Nationals Arm Race

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

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Ask Boswell 3/5/12

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Here’s Tom Boswell‘s weekly Monday chat from 3/5/12.  Of the baseball questions he took, here’s how I’d have answered them.  While lots of questions pertained to the recent Gregg Williams “bounty” issues and whether or not the Redskins partook during his time here, the starting of spring training has got Nats fans pretty excited.

As always, questions are edited for clarity and I write my own answer prior to reading his.

Q: What do you think the Nats w/l record will be?  Can they win 90 games?

A: For a team that won 80 last year (though their pythagorean W/L record was slightly worse), I don’t think its a stretch to assume they can improve another 10 games.  Mark Zuckerman did a nice little WAR analysis and showed that full seasons from Zimmerman, LaRoche and Strasburg, along with the new additions of Gonzalez and Jackson *should* give the team at least another 10 wins, perhaps a bit more.  That’s assuming basically that everyone else performs at the same levels they did last year, and it assumes that the WAR stat directly translates to wins on the field.  In reality, you have to plan for some people to step up while others step back.  Can we assume that Morse will hit 30 homers again?  Its a tough one to assume; he could break a leg and suddenly our offense is in tatters.

That’s why I’ve been a bit more conservative, predicting 8 more wins for this team and have them at 88-74 with this squad.  If the team is in the WC hunt, and they augment the offense, or if Harper comes up and produces … suddenly that’s a 90-91 win team.  Boswell didn’t really answer this question, just went off on Strasburg tangents.

Q: Who is your opening day starter?

A: barring injury it has to be Strasburg.  I think your initial 5-man rotation goes like this, in this order: Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson and Wang.  This gives you a decent righty-lefty matchup at the top.  Perhaps you replace Wang with Lannan and have Jackson go out 5th to get a true R-L-R-L-R rotation.  Or perhaps Davey Johnson doesn’t care about lefty/righty matchups.  I’m more interested to see who the home opener starter is, since it happens 7 games into the season.  Right now it looks to be Gonzalez, which would be great, but early season rain-outs can greatly affect rotation orders.  Boswell says Strasburg but had a good caveat; if its 30 degrees and snowing in Chicago on opening day Strasburg probably won’t go.

Q: Where is this team’s Lenny Dykstra-esque scrappy mean streak player?

A: Honestly, the Mets-to-Nats comparisons may not ever bee 100%.   I don’t see a Dykstra type on this roster.  Mostly because this roster still does not have a center fielder/lead off type, which is exactly what Dykstra was.  Boswell says that Werth may still fill this role.

Q: Why didn’t the team keep Bixler and Nix?

A: Bixler is a good question; for reasons unknown the team designated him for assignment in the off-season while still possessing 40-man room (inexplicably; they did this a number of times, losing Kimball at one point but also losing two decent players in the Rule 5 draft).   Nix they probably thought was replaceable on the FA market … or at least obtainable for cheap.  There does always seem to be a number of halfway decent corner outfielders on the market who are available for less than what Nix got.  Boswell says Nix’s 2yr contract was the problem … the Nats want flexibility for 2014.  No mention of Bixler.

Q: If Tyler Clippard is our “MVP,” why isn’t he being paid more?

A: Two reasons; clearly the questioner doesn’t understand the whole arbitration process.  Just because Clippard is our best pitches doesn’t equate to him being the highest paid player.  Veterans always make more than pre-arb guys; don’t forget the players belong to a Union, and Union members reward longevitiy.  Secondly; Clippard unfortunately is a commodity player; he’s a non-closer reliever who doesn’t rack up saves and thus won’t ever be compensated like a Jonathan Papelbon or a Mariano Rivera, despite his value to the team.  Its an unfair world in some respects, and I just hope that the Nats do him right and keep paying him while he’s productive for the team.  Boswell mirrors my two thoughts but then also says that relievers are starting to become aware of newer stats like WPA that value Clippard highly (1st in the NL last year, above big name starters like Roy Halladay).

Q: What are your thoughts on the extra wild card?

A: Baseball purists may whine and complain, but the modern professional sports scene in this country, fortunately or unfortunately, places a ton of emphasis on playoffs versus regular season accomplishment.  Even with these two additional WC teams, Baseball still has the fewest of its teams reaching the regular season of any of the four major sports.  And, in a sport where payroll disparities may not determine the World Series victor every year they clearly help predict the playoff contendors (Yankees: one missed playoff appearance since 1994), having more teams in competition for the playoffs is good for the sport.  Frankly I’d like to see Baseball go to a 32-team/8-division structure similar to the NFL and adopt the NFL’s exact playoff structure.  The problem there is finding two more markets without cannibalizing the NY or LA market.  Boswell says “time will tell,” but also admits that he hated the first WC round initially but likes it now.  He also points out something I hadn’t thought of; the importance of your #3 starter with a new round of playoffs.

Q: Should the team just skip Strasburg’s start every few times to extend his 160IP limit until the end of the season?

A: It isn’t a bad idea; Zimmermann skipped one start and hit his 160IPs at roughly September 1st.  So skipping a few more starts for Strasburg would put him well into September.  But I don’t think he’ll be served well by jacking around his days rest.  Starters depend on getting into routines in order to pitch their best.  Honestly I think this situation may very well play it self out naturally; even in 2010 Strasburg had two separate DL stints; if he spends 30 days or so on the DL at various times we’ll get a full season out of him.  Boswell agrees with me on the not-skipping-a-start theory.

Q: How secure is Ramos as the #1 catcher?

A: I’d say he’s pretty secure.  Flores may have had a good winter, but winter leagues aren’t exactly MLB quality.  Flores’ injury history has more or less derailed his career, and that’s unfortunate.  The team has found a solid #1 in Ramos and will stick with him, with Flores getting his typical 1 or 2 starts a week.  The inclusion of Derek Norris in the Gonzalez package also spoke volumes about where this team thinks it is in terms of catcher depth, as does the 40-man addition of Maldonado, a journeyman catcher who now benefits from a distinct lack of upper-level minor league catcher depth.  Look for the team to make catcher a focus in the 2012 draft to start back up the catcher pipeline.  In the mean time, I doubt Flores will be trade bait even if he performs amazingly well, at least until we find another catcher in the wings.  Boswell says Ramos is as #1 as any #1 can be.

Q: Who are the best catchers ever?

A: For a combination of defense, calling games, arm strength as well as offense, i’d go with Johnny Bench.  But you also have to throw in Ivan Rodriguez in his prime.  Mike Piazza was notoriously bad defensively.  Jorge Posada was subpar defensively in his later years but was a monster bat.  I’d include other names from the past few decades like Carlton Fisk. Before Fisk and Bench, there was a dearth of HoF inductees from the catcher position for some 30 years, to Yogi Berra who is probably the benchmark for all-around catchers (with Bench).   Boswell says Bench as well, but mentions Varitek with Posada.  Interesting.

Q: What is the team going to do with Ian Desmond?

A: I’d guess that 2012 is the make it or break it year for Desmond.  If he’s hitting .220 at the all-star break without significant value proven at the SS position, the team may make a change.  Move Espinosa to SS, install DeRosa as starting 2B, look to move Desmond and perhaps make Lombardozzi the utility guy.  I also find it very interesting that Anthony Rendon is getting reps at both 2B and SS; if that kind of hitter can slot in at short stop on even an as-needed basis he could be even more of a dangerous prospect than he already is.  Boswell agrees; this is a big year for Desmond.

Q: If catcher is so important, why did we move Bryce Harper away from the position?

A: one word: longevity.  Yeah he was a catcher growing up but catchers get the crap beat out of them, have constant injury concerns, and the wear and tear of catching affects their hitting.  With such a bat potential, he needs to be on the field and playing 162 games.  That being said, I was slightly surprised that he didn’t at least try to stick at C for at least a little bit of his career … but understand the reasoning stated.  Boswell said the same things I said, but added that scouts didn’t really think he was a natural catcher anyway, so he got moved to the OF quickly.

Q: What would MLB’s response be to the same “bounty” scandal going on in the NFL?

A: Hard one; its not like purposeful bean-balls without context are common in the MLB.  And the game is just too random to purposely try to spike someone, or slide into them on purpose, or to purposely hit a catcher.  These plays are so bang-bang and so naturally occurring to baseball players who have played all their lives that they’re hard to script.  If it was found out to be happening?  Long suspensions.  Boswell thinks such a situation would be lifetime bans, if proven.

Q: Strasburg has never pitched more than 7 innings, at any level, ever.  Is this a concern?

A: I have a hard time believing this, but won’t challenge the questioner since I’m not entirely in a position to go searching through the guy’s college career.  Is it a concern?  eh.  Its modern baseball.  No more 150 pitch games, no more 38 start seasons.    Little leaguers have pitch count/innings limits, high school teams only play twice a week.  College rotations you go once a week.  I’d only be concerned if he showed any inclination of slowing down later in games, which he doesn’t.  Boswell isn’t concerned.

