Nationals Arm Race

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

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Strasburg Extension Shocker!

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Wow. Photo allansgraphics.com via free-extras.com

Wow. Photo allansgraphics.com via free-extras.com

Woke today to check the score from last night (we have a toddler, ergo we are sleep deprived and go to bed early).  After reading about Bryce Harper‘s mouth and ejection and Clint Robinson‘s walkoff, there was a small little link at the bottom of the article…

Stephen Strasburg signs a 7yr, $175M extension to stay with the team, as broken last night by the Washington Post’s Chelsea James.

Wow.  Did not see this coming.  I never thought this team would re-sign Strasburg frankly, because I thought there’d be a feeding frenzy when he hit free agency this coming off-season.

Strasburg’s representation (Scott Boras) is not exactly known for having his players sign extensions.  The 2016-17 free agent market for starters was so bare that Strasburg likely would have inspired a bidding war and you have to think Strasburg just left a bunch of money on the table.  The next best starter hitting free agency next off-season now might be Rich Hill.  Rich Frigging Hill, as in the guy the Nats had on a MLFA deal last summer and cut him loose so he could go re-make his career out of the Oakland bullpen.

What kind of value did the team just get?  Here’s a quick look at the other SP deals in the $150M or higher range:

  • David Price: 7yrs/$217M starting in 2016.
  • Clayton Kershaw: 7yrs, $214M starting in 2014
  • Max Scherzer: 7yrs/$210M starting in 2015 (albeit with significant deferred money that brings the net present value down to around $185M)
  • Zack Greinke: 6yrs/$206M starting in 2016
  • Felix Hernandez, 7yrs/$175M starting in 2014
  • Masahiro Tanaka: 7yrs/$155M (but with his $20M posting fee its a $175M deal all told)
  • Jon Lester: 6yrs/$155M starting in 2015.

So, this is the selection of contracts to compare this Strasburg deal to.  Other big deals signed last off-season include Johnny Cueto (6yrs/$130M) and Jordan Zimmermann (5yrs/$110M).

There’s already a bunch of hot takes; some like the deal, some think its a mistake.  On the one hand, Yes, pretty much any big long term free agent deal eventually looks like a stinker, so in that respect you can be a cynic and say that every long term FA contract is a mistake.  But that’s just not a realistic way to look at team building in this modern era.  Unless you’re willing to completely punt on your season for several years running (see Chicago Cubs, see Houston Astros, see the Atlanta Braves right now, even look at what our own Nats did for two seasons so they could acquire both Strasburg and Harper in the draft), then keeping your team consistently in the upper division requires spending on the FA market to paper over what your farm system may  not be developing.

But looking at (specifically) the Cueto and Lester deals … I can’t help but think that the Nats got a steal here.  Who would you rather have, Cueto for 6/$130M or Strasburg for 7/$175?  Same question for Lester. Strasburg, to me, is a better pitcher (a far better pitcher) and they got him for basically the same AAV as those guys.  Would you rather have Strasburg for $25M AAV or Price at $31M AAV?  Honestly?  Give me Strasburg and I can use that $6M to buy more bullpen guys.

I know Strasburg has his detractors out there, people who with a straight face don’t think he’s an “Ace” or one of the best 10-15 arms in this league;  you people are fools.  Look at nearly any metric you want over the last 3-4  years and you’ll find that Strasburg is in the top 10-15 league wide.  Here’s a helpful link to fangraphs individual pitcher stats from 2012-now; in this time frame Strasburg is (among qualified starters): 13th in fWAR, 13th in ERA, 9th in FIP, 2nd in xFIP, 9th in SIERA, 4th in K/9, 11th in K/BB, 5th in FB velocity, 20th in wFA, 7th in wCU, 6th in wCH.  That’s pretty rare air to be that high up in so many different categories spanning the various statistical ways to measure pitching these days.  He’s not Clayton Kershaw … who is?

Interesting question to ponder: is this Strasburg/Boras “payback” for “shutdown-gate” in 2012??  Their way of saying “thank you” for looking out more for the pitcher than the team in that case?   Because it seems so to me; that’s my “hot take.”

I leave you with this before debating the merits of this move: Here’s our projected rotation in 2017:

Scherzer, Strasburg, Giolito, Ross, and Gio Gonzalez or Tanner Roark.

Yeah; that could be pretty frigging good.

Yes they got swept by the Cubs but…

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Here's something Harper didn't do a lot of this past series: swing.  Photo via fansided.com

Here’s something Harper didn’t do a lot of this past series: swing. Photo via fansided.com

So, even though the team just got swept in a 4-game set, I’m not really that concerned.  Why?

Well, first, the Cubs are fantastic, and I thought one win out of four would have been a good, expected result.  The Cubs missed Strasburg, our best guy (even if he’s not the “Ace” thanks to Scherzer‘s contract) while we stood up to the Cubs’ Ace Arrieta.  The Nats scored a bunch of runs against a good team and on other days may have gotten a win or two.  Am I right?

