Nationals Arm Race

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

Ask Boswell 2/10/14 Edition


I should photoshop in some Nats gear ...  Photo unk via

I should photoshop in some Nats gear … Photo unk via

I havn’t been doing many “Ask Boswell” posts lately; its the off-season and long-time Washington Post writer Tom Boswell isn’t generally taking a ton of baseball questions in December.  But, its the week Spring Training opens and Boswell is heading down, so we check in on the questions baseball fans may be writing.  Here’s his 2/10/14 edition.

Here’s his baseball-specific questions, and how I’d have answered them.  Questions edited for clarity.

Q: Into which of your four categories of baseball managers do you expect Matt Williams to fall? And where would you place Buck Showalter?

A: Before answering, you’d have to know what Boswell’s Four Categories are; they stem from an article he published more than 20 years ago.  They are “Little Napoleon,” the “Peerless Leader”, the “Tall Tactician,” and the “Uncle Robbie.”   See this Oct 2011 chat for some explanations of the types.   I would say that Matt Williams is clearly the Peerless Leader while Buck Showalter features as the Uncle Robbie type.  I tend to classify managers into just two main categories: they’re either Disciplinarians or Player Managers.  I view Williams as a disciplinarian (how could he not be; his nickname is “the Big Marine”).  And I viewed Davey Johnson as more of a Player’s manager.  You have to contrast one with the next when you change managers to give players a new message … hard is it to find someone who has the characteristics of both sides of that coin who can last for years and years (think Joe Torre or Bobby Cox).  Boswell hedges, saying Williams and Showalter both display multiple characteristics … and then seems to back away from his own theory by saying that characterizing people into simple descriptions isn’t entirely fair. 

Q: Why were the Nats interested in Grant Balfour if they already have plenty of late innings relievers?

A: Probably because the bullpen was a weakness last year (bymost  macro measures about the 19th or 20th in the league) and a bulldog like Grant Balfour would have only made it better.  Ask yourself: would you rather have Ross Ohlendorf or Ryan Mattheus going in the 7th or Balfour?  Yeah, I thought so.   Mike Rizzo has said that he loves making deals in late January/early February because he knows there are deals to be made.  Players without contracts as spring training starts begin to panic, and come down from their salary demands.  If you could get a closer-quality guy for just a few million a year … yeah you make that deal every time.    Yes I know Balfour eventually signed for 2/$12m, but the point stands.   There’s players out there right now that would still improve this team, and you never know what kinds of deals may happen tomorrow.  Boswell doesn’t think there was real interest … but then says the bullpen needs to improve in 2013.  I’m not sure I buy that; I think there was interest but he had a better offer.

Q: According to a article, MLB has been paying the Nats some money to make up for the TV rights “gap” between what they are getting under the current deal and what they “should” be getting. If true, is this an admission by MLB that the current deal is unfair? Wouldn’t it make more sense to solve the situation as opposed to giving money under the table? Is MLB this powerless that they can’t force a solution between the two teams?

A: Well, we delved into this issue in the previous post here; I can’t wait to see what Boswell’s reaction is.   Boswell  doesn’t say much … he quotes a member of the Nats ownership group who seemed to imply that the solution wasn’t going to be done before Selig retires.  But he somehow “defends” the under-the-table payments as MLB being allowed to operate its business anyway it sees fit.  Odd answer.  I was hoping for an opinion here.

Q: For the last two years, the Nats have seemed to lack something perennial contenders like the Cardinals and Red Sox seem to possess. In short, it was hard to kill them off. You get a lead; they come back. You stay with them for a few innings; they pull away. Is there any validity to this non-statistical assessment? And will the Nats acquire this toughness in 2014 after the experience of overperforming in 2012 and underperforming in 2013?

A: Well, first, I’d clearly say that the 2012 Nats did not lack for the chutzpa; how do you win 98 games and not have the ability to finish teams off?   Their season splits that year against the crummy teams in the league were fantastic.  If you’re throwing out the entire 2012 season because of Drew Storen‘s meltdown in NLCS game 5 (where, remember, he had a clear game-and-series ending strike missed before giving up the crucial hit that buried the team), well that’s not fair either.  However the evidence clearly points to a distinct lack of clutch hitting team-wide for 2013; see this link at Fangraphs to see how the Nats were dead last in batting average in high leverage situations for 2013.

Do you lay some of this on the manager’s head?  Certainly I had more than a few complaints about the way Davey Johnson ran this team last year.  Will a more hard-nosed guy instill that toughness by default into his team in 2014?  Yeah I do think there will be some of that; the will of the manager leading his team.  Can’t measure it very well though.

Boswell gives a nice answer about toughness, gutting out pennant races, Williams’ effect, etc.  

Q: Matt Williams is cited as saying that he is developing new tactics to take advantage of the new rule against runner-catcher collisions at home plate. Any idea what those tactics might be? 

