Nationals Arm Race

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

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Ask Collier; what’s up with the bullpen?

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I'd like to note that Matt Albers is officially listed as 6'1", 225lbs. photo via outsidepitchmlb.com

I’d like to note (using this picture as reference) that Matt Albers is officially listed as 6’1″, 225lbs. photo via outsidepitchmlb.com

A mid-April mailbag from Nats MLB.com beat reporter Jamal Collier.  Probably spurred on by these ugly numbers: 6.00, 6.43, 3.18, 6.75, 10.80, 8.10, and 11.57.  Those are the current (as of 4/18/17) ERAs of the seven “original” bullpen members of your 2017 Nationals.   The only one under 6 is Koda Glover, and for completion I should add that NRI Matt Albers has managed to throw 3 clean innings to help keep the bullpen ERA down.

You  may be saying to yourself, “Man, the Nats bullpen has been the worst in the majors!”  You’re close, but wrong.  There are several teams by any measure that have actually been worse than Washington, believe it or not.  By ERA, there are 3 worse teams.  By fWAR, there are 2 worse teams.  And by FIP there’s one bullpen worse than ours.  In every case, Philadelphia’s bullpen has been even worse.   So we have that going for us.

Lets get to the question.  As always, I answer the question before reading Collier’s answer and sometimes edit questions for clarity.

Q: Why is the bullpen struggling?

A: Because its mid-April, because everything is Small Sample Sizes (SSS), because the Nats struck lightening in a bottle in 2016 while completely remaking their bullpen on the fly but may have struck out this year.  Here’s the opening day roster bullpens over the last few years to highlight just how much turnover we’ve had:

  • 2013: Soriano, Storen, Clippard, Mattheus, Stammen, Rodriguez, Duke
  • 2014: Soriano, Clippard, Storen, Stammen, Blevins, Barrett, Detwiler
  • 2015: Storen, Janssen, Stammen, Thornton*, Cedeno*, Barrett, Roark
  • 2016: Papelbon, Treinen, Kelley, Belisle, Perez*, Rivero*, Petit
  • 2017: Treinen, Kelley, Glover, Blanton, Solis*, Romero*, Perez*

Meaning:

  • From 2013->2014: 4 holdovers, 3 new guys
  • From 2014->2015: 3 holdovers, 4 new guys.
  • From 2015->2016: 0 holdovers, 7 new guys
  • From 2016->2017: 3 holdovers, 4 new guys

Frankly, the fact that a 100% remade bullpen was so successful last year was amazing.  Perhaps now we’re seeing the downside of this lack of consistency.

I trust most of the guys in the 2017 bullpen, based on prior history.  I think I know what to expect out of Treinen, Kelley, Glover, Blanton, Solis and Perez.  Romero we all knew is/was a lottery ticket, and he may be DFA fodder soon.  Albers the NRI could be this year’s Todd Coffey; a successful middle reliever who we got for peanuts.  I think we just need some time.

That being said, lets look role by role and ask ourselves if we think this year’s bullpen is “better” than last.

  • Will Treinen (as closer) be better than Papelbon?  I like his chances.
  • Will Kelley repeat his success of 2016?  No reason not to think so
  • Will Glover give the team what Treinen did last year?  I’m confident.
  • Is Blanton better than Belisle?  Undoubtedly yes.
  • Can Solis match Rivero’s lefty production?  Seems like it based on what he did last year
  • Is Perez the same guy he was last year?  Probably.
  • Can Romero be as bad as Petit was last  year?  Yeah, he probably could.

Maybe you don’t agree with me on these quick takes … but on a general level the message is this: the bullpen this year should be just as good as last year’s.

Collier delves into FIP to find some unluckiness, also notes its SSS.  And he notes that its a MLB-wide trend; bullpens are awful everywhere for some reason this year.


 

Q: How much rope does Blake have left? Is he staying put only because the other options have also struggled?

A: See above: its April 18th.  Treinen has 4 save opportunities, blew one (where he gave up just one hit to blow it), but his most recent outing was an ugly one necessitating some Bryce Harper heroics.  My choice to close would have been Shawn Kelley honestly; more experience, more swing and miss stuff, more proven capabilities of getting guys out on both sides of the plate.  But the team chose otherwise, mostly due to Kelley’s twice-repaired elbow and the need to go back to back nights.  Ask yourself; how often do we need a closer to go back to back nights?  Lets look at last year’s closer Mark Melancon and count how many times he pitched in back to back games for the entirety of 2016: I counted 16 times in 75 appearances.  And in most of those cases, he then got several days off.  I just can’t believe Kelley’s arm is SO FRAGILE that he can’t throw back to back nights.