Game by Game:

  • Thurs: Lose 5-2: Joe Ross gives up 2 in 6 but the Nats muster just 3 hits against Kyle Hendricks.  Don’t deserve to win when you only get 3 hits.
  • Fri: Lose 8-6 in a game that really wasn’t that close: Max Scherzer gives up four homers, which is just crazy unlucky for him based on his typical FB/HR averages.  Nats make the scoreline respectable by getting into the Cubs bullpen for four runs late.  Don’t deserve to win when your starter gives up 4 dingers.
  • Sat: Lose 8-5 when Gio Gonzalez can’t get through the Cubs’ 3-4-5 hitters a third time.  Nats bullpen doesn’t do its job.  I kinda question the pitching management here honestly; is Solis the right guy to go to there?  Is it a smart move to let your #5 starter attempt to go through the heart of the other team’s order in a hitter’s park?  If you want to go lefty, why not go with your veteran Oliver Perez or your fireballer Felipe Rivero instead of a guy who was in Syracuse last week?  I guess its because Rivero got blitzed thursday night.   Instead Rivero comes in during garbage time and manages to load the bases and leak yet another run.
  • Sun: Lose 4-3 in extras after chasing the best pitcher in the game and squandering a fantastic outing from Tanner Roark.  Again, a leaky bullpen, this time in the same guy Perez that I thought was a better option than Solis the day before.  But the story of this game was the astounding batting lines of Bryce Harper (7 plate appearances, 6 walks and a HBP) and Ryan Zimmerman (a major league record 14 runners left on base).  The team in total left 21 runners on base and went 1-19 with RISP on the day. One for NINETEEN!  Zimmerman hit a couple balls well on the night, but none when it counted.

Total score of the series: Cubs 25, Nats 16.  Lot of runs on the bullpen.  Zero of our lefty relievers really stepped up.  Both our 8th inning guys couldn’t shut anyone down.  And clearly nobody respects anyone else in the lineup besides Harper.

Anyway; before I get all gloom and doom, the Nats just finished their hardest road trip of the year 5-5, when prior to the season I would have been happy with them going 3-7.  Thanks to sweeps in St. Louis and surprising series win in KC, i’ve still got them projected to win 95 games right now (easy math: team goes .500 against the rest of the league and interleague, plays .600 ball in their division).

Now … if they get swept in New York….

 

Operation “First tough stretch of the season” underway…

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Loved the Robinson homer ... even it if cost me in fantasy.  Photo via minorleagueball.com

Loved the Robinson homer … even it if cost me in fantasy. Photo via minorleagueball.com

We all know the Nats had a cream-puff schedule in April.  And they delivered; despite a somewhat inexplicable sweep at home to Philadelphia, they finished 14-7 in their first 21 games against basically a collection of teams that aren’t really trying in 2016.

14-7 is a nifty 108 win pace by the way.  Just saying :-)

We all were looking at this first road trip as the first true test; they havn’t played the Mets  yet, they havn’t really had much of a struggle (outside of a couple of pretty good Philadelphia young arms).  They were going to their old nemesis St. Louis (where they’ve always struggled, year over year), then 3 games at the defending WS champs (and in an AL park with their inherent DH advantage), and then to top it off 4 games in Chicago against a team that looks more and more like its gonna win 110 games (hyperbole, if only slightly; they’re 17-6 right now and that’s a ridiculous 120 win pace).

I didn’t think the Nats would win three games this entire trip.  Imagine my surprise that they frigging SWEPT St. Louis, in St. Louis, in three games that honestly weren’t really that close?  Strasburg, Ross and Scherzer pitched like bosses (no pun intended), and gave up a combined 3 earned runs in their 20 innings.  They won a game yesterday where Harper struck out four times.  They got great clutch hitting from unlikely sources (Espinosa, Robinson, Taylor) and they got a turn-back-the-clock Saturday from Werth.

What does this mean?

Well, for one, I think this already bumps up their projected win totals on the year.  You know the adage; dominate the bad teams and break even with the good ones.  I’ve got a little spreadsheet where I have projected Win/Loss totals for the season and it goes like this:

  • The team basically breaks even with the entire rest of the league: 43-41 against the NL Central, NL West and in Interleague
  • The team goes 13-6 against Atlanta, 12-7 against Philly and 11-8 against Miami.
  • The team goes 9-10 against the Mets (they have an extra home game in NY this year) for a combined 45-31 in-division.

If the team does this, then they win 88 games.  Probably not enough to make the playoffs.  So to improve on 88 wins, they need to pick up “extra” wins here and there.  Instead of going 13-6 against Atlanta maybe they go something ridiculous like 18-1 or 17-2 (they’re already 6-0).  They picked up an “extra” win against Minnesota already, sweeping them at home.

I had them going 1-2 in St. Louis in this scenario; going 3-0 is amazing.  Lets see what they can do in KC.  I’m hoping for 1 win out of 3.  They’re giving KC their two “worst” starters and they’re not really hitting well as a team, but what it does mean is that the Cubs will get Ross and Scherzer on the weekend.  Should be fun.

Written by Todd Boss

May 2nd, 2016 at 9:12 am

Ladson Inbox 4/25/16

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Treinen looking like a closer in the making  Photo via zimbio.com

Treinen looking like a closer in the making Photo via zimbio.com

I’m digging the frequency of Bill Ladson’s inboxes this year.  It prompts me to write something when i’m otherwise slammed and distracted with that silly thing called work.  Here’s 4/25/16’s edition.

Q: As April comes to an end, what has been the most pleasant surprise for the Nationals?

A: I’ll go with the relatively injury-free spring and April; we havn’t had someone major break or pull anything.  Only Ben Revere has gotten bit by the bug, and that’s no great loss b/c it forces more playing time for Michael TaylorLadson goes with the Bullpen, who admittedly has been great.

