Nationals Arm Race

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

Nats Franchise FA history; biggest, best, worst deals


Jayson Werth is certainly our most expensive FA, by a considerable sum. Photo Mitchell Layton/Getty Images NA

The second in a series: The first looked at the Biggest/Best/Worst Trades of the Washington Nationals era and was posted in late March.  Yes, it took me 8 months to return to this series, despite writing most of this post in July.  Here in Part 2, we’ll look at the biggest, best and worst Free Agent signings in the tenures of both Jim Bowden and Mike Rizzo. In the last section we’ll look at Draft picks.

Ground rules for this article:

1. When considering a Free Agent we’ll only consider the FIRST signing in this list.  So, for guys who have signed multiple one-year free agent contracts in a row (guys like Rick Ankiel and Chien-Ming Wang), we’ll only consider them as a single signing.  For others who signed here and then left, only to come back (example: Livan Hernandez) we’ll consider them as separate signings.

2. We are considering extensions given to existing players (since they don’t fit elsewhere).  You can consider an extension just a pre-emptive free agent contract.

3. We’re mostly focusing here on Major League free agents; each year we sign many minor league FAs ahead of camp.  If a Minor League FA signing ends up having a decent impact on the major league team, we’ll note him (good recent example being Laynce Nix).

Just for review, here’s the tenure period of both GMs:

  • Nov 2004 – Mar 2009: Jim Bowden
  • Mar 2009 – present: Mike Rizzo

The team has made dozens and dozens of signings: I won’t try to go through them all here.  For those interested, here’s my List of Free Agents from over the years (also available on the links section to the right of this blog).  I put up a similar notes file (List of Trades and Trading Partners) from the first post of this series, also available in the list of resources on the right-hand side of the blog.

Jim Bowden Tenure: Nov 2004 – Mar 2009

Bowden’s Biggest Free Agent Signings

  • 2006: Nick Johnson 3yr $16.5M
  • 2007: Austin Kearns 3yr $16.5M
  • 2008: Cristian Guzman 2yr $16M
  • 2009: Adam Dunn 2yr $20M

I wonder sometimes if Bowden doesn’t sit in his ESPN office as he writes his blogs and ask himself what he could have done here had he had more money to spend.  Look at this list; Bowden’s biggest deal in 5 off-seasons was a 2yr/$20M contract for a slugger who really had nowhere else to go that off-season.  Jayson Werth will make more than that annually starting in 2014.

Bowden’s Best Free Agent Signings

  • 2006: Brian Schneider 4yr extension, $2.9M
  • 2007: Ronnie Belliard 1yr ML deal
  • 2007: Dmitri Young 1yr ML deal
  • 2008: Willie Harris 1yr $800K
  • 2009: Adam Dunn 2yr $20M

Bowden’s 2007 off-season was pretty amazing, looking back.  He assembled a team on the backs of Minor League Free Agents galore, one of which (Dmitri Young) ended up being our lone All-Star.  The team went 73-89 and gave 145 of its 162 starts to guys who aren’t even in the league any more (exceptions: Joel Hanrahan‘s 11 starts with 6.00 ERA and late-season call up John Lannan‘s 6 starts as a 22-yr old).  He was the master of the scrap heap and spun a team that should have lost 100 games into a respectable 73 win team.  Too bad that luck ran out in 2008 as the team bottomed out.  But you have to hand it to Bowden for these three 2007 signings; Hanrahan didn’t really pay off for the Nationals, ever, but did enable us to eventually get Sean Burnett, a valuable member of the team’s bullpen these last few years.

All things considered, I’d have to say that Adam Dunn may have been his best FA signing.  Dunn’s bat was mostly wasted during his two years here, considering the unbelievably bad pitching staffs that Bowden assembled.  But the combination of Zimmerman-Dunn-Willingham was a pretty fearsome 3-4-5.  Ironically, NOT re-signing Dunn may also have been one of Rizzo’s best non-moves, considering Dunn’s amazing 2011 collapse and the subsequent rise of Michael Morse (who would have continued to be a bit player if the Nats still had Dunn in LF).

