Nationals Arm Race

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

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Qualifying Offers; are they working?

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In the wake of several posts I’ve seen on the topic of Qualifying Offers (one long-winded piece from the long-winded windbag Murray Chass here, accusing the owners of collusion in the cases of Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales instead of just understanding the state of the game, another from the more reasonable Jayson Stark here, talking about some potential fixes, and their respective agent Scott Boras whining about anonymous executive quotes in an ESPN article here), I thought I’d do some quantitiative-summary analysis of the Q.O. so far.

I think its fairly inarguable to state that the system isn’t really working how the players envisioned; especially as two decent FAs still sit un-signed.  Clearly the players union did not realize just how much teams are valuing draft picks, to the point where they’d rather keep a mid-first rounder than sign a decent middle-aged free agent.  I also believe that several of the players this past off-season got *really* bad advice on the state of the market for their services, and wholy deserve their fates.  Baseball is changing; we’re seeing metrics highlighting the value of defense, we’re seeing positional flexibility win out over inflexibility, and we’re seeing teams go with youth over veterans even when the cost difference is rather negligible.  That middle-aged, defensively challenged free agents (especially Morales) didn’t see this is entirely on them.  The situation is even worse for players of advancing years, who are not even getting contract offers after decent seasons and are being forced into early retirement in some cases.

Here’s part of a spreadsheet I put together, analyzing the eight guys who were faced with Q.O. decisions after the 2012 season:

Year Player Old Team New Team Draft Pick Forfeited Signing Date Subsequent contract (w/o options) Money up/down per AAV Q.O. Screw the player?
2012 Josh Hamilton TEX LAA 1-22 12/13/2012 5yrs/$125M 11.7 No
2012 Michael Bourn ATL CLE 2sup-69 2/11/2013 4yrs/$48M -1.3 Sort of
2012 Kyle Lohse STL MIL 1-17 3/25/2013 3yrs/$33M -2.3 Yes
2012 Adam LaRoche WAS WAS none 1/16/2012 2/$24 -1.3 Yes
2012 B.J. Upton TB ATL 1-28 11/28/2012 5/$75.25M 1.95 No
2012 Hiroki Kuroda NYY NYY none 11/20/2012 1yr/$15M 1.7 No
2012 Rafael Soriano NYY WAS 1-29 1/8/2013 2yr/$28M (lots deferred) 0.7 Sort of
2012 Nick Swisher NYY CLE 2-43 12/23/2012 4yr/$56M 0.7 No

Arguably, 3 of the 8 players in question were never going to be affected by the Q.O. (Hamilton and Upton because of the known long-term deals they were going to get, and Kuroda for being nearly guaranteed to return to the Yankees).  So, by my way of thinking 4 of the remaining 5 players in the  2012 FA class had their earnings either curtailed or affected by the presence of the Q.O.:

  • Michael Bourn got a longer deal with more guaranteed money, but he got less in AAV than the Q.O. he turned down, so perhaps my view is arguable that he was affected.
  • Rafael Soriano languished on the FA market until the Nats suprisingly signed him; his AAV in “real” dollars was significantly less in its estimate per year than the Q.O. he turned down (most estimates i’ve seen are at $11M/year with all the deferred money in his deal).  I hope Soriano keeps sending his agent Xmas cards; clearly Boras pulled a rabbit out of a hat to get him signed here.
  • Adam LaRoche saw very little interest in his services and returned to the Nats on a discounted deal; meanwhile players with comparable skills but without compensation issues earned more years and more dollars.  Shane Victorino; 3yrs/$39M as an example.
  • Kyle Lohse probably suffered the worst fate; he didn’t sign until a week before the season and for more than a 15% discount per year.  Meanwhile lesser pitcher Edwin Jackson got 4yrs/$52M by way of comparison, without a Q.O. attached to him.

Now here’s the same information for the thirteen players who dealt with (or who are dealing with) the issue after the 2013 season:

Year Player Old Team New Team Draft Pick Forfeited Signing Date Subsequent contract (w/o options) Money up/down per AAV Q.O. Screw the player?
2013 Carlos Beltran STL NYY 1sup-29 12/??/2013 3yrs/$45M 0.9 No
2013 Robinson Cano NYY SEA 2-47 12/12/2013 10yrs/$240M 9.9 No
2013 Shin-Soo Choo CIN TEX 1-22 12/??/2013 7yrs/$130M 4.47 No
2013 Nelson Cruz TEX BAL 2-56 2/22/2014 1yr/$8M -6.1 Yes
2013 Stephen Drew BOS unsigned ?? unsigned unsigned Yes
2013 Jacoby Ellsbury BOS NYY 1sup-30 12/13/2013 7yrs/$153M 7.76 No
2013 Curtis Granderson NYY NYM 2-51 12/??/13 4yrs/$60M 0.9 No
2013 Ubaldo Jimenez CLE BAL 1-17 2/19/2014 4yrs/$50M -1.6 Yes
2013 Hiroki Kuroda NYY NYY none 12/6/2013 1yr/$16M 1.9 No
2013 Brian McCann ATL NYY 1-18 12/3/2013 5yrs/$85M 2.9 No
2013 Kendrys Morales SEA unsigned ?? unsigned unsigned Yes
2013 Mike Napoli BOS BOS none 12/12/2013 2yrs/$32M 1.9 No
2013 Ervin Santana KC ATL 1-29 3/12/2014 1yr/$14.1M 0 Yes

Similarly to 2012, there were several FAs in this class for whom the Q.O. meant nothing: Cano, Choo, Ellsbury, McCann and Kuroda.  So, by my way of thinking 5 of the remaining 8 players had their contracts impacted … but two in a much more visible way:

  • Drew and Morales remain unsigned to this point … and its hard to envision a scenario right now where any team would sign these players until after the Rule 4 draft in early June.  Why give up a draft pick at this point?   On the bright side for both players, there may be a veritable bidding war for their services after the draft, and they could get decent contracts which have (by rule) no further draft pick compensation issues.
  • Nelson Cruz had to take a $6M pay-cut due to his not taking the Q.O., a serious miscalculation of his market by him and his agent.
  • You may argue whether or not Ubaldo Jimenez really got screwed here, since he got $50M guaranteed in a four year deal.  But his AAV is a good 10% less than the Q.O. that he spurned form Cleveland.
  • You can also argue about Ervin Santana, who signed for *exactly* the Q.O. amount once Atlanta lost most of their rotation for the year.  I still say he was impacted because of the amount of time it took and his subsequent service time loss to start the season.

If i’m a future veteran FA … i’d be rather worried.

So, what’s the fix?  Some say that this situation will naturally just take care of itself; next off-season maybe some players will finally take the Q.O. (remember; we’ve yet to have a single player take the offer), which in turn should make some teams wary of offering them in subsequent years.   But by the time this situation naturally plays itself out, it’ll be time for the next bargaining session.

I think the MLBPA needs to (in the next bargaining session) cut the cord on the link between draft picks and free agent compensation once and for all.  The entire reason draft pick compensation was invented was to “help” the little guys who lost free agents to the big teams.  But look at the list of the teams who are generally offering Q.O.’s to players right now: 6 of the 21 total offer’d players were from the Yankees, another 3 from Boston.  Those aren’t exactly teams “in need” of being given more picks in the draft.  In fact, of the 21 players who have gone through this system, by my count just THREE played for a team that I’d qualify as a “small market” (Upton from Tampa Bay, Jimenez from Cleveland and Santana from Kansas City).  Every other player plays for either a major market or a successful team in a mid-sized market.  How is this system “working” as per its original intent, at all??

