Nationals Arm Race

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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.

Ladson’s Inbox 1/31/14

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Would this guy look good in a Washington uniform?  Photo unknown via ladodgertalk.com

Would this guy look good in a Washington uniform? Photo unknown via ladodgertalk.com

Nothing like a time-waster for the weekend; Bill Ladson‘s latest inbox plopped Friday afternoon 1/31/14.  Here’s how I’d have responded if someone had bothered to as me these questions :-)

Q: Even though the Nationals are confident with Denard Span in center field and they have strong center fielders in the Minors, is it possible that they might try to get Matt Kemp at the Trade Deadline or next offseason?

A: Matt Kemp‘s name has come up in this blog in the discussion spaces once before in an interesting “what-if” game.  The question as it was posed was this: “Would you, straight up and with no salary relief, trade Matt Kemp right now for Anthony Rendon?”  Think about it; Kemp is owed $127.5M over the next six seasons ($21-$21.5M per season).  He put up MVP numbers in 2011 (many thought he should have won instead of Ryan Braun, even more so after Braun’s positive PED tests) but has floundered with injury and sub-par performances (relative to his salary) for the past two years.  Meanwhile Rendon is getting paid a fraction of what Kemp’s salary is, is younger and has room to grow, but so far has been merely a league average player.  Its a good question: do you run the risk of a $20M boat anchor on your roster, taking up 1/7th of  your salary cap, or do you roll the dice that Kemp returns to his former glory and earns his pay?  Or do you bet on Rendon becoming a significant player cost contained and under team control for another 5 years?

For me, I think you stay away from Kemp.  That’s a ton of money with no guarantee that 2014 will be any different from 2013, and the Nats already have enough pending payroll problems without adding one more $20M player.

As for the question at hand, I see no inclination for Mike Rizzo to make such a move, now or ever.  He spent a lot of capital (our best starting pitching prospect at the time in Alex Meyer) to get Denard Span, he sought him out and coveted openly him for years, and now he has him.  Span’s not going anywhere.  As for next year, we’re in a wait and see.  One of our best prospects is a CF candidate in Brian Goodwin, but he took a step back in 2013.  If Goodwin steps back up in 2014 or doesn’t pan out, we can exercise Span’s 2015 option at $9M and wait for the next best CF prospect in our system (Michael Taylor) to grow.  If neither prospect pans out, we don’t have to worry about it for a few years.  But, at some point you hope this team can grow another prospect to replace an aging $9M free agent with a minimum salary guy.

Ladson basically says what I say, but in fewer words.

Q: The Nationals still have bullpen questions that were not addressed during the offseason. Do you think the Nats will sign another lefty for the bullpen? Or will they use Ross Detwilerin relief?

A: Do we have bullpen questions?  Where?  We got a lefty (Jerry Blevins) and we have another decent lefty option who pitched decently for us last year (Xavier Cedeno).  I’m quite pleased with the state of our back-end guys (Soriano and Clippard), our 7th and 8th inning options (Storen and Stammen), and our long-man options (Ohlendorf and Roark).   Remember; Clippard has great lefty splits, always has.  If our loogy doesn’t work out that well, we go back to using Clippard periodically as a match-up guy.  Or we call up Sammy Solis.  Hell, we could even try Matthew Purke as a bullpen option (he’s on the 40-man after all); scouts are souring on him ever being an effective starter, but his weird motion and shorter stints could help him feature as a bullpen guy.   I think you use Ross Detwiler as a starter until he proves otherwise; as mentioned in this space time and again, Detwiler was effective in 2012, started well in 2013 and got hurt; I have no doubt that if healthy he can start 2014 as he started 2013.  Ladson says similar things about our lefty options.

Q: How is Adam LaRoche‘s health going into Spring Training? He looked as if he lost a tremendous amount of weight last year.

A: Adam LaRoche looked healthy enough in all those shots that appeared of him killing things on the internet over the winter.  Seriously; who knows what the answer to this question is.  But we know he’s aware of the situation and should be taking steps to maintain his strength and weight in 2014.  It is a contract year after all, and he’s shown a proclivity towards having career years in contract years when he needs them to secure his next paycheck.  I can’t see  him “platooning” like a lot of bloggers seem to be calling for, but I can see him being told by management that he needs to maintain his production or he may be banished in phantom DL trips.  Ladson reports that LaRoche was taking an ADD medication, believes he has it figured out, and predicts a Gold Glove in 2014.  Random prediction but sounds good.

