Nationals Arm Race

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

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Its make or break time; even more so than a week ago.

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A week ago, at the beginning of this west coast trip, I thought the team might end up going 2-5 between LA and SF.  They faced two good teams on the road against good pitching.

I was wrong.  They went 1-6.  What a Disaster.  Scherzer and Gonzalez both laid massive eggs in games where the Nats held a rare and clear SP advantage (over Vogelsong and Cain respectively) and the team squandered games where the offense uncharacteristically scored more than 1 run (5 and 6 respectively in consecutive losses).  It was no surprise they got shut out by Kershaw, Greinke and Bumgarner … but they had no excuse to lose to these other stiffs.

Amazingly, we’re mid-August and this team has gone 10 and 20 since the all-star break.  10 and 20.  Yes they’ve faced some tough pitching, but a playoff team should at least go .500 against a good team throwing good arms.  This team has not; it has completely folded.

Dave Cameron at fangraphs.com summed up things a lot better than I could.  He has a table of 2014 and 2015 WAR figures that’s pretty amazing.  He also has the playoff odds for both Washington and New York and what they’ve done over the past few weeks and that’s pretty amazing too.

The Nats are 58-59.  Amazingly despite a 6 game losing streak the Mets also fell on their faces this weekend and the Nats didn’t lose much ground in the race.  But they’re 4.5 back with 6 weeks to go and need to step it up.

They now have 6 straight games against two bad teams (Colorado and Milwaukee).   Can they salvage their season and actually win some of these games?

What is wrong with this team?  Is it just everyone unluckily under performing all at once?  Is it the Manager?  Is it the frigging Papelbon trade? I don’ t mean to find some “arbitrary endpoints” but consider:

  • Nats Record before Papelbon trade: 52-46
  • Nats Record since: 6-13
  • Storen’s ERA before the trade: 1.73 in 36 1/3 innings
  • Storen’s ERA since: 10.38 in 8 2/3rds innings.
  • Papelbon’s entire contribution since arriving: 5 IP in 5 games, 2 saves.

Could just be a coincidence.  Demoting a popular, home grown player who was having a great season with a blow-hard attitude guy couldn’t possibly be a reason for a team that has shown itself to be mentally fragile in the past to shut it down, right?

 

Odd Difo promotion

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Welcome the majors Mr. Difo!  photo via offtherecordsports.com

Welcome the majors Mr. Difo! photo via offtherecordsports.com

So, Jayson Werth‘s wrist injury is going to keep him out longer than expected, so he hit the 15 day D/L and to cover his spot the Nats called up one of their two remaining outfielders on the 40-man roster, right?  You know, maybe Matt den Dekker, who was acquired in the late spring specifically to provide OF depth and who has MLB experience?

Nope.

They called up infielder prospect Wilmer Difo, he of exactly 33 games of experience above Low-A ball.  Difo, who last time I checked is NOT an outfielder.

Dave Cameron at Fangraphs also questioned this move, pointing out all the things i’d point out.  What exactly is Difo going to do on this team?  Are they planning on dumping Dan Uggla so that Difo becomes the backup utility infielder who can actually play shortstop?  I mean, I get that the team was already pretty over-loaded on outfielders (3 starters plus Moore, Robinson AND Taylor), so perhaps this move is to (finally?) rectify that imbalance.

Maybe the team just realized its 27th in the league in SBs and wanted some speed.

On another note, is it just me or is this team kind of running out of players?  Here’s how the 40-man roster breaks down right now:

  • 25 active
  • 6 on the 15 day D/L (Janssen, McLouth, Rendon, Rivero, Fister and Werth)
  • Another 2 on the 15-day D/L who should be on the 60-day, them having long-term injuries (Stammen and Johnson)

That leaves just seven 40-man players in the minors who could actually help the team.

  • Starters Hill and Jordan:
  • Relivers Martin and Davis, who was just optioned off the D/L for the first time in a year thanks to TJ recovery
  • Backup catcher Butler
  • Outfileders den Dekker and Brian Goodwin.

That’s it.  Has anyone heard one word about Nate McLouth?  That was $10M well spent.  At least Janssen is rehabbing and seems close.  Me, i’d be a bit worried about reliever depth.  Or not; it doesn’t seem to be exactly hurting them, as Bryce Harper powers the team into 1st place.

 

Brady Aiken has TJ surgery, shakes up draft boards

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Tough break for Aiken.  Photo via whotalking.com

Tough break for Aiken. Photo via whotalking.com

We got word today that 2014’s #1 overall pick Brady Aiken did indeed suffer an UCL injury in his first 2015 start and underwent Tommy John surgery yesterday.

Awful break for Aiken, and a  huge shake-up for the top of the 2015 Rule-4/Amateur draft.

Quick oral history of the Aiken situation: Houston made him last  year’s #1 overall pick, then rescinded/altered their $6.5M bonus offer after having “concerns” about Aiken’s UCL when viewing his medicals.  Aiken’s representatives rejected the lowered offer (wanting Houston to honor their original offer), and in the end declined to sign the lower amount (reportedly $5M at the deadline), and Aiken became just the third #1 overall pick to fail to sign in the draft’s history.  Thanks to baseball’s convoluted draft bonus rules, the failure to sign Aiken led to a cascading effect, costing them enough “pool dollars” to have to also rescind offers to 5th round pick Jacob Nix and 21st round pick Mac Marshall (now at LSU).  Nix (rightly so) filed a grievance against the Astros for the situation and was awarded his full $1.5M promised bonus (which, in my opinion, should absolutely be coming out of the Astros’ bonus pool for what they did).  Nix and Aiken eventually enrolled at the IMG academy in Florida, a post-graduate prep school designed to be a place for budding athletes to play who may have lost their HS eligibility.  Both had planned on re-entering the 2015 draft.

My thoughts on this whole mess?