Maybe the right way of doing things is to punish the big teams for signing FAs … but don’t allow them to “game” the system by subsequently gaining more picks back.   The Yankees signed four Q.O. affected free agents this past off-season … but only really lost one draft pick thanks to them having offered up and received their own compensatory picks for the players they knew they were going to lose anyway.  Why aren’t the Yankees being forced to lose their first four ROUNDS of draft picks?  If you’re in the top 10 in payroll, you only can lose in the draft pick compensation game, not win.

Footnote: Yes I acknowledge that, “in the grand scheme of things” it is really difficult to feel sorrow for a player for “only” earning $8M/year when he could have signed for $14.1M.  And its pretty hard to feel empathy for someone who feels slighted because he “only” got a 1-year 8 figure deal.  In some ways the money figures we talk about remind me of the infamous quote from NBA player Latrell Sprewell, who turned down a contract offer of $21M on the grounds that he “needed to be able to feed his family.”   For the sake of this post, lets dispense with the typical comments I see on the internet about how much money these guys are making as compared to middle-americans who struggle to get by on the median incomes for this country.  Baseball players participate in an economic market just like the rest of us; it just happens to value their talents at levels measured in the tens of millions of dollars instead of the tens of thousands that us normal people are used to.  For a huge, huge majority of professional baseball players, even a few seasons at the MLB minimum is all they’re ever going to see as payoff for years and years of incredibly curtailed earnings in the minors, and I’ll never consider these guys “overpaid.”

My 2014 Fantasy Baseball Team

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Adam Jones; my #1 fantasy draft pick in 2014.  Photo unk.

Adam Jones; my #1 fantasy draft pick in 2014. Photo unk.

As with years past … feel free to skip this post if you don’t care about fantasy.  I know for certain that reading about someone elses’s fantasy sports team can be a bit grating.  But, if you do play fantasy i’m sure you’ll at least appreciate reading the selections and then looking at the team’s strength analysis at the end.

I’ll include a jump line so your RSS feeds aren’t blown out either.

Read the rest of this entry »

Ask Boswell 2/18/14 Edition

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Lots of questions about Mr. Williams.  Photo Nats official 2014 via sportingnews.com

Lots of questions about Mr. Williams. Photo Nats official 2014 via sportingnews.com

Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell must be in heaven: he’s at Spring Training, in 80 degree weather, talking baseball.  Here’s his 2/18/14 WP chat edition and how i’d have answered his baseball questions.  He did an extra long session, doing an hour and then coming back for even more questions, so this is a huge post.

Q: Which Nat is most and least likely to benefit from Matt Williams’ detail-oriented approach?

A: I’ll take the easy way out on this one: I’ll say that the rookies are most likely to benefit and the veterans are least-likely.  But that’s probably not very fair because it assumes that our vets will automatically have a hard time adjusting to a new voice.  In reality, Matt Williamspedigree as a player is going to shut just about any veteran up; name one player on this team who has accomplished anything close to what Williams did as a player?   I mean, we’re talking about a guy with multiple All Star appearances, multiple Gold Gloves, multiple Silver Sluggers, a couple near MVP seasons, more than 200 post-season at-bats spread across 5 post-season trips, three trips to the World Series and one ring.  He also played in two specific games that are both counted among the best games of the last 50 years (Game 7 of the 1997 World Series and 2001′s Game 7 of the World Series).

That’s a heck of a lot of accomplishments.  Who in their right mind is looking him in the fact and doubting his wisdom about anything?

Boswell points out a number of guys who are “introverts” who like the structure, mentions Rafael Soriano as a possible problem child … but then also notes Soriano lost a ton of weight and is playing for a contract, so he doesn’t expect any issues.  Fair enough.

Q: Where can I get good details on the Nats spring training schedules in Viera?

A: CSN’s Mark Zuckerman posts a great intro-to-spring training on his Natsinsider.com blog each year.  Here’s parts 1 and 2, focusing on the Nats baseball Complex and the Town of Viera.  Boswell speaks highly of watching bullpen sessions.  Can’t blame him; man I want to do Spring Training sometime!

Q: What does the Yankees signing of Masahiro Tanaka do for the Yankees season?

A: Not much in my opinion.   Despite Tanaka’s pedigree and $175M paycheck, he’s being touted by his own team as a “#3 starter.”  That’s a heck of a lot of money for a #3 starter.  Now in reality scouts liken him to a young Dan Haren (in terms of his repertoire), but he’s still not nearly in the same Ace class as the most recent Japanese import Yu Darvish.  Plus he’s got to deal with the inevitable adjustment to this country, a new language, 10,000 obnoxious NY beat reporters, the food, the city, and that pesky 4-days of rest schedule we have here for our starters.

As for the Yankees chances in 2014 in general, check out their current depth chart: Their rotation is set to be Sabathia (coming off an awful year), 40-yr old Kuroda, TanakaIvan Nova and David Phelps.  Does that sound like a 95-win rotation?   Here’s their infield: Mark Teixeira (15 games last year), Brian Roberts (77 games last year), Derek Jeter (17 games last year), and Eduardo Nunez (90 games last year).   Does that infield inspire confidence?  What makes anyone think that infield is lasting even a quarter of the season without a major injury?  Plus, Buster Olney or Jayson Stark recently mentioned this factoid:  ”No team has ever in the history of the game had a winning season starting a shortstop as old as Jeter.”    Yes the Yankees made some significant signings (Beltran, Ellsbury, McCann).  But I don’t think its enough to make up for what’s going to happen to their infield.  I think years of overpaying for FAs and being unlucky in their player development has caught up with the Yankees in a big way and they’ll be lucky to be a .500 team this year.  Boswell points out that PECOTA has them as 82-80.   And then he drops a scary subtle hint saying that Ian Desmond has already declined an $85M deal and may have his sights on becoming the next Yankees long-term shortstop.  Ouch.  Thankfully the timing doesn’t quite work out; Jeter retires after this year and the Nats have Desmond locked up for two seasons.

Q: Can you go into the stadium and see the view from your seats before committing to a Season Ticket?

A: No idea, but I’d bet the answer is yes.  We could do that before, you know back when I was a season ticket holder, pre Nats stadium, pre kids, pre getting-royally-screwed-in-the-new-stadium-relocation game.  Boswell assumes yes, and posts an answer confirming it from another fan later on who did exactly this.

Q: Why is the name Redskins such a hotbutton while the Braves gets almost no press?

A: (I couldn’t resist this question even if not entirely about Baseball): Probably because one name is a slur and the other is just a noun.  In a politically correct world no person-indicating moniker would ever be used as a team nickname … but then again you can get rather ridiculous (is “Padre” and the drawing of a priest with a goofy smile swinging a bat offensive to the clergy?  I’m of Irish descent; what if I said that the Notre Dame “Fighting Irish” is offensive to me because of my culture?).   Plus, frankly, I don’t get why little Danny Snyder won’t just frigging change the name; I mean, how many gazillions of dollars of new merchandise sales would he get if he re-branded the team?  Why is he so obstinate about this issue?  Every time he posts some dumb letter defending the name it makes him look more and more like a little rich whiny fan-boy who grew up loving the team despite being too sickly to actually play, and now he’s clinging to an iconic symbol of his youth.  As if it was a ratty security blanket.   Boswell talks about cultural change and social progress and hints that he’s going to post his official opinion on the matter soon.

Q: Has Jeter’s retirement caused TOO much media attention?

A: Honestly, I don’t feel like it has; at least not as much as the questioner, who whined about all the coverage and news items related to Jeter.  Perhaps its because he’s gone up against the Olympics and NBC’s force-fed human interest coverage machine that I havn’t noticed.

