Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Archive for December, 2014

Nationals Arm Race Best Stories for 2014; Happy New Year!

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With little baseball news to report on this week, and clearly with us tired of arguing about Danny Espinosa :-), here’s a quick recap of the year in stories on this blog.  From each month, I’ve grabbed a couple of the more interesting or unique posts I did, with thoughts and follow-on.

(Here’s 2013’s review as well, to see how far we have or have not evolved…)

Jan 2014:

Feb 2014

  • The Phillies are purposely sabotaging college player eligibility; a shockingly petty story at the time; it has more or less faded after nothing much happened after the 2014 draft.
  • Ranking Baseball’s General Managers: it was hard to do then, and after this off-season’s GM shuffle its even harder to do now.  Looking back, I ranked Sabean #11; his team has only won 3 of the last 7 World Series.  I ranked Daniels 4th, Cherington 6th and both their teams finished in last place in 2014.  I had Wren 8th and he was fired before 2014 even ended.  Tough ranking to really do well.

Mar 2014

Apr 2014

  • Qualifying Offers; are they working?  Short answer: I don’t think so.  We’ll revisit this topic once the last two guys with Q.O.s sign this off-season (Shields and Scherzer).
  • Law trashes Williams and their handling of Harper: Law posts in late April the same criticisms of Williams we had all year; bullpen management, lineup construction, handling of vets versus youngsters.  Your 2014 manager of the year!  Still incredibly bitter about the Zimmermann yanking in the NLDS (see below).

May 2014

  • TJ Surgery epidemic: upbringing, showcases and mechanics.  I eventually published a second post with a ton of TJ material for those interested in deep dives into the topic.
  • DC/MD/VA District High School Tournament Report; for some reason I really got into following the local high school baseball tournaments in 2014.  I definitely will do this again in 2015.  Even though these local baseball posts don’t get much commenting (nothing to really argue about I guess), I feel like there’s almost nobody else out there doing the same work.

June 2014

July 2014

Aug 2014; a job switch made the pickings and postings a bit light in Aug and Sept of 2014.

Sept 2014

  • Rotation Reviews of your 2014 Playoff Teams; I didn’t get enough time to do the typical playoff team analysis I do; i missed out on roster construction this year, one of my favorite posts to do.  We’ll hope for more time next year.

Oct 2014

  • Would you have pulled Zimmermann?  A classic second-guessing blog post, questioning a manager move that back fired.  I wish I had a time-stamped video of my reaction at the moment of the event so that people would know I wasn’t back-seat driving.  Still irked about this, still convinced this changed the course of the post-season.
  • World Series Pitching Matchups & Predictions (that you should laugh at); I finish off an abhorrent prediction season with an equally bad (and eventually wrong) WS prediction.
  • Nats Payroll Projections for 2015: where we hear the bad news … that we’re close to $150M on a team where $135M was “beyond the budget” for 2014…

Nov 2014

Dec 2014

I only posted 130 posts this year, down significantly from 2013 (237 posts).  But I feel like we have a ton more commentary now.  There were 75 comments on the Detwiler post earlier this month!  That’s great.  I’m glad we have a great place to discuss and argue about stuff.

Happy New Year and thanks for reading in 2014.

Written by Todd Boss

December 31st, 2014 at 8:35 pm

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.

 

 

 

Post-Winter Meeting bonanza; who improved their Rotation the most? Who’s left?

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Lester joins the Cubs revolution. Photo via weei.com

Lester joins the Cubs revolution. Photo via weei.com

(Editor’s Note: sorry for the tardiness on this post: I had it completely written and a WordPress or browser glitch lost 1,000 words of analysis.  So it took a bit of time to cobble back together what I had originally written.  Then the Souza trade hit, then the Cuban thing … and this got pushed).

What a GM Meeting week!  As one of the Fangraphs guys noted, there were so many transactions, so fast, that he literally gave up trying to write individual analysis pieces and went to a running diary of sorts.  I was amazed at the number of significant deals and trades made, especially when it came to starters.  So lets take a look at who shook things up.

Many teams are making big moves (almost the entirety of the the AL it seems) to try to win in 2015.  And many teams have revamped their rotations.  First, here’s a quick run through teams that have made significant acquisitions to their starting rotations (using BP’s Depth Charts page, Fangraphs stats pages and BaseballProspectus‘ page for injury history, Cots at BP for salaries, and of course baseball-reference.com).