Q: Any chance Nationals could bring back Jesus Flores as a backup to Wilson Ramos?

A: Well, Jesus Flores is still out there as a MLFA.  What doesn’t speak well of him is the fact that he was released in May of last year by the Dodgers.  Clearly to me, he’s no longer a viable major league backup candidate.  I can still see the Nats giving a non-guaranteed contract to one of the few remaining veteran catchers to see if one of them sticks as Ramos’ backup, but at this point I wouldn’t be surprised to see the winner of a competition between Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon sticking as the backup.  That being said, both these guys were awful in 2013 in the minors offensively and I don’t have a good explanation why.  Leon seems like the better bet; better history of batting,  younger.   Chris Snyder has had a rough couple years but is still relatively young and has had stretches of decency, if the team wants to go with a veteran backup instead of a rookie.   I dunno what’s going to happen.  On the bright side, Keith Law‘s just-released top 10 for the system (ESPN Insider only) includes one Pedro Severino, giving him relatively glowing grades for his defense.   He’s a couple years away (born in 1993) but if he succeeds in Potomac this year he could be a ready-made Ramos backup sooner than later.  Ladson says the team had a problem with the way Flores called games … hmm, never heard that before.  Ladson also predicts more signings before Feb 1.

Q: I sense a double standard: why give continued chances to Danny Espinosa but essentially shut out Drew Storen? Am I missing something? Similar struggles, but at least Drew fought his way back to the Majors.

A: I’m not sure what “chances” Danny Espinosa is getting at this point, nor am I sure what Storen has been “shut out” of.  The team bought Rafael Soriano, are paying him a ton of money, and he’s the closer as long as he’s here.  That’s that; both Storen and Clippard got pushed down a peg when he got acquired.  Meanwhile, I think its clear that Anthony Rendon is the starter, and Espinosa is playing for a backup role.  Maybe there were just too many quotes taken out of context from NatsFest.  Ladson re-iterates his believe that Espinosa will be traded.

 

Ladson inbox 1/2/14

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Espinosa's role with the Nats is still a major concern for fans. Photo AP via mlb.com

Espinosa’s role with the Nats is still a major concern for fans. Photo AP via mlb.com

Ah, what a great way to bring in the new year, with another edition of Bill Ladson‘s inbox (dated 1/2/14).

As always, these are real questions from presumably real people, and I answer here before reading Ladson’s answer.

Q: Do you think that Denard Span will be the leadoff hitter, with maybe Ian Desmond batting second? If so, shouldn’t the order be reversed since Desmond is a much better offensive player?

A: The answer to this question goes to the evolving lineup construction question and a rising opinion in the Sabre ranks that states that a team’s “best” hitter should be batting 2nd.  Joe Sheehan discussed why the Reds specifically should have been batting Joey Votto 2nd instead of 3rd in this July 2013 article on SI.com, but his arguments were less about Votto and more about the idiocy of Dusty Baker‘s insistence on batting a sub-par hitter ahead of Votto all year.  The real proof is from Tom Tango in his publication The Book, which is summarized in this 2009 BeyondtheBoxScore post by Sky Kalkman.  Basically the argument is that a #2 hitter is slightly more important situationally than a #3 hitter, based on the fact that the #2 hitter bats more frequently than the #3 hitter, often bats with the bases empty and thus needs to be both a high OBP and a high average guy to be able to either set things up for the #3/#4 guys behind him or to do something with the #1 guy who just got on base ahead of him.

Now that being said, nothing trumps a good OBP in the lead-off spot.  Last year our best OBP guy was Jayson Werth, but he also had the best average AND hit 25 homers.  Hmm; maybe Werth is your #2 hitter right now.   Desmond’s OBP was slightly better than Span’s on the season (.331 to .327), but Desmond hits for a ton of power.  Span is the prototypical lead-off hitter; he’s a lefty, he’s fast, and he normally gets on at a .350 OBP clip (career .351).  So right now if it were me I’d be batting Span 1, Werth 2 and Desmond somewhere around #5.

