Nationals Arm Race

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

Ladson Inbox 8/12/13

17 comments

The drumbeat to move Zimmerman to first continues.  Photo AP via tbd.com

The drumbeat to move Zimmerman to first continues. Photo AP via tbd.com

Hey, its been a while since MLB Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson did an inbox.  With the Nats season now relegated to “playing for pride,” I’m guessing this inbox is going to be chock full of questions about the future.  Lets dive in.

As always, I write my response to each question before reading his, and edit questions for clarity/conciseness.  All stats mentioned are as of 8/13/13.

Q: Do you think the Nationals could trade Adam LaRoche, move Ryan Zimmerman to first base, Anthony Rendon to third base and sign a free-agent second baseman like Robinson Cano?

A: Wow, that’s a lot of moving parts.  Lets take this wish list of proposed personnel moves one by one:

  • Trade Adam LaRoche: we’d likely not get a whole heck of a lot for a 33 turning 34 year old first baseman who clearly took a step back in 2013.  LaRoche currently ranks 22nd among league-wide first basemen in wRC+, barely above the league average.  By way of comparison, Mark Reynolds is ranked 25th and was just flat-out released after passing through waivers.  So, no I don’t think there are a lot of teams out there willing to pony up the $14M he’s owed next year ($12M in salary, $2m of a buyout of his 2015 option).   This signing has really set the team back offensively.  Though to be fair, Michael Morse (who would have slotted in at 1B had the team not been able to re-sign LaRoche) is also posting about the same wRC+ numbers and has missed half the season with yet another injury.
  • Move Ryan Zimmerman to first base: yes I think this is going to happen eventually, but not this off-season.  I think you handle the transition of a gold-glove winning player off his chosen position carefully and with consideration to the clubhouse ramifications.  I don’t think it played well in Texas’ clubhouse when a former gold-glove winning shortstop Michael Young was moved to third against his wishes, and he made way for a superb defender in Elvis Andrus.  Zimmerman would be making way for a relative unknown (though presumed gifted) defensive replacement.  I think the Nats brass is chalking up 2013’s subpar defensive season to Zimmerman’s lingering shoulder issue, which has exacerbated his already problematic throwing motion and associated mental issues.  I see Zimmerman giving it a fresh start in 2014, and if it becomes clear it isn’t working out we look at spring training 2015 as a position transfer.
  • Move Anthony Rendon to third: it likely happens eventually.  But him moving to third has to wait for the first two bullet points to happen, so again I’m predicting perhaps 2015.  I think more time at 2B will give him more confidence and his errors will subside.  So far his range at 2B is passable (UZR/150 of 0.5 in 448 innings), but that’s a far cry from what Danny Espinosa was offering there (UZR/150 of 12.0 this year, which would have been good for 2nd in the league.  He posted a 9.9 in a full-season last year).  But, by the time Rendon is set to move to 3rd he may very well just stay at 2nd.  He seems like he’s the right size and shape to play 2nd.
  • Sign Robinson Cano.  There’s no question Cano will be the marquee FA this coming off-season, but I don’t think he signs with Washington for two main reasons.  First, the Yankees just cannot let the one remaining good offensive player they have leave, and I believe they’ll over-pay him to stay.  Secondly, whoever signs Cano is making a potentially classic free agency mistake; overpaying a guy in his down years.  Look at the 9 figure deals signed lately for position players, and look at how many of them are almost immediately regrettable.  Albert PujolsRyan HowardJosh HamiltonCarl Crawford and our own Jayson Werth.  All of those deals routinely listed as the worst contracts in the game.  I believe Mike Rizzo is smart enough and forward thinking enough not to hamstring the team with another contract.

So, my answer to this scenario is “not going to happen.”  Ladson says “call me in the off-season.”

Q: How do you defend your previous support of Danny Espinosa?

A: Um, you can’t. Espinosa has now had nearly 1600 major league plate appearances and has a career slash line of .230/.303/.396.  He just cannot hit batting left handed (career splits: he’s 40 batting points and 75 slugging points lower batting left-handed).  He’s hitting .219 in AAA since being demoted.  He faces serious concerns about where his career is going right now.  Yes he’s a great defensive player, but that only gets you halfway to a MLB job these days. Ladson says Espinosa has been hurt this whole time and when he’s healthy he’s good.  But he also admits that Espinosa’s time playing full-time for the Nats is probably at an end.

Q: Is Denard Span a bust?  He has a low on-base percentage and he hasn’t been stealing many bases.