  • I have to re-evaluate my opinion of the Astros organization’s behavior; previously I thought they were just being penny pinchers and were screwing with the careers of multiple amateur players (both Nix and Aiken lost UCLA scholarships over the mess).  Clearly they were right to be concerned about Aiken’s elbow, given that it tore within about 20 pitches of last being on the mound.  And now they get two top-5 picks out of a draft that does have some talent in it … and should have the money to sign them.
  • That being said … what was the real difference between their initial $6.5M offer and the $5M final offer?  Think about it: why are teams so ridiculously obsessed with figures in the $1-$2M range during amateur signings, when teams are *routinely* giving out 8-figure deals to mediocre veterans?  The Astros gave Luke Gregerson 3yrs/$18.5M and Pat Neshek 2yrs/$12.5M deals this off-season; that’s a combined $30M for two middle relief right handers.  They’ve been the lowest payroll team despite a massive RSN deal and play in the nation’s 4th largest market.  You mean to tell me they couldn’t still pony up the $1.5M difference for the #1 overall pick in the draft?  They couldn’t have just gotten an insurance policy to cover their risk of moving forward with Aiken?
  • If you were the Astros today, wouldn’t you rather have Aiken (with insurance policy), Nix and Marshall in the fold?  Do you think maybe your professional staff could have managed/mitigated this injury?
  • Did Aiken cut off his nose to spite his face by rejecting $5M?  Even before this injury, he was already dropping on draft boards, no sure guarantee to go 1st overall in 2015.  And with Houston holding the #2 and #5 overall picks there was already a real possibility of Aiken dropping outside the top 5 (since clearly Aiken would have refused “re-draft” possibilities), which means he’d have a heck of a time getting anywhere close to even the $5M he turned down. At some point his adviser should have just accepted the deal, in my opinion.  The new rules just make it impossible to get anything close to the bonus he turned down unless you’re #1 overall.
  • The situation kind of reminds me of the Matt Harrington situation, who turned down multiple bonus offers (one as high as $4M) and kept seeing his draft stock fall until he finally signed as a run-of-the-mill 13th rounder and quickly flamed out of pro ball.  His wiki page details the whole mess of a story.

There does exist a possibility of a team picking Aiken despite this injury.  Both Jeff Hoffman and our own Erick Fedde were picked in the mid-to-upper 1st round despite being rehabbing TJ arms.  And Aiken was more heralded than either guy.  I could see a team with a longer term view taking a chance on Aiken in the top 10.  A quick look at the 2015 draft order reveals some “gambler” type teams/GMs in the top 10 who could make a deal.  Assuming that your top-end names under consideration include the likes of Mike Matuella, Brendan Rodgers, Kolby Allard, Dillon Tate and maybe even someone like UVA’s Nathan Kirby , that could put teams in the 6-10 spot right in line to pick Aiken.  And that 6-10 range includes both Chicago teams and Boston, rich teams that could afford to wait him out.

One thing for sure; the odds of the Nationals getting another shot to pick a TJ case are slim; we gave up our 1st rounder to sign Max Scherzer and won’t pick until the 58th overall spot (compensation for not signing Miami’s Andrew Suarez last year).  I don’t think Aiken lasts til the 10th pick; certainly he won’t be there in the mid 2nd round.

Tough break for Aiken; hope he can salvage some bonus money and start his career.

Other opinions/hot takes I’ve read of use:

  • Jeff Ellis at Scout.com predicts the same that I do for Aiken’s draft status; top-10.
  • David Schoenfield at ESPN talks about Aiken and the “inequalities” between being born in the USA and elsewhere in the draft/signing markets (and the discrepancies are ridiculous).
  • Dave Cameron at fangraphs has some quotes from Aiken’s social media posting announcing his surgery and some critical analysis.

Post-posting update: presumed top-5 draft talent Kolby Allard is also out for the season with a back injury, further thinning the list of names in consideration for the #1 overall pick so far.

Another post-posting update: on 4/1/15, Duke ace (and NoVa native) Mike Matuella announced the he too has to have Tommy John surgery.  That’s three presumed top-5 picks in the upcoming draft now out with season-ending injuries.  Wow.

A history of Pitchers taken #1 overall

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Brady Aiken joins an exclusive club.  PHoto Scott Kurtz via studentsports.com

Brady Aiken joins an exclusive club. Photo Scott Kurtz via studentsports.com

While researching for the #1 overall pick Starting Pitching matchup post, I found myself typing up little mini biographies on each of the pitchers.  I ended up moving that content to a new post, which you see here.  This is probably the last draft-related post for a while, until I summarize how our draft picks did at the end of the season.

Here’s a biography and career summary of every pitcher who’s been taken #1 overall in the history of the MLB draft, which started in 1965.  PeterGammons.com has a review of all #1 picks, which looks like a nicer-formatted version of the b-r.com page.  Dave Cameron wrote a WSJ article talking about the fact that just two HS arms have been drafted 1-1 prior to 2014 and they were both failures, and Baseball Prospectus’s Steve Goldman printed his own own version of this same post in 2009 with great insight not otherwise available, but it was light on details for the last 5 or so guys.

Believe it or not, there’s only been 17 pitchers picked first overall (including 2014) … and there’s *never* been a prep right handed starter picked.   Fourteen of the seventeen first overall pitchers selected came from college, and twelve of those fourteen were right handed pitchers.

Here’s a brief history of each #1 overall pitcher.