Olympics Rant/Tangent: Seriously; I thought I had seen it all with NBC’s ridiculous coverage over the years of figure skaters as “athletes” … now the coverage of these silly snowboarders has surpassed it.  I’m sorry; if your “sport” requires judges who take into consideration your “style” or your “costume,” then it isn’t a sport.  ”Team skating?”  ”Ice Dancing?”  Why not just have a frigging spinning contest or see who can coast the longest on one skate or some other useless reason to award a few more gold medals?  In my opinion, if there isn’t a score or a race to a finish line or one man versus another in a contest … you’re not a sport.  Nothing against figure skaters specifically; what they do is amazing, requires elegance and strength and years of training.  But so does Ballet; why is one an olympic sport and the other a performance art?  All those cirque-de-soleil performers?  Why isn’t that an olympic sport too?

Tangent/Rant off.

I think we’ll all be pretty frigging sick of Derek Jeter once August and September rolls-around.  Yeah he’s a great player, first ballot hall of famer.  But so are about 20-25 other guys playing right now.  I agree with the questioner’s rant about the over-coverage of all things Yankees.   Boswell points out that Jeter’s career WAR is one spot above Bobby Grich, so as to temper some expectations.  That’s harsh; even I recognize his importance to the game as a surpassing point than just whittling down all his accomplishments to one (dubious) number. 

Q: What is Livan Hernandez’s role on this team?

A: Whatever it is, I think its friggin awesome that he’s in Spring Training representing the Nats.  Kudos to whoever reached out and got him to come help out.  Livan Hernandez may have played all over the majors (9 teams in 17 seasons; that’s tough to do when you’re not a left-handed reliever) but he played the most of it with our franchise.  Boswell’s quoting of Drew Storen‘s description of Livan’s role is awesome: ”His job is life-coach, bleep-talker and being Livo.”   He also notes that Livan can provide some fielding and instruction on holding runners, a sore spot for several Nats starters.

Q: How is Christian Garcia looking so far? Any chance that he goes north with the club?

A: All reports list Christian Garcia as (finally) healthy.  But its telling that the team is already specifically pointing out that “he’s made it further than he did last year.”  It seems like his fragility is almost a running joke on the team now.  Chances of breaking into the 7-man bullpen?  Remote unless there’s injuries.  But if he goes to AAA and pitches lights out, he’ll be first guy back.   If he stays healthy (four words that should be attached to every single sentence ever written about Garcia).  Boswell says that if he’s healthy, he’s on the team.  I have a very hard time believing that; who makes way?  Not Soriano, Storen, Clippard or Stammen.  Not Blevins.  Ohlendorf?  Roark?  Roark’s numbers last fall were *better* than anything Garcia did in 2012 and in 4 times the innings.  Ohlendorf isn’t being paid north of $1M to screw around in upstate New York.  And, none of this takes into account the statements from Williams about liking to have two lefties in the bullpen… If it were me, I’d want to see Garcia pitch at least a month straight without hurting something on his person.  

Q: How would you grade Rizzo’s off-season?

A:  Pretty frigging good.  Fister: fantastic acquisition.  McLouth; not too bad, should help.  Lobaton: looking better and better, considering the pedigree i’m hearing about the two guys thrown into the deal (Vettleson and Rivero).  I don’t think his lack of acquiring a better lefty will hurt; Sammy Solis is impressing and could contribute immediately, newly acquired Rivero apparently has some stuff, and there’s still the likes of Cedeno and a couple other AAA guys who we could use.  Boswell says A- … and then tells a tid-bit about the Grant Balfour deal that fell through.

Q: Why are the Nats pitchers so bad at holding runners on?  Is this something they’re working on this Spring

A: Why?  beats me.  Maybe a better defensive catcher will help in that category.  They definitely seem to be working on it this spring as noted in the above Livo question.  Boswell doesn’t really answer the question but then uses this question as a segue into talking about Williams’ anger issues.  Random.

Q: If Ryan Zimmerman is going to play some first base … what the heck is Tyler Moore going to do?

A: A decent question, but which assumes that Tyler Moore is anything other than a bench bat.  And it assumes that Adam LaRoche is going to platoon.  I know plenty in the blogosphere want that to happen … but this is a contract year, and the last time couple times LaRoche faced a contract year he played pretty durn good.  Meanwhile, Moore seems like the kind of player who could use a change of scenery and a trade to a team with more playing time.  Boswell likes his swing.

Q: Is team improvement correlation or causation to a hitting coach change, like what happened last year with Eckstein’s firing?

A: You ask me, i’d say its correlation/coincidence.  It isn’t the hitting coach facing 95 mph fastballs.  But I’m no professional.  Boswell can’t figure it out either.

Q: Did they really need another catcher when they had both two young options and Synder as a proven vet? Why waste a pitching prospect with a high upside for a backup catcher who can’t throw out runners, already a major problem. Did Rizzo get taken by the Rays?

A: Sounds to me like this question-er is overvaluing the potential contributions of our catching prospects Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano, is incredibly overvaluing what Chris Snyder still brings to the table, and is overvaluing Nathan Karns and what is ceiling seems to realistically be.  Oh, and he’s undervaluing the prospects we got in return (both of which are in our top 14 according to mlbdraftinsider.com’s recent post).  I like the move, it fixes a hole for the team and gives a couple of prospects to shore up a thinned system, all for a guy who I think we all liked in Karns but who likely faces a ceiling of a reliever.  Boswell notes the need for a “real” backup catcher and notes that the team traded from depth.

Q: Have the Braves taken a step back this offseason and are really counting on BJ Upton to do anything on offense this year?

A: Yes and yes.  McCann is a  huge loss.  Tim Hudson may not “seem” like a loss given the Braves pitching depth, but he was their opening day starter in 2013 and was their bulldog staff leader (if not an “ace” in the literal sense of the word).   They also let go Paul Maholm, who gave them a ton of decent innings last year.  They’re depending on Brandon Beachy to come back healthy and on the rest of their young rotation to contribute.  Otherwise they did little this off-season other than extending a couple of guys.   As far as BJ Upton, what choice do they have but to run him out day after day at this point?  Same as Dan Uggla: those two guys are getting paid a ton of money and will be given every chance to prove themselves.  Boswell agrees.

Q: How often have you seen baseball players take a hometown discount?

A: Not very often: Roy Halladay took a bit less so he could play for Philly … because their spring training complex is in the same town as his full-time home.  Hard to think of obvious other players off-hand.  The asker questioned whether Jordan Zimmermann would consider less money to play for his “hometown” Brewers … without really considering the fact that Milwaukee is a cheap-skate franchise and will *never* come close to paying the 9-figure deal that Zimmermann probably earns in two years’ time.  Boswell doesn’t really answer the original question, just notes that so far our FA players are going for the money.

Q: In your opinion, who will end up being the fifth starter? Detwiler, Roark, or Jordan?

A: Ross Emery Detwiler, for the same reasons I pointed out in my 2014 Staff Projections post in late december.   Quoting myself from that post:

Why am I predicting Detwiler will win the rotation spot?  Partly because of options (Detwiler has none while Roark, Ohlendorf and Jordan all do), but partly because I’ve sort of come back around on him after looking more closely at his 2013 season.  He had a decent to good 2012; he posted a 118 ERA+ and even if his advanced FIP/SIERA didn’t indicate he was quite that good, he was still more than a servicable 5th starter.  Then in his first seven 2013 starts he was also very good (he had a 2.53 ERA in his first 7 starts and 42 2/3 innings … he got hurt in his 8th start).  The rest of his season was a mess, with him fighting injury and ballooning his seasonal ERA from 2.53 to more than 4.00 in five more starts.   If he comes back healthy to start 2014, why wouldn’t we expect more of the same performance that he had at the start of 2013?  For these reasons, I think Detwiler breaks camp as the 5th starter.