Bowden’s Worst Free Agent Signings

  • 2007: Austin Kearns 3yr $16.5M
  • 2008: Paul Lo Duca 1yr $5M
  • 2008: Rob Mackowiak 1yr $1.5M
  • 2008: Johnny Estrada 1yr $1.25M
  • 2008: Cristian Guzman 2yr extension $16M
  • 2009: Daniel Cabrera 1yr $2.6M

2008 was as bad as 2007 was good for Bowden.  Nearly every move he made back-fired, some spectacularly.  Paul Lo Duca hadn’t been signed for a week when his name showed up prominently in the Mitchell Report; he was released before July.  Rob Mackowiak and Johnny Estrada were just stealing money; its still not clear what Bowden saw in these guys.  I hated the Kearns deal, never understood what Bowden saw in the guy.  Daniel Cabrera was so bad for us it was almost comical, and it was a relief when we DFA’d him after 8 starts.

But the worst FA signing has to the Guzman extension.  He seemed decent enough after coming back from an injury that cost him all of 2005 and most of 2006, but Bowden inexplicably extended him for 2 years for the same amount of money that he had earned the previous four … and almost immediately his production tailed off.   Its not that Guzman was that BAD in 2009 and 2010, its just that he was so vastly overpaid for what he gave the team.  We flipped him for two minor league pitchers, he promptly hit .152 in 15 games for Texas and he was out of the league.

Mike Rizzo Tenure: Mar 2009 – present

Rizzo’s Biggest Free Agent Signings

  • 2010: Ryan Zimmerman 5yr $45M
  • 2011: Jayson Werth 7yr $126M
  • 2012: Ryan Zimmermann 8yrs $100M
  • 2012: Gio Gonzalez 5yr $42M

Its ironic that I had to remove three deals from this list (LaRoche, Jackson, Marquis) that would have qualified for Bowden’s “biggest deal” list.  That’s because the size of these deals are just dwarfing what the team was willing to do under Bowden.  Lots of pundits have (and continue to) criticized the Jayson Werth deal, and it routinely appears on anyone’s list of “Worst Baseball Contracts.”  And his 2011 season confirmed just how bad this may have turned out for Washington.  But a bounceback 2012, which featured Werth putting up a 125 OPS+ despite missing a ton of time with a broken wrist, showing the flexibility of batting lead-off when the team needed him, plus providing the veteran leadership and professionalism that this young team needs certainly would earn back some of that contract value.  In hindsight, I think the team made this deal as a strawman, to send a message to the rest of the league that we were NOT a low-budget, poorly run team, and to pave the path back to respectability in the minds of other professionals out there that Washington can be a destination franchise.

Rizzo’s Best Free Agent Signings

  • 2009: Julian Tavarez 1yr ML
  • 2009: Joe Beimel 1yr $2M
  • 2010: Livan Hernandez 1yr ML 900k
  • 2011: Jerry Hairston 1yr $2M
  • 2010: Matt Capps 1yr $3.5M
  • 2010: Joel Peralta 1yr ML
  • 2011: Todd Coffey 1yr $1.35M
  • 2011: Laynce Nix 1yr ML

In terms of impact-per-dollar, I think the first Livan Hernandez year of his return was probably the best FA signing that Rizzo has done.  Hernandez went 10-12 with a 3.66 ERA and a 110 ERA+ for less than a million dollars on the FA market.  That’s roughly $90k a Win, when most teams are paying more than $1M/win for free agent starting pitching.   However clearly Rizzo’s most shrewd FA deal was the Matt Capps signing.  He took Capps off the scrap heap; he was released by Pittsburgh after a horrid 2009, and his half season of excellent relief for us turned into Wilson Ramos and a minor leaguer (Joe Testa), returned in trade from Minnesota.  I will also mention that the value that minor league signings Julian Tavarez, Joel Peralta, and Laynce Nix gave the team was also fantastic, considering where these players were in their careers prior to joining us.

Rizzo’s Worst Free Agent Signings

  • 2010: Yunesky Maya 4yr $8M
  • 2010: Ivan Rodriguez 2yr $6M
  • 2010: Jason Marquis 2yr $15M
  • 2011: Matt Stairs 1yr ML
  • 2012: Brad Lidge 1yr $1M
  • Chein Ming Wang: all of them.

