Nationals Arm Race

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

Archive for the ‘chuck knoblock’ tag

Braves sweep shows some areas of concern

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Its a long season.  The Nats swept the Braves in Atlanta last year in May and the Brave still won 94 games.  This isn’t the end of the world.

However.

Each of the 3 losses this weekend exposed some very specific issues with the team and its manager that aren’t necessarily new, but which are coming to the foreground.  In order:

Friday’s Loss: Over-managing the Pitching Staff:  Once again Davey Johnson pulled a highly effective starter on a miniscule pitch count only to watch his bullpen blow up.  Worse, this is the second straight time its happened to Ross Detwiler, who now has given up exactly one earned run in 13 innings (on a solo homer) and has two No Decisions for his efforts.  No wonder he was visibly frustrated when told he wasn’t going back out.  I defended the decision to pull Strasburg after 80 pitches on opening day in various forums, but I cannot defend the decisions now, knowing that our bullpen was DEAD LAST in the majors in ERA heading into the weekend (I believe they’ve “improved” to 29th by the time of this posting).

I think Johnson has to start relying on his starters to go deeper into games until the bullpen sorts itself out.  Or, to put it differently, I don’t want to see a starter yanked unless he’s sitting on 115 pitches or the lineup is getting ready to turn over a 4th time.   It just does not make sense to pull an effective starter after 90 pitches right now.

Saturday’s Loss: Zimmerman’s Worsening Throwing Arm.  We’re 12 games into the 2013 season and Ryan Zimmerman already has 3 throwing errors.   His throwing error on Friday contributed to the collapse but his air-mailing the throw saturday on a simple, routine play directly led to two unearned runs and a deflating feeling for the Nats.   Opposing scouts are starting to openly question why the Nats are keeping Zimmerman at the position, after watching his throws.  I don’t know if he’s still hurt, if he’s got a Chuck Knoblock mental thing going on, or if he’s just spent far too much time trying to mechanically fix the issue instead of just being a natural athlete, but it isn’t working.  Strasburg‘s line on Saturday: 6IP, 5 hits, 7 Ks, 0 earned runs … and a Loss.  I know this game isn’t entirely on Zimmerman; you have to score to win, but giving a bulldog veteran like Tim Hudson (and his amazing career record when given a lead) 2 free runs is never a good idea.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing the team can really do about this.  You can’t sit your #4 hitter (despite how crummy he’s hitting; see the next point).  There’s no place to stick him now or in the immediate future thanks to the Adam LaRoche re-signing blocking 1B for the next two years.  And he’s a $100M player who clearly isn’t playing like one.

Sunday’s Loss: Where’s the offense?  I know the team generally is doing pretty well; we’re middle of the league right now in terms of Homers, BA, and OPS.  But most of that is thanks to Bryce Harper‘s fast start.  We have two key middle-of-the-order guys who are just not getting it done.  Specifically, LaRoche and Zimmerman.  You just cannot win consistently with your middle of the order guys hitting .147 and .220 respectively.   To make matters worse, there seems to be no hope in sight for Danny Espinosa, and with a MLB-ready guy who had a great spring and is lighting up AA in Anthony Rendon seemingly an able replacement, you have to wonder how long the team is going to let their #7 hitter continue to hit .175 with a known tear in his shoulder.  Paul Maholm is a decent pitcher … but he’s not Cy Young.  He went 7+ and gave up just four measly hits on the afternoon in a game where the Nats looked like they gave up frankly.  One more throwing error tossed in by Zimmerman for good measure.


We didn’t really even talk about how the Nats had the distinct Starting Pitching matchup advantage in all three games but lost them all.  Sometimes your aces just get whacked (Strasburg in Cincinnati, Gonzalez on Sunday); you have to roll with it and try to outscore your opponent in those games.

Nor have we talked about concerns with the bullpen; what is going on with Clippard and Storen?  But the Bullpen is one of those areas that can look really bad with a couple of small sample sized bad outings, so we won’t over-react too much.

But, I think there’s some concerns here that are a bit above those of the “well its just mid April” variety.