Do you know how many times Kelley threw on back-to-back days in 2016?  Take a guess.  13 times.  So 13 times last year (or nearly as many as the closer Melancon) Kelley threw on back to back days, but suddenly in 2017 he’s too fragile to depend on to throw back to backs as the closer.

To get back to the question; I’m sure Glover will be closing sooner or later.  It was always looking that way.  How much rope does Treinen have?  Probably at least til mid May.

Collier says its early, that while Treinen has had some issues there’s no change coming anytime soon.


 

Q: Who do you see as potential options in the Minors in case the current bullpen members don’t figure things out and changes need to be made?

A: Great question.  When Albers got called and added to the active roster, it was a severe indictment of all remaining 40-man roster relievers.  That’s be Rafael Martin, Trevor Gott, Austin Adams, and to a lesser extent Jimmy Cordero and Matt Grace.  The first three guys are right handed options, all with MLB experience, all passed over for a guy the team signed for nothing.  That tells me that the team has little to no trust in any of those three guys at the major league level right now.  So who might the team call upon?  Here’s some thoughts:

  • From AAA: Adams is the only guy having a halfway decent season thus far; in 7 2/3rds innings he’s given up just 1 hit (!), walked 6, struck out 12.  The team just re-signed Joe Nathan but I sincerely hope he’s not a legitimate option.
  • From AA; the 5 best guys by WHIP are … the five starters.  So that’s good I guess.  Braulio Lara was an offseason MLFA with a lot of AAA time; he’s got decent AA stats right now and could be an option to move up, but not straight to the majors for me.  Then there’s Ryan Brinley, who is sharing in closing duties but is young and is a total lottery ticket; a 27th rounder from 2015 who is a shock to have even made it this far.  40-man member Cordero is down here… and has a 19.62 ERA right now.  Nice.
  • From XST: there’s three potentially interesting names that could make sense for the bullpen: Derek Eitel, John Lannan, and Josh Outman.  Eitel had solid AAA numbers last year and has been around for a while (age 29); he might be an option to look for.  Outman has parts of 7 years MLB experience, some starting, some relieving and could be an option.  Lastly, the new side-slinger Lannan could be a back-fill for an under-performing Loogie.

I guess the other option would be to take a starter from AAA or AA and bring him up in relief.  But the AAA starters are really struggling right now.  Hill is getting bombed, Voth has given up 15 hits in just 6 1/3 innings, Cole walked 5 guys in his first start, and Turner has a 1.73 whip through 2 turns.  And none of these guys are really known for their blazing fastballs; they’re all command and control starters.  The AA starters look better than the AAA starters, but a couple of them strategically have to stay as starters (namely Erick Fedde and Austen Williams, John Simms to a lesser extent).  Jaron Long and Greg Ross are both MLFA signings who the team may not have as much invested in … perhaps they could be put into shorter relief modes and considered for bullpen spots.  But that’s digging deep.

In other words … there’s not a lot of reinforcements that the team trusts right now.  The MLB bullpen will be given plenty of rope to straighten themselves out.

Collier mentions Albers’ success, Nathan signing, Cotts, Adams and Gott.

 

Minor League Full Season Staff Review 2017 – XST

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He's back! photo via sbnation

He’s back! photo via sbnation

(Last post in this series, then back to the big club).

We have looked at the four full-season staffs, guessing the roles, and talk about the changes of the staffs from the end of last year til now.

Let’s talk briefly about the 40 some-odd guys in XST or unassigned right now, name some surprises and perhaps talk about where they might slot in if/when they get a chance.

See here for Syracuse 2017 review, here for Harrisburg 2017 review, here for Potomac 2017 review, here for Hagerstown 2017 review.

Quick links for rosters for each full season affiliate:

And don’t forget the invaluable work of SpringfieldFan maintaining the Nats Big Board, now in its 12th season!

Notes: Extended Spring Training is abbreviated XST throughout.  Other abbreviations I use often: MLFA == Minor League Free Agent, OOO = Out of the Organization.

Note: since writing this mid last week, we’ve already seen more than a few names get assigned and removed from XST purgatory.  I’ll just cross them out and not change what I originally wrote below.


Extended Spring Training Players to start the 2017 Full Season

I’m heavily depending on the great work of the Big Board for this list.  I count no less than 46 minor league pitchers who are still under contract to this team but who did not get a full season assignment.  A huge percentage of them were on Short-A or Rookie league teams and were more or less expected to repeat the short seasons.  I have not included anyone who was in the DSL last year as being in this list, coincidentally; I only try to keep track of the domestic leagues.

