Nationals Arm Race

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

Ask Boswell 12/31/12 Edition


Where did all our 2012 lefties go? Photo Nationals stock.

Even in the basking glow of the Redskin’s first NFC East title since 1999, there were still a few Nationals questions thrown into Tom Boswell‘s 12/31/12 Chat at  Here’s a mini chat-response edition.

As always, I edit questions for clarity and answer here as I read down the chat before reading Boswell’s response.

Q: I can’t understand why the Nats have allowed all three of their lefty relievers to depart without serious efforts to re-sign them.

A: I think you have to look at all three guys individually.  Tom Gorzelanny was replaced by Zack Duke, who likely was cheaper than the 2yr/$5.7M contract Gorzelanny got from Milwaukee (we have no terms of the Duke deal available, but I’m guessing its around a 1yr $1.5M deal).  I just get the impression the team liked Duke better than Gorzelanny by the end of the 2012 season.  This, ironically, was also the position that “peric the troll” argued for at the end of last season, to give credit where credit is due.  Sean Burnett got 2yrs/$8M with a vesting option at $4.5M if he appears in 110 games over the next two seasons (a relatively easy option to attain considering he has averaged more than 70 games a year each of the last four seasons).   And the Nats likely believe that a 3 year contract for a reliever is too much.  Lastly, the team probably wanted Michael Gonzalez back but got out bid by Milwaukee for his 1yr/$2.2M deal.   So they’re now back on the market, possibly in on J.P. Howell on a deal for less than what Gonzalez want, but also have Bill Bray in the fold on a minor league deal.  I know these aren’t eye-popping numbers, but the way to build teams is to save money where you can and to stick to a methodology.  Mike Rizzo‘s methodology for building bullpens seems to be to save money where you can, knowing that more bullpen arms are available in the minors.   Boswell thinks the team has ably replaced at least two of these guys, but also says the team NEEDS to get Howell.

Q: If I got in a time machine and went back to December 31, 2011 and told you to bet your house that both the Redskins and the Nats would win their respective divisions, would you have believed it? Furthermore, if I traveled to December 31, 2013, what is your guess regarding what the talk would be about?

A: Just talking about the Nats; if you had told me the 2012 Nats were winning the division I would have laughed.  I thought the team was improved from 81 wins, but not improved by 17 games.  Mark Zuckerman had a nice WAR-analysis piece after the Gio Gonzalez trade that showed that the team could be improved by 12 wins or so, but nobody thought the team would explode for 98 wins.  What’s a good prediction for 2013?  Well, borrowing on Zuckerman’s WAR analysis piece, you can make a legitimate argument that the team is setup to be improved again in 2013.  This is a teaser for a blog post coming this week, but the proof is out there.  If you eliminate the negative WAR guys (which, for the most part we already have) and then account for improvements from guys playing full seasons … we could easily be a 100+ win team.  Boswell says he wouldn’t have believed that both teams would win the divisions in 2012.

Q: Couldn’t the Nats sign LaRoche and keep Morse as their number one guy off the bench, sending Moore to AAA to play every day?

A: They could, but that would be a monumental waste of Michael Morse‘s abilities.  He’ll be healthy in 2013; when he was healthy in 2011 he hit 30 homers.  There’s no reason to think he won’t return to that form.  So, if the team retains Adam LaRoche, the prudent option is to move Morse for some farm system depth (depth which we desperately need).   Tyler Moore has nothing to prove in AAA; he NEEDS MLB at-bats.  I don’t have a problem with Moore being the super-sub he was in 2012 again, but he’s another guy who might be better served being traded as well.    Boswell points out Morse’s .857 OPS as a Nat and rightly points out that this is too big of a bat to sit idle.

13 Responses to 'Ask Boswell 12/31/12 Edition'

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  1. I am kind of with Boz on the relievers. Ok, Duke for Gorzy is probably a wash, but Burnett/ Gonzalez to Bray is a big step back. I guess I understand the Burnett deal, but why they didn’t pay Gonzalez the $2.25m, especially in a year where they aren’t stuck with a high payroll, I admit I don’t understand. Maybe they think that they can flip Morse for Jake McGee? I am kidding, I don’t see that happening.

    If Morse has minimal trade value (i suspect it to be true, but can’t be sure, so just humor me for a moment), at what point do you keep him? Or do you think the idea of clubhouse cancer means you get rid of him at all cost? Said differently, would you still trade him if all you could get back was the 2013 version of Corey Brown and Cutter Dykstra?


    2 Jan 13 at 12:09 pm

  2. Wally –
    You can’t put Cutter Dykstra in the same sentence as the trade that included Corey Brown. Cutter was received for Nyjer Morgan at a time that it was clear that Nyjer’s production had deteriorated and more importantly he had become a negative distraction both in the clubhouse and on the field. Totally different circumstances than Morse.
    Corey Brown and Henry Rodriguez were received for one year of Josh Willingham, so much more applicable comparison. Now, you can easily argue that was a bad trade since neither have been significant ML contributors (as least so far), but I think only with the benefit of hindsight. Both were long-term controllable prospects with significant potential upside. I think that Morse would perhaps return slightly more, but even if not, 2 almost ML ready prospects with significant upside would be a good return for someone with just 1 year that you have as a “super sub” / bench player.


