Nationals Arm Race

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

Ladson Inbox 1/9/14


Is Zimmermann getting a contract extension?.Photo Manuel Balce-Ceneta/AP

Is Zimmermann getting a contract extension?.Photo Manuel Balce-Ceneta/AP

You know spring training is coming close when Bill Ladson does two mailboxes in two weeks.  Here’s 1/9/14’s version.

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

Q: Most of the talk about a middle infielder for the bench is centered on Danny Espinosa. What are your thoughts about Jeff Kobernus? I would play him and trade Espinosa.

A: I think the talk is focused on Danny Espinosa since, right now he seems like the best option thanks to the trade of Steve Lombardozzi and the lack of any other real competitors.  Zach Walters hit 30 homers in AAA … but by some accounts is a very poor defender.  I can’t find his minor league fielding stats but others have pointed out that he made 30 errors last year in AAA.  Jeff Kobernus has been playing outfield lately; he played 2nd in college and earlier in his pro career but can he even play short stop?  New signees Jamey Carroll and Mike Fontenot can both play 2nd and SS … but aren’t exactly MLB quality guys any longer; Fontenot spent the entire year in AAA in 2013 and Carroll is a guy on a minor league contract nearing 40 who hit for a 40-something OPS+ in 2013.

Ask yourself; what do you ideally want out of a backup infielder?  They have to be a plus defender (apparently knocking out Walters), they have to be able to play 2nd and SS (knocking out Kobernus).  Espinosa is a fantastic defender, a short stop in college with a rocket arm who many once upon a time thought was a better short stop than Ian Desmond.  Right now, I want to see if Espinosa can re-gain his former self and use everyone else in this discussion as a fallback plan.

Trade Espinosa?  Can you define the term “selling low?”  That’s the last thing the organization wants to do right now.  That being said, Ladson continues to be insistent that Espinosa will be traded before opening day.  His prediction for the opening day backup infielder is “lets see what happens in spring training.”  Strong stance.

Q: Is Bill Bray still with the Nationals? If I remember, he had health issues. Any chance he could be in the mix for a lefty slot in the bullpen?

A: Bill Bray is a Minor League Free Agent, and according to Baseball America is still unsigned.  Even if he did re-sign with Washington, it’d be on a minor league deal, meaning he’d have to be added to the 40-man to be in the mix for the loogy.  That already puts him behind several guys; Jerry Blevins and Xavier Cedeno for sure, and likely Sammy Solis if the first two guys failed.  Bray also has to show he’s healthy, which he hasn’t really done in quite a while now.  I hate to say it, because i’ve got a soft-spot for him (he’s from Virginia Beach and i’m friends with his cousin), but he may be looking at retirement.  Ladson says he’s not ready until May but wants to stay in the organization; lets hope they throw him a bone and give him a minor league deal.

Q: Are the Nats pursuing any other lefty relievers, or is Jerry Blevins all there is to it?

A: I’d guess the team is pursuing other lefties, but not actively.  I’m sure there will be a couple of MLFA signings here and there to provide some competition in Viera.  Ladson reminds us that they’re thinking about both Solis and Ross Detwiler as lefties out of the pen.

Q: Any word on F. P. Santangelo re-signing for the 2014 season?

A: No idea.  I thought he was a fine broadcaster so I hope he comes back; didn’t realize there was a question.  Ladsons says they’re both back for 2014, after which Santangelo’s contract expires.

Q: Tyler Moore is an enigma. He seems to have all the tools to be a regular .280 hitter with 20 homers. Why does he appear to only be in the Nats’ plans as a bench player?

A: Moore is an enigma; is he the power hitting slugger (one homer every 15.6 ABs) in 2012 who bashed his way to an .840 OPS or is the overmatched, strike-out-one-out-of-every-three times guy we saw in 2013?  I’d hope he’s closer to the former than the latter, and thus can still be a servicable righty power bat off the bench.  Why is he just a bench player?  Because he’s not better than any of the guys ahead of him?  I would have thought this was kind of obvious, looking at Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth and their accomplishments and status on this team.  Ladson assumes Moore is a backup firstbaseman, I guess, but says Moore isn’t going to be platooning with Adam LaRoche either.