A: No idea.  Maybe have the pitcher half way up the line ready to trip the guy coming home?  Boswell teases the change but refuses to divulge it, instead intimating that it should be obvious to figure out…

Q: What might be the personal dynamics between Luis Ayala and Bryce Harper during Spring Training? Would Bryce carry a personal grudge about his plunking by Ayala, or would he blame the Braves as a team?

A: Hmm.  Wow, I didn’t realize it was Luis Ayala who hit Bryce Harper.  I remember the “important” plunking being done by Julio Teheran.  I’d guess Harper would think it is water under the bridge and would blame the team, not the player.  And if he didn’t, he’d have a grizzled vet like Jayson Werth or his new manager to tell him to cool it.  Besides; what are the odds of Ayala actually making this team?  Boswell agrees.

Q: If the Nats were to make one more move, either through a trade or signing of a FA, what do you think it would be? Where is the biggest need for an upgrade exist in the current roster in your opinion?

A: I’d have to say an accomplished major league catcher for backup may be the biggest need right now.  After that i’d say another left handed option out of the bullpen, and after that i’d say some better depth in the infield.  Boswell says backup catcher then goes on a 1,000 word tangent.

Q: What do you make of the two year (with huge salary escalation in the second year) deals for Desmond and Zimmermann?

A: The deals make sense in a couple ways: the backloaded contract allows the Nats to maintain their payroll in 2015 without going very much higher in 2014.  $30M comes off the books from the end of the contracts for LaRocheSoriano and Span; now they’ve committed about half of that just in 2nd year pay increases to Desmond and Zimmermann.   Both players would probably rather have their pay calculated this way; it makes their annual salaries that much higher as they reach free agency.  Honestly I think Zimmermann is going to end up playing elsewhere, while the $11M/year for Desmond is still pretty cheap.  In the end I’d sign Desmond to the long term deal and let Zimmermann walk, get the Q.O. draft pick and be replaced by one of the big arms we have coming up from the minors.  Boswell agrees.

Q: Do you see the Nats putting enough effort to sign international players outside of the traditional (Dominican Republic, Japan, Venezuela, etc) countries and into the Emerging Markets of Brazil, Aruba, Australia, Curacao? They’re starting to play baseball in China!

A: No, and for years they weren’t putting enough effort into IFAs from the traditional places either.   Look at our Big Board at the end of last season: where’s all the home grown IFAs?    Solano, Leon and Perez are on the 40-man … but they’re all backups/edge of the 25-man roster guys.  There wasn’t a SINGLE international free agent in AAA or AA developed by this  team by season’s end.  The entirety of these rosters were USA-born/drafted players and/or minor league free agents.  Just two had matriculated even to Potomac/High-A; two guys signed in 2007 who are now finally in high-A (one of whom was born in 87 and clearly isn’t a prospect any longer).    Look no further than at the WBC Dominican roster to see the value of developing talent out of the DSL.  At least we’re finally starting to see some guys creep onto the prospect lists out of our DSL graduate lists, guys like  Jefry Rodriguez and Pedro Severino being the two best examples.  Boswell didn’t really answer; another tangent of a response.

Q: A.J. Burnett: Wouldn’t signing him make a lot of sense for the Nats (assuming he can be had on a one-year deal)? Detwiler to the pen gives us another quality lefty and he’s excellent insurance for an injury to a starting pitcher. And the Nats saved some cash by backloading the two-year Desmond/Z’nn deals. What’s not to like here?

A: Can’t argue.   I’ve got us north of $130M in payroll now for 2014; would he do a 1yr/$13M deal and would Ted Lerner go north of $140M?  Maybe if MLB kicked in even more cash than they already are, we could turn it around on A.J. Burnett and have, hands down, by far the best rotation in the game.  Is that what this team needs?   Burnett > Detwiler, so it’d be an improvement.  And Detwiler’s bullpen splits have been great.  If it makes the team better, and its just about money, yeah i’d be for it.  Boswell poo-poos the deal because he doesn’t want to block the pitching pipeline?!   Whatever; the goal is to win the frigging World Series.

Q: I don’t believe Davey Johnson quietly fades into the sunset. Does he still have an official role with the Nats? Do you know if he has other plans? Do you expect you’ll see him in Florida?

A: If I was Johnson, and I knew what was right, i’d stay far away from this team.  He’s out, Williams is in, and any lingering around just undermines the new guy.  And if I was Mike Rizzo, i’d be thinking the same thing.  Give him a scouting job or some BS; just keep him away from the team.  Boswell says the exact same thing.

Q: I was surprised by A-Rod’s sudden decision to pull his lawsuit against MLB and, despite all the initial coverage.  Why’d he give up now?

A: I think he (finally) got some sage legal advice about his prospects.  And I think he finally listened to someone giving him sane counsel.  He’s got bigger problems ahead, like who is going to possibly give him a shot in 2015 or beyond… Wow, Boswell trashes him with some vindictiveness.  