2010, Rizzo’s first FA class, didn’t turn out very well did it? Yunesky Maya has been a pretty big disappointment, giving the team just one MLB win for an $8M investment.  Ivan Rodriguez just proved to be slightly too old to be worth the starter money he was paid; you could argue that the leadership he provided was worth the money.   And Jason Marquis, bought as a stop-gap for a failed farm system, was god-awful in 2010.  I won’t completely kill Rizzo for the Brad Lidge experiment; it was worth a $1M flier to see if he had anything left in the tank.  Matt Stairs would have been another fine, low-cost experiment except for the fact that the team kept giving him at-bats for weeks/months after it was clear he was washed up.

For me the worst FA signing was related to the money poured down the Chien-Ming Wang rathole for three years running.  The Nats ended up investing $8M total over three years to get 16 starts, 6 wins and a 4.94 ERA.

Rizzo’s Too Early to Tell Free Agent Signings

  • 2011: Jayson Werth 7yr $126M
  • 2012: Ryan Zimmermann 8yrs $100M
  • 2012: Gio Gonzalez 5yr $42M

So far, Werth’s contract is trending as an over-pay, Zimmerman’s as an injury concern, and Gonzalez trending as a complete steal (21 wins for $8.4M AAV in 2012?  That’s a fantastic return for the money).  Pundits have stated that the Nats have “two 9-figure contracts but zero 9-figure players” (I read it at the time of the Zimmerman signing but cannot find the link).  I think that’s slightly unfair to these players, but until Zimmerman can stay healthy enough to produce at his 2009 level, you have to admit that he may be overpaid as well.  Perhaps Zimmerman’s brittle health issues can be alleviated if he makes the move to 1B, where he can continue to play gold glove calibre defense but have less of a tax on his body.  This analysis obviously does not take Zimmerman’s “value” to the franchise into account, which may be unfair when considering this contract (nobody really said Derek Jeter‘s latest contract was a massive overpay considering his service to the Yankees,  his “stature” as the captain and his eventual Hall of Fame induction; for the Yankees to cut him loose would have been a massive public relations gaffe).

Coincidentally, I didn’t view the contracts of guys like LaRoche, Jackson, or Morse as being specifically “good” or “bad.”   I think LaRoche’s one bad/one good season plus Jackson’s MLB average season was just about on-par with expectations for their contracts.  Morse’s 2011 production was pre-contract, so we’ll see how his 2013 goes.

Thoughts?  Any FA signings or extensions out there that stick in your minds that you thought should be mentioned?

23 Responses to 'Nats Franchise FA history; biggest, best, worst deals'

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  1. Really good, appreciate this.

    Any guess on a more formal list of “best/worst non-signings”? Soriano has to top it, Dunn is maybe next?

    The trend I see is what I’d expect from the two GMs: Rizzo’s mistakes were smaller, his big deals bigger. Bownden’s big deals and successes smaller, his mistakes bigger.


    28 Nov 12 at 1:25 pm

  2. Jason Marquis

    John C.

    28 Nov 12 at 1:30 pm

  3. I’ve considered a fourth article in the series related to what you say: best and worst “non-moves” or “decisions” made by the GMs. Soriano and Dunn on there, both from a trade deadline perspective and a non-signing perspective. But its tougher to find those “non-moves” and decisions. What else would you put in there? Perhaps non-tender decisions that were tough? How about the surprising (at the time) releases of Hill and Patterson? The thing is, we really don’t know what offers were truly on the table for trade-deadline deals. We “believe” the offer was Dunn for Jackson in 2010. Was that better than getting the comp picks in 2011’s draft (which turned into Meyer and Goodwin)?

    Ok, maybe there is enough here for a post. I’ll work on it.

    Todd Boss

    28 Nov 12 at 1:31 pm

  4. dammit, Marquis was absolutely listed on the “worst” but somehow my cut and pasting failed me. He’s listed in the worst signings on my worksheet that I used to make that post. At the risk of revisionist history i’m editing the post to show it.

    Todd Boss

    28 Nov 12 at 2:01 pm

  5. I would have to put Marquis as a worse contract than Pudge. Pudge wasn’t worth the $6 mil but he did have some intangibles and I think Wilson Ramos probably learned a good bit from him. Marquis was awful his first season and injured and then was passable his second. At least Rizzo was able to trade him before he completely imploded. Again though at the time I guess Rizzo had to overpay for a starter because Bowden left the pitching staff in such a crappy position.