Teams who have Improved

  • Chicago White Sox: acquired Jeff Samardzija in Oakland’s fire sale to go with established ace Chris Sale, the highly underrated Jose Quintana.  From there the White Sox have question marks: John Danks is just an innings eater at this point and Hector Noesi was not effective in 2014.  But the White Sox have one of the brightest SP prospects in the game at AAA in Carlos Rodon (their fast-rising 2014 1st round pick) and their former #1 prospect Erik Johnson (who struggled in his debut in 2014 but has a good minor league track record).  So by the latter part of 2015 the White Sox could be a scary team for opposing offenses to face.
  • Minnesota: just signed Ervin Santana to join a rotation containing the rejuvinated Phil Hughes, the decent  Ricky Nolasco and first rounder Kyle Gibson.  If they (finally) call up former Nats 1st rounder Alex Meyer to fill out the rotation and replace the dregs that gave them #4 and #5 rotation spot starts last year, they could be significantly improved.  Of course, the problem they face is the fact that they’re already playing catchup in the AL Central and still look like a 5th place team in this division.
  • Los Angeles Angels: adroitly turned one year of Howie Kendrick into six years of Andrew Heaney, who should thrive in the big AL West parks.  If the Angels get a healthy Garrett Richards back to go along with the surprising Matt Shoemaker, they may have a surplus of decent arms being stalwards Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.
  • Miami has spent some cash this off-season, but they’ve also gone shopping and upgraded their rotation significantly.   After acquiring the decent Jarred Cosart at the trade deadline, they’ve flipped bit-players to acquire Mat Latos, added Dan Haren and a $10M check  while parting ways with the unproven youngster Andrew Heaney, and should get ace Jose Fernandez back by June 1st if all goes well with his TJ rehab.  Add to that Henderson Alvarez and the Marlins look frisky (their new-found depth enabled them to move Nathan Eovaldi to the Yankees).  Rumors are that Haren won’t pitch unless he’s in SoCal, but $10M is an awful lot of money to turn up your nose at.  This is an improved rotation no doubt, and the rest of the Marlins lineup looks good too.
  • New York Mets get Matt Harvey back.  Enough said.  Harvey-Jacob deGrom is one heck of a 1-2 punch.
  • Chicago Cubs: added an ace in Jon Lester, re-signed their own effective starter in Jason Hammel, and will add these two guys to the resurgent Jake Arrieta.  Past that you have question marks: Kyle Hendricks looked great in 2014.  And the Cubs gave nearly 60 starts last year to Travis Wood (5+ ERA) and former Nat Edwin Jackson (6+ ERA).  I could envision another SP acquisition here and the relegation of Wood & Jackson to the bullpen/AAA/scrap heap.
  • Pittsburgh was able to resign Francisco Liriano and get A.J. Burnett for an under-market deal.  This should keep them afloat if they end up losing Edinson Volquez in free agency.   Otherwise they have decent back of the rotation guys and will get back Jamison Taillon perhaps in the early part of the year.  This could help them get back to the playoffs with the anticipated step-back of NL Central rivals Cincinnati.
  • Los Angeles Dodgers said good bye to a stable of starters (Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsly, Kevin Correia, Dan Haren, Roberto Hernandez and Paul Maholm are all either FAs or have been traded away) and signed a couple of guys to go behind their big three of Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu who could quietly make a difference (Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson) if they remain healthy.  That’s a bigger “if” on Anderson than McCarthy, who excelled once leaving the circus that Arizona was last year before the management house cleaning and should continue to excel in the huge park in LA.  Were I Andrew Friedman, I’d re-sign at least a couple of these FA guys for 5th starter insurance … but then again, the Dodgers also have a whole slew of arms in AAA that could be their 5th starter.  Or they could just open up their wallets again; there’s still arms to be had.  Nonetheless, replacing 32 Haren starts with McCarthy will bring immediate benefits, and whoever they end up with as a 5th starter has to be better than the production they got last year out of that spot.

Team most improved: likely the Cubs.

What teams’ rotations have taken step backs or are question marks heading into 2015?