Todd Boss the Nats manager puts out this line-up opening day: Span-Werth-Zimmerman-Harper-Desmond-LaRoche-Ramos-Rendon-Strasburg.  Good lefty/righty balance, has your best all-around hitter in the #2 hole and your best power hitter in the #4 hole, with Desmond getting more ABs than LaRoche right now and the rest of the lineup cascading down normally.

Ladson posts his lineup, which uses more conventional thinking and has LaRoche batting before Desmond.  I think he’s wrong there; LaRoche was clearly not a better hitter than Desmond and has no business batting ahead of him in this lineup right now.

Q: The Nationals recently signed D.C. native Emmanuel Burriss to a Minor League contract. Is he a viable candidate for a backup role with the club in 2014?

A: I think the Emmanuel Burriss signing was about AAA depth, not a real attempt to find a utility infielder who can contribute at the MLB club.  Look at his 2013 slash line: .213/.270/.221.  Wow, that’s really bad.   Of course, that’s still better than what Danny Espinosa did last  year … Presumably Burriss is competing with Espinosa and Zach Walters for that backup middle infielder spot.  Burriss’s problem is that he’s a minor league/non 40-man signing while both Espinosa and Walters are already on the 40-man … so for the time being I see him with fellow locally-tied minor league signee Wil Rhymes (he went to college at W&M) as Syracuse’s middle infield.  Ladson thinks he’s a candidate but not a starter … and then predicts that the team will be trading Espinosa.

Q: If Espinosa makes the team as a bench player, my concern is his clubhouse attitude. Do you think management shares this concern as well?

A: Great question; who here knows Espinosa personally to see how he may react?  Who here works in the Nationals organization and can effectively judge Espinosa’s character, given everything that’s happened to him in the past year (injuries, performance, loss of starting job and demotion)?  Not me, and presumably nobody reading this, so its all just fan speculation.

So, given that I don’t know anything about the guy, here’s what I think: He has to realize that a) he’s no longer a starter here and b) he’s not even guaranteed a bench spot thanks to his 27 OPS+ hitting last year.  But, he also has to realize that his best shot at this point of regaining a starter job in the majors is going to be to perform, and perform ably, wherever he gets his chance, and thus either improve his trade value to make him more valuable to other organizations or possibly to force his way over someone in the Nats organization.  That chance may end up being full time in AAA but it’ll be better for him if he’s at least a backup in the majors.  If he doesn’t realize these things, then his representation is doing him a massive disservice (and I don’t think Scott Boras is bad at his job).  So my guess is that he’ll swallow his pride knowing he has to be in the majors to show that he can produce in the majors and will embrace his role.

There’s also the small issues of money and  service time; he’s making peanuts in AAA versus what he makes riding the bench in the majors.  And, if he makes the bench for at least 2 months or so in 2014 he accrues enough service time to hit arbitration following next season … which means either a pay raise or freedom to move to another organization where he may not be as blocked as he is in Washington.  So no matter what, it is in his best interests professionally and financially to make the team, no matter what the role, out of spring training.

One last point: just ONE injury anywhere in the infield opens a massive swinging door for him to not only get playing time but likely to start.  He has to be ready.

Ladson says Espinosa works hard and that Jayson Werth would get him in line if he had an attitude problem.  

Q: What is the situation behind the plate? Ever since Ivan Rodriguez retired, it seems that’s been an injury-riddled spot. Why aren’t the Nationals making any moves for a backup catcher?

A: Catcher is an injury-riddled spot for nearly everyone in the league; the guys get beat up and miss time no matter if they’re the best or worst guy in the league.  I’m guessing the team is actively in the market for backup catchers, but so are a bunch of other teams.   I still count 10 catchers out there available in free agency and I’m guessing teams in need are all still jockeying for position with the better and lesser candidates.  I’m sure we’ll sign at least one more guy to be in the mix with Jhonatan Solano, Sandy Leon and Chris Snyder.  Plus there’s this: nearly every catcher who can still crouch will get a spring training gig because there’s just so many arms that need to throw simaltaneously for these teams.  So we’re sure to see more guys sign up.   Ladson says they’re trying to acquire more catcher depth but have been unsuccessful.

Q: How come Zach Walters is not being given a decent shot at making the team out of Spring Training? He has pop and is adequate defensively.