I like Tanner Roark and feel the team is going to find a way for him to be in the MLB bullpen.  I also now believe Taylor Jordan‘s off-season ankle injury will give the team an excuse to keep him in the minors a bit to season him up and maybe even keep some innings off his arm.   So it’ll be Detwiler until he either falters or gets hurt again.  At least we have a ton of options this year to cover for a starter injury.

Boswell says Detwiler as well but writes a ton on othe other guys, including a glowing talk about Roark.  And he throws in this tidbit: Detroit asked for Jordan and Robbie Ray before settling for Ray and spare parts.  Interesting.  

Q: What’s your read on how the last two bullpen spots play out?

A: Also borrowing from my Dec 2013 post, I’ll go with Ohlendorf and Roark.  Ohlendorf as the long-man, spot starter rubber arm guy.  Roark with the hope he continues his magical run of exceptional command and fearless relief.  I know that only leaves on lefty out there, and leaves guys like Ryan Mattheus and Christian Garcia in AAA.  Hey, I could be wrong.   Boswell doesn’t seem to guess.

Q: Do you think the coaches will let Espi continue to be a switch hitter or keep him as a lefty hitter only? 

A: I hope you mean righty hitter only; he is a career .220 lefty hitter but .262 righty. If I was the Nats brass, i’d try him as a righty-only guy.  But by all accounts Danny Espinosa is a bit stubborn and may not be open to limiting a unique skill that he may continue to think distinguishes himself from other competitors.  I continue to wonder just how hurt he was last year … as others have said, it isn’t like Espinosa suddenly forgot how to hit.  Yes he was always somewhat limited as a player, but 20-homer capable middle infielders don’t grow on trees.  Boswell says the team isn’t messing with Espinosa, and that they want to see what he can do in 2014.  Fair enough.

Q: Are you worried about the power (or lack thereof) in the Nats lineup?

A: Not really.  The capability is there across the lineup.  Zimmerman has hit 30.  So has LaRoche.  Desmond has hit 20.  So has Espinosa.  Ramos has 20+ homer capability if he’s healthy.  Werth is good for 25 and has hit 30+ before.  And none of this talks about our best power hitter Harper and what he can do.   Basically the team is a whole bunch of guys with 20 homer capability.   The Nats were T-3th in the NL in homers last year as a team (trailing two teams in offensive parks) and should improve in this category with a healthy Harper.  Boswell just talks about Ramos’ stats extrapolated to a full season.

Q: Is praise of Williams’ approach tacit criticism of Davey Johnson’s?

A: Yeah probably.  That’s why you change managers; to change the message.  I’m not going to disparage Davey Johnson too much here other than to say what i’ve said before; the team needed a new voice.  Boswell points out that Johnson’s 2012 job was fantastic and that there’s “different jockeys for different horses.” I like that analogy.


One last point: there was a question about MASN that Boswell went off on and gave some tidbits, including a shot at Bud Selig.  Its worth the read; click on the chat link and head to the bottom.

A look at the Nats 2014 schedule…

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One of the interesting components of the Nats 2013 schedule, often repeated in this space in the early parts of last season, was how “front-loaded” it was in terms of opponent quality.  The team’s April and May of last year was loaded with playoff calibre teams, and it wasn’t really a surprise that the Nats were just a .500 team early on.  That front-loading also led to a very sparse period in June and July of 2013 where the team played 8 straight weeks of games against teams who failed to make the 2012 playoffs.  I didn’t sweat our .500 record at the end of April because of it, pointing to the crucial June/July period as a spot in the schedule where the team should have “made up” for its early season.  As we now know, the team continued to play flat all summer and only finally “woke up” when playing a very soft September schedule, and the .500 record in the early parts of the season was far more indicative of the 2013 team than practically any of us thought going into the season.

Caveat before going on; yes I know that the fact that a team made the playoffs in 2013 doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to make the playoffs in 2014.  And yes I know that poor teams from last year are improving and could be more “frisky” in 2014.  That being said … I feel like we’re in a very odd time in Baseball, where payroll issues, changing dynamics caused by the collective bargaining agreement, and teams being stuck in transition are leading to teams being very slow to change their fortunes.  Only Six teams in the NL finished with winning records last year; the 3 divisional winners, the 2 wild cards and the Nats.   If you look at the other 9 teams … which are honestly going to be in a position to improve and be a playoff challenger at this point?  Certainly not Miami or the Cubs.   Philadelphia looks to be in continued decline.  The Mets signed a bunch of re-treads and lost their main pitching weapon.  The Giants spent tens of millions of dollars and didn’t improve their team.  The Padres have 1/5th the payroll of their divisional rivals in Los Angeles.  Colorado still has no pitching.  Arizona keeps losing trades to get rid of players who don’t fit their manager’s beliefs.   Perhaps only Arizona could be friskier in 2014.   Its hard to look at the divisions and not basically predict a repeat of 2013′s playoff races.  Maybe Cincinnati and Pittsburgh regress a little bit.  St. Louis and Los Angeles look every bit as strong as they did last year.  So, basically the games we need to be worried about are almost entirely driven by last  year’s playoff teams.

How does the 2014 schedule shape up, doing analysis of opponents by their position in 2013?  Lets take a look.  Breaking down our 2014 schedule by month:

# games # games vs 2013 playoffs # games vs 2013 winning rcrd
April 28 10 10
May 27 13 15
June 28 7 8
July 25 3 5
August 28 6 6
Sept 26 9 9
ttl 162 48 53

So, once again the team starts the season with a relatively tougher schedule, having to play two sets against the Braves and a 4-game set at home against St. Louis in April.   The Braves by all accounts are weakened by the loss of two key players (Tim Hudson and Brian McCann), and have done relatively little to improve their team this off-season, so perhaps some regression from last year’s 98 win team is in order.  Still, the Braves are the primary competition for the NL East crown and those early games will be crucial.  The Nats also will play the payroll-heavy/possibly improved Angels and the up-and-coming Padres in April, in addition to two 3-game sets against the Marlins and their band of up-and-coming youngesters.  It could be another rough month.

May doesn’t get any easier; fully half their games are against 2013 playoff teams.  The Nats get the Dodgers and their murderer’s row of pitchers at home, then a west coast trip in Oakland and in Arizona (who finished 81-81 last year and could have made the table above look even more daunting), then a 3-game set at home to Cincinnati (who look to be somewhat weaker but still present a great rotation) before traveling to Pittsburgh for 4-games (tough) and then finishing the month at home against AL-power Texas.  That’s a tough month.

June eases up a bit, but it does feature another west-coast trip that includes four games in San Francisco (who could be improved this year) and then three in St. Louis (where we were swept badly last year), before returning home for a big four-game set against divisional rival Atlanta.  The rest of the month looks manageable.

July looks to be the easiest month of the season; the toughest series will be in Cincinnati and a home-and-home against Baltimore.  The entire baseball world is questioning the direction of Baltimore these days, but they are an AL team that features Chris Davis and a plus offense, and those interleague “rivalry” games are always tough.

August features lots of divisional games early on, a 3-game home set against Pittsburgh, and then the beginning of the final west-coast trip of the season in Seattle (an interesting team for 2014).   September starts with the toughest series of the year; 3 games in Los Angeles and then finishes with seven straight divisional series … including the last 10 games against the Mets and Marlins.  Which may be a good thing if the team is chasing a playoff spot or positioning towards the end of the season.

Conclusion: like in 2012 the Nats early schedule is significantly tougher than the middle portion (especially August, where they play just 6 games against teams with winning records in 2013).  The Nats will have to weather the storm early on and hope to dominate and catch up on playoff rivals during the dog days of summer.   Why is this important?  Because generally speaking if you can go .500 against the good teams and then go about .600 against the other teams, you’re almost guaranteed a playoff spot.  Consider: if the Nats go 24-24 in their 48 games against playoff teams, then play .600 ball in the other 114 games (68-46) … that’s a 92 win season.   I think that’s a great goal for this team; 6 games improved with a hope of picking up a few of those games against Atlanta and pipping them for the divisional title.

ps; just 8 days until Pitchers and Catchers report!

