Nationals Arm Race

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

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WS Pitching Preview: Nats vs Astros

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Corbin is the key to this series. Photo via Arizona republic

Corbin is the key to this series. Photo via Arizona republic

The 2019 World Series is here.  And boy does it look like its going to be a heck of a pitching duel.  Thanks to the Astros finishing off the Yankees in 6 games, they (like our Nats) are able to perfectly setup their rotation as they wish.  Which means … wow we’re going to have some pitching duels.

Here’s a preview of the pitching matchups, with my predictions game by game.

  • Game 1; 10/22/19: Was@Hou: Max Scherzer vs Gerrit Cole: Cole is either finishing 1st or 2nd in AL Cy Young voting and has been unhittable this post season (3 starts, 22 2/3rds innings, 10 hits, 8 walks, just ONE earned run, 32 Ks).  So its going to be a tall task to get to him in Game 1.  Scherzer is Big Game Max: he got hit a bit in the WC game, but his three NLCS and NLDS appearances are pretty solid: 15 innings and one earned run vs the Dodgers and Cardinals, including a 1-hit 7 inning domination of St. Louis in Game 2 to really put the series out of reach.  Prediction?  I think Cole continues his hot streak and out-duels Scherzer in a 1-0 or a 2-1 type game.
  • Game 2: 10/23/19: Was@Hou: Stephen Strasburg vs Justin Verlander: Verlander likely wins the Cy Young (if it isn’t Cole) thanks to an amazing age 36 season … but he’s been quite hittable this post-season.  He’s got 4 starts, has given up 10 runs in 23 innings.  Strasburg has not been hittable, this off-season or any other; he continues to put up Sandy Koufax esque post-season numbers; he got hit in LA but held on to keep the team in the game, then blew away St. Louis.  I like Strasburg here and think the Nats can sneak a win in game 2.
  • Game 3: 10/25/19: Hou@Wash: Zack Greinke vs Patrick Corbin: i wonder what Arizona fans are thinking when they watch this game.  Greinke might be the best #3 starter in the game, or maybe Corbin is.  Greinke got knocked out by Tampa in the NLDS, and wasn’t lights out or anything in the NLDS either; the Nats can score runs against him.  Corbin has also been hit or miss this post-season, with an ugly 7+ ERA despite striking out 26 in 13 innings.  The Astros hit the ball, irrespective of lefty or righty, so this game might be one where the bullpens of both teams get exposed a bit.  Can Corbin make it happen?  One good thing going for him; he’s significantly better at home vs on the road (2.40 ERA versus 4.18 ERA away).  Of course … Greinke shows reverse H/A splits himself, and is no stranger to playing the Nats (he dominated the Nats in June, shutting them down in our park to the tune of 7ip, 2h).  I think Astros can get back home-field advantage here.
  • Game 4: 10/26/19: Hou@Wash: Bullpen vs Anibal Sanchez: Game 4 could be interesting; the Astros don’t really have a 4th starter they trust; they’ve gotten to this point riding their big 3 starters and getting by with openers and bullpen games otherwise.  So this could be former Nat Brad Peacock or perhaps Wade Miley, who seemed to be their 4th starter all season but who didn’t even appear in the ALCS.  Can Sanchez do what he did again against St. Louis?  Can a bullpen game shutdown the Nats?  I like the Nats here to get a solid start and to get at the slightly-hittable Houston bullpen.
  • Game 5: 10/27/19: Cole vs Scherzer: You think big-game Max is losing a home start?  I don’t think so.  The Nats get to Cole and take a 3-2 series lead heading back to Houston.
  • Game 6: 10/29/19: Verlander vs Strasburg: Verlander recovers and pitches the game of his life to push the series to Game 7.
  • Game 7: 10/30/19: Corbin vs Greinke: Nats get to Greinke again, Corbin gets hit … game turns into a bullpen game … Nats pull another late-inning come back and win in 7.

Sound good?

One thing I did want to point out.  There’s a very solid sportswriter narrative out there that teams can get “cold” with long layoffs like the Nats have had.  And there’s some SSS proof that indeed teams who sweep have a struggle in the series.  Teams are just 1 for 9 in the World Series after sweeping the LCS in four games since 1985 (when the LCS was expanded to 7 games).  See https://sports.yahoo.com/tbs-crew-explains-nationals-avoid-044927265.html (thanks Luke Erickson for the link, which you can also find on ESPN and other places).   This is obviously worrisome for the Nats, who have taken some steps to stay hot.  On the one hand, I think a veteran team will benefit from the longer layoff to rest muscles and get bodies ready to go.  I think Victor Robles will cherish the time to let his leg heal a bit.  And of course, the rest lets all the starters (most of whom were pulling double duty starting and relieving) to rest up and get into their regular schedules.   On the other hand …. 1 for 9.  And they’re going against a 107-win team.

One other thing worth pointing out: the four games in the AL gives the Nats a unique opportunity to finally be able to play their best defensive roster and stick MVP Howie Kendrick in the DH spot.  I like having Asdrubal Cabrera in the lineup with his switch-hitting bat and veteran approach and his better-than-Kendrick defense.   That’s huge for this team.

 

Starters as mid-relievers Strategy finally blows up

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Corbin did not like pitching in relief. Photo via Arizona republic

Corbin did not like pitching in relief. Photo via Arizona republic

The Nats had been getting lucky using Starters as middle relievers for years in the playoffs … and last night finally their luck caught up with them.

Here’s a history (dating to our first playoff series in 2012) of using starters as middle relievers on their “throw days:”

  • 2012 NLDS Game 4: Jordan Zimmermann pitches the 7th, strikes out the side.
  • 2012 NLDS Game 5: Edwin Jackson pitches 1 inning, throws just 12 of 23 pitches for strikes, walks 2, gives up a hit and was lucky to escape only giving up 1 run.
  • 2017 NLDS Game 5: Max Scherzer throws 1 inning, gives up 3 hits and a walk, gives up 4 runs (2 earned) to blow the lead in the deciding game.
  • 2019 Wild Card: Stephen Strasburg throws 3 shutout innings to bridge the gap between Scherzer and Daniel Hudson.
  • 2019 NLDS Game 2: Scherzer strikes out the side in one inning of relief of Strasburg
  • 2019 NLDS Game 3: Patrick Corbin falls apart, give sup 6 runs in 2/3rds of an inning on 4 hits and 2 walks.

So, not exactly a proven strategy time and time again.  Its hit or miss really.  And, frankly, I might exclude the Strasburg effort because it was always set to be a multiple-inning effort; the rest of these appearances all fell into the “throw one max effort inning on my starter’s in-between starts throw day” type outing.

This post may seem like hindsight is 20/20 criticism of the strategy … but its pretty easy to ask this simple question: if this is such a great strategy, then why don’t we see it done in the regular season?   I mean, we know the answer really (you don’t want to tax your starters and just add on useless middle relief innings; that’s what relievers are for) … but that’s also my point: this is what relievers are for.   You’ve got 8 guys in the frigging bullpen for the sole purpose of getting past the end of the night … but we can’t trust a single one of them now?  Is this now when the chickens come home to roost for the fact that Mike Rizzo cannot build a bullpen?  Is this the end result for a team that’s literally traded away 20 starting pitching prospects in the past few years, any one of whom could have been a home-grown relief alternative?

