Nationals Arm Race

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

Archive for January, 2021

Rizzo gets his 4th starter in Lester

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Lester to feature the curly W in 2021. photo via Grantland

One of our most obvious roster gaps heading into the off-season was a veteran 4th starter, and today Mike Rizzo got his man.

Jon Lester. 3-time World Series winner, cancer survivor, noted wine aficionado, signs a one-year $5M deal with the ubiquitous mutual option that is never mutually agreed to, to be our 4th starter for 2021.

Lester joins an esteemed list of “veteran 4th starters signed to pillow contracts” under the Rizzo regime. To wit:

  • 2010: Jason Marquis (though to be fair he signed a 2 year deal to probably be more than our 4th starter).
  • 2011: Chien-Ming Wang
  • 2012: Edwin Jackson, the first of the “real” 4th starter FA assassins
  • 2013: Dan Haren
  • 2014: Doug Fister
  • 2018: Jeremy Hellickson
  • 2019: Anibel Sanchez

To be fair here, Fister was of course a trade acquisition, and was much more than a 4th starter, but his acquisition, plus Scherzer signing and the eventual rise of home grown products like Roark and Ross led to several years without a need to pursue the veteran 4th starter. Not surprisingly, they made the playoffs 3 of 4 years in this timeframe … inexplicably missing the playoffs in 2015 in a season I hand squarely on the incompetence of Matt Williams. But I digress.

Clearly Rizzo’s strategy in building a rotation goes like this: splurge for the top of your rotation, sign a veteran for your 4th starter, let the kids compete for the 5th starter. What I’d LIKE it to be is, grow a couple of stud starters, pair them with your $30M/year guys, and dominate. He’s had had a slew of misses in the 1st round in the last decade, gave up too early on others (ahem Giolito), and now seems to have put their eggs into the Cavalli/Rutledge basket. Lets hope.

Anyway, back to this post. What do I think of the Lester signing? Well…. i think he’ll be a great clubhouse guy. But i’m tempered on what I think he can provide on the field, unfortunately. Lester went from being an #1/#2 kinda guy to being a #4 starter right starting with the 2017 season. He saw a sustained bump in his WHIP starting in 2017, which he somehow danced around in 2018 to put together a smoke-and-mirrors 18win season where his FIP was a full point higher than his ERA. This run of luck came back to bite him in 2019, in the form of a .347 BABIP that ballooned his ERA to ugly territory. 2020 was a wash; he was bad across the board, which could be a pretty bad sign for 2021.

Now he’ll be in his age 37 season with a whole lotta mileage on his known torn UCL elbow. He’s also famous for his inability to keep runners on first base … which will put pressure on his catchers. Gomes is pretty decent at caught stealing percentage (.305 pct in 2019, which was 6th or 7th or so of “regular” catchers in the league), but who knows about whatever backup we pick.

Do we think Lester is a bounce back candidate? Can he flourish when he’s not “the man” in the rotation? How much does he have left in the tank? All interesting questions. At the worst case its a very small price tag to take that gamble.

Payroll implication; not a heck of a lot. $5M doesn’t really change anything else the team might be doing, which makes this a positive. I now have their projected 2021 payroll at $181M, leaving them a shade under $29M left to work with. Notably, they have about $11.5M in deferred dollars this year, plus their “real” 2021 payroll (i.e. actual dollars heading out the door versus cap space dollar figure) is another $9.5M … so that’s $20M of money that the Lerners may be removing from consideration … which means they only want to spend about another $9m. Maybe. Just throwing that out there; there’s a real versus cap space payroll consideration here as the team starts to see a lot of its deferred dollar contracts catching up to them.

My conclusion; proceed with caution. I would have liked to roll the dice with another candidate on the FA market.

Nats get Schwarber

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Schwarber coming to Washington, Photo via Espn

Word broke Saturday that Washington DC had made news for another reason besides insurrection; Kyle Schwarber signed a 1yr $10M deal to come to DC for 2021.

Short version of this post: I like this move. A lot.

I’ve liked Schwarber ever since Chicago drafted him in the 1st round out of Indiana (bucking the pre-draft rankings) and he raced through the minors. His debut with the Cubs was great, and then his post-season heroics have been fabulous. He struggled mightily in the 2020 short season and the now tanking North siders non-tendered him.

As noted in the mlbtraderumors.com article, Schwarber signed for a bit more than his arb projection, which indicates there must have been somewhat of a bidding war for his services.

Why do I like this move? As I noted in the comments before writing this post, several reasons:

  • Pedigree: Upper 1st round pick who has solid (if not all-star) career numbers. 113 career wRC+, 113 career OPS+ … both figures knocked down badly by his 2020 season.
  • Bounce Back candidate: 2020 was brutal for Schwarber … as was his BABIP. Just a .219 babip for 2020 despite being in the 95th percentile of exit velocity means his numbers should have been much higher.
  • 2019 slash line: .250/.339/.531 with 38 homers. He’s a power hitter
  • You don’t need a gold glove in left field, as you’ve heard me say a lot. I want a hitter.

I like getting a middle of the order bat for 1yr/$10M. I like getting a 27yr old 1st round slugger for 1yr $10M. I like getting a cleanup hitter with a .480 career slugging without giving up a prospect.

Yes he strikes out a lot; 156 Ks in 610 2019 PAs for a 25.5% strikeout rate. The 2019 league-wide strikeout rate was 22.9%. So for that extra 2.6% strikeout rate you get a cleanup hitter who hit 38 bombs. Sometimes you have to understand that you give some stuff up to get other stuff.

Here’s what the 2021 opening day lineup looks like now:

  1. SS Turner (r)
  2. RF Soto (l)
  3. 1B Bell (s)
  4. LF Schwarber (l)
  5. DH Harrison (r)
  6. 3B Castro (r)
  7. 2B Garcia (l)
  8. CF Robles (r)

Right handed heavy at the bottom, but excellent balance at the top. If you want to put Castro at 2B and Kieboom at 3B all it does it put another righty at the #8 spot. It is also worth noting that Schwarber could DH and Harrison (who can play 5 different positions) can move out to Left. This still leaves open a bench RH bat like Ryan Zimmerman, who would be an excellent $2M signing. This move likely pushes Soto to RF; can he handle it? Robles might be busy in 2021 covering lots of ground.

Payroll implications: With this move I have the Nats at around $172.1M for 2021. Cots has them slightly higher ($172.7M); both our totals have estimates for arb salaries for Turner, Bell and Soto. If the nats maxed out to $210M that leaves nearly $38M left to play with.

Written by Todd Boss

January 9th, 2021 at 2:49 pm