Nationals Arm Race

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

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Ladson Inbox 1/9/14

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Is Zimmermann getting a contract extension?.Photo Manuel Balce-Ceneta/AP

Is Zimmermann getting a contract extension?.Photo Manuel Balce-Ceneta/AP

You know spring training is coming close when Bill Ladson does two mailboxes in two weeks.  Here’s 1/9/14′s version.

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

Q: Most of the talk about a middle infielder for the bench is centered on Danny Espinosa. What are your thoughts about Jeff Kobernus? I would play him and trade Espinosa.

A: I think the talk is focused on Danny Espinosa since, right now he seems like the best option thanks to the trade of Steve Lombardozzi and the lack of any other real competitors.  Zach Walters hit 30 homers in AAA … but by some accounts is a very poor defender.  I can’t find his minor league fielding stats but others have pointed out that he made 30 errors last year in AAA.  Jeff Kobernus has been playing outfield lately; he played 2nd in college and earlier in his pro career but can he even play short stop?  New signees Jamey Carroll and Mike Fontenot can both play 2nd and SS … but aren’t exactly MLB quality guys any longer; Fontenot spent the entire year in AAA in 2013 and Carroll is a guy on a minor league contract nearing 40 who hit for a 40-something OPS+ in 2013.

Ask yourself; what do you ideally want out of a backup infielder?  They have to be a plus defender (apparently knocking out Walters), they have to be able to play 2nd and SS (knocking out Kobernus).  Espinosa is a fantastic defender, a short stop in college with a rocket arm who many once upon a time thought was a better short stop than Ian Desmond.  Right now, I want to see if Espinosa can re-gain his former self and use everyone else in this discussion as a fallback plan.

Trade Espinosa?  Can you define the term “selling low?”  That’s the last thing the organization wants to do right now.  That being said, Ladson continues to be insistent that Espinosa will be traded before opening day.  His prediction for the opening day backup infielder is “lets see what happens in spring training.”  Strong stance.

Q: Is Bill Bray still with the Nationals? If I remember, he had health issues. Any chance he could be in the mix for a lefty slot in the bullpen?

A: Bill Bray is a Minor League Free Agent, and according to Baseball America is still unsigned.  Even if he did re-sign with Washington, it’d be on a minor league deal, meaning he’d have to be added to the 40-man to be in the mix for the loogy.  That already puts him behind several guys; Jerry Blevins and Xavier Cedeno for sure, and likely Sammy Solis if the first two guys failed.  Bray also has to show he’s healthy, which he hasn’t really done in quite a while now.  I hate to say it, because i’ve got a soft-spot for him (he’s from Virginia Beach and i’m friends with his cousin), but he may be looking at retirement.  Ladson says he’s not ready until May but wants to stay in the organization; lets hope they throw him a bone and give him a minor league deal.

Q: Are the Nats pursuing any other lefty relievers, or is Jerry Blevins all there is to it?

A: I’d guess the team is pursuing other lefties, but not actively.  I’m sure there will be a couple of MLFA signings here and there to provide some competition in Viera.  Ladson reminds us that they’re thinking about both Solis and Ross Detwiler as lefties out of the pen.

Q: Any word on F. P. Santangelo re-signing for the 2014 season?

A: No idea.  I thought he was a fine broadcaster so I hope he comes back; didn’t realize there was a question.  Ladsons says they’re both back for 2014, after which Santangelo’s contract expires.

Q: Tyler Moore is an enigma. He seems to have all the tools to be a regular .280 hitter with 20 homers. Why does he appear to only be in the Nats’ plans as a bench player?

A: Moore is an enigma; is he the power hitting slugger (one homer every 15.6 ABs) in 2012 who bashed his way to an .840 OPS or is the overmatched, strike-out-one-out-of-every-three times guy we saw in 2013?  I’d hope he’s closer to the former than the latter, and thus can still be a servicable righty power bat off the bench.  Why is he just a bench player?  Because he’s not better than any of the guys ahead of him?  I would have thought this was kind of obvious, looking at Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth and their accomplishments and status on this team.  Ladson assumes Moore is a backup firstbaseman, I guess, but says Moore isn’t going to be platooning with Adam LaRoche either.

Q: Do you think it is likely that the Nationals will sign both Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann to contract extensions this offseason?

A: Likely?  No.  I think at least one (Desmond) gets done, and we may see the other guy (Zimmermann) get moved in a cost-containment move with the team thinking ahead to its rising minor league players and its need to pay both Harper and Strasburg sooner than later.  Ladson sort of agrees.

 

 

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.

 

Ladson’s inbox 12/19/13

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Harper behind the plate?  Photo GQ magazine Mar 2012

Harper behind the plate? Photo GQ magazine Mar 2012

Well, it isn’t like I didn’t have enough content to publish this week (with 7 seasonal reviews coming out, each of them between 1500 and 3000 words).  But Nats mlb.com beat reporter Bill Ladson had to come out with an inbox on 12/19/13, so lets do some rare weekend posting so we can talk about the system-wide pitching staff projections on monday.

As always, these are real questions from (presumably) real people.  I write my response here before reading his to avoid bias, and edit questions for clarity.  Here we go:

Q: Are the Nationals done as far as improving the team for next year?

A: I don’t think so: I still see a veteran catcher, a better backup infielder, and another lefty in the pen as possible acqusitions.  On my little “off-season Nats todo-list” the only one of these that I think *must* happen is the backup catcher.  Per mlbtraderumors.com 2014 FA Tracker I see some names still out there that could work: John Buck i’ve heard in rumors somewhere, and someone like Kelly Stoppach could work.  Honestly I havn’t done a ton of research on veteran backup catchers, so these may be awful suggestions.

Right now whose your backup infielders?  Are you ready to go to war with either Zach Walters or Danny Espinosa in that role?  Steve Lombardozzi got 300+ plate appearances in 2013, more the year before.  Jerry Hairston got 238 PAs in 2011 while Alex Cora ot 172.  Basically the point is this: your backup infielder is going to get a LOT of at-bats.  You need to have someone reliable.  I would not entirely call either Walters (lack of experience) or Espinosa (apparent lack of capability) proven right now.

I don’t see the need to go all out for another lefty reliever, but i’m also not Mike Rizzo.  We have some options internally that we could use.

Ladson mentions middle infield and a backup catcher as well, and then surprises me with his mention of Shin-Soo Choo, a personal favorite of mine who I’d love to see here hitting lead-off and playing LF in the short-term.  But not in center, where he proved he was awful last year, and not for 7 years and 9-figures like he seems to be set to get.  I’d be absolutely shocked if the Nats committed those kind of dollars for Choo, given his age and likely fall-off.

Q: With MLB looking to ban home-plate collisions, could you see the Nats giving Bryce Harper a chance behind the plate if Wilson Ramos can’t stay healthy? 

A: No way.  It isn’t just about collisions; its the wear and tear, its taking a guy’s bat out of the lineup once or twice a week.  Harper was never going to be a full time catcher, not with his once-in-a-generation premium bat.  Ladson agrees.

Q: Do you think pitchers Nathan Karns, Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole will be used in spot starts this season?

A: Karns yes, Cole doubtful and Giolito no way.   It all comes down to 40-man roster manipulations.  Right now Karns is on the roster so he can get called up and down every week and it has no effect on anything but his service time accumulation (which teams have shown lately that they’re less and less concerned about).  Cole, if he dominates in AA could see a similar call-up to what Taylor Jordan and Karns got last year … except that the team has significantly more starter depth this year.  Maybe Cole can be a 9/1/13 call-up; he is rule-5 eligible after the 2014 season and will have to be added to the 40-man roster anyway.  As for Giolito, there’s just no way he’s sniffing the majors until he’s ready.  Right now he’s the prize asset in the farm system and he needs to develop so that he can arrive in the majors right as the team needs to make some key decisions on personnel.   Ladson agrees.

Q: Could you please explain to me why Zach Walters is only No. 11 on the list of the Nats’ top prospects? The numbers he put up last season are pretty amazing.