Q: In your recent Inbox, you said No. 3 prospect Victor Robles will be Bryce Harper‘s teammate in a couple of years. Do you think Harper will still be a member of the Nats? I watched Harper all spring, but my guess is I’ll be driving cross state to Tampa to see him with the Yankees.

A: Harper hasn’t even hit arbitration years yet.  But the timing of Harper hitting free agency and Robles likely arriving could be a “dovetailing” event. I think the assumption that Harper is automatically going to go to New  York is silly; the Yankees aren’t highest spending franchise right now, and Steinbrenner‘s sons seem like they’re more interested in avoiding luxury taxes right now than they are in winning.  The big question the Nats will have to ask themselves is whether they’re willing to put 25% of their payroll for the next decade on one player…. when the time comes anyway.  They’re already kicking $15M/year down the road for a decade longer than they have to with Scherzer‘s contract.  Ladson thinks the Nats will “find a way to pay Harper.”  Really??  Do you not know who his agent its?  Harper is GOING to go to FA, no matter what his opinion of Washington is.

Q: What is Plan B for the ninth inning if Jonathan Papelbon gets hurt or doesn’t perform? Seems like there isn’t a replacement.

A: Actually, its looking more and more like there’s TWO options: Treinen and Rivero.  I gotta admit; i like what Dusty Baker is doing with the bullpen so far.  Both these guys are looking like closers in training.  And that’s good b/c there’s not a ton of help at AAA right now.  A quick glance at the Syracuse stats isn’t entirely promising on this front: I don’t see a “closer in training” anywhere in AAA.  As far as relievers go;  Trevor Gott has ok numbers but not good K/9 rates.  40-man guys Grace and Solis are both doing great … but they’re loogies.  Rafael Martin and Sam Runion have struggled.   Two guys that could be interesting (Erik Davis and Abel de los Santos) have done well … Davis especially, finally healthy after all this time.  But again, not a closer.  So, if Papelbon went down we’d probably be looking at Treinen as the closer, Rivero as an 8th inning guy and likely bringing up Davis or de los Santos to fill in earlier.  Ladson also says Treinen and Rivero.

Q: Why doesn’t Matt den Dekker get more starting opportunities? He has speed, power and is great defensively.

A: It might just be a matter of time, if Michael Taylor continues to struggle and Ben Revere is slow to come back.  But at this point, based on limited sample sizes, even den Dekker might be “behind” Chris Heisey were the Nats to need another starting outfielder.  Just no room at the inn.  Ladson thinks Taylor and den Dekker could platoon.

Q: Why wasn’t Gio Gonzalez pitching in this first home series? He’s a veteran pitcher who seems to have been squeezed out of the starting rotation during the first two weeks.

A: Clearly Baker looked at Gio Gonzalez as his 5th starter coming out of Spring Training and that’s what it meant to have been skipped the first time through the rotation.  I don’t think its a stretch to say that the other four guys have outperformed Gonzalez lately, either in potential (Joe Ross) or in 2014 performance (Tanner Roark).  Baker basically said that Gonzalez’s starts tax the bullpen so he had to consider when to use him.  Ladson notes that Gio struggled in spring training.

Q: With Trea Turner of to a nice start, when do we expect to see him in the big leagues?

A: Man that’s a good question; every additional week he’s hitting .350 in AAA and Danny Espinosa isn’t hitting his weight is another week where it becomes tougher and tougher to keep him down.  I still think he’ll hang out down there until the Nats regain a service year.  Ladson makes a good point; the Nats are winning without him so why change anything?

 

 

Ladson’s Inbox 4/8/16

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Werth looking shaggy; i'd like to see this beard in the leadoff hole. Photo via fansided.com

Werth looking shaggy; i’d like to see this beard in the leadoff hole. Photo via fansided.com

Wow, a ton of Ladson inboxes so far this year!  This is great!  Here’s the 4/8/16 version.

Q: I noticed on Twitter that you want to see Jayson Werth as the leadoff hitter now that Ben Revere is on the disabled list. Isn’t Werth best suited for the middle of the order?

A: Wow, Ladson and I agree!  I absolutely want Jayson Werth in the lead-off spot right now.  Why?  Because more and more it seems like Werth’s power has left him in his advancing age.  I’ve said it before in this space several times, but yes I believe Werth would be a great lead-off hitter.   Short version: sees a ton of pitches (4.16 P/PA last year, which would make him top 10 if he qualified … and that’s WAY down from normal).  Great OBP (.365 for his career, and while 2015 was an aberration the three years before he was in the .380 to .390+ range), and when he was coming back from his wrist injury and batting lead-off for the team in 2012 his splits batting lead-off were fantastic (.309/.388/.450).  When you put Werth in the middle of the order, he’s going to try to hit like a middle-of-the-order bat.  What if he can’t do that anymore?  Then you end up with a guy who we may be seeing right now; flailing at the ball, trying to drive it at the age of 36-37).  If you put him at the top, and ask him to be a leadoff hitter, I think his advanced bat skills make him a great option there.  Ladson says the same things I do; working the count, seeing lots of pitches.

Q: When are you going to give Danny Espinosa some credit? He is off to a good start. You always write about Trea Turner.

A: Yeah, great start.  He’s 3 for 9.  But he was awful all spring.  Can you spell “Short Sample Sizes?”  Nobody in the league or the organization has any question that Trea Turner is the future and Danny Espinosa is just holding the spot for now.  If he continues to earn playing time, so be it.  I’ll take an extra year of control if Turner hangs out in Syracuse for 2-3 months.  The fact is though that at some point somebody’s getting hurt (Ryan ZimmermanAnthony Rendon?  Both are good bets) that will require some infield coverage/shifting around, and at that point Turner makes perfect sense to bring up and see what he can do with full time playing time.  Ladson gives Espinosa some love.