Is there any Spring Training pitching competition for the Nats?

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Is it too early to guess who starts the Home Opener? My guess is newly acquired Gonzalez. Photo Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images via cbssports.com

We’re getting reports of players getting to Viera early, and we’ve had a slew of off-season moves.  Beat reporters are starting to talk about the 25-man roster (here’s WT’s Amanda Comak‘s take).  The Nats pretty much took care of every off-season need the had:

  • Top-end Starting Pitcher: Gonzalez
  • Backup Outfielder: Ankiel and Cameron (though, apparently Cameron is retiring instead of competing for a spot…)
  • Lower-end Starting Pitchers: Re-signed Wang, signed Jackson
  • Utility Infielders to replace Cora, Bixler, Hairston: signed DeRosa, claimed Rivera
  • Bullpen arm depth (to replace Coffey, Kimball): signed Lidge, traded for Perry

The notable exception to the off-season shopping list, of course, is a lack of a proven center fielder.  Perhaps one could quibble that a shortstop should have been on that list; it seems the team is giving another year to the Ian Desmond experiment, hoping he builds on the strong end of 2011 (he hit .294 in Aug and Sep of 2011).  The backup infielders and backup outfielders listed here, to go along with a slew of minor league/invite to spring training signings, should be where most of the competition for roster slots occurs.

The big question for me is; Is there any real competition for pitching spots this spring?

Starters

We all know the narrative; we now have 6 starters with multi-million dollar commitments for 5 spots, and someone has to give.  The Edwin Jackson signing has pretty much made John Lannan the odd-man out of this rotation.  Mike Rizzo likes power arms, and has gone to great lengths to acquire guys who throw more than 89-90 to replace what he inherited in 2009.   Wang and Jackson can’t be moved until June 15th without his consent by virtue of the FA signing rules (as discussed in this article here), Gonzalez just signed a long-term deal, and Strasburg/Zimmerman are our future.  To me, there’s no mystery who’s going to be in the rotation, and frankly articles that say there’s going to be a competition for the 5th starter between Wang, Lannan, Detwiler and Gorzelanny are not really paying attention to the contract realities of the situation.  Barring injury, your opening day rotation will be (in this order):

  • Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson and Wang.

Should someone go down with injury, Lannan steps in to take the 4th or 5th rotation spot (depending on whether Davey Johnson likes to mix up LHSP/RHSP in any fashion).  Otherwise, Lannan is trade-bait and should be moved during the spring.  There are plenty of teams that could be trade partners if we wanted to focus on a center fielder (see this article I did in November talking about the CF market for the whole of baseball for some thoughts).  Barring a trade, it seems inconceivable but Lannan does still have a minor league option left and could be sent down, but a $5M pitcher toiling in Syracuse (to go along with $2M bust Yuniesky Maya) could make the Nats AAA team the most expensive minor league rotation in the league.  (We won’t say “most expensive ever,” since the Yankees kept Kei Igawa and his $46M commitment in the minors for most of his contract).

Relievers

A recent post on option status at Nationalsprospects.com (the option status of every player is now kept on the Big Board, which is good for me since I did this work last year and its a nightmare to keep track of), as well as a question asked of Bill Ladson leads to this conclusion: there literally is no question right now who your 7 bullpen members will be.  Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez, Tom Gorzelanny and Ross Detwiler ALL are out of options.  Brad Lidge can refuse a demotion based on his service time and Drew Storen is your closer.  There’s your 2012 bullpen; not much room for anyone else.

The only wiggle room may be with someone like Detwiler: he’s clearly a starter and seems set to be the first Spot starter to fill in for an injury (assuming we trade Lannan of course).  Does the team keep him in the bullpen, where he basically fills the exact same role as Gorzelanny (ex-left handed starter long man/spot starter in a pinch)?  Or does the team cash him in to fill a hole?

This configuration leaves newly acquired Ryan Perry, Ryan Mattheus and Atahualpa Severino in AAA.  Cole Kimball starts on the 60-day DL (and, frankly, probably stays there; the odds of him coming back from that shoulder injury are low).  Lastly Craig Stammen joins Maya in AAA as deep-need emergency starters.

So, here’s your bullpen:

  • Closer: Storen
  • Setup: Clippard
  • 7th inning guys: Lidge, Rodriguez
  • Loogy: Burnett
  • Long Men: Gorzelanny and Detwiler

What’s nice about this bullpen is that, despite my naming players to roles, there’s lots of flexibility.  Rodriguez on a good day has 8th or even 9th inning stuff.  Lidge is a former closer and clearly can do the setup or closing roles.  Clippard excels in the 8th inning role and doesn’t seem to aspire to replace Storen.  Burnett is far more than just a one-out guy, but can serve that role in a pinch.  Lastly both Gorzelanny and Detwiler can be anything from a one-out lefty to a 3-4 inning mop-up guy, given the day.  I like the way this sets up and I think we go into 2012 with a better bullpen than in 2011 (when, if you recall, we wasted a spot on Brian Broderick, had the failure of Doug Slaten in the loogy role and watched Chad Gaudin pitch horribly).

Who starts the Home opener?

Quick guess: based on the way the schedule plays out it looks like our home opener will be thrown by our #2 starter Gonzalez.  We play two 3-game series away to Chicago and New York, then open at home with what should be the #2 rotation spot up.  There’s only one off-day in between, meaning the starters most likely stay on normal rest.

Ladson’s inbox: 1/4/12 edition

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Will Steve Lombardozzi get a shot at sticking on the 25-man roster? Photo via Syracuse Chiefs

Another edition of mlb.com beat reporter Bill Ladson‘s inbox, dated 1/4/12.  As always, I write my response before reading his, and sometimes edit questions for clarity.

Q: How many wins do you expect the Nationals to have this year? Will a full season of pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez translate into a spot in the playoffs?

A: Tough question; If you believe the statistical measurement Wins Above Replacement (WAR), then Mark Zuckerman made a very convincing argument that this team is already 11.7 wins better than 2011 without adding anyone else.  However; even best laid plans don’t pan out.  There are always regressions, injuries and setbacks that you can count on.  So to say that the Nats will win 90 games is probably incredibly optimistic.  However; if this team is really an 85 win team, then they’re going to be in the Wild Card race and may be buyers instead of sellers, and could get pushed over the top.  I’ll say, right now pre Prince Fielder nonsense this is an 88 win team.  Ladson says 85 wins but Fielder would turn them into a competitor for the NL East title.

Q: How do you think the bullpen is shaping up? Will Se an Burnett stay or should we be looking for another lefty? Will Tyler Clippard earn closing opportunities in 2012?

A: Our 2011 bullpen was the strength of the team and it comes back mostly in tact.  We have yet to replace Todd Coffey, who was serviceable in 2011, but we look to be stronger in the “long man/spot starter” role.  Kimball is hurt but Mattheus was pretty good in 2011.   Burnett is signed through 2012 so he’s not going anywhere; do we need another lefty if we have both Gorzelanny and Detwiler projected in the bullpen?  I’m sure either one could prepare on a rotating basis for a one-out role.  Clippard is the set-up guy; he and Storen seem set in their roles and that’s great, since I think Clippard is a better pitcher and is getting the more high-leverage appearances.  Not much to add from Ladson.

Q: What is the situation with Rick Ankiel? Will he be coming back to the Nationals?

A: Ankiel‘s not coming back; if the team wanted a plus defender who couldn’t hit, they can find him much cheaper.  Kinda like Mike Cameron.  Its too bad; he was so good in CF but so bad at the plate.  Ladson thinks the team could still be interested in Ankiel as a 4th outfielder.

Q: There is no doubt the Gonzalez deal helps the Nationals right now. But do you think they should have dealt their prospects for a center fielder?

A: It seems like Mike Rizzo cashed in his prospects on a deal he couldn’t turn down, taking advantage of Billy Beane‘s firesale in Oakland to get a pretty good pitcher.  Did he *need* another starter?  Maybe, maybe not.  Does he *need* a center fielder?   Yeah he does.  He also needs a lead-off hitter.  And a better short-stop.  But you can’t solve all your problems at once.  I like Gonzalez; like what we got and think it was a good return on the prospects we gave up.  I’m ok living with Werth for a year in CF and buying someone on the open market next off-season.  Ladson agrees.

Q: Are there any potential trade suitors for Jesus Flores? He shouldn’t be the Nationals’ backup catcher.

A: Well, the second we traded Derek Norris, Flores became that much more important to this team.  Yes he’s our backup, and yes we think he could start elsewhere, so perhaps at some point (if we feel confident that Ramos look strong) we can flip Flores and use Solano for backup purposes at the MLB level.  But suddenly we may be looking at needing to develop more catcher depth.  Ladson is right in saying that Flores is a project, and that we’d be selling low by trading him now considering his injury past.