  • Boston: after trading away most of their veteran rotation last season, the Red Sox seem set to go into 2015 with this rotation: Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Joe Kelly and Wade Miley.  This rotation doesn’t look as good as it could be; Buchholz was awful in 2014, Porcello is good but not great, Masterson the same, Kelly seems like a swingman, and Miley has back to back 3.98 FIP seasons in the NL and will see some ERA inflation in the AL (though not as much as normal since Arizona is a hitter’s park).  But Boston’s entire AAA rotation are among their top 10 prospects, so there’s plenty of depth they could use in trade or as reinforcements. 
  • Detroit: Arguable if they’ve really taken a “step back,” but you have to question their direction.  In the last two off-seasons they’ve traded away Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, prospect Robbie Ray and have (seemingly) lost Max Scherzer to free agency so that they can go into 2015 with this rotation: David Price, Justin Verlander, Anibel Sanchez, Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene.   Is this a winning rotation for 2015?
  • Kansas City: They have replaced departing free agent ace James Shields with newly signed Edinson Volquez, keeping newly acquired Brian Flynn and 2014 draft darling Brandon Finnegan in the bullpen for now.  KC is going to take a step back and will struggle to compete in the new super-powered AL Central in 2015, but have a slew of 1st round arms that look like they’ll hit in late 2015/early 2016.  I do like their under-the-radar signing of Kris Medlen though; he could be a very solid addition to their rotation if he comes back from his 2nd TJ.
  • Oakland will have a new look in 2015, having traded away a number of core players.  But their rotation should be OK despite having traded away Samardzija and let Jon Lester and Jason Hammel walk.  Why?  Because they stand to get back two very good rotation members who missed all of 2014 with TJ surgery in A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker.  They should re-join the 2014 rotation members Sonny Grey, Scott Kazmir, newly acquired Jesse Hahn and either Jesse Chavez/Drew Pomeranz to form another underrated rotation.  Of course, if these guys have injury setbacks, it could be a long season in Oakland.
  • Texas made a couple of acquisitions, re-signing their own Colby Lewis and trading for Nats cast-off Ross Detwiler (who should fit in immediately as their 4th starter), to go with ace Yu Darvish and recently recovered Derek Holland.  But Texas could significantly improve come mid-season when injured starter Martin Perez should return.  The big question mark for Texas is Matt Harrison, who had to have two vertebrae in his back fused and may not return, ever.   But if Harrison can come back, that gives Texas an opening day 1-5 that’s pretty improved over last  year.
  • Cleveland didn’t exactly have the world’s best rotation in 2014 but has done little to improve it going forward.  They will continue to depend on Corey Kluber, newly minted Cy Young winner to head the line, but then its question marks.  Carlos Carrasco was great in a combo role in 2014; where’d that come from?  He was awful in years prior.  Is Trevor Bauer dependable?  They better hope so; that’s your #3 starter.  They just signed Gavin Floyd after his injury shortened 9-game stint with Atlanta last year; he’s no better than a 4th/5th innings eater.   Is Gavin Salazar ready for prime time?  He wasn’t in 2014.  And there’s little else on the farm; the Indians don’t have a significant starting pitcher prospect in their entire system. 
  • Atlanta: The Braves surprisingly parted ways with Kris Medlen and not-so-surprisingly parted ways with Brandon Beachy, Gavin Floyd, Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang.  That’s a lot of starter depth to cut loose.  They look to go into 2015 with ace Julio Teheran followed by the newly acquired Shelby Miller, the inconsistent Mike Minor, the excellent but scary Alex Wood and under-rated 5th starter David Hale.  That’s not a *bad* rotation … but it isn’t very deep.  They have cut ties with guys who made nearly half their 2014 starts AND the guy who went 10-1 for them in 2012.  They (inexplicably) picked up a starter in Rule-5 draft who had TJ surgery in June; are they really going to carry him that long on the active roster?  They have no upper-end SP talent close to the majors.  If one of these 5 starters gets hurt, Atlanta could be in trouble.
