Nationals Arm Race

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Arizona management: Get off my Lawn!

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Miley must be happy to get out of Arizona.  Photo via soxprospects.com

Miley must be happy to get out of Arizona. Photo via soxprospects.com

A couple of years ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks curiously traded their #1 draft pick from the previous year (Trevor Bauer) for a package of players that centered on the underwhelming Didi GregoriusI posted about the Bauer trade when it happened (Dec 2012) and, frankly, laid the blame at the kid’s feet for working his way out of town.

But since then, we’ve had other incidents involving Arizona players on their way out the door.  To wit:

  • In Jan 2013, the team moved its star Justin Upton for (again) a questionable return (centered on Martin Prado), and the litany of history between the player and the team was documented in the trade recap here via azfamily.com.  This Deadspin link also references Ken Rosenthal‘s reporting, which detailed the team’s issues with Upton: he didn’t play with enough “intensity.”
  • This past July, the team traded starter Brandon McCarthy to the Yankees for a middling Vidal Nuno.  McCarthy’s splits before/after the trade?   He was 3-10 with a 5.01 ERA before the move, 7-5 with a 2.89 ERA after.  And that’s moving to the AL East.  The apparent reason?  Arizona was actively discouraging him from using his effective cut-fastball.

Why do I bring this up?  Because, in the wake of the off-season Wade Miley trade to Boston … guess what?  Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic reported that Miley and the Arizona training staff clashed in the past, and he thinks it led to his out-ster from the team.

And then there’s stuff like this: Arizona management forced some fans sitting behind home plate to change their clothes in April of 2013 … and apparently just did it again.

Arizona finished 64-98 last season, worst in the majors.  Its no wonder they’re so bad right now, given the rate at which they’ve traded young, good, controllable assets for mediocre and expensive ones.  They canned their entire coaching staff last off-season (aka, the “King of Grit” Kirk Gibson) and their GM (Kevin Towers) as a result, hiring Tony La Russa as their senior-most baseball executive and then Dave Stewart as their rookie GM.  Perhaps the hope is that this new regime will stop openly clashing with its players and will value production on the field versus compliance in the clubhouse.

Of course, Stewart didn’t help his case by plainly stating ignorance of analytics to the press this past off-season.  And the new regime’s moves this past off-season didn’t exactly inspire confidence: their major move being the $68.5M signing of Cuban Yasmany Tomas, who apparently can’t actually play 3B and may start in the minors.  And its hard to look at any of the slew of trades they made and say “wow, that was a winner move.”  You almost have to wonder how they’re going to screw up the #1 pick in the 2015 draft this coming June.

All the better for the rest of the NL West, which features two teams with very clear playoff intentions (LA and SD) along with a third (SF) who has only won three World Series in the last five years.

post-posting update: Arizona has defended its forced uniform changing.  Actually they provided an explanation .. it was just someone playing around.  Sure.

another post-posting update: Stewart essentially “sold” two players to Atlanta, including their 2014 1st rounder Touki Toussaint so as to rid themselves of Bronson Arroyo‘s deal.  When questioned about the deal, Stewart was quoted as doubting Toussant’s velocity readings, saying that “Toussant didn’t throw 96.”  And, as noted here, Stewart is right: Tousannt doesn’t throw 96; he throws 98.  Toussant was well known to be mid-90s as a 16 year old two years prior to his drafting out of high school.  And now Toussant is doing things like this: throwing 6 no-hit innings in low-A for his new team Atlanta.  Thanks Dave!

Yet another post-posting update: the organization left $1.7M on the table in the 2015 draft process, a ridiculously large amount of money, enough to buy at least 4 separate 3rd-4th round talents later in the draft.  Just an amazing example of incompetence.

And there’s more!  Arizona was the sole team in baseball that didn’t make move at the Trade deadline in 2015, despite clearly being out of the NL West and despite having several players approaching free agency who would have made perfect sense to trade.  Their main rumored interest was in Aroldis Chapman (a high-priced closer on a rebuilding team?)  And, he threw the SD GM under the bus for his trade request … which was apparently mentioned in gest.

Ladson’s inbox 1/5/15

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Desmond is the hot topic today.  Photo Drew Kinback/Natsnq.com

Desmond is the hot topic today. Photo Drew Kinback/Natsnq.com

Well happy new year.  After going 9 months w/o a mailbag, MLB.com Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson has put out two in a row!

