Nationals Arm Race

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

Ask Boswell 9/9/13 Edition


Haren continues to make friends in Washington.  Photo nats official via

Haren continues to make friends in Washington. Photo nats official via

With the NFL kicked off and Washington set to return to hits sports normalcy (95% redskins, 5% for the rest of the town’s sports), Tom Boswell did  his weekly chat on 9/9/13.  Lets see if he took any baseball questions:

As always, I write a response here before reading his, and edit questions for clarity:

Q: I guess they should have traded Haren; Oh Well.

A: If Mike Rizzo got any sort of viable offer for Dan Haren after he passed through waivers, then  yeah I’d be pretty irritated right now.  The “rumors” were that he was asking for a ton in terms of prospects; but who knows if anonymous GM quotes are reliable.   But this is also quite a bit of hind-sight is 20/20; you can’t know if Haren’s going to continue to be good or if suddenly he’s going to fall off a cliff.  If any player struggled, hit the D/L, returned and then was great 4 starts in a row, i’d also have thought to myself, “hey, that D/L trip fixed him!”  I’m not going to kill the Nats management over not moving Haren post-trade deadline, other than to say this: the entire organization has been in denial for MONTHS about this team, its construction, its manager, its makeup and its capabilities.  I’m on record saying there should have been a managerial move long before it came to where we are today.   That is the bigger problem with this organization.  Boswell seems to be less forgiving than me; he calls this one of Rizzo’s worst moves.

Q: Should the Nats just shut down Harper at this point?

A: No, not unless there’s a medical reason.  Bryce Harper came back home to  have a hip analysis and it looks like a couple of games.  If there was something deeper, this organization (which has clearly shown itself to be medically conservative) would absolutely make a move.   Boswell has a different take, clearly criticizing Nats management for bungling several injury recoveries this year.  Hmm.

Q: NL Central predictions?

A: St. Louis wins it with their home-heavy schedule running in, Cincinnati uses a ridiculously easy schedule heading in to claim the WC home game and Pittsburgh still wins 90 but has to go to  Pittsburgh and loses the coin flip game.  Boswell just says that the Nats aren’t going to make it.

Q: How much do you attribute the Nats decline this year to poor medical management? For some reason, they continue to let Harper self-manage. And now the LaRoche weight loss issue.

A: There’s definitely some odd things going on medically with this team, and have been all year, but I blame the bulk of this team’s troubles primarily on three factors:

  1. Too much clubhouse chemistry damage; adding a cancer in Rafael Soriano, removing fun loving respected vets Michael Morse and Mark DeRosa, and really leaving the team leaderless in some aspects.  Ask yourself: who is the “leader” of the offense?  Of the pitching staff?  There’s no Dustin Pedroia on this team; a guy who is vocal and loud and rallies the troops; the long term contract vets on this team aren’t leaders, and guys like Harper clearly aren’t generating the respect he deserves in his own clubhouse (as evidenced by the beanball war with Atlanta and nobody stepping up to get his back).
  2. Offense: The bench offense just falling apart, along with key guys (Adam LaRoche) just not coming close to performing like he did in 2012 and Denard Span really failing to be the guy we thought he was going to be.  Oh, and Davey Johnson really failing to react soon enough to make changes.
  3. The starters really taking a step back with no roster coverage, with Haren really, really hurting the team (they are now 9-18 in his 27 starts).

Boswell says the Nats have an explanation for every medical issue that has arisen.

Q: Does Strasburg have a composure/maturity problem?

A: This goes back to the whole meltdown Stephen Strasburg had earlier in the season when Ryan Zimmerman threw a ball away; the most recent issue was the Chicago Cubs game when a tough grounder to short wasn’t converted into an out by covering-man Anthony Rendon and he promptly gave up a 3-run bomb.

I think I’d answer two ways: First yes I think he needs to work on keeping his emotions in check on the field.  But Secondly, pitchers have an absolute right to be upset when they work a hitter to hit his pitch, get the grounder he wants and a guy who shouldn’t even been playing SS throws the ball away.  Boswell makes a good point; he’s only 25.  He’s still young.  But yes he still has a ways to go.

(Note: I did not see the 2-balk game, nor read about it.  That was the genesis of this question.  If the questioner meant to ask, is Strasburg mentally focused enough?  Then I’d probably say, not yesterday!)