A: Yes, I think its safe to say that Denard Span has been a bust.   He never really stole that many bases (17 last year, career high of 26), but certainly he has posted much better OBP numbers (.342 last year, .350 career).  What has happened to him in 2013?  Who knows.  He has stated that he likens this year to his rookie year, having to learn a whole new league of pitchers.  That could be fair; and could lead to a rebound in 2014.   I do know this; .313 OBP from the lead-off spot just doesn’t cut it.  To make matters worse, his defensive stats have dropped off too; his UZR is down, his DRS is down.  That’s really not a good sign; you can put up with a #8 hitter batting .260 with no power if he provides great value in the field.  If not, then you’re better off bringing up a minor leaguer to see what he can do.  This is another concern for Rizzo heading into the off-season; is this a one-off, an adjustment season for Span, or is this the start of his decline phase?   Ladson extolls Span’s defense, admits he’s not getting on base and postulates the Nats could go after Shin-Soo Choo in the off-season to replace him.  I think Ladson needs to look at the defensive numbers on Choo before advocating that; he’s dead last in UZR/150 for center-fielders right now, by a significant margin.  Now, if you got Choo and moved Bryce Harper back to center?  I’d be for that 100%.  Make Span your 4th OF, wave good-bye to Roger Bernadina and move on.  

Q: Do you think Drew Storen will be traded? His relationship with the Nationals doesn’t seem the same since he blew the save last year against the Cardinals during the National League Division Series.

A: Traded?  No.  Re-called and put into a lesser bullpen role?  Absolutely.  I think once Drew Storen fixes whatever mechanics issue that has been plaguing him, he comes right back to a Ryan Mattheus type role in the pen.  Storen’s ERA in Syracuse is unsightly so far (unlucky small sample size; he’s given up 4 runs on just 7 hits), but he’s got 11 k’s to 0 walks in 6 innings.   AAA hitters aren’t exactly challenging him, if he’s struck out half the guys he’s faced.  If the team was considering him in trade … you’d have to think they would want to get him back up to the majors to regain value anyway.  Ladson thinks he can regain value and can be a MLB closer again.

Q: Will the Nationals consider going after Michael Morse when he becomes a free agent at the end of the year? He would have helped the Nats’ offense this year, splitting time between the outfield and first base. What do you think?

A: As much as I like Morse and have complained about losing him … you have to realize who he is.  He’s an oft-injured slugger who has no position on an NL team.  If we signed Morse, where exactly does he play?  I guess you could platoon him with LaRoche at first or with Span in the outfield … but as a righty he’d play bat twice a week.   I think Morse signs on as a DH with an AL team for surprisingly low money.  If Seattle offers him a Q.O. I’d be shocked.   Ladson doesn’t think he would have helped the team, nor does he see any way he gets signed.

 

17 Responses to 'Ladson Inbox 8/12/13'

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  1. I find defensive “stats” to be extremely questionable; even proponents will admit, when pressed, that you need three years of stats to average and get a fair assessment of a player’s defensive ability.

    I note this because, to this guy’s Mark I eyeball, watching easily 75+% of Nats games, Span is easily the best CF the Nationals have had since they got to DC. Morgan and Bernadina would occasionally make highlight-reel type plays (like Bernadina’s catch in Houston last year) but often that’s because they got late breaks or took bad routes. Watch replays – Span is generally breaking as the ball is coming off the bat, and he runs to the spot where the ball comes down with very little adjustment. Yes, Ankiel had a better arm, but he didn’t have the speed/range that Span has. UZR and other defensive “metrics” are still evolving, and are a lot more guesswork than science at this point. While I am partial to sabremetrics generally, they work a lot more better in the pitching/hitting realms than they do in fielding.

    For this reason I rate Span as a mild disappointment rather than a bust. I don’t know why he suddenly can’t hit LHP this year; for his career he has virtually no platoon splits (.283/.349/.390/.738 vs. RHP; .276/.355/.371/.726 vs. LHP), and often he has actually hit better against LHP than RHP in a season. Here are Span’s numbers vs. LHP over his career (most recent on top, since that’s most relevant to 2013 Span):

    2013: .171/.224/.205
    2012: .301/.374/.365
    2011: .240/.337/.320
    2010: .279/.347/.349
    2009: .330/.405/.373
    2008: .283/.402/.472

    As the song says, one of these things is not like the others. He’s giving away 70 points in average and 113 points of OBP (!) to the only season that is remotely comparable – 2011, when he was fighting his way back from concussions. If you normalize his performance against LHP towards his recent career averages (forget about 2008 and 2009), suddenly Span is just fine. If they get a big bat to play OF (Ellsbury or Choo, although for the latter I want Harper in CF), I’m OK with Span becoming high quality depth. But writing off Span as a disappointment based on this year is just as ill-advised as writing off Jayson Werth based on his crappy 2011 season. In 2012 and 2013 he’s lived up to his contract – and that’s not easy. Span is much more affordable, and is quite likely to be well “Werth” the Nats investment in him as well.

