroll in baseball-only academies for a shot at a baseball lottery ticket.  Also, can you imagine billionaire owners negotiating with the cronies of the communist Cuban sports bureaus looking to hoard cash on the backs of their penniless players?

A huge benefit that could start immediately?  The possible return of the Cuban winter league, which used to be the clear preeminent winter league, drawing future hall of famers to the island for a winter vacation.  Now, Havana in the 50s isn’t what it is today of course … but if the Cuban government relents to foreign investment, there’s no reason for Cuba not to turn into another tourist-heavy island nation in the same way that other Caribbean countries operate.

One last thing: I’ve always taken an interest in the World Baseball Classic, and one of the things I’ve always wondered is what a united Cuban team could look like.  In the wake of the 2013 event, I wrote about what such a “politics-free” team could look like.  And now, two years and a number of high-profile defections later, I think a Cuban team could be even better.  Will we get to see a united team in the next version?   Hopefully so; the next WBC isn’t until 2017, by which time we’ll hopefully have a lot more clarity.   If you look at the 2013 version of the unified Cuban team, It lists Jose Abreu as a sub; now we know he’d be the marquee hitter in such a lineup next to Yoenis Cespedes.  And more players are coming.  In fact, you may put a unified cuban team as the 2nd or 3rd favorite in the WBC (behind the DR and USA).

Here’s a quick proffer on what a unified Cuban all-star team could look like right now.  Using the 2013 team as a starter and adding in recent defectees:

  • C: Yasmani Grandal
  • 1B: Jose Abreu
  • 2B: Yunel Escobar
  • 3B: Yonder Alonso
  • SS: Yoan Moncada (backed up by Alexei Ramirez)
  • LF: Yoenis Cespedes
  • CF: Yasiel Puig
  • RF: Yasmani Tomas
  • Starters: Jose Fernandez, Odrisamer Despaigne, Miguel Gonzalez
    (Gio Gonzalez was born in Cuba, but has already played for the US, so we eliminate him from consideration).
  • Relievers: Aroldis Chapman

That’s quite a good squad to start with, even without looking at the lesser Cuban players and/or the guys in the pipeline.

Post publishing link collection: Sports on Earth’s Phil Rogers on the future of the Cuban National team: he basically does a more researched and thoughtful version of the lineup above.  Nathaniel Grow of Fangraphs does his own version of this post in general.   Chris Moran of Beyond the box Score also does a version of this post.  Craig Calcaterra pipes in too.  Thom Loverro puts up his 2 cents.  BusinessInsider quotes super-agent Ron Shapiro and his “sea of questions” regarding baseball players.

WBC Semis, Finals and Tourney Review

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Maybe Team USA wasn’t meant to make it to the WBC semis regardless; the two teams that beat them in pool play made the finals themselves.  Lets take a look at the semis and finals, and talk about the tournament in general:

Semis: Puerto Rico outsted 2-time defending champion Japan relatively easily behind the batting prowness of Alex Rios (who is earning himself fantasty baseball street cred by the bucket-full this spring).  Perhaps Japan is regretting having some of its best players bow out of the tournament just as team USA has.  Hey, that’s why they play the games, right?  Japan’s ace Kenta Maeda couldn’t find his rhythm and pitched just badly enough to lose.

Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic wore down the Netherland’s pitching staff and got some revenge over the Netherlands in the other semi, to setup a Finals rematch from pool play.  The star of the game was not one of the D.R.’s stars, it was little known Moises Sierra, who made a fantastic catch in the first and then doubled in the eventual winning run in their big 5th inning rally.

Finals: Though it seems anti-climactic, the D.R. jumped out to a first inning lead and were never really threatened, winning the final 3-0 over Puerto Rico.  The D.R. finishes the tournament undefeated and rightfully so, having easily the strongest roster of any of the teams.  And they finally win the WBC title that many thought that they were the most deserving to win (outside of the US team of course, which has yet to field a full-strength team in any of the 3 iterations of the tournament).

Tournament Thoughts: I feel like the tournament is catching on a little bit, that the patriotism factors that the smaller nations are showing is starting to wear off on the Americans who aren’t playing.   The TV ratings remain low in the US … but they’re sky high elsewhere.  I do believe MLB needs to look into moving the tournament to occur either around the All-Star break or (more likely) after the World Series ends each year so that players are at full strength, have no excuse not to play and we could have a better tournament.