A: Mostly people seem to be concerned about his OBP, which has dropped at every level and was only .286 in Syracuse last  year.  He has always struck out a ton; 134 in 134 games last year, more or less averaging a K/game for his ML career.  That being said … you don’t find guys who can hit 29 homers and play Shortstop on trees.  And last I checked, you trade off some OBP and some excessive K’s for guys who can hit a ton of bombs.  Maybe scouts are just in denial.  Lots of people think the team should flip him now based on his 2013 season, but if he can do anything close to those numbers in the majors he’s doubly-valuable.  Ladson thinks he’ll be ranked much higher in the 2014 rankings.

Q: Who do you think will win the fifth spot in the Nationals’ rotation?

A: That’s the question of the off-season.  We’ve argued about it over and again here, and will again next week when I post system-wide predictions.  We’ll save the arguments for then.  Ladson says Tanner Roark, which surprises me frankly.  Lets save arguments on this for my big prediction piece next week.

Q: Do you think Espinosa will be a valuable backup for the Nats?

A: Boy I hope so.  But something holds me back; what has changed from the point he was demoted til now?  He hasn’t gotten his shoulder fixed.  He hasn’t stopped switch hitting.  All he did was go to Syracuse and continue to hit poorly.  Why at this point would we think he’s going to do anything better than what he’s already shown us he can do?  Ladson expresses some doubts too.

 

Fister acquisition thoughts and fallout

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What a steal; Fister joins the Nats rotation.  AP Photo/Paul Sancya via cbssports.com

What a steal; Fister joins the Nats rotation. AP Photo/Paul Sancya via cbssports.com

Wow; I got into work today and opened up the Washington Post and saw that the Nationals pulled off what I think is a huge steal of a trade, getting Detroit’s Doug Fister for three fringy guys in Steve LombardozziIan Krol and Robbie Ray.

Taking the very glass is half empty view of the guys we just sent away: we get an accomplished starter for (frankly) two edge-of-the-25 man roster players in Lombardozzi and Krol, and a prospect who I like but who scouts never have really taken to in Ray.  Lombardozzi took a step back this year offensively and despite being the kind of flexible, multi-positional player that teams crave this year (think of how Tampa Bay uses Ben Zobrist) he was exposed at the plate and may have already shown what his peak is (backup infielder).   Krol flashed up the farm system and looked fantastic in his early MLB appearances, but slumped enough to be demoted back to the minors in search of some consistency; he’s got a great arm but clearly is a one-out lefty.  Robbie Ray is a very young and accomplished starter who has operated in the shadow of his fellow high school draft-class mate A.J. Cole and has mostly out-pitched him, but the scouting reports on Ray seem bearish on his eventual ceiling (4th starter at best?).  

If i’m a Detroit fan, I’m scratching my head here.  A backup infielder, a matchup-lefty with just a few months of MLB experience, and a AA prospect who is probably still 2 years away?  That’s the return for a cost-contained, effective 4th starter for a team who’s oft-repeated mantra is Win now?  I just don’t get this deal for the Tigers.  Yes Fister faces arbitration, and his salary may rise up to the $6-$7M range, and yes I guess Detroit has a ready-made replacement in Jose Alvarez or perhaps Drew Smyly, but why are you trading away depth at a time like this?  Is this simply a money-saving deal?   The team saves somewhere in the range of $6M in arbitration for Fister (paying MLB mins or less for all three guys they got back).  As others have pointed out, the Tigers really must have liked what they saw in Robbie Ray to make him the clear centerpiece of this deal.

Some other quick responses in the Baseball analysis world: Keith Law hates the deal for Detroit with this quote summing it up nicely: “A lefty reliever, a backup at second and a non-top-100 prospect is just not a good return for two years of one of the top 30 starters in baseball.”   Jayson Stark thinks Detroit made this deal for payroll relief and seems to indicate that Detroit’s GM Dave Dombrowski is already on the defensive.  Matt Fillippi at HardBallTimes questions Detroit’s mindset.   Grant Brisbee wishes his team (the Giants) could have done this deal.  Dave Cameron says the Nats “stole” Fister in this deal.    So, I’m not being a homer in saying that, on the face of it, this is a fantastic deal.

Fister posted 3.67 ERA in 2013 pitching in front of a horrible Detroit defense in the American League, so you would have to think that he’s going to immediately get that typical 1/3 to 1/2 point improvement on his ERA moving to the NL and facing weaker lineups and pitchers on a regular basis.   Not to mention going from one of the worst infield defenses to one of the better ones.  Meanwhile, despite being called a “4th starter” Fister quietly has been one of the best pitchers in the league over the last three years; in Cameron’s fangraphs post he has a list of the top pitchers by various measures over the last three years and Fister easily makes the top 15 arms in the game by most measures.  He’s a 4-WAR arm slotting into a near-replacement level WAR slot (Dan Haren) for half the price.  And the team basically gave away spare parts and a decent but not elite prospect to get him.

Other positional fallout from this for the Nats off-season:

  • Lombardozzi was still penciled in a backup infielder/utility guy.  Does this open up an opportunity for Zach Walters to earn a spot?  Will the team buy a cheap utility guy on the FA market to couple with Scott Hairston?  Does this pave the way for Danny Espinosa to return to the majors?
  • Krol’s departure thins the already thin internal loogy ranks to choose from, which to me indicates that one of two things now happens.  We either try to buy one of the limited remaining professional lefties on the market or we go into 2014 planning on converting a here-to-fore starter (either Ross Detwiler or Sammy Solis) into a left-handed option out of the pen.  Unless we think Xavier Cedeno is the answer.

Summary; Great move by Mike Rizzo, and I have to immediately agree with Law’s sentiment that this easily gives the Nats one of the 2-3 best rotations in either league heading into 2014.  I didn’t think Starting Pitching was an area of greatest need necessarily … but boy he’s upgraded over the 4th starter/$13M experiments the team has been running out for the past two years in a hurry.

 

Nats 2013 Arbitration cases; Non-tender candidates and salary analysis

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Ohlendorf's old-school/new-look windup has resurrected his MLB career.  Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Ohlendorf’s old-school/new-look windup has resurrected his MLB career. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, the Nats had no less than 10 arbitration candidates once the dust settled on the Super-2 cutoff.  The team cut ties with three of the players (Jesus Flores, Tom Gorzelanny and John Lannan) and then subsequently struggled in areas where Gorzelanny (left handed matchups) and Lannan (5th starter) may very well have helped during hte 2013 season.  We predicted these three non-tenders and mostly agreed with the thought process behind each decision at the time.  This is a complete “hindsight is 20-20″ analysis, but it does go to show that perhaps instead of dumping $11M/year onto a mediocre closer they could have fortified their ranks and kept all three players (who together wouldn’t have totaled the $11M Rafael Soriano got) and perhaps wouldn’t have struggled in these areas for so long.  Or perhaps not.  I digress.

For 2013, the Nats have 8 Arbitration-eligible players.   They had a few other candidates before some demotions (Danny Espinosa, Ryan Perry) and releases (Roger Bernadina and Henry Rodriguez) cleared out potential non-tender/additional arbitration candidates early.  Unlike last year there’s really not much argument about nearly any of our arbitration-eligible players (even mlbtraderumors does not list any Nats in its non-tender candidate list).  Lets take a look at the 8 guys, their 2013 salaries, their 2014 estimates, and discuss.  The salary projections are from Matt Swartz‘s mlbtraderumors model, and I’ll discuss if I think they’re slightly over- or under-representative.  As with all salary discussions, all information comes from Baseball Prospectus’ Cots page.

Player Arb Status 2013 Salary 2014 Swartz Estimate
Jordan Zimmermann Arb 3 $5.3M $10.5M
Tyler Clippard Arb 3 $4.0M $6.2M
Stephen Strasburg Arb 1 $3.9M $3.9M
Ian Desmond Arb 2 $3.8M $6.9M
Drew Storen Arb 2 $2.5M $3.6M
Ross Detwiler Arb 2 $2.3M $2.8M
Wilson Ramos Arb 1 $501k $2.1M
Ross Ohlendorf Arb 2 ? $1.3M

Frankly, the only possible non-tender candidate I see here is Ross Ohlendorf.  He signed a minor league free agency deal with Washington whose terms were never released, so one can only assume it was for the major league minimum or near it.   He went through arbitration once already, earning more than $2M/year from Pittsburgh in 2011 before bottoming out as a starter.  He’s reinvented himself this year though and merits a tender.  Paying anything less than $2M/year for what we got from Ohlendorf would be a bargain.  If the Nats got him for Swartz’s estimate of $1.3M that’d be fantastic.