Q: With Bryce Harper saying that he doesn’t view himself as a leader on the team, who do you think is the “official” leader of the Nationals’ clubhouse?

A: I’m pretty sure this is Harper‘s way of being deferential to the veterans on the team without proclaiming himself as the leader.  But lets not kid ourselves; this franchise has had one MVP and he’s it.  Who is the leader?  I think there’s several leaders; there’s four significant veterans on this team: Werth, Zimmerman, Max Scherzer and Jonathan Papelbon.  Not all of them have been here forever like the FotF has, but they’re the ones that have been around the league, who are on the 8-figure deals, and they’re the ones who seem to dictate the pace of the clubhouse.  Ladson also mentions Murphy and Ramosarguable.  I only name Papelbon because in the span of a few weeks he went from being the last guy hired to being the unquestioned leader in terms of tenure both here and in the league.  

Q: Were you surprised Sean Burnett wasn’t put on the 25-man roster?

A: Yes and No.  On the one hand, the team had two solid lefties in Felipe Rivero and Oliver Perez already under contract, and keeping Burnett would have meant sending down Treinen basically thanks to options issues.  And that would have been a non-starter.  If Burnett had 8th inning stuff, perhaps.  No, i see the Burnett signing and tenure as a “favor to a long standing former player” trying to help him get back on his feet in this league.  Ladson mentions we already had two good lefties.

Q: What do you think of outfielder Victor Robles?

A: I think he’s young, apparently talented, on pace to perhaps be a solid 5 tool player.  I also think he’s years away from helping this team.  So its great that he’s potentially great … but that doesn’t do much to help this current team win while it still has Strasburg and Harper under contract.  Ladson has glowing words for the 18-yr old.

PS: I was heading to the game today before they cancelled it due to … the threat of snow?  I dunno; its chilly right now but clear.  We’ll have to wait to get to our first game :-)

How about something positive? Are you optimistic for the new season?

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How much of an effect will Murphy have on this team? Photo via bleacherreport.com

How much of an effect will Murphy have on this team? Photo via bleacherreport.com

So, I happened to look at the Spring Training standings the other day.  I normally don’t ever bother looking at spring training stats since, well, they’re useless.  But day after day, reading the summaries of our beat reporters, it just seems like the team wins every day.   As of this writing the team is 12-4-2 this spring, and more telling it seems like they’re also routinely winning the “first three innings” when both teams are at their best lineups.

The other day the team bombed the Mets, hanging 8 runs on Bartolo Colon.  Earlier this week they battered Wei-Yin Chen en route to a victory over Miami.  They put 3 runs on the Astros’ Collin McHugh, and then tee’d off on a few of the Braves younger starters.  Today Harper bombed two homers off of Justin Verlander, who I guarantee was trying to get him out on purpose.  The second one *cleared the batter’s eye* in center, 420 feet away and 30 feet up.  Wow; that’s a man’s homer.

Quietly, this team seems to be flourishing under new manager Dusty Baker.  Everyone’s healthy (well, except for Ryan Zimmerman‘s foot, but I guess you can’t get everything you want).   Baker has been showing his hand and putting out very professional looking lineups.  We’re not hearing about a slew of guys who aren’t going to be ready for opening day like we did last  year.  We’re reading gushing reports about Lucas Giolito, including more than one baseball analyst being quoted as saying Giolito has the best stuff they’ve seen this spring … out of anyone in the game.  They’re saying he’s this year’s Noah Snydergaard, a difference making ace who should be in the rotation by June.

Looking at the beginning of the season’s schedule, this team could jump out to a pretty fast start.   Their first 22 games are entirely against teams that are all threatening to lose 95 games this year: Atlanta, Miami, back against Atlanta, at Philly, at Miami, home to Minnesota and then three more against Philly.  That’s 22 straight games that, honestly, they should be looking to win.  At the end of April heading into May they have a heck of a road trip; at St. Louis, then at the defending WS champion Royals, then at potentially 100-game winning Chicago Cubs.  Oof; if they take 3 games out of 9 on that road trip i’ll be happy.

But heck; could this team start something crazy like 16-6?  Could this team really take it to the Mets?  I don’t have any stats or anything other than a gut feeling, but it really seems to me that NOT being the presumptive favorite and having a veteran players manager has really taken off the pressure.

Are you feeling the same thing?

 

Written by Todd Boss

March 21st, 2016 at 7:41 am

Ladson Inbox 2/26/16

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Future $400M Dodger? Photo GQ magazine Mar 2012

Future $400M Dodger? Photo GQ magazine Mar 2012

I guess Bill Ladson only gets questions during spring training.  After not doing an inbox for practically all of last season, its 3 in 3 weeks!  Since these are such good conversation starters, lets see how I would have answered his questions.

Q: Most believe the Nats have no chance of keeping Bryce Harper once he becomes a free agent. Your thoughts? 