Written by Todd Boss

March 20th, 2013 at 10:35 am

Starting Pitching Quality in the WBC

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I keep a little file, periodically updated, that keeps track of “Ace Starters” in the league.  There’s usually right around 20 of them at any one time.  There’s no hard and fast rule as to what defines an Ace; not every team has an Ace.  Some teams have more than one Ace.  Its essentially defined as a guy who, every time he goes to the hill, he is expected to win, a perennial Cy Young candidate, a guy who is acknowledged as being one of the best in the game.

Here’s my list of “Aces” in this league, right now; Strasburg, Gonzalez, Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Cueto, Wainwright, Lincecum, Cain, Kershaw, Greinke, Lester, Price, Sabathia, Dickey, Johnson, Verlander, Hernandez, Darvish and Weaver.    Twenty guys, some arguable with poor 2012 performances (Lester, Lincecum, Johnson, Halladay), some arguable for possibly being one-year wonders (Dickey, Greinke, Gonzalez), but by and large a quick list of the 20 best starters in the league.

How many of these Aces are pitching in the 2013 WBC?  TWO.  That’s it.  Gio Gonzalez and R.A. Dickey are starting for the US.  Not one other US Ace is taking the hill for their country.  The few foreign guys (Hernandez, Cueto and Darvish) aren’t pitching for their teams either for various reasons.

If you asked me to give you the 4 best US starters, right now, the four starters I’d throw in a World Baseball Classic to best represent this country, I’d probably go (in nearly this order) Verlander, Kershaw, Strasburg and maybe Cole Hamels.   If you asked me the NEXT four guys i’d want on the bump i’d probably go Sabathia, Cain, Price and Lee.   After that?  I’d probably still take the likes of Halladay and Greinke before I got to Gonzalez or Dickey.   And that’s only because of the poor 2012 showings by Lincecum, Lester and Johnson; if this was 2011, those three guys are absolutely in the mix for best arms in the league.  So by rough estimates, we have perhaps the 14th and 15th best American starters going for us right now.

Who else does the US team have starting?   Ryan Vogelsong and Derek Holland.  Vogelsong is the 4th best starter ON HIS OWN TEAM, and Holland isn’t much further up on the Texas depth chart.

I’m enjoying the WBC, don’t get me wrong, but you can repeat this exercise for a number of the positional players on this roster too.   Look at the post-season voting last year and look at who is playing on these teams.  No Buster Posey, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Hamilton or Prince Fielder.  There is only one player who got an NL Cy Young vote in 2012 participating (Fernando Rodney for the D.R.).  I think this event needs its best players to play, and I think the league needs to come up with a way of making that happen.  No more injury dispensations, no more excuses for not having the best, most marketable guys out there.

Why in the hell aren’t Trout and Harper playing for the team USA??   This is the best duo of young, marketable players to this this league since the 1998 home run derby.  They’re on the cover of Men’s Health Magazine and Sports Illustrated in the last month.   You use what you have and market the league on the backs of players like this.  Look at the NBA; they market on top of their most recognizable names and they have grown because of it, from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James.  Why MLB can’t seem to see the forest for the trees sometimes is just frustrating.  The WBC is growing in popularity; its ratings in Japan eclipsed the TV ratings for the Olympics in that country, and the US games reportedly have gotten the highest ratings for a non-playoff game in TV history).  Team USA needs to catch on.

One Positive to having our guys in the WBC

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Mar 12, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; United States pitcher Gio Gonzalez (47) delivers a pitch against Puerto Rico at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

(Don’t you hate it when a pro writer totally scoops your blog post, and you find out 5 minutes before you go to post it?  Tom Boswell wrote on this exact topic in today’s Washington Post).

James Wagner of the The Washington Post touched on it in a 3/13/13 article, but I’ll repeat it here; we’re seeing both Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler compete, and compete well, for Team USA right now.  Gonzalez threw 5 scoreless innings in the Round 2 opener against a tough Puerto Rico side, and Detwiler finished up the do-or-die win against surprising Italy by throwing 4 innings of 1 hit ball and earning the save (and the game ball; what a fantastic souvenir).

Now, I’m on record stating that having our pitchers (specifically) in the WBC is bad, both anecdotally from past experiences and statistically (see the linked post for statistical studies showing across-the-board regression among WBC pitchers).  However I wonder if there’s an upside to having (specifically) Gonzalez pitching in this competition.  I wonder if we aren’t getting some free “seasoning” of Gonzalez by exposing him to the same playoff atmosphere that he failed in last off-season.

