Nationals Arm Race

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

Ask Collier 1/28/19

12 comments

it was all downhill from here for Martinez. Photo via Geoff Burke/USA today

it was all downhill from here for Martinez. Photo via Geoff Burke/USA today

I’ll admit, I’m struggling for content this off-season.  I love nearly all the moves the Nats have made, as one of (arguably) only about 6 teams that actually seem to be trying to improve themselves in the FA market this off-season.  Thank gosh for these Inbox/mailbags to give me a chance to opine on the state of the Nationals.

Latest one from MLB.com beat reporter Jamal Collier dated 1/25/19.

Q: With all the additions they have made, can that help in keeping Harper in Washington or is that a negative factor?

A: I can’t imagine how these moves have been a negative for anyone, Team, Fans or Harper.  If Harper was re-signed, and the team made the decision to go well over the luxury tax to do so, then the team is going to be better for it.  Lets be honest with ourselves; if there was no ridiculous luxury tax, would we even be debating this?  Yes, there’s a clear debate on value versus pay, given his injury history and general inability to stay healthy.  But we’re still talking about one of the most marketable players in the game, a guy who you build around, not try to repel away.  If the going rate is $9M/WAR … then a 4 win season (his average since arriving in the league) will make a $35M/year AAV contract “worth it.”

After watching all the other moves the team has made this off-season, which have essentially filled every hole we had, and then adding Harper back to the mix?  Yeah that’d be a hard team to beat.

I’m of the opinion (a difficult to quantify one of course), that Harper played it very conservatively in 2018 knowing he was going into a FA year.  I also wonder about his relationship with the new manager (we’ll get into that more later).  If he comes back, knowing he had security and his big pay check … wouldn’t you be betting on a massive 2019 for him?  Like another 8-10 win season?  I mean, I’d like him to do that for us and not for the Phillies.

Its just money right?  And, its not our money.  The Nats can’t draft past the 1st round anyway (quick; tell me the last time a 2nd round pick worked out for this team?), so who cares if we forgo a few draft picks.

Collier thinks signing Harper would be a positive.  duh.

Q: What does Davey have to do in Spring Training / the early season to prove himself after last season?

A:  Is he really called “Davey?”  What is he, 12?   I’m not sure I particularly care about what he does in the Spring (with the exception of #1 below).  His regular season performance is what is going to matter obviously.  What mistakes do we think rookie manager Dave Martinez made in 2018?  For me:

  • Failed to manage his veteran players from the start (see Ryan Zimmerman‘s play zero games spring training, and see Mike Rizzo‘s transactions in ridding the team of veteran relievers at the trade deadline).
  • Over used starters (at one point last last season the Nats rotation led the league in both IP and pitches thrown)
  • Over used crummy relievers (the fact that Sammy Solis and Ryan Madsen were ever allowed to throw as many innings as they did was crucial to the team’s demise in late innings)
  • Showed poor end-game management (resulting in a -8 pythag record on the season, a 4-10 extra innings record, and an 18-24 record in one-run games)
  • Had questionable management decisions in all other aspects of his job: lineup creation, shifting, double switches, strategy, etc.).

So.  One year in, with his “problem children” mostly now gone, he’ll have another shot at “controlling” the clubhouse.  He’ll have learned his lesson on starters.  He’ll have a whole new stable of relievers to abuse.   And he’ll have a year of in-game practice to learn from all the other mistakes he made.  So call 2018 a big internship for Martinez.  I suspect we’ll see him do better.

And, to be fair … he should have better relievers at his disposal, or at least some more street cred to demand for personnel moves earlier.

Collier notes the need for improved “messaging” related to Zimmerman’s 2018 situation.  But he notes spring training means nothing.  

Q: How likely is it that the Nats go out and improve their bullpen even more before the offseason is over?