  • Philadelphia: all you need to know about the state of the Philadelphia franchise can be summed up right here: A.J. Burnett declined a $12.75M player option to play for the Phillies in 2015 and, instead, signed for 1  year, $8.5M to play for Pittsburgh.  They will head into 2015 with their aging 1-2 punch of Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, the former being constantly dangled in trade rumors but going nowhere because the Phillies GM clearly over-values what a guy like Hamels and his guaranteed contract can actually bring back in return in this market.  Past Hamels/Lee there’s a bunch of non-descript names (David Buchanan, the waiver-claim Jerome Williams and the untested Cuban FA Miguel Gonzalez).   Can this team even broach 70 wins?
  • Cincinnati is moving backwards: they’ve traded away Mat Latos for  pennies on the dollar (Keith Law says there’s “make-up issues.”) and moved the effective Alfredo Simon for other bit players.  They’re putting a ton of faith that one-pitch Tony Cingrani will last a whole season and the youngster Anthony DeSclafini (obtained for Latos) will comprise a workable rotation.  They do have a couple of decent prospects at AAA (Robert Stephenson and Michael Lorenzen) but they seem to be accepting that they’re taking a step back.
  • St Louis traded away their least effective starter (Shelby Miller) and acquired the best defensive RF in the game (Jason Heyward).  Not a bad bit of work.  But they now will go into 2015 with a question mark in the rotation; prospect Carlos Martinez will get the first shot and could be good; oft-injured Jaime Garcia is still hanging around, and there’s a couple of good arms in AAA who could matriculate into the rotation via the bullpen as Martinez did in 2014.  It could end up being addition by subtraction (Martinez for Miller) but we’ll see.
  • Arizona has boldly re-made their rotation this off-season, dealing away 2014 opening day starter Wade Miley for a couple of SP prospects and dealing for 6 arms in total thus far.  New rotation may not be flashy at the top (the enigmatic Josh Collmenter is slated for the opening day start in 2015) and is followed by former Tampa pitcher Jeremy Hellickson (traded for prospects), the two pitchers acquired from Boston for Miley in Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster and then a cattle-call for the 5th starter competition this spring.  Arizona also ended up with former Nats farm-hand Robbie Ray, still have the highly regarded Archie Bradley waiting for his free agent clock to get pushed out a year, plus 2013’s darling Patrick Corbin coming off of TJ, not to mention Bronson Arroyo coming back from TJ later in the season.  So there’s a lot of arms out there to choose from, eventually.  But getting to Bradley-Corbin-Hellickson-de la Rosa-Webster from where they’ll start will be rough.
  • San Francisco‘s 2015 rotation could be just as effective as it needs to be (after all, they won the 2014 world series having lost Matt Cain mid-season and given the ineffective Tim Lincecum 26 starts).  They seem to set to go with Cain, WS hero Madison Bumgarner, the age-less Tim Hudson, and then with Lincecum and re-signed aging FA Jake Peavy.  This pushes Yusmeiro Petit to the bullpen for the time being and seemingly closes the door on Ryan Vogelsong‘s SF time.  Rumor had it that they were all over Jon Lester… and missed.  So a big acquisition to permanently sent Lincecum to the pen could still be in the works.  SF’s bigger issue is the loss of offense.  But the NL West is so weak they could still sneak into the playoffs again.  I list them as question marks though because Cain might not be healthy, Lincecum could still suck, and Hudson and Peavy combined are nearly 80 years of age.
  • San Diego has completely re-made their offense; do they have the pitching they need to compete?   They signed Brandon Morrow to replace 32 awful starts they gave to Eric Stults last year; that should be an improvement.  But they’ve traded away their 2nd best guy (Jesse Hahn) and are now set to have two lesser starters (Odrisamer Despaigne and Robbie Erlin) compete for the rotation.  The Padres re-signed lottery ticket Josh Johnson (coming off what seems like his millionth season-ending arm injury) and still have TJ survivor Cory Luebke in the wings, possibly ready for April 1st.  Their 1-2-3 of Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and Ian Kennedy isn’t that inspiring, but in San Diego’s home park, you don’t have to be Sandy Koufax to succeed.  Have they done enough to compete in the NL West?