Here’s his 1/5/15 version.  I love doing these things.

Q: Do you see Trea Turner as a future leadoff hitter for the Nationals? If so, when? Ian Desmond has one year left on his contract, so I have to think the front office is counting on his rising through the Minor Leagues quickly like Anthony Rendon.

A: Yes, I can see Trea Turner as a lead-off hitter in the majors.  Blazing speed (some scouts have rated his speed at 80 on the 20-80 scale … which is a real rarity), excellent bat skills during his 3 years at NC State (a career college slash line of .342/.429/.507 playing in the nation’s toughest baseball conference), and in short sample sizes in the pros he’s got good OBP numbers.  Everything you want in a lead-off guy.  In college he had power (8 homers in 54 games his junior year playing with BBCOR bat, 2nd in the ACC); that’s a nice combination if it translates to the pros.

The question I have about Turner is whether he can stick at short.  Or, more to the point, if he’ll be a good enough shortstop to appease the defensive-minded Mike Rizzo.  All the scouting reports I’ve seen say the same thing: good fielder, great range … and an iffy arm that may push him to second.  Well, you have to think Rizzo acquired a guy like Turner specifically because he thinks Turner *can* stick at short, and is a ready-made replacement for Desmond.  Otherwise; why get him?  Its a heck of a lot easier to find a second baseman than a shortstop in this league (current issues replacing Danny Espinosa notwithstanding).

Can Turner be a fast riser? Well, he’s not nearly as accomplished a college player as Anthony Rendon (who, lets not forget, was College Player of the year as a sophomore).  Rendon ended his first pro season in AA and hit his way to the majors permanently by June of the following year.  That’s a pretty amazing trajectory.  And it included lost time to injury.  Turner ended his first pro season in low-A by way of comparison, and needs a two-level jump in 2015 to have a shot at a 2016 debut, and a 2-level jump next  year is going to be severely hampered by the fact that he’s likely to be languishing in San Diego’s spring training facility until June, when he can officially be traded.  He’s losing a half of year of development time most likely.  So, late 2016 to me is a more realistic goal, if everything goes well.

Meanwhile, that leaves a gap in the shortstop coverage if Ian Desmond leaves.  Here’s a thought; if Desmond leaves in FA after 2015, you put Espinosa back at his natural shortstop position, find a second baseman (Dan Uggla anyone? :-) ) and then wait for Turner to arrive.  If Turner can play short, so be it.  If he can’t, you put in at 2nd.  I like that plan.

Ladson says the Nats have “been quiet” on Turner since he’s not technically a Nationals player; makes sense; you wouldn’t want tampering charges.

Q: How is Desmond not locked up, or even the No. 1 priority? I understand Jordan Zimmermann is a staff ace, but shortstop is a prime position and every team desires one. Desmond is one of the best in baseball and can’t be replaced.

A: Because Desmond took a step back both offensively (from a 113 to a 103 OPS+) and defensively (UZR/150 from 4.4 to 0.1) in 2014 from the previous year.  I’d be slightly hesitant too.  I used to think that Elvis Andrus‘s contract was a fair comp for Desmond.  But now it looks like the Andrus contract was actually a massive over-pay, and valuing Desmond may be more difficult than we thought.

When I think about roster construction, you go up “the spine” of the team.  Catcher, Pitchers, Short and Center Field.  Those are the key positions to lock up with quality players.  So no arguments that Desmond and Shortstop in general are huge priorities.  But now the problem becomes this: is Desmond’s 2014 decline a one-off or a concern?  And, what is he worth?  If you think Andrus is an overpay ($15M a  year through 2022), and if Troy Tulowitzki is the best offensive shortstop in the game (at $20M/year for the next four years with annual injury issues), then where does Desmond fit in?  Some sampling of shortstop contracts: J.J. Hardy is 3/yrs/$40M for AAV of about $14M/year.  Jose Reyes makes $22M/year for the next three years, which seems rather high to me.   Jimmy Rollins is on an $11M option for 2015.  Jhonny Peralta is on a 4yr/$53M deal for an AAV of about $13M.  So clearly the market is at least $15M/year for a quality shortstop.