    John C.

    14 Aug 13 at 11:12 am

  2. Signing Choo and moving Harper to cf leaves you with a big problem if and when Goodwin shows he can be a major league cf. Choo will want a long term contract (3 or more yrs) and the Nats are stuck with Werth for a while so where do you put Goodwin? Harper can play an average to just below average cf for a year or two but not long term.
    Better to see if one of the outfielders in AAA can fill in for a year or two until the decision is made on Goodwin.

    SensFan

    14 Aug 13 at 1:49 pm

  3. ps.
    Here’s the split against lhp
    Span .171 .224 .205
    Harper .172 .270 .276
    Hairston .202 .261 .485

    A platoon with a AAA right handed hitting outfielder couldn’t be any worse!

    SensFan

    14 Aug 13 at 2:02 pm

  4. Choo blocking Goodwin: fair point. But that places an awful lot of faith that Goodwin will be a better player than Choo. In a full season of AA Goodwin is hitting .254/.351/.399 with a HUGE amount of strikeouts (109 Ks in 398 abs). That’s 25% strikeouts. for 9 homers. Yeah he’s only 23 … but Choo is in the majors now, producing now. He’s got a 132 OPS+ with a > .400 obp and 20 homer power. Yeah. Sorry, I’ll take that production at the top of my order right now and if Goodwin develops, you adjust when it happens.

    Why do you think Harper can’t play good CF long term? He’s not even 21 yet. Players don’t peak til they’re 30. Personally I think Harper can be the next iteration of Mickey Mantle; power hitting plus-defense CF. His defensive numbers in CF last year were excellent, even more impressive considering that he never played outfield until he got drafted.

    Todd Boss

    14 Aug 13 at 3:04 pm

  5. Who do you platoon? Span? Who plays center when Span sits? The whole reason Rizzo wanted Span was for his stellar defense in center.

    Todd Boss

    14 Aug 13 at 3:05 pm

  6. I think it is a little too far to call Span a bust. Disappointment? Sure. But not a bust.

    The fancy stats still like his defense, and he is on pace for a 2WAR season, which would be roughly $10m of value, so he is earning his contract this year. I would love to see his OBP up near his career averages, but even at a subpar offensive year, he is still adding value.

    Wally

    14 Aug 13 at 3:50 pm

  7. I am so with you on Morse. I also believed at the time that it was a mistake to trade him and extend ALR. I would have played Morse at 1B this year, then said goodbye this offseason. But that ship has sailed. Morse is injury prone and ALR is fading, so neither option may have worked. Now this questioner wants to sign Morse as free agent? Why not just build a time machine (preferably with a DeLorean) and go back to 2012.

    clark17

    14 Aug 13 at 3:55 pm

  8. Harper has enough speed to play an average cf now, but as he gets plder his speed will diminish. Harper is not even close to Mickey Mantle in defense, speed, or ability to hit especially left-handers. Trout is a much better Mantle comparison. Harper is a tremendous talent but profiles best in a corner spot.
    Don’t know if Goodwin will be a major league caliber cf but he is the best in the system right now long term. Choo isn’t a true cf either and is best used in a corner spot. Choo is 31 yrs old this July. He also as a left handed hitter has problems with left handed pitching. This year he is hitting .175 against LHP with .204 sly. His OBP is good against LHP at .321. This puts the Nats in the same boat ; aging player who is limited to a corner and doesn’t hit LHP.

    SensFan

    14 Aug 13 at 4:27 pm

  9. “As he gets older?” Again, the guy is frigging TWENTY. Baseball players generally peak between 29-31. I just do not buy the narrative that for some reason we need to “save” the wear and tear on Harper. He’s 20 years old. He’s a kid. Yes, in 10 years maybe Harper may grow out of center field.

