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State of the Nats at the halfway point 2015

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Per KW’s comment suggestion, here’s a “State of the Nats” at the halfway point of 2015.

Salient key phrase: “Holding On.”  Lets look at some component parts.

Offense

Here’s the full-strength outfield lineup the Nats would optimally like to deploy: Span, Rendon, Harper, Zimmerman, Werth, Desmond, Ramos, Escobar.

Here’s what they lined-up against Red’s ace Johnny Cueto a few days ago: Taylor, Espinosa, Harper, Ramos, Robinson, Uggla, Desmond, den Dekker.  Yeah, its no wonder they wimpered into the night as Cueto threw a 2-hit shutout.  If you’re Cueto, you pitch around Harper (who got a hit and a walk), you attack the rest of the lineup (strike-out prone lead-off hitter Taylor took a hat-trick), and you laugh as you blow through the rest of the lineup (11Ks on the night).

That’s five regulars out, but not just any regulars; the D/L includes your expected #1, #2 #4, and #5 hitters.  Instead they are replaced by a rookie (Taylor), a career minor-leaguer (Robinson), a cast-off veteran failure (Uggla), a career .230 hitter who the team has spent the last 3 years trying to replace (Espinosa) and a 4th/5th outfielder with just a couple hundred MLB at-bats prior to this year (den Dekker).

Frankly, its a miracle the team is in first place.  Only by the grace of Harper’s incredible season does this team manage to stay in games.  For the record, at the halfway point Harper leads the league in bWAR (6.1), OBP, Slugging, OPS and OPS+.  After having a 3-1 K/BB ratio last year, this year he basically has as many walks as strike-outs, one of the primary reasons his average is 60 points higher and his OBP is 130 points higher than it was last year.  Hold your breath that Harper doesn’t crash out and miss a month with some injury like he’s done in the previous seasons.  If he ends the season with this level of an adjusted OPS+, it’ll be one of the 10-12 best offensive seasons in the history of baseball.

Ironically, even given all these injuries the Nats aren’t even close to what some other teams are dealing with; per mangameslost.com, we’re not even close to what the Mets, Rangers, Rays or Oakland has had to deal with.  Though I’d venture to say that perhaps the games lost by Nats players are slightly more “important” than the cumulative games lost by some of these other teams.  I don’t care who you are; if you remove four of the top five batters from any team’s lineup, they’d be lucky to be out of the cellar.

The team has gotten absolutely nothing from presumed bench players McLouth and Johnson (Do you think Rizzo will *ever* buy a 4th outfielder for 8-figures again in his life?).  Guys who should be in AAA are getting starts and (at least in the case of Robinson) holding their own.  We talked before the season about where Taylor should be (on the MLB bench or in AAA getting starts) … well he’s getting playing time, for better or worse.  Instead of worrying about whether Moore was going to get DFA’d to make room, we’re *adding* guys to the 40-man like Burriss to help out.

Rotation

We know about Scherzer.  He’s been amazing, should start the NL All-Star game (of course, he’s scheduled to throw the series ender in Baltimore so we’ll see) and he leads all NL pitchers in bWAR.

What about the rest of the rotation?  Both Fister and Strasburg have missed a  handful of starts, and the Nats have tried a whole AAA-rotation worth of replacements to varying results.  With apologies to “short sample size judgements” I’ll say that Ross was good, Hill has been ok, Cole has been bad, and Jordan has been worse.  Of course, both Cole and Jordan’s delta between ERA and FIP is massive, so their poor ERAs are unlucky to a certain extent.  In the meantime, Ross has a 23/2 K/BB ratio and a FIP of 1.11 in his three starts.  Its safe to say that this person is excited to see what he can do next, and for me he’s at the head of the line for 2016 rotation candidates.

Clearly we know Strasburg has had an off season.  But so has Fister.  And Gonzalez‘ ERA is in the 4’s.   Just how bad is this rotation?  Not as bad as you think; they’re ranked 8th in the league in starter ERA but are 1st in FIP and fWAR.   Last  year they were 1st in all of these categories.  So perhaps we can expect some “progression” in the 2nd half as (hopefully) guys like Strasburg clean up their act and pitch closer to their FIPs than their ERAs.

Bullpen

We knew Rizzo had weakened the bullpen from 2015, which could have been fine had the injury bug not hit.  But the turnover of this bullpen has caught up to the team in some ways.

  • End of 2014: Soriano, Storen, Clippard, Stammen, Thornton, Blevins, and Detwiler.
  • As we stand now: Storen, Janssen, Treinen, Carpenter, Thornton, Rivero, and Roark.

That’s a lot of turnover.  Yes Storen has been typically excellent (as long as its not the post-season, he seems to be one of the most reliable closers in the game).  As we speak, the bullpen is 11th in ERA; last year they were 4th as a bullpen.  Janssen’s injury did not help, as it pushed guys into the 8th inning role they weren’t ready for.  And we saw Treinen and Barrett struggle (3.69 and 5.06 ERA’s respectively).  Granted their FIP shows that those ERAs are unlucky … but those are still runs on the board, blown leads, blown saves.  Roark (predictably) has regressed as he’s pitched in practically every role a pitching staff has (long-man, mop-up, spot-starter, rotation guy, middle reliever, setup guy and even a closer).  Luckily the gambler Rizzo has gotten pretty good performance out of scrap heap guys like Thornton and Carpenter, both of whom have given the team good innings.

Will this last?  It better: there’s practically nothing left in the farm system for reinforcements.  Barrett is set to return soon (probably pushing Carpenter to AAA), but the other options in the minors do not inspire confidence.  Martin got shelled (unfortunately; we were all cheering him on after his call-up and his fantastic start).  Grace and Solis were both mediocre in their auditions, and I can’t quite figure out why Erik Davis is even still on the roster.  Maybe the team will try some more waiver claims or trades (Neftali Felix just got DFA’d…) to shore up middle relief.

Streaks

Lets talk about streaks.  As of the time of this posting, the Nats season can neatly be fit into these four periods, and then talk about what spurred the beginning/ending of each streak.

  • The Slow Start: 7-13 from opening day through 4/27/15.  The team came out of the game 7-13, thanks to a sputtering offense and a make-shift lineup still trying to gel.
  • The Comeback: 21-6 from 4/28/15 to 5/27/15: Uggla hits his sole homer on the season to spur a pretty incredible 13-12 comeback win in Atlanta, and the team goes on a 21-6 tear following it.
  • Rotational Worries: 6-13 from 5/28/15 to 6/19/15.  Strasburg lasts just 5 batters on his 5/28/15 start, putting 40% of the rotation on the D/L and throwing the rhythm of the pitching staff off.
  • The Kid dazzles: 12-5 from 6/20/15 to 7/9/15; A long road trip/tough schedule stretch ends with a dominant Ross performance at home 6/20/15, kicking off an easy stretch in the schedule and a mostly full-strength pitching rotation.