A: I don’t think people are saying that; I think the consensus seems to be that the backup infielder spot is Espinosa versus Walters right now.  Who would you rather have?  I think i’d lean towards one more chance for Espinosa (the guy did hit 20 homers in 2011 after all) and then either trade him or move him out.  The concern with Walters (despite his 29 homers in AAA in 2013) is his strike-outs; they’re pretty high.  You put up with 1 K/game if  you get 30 homers … not if you get 10.  He hit nearly 30 in AAA; can he do that in the majors?  Ladson points out an important note; new manager Matt Williams knows Walters from when they were both in the Arizona system.  Hmm.  Will that have an effect?

Q: Would you try to get Eric O’Flaherty on the Nats if you were Mike Rizzo?

A: I’m not sure I would; he had TJ surgery in late May 2013 (5/21/13 specifically), meaning he’s looking at likely a May 2014 return date.  So he’s likely missing the first 2 months of the season, and even then he’s on a shorter leash next season.  Is this what the Nats need?  My guess is that he re-signs an incentive deal with Atlanta out of some sort of professional courtesy for having gotten injured on their watch.  Ladsons agrees with me and thinks he goes back to Atlanta.

Q: Shouldn’t the Nats bid on pitcher Masahiro Tanaka?

A: Bid yes.  Go crazy and blow $20M/year on the guy?  No way.  Scouting reports thus far seem to indicate that Masahiro Tanaka is good but not Yu Darvish-good.  And this team needs to start thinking about extending its own known quantity guys versus blowing that money on a lottery ticket like Tanaka.  My guess is that a team with deeper pockets (Los Angeles, New York) or a team with more desparation (Seattle) agrees to pay Tanaka just ridiculous amounts of money.   Ted Lerner seems to be indicating we’re nearing the team’s payroll budget and we’re going to start having to get creative fitting in some of these mid-to-upper level talents we have now accumulated.  Ladson doesn’t really consider the merits or consideration of Tanaka, instead just saying the rotation is set.  I’m not sure that was the question.

 

Ask Boswell 2/25/13 Edition

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When is Anthony Rendon going to be ready for the Majors? Photo Nats Official via espn.com

With the first couple of Spring Training games in the books, its fitting that Tom Boswell did a Monday morning chat on 2/25/13.

Here’s how I’d have responded to the Baseball-specific questions he took.  As always, questions are edited for clarity and I write here before reading his response so as not to “color” my answer.

Q: Given that the Nats know almost every player making the roster out of Spring Training, do the players/coaches approach the 6 weeks differently?

A: Good question; I was taking with someone about this exact topic this weekend.  The 25-man roster is essentially already solidifed; perhaps the only question remaining is whether or not Henry Rodriguez makes it onto the team or does the team carry a second lefty reliever (Bill Bray?).  So I think the answer has to do with looking more at the AAA talent, looking at minor league FA signings like Micah Owings and Chris Snyder to see if they’re going to be better options than the guys we already had slated at AAA.  And the coaching staff gets to look at up-and-coming guys like Anthony Rendon, Zach Walters, and the like.  Boswell reiterates what I said here, naming other ML signings of interest like Chris Young, but also says that this ST has a lot of “wasted time.”

Q: I’ve spent the offseason reading Ball Four to help get my baseball fix. Do you have a sense about how different things are now?

A: It has been a while since I read Jim Bouton‘s seminal baseball book Ball Four.   But the season he chronicles (1969) happened before a number of rather important moments in Baseball history.  Expansion, divisional play, the Designated Hitter, the aftermath of the Curtis Flood and Andy Messersmith decisions (aka, Free Agency) and of course the massive increase of money in the game (both from a revenue stand point and from a player salary stand point).  One thing that seems certain to have changed; players can now earn enough in a season to be set financially for life.  And, the players union’s power is now such that players have the upper hand in a lot of negotiations with the league and the owners when it comes to labor unions.  Boswell notes that managers, coaches and GMs are far “smarter” now than they were in the Bouton era.

Q: How the Nats will do at the gate this year?

A: The season ticket base is back to where it was in 2005 apparently, broaching 20,000 season tickets.  The team averaged 29,269 fans last year.  Clearly the attendance seems set to rise significantly.   I think they’ll average 35,000 a night if they continue to be a first-place club.  Boswell agrees, noting that the team also has a couple of very marketable stars to help with attendance.

Q: Other than obvious injuries, are there any things that can happen in the first quarter of the year that you would find to be troubling?

