Nationals Arm Race

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

Ladson’s inbox 12/18/12


Lots of loogy talk in this off-season; Burnett's a hard man to replace. Photo:

Another edition of’s Nationals beat reporter Bill Ladson’s Inbox, this time from 12/18/12.

As always, I write my response before reading his, and sometimes edit questions for clarity.

Q: Who will replace Sean Burnett as the lefty specialist in the bullpen?

Q: Is there any chance of the Nationals getting J.P. Howell to fill Burnett’s spot? Do you think the club needs him?

A: The Nats 2013 Loogy right now is likely to be minor league acquiree and former franchise 1st round pick Bill Bray.  If he’s healthy, and if he makes the team.  He’s the leader in the clubhouse right now, given the real lack of left handed relief in the farm system right now.  Clicking on baseball-reference’s great franchise pitching depth chart, there’s really not a single viable option that pitched above AA still in the system (I like Patrick McCoy, who did decently in AA, but he wasn’t picked up in Rule 5, which implies to me that he’s definitely not MLB ready).  Zach Duke seems set to be the Tom Gorzelanny replacement; the long-relief/spot-start/mop-up guy, and not necessarily the one-out guy.  The team is still involved with rumors of signing J.P. Howell, and of course could still re-sign Michael Gonzalez, who did so wonderfully for is in 2012.  However, lots of teams are in on lefty specialists right now and we may get out-bid.  I’m partial to Bray; he is a Virginia guy, went to William & Mary, and is the cousin of a buddy of mine (who, when I saw him last weekend, promised to have access to tickets if Bray makes the team).  Lets cross our fingers (stated completely selfishly).

Do we “need” Howell/Gonzalez?  I don’t know if we “need” another lefty, but I’d like another lefty in case Bray isn’t ready to go.  So I’d like to see another acquisition of someone for depth.  I think the bullpen looks better with a second lefty late-innings guy.  Ladson wrote almost exactly what I just wrote, naming all the same points.

Q: When looking at the 40-man roster, could you tell me what Yunesky Maya has to offer?

A: Maya still serves as last-ditch starter help, in case of a rash of injuries at the MLB level.  Despite his poor performances in two prior MLB stints, he’d still be preferable to other career minor league veteran options we probably will have in AAA this year (thinking the likes of Roark, Broderick, or Mandel).  His salary is guaranteed; we might as well keep him around as insurance.  If you’re looking to complain about a 40-man spot being wasted, look no further than Carlos Rivero.   Ladson calls the Maya signing Mike Rizzo‘s worst, and says the same thing I do about starter insurance.

Q: Who do you think has more of an upside: Michael Morse or Adam LaRoche?

A: An oddly worded question; I’m not sure either guy truly has upside at this point in their careers.  Michael Morse is in the last year of a contract, his sub-par defense has him outside of Rizzo’s vision of a pro-defense team, and there’s no guarantee that his 31 homer performance in 2011 wasn’t a complete one-off.  Adam LaRoche is already in his decline years and any guaranteed money is considered a big risk.  The best thing to do for the team would be to get LaRoche to return on as short of a guaranteed contract as he’ll take, and to flip Morse for some farm system depth (vastly depleted in the last 14 calendar months).   But, life isn’t that simple.  LaRoche has to be thinking for himself, and knows that this is the best and last time he’ll have to earn an 8-figure guaranteed deal.  So he has to max things out.  If someone else offers him 3 guaranteed years, he just has to take it.  He’ll never get $13M/year offered to him again.  Which would leave Morse in a contract year playing an easier defensive position (1B), and hopefully being 100% healthy he puts up another 2011 season.   Ladson is a pro-LaRoche guy.

Q: Considering his last outing in the postseason against the Cardinals, is Drew Storen the Nationals’ closer entering Spring Training, or will he have to win the job?

A: One badly timed blow-up won’t cost Drew Storen his job; he earned it back after taking a back seat to Tyler Clippard all summer, and that’s how things will stand going into 2013.  Clippard really struggled down the stretch in the role, and I cannot see any spring training competition at this point.   One thing that wouldn’t surprise me would be a trade though; only one guy can close, but both Clippard and Storen are closer-quality arms.  It could be lucrative to the team in terms of prospect depth to move one or the other to a team in need of a closer (and a team that values saves).  This move may not occur until next off-season though, when Clippard’s salary expectations will be far higher than the team may be willing to stomach for a non-closer.   Ladson says he expects Storen to be 100% and to get 30-35 saves.

Q: Burnett, who was a valuable asset in the bullpen, signed a two-year deal with the Angels. Couldn’t the Nationals have matched that kind of deal?