46 Responses to 'Ask Boswell 2/10/14 Edition'

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  1. On the pitcher extensions, I hope the Nats find a way to extend two of Stras, Fister and JZimm. Two of those plus Gio would give a very strong core for the next 5 years, and they can fill the remaining slots internally or short term FAs. Which two depends on the money and the players, but they are all going to be productive through the next 5 years, imo.

    Boz did seem a little distracted


    11 Feb 14 at 11:38 am

  2. If Zimmermann is at $16.5M next year and continues to pitch like a top 10 guy … what’s his eventual contract going to be? A lot. $18M/year territory. The Nats aren’t going to do that. So I think longer term you count him out unfortunately. Can they keep Fister’s price tag more realistic? $12M/year? Stras is the toughest one to crack; $3.9M in arb-1 year only equates (roughly) to a market value of about $10M/year, hardly in the upper echelon of what we’re seeing for starting pitchers in this league (Greinke $24M/year, as is Hamels, Kershaw’s ridiculous $30Myear figure, etc). If Strasburg breaks out and blows people away in 2014 and 2015 he’s in line for a whole lotta money. I think the Nats are going to be hard pressed to keep any of these three if things go a certain way… I dunno. I have no idea how to predict what will happen.

    Todd Boss

    11 Feb 14 at 1:29 pm

  3. I know, but you are doing what I always do too: asking how can the Nats get these guys below market value, and if you can’t find a way for them to do it, then you assume that the players walk. But maybe we should ask: if they are producing, why wouldn’t the Nats be willing to pay market value? Really, it should just be if its an injury concern because the market pays these kinds of pitchers that kind of money.

    But I worry that you’ll be right for a different reason. Within the recent past, Rizzo traded for two top tier pitchers (Gio, Fister) while giving up seemingly very little, so he probably figures that he’ll be able to do it again. That seems risky, as does assuming that you can replace the same production with kids from the farm.


    11 Feb 14 at 1:47 pm

  4. Good point. You’re right; i’m exactly thinking that way. Are they paying market value right now for Werth, Zimmermann, LaRoche and Soriano? (4 highest paid guys on team?) Answer seems to be yes, most likely yes, no (but due to market machinations for LaRoche, not because they did anything great), and yes. So yeah they can and will pay market values for players. But something has to give … and I think it’ll be the bullpen dollars expended.

    You just can’t fork over the amount of money they are paying out of the BP and maintain things. Soriano $11M, Clippard at 5.8, Storen at 3.4, Blevins 1.6, Ohlendorf at 1.25, Stammen at 1.375 and likely Roark at 500k/mlb min is my projected bullpen. That’s about $25M.

    Meanwhile Atlanta has just about the best BP in the game by most opinoins … here’s their 2013 bullpen w/ salaries: Kimbrel (655k), Venters (1.3M) Varvano (490k), Carpenter (500k), Avilan (491k), Walden (541k), Gearren (491k), and O’Flagherty (4.3M). Two guys above MLB mins. That’s not even $9M total, and that included the two guys who were basically out all year. i’m sure if you did the same analysis for St. Louis, you’d get similar figures. THAT is the way you do bullpens; you don’t frigging buy a mediocre $11M/year closer. *grr*.

    Todd Boss

    11 Feb 14 at 4:37 pm

  5. That is a good point BUT it matters where you are in your key players arb cycles, right? Do that again for the Braves this year, and Kimbrel alone makes that number double, and it only gets worse next year. But you are right about Soriano: he looks to me like Rizzo’s first real, big dollar miss. The guy just isn’t as good as Rizzo thought, and he is kind of an a-hole, too.

    As for the pitchers, I would be willing to bet that Rizzo extends one of those three guys. I am hoping for two but that is a crapshoot. Probably plan A now looks like get Fister on a Gio-type deal (inflated a bit) and throw big money at Stras, letting Zimm walk. Failing that, pay big but not as-big dollars for JZimm. I think it comes down to years for Zimm. $18m/yr for a 29 yr old starter averaging 3 WAR a season seems like a no brainer for 5 years. But who knows, Zimm may think he can get 8/$144m, or if he stops at 5 years, he gets $22m per? I don’t think those numbers are crazy given recent deals, and I think that is where I walk.

    Next offseason seems to be the active time for all this to come together, although hopefully they are exploring something with Fister now.


    11 Feb 14 at 4:51 pm

  6. I get that the Braves’ bullpen is cheaper than the Nationals’ bullpen in 2014. Before you put the Braves up on a pedastal you have to remember that they are paying $26.45M (enough to pay the entire Nats’ bullpen with 2-3 rookies left over) for Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. And it hurts the Braves even more because of their cost structure; it means that Heyward and Kimbrel will almost certainly be gone in the next year or two. The Nats’ bullpen is preventing them from doing … well, it’s not preventing very much at all. Maybe it’s keeping them from throwing a pile of money at A.J. Burnett, but I’m not so sure that would end up actually helping the team.

