Nationals Arm Race

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

Ask Collier 12/26/18 Edition

18 comments

Did the team make the right decision on Roark?  Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Did the team make the right decision on Roark? Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

MLB.com Nats beat reporter Jamal Collier gives us a holiday gift with a post-Xmas mailbag dated 12/26/18.

Here’s how I would have answered the questions he took.

Q: It Harper comes back to the Nats looking for 330/10, do the Nats go over the tax or let him walk?

A: Isn’t it obvious by now?  You let him walk.  I think this was pretty clear from two observations:

  1. Mike Rizzo has already spent his $30M AAV, and spent it quickly
  2. Mark Lerner pretty much said as much in ill-advised remarks to a reporter.

The Luxury Tax strikes yet again; the Lerner family, multi-billionaires, will not spend an additional 10-15M above some imaginary payroll number to keep one of the league’s most marketable players.   Player salaries actually FELL for the first time in two decades, as clubs in total spent less than they have since 2004.   Maybe one of these big-spending clubs will break the bank and hand Bryce Harper and Scott Boras their goal; the largest contract in the history of the game.  But it sounds like its a reach, and it definitely doesn’t seem to be happening in Washington.

Collier refuses to get into hypotheticals, then notes that the Luxury tax for last year was “only” a couple million dollars.  Yeah, and only a couple of high-end draft picks, and only the reason why the club fired one of Rizzo’s most trusted advisors for absolutely screwing it up.  

—-

Q: Roark trade more about getting a LHP or the analytics told them he was on MAJOR decline year? $10M for innings eater is the going rate

A: I think the team was taking a calculated gamble that Tanner Roark‘s best years are behind him.   Despite appearances or opinions, Roark was basically a league average pitcher last year.  That’s a significant step ABOVE a replacement level/5th starter type.  But, he’s been trending down, he’s heading into his age 32 year, and the team thought it could spend his $10M better.  I don’t think lefty versus righty had anything to do with it.  Of course, they basically replaced him with an even older Anibal Sanchez, so sorry for sounding hypocritical on his age.  But while Roark struggled to even get to his 98 ERA+ figure last year … Sanchez had a late-career ephiphany that led him to being one of the top pitchers in all of baseball for the 2nd half of last year.  A better trend line in the end.

Collier agrees, that this was a gamble betting that Roark is set to regress in 2019.

Q: If the Nats go out and sign one or two back end of the rotation starters, what does that do to the development of Joe Ross and Erick Fedde? Moved to the bullpen? Sent to Triple A?

A: I’d have a hard time seeing the Nats signing a MLB-contract for another starter at this point, because Joe Ross has nothing to prove in AAA.  But Erick Fedde does.   Joe Ross has proven he can be an effective MLB starter, with his 125 ERA+ in 19 starts in 2016 as evidence.   Now he’ll be 26, with a new elbow, and looking to answer the question whether he’s back from TJ surgery.  For me, for a relatively affordable salary (1st year arb estimate of $2.5M), that’s a great gamble to go with on your 5th starter.  If he suddenly comes out in 2016 mode, 20-25% above league average

Technically both players have one minor league option left, so the team could opt to send them both to Fresno to get lit up in PCL parks and prove nothing.  I expect that for Fedde and we’ll have to take his stats with a grain of salt.

That being said, I do expect the team to sign at least one more MLFA veteran starter in the Jeremy Hellickson ilk, to go to Fresno and be some rotation insurance/catch lightning in a bottle again.

collier kind of gives a non-answer, but he does think Ross could work out of the bullpen (I don’t).

Q:  In my opinion, 2B is their biggest [remaining] priority. Any movement on that front? There are so many available as an upgrade!

A: Well, either 2B or maybe more middle relief help.  Right now the team is looking at this for each spot:

  • 2B: Howie Kendrick starter, Wilmer Difo backup, with Adrian Sanchez and Matt Reynolds as options (Sanchez has an option, Reynolds does not).
  • Middle Relief: right now you’re looking at Justin Miller/Wander Suero/Koda Glover as RHP middle relief options, and Sammy Solis/Matt Grace as lefty options.

Which one of those scares you more?  For me, probably middle relief.  Reliever performance is so variable that its hard to look at the guys who did well last year (Miller, Suero, Grace) and count on them in 2019, just like its hard to look at the guys who struggled (Glover, Solis) and just assume they’re washed up.  But, if you buy more arms, its one in, one out on the roster, so who makes way?

Collier says the team is focusing on one-year deals for one of the many 2B out there, to coincide with the expected arrival of Carter Kieboom.  Makes sense.