Definitely a streaky team so far.  At 7-13, they were 8 games back.  At the end of their 21-6 streak, they were 1.5 games up in the division.  Despite their 6-13 stretch the only lost 3 games in the standings as the Mets faltered equally, and as of 7/9/15 they’re still 3 games up despite getting dominated at home by the Reds.

The team is beating who they should be beating (9-3 against Atlanta, 8-5 against Philly).  And they’ve had some success against other teams that are “good” this year (3-1 against the Yankees, 3-0 against Pittsburgh, and a sweep of San Francisco).  But they’re inexplicably bad against Cincinnati (0-5?), Miami (2-4), and were expectedly weak against the rest of the AL East (a combined 3-7 against Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto).  I’m guessing they’ll struggle against Baltimore this coming weekend since they sputtered against Cincinnati.

Lets just say that the All-Star break is coming at a pretty good time for this team.

Where do we go from here?

The Nats should be healthier coming out of the all-star break.  And they’ll need it; their July schedule is tough.  They host the Dodgers and the Mets to start, then travel to Pittsburgh, Miami and New York.  That’s a slew of games against good teams and their primary divisional rivals.

In August they host some bad teams (Arizona, Milwaukee, Colorado) but they also do their big West Coast trip (at Los Angeles, San Francisco and Colorado).  They also get a 3-game set at St. Louis that could be an eye-opener for where they really stand ahead of the playoffs.  September features practically all divisional games against teams that should all be completely out of it by then, so I forsee a team in cruising mode.

Playoff Outlook

The Nats remain in 1st place despite all their issues, and their closest rival is putting out a lineup that most AAA teams could beat.  Philly is already 30 games under .500.  Miami is 15 games under .500 and just lost their best player.  Atlanta sits around .500 but isn’t really trying for 2015 and won’t spend to compete.  So I think its safe to say the Nats are winning the division.  I’ll guess the Mets hang around since their pitching is so good, but in the end the Nats win the division by at least 10 games.

If the season ended today, Pittsburgh hosts the Cubs in the WC, St. Louis hosts the WC winner and Washington would be traveling to Los Angeles to open the playoffs.  And frankly its hard to see this changing much between now and October 1st.  I don’t think its a stretch to say that the Nats would be underdogs to both the Dodgers and the Cardinals in a playoff series, not unless Strasburg remembers how to pitch again or the offense gets healthy in time.  Are we looking at another first round playoff exit?

 

 

Is Ross making the Nats re-think their future rotation strategy?

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Joe Ross has been a revalation at the MLB level.  Photo Getty Images via federalbaseball.com

Joe Ross has been a revelation at the MLB level. Photo Getty Images via federalbaseball.com

Joe Ross, who it is fair to say was in some respects the “other guy” in the Tampa/San Diego 3-way trade that netted the Nats presumed future shortstop Trea Turner but cost them Steven Souza and prospect Travis Ott, got a somewhat surprising call-up after the starters covering for Doug Fister didn’t quite give the Nats the performance they were looking for.

Three starts later, two of which were easily defined as “dominant,” is it too soon to think that perhaps Ross is a bigger part of the Nats future than the trio of starter prospects we have stashed in Syracuse?

He looked *really good* last night against a team on an 8-game winning streak.  He was making professional hitters look very, very ordinary with his slider.  His slider was so good, he threw it nearly 50% of the time last night and got an astounding 38% whiff rate.  Average fastball of 93.1, max of 96.8 on the night.  Wow.

Small Sample Sizes, of course.  And maybe you could ignore the 11-K performance against the god-awful Brewers.  But Pittsburgh is was hottest team in the league and was mowed down like little leaguers.

At the beginning of this season, if you asked me what the Nats’ rotation was going to look like in the next three transitionary years, I might have said something like this:

  • 2015: Scherzer, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Fister with Roark as #1 replacement option
  • 2016: Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Roark and a battle between Treinen, Cole, Jordan and Hill (in that order) for 5th and 6th spots.
  • 2017: Scherzer, Giolito, Gonzalez, Roark, and a question mark.  Maybe Treinen/Cole, maybe a veteran acquired via FA or trade.  Maybe Lopez if he moves up at the same pace as Giolito.  Who knows.

Now?  I think you have to think Ross has jumped to the top of the list in that 2016 rotational battle, maybe even solidifying his spot.   Does a rotation of Scherzer, Strasburg, Ross, Gonzalez and Roark sound good?  Keep Treinen in the bullpen.  Flip spare depth (Cole, Jordan, Hill) for whatever you can get for them, and make room for the next wave of guys (Giolito, Voth, Lopez, Pivetta).

Wishful thinking?  Perhaps.  We love dreaming on pitching prospects here, but give me  your thoughts.

 

All is not lost

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Nice performance from Fister on sunday.  Photo via wp.com

Nice performance from Fister on sunday. Photo via wp.com

So, after destroying the ball in Atlanta (30 runs in 3 games) and getting what feels like an early “turn around the ship” 13-12 epic come from behind win, the team goes to New York and takes 3 of 4 from the Mets (who were theretofore undefeated at home and had the best record in the game).  Even if you don’t think the Mets are really that good, it was still a statement series to go to a divisional rival ahead of you in the standings and take 3 of 4.

They couldn’t beat Matt Harvey (who can these days?), not even with Max Scherzer going, but beat Jacob DeGrom and got the kind of shut-down performances from their #4 and #5 starters (Gonzalez and Fister) that practically no other team in the league can depend on.  It isn’t a good sign having to depend on untested rookies and fortunate bounces to get one-off runs that lead to 1-0 victories, but then again, its a great sign that you have a team that *can* win these kinds of games.

Now Miami comes to town; they’ve been hot (8-2 in their last 10), but the pitching matchups favor the Nats.  I’ll take Zimmermann, Strasburg, Scherzer (the best 1-2-3 in the majors) over what Miami’s bringing to the table this week (Phelps, Latos and Koehler).  Anything less than a sweep of Miami will be a disappointment.  The Nats have clear, inarguable pitching matchup advantages, and Latos/Koehler sport ugly ERAs that should help the Nats offense get healthy again quick.

Are we backed away from the ledge yet?   There’s still areas of improvement of course.  Per Fangraphs today, the team ranks:

  • 23rd in team WRC+ at 86 (my favorite all-equaling offensive stat measure)
  • 23rd in team Batting Average at .235, which sounds awful but there’s seven teams worse right now.
  • 7th in Starter ERA … but 2nd in Starter FIP and 1st in Starter WAR (Scherzer leads the league in fWAR despite being just 1-3)
  • 12th in Bullpen ERA and 11th in bullpen FIP

So, the bullpen we’ve fretted about is holding on but could use improvement, the Starters are holding up their end of the bargain, and the offense needs to improve.  About where we expected the team to be?

 

 

Nats Full Season Pitching Staffs

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A.J. Cole leads the minor league starter depth.  Photo AP

A.J. Cole leads the minor league starter depth. Photo AP

All our full-season squads have been announced, and its time to start looking at the pitching staffs.