Speaking of Swartz’s estimates, lets take a look at his 10 predictions from last year versus what transpired:

Swartz’s arb salary model for our 2012 candidates
Player Swartz Estimate Actual Salary
John Lannan $5.0M NT $2.5M
Jordan Zimmermann $4.9M $5.3M
Tyler Clippard $4.6M $4.0M
Ian Desmond $3.2M $3.8M
Tom Gorzelanny $2.8M NT $2.6M
Ross Detwiler $2.2M $2.3M
Drew Storen $1.7M $2.5M
Jesus Flores $1.2M NT ML
Roger Bernadina $1.1M $1.2M
Craig Stammen $900k $875k*

(* Stammen signed a 2 yr/2.25M deal paying him 875k and $1.375M his first two arb years.  After non tenders Lannan signed a 1yr/$2.5M deal with Philadelphia, Gorzelanny signed a 2yr/$5.7M deal that pays him $2.6M and $2.8M and which gave him a $300k signing bonus.  Flores signed a minor league deal).

I’m not sure I’d call Swartz’s model the self-titled “very accurate” based on these numbers.  He was significantly wrong on the three biggest cases the Nats faced last year but proved be much more accurate on the lesser players.   It sounds to me like his system does a great job of predicting arbitration figures for bit players but struggles with significant players.  I also get the feeling that the Nationals are less willing to argue with their players than other teams, after a series of brusing and self-defeating fights over a few hundred thousand dollars under the previous regime (relative pennies, all things considered).

With that in mind, lets do a little arbitration salary analysis for our 8 guys.   The general rule of thumb with arbitration salaries is that they are intended to ramp up the full FA value of the player over the three arbitration periods.   So in the first arbitration year, the salary should be roughtly 40% of the full FA value.  60% in the second year and 80% in the third year.  Players with a fourth year are tricky; generally i’ve just assumed that by the 4th year you’re paying them nearly full FA value (we don’t have any 4th year arbitration cases this year, so we don’t have to guess).  The table below contains the Swartz estimates, then has calculations of the player’s full FA value based on the Swartz estimate, then my own personal estimate of each player’s full FA value, and a working-backwards arbitration salary guess for each guy:

Player Arb Status 2013 Salary 2014 Swartz Estimate Full FA Value based on Swartz Estimate My Est of full FA value Arb estimate based on my full FA value
Jordan Zimmermann Arb 3 $5.3M $10.5M $13.125M $15M $12M
Tyler Clippard Arb 3 $4.0M $6.2M $7.75M $8m $6.4M
Stephen Strasburg Arb 1 $3.9M $3.9M $9.75M $15M at least $6M
Ian Desmond Arb 2 $3.8M $6.9M $11.5M $15M $9M
Drew Storen Arb 2 $2.5M $3.6M $6M $6M $3.6M
Ross Detwiler Arb 2 $2.3M $2.8M $4.66M $5M at best $3M
Wilson Ramos Arb 1 $501k $2.1M $5.25M $8M if healthy $3.2M
Ross Ohlendorf Arb 2 ? $1.3M $2.16M $2.5M at best $1.5M

Lets go player by player:

  • Jordan Zimmermann: 2013 Salary was $5.3M.  Swartz guesses he’ll get $10.5M while I think he’ll get more.  If Zimmermann hit the open market right now you have to think he’s at least a $15M/year guy, and I think the team will have to pay him as such after his 2013 season.   The Nats face an interesting decision with Zimmermann; they clearly waited one season too long to lock him down and he now may cost double what it cost the team to secure Gio Gonzalez‘s services.
  • Tyler Clippard: 2013 salary $4.0M.  Swartz guesses he’ll get $6.2M.  Clippard represents a different arbitration case; by virtue of the fact that Clippard went from being the 2012 closer to being the 2013 setup guy, he’ll have a harder time arguing for additional money despite his excellent season.  Why?  Because arbitration is driven by the same old-school stats (Wins, Saves, ERA, RBI) that drive sabrematricians crazy, and unfortunately Clippard didn’t get them in 2013.  So even though I think he’s a $8M/year closer for a team that gives him that opportunity, he won’t get that value in arbitration.  I’ll be surprised if he gets near to Swartz’s estimate of $6.2M.  Honestly the team should look to buy him out of his last two arbitration seasons and look to move him to a team in need of a closer.
  • Stephen Strasburg; 2013 Salary $3.9M.  Swartz guesses he’ll get $3.9M again?  Clearly something is wrong with his system.  No matter what you think about Strasburg’s 2013 season … by nearly any measure available he’s one of the 10 best pitchers in the game.   If he hit the open market right now I’d guess he’d command at least $20m/year, but for simplicity’s sake I’m putting his FA value at a conservative $15M, which would equate with a $6M valuation for his first arbitration season.   Do the Nats just buy him out of his arbitration figures, much as the Giants did with Tim Lincecum?
  • Ian Desmond: 2013 salary $3.8M.  Swartz guess: $6.9M.  Again, I feel like Swartz is undervaluing a significant player here.  Desmond has now established himself as one of the best shortstops in the game.  If you want a comp, look no further than Elvis Andrus‘s $15M/year contract.  I think Desmond is absolutely worth a 6/$90M deal or higher right now, and I think we’ll see it in his arbitration case.
  • Drew Storen: 2013 salary $2.5M.  Swartz estimate: $3.6M.  Here I think Swartz is right on; because Storen’s not getting saves right now, and because of his crummy 2013, I’ve got his FA value pegged at a mid-range closer cost of $6M/year.  Which puts him right in line for a $3.6M payday in his second arbitration year.  As with Clippard, I think Storen’s value is limited as long as he doesn’t get saves, and the team should look to move him before he gets too expensive.
  • Ross Detwiler: 2013 salary $2.3M.  Swartz Estimate $2.8M.  Frankly Swartz may be over-estimating on Detwiler, based on his 2013 season.  At this point in Detwiler’s career its hard to say he’s any more valuable on the FA market than John Lannan was last year (getting a 1yr $2.5M deal).  Which means that any arbitration award above $2.5M may mean Detwiler enters non-tender territory if he struggles in 2014.  Nonetheless, I think he’ll end up getting just a modest raise and an organizational ultimatum for 2014.
  • Wilson Ramos: 2013 salary $501k.  Swartz Estimate: $2.1M.   Here, despite my thinking that Ramos is eventually going to be more valuable than Swartz’s estimate indicat es, I believe that his number will be about right.  Ramos needs to stay on the field consistently to realize his full FA value, and right now that just hasn’t happened.
  • Ross Ohlendorf: 2013 salary unknown.  Swartz Estimate: $1.3M.  This guess is as good as any; at best Ohlendorf is a $2.5M player on the FA market and even that might be a stretch.  A right-handed long-relief guy isn’t going to command a ton of money.

Total payroll hit: $37.3M if all of Swartz’s estimates come true exactly.  $44.7M if all of my estimates above come true.  Honestly I think my calculated estimates are slightly high in a couple of cases, so I think the arbitration bill will come in at around $42.5M.  Which, by the way, would put 2014′s payroll at around $122M before signing a single free agent.  So think about that and think about what the Nats “real” payroll budget is before thinking that they’ve got some significant signing in their back pocket.

Ladson’s inbox 11/13/13

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I wonder who we can get for Danny Espinosa in trade?   Photo AP via mlb.com

I wonder who we can get for Danny Espinosa in trade? Photo AP via mlb.com

The Hot Stove League is in full effect; Bill Ladson has done two mailbags in two weeks!  Here’s his 11/13/13 edition, hot on the heels of his last one on 11/5/13.  Lets get to it.  Lots of “what-if” scenarios involving Nats players are already being rumored by big-time names in the industry.  Lets get to them.

As always, I answer here before reading his response and edit questions for clarity if needed.