Below is a rough guess as to where these XST guys are intended to slot in if/when they get assigned:

  • AAA: Eitel, Guthrie, Lannan*, Outman, Nathan
  • AA: JDMartin, Blackmar, Benincasa, Rauh
  • High-A: Mayberry, JThomas*, Mendez
  • Low-A: JMorales, ALee, DeRosier, Howell, Dickey
  • Short-A: WPena, YRamierez, DRamos, Aponte, Cespedes, Fuentes, JGomez, Gunter, Mooney, Morse, Reid
  • Rookie: Alastre, Braymer, Baltrip, Amoroso, Barnett, Conner, Eusebio, German, Luzardo, McDonald, Peguero, NRamirez, Rishwain, Tindall, RWilliamson
  • unknown (been in XST for > 1yr): Bates, CFlores, AMartinez, Shackelford

Discussion

AAA: by the time you read this, Jeremy Guthrie may have already taken a spot start in the majors (update: he has, making Saturday’s 4/8/17 start in Philly), which will have implied that he’ll have been added to the 40-man and 25-man, and that he’ll more or less have guaranteed his spot up there for a while (since as a vet, he won’t be able to be assigned back to AAA w/o his consent/passing through waivers).  I’m guessing the other guys make their way to Syracuse at some point, perhaps as cascading back-fills if there’s injuries requiring call-ups to the majors.  2017 spring training NRI Joe Nathan, after this writing, got signed and assigned to AAA.

AA: I could see Martin slotting in at either AA (where he ended up last year) or at AAA (due to his experience).   Blackmar struggled in AA and could get pushed back to High-A.  The other two were release candidates to me.  Update: Blackmar re-assigned back to AA as expected to replace Arias in the rotation.

High-A: All three guys here pitched for Potomac last year, and all three pitched well.  Mendez earned a promotion to AA where he got hit, so maybe he just got caught in a numbers game.  None are release candidates to me so perhaps they all missed out on the AA team but have nothing left to prove in High-A.

Low-A: Morales, Lee and DeRosier were all hurt in 2016 (Morales for the whole season, Lee/DeRosier for just half), so it all depends on the extend of the injuries.  Howell was the fastest 2016 draft class riser .. so its kind of odd he wasn’t put on a full season team.  Maybe they thought he needed more time in Short-A.  Lastly I’m not sure what  you do with Robbie Dickey; two straight years bouncing between short- and low-A with little to show for it.  The 4th rounder represents a somewhat large investment by the club that hasn’t panned out and (even though the concept of “sunk cost” may apply here) he’ll likely get more shots to work out.

Short-A:  this list includes mostly guys who were at Auburn last  year and who didn’t make the  Hagerstown cut, but it also includes some guys who should have gone further by now, so I’d guess we’ll see some releases out of this list, especially once the Rule4 draft rolls around.

Rookie: same as with Short-A, especially for the college-age guys here.  I do look forward to the 2017 debut of Jesus Luzardo of course; he could quickly become our 2nd best starting pitching prospect.

Unknowns: what do you make of players who are on pace to miss nearly a year and a half of pro time?  I have no idea where any of these guys slot in any more and wouldn’t be surprised to see them all let go at this point.

Spring Training 2017 NRI Discussion

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Who will be this year's Chris Heisey? Photo via Washington Times

Who will be this year’s Chris Heisey? Photo via Washington Times

Third year running for this post: Here’s a link to 2016’s version and a link to 2015’s post.

Every year the team invites a bunch of Non-Roster Invitees (NRIs) to Spring Training, and every year we wonder if any of these guys have a chance to make the team.  This post discusses the NRIs and their chances.  Through out the winter some NRIs were announced with signings; on 2/11/17 the full list of NRIs was announced.

This is no throw-away post: here’s what has happened to Washington Nationals NRIs the last two spring trainings:

Summary of NRIs from ST 2016: 20 NRIs total (plus perhaps a couple more that got signed late):

  • Two (2) made the 25-man roster: (Chris Heisey and as noted in the comments, thanks for the correction, Matt Belisle).
  • Two (2) eventually got added and called up (Lucas Giolito, Sean Burnett)
  • Two (2) have since been added to 40-man (Matt Skole, Austin Voth)

Summary of NRIs from ST 2015: 20 NRis total:

  • Two (2) made the 25-man roster out of spring (Dan Uggla and Clint Robinson)
  • Two (2) others eventually got added and called up (Rafael Martin and Emmanuel Burriss)
  • Two (2) others were young catchers since added to the 40-man (Spencer Kieboom, Pedro Severino)

So that’s six NRIs from 2016 that eventually played for the Nats or got added to the 40-man roster, and six from the year .  So odds are a handful of these players will eventually have a major league impact for this team.  Lets take a look at 2017’s NRI roster.  From the mlb.com NRI roster, lets break them down by position.


