Nationals Arm Race

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

Ladson’s inbox 1/15/14

22 comments

Lots of speculation on Zimmerman's near future position. Photo AP via tbd.com

Lots of speculation on Zimmerman’s near future position. Photo AP via tbd.com

Rapid fire!  Nats mlb.com beat reporter Bill Ladson didn’t even wait seven days to release his latest inbox, this one dated 1/15/14.   We just got done arguing about the last one!  He must have a huge backlog of questions from baseball-starved fans who can’t wait for pitchers and catchers to report (we’re less than a month away now; Nats report date is 2/13/14).

Btw; I heard it from a friend of a friend that the Nats may have given extension offers to both Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann this week; havn’t seen that news pop up on any beat reporter RSS feeds or elsewhere yet.  But if true, its good to see the dialog opening up now as opposed to deep into spring training.  Stay tuned and lets see if these rumors turn out to be true!

As always, we write our responses here before reading his and edit questions as needed:

Q: What was the reason behind signing Jamey Carroll and Mike Fontenot to Minor League deals?

A: Because Syracuse loves having old, over the hill veteran guys playing middle infield for them.  No seriously, both Jamey Carroll and Mike Fontenot profile as your typical aging veteran trying to hold on for one last shot, accepting a minor league/non guaranteed contract with an invite to major league spring training so that they can compete for bench spots.  And this team absolutely has a need for middle infield depth after trading away Steve Lombardozzi and given the question marks that come with other middle infield options on our roster Danny Espinosa (has he remembered how to hit again?), Zach Walters (can he actually play shortstop without booting every other ball hit to him?), and Jeff Kobernus (is he even a middle infielder any more after focusing on the OF for so long)?  At this point, I think at least one of them will make the roster unless we make another trade.  Ladson says Mike Rizzo loves depth and the team is looking for a backup to Espinosa.  

Q: At which Minor League level will Lucas Giolito start this coming season after tearing it up with the Gulf Coast Nationals and Class A Auburn?

A: In my big system-wide prediction piece in December 2013, I predicted Lucas Giolito will start in Low-A/Hagerstown.  There’s no reason not to get him going in full-season ball, and low-A makes the most sense given his age.  In a perfect world he’d dominate low-A in the first half and get promoted to high-A/Potomac for the 2nd half.  Ladson also says Hagerstown.

Q: Am I the only one concerned about Bryce Harper‘s weight gain?

A: Bryce Harper is in his low-20s; he was always destined to “fill out” and gain more muscle mass.  It will only mean more ferocious power and hopefully more strength to help him slog through the 162 game schedule.  On the downside, it means less speed on the bases and probably less range in the outfield, neither of which is really too much of a concern for a premium power hitter.   If it means that my dream of Harper playing center field and taking over the reigns from the likes of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays as premium power-hitting CFers, so be it.  Ladson says there’s no worry.

Q: If the Nationals give Espinosa or Jeff Kobernus a spot on the Opening Day roster, who would be the first player sent to Syracuse?

A: I’d have to think Kobernus would be first expendible player; the team already has too many outfielders (3 starters in Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth, a backup in Scott Hairston and a presumed 2nd backup in Tyler Moore).  There’ s just no room for a third extra outfielder on modern teams; you need that 2nd bench spot for a guy who can cover the middle infield.  Ladson didn’t really answer the question, just saying that Espinosa would be “given every chance” to make the team.

Q: Do you think the Nationals would move Ryan Zimmerman to first base and trade Adam LaRoche for a good starter or bullpen pitcher? They could move Anthony Rendon to third base.

A: I do not think the team would move Adam LaRoche at this point.  You’d get almost no value back and would be creating a hole in your lineup that the team can’t easily fix.  If you think a team is going to give up a “good starter” or even a “bullpen pitcher” for a mid-30s guy who underperformed last year, then you’re fooling yourself.  Bill Ladson: stop taking dumb trade questions!