Gonzalez may not have factored into either decision in last year’s NLDS, but nobody would argue that he pitched well.  In two starts he only lasted 10 total innings, had 11 walks, a 1.70 whip and was just wild.  110 pitches to get through 5ip in game 1, 99 in game5.  Cardinals players were quoted as saying he “looked scared” on the mound.  Is it all because it was his first time in the limelight?  Did the pressure get to him?

Well, the pressure didn’t get to him against Puerto Rico.  If Gonzalez has “grown up” a bit because of the WBC and can go back to being the Ace/Cy Young candidate in 2013’s playoffs, the Nats will be far better positioned to advance.

Written by Todd Boss

March 13th, 2013 at 10:56 am

WBC Second Round Review

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Following up on the First Round Review post, lets look at the 2nd round, which establishes the 4 teams battling it out in San Francisco for the 2013 World Baseball Classic championship.

Here’s the two semi-finalist “pools” and how they finished up:

Pool 1: Japan, Netherlands, Cuba, Chinese Taipei

Japan cruises through the 2nd round and advances with two quick wins, while Chinese Taipei shows it is a one-trick (or in this case, a one pitcher) pony and gets wiped out by Cuba in an elimination game. Meanwhile the Netherlands continued to surprise, giving Cuba a rare international loss in the opening round and then following it up with a come-from-behind win in the do-or-die game, scoring 2 in the 8th and 1 in the 9th to win 7-6 and ensure their trip to San Francisco.  Nats and former Nats were all over this game, as Shairon Martis pitched, Randolph Oduber played left field and Roger Bernadina sat out after getting a HBP in the previous night’s game).  Still, another huge upset for the Netherlands to advance at the expense of both Cuba and South Korea in this tournament.  In the final seeding game, Japan took care of business and will play the Runner-up of Pool 2 in the WBC semis.

Pool 2:  Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, USA, Italy

Italy gave the D.R. a scare in the first game, but Puerto Rico did not do the same to Team USA, getting dominated behind 5 shutout innings from Gio Gonzalez.  The D.R. then came up clutch in the long-anticipated USA matchup, getting to USA closer Craig Kimbrel and dinging him for two runs in the top of the 9th to steal away a win in a game where neither team really hit that well.   Italy’s cinderella run came to an end at the hands of Puerto Rico, setting up a loser-goes-home rematch with USA.  In that game on 3/15/13, the US team just didn’t show up; allowing journeyman Nelson Figueroa to shut them down on just 2 hits through 6 innings and failing to either hold the rag-tag P.R. team or to score any runs when needed.  Ryan Vogelsong didn’t pitch badly but didn’t shut down the Puerto Rican team, and the USA goes home, losing 4-3.  In the seeding game, the D.R. took care of business (as Japan did against lesser competition) and set-up the semis as follows.

Semis Preview.

Japan goes against Puerto Rico in one semi while the Dominican Republic goes against Netherlands in the other.  At least we have a clear-cut final ahead of us, with the two dominant teams in the world (outside of the US of course) setup to play a potentially awesome final.  I disasgree with those that think it was a “good thing” the US failed to get to the semis; I think viewership and interest would have been much higher had the US team made the semi-finals.  Either way, I’m predicting that the D.R. takes out Japan in the final.

Written by Todd Boss

March 13th, 2013 at 10:41 am

Baseball’s Unwritten Rules in question Again

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The nasty WBC brawl resulted from several breaches of "Baseball Etiquitte." PHoto topsy.com

We all by now have heard about the Mexico-Canada brawl over breaches of  “Unwritten Rules” of the game.   This brought back into play a post I wrote mostly in May of 2011 on the same topic.

Now, the WBC’s pool play requires Run Differential to be brought into play, so you can kind of understand the “bunting with a huge lead” breach that led to the brawl.  But that fight was simmering all game as one small situation after another (mostly involving the Canadian catcher Chris Robinson, a career minor leaguer in the Baltimore organization) kept raising the level of irritation on the behalf of the Mexican team.  It had all the classic signs of a brawl-to-be: the “better” team (Mexico) was losing while not trying as hard, and was getting more and more irritated with the scrappy team taking the game too seriously and playing too hard.  Take out slides at 2nd base, bunting in non-bunt situations.  Eventually a guy gets hit and a very serious fight takes place.  You had a player in Robinson taking the game too seriously versus a bunch of MLBers for Mexico perhaps not taking the game as seriously.