A: Unfortunately, I’m also in that camp.  I believe Bryce Harper and his aggressive agent Scott Boras will take him to free agency with the idea of getting the largest contract in history.  And, when push comes to shove, I just can’t see how Washington is going to have the stomach to compete with the big-money teams (namely, the Dodgers and Yankees) and commit the kind of dollars that he’s going to command.  Certainly not with the MASN hamstringing.  I mean, lets be honest with ourselves; its taken years just to get the two parties to agree on whether the Nats are going to get $34M (what the O’s want to pay), $53M (what the first arbitration panel apparently agreed upon) or $109M (what the Nats requested) on the first reset of the agreement.  Meanwhile the Dodgers are getting somewhere between $240M-$280M a year in their RSN deal … potentially FIVE TIMES what the Nats are getting paid.  I’m sorry; but the team that can afford to just throw money at players is the team that is going to be able to promise $40M/season.  There’s just no way even a “rich” team like Washington is going to compete.  Enjoy him while you can and hope the team does the smart thing and really, really tries to win a World Series while they still have him.  Ladson thinks the team is going to wait and will “try to extend him” before he hits free agency.  Yeah, right.  How many players Boras has represented have taken extensions versus going to free agency? 

Q: What are the chances that Ian Desmond returns to the Nationals this year?

A: Well, I think the chances seem like they’re nil.  The Nats made their offers (a multiyear extension AND a qualifier) and Desmond turned them both down.  I’m shocked that he’s the last man standing in the Qualifying Offer class (I would have bet money it would have been Ian Kennedy), and i’m shocked that he hasn’t found a job yet.

Now, that being said, a better question might be “Should the Nats think about bringing him back??”  You’ve just hired a player’s manager who likes veterans in Dusty Baker.  They’ve constructed their roster with a clear intention of sending future SS-in-waiting Trea Turner back to the minors for seasoning, meaning that Danny Espinosa seems like the starting shortstop (career BA: .230).  At this point, given the steal of an offer you might be able to get Desmond for (Fowler was given a gift of a contract from Chicago, guaranteeing $13M when he probably wasn’t going to get that in terms of AAV on the open market), maybe he’s worth considering.  Yes we’d be giving up the supp-1st rounder we stand to gain.  But you can just give him another QO next season if he rebounds and puts himself in line for another big pay day.  Or maybe you assume the next CBA (which will be signed sometime this year since the current deal expires 12/1/16) gets rid of the Q.O. entirely, since it is killing players and FA market values for certain types of players.  Actually this latter argument perhaps supports the Nats wanting to keep the pick, since it may very well go away (or perhaps the system is modified to just give all teams giving away significant FAs supplemental first rounders, not that I have any idea how you’d figure out who was deserving of a pick).  I think the team has made the decision that he’s on the decline, that they’ve dodged a huge bullet by him turning down 7yrs/$105 or whatever it was, and they’re ready to move on.

Ladson has sources in the Org that say its a “long long long shot.”  Baker says Espinosa looks like he’s in “mid-season form” at the plate (wow; does that mean he’s only striking out every OTHER time up and still hitting .230?)

Q: What do you think Baker will bring to the Nationals this year?

A: I think Dusty Baker brings harmony and respect to the clubhouse in ways it was clearly not present under Matt Williams.  No more arbitrary scheduling, lack of communication, lack of awareness of what’s going on with his players.  I’m a big advocate of hiring contrasting styles in managers when one guy clearly grinds his way to a failure, and Baker is a great example of it.  I was completely pro-Bud Black because of his pitching experience, but the team has more than made up for it with the hiring of Mike Maddox and we’re going to be a much better team for it.

Ladson mentions a very important word: Charisma.  Baker brings a ton of experience, charisma and humor to the clubhouse; again going towards one of the big, embarrassing issues from last year (clubhouse chemistry).

Q: Can you predict the Nationals’ rotation on Opening Day?

A: Barring injury, it has to be (in order) Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Ross and Roark.  I’m not going to predict Arroyo beating out Roark at this point unless Arroyo looks completely healthy, he’s actually pitching well and Roark falls apart in Spring Training.  If there’s an injury, I look at Arroyo as the first man up, then Cole in terms of rotation coverage.  If we have to dig any deeper than that … watch out.  I like Voth but i’m not sure he’s ready for prime time.  I don’t trust Taylor Jordan any longer.  Lucas Giolito may start his career a ton earlier than anyone thought if injuries take out too many of our starters.

Ladson says its a no-brainer right now with the assumed 5 above.

Q: Why did the Nationals let Yunel Escobar get away? He was a consistent hitter.

A: Escobar was a consistent hitter last year yes (.314 BA, which was 50 points higher than the two previous seasons and 30 points higher than his career average), but hit an “empty” .314 (just 9 homers and a .415 slugging, also a huge improvement over previous seasons and his career high).  Unsaid is Escobar’s significant defensive issues (awful defensive stats, though to be fair genius skipper Williams had him playing out of position the entire season).  I think the Nats “sold high” on Escobar, traded from depth to a certain extent and got a player (Trevor Gott) in trade that they really needed to help bolster the bullpen.  Ladson doesn’t mention the “selling high” part of his offense; only mentions his defensive issues.

Q: What was it that made the front office sour on Drew Storen? The kid is one of the premier closers in the game, yet the team always seemed to be looking for someone better.

A: An excellent question.  I’m not sure it was the “front office” as much as it was the “impulsive owner” who soured on Storen.  He had two well publicized post-season failures, which led the normally sane and intelligent GM Rizzo to twice acquire and over-pay an aging “proven closer” to replace Storen.  The first time, Rafael Soriano eventually was supplanted by his own failures and Storen’s consistency, the second time the team inexplicably replaced him with Papelbon in the middle of perhaps Storen’s finest season.  Is Storen one of the “premier closers” in the game?  No.  I’d say he’s middle of the road and could likely tick off at least 15 guys who will be more highly valued in fantasy than Storen were he to win the Toronto closing job.