Back to the question though; the team seems convinced that Ryan Zimmerman‘s throwing issues are behind him, since he’s had more than enough time by now to recover from his Oct 2012 shoulder surgery.  Btw, take a look at his baseballprospectus link and look at his unbelievable injury history; I can’t think of another player with such a long list of maladies.  Now, once LaRoche is gone and the team is looking at a hole at first, a premium 3rd base defender wasting his talents at 2nd, and a litany of free agent options to provide cover at 2nd and/or 3rd… yes we may see Zimmerman come back across the diamond.  Lets see what happens in 2014; if Zimmerman returns to gold glove form, we may be having a different conversation next off-season (as in, who are we getting to play 1B).  Ladson talks up LaRoche, calling him one of the best defensive firstbasemen in club history.  If LaRoche is so good, we must have really had a bad run of first basement.  LaRoche posted a -2.0 UZR/150 last year, good for 17th of 19 qualified first basemen in the league … sorry, hard to talk about how great defensively you are one of the WORST first basemen statistically in the league.

22 Responses to 'Ladson’s inbox 1/15/14'

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  1. I think the odds are against either Carroll or Fontenot making the team out of Viera unless either Espinosa or Moore falls flat on their face in ST. And Espinosa doesn’t even really have to hit much to make the team. The bench is pretty much set at McLouth, Hairston, Espinosa, Moore and whoever the backup catcher is. Moore is on the team as bench bat and 1b depth if LaRoche’s struggles resurface. If two not-1b IF guys get hurt or are unavailable that would press Hairston into service at 2b. Not ideal, but you can get by until the plane arrives from Syracuse. At this point in their careers Carroll and Fontenot offer very little other than serviceable (not great) defense.

    John C.

    17 Jan 14 at 10:04 am

  2. And a word of skepticism about defensive metrics: to the extent that they are reliable at all (and there is some debate about that), most sabremetric types will concede that they aren’t reliable for any one season. Which is my way of saying that I don’t think that LaRoche was one of the best defensive 1b in the league in 2012, and I don’t think he was one of the worst in 2013. He’s basically OK – pretty good at balls in the dirt, not as much range as you’d like to have optimally.

    John C.

    17 Jan 14 at 10:07 am

  3. Defensive metrics: more or less I trust them for a whole season. I mean, if you can’t trust a stat that covers 1,200 innings and at least as many chances, then why have it at all? But drastic changes in a player’s defensive stats from season to season should also have an explanation. Here’s LaRoche’s UZR/150 numbers the last four years: 3.5, 13.7, 5.8, -2.0. The 13.7 is the outlier and, perhaps not coincidentally, was the year he got hurt and missed most of the season. We know uzr/150 really fails in small sample sizes, so we throw that out. So you have a guy who goes from 3.5 to 5.8 to -2.0. He was also in the negatives in 2009 and 2008. Perhaps I was being slightly unfair to him by pointing out his 2013 numbers were among the worst in the league … but you’d also be incredibly hard pressed to look at the last 6-7 years of his career defensively and tell me with a straight face that he’s anywhere close to “among the best.” Sure he “seems” good at digging out balls in the dirt; is there a stat that measures that? I think his arm is weak and he has a range that is shrinking with his advancing age.

    Another example; Ryan Zimmerman; his range stats have fallen off of a cliff. But there’s a pretty simple explanation; he’s playing more shallow because he doesn’t trust his arm, and that means he makes fewer plays as balls zip by him.

    Todd Boss

    17 Jan 14 at 1:07 pm

  4. I wonder if Ladson gets questions about moving LaRoche to third . . .

    Here’s the deal. At nearly every level of baseball, the guy at first base is there because he can’t play very well defensively anywhere else. First basemen, by definition, don’t have much range. They’re there to hit, which Mr. LaRoche didn’t do very well last year. (Perhaps that’s what’s behind the sudden infatuation with Mark Reynolds. Well, that plus Reynolds knows the secret D-Back handshake.)

    What can the Nats do? The thought from the questioner that the Nats could get a “good starter” in exchange for LaRoche is laughable. An average prospect is likely the best we could hope. So it is probably in the Nats’ interest to at least see if ALR still has any of his 2012 mojo left. But the leash will be short, and the Nats will be hoping that Skole produces early in Harrisburg, just in case.

    Meanwhile, on the other side of the diamond, yes, Zimmerman has to be able to resume playing deeper. The Nats are giving up too many cheap hits to that side while trying to hide his arm problems. If he can’t play deep, then he can’t play third. One would think the veteran 3B in the dugout will know that.