I never got to doing my massive reviews of the rotations of the various farm system teams this past off-season (job change, less free time at home, they being a ton of work, etc).  Which also led to my not doing any predictions on where our pitchers would start the 2015 season.  Which is a bummer, because it is always fun to see if my predictions were decent and to see how player movement has affected the squads.  Lets go team by team and (focusing on the rotations) look at how things have changed since the end of last season.


MLB (25-man roster announcement here)

  • 2015 Rotation: Scherzer, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Fister
  • 2014 Opening Day Rotation: Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Roark, Jordan
  • 2014 Closing Day rotation: Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Fister, Roark

Discussion: We’ve certainly talked this through.  Quickly;  Fister‘s 2014 spring training injury opened the door for both Roark and Jordan to duke it out for the 2014 5th starter job, eventually won by Roark, who gave the team a 5-win season as the 5th starter.  That wasn’t enough for the Nats though; committing $210M on Scherzer for the next decade or so, pushing Roark to mop-up guy/insurance starter for opening of 2015.

Manager Matt Williams also shook up the 2015 rotation order, installing the starters by accomplishment, not by reputation.  Thus 3-year running opening day starter Strasburg is dropped to the #3 hole, and last year’s #2 Gonzalez is now basically the #5 starter.

Enough about the MLB discussion though; lets get to the minor league rotations.

 


All four full season minor league squads are announced here by Nats Journal.   In some cases we know who the rotation will be, in other cases the below is a huge guess.  Especially at Hagerstown (as we’ll see).

AAA (Syracuse roster announcement link)

  • 2015 Rotation: Cole, Jordan, Hill, McGregor, Billings (with Lively, Rivero (L) as swingmen)
  • 2014 Opening Day Rotation: Rosenbaum (L), Hill, Tatusko, Treinen, Poveda
  • 2014 Closing Day rotation: Laffey (L), Hill,  Treinen, Lively, Cole (Espino 9/1 call-up)

Discussion

A late spring training injury to Casey Janssen has called presumed AAA starter Blake Treinen into action in the Nats bullpen, perhaps for the long run.  Which has opened up a couple of spots in the Syracuse rotation … and they’ve been surprisingly filled.  Instead of installing who I presumed to be the 5th AAA starter (trade acquisition Felipe Rivero), the team has announced that 2014 MLFA signing/rubber-armed swingman Scott McGregor and 2015 MLFA Bruce Billings will fill out the rotation.

Changes from 2014?  Rosenbaum traded for catcher depth, Tatusko to Korea, Poveda remains an unsigned MLFA, and Laffey signed a new MLFA deal with Colorado.

One has to think that McGregor/Billings are temporary holds in the rotation until Treinen returns.  The conversion of Rivero to the bullpen is more interesting; the team is rather short on lefty starters in the system right now (thanks to a slew of upper-end draft pick lefty starters failing in the past few years … ahem Solis, Purke, Mooneyham, Turnbull).  As we’ll see later on, there’s nobody really that makes sense to supplant any of these guys as a starter from AA or XST.


AA (Harrisburg roster announcement here)

  • 2015 Rotation: Voth, Ross, Espino, Alderson, Swynenberg (with Bleier (L) perhaps as a swingman?)
  • 2014 Opening Day Rotation: Schwartz, Rivero (L), Gilliam, Purke (L), Cole
  • 2014 Closing Day rotation: Dupra (sort of), Voth, Rivero (L), Poveda, (Espino 9/1 promotion), Kroenke

Discussion

Harrisburg went through an awful lot of starters last year.  19 guys got starts, 15 of which were not just one-offs.  From last year’s opening day, Schwartz got demoted after putting up a 7+ ERA and then hurt, Gilliam got hurt, and Purke had Tommy John surgery.  By the end of the season, only Rivero remained in the rotation, though he spent a good spell on the D/L as well.  Dupra got 12 starts and 24 appearances and was medicore (5.60 ERA), Poveda had great ratios (39Ks in 32innings) but an ugly era (5.34), and MLFA Kroenke was abhorrent (6.72 ERA).

Returning for 2015 are Austin Voth, the 2013 draft pick who shot up two levels last year, and last year’s MLFA Paolo Espino, who has re-upped with the team for 2015.  They are joined by newly acquired Joe Ross, MLFA Tim Alderson and the surprising Matt Swynenberg (who was closer to retirement than a rotation gig this time last year).   I have 2015 MLFA Richard Bleier as a swingman/spot starter for now.  This rotation may be augmented by some of the Missing/XST arms (see later discussion).


High-A

  • 2015 Rotation: Bacus, Pivetta, Spann (L), Suero, Rauh (with Schwartz as swingman?)
  • 2014 Opening Day Rotation: Rauh, Rpena, Mooneyham (L), Encarnacion, Lee (L)
  • 2014 Closing Day rotation: Bacus, Spann (L), Dickson, Sylvestre,  Rauh,

Discussion

Lots of turnover in the Potomac rotation as well; 14 guys got starts from last year.   Dakota Bacus, Brian Rauh, and Matthew Spann are reprising their roles as starters from the end of last season, while two others (Dickson and Sylvestre) remain in XST limbo for now.  What happened to the rest of these guys?  Brett Mooneyham and Nick Lee posted ERAs of 7.36 and 10.05 respectively and were both demoted.  Encarnacion was nearly as bad and was outright released by the organization earlier this past off-season.

Luckily, we kind of already know that the opening day rotation is going to change: we know where two of the organization’s brightest arms are heading.  Giolito and Lopez should supplant Bacus and Rauh, making for a rather formidable Potomac rotation.


Low-A

  • 2015 Rotation: AWilliams, LReyes, Van Orden … and then who knows.  Orlan?  Ullman?
  • 2014 Opening Day Rotation: Pivetta Voth, Giolito, Silvestre (L)/Anderson, Johansen,
  • 2014 Closing Day rotation: Pivetta, RLopez, Ott, Dickey, Suero,

Discussion

Well; Hagerstown’s rotation should be … interesting.  When you look at the assigned arms, there’s only three clear-cut starters from last year.  So clearly either the Hagerstown team will be getting reinforcements from the XST list or there’s guys being converted from 2014 relievers to 2015 starters.

Pivetta and Giolito were the mainstays from last year; both will be in high-A at some point soon.  Ott was flipped as a throw-in with the Steven Souza deal.   Its hard to pass judgement on this rotation until we talk about those in XST.


Missing/XST

There’s a TON of arms who are currently unassigned.

Starters: JRodriguez, Dickey, Dickson, Estevez, Lopez, Giolito, Simms, Silvestre, Bourque, Amartinez, Gilliam
Relievers: Purke, Bates, Holland, Lehman, Mooneyham, Pena, Simmons, Solis, Turnbull, Feliz, McDowell, Torres, DWilliams

Where might these guys end up?   Well, based on their performance from last year, here’s some guesses for the starters:

  • AAA: nobody who isn’t already there
  • AA: Simms, Silvestre, Gilliam
  • High-A: Dickey, Dickson, Lopez, Giolito, Dupra (already on the Potomac D/L)
  • Low-A: JRodriguez, Estevez, Bourque, AMartinez

And the relievers?