A: Yes they could have matched the Angel’s offer for Sean Burnett; it really wasn’t that much money.  But, by saving a few million here and there suddenly you have enough to buy a front-line starter.  That’s the right way to build a team in a fiscally responsible way.  That being said, I think perhaps the team was surprised that Burnett “only” signed a 2 year deal, given Jeremy Affeldt‘s 3 year contract for more money (Burnett’s deal has a 3rd year club option).   But Rizzo belives in the same thing that I believe in; bullpen arms are a commodity, can be found for relatively little money and you can get great performance for your dollar.  Think about Gonzalez last year; he was a minor league signing mid-season, and he posted a 132 ERA+ for us in 35 2/3 innings.  I think Bray could absolutely be this year’s version of Gonzalez.  Ladson has a good point: he thinks the Nats were slightly scared off by Burnett’s off -season elbow surgery and didn’t want to guarantee 2 years.

Q: Johnson’s favoritism drives me crazy, and I’m weary of reading about him trying to coax LaRoche into signing. Doesn’t favoritism bother the rest of the team, perhaps cause discord? And does the ballclub truly believe LaRoche can achieve the same numbers next year? I am dubious.

A: A great question; I’ve said in the past that Davey Johnson‘s overt recruiting of LaRoche in the media has to be grating to Morse.  If LaRoche signs elsewhere, I would absolutely believe there may be some discord in the clubhouse between Morse and Johnson that will need to be addressed.  Other readers on this blog don’t necessarily believe this is the case, saying that Morse has to know that “its a business.”  But how would you feel if your boss was overtly recruiting your replacement?  I’d be pissed.  Can LaRoche match his 2012 numbers in 2013?  Sure.  The odds are against him though.  Its more likely to expect declines in production natural with his advancing age.  Ladson says the players love Johnson and would never question him, but didn’t even mention Morse’s name.

Q: Do you think Ian Desmond can pull off another incredible year in 2013?

A: Sure!  Do I think Ian Desmond could also regress at the plate to his pre 2012 numbers?  Yes I do.  I really have no idea what to expect out of guys like Desmond and Roger Bernadina, who both had career years and significantly improved their offense over their career norms.  Are these one-time improvements?  Meanwhile, a guy like Danny Espinosa is in the reverse situation; he’s regressing year to year, and needs to make a leap like Desmond made.  Predictions?   I think all three players stay roughly where they are, Espinosa starts losing ABs against lefties to Lombardozzi, and Rendon starts to force the team’s hand by tearing up AAA in early 2013.   Ladson is really pro-Desmond, saying that he’ll go down as one of the great short-stops in baseball.  That’s heavy praise.

10 Responses to 'Ladson’s inbox 12/18/12'

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  1. Yunesky Maya – you know, I got nothing here. I’d rather see almost anyone else. I also cannot believe that if they DFA’d him a year ago, he wouldn’t pass through waivers because no one would pick up the contract so we at least get him off the 40 man (but maybe I am missing something in how the rules work). But not that big a deal.

    Burnett – I am puzzled they didn’t match either. I assumed that they thought the going rate was at least $6m AAV, and probably 3 years, so when he signed for 2/$8m, I was surprised. Seems like we could regret this one.

    “Ladson is really pro-Desmond, saying that he’ll go down as one of the great short-stops in baseball.” – I just chuckle at this. Don’t get me wrong, I think that he’ll be one of the better SS values at least through his arb years, but this is just hard to take seriously. I mean, if and when his power slips again, his bat will fight to be above replacement level. I do think that he has matured into a quality defender, so he’ll always have value, but the power is what made him great last year.


    20 Dec 12 at 2:05 pm

  2. So Todd you rather have Morse at first for one year than ALR for 2?

    I guess I could live with that and the Nats would pick up a first round draft pick in that situation.

    If Morse had a big year I could see the Nats giving him a 13.3 offer in 2014 and in a perfect world picking up another first round pick.

    I think ALR for next year makes the team slightly better, (I’m partial to LH first baseman) but it would be at the margins so not a big difference in win total. I guess I’d like the one that hits better next year so if you could tell me that, that’s the way I’d go.


    20 Dec 12 at 2:14 pm

  3. Burnett’s contract isn’t a total team option; if he pitches in 110 games in the first two years the third year vests at $4.5 million. Given that he’s averaged 70 games/year with the Nats, that’s a fairly low bar to clear. Which would make the contract worth three years/$13.5 million (with a couple of other incentives that would be hit if he pitches the 110 games).

    IMHO Morse is likely to hit better than LaRoche next year. If you look at his career and more recent numbers he’s just a better offensive player. And more clutch, too (just look at their B-R clutch and leverage stats).

    But say this for LaRoche; the Nats did exactly the same thing to him when they were openly considering Prince Fielder last year. LaRoche just went about his business and ultimately of course put up a career year. I’d be OK if Morse followed that path 🙂

    John C.

    20 Dec 12 at 3:00 pm

  4. Oh, and what do you have against Carlos Rivero? The guy is only 24, and put up a .303/.347/.435 line at Syracuse and has played SS, 3b and 1b. I’m not saying he’s the answer, but as (essentially) the 7th infielder (after the four starters, Tracey and Lombardozzi) a team could do worse.