  • 2014: Brady Aiken, LHP from Cathedral Catholic HS in San Diego, drafted 1st overall by the Houston Astros in 2014.  Issues with pre-draft consensus 1-1 Carlos Rodon led the Astros to go with just the third prep pitcher ever to go #1 overall.  Aiken is considered the best talent in this draft by nearly every pundit, with a live arm, good mechanics, 3 excellent pitches and good command.   He quickly signed a below-slot deal, saving the Astros a ton of money that should enable them to sign over-slot deals later on in their draft.  There’s plenty of draft coverage of Aiken in the normal places, so we’ll focus on the previous guys who by now have at least a bit of pro experience.
  • 2013: Mark Appel, RHP from Stanford, drafted by the Houston Astros in 2013.  Appel had quite a draft day history; he was picked in the 15th round out of HS and didn’t sign.  And then in 2012 he was thought to be the #1 draft prospect in the draft (the first year where there were significant restrictions on bonuses by slot) but fell to #8.  The Pirates drafted him at #8 but couldn’t put together an over-slot enough deal to convince him to forgo his senior year.  So that’s what he did; pitched his senior year and then went #1 overall to Houston, who got him to sign an under-slot deal soon after the draft.   Appel was assigned to low-A to finish out the 2013 season and did well, but has struggled mightily in 2014 for Houston’s high-A team.  Some say that he has been unable to adjust to Houston’s “tandem” starting scheme, where guys throw fewer innings/pitches per outing but throw more frequently (every 4 days).  I agree; I think Houston is really foolish to take a prized possession such as Appel and shoe-horn him into a weird/non traditional rotation experiment.  Put him in AA, put him throwing regularly every 5 days and see what he can do.  As of this writing, he sports an 11+ era in the California League, having given up 10 runs in one 1 1/3 inning-outing at the end of May.  The word on the street was that he was suffering from a hand issue which prevented him from locating (but didn’t sap his velocity); still; that’s an awful lot of hits and runs to give up to A-ball players for a guy who (in some opinions) could be in the majors right now.  Is it too early to worry?
  • 2011: Gerrit Cole, RHP from UCLA, drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Cole was part of an amazing 1-2 punch at UCLA in 2011 (his rotation mate was Trevor Bauer, taken 3rd overall in the same draft.  Amazingly, UCLA didn’t even advance out of its own regional despite having two top-3 starters in their rotation).  Cole didn’t pitch in 2011, but “solved” high-A and AA in his first pro season in 2012 and was called up in mid 2013 once he’d cleared super-2 status by the cost-conscious Pittsburgh Pirates.  He was excellent in 2013, maintaining a sub 3.00 FIP for the year and helping Pittsburgh make the post season for the first time in a generation.
  • 2009: Stephen Strasburg, RHP from San Diego State, drafted by Washington.  We all are quite familiar with the story by now; Strasburg was a laconic out-of-shape  hurler in high school who barely merited a college spot, then re-made himself into the “greatest pitching prospect of all time” while at San Diego State.   Despite his reported bonus demands (he ended up with more than $15M deal) and his representation (Scott Boras), the Nats never seriously not selecting him with their first round pick.  The team played the “service time” game with him, keeping him in the minors until his super-2 eligibility was exhausted, then he struck out 14 Pirates in his MLB debut.
  • 2007: David Price, LHP from Vanderbilt, drafted by Tampa Bay.  Price was the friday starter for Vanderbilt, who entered the 2007 post season as the #1 overall CWS seed but who somehow lost in their regional.  Price signed late (this was before the moved-up signing deadline and often big-money draft picks had to wait for the signing deadline to be announced) so he didn’t debut until 2008.  He quickly proved to be un-hittable in high-A or AA and was promoted to the big club in September of his first pro season.  He was up and down (both to and from Durham and in terms of performance in 2009) before exploding onto the scene in 2010, going 19-6 and finishing 2nd in the Cy Young race to Felix Hernandez.  Price won the Cy Young in 2012 in a close race and is generally been considered one of the best 10-15 pitchers in the game.  The biggest question with Price now is where he’ll end up; he’s arbitration eligible and earning a significant portion of the Tampa payroll, and his name has been in the trade rumors for two years running.  However 2014 may finally be the time Price moves on; Tampa has the worst record in the majors and probably starts making moves as soon as the all-star break passes.  I look for Price to join a playoff contender and have a real impact in 2014 and 2015 before his 9-figure payday arrives.
  • 2006: Luke Hochevar, RHP from Tennessee/Indy league, drafted by Kansas City.  Hochevar burned quite a few bridges in Los Angeles prior to his joining Kansas City; he was drafted by the Dodgers twice, the second time agreeing to and then reneging on a 1st round deal worth nearly $3M in 2005.  Instead he played Indy ball and went 1st overall in 2006 to the Royals, who gave him a (now banned) MLB deal with significantly more money than the Dodgers offered.  He debuted in 2007, but generally struggled as a starter for the Royals for the next 5 seasons (compiling a 38-59 record in those years).  In 2013 he remade himself as a wipe-out 8th inning guy, posting a 215 ERA+ for the rising royals.  Unfortunately, he sucummed to the dreaded Tommy John disease early in 2014 and had surgery on 3/7/14.   Hochevar’s injury couldn’t be more badly timed; he’s a free agent this upcoming season and likely will have to sign a non-guaranteed deal until he can show he’s recovered.
  • 2002: Bryan Bullington, RHP from Ball State, drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Bullington’s selection by the penurious Pirates was considered a “signability pick,” with the GM given direction to sign a “safe” college pitcher as opposed to one of the prep talents that were higher ranked on most draft boards.  So Pittsburgh selected Bullington (in lieu of B.J. Upton, Prince Fielder or a slew of other now-successful MLBers from the 2002 draft).  To be fair, Bullington was considered the #1 college arm in the 2002 draft, but few thought he was the #1 overall talent.  He held out for months, finally signing in October of 2002 for $4M.  He progressed slwoly through the Pittsburgh system, debuting in September 2005.  He was hurt though, got diagnosed with a torn labrum and the Oct 2005 surgery cost him all of 2006.   He never was really effective afterwards, sputtering through 2007 and part of 2008.  Pittsburgh waived him in 2008.  After that he bounced around 3 organizations in the next 3 years, ending up with a callup by Toronto in late 2010 where he threw 8 innings of shut-out ball to earn is sole major league victory.  For the last three years he has pitched in the Japanese Nippon league.
  • 1997: Matt Anderson, RHP from Rice, drafted by Detroit.  Detroit picked the Rice hurler believing that his position (closer) and his velocity (100mph capabilities) would mean that he was quick to the majors and they were right; after dominating high-A and AA, he was in Detroit’s bullpen by late June 1998.  He had a great debut season but mostly struggled with control issues (career 5.5 bb/9) as a 7th/8th inning guy.  He tore a muscle in his shoulder in 2002 (allegedly by participating in an Octopus-throwing contest earlier in the day), which sapped him of his velocity upon his return.  Detroit sent him to AAA in 2004 and then released him at the end of the season.  After 2005, he bounced around 3 different organizations, attempted a comeback in 2011 with the Phillies and now is completely out of baseball.
  • 1996: Kris Benson, RHP from Clemson, drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Unlike the Bullington pick, Benson was the consensus #1 player in the draft, having just completed an undefeated junior season at Clemson, leading them to the CWS, and being named the College player of the year.   He spent two nondescript years in the minors and joined Pittsburgh’s rotation in the 1999 season.  He had two good seasons, then blew out his elbow and missed all of 2001 recovering from Tommy John.  He returned to the mound in 2003 and pitched like a #3/#4 starter for several years until being befelled again by injury.  This time it was more serious; a torn labrum.   By this point he had been traded from Pittsburgh to New York to Baltimore and had brought his “road show” along with him (he was married to former stripper Anna Benson, who on more than a few occasaions made headlines thanks to her curious behavior.  It is alleged in some circles that the Mets traded Benson just to rid themselves of his wife’s antics).   He missed the whole 2007 season and a good chunk of 2008 with shoulder soreness, bounced around a couple more organizations, and called it a career after 2010.    He made 200 career starts in the majors and had a 70-75 record all in all.  He filed for divorce from his (crazy) wife, who then was arrested after showing up at his house with weapons while wearing a bullet-proof vest.   I’ll be honest; his devotion to charitable causes doesn’t seem congruous with his marriage to an ex-stripper.  Maybe that’s a bit judgemental on my behalf :-)