  • AAA: Purke (already on the AAA D/L), Holland, Lehman (release candidate), Simmons (release candidate)
  • AA: Bates (release candidate), Pena, Solis
  • High-A: Mooneyham, Turnbull
  • Low-A: Feliz, McDowell, Torres, DWilliams

We’ll see how things go; I guess we could start seeing some minor league releases soon enough.

 

 

Nats Outfield … what happens next?

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Span's injury is going to really affect this team. Photo: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Span’s injury is going to really affect this team. Photo: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve held off posting about this, since most other pundits are putting in their two cents as well.  But Denard Span‘s “core muscle” surgery has suddenly got this team potentially in a pickle in terms of outfield depth and I thought it was worth discussing.

Unlike the Jayson Werth surgery announcement, which seemed to be well enough timed to cause only a brief disruption to the Nats starting outfield plans, the Span injury could have a longer lasting issue.  And, even though Span’s not nearly the hitter that Werth is, he’s much more difficult to replace thanks to his position (center instead of corner) and his lineup skills (lead-off).

What do I think happens now?  In no particular order:

  • I’m guessing that Span misses the entire month of April.  His surgery has a “4-6 week” recovery time frame and there’s plenty of recent players who struggled for entire seasons after dealing with similar injuries.  Not a great sign for the team or for Span, heading into a walk year.
  • I’m guessing Werth also starts the season on the 15-day DL with the idea of coming off of it on the first possible day and only missing 2 weeks.
  • That means your opening day lineup projects right now to having Bryce Harper in right, Michael Taylor in center and probably Tyler Moore in left.  I’m assuming also that Nate McLouth is starting on the 15-day DL as well, given that he’s apparently not even throwing the ball yet after his Aug 2014 labrum surgery, and that the team would rather have Moore in LF than Kevin Frandsen.  Well, let me rephrase;  *I* would rather have Moore playing than Frandsen …
  • I also think the Span/McLouth DL combination creates an opening for a backup OF on the opening day roster.  And I think one Tony Gwynn Jr. is going to win it.  He may not be with the big club very long, but he could serve as the prototypical “4th OF who can play center field really well who does a lot of late-inning defensive replacement duty” guy until the roster is back.  There’s not really another guy in camp who has CF quals and the MLB experience that Gwynn Jr. has, even if he’s a career .238 hitter.
  • Gwynn could easily be added to the 40-man by opening day because at the same time he’s to be added, the team will likely be DFAing both Xavier Cedeno and Sandy Leon, both of whom are out of options and not likely to make the 25-man roster.
  • When both Span and Werth come back, it could spell the end of the line for Moore thanks to his options crunch.  That being said, he’s hitting the cover off the ball so far in spring training (insert standard March debate about spring training stats and their meaning), and the team won’t dump him if he’s hitting .350 in April, so he controls his own destiny.  Where the roster moves do come into play is the assumption that one of these lefty-hitting NRI guys is making this team too.  We likely cannot keep both Moore and someone like a Mike Carp once everyone is back.  Luckily three injuries to presumed 25-man holders makes for a stay of execution for many guys.

Now the big question; who the heck hits lead off if Span is out??  A good question.

Presuming your opening day fielders are: Harper, Taylor, Moore, Zimmerman, Escobar, Desmond, Rendon and Ramos.

Who in that group makes sense to bat lead-off?  Basically just three candidates: Taylor, Escobar and Rendon.  And none of them are really “good” candidates frankly.

  • Yunel Escobar (who is nursing his own injury and could very well also be joining the others on the DL, but we’re assuming for the purposes of this post that isn’t happening and we’re not looking at an April 1 roster that has Dan Uggla on it) isn’t exactly a prototypical leadoff hitter at this point in his career, though he generally has batted either 1st or 2nd. throughout his career.
  • Taylor projects more as a middle of the order hitter frankly, thanks to his massive K numbers (144 in 110 minor league games last year).
  • Anthony Rendon *could* bat lead-off … but he’s likely the team’s best hitter and makes the most sense batting in the #2 slot.

If I were Matt Williams, I’d probably go with this lineup: Escobar, Rendon, Harper, Zimmerman, Desmond, Ramos, Moore, Taylor.  Man that’s a lot of right handers.  The only lefty in that lineup is Harper.  But what choice does the team have?

I’m kind of excited to see Taylor get some opportunity at the MLB level frankly.  What if he lights it up?  What if he proves he’s a legitimate power-hitting center fielder who can man the #8 position for the next 5  years in Washington?  We’ll never know until he gets a shot.

Oh, btw, to all those second guessers who now feel the need to question the Stephen Souza trade, asking smarty-pants questions like “gee do you think the Nats regret trading him now??” stuff in national forums, I say this: the trade made sense at the time, the return was great, and you cannot manage your baseball team on the fear of two unexpected injuries in a 3 month time span.  Souza is very promising, so is Michael Taylor, and the team is assuming that Taylor has more positional flexibility than Souza.  You only need one or two backup outfielders on a 25-man roster, and the Nats had more than plenty heading in to 2015.  Yes hindsight is 20/20, but if the team was presented with the same trade today, knowing they were getting a future back-of-the-rotation starter in Joe Ross plus their shortstop of the future in Trea Turner, i’m not so sure they still wouldn’t make that deal and just work their way through April of 2015.

Oh, pps, has anyone noticed that the setting up of the spring rotation seems to imply that the Nats 1-5 rotation is shaking things up from years past?  It seems like we’re going to go Scherzer, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Fister and Gonzalez.  That’s last  year’s #1 pitching third, and last year’s #2 pitching last.  Can’t say I disagree based on the career accomplishments of Scherzer and Zimmermann, just kind of surprised to see Strasburg being “deposed” as the Nats #1 starter.

And, another PS: with the injury announcements to Yu Darvish and now Marcus Stroman, I wonder if teams are calling the Nats to work a trade for one of our surplus starters.  Maybe there’s still a deal out there for Zimmermann or Fister, reinstating 5-win starter Tanner Roark to the rotation and padding the farm system coffers a bit more.

 

Ladson’s inbox 2/2/15

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Scherzer is on everyone's mind.  Photo via Scherzer's twitter account.

Scherzer is on everyone’s mind. Photo via Scherzer’s twitter account.

Love it; another inbox to analyze.  In the wake of the Scherzer signing, lets see what kind of questions MLB.com beat reporter Bill Ladson fielded this week.

As always, I answer as I write before reading Ladson’s answer, and edit questions for clarity as needed.

Q: How much better will the Nationals be now that right-hander Max Scherzer is on the roster?