Ladson’s inbox 1/7/13 Edition

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Readers ask creative questions for keeping Morse around. It won't matter. Photo Cheryl Nichols/Nats News Network

Slow week for baseball news; I’m sure that will end tomorrow when the Hall of Fame class (or lack there of) is announced.  Meanwhile MLB.com’s Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson published a mailbag on 1/7/13.  Here’s how I would have answered his questions.

Update: after I wrote this, LaRoche signed.  So much for a slow news week for our Nats.  Some of the below may now be slightly dated analysis.

As always, I write the response here before reading his, and edit questions for clarity/conciseness.

Q: If Anthony Rendon stays healthy, could you see Ryan Zimmerman moving to first base and Rendon playing third base?

A: Yes, absolutely.  I’m now firmly on the following succession plan: Rendon hits his way to the majors, proves he can play excellent 3B defense, and we move Zimmerman and his nearing-Chuck Knoblock/Steve Sax issues with his throwing arm to first base.   Zimmerman would save the wear and tear on his body by not having to field bunts and dive for as many grounders, and would not have to make any more casual throws across the diamond (he’s proven that under duress or when hurried that he is very accurate, a clear indication that when he doesn’t think about the throw, he makes it).   And we install Rendon at third where by all accounts he’s just as good a defender as Zimmerman is.

However.  There’s a few things that need to happen for this plan to work.  Rendon (as the question mentions) needs to stay healthy.  He needs to prove he can hit MLB pitching.  And the Nats need to NOT lock up first base for the next three seasons with Adam LaRoche, else the position is blocked, Zimmerman stays at 3B for the duration of LaRoche’s deal and Rendon will have to push someone else off their position (Espinosa at 2b is the likely target … but Espinosa is nearly a 4 win player despite his strikeouts.  They don’t grow 4 win players on trees).   So Rendon may be stuck until another solution presents itself, perhaps by way of injury.

Update: with LaRoche’s signing,  we now know that Zimmerman isn’t moving to 1B for at least two  years, so now Rendon’s path is more complicated.

Ladson kind of hedges and says “well, lets just see what happens.”

Q: Why the talk of trading Michael Morse when trading Jayson Werth would be far better for the team? Besides all the money it would free up, Morse is three years younger, hits far better, especially with men on base, and has more power.

A: Because who in their right mind would take Jayson Werth with the massively backloaded contract he’s currently on while he’s in his decline years in his mid 30s and has shown himself suddenly to be injury prone??  That sentence is exactly the reason that the Werth contract was and is criticized as being one of the “worst in the game.”   Because its unmoveable.   He’s going to be paid $21.57 million dollars in the year 2017 when he’s 38.   If Werth was still producing at his last Philadelphia year level (he posted a 4.3 bWAR in 2010, which using a rough FA estimate of $5M/war would mean he was “valued” at exactly $21.5M), there wouldn’t be as much complaining.  But in the first two years of the contract, he hasn’t produced anywhere near that WAR value (bWARs of 1.0 and 0.6 in the first two years of the contract).  Yes he was hurt in 2012, but its not like he’s giving back the money for the 81 games he didn’t play.

This is such an ignorant question, you wonder why Ladson took it.

All that being said, yes I understand why the Nats made the Werth deal.  I think it was done fully well knowing what an albatross it was to be.  It was done to acquire the competitive nature of Werth and to send a message to the league that the Nationals were a new regime post Jim Bowden.

Ladson talks about Werth’s “non number” contributions to the team, saying he’s more valuable than numbers suggest.  I think that’s a really myopic viewpoint of Werth’s contract, his production and the point of the question.

Q: Any worries about losing three left-handers out of the bullpen? That was a big strength last year. What are the options?

A: Was our three lefties really that big of a strenth last year?  Other readers here have pointed out Michael Gonzalez‘s complete inability to deal with right-handers (they hit him for a .297/.378/.484 slash line in 2012), meaning that the team really could only trust Gonzalez for solely lefty-lefty matchups.  Tom Gorzelanny was the 7th guy out of the pen, the long-man/mop-up guy whose large majority of IP were defined as “low leverage,” implying that despite his excellent ERA in 2012 his production can be replaced relatively easily.  Sean Burnett was inarguably great … but also was commanding 3 year guaranteed contracts in a baseball management era where we now know that relievers should be treated as fungible assets and never guaranteed major money to.  So allowing him to leave was the right decision to make.