Q: With the bench still something of a question mark, will Stephen Lombardozzi be given a shot to crack the roster? If he plays well, what chance is there that he will start playing every day?

A: I suppose; I wasn’t incredibly impressed with Lombardozzi‘s Sept 2011 call-up.  I thought he looked beyond over-matched at the plate.  I’d like to see if he could actually be a good middle infielder and not top-out as a Brian Bixler utility infielder.  The team needs a 2nd utility infielder after DeRosa and Lombardozzi could fit the bill.  Start?  Hmm; Desmond isn’t going to be allowed to hit .220 forever, so yes its conceivable that at some point if Desmond doesn’t start hitting he’ll get replaced in the field, and it’d be great if the team had someone like Lombardozzi to step up.  Ladson says its a long-shot.

Q: Why is right-hander Yuniesky Maya still with the Nationals?

A: Two words: guaranteed contract.  Clearly he’s not the guy that the team thought he was; we have two more years for him to toil in AAA and serve as a spot starter/emergency backup.  Its too bad; he has the arsenal and the moxie but not the stuff to survive.  Ladson calls him a disappointment.  Clearly.

Nats Off-season News Items Wrap-up 12/16/11 edition

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I wonder if Harper would be "tebowing" if he knew it was now a beer logo? Photo via mr irrelevant blog

This is your semi-weekly/periodic wrap-up of Nats and other baseball news that caught my eye.

Nationals In General

Free Agents/Player Transaction News

  • We hear from Albert Pujol‘s wife Dierdre, who says she was “mad at God” for having to leave St. Louis.  I’m sorry; if you are “forced” to leave St. Louis so that you can earn $254M dollars instead of $210M, you don’t get to invoke “God” or any self-pity whatsoever.  Is Pujol’s wife as out-of-touch as most modern athletes are?  This almost reminds me of the infamous line from Latrell Sprewell, who turned down a $21M contract extension by saying that “I’ve got my family to feed.”
  • DC-area native Joe Saunders was non-tendered by the Diamondbacks after failing to reach a multi-year deal.  There were plenty of other non-tenders to talk about, but the West Springfield graduate immediately becomes a rather high-end FA starting pitcher when compared to the rest of the market.  I don’t think he’s worth pursuing necessarily; he isn’t going to give us anything that we probably couldn’t expect to get out of Ross Detwiler at a fraction of the cost, and perhaps this is just a negotiating ploy by the Arizona GM.  But its definitely fair to say that his arbitration cost would have probably been more than his actual worth on an annual salary basis.
  • The Yu Darvish deadline passed on 5pm Wednesday, and all we know is that someone actually bid, and that there were a number of serious bidders.  The NPB has four days to formally “accept” the offer, so will not know til next tuesday who “won.”  I heard on SportsTalk 980 that the Nationals did not submit a bid, and here’s Adam Kilgore confirming in print.  I’ve posted my opinion on Darvish in the past; i’m sure he’s talented, but don’t think he’s a 9-figure risk.  Unsubstantiated early rumors list the Toronto Blue Jays as the posting winners.
  • Good for Josh Willingham, signing a 3yr deal in Minnesota.  Yes we could have used his offense in 2011.  Willingham’s 2011 bWAR?  1.8 hitting in a horribly bad pitcher’s stadium.  The players we got for him?  Henry Rodriguez‘s 0.2 and Corey Brown‘s 0 (and subsequent removal from the 40-man roster).  That was a good piece of business!

General Baseball News

  • I kind of agree with Phil Wood‘s take on Ryan Braun‘s positive test, as printed here.  If a player has been tested again and again, and then (say) gets a test mixed up or hits a false positive, and that test is leaked to the world, wouldn’t you be pretty pissed as well?  I’m not saying that’s what happened here (since I have no involvement whatsoever), but such a scenario would play out pretty unfairly to the athlete in question.  One can only hope that the “insanely high” levels of testosterone were either a testing mistake or a flawed test.   Or possibly that Braun was surprised by the timing of the test and was doing what Victor Conte describes as a “truck sized loop hole” in the baseball drug testing.
  • This story cracks me up: Derek Jeter sends the same “break-up present” consisting of a gift-basket with a hand-signed baseball to all his “conquests.”  How did we find this out?  Because he had a repeat hookup and apparently forgot that he had already sent one to her.  Oops.  Here’s the question: how do these women certify the signed baseball?  Does it also come with a certificate of authenticity?  :-)
  • The title of this article says it all: “MLB increasingly concerned about Mets’ financing.”  Yeah, I would be too.  Another excellent hand-picked owner from your commissioner Bud Selig

General News; other

  • The verb “Tebowing” is now being recognized as an official word.  At least its not ebonics.  At least not everyone is taking this thing seriously; see here for a fantastic new Tebowing-themed beer label.
  • Thank god for this clause in the new CBA: players are going to be banned from getting corporate logo tattoos.  Its too bad; I’m pretty sure I just heard that Stephen Strasburg is getting the Dairy Queen logo tattooed on the small of his back, tramp-stamp style.

Nationals off-season todo-list: 2011 edition

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Signing Wang took care of one of our most important off-season tasks. Photo via Washington Nationals

(I’ve had this in draft form for weeks; might as well publish it now that the FA period has started).

Before we get too deep into the off-season, I thought it’d be good to do a level set of what exactly this team is in the market for.  Last year’s to-do list included a Center Fielder (Ankiel), a Right Fielder (Werth), a First baseman (LaRoche), a couple of Utility Infielders (Cora, Hairston), some veteran Starting Pitching (Gorzelanny), and some bullpen help (Coffey, Ramirez).

Based on how the team has played down the stretch and watching some players rise and fade in September, here’s what I think the team’s off-season to-do list may look like.

First, lets start with what we know we do NOT need.  Here’s players that seemingly have spots already locked up for 2012:

  • C: With Pudge leaving, Ramos and Flores seem set to be the 2 catchers for a while here.  Flores is healthy but clearly inferior to Ramos right now both defensively and at the plate.  We just added Solano and Norris for catcher cover in case someone gets hurt.
  • 1B: LaRoche should be back healthy, and Morse has shown he clearly can play first if not, though that would lead to a hole in left field.
  • 2B: Should be ably filled by Espinosa, or Lombardozzi if we move Espinosa to short (see next).
  • SS: Desmond‘s one of the lowest qualifying OPS hitters in the league, but the team management loves him.  I’m guessing he’s given one more season.  Rizzo has already stated he’s not after Jose Reyes, and the Marlins seem set to over-pay him.
  • 3B: Zimmerman isn’t going anywhere, despite some blogger’s statements that he should be moved.
  • LF: We’re assuming that Morse is the starter in left.
  • RF: As with Zimmerman, Werth is set to play right field well into the next presidency.
  • SPs: Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Lannan seem locks to be in the rotation.  We re-signed Wang for the #4 rotation spot.  There’s some talk here and there about non-tendering Lannan; he’s a solid mid-rotation guy who is still under arbitration control who is underrated by most people outside of this area, and I believe it would be a mistake to cut him loose at this stage.
  • Setup/Closer: Clippard and Storen managed to survive silly trade rumors this season and should be the 8th/9th inning tandem for at least 2012.
  • Loogy: Burnett: He struggled at times in 2011. He’s also under contract for 2012 with guaranteed money.  So he’s going to be back.  He’s more than a loogy though, so we’ll look for the team to replace Slaten.
  • Middle Relief: Henry Rodriguez and Ryan Mattheus look to return in their middle relief roles.  Kimball will be on the 60-day DL until he’s proven to have regained his fastball.

That’s actually a pretty large chunk of our planned 25-man roster (17 of the 25 are already accounted for, for the most part).

