Nationals Arm Race

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

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Your 2017 Bullpen

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Old School photo of Blanton from his time at P hilly. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Old School photo of Blanton from his time at P hilly. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

With the Joe Blanton signing, one has to think the team is done augmenting its bullpen until the trade deadline.

Instant Tangent: Blanton is actually an excellent example of why i’m pretty much A-OK with the Nats not overpaying for a closer.  Here’s Blanton’s career splits as a starter and reliever:

  • Starter: 1553 innings, 4.47 ERA, 1.354 whip, 6.2 K/9 and a 2.65 K/BB ratio.
  • Reliever: 169.2 innings, 3.24 ERA, 1.138 whip, 8.9 K/9 and 3.57 K/BB ratio.

Last year specifically as a middle relief workhorse for Los Angeles: 80 innings across 75 appearances, 2.48 ERA, exactly a 9.0 K/9 rate.

So basically Blanton was a sub-mediocre starter; his starting career was with Oakland (pitcher’s park), Philly (National league) and then stints starting for both Los Angeles clubs (again, both pitcher’s parks and/or NL teams facing pitchers and weaker lineups).  But suddenly he’s a stud when moved into relief.

This is nothing new.  Go look at Mariano Rivera‘s stats starting; in one brief season for the Yankees he got 10 starts and threw to a 5.51 ERA.  The next year he’s moved into the bullpen and he posts a 2.09 ERA and comes in 3rd in Cy Young.  After that, eleven seasons where his ERA for the year was sub 2.00.  Not to be too blunt about it, but Rivera was a failed MLB starter who turned into a Hall of Fame reliever.

There’s no reason the Nats can’t find their own Mariano Rivera.

I’m not saying Shawn Kelley is the answer.  For a while i’ve thought that Blake Treinen was the answer.  Maybe now Koda Glover will be the answer.  Or perhaps Joan Baez will rocket up the system and throw 100 mph bee-bees by September.

In any case … I’m happy with the bullpen now, moreso than I was yesterday, and I still think it’d be a mistake to trade valuable assets for a mediocre closer like David Robertson.

So, to the question at hand.  How’s our Bullpen looking?

Here’s the relievers on our 40-man roster now, in rough order of depth:  Kelley, Blanton, Treinen, Glover, Solis*, Perez*, Romero*, Adams, Gott, Martin, Cordero, Grace*

So what do I think is going to happen?

  • Closer: Kelley.  Good stuff in short bursts, veteran guy to meet the “pressure” requirement of a closer.
  • 8th inning guys: Treinen and Blanton: no arguments here; they’ll both throw in 70-80 games this year, switching off and perhaps spelling Kelley in the 9th.
  • 7th Inning guys: Glover and Solis: I like Glover’s stuff, I think his downturn in performance last year was entirely related to the unreported hip issue, and I think he could be the closer in waiting.  Solis is lefty but offers more than just a matchup; he’s not that far removed from starting and he’s not unlike Andrew Miller in that he depends on a good pitch (his two seamer) slung from a lower arm-angle to get guys out.
  • Lefty specialist: Mr. Swashbuckler Oliver Perez.  He can also pick up the slop in a pinch and give the team twisty-turny rubber armed high sock slinging mud as needed.  (Yes, I like Perez).

Ok that’s 6 guys who are practically guaranteed their slots.  Maybe Glover isn’t a guarantee to you but he is to me if he’s healthy.

So who is 7th reliever?  Maybe its easier to talk about who I do NOT think it will be:

  • Grace: I think he’s not long for the org, clearly now 4th in line for lefty relievers for a team that only needs two.  DFA candidate if it comes to it.
  • Martin: He doesn’t seem to have the same magic he had when he first got called up; he’s also fallen down on the depth chart, now behind the above named guys plus recent acqusitions.
  • Adams, Gott, Cordero: all are new(er), all have things to prove, make perfect sense to start in AAA
  • Romero: option-less, could be on the opening day roster just to avoid a waiver wire exposure … but we paid little for him so there’s little lost cutting him.  Maybe he starts on the roster in lieu of a 5th starter for the first few days (we don’t need a fifth starter until like the 6th or 7th game of the season, assuming everyone is healthy and making the roster).

So who is 7th guy?  Someone who’s not even on the 40-man; Vance Worley.  He sots into 7th man, long guy, spot starter, insurance guy.

That’s what i’m going with for now.  But good or bad spring performances could scuttle this by the time we hit April 1.

Ladson’s, er I mean Collier’s Inbox 12/22/16

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Kelley may be first in line for in-house closer options. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley may be first in line for in-house closer options. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I was excited to see an “Inbox” in my MLB.com RSS feed for the Nats today, and assumed it was venerable long time Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson poking his head up post winter-meetings to do some work.

But no!  Its a new guy: Jamal Collier, listed as “Nationals Beat Reporter.”  I don’t think Ladson has been replaced; maybe the Nats are big time now and need more beat reporters!