    2 Jan 13 at 3:10 pm

  3. Dave – I was just trying to come up with prospects that aren’t valued particularly highly, not make it an exact replica of the Willingham trade (although I agree that there are a lot of similarities between Morse and Willingham in terms of trade value). I don’t think that good bat, bad field guys have ever brought much back in trade value, and if anything, prospects are even more highly valued than they were when Willingham was traded, meaning the return may go down even more. So at what point is the return worth less than keeping Morse, even in a super sub role where he gets 400 ABs?

    I think that my tipping point is quicker than most (meaning, the point at which I’d keep him), but I am curious how others see it. My arguments are (i) we are in ‘go for it’ mode, (ii) many spots where Morse could effectively provide insurance are manned by players who have missed significant time with injury over the last two years (as has Morse) and (iii) I expect the trade return to be poor. Sure, it would be a waste of Morse’s ability and also be unfortunate that he is in his contract year, but this is a business and as a fan, I’d see that as giving us the best chance to win without creating an unreasonable payroll.


    2 Jan 13 at 3:27 pm

  4. Agree with you; I think they didn’t want to commit 3years to Burnett … but that they should have made more of an effort on Gonzalez. Maybe they like JP Howell more? I dunno; the nats make weird decisions on these relievers sometimes. Joel Peralta pitched really well for them … and then there was no effort to re-sign him (and he’s since gone on to pitch really, really well for Tampa). Perhaps it is club-house related moreso than performance related.

    Are you implying that Morse is a clubhouse cancer? I don’t think you are; he seems to be a total clubhouse plus guy. Clubhouse cancer definitely implies get rid at all costs; think of what we had to do with the likes of Elijah Dukes, Nyjer Morgan, Lastings Milledge.

    But lets say that the team re-signs LaRoche, leaving them with Morse still on the roster and significantly de-valued. Do you trade him for 30 cents on the dollar or just keep him? I think you still have to trade him; you just cannot pay a guy $7m to waste on the bench when you can still get something for him; he’s a FA at the end of the year at which point we’d get nothing.

    Todd Boss

    2 Jan 13 at 4:55 pm

  5. Morse and Willingham would be pretty good trade comparisons; both are defensive liability sluggers in the last year of an affordable FA contract. They likely would get identical returns. In theory Willingham returned a back-of-the-bullpen power arm and a close-to-the-majors positional replacement player.

    What if Morse returned the Loogy we need plus a decent AA outfielder? Would that be a good trade?

    Todd Boss

    2 Jan 13 at 4:57 pm

  6. I think that it’s really easy to overrate Mike Gonzalez, and it will be similarly easy to replace him. Remember that the Nats didn’t sign him as a free agent until May 8 of last year. These guys are out there.

    The other reason that Gonzalez won’t be wearing the curly W is that he was strictly a role player. RH batters hit .297/.378/.484 off of him last year. Yes, boys and girls, he allowed RH hitters an OPS of 862. For perspective, LaRoche led the Nationals with an OPS of .853 last year. Yikes! And while Gonzalez held LH batters to .179/.257/.269, Tyler Clippard was better against LH batters (.170/.260/.259). And Stammen (.198/.274/.331) did just fine against LH batters too, thanks. Without getting beaten like a drum by RH batters.

    And the most important thing about Gonzalez is this: he’s not very good. Ask any Orioles fan you meet. The last really effective season that he had was in 2009. While his ERA was OK last year, his WHIP was not (1.318). His “effectiveness” was largely a result of the fact that his baserunners didn’t end up scoring as much you would have thought. Regression is not likely to be his friend. Oh, and he turns 35 in May.

    But even if you’re just not satisfied with a RHP that can get LH batters out, if you just must have a LOOGY, know that there’s a very good chance that the Nats already have a better LHRP in the organization. Bill Bray is not only five years younger, if he is healthy he is better than Mike Gonzalez. Impressed by Gonzalez’s splits against LH hitters? In 2010 LH hitters managed only .106/.208/.298 off Bray. In 2011, only .180/.265/.292. His WHIP in both seasons was barely over 1.0. It’s quite likely that the reason that Rizzo didn’t spend heavily chasing after Gonzalez is that he has a good reason to believe that he already has a better pitcher in the fold.

    The Nationals’ bullpens have been a strength the last 2-3 years. The guy who built those bullpens: Mike Rizzo. It’s just possible that he knows what he’s doing.

    John C.