So, what do we need?  In rough priority order:

  • Center Field: again, we go into an off season with questions about center field.  Ankiel had a decent September but overall his 2011 offense was poorl.  He does fit Rizzo’s defensive mind, but is he the answer?  Perhaps this is the off-season Rizzo finally gets Upton or Span or someone of that ilk.  Or perhaps we re-sign Ankiel to a holding deal, waiting for wunder-kid Bryce Harper to come up and take over.  Or, perhaps the lineups that Johnson has been fielding in September featuring Morse in LF, Werth in CF and Nix in RF are telling enough that we can “get by” without investing in a center fielder for 2012.  (I’ve got a very large CF-only post coming up, with lots more detail).
  • Right-handed middle relief: we may have to go digging for one-year FA Todd Coffey types again, because Kimball is on the DL til probably July and Carr was flat out released in September.  That’s it in terms of 40-man roster options for right handed relievers.  An internal option could be using Peacock as a 7th inning guy in 2012; he’s shown he can bring it 95-96 and perhaps even higher in short term situations.  The team doesn’t seem to trust either Balester or Stammen, meaning we need a one-year guy.
  • Utility guys: we used Hairston, Cora, and Bixler as backup infielders.  Hairston did a great job starting at 3B in Zimmerman’s absence; the other two were awful.  So we need a couple replacements.  Lombardozzi could fit in, but he’d be better served with a full season in AAA.  Bixler was waived and claimed, so we’re almost guaranteed to go hunting on the FA pile.
  • Backup Outfielder: Bernadina seems to have run out of chances with this team.  Corey Brown has been god-awful in AAA this year and was assigned off of our 40-man to the AAA team.  Nix and Gomes are FAs.  We can’t possibly offer Gomes arbitration and guarantee him a $2M salary, and Nix can’t hit lefties. In any case, we look like we may need a backup outfielder from somewhere.  Nix has been getting starts in RF (as mentioned above) down the stretch and certainly has enough power to feature 6th in a lineup.  Perhaps he’s worth another year.  The team was in preliminary talks on a 2012 contract with him but nothing official has been signed.
  • Loogy: we could use a one-out guy, assuming that we need a 2nd lefty to Burnett.  I’m guessing that Severino is not the answer, based on how little use he got in September.  Or maybe he is.  Certainly I’d prefer giving him a shot versus scraping the bottom of the reliever barrel again and finding another guy who performs as badly as Slaten.
  • Starting Pitcher: We re-signed our own FA Wang, and continue to be in the mix for more of a marquee name like Buehrle and Oswalt.  Do we need another starter?  Signing either of these two vets will probably indicate team flexibility to trade some of our younger starting pitching cache of Detwiler, Peacock, and Milone, but also may end up blocking a guy who could be just as good for a fraction of the price.
  • Long man: I’m guessing that we assign a long man from one of  Gorzelanny (most likely), Detwiler (somewhat likely), Balester and Stammen (less likely).  The team seems down on both the latter guys, who are probably destined for DFA when they run out of options.

So, thats a somewhat big todo list.  Some spots are clearly fill-able from within, but we’re still looking at a few acquisitions.

Nats Off-season News Items Wrap-up 11/4/11 edition

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Wang re-ups for his 3rd year in a Nats uniform. Photo from Washington Nationals photo day.

Here’s a weekly wrap up of Nats-related news items, with my thoughts as appropriate.

  • MLBtraderumor’s Tim Dierkes announced that the cutoff for this year’s “Super-2” status is 2 years, 146 days.  This cutoff means that two (and possibly three) Nats players made the cut and will be in line for a 4th arbitration season.  Jordan Zimmermann made it by 8 days, Tyler Clippard by 2 days (!), and Roger Bernadina (at least according to Amanda Comak‘s calculations; he’s missing from Dierkes’ list).  In Bernadina’s case, it may not matter, as he’s out of options for 2012, isn’t likely to make the roster anyway and seems a certainty for a non-tender.  We’ll save salary speculation for a future post as we get closer to the arbitration dates.  11/1 update: Dierkes responded to my comment in this blog posting and said that his personal calculations determined that Bernadina missed the cutoff.
  • Tim Dierkes is a busy man; he has a series of FA analysis by position and posted his Center Field analysis over the weekend.  Considering that the Nats have been looking for a quality center fielder essentially since moving to Washington, the analysis is a good read.  The news isn’t good; Dierkes only projects ONE viable CF FA candidate: Coco Crisp (quotes later in the week though confirm that Crisp wants to stay on the west coast, making him a less likely candidate).  He mentions Grady Sizemore as being worth a flier but no guarantee to be healthy.  There’s some “thinking outside the box” candidates, guys who are older and who could hold on to CF for another year, but if the Nats were to do that we might as well either go with Jayson Werth in center or re-sign Ankiel.  Trade potential BJ Upton is still there, and I’m sure he’s still available for the right price.  Perhaps the Nats could package a bunch of prospects for both Upton and Shields.  One other interesting name to consider: Melky Cabrera.  Nice season, nearly a 20/20 guy.  Getting a bit expensive for KC… maybe we could flip them some pitching surplus.
  • Sammy Solis has marginally improved as the AFL has gone forward, putting in a 4ip, 1run performance on Oct 29th.  Meanwhile, what is going on with Matthew Purke?  In three appearances through 10/29 he’s given up 11 runs on 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings.  Not good.  We may have to just shield our eyes until spring training.
  • Bill Ladson reported on a conversation he had with Mike Rizzo about the Nats off-season plans, and the takeaway seems to be that the team “has made no promises” to Adam LaRoche about playing time in 2012.  I just have a hard time believing that the team plans on just ignoring 1/8th of their payroll (LaRoche’s $8M salary on last year’s $68M payroll) by signing a replacement.  Rizzo pursued and signed LaRoche for a reason; good defense and adequate bat.  At least, that’s the idea.  Personally I have a hard time believing that Albert Pujols is leaving St. Louis, and I’ll bet that Fielder stays in the NL central as well (perhaps replacing Carlos Pena in Chicago as Theo Epstein‘s first big signing).
  • ESPN’s Buster Olney believes the Nats will look at Grady Sizemore, recently having his 2012 option declined by the Indians, as a center field option.  I suppose Sizemore is no more of a risk than it would be to resign Rick Ankiel, or to experiment with Werth in center and a player to be named (Laynce Nix?) in right.  It would be ironic to see Sizemore come back to the team that drafted and developed him, only to trade him in an incredibly damaging deal for a few months rental of Bartolo Colon.
  • Taken from a link in the previous Olney posting, the “Field of Dreams” property in Iowa used to make the movie of the same name is being sold.  Visitors come by the thousands even to this day to see the makeshift field built into a century-old farmland.  What I find neat is the apparent unassuming nature of the owners and the fact they’ve never really attempted to commercialize the property.  In that respect, it reminds me of Cooperstown, which I visited for the first time this past summer (blog post in the works with pictures) and found to be amazingly quant and un-tarnished by the type of tourist-driven revenue generators you find at other places in this country.
  • A post courtesy of Rob Neyer‘s blog about the seemingly imminent move of the Astros to the AL West points out a salient points the Houston fan base would have to put up with; more 9:05pm local starts as the team travels to play new rivals on the West coast.  This likely will badly affect their TV ratings.  Will the Astros take to having new divisional rivals in the Angels, A’s and Mariners well?  It doesn’t seem to have really hurt the Rangers, who have the same issue.  One has to think an intra-state, intra-divisional rivalry with the Rangers would be fantastic for both teams though.  Imagine 18 games and state bragging rights at stake for a state that takes its bragging rights (in all matters, both sports and non) very seriously.
  • All 8 of our free agents filed as soon as the FA filing period opened, as reported by Adam Kilgore.  I’ve got a post coming up on thoughts on the 8 free agents and which I think we should look at resigning.
  • Jon Heyman‘s first off-season column addresses some of the main “questions” facing baseball this off-season and he includes answering some of the major FA rumors.  He lists the Nats as favorites for both Prince Fielder and CJ Wilson.  Signing both would instantly add $30M of payroll to a team that already projects at somewhere in the $65M already basically allocated (we owe $45M in guaranteed contracts on the books now, probably somewhere in the range of $13M to clear our arbitration cases, and the rest being minimum salaries to 40-man guys).  Are the Lerners ready to step up and pay this kind of money?
  • Heyman’s article also notes that the last remaining issue in the MLB contract negotiations relates to Draft Slotting.  Bud Selig has been pushing hard for this, as he feels smaller market teams get screwed by agents who know bigger market teams will pay the money for their guys.  Meanwhile the league is apparently read to ditch free agent compensation picks as a bargaining chip.  Certainly the union has to like this (especially for relievers, who get labeled type-A and suddenly can’t find work).
  • Dodger Fan’s long nightmare may be over: Frank McCourt is apparently willing to sell the team for $1B in a deal that seems to completely remove him from gaining any additional benefit from the team (meaning, he has to divest the parking lots he was threatening to keep control over).  Now if only Bud Selig would consider a decent replacement owner instead of one of Selig’s friends or whoever greased his palm most recently … ah modern baseball.  11/2/update: maybe there won’t be a Selig-appointee; apparently the team will be sold at auction.  Great!  That means an owner not necessarily hand-picked by Selig and his cronies.  I’d love to see Mark Cuban get involved but apparently he was approached a few months ago and backed out.
  • Baseballamerica.com had a front-page feature on the Nats on 11/1.
  • FanGraphs’ top 15 Nats prospects wasn’t too surprising (also posted 11/1).  I’m amazed how high AJ Cole is (called the top pitcher in the system, barely eclipsing the promise of both Alex Meyer and Matthew Purke).  And I’m amazed how far Derek Norris has fallen.  The article also points out something rather interesting: the Potomac rotation could be Meyer, Purke, Cole, Ray and then someone like Selik.  Wow.
  • SI.com’s Ben Reiter put out his list of the top 50 FAs available and has the Nats on Jose Reyes and Coco Crisp, but not Prince Fielder or Edwin Jackson.  I guess I wouldn’t complain if we got both or either guy; either would ably fit into the lead-off spot that we’ve struggled with for years (and if we got both put them 1-2 … and move both Espinosa and Desmond’s .220 batting averages to the bottom of the order).
  • And here’s Tim Dierkes’s top 50 FA list with guesses on destinations: He has the Nats mentioned as an interested party with most of the top names and signing only CJ Wilson of his top 50 list.
  • And here USA Today’s Paul White‘s top 50 FA list, with the Nats projected to land Coco Crisp, Freddie Garcia (?!?) and Chein-Ming Wang.   His comment as to why we’d sign Garcia?  “Short term fix while the kids develop.”  It makes one wonder if he’s seen the state of our starting pitching frankly.  There’s little reason to doubt Milone or Peacock (or some combination of both) being able to fit into the 5th starter.
  • Ron Dibblewow.
  • Gold Glove winners announced; there doesn’t seem to be any egregiously bad winners like there was last year (Derek Jeter).  There were some complaints from the likes of Rob Neyers about the AL shortstop selection, using the Fielding Bible awards as his source.  But lets face it; the voters for the golden gloves probably spend about 20 seconds on it, when handed the form while dealing with a gazillion other items in September after a long season.  They’re voting reputations, not Uzr/150 results.  In fact i’d wager that fully 75% or more of the voters couldn’t tell you what Ultimate Zone Rating is or how it measures defensive capabilities.
  • SI’s Joe Sheehan puts out a nice overview of each division’s “state of franchise” post, and his thoughts on the Nats are interesting.  He has no idea if the team is going to be spooked byWerth’s contract and poor production, and suggests trading Tyler Clippard for a CF.
  • Chien-Ming Wang has officially re-signed with the team, per this SI article late Wednesday night.  We got details thursday: 1yr, $4M with some incentives.   That’s a bit more than I predicted (I was thinking something in the range of $2.5M as a guess).  But it still seems like a good deal, all things considered.  I’ll take a $4M #4 pitcher versus the $7.5M Marquis cost, and he seems like he could very well improve on his 2011 performance.
  • Byron Kerr has a rather effusive article on Sammy Solis (calling his fastball “lethal” and “high-velocity?”  Sorry Byron; he’s got #3 starter stuff, not Randy Johnson-esque power) and his efforts to learn a new pitch; a regular curve-ball.  Solis has used a knuckle-curve that spins/breaks more violently, but is harder to control.  He’s reached the point in his career where he needs alternatives to fastballs and change-ups that he can count on, and hopefully this helps him to the next level.  This is a common theme; high schoolers with merely upper 80s stuff can routinely get away with blowing the ball by most of the opposing lineups of weakling 16-18yr olds and sometimes experience a reality check when going up against hitters who can make the adjustment.
  • The Nats exposed Brian Bixler to waivers (i.e., designated him for assignment to remove him from the 40-man) and he got claimed by the Astros.  Not a major loss (he had a 47 ops+ last season), but still someone who could have helped out next year had he passed through to our AAA roster and been able to be “stashed” in Syracuse.  Best of luck to him.  His position is easily replaced from within from someone like Lombardozzi, or on the FA market similar to our 2011 signings of Hairston and Cora.
http://www.mlb.com/milb/stats/stats.jsp?pos=P&sid=l119&t=p_pbp&pid=545357