A: Well, if you play the “WAR analysis” game, then Max Scherzer replaces Tanner Roark in the rotation for 2015.   Scherzer posted a bWAR of 5.5 in 2014 while Roark posted a bWAR of 4.8.  So on the face of it, assuming that both players provide identical value in 2015 as they did in 2014, perhaps Scherzer won’t immediately impact the team.  This is the essence of those immediate-post signing blogs and columns that questioned why the Nats needed to make this acquisition.

However.  I offer some counters.

  1. Roark immediately becomes your spot-starter to cover for injury.  Lets say that Gio Gonzalez (bWAR in 2014 of just 2.1) gets hurt and Roark covers for him; well that’s nearly a 3-WAR improvement.  Certainly Roark is going to be better than whatever AAA cover we could promote to provide injury relief.  The Nats only gave 12 13 starts to non-core rotation guys in 2014 but more than twice that number in 2013; the odds are that an injury is going to hit the rotation at some point.
  2. Scherzer will be better in 2015 than he was in 2014.  Why?  He moves to the NL, gets to face pitchers instead of DHs, faces generally weaker lineups, plays in a weaker division and pitches in more parks that are pitcher friendly.  You can make the argument that his K/9 is going to increase significantly (if he faces the pitcher 60-70 times in a season, he likely strikes them out at least half of that), and his ERA likely falls at least a half a point.  That will boost his WAR for 2015.
  3. Scherzer going twice in a seven game playoff series is going to be better than having any one else getting that second start.  In fact, a 1-2-3 punch of Strasburg, Zimmermann and Scherzer is one heck of a daunting task for any opponent.
  4. And there’s this: not to completely re-hash my post on the Scherzer signing, but i’ll note that this signing (to me) seems like a way to bridge the gap and guarantee an “Ace” in the rotation through the next two off-seasons of rotation transition (where the team likely loses Zimmermann, Fister and Strasburg).  The Nats rotation looks an awful lot better after these three guys are gone if Scherzer is leading the line.  So to me this isn’t a move about 2015 as much as it is about getting this team to 2017 and maintaining competitiveness.

Ladson said very little about answer the question, using his answer to immediately talk about the offense and the bench.  Yeah we know there’s issues there.  And we all remember how the middle of the order went like 1-for-the NLDS.  Wasn’t the question.

Q: Why didn’t Espinosa work on hitting right-handed exclusively after the season ended? If Espinosa made that transition successfully, he would be the answer at second base.

A: A good question.  Not the first time this topic has come up.  We’ve discussed it to death here but the reasons seem to fall along the following:

  1. Espinosa may be getting “advice” from his agent (Scott Boras) to put his own interests first.
  2. Espinosa may be “stubborn” about maintaining his switch hitting, given that it is a differentiator in the marketplace for him.
  3. Espinsoa may just be uneasy about suddenly facing right-handed curve balls from the right-hand side, probably having not faced such a situation in more than a decade (a fair point).

We all know about his splits lefty versus righty.  We all know he has not chosen to try RH-only.  I think its also safe to say that the organization has gone out of its way (Asdrubal Cabrera last season and now Yunel Escobar) to replace him in the starting lineup despite his defensive skills.  It is what it is; we now have a backup infielder on the roster to cover both 2B and SS and who has some pop from the plate in a backup capacity (and the associated K-rate of course).  Not the worst thing in the world to have.  Ladson says … well he stated the obvious (Escobar is the starter) and then says that the “Nats hope Espinosa cuts down on his strike-outs.”  Non-answer.

Q: How come Jeff Kobernus is not being considered for the starting second-base job? Why not have a young, cost-controlled guy play every day?

A: Because Kobernus hasn’t played 2B basically since college full-time since a half-season stint in Harrisburg in 2012.  The team moved him to the OF and he’s mostly stayed there.  Even if you thought he could play second effectively, he’s got a career minor league slash line of .285/.331/.363.   He is what he is: a utility guy who can cover in case of a slew of injuries and makes for a good 9/1 pinch running/6th outfielder call-up, but that’s about it.  I don’t think you can count on him to produce at the major league level day-in and day-out.  Ladson says Kobernus has a chance of making the bench out of spring training this year, which I disagree with.

Q: Asdrubal Cabrera signed with the Rays for one-year, $7.5 million. Why couldn’t the Nats make that deal? Or something close to it?

A: Probably because Cabrera wanted to play short-stop, and the Nats have a short-stop.  Besides, Escobar at $5M is a good deal.  I mentioned at some point in the off-season that Cabrera’s offensive output with Washington wasn’t too much better than Espinosa’s frankly (Cabrera’s split line with Washington in 2014 was .229/.312/.389; Escobar brings more to the table.  Ladson agrees, and says that the Nats weren’t willing to bring Cabrera back at his asking price based on what he showed last year.

Q: Why didn’t the Nats consider Tyler Clippard as their closer?

A: Hmm.  Good question.  Perhaps because when Clippard was given the closer job in 2012, he really struggled with it as compared to his typical 8th inning performance.   ERA in 2012 as closer: 3.72.  Career ERA: 2.88.  Besides, there was more in play for Clippard’s trade than just who was going to be the 2015 closer.  Clippard’s got a ton of miles on his arm, Clippard was set to make nearly 8 figures as a reliever, and the Nats felt like they could afford to part ways with him to acquire a player who filled a need.  Ladson notes what I noted, and said that Clippard’s pending free agency played into the decision.  That’s a great point that I didn’t mention; Clippard wasn’t going to be offered a qualifying offer (likely worth $16M next off-season), so he’d depart to no compensation.  With this trade, the Nats got some compensation for him.

Q: I know he’s had plenty of success as a general manager, but I’m surprised Mike Rizzo doesn’t feel any sense of urgency to try to sign Desmond or Jordan Zimmermann to an extension. What are your thoughts on this?

A: I think Mike Rizzo has been trying to extend these guys for more than two years.  “Sense of urgency?”  What else do you want to ask of the guy?  He by all accounts has offered both guys 9-figure deals, and has been rebuffed.  Do you think Ian Desmond is worth a 7yr/$100M deal?  Do you think Zimmermann is worth a 6yr/$150M deal?  Clearly to me the two players are valuing themselves higher than what the GM is valuing them, the GM has made what he thinks to be fair market value deals, and both guys have opted to test the market.  Baseball is a business, both on the player side and the team side.  Ladson thinks Rizzo will step up discussions once spring training happens.  I don’t; I think that the ship has more or less sailed on extending these guys at this point.  Now, will the team move Zimmermann?  I think we may see offers once James Shields signs…. if there’s teams out there that want to improve but miss out on Shields, they may come calling to the Nats with deals we cannot turn down.  We’ll see.  Overall thougth I’m doubtful any trades occur at this point.  My prediction: the juggernaut rotation goes into 2015 in-tact.

 

Holy Cow Scherzer!

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Wow.  Photo via Scherzer's twitter account.

Wow. Photo via Scherzer’s twitter account.