    If Ryan can’t throw, how about moving him to 2B instead of 1B? Rendon, a natural 3B, would shift to third. Since Zim played SS in college, he presumably knows his way around the middle of the infield, and his underhand flip would work fine from the right side of the diamond. Such a move would also account for the potentially fatal flaw in the Zim-to-1B scenario: for that to work, Espy would have to be the starter at 2B. The Nats have more near options at first (Moore, Skole, even Souza) than they do at second.

    Just a thought.

    KW

    17 Jan 14 at 4:19 pm

  5. Zim->2b: man that’s a big second baseman :-) Zim listed as 6’3″ 230lb (maybe a bit bigger now). But, he was a SS in high school … Cal Ripken was 6’4″, Tulowitzki is 6’3″ but weighs slightly less. So I don’t think its out of the realm of possible to put him at 2nd, but can you see this regime doing it?

    Todd Boss

    17 Jan 14 at 4:41 pm

  6. you’d also be incredibly hard pressed to look at the last 6-7 years of his career defensively and tell me with a straight face that he’s anywhere close to “among the best.”

    Agreed! See my comment above (“[LaRoche] is basically OK”).

    I don’t think its out of the realm of possible to put him at 2nd, but can you see this regime doing it?

    This regime? How about any team in baseball? Zim is fine at the corners; he can charge well and he has good reflexes/hands for hard hit balls that are on him quickly. Even leaving aside the issue of the pivot at second, we have no indication at all that he has good lateral movement beyond the “step and a dive” that the corners generally emphasize. I remember watching Rafael “statue” Belliard and Christian “past a leaning” Guzman play in the middle infield. Let’s not go back there.

    John C.

    17 Jan 14 at 5:22 pm

  7. Hey, I said it was an idea, not the ideal! The ideal would be for Espinoza to miraculously regenerate his career and give the Nats some legit options. As it is, there’s no guarantee he’s going to hit well enough to even make the big club.

    But Zim can’t continue to play almost on the grass at third, and we’re likely stuck with LaRoche for now. It does make me curious whether they would envision Reynolds at third or first. I can’t see him being a great asset on the bench with his strikeout rate. The Yanks desperately need him, though, so his ol’ bud Rizzo may just be helping drive up his price.

    KW

    17 Jan 14 at 7:43 pm

  8. I think the events of today were pretty interesting. Jzimm seems certain to be gone by 2016, if he isn’t traded earlier. There is just no reason for him to trade value for security any longer, having been guaranteed $30m from 2013-2015. With the way things are going, is 5/$100m really out of reach for him with two more comparable seasons? Seems crazy, but take Anibal Sanchez’s deal and grow it by salary inflation for 4 years. And I don’t think Rizzo thinks he is worth it, probably because of the lack of strikeouts.

    Desi also seems unlikely to extend, given his guarantees, although it is maybe a little more hopeful since he hasn’t made as much. But, as Todd has said a few times, he has played his way into a huge market value. He is in the conversation with Tulo and Andrus,and Rizzo is probably just choking on that realization. Maybe Rizzo thinks Espy turns it around and can fill SS for a few years until he figures something out? I thought it was laughable when Boz threw out extending both players for $150m in aggregate the other day. Hell the way things are going, maybe that only gets one of them done.

    I’d be curious to see where Clip’s numbers fell out.

    Wally

    17 Jan 14 at 9:25 pm

  9. Why the h*** would Rizzo be “just choking on the realization” that Desmond has played his way into the highest echelon of SS? Isn’t that the best case scenario? Yeah, it means it will cost them serious coin to extend him. I think the Nats would happily take that and try to extend him than to have tovfill the position.

    John C.

    18 Jan 14 at 2:18 pm

  10. Desi is, by most measures, the #2 offensive SS in baseball, behind Tulo. I’ve seen nothing in what has developed this week to convince me that the Nats won’t be able to re-sign him for 2016 and beyond. They have generously compensated him for his last two arbitration years. They very likely will push hard to sign him long-term, as he is a key bat in the middle of their order, and they don’t have much in the pipeline in the middle infield. (Walters still has a lot to prove defensively.)

    Kolko had a good talk with Zimmermann about his situation. The best news in that piece is that he does seem willing to put off the long-term talks until next offseason. That will give the Nats time to gauge the progress of their other alternatives, including Jordan, Roark, Giolito, Solis, Cole, et al. The $16.5M would be the established baseline for the Zimmermann extension and would probably take more, one would think in the range of $18M/per, for at least five and perhaps seven years. That will be a tall order for a guy starting the contract in his age-30 season.