Q: Do you think Anthony Rendon will be in the regular lineup in 2014, or is there a possibility of him being traded?

A: Honestly, despite Anthony Rendon‘s name prominently being mentioned as a centerpiece for rumored deals for the likes of Max Scherzer and/or David Price, I don’t believe these kind of deals are going to really happen.  I can’t see Detroit trading away Scherzer, not in their “win-now” mode.  And I can’t see Mike Rizzo pulling off a deal with the ultra-competitive executives in Tampa Bay, not after he’s done such a good job re-stocking the farm system and getting everyone healthy.  For now I see Rendon right back as the starting 2nd baseman in 2014, with the Nats facing a tougher decision on what to do with deposed starter Danny Espinosa.  Ladson “doesn’t know yet.”  Thanks for the “going-out-on-a-limb” prediction there.

Q: What do you think about Drew Storen‘s future with the Nationals? And with that said, what do you think the Nats could get back in a trade?

A: I think that as long as this team is competitive Drew Storen (and to a lesser extent this also goes for Tyler Clippard at least for one more year) will stay here and hold down their spots in the back-end of the bullpen.  If we suffer another down year (or, more likely, if we suddenly see an influx of home-grown replacements) these guys and their escalating salaries are ripe for trading to contenders with bullpen holes.  They’re both good pitchers, “closer quality” who aren’t being used in that capacity in Washington thanks to the luxury signing of Rafael Soriano and his $11m/year salary.  What can they bring back?  Well if you use the Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos trade as a blueprint, the team should hope for a near-majors prospect.   I don’t think you can always get that; teams now are far more protective of their prospects than they used to be.  But for either player i’d take a top-10 prospect even if he was further down in the minors.  Ladson says he thinks Storen is getting traded … but doesn’t say when.  But he does mention the Scherzer rumors…

Q: Do you think the Nationals will go after free-agent lefty Eric O’Flaherty to improve their bullpen depth?

A: Maybe.  If they can get him on a minor league/cheap deal sure.  The Nats tried this route last year with Bill Bray (taking a formerly effective loogy in FA who was coming off of injury) and Bray finished the year on the AA disabled list.  So that didn’t work out so well.  I’m sure there’s more than a few teams in the lefty reliever market, and if its like 2012 the Nats might shy away from the prices these guys command.  Remember; they’ve got more than a few decent in-house options already, guys who proved they could pitch last year.  I don’t perceive the “need” to get a lefty reliever in free agency to be as critical for this team as others seem to think.  Yes I know the team is already calling guys (as they should), but somehow I think they’re going to end up shying away from the prices they see (much as they did last  year with their trio of lefty FA relievers).   Ladson says the team wants healthy players, not guys coming off of TJ surgery like Chien-Ming Wang.  Fair points.

Q: Wouldn’t a bench of Steve LombardozziTyler MooreZach Walters and Scott Hairston give the Nationals a balance of lefty/righty bats and much more field flexibility than they have had in recent seasons?

A: This bench, comprised entirely of in-house solutions, would give the team this profile:

  • Two righties , two switch hitters
  • Two corner outfielders  but nobody who could really play center
  • Two middle infielders who could cover at least 2nd, SS, 3rd.   Moore could cover 1st if needed.
  • Demonstrated right-handed power off the bench … but not so much lefty power
  • Just one real proven major leaguer (Hairston)

We just don’t know what to make of Moore at this point in his career.  Great in 2012, awful in 2013.  We know he can hit it a mile … can he do it when he gets just a few ABs a week?  I don’t know.  Lombardozzi fills the “utility guy” role who can plug in at 5 positions … so where does that leave Walters?  I know Walters hit 29 homers last year in AAA; if he replicates that in the majors he’s a $100M player.

Where’s the lefty power?  That’s what this bench misses, and that’s why I think the team looks for some lefty pop off the bench.   Ladson repeats the need for bench power.

Q: Reportedly the Nats are looking for an elite starter, and it’s been said that Scherzer is a better fit than Price because of Mike Rizzo’s history with Scherzer. I don’t understand why a relationship with the general manager makes a player or manager the best choice. What does liking him or knowing him have to do with it? Shouldn’t the choice be made by determining who is the best pitcher for the Nats?

A: Good question.  On some levels, GMs seem to fall in love with the guys they drafted, especially guys they scouted.  We saw this with Jim Bowden‘s obsession with his former players from Cincinnati, and we see it with Rizzo and his former players from Arizona on some levels.  Makes sense right?  How many of us have seen executives hired who brought in “their guys” to help out?  You’re comfortable with the known commodity, guys who you feel like you have a relationship with, guys who you know can get the job done as you think it needs to be done.

But that only explains why Rizzo may like Scherzer moreso than Price at a personal history level.   That has nothing to do with a) the ability to actually make a trade for the guy, or b) the fit for the team.  Now, any team in the league would take a healthy Cy Young winning pitcher, and that’s why trading for either guy will take a significant investment in prospects.  In reality any team in the league would love to have either guy at their pre-FA salary levels; they’re steals.  The “value” of a win on the FA market is now estimated to be about $7M or so; even if these guys are paid double that in 2014 they’re going to produce more than 2 wins.  Ladson speculates that because Scherzer’s agent is Scott Boras that the Nats would for some reason have a better shot at signing him long term.  See, I dont’ believe that either.  If the Nats offer the most money, they’ll get the player no matter who his agent may be.  People like to say the Nats are Boras’ “bitch” team because we sign so many of his players … but if you check the Player Agent database, the Nats have as many Boras clients as a few other teams (Kansas City, Detroit, Seattle, Boston, Baltimore) and most of them are draftees, not FAs.  You’re going to draft the best player no matter who his agent may be.

Q: With Adam LaRoche having a bad season at the plate, do you think the Nationals will end up trading him along with possibly Danny Espinosa and others to the Rays for Price?

A: Genesis of a dumb trade proposal; hey, lets see if Tampa, one of the shrewdest and most forward thinking organization in the majors, will not only take on two of our most disappointing players from 2013 (LaRoche and Espinosa) but also will they take on more than $15M in anticipated payroll for a former Cy Young winner and inarguably one of the best 10 arms in baseball?!  Yeah that’s a great trade!  Hey, lets see if we can trade, oh I dunno, Yunesky Maya and a bunch of guys from AAA who hit .220 to the Dodgers for Clayton Kershaw!  Yeah, that’ll work.

I’m sorry for the sarcasm, but this is just such a stupid trade idea given how we *know* the Rays work that it just isn’t worth addressing.  If you proposed this in a chat with a professional talent evaluator they’d ignore it, or post it just to ridicule it.

The Rays want prospects back.  Always.  They don’t want guys with 8 figure salaries who are already on the wrong side of 30.  Espinosa’s trade value is near worthless right now.  Anyone who thinks they’re going to be the centerpieces of a trade with an organization as smart as Tampa is a fool.

Ladson doesn’t even address the proposal, just saying confidently that LaRoche will be back.

Ladson’s Inbox 11/5/13 edition

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Can Roark win a 2014 rotation job? Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Can Roark win a 2014 rotation job? Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Well, we finally got a manager, so hopefully MLB.com Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson will stop taking “Who do you think the next Nats Manager” questions.  I’m not ruling it out though :-)  Nonetheless, here’s the latest Ladson inbox, dated 11/5/13.  As always, I write my response before reading his and edit questions for clarity.

Q: Will Davey Johnson still play a role in the organization?

A: Who cares?  Does it matter?  Whatever role Davey Johnson could play would have so little significance on the on-field play of the 2014 team that I find it useless to even speculate.  I’m sure the Nats offered him a limited role out of respect, and I’d assume Johnson accepted it as long as it allowed him to go relax in Florida for a while, hoping another managerial job opens up.  Ladson expects he’ll consult to the team and advise on trades and FA signings because he’s such a great “talent evaluator.”  Hey Bill; if Johnson was such a great talent evaluator why exactly did he run Danny Espinosa out for so many at-bats?  Why didn’t he push to make a change in the rotation when it was clear that Dan Haren wasn’t pitching at even a replacement-level?  How come he didn’t see the rising talent that made such a difference in September?

Q: After Stephen StrasburgGio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, how do you see the rest of the rotation shaking out?