Nats sign Max Scherzer to a 7yr/$210M deal.  Which, as noted in the rich comment thread on the previous post, occurred while I was away and could not properly analyze.

Well, so much for “payroll is topped out.”

Now it seems like the ownership narrative is going to be, “Mr. Lerner just turned 90 and didn’t buy this d*mn team so they could only just win the division a couple of times.”

Which, as a fan who is still scarred by the Jim Bowden years, when a $68M payroll was astronomical and our GM was shopping in the bargain basement/rejects line in the free agency trough, is pretty liberating.  I guess this is sort of what it feels like to be a Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers fan in some ways.

I have various thoughts, not having a chance to have read all the comments and all the analysis pieces out there.

  • Apparently the contract is actually structured as $15M a year for 14 years, as opposed to $30M a year for seven.  Man; that’s one heck of a pension plan Scherzer just got for himself.
  • I agree with those that believe this is an insurance move that makes the inevitable departure of Jordan Zimmermann a bit less of a loss.
  • Bummer for Tanner Roark if no subsequent moves are made; all he did was post a frigging 5 WAR season in 2014.
  • I like Scherzer now … but man i’m worried about what he’ll look like in 5 years.  There’s little to zero track record of long-term FA pitchers working out when signed to 9-figure deals.  Trust me; I’ve got a huge spreadsheet as proof that these things almost never work out.  So I think its fair to say that I am happy to have him (of course), but that i’m worried that this will bite the Nats going forward.
  • Yet another example of Mike Rizzo a) picking up a player he originally drafted, and b) doing a deal with the devil, er I mean Scott Boras.  At least the Nats aren’t on the hook for $30M/year clogging up their new “payroll ceiling,” whatever it is.
  • Given the track record for starters going from the AL to the NL … i wonder if we’re about to see a season that looks something like this: 18-5, 2.20 ERA and 280 Ks in 220 innings.  Scherzer’s already at 10.3 K/9 and now he gets to face the Pitcher, a weaker division in the NL East and no DHs.  Can he get to 300 Ks?

How would you lineup our rotation?  Probably Strasburg, Scherzer, Zimmermann, Gonzalez and Fister.  You have to put the lefty in the middle of the rotation, right?

Is Roark wasted in middle relief?  Yeah he is.  But … now the team has its best 6th starter option in its bullpen ready to go, instead of calling up somebody from AAA.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Are we still going to see another move?  Maybe.  Not so much driven by payroll, but by function.  If the team is really fed up with negotiating with Zimmermann, then you move him for what  you can now.  And you’ve just replaced him like-for-like, for actually *less* money in 2015 than he was set to make (conveniently ignoring the $105M in “pension” payments Scherzer will be making for nearly a decade after he’s finished this contract).

Lets say the team does move Zimmermann; the 2015 rotation would be just as good as the 2014 rotation, but the team would presumably would have a couple more nearer-to-the-majors prospects received in return for Zimmermann.  Not the worst situation to find our selves in, given the FA losses the team faces after 2015 and 2016 (3/5ths of its 2014 rotation).  Scherzer bridges the gap and gives the team a solid guy for years to come as the next wave of starters makes its way to the majors (Cole, Giolito, Fedde, Lopez in perhaps that order).

Ladson’s Inbox 12/27/14

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Espinosa continues to be the leading player on the minds of Nats fans. Photo AP via mlb.com

Espinosa continues to be the leading player on the minds of Nats fans. Photo AP via mlb.com

Happy Holidays!  What a nice surprise; mlb.com Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson posted his first mailbag/inbox column since January 2014.  He must have been bored during the holiday lull in baseball news.

As always, since its been like a year since I did one of these, I write my response question by question before reading Ladson’s, and sometimes edit questions for clarity.

Q: Assuming the Nationals don’t make any acquisitions via trade or free agency, what is their in-house solution for second base?

A: Well, in order they’d likely start Danny Espinosa and bat him 8th.  And, if the fans’ had their choice, he’d abandon switch hitting, bat righty only and probably have a career resurgence.  Just a reminder: Espinosa’s career lefty split is .213/.283/.362 while his career righty split is .271/.343/.460.  Espinosa is so good defensively that i’m not entirely opposed to him being the starter; he can spell Ian Desmond at short (in fact, I’ve always thought Espinosa was a better shortstop defensively) and makes up for his awful switch hitting by being so good defensively (but not nearly enough to prevent the team from shopping).

After Espinosa, you have utility guy Kevin Frandsen having stated publicly he wants to be considered for the job.  Problem with Frandsen is this; he’s been even WORSE offensively the last two years than Espinosa; he has a .624 OPS in the last two years.  I hope there’s not anyone who thinks he’s a better solution.  Youngster Wilmer Difo was just added to the 40-man roster, but he’s never played above low-A.  That’s basically the roster of middle infielder options on the 40-man roster.  Jeff Kobernus played 2B in college but has long since been converted to an outfielder in this organization, so he’s not really an option either.  Looking deeper into the minor leagues, there’s some MLFA options at AAA (the likes of DC-native Emmanuel Burriss, current MLFA and Virginia-native Will Rhymes, or maybe even our own long-time org player Jose Lozada), and a couple of Nats draftees who have yet to pan out (Rick Hague and Jason Martinson).  But none of these guys are better options than just sticking with Espinosa.

Hence, the reason the team is looking at trade/FA options.  There’s a ton of 2B options that are likely available in trade or still on the FA market; its arguable that any of them are better options than just staying the course though.  So it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the team stood pat.

Ladson reviews the same three 40-man options and comes to the same conclusions as I do, and says he sees a trade.  He likes a trade for Ben Zobrist, like I do, but Tampa is notoriously hard-bargaining.  What would we be willing to give up to get Zobrist?

Q: Why are the Nationals willing to trade their best pitcher, Jordan Zimmermann? Wouldn’t Stephen Strasburg get them a better return?

A: I’m sure Strasburg would get a better return; he’s got two years of control instead of just one, and is scheduled to make a third of what Zimmermann will make in 2015.  I feel Strasburg is in some ways actually under-rated; despite a pedestrian 14-11 record in 2014, here’s his ranks in the entire majors in some quick categories: 13th in fWAR, 3rd in xFIP, 13th in FIP, 5th in K/9, and 5th in SIERA.  Teams are now smarter when it comes to acquiring control; a year of Zimmermann at $16M+ isn’t going to bring back that much anyway (see what the Rays got for David Price, for less money and TWO years of control).

And then there’s this: teams that are trying to win do not trade pitchers like Strasburg.  Plain and simple; it would be fan-relations suicide to move Strasburg right now.  The team just won the division by 17 games and their closest rival is having a fire sale; why on earth would the Nats look to move someone like Strasburg?  So that being said, why are they willing to trade Zimmermann?  I think it comes down to several reasons:

1. Money: As i’ve discussed in the past, the Nats payroll was at $135M at the beginning of 2014 and projects to nearly $150M without any subsequent moves.   150M minus Zimmermann’s 16.5M 2015 salary looks an awful lot like the payroll from 2014….