Starters

  • RHP Jacob Turner: once upon a time he was halfway decent for an NL East team (Miami), but lost his effectiveness somewhere in the 2014 timeframe and hasn’t gotten it back.  Seems like AAA rotation filler to me.
  • RHP Vance Worley: an interesting minor league signing; why couldn’t he get a 40-man contract after the season he just had in Baltimore?  Could be a sneaky effective pickup.
  • RHP Jeremy Guthrie: 272  career starts but none in the majors since getting dumped from Kansas City’s 2015 rotation.  In 2016 he posted an ERA north of 7.00 for Miami and San Diego’s AAA squads.  He’ll be 38.  I’m not sure he’s really any better of a “spare starter” option than what we already have in house.
  • RHP Erick Fedde: his invite clearly indicates to me that the MLB staff wants to get a look at him, figuring that he’s taken over as the next big thing in terms of starting pitcher prospects.  With all due respect to A.J. Cole and Austin Voth, its really Fedde that I’d like to see pitching in the majors if/when we have a month long starter injury later this summer.
  • RHP Taylor Hill; may be up to see if he’s got anything left in the tank, or perhaps to eat some split squad innings?  Once you’re off the 40-man it seems pretty hard to get back, and that’s the dilemna that Hill faces.
  • RHP Kyle McGowin, recently acquired in the Danny Espinosa deal.  I’m guessing the team wants to see what they have.  McGowin’s 2016 numbers were awful … but pitching in the PCL is generally awful, so its hard to scout the stat line here.

FWIW, a couple of these guys who I’ve called “starters” (Turner and Worley) may actually still be starters, but they’re close enough to starting that the team could look at them as such. I could see Worley getting the last spot in the MLB rotation and acting as a swing man/6th starter, not unlike what we used Yusmeiro Petit for last year.  The minor league invites mean that the whole AAA rotation will be in camp.  Unless the team suffers 3 SP injuries in camp, nobody here is making the 25-man on 4/1.

Right Handed Relievers

  • RHP Matt Albers; Great in 2015, awful in 2016.  Wrong side of 30, losing his swing and miss stuff.  Seems like he’s just in camp to rebuild value and likely opts out if he doesn’t make the team.
  • RHP Mike Broadway: career journeyman, was formerly with Nats in 2013 time-frame.  Little MLB experience, seems like he’s AAA insurance.
  • RHP Joe Nathan: 377 career saves, but he’s 42, was last effective as a 38yr old in 2013, and this seems like perhaps an audition for him to take a role on a coaching staff here.
  • RHP Dustin Antolin: longtime Toronto farm hand who spent 3 straight years in their AA team and was a part-time closer for their AAA team last year with good results; seems like a safe bet to close in AAA and serve as middle relief insurance.
  • RHP Derek Eitel; similar to Antolin; long time farm hand who finished a ton of games in AAA for San Diego last year.  Averaged a K/inning but had a ton of walks.
  • RHP Wander Suero: a long-serving middle relief option for the team, Suero has grown up in the system.  He’s entering his 8th pro season and I’m guessing the team wants to see if he’s a MLB middle relief option and/or an option to eventually add to the 40-man roster ahead of his pending MLFA deadline.

Left handed Relievers

  • LHP Tim Collins:  hasn’t pitched in 2 years thanks to a failed TJ surgery that cost him a second season, but was pretty effective for Kansas City to that point.  I think he has to think he’s heading to AAA to prove to teams that he’s ok.
  • LHP Braulio Lara: seems like a lottery ticket based on performances from a few years past; he got shelled in Korea, shelled in AAA recently.
  • LHP Neal Cotts: long time reliever who has had some bouts of success over the years, but who didn’t make it out of AAA last year.  Can’t see him supplanting the 40-man guys ahead of him on the Loogy pecking order.
  • LHP Nick Lee, who like Hill before him was on the 40-man and then passed through waivers to get removed from it.  He was good enough to protect in 2015 (putting up good numbers in a closing role for AA) but really struggled with his control in 2016 (42 walks in 50 innings).  Perhaps a mechanical tweak can put him back on the radar to being an effective reliever.