    As for Fister, signing him to a long term extension would be risky. Gio had just turned 26 when the Nats picked him up and signed him to an extension (a brilliant move – we glory so much in chronicling Rizzo’s mistakes that it seems only fair to give him credit for a lot of moves that he’s made that turned out really, really well). Fister is 30, and any extension would be for his age 32+ seasons. Maybe he holds up, or maybe he’s Dan Haren II. In the latter case I’d be happy if someone other than the Nats was paying him.

    John C.

    11 Feb 14 at 5:46 pm

  7. I used the Braves as an example, specifically ignoring Kimbrel’s award this year and their rising 2014 payroll in total, as somewhat of an unfair example. BUT, if you look at St. Louis and Tampa and other “smart” teams out there, they all do the same thing. Load up on pre-arb hard throwers in the bullpen and use that money elsewhere. The Nats are kind of victims of their own successes in this regard, and also victims of the fact that they used both Clippard and Storen as closer, therefore both guys are getting arb awards in line with league-wide closers … and then they went out and bought a third closer. Tampa would have already traded BOTH Clippard and Storen by now frankly. And I’m advocating something similar; a complete bullpen overhaul and soon. Trade these guys making cash, bring up the litany of guys we have in the upper minors (Barrett, Davis, Treinen, Karns to start, then think about Solis and Purke as well) to see who sticks in the bullpen.

    Zimm vs Fister vs Strasburg; maybe the play is to keep Zimmermann and let Strasburg walk? Boras client, SoCal guy … doesn’t that scream a ridiculous 9-figure contract from the Dodgers in 2 years time? Maybe that’s the hard choice this team is going to have to make. (On the flipside … imagine a rotation starting with Kershaw, Strasburg, and Greinke. Holy cow).

    Todd Boss

    12 Feb 14 at 7:05 am

  8. John C: But the point of my comment was exactly about the bullpen and its cost … i wasn’t getting into a whole analysis of all the Braves’ crummy contracts. We don’t really know what the bullpen cost is really doing to this team right now … if they didn’t have $11M tied up with Soriano, would they have gone after another starter? If they didn’t have a $25M bullpen, would they have jacked up Zimmermann’s contract like they did?

    My larger point; bullpen arms are fungible. If they get too expensive, dump them and bring up the next crop of rookies to take their place. On the flip side though, lots of teams are doing the same .. so it isn’t like life was a few years ago when we could flip a waiver-claim reliever (Matt Capps) for a near MLB_ready catching prospect (Wilson Ramos).

    Can’t disagree with your comments on Gonzalez or Fister. Maybe Fister ends up with a mid-level veteran contract, like 4/$52 or something. I think that’d be a decent deal if he continues to perform as he has done over the next two years. As for Gonzalez and Rizzo’s deals .. I know I harp on the Soriano deal … but at the same time I also believe that was an “over Rizzo’s head” deal, so I don’t entirely blame him.

    Todd Boss

    12 Feb 14 at 7:20 am

  9. Too bad the Nats didn’t come to town until long after Boswell was past his prime as a writer and analyst. His early baseball books feature some terrific writing. But now he can’t even see what’s right in front of his face half the time. Yes, the Nats should go for Burnett if they can get him at a reasonable price. Yes, they should be spending much more in the IFA arena. Those are no brainers.

    As for the pitchers, I agree that letting Z-nn walk is the right move, but only if they use the savings in part to retain Stras and Fister. What’s so crazy about the idea of an ownership group with some of the deepest pockets in baseball keeping Strasburg and then Harper, by far the team’s two biggest draws, around for the long term? They are the Verlander and Cabrera of this team in that everything else should revolve around them assuming they finally start to dominate as their raw talent indicates they should.


    12 Feb 14 at 8:37 am

  10. My larger point; bullpen arms are fungible. This may be quibbling, but I don’t agree with this as stated, but what I do believe gets to the same conclusion. I don’t think bullpen arms are fungible: the ones who are having really good years are extremely more valuable than the average ones. WAR may not support that, but it is certainly how it feels. It is just that it is very hard to predict from year to year which ones are going to stand out (primarily due to the small sample size of relievers from year to year, I think), so that unpredictability makes it usually unwise to pay big money for a bullpen guy. Kind of like the kicker in fantasy football: every year there is a guy threatening the field goal record, and if you had him, it gave you a great competitive advantage over everyone else. But good luck figuring out at draft time who that was going to be, so you learned quickly to not draft one early.

    As for the pitchers, I agree that letting Z-nn walk is the right move, but only if they use the savings in part to retain Stras This is what I was trying to say too. Stras first, and if you can’t get it done, I think it makes sense to pay up for Zimm, assuming it isn’t outrageous. As for Fister, I’d try for something like 4/$60m with an option year or two right now, regardless of the above. I think that is pretty safe, as far as his decline years. He is a low velo, control and ground ball guy, and that should age well through mid 30’s, I think.