Q: Do you think it is likely that the Nationals will sign both Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann to contract extensions this offseason?

A: Likely?  No.  I think at least one (Desmond) gets done, and we may see the other guy (Zimmermann) get moved in a cost-containment move with the team thinking ahead to its rising minor league players and its need to pay both Harper and Strasburg sooner than later.  Ladson sort of agrees.



14 Responses to 'Ladson Inbox 1/9/14'

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  1. No questions for Ladson about who will be the Nats manager after Williams??? I’m hopeful about an extension for Desmond. Davey’s most lasting legacy may be getting Desi to reach his potential. I’ll admit that I would consider an extension for Zimmermann ahead of Strasburg at this point. While I realize Stras is years from free agency, as a Boras client I just assume he’ll leave (probably to the Dodgers, being from SoCal). Also, I’ve yet to be convinced that he isn’t brittle, from an injury perspective. So he’ll either have consistent injury issues and not be worth a huge contract, or he won’t have injury issues and he’ll leave as a free agent. Either way, I’m not sure that J-Zimm isn’t a better long-term investment. I expect you disagree about this, Todd.


    14 Jan 14 at 10:15 am

  2. At first base ALR is Plan A, likely with a bit of a shorter leash than last year. But I still think Tyler Moore is Plan B, mostly because he has more offensive potential than the middle infield crowd that would be called upon if Zim moves to first and Rendon goes to third.

    Where you’re more likely to see Zim go to first would be in 2015. If Zim reverts to his poor throwing and ALR is gone after this year, moving Zim would allow the Nats to sign a 3b or a 2b (moving Rendon) with pop to fill the gap. Headley or Sandoval, perhaps.

    In my dreams, if the Nats can’t sign JZim to an extension I’d have them package him to the Diamondbacks for Paul Goldschmidt. Such a nice dream …

    John C.

    14 Jan 14 at 2:21 pm

  3. Thank god for the Williams hiring so there’s no more manager questions for a while :-)

    Strasburg extension: good point Mr Clark; as a Boras client he’s going to get to free agency, and then there’ll be a massive off-season. I read somewhere that Zimmermann has already stated he’s giving no home-town discounts, so that seems to imply to me that he wants to get to free agency as well.

    Who is the better long term investment, Stras or Zimmermann? Great question. Do you guys realize that Strasburg is entering his 5th professional season and has just 29 wins? Entering his 5th professional season, Kershaw had already won a Cy Young, made 116 starts and had 47 victories in the majors. Yes he got injured and that cost him basically an entire season, so this isn’t entirely fair…. but it does go to two issues: durability and long term value. If Strasburg is going to get paid like one of the best 10 guys in the game … when is he going to put up a season like one of the 10 best guys in the game? I’m talking a 20 win season, an ERA in the 2s, a dominant first half where he shows up at the all-star game like 10-2 or something like that. That’s what I want to see.

    Zimmermann DID that last year; he was 12-3 with a 2.46 ERA at the all-star break. If he does this for two more years he’s probably looking at $18M/year. Would you go 5/$90 or 7/$126 for Zimmermann right now?

    Todd Boss

    15 Jan 14 at 10:37 am

  4. Agree on the LaRoche/Moore possible mini platoon.

    Zim to first base; also agree; if he doesn’t open the season playing back at his normal range and making confident throws across the diamond, then his usefulness at third has come to an end. Zimmerman was nothing short of fantastic at the position range-wise from 2007-2010; then suddenly he’s fallen off a cliff and shows nearly as little range as Miguel Cabrera (Zim posted a -14.9 Uzr/150 for last year; the notoriously bad Cabrera posted a -19.9 … that’s saying something).