What did I think of the bunt?  I thought it was in bad form frankly.  Yes the run differential counts … but I don’t believe Canada was in a situation where things would have come down to run differential.  I think Robinson had been “over-playing” the whole game and wanted to get one last dig in.

Back to my original May 2011 article on the topic; ESPN has a feature called “Player X,” wherein an anonymous professional athlete in one of the major sports pens an article from time to time writes an article about topics that may not otherwise be written about.  Because of his anonymity, he can name names and call out fellow professionals without the normal press-overreaction.

In May of 2011, a post was written about “Baseball’s Unwritten Rules” (it may be insider-only, I’m sorry).  Being that this is a topic I’ve written about in the past (see this June 2009 post on my previous blog), I found it relatively interesting.  I wrote the June 2009 post right after a very infamous “unwritten rule” was broken, specifically bunting to break up a no-hitter/perfect-game.  In fact Player X recounts another such situation where Curt Schilling had a perfect game broken up by a bunt single.

Years ago, after a long back-and-forth email conversation related to this same topic with a friend of mine (who wasn’t necessarily a baseball aficionado but did have some thoughts on the issue) I came up with this list of “unwritten rules.”

Unwritten professional Etiquitte rules of baseball

  • Don’t bunt to breakup a no-hitter or perfect game in the later innings
  • Don’t ever peek at the catcher’s sign or position
  • Don’t dive after an outside pitch when ahead by a sufficient amount
  • Don’t steal catchers signs overtly from 2nd base.
  • Don’t show up the pitcher after hitting a HR (standing there, bat twirl, etc)
  • Don’t overly try to break up a double play in a regular season/non-pressure situation
  • Don’t purposely turn a double into a single if you are close to a cycle.
  • Don’t try to show up a slower player by attempting to throw him out at first on a sharp single to right.

With a comfortable lead (a sliding scale; 10 runs or more at anytime, perhaps 7 runs in the late innings, fewer runs in the Majors):

  • Don’t bunt for a hit
  • Don’t steal
  • Don’t attempt to break up a double play
  • Don’t advance on a passed ball
  • Don’t take any extra bases that you can’t jog to.
  • Don’t swing for the fences on a 3-0 pitch
  • Don’t swing for the fences generally

Most of these “unwritten rules” fall into two main categories:

  1. Don’t embarrass the other team if you already have a big lead.
  2. Don’t embarrass another professional at any point.

In the Canada-Mexico game, we saw several of these rules being broached.  But would you classify a WBC game in the same manner as a playoff game?  If so, then hard take out slides at 2nd and catcher-collisions at home ARE warranted.  But I get the impression that these MLB-heavy teams are still struggling whether to treat WBC games as exhibitions (it is Spring Training after all) or as serious competitions.  Certainly nobody wants to get hurt and cost themselves a roster spot or significant time off the season.  Meanwhile for a team of lesser players/career minor leaguers, the WBC is their shot at the title, their chance to face Major leaguers for perhaps the first, last and only time.  Guys for spain who have never pitched about AA suddenly are throwing to MVP-calibre stars.  That has to be a rush … and leads to situations where more “unwritten rules” may be broached.

By the way, Baseball isn’t the only sport with “unwritten rules.”  Think about an NBA player purposely trying to get a triple-double when his team is up by 20 late in a game.  Or an NFL team going for two points in the fourth quarter with a 4 touch down lead.  Or a soccer player trying a “Paneka” penalty while already leading by 3 goals.  All of these are broaches of each sports’ etiquitte and may end up causing repercussions.

What do you think?  About the Canada-Mexico situation, about unwritten rules in general?  I know many people are flat out against them, others think they’re completely understandible.  Did I miss any “rules” in my list above?

Written by Todd Boss

March 12th, 2013 at 9:52 am

WBC First Round Review

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I have to admit: I’m much more interested in the World Baseball Classic this year than in the first two iterations.  I don’t know why; perhaps its because I’ve become much more interested in prospects over the past few years, and the WBC rosters for the lesser teams are filled with minor league prospects.  I’m definitely watching the games though and have been really enjoying the competitions.  Here’s a quick review of the first rounds in all the pools (note that in the Far East the 2nd round is well underway; we’ll talk about that in a subsequent post).

These Pools are listed in their order of finish.  Here’s a Fangraphs.com summary of the two Far East pool first rounds.  And here’s the overall bracket for the tournament.

Pool A: Cuba, Japan, China, Brazil.