  • 1994: Paul Wilson, RHP from Florida State, drafted by the New York Mets.  Wilson was part of a trio of high-end Mets pitching prospects who were expected to be the next wave of power arms for the team (himself, along side of Jason Isringhausen and Fairfax’s Bill Pulsipher).   Wilson’s career peak may have been the year after he was drafted, throwing 180+ innings in the minors.  He struggled in 1996 at the major league level and subsequently had to have Labrum surgery.  That cost him most of 1997 and 1998 … then to add insult to injury he tore his UCL and had to have Tommy John in 1999.   By this point the Mets were apparently tired of waiting for him to develop and traded him to Tampa Bay.  There, he finally got back on the field in 2000 and pitched well enough to earn a 4yr deal from Cincinnati.  Unfortunately, he tore his rotator cuff, underwent his third surgery as a professional … and never made it back afterwards.  He tried to rehab the arm in the minors in 2006, suffered a set-back, took a non-guaranteed deal in 2007, had a set-back, and tried Indy ball in 2008 before being released and retiring.  Despite all these injuries he managed to make 150+ major league starts.
  • 1991: Brien Taylor, North Carolina HS, LHP, drafted by the New York  Yankees.  One of only three high school pitchers ever taken number one overall and (excluding the two most recent draftees) he’s the only player on this list who never appeared in the majors.  Taylor was hitting 98-99 as a HS pitcher, had an absolutely astounding 21 K/9 rate (he struck out 213 in just 88 HS innings), and by more than one scout’s opinoin was the greatest high school pitching prospect the game has seen.  Unfortunately he suffered a significant shoulder injury (a rotator cuff tear that separated the cuff from the bone) in a bar fight while in the minors, missed an entire season after surgery, and lost 8mph off his fastball.  The Yankees released him without his ever appearing above AA.  After bounching around odd jobs, he was arrested for cocaine trafficing in 2012 and is currently in federal prison.  ESPN has a great oral-history just posted about Taylor, with all sorts of quotes from Yankees officials of the day.   He’s a sad story all around.
  • 1989: Ben McDonald, RHP from LSU, drafted by the Baltimore Orioles.   He was the consensus #1 overall pick, the best player in the college game the year prior, and had just led USA baseball to the gold medal in the 1988 olympics.  He is one of the most “close to the majors” pitchers ever drafted.  He signed on August 21st and made his MLB debut just 18 days later, pitching out of the bullpen.  In July 1990, he pitched a 4-hit shut-out in his major league debut, a game I distinctly remember watching on TV.  McDonald was a phenom and was going to bring Baltimore back to the promised land.  It never happened: McDonald struggled with injuries and ended up leaving Baltimore after his initial deal ended.  In Milwaukee he was pitching well but suffered a torn rotator cuff, from which he never recovered.  McDonald was out of baseball at the age of 29.  In the years since, he was elected to the College Baseball Hall of Fame, a nod to his completely dominant career at LSU.
  • 1988: Andy Benes, RHP from Evansville University, drafted by the San Diego Padres.  Career 1989-2002.  Benes was a “pop up” guy who went from being an unknown prospect to a first rounder thanks to an amazing 21-K outing his junior year in college.  The Padres were “drafting for need” somewhat and had targeted a quick-to-the-majors college arm to be their #1 pick, and Benes was the best available choice.  He was a multi-sport player in college, which some pundits believe limited his pitching development.  He was known to have an excellent fastball with great command … and little else.  Nonetheless, he flashed through the minors and debuted in 1989, finishing 5th in the Rookie of the Year voting.  For the next six years he was basically a #3 starter/innings eater for San Diego, never missing a start, putting up great K/9 numbers and compiling a near .500 record for a series of decent-to-awful Padres teams.  He was traded to Seattle in 1995 (for one Ron Villone) in his walk year to join the Mariners for their playoff run, then signed a 2-year deal with St. Louis.  He pitched well in St. Louis, even getting Cy Young votes, but then a contract snafu led him to join Arizona ahead of their debut season, where he threw the first pitch in franchise history.  After his stint in Arizona, he came back to St. Louis but a series of injuries cause him to miss significant time during his last two seasons.   He pitched excellently in the 2nd half of 2002, but his declining health (he suffered from an arthritic knee, which sapped him of his power, forced him to pitch with a knee brace and caused him to become more of a finesse guy later in his career) caused the Cardinals to decline their 2003 option on Benes.  Frustrated with his health and unwilling to pitch anywhere but in St. Louis, Benes retired in the winter of 2002.
  • 1983: Tim Belcher, RHP from Mount Vernon Nazarene College, drafted by the Minnesota Twins.  Career 1987-2000.   Technically Belcher was a #1 overall pick twice.  He was drafted by Minnesota #1 overall but didn’t sign (Minnesota was known to be cheap with their money back then), and then was picked #1 again in the January 1984 supplimental draft phase by the Yankees.  Belcher visited two more organizations before making his debut, getting snagged by Oakland from the Yankees as FA compensation, then getting flipped to the Dodgers after Belcher struggled in the minors.  He was immediately effective for Los Angeles though, giving them several good seasons after finally debuting at age 25.  He threw EIGHT shutouts in 1989 enroute to a 5th place Cy Young finish, his most effective season as a pro.  He was flipped to Cincinnati (for Erik Davis) and bounced around 5 other orgnaizations from there, always featuring as a #3-#4 starter quality guy who stayed relatively healthy and ate innings but was nothing more.  His career was ended thanks mostly to an elbow surgery late in 1999; he tried to come back in 2000 but was mostly ineffective and hung them up in spring training of 2001.  He served as a coach in the Cleveland organization for most of the rest of the decade but (as far as I can tell) has been out of the game since 2011.
  • 1981: Mike Moore, RHP from Oral Roberts, drafted by the Seattle Mariners.  Career 1982-1995.  Moore was already a known quantity, having been drafted in the 3rd round out of High School.   After being drafted by Seattle (who by 1981 also had former #1 overall pick Bannister on their payroll), Moore made just 14 minor league starts before debuting in the majors in April of 1982.   Predictably, he got hammered.  Seattle was generally awful during Moore’s entire tenure there, despite his putting up several 5-6win seasons.  When he made it to free agency, he joined Oakland and immediately became the leader of a world series winning squad.  He finished his career off by vastly underperforming during a 3yr/$10M contract with Detroit, ending with his being released a month before his contract ended.   He ended up with a career profile quite similar to some of the names above here (especially the likes of Benes and Belcher): decent career, #3 starter ceiling, .500 pitcher.
  • 1976: Floyd Bannister, LHP from Arizona State, drafted by the Houston Astros.  Career 1977-1992.  As with Moore after him, Bannister was a 3rd round pick out of HS but opted to go to Arizona State, where (like McDonald and Benson after him) he was the collegiate player of the year and the clear #1 overall prospect in the draft.   And like several guys before him, he ended up being less of a total Ace and more of a #3/#4 starter, .500 career record kind of hurler.  He probably had his best season for the White Sox in 1987, but knocked around three more organizations and Japan after that, retiring in 1992 with 363 career starts.
  • 1973: David Clyde, Texas HS LHP drafted by the Texas Rangers.  Career 1973-1979.  The first ever pitcher taken #1 overall was Clyde, who turned into a cautionary tale of what NOT to do with your prep draftees: Clyde was a Texas-based high school phenom who had an amazing senior year and was the consensus #1 overall pick.  But Texas did something rather extraordinary; they drafted Clyde and then immediately put him on the major league roster.  He ended up starting 18 games for Texas as an 18 yr old, mostly as a publicity stunt by the owner, looking for increased box office revenue.  He got hurt, was traded to Cleveland and was out of the league by the age of 24.  His wikipedia page is a good read; after retiring he went through some tough times but seemed to come out ok.