Q: Athletics or Rangers?

A: Tough call with Oakland vs Texas; I’d go Oakland.   As does Boswell.

Q: Nats are 65-51 in games not started by Haren: wouldn’t even a .500 or a little better starter have put the Nats in contention?

A: Possibly.  Assume you replace Haren’s 9-18 team record with a 5th starter who guided the team to a 13-13 record in his games; that’s only 4 games more in the Win column, pushing them from 73-69 to 77-65.  That’s still outside the division and outside the wild-card.  But you’re closer.  Boswell basically does the same logic.

Q: Is Ryan Zimmerman’s abdominal surgery part to blame as well as his shoulder?

A: Possibly; it isn’t hard to see a direct link between the drop of Ryan Zimmerman‘s UZR/150 numbers and his surgeries.  They both happened the same instant.  Boswell embarrasses himself by saying to ignore the fangraphs numbers.  Sorry; stats are stats; Zimmerman just made his 20th error of the season, by itself indicative of nothing but a clear indicator of what he’s done to the team this year.

Q: Do the Nationals tweak for 2014, or do they need to make big changes in the roster. What do you think of these predictions: LaRoche becomes an expensive bench player, Span and Gio traded.

A: Reactions to these predictions?  Ridiculous, more ridiculous and ridiculously ridiculous.  LaRoche is Rizzo’s buddy; he’s going to play 1B.  Span‘s value is nearly nothing right now, despite his 19 game hitting streak, why trade someone who’s worth nothing when you can keep him on the cheap and see if he regains his hitting stroke?  If not, trade him for nothing next year.  Lastly; go look at Gonzalez‘s contract for the next 4  years and tell me who we get in return that gives us that kind of value?   And if you trade these three guys, who’s playing 1B, CF and #2 starter??  Why even take this question?

Larger question: Tweaks or major changes for 2014?  I think you’re looking at tweaks.  Basically the entire team is signed through next year.  They thought this was a winner this year.  I’m sure Rizzo’s ego will continue to tell him its a winner next year.  Absolute worst case for the next 12 calendar months for Nats fans: team starts hot next spring, fades slowly, slowly but stays a few games out of WC through the trade deadline, then falls apart after the point at which we could move all these expiring contracts for prospects.  Boswell says tweaks, though a new SP is needed.


12 Responses to 'Ask Boswell 9/9/13 Edition'

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  1. I don’t really get why you say Span has nearly no trade value. He is a league average hitter (100 RC+) and a plus defender at an important position, with two years of reasonable control left. If you normalize for those concussion years, which is only fair, he is annually a 3WAR player in the latter part of his prime.

    I share the disappointment with him: I want him to be more. But he still is a valuable player and I think would have decent trade value. Basically I see him offering $30m of value over the next two years for $15m salary.

    I don’t see anyway Rizzo wants to trade him, though.


    10 Sep 13 at 9:49 am

  2. I also think you’re being a little hard on Span, who has recently managed to pull his offensive numbers up within shouting distance of his career averages. Maybe it was a matter of him having to “figure out” NL pitching. If so, he’ll be perfectly adequate next year, and maybe with a new manager will be encouraged to steal a few more bases.

    I also agree that it will be tweaks for next year, although MLB Trade Rumors recently reported that the Nats will look to deal (dump, essentially) LaRoche this offseason in order to move Zim to 1st and Rendon to 3rd. If so, the question then becomes, who plays 2nd? We have a ton of in house candidates in Espinosa, Kobernus, Lombardozzi and Walters, or does Rizzo go for a trade or even Cano, the big FA enchilada? For the reocrod, I’m against signing Cano.


    10 Sep 13 at 10:27 am

  3. Span: not just my opinion. But that being said his little hitting streak has increased him from being an 80 OPS+ to 98 in the last few weeks. The cynic would say that he’s feasted on a weakened schedule at the tail end of the season when it didn’t matter. Call me a cynic; I didn’t need production in September when they’re 0.01% playoff odds contenders; i needed it in June and July when this team needed to step up.

    Yes he’s a great CF to the naked eye; it isn’t showing as much in UZR this year. But all things considered Rizzo’s experiment failed this year.