    I do find it a bit concerning that the Nats seem so far apart with Fister, increasing the chances that they might lose him and Zimmermann at the same time. We’ll see. But all in all, the front office did a great job of avoiding the drama of arbitration with most of the guys on the list.

    One point in pushing back the long-term questions with Desmond, Zimmermann, and Fister until next offseason is that one would hope that by then, the Nats *might* actually have the substantial additional TV revenue to figure into the equation.

    Now back to worrying about the fifth starter and the holes on the bench . . .

    KW

    18 Jan 14 at 10:02 pm

  11. I am sure that Rizzo is pleased that Desi has become a top 5 SS, and more than that, probably feels some measure of satisfaction from being right as to the player that he is and sticking with him while his career was in doubt. But he probably could have extended Desi for 5/$65m last offseason and now it may have almost doubled. So he has to regret gambling on getting Desi at below market value and now realizing that it didn’t work, and the price went way, way up. Especially since now the size of Desi’s deal, if he agrees to it, may squeeze out another piece of his core that he would like to keep. It is human nature to have that kind of remorse.

    And i think that he just figured this out, since I bet he tried to get a long term deal on his terms and it didn’t work. so yes, I think there is a decent chance he is choking on this right now.

    Wally

    18 Jan 14 at 10:04 pm

  12. Man, I’m behind on the comments. :-)

    LaRoche’s defense: I’ll say this: i think his defense is overrated. And I think Zimmerman at first would likely immediately be a gold-glove contender. The question though becomse this: is Zimmerman’s bat “good enough” to play at first?

    Zimmerman to 2nd: I was looking up Zim’s size (6’3″ 220 or so) versus Tulowitzki (same height, weighs less), Jeff Kent (slightly shorter) or Ripken ( 6’1″ but same weight) as a comparison for a “big” middle infielder. Yes he played SS in high school; so did practically every good baseball talent. I agree with John here; I’d much rather see Rendon continue at 2nd than switch the two.

    Todd Boss

    19 Jan 14 at 10:18 am

  13. Reynolds as backup; Well, so much for that idea; he signed with Milwaukee on a minor league contract. Wow. How far he has fallen.

    Todd Boss

    19 Jan 14 at 10:19 am

  14. Zimmermann’s extension: I thought the pricing was interesting, keeping him undervalued this year and then (possibly?) overvalued in 2015. If he’s at $16.5M in his last arb year that’s valuing him closer to $20M a season. We had been talking about whether he was worth $18M/year (most think yes). Nonetheless, I think this makes it really, really tough to sign him once he hits FA. Hey, at least the team gets a QO draft pick out of it eventually. Do you flip him to save face? Hard to trade a leading starter when you’re in a pennant race and have a $130M payroll.

    Desmond is the priority here: We can replace pitching internally (have more than a few good names rising up) or through trading (as Rizzo has shown with Gonzalez and Fister). An all-star at a premium position (catcher, short, center) is a different story; I think you see the team eventually extending Desmond with a contract like Andrus’.

    I’m really, really concerned about the huge gaps between our two guys who exchanged numbers. Both could get ugly, fast. In my opinion the Nats really underbid Clippard; you can’t offer your best reliever just a 10% raise. Clippard would win that hearing hands down, even without saves. Meanwhile they’re even further apart with Fister. I really, really hope to see a 2year extension for Fister to just avoid this whole mess.

    Todd Boss

    19 Jan 14 at 10:24 am

  15. Maybe the Fister/Clippard lack of agreement was just a “time” game. I mean the Nats did have 10 frigging arbitration cases. Cleared two early (including to my surprise Strasburg at a relatively paltry 3.975M … i thought he’d get much more). Cleared another 6 the day of the deadline, including two guys who they were clearly negotiating on longer term contracts with. That’s a lot of negotiations to do simultaneously and there’s only so much Mike Rizzo to go around.

    Failing to extend Desi: tough position for the GM: in the pre-2013 offseason is he looking at Desmond’s breakout 2012 as a trend or a one-off? What if you extend him based on that season and he drops back to 2011 numbers? You’d look like an idiot. Of course, now we call Rizzo an idiot for NOT extending him as he puts in his second 4-win season in a row and his price doubles again. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

    Todd Boss

    19 Jan 14 at 10:28 am

  16. The Phillies extended Howard too soon and that was a disaster. So yeah, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

    John C.