A: A good question.  After going into the 2013 season with almost no high-minors starting pitching depth, you have to think the team is going to cover themselves for 2014.  So count on there being more seemingly worthy candidates than roles going into spring training 2014.  The answer to this question may depend on payroll issues: right now Cots has the Nats with about $80M committed for 2014 prior to its arbitration cases, which MLBtraderumor’s Matt Swartz is estimating will run the team another $37.3M (which honestly I think is slightly low).  That’s roughly $117M in payroll before even looking at a single FA candidate.   You could save some of this money with non-tenders or trades (Tyler Clippard at $6.2M is a candidate to be moved), but not enough to get an impact player.

Will the ownership group expand the payroll even more for 2014, knowing their “window” with this group of players is shrinking?  Or will they stay the course and know that nearly $30M of mostly underperforming veteran FAs (LaRocheSpanSoriano) come off the books after next season, allowing them to reload in the FA market towards 2015 and beyond?

If ownership frees up some cash, by trade/non-tender or by expansion of the payroll limit, there are FA pitchers to be had.  I’ve seen more than one pundit with the Nats linked to Matt Garza, but I don’t see it; I don’t think he’s worth what people seem to think he’s going to get (4 yrs/$60M).  More likely is the team going with a modification of the Edwin Jackson/Dan Haren plan and getting a reclamation project in the ilk of Josh Johnson on a one-year/low paying contract with big incentives.

Less predictable is the trade acquisition.  Nobody saw the Gio Gonzalez trade coming until it happened, and something similar could happen now.  The team is in the same position generally this off-season as it was in 2011 in terms of having a slight surplus of closer-to-the-majors arms and bats and could put together a similar package.  If we moved Brad PeacockTommy MiloneDerek Norris and A.J. Cole for Gonzalez in 2011 (or in otherwords, a good-looking starter with great initial call-up numbers, a solid lefty starter who dominated AAA, a decent looking catcher prospect and a high-leverage low-minors prospect) would a similar package of something like Tanner RoarkNathan Karns, Eury Perez and Robbie Ray fetch a #2 starter in the trade market?   Oakland isn’t facing the same issue they were in 2011 with any of its pitchers, so the most likely eager-to-make-a-trade GM in Billy Beane is out.  But that being said, they’re paying Brett Anderson a LOT of money for Oakland’s payroll (roughly 1/6th of their payroll for next year), and he could be moved.  Anderson wouldn’t cost nearly this much in prospects, but would be a huge risk; he hasn’t pitched a full season in years.

Meanwhile everyone knows Tampa is looking to move David Price, but any trade for him has to start with your two best prospects and build from there, and the Nats are just back to the point where the farm system is looking respectable again.  I’m not sure the Nats are going to be willing to give up what the Rays will demand.  The Nats have done business lately with the Chicago Cubs, who may look to move the arbitration-eligible Jeff Samardzija, but they’d be selling incredibly low on him after his poor 2013.  Lastly the Tigers reportedly are considering moving Max Scherzer, who enters his last year of arbitration looking for a big pay day and with Ken Rosenthal reporting that the Nats are his best fit, but I just cannot see purposely moving a Cy Young winner and disrupting a team that continues to be one of the best in the AL.

With no FA acquisitions and no trades, I see a competition next spring that likely sees Ross Detwiler in the 4th spot (no options, theoretically healthy again), Tanner Roark in the 5th spot (he keeps his spot until he shows that his remarkable September numbers are human), Ross Ohlendorf as the spot starter/long man in the MLB pen, and Taylor Jordan-Nathan Karns being the #1 and #2 starters in AAA Syracuse.  Some speculate that Detwiler would lose out to both Roark and Jordan and become a lefty out of the pen … but I don’t see that.  I’m not counting it out, but I don’t see that happening if he’s healthy.

With any significant FA acquisition or trade, you line up Stras-Gio-Zimmermann-New Acquisition and Detwiler to start off 2014, just as you did in 2013.   Roark and Ohlendorf likely work out of the MLB pen and Jordan/Karns still in AAA.   Maybe Karns comes up and works the 7th inning as well, while Jordan remains starter insurance plan #1.

Ladson also mentions Price, also mentions what I do about the difficulties lining up, thinks the Nats will acquire someone for #4 spot and then says Roark has the inside edge on #5 spot, even over Detwiler (who he thinks could move to the bullpen). 

Q: What did you think about the Nationals hiring Williams as manager last week?

A: Well, I guess Ladson had to get in one last question about the managerial situation.  My take: I like the move, I think Matt Williams‘ combination of successful playing career and MLB coaching experience will instantly give him the respect of the veterans and the rookies on this team.   He will get this team in line, he will bring some old-school notions to this team and won’t back down in a fight (as Johnson clearly did with Atlanta all year).  I think he will give this team the spine it lacked and will do nothing but help move the team forward.

One other opinion; I do see some critics who say that Williams’ lack of direct managerial experience at any level hurts him.  I say BS; he was a major league coach for four years, working underneath a successful, respected manager.  He presumably contributed to the decision making process, got to witness first hand how decisions worked out, got to decide for himself how he would have handled situations, and in some ways I think this experience supercedes being a manager of a lower-level ball-club where there’s no egos and just a bunch of kids who you can cower into submission.

Ladson says its too early to tell, but that Williams had a great news conference.  Honestly I didn’t really expect much of an answer here from an employee of MLB.

Q: What is Christian Garcia‘s status? Will he join the Nationals in 2014? He was a great late addition to the bullpen in 2012.

A: He’s finally healthy, and pitching in the Mexican Winter League.  I think the team sees the error of its ways in trying to convert the injury-riddled pitcher to being a starter.  He’s working as a reliever in winter ball, and I hope to see him continue to work as a reliever in the spring.  I’d love to see him earn a spot in the bullpen; lord knows the team could use one more reliable arm in the 6th/7th inning (Ryan Mattheus needs to be on guard; your spot is in jeopardy for 2014).  Ladson agrees with everything I’ve said.

Q: Do you think the Nationals will trade Danny EspinosaTyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzithis winter or sign a couple free agents? I believe they need a lefty middle reliever, a left-handed bat coming off the bench and a veteran backup catcher.

A: Trading any of those three guys after the seasons they had at the plate would be selling incredibly low.  So no, I don’t think any of them get moved unless they’re part of a larger deal.  Espinosa needs to get healthy, learn how to hit left handed, and build trade value.  I believe he can be a valuable player for someone, somewhere, just based on his incredible defense.  But he has to hit better than .150.  Moore needs to return to his 2012 power ways, but I still see him as a useful player who we have no reason to trade; he still has options, he’s still pre-arbitration and thus he’s cheap.  Lombardozzi is the quintessential utility guy; he can play 2nd, 3rd, left, right.  You have to have one of these guys around … and if he can’t hit, it is’t going to kill you.  But when this player gets 300 ABs (as Lombardozzi got last year) … then you have a problem.  This is why the team got Scott Hairston and why they’re likely to give some looks to Zach Walters in 2014.   Maybe the team looks for a cheap veteran to replace Chad Tracy but i’d hope for a bit more positional flexibility.

I can also see the team kicking the tires on a veteran lefty but don’t entirely see the need; Ian Krol may have faltered down the stretch but he was mostly good.  Abad was good.  Cedeno was good.  We have all these guys locked up.  You see who wins a competition and switch them out if they’re ineffective.

Ladson thinks Espinosa is getting traded no matter what, and has played his last game as a National.

Q: Are Gold Glove Awards given with consideration to the offensive stats of a player? Otherwise, how could Denard Span miss out on the award this year?

A: They’re not supposed to be … but we all know old habits die hard and bit players who are awful at the plate often times have a hard time getting a Gold Glove.  Span as it turned out led all NL centerfielders in one defensive metric (Total Zone Total Fielding Runs), but I have zero problem with the NL winner Carlos Gomez.  Ladson says he was “shocked” that Span didn’t win, and then used “# of errors” as a metric.  Poor form Ladson; you need to reference some of the advanced stats in question.  Gomez led the NL in Defensive Runs Saved, one of the two major defensive metrics.  So your argument fails.  Span may have great range, but he wasn’t best in the Ultimate Zone Ratings measurement either.  See the Fielding Awards spreadsheet link to the right to see all the leaders in one place.