Written by Todd Boss

February 5th, 2014 at 9:20 am

First Look: Tanner Roark

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Tanner Roark living the dream.  Photo via milb.com

Tanner Roark living the dream. Photo via milb.com

A few days ago I was playing amateur GM and ended up predicting the 8/6/13 roster moves, where Ross Detwiler was transfered to the 60-day DL and Tanner Roark was called up to provide some bullpen cover while Ross Ohlendorf is on the mend.  Roark’s body of work both this season and over the past few warranted his call-up, and his mixture of success both in the starter role and in a long-relief role in AAA make him the perfect candidate to replace Ohlendorf for the time being.

A quick side note: whenever I see someone, after years and years of toiling in the minors, finally get the call-up I’m reminded of the storytelling of Dirk Hayhurst in his 2nd book Out of My League, where he described all the logistics and feelings of getting his first callup.  Of particular interest; the pay.  I’m sure Roark was compensated like a typical minor league veteran in AAA; probably making $1,500 a month or so (which was about what Hayhurst said he made).  Upon signing a MLB contract, you immediately start getting paid a pro-rated amount of a minimum MLB salary, which is $490,000 a season.  Well, you can quickly see that a guy getting called up immediately starts making significantly more money.   30-40 TIMES more money.  More money per day in the majors than he was making in a month in the minors.   So I say good for Roark and good for every guy who finally gets a shot at the bigs.

Lets take a look at Roark’s first appearance… which came last night on 8/7/13 in relief of a curiously ineffective Jordan Zimmermann, who needed 88 pitches to complete 4 innings as the Nats officially waved the white flag on the season, getting swept at home by the team they’re chasing for the division lead and falling to 15 1/2 games out of first.

Roark had a great MLB debut.  He came in to face Atlanta’s 4-5-6 hitters and pitched a 1-2-3 inning.  He got a Brian McCann to fly out on a relatively well struck ball, then badly jammed Chris Johnson to get a simple grounder to short, and then got Dan Uggla to reach for a first pitch fastball for an equally weak grounder to second.  Coming back out to face the bottom of the order he effectively jammed BJ Upton, who flared a flyball into shallow center field that Denard Span couldn’t quite come up with in a sliding catch attempt, then  he jammed Andrelton Simmons to get a simple pop-up to first.  Lastly for his coup-de-gras, he induced a popped-up bunt attempt from his opposite number Kris Medlen, made a diving catch and then doubled off Upton, who was (I guess) running on the play.

Not a bad debut, at all.

The scouting reports on Roark said that he’d work mid 90s in relief, low 90s as a starter, and that’s exactly what we saw.  Per the pitch f/x data, He threw 12 fastballs on the night which averaged 94.46, peaking at 95.52.  He only threw three sliders, bouncing the first and probably ruining his confidence in the pitch.  10 of 15 pitches were for strikes, and that ratio should have been higher; his first batter he didn’t get a borderline call on the outside corner and the ump flat out missed a low strike.  He seemed to have pretty good movement on the 4-seamer (-7.10″ average horizontal movement, which for comparison purposes almost as much as Medlen, a guy who relies almost exclusively on his movement, got on his 2-seamer last night).  He certainly worked the corners effectively, only really giving up one well hit ball (that to McCann, who benefitted from being way ahead in the count thanks to the ump’s missed strike calls).  You don’t have to throw 100mph if you can effectively work the ball inside and out.

He was almost too effective; 15 pitches to get through 2 innings meant he didn’t really work much of his repertoire.  I’m sure he has at least a third pitch, but we never got to see it.  Roark’s spot in the order was up, and he was out (as he was being pinch hit for, I wondered internally when the last time Roark got an at-bat was.  Turns out he has 18PAs for Syracuse this summer; I didn’t realize the minor league pitchers got any at-bats).

It was hard not to like what we saw from him last night.  Is he going to continue to be effective, can he stick in the majors?  Hard to tell.  Ian Krol giving up two hits and a walk in a third of an inning didn’t help his cause much, a similiarly ineffective appearance to his 7/31 outing.  Fernando Abad has basically blown the last two games in which he’s appeared.  But these two guys are blessed as being left-handers, so they possess value that a righty does not, and may not really be candidates to make way once Ohlendorf comes off the D/L.  So we’ll see.

Meanwhile Tanner, use some of that MLB meal money to go get a haircut!  :-)

PS.  One more thought on this series since i’ve got nowhere else to put it; I’m disappointed we didn’t see retaliation of some sort last night for the BS of the night before.  I’m sorry; you HAVE to protect your best player out there, and i’m not surprised to hear reports and see evidence that Bryce Harper was on edge last night with his own manager.  As J.P. Santangelo succinctly pointed out; not protecting one of your own players can and does blow up clubhouses.  I think somebody on Atlanta needed to get hit last night (likely McCann).  I’m more than a little worried right now about the state of the clubhouse, given this lack of reaction.

Possible 2013 WBC Nationals participants?

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Harper makes perfect sense to represent the US in 2013 WBC. Photo GQ magazine Mar 2012

I read a quickie piece with some Mike Rizzo quotes from the Washington Time’s beat reporter Amanda Comak on November 11th, 2012 and there was an interesting tidbit at the bottom: per Comak,  Rizzo has not been approached yet about any Washington Nationals participation in the WBC, but would approach each request on a “case-by-case basis” to determine what is in the best interests of the team.  This got me thinking about possible Nats representatives on 2013 WBC teams.

Lets take a quick look at the Nationals representatives on WBC teams from the past, talk about whether its really in the best interests of the team to even let these guys play, and then talk about who may be candidates for the 2013 WBC regardless.

(Note: I’ve added updates highlighted in red since the original 11/21/12 publication date on players mentioned here).

Washington has sent a decent number of players to play in the WBC over the years, with very mixed results for the team’s interests.  In 2006 the team sent seven different players to the inaugural WBC:

  • Luis Ayala for Mexico
  • Chad Cordero, Gary Majewski and Brian Schneider for team USA
  • Ronnie Belliard, Alberto Castillo, and Wily Mo Pena for the Dominican Republic.

The tournament was marred for the team by a blown UCL ligament to Ayala, who had undergone elbow surgery earlier in the off-season but pitched for his home country anyway.  The team did not want Ayala to participate in the inaugural event, did not want him used by the Mexican team, and team officials were “livid” by the injury, which cost Ayala the season and cost the team its 8th inning setup guy.  Ayala recovered to pitch again in 2008 but was never as effective, and was shipped out in 2009 for a PTBNL.  Coincidentally, I suspect the team still harbors some ill-will towards Ayala to this day.  Meanwhile the other two relievers who participated both experienced regressions in form; Cordero’s ERA nearly doubled (from 1.82 to 3.19) from his breakout 2005 season while Majewski’s numbers dipped slightly before he was traded in the big Cincinnati deal of 2006.

In 2009, the team had 5 participants:

  • Pete Orr playing for Canada
  • Joel Hanrahan and Adam Dunn playing for the USA
  • Saul Rivera and Ivan Rodriguez playing for Puerto Rico.

The WBC seemed to energize particularly Dunn, who enjoyed playing in a post-season atmosphere for the first (and only) time in his career.  Nobody suffered any injuries, but Hanrahan in particular may have been affected by his lack of a proper spring training; he posted a 7.71 ERA for the team while losing the closer spot and was shipped to Pittsburgh.  Ironically, Rivera also experienced a huge regression of form, going from a 3.96 ERA in 2008 to a 6.10 ERA in 2009 and was eventually released.