    12 Feb 14 at 9:42 am

  11. bdrube: completely agree with your sentiments about paying to keep the big draws. But will the Lerners do so? If they’re so rich, why aren’t they spending Dodger like money? Answer? Probably because they’re still running the team like a business unit, and they’re still insisting on profits out of it. Fair enough; they didn’t become billionaires by being idiots. But anyone can tell you that professional sports ownership is not really intended to be a year-over-year profit center.

    Todd Boss

    12 Feb 14 at 10:15 am

  12. Speaking of pitchers, did you guys see this little nugget? Taylor Jordan frigging broke his ankle this off-season, just revealed today.

    Seems to me that little piece of information means that Jordan has almost no chance of getting the 5th spot, not if the team is “closely monitoring” his every move.

    Todd Boss

    12 Feb 14 at 10:17 am

  13. Fungibility of arms; fair enough. I agree with your distinction. There’s nothing fungible about high end bullpen arms like Rivera, Kimbrel, Chapman. But how about a guy like Stammen? He’s at 1.375M this year, probably would command a bit more next year in arbitration. Is Stammen any better than a pre-arb/mlb min guy that we could bring up? I don’t know; probaby so. What about Ohlendorf?

    Maybe the better thing to say is, “relievers are basically more replaceable the further away from the high-leverage situations they are.”

    Todd Boss

    12 Feb 14 at 10:20 am

  14. Burnett to PHI for 1/$16m. I knew that they would sign him.

    Yeah, saw that about Jordan, and it is a little worrying. Primarily that he hurts his arm by favoring it, so hopefully he learns from others and is completely honest with the training staff about how it feels.


    12 Feb 14 at 12:12 pm

  15. Burnett signing: surprised Angelos didn’t “find something wrong with his MRI.”

    Jordan’s injury: we’ll see. I hope so too. Honestly, if Jordan was asked one year ago today if he would be happy with his position in the organization he’d have obviously said yes, even if he spends half the season in Syracuse. A year ago he would have been happy to be in AA, let alone AAA or having 9 starts in the majors. I doubt he sees it that way, but a few weeks of domination in Syracuse will grease a lot of skids.

    Todd Boss

    12 Feb 14 at 1:21 pm

  16. Regarding Burnett, slowing up the pitching pipeline was part of Boswell’s point, but the other part was that he doubts Burnett will duplicate last season’s numbers this year. I’m sure that thought had to occur to Rizzo, too, and another one-year deal for a veteran pitcher would be harder for him to sell to ownership after wasting $24m over two years for a mediocre Edwin Jackson and an awful Dan Haren. When you couple those two poor signings (when viewed in hindsight) with the fact that the Nats have better in-house pitching options this year than the past two, the reluctance to sign Burnett makes sense. Moot point now.


    12 Feb 14 at 2:53 pm

  17. NatsLady over on NatsInsider found this interesting article:
    A lot of people have noted how “Saves” can have an inordinate impact on arbitration results, and it appears that perhaps that is causing a reaction around GMs to start blocking relievers from the closer role while they are arbitration eligible. In terms of your discussion here, it really highlights how the Nats hurt themselves by allowing BOTH Storen & Clip to get closer credit / saves in 2012, right at the start of their arbitration years.


    12 Feb 14 at 3:24 pm

  18. Clark: good points. I didn’t think Burnett would get more than a one year QO of $13M, surprised he got more. Either way. Burnett and his 107 ERA in the NL and his innings eating tendencies for $16M versus rolling the dice on a kid (or Detwiler as the case may be) and possibly getting better, possibly getting worse performance, but in either case saving a ton of cash.

    Burnett’s numbers in 2012 and 2013 were practically identical … exact same adjusted ERA+ figure, and he improved by nearly 2k/game on his K/9 rates. That’s probably not sustainable but it does make you wonder what he’s really capable of. No injury history, a big strong guy who just didn’t work out in NYC.

    anyway, as you say, moot point now.

    Todd Boss

    12 Feb 14 at 4:47 pm

  19. Excellent article, thanks. Great analysis; the figures are startling frankly.

    The Nats just got stuck in 2012, is all. Storen goes down with injury (elbow chips and early April surgery) so Clippard has to close. Storen returns but the damage is done as you say; Clippard goes into arb with his saves and gets a ton of cash. Meanwhile Storen already had his saves from prior years so HE gets more money in arb too. If both were just good setup guys, they’re getting paid closer the $2M mark than the combined $9m.

    Its going to hurt, but the Nats really have to move both guys don’t they?

    Todd Boss

    12 Feb 14 at 4:52 pm

  20. Nats talking Karns for Lobaton. Seems a little pricey for Lobaton so hopefully the other players are coming our way, but they really need to move on from the Onion.