    We didn’t have defensive metrics or stopwatches on guys back in the 50s so we don’t really know much about Mantle in that regard except by rumor. But the numbers that we now know about Harper’s capability to play center speak for themselves. Trout is a better comparison all in all, but there’s no reason Harper can’t be up there too. Neither were a switch hitter, so its tough to talk about hitting lefties when you’re a lefty only guy.

    I’ll repeat what I said about Choo; he’s putting up numbers, right now, big time. I’ll take him right now in a heartbeat. I don’t want to cut off my own nose to spite my face and not sign a guy who could help right now because maybe, possibly, a guy who’s hitting .250 in his 2nd season in AA could be a decent player in a few years time. Like any other prospect, you adjust when a guy forces you to adjust. Chris Marrero; #1 prospect in the system, can’t miss, blah blah. What’s he done for the big league club? Zero. If you hold a place for a prospect you leave yourself waiting for ever.

    I don’t need a plus-defender in left field. Give me a slugger. We’re absolutely WASTING Harper’s defensive talents, his arm and his outfield speed in left field. Yeah Choo is 31; he’ll hit for another few years. Sign him for 3, stick him in LF and you’ve got a heck of a better hitter than Span.

    Todd Boss

    14 Aug 13 at 4:46 pm

  10. I’ll freely call him a bust. BA down 10%, OBP (his whole raison d’etre) down 10%. His defensive war (aka the reason Rizzo so openly coveted him) is significantly down, and he’ll be lucky to get back to 2.0 bWAR on the year after posting a 5.1 last year. 2 war * $5M estimate = $10M value sure, but don’t forget it cost us our best minor league starting prospect to get him.

    But some value is better than no value. 2.0 war is better than -0.4 war. Still, considering what he was last year and what we gave up, he’s been a significant disappointment.

    Todd Boss

    14 Aug 13 at 4:48 pm

  11. Choo, Harper and Werth with Span and Tyler Moore as the back ups is a playoff worthy outfield. Span as starting CF is a 500 or worse team’s outfield. I say Nats go all in to get Choo, though Cincy probably makes a quality offer.

    Steve

    14 Aug 13 at 5:06 pm

  12. I find defensive “stats” to be extremely questionable; even proponents will admit, when pressed, that you need three years of stats to average and get a fair assessment of a player’s defensive ability.

    I note this because, to this guy’s Mark I eyeball, watching 75+% of Nats games, Span is easily the best CF the Nationals have had since they got to DC. Morgan and Bernadina would occasionally make highlight-reel type plays (like Bernadina’s catch in Houston last year) but often that’s because they got late breaks or took bad routes. Watch replays – Span is generally breaking as the ball is coming off the bat, and he runs to the spot where the ball comes down with very little adjustment. Yes, Ankiel had a better arm, but he didn’t have the jumps/speed/range that Span has. UZR and other defensive “metrics” are still evolving, and are a lot more guesswork than science at this point. While I am partial to sabremetrics generally, they work a lot more better in the pitching/hitting realms than they do in fielding. IMNSHO

    For this reason I rate Span as a mild disappointment rather than a bust. I don’t know why he suddenly can’t hit LHP this year; for his career he has virtually no platoon splits (.283/.349/.390/.738 vs. RHP; .276/.355/.371/.726 vs. LHP), and often he has actually hit better against LHP than RHP in a season. Here are Span’s numbers vs. LHP over his career (most recent on top, since that’s most relevant to 2013 Span):

    2013: .171/.224/.205
    2012: .301/.374/.365
    2011: .240/.337/.320
    2010: .279/.347/.349
    2009: .330/.405/.373
    2008: .283/.402/.472

    As the song says, one of these things is not like the others. He’s giving away 70 points in average and 113 points of OBP (!) to the only season that is remotely comparable – 2011, when he was fighting his way back from concussions. If you normalize his performance against LHP towards (not to) his recent career averages (forget about 2008 and 2009), suddenly Span is just fine. If they get a big bat to play OF (Ellsbury or Choo, although for the latter I want Harper in CF), I’m OK with Span becoming high quality depth. But writing off Span as a disappointment based on this year is just as ill-advised as writing off Jayson Werth based on his crappy 2011 season. In 2012 and 2013 Werth has lived up to his contract – and then some (in part because he hadn’t hit the big money years yet). I think Span is quite likely to be well worth the (much smaller) ninvestment that the Nationals made in him as well.

    John C.

    14 Aug 13 at 6:52 pm

  13. And right on cue … DENARD SPAN!!! :-)

    John C.