Nats FA Decisions…

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Is Wang the only FA we resign? Photo courtesy of Nats320 blog/Jeff Saffelle

With the announcement that all 8 of our eligible free agents filed as soon as the FA filing period opened (as reported by Adam Kilgore), its time to talk about what the team could or should do with each of the 8 players.

Here’s a quick table showing our 8 free agents, their latest contract and their pay for 2011.

Player Current or 2011 Contract 2011 Salary
Ankiel, Rick 1yr/$1.5M $1,500,000
Coffey, Todd 1yr/$1.35M $1,350,000
Cora, Alex 1yr/$900k $900,000
Gomes, Jonny 2yr/$2.55M (10-11) $1,750,000
Hernandez, Livan 1yr/$850K $850,000
Nix, Laynce 1yr/$700k $700,000
Rodriguez, Ivan 2 yr/$6M (10-11) $3,000,000
Wang, Chien-Ming 1 yr/$1M plus bonuses $1,000,000

So, what should the team do with these guys?  In order (alphabetically):

  • Rick Ankiel could be an interesting decision for this team.  His 2011 line was bad (.239/.296/.363), and he really wasn’t any better down the stretch than he was at the beginning of the season.  Ankiel tempts and entices you with periodic flashes of power but generally had really poor batting stats.  On the plus side, he’s a lefty in a Right-handed heavy lineup.  He also plays a fantastic Center Field (11.6 uzr/150 on the year in center) and has one of the best outfield arms in the game.  All this screams 4th outfielder at best, and Ankiel may struggle to match his $1.5M salary in 2012.  The Nats may view him as a decent 4th outfielder option, but may not be willing to guarantee him money.  I’m guessing he goes elsewhere looking for a starting job or a guaranteed major league contract.
  • Todd Coffey, by the end of the season, seemed to be a reliable right handed option out of the bullpen for this team.  He had a 3.62 era on the season and a decent whip of 1.2.  His splits on the year show a different story; he was lights out in May, god-awful in June and July before regaining his consistency in the end of the season.  For me, he’s a replace-able asset that should be available in spades on the FA market or from within the farm system.  I’m guessing the team rolls the dice on another one of the middle-relief right handers on the market.  Had Cole Kimball not gone down with injury, the question would be completely moot for 2012.
  • Alex Cora probably will find work on a minor league free agent deal somewhere for 2012; he has that “backup middle infielder” skill set that gives him a good shot of finding work in 2012 despite his horrible batting line in 2011 (a 51 ops+ hitting .224 in 156 ABs for the Nats).  For the Nats, we saw that up and coming prospect Steve Lombardozzi can play both 2nd and SS in a backup role in September and I’m guessing we use a combination of him and Brian Bixler off the bench in 2012 as cheaper alternatives to the FAs Cora and Jerry Hairston that the team used in 2011.
  • Jonny Gomes was acquired mid-season in a questionable trade that sent blocked 1B prospect Bill Rhinehart and blogger favorite Christopher Manno to the Reds.  At first glance the trade seemed to be about acquiring the compensation pick that Gomes would fetch (who at the time had type-B FA status).  After listening to management interviews though the trade seemed to be more about Johnson replacing the impotent Matt Stairs as his primary pinch hitter on the bench.  It became clear that Gomes’ skills not only were not worth the 1.75M contract he was on, but that he was barely worth a 25-man roster spot.  Gomes hit .204 for the team in the 2nd half, mostly as a right-handed power option off the bench and lost his type-B status by years end.  Despite clearly being a good teammate and free-spirit in the clubhouse, Gomes seems destined for a non-guaranteed contract elsewhere for 2012.
  • Livan Hernandez is hitting the FA market despite being our opening day starter and perhaps the most iconic player of this team’s tenure in Washington (with apologies to Ryan Zimmerman, of course).  Hernandez just finished a very up-and-down season, culminating with his being “shut-down” in September (ostensibly to allow rookies to play, but it may have also been somewhat of a mercy-killing after a slew of abysmal performances).  One need only look at his 2011 splits to see the problem with Livan: when he won he was very, very good (8-0, 1.26era in his 8 victories).  But when he lost he gave the offensively-meager team almost no chance to win (a 6.05 ERA in 13 losses) and was nearly as bad in his 8 no-decisions (5.93 era).  I’m sorry, but when you make 29 starts and have an era in the 6’s for 21 of them, you no longer merit a starting spot.  The team will swallow its heart and allow Livan to leave in free agency.  Just a couple months ago I was advocating to keep him, thinking he’d be a great backup plan and a good influence on the pitching corps.  Those points both may be true, but his declining performance coupled with his extraordinarily long warm-up routine pretty much precludes effective use out of the bullpen (where guys need to be warm in 10-15 pitches).  I’ll bet Livan finds a 5th starter job somewhere though; perhaps a sentimental return to Florida, a stop-gap one-year contract for the pitching-poor Mets, or elsewhere.
  • Laynce Nix was hot in Spring Training, and equally as hot in April and May, but tailed off badly and ended the year with a relatively MLB-average 103 ops+ and a slash line of .250/.299/.451.  He did have 16 homers in just 351 plate appearances, nearly a 30homer pace for a full season.  Of course, he’d never get a full season of At bats since his lefty-righty splits are so bad (.263 versus .111 … he was 3 for 27 against lefties this year with 4 walks).  What should the team do?  Nix could be a nice part of a platoon in right field with a good right-handed hitter like Chris Marrero … except we’re pretty sure that we’d take a severe dip in defense if we did such a thing.  Of course, nobody told the Cardinals they couldn’t put Lance Berkman in the outfield, and he promptly put in a -14.4 uzr/150 rating in right while bashing his way to a .547 slugging percentage and a 166 ops+.   Not that Nix is capable of Berkman’s level of productivity, but I still think he could have value as a 4th out-fielder/Davey Johnson prototypical power guy off the bench.  Not to mention a lefty on a team whose primary power guys (Werth, Zimmerman and Morse) are all righty.  I predict he resigns on a one year deal.
  • Ivan Rodriguez really wants to get to 3,000 hits, but man he looked old this year.  He only managed 27 hits in 124 at bats while ceding the starting job to the more capable Wilson Ramos.  Clearly Pudge isn’t coming back to the Nats; the better question is whether there’s a backup job for him anywhere in the league.  Probably so, but he’ll struggle to ever reach 3,000.
  • Chien-Ming Wang, as we already know, is negotiating to stay with the team.  And despite this blogger’s opinion that the team erred in setting up Wang’s 2011 contract, it seems like he probably is coming back.  I’m guessing he signs a moderate 2-year deal with somewhere in the range of $6-8M in guaranteed money.