It looks amazing when Scherzer blows everyone away … but then it looks foolish when he coughs up 4 runs in a series decider.

So now we’re going into Game 4 … and I’ll bet dollars Davey Martinez is planning on throwing Strasburg in the 7th again (but I sure hope not if he’s going in game 5).

I think my bigger criticism of the strategy last night was the early yanking of Anibal Sanchez.  He left the game on 87 pitches, having struck out 9 through 5, and given up one run on 4 hits and 2 walks (both of which were in the first inning).  I realize he’s facing 4-5-6 for the third time … but this is the same guy who retired 20 straight Dodgers earlier this year.  If he gets through 4-5-6 then he’s got the bottom of the order in the 7th and you go to the bullpen then.  Why pull him?  I think that’s the “over managing” that irritates me most.  Its the same over managing that led to Zimmermann getting pulled at 8 2/3rds in the playoffs (and the Nats losing).  Different managers, same issue.

Look, at the end of the day, maybe it was inevitable that the potent Dodgers lineup blasted its way to a 10 run outing.  But the Nats had the early lead and had an effective starter on the mound.  I just don’t like deviating from whats working until you have to.

I like our chances in Game 4 behind an amped-up Scherzer … but who likes Corbin on the bump in game 5 now?  Have the Dodgers figured him out?  It sure seems like it.  His MO seems to be to throw 91 on the black, then bounce sliders to get you to chase; well if you don’t swing at balls that bounce in the dirt … you have a good shot of walking, as we’ve now seen displayed pretty frequently in the post-season.

I’m now hearing rumors of no Corbin game 5; instead Strasburg.  Uh, sign me up!  28 post season innings and 2 earned runs.  Yeah; throw that guy.  but we have to get there first.

 

NLDS Preview: Nationals vs Dodgers

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2019-mlb-postseason

The Nats used two starters to get to this point; how much will it hamper their efforts to supplant the class of the NL this  year?  Maybe not too much, if we can get Strasburg on short rest to pitch Game 2.  Read on.

Here’s a preview of the 2019 NLDS.

MLB Post Season schedule

Likely Pitching match-ups:

  • Game 1: Thurs 10/3/19 5:37pm EST in LA: Patrick Corbin vs Walker Buehler (officially announced)
  • Game 2: Fri 10/4/19: 5:37pm EST in LA: likely Stephen Strasburg vs  (likely) Clayton Kershaw
  • Game 3: Sun 10/6/19 time tbd in DC: Max Scherzer vs (likely) Hyung-Jin Ryu
  • Game 4: Mon 10/7/19 time tbd in DC (if necessary): likely Anibal Sanchez vs (likely) Rich Hill/Kenta Maeda/bullpen game
  • Game 5: Wed 10/9/19 time tbd in LA (if necessary): Corbin vs Buehler rematch.

I just don’t think Scherzer can come back on 2 days rest to start a game on Friday, but as noted Strasburg only threw 34 pitches in the WC game and seems like he can get the start on Friday with perhaps a short leash/pitch count.  This means Scherzer on full regular rest for the Sunday home game (that he’ll be up for, for sure) and then at Sanchez for game 4.  That should get the series back to LA and line up a possible game 5 with probably the best possible guy on the hill for that game (lefty Corbin).

Meanwhile the Dodgers are going with the kid Buehler instead of Kershaw; two years ago it was Kershaw that killed the Nats.  But the last time the Nats saw Buehler they bombed him.  The Dodger’s 4th starter is a question mark; Hill is coming off injury and threw just a handful of innings in September but he’s always been solid against the Nats.  If they have to go Maeda or their 5th starter Ross Stripling its not like its a huge step down in performance.

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Season head to head: LA beat DC 4 out of 7; they split four games in LA in May interestingly, when the team was nearly at its nadir, then LA took two of three in DC in mid July when the team had turned it around.

Here’s a quick summary of our pitchers versus LA this season.  First in our 4-game set in LA:

  • Patrick Corbin; beat Rich Hill in LA 6-0 and pitched beautifully; 7ip, 3hits, 0 runs.
  • Anibal Sanchez: lost to Kenta Maeda in LA; gave up 6 hits, walked 2 more and got yanked in the 5th
  • Max Scherzer beat LA giving up 2 runs in 7 innings, but Walker Buehler was better and the team only won b/c we got to LA’s bullpen
  • Stephen Strasburg gave up 2 in 6 but Hyung-Jin Ryu gave up one hit through 8 to beat the Nats.

then, in DC in July:

  • Sanchez pitched one of the best games of his season giving up 1 run on 3 hits to match Ryu’s similar output, then the Dodgers got to the bullpen for the win (stop me if you’ve heard that before)
  • Kershaw threw a QS and the Nats tried the “opener” for the only time on the year (starting Matt Grace with some success) before Joe Ross blew up and got the loss
  • Strasburg was brilliant, giving up 1 run on 2 hits through 7 and the Nats beat Buehler to avoid the sweep.

So.  what can we glean from this?

  • Our lefties have been pretty good against the Dodgers and Corbin may have some success.
  • As a team, the Dodgers are much better against RHs versus LHs … but they’re still pretty good against both.
  • Sanchez was more than adequate in his two LA starts.
  • Scherzer and Strasburg should be able to keep the team in games.
  • LA really doesn’t like hitting against either Strasburg or Corbin, and neither of them are the Nats Ace.

I gotta admit, i’m liking our chances here.  This is where having a big-3 of pitching aces matters; the Dodgers are going to have to win more two starts being made by Corbin, Strasburg and Scherzer, three guys who are all likely getting Cy Young votes this year.  I expect a bunch of low-scoring games with the Nats hoping to god their patchwork bullpen keeps it together.

Notable that the closer in the WC game wasn’t Sean Doolittle?  Or was that playing matchups with the Brewers?  Something to watch for.

 

If we’re waiving the white flag … what moves should we do?

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Rendon; to trade or not to trade? Photo Nats Official via espn.com

Rendon; to trade or not to trade? Photo Nats Official via espn.com

Yeah, the team just won 3 of 4 from Miami.  They’re still almost guaranteed at this point not to make the playoffs.  As suggested in the comments from the previous post … Here’s a sweep through the 40-man roster as of today, to talk about possible trade chips and who may or may not be in the future of this team.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1vnTLwaXYeHFjahCNrTFLzAVebGw0Fj_-__igrTplZA0/edit#gid=1393584019

Outright Free Agents after 2019:

  • Anthony Rendon: who would also be the most likely to fetch prospects in trade mid-season, but who also is someone the Nats may very much want to sign to an extension.  Will the ownership group learn their lesson after dragging their feet last year with Bryce Harper, costing them the Houston trade that almost certainly would have brought back better stuff than a post 4th round pick (#139 overall, which is what we got instead thanks to criminal cap mismanagement over the past two years).  Is this leadership group going to keep him instead of trading him because they think trading him for half a season will damage their negotiations with him?  Trust me, Rendon WANTS to be traded; it removes the Qualifying Offer from burdening his off-season negotiations.   Frankly, getting moved to a contender shouldn’t preclude his returning to the Nats on a long term contract, but a bigger question is what is he worth?  Unlike other major 3B players who signed mega deals lately (Nolan ArenadoManny Machado), Rendon will be 30 upon signing, has injury history, and thus his value is limited.  This is a tangent conversation to the subject at hand, but factors in.
  • Brian Dozier; so far, he’s not only not earning his 2019 $9M salary, he’s putting his career in serious jeopardy.  If he is still hitting .210 at the end of the year, its hard to see him getting a guaranteed contract next year at age 33.
  • Howie Kendrick, who it should be noted was expected to be basically a 4th OF/utility guy and has been batting frigging cleanup for the team lately.  He continues to be a professional hitter even at advancing age (he’s in his age 35 season), and should be worthy of some halfway decent return in prospects in trade.
  • Jeremy Hellickson: for as good as he was in 2018, he’s been as bad in 2019.  He’s not going to fetch anything in trade, and is closer to a release than a trade.
  • Javy Guerrero: we’ll see if  he even makes it to July 1.  Fungible asset, trade if you can get anything.
  • Gerardo Parra: we’re paying him a pro-rated MLB min … as with Guerrero, trade if you can get anything for him.

If you waive the white flag on 2019, every one of these players should get moved for whatever you can get, if anything.  Rendon and Kendrick bring the most back at this point.

Players with 2020 Options

  • Ryan Zimmerman: boy, is he putting the team into a tough position.  Instead of producing in his possible walk year, he’s been awful at the plate and has gotten hurt with a typical “old guy” injury (Planter Fasciitis).  Yes he’s the Face of the Franchise, yes he’s the longest tenured player, yes he was the first player the team ever drafted, yes he’s the clubhouse leader, yes he means a ton to the community, yes he holds a massive fundraiser each year, yes he’s set down DC roots, yes he’s got a 5 year personal-services contract with the team (since deemed illegal in the CBA), and yes he wants to be with the team post playing career.  Yes to all of that.  However, there’s no way he’s worth his 2020 option of $18M.  that’s 10% of the payroll for a guy who is easily replaced with readily available mid-30s sluggers for a quarter of the price.  This is going to be ugly.  I don’t think you trade him (who would want him and who would give up prospects?), but I also don’t think you sign him at his option.  I privately suspect the team will renegotiate his $18M option to something like a 4-yr/$20M deal that pays him right around what Matt Adams is making, takes him to his late 30s, establishes him as a utility/bench bat for the duration, and keeps him in the fold til that point in his career where inarguably he is done playing.
  • Adam Eaton: his 2020 and 2021 options are ridiculously affordable ($9.5M and $10.5M).  The team gutted its top-end starting pitcher depth to acquire him (a decision that looks worse and worse as Lucas Giolito throws 4-hit shutouts and Reynaldo Lopez maintains 12 K/9 rates and Dane Dunning remains a viable future MLB starter even despite his TJ surgery).  But Eaton is now 30, and his 5-6 bWAR seasons seem past him.  If he’s a 1-2 win player, he’s worth the salary and picking up the options.  If he ends 2019 hitting a punchless .273 …. do you dare cut him or trade him?  Maybe not after 2019, but another season of this after 2020 and they may be cutting bait.
  • Yan Gomes: $9M 2020 option.  While the team didn’t trade as much for Gomes, catchers are difficult to come by in this sport.  So even despite his current BA, I can’t see the team cutting him loose after this year and declining his option.
  • Sean Doolittle has a ridiculously cheap $6.5M 2020 option and is the first stable closer we’ve had under longer term team control since Drew Storen.  He’s not going anywhere.
  • Trevor Rosenthal: $10M option on the table which increases to $15M player option if he pitches in 50 games (he’s appeared in 7 so far).  You may laugh right now at even considering this option; what if he comes back and pitches lights out in June and July?  I think you trade him for whatever you can get and let his options be someone else’s issue.  More likely, he’s going to come back from his “rehab” appearances, continue to struggle and the team will summarily cut him, and he’s exhibit 1A for the 2019 team’s issues.
  • Matt Adams: $4M 2020 mutual option; he’s not earning it right now.  Trade him for what you can get, and find some other middle 30s lefty slugger on the open market next year.
  • Tony Sipp: $2.5M 2020 option, that’s a steal.  But he’s got a 5.40 ERA in limited action; would you pick up this option?

Of this group, i’d move Rosenthal, Adams and Sipp if you can get anything.

Signed for 2020/longer term:

  • Max Scherzer; signed through 2021, and  honestly if he wins another Cy Young he’ll be wearing a Nats cap in Cooperstown.  can’t move him.
  • Stephen Strasburg: signed through 2023, can’t move him.
  • Patrick Corbin; just signed new deal through 2024, why would we want to move him.
  • Anibal Sanchez: $9M for 2020 guaranteed … but he’s not really putting himself into position to get anything back in trade based on performance and injury so far.
  • Kurt Suzuki: $6M for 2020, and he’s playing great.  If you move him you just have to replace him and what has changed in terms of our ML catcher depth from last off-season to now?  We still don’t trust Spencer Kieboom with major league ABs, i’m not sure why Raudy Read continues to take up space on the 40-man, and our best prospect Israel Pineda is in Low-A.  So we need Suzuki for 2020.

I’d keep the big 3 starters and Suzuki; move Sanchez if you can (doubtful).  I just don’t see how you can justify moving any of our big 3 starters unless you’re planning a complete, 59 win season overhaul.

Arbitration eligible next year: 

  • Trea Turner
  • Michael Taylor
  • Kyle Barraclough
  • Justin Miller
  • Wilmer Difo
  • Matt Grace
  • Koda Glover
  • Joe Ross

An interesting set of players.  I’d say the team faces some interesting tender choices next off-season.   Right now looking at this list i’d clearly tender Turner, Barraclough and Ross, I’d probably take a hard look at Miller, Difo, Grace but eventually tender, and I’d probably cut loose Taylor and Glover.  Who of these guys are trade bait?  Honestly, everyone but Turner, Ross and Barraclough.

In terms of Trade deadline … i’m not sure i’d trade any of these guys … they’re all either untouchable or un-tradeable.

Pre-Arbitration players:

  • Juan Soto, Wander Suero, Andrew Stevenson, Victor Robles, Jake Noll, James Bourque, Erick Fedde, Spencer Kieboom, Kyle McGowin, Tanner Rainey, Raudy Read, Adrian Sanchez, Austin Voth, Austen Williams, Carter Kieboom.

No reason to part ways with anyone here; if they’re starters (Soto, Robles, Fedde, etc) they’re too valuable on their current $575k (or so) contracts, and if they’re role players they’re fungible assets who are probably not really trade-able.

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Summary: there’s not really a ton of return value here.  Rendon, Kendrick, Adams seem to be the best trade chips.

—————–

added bonus: CBS sports did some similar analysis of Nats potential trade chips: https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/mlb-trade-deadline-anthony-rendon-and-other-nationals-trade-chips-ranked-if-they-become-sellers-by-july-31/  .  They came up with similar names here.