Gorzelanny has been replaced by Zach Duke, who (as I’ll begrudingly admit that “peric the troll” was right about, stemming from a conversation here last September) seems to be a better option and who seems to have been given all of Gorzelanny’s appearances last September (Gorzelanny didn’t appear in a game for nearly two weeks in the middle September).

However, I will admit that I am slightly worried about the fact that we seem set to replace the value of both Gonzalez and Burnett at this point with Bill Bray, who may or may not even make the team.  I really thought we’d win the J.P. Howell FA sweepstakes.  Now at this point, I’m guessing perhaps the team just trusts the matchups and remembers that Tyler Clippard is lights out against lefties despite being a RHP (lefties hit him for a .170/.260/.259 slash line in 2012, a year when Clippard was significantly worse than in 2011).  Maybe the team finds a MLFA or a career reclamation project out there (much as they did with Gonzalez and Duke last year).   Or (most likely) maybe the team demands a lefty bullpen arm in trade for the eventual Michael Morse transaction once LaRoche signs on for 2013 and beyond).  We’ll see; lots of hot-stove league left.

Ladson thinks there’s more acquisitions coming.

Q: Morse was drafted as a shortstop, so is there a way the Nationals could convert Michael into a second baseman?

A: If Morse’s mobility is that poor in LF, he’d be considered a statute at 2nd.  There’s just no way he could possibly move there at this point.  Besides, Espinosa is considered a very good defender and the Nats regime values plus defense.  He may have been a shortstop once, but that was long ago.  Ladson says its never going to happen.

Q: What are the chances the Nats try to make a trade for Giancarlo Stanton? Then they can put Werth or Bryce Harper at first base.

A: Hah.  Well, I’m sure the Nats (and most every other team in the league) would kill to have Stanton.  But Stanton is probably the most valuable resource in the game; a pre-arbitration premiere slugger.  The only thing more valuable probably is a pre-arbitration Ace starter (think Tim Lincecum before he hit arbitration).   Stanton is under team control for four more years and isn’t even arbitration eligible yet.  On the open market he’s worth $25M/year; he’s set to earn somewhere in the mid $500,000 in 2013.   It would have to take something well north of the prospect haul that Tampa Bay got in the James Shields trade, and that trade netted Tampa Wil Myers, basically the best propsect in the game.

The Nats (and most teams in the game) simply do not have enough prospect depth to pry Stanton away.  And, the Marlins would have to be crazy to trade him intra-division.  Just isn’t happening.  I think the penny pinching Marlins keep him for another year and trade him before he hits arbitration, making him someone elses’s escalating salary issue.   Ladson says that the team wouldn’t trade for Stanton because their outfield is set for the next two seasons.  Really!?  You wouldn’t trade away Span or Werth, even if you paid their entire ride, to acquire someone with the talent of Stanton?

Q: What are the Nats’ plans with Jhonatan Solano going forward?

A: Catcher depth.  Despite his .300+ BA in his short MLB stint, I don’t think he’s anything more than a 4-A player.  We keep him on the 40-man until his options expire and then DFA him, all the while he serves as a 3rd catcher in case Ramos/Suzuki gets hurt.   Ladson points out that Suzuki is a FA after 2013, so perhaps Solano becomes the #2 in 2014 and beyond.  However, Suzuki has a club option for 2014 that could move this schedule out a year.

Ladson’s Inbox 12/28/12 edition

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Rodriguez getting ready to fire in another pitch he has no idea where its going. Photo via humorfeast.blogspot.com

Holiday edition mailbag from MLB.com’s Nats beat writer Bill Ladson for 12/28/12.

As always, I write my response here before reading his, and sometimes edit questions for clarity.

Q: Where does Henry Rodriguez fit in the Nationals’ plan this upcoming season?

A: A good question; Mike Rizzo loves Rodriguez but I find him completely frustrating as a fan.   In 2011 he led the league in wild pitches despite only throwing 65 innings, and in 2012 he had a -0.7 WAR and a 69 ERA+ before hitting the DL for season ending surgery.  He’s got no minor league options and thus has to be either carried on the active roster or be subject to DL shenanigans.  Davey Johnson also loves him, and said he was the Nats best pitcher last spring training.  My guess is that Rodriguez holds it together for another spring, breaks camp with the team and then plays his way into a DFA.  The team can replace his 7th/8th inning innings with Christian Garcia rather easily (assuming of course that the team realizes that Garcia’s arm is too fragile to reliably be depended upon as a starter).  Ladson predicts he’ll be a middle reliever for this team in 2013.