    Rays, Nats Discussing Trade Involving Lobaton, Karns
    By Jeff Todd [February 12, 2014 at 3:12pm CST]
    The Rays and Nationals are again discussing a trade of catcher Jose Lobaton, tweets Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, with righty Nate Karns being contemplated as the return for the backstop. Topkin says that the deal could involve other players as well.


    12 Feb 14 at 5:19 pm

  21. I’ve noted before that a trade of surplus righty relievers is coming. For those who see Karns’ future that way, this discussion falls in line with that.

    Let me say that I don;t see why the Nats would be interested in Lobaton. His CS% is unremarkable and the ML has a far better defensive handler of pitchers and arm in Sandy Leon. As Leon had a great winter, why would the team not give him the opportunity in the spring to show that he has matured offensively against better competition?

    Furthermore, with news of an injury to Taylor Jordan, why not give Karns the spring to increase his value, even if he does not prevail at the big league level.

    I think the concept is dubious, and the timing premature. Unless the Rays are including a real prospect from the lower minors as part of this, in a deal that resembles what they did with the Padres not long ago.


    12 Feb 14 at 6:31 pm

  22. I also think that Karns plus and Karns even up only devalues the system and hurts the organization. Karns was the minor league pitcher of the year in 2012 and his 2013 was hardly shabby. He made the jump from AA to the majors.

    This is not Jerry Blevins we are talking about, nor is it Denard Span. This is a backup catcher who cannot demonstrate appreciable upgrade over what the team already has.

    Some trades a team does not have to make. Let the Chisox have him back to the Nats can get Nieto back that much faster.


    12 Feb 14 at 6:34 pm

  23. Noooo!!! Karns has to be worth more than a backup catcher with a career .228 average. A lot more. The Rays always try to get teams to overpay, and this is a classic example. I’ve made clear that I think the bench needs to be upgraded, but not in this manner. I might give up someone like Erik Davis for a backup catcher, but not Karns. He still has starter or closer potential and certainly would be one of the replacement power arms for the ‘pen that you’ve been discussing.


    12 Feb 14 at 9:10 pm

  24. Karns for Lobaton: i’m agreeing with you guys here, it seems Karns for Lobaton is too hefty a price. Even at Karns’ low projection right now, I see him as an 8th inning power arm … at best side he could still be an effective 4th/5th starter. I’d rather keep Karns and struggle with one of our own internal options if the need came.

    Frankly, this rumor’s source (a Tampa newspaper) implies that it was a Tampa leak … and i’m guessing its a leak that was a Tampa to Washington trade suggestion. We have no idea if Rizzo is taking this seriously … he could have laughed at bornstein and slammed down the phone.

    Todd Boss

    13 Feb 14 at 8:58 am

  25. Here is an update: Rays, Nats Discussing Trade Involving Lobaton, Karns By Jeff Todd [February 13 at 7:58am CST]
    THURSDAY: The potential deal includes at least two other players, possibly minor leaguers that would head to Washington, reports Topkin

    This is starting to have the ring of something Rizzo would do – a good-ish prospect for something that helps now, plus a flier or two on prospects that are far away. Plus, Friedman appears to be loading up for a big push this year. While he gets great props for his intelligence, and that seems warranted (although I think reporters get a little too starry-eyed by his Wall Street background), I thought that he gave up a ton in the Padres trade. So it feels like this has a decent chance of happening, and if so, I am hopeful that we get some intriguing low A guys.


    13 Feb 14 at 9:19 am

  26. On Forensicane’s point that Lobaton is mostly bleh, I kind of agree (although the lefty bat is appealing). Some of us over at Harper’s site were talking about JR Murphy being a better target: NYY prospect, quality glove guy, ok bat, near MLB ready. With McCann and some of their other C prospects, he seems like he should be available for a pitching prospect like Karns.

    But Rizzo may be viewing Lobaton’s floor as much higher, since he has put up about 600 PAs of MLB time at positive WAR, whereas Murphy is more of an unknown. Seems like I would go for Murphy, but honestly, with Rizzo’s history, I am willing to defer to his judgment. Especially if he picks up a few low level fliers.


    13 Feb 14 at 9:27 am

  27. Done deal. Unclear if it is straight up 1-1 (Ladson) or some prospects coming back to us (Tompkins). If straight up, I think it is an overpay, but not massive.


    13 Feb 14 at 11:31 am

  28. Kilgore says two prospects are coming back to the Nats in his twitter feed.


    13 Feb 14 at 11:41 am

  29. Lobaton plus a couple other prospects makes me feel better about this deal.

    Todd Boss

    13 Feb 14 at 1:29 pm

  30. I really like Lobaton and had been hoping they would swing a deal for him. The fact that Rizzo also got 2 guys with pretty high upside along with him for Karns is a good trade IMO. I really like Vettleson even though he had a down year last year compared to 2012. I also know it never hurts to have another young lefty. Especially since he profiles as a mid-rotation starter.