Nationals 2013 post-mortem

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This may be the last time i use Haren's picture in a Nats uniform on this blog.  Photo via Zimbio.com

This may be the last time I use Haren’s picture in a Nats uniform on this blog. Photo via Zimbio.com

They say success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.  Well, here’s a whole slew of orphan-causing problems that befell this team this year.  I started this post months ago, when the team sputtered in July and suddenly sat at 54-60.  None of these bullet points are surprises.  Maybe I forgot some key points; feel free to tack ‘em on.   This is a cathartic, washing my hands of the 2013 season, where so many things conspired to go wrongly.

  1. Davey Johnson, for continued pitching/bullpen mismanagement episode after episode, for seemingly losing the clubhouse (see below), for sticking with severely under-performing players (Espinosa, Haren especially) far, far too long, for failing to react to repeated beanings of his best player, and for generally looking old, tired and out-matched this year at press conference after press conference.  This team needs a new voice, a disciplinarian who will command more respect than what Johnson was commanding from this team.  My vote is for Matt Williams.
  2. Injuries.  Every team has injuries; I’m not going to write some simplistic statement that says “well if we had So-and-So healthy all year we’d have won the division.”   Look at St. Louis: they’re missing Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia basically all year and still won the best division in the game.  I think the issue most people will have with the Nats is the way their players’ injuries were handled.  Bryce Harper missed the whole month of June after several wall collisions finally caught up to him and he was clearly in pain the rest of the season.  Did the team not allow him to get healthy at the end of April?  Meanwhile you have to take serious issue with either the team, Danny Espinosa or both over the handling of his injuries.  What good did it do anyone to allow Espinosa to try to play through the significant shoulder injury he apparently has?  Why has he STILL not had the surgery done to fix it?  It sounds to me like there’s some serious stubbornness on both sides of this fence.  Ross Detwiler looked to be on the verge of a breakout season in 2012 … and now he’s back to being the broken down starter he’s mostly been during his time here.  In his 6 pro seasons he’s not pitched full seasons in 3 of them.   This isn’t necessarily on the team .. but I will ask this: at what point do you go into a season counting on Detwiler to break down instead of the reverse?  It goes to proper roster planning (also mentioned later on).
  3. Bench production, for regressing so far past the mean from last year’s over production.  Did you know that Steve Lombardozzi got more than 300 plate appearances this year with this slash line: .255/.276/.337?  I know you need backup utility infielders, but man, that’s a huge 68 OPS+ hole getting a ton of ABs.  Our opening-day bench of Lombardozzi/Moore/Bernadina/Tracy posted these OPS+ figures in 2012: 82/123/111/111.  In 2013?  69/66/43/55.  Wow.  That’s just a startling drop-off in production.  To add insult to injury Kurt Suzuki‘s OPS+ went from a respectable 95 last year to 64 this year.  Basically every pinch hitting spot or guy off the bench covering for a starter turned into an 0-4 outing.  We know that at least 3 of these 5 bench guys are gone; who will replace them?
  4. Dan Haren.  $13M for one of the worst starters in the game, even given his little August rebound.  The team finished 4 games out of the wild card, 10 games back of Atlanta.   In Dan Haren’s 30 starts, the Nats went 11-19.  In every other pitcher’s starts, the team went 75-57.   That’s a .568 winning percentage, which equates to 92 wins.  Even a #5 starter who gave the team a 50/50 chance of winning on any given sunday would have basically put the team into the WC game.  Haren was just a really really poor FA acquisition who contributed a huge part to the downfall of the team.  I wonder at this point if the Nats didn’t fail to do the proper medical due diligence on Haren; there was a reason the proposed trade to the Cubs fell through and there was a reason the Angels did not give him a qualifying offer.  I fully admit: I was completely on board with the signing, thinking we were getting the pre 2012 Haren.  Wrong; something clearly changed for him after the 2011 season and I wonder how much longer he can stay in the league after his last two seasons.  I’m sure he’ll get another one-year deal for 2014 based on his stronger finish, but another 5+ ERA season may finish him.
  5. Offense in general: The team scored 656 runs on the year.  That’s down fully 75 runs from last year, when they were 10th in the league in scoring.  Had they produced like they did last year in 2013 (about 10th in the league in runs scored and other key indicators),  they’d have scored around 700 runs, probably good for at least 10 more wins (under the rough estimate that it takes about 4 “extra” runs per win).  With 10 more wins … they’re winning the division again (since some of those added wins come at the hands of Atlanta).
  6. Hitting in the Clutch: Ask any sabre-nerd and they’ll tell you that “clutch” doesn’t exist and that all aspects of batting (good or bad) with RISP is merely coincidence (this came up again recently with David Ortiz’ game-changing NLCS homer).  I don’t entirely buy it. I think hitting with runners on base is a skill that can be practiced and honed.  I think there’s importance to driving runners in when you have the opportunity.  I think a batter with a runner on third and less than one out can absolutely look for a ball that he can hit into the air, thus driving in the run.  Anyway: let’s look at how well the Nats offense hit in the clutch this season (see this team-stats split link at tFangraphs).  The Nats team batting average with runners on base is ranked 19th in the league; its wRC+ as a team 17th.  However, change “runners on base” to “high leverage” in the Fangraphs split and you get this: Nats were 29th in high leverage batting average, 28th in wRC+. That’s right: almost dead last in the league in high-leverage hitting for the year.  When they came to bat in situations that mattered, they were one of the worst teams in the league.  Any way you slice it … that’s not “clutch.”
  7. Clubhouse Issues: I know that many readers here get irritated with presumptions of “chemistry” issues, writing comments about how we have no idea what really goes on in the clubhouse.  Fair enough; we don’t need to rehash the argument.  Absent any proof, I believe something might have been amiss.  Reporters have noted the losses of free-spirit Morse and the level headed DeRosa.  The Soriano acquisition brought a known surly loner with behavior problems into a tight knit bullpen and resulted in the chain reaction demotion of two guys (Storen and Clippard) who didn’t necessarily deserve to be demoted.  I believe Harper was fed up with Johnson’s message and was caught on camera more than once clearly ignoring or showing disdain to something he was being told.  To say nothing of the ridiculousness of Harper getting hit over and over without any of his teammates getting his back.   Can a new manager fix this?  Probably.  Can a leadership void fix this?  Definitely.  Perhaps with Jayson Werth‘s great season he can step up in the clubhouse and be the voice of reason moreso than it seems he has been before (either because he was struggling on the field or collapsing under the weight of his contract).
  8. Rizzo’s mis-management of the 2013 roster: Rizzo just had to have his speedy leadoff/centerfielder, and Span underperformed when it counted (I’m on record stating over and over that the team is wasting Harper’s defensive capabilities in left and blocking a power-hitter acquisition by sticking with Span in center.  But what’s done is done).  The opening day roster had no left handed specialists, a move that I quasi-defended at the time but which turned out to be disastrous.  We relied on a MLFA (and frankly, we over-relied an incredibly short sample size) for the long man (Duke) and he failed. We had absolutely no starting pitching depth in the high Minors and got rather lucky that Taylor Jordan materialized out of the thin air of high-A and Tanner Roark suddenly added 5 mph to his fastball and turned into an effective MLB hurler.  We had a $120M payroll but were depending on bargain basement acquisitions in key roles.  That just has to change for 2014.  Don’t go looking to save pennies on the proverbial dollar by non-tendering useful guys (as they did with Tom Gorzelanny last year); do the right thing and lock these guys up.  You had enough to waste $30M on Soriano but couldn’t find the scratch to keep around half of 2012′s bullpen?
  9. Pressure. this team had no pressure last year, and all of the pressure this year.  Nearly every baseball pundit with a blog, microphone or column picked them to win the division (me included), and lots picked them to win 100+ games (me included).  Look at how awfully they fared this year against the NL playoff bound teams:
  • Stl: 0-6, scoring just 8 runs in 6 games.
  • LA Dodgers: 1-5
  • Atlanta: 6-13.  Outscored 73-49
  • Pittsburgh: 3-4
  • Cincinnati: 4-3 but outscored 36-27 thanks to a 15-0 spanking the 2nd week of the season.