 

How did so many of Rizzo’s off-season moves fail to pan out?

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How is Corbin basically the only "good" off-season acquisition?

I just perused some team splits for 2019.  Your Washington Nationals offense is, as of this writing, (per Fangraphs):

  • 20th in fWAR; a *combined* 3.7.
  • 20th in wRC+, a paltry 91
  • 22nd in Batting Average, hitting .243 as a team
  • 9th in K% .. sitting at exactly 25% , but…
  • sitting 21st in ISO, meaning they’re striking out a ton but not getting the added benefit of the power.

How about the defense?  The team is

  • 27th in Fangraphs’ total Defense stat
  • 29th in UZR/150
  • 28th in DRS, a combined -27 of runs “saved”  (interestingly …their run differential sits at 32 right now, almost entirely on the defense)

And then there’s the bullpen:

  • 30th in bullpen ERA
  • 30th in LOB%
  • 25th in bullpen FIP
  • 21st in K/9
  • 24th in bullpen fWAR .. somehow grading out as a group to exactly neutral 0.0 fWAR.  In other words … completely replaceable across the board as a whole.

At least we have the starters:

  • #1 in fWAR
  • 13th in ERA, but
  • 4th in FIP (Fangraph’s fWAR for pitchers is heavy on the FIP … and the Nats starters are doing this with a .306 BABIP.
  • #2 in K/9.

Anyway … point is; the hitters are bad, the bullpen is awful, and the defense is atrocious.

How exactly did we get here?  Well, Mike Rizzo was incredibly active over the winter.  But, amazingly, practically all of his moves have turned out bad.  Here’s a list of all his major transactions in the off-season:

  • Kyle Barraclough: 4.67 ERA
  • Trevor Rosenthal: complete train wreck
  • Yan Gomes; hitting .228
  • Tanner Rainey: walked 12 in 18 innings in AAA.
  • Meanwhile Tanner Roark has a 3.51 ERA and a 127 ERA+ in 10 starts for Cincy this year.
  • Matt Adams: 89 OPS+ as our big “bench bat”
  • Anibal Sanchez: 5.10 ERA in 9 starts
  • Brian Dozier: hitting .205
  • Jeremy Hellickson: 6.23 ERA in 8 starts.
  • Tony Sipp: 5.79 ERA.
  • He cut loose Trevor Gott in February but kept a slew of other minor league arms: here’s Gott’s SF line so far this year: 21 innings, 2.11 ERA, 193 ERA+
  • He cut loose Austin Adams, who had a ridiculous 24/3 K/BB ratio in 12.1 Fresno innings, who then got picked up by Seattle and has punched out 7 of the first 11 batter’s hes faced.  But was he good enough for our bullpen?  Nope.
  • He brought in Dan Jennings: 13.50 ERA in 8 appearances.  Why exactly did he get the last 3-4 outings?

Even his AAA MLFA moves to provide veteran pitcher backup have been suspect:

  • Henderson Alvarez: 8.01 ERA in Fresno
  • Scott Copeland: 6.33 ERA in Fresno
  • Vidal Nuno; also a 6.33 ERA in Fresno
  • J.J. Hoover: 5.70 ERA in Fresno
  • Brady Dragmire: 11.48 ERA in Fresno, now mercifully on the DL.
  • Logan Ondrusek: had an ERA north of 5.00 in AA (as a 34-yr old).

In fact, really only a couple of his moves  have actually worked out:

  • Kurt Suzuki: 108 OPS+ in a backup catcher role.
  • Patrick Corbin: 3.25 ERA in 10 starts … well heck for $140M i sure hope he’s working out.

Look back at the performance of his roster moves.  Its absolutely astounding how badly he’s judged the talent he’s traded away versus the performance of what he acquired.

Look, this is not hindsight is 20/20 analysis.  I was totally on-board with a ton of these moves.  I really thought that Dozier and Rosenthal were good bounce back candidates and that Sanchez was a sneaky good signing.  And i’m genuinely dumbfounded that basically every off-season veteran gamble has failed to pay off.  Some of the moves I questioned at the time and continue to question (Gott, Roark, Adams).  You have to wonder how much of an indictment of the pitching staff it is when guys like Gott (to say nothing of someone like Blake Treinen) depart here and succeed elsewhere.  Even Lucas Giolito is starting to round into form with another organization, after clearly being dumped as being “unfixable” by this org.

The question is, now what?  What can this team really do?  If suddenly every guy with a sub 100 OPS+/ERA+ turned it around and succeeded, can this team run off a 20-8 month and get back into this race?  With this manager?

Nats first Week of Results and Over-Reactions

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Well, what did you expect him to do after booing him for 5 innings? (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) ORG XMIT: NAT126

Well, what did you expect him to do after booing him for 5 innings? (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Nats are through their first week.  They’re 3-3.  The sky is not falling, as opposed to general sentiment coming out of the opening series.

Here’s a quick summary of what happened in the last week or so:

1. The Nats faced this gauntlet of Starters: Jacob deGrom, Noah SnydergaardZack Wheeler, Zach Eflin, Aaron Nola and then Snydergaard again.   That’s one hell of a way to start your season; these 6 games include four starts against guys who are all in perhaps the top 5-6 starters in the NL, last year’s Cy Young Winner, last year’s 3rd place Cy Young winner and a guy who had a 111 ERA+ in 2018 (Wheeler).

This is one heck of an ask for any team, and the fact that the Nats beat Thor, battered Nola and snuck out third win is pretty good.

2. The Nats managed to lose BOTH of Max Scherzer‘s starts.  That’s not good, but also not really predictive.  The Nats went 22-11 in his 33 starts in 2018.

3. The team lost Trea Turner to a broken finger, watched Matt Adams flip over a railing and land on his head (dtd with a sore back), and watched Anibal Sanchez get pegged with a 100+ exit velocity line drive on his hip flexor and hobble out of his first start (also dtd).  That’s not good.

4. The team’s bullpen collectively has a 9.64 ERA (improved by yesterday’s win to now “only” be 29th out of 30 in the sport).  Ironically, despite being 29th in ERA they’re somehow 3rd in fWAR.  This is probably due the fact that their FIP is like 6 full points better than the ERA, with hitters pummeling the bullpen arms to the tune of .453 BABIP.  They’re going to get better and have more games like the last one we just saw (where four guys white washed the Mets to end Strasburg‘s last start).

5. Trevor Rosenthal has now faced seven batters and retired none of them.  Now, to be fair, I thought the ump in Wednesday’s game was really squeezing both sides, so it wasn’t like he was all over the place … but this is not a good sign.  He needs a confidence booster game and soon.

6. All in all, our big three starters have looked pretty solid: Corbin‘s nifty QS, Scherzer striking out 12 on opening day, and Strasburg’s sub 1.00 FIP all giving me some good confidence.  Sanchez is a battler and I like him as our fourth, and I hope he isn’t affected longer term.

7. On the offensive side: Rendon: wow.  Dozier: geeze (just 2 for 22).   Soto and Robles are doing precisely what I’d like them to do. Otherwise … its hard to really pass too much judgement against a squad that’s faced four Cy Young candidates in six games.