Nonetheless, Collier did an inbox.  Here’s how I would have answered his questions.  I love these inboxes because they’re great debate points for the comments, with people asking questions (some good, some dumb) that we all ask ourselves from time to time.  Here we go.  As always, I write my answer to the question before reading his and edit questions for clarity if needed.


Q: Last year, general manager Mike Rizzo had a Plan A and Plan B, but he seemingly settled for Plan C more than once. What are Plans B and C this year?

A: If Mike Rizzo had to fall back to plan “C” last year (presumably Daniel Murphy in lieu of the litany of bats that he missed on), then that’s a heck of a plan C.  This year he didn’t miss on a big acquisition; the Adam Eaton trade is by far the “biggest” he’s ever made in his Nats career, eclipsing the big Gio Gonzalez trade in terms of significant prospects dealt and impact players brought back.  Yeah he missed on Sale .. but he didn’t *need* Sale, and he made it clear he was only shooting for him because of the rarity of a true Ace getting dealt.

Rizzo really had a short “to-do” list this off-season: resolve CF or SS one way or another, get a Catcher, and get some bullpen help, up-to and including a closer.  He’s done two out of three, “missing” out on vastly overpaying for a 50-IP “proven closer” to the big-spending clubs.  Is that the worst thing in the world?  I don’t think so.  I’m guessing his “plan B and C” for closer now is to buy a couple of former closers off the FA market and see how they look side by side with in-house options like Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley.  I’m ok with that; as I’ve mentioned time and again, the Nats organizational chasing of over priced closers has cost us more than a few good prospects in the last few  years, and yet we’re still sitting here thinking we have a closer problem.  I also wouldn’t be shocked if Rizzo calls up one of his favorite trading partners and moves another prospect or two for a mid-range closer.

We havn’t traded with Billy Beane in a few weeks; maybe we make a move for his closer.  Does Oakland even have one?

Collier basically says what I said, then throws out the names we keep hearing about in terms of closer trades (David Robertson, Alex Colome) and FA options (Greg Holland).


 

Q: With Jayson Werth‘s contract ending soon, who do you see as emerging leaders in the clubhouse? Max Scherzer? Anthony Rendon? Bryce Harper? Others?

A: To be a leader you kind of have to be guaranteed to be around for a while.  Certainly that’s not Harper, who (lets be honest) is likely gone in 2 years.  Rendon isn’t far behind.  The three guys on the longest deals are Ryan ZimmermanMax Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.  Zimmerman is the guy who would make the most sense but he seems like a background guy.  Its hard for a starting pitcher to be a “leader” since he’s only doing it every 5 days, but Scherzer is the best possible candidate based on his gregariousness.  Strasburg has always been reserved; he’s not a good candidate.

Truth be told … this clubhouse is going to do a serious turnover in the 2018-2019 time-frame, and a whole new slew of guys will be defining the makeup; only the two SPs are really going to be there for it.  I’d say Scherzer is going to define the soul of this team for the next generation.

Collier makes a great point; new acquisition Adam Eaton is a big presence in the clubhouse, will be around longer than practically any other bat in the clubhouse, and is in a position to take the reigns.


 

Q: Will the Nats get free-agent catcher Matt Wieters and then use their extra catchers to get Robertson from the White Sox as closer?

A: This theory doesn’t make a ton of sense to me; if the Nats buy Wieters, aren’t they killing Derek Norris‘ trade value?  They not only tendered but signed a deal with Jose Lobaton for 2017 … he’s now got 5 years (and was out of options), so he can’t get sent down … so do they plan on just lighting that money on fire?

Plus, the assumption that they can just flip their spare parts for a quality reliever is foolish.  What did we trade to acquire Norris?   Pedro Avila, a guy who pitched in low-A last year.  Now, I know the White Sox don’t exactly have awesome options at catcher, but in today’s reliever market why would anyone think we could get a bonafide closer for a couple of backup catchers?

Collier expresses the same doubts I do about the acquisition and the trade.

 


Good thoughtful answers from Collier.  I say this of course because he agreed with me :-)

By the way, this is probably the last post before Xmas, so If I don’t see you Happy Holidays.

Qualifying Offers: Are they working? (2015 edition)

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The QO didn't affect Scherzer's next contrct very much.  Photo AP Photo/Paul Sancya

The QO didn’t affect Scherzer’s next contrct very much. Photo AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Last year we did a quick analysis of all the Qualifying Offer-receiving free agents to see if the system was “working.”  (note; from here out I’ll use the abbreviation of QO for Qualifying Offer).

Now that James Shields has signed, there remain no more free agents on the market who received a QO from their former team.  Lets take a look at how the qualifying offers affected the markets for those players who got them this off-season.