So, in the end I’m guessing we re-sign one (and perhaps two) of our 8 free agents.  This means we’ll be somewhat active on the FA market looking to back-fill some of the positions these guys filled this year.   But not totally so; players coming back from injury and players rising from the minor league ranks are expected to take the place of players that we had to buy on the FA market in the past.  That’s great news for the team in general; lowered payroll and further proof that our farm system is developing real talent.

Consider re-upping for OF cover
Let him go. Replaceable commodity.
Non-type A/B FA: let him walk
Decline arbitration b/c he’d likely take it. Missed type-B status
Non-type A/B FA: let him walk despite his offer to be a pullpen guy
Consider re-signing for 2012
Non-type A/B FA: let him walk
Re-sign to a 2-year deal; seems healthy, get some ROI

Ladson’s latest inbox; my answers to his questions 10/3/11

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MLB beat writer Bill Ladson doesn’t do mailbags that often, and when he does sometimes his answers are arguable.  Here’s his 10/3/11 edition.

Q: Do you think Davey Johnson will return as manager of the Nationals in 2012?

A: Yes; there’s no reason to replace him at this point and the team finished the year strong.  Ladson says he’s coming back.

Q: Are the Nationals thinking about moving Ian Desmond to center field, Danny Espinosa to shortstop and Stephen Lombardozzi to second? They always say that shortstops are the best skilled players. I think they will get the center fielder they need and improve their infield defense.

A: (the same question was posed in Boswell’s chat on monday): I don’t think Desmond helps the team in Center.  You need more production out of center fielders.  If Desmond can’t cut it for this team at Short, we’ll trade him and put Espinosa there.  Lombardozzi hasn’t shown me that he’s anything more than a Brian Bixler-utility guy, and the team may bide its time until Anthony Rendon is ready.  Ladson reminds us how much the team, and Johnson, likes Desmond.

Q: If the Nationals are looking for a center fielder, why not Carlos Beltran, even though he is aging and has been hurt in the past? He seems to fit all of the Nationals’ needs and is a good veteran presence for some of the young players.

A: Three primary reasons: Beltran isn’t a center fielder anymore.  He’s now a corner outfielder at this point in his career.  Plus I think you’d be overpaying for a contract year.  Lastly, he’s a type-A free agent, meaning it would cost us your #16 overall pick.  Ladson points out that he’s a corner outfielder.  He’d be for a one-year deal, that’s it.

Q: Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan are locks for next year’s rotation. Considering Mike Rizzo would like to acquire a veteran starter, that would mean that Chien-Ming Wang (if re-signed), Ross Detwiler, Brad Peacock, Tom Milone and the other Minor Leaguers will all be fighting for one spot?

A: This seems like the current situation, yes.  However, I would not be surprised to see some of this starter depth flipped for a plus defender that we can put out in leadoff/center field.  Lannan could be trade bait (though I think we’d struggle to get enough for him to match how this team values him).  Wang is no sure thing to re-sign.  Detwiler pretty much HAS to make the team in 2012, so you may have your rotation already stated. Ladson just says generically that you can never have enough depth.

Q: I think Chris Marrero has proven in a short time that he is a Major League hitter. What role, if any, do you think he will have with the team next season?

A: Good question: he hit well, but doesn’t seem to have the power you need to man the First Base position in the majors.  Its tough to take a .300 hitter out of the lineup though.  Of course, he wasn’t a .300 hitter by the end of the season (final slash line: .248/.274/.294); a 5-game slide to end the season cost him 40 batting average points.  Marrero’s problem is a lack of power.  His slugging percentage wasn’t even at .300; it needs to be closer to .500 to play first base.  I think he starts 2012 back in AAA, waiting for an injury or slow Adam LaRoche start to get a call-back.  Ladson predicts trade chip or 2012 bench player.

Q: Since being sent to the bullpen, Tom Gorzelanny has done a pretty decent job. Do you see him back in the bullpen next year?

A: Yes you bet.  Gorzelanny’s bullpen split for 2011 was great; 2.42 era in 15 games.  He immediately takes over the primary long-man/spot-starter role and features as a middle reliever as needed.  He’s just the kind of guy that Davey Johnson likes in the pen.  Ladson agrees.

Q: You have reported that the Nats’ front office isn’t sold on outfielder Roger Bernadina. Please explain how Werth, Jonny Gomes and Brian Bixler are improvements.

A: At least Werth provides enough power and OBP to pull his OPS+ value up to nearly 100 in a season where he struggled mightily.  Bernadina doesn’t get on base nearly as much and doesn’t slug as much, meaning on average he’s about 20% less valuable a hitter than a MLB average player.  And he’s done this consistently across 1000+ at bats at the major league level.

Gomes is not an improvement; he was a mid-season bench augmentation who probably gets non-tendered in November.  Meanwhile, Bixler is not an apples-to-apples comparison.  Teams need utility infielders to provide cover at 2nd, short and 3rd.  Bernadina is a backup outfielder who can be replaced, and is replaceable.

I’m not sold on Bernadina either; he’s had plenty of chances and i doubt he’s part of the organization in 2012.  Ladson says he never said these three guys were replacements for Bernadina, but thinks that Gomes and Bixler are not with the team in 2012.

Q: Despite his inconsistency, Hernandez definitely shows that he wants to stay with the Nationals and brings so much to the clubhouse. He is even willing to become a long reliever. With that in mind, do you think he’ll be re-signed?

A: Good question.  Initially I thought he’d be resigned as a valuable and cheap middle relief/spot starter guy.  But now i’m worried there’s not going to be room for the guy in the bullpen.  I think our 2012 bullpen starts with Storen, Clippard, Burnett, Mattheus, HRodriguez, Gorzelanny as near locks.  The 7th guy could be a FA signing, or perhaps Peacock or even Stammen.  Livan needs too long to warm up to really be useful in the bullpen.  Sorry to say; i think we part ways.  Ladson says that Gorzelanny is the “swingman” and that the team won’t need two.  Fair enough.



What I’d like to see the Nats do at the trade deadline…

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Will Sunday's start be Jason Marquis' last in a Nats uniform? Photo Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

I’m a realist.

The Nats are not going to catch the Braves for the NL Wild Card.  Given that situation, I believe the team needs to cash in on its expiring veterans and trade them.  Some of our vets should go before the 7/31 non-waiver deadline, others probably would pass through waivers (as Cristian Guzman did in 2010) and could be moved for low-level prospects closer to the end of the season.

That being said, as a follower of the minor league rotations and as a fan looking forward to the future of this team, I’d rather see our prospects and “what-ifs” now instead of following guys as they play out the string in August and September.  Here’s a list of moves I’d like to see and who should replace them.

  1. Jason Marquis.  We trade him for whatever he can get and we shoudn’t get too hung up on his return value.  According to mlbtraderumor’s estimates of the current Elias rankings, Marquis isn’t even close to being a type-B free agent, thus he nets us no comp picks at the end of the season if/when he signs elsewhere.  We should trade Marquis and immediately make room in the rotation for one Chien-Ming Wang, who makes (presumably) his last rehab start today 7/24 and needs to immediately come up and join the 25-man roster.
  2. Livan Hernandez.  Some say we keep the old veteran, and I can certainly see that argument.  However, his up-and-down season has frustrated many, and we’ve got a starter in Ross Detwiler who could/should immediately take his rotation spot.  Hernandez, according to the above Elias rankings, believe it or not is right on the cusp of type-B status, which could net a supplemental first rounder for whoever has him at the end of the season.  But that’s a risky proposition; odds are he’d accept arbitration and the guaranteed payday from the offering team, negating the possible comp pick.
  3. Laynce Nix: the slugging left fielder has been a great find for this team, going from minor league signee to starting left fielder.  But, there isn’t going to be room for him in 2012, with LaRoche coming back and Morse likely moving back to left field.  We could keep the outfielder as a 4th, but a player like Rick Ankiel or Roger Bernadina makes more sense as a 4th outfielder since they can play all three OF positions and have decent speed on the basepaths.  We should trade him now while his value is high.  This is complicated lately by his achilles tendon injury, so the odds are that he’s staying put.  Another point against; if Nix goes, who replaces him on the roster?  We don’t really have a ready-made, deserving AAA outfielder that we could call up.  We could bring up Chris Marrero, put him at first and put Morse back in left, a move that doesn’t have any 40-man roster impact.
  4. Todd Coffey: the middle relief righty has struggled lately but still has value for teams looking for bullpen support.  Flip him and bring up the deserving, long toiling and local product Josh Wilkie.
  5. Ivan Rodriguez: the Giants continue to need catching depth, they love veterans and Pudge would have a likely playoff run with a trade.  We could continue with Jesus Flores in a backup role, now that it seems that the word has gotten out that his arm is shot and he’s no longer earning trade value playing full time in AAA.  Of course, as we speak Pudge is on the DL so any trade before the deadline is likely off.
  6. Any one of the rest of our one-year FA backups: Cora, Hairston, Stairs, and Ankiel.  All four of these guys likely pass through waivers and would serve as excellent role players for teams on a playoff push.  Cora and Hairston could be replaced by Brian Bixler or Steve Lombardozzi easily enough, while Stairs or Ankiel, if moved along with Nix, would probably necessitate the return of a MLB-ready outfielder.