This begs the question; do we even WANT our pitchers playing on this team?  The first two WBCs have shown pretty distinctly that our pitchers have regressed greatly after playing.  This only makes sense: the spring training routines are greatly impacted to play in this event.  We may see a ton of front-office resistance to specific guys (especially those coming off injury) playing in the 2013 event.  Which could affect the eligibility of some specific players for 2013.

Now, which Nats may play for the 2013 teams?  First off, looking at the Nationals 40-man roster, we have become an amazingly heavy USA-born team (we’ll get to non-40man roster players in a moment). Thanks to the Nats big board resource (originated by Brian Oliver and now maintained by “SpringfieldFan”), which has the country of origin for players, here’s a breakdown of the home-country of our current 36 active (as of November 15th, 2012) roster players:

  • USA: 27 (would be 29 if adding in our rule-5 avoidance players)
  • Venezuela: 5 (Jesus Flores, Sandy Leon, Wilson Ramos, Henry Rodriguez, and Carlos Rivero)
  • Cuba: 1 (Yunesky Maya)
  • Columbia: 1 (Jhonatan Solano)
  • Dominican Republic: 1 (Eury Perez)
  • Netherlands (via Curacao): 1 (Roger Bernadina)

As you can see, the massive bulk of our team is USA born, and essentially our entire post-season starting roster was USA born as well.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that these USA-born players will actually play for team USA (Alex Rodriguez played for Puerto Rico despite being born and raised in Miami, and our own Danny Espinosa is eligible to play for Mexico by virtue of his first-generation born in the US status), but almost all of these guys will be up for consideration for the USA team.  And this only accounts for our 40-man players; as we’ll see below there’s plenty of lower-minors players from smaller countries that will participate.

Who from the Nationals franchise may make a 2013 WBC roster?  First off, thanks to James Wagner‘s 11/15/12 NatsJournal post we already know of three WBC participants; Solano is on the Columbian team, minor leaguer Jimmy Van Ostrand is on the Canadian team, and A-ball catcher Adrian Nieto is on the Spanish team.  Curacao qualifies to play with the Netherlands, and I’d guess that Bernadina would make a great choice considering the lack of Dutch players in baseball (Baseball Continuum’s projections agree.  And as of 12/4/12 he’s officially been listed as a Netherlands participant).. Venezuela is already qualified for the main draw and has a relatively strong possible team.  The Baseball Continuum blog posted an early projection of the Venezuelan team and listed Flores as a likely participant (specifically mentioning that Ramos wasn’t considered due to injury recovery; I’d suspect these two players to switch based on Ramos’ recovery and Flores’ awful 2012).   If Henry Rodriguez was healthy i’d guess he would be on that list too, but his season-ending surgery probably precludes his participation.  The Dominican Republic has perhaps the strongest depth and has no need for the recently called up Perez among its outfield depth.  Maya’s defection eliminates him from discussion for the Cuban team.  (12/4/12 update): Chien-Ming Wang has been announced as a member of Chinese Taipei’s team (for the purposes of this article I investigated all 2012 Nats).

Which leaves our large contingent of American players.  A couple of writers have started postulating on these rosters (David Schoenfield‘s very early guess as to a potential USA roster is here, Baseball Continuum’s latest projection is here).  So using these two posts as a starting point, lets go position-by-position and give some thoughts as to who may get some consideration.  Keep in mind the WBC rosters are generally very reliever heavy, since no starter is going to be “allowed” to pitch a complete game in March.

(Note: I’m still considering our Free Agents as “Nats players” for the purposes of this analysis, since this really goes position by position from our 2012 team to find candidates).

  • Catcher: Kurt Suzuki isn’t nearly in the class of the likes of Buster Posey, Brian McCann, Joe Mauer, or Matt Weiters.  There are a ton of quality american backstops right now.
  • First Base: Free Agent Adam LaRoche probably faces far too much competition from the likes of Prince Fielder, Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Allen Craig, Eric Hosmer, and Mark Teixeira to make this team.  If it were me, I’d go with Fielder and Teixeira.  But, LaRoche’s great 2012 season and his Gold Glove recognition may get him a spot.  He is a FA though, so i’d guess he won’t commit until he signs and gets the go-ahead from his new team.  Or, perhaps he uses the WBC to showcase himself?  Not likely needed; he should sign long before the WBC kicks off in March.
  • Second Base: Danny Espinosa is a decent player, but not in the same league as  Shoenfield’s projection of Dustin Pedroia and Ben Zobrist.  Brandon Phillips is also in the mix for the team.
  • Shortstop: Ian Desmond‘s breakout 2013 season may get him some consideration.  There’s not a lot of American quality short stops out there.  Troy Tulowitzki is the obvious leading choice (as was Derek Jeter in the first two WBCs), but is he ready to come back from injury?  Looking around the majors there are a couple other possibilities (JJ Hardy, Brendan Ryan, Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Crawford all could be alternatives as well).   I think Desmond’s combination of offense and defense, combined with Tulowitzki’s injury recovery could get him on the team.
  • Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman cannot break the hegomony of David Wright and Evan Longoria right now, even given Longoria’s injury struggles this season.  Chase Headley and David Freese are also in the 3b mix.  12/4/12 update: Apparently Wright is committed, Longoria is out due to injury recovery and Headley “was not asked,” so perhaps Zimmerman is back in the mix.
  • Outfielders: I think Bryce Harper is a natural to make this team, not only on talent but also because of the brand-name recognition (and TV ratings and fan interest) it would generate.  Same goes for Mike Trout.  Otherwise there’s a slew of top-end american players who can man the outfield and they read like the top of the MVP boards: Braun, Kemp, McCutchen, Stanton, Hamilton, and Granderson are all candidates to make this team.  12/6/12 update: Scott Boras has stated that Harper will skip the WBC to focus on his sophomore season.
  • Starters: The two logical Nats candidates to be considered would be Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg.  But lets be honest; there is no way in hell Strasburg would be allowed to play.  Could Gonzalez make this team?  Given the depth of American starter talent right now (just off the top of my head: Verlander, LincecumCain, Hamels, Halladay, Kershaw, Lee, Weaver, Sabathia, Medlen, and so on) perhaps this will be a selection of attrition moreso than a selection of availability.  So if a number of the older guys on this list beg out, perhaps Gio gets his shot.  The WBC’s location in San Francisco has already lead to Ryan Vogelsong committing to play in his home town, and could lead to other Bay Area players signing up.  I’m not sure any of the rest of our starters are really candidates, given the reputations of the above list plus the reliever-heavy nature of the roster.
  • Relievers: our two most well known relievers (Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen) are possibilities; would the Nats block Storen based on his 2012 injury?  Craig Stammen‘s breakout 2012 season could get him looks, based on the reliever-heavy needs of the team.  Normally Sean Burnett may be in the loogy mix, but there’s better lefty relievers out there AND Burnett’s FA status may lead him to bow out to curry favor to his new team (Schoenfeld lists Burnett as a possible member back in July, before knowing he’s declared free agency).  The question is, would you take Clippard/Storen against the likes of this list of quality american back-of-the-bullpen arms: Kimbrel, Ventors, Marshall, League, Janssen, Papelbon, Hanrahan, Motte, Boggs, Bailey, Reed, and Nathan?  Possibly, considering that a lot of these guys probably bow out.  We’ve sent multiple relievers to each of the past two WBCs and its likely going to be the same thing this year.

Summary: here’s my guesses as to which Nats (and recent ex-Nats) will play in the WBC:

  • Venezuela: Ramos
  • Spain: Nieto
  • Canada: Van Ostrand
  • Columbia: Solano
  • Netherlands: Bernadina
  • Chinese Taipei: Wang
  • USA: Harper, Desmond, Gonzalez, Clippard.  Perhaps Zimmerman and Stammen.