A:  At this point … i’m not sure how likely this is.  They’re pretty tapped out from a payroll perspective.  I’ve got them at about $13M under the luxury cap, Cots has them about $10.9M  under the cap.  And those cap figures do not include any of the incentives built into the contracts of the many players who could earn them.  From what I can tell, these are the “hidden” incentives that may come back to pad the 2019 salary cap figure:

  • Stephen Strasburg gets $1M if he hits 180 innings (he’s done it twice, but not in his last four seasons, each of which had a month or so of D/L time).
  • Max Scherzer has all sorts of award bonuses ranging from $100k to $500k for various awards he can earn.  He’s been in top 3 of Cy Young voting every year, so it seems likely some money is spent here).
  • Patrick Corbin  has similar award-based bonuses.  What are the odds Corbin can repeat his 2018 performance and have another top3 Cy season?
  • Anibal Sanchez can earn up to $2M if he gets to 30 starts.  He’s done it 3 times, all many years ago in his  youth, but he may get some additional bonuses for lesser number of starts.
  • Trevor Rosenthal has all sorts of bonuses based on games pitched, games finished … its complicated, but if he pitches in 50 games (as he did in his last season 2017) he can earn another $4-$5M.  This is the big danger line item.
  • Howie Kendrick has per-season bonuses worth $1.1M based on plate appearances.  Based on injury recovery and the buying of Brian Dozier, this seems unlikely to be met.

So …. that’s a lot of money that could hit the books and jack up the 2019 payroll very close to the cap.   So ask yourself; what do you think the team is going to do?

I think the team is going to go one of two ways:

  • stand pat if the luxury tax is treated as a hard cap
  • Sign Harper, blow way past, throw caution to the wind and keep signing guys.

Collier kind of gives a wishy washy answer,  saying well maybe!

Q:  How would you rank the likelihood of: Nats re-signing Harper, Nats re-signing Rendon, both, neither?

A: At this point, i’ll give the following percentage likelihoods:

  • Harper: 5%.  I think Harper is going to follow the paycheck and end up with literally the only team bidding on him; the Phillies.
  • Rendon: 65%.  I think he likes it here, I think he’s a great bet to age gracefully, and will be the next Zimmerman “face of the franchise” kind of guy.

Collier kind of agrees, thinking the most likely scenario is signing Rendon, not Harper.

Q: Who are the candidates for a surprise break out season?

A: A “surprise” breakout season?  Well if Victor Robles blows it out and wins the Rookie of the Year i don’t think that’s a surprise.  I’ll go with newly added reliever James Bourque.

Collier has almost the same answer as me :-)

12 Responses to 'Ask Collier 1/28/19'

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  1. You’re right – Davey couldnl’t get much worse, so probably better.

    I think the rotation should be clearly better 1-4. #5 – who knows? I love Joe Ross, but he’s on an innings limit, and 6-10 is.. well, about the same I guess. So, okay, slight improvement.

    About Harper – if he signs here, you have to figure Eaton gets traded either immediately or in March/April to free up cap space.

    kevin r

    27 Jan 19 at 3:33 pm

  2. I agree 100% with you on Martinez. Here’s hoping he is able to learn from the massive mistakes.

    Todd, I hope you’re right on Harper and Rendon.Fingers crossed.

    Mark L

    27 Jan 19 at 4:24 pm

  3. 1). The longer Harper/Machado go unsigned, the more I think I was right in the last post about MLB owners being concerned that the league is heading into some serious financial headwinds. Who would have thought at the end of January the Nats would have made the biggest free agency splash, but it would not have involved either of those guys?

    2). What could Martinez do in spring training to help the team? Resign.

    3). I think they’ll end up signing a low cost bullpen lefty for the pen right at the start of Spring Training. Lots of guys still available out there, and the market appears to be collapsing.

    4). I think it’s either/or, and how any Nats fan could wish for Harper over Rendon is beyond me.

    5). Not a lot of candidates for a “surprise” breakout on such a heavily veteran team. Borque’s a good one–and how about betting on Turner to finally have an All Star season and become a more valuable SS than Machado?

    Karl Kolchak

    27 Jan 19 at 8:00 pm

  4. Oddly, the quieter things stay, I think the greater likelihood there is that Boras is talking with the Nats. If that deal were to get done, it would be done with a fair amount of secrecy.

    I find it really hard to say how “likely” a deal with the Nats would or wouldn’t be. My guess right now is that it’s unlikely, but more than 5%. I’d say 10-15%. However, the only known offer to him is the 10/300 one from the Nats at the end of the season. For all the bluster, particularly from the Phils, there hasn’t even been a hint of another offer. If the Phils were going to strike, it really seemed like they had to close the deal within 10 days or so of meeting with Bryce. That window has passed. The Dodgers have also seemingly closed their window. As Boz noted, there are very, very few options left for Bryce and Boras.