The crummy part of the deal was the fact that Storen was the one who needed to be traded by virtue of Papelbon making himself essentially untradeable.  I tell you what; Papelbon better be a frigging all-star this year to make up for what’s happened.  Ladson mentions the two blown post-season games and says he needed a change of scenery.  Both true.

 

 

Ladson’s Inbox 2/21/16

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We need Rendon to hit in 2016. Photo Nats Official via espn.com

We need Rendon to hit in 2016. Photo Nats Official via espn.com

Wow, no inboxes for months and suddenly two in two weeks??  It must be spring training! This is great!  MLB.com’s Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson on 2/20/16 has published more reader questions.  Here’s how I would have answered them.

Q: Without a doubt, Bryce Harper will be the best hitter on the Nationals this year. Who do you see as being the second-best hitter on the team?

A: Anthony Rendon.  If this team is going to win in 2016, Rendon needs to return to form.  Everyone else at this point in the lineup will be a table setter for Rendon and Harper.  Ladson says Zimmerman, who I admit i’ve begun to lose faith in.

Q: How does the front office justify bringing back Jonathan Papelbon after what happened last year with Harper? Papelbon has proven time and again that he is not a good teammate, yet he’s back for 2016?

A: I guess the questioner didn’t know that Papelbon was still *signed* for 2016.  So it wasn’t so much about “bringing him back” on purpose as it was the team “not being able to get rid of him.”  I put the Papelbon acquisition as one of the worst of the Mike Rizzo tenure; not so much for who we gave up (a good but not game changing prospect in Nick Pivetta) but for the incredible mis-calculation of the acquisition’s affect on the rest of the team.  I’m sure the team desperately tried to move him in the off-season but (with echos of “Lerner’s are cheap” abounding) probably weren’t willing to dump him for no return.  So here we are; its 2016 and Papelbon is here in lieu of the home grown popular (and team union rep) Drew Storen.

I’ll bet Rizzo doesn’t make this mistake again.

Nonetheless, Papelbon said the right things in his first media interviews since the interview, actually managing to appear humble and contrite while talking about how he was in the wrong and flat out apologizing to the fans.  I say good for him; even I couldn’t help but applaud his performance last last week.

Ladson says the team “made a good decision” in not moving Papelbon; yeah right.  If they could have gotten *anything* for him he’d be gone.  You worry about “finding a closer” in the current bullpen?  Uh, how about anyone?  We don’t need to go into more historical reviews of the uselessness of closers vis-a-vis teams holding leads after 8 innings.

Q: Why did the Nats not re-sign Craig Stammen? Before last year, I thought he did a great job as a middle reliever.

A: It all came down to risk mitigation.  Stammen absolutely did a great job for this team for many years … but he’s got a lot of innings, is coming off of a season-long injury, has (to be fair) rather funky mechanics, and the team just couldn’t justify guaranteeing him what probably would have been $2.5M or so for the unknown.  The industry felt the same way: Stammen ended up with a non-guaranteed minor league deal with Cleveland instead of either a major league deal or anything of significant value.  Trust me I was bummed; we met Stammen years ago at a golf event and he was awesome; hate to see these long-time Nats leave.  Ladson basically says the same thing.

Q: Don’t you think it’s time to improve left field? Jayson Werth is not the player he used to be. He makes a lot of money and doesn’t provide much in return.

A: And do what with Werth?  Magically trade him for valuable assets and get his payroll off your books?  The asker clearly thinks that the rest of the league are run by morons and the Nats can just magically get rid of the likes of Werth for value.  Yes he’s costing you more than 10% of your payroll.  It is what it is; veteran FA contracts all end up like this.  Honestly, I think Werth still has a ton of value if you use him properly; that means batting lead-off where you take advantage of his high pitches-per-plate appearance and high OBP.  We’ll see if Dusty Baker thinks outside the box like this (doubt it).  Ladson says Werth is a comeback player of the year candidate.

Q: What are the chances the Nationals make a trade for someone like Carlos Gonzalez to protect Harper in the lineup?

A: I like Carlos Gonzalez … but his home/away splits are pretty distinct.  .972 OPS in Denver, .758 OPS elsewhere last year.  I’m not sure he’s anything more than a mediocre outfielder if he’s not playing half his games at altitude.  Besides, the team made its play for the outfield when they acquired Ben RevereLadson thinks Rizzo could still “make a deal for a slugger” during Spring Training if he doesn’t like what he sees.  Uh; trading season is over, dude.  How many big-time sluggers can you think of that moved in spring training?

Q: A prime component of the Mets’ rotation is the ability to throw hard and get a bunch of strikeouts, but how unique is the Nationals’ rotation and how could it help them win the NL East next season?

A: Indeed, the Mets have a plethora of big-time arms throwing big-time heat.  But the Royals buzzed through their staff with ease in the World Series.  Why?  Because the Royals were the best team in the league for not taking a strikeout and putting the ball in play.  So once it became apparent that the Mets starters couldn’t close out games by themselves, the Royals (with their superior bullpen) outlasted them.  So Ks are important but not the end-all/be-all.