Best career of any #1 overall pick by total bWAR: Andy Benes with 31.7 bWAR compiled over a 14 year career where he was basically a .500 starter (career record: 155-139, career ERA+ was 104).   Belcher didn’t quite have the bWAR but had the longest career of any of these guys.  You can probably argue that David Price is more successful already by virtue of his Cy Young award.

Least successful #1 overall pick: clearly Brien Taylor, the only one of these 17 players who never reached the majors (excepting recent picks Appel and Aiken of course).  A couple of the other picks here at least made the majors but compiled negative bWAR for their brief careers.

 

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.

 

Lincecum’s deal seems like a massive overpay

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Lincecum cashes in for 2 more years.  Photo via SD Dirk flickr via wikipedia

Lincecum cashes in for 2 more years. Photo via SD Dirk flickr via wikipedia

One of the more intriguing FA situations for the coming off-season was resolved incredibly early, with Tim Lincecum signing 2yr/$35M deal to stay with the San Francisco Giants for two more years.  Lincecum also gets a full no-trade thrown in.

$17.5M a year for a guy whose last two seasons looked like this:

– 2012: 10-15, 5.18 ERA, 1.468 Whip and a 68 ERA+.  -1.7 bWAR

– 2013: 10-14, 4.37 ERA, 1.315 Whip and a 76 ERA+. -0.6 bWAR

His fastball velocity, once a strength, rank him 62nd out of 81 qualified starters in 2013.  He was averaging 93-94 with a peak of 99 earlier in his career; now he’s averaging 90.2 and peaking 94.3.  That’s a huge, significant velocity loss that hasn’t been accompanied by any D/L stint or time off.   He’s 29, he’s got incredibly weird (lets call them “unique” to be nice) mechanics and he’s coming off of two seasons where he’s pitched like a 4-A pitcher, well below replacement value.  I’m sorry, but why would anyone believe at this point that he’s got any shot of returning to his Cy Young glory?

Now, you can argue that his more advanced numbers (Fip, xFIP, Siera) aren’t as damning as the traditional numbers I posted above (this is exactly what Dave Cameron does in one of the reaction links located at the bottom of this post).   And you’d be right to a certain extent.   By xFIP for 2013 he’s ranked 29th of 81 qualified starters.   By FIP he’d be ranked 45th, and by SIERA 35th.   None of those are elite placements for the year.  It still don’t make Lincecum a $17.5M/year arm.  And, that’s putting an awful lot of faith in the xFIP, if that’s your argument.  Because we’ve seen plenty of pitchers whose xFIPs always trail their FIPs (and Lincecum pitches in SF, where homers go to die).  And we’ve seen pitchers whose FIP is improved because they get more K’s than ground ball outs (and Lincecum is still a high strikeout pitcher, so his FIP will always look better).   And one final rebuttal; xFIP is an estimator of future performace, not a guaranteer of it.  Look at Lincecum’s career and his xFIP-next year’s ERA link is all over the place.  To blindly look at his 2013 xFIP and predict that he’s returning to form is, well, foolish.  And none of these arguments apologizes for his negative WAR values the last two years; hey Sabre-nerds; you can’t pick and choose stats to approve this and leave out your favorite one.

I wouldn’t have given him half the guaranteed money the Giants just did.  I wouldn’t have even given him a Q.O., because its hard for me to believe someone out there would have given him even $14M guaranteed for 2014.

Here’s another stat line to consider:

– 2013: 10-14, 4.67 ERA, 1.238 WHIP, 81 ERA+, -0.1 bWAR.

Comparing this stat line straight up with Lincecum’s 2013, you’d clearly think this pitcher would be more in line to get paid than Lincecum, right?  This stat line belongs to none other than Dan Haren.  Who thinks Haren is scoring a 2 year/$35M deal this off-season?  Who here thinks Haren even gets a 1 year/$8M deal?  Certainly Haren’s not going to get a Qualifying Offer out of the Nats this fall.

Other opinions on the deal: Hardballtalk advised not to “freak out” about the contract, that there’s so much money in the game and blah-blah.  Sorry, this isn’t about salary escalation (if you wanted to talk about that, lets talk about the Hunter Pence deal … a clear example to me of salary escalation for a good but not great player).   Dan Symborski at ESPN hates the deal with pretty good points about the timing, the lack of a Q.O., the lack of a market for him, etc.  Keith Law points out that the contract seems like a “thanks for the memories” contract, not one that will actually help the Giants win.  Gwen Knapp on SportsonEarth points out the sentimentality of the deal.  Dave Cameron points out that Lincecum’s xFIP makes him actaully more valuable than his traditional numbers appear.  Maybe we’re the dumb ones and the Giants are the smart ones.  Rob Neyer tries really hard not to be harsh about the contract.  And lastly unabashed SF homer Grant Brisbee chimes in.

Giants GM Brian Sabean has long had a bad rap in the blogosphere as being one of the poorest GMs in the game.  And then his team went and won the World Series two years out of three.  But moves like this bring back questioning of his competence.  Unless he throws his owner under the bus and washes his hands of the deal, if that’s indeed the case.

Written by Todd Boss

October 25th, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Whats eating Stephen Strasburg?

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What's eating Gilbert Grape? Photo: howtowatchsports.com

Our Ace, and “Best in the League” by many pundits pitcher Stephen Strasburg is now 1-4 on the season with relatively pedestrian (for him) numbers so far (3.16 ERA, 3.32 FIP, 3.65 xFIP).

So what’s the problem?  Or, more importantly, what is NOT the problem?

First off; I think its safe to say we can ignore his inflated FIP and xFIP numbers for now.  As I pointed out in this April 4th post about my issues with fWAR, FIP focuses entirely on the “Three true outcomes” that a pitcher entirely controls and really does a poor job of measuring pitchers who induce a whole slew of weak ground balls (like Strasburg does).   This is easily seen by looking at the two example cases in the 4/4/13 post to see how FIP measures a guy who strikes out 9 but gives up 5 earned runs higher than a guy who strikes out just a few but gives up zero runs in an outing.

I also do not buy the opinions I’ve heard in various forums and podcasts that hitters are “squaring him up” a lot this year.  You heard this a lot after his 4/19/13 loss to the Mets, when he gave up back-to-back homers to Ike Davis and Lucas Duda in the 6th (two of the three homer’s he’s given up this year, the third being an out-of-this-world chest-high fastball just clubbed out by Evan Gattis).    I don’t buy this because observation has shown that he gives up a TON of bloops, dinks, infield nubbers, etc.  He also has a very low Line-Drive percentage right now; just 14.9% of the balls hit off of him so far this year have been classified as “line drives,” or hard-struck balls.