Based on who the Nats have in the pipeline at short (past Turner … practically nobody) and based on who projects to be available in FA in 2016 (also practically nobody), yes I think Desmond is a priority.  My guess is that the front office is juggling all sorts of stuff right now, and just hasn’t come to any conclusions.  I’d be perfectly comfortable offering him 5 to 6 years at an AAV of $15M (6yrs/$90M) with a club option; that’s clearly not enough as the team has offered him *more* than that in the past apparently and he’s turned it down.  He’s entering his age 29 season; that’d lock him up through his age 34 season … a gamble for a shortstop, but a good one for a franchise player who has been with the organization since he was 18.   I would have postulated that perhaps Desmond (with his Florida ties and the heavy Yankees presence down there) wanted to slide into the vacated Derek Jeter spot … but the Yankees just acquired a long term SS in Didi Gregorius, so maybe Desmond’s agent and him are strategizing.  Besides; Washington seems like a better positioned franchise right now than the Yankees (as hard as that is to write) for post-season positioning.

Ladson points out the Nats offered Desmond in excess of $100m and then cryptically says “lets see what happens in the next few weeks.”

Q: I noticed Rafael Furcal is a free agent. Might the Nats sign him as a veteran middle-infield stopgap until Turner and Wilmer Difo are ready?

A: Rafael Furcal?!  Wow,that’s a heck of a pull.  You mean the same Furcal who has played in a grand total of 9 major league games since 2012 thanks to injuries and will be 37 next season?  He hasn’t played a full season of injury-free baseball since 2009.  Why would we possibly consider this guy?   No way; there’s younger, more reliable middle infield options out there.  Difo, by the way, played in low-A last  year.  I don’t think we’re seeing him anytime soon.  Mid 2017 maybe?  Ladson says that Furcal *tore* his hamstring in Winter Ball; geeze.  He also states the obvious; we’ll see lots of Dan Uggla and that we should trade for Ben Zobrist.  Thanks for the scoops there, Bill.

Q: What are your predictions as to how the NL East will stack up in 2015, especially given personnel changes and improved health throughout the division?

A: Nats win the division with 90 wins.  Marlins 2nd with like an 83-79 record.  Mets in 3rd at about .500.  Braves in 4th at about 75 wins.  Phillies last place, with somewhere in the 68 range of wins.  Ladson seems to go Nats-Marlins-Mets too.

Q: I’m frustrated by Desmond’s strikeouts. If he could make contact for 20 percent of his strikeouts, he would be all world. What can the Nats do to help him make more consistent contact — just patience at the plate for better pitch selection?

A: Welcome to modern baseball.  Swing for the fences all the time; strikeouts be damned.  Nobody remembers you struck out 180 times when you  hit 20+ dingers from the short-stop position.  Now … strike out 122 times in 119 games and hit .220?  Then you’re in trouble, Mr. Espinosa.  As far as the question goes; maybe you park Desmond further down the order, tell him he’s not a run producer any more and tell him to focus less on homers, more on solid contact.  Maybe that helps.  Maybe not; the Nats offense is seemingly always a man down, which means Desmond is always pushed into a 3-4-5 hole spot, where he’s looking to drive in runs.  I expect similar numbers in 2015.  Ladson reminds us that Desmond had the flu last  year.  

 

Trevor Bauer Trade; what happened?

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Bauer is traded before the ink is dry on his contract. Why? Photo Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images via bleacherreport.com

It isn’t every day that you see a guy like Trevor Bauer traded.  Why?

  • He was traded less than a year after being drafted in the upper 1st round (3rd overall).
  • He was traded despite signing a Major League deal and getting a $3.4M bonus.  The bonus money isn’t exactly a sunk cost here; we’re not talking about a guy who is 5 years into his minor league career.
  • He was traded despite being the first player from his draft class to matriculate to the majors, appearing at the end of 2012’s season, getting 4 starts in September.
  • He was traded after a minor league season in which (among AA and AAA) he compiled a 12-2 record with a 2.42 ERA with 157 K’s in 130 1/3 innings, including time spent in the hitter-bonanza PCL.  As a 21-year old.
  • He was traded after being named Arizona’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
  • He was traded despite in-arguably being considered an “Ace” pitching prospect.