Which team has taken the biggest step back?  Clearly for me its Arizona.

Who is left?

Well, clearly the two big FA names are Max Scherzer and James Shields.  Scherzer gambled heavily on himself when he turned down 6/$144M.  Would the Tigers make him a new offer?  Are the Nationals possibly involved (I hope not for the sake of the team’s chemistry; what would it say to players if the Nats jettisoned Jordan Zimmermann so they could give Scherzer $150M?).   He’d make a great fit in San Francisco … who wanted Lester but would get nearly the same great performance out of Scherzer.  Meanwhile Shields could fit in Boston or for the Dodgers to give them the depth they’ve lost.

Past the two big names, you have older guys likely to go on one year deals.  There’s no longer really room for Ryan Vogelsong in SF; he could be a decent option for someone.   Aaron Harang has earned himself a likely 2 year deal as someone’s back of the rotation guy.  Guys like Kyle Kendrick or Joe Saunders could be someone’s starter insurance policy.  And of course there’s a slew of injury guys who are like pitching lottery tickets.  Beachy, Billingsley, and Alexi Ogando all sound intriguing as reclamation cases.

But, once you get past Scherzer and Shields, anyone looking for a big upgrade will have to hit the trade market.  The problem there seems to be this: there’s just not that many teams that are already waving the white flag for 2015.   From reading the tea leaves this off-season, Atlanta is giving up, Cincinnati may be close, Philadelphia has begrudgingly admitted they’re not going to win, Arizona has already traded away its assets, Colorado is stuck in neutral, Oakland may look like they’re rebuilding but they still will be competitive in 2015, and  young teams like Houston and Tampa aren’t giving up what they currently have.  So a GM might have to get creative to improve their team at this point.

Written by Todd Boss

December 22nd, 2014 at 9:24 am

Posted in Majors Pitching

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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.

Nats turn Souza/Ott into Turner/Ross

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So long Souza.  Photo Nats official/Tommy Gilligan

So long Souza. Photo Nats official/Tommy Gilligan

Throwing up this post for comments that are leaking into the previous post.

Late Wednesday afternoon, a trade revolving around the 2013 Rookie of the Year Wil Myers started circulating, and suddenly the Nats were involved.  When the dust settled:

  • Nats send Steven Souza and Travis Ott to Tampa
  • Tampa sends Wil Myers (and three others) to San Diego
  • San Diego sends Joe Ross and Trea Turner to Washington (as well as several other players to Tampa)

(Link to the full 11 players dealt here).

I can’t say it was much of a surprise of a trade, upon hearing that the Nats were shipping off new fan favorite Steven Souza.  Souza, at best, was slated to be the Nats 5th outfielder in 2015, thanks to the $5M still owed to 4th outfielder Nate McLouth.  And, the Nats longer term OF hole is in Center, not left or right, where Souza projects to eventually play for the Tampa Bay Rays.  In this regard, Michael Taylor is the more valuable prospect to hold on to, as he naturally slots into center once Denard Span leaves town.  Yes I know Souza *can* play center … consider who the GM is and what his defensive priorities have always been.

Who do the Nats get back?  How about two first rounders, two top 10 organizational talents in the San Diego system.  Turner is the catch; a college junior draftee who split time between short- and low-A this year and who BA ranks in their top 100 prospects in all of baseball.  They also get Joe Ross, a 21-yr old who ended up in AA (and who likely starts there again in 2015) with ok-to-decent numbers so far in his starting career.  (Note: since Turner was a 2014 rule4 draftee, he cannot “officially” be traded until a year has passed, so we’ll see him in June.  Lets hope he doesn’t break a leg in the meantime).

The team also gives up Ott, a sneaky prospect who excelled as a very young lefty starter in short-A this year, one of the younger guys in the league.  He’s a lottery ticket for Tampa, but he’s just the right kind of player for a team with the patience of the Rays.

Souza likely fits directly into the starting RF position just vacated by Myers, and Tampa nets a slew of prospects from both teams (as is their penchant).  In that respect, I think its a great move for Souza; he wasn’t going to play in DC save for injury, but he’ll get his shot there.

I like the deal for the Nats; I like the return, I like the planning ahead Rizzo is doing for middle infield depth, and he dealt from a position of strength (close-to-the-majors OF talent) without giving up a starting piece for next year.  I would have liked to have seen what Souza was capable of … but I also wouldn’t have moved any of our OF starters for him, so in that respect he was an asset looking to be cashed in.  Good move.

