Nationals Arm Race

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

Taylor Jordan: Never too soon to think about the future…

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Jordan is making a case for his future with this organization.  Photo via wffn.net/hueytaxi on flikr.com

Taylor Jordan is making a case for his future with this organization. Photo via wffn.net/hueytaxi on flikr.com

I’ll file this as one of the “Patently Obvious” responses that have come out of Mike Rizzo‘s mouth in response to a reporter’s question, but Rizzo went “on record” as saying that Taylor Jordan will “get every opportunity to be in the mix for the rotation next year” per beat reports (this example from Byron Kerr) after Jordan got his first major league victory in Sunday 7/28/13′s 14-1 blow-out of the Mets.

Well, of course he’ll get a chance to compete for the rotation.   He’s pitching a hell of a lot better right now than $13M man Dan Haren, for approximately 1/30th of the cost.  What GM doesn’t want that??

One of the big reasons I started this blog was to talk about the development of Nats minor league pitchers.  Back in the dark days, when the team was spending $15M on the FA market to acquire 5th starters like Jason Marquis, I became convinced that the single most valuable commodity in Major League Baseball (in terms of talent development and acquisition) was the pre-arbitration starting pitcher.   Our farm system had the “Loria/Bowden” holes in terms of player development in the 2007-2009 time frame and for a few years the team couldn’t develop an effective starter, instead relying on guys like Marquis and on other minor league/low-end free agent signings (think Tim ReddingDaniel Cabrera, and the aging Livan Hernandez being examples).   Rizzo came in, put the emphasis on drafting and development, and now the opening day rotation features 3 home-grown guys and a fourth in Gio Gonzalez who was acquired by trading other home-grown guys.

One of my biggest data-collection projects was the information behind my regular “Pitcher Wins on the Free Agency Market” post.   After looking at pretty much every significant FA pitcher signing that baseball has ever had, and calculating salary versus wins, it became clear that teams are historically doing well if they get about one win per $1M spent on a FA pitcher.  Sign a guy for $13M a year?  You hope to get 13 wins out of him.

But this analysis also shows just how valuable the pre-arbitration, cost-controlled starter is.  Consider Clay Buchholz for Boston in 2010; he goes 17-7 in his 3rd active year, earning the MLB minimum of $443,000.  That 17-win capability eventually earned him a $12-$13M/year contract, but while he was getting the minimum he was winning games for Boston for pennies on the dollar versus what it would have cost Boston to purchase that capability on the open market.

Combine this point with the continually dwindling talent available on the FA market these as teams lock up their players earlier and more frequently, and the price for pitching just continues to go higher.  Zack Greinke signed a 6 year $147M contract paying him more than $24M annually last summer partly because he was the only significant pitcher out there.  Grienke is talented, don’t get me wrong, but outside of his unbelievable 2009 season he’s basically pitched like a #3 starter.   Even this year, he’s pitching to a rather pedestrian 103 ERA+, just barely above the league average of adjusted ERA for starters.  Not exactly what you expect for that kind of money.  The 2014 Free Agent Market in terms of pitching is looking equally as bare as 2013.   The best guy out there may be Matt Garza, who again is talented but is also injury prone and not exactly a league-wide Ace.   Get past Garza and you’re looking at inconsistent (Ricky Nolasco or Phil Hughes), injury plagued (Shawn Marcum or Colby Lewis), just old guys (Freddy Garcia, Hiroki Kuroda) and pure wild cards (Tim Lincecum or Scott Kazmir).

There’s a reason Tampa went nearly 8 full seasons without having a Free Agent acquisition start a game for them; they know exactly what it means to develop effective starters, and they have a stableful of them.  Trade away James Shields and Wade Davis?  No problem; just call up Chris Archer and Alex Colome (never mind the rest of their Durham rotation).

So, back to Jordan.  If the Nats can find an effective 4th or 5th starter from their farm system right now, it frees them from the one-year hired gun strategy of Haren and Edwin Jackson.  It gives them the flexibility to continue to allow their best prospects in the lower minors to develop (i’m thinking specifically of A.J. ColeRobbie RaySammy Solis, and Matthew Purke, though Cole and Ray aren’t exactly in the “low” minors anymore with their promotions to AA).  It gives them the depth they did not have this year to cover for a starting pitcher injury.   It gives them time to let Nathan Karns figure out if he’s going to be a starter or a reliever at the MLB level.  It gives them added payroll flexibility can go towards fixing holes in the short term.  Longer term it allows the team to spend money on extending the core guys, or allows them to consider whether the rising price tag on someone like Ross Detwiler is worth paying (much like they cut loose John Lannan last year).  If you’re going to pay market value for Strasburg and Harper, then you’re going to need some low-cost players who can contribute to counter balance the payroll.

Or, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see this either, it gives Rizzo interesting trade chips that he could package with other guys to acquire the Haren/Jackson hurler instead of buying him.