March 2013 update: here’s the post-WBC actual list of participants when all was said and done, helped by  the list of rosters via Wikipedia.  MLB reports that nine (9) Nationals are participating in the classic, though the below list (excluding Wang) totals more.  They’re not counting Solano/Columbia, having lost in the preliminaries.

  • Columbia: Jhonatan Solano (AAA/Mlb in 2012)
  • Spain: Adrian Nieto (low-A in 2012)
  • Canada: Jimmy Van Ostrand (AA in 2012)
  • Italy: Matt Torra, Mike Costanzo (both AAA in 2012, Washington MLFA signings for 2013)
  • Netherlands: Roger Bernadina, Randolph Oduber (high-A in 2012)
  • Chinese Taipei: Chien-Ming Wang (former Nat, non-signed FA for 2013 start of season)
  • USA: Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler
  • Dominican Republic: Eury Perez (3/4/13 addition to DR team)

Roster Construction Analysis of 10 Playoff Teams; 2012 edition

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Justin Verlander is one of the most important home-grown players in the 2012 playoffs. Photo unk via rumorsandrants.com

Every year I do a bit of “Team Construction” analysis to kind of gauge the trends in roster construction.  Last year’s post is here, and the links to the side have the underlying spreadsheet of player acquisition methods so you can see the pure details.  This topic was also covered in-depth by John Sickels on his minorleaguebaseball.com blog for another viewpoint.

Borrowing from last year’s post, there are four main ways teams can acquire players:

  1. Draft: The player is with the original team that drafted him.  In the case of international free agents, if they’re signed as 16-year olds they are considered in this category as well (i.e., Ichiro Suzuki is not a developed player, but an international Free Agent).  It could be better defined as “Club developed players.”  Simple examples for the Nats: Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
  2. Traded MLBers: The player was acquired by the team by virtue of trading an established MLB player.  Most of the time these days, this means the player was acquired as a prospect (since most trades seem to be of the prospect-for-established player kind).  Example for the Nats would be Michael Morse, who was acquired by our trading an established MLB player in Ryan Langerhans for Morse while he was still (essentially) a minor leaguer.
  3. Traded Prospects: The player was acquired by the team by virtue of trading prospects.  This is essentially the reverse of #2.  The Nats key example is Gio Gonzalez.
  4. Free Agent: The player was acquired in free agency.  This category also includes two other types of acquisitions: waiver claims and cash purchases.  These three categories are lumped together since all three indicate that a team has acquired a player with zero outlay in terms of development or prospects.  Examples for the Nats: Edwin Jackson, Adam LaRoche.

Here is the summary of roster construction and “Construction Strategy Category” that we’ll talk about next.  Note that I only count the “core players” on a team for this analysis.  The core players is defined as the 5-man starting rotation, the setup and closer, the 8 out-field players, and the DH for AL teams.  I didn’t extend this all the way to the 25-man roster, figuring that these core 15 players are the main reasons teams win and advance.  That and huge chunks of the bullpen and the bench are either fill-in FAs or draftees and it would skew the analysis of how teams really got to the playoffs.  Here’s the summary (the table is sorted by count of Draftees):

Season Team Drafted/Developed Traded Prospects Traded MLBs FA/Waivers Ttl Constr Method
2012 Atlanta 11 1 3 0 15 #1
2012 St. Louis 9 0 2 4 15 #1/#4
2012 Washington 8 3 1 3 15 #2
2012 San Francisco 8 2 2 3 15 #2
2012 Cincinnati 8 2 3 2 15 #1
2012 New York Yankees 5 2 1 8 16 #4
2012 Detroit 5 5 2 4 16 #2/#4
2012 Texas 4 2 7 3 16 #3/#4
2012 Baltimore 3 1 8 4 16 #3
2012 Oakland 2 1 7 6 16 #3

So, what are the four construction methods I’ve identified? Again borrowing from last year’s version of this post, they are (with this year’s examples).  The complication this year is that some of the 10 playoff teams don’t fall neatly into one specific category.

Method #1: Build from within 100%: (Cincinnati, Atlanta).   Atlanta, amazingly, didn’t use a single Free Agent among its core 15 this year.  They made a couple of key trades to acquire a few starters, but the rest of their lineup is home-grown draftees.  That may change next year as they try to replace Chipper Jones, Michael Bourn and possibly Brian McCann, who may leave via free agency.  Meanwhile Cincinnati has just a couple of free agents and mostly rely on guys they’ve grown as well.

Method #2: Ride your developed Core and use your prospects to acquire big names: (Washington, San Francisco and Detroit to an extent): The Nats have transformed themselves over just a couple of seasons, relying less on FAs to plug holes caused by an awful farm system to having most of their core team developed at home (See the table further below to follow the transformation of our team over the past few seasons).  Those spots they couldn’t depend on have been filled by trades (three guys acquired by flipping prospects for them; in addition to Gonzalez Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Clippard also count here).  San Francisco has seen their payroll skyrocket as they extend their home-grown talent, but for the most part they have stayed true to the team development concept.  Their one major Free Agent (Barry Zito) is notoriously one of the worst contracts in baseball and it is somewhat surprising to even see him on the post-season roster.  He wouldn’t be if Tim Lincecum was pitching in 2012 like he has regularly done in previous seasons.  Detroit was entirely in method #2 until they decided to spend money like the Yankees; we’ll revisit in #4.

Method #3: Go Young and grow up Strong (Baltimore, Oakland and Texas to an extent): Baltimore acquired a massive chunk of their rosters by flipping major leaguers for prospects and watching them blossom into a surprise playoff team.  Oakland has made a habit of getting rid of guys before they hit arbitration; fully 7 of their squad was acquired this way.  The difference is that Oakland has been forced to buy a big chunk of their core group on the FA market, depending on cast-offs like Brandon Inge and Jonny Gomes to plug leaks and get production on the cheap.  I’m guessing that Oakland will transform more into Category #1 as the vast amount of prospects they’ve landed lately continue to matriculate.  Lastly Texas was entirely in this category before they dropped major money on the likes of Adrian Beltre and Yu Darvish, transforming them into a spending power to go with their still-excellent farm system.

Method #4: Spend what it takes to win: (New York fully with St Louis, Texas and Detroit partially here): The Yankees are the class-A example of this method (along with Boston and the Dodgers frankly), but the spending that St. Louis, Texas and Detroit cannot be overlooked.  The Yankees more and more are depending on expensive FA purchases to replace what their farm system is not developing, and the problem is only being brought into more focus this off-season.  Their 3 primary starters are FA acquisitions, their biggest FA is looking like a contract catastrophe, and their developed guys are not stepping up and taking over major roles (especially on the pitching staff).  The other three teams mentioned here are mostly built on home-grown talent, but have spent so much money on the FA market lately that they are broaching into the upper echelons of MLB payroll.  St. Louis is almost entirely built from within (as noted by other columnists doing this same type of analysis) but still has depended on a couple of key FAs to advance as far as they have.