8. In general … the Nats have a good shot at sweeping in NY given who is going for us next (Corbin and Scherzer), then return to Philly and probably face more of the same until they get to their mid-April slate of easier opponents (Pitt, SF then Miami).   I like the team’s chances of sitting somewhere in the 12-8 or maybe even 13-7 range by the time they finish the Miami series on 4/21/19.

Lastly …..

9. Bryce Harper played two games here; he wiffed in his two first at-bats to the utter glee of the “fans” who had  clearly only purchased tickets to boo him (or wear t-shirts that spelled out TRAITOR prominently in the outfield), and then he did this in his next eight plate appearances: three singles, a double, a homer and three walks, reaching base in 8 consecutive plate appearances, helping to push his current seasonal slash line through the first week to the gaudy .500/.652/1.840.  I had a sneaking suspicion that Harper was going to just blow up in 2019, especially hitting in Philadelphia, and if the Phillies make the post season I think Harper is a shoe-in for his second MVP.

Tangent question: Harper continually manages to be voted as “most over-rated” player in anonymous polls and in biting commentary all around the sports-internet.  This baffles me honestly; over-rated compared to what?    I mean, the guy has 6 all star appearances, a rookie of the Year and a unanimous MVP through his age 25 season, to go along with between 27 and 31 WAR depending on the system.  Ask yourself this: what exactly does he need to do in order to NOT be “over-rated?”  If he put up another season like he did in 2015 and ran away with the MVP, would he then stop being over-rated?  How many MVPs does he need?  If your answer includes something along the lines of, “well he needs to lead his team to a playoff win” then remind yourself that Mike Trout has never won a playoff GAME let alone a playoff series and went 1-15 in his sole ALDS appearance.

I just don’t get the general vitrol that surrounds Harper sometimes.  Especially with respect to what we now know about his contract situation.  The Nats offered him deals that included massive amounts of deferred data going out decades and that, even in a conservative analysis, were probably 40% less in net present value than what he eventually signed in Philadelphia, but yet somehow he’s the bad guy and the Traitor and the money-grabbing bastard here?  Where’s the vitriol for the ownership group, that opportunistically offered him a *lower* contract as their follow-up offer in December?   What did people expect Harper to do?  Just accept 40% less than what others were offering him just to appease DC-area residents who may attend 2-3 games a year because that’s what they think they’re “owed” as fair-weather fans?  Let me know the next time you change jobs so I can tell you that you should take 40% less in salary and just stay with your same employer instead of taking the better offer to move on.

 

MLB Rotation Ranks for 2019, 1-30

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Lester: the best pitcher on the best rotation heading into 2019. photo via Grantland

Lester: the best pitcher on the best rotation heading into 2019. photo via Grantland

I got out of the habit of doing this piece last year: right around this time in 2018 i was slammed at work, But, I found a bit of time earlier this off-season (thanks for Conference Calls) and put it together.

The core XLS is much more impressive than the text: here’s a Google version of it with the below data.

Here’s my 2019 Rotation ranks for every team in MLB, One to Thirty (1-30).

As I went through doing this, the ranks ended up naturally dividing into kind of natural groupings.  So I’ll show these groupings and then do commentary on the group all together.

Terminology used here:

  • to me an “Ace” is one of the best 15-20 starters in the game.  I think i’ve got 18 identified heading into 2019.   And yes, I count both Strasburg and Corbin as Aces for these purposes.  I’ve seen plenty of op-eds claiming Strasburg isn’t an “Ace” for various reasons …. but he’s in the top 10-15 of practically every statistical measure of starters over the past 4-5 years.  Just because someone is the #1 starter for a team does not make them an “Ace.”
  • A “#2 starter” is then one of the next best 15-20 guys, players who either used to be Aces but have grown a bit old (good example: Jake Arrieta or Cole Hamels) or younger guys who are one more solid season from taking the next step up (Luis Severino, Mike Foltynewicz).
  • A #3 starter is a level below the #2, the next 25-30 guys or so.  A good solid mid-rotation starter.  I have 30 identified.
  • A #4 starter is basically slightly better than the #5 starter.
  • A #5 starter is someone who gives replacement level starting pitching capabilities, a guy who is only slightly better than a 4-A guy.  Often either a rookie or an aging FA signing.

In the XLS, i do assign quantitative values to assist in the rankings … so you can see who i call a 4, who’s getting a 5, etc.

OK lets get to it:


 

1. Chicago Cubs: Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks,Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana
2. Boston: Chris Sale,David Price, Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez
3. Cleveland: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber
4. Washington: Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, Anibal Sanchez, Jeremy Hellickson

I have Chicago as the #1 rotation in the game.  I have them at the top not so much because the top of their rotation is the best … its because man for man, 1 through 5, they’re the best.  When your 4th starter is Yu Darvisha guy who was the Cy Young runner up a few years back and is only 32 .. that’s a tough rotation.  Quintana is the Cubs’ 5th starter but was the White Sox’ long time #2.  Its just a lot of good, veteran pitching.   Boston comes in slightly below b/c I rate Porcello/Rodriguez slightly lower than Chicago’s 4/5.  Cleveland has a strong case (as does Washington) for having three legitimate Aces; if their #5 was better they’d probably be #1.   If you wanted to argue that Washington is  above or below the teams above them I wouldn’t argue too much; I look at the #4/#5 starters and say “who would you rather have?”  And I find that i’d rather have Chicago’s arms on the back end than ours.  I’d also note that we’ve had Scherzer now for four seasons; no real injuries … and Strasburg gets hurt literally every year.  So Washington’s rotation really has to take into account its depth … or lack there of.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers:  Clayton Kershaw ,Walker Buehler, Hyung-jin Ryu, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda
6. New York Yankees:  Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, CC Sabathia
7. New York Mets:  Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zach Wheeler, Steven Matz, Jason Vargas
8. Houston:  Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Wade Miley, Brad Peacock, Josh James
9. St. Louis:  Miles Mikolas, Carlos Martinez, Jack Flaherty, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright

The Dodgers could jump to the next level if/when Walker Buehler turns into an Ace; i’ve still got him as a #2 but hope to gosh I can get him in Fantasy this year.  The Yankees sport four #2 starters … with Severino nearly ready to make the jump to Ace they’re pretty close.  I’d rate the Mets higher but the back end of their rotation just-cannot-stay-healthy.  Houston’s rotation would look a lot better if they re-signed their former ace Dallas Keuchel (more on him at the end), and Houston could really be good fast if their #1 prospect Forrest Whitley pans out.  Lastly in this group is St Louis, which is notable to me b/c their long time ace Adam Wainright is now their #5 starter, just barely hanging on.  Remember how much we heard about how the Nats missed out on Michael Wacha in the 2012 draft?  Well he’s a pretty solid 4th starter and if he could stay healthy he’d improve this rotation quickly.