Two years ago we acquired Gonzalez for two near-to-the-majors starters, a surplus catcher prospect and a low-minors/high profile arm.  Right now it seems like we could put nearly the same package together (Jordan, Karns, Jhonatan Solano or Sandy Leon and then a decent arm from A-ball, or maybe even a Ray or Cole) and move them for such a resource.  I wouldn’t put it past Rizzo; Jordan may be looking good right now, but his peripherals don’t project as a “Rizzo Guy.”  Neither did Tommy Milone so he got shipped out; will Jordan be a 5th starter candidate in 2014 or trade bait?

Personally, I’d like to see Jordan succeed.  He’s a great success story; unhearalded 9th rounder coming off an injury that most of us thought was good, but who also thought that finishing the year successfully at high-A would have been a great achievement.  Instead he blows through high-A and AA ball and is now more than holding his own in the majors.

4 Responses to 'Taylor Jordan: Never too soon to think about the future…'

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  1. I’ve been as critical as anybody for how this season has gone, but I will give Rizzo a lot of credit for seeming to have a good eye about how successful his minor league pitchers will be when they get to the majors. Right now the Gio trade is looking like one of his best ever moves not only because Gio has been great at a relatively low cost but, despite the horror in some quarters of the Natmosphere at the time about the “high price” we paid for him, what we gave up in return has not equalled Gio in terms of impact to the big club. Amound the pitchers, Milone has been a perfectly serviceable mid-rotation lefty, Peacock got a chance in the Astros rotation this year and bombed big time while Cole’s mediocre season in the minors last year made the A’s willing to trade him back to us while throwing in Krol and Treinen as well. And even Norris has thus far failed to live up to expectations.

    Another example is the Span trade so many are now ripping Rizzo for. It’s way too early to know for sure, of course, but Meyer’s stats this year in AA seem to suggest that he may as some experts predicted end up as a reliever at the MLB level, which would mean that trade will be a wash at worst or a win for the Nats if Span bounces back to his previous form.

    So when it comes to Rizzo trading pitchers, I promise I will reserve judgment even if it seems like he’s giving up too much. Pitching is the one surplus the system has right now, and trading some is the only good way to improve the big club significantly given, as you said, how thin the free agency market is these days not only for pitchers but position players as well.

    bdrube

    30 Jul 13 at 12:46 pm

  2. Jordan: his success so far in MLB is shocking. I mean, top-end prospects make the jump like he’s done from A to majors, not 9th rounders coming off injury. The two guys we picked AHEAD of Jordan have both already been released. There’s such a low probability of a 9th rounder even making the majors, let alone contributing.

    Gio: I do go back periodically and see how my own reaction looks on these deals. I think in my Gio post I did kind of a “best case” and “worst case” for the four guys we moved … and you’re right, so far its safe to say that the four prospects we traded are closer to the worst case all in all. Milone has worked out of course … but his home/road splits are so distinct that i’d be afraid to pitch him anywhere but oakland (stats here; 2.97 era at home, 5.00 away)

    Span deal: my issues with that are only partly about the loss of Meyer. I’ve said this many times, but for me Span was about Rizzo’s obsession with defense at the expense of offense, about getting a player to fill a position (CF) we didn’t need filled (Harper played a very good defense there and is somewhat wasted in LF), and about basically trading Morse’s power for Span’s lack of it. And the LaRoche re-signing fits in there as well; Rizzo wanted LaRoche back (again, because of his defense). Now he’s hitting .235 and has a negligible WAR on the season. Would Morse have made a difference? I don’t know. Nobody knows. I do know this: Morse made a difference in terms of chemistry, and when most experts are at a complete loss to explain why this talented of a team isn’t winning, i do think you start to look at the intangibles. Manager, coaches, chemistry.

    Todd Boss

    30 Jul 13 at 2:02 pm

  3. I think the LaRoche re-signing had a much bigger impact on Morse’s departure as he seemed to be a perfectly adequate first baseman back in 2011 and, perhaps not coincidentally, didn’t get hurt that year. The Span trade was the right move if you are determined to win with pitching and defense, but 1B is the least important defensive position on the field. We’ll never know if retaining Morse would have made a difference or if he would have stayed healthy by playing 1B for the Nats, but LaRoche does indeed suddenly look like a very old player.

    bdrube

    30 Jul 13 at 4:41 pm

  4. I don’t like the trend in LaRoche’s performance; down in the first year of a 2 year deal then shooting up in his contract year. Too fishy for me.

    I agree with you; i don’t care what the defender looks like at 1B and (especially) in LF. There’s a famous quote out there whose attribution I forget, but paraphrased when this hall of famer was asked whether So-and-So first baseman was good defensively he said something along the lines of, “I dunno; how many home runs did he hit last year?” I butchered that; i’ll try to find the real quote.

    Todd Boss

    31 Jul 13 at 8:36 am

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