Conclusions:

  • There’s no real formula to building a playoff team, as we see from the spread of the 10 teams among the four methods defined.
  • I think its safe to say that the most difficult methods to depend on are #1 and #3.  You need to have a very good farm system to depend on the #1 method to work for you, and over the past few years only a couple of teams really have had success using this method (Atlanta and Tampa Bay).  Kansas City has tried #1 for years and has gone nowhere.  The #3 method is also frought with issues, since it requires a ton of patience from your fan base and may not be sustainable.  Would anyone be surprised if both Oakland and Baltimore collapsed next season?  Probably not; you really need to build on a base of players once you’ve established yourself as a good team and continue to augment, either through trade or through FAs.  But even that can be dangerous; just ask Philadelphia this year, owners of the 2nd biggest payroll in baseball and just a 3rd place team.
  • Is Category #1 and #3 the same?  No, not really. #1 teams rely much more heavily on personally developed prospects, while #3 teams purposely set out to acquire prospects in trade to combine with their own development mis-fortunes.  If Baltimore had a better farm system, they wouldn’t have needed to jettison so many established MLBers to acquire prospects, and they’d probably be closer to a #2 team (a wealthy team who supplements developed players with key FAs, much like what Washington is doing).
  • Oakland is really a unique case; they do develop players but get rid of them because of a self-imposed incredibly restrictive salary cap.  Imagine what Billy Beane could do with that team if he could have purchased just $30M of players on the open market (which would have still left Oakland in the bottom third of payroll).
  • Buying your way to a team (method #4) can work, but only if you have nearly unlimited money and everything goes right for you.  There’s almost no excuse for a $175M payroll to get beat to the playoffs by a $55M payroll team (Oakland).  That is unless you overpay for poor FA targets, install the wrong manager and saddle yourself with the worst clubhouse in baseball.  In case you were wondering, the 2012 Boston Red Sox were a classic case of why money cannot buy happiness, and why unlimited funds do not necessarily guarantee playoff baseball.  The Angels are another example; owing most of their season’s turnaround and success to Mike Trout and his MLB minimum salary providing nearly 10 WAR despite having the 3rd largest payroll in baseball and having just purchased the games pre-emminent hitter in Albert Pujols.
  • Frequent commenter Clark has a good point; classifying Mark Teixeira and Raul Ibanez as the same type of player (acquired via free agency) is a bit mis-leading.  Clearly a $150M player isn’t the same as a $1M player.  But, for the purposes of analyzing how much of your team is “bought” versus “developed” the point remains the same whether its a bargain basement guy or a $20M/year player.

So, if I had just purchased a new team, what construction method would I follow?  I guess it depends; if I thought I had a patient fan base, I’d probably do exactly what is going on in Houston.  I’d gut the MLB roster, trade every tradeable asset and start over payroll-wise.  I’d follow strategy #1 until I was at least competitive, and then i’d probably switch over to a #2 strategy or a #3 strategy, depending on just how good my developed players were.  You hope for #3; it implies you’ve got so much in-house talent that all you need to do is keep extending your key guys and you’ll keep winning.

I don’t think #4 is a sustainable way of building rosters.  The Yankees have gotten away with it for years, but only because they initially had a banner crop of developed players (the “core four”) to depend on up their spine.  Would anyone be surprised if the Yankees fail to make the playoffs next year?  Alex Rodriguez looks incredibly old, Derek Jeter just broke his ankle, they’re losing a number of hitters to FA and they only have a couple of starters locked up.  Where’s their starting pitching for 2013?  And what happens if they finally get hit with injuries to their rotation to the extent that Boston did this year?  I think this is why you see $80M payroll teams beating out $170M payroll teams all the time; teams get bloated, they over pay their own players and suddenly are old, inflexible and unable to adjust financially to buy what they need.

Lastly, here’s what the Nats roster has done over the past few seasons:

Season Team Drafted/Developed Traded Prospects Traded MLBs FA/Waivers Ttl Constr Method
2010 Washington (end of 2010) 7 1 2 5 15 #2
2011 Wash (2011 opening day) 6 2 1 6 15 #2
2011 Wash (primary Roster for season) 6 2 2 5 15 #2
2011 Wash (end of season) 9 1 2 3 15 #2
2012 Washington (playoff roster) 8 3 1 3 15 #2

The team has been slowly replacing Free Agents with home-grown or acquired talent, and as we all know is well on its way towards a strong, home grown team.  This year’s core team only uses 3 pure FAs: Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth and Edwin Jackson.  We could very well see LaRoche replaced outright with the home grown Tyler Moore, and if the team replaced Jackson with someone like John Lannan (not that we’ll possibly see that happen), we could be down to just one FA in the core squad.

4 Starts but 1 area of concern for Maya

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When the Nationals signed Cuban defector Yunesky Maya in July, we thought we were getting a seasoned international competitor, a professional pitcher who would be the next in a good line of comrades who have made an impact in the majors.

After watching and commenting on  his MLB debut, I was impressed.  Maya wasn’t overpowering but showed a great variety of pitches and a fearlessness on the mound.

However, his fourth start yesterday (box/gamer) demonstrated the same issue that plagued him in his first three starts; the big inning.  In each start now, he’s had one bad inning amongst several good ones.  Yesterday he was unlucky to give up an unearned run in the 3rd, but then gave up 4 runs in the 6th and was yanked.  The crushing blow was a no-doubter homer from Atlanta’s shortstop Alex Gonzalez on a first pitch hanging curveball.  Suddenly the Nats are down 5-0 and have given up 4 runs in an inning, a relatively insurmountable score because of the “big bang” theory of baseball scores (see this Boswell chat for more details, but analysis of box scores over the years shows that in more than half of baseball games, the winning team scores more runs in ONE inning than the losers score the entire game).

This is why these big innings are troubling.  You give up 3 or 4 runs in an inning with an offensively challenged team like the Nats (playing yesterday without Espinosa, Zimmerman, and without original #5 hitter Willingham) are almost always going to lose.  Sure enough, Derek Lowe shut them down for 6 relatively innocuous innings and the Nats never scored at all.

I was at the game yesterday, which makes analysis of Maya’s stuff rather difficult.  All we can see is the mph on the pitch to guess whether it was a fastball, curve or change.  Maya didn’t seem to be throwing hard (averaging 88-89, maxing out 91 or so per yesterday’s pitch f/x data), and certainly wasn’t getting strikeouts (1 K in 25 batters faced, not even getting his counterpart on strikes).  His pitching coach was interviewed though and commented that Maya has found MLB hitters to be far more patient than in Cuba or International competitions, and that MLB umpires are not giving him pitches on the corners.  He seems to be nibbling, not throwing strikes or trusting his stuff.  It also goes without saying that he is still in early season/spring training mode, having only made his professional debut for us on August 13th.  Still, it is hard not to be concerned about his performance thus far.  Did we waste $6M on him?

Side note about the unearned run in the 3rd: Gonzalez made a fantastic diving stop with guys on 1st and 2nd and 2 outs, only to see Kennedy failing to cover 2nd base for the easy force out.  Possibly a mental error but more likely a result of the exaggerated pull shift the Nats employed on Atlanta’s catcher McCann.  So he forced a throw to first from his knees that short-hopped Dunn.  Dunn ineptly missed the throw, it got by him and a run scored. This error was then attributed to Gonzalez, who gets penalized AFTER making a great play and to try to make up for his teammate’s mental error.  A better first baseman makes that play easily.  This is just another example of how unfair our basic fielding stats are these days and how you just can’t measure some things in a box score.

On the same play, as the ball was getting past Dunn, the Atlanta runner running from first (Heyward) blew through the stop sign and was thrown out by 20 feet …. so he did what came naturally to major leaguer,s recently; he tried to bowl over our catcher (Ramos) instead of sliding or giving himself up.  Ramos pulled an “ole” move, kinda dodging the collision attempt and getting the tag in.  I realize that in some cases a catcher blocking the plate gives the runner little choice but to try to dislodge the ball by barreling into the opposing player.  But on a play like this I think the choice to try to deliberately harm the catcher needs some league retribution.  Heyward, to his credit immediately apologized to Ramos for his decision, which probably prevented further retribution.

Lastly, read this nugget in Nats News Network, where Riggleman has said that Olsen takes too long to warm up and thus can’t really be used out of the bullpen.  In other words, be prepared for a non-tender on December 1st.