10. Philadelphia: Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta ,Nick Pivetta, Vincent Velasquez, Zach Eflin
11. Arizona: Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Zack Godley, Luke Weaver, Merrill Kelly
12. San Francisco: Madison Bumgarner, Dereck Robinson, Jeff Samardzija, Derek Holland, Drew Pomeranz
13. Atlanta: Mike Foltynewicz, Julio Teheran, Kevin Gausman, Sean Newcomb ,Touki Toussant
14. Colorado : Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Jon Grey, Tyler Anderson, Antonio Senzelata
15. Tampa Bay:  Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough, Yonny Chirinos

An interesting grouping here; all six of these rotations are nearly identical in my private scoring … but looking at the names, you can see that some of these teams are prepped to move up quickly (Atlanta) while others are barely hanging on (San Francisco) with aging cores.  I’m not sure what to make of Philly’s rotation; are these guys scaring you in a short series?   Meanwhile … Tampa in 2018 was so shredded by injuries they went head first into the “opener” strategy … while having a Cy Young winner on staff.  They won 90 games this way, and now have back the starters that got hurt AND added a solid 2nd starter in Morton; are they going to challenge the two teams ahead of them?

16. Pittsburgh: Jamison Taillon, Chris Archer, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, Nick Kingham
17. Oakland: Frankie Montas, Mike Fiers, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Marco Estrada
18. Texas: Mike Minor, Lance Lynn, Drew Smyly, Edinson Volquez, Jason Hammell
19. Seattle: Mike Leake, Yusei Kikuchi, Marco Gonzales, Felix Hernandez, Wade LeBlanc
20. Minnesota: Kyle Gibson, Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda, Adalberto Mejia
21. Detroit: Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd, Jordan, Zimmermann, Tyson Ross, Matt Moore

So there’s a pretty significant step down here; I dont have a single “Ace” defined in this grouping … and only Jamison Taillon even rates for me as a #2.   How did Oakland possibly win 97 games last year?   Texas has bought three lesser-priced pitchers this off season (Lynn, Smyly and Hammel) and stands to improve on their 67 win season.   Seattle is in an interesting place: they won 89 games, added Kikuchi and could be pretty good, pretty fast … but their #1 starter is Mike Leake who’d be the Nat’s #5 starter.

22. Los Angeles Angels: Jamie Barria, Andrew Heaney, Matt Harvey, Tyler Skaggs, Felix Pena
23. Toronto: Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Ryan Borucki, Matt Shoemaker, Clayton Richards
24. Chicago White Sox: Carlos Rodon, Ivan Nova, Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito, Manny Banuelos
25. Kansas City: Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Jake Junis, Brad Keller, Eric Skoglund

The first three of these rotations all seem like they should be ranked higher than they are … but then when you look at them, you realize why.  Los Angeles is depending on injury-heavy arms, Toronto’s arms would be a top 10 rotation if this was 2014, and Chicago’s rotation is proof of the cynical scouting adage, “there is no such thing as a pitching prospect.”    How much better would the Angels be if Shohei Ohtani was there?   Probably 10 spots higher, nearly a top 10 rotation, he’s that good.    Kansas City is lucky to be this high: they  lost 58 games and are rolling out the same crew as last year.

26. Baltimore: Dylan Bundy, Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner, David Hess, Nate Karns
27. Miami: Wei-Yin Chen, Jose Urena, Dan Straily, Caleb Smith, Trevor Richards
28. Milwaukee: Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, Brandon Woodruff, Jimmy Nelson
29. Cincinnati: Anthony DeSclafani, Tanner Roark, Luis Castillo, Alex Wood, Sonny Grey
30. San Diego: Joey Lucchesi, Robbie Erlin, Bryan Mitchell, Eric Lauer, Luis Perdomo

 

Baltimore looks to improve on the rotation that lost 115 games last year by … signing former Nat Nathan Karns.   The other 4 starters in their rotation went (in order) 8-16, 5-15, 4-15 and 3-10 last year, none posting an ERA+ better than 85 for the year.  And they’re not the worst rotation in the league!  Amazing.  We all know Miami is trying to do worse than last year’s 98-loss team and, as far as I can tell, has not added ONE arm this off-season.   I really don’t know how Milwaukee did so well last year with this crew; they’re all basically #4 starters, backed up by a phenomenal bullpen and a great offense.  I hope they can compete again this year, b/c the club has done very little to improve.

Cincinnati has made a flurry of moves, adding 3 new starters this off-season …and is still ranked 29th.  I mean, Tanner Roark is their #2.

But none of these rotations is even close to as poor as San Diego’s projects to be.  Maybe you could squint and tell me that a couple of these guys are #4 starters instead of #5 starters.  But that’d just return them to the 30th ranked rotation, just slightly closer to Cincinnatis.  Luckily for San Diego (breaking news!) they just signed Manny Machado and Baseball America has ranked their farm system #1 in the league … which 13 of the last 14 years means they’ll be in the playoffs in two seasons.  So hopefully there’s some big-time San Diego prospect arms to go with those bats, and we’ll see you in the playoffs in 2020.


 

So, what Free Agent pitchers could move the needle of the above?

As of this writing, the biggest FA pitcher who could really move the needle is obviously Keuchel; i rate him as a #2, so if one of the lower-ranked teams replaces a 5th starter with Keuchel they may very well jump up 5-6 spots.  Other impact free agent pitchers available who could change the above rankings include Gio Gonzalez, Clay Buchholz, and Ervin Santana (update: Santana signed minor league deal with the White Sox, which may put them a couple spots higher). Past that, the remaining FAs seem like 4/5 types who wouldn’t really change any of the rankings b/c they’d likely be replacing a 4-A guy at the back of the rotation.  That list includes Bartolo Colon,Yovani Gallardo, Miguel Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, James Shields, and Chris Tillman.  Yeah, I said Bartolo Colon; i think he can still pitch.   Maybe not that well … but it wouldn’t surprise me if he gave it one last season.


So, that’s my rankings.  Feel free to argue, tell me i’m wrong :-)

 

Ask Collier 1/28/19

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it was all downhill from here for Martinez. Photo via Geoff Burke/USA today

it was all downhill from here for Martinez. Photo via Geoff Burke/USA today

I’ll admit, I’m struggling for content this off-season.  I love nearly all the moves the Nats have made, as one of (arguably) only about 6 teams that actually seem to be trying to improve themselves in the FA market this off-season.  Thank gosh for these Inbox/mailbags to give me a chance to opine on the state of the Nationals.

Latest one from MLB.com beat reporter Jamal Collier dated 1/25/19.

Q: With all the additions they have made, can that help in keeping Harper in Washington or is that a negative factor?

A: I can’t imagine how these moves have been a negative for anyone, Team, Fans or Harper.  If Harper was re-signed, and the team made the decision to go well over the luxury tax to do so, then the team is going to be better for it.  Lets be honest with ourselves; if there was no ridiculous luxury tax, would we even be debating this?  Yes, there’s a clear debate on value versus pay, given his injury history and general inability to stay healthy.  But we’re still talking about one of the most marketable players in the game, a guy who you build around, not try to repel away.  If the going rate is $9M/WAR … then a 4 win season (his average since arriving in the league) will make a $35M/year AAV contract “worth it.”

After watching all the other moves the team has made this off-season, which have essentially filled every hole we had, and then adding Harper back to the mix?  Yeah that’d be a hard team to beat.