Who do I think we should NOT move, unless we get excellent value coming back?

  1. Ian Desmond: his name keeps appearing in trade rumors, with conflicting reports.  Some say we’re “actively shopping” him, others say that he’s a “core piece” and won’t be moved.  We’d be selling low on Desmond, given his precipitous drop in offensive production this year.  However, if the team long term wants to move Espinosa to short and make room for the likes of Lombardozzi or (eventually perhaps) Anthony Rendon, then striking while the iron is hot and people are asking for Desmond makes sense.
  2. Tyler Clippard: I posted on the topic of Clippard’s name appearing in trade rumors earlier this week.  My arguments are there in greater detail; we should only move him if we’re “wowed” by the return.
  3. Drew Storen: can’t see how we’re even considering moving him; he’s under club control through 2015, is a poster child for excellent drafting and quick rise to the majors, and is quickly becoming an excellent closer.  He’s 25/28 in save opportunities as a 23-yr old this year; you don’t trade these guys, you build around them.

Anyone else not already mentioned is either untradeable (Werth, LaRoche), untouchable (Zimmermann, Zimmerman, Espinosa, Ramos), or somewhere in the realm of club-control guys (Bernadina, Lannan, Gorzelanny as examples) who aren’t worth as much to other teams as they are to us.

Lastly, here’s some player targets we’ve heard that the Nationals are interested in.

  1. BJ Upton: Upton is enigmatic to say the least; his numbers put him at a barely greater than average mlb player, but he gets steals and hits for some power and plays a declining CF (don’t believe me?  Look at his uzr/150 ratings drop for 4 straight seasons here, culminating with a negative score for 2011 so far).  Is he the solution for our leadoff/center field spot?  Perhaps.  But I don’t want to give up the farm for a guy we’ll only control for one more year (he’s entering his 3rd arbitration year in 2012).
  2. Michael Bourn: he’s a far lesser version of Upton; far less power but more speed, and 2011 is the first time he’s been above 100 OPS+ in his career.  We’d be buying high for sure.  Somehow he makes more than Upton in the same 2nd year arbitration situation.
  3. Colby Rasmus: i’d love to get him, he’d be a monster in center field.  He’s young, he produced excellently in 2010, and seems to be perpetually in his manager’s doghouse.  The latest  rumors though have him going elsewhere, not to the Nats.  Plus, I’m not quite sure why the Cards would trade him in the first place; the guy’s making the MLB minimum and batting in the middle of their order.

My Answers to Boswell’s Chat Questions 7/5/11 edition

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Here’s Boswell’s 7/5/11 chat.  As always, I read the question, write my own answer then interpret Boswell’s answer.  All questions are paraphrased from the chatroom for clarity here.

Q: Should the Nats move Espinosa to Short, making room for Rendon?

A: I believe the Nats may eventually consider moving Danny Espinosa to shortstop to make way for either Anthony Rendon but perhaps Steve Lombardozzi in the near future.  For the beginning of 2012 season?  I doubt it.  Yes, Ian Desmond has been hitting ridiculously badly, but he’s a plus defender at Short with an absolute gun of an arm.  He’s cut way down on errors and mental mistakes.  We all believe Espinosa can handle the position (he was a grade-A short stop at Long Beach State), but the right answer may be to give Desmond one more full season before pulling the trigger.  Any move would be done in a spring training presumably.  (Boswell more or less agrees, saying Lombardozzi will be a full time MLBer, Desmond moves too much in the box, and that Espinosa has better hands but not as much range).

Q: Did Harper skip high-A because of Potomac’s field situation?

A: Great question.  Personally I believe Potomac’s field disaster factored into the situation.  Perhaps part protection of Bryce Harper (who was promoted to AA over the weekend and went 2/3 in his AA debut), part penalization of the ownership/management of the  Potomac franchise (which they must believe has botched this badly, to be giving away home dates).  Of course there is the plain fact that Harper, despite his young age, held his own against AA-calibre talent and higher in 2010’s Arizona Fall League and he may just be ready for AA.  (Boswell punts on the question, quoting Rizzo who said “the field is fine, it had nothing to do with it.”  A non-answer.)

Q: What are the chances Michael Morse wins the “last man standing” all-star vote?

A: I’ll say slim, based on who he’s up against (here’s a link to the voting).  Ethier, Helton, Victorino, and Ian Kennedy are the candidates.  I’d guess that either Victorino or Helton wins, though Ethier is a deserving candidate.  Nobody’s heard of Michael Morse unfortunately.  (Boswell thinks Philly fans will vote in Victorino).

Q: Is Ryan Zimmerman’s new throwing motion working?

A: It seems not; if anything its causing even more problems.  Zimmerman used to make most of his errors on relatively routine throws over to first; if he’s making a throw under duress it is usually spot on.  So the new motion is designed to remove the scatter-arm throws.  But now, instead of making a routine throw and it getting into his head, he’s got this new motion into his head.  I can’t see how its an improvement.  For me when playing the answer was always to go to a side arm motion to gain accuracy but I was playing from middle-infield positions that didn’t require long, overhand throws like what the third baseman has to do.  (Boswell thinks it is working and that Zimmerman needs a bit longer to get comfortable with it).

Q: Was it too early, too late or the right time to promote Harper?

A: From a productivity standpoint it was probably too late; he clearly owned how-A pitching after just a few weeks.  But, from a “learning how to be a baseball player” standpoint its just right.  Finish out a half, a playoff-run, get a bunch of road trips in and get used to playing day after day.  Now he can move up and get challenged by better pitching.  Personally I would have put him in high-A for an incremental improvement.  Run him up to AA if he dominated in Potomac, else start him at AA next year with an eye to move him quickly to AAA.  I think there’s value in growing into your role.  (Boswell says it was the right time to promote, but not to which level, and then compares Harper’s minor league splits to A-Rods and Ken Griffey Jr’s).

Q: How much credit should we give Rizzo the GM for 4 specific moves that paid off (Ramos-Capps, Willingham trade, letting Dunn walk and failing to get Greinke)?

A: I give Rizzo some good, some bad for his moves over the past year or so.  The Ramos for Capps trade was spectacular.  The Guzman trade (something for nothing) was quality.  His purchase of Bixler has turned out well.  I think we got fleeced on the Willingham deal frankly and think this team could have used the offense.  Dunn was never going to stay here so I don’t know how much credit you can give Rizzo for purposely picking up the draft picks.  He overpaid badly for Werth (for reasons that have been discussed ad-naseum here and were bigger than just the player).  I liked the acquisition of Gorzelanny for what we gave up.  His two rule5 draft picks were garbage.  Cora and Nix on minor league contracts has turned out great.  He got a decent AA starter for Gonzalez but a middling low-A infielder for Morgan.  He wanted and was going to pay for Greinke, who i think is vastly over-rated, had one good season and is by no means an “ace” in this league.  He’s a solid guy but not a $100m pitcher.  (Boswell points out the Hanrahan-Burnett deal is looking bad for the Nats; I’ll defend the Nats there since Hanrahan was SO bad for us.  Boswell also mentions Aaron Crow for some reason; that non-signing was 110% on Bowden, not Rizzo).

Q: Are Nats buyers or sellers at the trade deadline?

A: This answer will vary day by day between now and 7/31 honestly.  If the Nats go on a 5 game losing streak they’re selling like mad. Right this moment, they’re probably doing nothing, stuck into inactivity by virtue of their .500 record and proximity to the wild card race.  (Boswell agrees, saying the team’s record on July 28th is what matters).

Q: Will the Nats over pay and sign Marquis and Livan for next season?