    13 Feb 14 at 3:58 pm

  31. Well, there’s a lot to read into here.

    Rizzo, based on Burns, Meyer, Ray, Krol, Milone, Peacock, Norris, Cole, Pineyro sells high on his prospects. Other than the Detroit trade, only Meyer still projects higher than when he left.

    I liked Karns. But if he slotted in after Jordan, Cole, and maybe even Treinen (younger and still developing and invited to spring training), as well as Giolito as starters on an otherwise full staff, not to mention Solis and Purke on his tail, and with the Nats’ abundance of righthanded relief pitching, he is still sexy enough to have brought in a useful part (a backup catcher with the established ability to hit major league pitching as a regular and to catch a championship staff and to hit in the clutch), as well as prospects.

    I kept wondering whether Price, Espinosa, Detwiler, and Clippard were part of the discussions. I still am.

    In the end, the deal feels like Tampa just really wanted Karns. The prospects they gave up were only a level behind, and four years younger.

    Whether the lefty starter is a “replacement” for Ray at AA is obviously yet to be proven. One thing is for sure. At this time last year, NO ONE saw Robbie Ray having the year he had. And Menhart doubted Ray when he got to AA. So who knows what the Nats nutrition staff can do with a 150 pounder, and then Spin Williams.

    As for the outfielder, he may have tailed off, but consider that when drafted he was regarded as the best pure hitter in high school in 2010. That’s not so long ago, and he was quite successful as recently as 2012. Not a bad third player in a deal.

    In the end, it’s hard to bet against the scouting eyes of this farm system until evidence proves otherwise. There have been just too many players that blossomed after coming onto the Nats system. So replacing a Karns with an everyday and starting pitcher who are one level behind and four years younger ain’t bad at all.

    It’s also nice to see some high school-pros talent come into the organization (both players).

    I would not at all overlook that Billy Gardner is now in the system. He has to be familiar with these players coming to the Nats. That is reassuring.

    And it is telling that in addition to DeJesus, we now have another Nats-Rays trade.

    Before Spann was named as the DeJesus player to be named, the news was that the Nats had their eye on two different lefties and were going to pick one. Following the history of Rizzo pursuing his mancrushes (Denard Span), I wonder whether Rivero was the other lefty, and Rizzo managed to get him after all?

    I also wonder what this means about the long term plans for Fister/Zimmerman. Was Karns expendable because at least one of them is going to get locked up long term? Assuming Zimm wants to get the biggest bucks, is the team ready to lock up Fister if he shows promising early returns, or even during spring training?

    For all the talk about salary room available for Burnett, maybe there is another impact of anticipated salary room.


    13 Feb 14 at 6:37 pm

  32. OK, I’m off the ledge now. The prospects helped level things out. Rivera seems to be the Robbie Ray replacement. Both he and Vettleson (former #1 pick) should be at AA at age 22. Vettleson had a power drop last year at A+ but also reduced his K rate. As noted in recent comments, the Nats needed to add a few non-pitching prospects.

    And the Nats did get that backup catcher. He’s better than Suzuki, both in framing and at the plate. Lobaton’s splits are, well, split. They reversed between 2012, when he was significantly better RH, and 2013, when he was much better LH. His OBP has been around .320 the two seasons he has played regularly, significantly better than Suzuki.

    Even if Ramos stays healthy (far from a given), Lobaton would still figure to get at least 30 starts plus PH, so 180 ABs or so. So an upgrade was an imperative.

    Now for two or three more bench upgrades . . .


    13 Feb 14 at 9:00 pm

  33. A couple of additional notes.

    I am rooting for Leon, his being from the system. But with that said, we have all overlooked that he could not even hit .200 in AA last year.

    Perhaps a chance to catch everyday, continue to work with Treinen, Jordan, Cole, reunite with Rosenbaum will enhance his stock further without the challenge of being on the bench as a rookie with no established offensive skills.

    It’s inexact, I know, accounting for minor league free agents, but at least in trades going back to last September, here is where the Nats system is:





    The sky is not falling, although there has been attrition. I had all three of those folks in my own top 10 and Nieto in my top 20.

    Small price for Fister, Blevins and Lobaton.

    Let’s keep in mind that trades in the spring may bring even more exciting new faces. I think so. Team just has to stay healthy to create surplus.


    13 Feb 14 at 9:20 pm

  34. By the way, seeing as Robbie Ray came from oblivion, I am thinking(hoping) the real Robbie Ray replacement is Matt Purke.


    13 Feb 14 at 9:24 pm

  35. Forensicane – good points. I agree with this one especially In the end, it’s hard to bet against the scouting eyes of this farm system until evidence proves otherwise.
    I did a quick look at Fangraphs, and if memory serves correctly, Rizzo turned Alberto Gonzalez, Joe Beimel and Christian Guzman into 2WAR last year by taking long distance fliers on some no-name pitchers. And if you throw Jonathon Abadeladejo into the mix (ok, probably butchered that one but too lazy to look it up), bump that to over 5 WAR over the last few years. What I like about Rizzo is that he is willing to wait a few years for a guy to be ready to contribute, and so when he trades for guys like these prospects, I give him a lot of deference.