    28 Nov 12 at 2:09 pm

  6. “The team went 73-89 and didn’t have a SINGLE Starter who is still in the league right now (well, except for Joel Hanrahan, who had a 6.00 ERA and 1.9 WHIP in 11 starts before being relegated to the bullpen).”

    John Lannan was a 2007 starter who is still in the league. He’ll start for one of the 30 MLB teams in 2013, just unclear right now which one that will be.

    Feel Wood

    28 Nov 12 at 2:12 pm

  7. Lannan made 6 starts that year, getting called up in July. The point was that the majority of 2007’s starting rotation was unbelievably bad. Nit-picky.

    Todd Boss

    28 Nov 12 at 2:23 pm

  8. Plus Lannan isn’t on a 25 man roster at the moment. 40 yes, but he’s not really an active every day player.


    28 Nov 12 at 2:28 pm

  9. “Plus Lannan isn’t on a 25 man roster at the moment. 40 yes, but he’s not really an active every day player.”

    There are no 25 man rosters at the moment. But if there were, I guess Adam LaRoche and Sean Burnett wouldn’t be active every day players either under your definition, would they?

    “Lannan made 6 starts that year, getting called up in July. The point was that the majority of 2007’s starting rotation was unbelievably bad. Nit-picky.”

    I’m not the one who chose to say ‘SINGLE starter’ with the emphasis on ‘SINGLE’, am I? If that’s picking a nit, you must be positively eaten alive by them.

    Feel Wood

    28 Nov 12 at 3:14 pm

  10. Dude, the point is that I wrote a 1600 word opinion piece and all you can respond with is a nit-pick almost entirely unrelated to the point of the post. However, just for you I edited what I “meant” to say with that one sentence throw-away line to be more clear. It now reads, “The team went 73-89 and gave 145 of its 162 starts to guys who aren’t even in the league any more.”

    Did you have any feedback on the actual article?

    Todd Boss

    28 Nov 12 at 3:23 pm

  11. Todd – nice article. Your rankings seem right to me, with maybe two caveats. Zim’s first extension, since you include it as a FA signing, would make my list of Best FA signings, as would the Gio deal. Someone (Keri maybe) just did one of those ‘Most valuable contracts’ articles and Gio was pretty high in that list. Those option years are a big coup for us (let’s hope Rizzo pulls off a similar deal with JZimm).

    And as for Werth,I agree that it seems like it will be an overpay but here are a couple of potentially mitigating factors: with all this new TV money coming in to the game, salaries may be going through the inflation roof, and this may not look so bad by the end of the term; Werth is the kind of player (defense, OBP, base running) likely to still be contributing into his elder years; and there are probably 10 other whopper contracts that we’d hate more (Ryan Howard, for starters).

    Would you revise your ‘too soon to tell’ trade conclusion on Gio yet?


    28 Nov 12 at 4:56 pm

  12. Guzman’s first contract was far worse than his extension. Not only did he miss one entire season of it but Bowden was so eager to sign him he didn’t wait until the Twins non-tendered him and instead gave up a 2nd and 3rd round pick.


    28 Nov 12 at 5:17 pm

  13. KIrk is right about Guzman’s first contract, which was one of the first during Bowden’s tenure. You also left out the initial signings of Vinny Castilla (2 years/$6.2 million) and Esteban Loaiza (1 year/$2.9 million). That last one was pretty darn good, actually.

    And you can’t slam the extension of Guzman without also slamming the extension of Dmitri Young (2 years/$10 million), another sad example of throwing money away. Young, Belliard ad Cordero in 2007 and Guzman in 2008 should have been traded for prospects while they had decent value. Instead we got virtually nothing for those guys.


    29 Nov 12 at 8:29 am

  14. Agreed bdrube. Bowden had no concept of trading people when they had value. It seemed like either

    a.) he overvalued what he had or

    b.) every GM in baseball hated him and refused to trade with him.

    Maybe it is option c.) a and b combined.