A: God I hope not.  Marquis should be jettisoned to make way for Strasburg’s return.  Livan is worth 1.5-2m/per, but not much more.  If he demands more cut him loose.  Livan at this point is merely a holding over pitcher until our farm system prospects pan out.  (Boswell seems to think that Detwiler could make an able replacement for Marquis, either this August/September or later on).

Q: Is Werth unable to get around on fastballs?

A: I don’t have enough video evidence to offer an opinion.  Boswell says he’s just trying too hard, his mechanics are out of whack.

Q: Thoughts on the all-star rosters?

A: Havn’t even looked at them.  Looking them up to comment here.  Don’t care really; the all-star rosters will always have too many Red Sox, too many Yankees and too many Asians from ballot-box stuffing.  I can’t stand the “every team must be represented” issue, which dilites the team and gives players cheap all star appearances.  I think the fact that the world series home field advantage depends on this exhibition is beyond ridiculous.  So doing a 2500 word column nit picking the all-star selections is just July column filler for most baseball writers.  For me its like complaining about the BCS: its never going to change.  Let other people bitch about the fact that Derek Jeter has basically been awful this year, not the best.

I will say that the manager’s selecting the pitchers is ridiculous.  Yes Vogelsong has had a great season but he’s not who the fans want to see in the all star game, nor is he one of the best 15 pitchers in the league.  Picking middle relievers?  Ridiculous as well.

(Boswell says he likes the rosters and won’t waste an answer on what could give him an easy column!)

Q: How much money is Pujols’ injury- and poor-performance season costing him?  Would he take a 1-year deal to regain value?
A: Great question.  I think Pujols poor season has already cost him a shot at a 10-yr/$300M contract that many spoke of.  He’s clearly going to lose years and value.  I think he deserves a 7yr deal that pays him more per-annum than A-rod, and it may be what he’s shooting for.  I do not think he’ll take a one-year deal.  Too much can go wrong, too risky.  Even if he doesn’t get the years and money he seeks, you cannot blow the opportunity to guarantee hundreds of millions of dollars.  (Boswell wouldn’t even give him 7 years right now).

Q: Could Lombardozzi come up and force a replacement of Desmond in 2011?

A: No way.  There’s little value in yanking Desmond in mid-august, forcing Espinosa to move to shortstop with no work all year and possibly disrupt a Rookie-of-the-Year season AND do the 40-man move to add Lombardozzi just for a few games in the bigs.   (Boswell answered by defending Desmond, calling him a 10-year career shortstop.  He needs to start hitting though).

Q: Comments on the Soriano “hit” that scored 2 runs?

A: An official scorer just can’t give Bernadina an error on a ball that drops in front of him, despite it clearly being a fielding mistake.  Its one more piece of evidence showing how inaccurate ERAs are for pitchers.  Zimmermann had Soriano popped up and was out of the inning; suddenly he’s given up 2 earned runs that he didn’t deserve.  To me, it looked like Bernadina lost the ball in the over-cast sky.  (Boswell points out that the play perfectly encapsulates why the team doesn’t think Bernadina is the long term answer in center.  Well, duh, I could have told you that was the case long before this play!)

Q: Why aren’t the Nats hitting?/How much accountability does Rick Eckstein have in this situation?

A: Honestly, I’ve never thought that a hitting coach really could impact what a major leaguer could do.  Be it out of respect, or lack thereof.  If everyone thinks Werth’s mechanics are out of whack, why hasn’t he fixed them?  Its an easy video fix right?

Werth is trying too hard.  Espinosa’s babip is awful.  Desmond just isn’t that good.  Morse is good but has holes that pundits/scouts like Keith Law think are going to get exposed.  Zimmerman is just getting back in the saddle.  Willingham and Dunn (despite what they’re doing in 2010) were stable, high OBP forces in this lineup and when they left, there was major disruption.  LaRoche has always been a slow starter, complicated (as we eventually found out) by a bad shoulder injury.  (Boswell ducked the question as I have, but gives some interesting analysis of just how not-so-bad the team really is offensively right now).

Q: Why is Nyjer Morgan suddenly good again?  Same question for Kearns, Felipe Lopez and (possibly) Werth?

A: Morgan needed a change of scenery, and has taken advantage of it.  Same goes for Hanrahan, and in that respect that trade has worked out well for Pittsburgh.  Kearns never wanted to be traded here; he is from Kentucky and liked it in Cincinnati.  Once he got his balloon payment here he never earned the contract.  Lopez is a special case; a good player with an awful attitude, and he’s earned a one-way ticket out of several towns by now.  I wouldn’t put Werth in any of these classes; he’s hard-nosed, plays hard, doesn’t play dirty, doesn’t show-boat, and takes his craft seriously.  (Boswell just says that change of scenery is sometimes good, without throwing (especially) Lopez under the bus).

Q: Why is Sean Burnett still on the roster?

A: True, his 2011 numbers have been pretty bad.  But one really bad game can make 3 weeks worth of good look awful.  Look at his game logs; he’s been pretty good lately except for one or two blow ups.  The team needs a loogy, Burnett actually gives them more than just a one-out guy, and he was pretty good last year.  Way too early to give up on him, to say nothing of the fact that there’s very little in AAA or even AA to replace him.  We’re still trying to replace our actual LOOGY Slaten, signing JC Romero and possibly looking at Severino or even Chico at some point.  (Boswell agrees).

Q: What are we going to do with Rendon?

A: Wait for him to prove he belongs, then find a spot.  He hasn’t signed yet, could get injured again and be a total bust, or he could hit like the 2nd coming of Alex Rodriguez in the minors and shoot up to earn MLB at bats inside a year.  If he forces his way onto the roster then you make room for him.  Install him at 2nd, move Espinosa to short.  Or, put Rendon in left and keep your current MI.  Maybe Zimmerman wants out of town after 2013 and Rendon naturally moves to third.  Maybe the entire team gets hit by a bus and we start over from scratch.  Way too much can happen with minor league prospects to make intelligent predictions til they get to AAA.  (Boswell’s answer rambled on about the state of the team … saying we’re much further along than intimated in the question).

Q: Why are the crowds booing Jayson Werth?

A: Probably because he’s in an extended slump, combined with a massive paycheck that most of us now have been told is vastly over-paying him.  Nobody likes it when an overpaid co-worker struggles with his assignments; it makes you really question why you’re working at that job in the first place.  Trust me, if he starts hitting the boo-ing will stop.   (Boswell kinda understands the crowd’s displeasure with Werth right now).

Q: Is Werth miscast as a team leader?

A: Perhaps.  I think clearly in Philadelphia he was one of many hitting cogs in a powerful lineup and they covered for each other.  Now, he’s much more in focus (especially with LaRoche’s issues and Zimmerman’s absence).  However, does he HAVE to be a leader by virtue of his contract?  No.  Zimmerman is a natural leader, as is Desmond.  We have veteran pitching that can take the media brunt.  But lets be honest; we don’t live in NYC with a 24-hour yankees news cycle.  There’s, what, 5 beat reporters in total for this team (Ladson, Goessling, Kilgore, Zuckerman and Comack), so that’s not a ton of people asking you questions night after night.  (Boswell agrees, Werth doesn’t have good media presence).

Q: Did the Lerner’s err in naming Davey Johnson as the new manager?

A: Can’t say just quite yet.  Johnson was clearly an excellent manager in his time.  Has the game passed him by?  Unlike in professional football, where clearly Joe Gibbs was exposed as being too old and too out of touch with the modern game during his return to the sidelines for the Washington Redskins, Baseball strategy and management moves at a slower pace.  Since Johnson last managed, there are no major changes in the rules of the game or the basic strategy.  If anything, the major change in the game lies in the renewed emphasis on defense and pitching in the steroid-less game.  Statistics and analysis has vastly increased in importance, but Johnson was already ahead of the curve in those departments when he was managing (and he was a Math major to boot, meaning he should not be wary of such heavy numerical analysis in the sport).  That all being said, only time will tell.  What was the team lacking under Riggleman that Johnson can bring to the table?  Perhaps the answer is basic; accomplishment and veteran respect.  (Boswell ridiculed the question and picked at its points, as opposed to talking about what Johnson may bring to the table).

Q: Do the Nationals ushers need to do more to enforce fan etiquette at the stadium?

A: Probably.  The questioner complains about people being allowed to move freely mid-inning.  I don’t notice a ton while I go to games, because our season tickets are relatively close to the field and the movement here and there isn’t too bad to notice.  We did experience a rather concerning issue on 7/4; we apparently had duplicate tickets to others that we found sitting in our seats.  We never really asked to see the tickets in question (not wanting to irk the woman sitting in our seats, who was clearly combative).  But the usher mentioned that the day before he saw no less than FOUR tickets issued for the same seat.  That doesn’t make any sense to me really; the seats are all season ticket-owned seats in the 100 sections.  Something weird is going on.  (Boswell says the questioner makes good sense).