    The positional moving after this season (Zim to 1B, Rendon back to 3B, Espinosa/Walters installed at 2B) makes so much sense that i’m almost afraid it won’t happen, that someone in the team will cling to the notion that Zimmerman “just needs a bit more time” to fix his shoulder. This irritates the hell out of me; every report we heard about his post 2011 shoulder surgery said “he’ll be ready for spring training.” Until he got to spring training … then it was “oh he’ll be ready for opening day.” Then it was obviously apparent in April he wasn’t fixed and then you started hearing the beat reporters saying, “well it was a serious surgery; he needs til mid-season.” Well, Which was it!? How many games did he cost the team last year? He made FIFTEEN throwing errors, almost all of them on routine plays where he airmailed the first baseman. He made 6 fielding errors, and I can attest that more than a few of them were on sharply hit balls that he was playing too close in on … because he’s worred about his arm so he’s cheating forward. I’ve nearly had it with him at third as a result.

    2015 signees: think about this: LaRoche gone, Span gone, Soriano gone (yes, assuming we don’t pick up options and/or Soriano closes enough games in 2014 to vest). That’s about $30 million in payroll that the team can use towards signing a replacement 2b or 3b. Who is available next off-season? Per mlbtraderumors: not much in the 2B market (Kelly Johnson?), but yes some interesting names at 3b: as John C mentioned Headley and Sandoval lead the list … but Hanley Ramirez is an intriguing name there too; he’s a 300/400/500, 40 homer threat who has just gotten unlucky with injuries … look at his numbers last year. NO he’s not likely leaving LA but he’d be an interesting FA.

    Todd Boss

    15 Jan 14 at 10:50 am

  5. Strasburg’s #1 problem in 2013 was his poor choice of days on which he pitched; i.e., the team just didn’t score runs for him at all. And according to B-R, the Nationals played (very slightly) worse defense for Strasburg as well. Measured on his own merits, Strasburg’s peripheral stats (ERA, WHIP, H/9, K, K/BB, OPS allowed, % of hits for extra bases were all better than JZ’s. Even with worse defense behind him, his runs allowed was virtually identical to JZ’s, and even his IP/start was very close if you toss out the game where Strasburg plunked Upton and got tossed.

    I don’t say this to denigrate JZ at all – I certainly hope that the Nats ink him to an extension. In terms of who is the better long term investment I think that’s at best a push. I’d lean Strasburg on versatility of stuff and (more importantly) the fact that he is more than two years younger. An extension to Strasburg is going to get more of his “prime” years. Now if Strasburg is going to cost significantly more because he’s a Boras client with a marquee name, maybe Zim is going to be more cost effective. But that would be due to factors beyond their relative merits as pitchers.

    John C.

    15 Jan 14 at 11:15 am

  6. I give Jordan a 5 year $90mm deal right now without hesitation but I balk at 7 years and $126 million. I put 5 years as my ceiling on pitcher contracts due to the wear and tear they get.

    I think the infield in 2015 could be interesting. Desmond is obviously the shortstop unless something catastrophic happens. Hopefully Rendon improves a notch on his 2013 numbers this coming season and proves he can be useful at either 2nd or 3rd base. There is absolutely nothing on the 1st base market next offseason but as mentioned above Sandoval, Ramirez and Headley are on the 3rd base side. Also available will be Jed Lowrie, Alberto Callaspo and Asdrubal Cabrera. If Lowrie can have another healthy season in 2014 he would be a nice fit as he can play SS, 2nd and 3rd. I also like Headley even if he doesn’t put up another 30 homer season. I think he is a highly useful player simply playing at his career norms.


    15 Jan 14 at 12:06 pm

  7. Agree with John C – Strasburg is clearly the best SP on the team, imo. But Todd’s comment If Strasburg is going to get paid like one of the best 10 guys in the game … when is he going to put up a season like one of the 10 best guys in the game? is right, too. I don’t care about wins, but I’d like to see him put up two straight seasons of 210+IPs before throwing big money at him. My guess is that the Nats let him walk.