Dave Cameron of Fangraphs had a piece on ESPN talking about Strasburg and the Nats “pitch to contact” strategy that shows essentially that pitch-to-contact guys don’t really throw that fewer a number of pitches than guys who just try to strike you out.   Is Strasburg’s change in style leading to issues for him?  So far it doesn’t seem so: he’s averaging about 6 1/3 innings per start and has been right around 110 pitches each of his last four despite still going deeper into the game.  But his K/9 is absolutely down (from 11.1 last year to 8.0 this year).

No, I think Strasburg’s issues are these three items.

1. Bad first innings.  Tom Boswell had a great piece on this earlier this week, talking about how a lack of a first pitch strike has really cost Strasburg this year.  And he’s right; pretty much the absolute worst thing you can do as a pitcher is to show a hitter your fastball for a ball at 0-0.   Not only does the hitter get the timing down pretty well on your fastball, but he also gets ahead in the count.  Boswell is probably right in saying that hitters are now trying to jump on the first fastball they get, knowing that getting behind in the count against him is near-certain demise; but Strasburg has to make that adjustment too.  He can’t nibble on first pitch fastballs; he has to be smarter than that.

Strasburg has given up 15 total runs in 5 games this year; fully EIGHT of them have come in the first inning.  That just cannot continue.

2. Bad luck; we’ve watched his games, and he’s not exactly getting pounded when he gives up most of these runs.   Check out the game-logs for his losses:

  • April 7th; 6 runs given up to Cincinnati: in the first he gave up his runs after two infield singles and a walk turned into a 2-rbi double, the only well-hit ball of the inning.  He gave up 3 more in the 6th on some better hit balls and had one runner score after he departed.
  • April 13th: 6 innings pitched, zero earned runs and a loss; Ryan Zimmerman threw away a routine 3rd out and the next guy up clubbed a homer.  Yes, he gave up a homer (it wasn’t as if he made a bad pitch there; Gattis just crushed it) but he never should have been in the position in the first place.
  • April 19th: Two more unearned runs in the first when Desmond booted the first ball of the day; a weak dribbler up the middle.  He gave up two more hits in the 1st but only Buck‘s was really a line-drive.   By the 6th inning he gave up two bombed homers; no bad luck there.
  • April 24th: the lead-off double was earned, but the rest of the hits in the first were opposite field shorter line drives, with the required Nationals infield error thrown in to ensure unearned runs contributing to his day.

Only four of his 15 runs allowed were deemed to be unearned, but we’ve watched the games.  Zimmerman’s error against the Braves decided that game.  Desmond’s error against the Mets set the tone.  The team went down 3-0 in the first against both Cincy and St. Louis at a time when the offense was struggling.  Just can’t do that.  Speaking of the offense…

3. Lack of Run Support.  In his five starts, Strasburg’s offense has scored this many runs for him: 2,3,1,1, and 2.  That’s 1.8 runs per game!  Maybe Bob Gibson in 1968 could have gotten wins with that little run support, but certainly not Strasburg.  The Nats YESTERDAY gave Gio Gonzalez nearly the same total run support that Strasburg has gotten all year.

Written by Todd Boss

April 26th, 2013 at 11:12 am

Which NL playoff contenders are helped/hurt by Interleague Schedule?

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Spurred into action by this Dave Cameron SI.com piece, where he postulates that Atlanta isn’t as well constructed as other NL playoff contendors (including Washington) for constant intraleague because they don’t have a natural power hitter on the bench (like we do in Tyler Moore and/or Chad Tracy), I asked myself this question:  Which probable NL playoff contenders are going to be helped or hurt by their intraleague schedules this year?

(Note: I’ll skip the obvious answer to Cameron’s above question: who cares how well constructed you are when you start the season 12-1?  And, had Cameron waited about a week to write this the answer may have very well been Atlanta’s out-of-nowhere find Evan Gattis, who clearly can serve as an interleage DH very ably).

Going down the line, looking just at intraleague opponents you get this list (3 game sets unless denoted):

  • Washington: Home to Chicago White Sox, Detroit (2), Baltimore (2), Minnesota.  Away to Cleveland, Baltimore (2), Detroit (2), Kansas City.
  • Atlanta: Home to Kansas City (2), Minnesota, Toronto (2), and Cleveland.  Away to Detroit, Toronto (2), Kansas City (2), Chicago White Sox.

Head to head, you have to say that Washington has a slight inter-league advantage over Atlanta; they have to play defending AL champs Detroit 6 times to our 4, they have to play Toronto four times instead of our Baltimore (a slightly tougher matchup).  The games involving Cleveland and Chicago are probably a wash.  Atlanta’s “natural rival” right now is Toronto to our Baltimore, which likely hurts them this season.

  • Cincinnati: Home to Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland (2),  Seattle, Oakland (2).   Away to Oakland (2), Texas, Houston, and Cleveland (2).
  • St. Louis: Home to Kansas City (2), Texas, Seattle, Houston (2).  Away to Kansas City (2), Houston (2), Oakland, Los Angeles Angels.

St. Louis doesn’t play a single AL team until May 27th, and plays 8 of their 10 away AL games IN A ROW in mid June.  This is a pretty massive scheduling advantage that lets them modify their roster for one big AL road trip and basically not have to worry about the away AL games the rest of the season.  Head to head as compared to Cincinnati, you’d have to give a slight edge to St. Louis again, for getting those two extra games versus Houston.  Otherwise these two slates look pretty even.

Either way they’re both considerably more difficult than what the NL East teams face, thanks to the games against the AL West playoff-calibre teams.   Half their games are against LA, Texas and Oakland while the Nats only have to worry about 4 Detroit games (unless you think that Baltimore is going to be a playoff team again, which I don’t).

  • San Francisco: Home to Oakland (2), Toronto (2), Baltimore, Boston.   Away to Toronto (2), Oakland (2), Tampa Bay, New York Yankees.
  • Los Angeles: Home to Los Angeles Angels (2), New York Yankees (2), Tampa Bay, Boston.   Away to Baltimore, Los Angeles Angels (2), New York Yankees (2), Toronto.

Ouch; the NL West guys have AL East heavy interleague schedules this year.  I’d say that the Giant’s slate is slightly harder; Tampa Bay and the Yankees and four games against Toronto versus three for the Dodgers.  Oakland vs Angels as a natural rival seems like it will be slightly harder on the Dodgers (but, Oakland is starting right where they left off and may be a playoff team at the Angels’ expense again).