Q: Other than what Zimmerman and Rizzo have said publically, is there any rumblings about reworking Zim’s contract? Sentimentality aside, would it be wise for the Nats to lengthen the deal in any way?

A: Hmmm.  man tough question.  Zimmerman is owed $18M for 2019, then has a $2M buyout or another $18M year in 2020.   He’ll be 34 in 2019, 35 in 2020.

When he’s healthy,  he’s good for 25-30 homers, a .300 BA, a .500 slugging, and an OPS+ figure in the 120-130 range.  When he’s not … he misses vast chunks of the season, hits in the .250 range, and has about as many homers as a typical middle infielder.

Its notable that he *already* has a 5yr/$10M personal services contract with the team in place upon his retirement, so even if he hangs them up after playing for an other team he’s coming back here for the long haul.  So he’s going to be associated with the team for a while.

First things first: if he puts up another 120 OPS+ season in 2019 and is healthy, I think its an easy option to pick up for 2020.  From there, again if he continues to provide value I can see perhaps the team extending him on a year by year contract kinda similar to what they’ve given Matt Adams the last couple of years.  I’m sure Zimmerman would take that, given his history, his Virginia roots, the fact that he’s settled here, etc.  At some point it’ll become pretty clear its time for him to hang it up … at which point he transitions to the front office nicely with a hope of staying in management for a while.

That’s what i’m hoping for.

Collier notes that both sides want to continue the relationship, so something should get worked out.

 

18 Responses to 'Ask Collier 12/26/18 Edition'

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  1. Todd, I have to disagree about Zimmerman. If Zimmerman puts up a 120 OPS+ in 2019 in ~140 games (close to a best-case scenario for him), there’s no way they pick up his option at $18mil. Nelson Cruz – who plays 150 games every single year and has WRC+ of 158, 148, 147, and 134 just got $14 million for next season. In Zim’s resurgent 2017, he had a WRC+ of 137, so close to the worst of Nelson Cruz’s last four seasons, which got Cruz a contract for $4 million less than Zim is set to earn in 2020. The Nats will certainly think that they can get Zim-like production at 1B for far less than $18 million. In fact, they will probably think they can get better than Zim-like production for less than $18 million.

    The reason to re-work Zim’s deal is to spread his AAV out a bit over more years. Instead of having him at $18 mil for 2020, I could see a deal that keeps him here for 2020-21 at a total of $22 million or so. I have no idea whether that’s something Zim would sign, but he probably should. If he wants to keep playing, it’s going to be on a series of one-year $4 million deals.

    Derek

    27 Dec 18 at 12:45 pm

  2. Derek, are you saying a total of $18M that includes 2019 as well? I don’t think that gets it done. If you’re saying $22M + the $18M for 2019, that may be too much. I’d split the difference and offer 3/$36M, including 2019. That would take Zim’s guarantee from $20M to $36M while lowering the AAV $6M for 2019, which would cover someone like Tony Sipp right there.

    The Zim situation is tricky, though. There’s no way they can pick up an $18M option. He’s just not worth that in this market, all the more so with how 1B power has been devalued. I don’t think there’s any desire to take the PR hit from kicking him to the curb, however, so renegotiating now makes the most sense.

    KW

    27 Dec 18 at 1:48 pm

  3. Err, meant to ask whether you were saying $22M for 2019-21.

    KW

    27 Dec 18 at 1:49 pm

  4. Sorry, I bungled the years. I meant a deal that extends him one year after this one for about $4 million (which is what I think he would get in the open market). So Zim’s current contract gets torn up and he signs a new one for 2 years at $22 million for 2019 and 2020. I’m not sure what Zim’s 2020 buyout is, so that would have to be factored in and would likely push the contract higher. I think I’d be willing to sign him for the 2021 season too, but it would have to be at a discount. I’d go more for 3 yrs $26 million total than 3 yrs $36 million. I could be willing to go up to $30 million over three years but $36 million is too rich for my blood.

    A guy at Zim’s age and injury history is NOT getting 3 years in this free agent market. Cruz got 1 year and a club option and Cruz is a better hitter and much healthier than Zim (albeit several years older). Zim just isn’t worth much more than $4-6 million on the open market; the Nats shouldn’t pay him like he is.