    John C.

    20 Dec 12 at 3:16 pm

  5. Burnett’s contract: I thought it was performance based as well, didn’t google it, but then Cots’ didn’t list any such details so I (incorrectly) assumed it was a club option. My bad. Lazy blog-commenting.

    Todd Boss

    20 Dec 12 at 3:30 pm

  6. Nothing personal against the guy, but in terms of 40-man roster space he’s wasting a spot. He’s never played a day in the majors but has burned 3 options and therefore is going to be DFA’d anyways come spring training. In fact, I just don’t understand why he’s still on the roster, or why the team KEPT him on the roster instead of adding someone like Kobernus or Rosenbaum, who are then allowed to be drafted away (despite STILL having 2 extra roster spots at the time). Its maddening; clearly Rivero is a good player, but he’s not good enough to crack the 25-man AND he’s out of options. So why is he still on the roster?

    Todd Boss

    20 Dec 12 at 3:32 pm

  7. Re Burnett and Gorzy, I agree generally with Todd’s comment about efficient roster construction, but I wonder if there is a counter argument on the theory that marginal wins for a contending team should be higher? If they cost $12m more total for two years than Bray and Duke, but they add three wins, would you pay it if your club expected to be in the 90+ win category?

    It is never that sure of a thing, but if I knew those assumptions were true, I think the Nats would do it.


    20 Dec 12 at 4:39 pm

  8. Well, you could do a nice little WAR analysis on these two guys. Generally speaking 1 WAR goes for something between $5-$5.5M on the FA open market. Burnett had a 1.4 WAR last year, equating to roughly a $7.5M annual salary, and he got a 2yr/$8M deal. So it looks like he is a bargain. Meanwhile Gorzelanny had a 0.9 war, equating to roughly a $4.5M annual salary, and he reportedly has signed a 2yr/$6M deal. Also a bargain in terms of WAR.

    However, the caveat to these deals is the simple economics of relief pitching; there’s a lot of it on the market, there’s not a ton of difference between a mediocre and a slightly better than average reliever, and thus costs are kept down.

    I get the impression that Duke’s callup in september convinced the team he was just as good an option as Gorzelanny but could be had for less. That’s a no=brainer. Bray-vs-Burnett may be a bit less clear; perhaps the team is accepting a slight degradation of performance out of Bray. Maybe they plan on signing another guy and sticking Bray in the minors for depth.

    Hmm. Are marginal additional wins for a 90+ win team worth more, simply because its so much harder to go from a 95 to a 100 win team versus going from a 65 to a 70 win team? That’s a good question. Here’s a better question; the Nats won 98 games last year and made the playoffs … As long as the Nats win about the same number of games in 2013, they’re likely to be in the EXACT same spot they were last year; divisional winner with home field advantage. So why should the team try to be a 105 win team? Or to be a 110 win team? There’s no point in trying to acheive that goal, since in the end we all know that MLB playoffs have become essentially a crap shoot (the team with the best regular season record has also won the WS only 3 times since 1990!).

    Todd Boss

    20 Dec 12 at 5:23 pm

  9. I think the theory is more that the impact of that additional win is higher. If you go from 75 to 78 wins, you still don’t make the playoffs or even have a .500 record. But the difference between 92 and 95 wins could be playoffs, or division champs v WC, or home field advantage.

    I am ok with Duke instead of Gorzy. I am not crazy with Bray for an 8th inning guy, and something about Clip has me worried. If you believe in reliever variability, which I know that you do, then he seems due. And he seemed shaky in the 2d half last year, like teams were sitting on his change up.


    21 Dec 12 at 12:17 pm

  10. Did Clippard crack under pressure? Is he perhaps just better suited for the 8th inning? Maybe he was trying too hard, knowing that 2012 in the closer role during an arbitration year was his year to really earn some money. I do believe in reliever fungibility/variance; is he due to regress? I dunno; 2012 was easily his worst; if anything you’d expect him to improve a little bit. I don’t think he can do another 202 ERA+ year like 2011, but his 2010 would do. He’s thrown a LOT of innings though the last three years. Lots of innings, lots of appearances. If anything he might be due for an injury, hate to say it.

    Check this out: its Clippards pitch f/x season by season. He threw a quite a few more changeups this year than last; 35% (455/1284 pitches) versus 27% the year before. Perhaps he’s just depending on the pitch too much? Notice the wRC+ difference on his fastballs from 2011 to 2012; it was effective for him in 2011 but definitely not so in 2012.

    Bray; i think he’s the loogy, less versatile than Burnett. I would like to see the team sign one more lefty (resign Michael Gonzalez!) to solidify the bullpen and keep Bray in reserve as needed. I also think Henry Rodriguez may not make it out of spring training, and I think the team might be better served with Garcia as a 7th inning guy instead of trying to start in AAA.

    Todd Boss

    21 Dec 12 at 5:28 pm

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