 

Written by Todd Boss

December 17th, 2014 at 10:01 pm

“Free Detwiler” campaign finally fulfilled

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This is maybe the last time i get to recycle this shot of Detwiler. Photo Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

This is maybe the last time i get to recycle this shot of Detwiler. Photo Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

Got back from a meeting late thursday (aka the last day of these crazy 2014 Winter Meetings) and saw that one of the longer serving Nationals players in Ross Detwiler was reportedly traded to the Texas Rangers for two minor leaguers.  Not sure who broke the story but I got it from Mark Zuckerman.

The return, per this USA Today story, is INF Chris Bostick and RHP Abel de los Santos.

Others in the Nats blogosphere have done the research on these two; no need to rehash it here.   Short version: both guys played 2014 at high-A Myrtle Beach, where presumably the Potomac staff gave plenty of insight.  Bostik is a 2B and de los Santos is a reliever with big K/9 numbers.  By all reports Bostik is a fringe top 10 Rangers prospect and de los Santos is a sleeper.   Neither is a 40-man roster guy, leaving the Nats with a vacancy for the moment.

Honestly, I think this is a good move for both player and team.  I was somewhat worried the team would non-tender Detwiler rather than sign up for the $3-$3.5M he’d earn in arbitration.  I would be too; his role on the team as last-man-out-of-the-bullpen can pretty easily be filled by any one of a number of rubber-armed veterans available on veteran-min contracts of $750k-$850k, or more than happily by one of our spare 40-man starters slated to pitch in AAA in 2015.  Thanks to Jim Bowden‘s roster-moves in 2007, Detwiler blew through his options and service time far before he should have (per Zuckerman’s article, Bowden made a hand-shake deal to call up Detwiler in his draft year … a decision that has handcuffed the team with Detwiler for years.  Now his options status is someone else’s problem.

At the same time, I do think that Detwiler can be a serviceable starter in this league, as his 2012 season showed.  He just needed a shot, and that shot evaporated in this organization.  So he gets a chance in an org that really, really could use him.  He projects as being part of the 2015 opening day Texas rotation right now, behind Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis and Nick Tepesch.  However Texas has two other good starters coming off serious injuries (Matt Harrison had spinal fusion surgery in June and Martin Perez had TJ in May), so Ross will have to work to keep his spot if these regulars come back healthy.  But that’s more opportunity than he was going to get in Washington.

Was this a good return?  Probably, considering that I thought he was a non-tender candidate.  Two high-A->AA prospects in positions of need works for me.

Such surprise non-tenders (Non-Tender deadline 2014)

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Detwiler gets another frustrating year with the Nats save a trade. Photo Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

Detwiler gets another frustrating year with the Nats save a trade. Photo Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

So, the tender deadline came and went.  I didn’t post any pre-tender deadline analysis because I didn’t think there was any analysis to do.  In November I thought *maybe* the team would think about parting ways with Kevin Frandsen or maybe Ross Detwiler … but then went and re-signed Frandsen.  I left Detwiler out of my initial salary analysis but …. thinking about it, if you’re nearing $150M of total payroll, why do you want to cut loose one of your bullpen guys over a measly $3-$4M?

So I assumed we wouldn’t non-tender anyone.  And we didn’t.    I say “we” like i’m part of the team or something.

Anyway.  MLBtraderumors summarized the list of non-tenders yesterday and the list really surprises me.

First; why would a team *trade for* a guy and then non-tender him??   Toronto did this with no less than three recently acquired players, headlined by former uber-prospect Justin Smoak.  Per Dave Cameron‘s chat  yesterday, Toronto not only acquired Smoak recently but then had to pay a $200k buyout to non-tender him.  Just kind of an inexplicable set of transactions; they basically just lit $200k on fire for the privilege of having Smoak on their active roster for 5 weeks.  Did Smoak arrive in Toronto and immediately insult the GM’s mother or something?

Boston acquired Juan Francisco off waivers last month and non-tendered him this month; weird.  Some other interesting positional players are Gordon Beckham and Everth Cabrera; maybe the Nats have some more 2B options on the market now.