    19 Jan 14 at 1:17 pm

  17. I wasn’t sure where to ask this, but I think it would be interesting if you did a write-up about the correlation between taking players to arbitration and them leaving in free agency.

    Luke S.

    19 Jan 14 at 2:17 pm

  18. Todd, I was also shocked at the Strasburg number. Not only that, they got that deal done early. Was Boras actually being reasonable? Ha!

    It’s curious that there now seems to be such a rush to get extensions done two years before free agency. Why? Much can happen in the intervening years, and, as John pointed out, we certainly don’t want to repeat the Phillie mistakes of a broken-down roster.

    The other disturbing trend is the demand for contracts of seven years or longer, often up to ten. Again, why? Sure, it’s great for the players, but it is quite a crap-shoot for the teams.

    I would probably do an extension of five for Desmond, but if he holds out for seven, will he still be able to play short in his later 30s, or will he look like Jeter out there? As noted, though, the Nats don’t have a lot of alternatives at short and likely will have to get something done with Desi sooner or later.

    As for Zimmermann, he and his agent would do well to take a look at the long list of free-agent starters on the streets right now, all in the age range that Zimmermann will be in two years. Teams aren’t lining up for them, and they’re not going to get seven-year contracts. Most will be lucky to get five at this stage, maybe three. The big contracts for pitchers seem much more to be panic re-signings than they are courtships by new teams.

    KW

    19 Jan 14 at 10:45 pm

  19. KW I don’t think it is a fair to say Zimmermann and his agent should be looking at the starters sitting around this year waiting. There are several factors for this. A.) They are being held up by Masahiro Tanaka. B.) They are not the same level of starter that Jordan is. Jordan is on an entirely different level vs the guys with obvious issues and some upside like Jimenez and Santana (inconsistency) and Garza (recent injury history).

    I do agree that 7 years seems long on any contract. I’m not a fan of those lengths unless it is covering a guy in the Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Kershaw age bracket where at the end of it they aren’t in their mid 30s. I could see going to 6 years for Desmond if you have to though but 7 is too long on almost any deal.

    pdowdy83

    20 Jan 14 at 9:16 am

  20. Strasburg/Boras: maybe they just know they are biding their time and it isn’t worth the fighting that inevitably comes with arbitration hearings. In the grand scheme of things, you work towards your FA date and THEN make your money. I’m guessing this is what Mike Trout’s agent is telling him right now, as the Angels gave the game’s best player a $10,000 raise last year or whatever miniscule amount it was.

    2 year deals/buying out Arb years: I like it for both sides actually. Everyone can kind of see how the arb salaries generally rise, so players get some security and avoid the painful arb process, while teams get cost containment if the player explodes.

    7 year/10 year contracts; yeah. Supply and demand right? Nobody was going to give Werth 7/$126 … but we did, so he took it. What really, really scares me in the game right now is the absolutely ridiculous stuff going on in Los Angeles. They might have 8 times the payroll of a team like Tampa next season. how is that possibly fair?

    Todd Boss

    20 Jan 14 at 10:47 am

  21. Luke; good topic. I will do some digging. My initial thought is this: I get the impression players know the arbitration hearings are “part of the business” and should be going into the hearings with open eyes. But even given that, everyone’s ego/psyche is slightly different and clearly some guys come out of these hearings with their feelings hurt. As for free agency … more than a few baseball pundits will flat out tell you that players go where the biggest paycheck is. I don’t think that’s entirely true (especially for vets who don’t “need” the money, or guys who want to stay in a city, etc) but its really hard to disprove. I read a story about how Roy Halladay really wanted to play for the Phillies and “took less” money because he lives in Dunedin and can basically drive to Clearwater for 2 months in the spring; its like he gets to stay home for two extra months versus if he played for a team that did spring training in (say) Viera or in Arizona. But lets be truthful; he’s still getting $20M/year. Did he take less and sacrifice a few million over the course of a 9 figure deal? Not exactly the same thing as taking a 25% pay cut to stay with a team.

    Todd Boss

    20 Jan 14 at 10:51 am

  22. Hey there Luke; i’m about to post on your question related to renention rates of players taken to arbitration. I found some pretty interesting information.

    Todd Boss

    24 Jan 14 at 10:24 am

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