What makes the Nats rotation unique?  Two part answer for me: they (still) have one of the best 1-2 punches in the league in Scherzer and Strasburg.  What other 1-2 starters would you take over them?   So then past their 2 aces, they have three other guys who are dangerously under-rated.  Gonzalez was a Cy Young finalist just a couple years ago and he still has the same stuff.  Ross is a complete find, a guy who would be most teams’ #2 starter this year despite just having a handful of MLB starts.  And (as often repeated) Roark was a 5-win guy two years ago.  So the potential is there for this to be a top rotation end-to-end.

How does the Rotation help them win the NL east?  By staying healthy, pitching to potential, and outlasting the Mets own powerful rotation when its crunch time.

Ladson doesn’t really give much of an answer here.  He just says what he’d like to “see” each of our starters do this year.

 

 

Ladson’s Inbox 2/12/15

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What will Treinen give this team in 2016? Photo via zimbio.com

What will Treinen give this team in 2016? Photo via zimbio.com

Happy Valentines Day 2016!  And what better way to celebrate it than an Inbox from MLB.com’s Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson.  Here’s how I would have answered his questions had someone bothered to ask me.  As always, I write my answer before reading his, and edit questions for clarity.

Q: What is the biggest change the Nationals must make to be competitive in the NL East?

A: Well first, lets be honest.  There’s really only 2 teams even *trying* in the NL East 2016, so calling it “competitive” is sort of like claiming that the Washington Generals were “competitive” with the Harlem Globetrotters all those years.

For me the biggest thing the Nats need to do is just stay frigging healthy.  If Harper plays another full year maybe he doesn’t do another 10-win season, but you have to think he’ll be quite good.  Rendon was one of the NL’s top players two years ago; no reason not to think he could return to form.  Strasburg needs to be the guy all year in 2016 that he was in August and September of last year.  Werth and Zimmerman are both seemingly on the down side of their careers but there’s no reason they can’t be valuable contributors if they can stay on the field.  If all of that happens, then this team suddenly is the 95-98 win juggernaut that everyone thought they’d be in 2015.

Ladson mentions the Bullpen and team defense.  I guess he’s bought into the Royal’s plan as the way of winning going forward.

Q: What will Blake Treinen‘s impact be on the team be this year? It seems like he has the talent to make an impact on the team.

A: Well, right now Treinen is probably the “last guy in” to the bullpen; if the Nats were to acquire another RH middle reliever, Treinin likely gets bumped to AAA.  That’s because lefties hit him for an astounding .934 OPS last year.   His K/9 jumped dramatically his 2nd year in the pen .. but so did his BB/9.  Its pretty astounding to me that a guy with his kind of stuff (upper 90s sinking fastball with so much  movement that commentators think he’s throwing circle changes) struggles the way he does.  So my answer to the question is “minimal unless he can get lefties out with more regularity.”  Ladson basically says the same thing with the same observations.

Q: Do you expect Lucas Giolito with the big league club in 2016 or will he get a full season in Syracuse?

A: Something tells me that we may see Giolito in the majors this year, yes.  He didn’t light AA on fire last year … so I see him starting the season there (and not AAA).  I also see him quickly earning a promotion to AAA or perhaps straight to the majors, just like the team did with Joe Ross last year.  Or, consider what the team did with Jordan Zimmermann, who jumped straight from AA to the majors (albeit after spending most of the 2008 season in AA).

Why do I think Giolito is going to appear in the majors this year?  Because this is our last year with Strasburg before he signs a $200M contract somewhere.  And this is  one of our last couple years with Harper before he signs a $500M contract.  And when you have two of the marquee players in the game … you try to win at all costs.  This is the criticism of the Angels right now with Mike Trout and if the Nats go cheap or don’t use everything in their disposal to try to win a championship while they still have Harper, then it’ll be the same situation with the Nats.  So if one of our starters goes down and A.J Cole or Austin Voth can’t cut the mustard, then I expect Giolito to be on the MLB team without too much delay.

Ladson says it depends on how he looks in Spring Training.  I dunno about that; when scouts talk about how he has two grade 70 pitches already … what else is there to see?  I’m sure he’ll look awesome against AAA players and other re-treads in the later innings of ST games, will go to AA with the missive of “working on something” in particular, and will be up soon.  Ladson also says he “has no limits” in terms of innings; that too I think is BS.  He’ll be limited to no more than a 20% increase year over year.  He threw 117 innings last year; don’t expect him to throw much more than 140-150 innings.

Q: What kind of season do you expect from Gio Gonzalez?

A: I think we’ll see a slight improvement for Gonzalez over 2015’s campaign for reasons as frequently pointed out by JohnC: his peripherals were crummy, lots of bad luck on balls in play, and the defense behind him was rather subpar.  I’m thinking something like 13-9, 3.45 ERA, 1.30 whip.  Not bad for a 3rd or 4th starter.  Ladson implies that this could be Gio’s “last year” because he’s entering his option years.  Uh Bill, are you seeing what mediocre starting pitchers are going for on the FA market?  Gonzalez’s options are each at $12M for the next two years.  Jon Lackey is older and lesser, and just signed a 2yr/$32M deal.  Who would you rather have?

Q: Do you expect a significant contribution from any of the players signed to Minor League contracts?

A: A couple of the MLFA signings come to mind as possible contributors, absolutely.  Reed Johnson, Brendan Ryan, and Bronson Arroyo could all be surprising players come spring training, and an injury or two could open the way for their place on the opening day roster absolutely.  Just look at what happened to this team last spring, with a slew of guys on the opening day D/L and both MLFAs and non-tender candidates not only making the team but contributing the entire season (see Robinson, Clint and Moore, Tyler).  Ladson mentions one other guy Chris Heisey who could also factor in.