    Todd Boss

    10 Sep 13 at 10:51 am

  4. Span: definitely being hard. It is what it is: i don’t need a 20-game hitting streak in September when they’re playing out the string, i needed it in June/July when the team played sub .500 ball against a relatively easy schedule and blew their season. Its a performance based game.

    LaRoche dump: just don’t see it. LaRoche is Rizzo’s baby and is exactly who he wanted at 1B. He’ll stick with him until that point next season where the Nats are out of a playoff race and are trading FAs-to-be (lets hope we don’t get there).

    Moving Zimmerman to 1B: eventually yes it makes sense … but next year? No way. I think internally the narrative remains as follows: he’s a great gold glove defender who has struggled with shoulder issues for two years. Lets get him healthy and he should return to being the defender at 3B they expect. Rendon is more than adequate at 2nd.

    Walters especially represents an interesting case; a power hitting SS capable guy? That’s pretty valuable.

    Cano: agree totally. Someone’s going to WAY overpay that guy. The Nats already have two underperforming $100M contracts and don’t need a $200M contract that will be a massive albatross in a few years. We still have to find ways to pay our core guys coming up; Strasburg, Harper, Desmond especially, to a lesser extent Zimmermann and Ramos. The first 3 guys are going to be 9-figure deals; you have to save some payroll room to pay them.

    Todd Boss

    10 Sep 13 at 1:45 pm

  5. On Span, like I said, I share the frustration with him and agree on the timing of his surge, but I still think that he has trade value.

    On Cano, I wouldn’t touch the guy on a 5 year deal, let alone what he’ll likely get. He just looks like a guy to me that will fall hard off a cliff.

    If you could get Kemp for Rendon, would you take that chance with no salary relief?


    10 Sep 13 at 1:56 pm

  6. Kemp for Rendon, no salary relief. Hmm. Kemp is owed $21M a year basicaly for the next 6 seasons. Rendon is due $1.8M in 2014 and 2015, then will presumably will be arb eligible for 3 years beyond that, taking him to 2018.

    That’s a tough one. On the one hand, Kemp is MVP calibre player who has been mired in injury for two years. Who is he going forward? He isn’t getting any younger. If Kemp played 2014 at his 2011 levels, he’s worth every dollar of his $21M salary (roughly a 4win player) and I’d do that trade in a heartbeat.

    On the other hand … if Kemp’s barrelling towards a Pujols/Hamilton decline/injury overpay, then the risk/reward of the contract is significantly less than what Rendon may flourish into at a fraction of the money, even if Rendon only ever turns out to be a slightly above average player. $20M versus $2M. Big difference.

    Not much of an answer. I’d probably stick with Rendon, knowing he’s cost contained and you can use the other money to acquire multiple parts versus the risk/reward of Kemp ever returning to his glory years.

    Todd Boss

    10 Sep 13 at 5:11 pm

  7. If the Nats had traded Haren at the deadline they would have been trading a guy that for two months (July 1-August 30) was arguably their best pitcher, with an ERA of about 2.50 and a K/BB of about 5/1. They had a schedule set up to make some kind of WC push and no obvious alternatives.
    Picking up Haren was a medium risk (high dollar, only one year) high reward move that didn’t work out. Meh. Every GM has them.

    I’m on record as being a skeptic about the clubhouse morale factor, with Morse, DeRosa, Gorzelanny and Burnett being regarded as cheerleaders in chief who are now missed. I think that’s confusing correlation with causation, but it’s inherently unproveable either way – so have at it.

    I think the snark about ALR and Rizzo is completely misplaced. When ALR was a free agent it wasn’t Rizzo beating down his door – it was Davey Johnson openly campaigning for ALR to be signed and Rizzo to all appearances hanging back. It’s a lot more likely that Rizzo doesn’t give two hoots in a handbag about ALR. But looking around at available options it’s quite possible that ALR is the best option available going forward. The free agent list at first base is pretty limited, and even adding a second baseman (moving Rendon to third and Zimmerman to first) isn’t likely an offensive upgrade, unless you find a second baseman who can really swing the bat. Unless you want to go get Cano, that guy isn’t out there either. You could well end up with an infield of two below-average bats for their position (New Guy at 2b, Rendon at 3b), one mediocre bat for his position (Zim at 1b) and one plus bat (Desmond at SS). In that scenario, gee I hope Ramos stays healthy and the OF hits.