A: I’d be troubled if Danny Espinosa started off slow.  I’d also be concerned if we saw significant regression out of our WBC participants Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler, confirming my fears.  But the most important factor may be the performance of Dan Haren: is he the 2012 Haren or the 2009 Haren?  If he approaches 2009 version, this team may be set for the season.  Boswell notes they have a tough early schedule, that winning 98 games is tough, and that we should be patient.

Q: Gio Gonzalez; did he or didn’t he?

A: I think the prevailing opinion in the sport now seems to be that he did NOT take or receive PEDs from the Miami clinic, and that he was an unfortunate bystander.  His passing a surprise PED test given two days after the scandal seems to have also bolstered his case.   Boswell agrees.

Q: Are the Nats a 98 win team again, or was last year a fluke?

A: Barring a significant injury in the rotation, I think the Nats are easily a 98-win team and perhaps better in 2013.  Statistical WAR “proof” offered in this space back in January, and that was before the LaRoche re-signing and the Soriano pickup, both of which marginally should improve the team a few wins.  Most national pundits that I’ve read think the same thing, that this team could win 103 games.  The various estimator stats out there (Zips, Pecota, etc)  the team much closer to 90 wins, but those predictors are by and large incredibly conservative.  Boswell also says it comes down to health of the rotation.

Q: How would you rate the Nats starting rotation, spot by spot, compared to the rest of the Major Leagues?

A: Spot by Spot, its hard not to think that each of our guys are each at least in the top 5 by position in the league.  Drawing from my Rotational Rankings post from January 7th, 2013, I’d say that:

  • Strasburg is clearly among the best arms in the game (in the discussion along with Verlander, Kershaw, and Hernandez).  He’s not as accomplished as this group of course, but his talent is unquestionable.
  • Gonzalez matches up as a top 5 number two starter (other candidates: Greinke, Hamels, Lincecum or Cain, depending on who you think SF’s “ace” is).
  • Zimmermann is traditionally underrated but is at least a top 5 number three starter (along with Scherzer, Johnson/Morrow, Bumgarner, Lee and Moore).
  • Haren on potential could be the best number four starter in the game, though Buehrle, Miley, and Lynn could also fit in here.
  • Detwiler is often mentioned as being the best number five starter out there, and its hard to find competitors (best options: Zito, Romero, Garcia, and whoever Oakland and St. Louis settle upon for their #5 starters).

Boswell seems worried that these five guys can handle the workload all year, only really trusting Gonzalez in terms of repeatability.

Q: What future do you see for Anthony Rendon, and when will he debut in the majors?

A: I have been of the belief that Zimmerman should move to 1B for Rendon at some point.  But with LaRoche signed for two years, that won’t happen for a while (2 years, perhaps 3 if we pick up his 2015 option).  So now i’m starting to come around to the the possibility of Rendon pushing someone else off their position.  The most likely candidate seems to be Espinosa at 2B.  Despite having Lombardozzi on the 25-man, Rendon is a higher-potential player.  If Espinosa starts slow, and Rendon starts fast, I could see Rendon getting called up in June and starting to get reps at 2nd while Espinosa goes on the DL for his shoulder.  Otherwise, a Sept 1 call-up seems in order.  Boswell predicts a post-all star game call-up.

Q: Is there any way the Nats can stop Detwiler and Gio from pitching in that baseball ‘classic’? I see a disaster waiting to happen. Luis Ayala was never the same after getting hurt pitching in that thing.

A: There’s no way legally the team can prevent either guy from pitching, since neither suffered any injuries in 2012.  And yes I agree (as discussed in this space on 2/11/13) this is bad news for the Nats.  Washington has never had a pitcher play in the WBC who didn’t regress badly, and the stats seem to show that most every pitcher who does participate in the WBC pitches poorly the next two seasons (links in my post).   Boswell says cross your fingers.

Q: Do you think Bryce has it in him to be National League mvp?

A: Yes I do.  MVP voting generally starts with the “Best Player” on the “Best Teams” and creates a short list from there.  It is why it is relatively easy to predict the MVPs.  If Washington is the best team in the league and makes the playoffs again, and Bryce Harper has a break out season, it won’t be hard to see him getting serious MVP consideration.  Now, let me also say that a “Harper for MVP” prediction is NOT the same as predicting that Harper is set to become the best player in the game.  That’s not what the MVP measures.  If the question was, “Is Harper set to become the best player in the National League” i’d then say, “No, he’s a few years away from that distinction.”  Boswell thinks it may be a bit early.