So, why was Arizona so quick to give up on this guy?   It isn’t like they moved Bauer to get a game-changing set of prospects or impact major league players; the return seems to be a lighter-hitting shortstop (Didi Gregorius), an inconsistent reliever (Tony Sipp) and a first base prospect who is immediately blocked on the Arizona roster by other, better players (Lars Anderson).

The answer seems to be a combination of several factors, none of them flattering to Bauer and his make-up/personality:

  1. Bauer’s refusal to alter his unique warm-up methods.  We saw this coming; he issued a “warning” to drafting teams that he did not want his extreme long-toss warmup method changed or questioned.
  2. Bauer’s refusal to allow his catcher to call the game.  In his four September games, he repeatedly shook off catcher Miguel Montero, a seven year veteran catcher.  And that didn’t seem to go over well with either catcher or coach when asked about it at the time.
  3. Bauer’s approach during his MLB time; he reportedly pitches “backwards,” setting up hitters with off-speed stuff before using his fastball as his  outpitch.  But this approach is counter to most recommended approaches for attacking hitters, especially bottom-of-the-order hitters.  He reportedly nibbled too much, didn’t go after hitters, walked a number of 7-8-9 guys, and then (in a common refrain) refused to alter his approach.
  4. Bauer’s tantrum when removed from the PCL championship game, showing up AAA manager Billy Butler (an accomplished MLB veteran) in the process.
  5. Bauer’s maturity level being questioned in the media by the team’s owner.
  6. Bauer’s clubhouse demeaner reportedly being, shall we say, “less than optimal” for getting along well with others.  I can’t find links off-hand, but I read opinions that describe Bauer variously as being “an Ass,” being cocky, being “prickly,”  being a know-it-all, and already dividing the MLB clubhouse despite his relative short time there.

Ok, that’s a long list of issues, some of them very serious when it comes to a professional ball-player.

Its easy to say, “well the kid is only 21” and excusing any/all these issues.  But there is something to be said about a 21 year old kid arriving in a Major League ball club, with a manager of the pedigree and career accomplishments of Kirk Gibson and an on-the-field staff of old-school pros (including Don BaylorMatt Williams and pitching coach Charles Nagy), and telling them that he knows better than they do.  Perhaps its that simple; perhaps the management had already essentially given up on Bauer’s ability to be coached, to receive instruction, to even receive recommondations, and GM Josh Towers pulled the plug.

But he’d have to be just incredibly hard headed for the team to have already arrived at the point of no return.  We’re not talking about some random 15th rounder.  We’re talking about a game-changing, significant investment they made in this kid.

Bauer, for his part, clearly has confidence in his approach, studied and crafted his motion based on biomechanical information he had at hand (his major at UCLA?  Biomedical Engineering), and believes that his preparation and his motion are what has enabled him to garner a high 1st round pick, what allowed him to zoom through the minors, and are what will enable him to be a successful professional.  I can understand his viewpoint; why should I change what has gotten me where I am now?   In some ways this reminds me of the whole “old-school/new-school” arguments that we have related to evaluating baseball players; new-school sabrematricians clearly have a dim view of their old-school/veteran sports writer counter parts and often have no issue writing that such-and-such a veteran sportswriter is flat out “an idiot.”  Well; is Bauer the “new school” approach to crafting pitching mechanics and his Arizona coaches are the “old school” approach to teaching pitching?

In some ways, we as fans forget that a clubhouse is rather similar to an office environment; you have “good” and “bad” workers, you have super stars and people just playing out the string.  Imagine if you had a 21-yr old hot-shot rookie just out of school who came in and told you (a seasoned veteran of some accomplish) that he knew how to do his job better than you?  I would imagine that the kid would seem pretty grating in the process.  Is this what happened in Arizona?

Should we be putting any blame on the Organization?  This isn’t the first time we’ve heard “issues” revolving around Arizona, their staff and management, and a player.  In addition to the Bauer situation, the continual Justin Upton trade rumors, persisting on now for a second off-season.  If the guy (Upton) is so good, why has the team been trying to move him for 2 years?  They benched him in 2012 and he got into a public spat with the owner this past season.  Is this a player issue or is there something in the organization that keeps rearing its head?  The situation reminds me somewhat of the Aaron Crow draft situation, where Jim Bowden drafted a kid who apparently had made it known he wanted no part of the organization.  If Arizona knew going in that Bauer was going to be difficult, why draft him at all?