No real surprises here: the Brazilian team was expected to finish dead last while international powerhouse Cuba and two-time defending champion Japan advanced relatively easily.   Cuba continues its stellar international record with a head-to-head win against Japan to win the group (and as discussed here previously, could be a juggernaut if the defected Cubans could participate as well).  The bigger surprise here was China beating out Brazil for the automatic spot in the 2017 classic.

Pool B: Chinese Taipei, Netherlands, South Korea, Australia

A rather big upset here: South Korea finished 3rd and 2nd in the first two WBC tournaments, but fell behind the Netherlands on Run Differential after all three teams finished pool play 2-1.  Some have complained about the seedings; clearly by the results of the first two WBC events putting South Korea, Cuba and Japan in the same bracket seems unfair.  The Netherlands is filled with players from baseball-playing Dutch colonies such as the Netherlands Antilles, Curacao and Aruba, though it also has a number of players from the Dutch professional league Honkbal Hoofdklasse; either way it was not expected to advance against a traditionally strong Korean team playing so close to home.  Former Nat Chien-Ming Wang pitched well for Taiwan, bolstering his attempts to make a comeback after several disappointing seasons with Washington.  Our own Roger Bernadina started and played well for the Netherlands as they played their way into the 2nd round.

Pool C: Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Spain

There was no surprise who came in dead last (Spain), but I for one was shocked that a stacked Venezuelan lineup couldn’t come out on top of the Puerto Rican team.  Meanwhile the starting lineup for the D.R. looked closer to a MLB all-star lineup, and their dominance showed.  They’ve under-achieved in every tournament thus far and I look for the D.R. to go far in this tournament.  It was nice to see former Nats farm hand and prospect-watching favorite Christopher Manno pitching for Spain, even if he didn’t fare that well.

Pool D: USA, Italy, Canada, Mexico

For a while on Sunday, it looked like the USA was closer to finishing dead last (and having to qualify for the next tournament) than winning it, but that’s the surprises involved in pool play.  After getting completely out-played by Mexico in the opener, the USA squeaked by Italy on the strength of 4 scoreless, nearly flawless innings from Ross Detwiler before turning it on late to beat Canada.  Meanwhile, the “Italian” team (I put that in quotes since i’d challenge someone to find more than a handful of the Italian team that actually speaks the language) surprises everyone by finishing second.  Meanwhile, Mexico finishes dead last behind a surprisingly good Canadian team (whose 3-4-5 hitters batted something like .450 for the tournament) and faces qualification for the next tournament.  An interesting pool all around, which could have looked very differently with just a few runs here or there.

Brackets for the Semi final rounds (some of which have already started as of the time of this writing):

2nd Round Pool 1: Netherlands v Cuba, Japan v Chinese Taipei

2nd Round Pool 2: Italy v Dominican Republic, USA v Puerto Rico

Pool 1’s favorites have to be Japan and Cuba, while Pool 2’s favorites have to be USA and the Dominican Republic.  But, the Netherlands and Italy have played far above their supposed skill level thus far and we could be in for more shocks.

Written by Todd Boss

March 11th, 2013 at 9:26 am

What could a full Team-Cuba look like without Politics?

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Team Cuba looks good so far; imagine them with Cespedes and all their other MLB stars. Photo wiki/flickr hj_west

I just finished re-reading The Duke of Havana, a great book about the back story of Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, his rise to the top (and subsequent political fall from grace) in Cuban professional baseball, his escape from his home-land, his rise with the 1998 New York Yankees, and the general politics/life of typical Cubans in the post-USSR era.  Despite the crushing effects of the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba over the last 40 years, the island continues to produce MLB-quality baseball players.  Of course, thanks to the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries, when it comes time for the World Baseball Classic, we can’t see a unified Cuban team.   Cubans who have escaped to play in America can never go back, and (as detailed in the book), often times leave behind wives, children and family who are subsequently pressured politically by Castro’s hacks.

I wondered what could an all-Cuba team really look like, if MLB players and other expatriots were allowed to re-unite with the current set of known Cuban amateur stars?  Using some of the same methods as in my “All Virginia” post, by searching for those born in Cuba along with some well-known Cuban Americans (per the politics link above), here’s a possible WBC roster of maximum strength for Team Cuba:

Manager: Fredi Gonzalez of the Atlanta Braves.  We’d get Cuban hall-of-famer Tony Perez out of semi-retirement (he was coaching at a small college in Georgia recently).