But some of the newly-minted FA arms are very intriguing to me:

  • Kris Medlen; all I can say here is, wow.  We’re talking about a guy who had a 256 ERA+ in 2012.  Yes I know he’s just had his 2nd TJ surgery, and yes I know he came back down to earth in 2013.  But man, he’s only 29, and he’s shown he can be a Greg Maddox-esque hurler in this league.  He made $5.8M last year so his guaranteed compensation would still be roughly $5M (you can’t cut a guy’s pay more than 20% in arbitration) … don’t you keep him even if he’s not a sure thing to start the season on your roster?
  • Brandon Beachy; kind of the same logic as Medlen, but with more caution.  Also finishing his 2nd TJ rehab but he’d be significantly cheaper (just $1.45M for 2014 in arbitrated salary).  Again; if you’re Atlanta, are you cutting bait just to save $1.5M??
  • Alexi Ogando: i’ve always liked this guy, had him in fantasy for years.  He’s injury prone, yes, but how much of that is because Texas kept changing its mind on how to use him?  Is he a middle reliever (2010)?  Is he a starter (2011)?  Is he a closer (2012)?  Is he an 8th inning guy (2013)?  Or is he washed up (2014)?  I’d sign him to a middle-reliever contract; he only made $2.6M last year.
  • Wade LeBlanc and Scott Snodgress; seem like low-risk gambles that someone might make on 4-A starters who could be decent.  I’ll bet a low-payroll pitchers park team like San Diego could turn these guys into 100 ERA+ pitchers.

Work the phones Mike Rizzo; maybe you can get these guys on minor/major contracts while they rehab.

Best contracts in the game right now

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Sal Perez is the best value contract in the game right now. photo via si.com

Sal Perez is the best value contract in the game right now. photo via si.com

Inspired by Steve AdamsMLBTR chat on 11/18/14, I thought this was a fascinating topic.  What players have the best value contracts in the game right now?

For several years, the answer here was Evan Longoria, who signed a 6yr/$17.5M contract in 2008 and promptly put up three straight seasons north of 7.0 bWAR.  We’re into the option years on that original deal, which are still pretty affordable, and Longoria did get a 9-figure extension, so he’s not entirely in this discussion any longer.  Call him the “godfather” of ridiculously good value contracts.

Using the obvious websites (baseball-reference.com and Cots’ salary database now at BaseballProspectus.com), lets take a look at some candidates.  Note; I refer to a “valuation” of $6M per win above replacement as a way to “value” production.  There are some known limitations to equating salary to this figure, and there are others who estimate it even higher, but $6M per is still a decent estimate to use as a quick estimate of a player’s “monetary” production on the field.

Note: we are NOT including the litany of pre-arb players who are putting up huge seasons.  This is mostly trying to focus on those players who have signed for affordable contracts but who are delivering huge value.  Thus players like Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rendon, Kyle Seager, Corey Kluber and Starling Marte are not included here.

Candidate contracts: I’ve arranged these in my opinion of the order of value:

  • Sal Perez: 5 years/$7M (2012-16), plus 2017-19 club options worth just a *combined* $14.75M.  This for a guy who has made the all-star team and won the catcher Gold Glove two years running.  Wow.
  • Chris Sale: 5 years/$32.5M (2013-17), plus 2018-19 options of $12.5M and $13.5M.  This for a guy who led the AL this year in ERA+ and has received significant Cy Young votes 3 years running.  His bWAR in the last three seasons: 5.9, 6.9 and 6.6.  That’s crazy.
  • Jose Altuve: 4 years/$12.5M (2014-17), plus 2018-19 options at $6M and $6.5M.   Two-time all-star, led the AL in both hits and batting average in 2014.   Just put up a 6.6 bWAR season … and the Astros got it for just $1.25M in salary.
  • Jonathan Lucroy: 5 years/$11M (2012-16), plus 2017 option at $5.25M.  this late bloomer signed an incredibly affordable deal, then had a break out 2014 season where he posted a 6.7 bWAR, made the All-Star team, finished 4th in the MVP voting and should have won the gold glove as the best framing catcher in the game.   His total salary for the remaining three years of his contract is just $12.25M.
  • Madison Bumgarner.  Current contract: 5 years/$35M (2013-17), plus 2018-19 options at $12M each.  Bumgarner was 4th in Cy Young voting this year with a 4 bWAR season but (as we all know) dominated the playoffs, single-handedly handing the Giants their 3rd World Series title in the last 5 seasons.  A 4-war season is worth at least $24M on the open market these days, but he earned just $3.75M this year.  His options can vest and increase with certain achievements, but even at their max $16M value he’s still a massive bargain.
  • Yasiel Puig: 7 years/$42M (2012-18).  Everyone thought the Dodgers were crazy to commit $42M to an unknown; now it looks like a massive bargain.  For $2M salaries the last two years he’s put up 4.9 and 5.4 bWAR seasons.
  • Julio Teheran: 6 years/$32.4M (2014-19).  This contract gets expensive later, but in 2014 he was paid just $800k to put up a 4.0 win season.  If Teheran continues to be the #2 pitcher he showed this year, the Braves have great value on their hands.
  • Jose Quintana: 5 years/$21M (2014-18).  Thanks to the crummy team he toils for, Quintana’s exploits have gone unnoticed.  But he’s now got a career 117 ERA+ and has reached 200 innings both of the last two seasons and is signed for a song going forward.  Its no wonder analysts scoff when his name is mentioned in trade talks.
  • Michael Brantley: 4 years/$25M (2014-17), plus 2018 option of $11M).  This is preliminary, but based on his 7 bWAR season in 2014 (for just a $1.5M salary), this could be a huge bargain.  Is he a flash in the 2014 pan or is he for real?  If he’s for real, the Indians have a fantastic value going forward.
  • Ben Zobrist: 4 years/$18M (2010-13), plus 2014-15 options of $7 and $7.5M.  This was the poster child for years of affordable contracts (once Evan Longoria got his extension).  He’s averaged 4.75 bWAR over the past four seasons while playing six or seven different positions for the Rays.  Even in the final 2015 season at $7.5M, he’s projecting at 4 bWAR, still a significant under-value.  Keith Law calls  him “the best contract value” in MLB history; maybe he should be higher on this list.
  • Mike Trout: 6 years/$144.5M (2015-20).  No, a $33.25M salary in 2020 isn’t really a bargain, but the Angels are still getting the best player in baseball for $1M in 2014 and $5.25M in 2015.  Even if Trout declines to “just” a 6 bWAR player for the next 6 years … the Angels are still coming out ahead on the $6M/WAR evaluation technique.
  • John Lackey: 1yr/mlb minimum (2015).  He had a quirk in his previous contract that vested a MLB-minimum year thanks to an injury a couple years ago, so the Cardinals get the benefit of a veteran innings-eating 100 ERA+ starter at the league minimum.  Nothing to sneeze at, even if its just a one year contract.  On the open market you have to think he’s worth $8-$10M/season.
  • Steve Pearce: 1 year/$850k (2014).  This isn’t really a true candidate like the other players here, but Pearce’s story is worth noting.  He was DFA’d and *released* in April and re-signed a couple days later, but still posted a 6 bWAR season for Baltimore this year.  He’s arbitration eligible for 2015 but how far could his salary really rise after an 850k salary?
  • Jonathan Singleton: 5yrs/$10M plus 3 club options.  He may not profile as being worth this contract now … but if he lives up anywhere close to expectations, those later option years at $2-$2.5M are going to look pretty darn good.  No wonder the players union howled when he signed this deal.
  • Adam Jones: 4yrs/$62M is nothing to shake a stick at, even if his “gold glove” defense is rather suspect.
  • Edwin Encarnacion: 3 years/$29M (2013-15), plus 2016 club option of $10M.  Yeah that’s a pretty good deal.
  • Jose Bautista: 5 years/$65M (2011-15), plus 2016 option of $14M.   $14M for a guy who probably would have gotten 33% more had he been a FA two years ago.

How about the same analysis for the Nats?  The clear best value players on the team are Anthony Rendon and Tanner Roark.  Both Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister delivered pretty good WAR/pay value.  Denard Span just gave us a 3.6 bWAR season for $6.5M in salary; a pretty good deal.  But none of these contracts really contend with the above list.

Did I miss anyone obvious?  Do you agree with my rankings above?

2/24/16: Dan Szymborski posted his own updated version of this topic here: http://insider.espn.go.com/mlb/insider/story/_/id/14832664/carlos-correa-tops-list-baseball-best-assets-most-team-friendly-contracts-mlb .  He goes by surplus projected WAR.  Carlos Correa #1, Trout #2, then a bunch of pre-arb high-end rookies.