Q: I’m asking for a prediction: Who do you think will be the starting shortstop between Danny Espinosa, Trea Turner and Stephen Drew?

A: I’m going with Danny Espinosa honestly; the way the roster has been constructed its clear to me Turner is starting the season in AAA and Drew will be the utility infielder.  If Espinosa hits .200 in April though, all bets are off.  I know many will say that it should be Turner … bit if its Turner, then that leaves a veteran like Moore or Drew on the outside looking in.  Ladson says Turner; well see!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Murphy Signing: I guess I’m ok with it

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Murphy makes the drive down I-95 to Washington. Photo via bleacherreport.com

Murphy makes the drive down I-95 to Washington. Photo via bleacherreport.com

I may have buried the lead of the post in the title, but I figured we’d want a place to react to the big Xmas gift the Nats gave themselves; pending a physical the Nats have signed Daniel Murphy to a 3yr, $37.5M contract.  We’ll assume that the contract doesn’t get cancelled for physical reasons (ala Hisashi Iwakuma) or some criminal issue (ala Aroldis Chapman) in the next 72 hours or so and the team makes it official at some point over the weekend.

Nats acquire the left-handed bat they needed to play a position they suddenly found themselves needing coverage in thanks to the Yunel Escobar trade.  They also acquire a guy who makes a ton of contact (just 38 Ks last year in 538 PAs … by way of comparison Michael Taylor struck out 158 times in 2015, in *fewer* plate appearances (511 to Murphy’s 538).  Murphy also can contribute with some power; 14 homers last season (and another 7 in last year’s post-season), and some speed (not a ton of SBs last year but he stole 23 in 2013).  He makes a ton of sense batting in the #2 hole (assuming of course the team finds someone who can actually get on base for him), but he could also slot in at #5 (assuming Bryce Harper bats 3rd, in order to split up the lefties).

More importantly, the Nats take a veteran solid bat off their closest rivals, who don’t really seem in any hurry this off-season to back-fill their holes in the lineup by the departing Murphy or Yoenis Cespedes.

Some thoughts on the the deal and its ramifications on the Nats:

  • Assuming he gets an even $12.5m in 2016 per his contract’s AAV, the Nats 2016 payroll just jumped up into the $141M range.  I think that comes down a bit (assuming the Nats can shed themselves of one or both of their highly paid closers).
  • The signing costs the Nats the 17th overall pick in the draft.  A tough pill to swallow; on his own i’m not entirely sure Murphy is worth that pick.  perhaps you can see the value in the significantly lower contract value than what Murphy was probably worth on the open market.  I guess you don’t really covet the 17th overall pick when you have just one year left with Scherzer, Strasburg and Harper all together.  You have to try to win now with these guys, since more and more it seems clear the team won’t retain either of its young starlets (not with talk of Harper getting a $400M contract).
  • Ben Zobrist: 4yrs/$52M from the Cubs.  Zobrist is four years older, had only a slightly better 2015 split than Murphy (.276/.359/.450 versus .281/.322/.449), play a similar set of positions (4 5 7 and 9 last year for Zobrist, 4 5 and 3 last year for Murphy), and had similar bWARs (1.9 for Zobrist, 1.4 for Murphy).  Yet Zobrist gets $14.5M more and one additional year despite being 4 years older and almost guaranteed of being a fossil at the end of his contract.  Do you think Qualifying Offers are working?  Do you think this is going to be topic #1 to address in the next CBA?
  • Murphy will require a roster move; the team is at 40/40 on its 40-man.  My uneducated guess: Erik Davis.
  • I’m guessing there’s an open competition between Espinosa and Turner to be the opening day SS.  And my guess is that Espinosa wins it for now.  Something in my gut tells me that the improvements he’s made plus his superb defensive ability will win out over Turner’s potential.  But, no more 2B for Espinosa; he’s either the starter at Short or the utility guy.  I could be wrong; maybe Espinosa is destined to be Mr. backup infielder again in 2016, riding the pine while Turner learns how to be a major leaguer.  I hope not; I think at this point in his career he’d be so gutted if he got beat out that he’d be close to useless as a super-sub.
  • Murphy is not especially gifted at 2nd defensively.  Negative UZR/150s across the board.  But, its not nearly as important having a plus defender there as it is on the right hand side of the infield, and the return of the gifted Rendon plus the near gold-glove quality of Espinosa at short could really help the Nats and their pitching staff convert more ground alls to outs.
  • All the 2B on the Nats depth chart just became serious trade bait.  40-man roster guys Wilmer Difo and Chris Bostick?  100% blocked for 3 years.   Murphy may be able to play other positions … but the positions he can fill are also filled by guys who are better than Murphy and also here for more than 3 years.  So I wouldn’t be surprised by some dealing coming soon.  Maybe Billy Beane can give us something we need in return for some closer-to-the-majors middle infielders and 5th starters (of which we have plenty in AAA).
  • $12.5M AAV for a 1.4 bWAR player.  Yeah; there’s some serious money in the game right now.

Does this move make the Nats a better team?  Yeah I think it does.  By himself Murphy doesn’t move the needle a ton, but he gives this team some things they didn’t have yesterday.  I like his contact hitting, his lefty bat, the addition of some needed power.  The team missed out on so many other guys this off-season, they probably felt they had to make this deal.  So they did.