Positional Players:

  • C: Yasmani Grandal or J.P. Arencibia
  • 1B: Kendrys Morales or Gaby Sanchez
  • 2B: Yunel Escobar or Sean Rodriguez
  • 3B: Yonder Alonso
  • SS: Yuniesky Betancourt or Alexei Ramirez (2006 WBC Team Cuba member)
  • LF: Yoenis Cespedes (2009 WBC team member)
  • CF: John Jay (parents born in Cuba, emigrated to US before birth)
  • RF: Leonys Martin (2009 WBC team member) or Dayan Viciedo

Reserves: Yasiel Puig, Jorge Soler, Alberto Castillo, Jose Iglesias, Juan Miranda, Adeiny Hechavarria, Brayan Pena, Eddy Rodriguez

Best Cuban amateurs (aka, the leading defection candidates): Alfredo Despaigne (just named MVP of round 1 of pool play), Alexei Bell, Yulieski Gourriel,  Jose Abreu (the consensus #1 Cuban amateur prospect right now).

Thoughts: There’s some talent in this lineup; Cuba has developed some power hitters over the past few years but seems to specialize more in middle infielders (most of these reserves are middle infield prospects).  But a potential 3-4-5 of Morales-Cespedes-Alonso is nothing to shake a stick at.  I think this team could score some runs and would be excellent defensively.

Starting Pitchers

  • Gio Gonzalez
  • Jose Contreras
  • Livan Hernandez
  • Yunesky Maya (2006 and 2009 WBC team member)
  • Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez we’ll get him out of retirement; i’m sure he can still throw)

Relievers

  • Aroldis Chapman (2009 WBC team member)
  • Francisely Bueno
  • Raul Valdez
  • Danys Baez (retired in 2011)

Thoughts: So, we’re a little light on pitching, it seems.  We make use of Gonzalez’ first generation in USA status to steal him away from Team USA.  But after him the starting pitching gets light (even if you push Chapman into a starting role as Cincinnati is looking to do in 2013).   Contreras is a career 101 ERA+ guy, Livan may not have a job in 2013 and all nats fans can speak to what Maya brings to the table at this point.  I threw in El Duque despite him probably being close to 50 at this point (B-R lists his birthday in 1965); he was always in great shape and probably could throw a few junk balls up there right now.

Miscellany: Here’s links to Cuba’s 2006 WBC roster, their 2009 roster and their 2013 roster.  And here’s as complete a list of Cuban defectors as I can find on the internet.

 

 

 

 

 

Ask Boswell 2/25/13 Edition

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When is Anthony Rendon going to be ready for the Majors? Photo Nats Official via espn.com

With the first couple of Spring Training games in the books, its fitting that Tom Boswell did a Monday morning chat on 2/25/13.

Here’s how I’d have responded to the Baseball-specific questions he took.  As always, questions are edited for clarity and I write here before reading his response so as not to “color” my answer.

Q: Given that the Nats know almost every player making the roster out of Spring Training, do the players/coaches approach the 6 weeks differently?

A: Good question; I was taking with someone about this exact topic this weekend.  The 25-man roster is essentially already solidifed; perhaps the only question remaining is whether or not Henry Rodriguez makes it onto the team or does the team carry a second lefty reliever (Bill Bray?).  So I think the answer has to do with looking more at the AAA talent, looking at minor league FA signings like Micah Owings and Chris Snyder to see if they’re going to be better options than the guys we already had slated at AAA.  And the coaching staff gets to look at up-and-coming guys like Anthony Rendon, Zach Walters, and the like.  Boswell reiterates what I said here, naming other ML signings of interest like Chris Young, but also says that this ST has a lot of “wasted time.”

Q: I’ve spent the offseason reading Ball Four to help get my baseball fix. Do you have a sense about how different things are now?

A: It has been a while since I read Jim Bouton‘s seminal baseball book Ball Four.   But the season he chronicles (1969) happened before a number of rather important moments in Baseball history.  Expansion, divisional play, the Designated Hitter, the aftermath of the Curtis Flood and Andy Messersmith decisions (aka, Free Agency) and of course the massive increase of money in the game (both from a revenue stand point and from a player salary stand point).  One thing that seems certain to have changed; players can now earn enough in a season to be set financially for life.  And, the players union’s power is now such that players have the upper hand in a lot of negotiations with the league and the owners when it comes to labor unions.  Boswell notes that managers, coaches and GMs are far “smarter” now than they were in the Bouton era.

Q: How the Nats will do at the gate this year?