But again, either way you have to think the NL West teams are worse off than the NL East teams this year for interleague looking at their slate.

All of this may be helpful to teams trying to get a wild card spot, which we all hope will be Atlanta and not us.  Because we all now know what can happen if you slip to the one-game wild card play-in.  Just ask Atlanta and Texas what happened last year, when two teams who I thought both had the capability of winning it all were knocked out in a coin-flip game.

By the way, today on April 12th, the NL standings after 9 games basically already mirror the above scenarios in terms of Division leaders and wild card contenders.  The only anomoly would be Arizona being in 2nd place by a game in the NL West.  The cream rise to the top quickly it seems.

Written by Todd Boss

April 17th, 2013 at 9:52 am

Span for Meyer; Understand it but don’t entirely like it

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The team gets the lead-off hitter it has needed for years in Denard Span. Photo Bruce Kluckhohn/Minnesota Twins via twitter

At least Nats fans can start understanding the team’s off-season plans a little more clearly now.  The first domino has fallen.  The Nats acquired Denard Span from Minnesota for Alex Meyer yesterday.

I’ve argued against a center field acquisition for a while now.  Here’s three primary reasons why:

1. I don’t feel the Nats needed a center fielder.  Bryce Harper put up a 17.6 UZR/150 in 715+ innings while showing a plus-plus arm (both statistically and for any casual observers).   He’s just turning 20.  There is no reason to think he cannot ably patrol center for at least the next few years.  I’ve used this analogy before, but I feel like its the Yankees approaching Mickey Mantle after his first season in center and saying, “Hey Mick, we like you in center but we have this barely above league average guy At least until point #2 possibly comes to play:

2. Brian Goodwin, along with Destin Hood, Eury Perez, Michael Taylor and any other marginal OF prospect the team has is now effectively blocked for at least the next 3 years and possibly longer.  Span is signed through 2014 (with a very affordable 2015 option), Jayson Werth signed through 2017, and Harper is under team control through at least 2017.   There’s your outfield for the next 3 years guaranteed, 2/3rds of which is locked up for the next 5.  I just feel that the better path would have been to let Harper play CF until Goodwin or Perez seems ready (clearly Godwin is an upper-end prospect who has impressed ever since he was drafted, and the team didn’t add Perez to their 40-man roster just to give him the extra salary) and just make do with a slugger in left field.

3. The loss of Alex Meyer represents the best healthy starter arm in the entire system, a system which is becoming thinner and thinner (with this trade on the backs of the Gio trade I’d guess the Nats are now going to be in the bottom 5 farm systems when rankings start coming out).  You can argue whether or not Meyer was going to stick as a starter (see the “bright side” points below), but inarguably this weakens the farm system in general and further weakens a specific problem that may pop up sooner than later; starting pitcher depth.  If one of our big 4 suffers a spring training injury, it is difficult to see who may step up and be counted on for starts.

This move clearly forces the Nationals hand on Michael Morse, and now the team may end up negotiating from a point of weakness if they need to move him.  The decision path for the team now is clearly “Morse or LaRoche” at first base.  If the team does bring back Adam LaRoche suddenly Morse is without a lineup spot and his trade value diminishes quickly.  If the rumors are true that LaRoche is “only” seeking a 3 year deal, the Nats should stumble over themselves to offer him a 3 year deal (3yrs $40M seems more than fair based on what LaRoche did for us last year) and lock up the plus-defender/middle of the order bat.

This move also cannot be a happy day for Tyler Moore; he’s clearly set on being a backup now in 2013 no matter what happens with Morse/LaRoche, despite promising numbers in 2012.   Well, unless the team fails to re-sign LaRoche AND moves Morse (which I suppose is still possible but would make little sense), which would then install Moore as the every day first baseman.  Between Moore, Morse possibly being out of a position and Goodwin being blocked for years to come, you have to think we’re going to see some more moves involving these players (hopefully to acquire a starter, or some starter depth in the minors).


Now, on the bright side (since I’ve been accused of being too negative in my analysis), I will say the following:

1. We did not give up a ton for Span.  I like Meyer, but I’m afraid he may not stick as a starter.  The scouting knock on him has always related to his tall frame and repeatability of his delivery.  He has a funky leg kick and slightly weird mechanics, further muddying the waters.  Lastly he’s a huge guy and he (at first glance in videos) seems to really throw standing up and doesn’t use a ton of his lower body.  All of this spells “reliever” in his future.  If Meyer tops out as a fireballing reliever, this trade looks even better.

2. Span inarguably fills a need; a high OBP leadoff hitter.  He’s a .357 career OBP guy with speed and who hits lefty, a nearly perfect fit for what this lineup needs at the top.  Leadoff hitters generally come from one of three positions: CF, SS and 2B.  If the team decided it NEEDED a leadoff guy, and with Desmond and Espinosa locked into the SS and 2B slots for the time being, clearly the only place the team could go was a center-fielder.  The USAToday article linked at the top said it best (paraphrasing): this move is as if you bought a new chair for your living room, which forced you to have to move around your furniture.  You didn’t necessarily need the new chair, but it certainly makes your living room look better.  This move enables Werth to move further down in the lineup and return to his power stroke.

3. We didn’t spend good money after bad on BJ Upton or Michael Bourn, who’s 5yr/$75M demands would have been a real waste of money.  Span’s contract is great: 5yrs for $16.5M guaranteed plus a $9M option in 2015.   The Nats acquired a desired resource without appreciably increasing payroll, allowing them to focus (perhaps) on a FA starter.

Initial reaction to the trade in the Baseball World seems mixed, which is great since it probably indicates that this is a pretty fair trade all in all.  Keith Law doesn’t like it of  course, but that’s because Law believes every low-minors big arm is turning into Justin Verlander (Law also thought the Gio Gonzalez trade was a “huge win” for Oakland because they got AJ Cole, the same AJ Cole who put up a 7.82 ERA in high-A this year and was forced to repeat Low-A).  Meanwhile Dave Cameron calls this a “huge win” for Washington, focusing on Span’s numbers and mentioning the same concerns about Meyer that I do.  Rob Neyer pays a complement to Mike Rizzo and the Nats and says the team is well-positioned for several years.  Ken Rosenthal talks about the about-face the franchise has done in the last 3 years in the eyes of potential Free Agents, specifically Zack Greinke, who declined the Nats trade offer 2 years ago but now could be the final piece in building a juggernaut.


Coincidentally, those who think this moves Harper to LEFT field may be mistaken.  Werth’s defense in right has inarguably slipped (he posted a -14.2 UZR/150 in right this year, a significant drop from his previous decent-to-good seasons there).  I think Harper should play right field, with his gun for an arm protecting against 1st-to-3rd runners while Werth should immediately put up great UZR numbers in left.  Possible lineup in 2013 (assuming for now that LaRoche is leaving):

  1. Span (L) – CF
  2. Werth (R) -LF
  3. Zimmerman (R) – 3B
  4. Harper (L) – RF
  5. Morse (R) – 1B
  6. Desmond (R) – SS
  7. Espinosa (S) – 2B
  8. Suzuki (R) – C
  9. Pitcher.