I’m of the opinion (a difficult to quantify one of course), that Harper played it very conservatively in 2018 knowing he was going into a FA year.  I also wonder about his relationship with the new manager (we’ll get into that more later).  If he comes back, knowing he had security and his big pay check … wouldn’t you be betting on a massive 2019 for him?  Like another 8-10 win season?  I mean, I’d like him to do that for us and not for the Phillies.

Its just money right?  And, its not our money.  The Nats can’t draft past the 1st round anyway (quick; tell me the last time a 2nd round pick worked out for this team?), so who cares if we forgo a few draft picks.

Collier thinks signing Harper would be a positive.  duh.

Q: What does Davey have to do in Spring Training / the early season to prove himself after last season?

A:  Is he really called “Davey?”  What is he, 12?   I’m not sure I particularly care about what he does in the Spring (with the exception of #1 below).  His regular season performance is what is going to matter obviously.  What mistakes do we think rookie manager Dave Martinez made in 2018?  For me:

  • Failed to manage his veteran players from the start (see Ryan Zimmerman‘s play zero games spring training, and see Mike Rizzo‘s transactions in ridding the team of veteran relievers at the trade deadline).
  • Over used starters (at one point last last season the Nats rotation led the league in both IP and pitches thrown)
  • Over used crummy relievers (the fact that Sammy Solis and Ryan Madsen were ever allowed to throw as many innings as they did was crucial to the team’s demise in late innings)
  • Showed poor end-game management (resulting in a -8 pythag record on the season, a 4-10 extra innings record, and an 18-24 record in one-run games)
  • Had questionable management decisions in all other aspects of his job: lineup creation, shifting, double switches, strategy, etc.).

So.  One year in, with his “problem children” mostly now gone, he’ll have another shot at “controlling” the clubhouse.  He’ll have learned his lesson on starters.  He’ll have a whole new stable of relievers to abuse.   And he’ll have a year of in-game practice to learn from all the other mistakes he made.  So call 2018 a big internship for Martinez.  I suspect we’ll see him do better.

And, to be fair … he should have better relievers at his disposal, or at least some more street cred to demand for personnel moves earlier.

Collier notes the need for improved “messaging” related to Zimmerman’s 2018 situation.  But he notes spring training means nothing.  

Q: How likely is it that the Nats go out and improve their bullpen even more before the offseason is over?

A:  At this point … i’m not sure how likely this is.  They’re pretty tapped out from a payroll perspective.  I’ve got them at about $13M under the luxury cap, Cots has them about $10.9M  under the cap.  And those cap figures do not include any of the incentives built into the contracts of the many players who could earn them.  From what I can tell, these are the “hidden” incentives that may come back to pad the 2019 salary cap figure:

  • Stephen Strasburg gets $1M if he hits 180 innings (he’s done it twice, but not in his last four seasons, each of which had a month or so of D/L time).
  • Max Scherzer has all sorts of award bonuses ranging from $100k to $500k for various awards he can earn.  He’s been in top 3 of Cy Young voting every year, so it seems likely some money is spent here).
  • Patrick Corbin  has similar award-based bonuses.  What are the odds Corbin can repeat his 2018 performance and have another top3 Cy season?
  • Anibal Sanchez can earn up to $2M if he gets to 30 starts.  He’s done it 3 times, all many years ago in his  youth, but he may get some additional bonuses for lesser number of starts.
  • Trevor Rosenthal has all sorts of bonuses based on games pitched, games finished … its complicated, but if he pitches in 50 games (as he did in his last season 2017) he can earn another $4-$5M.  This is the big danger line item.
  • Howie Kendrick has per-season bonuses worth $1.1M based on plate appearances.  Based on injury recovery and the buying of Brian Dozier, this seems unlikely to be met.

So …. that’s a lot of money that could hit the books and jack up the 2019 payroll very close to the cap.   So ask yourself; what do you think the team is going to do?

I think the team is going to go one of two ways:

  • stand pat if the luxury tax is treated as a hard cap
  • Sign Harper, blow way past, throw caution to the wind and keep signing guys.

Collier kind of gives a wishy washy answer,  saying well maybe!

Q:  How would you rank the likelihood of: Nats re-signing Harper, Nats re-signing Rendon, both, neither?

A: At this point, i’ll give the following percentage likelihoods:

  • Harper: 5%.  I think Harper is going to follow the paycheck and end up with literally the only team bidding on him; the Phillies.
  • Rendon: 65%.  I think he likes it here, I think he’s a great bet to age gracefully, and will be the next Zimmerman “face of the franchise” kind of guy.

Collier kind of agrees, thinking the most likely scenario is signing Rendon, not Harper.

Q: Who are the candidates for a surprise break out season?

A: A “surprise” breakout season?  Well if Victor Robles blows it out and wins the Rookie of the Year i don’t think that’s a surprise.  I’ll go with newly added reliever James Bourque.

Collier has almost the same answer as me :-)

Ask Collier 12/26/18 Edition

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Did the team make the right decision on Roark?  Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Did the team make the right decision on Roark? Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

MLB.com Nats beat reporter Jamal Collier gives us a holiday gift with a post-Xmas mailbag dated 12/26/18.

Here’s how I would have answered the questions he took.

Q: It Harper comes back to the Nats looking for 330/10, do the Nats go over the tax or let him walk?

A: Isn’t it obvious by now?  You let him walk.  I think this was pretty clear from two observations:

  1. Mike Rizzo has already spent his $30M AAV, and spent it quickly
  2. Mark Lerner pretty much said as much in ill-advised remarks to a reporter.

The Luxury Tax strikes yet again; the Lerner family, multi-billionaires, will not spend an additional 10-15M above some imaginary payroll number to keep one of the league’s most marketable players.   Player salaries actually FELL for the first time in two decades, as clubs in total spent less than they have since 2004.   Maybe one of these big-spending clubs will break the bank and hand Bryce Harper and Scott Boras their goal; the largest contract in the history of the game.  But it sounds like its a reach, and it definitely doesn’t seem to be happening in Washington.

Collier refuses to get into hypotheticals, then notes that the Luxury tax for last year was “only” a couple million dollars.  Yeah, and only a couple of high-end draft picks, and only the reason why the club fired one of Rizzo’s most trusted advisors for absolutely screwing it up.  

—-

Q: Roark trade more about getting a LHP or the analytics told them he was on MAJOR decline year? $10M for innings eater is the going rate

A: I think the team was taking a calculated gamble that Tanner Roark‘s best years are behind him.   Despite appearances or opinions, Roark was basically a league average pitcher last year.  That’s a significant step ABOVE a replacement level/5th starter type.  But, he’s been trending down, he’s heading into his age 32 year, and the team thought it could spend his $10M better.  I don’t think lefty versus righty had anything to do with it.  Of course, they basically replaced him with an even older Anibal Sanchez, so sorry for sounding hypocritical on his age.  But while Roark struggled to even get to his 98 ERA+ figure last year … Sanchez had a late-career ephiphany that led him to being one of the top pitchers in all of baseball for the 2nd half of last year.  A better trend line in the end.

Collier agrees, that this was a gamble betting that Roark is set to regress in 2019.