A: The season ticket base is back to where it was in 2005 apparently, broaching 20,000 season tickets.  The team averaged 29,269 fans last year.  Clearly the attendance seems set to rise significantly.   I think they’ll average 35,000 a night if they continue to be a first-place club.  Boswell agrees, noting that the team also has a couple of very marketable stars to help with attendance.

Q: Other than obvious injuries, are there any things that can happen in the first quarter of the year that you would find to be troubling?

A: I’d be troubled if Danny Espinosa started off slow.  I’d also be concerned if we saw significant regression out of our WBC participants Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler, confirming my fears.  But the most important factor may be the performance of Dan Haren: is he the 2012 Haren or the 2009 Haren?  If he approaches 2009 version, this team may be set for the season.  Boswell notes they have a tough early schedule, that winning 98 games is tough, and that we should be patient.

Q: Gio Gonzalez; did he or didn’t he?

A: I think the prevailing opinion in the sport now seems to be that he did NOT take or receive PEDs from the Miami clinic, and that he was an unfortunate bystander.  His passing a surprise PED test given two days after the scandal seems to have also bolstered his case.   Boswell agrees.

Q: Are the Nats a 98 win team again, or was last year a fluke?

A: Barring a significant injury in the rotation, I think the Nats are easily a 98-win team and perhaps better in 2013.  Statistical WAR “proof” offered in this space back in January, and that was before the LaRoche re-signing and the Soriano pickup, both of which marginally should improve the team a few wins.  Most national pundits that I’ve read think the same thing, that this team could win 103 games.  The various estimator stats out there (Zips, Pecota, etc)  the team much closer to 90 wins, but those predictors are by and large incredibly conservative.  Boswell also says it comes down to health of the rotation.

Q: How would you rate the Nats starting rotation, spot by spot, compared to the rest of the Major Leagues?

A: Spot by Spot, its hard not to think that each of our guys are each at least in the top 5 by position in the league.  Drawing from my Rotational Rankings post from January 7th, 2013, I’d say that:

  • Strasburg is clearly among the best arms in the game (in the discussion along with Verlander, Kershaw, and Hernandez).  He’s not as accomplished as this group of course, but his talent is unquestionable.
  • Gonzalez matches up as a top 5 number two starter (other candidates: Greinke, Hamels, Lincecum or Cain, depending on who you think SF’s “ace” is).
  • Zimmermann is traditionally underrated but is at least a top 5 number three starter (along with Scherzer, Johnson/Morrow, Bumgarner, Lee and Moore).
  • Haren on potential could be the best number four starter in the game, though Buehrle, Miley, and Lynn could also fit in here.
  • Detwiler is often mentioned as being the best number five starter out there, and its hard to find competitors (best options: Zito, Romero, Garcia, and whoever Oakland and St. Louis settle upon for their #5 starters).

Boswell seems worried that these five guys can handle the workload all year, only really trusting Gonzalez in terms of repeatability.

Q: What future do you see for Anthony Rendon, and when will he debut in the majors?

A: I have been of the belief that Zimmerman should move to 1B for Rendon at some point.  But with LaRoche signed for two years, that won’t happen for a while (2 years, perhaps 3 if we pick up his 2015 option).  So now i’m starting to come around to the the possibility of Rendon pushing someone else off their position.  The most likely candidate seems to be Espinosa at 2B.  Despite having Lombardozzi on the 25-man, Rendon is a higher-potential player.  If Espinosa starts slow, and Rendon starts fast, I could see Rendon getting called up in June and starting to get reps at 2nd while Espinosa goes on the DL for his shoulder.  Otherwise, a Sept 1 call-up seems in order.  Boswell predicts a post-all star game call-up.

Q: Is there any way the Nats can stop Detwiler and Gio from pitching in that baseball ‘classic’? I see a disaster waiting to happen. Luis Ayala was never the same after getting hurt pitching in that thing.

A: There’s no way legally the team can prevent either guy from pitching, since neither suffered any injuries in 2012.  And yes I agree (as discussed in this space on 2/11/13) this is bad news for the Nats.  Washington has never had a pitcher play in the WBC who didn’t regress badly, and the stats seem to show that most every pitcher who does participate in the WBC pitches poorly the next two seasons (links in my post).   Boswell says cross your fingers.

Q: Do you think Bryce has it in him to be National League mvp?