    Derek

    27 Dec 18 at 1:59 pm

  5. On Zim: (1) I agree that based on pure performance, in today’s market, he’s worth about what Adams got, not Cruz. Call it $5m, but also acknowledge that there are a lot of these bat-first 1B types so there isn’t scarcity that makes it in the Nats interest to lock him up (on the other hand, he isn’t blocking someone like Kieboom, so its ok to do it). But it would only make sense if it helps for other reasons, i.e. gives more flexibility this year
    (2) his lux tax hit isn’t $18m, its more like $12-14m since it is the average of his extension signed 5 years ago. So an extension now has to get noticeably below that number. Let’s say $14m is the bogey.
    (3) he’s guaranteed $20m, so if you added $7m and made it a three year deal, you get about $5m in savings. Not huge, but in this very tight year, probably worth doing. But there isn’t room for anything more on the Nats side. Let’s say you bring him back next year, he gets to 300 HRs and then you don’t want him in 2021. You write off the remaining $7m. Probably worth doing and I think its enough for Zim, although maybe not.

    On Derek’s point from the last post (waiting until mid season to get another reliever), that’s definitely a good point. It costs more (prospects+ salary) but the confidence in what you’re getting is higher. I think i’d rather sign Britton or Ottavino now for only money if they have the room, but it is a legit question.

    Another bullpen point – it actually is lining up good for the Nats that they have a bunch of 5-7th inning type relievers with options. I’d look to stretch them out to be multi inning guys, and mix in more bullpen/spot start games to lighten the starter load. That’s another reason why another good high leverage guy would make a ton of sense. Add Britton to Doo, Rosey, Barraclough and Solis/Grace, then use the other guys heavily and rotate them up and down.

    Wally

    27 Dec 18 at 2:25 pm

  6. Zim is owed $18M for 2019 and $18M for 2020, or a $2M buyout. So he’s owed a minimum of $20M, or a maximum of $36M if the Nats pick up the option for 2020. I think we all agree that he’s not “worth” $18M in 2020 (or in 2019).

    I don’t love giving Zim 3/$36M, but he has to have some incentive to renegotiate, and I’m not sure 3/$26M gives him enough incentive, particularly when he’s already guaranteed $20M.

    KW

    27 Dec 18 at 2:34 pm

  7. Wally, good point re (2): Zim’s luxury tax number being lower than his salary probably makes doing an extension more difficult.

    KW, agree that 3/$26M may not make it worth Zim’s while to do an extension. It takes two to tango. But if he wants much more than that, I think the Nats should say “thank you for your service” and plan to move on.

    Derek

    27 Dec 18 at 2:54 pm

  8. Ok, here’s a few last thoughts on why Zim might go along with a 3/$27m extension (2/$7m in new money for 20-21);
    1) he’s always seemed pragmatic, and while a 2/$7m deal seems light for him, it’s only by just a little. He’s seen firsthand some others, like Lind, Werth and Adams, get very little traction in this market and isn’t delusional
    2) he’s approaching some career milestones that I’m sure he’d like to hit, and three years of playing 110 games should get him there (300 HRs, 2000 hits)
    3) the team projects to be playoff quality the next couple of years. 2021 might get dicey based on what’s going on with Max and Stras, but. It’s a good spot
    4) continuity, which I think he values.
    5) optics. This is squishy, but it looks better this way, it looks like he is signing a 3/$27m extension, not go through the press of a declined option, and signing a 2/$7m deal

    But the big question is the early one: what’s his current tax hit and what would this save. If they could free up $5m, that’s enough to add a reliever and 2B under everyone’s calculations. If it’s just $1 or $2m, it isn’t worth it.

    Wally

    28 Dec 18 at 7:50 am

  9. Zim’s contract was 6/$100M, so theoretically, the cap hit is $16.67, which isn’t that much less than $18M. (Todd has parsed the details on this stuff a lot more than I have and may have some better insights.) Everyone has to remember that he got this contract as a THIRD baseman, basically Rendon’s stats plus more HR power. We’d be tripping over ourselves now if Rendon would do 6/$100M.

    Color me very skeptical that Zim would take a significant pay cut in an extension. I think he would still want to receive roughly the same amount, even if it’s spread out somewhat differently. (Zim also has a 5/$10M personal services contract with the Nats for whenever he’s done playing, so his parachute is already built in.)

    KW

    28 Dec 18 at 9:20 am

  10. Since Todd touched on what may or may not be left to do with the bullpen, I’ll move forward some of what I wrote on the last post right before the new one went up. Traditionally, there are seven bullpen slots.

    Locks: Doolittle*, Rosenthal, Barraclough, Grace*
    (I’m still not convinced about Grace in the long run, but he was very solid in ’18.)

    Likely: Miller (one-year flash, or figured something out?)

    Top candidates for last two spots: Suero, Solis*, Glover

    Other contenders: Cordero, Gott, Austen Williams, Rainey, Adams, Andrew Istler

    Guys who could possibly be kept as swingmen: Fedde, McGowin, Voth

    That’s 17 guys for seven slots, 16 of whom (except Istler) are on the 40-man, a few of whom are out of options.