    Even if he had moved just Cordero the team would have been able to get a pretty decent prospect for him. Guzman and Young may not have fetched much but Rizzo did manage to turn Guzman into Tanner Roark and Ryan Tatsuko 2 years later. If he got 2 arms, albeit unimpressive ones, you would have to think somebody would have been interested in giving up something with more upside than that during Guzzie’s all star season. I guess maybe Bowden was so delusional he thought he could pull another couple of Dmitri Young’s off the scrap heap and put together a competitive team instead of, you know, actually building from within like “the plan” said.


    29 Nov 12 at 9:34 am

  15. Hmm. I’m not sure i like Zimmerman’s extension as much as you do. 6/$100 = $16.67 AAV, which means he’s roughly the 30th highest paid player right now in the game. Would you claim that he’s among the 30 best players in the league? On potential, probably sure; best-in-the-league defense to go along with 30 homer capabilities and penchant for always hitting the ball on the nose. But injuries just keep setting him back. His injury list is incredible; I count 11 different times in his short career where he’s missed time due to injury already, 4 surgeries, and significant time lost in 4 of the last 5 seasons. Its tough to say that the Nats are going to get value out of Zimmerman if he continues to be so brittle. This goes to my starting to beleive that Zimmerman would be better served moving to 1B sooner than later.

    On Gio; i did say it was “trending as a complete steal.” I just think its folly to judge a 5 year deal as a success one year in. If Gonzalez turns into Daniel Cabrera in two years time and we have to eat $20M of that contract … well we won’t think its so great then. I will say though that just on a $/win basis, Gio is already doing a good job of earning value for the life of this contract, even if he gets hit by a truck next year. 21 wins for $45M guaranteed is a bit more than $2M/win, and he’s still got 4 years to accumulate more wins.

    Totally agree on Werth’s contract becoming more “innocuous” as more big money deals come out. I may have said the same thing somewhere, either in a column or in a blog posting. In fact, It’ll be very curious to see how the blogosphere starts reacting to all these big money deals. I’m guessing they’re all going to be labeled “massive overpays” immediately, since we’re judging money on the past versus on the future. Brandon League, Jeremy Affeldt deals already criticized for the amount of money for relievers as examples.

    I’ve always had a sore spot for the treatment of Werth’s contract and the Nats making it. I felt it was related to the prevailing opinion of the franchise at the time moreso than to the actual contract. My proof was the reaction to the Carl Crawford deal, a guy who got MORE money than Werth but who was inarguably a lesser hitter. Did the REd Sox get absolutely crushed like the Nats did in the press at the time? No of course not, because they were making lots of big money deals.

    Todd Boss

    29 Nov 12 at 11:29 am

  16. It seems like it is option c. We all read reports at the time of GMs who so hated Bowden that they’d just hang up the phone on him. And I distinctly remember reading quotes from GMs who said Bowden was asking for the world for certain guys (Soriano, Cordero).

    Bowden had no concept of building teams, period. Rizzo took over a team that literally had no bullpen and whose farm system had bottomed out. How much of that is Bowden’s fault? Has to be a lot of it. Bowden was obsessed with toolsy guys, reclamation projects and his former players. Hence his falling in love with guys like Lastings Milledge and Dmitri Young, and why Austin Kearns kept getting contracts. I remember counting up the 40-man roster with Cincinnati ties at one point and it was literally a quarter of the roster.

    Todd Boss

    29 Nov 12 at 12:30 pm

  17. Guess we can get off the Swisher band wagon now that they picked up Span.

    I am sooooooo glad they made this trade instead of a 5 year deal for Bourn. Span is among the best in the league at making contact and that is big with his speed. This makes the lineup look a bit different but I really like it.


    29 Nov 12 at 8:10 pm

  18. Todd – I meant Zim’s first deal (5/$45m). I thought that was pretty good. I am going to wait out the 6/$100m deal to see whether it was good. I totally agree with you that it will depend on his health, and I’d add, whether he stays at 3b. If he plays 140 games a year at 3b for the life of the extension, I think it will turn out ok. If he moves to 1b in two years, I think it will be a poor deal. I see him as .280/.340/.450 wherever he plays, which is good for 3b (especially with good D), and just ok at 1b.