When the chips were down, they folded.  Especially against Atlanta, who pushed the team around, continually threw at us, and we had no reaction (that is until Strasburg suddenly had a fit of wildness which some will argue was less about standing up for his players and more about being off that day).   I lay this at the manager’s feet again.  Atlanta has proved time and again (and again) that they’re capable of acting like bullies when it comes to “unwritten rules” of the game, and Johnson let this go unchecked far too long.  A new manager with some balls will put an end to this nonesense, fast.  Sorry to sound crude, but it is what it is.  Johnson had no balls and made his entire team look weak in the face of the Braves.

Yes its great the team had a run in August and September.  What does it really mean?  Their schedule was cake in August and then filled with teams with AAA callups in September.  Who is the real Denard Span?  The guy who hit .235 in the middle of the summer or the guy who hit .303 in September?  Can Werth keep this kind of production up in the face of father time in 2014?  Can LaRoche return his OPS to something better than what a middling 2nd baseman can produce?  Can Harper stop running into walls and stay on the field?

I think the scarier part for Nats fans is the fact that this team is basically going to be the exact same team next year. Nearly every position player, likely the entire rotation (simply replace Haren with a healthy Detwiler), most all of the bullpen. There’s not a lot of holes here, not a lot of wiggle room.   Unless there’s a major trade on the horizon that drastically reshapes the roster, this is your team in 2014.  Can they turn it around and make up the 14 games they declined in the win column?

In summary; which of the above points IS the real issue behind 2013′s disaster?  And how do you fix it?  Because if you don’t address it, then 2014 is going to be the same story.

 

DC-IBWAA Poll results and my vote

2 comments

http://dc-ibwaa.blogspot.com/2013/10/dc-internet-baseball-writers.html
David Nichols does a great job getting all the Nats bloggers to participate in pre-season and post-season polls.  He got 18 voters this time around.  The link above is the results of the post-season poll.  Here’s his post-season survey questions, the poll results and how I answered them and why.

2013 DC-Internet Baseball Writers Association

POST-SEASON ACHIEVEMENT AWARDS BALLOT

 AWARD FIRST (5 POINTS) SECOND (3 points) THIRD (1 point)
Goose Goslin Most Valuable PlayerPlayer most valuable to the success of the Washington Nationals Werth Desmond Harper
Walter Johnson Starting Pitcher of the YearExcellent performance as a starting pitcher Zimmermann Strasburg Gonzalez
Frederick “Firpo” Marberry Relief Pitcher of the YearExcellent performance as a relief pitcher Clippard Stammen Roark
Sam Rice Hitter of the YearExcellence in all-around hitting, situational hitting and baserunning Desmond Span Harper
Frank Howard Slugger of the YearExcellence in power hitting Werth Harper Zimmerman
Joe Judge Defensive Player of the YearExcellence in fielding Span Desmond Espinosa
Mickey Vernon Comeback Player of the YearPlayer who overcame biggest obstacle in the preceding season to contribute on the field Jordan Ramos Werth
Josh Gibson Humanitarian Player of the YearPlayer who meritoriously gave of himself to the community Zimmerman
Minor League Player of the YearMinor league player most destined for big league success

 

Jordan 

Giolito

Burns 

Cole

Souza 

Godwin

  • Goose Goslin Most Valuable Player: Werth, Desmond, Zimmermann.  I went Werth, Desmond and Harper.  I don’t like voting pitchers for MVP; they have their own awards :-)
  • Walter Johnson Starting Pitcher of the Year: Zimmermann, Strasburg, Gonzalez: Same way I voted.  I do like the few side-votes for Roark.
  • Frederick “Firpo” Marberry Relief Pitcher of the Year : Clippard, Stammen, Soriano: I voted Clippard, Stammen and then Roark.  Honestly I did not think Soriano really did that great a job this year.  He had a 0.9 WAR for his $15M salary (with deferred payments).  That just doesn’t cut it for me for a high-end closer.  I want Craig Kimbrel-esque dominance for that kind of money.  Roark on the other hand had a 2.0 bWAR in his limited time on the team.
  • Sam Rice Hitter of the Year: Werth, Desmond, Zimmerman.  I went Desmond, Span, Harper.  I dunno; I guess I got caught up on the definition, which included “baserunning” and “situational” hitting.  I think I just plain forgot how good a season Werth had here.
  • Frank Howard Slugger of the Year: Werth, Harper, Zimmerman: same way as I voted.  Maybe we should have put more thought into it besides just listing the team leaders in  homers.
  • Joe Judge Defensive Player of the Year: Span, Desmond, Ramos.  I went Span, Desmond and Espinosa.  Despite how bad his bat was, Espinosa was still awfully good in the field.  You always forget about the catchers when rating defenders.  I’m guilty here.
  • Mickey Vernon Comeback Player of the Year: Ramos, Werth, Ohlendorf.  I went Jordan, Ramos and Werth.  Remember, Jordan had Tommy John surgery and was buried in high-A to start the season.  That’s a heck of a comeback.  Fair enough on Ramos after his kidnapping ordeal and his injuries.
  • Josh Gibson Humanitarian Player of the Year: Zimmerman, Desmond, Gonzalez.  Honestly I only voted for Zimmerman; do the rest of these guys do events?  Maybe i’m just unaware of what the rest of the team is doing in the charity world, but clearly Zimmerman’s MS causes is well known.
  • Minor League Player of the Year : Giolito, Rendon, Cole: I voted Giolito, Cole and Goodwin, thinking that Rendon was “graduated.”  I have two lines of players because I wasn’t sure how to answer the question at first; was it “3 best prospects” or “3 best minor league players THIS season?”  Because the answer to the latter question clearly is not the same as the answer to the former question.

Survey Questions
1. Which players on the 40-man roster at the end of the season are least likely to return in 2010?    

I said Cedeno, Haren, Ohlendorf, Tracy (which were the top four answers among all the responses) but i’d like to change my mind on Ohlendorf.   I think the team is going to tender him and keep him around as a long man, considering that he can’t refuse an option until mid-next year.  I also think a couple of these random guys picked up on waivers late in the season (Tyler Robinson and Mauro Gomez) may not stick around for the long haul.  These two guys in particular never even got numbers assigned to them.

2. Will the Nats sign Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann to long-term contract extensions before they reach free agency? 

I said “Desmond yes, Zimmermann maybe.”  Honestly, I feel the team can replace Zimmermann from within and may be better served to flip him for prospects if his price tag gets too high.  At some point the Nats are going to have to make tough choices like this (they are not going to be able to give 9-figure deals to everyone on this team who deserves them) in order to maintain their core group and contine to compete.  You already have two 9-figure deals, and you have to think that Desmond, Harper and Strasburg are going to merit them.  can you have a team with that much top-heavy payroll?  Now, if you got Zimmerman for Gonzalez prices (5  yrs $50M or so) then you have yourself a deal.

3. What player was the biggest surprise for the Nats this season?

I went with with Jordan, Roark, Werth.   The group went with Roark, Werth, Jordan.

4. Who was the biggest disappointment?

I went with Haren, Span, LaRoche.  The group went with Haren, Espinosa, Span.  Maybe I didn’t include Espinosa because I already had my doubts on him; frankly he didn’t disappoint me, he met my low expectations for him in 2014.

5. Who is your favorite professional Nats writer?

I went with Mark Zuckerman.  The survey results went Kilgore, Comak, Zuckerman and Wagner.  Coincidentally bon voyage to Comak, who is leaving The Washington Times Nats beat.

6. Who is your favorite non-professional Nationals writer?

I went with Luigi de Guzman, writer of the blog Natstradamus.  He doesn’t write that frequently, but when he does they’re usually thoughtful, well researched opinion pieces.  Though that’s no slight to Luke Erickson at Nationalsprospects.com, whose blog I absolutely depend on to write this blog.  I also really like Ryan Sullivan‘s NatsGM blog and its focus on prospects.  Generally speaking my preference in reading baseball writing on the internet leans towards opinion pieces.  I know that lots of blogs out there try to be replacement newspaper writers/beat reporters.  That’s not what excites me.  I want to see opinion pieces, criticism where criticism is due, etc.  Harper Gordek at Nationals Baseball is one that definitely writes opinion pieces and I look forward to his stuff too.  Unfortunately a lot of these guys have retired (Steven Biel, Chris Needham in particular were always good for a scathing piece when the team deserved it).  I know there’s a couple others out there who write good opinion pieces that i’m forgetting.