    Agree with PDowdy on JZimm – I would give him 5/$90m, but not more. I think that he would sign that, too.

    Disagree with John C re: TMo. I htink it is time to move on from him, maybe see if a team like the Astros will take a chance on his power upside. Looking at his entire history, while he hit some HRs in the minors, he was never a great prospect, and then looking at his time in the majors, he had two relatively brief periods of BABIP-fueled over performance before reverting to his previous levels (or below), so I think it is reasonable to conclude that those small periods of over performance were the outliers. For a win now team looking for a bench, part time guy, I think that they should look for someone with less variability in his expected performance.


    15 Jan 14 at 2:28 pm

  8. All good points. I was kind of being a devil’s advocate on Strasburg; despite his “down” year he was basically in the top 10 in most advanced metrics in 2013 … and was in the top 1-2 of all those metrics for his shutdown season in 2012. Wins are what they are: if you’re 8-9 people think you had a down year. If you were 18-7 people think you had a great year. I know it isn’t fair, and even though we all know wins are poor indicators and that pitchers have nothing to do with run support, we still make judgements. btw. i use “18-7” for strasburg because that’s my estimate for what I think his record would have been last year with normal run support based on his performances (i.e., if you give up 2 runs in 7 innings you deserve a win).

    I give Zimmermann a 5/90 contract right now too; that’s $18m/year for a guy who seems like he should be able to repeat his 2013 for at least his prime years. The better question is this: would he sign for less? Would he sign 5/75 for a $15M aav? His under-ratedness works against him presumably in the FA market, kind of like how Fister isn’t getting paid like a “top 10 guy” in the league despite his, well, quietly being a top 10-12 guy by WAR over the past three years.

    I’d expect Rendon to improve a bit; i see him as a decent to hopefully solid classical #2 type hitter; can go the other way, good eye, good bat, some power if needed. He’s a bit undersized and may frankly be a long term solution at 2b, but it is also good to know that he has positional flexibility. Rizzo’s M.O. lately has been leaning towards trades versus FAs anyway; who is to say that he won’t call up Oakland once Brandon Moss (1B) or Josh Donaldson (3B) starts getting expensive and cut a deal for prospects? I’d be ok with that :-)

    TMoore: maybe the team is already looking to move on. Why in the world would we be thinking about Mark Reynolds unless it was directly related to upgrading Moore?

    Todd Boss

    15 Jan 14 at 4:45 pm

  9. First of all, let’s not mention ALR/T-Mo and “platoon.” Moore can’t hit lefties, a fact I hope Matt Williams understands when it comes time to send Moore up to pinch hit:

    2013 v. LHP: 189/238/270
    Career v. LHP: 222/276/283

    He makes all his hay against RHP.

    LaRoche actually has decent career splits against lefties (244/300/430) but tailed off in 2013 (198/254/313), although that is still better than T-Mo.

    The bench still concerns me. McLouth strikes me as the only solid piece. Espy has a *long* way to go to make it back, and Walters isn’t ready for the show defensively or OBP-wise.

    I’ve weighed in on previous posts about how it is very hard to put a price on JZim. I would not want to go more than five years, nor should the deal go above an average of about $16M/per. On the other hand, the chances of signing JZim to a somewhat reasonable deal are much better than they are for signing Strasburg. Smart money would probably go to sign JZim and try to extend Gio and Fister for a couple of years . . . and plan for Stras to walk. It’s heresy, I know, but it’s going to be hard to go seven years at $20M+/per for a guy who has had trouble staying healthy.

    Boras very likely will have Stras play it out and go to free agency regardless, but the Nats can’t let such a valuable chip walk. So I’ll double down on the heresy and say that they’ll have to look at trading him next offseason to get max value unless Boras would actually agree to a deal at that time. The middle ground there might be perhaps a five-year deal next offseason that would raise Stras’s pay for the final two arbitration years and still leave him a chance at a big payday when he’s 31. But of course he’d have a chance at a much bigger payday when he’s 28, probably seven years for more than $150M total.