L-R-R-L-R-R-S-R for good balance.  I could also see Desmond and Werth switching spots in the lineup.  Harper to cleanup may be a bit early, but without adding another lefty bat the lineup could have too many right-handed hitters in a row.

Now, what if LaRoche re-signs?  Then suddenly this lineup has pretty good balance.  With LaRoche in the fold i’d probably go like this:

  1. Span (L) – CF
  2. Werth (R) -LF
  3. Harper (L) – RF
  4. Zimmerman (R) – 3B
  5. LaRoche (L) – 1B
  6. Desmond (R) – SS
  7. Espinosa (S) – 2B
  8. Suzuki (R) – C
  9. Pitcher.

That’d be a slight modification over where these guys hit last year, but would give nearly perfect lefty-righty balance.


In the end, you have to give up something you value to get something you value.  The Nats made a good trade, despite my thinking they didn’t need to make the trade in the first place.  They’re an improved team on the field for 2013.

Wild Card Pitching Strategy

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Kris Medlen is as close to an automatic win as there exists now. Should the Braves use him? Photo unknown via totalprosports.com

I was listening to the excellent Fangraphs.com podcast last week, hosted by Carson Cistulli and featuring excellent writer Dave Cameron, and Cameron (who writes the blog USS Mariner in addition to his Fangraphs work) proposed an interesting theory for handling a pitching staff in the wild card game.

Conventional wisdom states that the Atlanta Braves (who I’m using as an example here because I think they’re the best bet to advance in a wild card game right now) would throw their unbeatable ace Kris Medlen in the play-in game.  Reasoning: you can’t leave your best starter on the bench in a do-or-die game; you have to try to win it.  So you throw your best guy to win that game and then deal with the consequences the next round.

(Tangent: I’m pretty sure MLB assumed that a side effect of adding a second pitcher would result in a weakened wild card winner, which benefits the #1 seeded divisional winner and gives them an advantage going forward.  I certainly talked about this as a benefit when I lauded the 2nd wild card in this space earlier this summer.   But the roster loopholes in the wild card game that can be exploited as explained below and the first two home games on the road for the higher seeded team are both major issues that need to be addressed asap).

But what if the Braves decided to try something unconventional instead of just throwing Medlen??  Because of the scheduling of the playoffs, the wild card game winner will get a day off between Friday 10/5/12 and Sunday 10/7/12, meaning they could empty their bullpen and have every single guy down there throw his typical limit of innings and still have everyone available on Sunday for the first game of the Divisional Series.  So Cameron’s theory is; don’t start your ace; start your bullpen guys, who (especially in Atlanta’s case) are more efficient at getting guys out on a short-term basis.  Then, after a few innings of relievers throwing, you take a look at the game and decide then if your starter needs to go in.

What if Atlanta were to start some bullpen guys instead of Medlen in a play-in game, then suddenly Atlanta jumps out to a 4-0 lead.  You could then put in a different starter (say, the #3 starter, who could throw on 10/5/12 then be ready on normal rest for game 3 of the NLDS on Wednesday 10/10/12) to finish out the game.   You could keep some bullpen guys in reserve to stamp out any fires, but in theory you could manage a game in this fashion and preserve your best starter.  Plus, a major loop-hole in the playoff roster specification rules means that Atlanta could field a far different roster for just this wild card game than for the rest of the playoffs.  They could leave off basically their entire rotation and add in 4 more bullpen arms and continue parading out fresh arms all night like it was a spring training game.

Here’s a look at Atlanta’s top 7 relievers right now (stast as of 9/24/12):

Name W L W-L% ERA G IP H R ER BB SO ERA+ WHIP
Craig Kimbrel 2 1 0.667 1.08 58 58.1 25 7 7 14 106 374 0.669
Cristhian Martinez 5 4 0.556 4.04 51 71.1 79 33 32 17 64 100 1.346
Chad Durbin 4 1 0.8 3.19 73 59.1 51 25 21 28 46 127 1.331
Jonny Venters* 5 4 0.556 3.46 63 54.2 57 23 21 28 65 117 1.555
Eric O’Flaherty* 3 0 1 1.82 61 54.1 46 14 11 19 45 222 1.196
Luis Avilan* 0 0 2.25 27 32 26 9 8 10 28 181 1.125
Cory Gearrin 0 1 0 1.62 19 16.2 15 3 3 4 19 254 1.14

There’s some serious arms in that bullpen.  Kimbrel is obviously a known quantity and his 106 K’s in 58 1/3 innings are ridiculous.  But it also means he’s almost guaranteed to shut down whoever he may be pitching against (heard a great stat about Kimbrel recently; he has not pitched an inning all year where he gave up more than one hit.  That’s as shutdown as it gets).   Venters has had a slightly “off” season after being unhittable last year, but still greater than a K an inning.   O’Flaherty has been fantastic and could give you an inning.  Younger guys like Avilan and Gearrin don’t have a ton of experience but have performed excellently for the Braves.

Why wouldn’t you start off a game with (say) Venters going against the top of St. Louis’ order, then bringing in someone like Avilan for the 2nd and 3rd (he’s a 2-inning guy).  Bring in O’Flaherty when the big hitters roll around again in the 4th inning, then go with someone like Durbin for the next two innings.  You bring in Gearrin for the 7th and 8th, and then you’ve saved Kimbrel for perhaps 4 or 5 out save in the 8th and 9th.   And by virtue of the one-game roster setting loophole, this is just the first 7 guys out of the bullpen; one could add in 4-5 more arms as need be.

Honestly, I think this is a winning strategy.  Will the Braves (or the Cardinals for that matter) consider employing it?  No way;  Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is well known in the baseball press for being “uber traditional” in the way he handles his pitching staff (lots of complaints about his leaving his best arm out there til it is a “save” situation instead of using him in higher leverage situations).  And the Braves have already manipulated their rotation to put Medlen in line for a wild card start.  Meanwhile St. Louis’ Mike Matheny is a rookie manager and such a strategy as laid out here is basically putting your job on the line for a coin-flip; if it doesn’t work out you’re fired.  Tony LaRussa could have pulled this off; he had enough respect and enough history to be given a pass if he tried something radical and it didn’t work out.  In fact, if LaRussa was still the manager I’d bet this is exactly what he’d do; we are talking afterall about the guy who essentially invented the modern bullpen.

In the end, it’ll be in the #1 seed’s favor if the Braves burned Medlen.  But it’d be great talking fodder if they tried the strategy above.