2. Practicality: You don’ t need to win your division by 15 games.  You can still win by 5 games and make the playoffs.  If the Nats can trim payroll, turn Zimmermann into something that look better than what we may get in a supplemental 1st round pick, AND still win the division in 2015?  Wins all around.

Ladson says several things I disagree with; he thinks Zimmermann would bring back a “kings ransom” and he thinks Rizzo is going to “get a deal done” with Zimmermann this off-season. 

Q: Given that he’s at an age where he needs to play regularly, does Tyler Moore have a chance of backing up first baseman Ryan Zimmerman in ’15?

A: Not sure what Tyler Moore‘s age has to do with anything; if you’re 22 or 42 you’re going to get ABs in the majors if you can play.   To the question at hand; right now i’m projecting Moore to be the 25th guy on the active roster.  That doesn’t mean he’ll make it, but he does fill a position of need; right handed power off the bench.  Had the Nats not traded Stephen Souza Moore might be a goner.  Now?  He could still make the team.  But somehow I sense that perhaps the team will look to flip him and/or bring in veteran competition for his bench spot.   Ladson states the obvious, saying the team will look to trade him since he’s out of options.

Q: Since it appears Michael Taylor is considered the future center fielder, can you see the team holding on to Denard Span beyond ’15?

A: In a word; nope.  I’m guessing that Taylor will get some experience as a backup in 2014 (and frankly may get a ton of at-bats, since our outfield isn’t exactly an injury-free haven), and soon the team will have a guy who can play a better CF than Span, hit with more power and run with more speed.  All in all, I think Taylor will be an improvement over Span in nearly every category and for 1/20th the cost.  Ladson says it depends on how Taylor does.

Q: Last year, the Nationals’ pinch-hitting average was terrible. Any hope it gets better?

A: So far … not really.  The bench is still projecting to be basically the same guys as in 2014.   Frandsen, Loboton, McLouth and Moore.  The only change is the dumping of Scott Hairston for Taylor.  But Taylor’s K rate is still high, which means we’ll likely see continued crummy pinch hitting.  Ladson points out the Nats havn’t had a good bench since 2012. 

Q: How is Lucas Giolito doing? Will he fill a rotation spot if Zimmermann or Doug Fister is traded?

A: Not in 2015.  Maybe by mid 2016 if Giolito has a two-level jump this year.  Giolito’s best case is to completely shut down high-A in April and force a promotion to AA by mid-season.  If that happens, then maybe we’re looking at a mid-April call up in 2016, just in time to replace the potentially departed FAs Zimmermann and/or Fister.  But this is a very heady dream; remember; Giolito is still on an innings limit, is still just 20 years of age (he turns 20 in July of 2015), and most pitchers his age are still in college,  yet to even be drafted.

If we move Zimmermann or Fister this off-season, then we’re looking at drawing from our AAA rotation for the 5th starter.  One of Treinen, Hill, Jordan or Cole.  Probably in that order, thanks to 40-man and experience implications.

Ladson is bullish on Giolito; thinks he’ll start in AA and get a call-up in September.  That’d be pretty aggressive.

Q: Why didn’t the Nats go after Russell Martin? Their catchers are less than adequate. Is Wilson Ramos still the guy?

A: Disagree here.  When healthy Ramos is a beast.  Remember he was the frigging opening day 2014 clean-up hitter.  The last thing the Nats needed to do was spend millions on someone like Martin.  Lobaton is more than adequate of a backup, cost-controlled and we traded a hefty price (Nathan Karns) to acquire him.  Ladson agrees with me.

 

 

 

Post-Winter Meeting bonanza; who improved their Rotation the most? Who’s left?

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Lester joins the Cubs revolution. Photo via weei.com

Lester joins the Cubs revolution. Photo via weei.com

(Editor’s Note: sorry for the tardiness on this post: I had it completely written and a WordPress or browser glitch lost 1,000 words of analysis.  So it took a bit of time to cobble back together what I had originally written.  Then the Souza trade hit, then the Cuban thing … and this got pushed).

What a GM Meeting week!  As one of the Fangraphs guys noted, there were so many transactions, so fast, that he literally gave up trying to write individual analysis pieces and went to a running diary of sorts.  I was amazed at the number of significant deals and trades made, especially when it came to starters.  So lets take a look at who shook things up.

Many teams are making big moves (almost the entirety of the the AL it seems) to try to win in 2015.  And many teams have revamped their rotations.  First, here’s a quick run through teams that have made significant acquisitions to their starting rotations (using BP’s Depth Charts page, Fangraphs stats pages and BaseballProspectus‘ page for injury history, Cots at BP for salaries, and of course baseball-reference.com).

Teams who have Improved

  • Chicago White Sox: acquired Jeff Samardzija in Oakland’s fire sale to go with established ace Chris Sale, the highly underrated Jose Quintana.  From there the White Sox have question marks: John Danks is just an innings eater at this point and Hector Noesi was not effective in 2014.  But the White Sox have one of the brightest SP prospects in the game at AAA in Carlos Rodon (their fast-rising 2014 1st round pick) and their former #1 prospect Erik Johnson (who struggled in his debut in 2014 but has a good minor league track record).  So by the latter part of 2015 the White Sox could be a scary team for opposing offenses to face.
  • Minnesota: just signed Ervin Santana to join a rotation containing the rejuvinated Phil Hughes, the decent  Ricky Nolasco and first rounder Kyle Gibson.  If they (finally) call up former Nats 1st rounder Alex Meyer to fill out the rotation and replace the dregs that gave them #4 and #5 rotation spot starts last year, they could be significantly improved.  Of course, the problem they face is the fact that they’re already playing catchup in the AL Central and still look like a 5th place team in this division.
  • Los Angeles Angels: adroitly turned one year of Howie Kendrick into six years of Andrew Heaney, who should thrive in the big AL West parks.  If the Angels get a healthy Garrett Richards back to go along with the surprising Matt Shoemaker, they may have a surplus of decent arms being stalwards Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.
  • Miami has spent some cash this off-season, but they’ve also gone shopping and upgraded their rotation significantly.   After acquiring the decent Jarred Cosart at the trade deadline, they’ve flipped bit-players to acquire Mat Latos, added Dan Haren and a $10M check  while parting ways with the unproven youngster Andrew Heaney, and should get ace Jose Fernandez back by June 1st if all goes well with his TJ rehab.  Add to that Henderson Alvarez and the Marlins look frisky (their new-found depth enabled them to move Nathan Eovaldi to the Yankees).  Rumors are that Haren won’t pitch unless he’s in SoCal, but $10M is an awful lot of money to turn up your nose at.  This is an improved rotation no doubt, and the rest of the Marlins lineup looks good too.
  • New York Mets get Matt Harvey back.  Enough said.  Harvey-Jacob deGrom is one heck of a 1-2 punch.
  • Chicago Cubs: added an ace in Jon Lester, re-signed their own effective starter in Jason Hammel, and will add these two guys to the resurgent Jake Arrieta.  Past that you have question marks: Kyle Hendricks looked great in 2014.  And the Cubs gave nearly 60 starts last year to Travis Wood (5+ ERA) and former Nat Edwin Jackson (6+ ERA).  I could envision another SP acquisition here and the relegation of Wood & Jackson to the bullpen/AAA/scrap heap.
  • Pittsburgh was able to resign Francisco Liriano and get A.J. Burnett for an under-market deal.  This should keep them afloat if they end up losing Edinson Volquez in free agency.   Otherwise they have decent back of the rotation guys and will get back Jamison Taillon perhaps in the early part of the year.  This could help them get back to the playoffs with the anticipated step-back of NL Central rivals Cincinnati.
  • Los Angeles Dodgers said good bye to a stable of starters (Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsly, Kevin Correia, Dan Haren, Roberto Hernandez and Paul Maholm are all either FAs or have been traded away) and signed a couple of guys to go behind their big three of Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu who could quietly make a difference (Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson) if they remain healthy.  That’s a bigger “if” on Anderson than McCarthy, who excelled once leaving the circus that Arizona was last year before the management house cleaning and should continue to excel in the huge park in LA.  Were I Andrew Friedman, I’d re-sign at least a couple of these FA guys for 5th starter insurance … but then again, the Dodgers also have a whole slew of arms in AAA that could be their 5th starter.  Or they could just open up their wallets again; there’s still arms to be had.  Nonetheless, replacing 32 Haren starts with McCarthy will bring immediate benefits, and whoever they end up with as a 5th starter has to be better than the production they got last year out of that spot.