Here’s a table of the 12 players who received QOs ahead of free-agency (I hope this table is readable once it publishes…)

Year Player Old Team New Team Draft Pick Forfeited Signing Date Subsequent contract (w/o options) Money up/down per AAV Q.O. Screw the player?
2014 Melky Cabrera TOR CWS 3-81 12/15/2014 3yr/$42M -1.3 Not Really
2014 Nelson Cruz BAL SEA 1-21 12/1/2014 4yr/$58M -0.8 No
2014 Michael Cuddyer COL NYM 1-15 11/11/2014 2yr/$21M -4.8 Sort of
2014 Francisco Liriano PIT PIT none 12/9/2014 3yr/$39M -2.3 Sort of
2014 Russell Martin PIT TOR 1-18 11/18/2014 5yr/$82M 1.1 No
2014 Victor Martinez DET DET none 11/14/2014 4yr/$68M 1.7 No
2014 Hanley Ramirez LAD BOS 2sup-69 11/25/2014 4yr/$88M 6.7 No
2014 David Robertson NYY CWS 2-45 12/9/2014 4yr/$46M -3.8 Sort of
2014 Pablo Sandoval SFG BOS 2-44 11/25/2014 5yr/$95M 3.7 No
2014 Ervin Santana ATL MIN 2-43 12/11/2014 4yr/$55M -1.55 Not Really
2014 Max Scherzer DET WAS 1-29 1/21/2015 7yr/$210M 14.7 no
2014 James Shields KC SD 1-13 2/9/2015 4yr/$75M 3.45 no

It should be noted that for the third consecutive year, not one player who received a QO accepted it despite its ever increasing value ($15.3M for 2015).  Is this “reverse collusion” on the part of the players, not to play the QO game?  For the third year, there were players about whom pundits scratched their heads as to why they chose not to take the offer.  While not as obvious as in 2013 (when both Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales vastly over-stated the market for their services and were severely penalized as a result), the fact that especially Michael Cuddyer and David Robertson didn’t take the QO remained puzzling.

So, among the 12 players, who was hurt?  In the end, nobody really.

  • Half the players got new contracts with AAVs above the QO figure, in some cases significantly above.  So they’re not being “hurt” by the system.  This list includes Russell Martin, Victor Martinez, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, James Shields and of course our own Max Scherzer.
  • Another 3 players (Melky Cabrera, Nelson Cruz and Ervin Santana) signed longer term deals for slightly less than the AAV of $15.3M.  I say these guys were “not really” hurt since they guaranteed themselves 3-4 years and in each case nearly or more than $50M of earnings.   Each player rightly gambled and guaranteed themselves $50M instead of $15M.

The remaining three players each kind of have extenuating circumstances.

  • Michael Cuddyer (inexplicably) signed a 2yr/$21M deal with New York instead of taking a 1yr/$15.3M deal to stay in Colorado.  There has to be more to this story; why wouldn’t his agent have advised him of taking the QO and then hoping to get a 1yr/$6M deal the following off-season??  Wouldn’t that have been the better play?  Did he want to leave a losing team in Colorado?  (If so, why the heck did he go to the Mets??)  The Mets even more inexplicably gave up the 15th overall pick to get an 35-yr old corner outfielder who played just 49 games last year due to injuries and who has a combined 3 bWAR in the last two seasons.   One can see the nature of the kind of player you can generally get in the mid-first round here.  So while Cuddyer’s AAV is way below $15.3M, because he voluntarily signed the Mets contract he only screwed himself :-)
  • Francisco Liriano declined the QO and then re-signed with the same team (Pittsburgh).  He got a 3yr deal for $39M.  Most pundits would agree that nobody would have given Liriano a $15M/yr longer term deal thanks to his age and injury history, so his taking lesser money AAV but for longer is a smart move for him.  Perhaps the QO limited his market, forcing him to go back to Pittsburgh … or perhaps not.
  • David Robertson declined the QO but got a 4yr guaranteed deal for $46M … as a reliever.  Which is fantastic, considering the volatility of the reliever position in general.  So even though his AAV is far less than $15.3M, he made out big time with the amount of guaranteed money.

San Diego gives up the best draft pick (13th overall) to get Shields’ services for four years, but five teams altogether give up first round picks to sign players.  Boston gives up its two second round picks to play Ramirez and Sandoval on the right side of their infield for the next four years.  A number of very wealthy teams pick up supplemental first round picks (Dodgers, Yankees and Detroit), which (like all FA compensation) kind of seems to defeat the purpose of helping “poorer” teams off-set the loss of marquee players.

Lastly, the order (and pools) for the 2015 draft is now set.   A better look is here, showing all the picks gained and lost.  Houston has the 2nd, 5th and 37th overall picks, 12 picks in the top 10 rounds and has an astounding $17M of bonus money to acquire players.  Washington has just $4.1M to sign its first 10 picks, meaning we’re likely looking at another set of college seniors drafted in rounds 6-10.  More on the draft later on.

So, to answer the question of the day; are QOs working?  This year they seemed to have worked; you can’t really argue that any player was negatively affected and teams that lost players got compensation picks.  You can argue whether the right teams got these picks.

Fyi; the spreadsheet with all this analysis is here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1UEiZzwWarVP3PfCtZeYTVBqC49dmBut21O7UhB17htQ/edit?usp=sharing