    One who intrigues me for the front of the ‘pen, if he can step up and match his minor-league numbers, is Austen Williams, who was a true multi-inning guy (68 IP in the minors in 2018 in 32 games, including two starts).

    Noticeably missing is a match-up lefty other than Grace, as Solis had notoriously bad splits against LHB.

    I keep saying that I think they need at least one more guy, probably a lefty, but they’re still going to have some tough decisions to make. My bet is that they’re going to give Solis every chance to stick since his stuff is so good, but he’s out of options. They got themselves in a pickle early last season by keeping Romero solely because he was out of options.

    KW

    28 Dec 18 at 11:22 am

  11. KW

    29 Dec 18 at 8:56 am

  12. Joe Ross will be on an innings limit; I think they keep Fedde as a long man, try to pair him up with Ross whenever it’s practical, and can work around how the game is going. They do need at least another dumpster-dive guy for when Strasburg gets hurt, and I’d say another middle reliever for when a couple of the in-house options blow up. Or maybe they get that guy in June.

    I’m not ready to close the door on Harper just yet. I don’t think they’re going to break the bank on him, but the Dodgers haven’t signed him yet, so maybe the market isn’t as rich as he’d expected.

    kevin r

    30 Dec 18 at 12:14 am

  13. Coming back to this later. Agree that Zim’s production even at 2017 levels, does not warrant his option year salary. But it isn’t that simple. This is literally the most important player in the franchise’s history, their first draft pick, a guy who rents out the stadium a year to have a fundraiser in his mother’s name.

    I suppose we could find out just how cutthroat the organization is, to see if they just summarily dump his option. But i just can’t believe they’ll go that route, not with a guy who has a 5 year service contract for the team already negotiated.

    Todd Boss

    31 Dec 18 at 11:57 am

  14. Wow, Boz thinks Zim might actually take 3/$24M:

    https://live.washingtonpost.com/ask-boswell-20181231.html

    Boz is also fascinated by Dozier, and apparently doesn’t know that Dietrich was non-tendered and thus a free agent. He’s right, though, about the 2B glut.

    KW

    1 Jan 19 at 9:16 am

  15. HNY, folks.

    I don’t think that level of extension is a crazy thought. In addition to being a fair approximation of his market, there are a couple of other factors in play.
    (1) Zim is very entrenched here (I share the same hometown and have seen him and his family out and about quite a bit). I’d say he REALLY doesn’t want to leave for a last season or two (but might for #4 below).
    (2) He also knows the team has a good chance to be competitive over the next few years
    (3) doing it this way let’s him look like a ‘good guy’ to help the team clear room to add players, and still looks like reasonable numbers ($9m per). Especially here, the writers would laud him and I think that means a bit to him. If he got the same exact money but the way it happened is, they denied his 2020 option, and resigned him for 2/$7m, all that gets written is he is making $3.5m/yr, which might be a little hard for him to accept.
    (4) last but maybe most important, he’s guaranteed a spot to chase some career records. 36 hrs for 300, 250 hits for 2000. Three more seasons at current playing levels should make him a near lock to reach it. Can he honestly feel confident he’ll get that kind of playing time elsewhere, given the trends in the league? Not a slam dunk. Plus, he knows the Nats would be almost as interested in publicizing him chasing those records as he is.

    Honestly, just makes too much sense and I think that’s about the right numbers. And the lux tax issue gives the perfect cover. I mean, c’mon, imagine the gushing Boz article about ‘greatest Nat ever’ :-)

    In fact, the only reason I (as a fan) would be interested in seeing the Nats do it is if they already had a deal for a Britton/Ottavino type lined up and/or the Rendon extension, which could impact the lux tax this year. Otherwise why wouldn’t you let the season play out and take it from there?

    Wally

    1 Jan 19 at 10:39 am

  16. Wally – agree. The only reason to do a Zim extension now is to smooth payroll for the next three years and/or affect luxury tax targets. As a fan, I care about those issues only to the extent they facilitate the Nats getting other players to improve the roster (though I understand why restructing might matter to the Lerners for other reasons, I just don’t care about those reasons). Otherwise, it just doesn’t make sense to commit dollars in 2019 to pay Ryan Zimmerman’s salary in 2021. The Nats don’t need to take on risk that Zim gets hurt and/or is washed up in two seasons (both are real possibilities) unless they get something in return.

    Derek

    1 Jan 19 at 11:05 am

  17. The other reason to do it now is to avoid a very awkward dance next offseason.

    KW

    1 Jan 19 at 8:12 pm

  18. And Happy New Year to all!

    KW

    1 Jan 19 at 8:12 pm

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