    John C.

    10 Sep 13 at 7:51 pm

  8. Clubhouse chemistry; i’ve heard the dismissal of causation versus correlation before, because its a tired cliche. How do you prove that ANYTHING is caused by something else or merely coincidence/correlated?? I rammed my head into a wall, now I have a headache. Is that causation or just correlation because of some other headache-causing factor?

    Do you work on a good team at your job? I do not; my team is full of egotistical a-holes who take advantage of a weak manager and piss off the other teammates. So guess what? Our team production is poor. However, I’ve absolutely worked on good teams, where people got along and went out of their way to help each other out, work with junior teammates, put in a few extra hours to help. Guess how productive the good team was?

    I refuse to believe that baseball clubhouses work any differently from any other workplace unit. Yes they’re highly paid, yes they’re athletes not office professionals. But they’re still people, with different motivation factors, different outside interests, etc. You’re going to have the ass kissers, the lazy guys who get by on talent but don’t work at their craft, the first-one-in/first-one-out types who work their asses off and get pissed at the lazy guys, the veterans who have been around the block and mentor the young guys, the rookies who maybe don’t know yet how the office works, etc etc.

    Todd Boss

    11 Sep 13 at 7:40 am

  9. You really think Desmond will be a 100,000,000 guy Todd Boss?


    11 Sep 13 at 11:38 am

  10. Yea i think he might. I talked about this exact topic in an April 2013 post here. Look at the contract that Elvus Andrus got: 8 years, $120M. The stats are more detailed in the above link, but in essence Andrus got a 9 figure deal for being an excellent defensive, mediocre hitting SS. Now look at what Desmond is: he’s posting his 2nd straight 5.0 UZR/150 season at short (Andrus has slightly better UZR both this year 5.7 and last couple in 8.5 and 7.5) and Desmond is now hitting at a middle-of-the-order clip, being already at 20 homers for the year with a .471 slugging and a 120 OPS+ (Andrus by way of comparison this year has 2 homers, less OBP, significantly less slugging and is at 79 OPS+).

    So you tell me; if Desmond puts up another couple of these seasons … what is he worth? If Andrus is worth 8/120 what is Desmond going to be worth? Power hitting short stops get *paid* in this league. Tulowitzki, Jeter, A-Rod come to mind recently.

    Todd Boss

    11 Sep 13 at 12:17 pm

  11. I DO work on a team in my job, and I’ve met all the types you mention at one time or another. That doesn’t affect how I read the tea leaves on the Nationals. Why? We just have no solid basis for concluding that the clubhouse has suffered some crippling loss of chemistry. I’ve seen people site a variety of stories, events and quotes for one side (it’s changed!) and for the other side (it hasn’t!). I have my doubts, but I lack certainty about things I don’t know about. So, as I said, have at it.

    I also don’t think that Rizzo pals around with/has warm feelings towards any of the players. If anything, he seems to me to be a bit of a cold blooded bastard – but while I might not want to hang out with him, that’s not a bad thing in a GM. And even with the up and down season this year I am very impressed with the job that he has done up and down this organization. Is he perfect? Hell no. But he’s better than most I’ve seen. As Davey would say “no doubt about it.”

    John C.

    12 Sep 13 at 10:42 pm

  12. Well, if you can show me a link on the “its changed” side i’d like to read it, b/c all i’ve read is about how loss of Morse and especially DeRosa has left a void. Add to that the inarguable downstream effects of Soriano (his lonerism and attitude WELL documented) to the bullpen. Add to that the highest paid starter of your rotation being the absolute worst performer. Just can’t convince me that all these things don’t add up.

    I view Rizzo as being prideful of his moves, stubborn to admit that his approach or his work may have backfired. Why didn’t the team do more at the trade deadline? Why wasn’t Johnson’s performance questioned? Why did Rizzo just let this underperforming team continue at .500 for the entirety of the season without doing much of anything to impact it other than demote obviously underperforming guys and replace injured players in the lineup? I also view him as a very poor people manager (going back the Riggleman affair, where Rizzo wouldn’t give Riggleman a 5 minute discussion about the guy’s future), or perhaps the way Lannan was handled last spring training.

    Todd Boss

    13 Sep 13 at 8:59 am

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