Tangent: The recent addition of optionless Enny Romero may complicate a 25-man path for these guys.  Or perhaps not; the arm they gave up (Jeffrey Rosa) was so insignificant that I had to look him up because I forgot who he was.  In case you were wondering, Rosa was the “ace” of this year’s GCL team, getting 11 starts and posting a 4.91 ERA.  As a 21 year old.  So that means he was a 19-yr old IFA signing from a land where most players of note sign at 16 and only the rare cases make it to 18 and still have a minor league impact.  So perhaps the team isn’t entirely wedded to Romero making the roster/challenging his no-options status.  That trade was more about Tampa shedding a 40-man spot and getting something (anything) in return.

Discussion:  So, no real “closers” in here, even if you somehow think Nathan can still produce (I don’t).  I think a couple of these guys will exercise opt-outs and the rest will sign up in AAA.  I can’t see any of them seriously challenging any of the existing 40-man arms for a spot.  The one exception could be Collins for me; he was good, had bad luck with his injury and could very well come back and be effective; is he a better Loogy option than our current set of lefties (Perez, Solis, Romero and Grace)?  I doubt it.  I like the call-up of Suero and Lee; i think its a good idea for the team to see what they have here.

Catchers:

  • Jhonatan Solano, who probably reprises his role as AAA backup for Syracause and is in camp mostly to help with all the warm-up duties.

Infielders:

  • Emmanuel Burriss: we are quite familiar with Burriss, who is a Washington DC native and was with the org two years ago.  I see little chance of him breaking with the team but he’ll do exactly what he did for us in 2015: toil in Syracuse, wait for an injury in the infield and bide his time until he can get some MLB at-bats.  In 2015 he was up by June 26th; what are the odds that the Nats infield holds up without injury again in 2017?
  • Grant Green; primarily a 2B, but can play like a utility guy around the field.  He’s a former 1st round pick and a highly regarded prospect; don’t see much of a position for him though.  Will he stick around if he doesn’t make the team?
  • Corban Joseph: owns a grand total of 7 MLB at-bats, and that was in 2013.  He has toiled in the minors for the last four full seasons, bouncing around organizations.  He plays 1B and 2B and seems like the backup to the backup for Daniel Murphy.  In other words, if Joseph is playing, we’ve really suffered some serious injuries.
  • Neftali Soto: the 2016 MLFA signing had such a solid year for the organization that they re-signed him and gave him the NRI invite this year.  I suppose he’s Ryan Zimmerman insurance … but like Snyder is a RH hitter who is more or less limited to 1B.  Hard to see a pathway for him.
  • Drew Ward: this NRI seems a bit premature; he was in A-ball a year ago this time.  But Ward also faces Rule-5 protection this coming off-season and is one of the few remaining hopes of the 2013 draft class of producing much in the way of MLB talent for the home team.  He could be a replacement for an Anthony Rendon injury at some point too.

Its hard to see any openings here, especially given the Stephen Drew re-signing.  Are any of these guys beating out Wilmer Difo?  Doubt it.

Outfielders

  • Brandon Snyder: another local product (Westfield HS in Chantilly) and another 1st round pick who has sputtered out.  He has some pop, but he bats right handed … and the RH bench spot is already committed (along with $1.4M) to Chris Heisey.  Snyder seems like AAA “spare parts” insurance for 2017.
  • Andrew Stevenson: I know he was a high draft pick, but based on what I saw of him in college i’m still kind of shocked he’s advanced so quickly.  He joins several other CF-capable players in camp and signals to me at least that the team clearly thinks he’s got a role going forward.

Note that there’s really nobody invited to compete with the likes of Michael Taylor/Brian Goodwin for 5th outfielder spot.  Yes Stevenson is a CF … does anyone think he’s MLB ready?  Snyder seems to be competition with Clint Robinson/Matt Skole/Chris Heisey for bench bat/corner spots.  He had good numbers in small sample sizes for Atlanta last  year; maybe he’s an option.  Problem is that he bats righty and the team already guaranteed money to Heisey, so there’s no direct competition for Robinson/Skole as a “corner lefty bat with some pop.”


Conclusion/predictions: I predict no NRIs make the team out of spring training right now.  But I could see several of these guys head to AAA and get call-ups in the case of a 60-day D/L trip.  And a number of the minor league invite guys will feature eventually.

Post-publishing update: indeed, no NRIs made the opening day 25-man roster, but clearly the plan was in the works to bring in NRI Jeremy Guthrie to make a spot start early into the season and perhaps stick around as the long man…. Except that Guthrie got absolutely battered in said start (10 runs in 2/3rds of an inning), leading to his immediate DFA and the subsequent call up of a second NRI Matt Albers (over, it should be noted, four other 40-man roster relievers).  Then, thanks to two quick infielder injuries the first week, a third NRI Grant Green was called-up to provide some cover.

So technically zero NRIs made the team but several were used inside of the first week.