    29 Nov 12 at 8:41 pm

  19. Wally, Zimmerman hasn’t had an OPS that low in 4 years. He only came close to it once and that was 2011 when he had surgery during the season. Even with his poor start last year he put up a .282/.346/.478 line which is far more productive than the line you are suggesting.

    If Zim plays in 140 games a year he is probably more along the lines of a .285/.360/.490 line with a 25-30 homer total and 90-100 RBI. If he stays at 3rd for the length of the contract that will provide surplus value. I think that is probably highly unlikely. The only thing I can look at and see is that his contract is only half of what Fielder, Pujols and Votto are making and the contracts of firstbasemen is highly overpaid. If Zimm moves to 1b and provides consistent offense, even if it is below what those 3 do, in the end his contract could look like a bargain. All that is contingent on his questionable health.

    Contracts seem to be skyrocketing, as evidenced by Upton getting $15 million a year.


    29 Nov 12 at 11:43 pm

  20. PDowdy – looking at it again, you are right that I probably undersold Zim’s power a bit going forward, so let’s just say he hits in line with your numbers (even though that is slightly above his career averages and he’ll play several years post-peak during the contract). If he stays at 3B, we agree that the contract will look good. Those numbers would be top 5 among 3B over the last 5 years, squarely middle of the pack for 1B (before taking into account defense in either case).

    I was just trying (poorly) to say that I think Zim is much more valuable to Nats at 3B than 1B, so I have never understood the willingness to switch, even to find room for Rendon’s bat. Even with his throwing problems (which admittedly made my stomach clench on occasion), he was essentially league average on D last year. I’d play him there until his range is severely diminished.


    30 Nov 12 at 8:08 am

  21. I probably did overshoot on my projection. We can split the difference on our projections and probably have a pretty realistic look at his numbers. We are definitely in agreement because he is far more valuable at 3B. You don’t move a guy off a position after a bad season throwing when it was publicly known he had multiple coristone shots in his throwing shoulder. He is a stud with the glove over there. The only way I switch him is if he suffers another injury from diving around the infield or has another bad year throwing the ball. Rendon won’t be ready until the end of ’13 at the earliest (more likely ’14). In my eyes Rendon impacts Espinosa more than Zimm. I think this gives Espinosa one more season to get it completely together (cut down the strikeouts by about 40). If he doesn’t Rendon slots in nicely at 2B. If Espinosa does put it together like Desmond did than the Nats are in a very inveiable position of having a stacked team with a highly coveted assett in the minors.

    1B is easier to fill internally if need be. We have Moore who is probably about as major league ready as he is going to get. I’m not sure I buy into the section of people who think based on his small sample size last season that he is a 30/HR 100/RBI guy but I think he could be a 20-25 homer 85/RBI guy with a below average glove. We also have Matt Skole who is probably permanently switching to 1B after his solid AFL campaign. He looks much better at 1B defensively.

    Next offseason’s 1B class is as thin as this years so if you want to put up money at 1B it just looks like the best answer is to resign LaRoche even if it takes a 3rd season.


    30 Nov 12 at 9:51 am

  22. Oh, yeah then absolutely his first contract played out well. The FA value of WAR seems to be (according to several studies) around $4.5M per win above replacement. 2009-2012 in those four years he’s generated a bWAR of 7.1+6.0+1.6+3.8 = 18.5 WAR or about $83M of value so far and the contract still has 2013 to go to. So, yeah that’s great value. I’ll agree I should have put this in the “best” categories.

    Todd Boss

    30 Nov 12 at 10:15 am

  23. I used to agree with you here Wally, vehimently in fact, against switching Zimmerman to first. But I’ve changed my tune, especially after watching 2012, a season in which every time he made a stop I held my breath expecting the throw to be way off line. Zimmerman’s nearly to Knoblock territory in terms of mental issues just making a basic throw across the diamond. Couple this with his diving around being the reason for his latest shoulder malady, going to my points about his fragileness, and I think a move to first is absolutely necessary. If Rendon can hit MLB pitching (as all signs seem to indicate) and if Rendon provides plus defense at third (which EVERY scout seems to indicate) then Zimmerman needs to move.

    Todd Boss

    30 Nov 12 at 10:19 am

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