    It’s a nutty offseason, and Wally made a lot of good points late on the last thread. One could argue that there are a few things conspiring against Bryce and Manny. One is the salary cap. Nearly all the big-spending teams are up against it, including the Nats. Another is the realization that no player should have a 10-year guaranteed contract, ever, in any sport, even if it starts for an age-26 season. Such a contract makes no sense for the future of a franchise. Just look at the Pujols, Cabrerra, and Cano deals. Yes, all three of those guys were older when they signed, but in retrospect, the deals still would have been turkeys if they had been three years younger.

    The other huge factor right now is that with no other known teams legitimately in the bidding, Bryce and Boras have no leverage. If I’m negotiating with them, either with the Nats or some other mystery team, I’m shortening the years and reducing or eliminating opt-outs. I’d start with something like 6/$210M ($35M AAV) with one opt-out after the 4th season. I’d much rather pay a higher AAV over fewer years (with a fair amount deferred, of course). I wouldn’t go more than seven years. If he doesn’t like it, good luck getting something better elsewhere. And oh by the way, this offer expires in two days. Take it or leave it.

    KW

    28 Jan 19 at 10:47 am

  5. I like Karl’s prediction of Trea for a break-out season. I’ll toss Eaton into that mix if he can stay healthy. Both have the talent to top 6 WAR (which Eaton did with the Chisox).

    I think Robles is going to have a roller-coaster year. He may be Rookie of the Month in April and hit .210 in May. He’s been working out with Soto, so I hope Soto can teach him the arts of patience and adjustment. The other big thing with Robles, of course, will be staying healthy.

    For the spring, the overriding question seems to be Ross vs. Fedde for 5th starter. There are also some back-of-the-bullpen questions to settle. I do think there are some real LH questions there, as Nuno has reverse splits like Solis, and I’m still not convinced that Grace is as good as his 2018 numbers, particularly in higher-leverage situations. But I agree with Todd that they’re too maxed out to add anyone else at the moment. Sipp really would have fit well, but to add someone like him now, they’d have to dump MAT’s salary.

    And yes, by all means, show a little spine and make Zim play a few games in the spring.

    KW

    28 Jan 19 at 11:05 am

  6. I prefer signing Bryce to a Rendon extension, even at the much higher price for Harper. There are basically two reasons for this preference: (1) Bryce is 2.5 years younger than Rendon, and his free agency comes a year before Rendon’s, so you’re getting 3.5 years of “younger” performance with a Bryce contract compared to a Rendon contract. Going purely by age and estimates about age-related decline, if you like Rendon on a 6-year deal, you should like Bryce on a 9.5-year deal. (2) Rendon derives a substantial amount of his value from defense whereas Bryce derives the vast majority of his value through his bat (and a little through baserunning). Normally I prefer more well-rounded players to players that are exceptional at just a few things. This is why I thought Robles was a better prospect than Soto. Robles, with his speed and defense, can contribute value in a number of ways even if he doesn’t hit much better than league average. Soto, on the other hand, needed to hit like one of the best ten hitters in baseball to be a star-type player (so far, it looks like that is what he’s going to be). But given their respective ages, I think Rendon’s defense is going to age sooner and more quickly than Bryce’s bat. We’ve recently experienced the decline phase of an exceptional defensive 3B. I don’t think Rendon will decline as sharply as Zim, but that should be a cautionary tale. And let’s be honest, Bryce is a MUCH better hitter: Bryce is a 140 career WRC+ hitter and Rendon is 123. And Bryce has put up those substantially better numbers at a younger age than Rendon has. Howie Kendrick has a WRC+ of 107; the difference between Harper and Rendon is roughly the same as the difference between Rendon and Kendrick.

    But of course, I’d like to sign them both. I don’t care at all about whether the deals are for too much money. The Lerners can afford it.

    Derek

    28 Jan 19 at 11:33 am

  7. Kevin — I think you’re right that Eaton would be traded if Harper re-signs. The later it gets in the offseason, though, the trickier that proposition gets . . . and the less likely the Nats are to get a good return for Eaton. There are good teams out there that still need OF help, though; the Indians and Giants come immediately to mind. I thought at one point that the Giants might be a darkhorse for Bryce, but Zaidi seems to have brought the Dodger skepticism of such contracts north with him.