    2 Jan 13 at 6:57 pm

  7. Todd – no, I am not suggesting that morse is a cancer. By all accounts, he seems like a good guy (Jason Churchill, a Mariners blogger, once told me via Twitter that Morse was his favorite player while he was with the Mariners because he was so approachable and genuinely a nice guy). No, I meant it more like ‘if the Nats think he will become a clubhouse problem because he is being made a part time guy in his contract year, ok then trade him’. But I don’t agree that his salary makes him a non starter for the bench. If a team has genuine World Series aspirations and a middle of the pack payroll, both of which I think are true, then it comes down to how much value and insurance does he add. And in Morse’s case, I think it could be a lot. Other than pitchers get hurt more than position players, is it really so different than paying Lannan $5m last year for 6 starts? But I wouldn’t trade him for $.30/$1, because I think Morse is a substantially higher probability performer than Moore (and I like Moore). I don’t know if I’d take your package. the LOOGY would have to be good and more proven than Henry was.

    John C – ok, Gonzalez maybe got lucky last year. I don’t think he is Aroldis Chapman. But Bray pitched 8 innings last year (with a WHIP over 2). He may work out great, i think Todd likes him too, and I hope he does, but it doesn’t seem like a smart bet to count on that happening from a guy coming off an injury. My guess is that Rizzo thinks he will flip Morse for a LHP for the pen, like Todd suggests. My question is, what would we have to add to get Jake McGee? That guy was an animal.


    2 Jan 13 at 8:59 pm

  8. Wally, by all accounts Bray’s injuries were not arm related. That would at least provide some hope he can do what Gonzalez did last year for the Nats. I’m not saying he is going to be a world beater or anything like that but he should be able to replace Gonzalez. I think that is why they didn’t go hard after him.

    Howell, in theory could replace Burnett, but he himself had a bit of a lucky season last year (ERA of 3.04 xFIP of 4.17) and hasn’t been the same since he missed the 2010 season. The difference in Howell and Gonzalez is that Howell can pitch to RH hitters if needed similar to Burnett. I think he is a downgrade from Burnett but not giving a reliever a 3 year deal makes sense.


    3 Jan 13 at 9:07 am

  9. Fair points all. In my soon-to-be-posted WAR analysis of the 2013 team, I have Bray giving us a 0.3 next year as a conservative estimate. Gonzalez gave the team a 0.5 last year. Perhaps I have overrated Gonzalez’s effectiveness.

    Todd Boss

    3 Jan 13 at 9:45 am

  10. Morse clarification: Oh, ok that’s fair. And I agree; just as Lannan’s outlook went south (understandibly), i can totally see Morse being incredibly disappointed to move to a role player. But I’ll continue to argue this point: IF we re-sign LaRoche, then the team will get more value out of trading Morse now for badly needed farm system depth in key areas than keeping him on the bench. Someone out there will gladly pay for a 30 homer capable guy on a $6.75M one year deal. GLADLY. Meanwhile, if an outfielder goes down we have two excellent options to fill in already sitting on the bench (Bernadina, with his breakout 2012 and Moore, who is a 30 homer/year guy in the minors and who didn’t really look that overmatched last year in his rookie season). If LaRoche goes down, we have short-term coverage in Tracy and longer term coverage in Rendon (with some positional juggling).

    I do like Bray; his injuries last year were not arm related and he’s a local kid with local ties (at least as far as you can call Virginia Beach “local”).

    Todd Boss

    3 Jan 13 at 9:50 am

  11. Thanks, John C., I didn’t realize Mike G.’s splits were so bad.
    Strictly a 1 batter type pitcher.
    Hopefully, the Nats sign Howell and the pen should be set.

    Mark L

    3 Jan 13 at 9:57 am

  12. Todd, I disagree about Moore. Though he crushed the ball at the plate, he is totally lost in the outfield, has no ability to get a good jump, has no idea how to run routes and his arm is subpar.


    4 Jan 13 at 6:49 am

  13. I don’t think I mentioned a single thing about his defensive capabilities (or lack there-of) in this post; I was talking about his offensive capabilities. Offensively, Moore has proven he can hit for power consistently at every level he’s ever been challenged with.

    If we’re worried about his OF defense, then lets put Tyler Moore at first base where he belongs. 1B was his natural position in the minors; he only tried out LF in 2011’s spring training to try to get some positional flexibility for the team. At first his defensive liabilities are limited. Now of course the problem is that IF the team locks down 1B for years to come with LaRoche, then Moore is really squeezed out of playing time. Eventually, I think he may prove valuable enough to be worth something in trade to a team that could use a 1B/DH type.

    Of course, that being said … i’ve often said that I don’t really care about the defensive capabilities of my left fielder or my first baseman. I don’t have a problem with an athletic enough guy like Morse running around left and hitting 25-30 homers. A wise man once said (paraphrasing): “You judge the defensive abilities of first baseman by seeing how well they hit.”

    Todd Boss

    4 Jan 13 at 9:54 am

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