    So trade him to the Dodgers now for Kemp and Hyun-jin Ryu. Oops, I think I’ve exceeded the heresy limit for one comment, so it’s time to stop.


    15 Jan 14 at 7:47 pm

  10. As for who moves where and when, I’m thinking that Werth will need to move to 1B at some point in the next four years, probably within the next two. So don’t be so quick to buy that big mitt for Ryan.


    15 Jan 14 at 8:02 pm

  11. OK, I guess the potential numbers for Stras just got much worse after the Kershaw contract! I’ll now double down on the thought that the Nats won’t resign him.


    16 Jan 14 at 5:27 am

  12. Strasburg versus Kershaw: well … Strasburg has an awful long way to go before being in the Kershaw neighborhood. As in, two Cy Youngs. Plus Kershaw is left handed, which Stras can never match. I think Strasburg would be incredibly happy to sign a Hamels/Lee/Greinke value deal eventually … but all those guys also have significant Cy Young credentials. Strasburg has YET to even garner a single Cy Young vote. Now, i will stand completely corrected if he puts in a 220 inning 20-win season in 2014 … and the Nats will have to pony up 10s of millions more dollars to eventually keep him.

    Werth to First base: eh. I don’t see it; i think Werth will always be the rangy athletic type who can stay in the OF. Now, what that probably means is that Harper and Werth trade positions and you put Werth in left eventually. Honestly i wouldn’t mind that happening now since Werth is posting negative range numbers right now in right, but I guess he can hang there for at least one more year.

    I think its going to be incredibly difficult for the Nats to trade either of Stras or Zimmermann while they’re in this “we can win now” mode. They may just do a QO to both and then end up competing with the big-money boys on the FA market. Which will suck, because LA has no budget and Strasburg may very well love going back to SoCal.

    Todd Boss

    16 Jan 14 at 8:57 am

  13. As readers of this site know, advanced stats tell us that Strasburg is on the cusp of the top 10 starters. As regular Nats watchers know, or think we know, our eyes aren’t so sure, particularly in games against other contenders. He’s not there yet, or at least not to the *there* that we hope he will achieve.

    To double check what I thought I saw, I quickly went through the 2013 game log for Strasburg and looked at games he pitched against teams that made the playoffs (11 of his 30 starts). The Nats went 3-8 in those games, with Stras compiling a 1-5 record in the decisions. Sigh. Just as I suspected. But there’s a big “however” here. Strasburg posted a 2.26 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP in those games. If you take out the two adventures in Atlanta (two-inning and one-inning outings) out of his innings average, he put in 6.8 innings per start.

    OK, so how did Kershaw do? Well, he only had five starts against playoff teams (5 out of 33). The Dodgers went 2-3 in those games, and Kershaw went 1-2. In those contests, he posted a 3.78 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and averaged 6.8 innings per start. Hmm.

    So maybe Strasburg is a little closer to *there* than we think. We’ll see. This surprised me as well. Strasburg not only didn’t get the run support, but he made a third of his starts against playoff teams.


    16 Jan 14 at 9:55 pm

  14. Ken, great analysis. I like stuff like this. A 2.26 era and 0.99 whip combined with 6.8 innings per start should be an automatic win for teams on average … even a poor offensive team like the nats were last year (scoring 656 runs or 4.05 per game).

    A couple years back I read a ton of analysis about Cy Young candidates that tried to look at the “strength of schedule” factor (for lack of a better term), noting that the eventual winner had a significantly easier schedule than his competitors. I want to say perhaps it was Kershaw beating out Halladay in 2011? But nobody ever factors that into their thinking when talking about cy young.

    Todd Boss

    17 Jan 14 at 9:19 am

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