    14 Aug 13 at 10:02 pm

  14. John, I do share your reservations about defensive stats, much as I have reservations about WAR. In fact, the two may be entirely related; I think the component parts of WAR depend on these shaky defensive measures and in some cases over-value them. Look no further than Mike Trout’s defensive numbers this year. (Of course, I also have issues with FIP being a dictator of WAR because I believe FIP really, really undervalues pitch to contact guys and sinkerballers).

    I won’t disagree with Span being our best ever CF. He didn’t hvae far to go :-) I mean really, looking at the “primary starters” this team has given time to in CF since arriving here, the names go like this chronologically: Brad Wilkerson, Nook Logan, Ryan Langerhans, Lastings Milledge, Nyjer Morgan, Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel, Denard Span. Clearly Span is the best all around guy there (with apologies to Wilkerson’s one year in the sun), and is close to being the best defensive guy (with apologies to Nyjer’s acrobatics and Ankiel’s arm).

    The thing is, I too see Span’s routes to balls being superb… but why doesn’t that show up in UZR? He’s only at a 6.8 uzr/150 rating this year (good for 8th of 20 qualified). I dunno.

    Todd Boss

    15 Aug 13 at 10:27 am

  15. Yeah. its almost as if he read this thread today and said, “Dammit I want to show those fools I can still play some defense!”

    Todd Boss

    15 Aug 13 at 10:28 am

  16. The Span catch and recent power from LaRoche, along with Haren’s consistency in recent weeks, bode well for all three being traded by the end of the month, provided the team is out of the wild card race.

    For those of you who think Span is untradeable, I would submit that many would appreciate the combination of his defense and bat. The question is, whether the return on him would be so low as to reflect, indeed, selling low. I do trust Rizzo to capture minor league talent that has promise. The scouting department is really proving its mettle on other people’s talent. Look at Ian (bag o’ balls) Dickson, Caleb Clay, Tyler Herron, Michael Broadway: all recoveries from scrap heaps, all of whom have performed surprisingly well, the latter three all promoted and doing very well even after promotion.

    As for LaRoche, he has undeniably great defense, is only one year removed from his Silver Slugger year, and look at how many teams are lusting for Jose Abreu? There is a market for him.

    Haren has cleared waivers. Smart move by the club. Two weeks from now that would never have happened.

    As for Soriano, again, by the time the end of the month rolls around, people will forget today’s debacle.

    I remain bullish on the Nats farm system. One story, Todd, that I think deserves to be told is the infusion of new prospect talent. My personal top 50 has turned over completely; over half of those on my list now were not in the top 50 at the beginning of the season. Thirty percent of them had not even played at the rookie level or in full season baseball until July, or were not even in the system.

    Yes, that means a bunch of Dominicans. But one has to be particularly hopeful about 2013 draftees Ward (whom I now rate #10 in the system), Voth (#28), Johanssen, Napoli, Ballou, Thomas, and Webb.

    Now imagine rolling over the vets to get even more prospects, using September to resolve the Tyler Moore question once and for all, giving Aaron Barrett a shot, giving Eury Perez a shot, giving Caleb Clay a shot (yes, Caleb f’ing Clay). Then you head into the winter with a lot of pruning done and enough questions and saved resources to either sign Abreu or Choo or whomever fits.

    With that says, I’d like to extend a special note of appreciation to Jayson Werth, who is having a season nobody ever thought he had. We should all just stop talking about his being overpaid and be glad that he and Harper are in the OF in 2014.

    forensicane

    16 Aug 13 at 2:23 am

  17. New talent coming in; completely agree. The GCL team has been amazing, and it is great to start seeing more than just a trickle of DR talent coming into the lower ends of the system. Our DR talent development has been just awful since the Bowden/Rijo disaster. Look at our big-board and count how few Washington-signed and developed international free agents we have at the 4 highest levels of our system (majors to high-A). Here’s the canonical list:
    – Bernadina (pre-dating the Washington regime entirely)
    – Jhonatan Solano (2005)
    – Eury Perez (2007)
    – Sandy Leon (2007)
    – Adrian Sanchez (2007)
    – Francisco Soriano (2007)

    Not exactly a fountain of potential here. Two backup catchers, two 4th outfielders and 2 middle infielders in Potomac.

    I count 8 guys in low-A, 5 guys in short-A and a whole slew of the GCL guys (17 of the 36 man roster). Compare that to progressive international teams and it is just a ridiculous return considering that a huge percentage of major leaguers are from the D.R.

    Todd Boss

    16 Aug 13 at 9:38 am

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