Q: If the Nats go out and sign one or two back end of the rotation starters, what does that do to the development of Joe Ross and Erick Fedde? Moved to the bullpen? Sent to Triple A?

A: I’d have a hard time seeing the Nats signing a MLB-contract for another starter at this point, because Joe Ross has nothing to prove in AAA.  But Erick Fedde does.   Joe Ross has proven he can be an effective MLB starter, with his 125 ERA+ in 19 starts in 2016 as evidence.   Now he’ll be 26, with a new elbow, and looking to answer the question whether he’s back from TJ surgery.  For me, for a relatively affordable salary (1st year arb estimate of $2.5M), that’s a great gamble to go with on your 5th starter.  If he suddenly comes out in 2016 mode, 20-25% above league average

Technically both players have one minor league option left, so the team could opt to send them both to Fresno to get lit up in PCL parks and prove nothing.  I expect that for Fedde and we’ll have to take his stats with a grain of salt.

That being said, I do expect the team to sign at least one more MLFA veteran starter in the Jeremy Hellickson ilk, to go to Fresno and be some rotation insurance/catch lightning in a bottle again.

collier kind of gives a non-answer, but he does think Ross could work out of the bullpen (I don’t).

Q:  In my opinion, 2B is their biggest [remaining] priority. Any movement on that front? There are so many available as an upgrade!

A: Well, either 2B or maybe more middle relief help.  Right now the team is looking at this for each spot:

  • 2B: Howie Kendrick starter, Wilmer Difo backup, with Adrian Sanchez and Matt Reynolds as options (Sanchez has an option, Reynolds does not).
  • Middle Relief: right now you’re looking at Justin Miller/Wander Suero/Koda Glover as RHP middle relief options, and Sammy Solis/Matt Grace as lefty options.

Which one of those scares you more?  For me, probably middle relief.  Reliever performance is so variable that its hard to look at the guys who did well last year (Miller, Suero, Grace) and count on them in 2019, just like its hard to look at the guys who struggled (Glover, Solis) and just assume they’re washed up.  But, if you buy more arms, its one in, one out on the roster, so who makes way?

Collier says the team is focusing on one-year deals for one of the many 2B out there, to coincide with the expected arrival of Carter Kieboom.  Makes sense.

Q: Other than what Zimmerman and Rizzo have said publically, is there any rumblings about reworking Zim’s contract? Sentimentality aside, would it be wise for the Nats to lengthen the deal in any way?

A: Hmmm.  man tough question.  Zimmerman is owed $18M for 2019, then has a $2M buyout or another $18M year in 2020.   He’ll be 34 in 2019, 35 in 2020.

When he’s healthy,  he’s good for 25-30 homers, a .300 BA, a .500 slugging, and an OPS+ figure in the 120-130 range.  When he’s not … he misses vast chunks of the season, hits in the .250 range, and has about as many homers as a typical middle infielder.

Its notable that he *already* has a 5yr/$10M personal services contract with the team in place upon his retirement, so even if he hangs them up after playing for an other team he’s coming back here for the long haul.  So he’s going to be associated with the team for a while.

First things first: if he puts up another 120 OPS+ season in 2019 and is healthy, I think its an easy option to pick up for 2020.  From there, again if he continues to provide value I can see perhaps the team extending him on a year by year contract kinda similar to what they’ve given Matt Adams the last couple of years.  I’m sure Zimmerman would take that, given his history, his Virginia roots, the fact that he’s settled here, etc.  At some point it’ll become pretty clear its time for him to hang it up … at which point he transitions to the front office nicely with a hope of staying in management for a while.

That’s what i’m hoping for.

Collier notes that both sides want to continue the relationship, so something should get worked out.

 

Anibal Sanchez as #4 starter; I like the risk

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Sanchez joins the Nats on a 2 year deal. photo Atl official via ESPN

Sanchez joins the Nats on a 2 year deal. photo Atl official via ESPN

 

Well, now we can have the argument; was the Tanner Roark salary dump worth it?  Because just a few days later the team signed his replacement; Anibal Sanchez last night to a  deal to be his replacement.  Contract details are a bit complicated by the reports i’ve seen: 2 guaranteed years, $19M of guaranteed money, with $6M deferred and a 2021 option worth $12M, and some unspecified details that could add $4M to the package.

From what I can tell, the luxury tax implications are just the guarantees; $19M over two years means $9.5M of a luxury tax hit this season … which is almost identical to the $9.8M we’d been using to project Roark.

So, is the team better off?  Probably.  Roark has had flashes of brilliance (2014 and 2016) … but his last two years he was losing velocity and had plateaued as a slightly below league average pitcher.   Despite being much younger, we all kind of saw where he seems to be going, and the team clearly didn’t think his potential performance was worth the money.

Sanchez was a solid, familiar opponent in our division for years, always a solid competitor, an under the radar solid rotation piece.  He was god-awful in the AL, then suddenly found a new pitch and a new approach upon returning to the NL and pitched like a #2 starter most of last season.

So the Nats are betting on his 35-year old resurgence continuing, and paying him for it.

Implications for the team:

40-man: this is the 40th guy on the 40 man; the next move requires us to cut loose someone.

Salary Cap: We’re basically treading water from where we were a week ago; i’ve got the team at $188.8M in luxury tax dollars for fy2019, versus a cap of $206M, still leaving $17.6M of room.  I’ve seen other reports saying the Nats are now above $200M for the year and I don’t really see how people are arriving at that conclusion:

  • $134M for 12 signed players for 2019
  • $32.75M estimate for 6 arb eligible players
  • $4.6M for the other 7 pre-arb players that will make up the rest of the 25-man roster
  • $2.25M for the other 15 guys on the 40-man in the minors
  • $14.5M for benefits

That totals $188.8M, leaving the $17.6M of room.  I know some people want to use “real” dollars instead of lux tax dollars, but the difference really isn’t that much.

Rotation: obviously this bumps Erick Fedde to AAA, where he probably should be.   This makes for a pretty solid rotation improvement over where we were yesterday.   I’m not sure where this places the Nats rotation in the pantheon of the league right now; i have a worksheet that I’ll turn into a blog post that ranks them 1-30 once the remaining impact starters sign (Dallas KeuchelYusei KikuchiWade Miley, Gio Gonzalez, Drew Pomeranz, Mike Fiers, etc).  But I think there’s a clear top 5 of rotations in the league in some order: Chicago Cubs, Boston, Washington, Cleveland and the Dodgers.  Right now i’ve got them roughly ranked in that order.  This move bumped up the Nats a couple of slots by replacing a sub-#5 starter in Fedde with at least a #3 quality guy.

Verdict; I think they did pretty darn good considering what’s out there and what they have to work with.   I’ll take Sanchez and his 2018 performance as my 4th starter any day.  The question is … is it sustainable?  Is it a one-off?  Scouting reports seem to indicate he found a new pitch and worked it heavily, but that his numbers had some luck involved w/r/t BABIP and soft contact.  He’s also 35, so we’re counting on an older guy to continue a sustained late-career surge.  Kinda like what the Dodgers have done with Rich Hillso it isn’t out of the realm of possible.