    Derek — I share the skepticism for the all-in mentality on a Rendon extension. I wrote about it on a post or two ago. I think I accidentally had him a year too old, but he would still be past 30 when an extension would begin. I would like to have Rendon for three or four years beyond 2019, but he’s going to want at least six, maybe seven. My price point would be low 20s AAV, which I think is reasonable and likely. The problem is that the big difference is whether it’s over four or five seasons versus six or seven. As with Harper, I’d rather pay more for fewer seasons. For Rendon, maybe 4/$100M vs. 6/$140M.

    KW

    28 Jan 19 at 2:23 pm

  8. Derek–the Lehners “can” afford to re-sign both Harper and Rendon, but they won’t. It’s all about cash flow, and even with Harper the Nats rarely ever came close to selling out last year.

    If Harper wanted to be the highest paid player in the game, he should have gone out and performed last year. Instead, he whined and moped and didn’t start hitting until the team was already falling out of playoff contention. That’s why no team has been in a rush to sign him. If he mostly stunk during his contract year, what’s he going to do once he no longer has any incentive to play better?

    Karl Kolchak

    29 Jan 19 at 3:28 am

  9. There’s really no evidence to support the theory that players generally play better in contract years, so I’m not sure why that point is relevant. Some players do play better, some play worse, and some play about the same, which (a) is precisely what you would expect and (b) makes the contract year no different from any other year.

    Also, who cares whether Harper wants to be the highest paid player? The important issue is whether having Harper on the team would make the team better (it would). The less important issue (though perhaps only slightly less important) is whether Harper is worth the money he ultimately signs for. It’s impossible to take a position on that without knowing what his deal turns out be. But, even now, I think 10/300 is a team-favoring deal for him (though if the Nats can get him for less, they should do it).

    And finally, if the Nats’ management forces a choice between Harper and Rendon, then I think Harper is the right choice because he’s a lot younger and a much better hitter (and I say this with a great deal of admiration for Rendon and an openness to the idea that Rendon is *right now* a better player overall than Harper, which is of course a different issue from whether we should expect Rendon to be better than Harper in 2019, 2022, or 2025). I don’t think this choice is necessary; one of the (many) nice things about having billions of dollars is that you can have your cake and eat it too. But if the choice is necessary, then I choose Harper.

    Derek

    29 Jan 19 at 10:30 am

  10. Harper now rumored to be flirting with San Diego. I’m fine with that. It would get him out of the NL East and leave him on a team the Nats likely wouldn’t see in the playoffs for the foreseeable future. It sure wouldn’t be a high-profile place where Bryce could stay in the spotlight, though.

    Also, I agree with Derek that the Nats/Lerners could re-sign both Harper and Rendon if they wish. They’d likely be permanent residents above the tax line, though. I’m conflicted how prudent either extension would be, though. As noted above, my issue is much more with the expected length of the contract than it is with the prospective price.

    I’ll add that I don’t think any of the current scuttlebutt closes the door on a Bryce-DC reunion. In fact, my bet is that Boras has been waiting to get a legit offer from elsewhere to give him some leverage with the Nats.

    All in all, I just want things settled. I imagine the entire Nats camp does as well. As it is, it’s starting to look like they’re going to open camp with it all still hanging over their heads.

    KW

    31 Jan 19 at 2:09 pm

  11. Excellent column by Barry S. on the cancer in baseball with only half the teams trying, with many good quotes from Doolittle:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/what-do-you-call-a-game-in-which-half-the-participants-arent-trying-to-win-mlb/2019/01/31/930a48e6-258c-11e9-ad53-824486280311_story.html

    KW

    1 Feb 19 at 7:32 am

  12. Glad the team won the arbitration hearing with MAT so they don’t have to force a trade just because they’re upset. A trade for a reasonable return on the other hand…

    I can’t help but think Bryce with the Padres would be partially influenced by Werth having come to an up and coming team to be a leader and help change the course of the franchise. We know they are close and have probably had some conversations about what Werth was thinking at the time. Maybe that appeals to Bryce if he has to abandon hopes of largest contract or largest AAV.

    MG

    1 Feb 19 at 5:36 pm

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