Yours truly got one vote!  That’s awesome, to whichever fellow blogger voted for me.

 

 

Ladson Inbox 9/26/13

15 comments

Could the team deal LaRoche to improve at 1st? Photo Rob Carr/Getty Images via bleacherreport.com

Could the team deal LaRoche to improve at 1st? Photo Rob Carr/Getty Images via bleacherreport.com

Phew.  I was running out of things to talk about lately.  Well, other than the ridiculous John Feinstein article this week or perhaps a missive on what a bunch of a-holes the Atlanta Braves seem to be.  The federal end of year cycle has consumed all my time recently, so I’ve been late to post end-of-season minor league pitcher reviews.  We’ll get there; its a long winter.

But thankfully a gift arrived via an unexpected Bill Ladson inbox dated 9/26/13.  Lets see what questions Ladson took this time around.  As always, I write my response here before reading his and edit questions for clarity.

Q: How disappointed were you in the 2013 Nationals?

A: Not so much disappointing as frustrating; when you’ve claimed “World Series or Bust” and your team isn’t gelling correctly, why not try to do more to fix the problem mid-season?  What was the sum total of the changes this team tried to make after it was clear the team was consistently playing .500 ball?  Replace a hitting coach?  Demote a couple guys who deserved demoting?  Trade for a 25th guy/bench player?  I dunno.  Why massively increase payroll and sign luxury players like $15M closers and then do nothing when the team is clearly mired in a malaise for 4/5ths of the season?  Ladson says he was disappointed too.

Q: What do you consider the team’s greatest need in the offseason?

A: A better question may be this: where *can* you upgrade this team as it sits now?  There’s not a single starting fielder who is a FA or who really needs to be replaced.  The two worst performing hitters (Span and LaRoche) are both under contract for 2014.  I’ve already seen quotes that say that Rendon will have “competition” for 2nd base next spring; from who exactly?  Lombardozzi and his 68 OPS+ or Espinosa and his 27 OPS+?  Right.  How about the starters?  The 3 main guys are not going anywhere.  Getting rid of Detwiler would be selling very low.  It seems clear from the FA market and from the Haren experience that the team should have a #5 starter competition between RoarkJordan and Karns.   How about the bullpen?  Not really; maybe you tweak it and find a 5th or 6th guy who may pitch better than Mattheus did this year, but by and large the bulk of it already seems set (Soriano, Clippard, Stammen all seem like locks, Storen will be given a chance to rebound, one from Ohlendorf/Roark probably fits in nicely as a long-man, and your lefties Abad and Krol have both been good).  So you’re left with bullpen scrubs and the bench.  Not exactly high-impact spots to improve.

I was talking about this with friends recently; one thing I’d do if I was GM would be to sign Shin-Soo Choo.  He posted a .424 OBP with 21 homers for Cincinnati from the leadoff position this year.  Career .389 OBP.  You put him in LF (since his defense in center is atrocious) and install Harper in center where he belongs.  Dump Span somewhere, anywhere.  Instantly you get power and a significantly improved OBP at the top of your order.  The knocks on Choo are that he’s older (30 this year), that he doesn’t hit lefties (true … but his OBP split versus lefties is STILL higher than Span’s season long OBP, even given the run he’s had the last 6 weeks), and that he’ll be expensive.  A move like this likely never happens; Choo will command probably 4/$40M or more, and I doubt the team wants to pay him that much or block an OF spot given the guys coming up.

I wonder if we’re not going to see something bigger and unexpected happen.  A big trade that opens up a spot and lets the players move around.  Or a big FA signing that forces a trade of one of these entrenched players.  Because otherwise its hard to see how this team dramatically improves this off-season.   Ladsons says the team needs dependable loogies, bench and the back of the rotation.  Safe, obvious statements.

Q: Do you think Adam LaRoche will be traded after this season?

A: I don’t see it; I think LaRoche is a team favorite.  Rizzo wants plus-defenders manning the positions and that’s how he views LaRoche.  But here’s a dirty secret; LaRoche wasn’t that great this year defensively at 1st.  His UZR/150 was negative, he was ranked 18th among first basemen with more than 500 innings at the position this year, and only slightly better than the very sedentary Ryan Howard and equally glacial Chris Davis on the year.  And we have all seen his throwing arm; accurate but weak.  But if you jettison LaRoche, who’s taking him after he hit just .230 this year?  And who are you replacing him with?  The FA crop is weak; who on that list would you want?  Mike Napoli maybe?  He can rake … but he also probably earned himself a ton of dough with his performance in Boston this year.   Ladson says LaRoche is going nowhere.

Q: Why don’t the Nationals sign Michael Morse? He has been injured, and they could get him for a cheap price.

A: …. and they’d play him, where exactly?  He can play left field and first base, and last time I checked we’ve got those positions covered.  I like Michael Morse like every one in DC else but he was *awful* this year.  And he picked an awful time to do it; age 31, in a contract year, playing in the relative media obscurity of Seattle.  If he had just hit a couple bombs down the stretch for Baltimore, maybe that would have helped.  Now you have to wonder if he’s just looking at a minor league deal.  Would the team consider him for a bench role?  Probably not, he likely still considers himself a starter and may not handle the bench well.  Ladson says it isn’t happening.

Q: Is Cal Ripken Jr. managing the Nats next year just a rumor or a realistic possibility?

A: Just a rumor.  What experience does Ripken have managing?  He’s not like other former players like Don Mattingly (who cut his chops watching the great Joe Torre for years in New York) or Ryne Sandberg (who worked his way up the minors and earned his job in Philadelphia).  I’d be worried about him being completely out of his element.  What proof is there that he can handle a pitching staff or manage a game?  Give me a serious, experienced, no-nonsense guy to manage this team and get the guys in line after this year’s season-long drift.  Give me Matt Williams.  Ladson says it isn’t going to be Ripken.

Q: Do the Nats have any interest in signing Robinson Cano?

A: Not at these prices; he reportedly wants 10yrs/$305M!!  And already turned down 6/$144M.  Phew.   I wouldn’t pay him $24M/year in his decline years.  He’s no doubt a great player; is he that good?  Whoever signs him (Dodgers?) is going to really, really regret any deal longer than 6 years.  Well, unless it IS the Dodgers, who may make a complete mockery of the game in the next few years in terms of payroll.  Fun fact: The Dodgers already are committed to $165M in payroll next year … for just ELEVEN players.  They still have to handle arbitration for Clayton Kershaw (who may command $20M) and fill out the rest of the lineup.    Ladson also mentions this contract demand.

Q: How about Jayson Werth as player-manager next year? It worked for the Senators, after all, with Bucky Harris and Joe Cronin.

A: Well, if we don’t Cal Ripken can manage, what makes you think Werth has any such qualifications either?  Baseball has come an awfully long way from the days where teams thought a player/manager was a workable idea.  Now a-days, the money involved and egos involved almost necessitate an experienced, veteran guy for nearly every team.  Ladson thinks Werth would make a great manager.

Q: What do you think is the main cause of the Nats’ struggles this season, and do you think they will be better next year?

A: (see upcoming blog post that I’ll hit “publish” on when the season is over).  Ladson says in order injuries, bullpen, bench, and St. Louis.

Q: At this point, how would you handicap the likely 2014 Nats managerial candidates?

A: Who knows.  Is this really the pressing issue on the minds of Nats fans like Ladson makes it out to be?   Somehow I don’t think its going to be anyone on the current field staff (sorry Randy Knorr).  I think it will be either a big-name manager who gets the axe this off-season unexpectedly (Mike Scioscia or Joe Girardi would be decent choices) or a former player that Rizzo knows (which is why I keep coming back to Matt Williams).  Ladson says Knorr is the leader but also mentions Williams and Trent Jewett.