    13 Feb 14 at 9:36 pm

  36. Here’s the first link i’ve seen reviewing the prospects coming this way:

    Summary: a 22yr old AA-level lefty starter with a #3 ceiling, plus a former Supplemental first rounder corner outfielder who flashes a ton of power while playing plus defense in RF.

    not bad. Lots of upside. Lots of risk. I guess you could say that about just about any prospect.

    Todd Boss

    14 Feb 14 at 11:21 am

  37. What I particularly like about the OF pickup is that the team is buying low, because his power numbers fell off in the FSL (not uncommon) last year.

    Recall that the team bought low on A.J. Cole. They knew the talent and we see the results. Back in the system, he turned it around.

    Billy Gardner knows about Vettleson. No way this deal goes down without that scouting input. This will not be the last trade with the Rays, either.

    The Rivero story is one of underachievement. a level of quality that does not sustain itself beyond one inning. That is easier to fix than is an injury.


    14 Feb 14 at 12:33 pm

  38. Rivero’s write up reminds me a little bit of Gio, and Vettleson reminds me of Austin Kearns (which only seems bad because of how his career ended; he was a stud early on, and great things were predicted for him).


    14 Feb 14 at 1:35 pm

  39. I look at it this way. Karns is highly likely headed to the bullpen where I believe he will be successful. Maybe not a top tier reliever but a 7th inning guy who is flexible enough to do more than an inning. Maybe Craig Stammen type of guy. Even if Rivero only ends up a LOOGY and Vettleson turns into a switch hitting 4th outfield with a little bit of pop and speed I think that along with Lobaton is a good haul for Karns. If Karns stick as a starter and the prospects flame out it hurts a little but I like the odds of these guys contributing something be it on the field or in another trade later. I think both teams got a fair deal here.


    14 Feb 14 at 1:40 pm

  40. Wally I think Vettleson is a bit more athletic than Kearns. More speed and switch hitting are pluses I give him but if he puts up a year or 2 like Kearns did from ’05-07 it would be a huge win. Kearns was worth 11.5 WAR over that span.


    14 Feb 14 at 1:44 pm

  41. Vettleson: Law commented that Vettleson’s power numbers dropped because the FSL is generally full of big pitchers parks. Makes sense to me; they play in the same stadiums the MLB teams train in. His average and OBP were almost identical from 2012 to 2013 … which lets me believe that he generally wasn’t overpowered by rising a level. Looked up his bio on and found a couple of interesting points: Tampa bay organizational all-star after 2012 (no mean feat for a team as stocked generally as TB). More interesting is this: “Tossed three no-hitters as an ambidextrous pitcher during his junior and senior seasons in high school.”

    An ambidextrous pitcher. Wow. don’t see that too often.

    At the very least he’s a 22yr old, 4th year pro who has risen a level at a time after getting drafted out of HS and projects to be in AA. He’s three years from being rule-5 eligible, so he’s got plenty of time to earn his keep.

    Todd Boss

    14 Feb 14 at 4:45 pm

  42. The Only thing that gives me pause when trading with Tampa Bay is this: Tampa Bay doesn’t normally “lose” trades. What are we missing here? Are these prospects throw-aways? Are we underestimating Karns’ ability? I dunno. Moot point now; the Nats traded from a position of strength for the long term to address a position of weakness in the immediate near term. I like the move.

    I had Karns perhaps 9th on the depth chart of starters for 2014. In order: Stras, Gio, Zimm, Fister, Det, Roark, Ohlendorf, and Jordan are getting starts before Karns would have. That sounds like a guy spending most of the year in AAA in trade for an actual servicable MLB ready catcher.

    Todd Boss

    14 Feb 14 at 4:48 pm

  43. Even if Karns makes it as a starter I think Rizzo still did a good job getting value for him. Like you said the Rays don’t often lose trades but at this point it looks like Rizzo doesn’t lose often either.


    14 Feb 14 at 8:17 pm

  44. Todd, when you posted this did you think it would get over 40 comments? Lol


    14 Feb 14 at 8:19 pm

  45. 44 comments now. No can’t say that I did. but hey, No need to put up another post on the Karns move … we’ve talked it to death here.

    I swear this isn’t “after the fact” pessimism, but something tells me Karns is heading to the pen. Now, I wish it was our pen … i’d love to see him clock it up a couple more mph and suddenly he’s Joe Nathan. Or that’s the hope anyway. Well, at least he’s in the AL now 🙂

    Todd Boss

    14 Feb 14 at 10:45 pm

  46. Hopefully Barrett, Benincasa and Mirowski keep progressing and we don’t even miss him. I do think Karns is going to make a useful major leaguer in some capacity.


    14 Feb 14 at 11:58 pm

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