A: Yes I do.  MVP voting generally starts with the “Best Player” on the “Best Teams” and creates a short list from there.  It is why it is relatively easy to predict the MVPs.  If Washington is the best team in the league and makes the playoffs again, and Bryce Harper has a break out season, it won’t be hard to see him getting serious MVP consideration.  Now, let me also say that a “Harper for MVP” prediction is NOT the same as predicting that Harper is set to become the best player in the game.  That’s not what the MVP measures.  If the question was, “Is Harper set to become the best player in the National League” i’d then say, “No, he’s a few years away from that distinction.”  Boswell thinks it may be a bit early.

Q: How many wins per year would you estimate a a stellar defense adds to a teams win total over the course of a season?

A: I’m sure there’s a good statistical answer for this, based on the percentage of WAR added by defense.  But it seems like a very difficult answer to come by.  Boswell says “a few.”

Q: Any reason to think he’s NOT going to be the GM for a long time?  Because I can’t think of many others who have done as good a job in all of baseball.

A: I can see no reason for Rizzo not to be the GM for at least the next 4 years.  His next big challenge will be dealing with the inevitable payroll demands of Harper and Strasburg (both of whom project to be $25M players) while also keeping a competitive team on the field.   2017 could be an interesting year for this team; Strasburg projects to hit Free Agency that year, and Harper should be in his 4th arbitration year.  They already have Zimmerman and Werth at $14M and $21M respectively in the 2017 year, with possibly another $40-$45M out the door to keep Harper and Strasburg.  They better start working on the farm system again.  Boswell didn’t really answer the question, just mentioned how Rizzo’s options have yet to be picked up.

Q: How is Ramos looking thus far? 100%? Suzuki is a professional and seems to be a good guy, do you get a feel for how well he and Ramos interact? How great would it be to generate some power/runs from the catcher spot this year.

A: I’ve been assuming that the catcher job is Suzuki‘s to lose for now; its still early but no word has come out negatively on Ramos‘ recovery.  Either way, yes it would be nice to get some production out of the #8 hole.  Suzuki was pretty good after he came over here, but Ramos healthy was a middle-of-the-order bat.  Boswell suggests that Ramos stop blocking the plate.

Q: If Rendon tears it up after September call-up, what does the Nats 2014 infield look like?

A: Wow; hard not to say Rendon replaces Espinosa like-for-like right now.  But, just as Desmond broke out in his 3rd full time season, so could Espinosa.  It could make for a log jam.  Lets hope for the best, hope for a rebound Espinosa season and a good-problem-to-have situation of having to trade a strength to make way for another strength.  Boswell has no idea where Rendon will play if he merits a call-up.

Q: I think the Nats, and Danny Espinosa are whistling past the graveyard if they think a completely torn left rotator cuff will not seriously affect Danny’s play. Your take?

A: A fair assessment.  I too believe a torn rotator cuff absolutely has to be affecting his swing, especially from the right side.  I think Espinosa should have gotten the thing surgically repaired in the off-season.  I wonder how much the team knew of the injury, because when it was reported in the off-season it sure seemed like a surprise.  Boswell says its a concern and that Espinosa should take more days off.

Q: Is McCatty working with Strasburg on correcting his inverted W delivery? Strasburg also has footstrike issues, as he tends to plant his foot and then whip his arm, which puts a ton of strain on his shoulder. I’m concerned if he doesn’t correct this, his shoulder will give out this season or next. Are the Nats worried about this? Are they working on cleaning up his delivery at all?

A: I’m beginning to think that this whole “Inverted W” thing is a bunch of BS.  Keith Law stated as much when prompted in a chat recently; he says that the problem with the Inverted W theory is that its difficult to “state” with authority that certain pitchers do or don’t have the phenomena.  And its true; if you see some shots of Strasburg he has it, in others his arms are more bent behind his back.  Its the same with Gio Gonzalez (I can show you stills of him landing with his arms clearly in an “inverted W” position and you don’t hear anyone talking about Gonzalez’s mechanics.   The leading inverted-W site on the internet (Chris O’Leary‘s page linked here) uses an opportunisitic example set of pitchers with that motion, but I can find plenty of examples of guys who have similar mechanics but zero soft-tissue injury history (on the Nats two quick examples are Drew Storen and Craig Stammen).  Meanwhile one of his examples was John Smoltz … who only threw 3400 MLB innings in his career and basically didn’t miss a start until he was 32.  Not the best example of proof that his mechanics were somehow “awful.”  I think the entire phenomenon is an observation of coincidence, that pitchers get injuries all the time no matter what their mechanics, and that we need to move onwards.  Wow; Boswell thinks exactly what i think; these proofs are nonesense.