Q: How many wins per year would you estimate a a stellar defense adds to a teams win total over the course of a season?

A: I’m sure there’s a good statistical answer for this, based on the percentage of WAR added by defense.  But it seems like a very difficult answer to come by.  Boswell says “a few.”

Q: Any reason to think he’s NOT going to be the GM for a long time?  Because I can’t think of many others who have done as good a job in all of baseball.

A: I can see no reason for Rizzo not to be the GM for at least the next 4 years.  His next big challenge will be dealing with the inevitable payroll demands of Harper and Strasburg (both of whom project to be $25M players) while also keeping a competitive team on the field.   2017 could be an interesting year for this team; Strasburg projects to hit Free Agency that year, and Harper should be in his 4th arbitration year.  They already have Zimmerman and Werth at $14M and $21M respectively in the 2017 year, with possibly another $40-$45M out the door to keep Harper and Strasburg.  They better start working on the farm system again.  Boswell didn’t really answer the question, just mentioned how Rizzo’s options have yet to be picked up.

Q: How is Ramos looking thus far? 100%? Suzuki is a professional and seems to be a good guy, do you get a feel for how well he and Ramos interact? How great would it be to generate some power/runs from the catcher spot this year.

A: I’ve been assuming that the catcher job is Suzuki‘s to lose for now; its still early but no word has come out negatively on Ramos‘ recovery.  Either way, yes it would be nice to get some production out of the #8 hole.  Suzuki was pretty good after he came over here, but Ramos healthy was a middle-of-the-order bat.  Boswell suggests that Ramos stop blocking the plate.

Q: If Rendon tears it up after September call-up, what does the Nats 2014 infield look like?

A: Wow; hard not to say Rendon replaces Espinosa like-for-like right now.  But, just as Desmond broke out in his 3rd full time season, so could Espinosa.  It could make for a log jam.  Lets hope for the best, hope for a rebound Espinosa season and a good-problem-to-have situation of having to trade a strength to make way for another strength.  Boswell has no idea where Rendon will play if he merits a call-up.

Q: I think the Nats, and Danny Espinosa are whistling past the graveyard if they think a completely torn left rotator cuff will not seriously affect Danny’s play. Your take?

A: A fair assessment.  I too believe a torn rotator cuff absolutely has to be affecting his swing, especially from the right side.  I think Espinosa should have gotten the thing surgically repaired in the off-season.  I wonder how much the team knew of the injury, because when it was reported in the off-season it sure seemed like a surprise.  Boswell says its a concern and that Espinosa should take more days off.

Q: Is McCatty working with Strasburg on correcting his inverted W delivery? Strasburg also has footstrike issues, as he tends to plant his foot and then whip his arm, which puts a ton of strain on his shoulder. I’m concerned if he doesn’t correct this, his shoulder will give out this season or next. Are the Nats worried about this? Are they working on cleaning up his delivery at all?

A: I’m beginning to think that this whole “Inverted W” thing is a bunch of BS.  Keith Law stated as much when prompted in a chat recently; he says that the problem with the Inverted W theory is that its difficult to “state” with authority that certain pitchers do or don’t have the phenomena.  And its true; if you see some shots of Strasburg he has it, in others his arms are more bent behind his back.  Its the same with Gio Gonzalez (I can show you stills of him landing with his arms clearly in an “inverted W” position and you don’t hear anyone talking about Gonzalez’s mechanics.   The leading inverted-W site on the internet (Chris O’Leary‘s page linked here) uses an opportunisitic example set of pitchers with that motion, but I can find plenty of examples of guys who have similar mechanics but zero soft-tissue injury history (on the Nats two quick examples are Drew Storen and Craig Stammen).  Meanwhile one of his examples was John Smoltz … who only threw 3400 MLB innings in his career and basically didn’t miss a start until he was 32.  Not the best example of proof that his mechanics were somehow “awful.”  I think the entire phenomenon is an observation of coincidence, that pitchers get injuries all the time no matter what their mechanics, and that we need to move onwards.  Wow; Boswell thinks exactly what i think; these proofs are nonesense.