Q: What are the Nats going to do with first baseman Chris Marrero?

A: Great question; he has one more minor league option, is clearly behind the likes of Chad Tracy and Tyler Moore on the first base backup pecking order, but really hasn’t got much left to prove in the minors.  He hit admirably enough at AA and AAA in 2010 and 2011.  I think Marrero’s problem is that he’s stuck at first base but has limited power capabilities.  If he played LF, perhaps you could deal with someone who didn’t look to hit more than a handful of homers at the MLB level.  But he plays a position that needs 25-30 homers of production.  I think he’s trade bait ultimately.  Ladson says the team’s bench is set and that Marrero may be traded.

Q: Isn’t it time to make Ross Detwiler the No. 4 starter? Also, what do you think of Nats’ rotation?

A: I’m not exactly sure what the questioner wants; does it really matter if Detwiler is #4 or #5?  Not really (not until the playoffs anyway).  Detwiler is the 5th starter inarguably on this team, looking at the accomplishments of the 4 other guys.

I think the rotation is either the best or competing to be the best in the sport.  I’ve got a future post ranking all 30 rotations (I’m more or less waiting for the last of the impact free agents to sign before publishing it), and (teaser) the Nats are in the top 3 without question.  However, the Nats rotation is very, very thin.  If one of the 5 guys goes down, I really don’t know who is going to step up to make starts.   Zach Duke?  Ryan Perry?  Lets pray for a healthy spring training.  Ladson says Detwiler is the 4th starter entering spring training, and that he likes the rotation.  Not a very deep answer.

Q: Bill Bray was an OK pitcher in his last stint with the Nationals. Do you think he will be anywhere near as good the second time around?

A: It all depends on his health.  A groin strain and then a back strain cost him more than 100 games last year.   Those injuries should be healed up well enough by now; if he was recovering from an arm injury I’d be more worried.  He posted a 133 ERA+ in 2011; i don’t see any reason why he couldn’t repeat that performance in 2013.  However, I still think the team needs to pursue one more lefty out of the pen.  Michael Gonzalez just signed with Milwaukee, meaning that all three of our lefty bullpen guys from 2012 are gone.  J.P. Howell remains available but competition is fierce for his services.  Ladson says it all depends on his health.

Q: Should the Nationals be concerned with the way Ryan Zimmerman was releasing the ball at the end of 2012 season?

A: Yes.  They should be concerned with the way he’s been throwing the ball for several years now, AND they should have been concerned with the effects of the shoulder injury that was bothering him all season.  Off-season surgery fixed the latter part.  As for the former … I think its just inevitable that Zimmerman moves to 1B.  At some point I feel his arm action is going to turn into some sort of Chuck Knoblock mental block.  Ladson reminds of Zimmerman’s surgery.

Q: Why don’t the Nationals just give Adam LaRoche a third year? If things don’t pan out by the third year, the team could trade him.

A: Good question.  The core of the team is locked up for 3 more years, why not extend the offer?  I think perhaps the answer relates to the massive amount of arbitration salary the team is looking at by 2015.  They might have 12-13 arbitration cases with escalating salary by then.   And its no guarantee to be able to trade Adam LaRoche in 2015; what kind of return would we get?  We’d likely get marginal prospects AND have to pay most of his salary.  I’m not even mentioning the obvious; he just turned 33; do you want to guarantee a 3rd year 8-figure salary to a 35-yr old?  Isn’t that exactly the kind of contracts that are killing the Phillies right now?  Plus, signing LaRoche locks of 1B for 3 years … meaning no room for Moore for 2 more years AND no room to move Zimmerman if his arm turns into mush.  I know the team likes LaRoche, but it makes more sense for the future of the team to let him walk.  Ladson echos my comments on age and having to eat money on a trade.  He also mentions that the team would like Matthew Skole at first by 2015, which I don’t necessarily think will happen (but we’ll see).