Team most improved: likely the Cubs.

What teams’ rotations have taken step backs or are question marks heading into 2015?

  • Boston: after trading away most of their veteran rotation last season, the Red Sox seem set to go into 2015 with this rotation: Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Joe Kelly and Wade Miley.  This rotation doesn’t look as good as it could be; Buchholz was awful in 2014, Porcello is good but not great, Masterson the same, Kelly seems like a swingman, and Miley has back to back 3.98 FIP seasons in the NL and will see some ERA inflation in the AL (though not as much as normal since Arizona is a hitter’s park).  But Boston’s entire AAA rotation are among their top 10 prospects, so there’s plenty of depth they could use in trade or as reinforcements. 
  • Detroit: Arguable if they’ve really taken a “step back,” but you have to question their direction.  In the last two off-seasons they’ve traded away Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, prospect Robbie Ray and have (seemingly) lost Max Scherzer to free agency so that they can go into 2015 with this rotation: David Price, Justin Verlander, Anibel Sanchez, Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene.   Is this a winning rotation for 2015?
  • Kansas City: They have replaced departing free agent ace James Shields with newly signed Edinson Volquez, keeping newly acquired Brian Flynn and 2014 draft darling Brandon Finnegan in the bullpen for now.  KC is going to take a step back and will struggle to compete in the new super-powered AL Central in 2015, but have a slew of 1st round arms that look like they’ll hit in late 2015/early 2016.  I do like their under-the-radar signing of Kris Medlen though; he could be a very solid addition to their rotation if he comes back from his 2nd TJ.
  • Oakland will have a new look in 2015, having traded away a number of core players.  But their rotation should be OK despite having traded away Samardzija and let Jon Lester and Jason Hammel walk.  Why?  Because they stand to get back two very good rotation members who missed all of 2014 with TJ surgery in A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker.  They should re-join the 2014 rotation members Sonny Grey, Scott Kazmir, newly acquired Jesse Hahn and either Jesse Chavez/Drew Pomeranz to form another underrated rotation.  Of course, if these guys have injury setbacks, it could be a long season in Oakland.
  • Texas made a couple of acquisitions, re-signing their own Colby Lewis and trading for Nats cast-off Ross Detwiler (who should fit in immediately as their 4th starter), to go with ace Yu Darvish and recently recovered Derek Holland.  But Texas could significantly improve come mid-season when injured starter Martin Perez should return.  The big question mark for Texas is Matt Harrison, who had to have two vertebrae in his back fused and may not return, ever.   But if Harrison can come back, that gives Texas an opening day 1-5 that’s pretty improved over last  year.
  • Cleveland didn’t exactly have the world’s best rotation in 2014 but has done little to improve it going forward.  They will continue to depend on Corey Kluber, newly minted Cy Young winner to head the line, but then its question marks.  Carlos Carrasco was great in a combo role in 2014; where’d that come from?  He was awful in years prior.  Is Trevor Bauer dependable?  They better hope so; that’s your #3 starter.  They just signed Gavin Floyd after his injury shortened 9-game stint with Atlanta last year; he’s no better than a 4th/5th innings eater.   Is Gavin Salazar ready for prime time?  He wasn’t in 2014.  And there’s little else on the farm; the Indians don’t have a significant starting pitcher prospect in their entire system. 
  • Atlanta: The Braves surprisingly parted ways with Kris Medlen and not-so-surprisingly parted ways with Brandon Beachy, Gavin Floyd, Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang.  That’s a lot of starter depth to cut loose.  They look to go into 2015 with ace Julio Teheran followed by the newly acquired Shelby Miller, the inconsistent Mike Minor, the excellent but scary Alex Wood and under-rated 5th starter David Hale.  That’s not a *bad* rotation … but it isn’t very deep.  They have cut ties with guys who made nearly half their 2014 starts AND the guy who went 10-1 for them in 2012.  They (inexplicably) picked up a starter in Rule-5 draft who had TJ surgery in June; are they really going to carry him that long on the active roster?  They have no upper-end SP talent close to the majors.  If one of these 5 starters gets hurt, Atlanta could be in trouble.
  • Philadelphia: all you need to know about the state of the Philadelphia franchise can be summed up right here: A.J. Burnett declined a $12.75M player option to play for the Phillies in 2015 and, instead, signed for 1  year, $8.5M to play for Pittsburgh.  They will head into 2015 with their aging 1-2 punch of Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, the former being constantly dangled in trade rumors but going nowhere because the Phillies GM clearly over-values what a guy like Hamels and his guaranteed contract can actually bring back in return in this market.  Past Hamels/Lee there’s a bunch of non-descript names (David Buchanan, the waiver-claim Jerome Williams and the untested Cuban FA Miguel Gonzalez).   Can this team even broach 70 wins?
  • Cincinnati is moving backwards: they’ve traded away Mat Latos for  pennies on the dollar (Keith Law says there’s “make-up issues.”) and moved the effective Alfredo Simon for other bit players.  They’re putting a ton of faith that one-pitch Tony Cingrani will last a whole season and the youngster Anthony DeSclafini (obtained for Latos) will comprise a workable rotation.  They do have a couple of decent prospects at AAA (Robert Stephenson and Michael Lorenzen) but they seem to be accepting that they’re taking a step back.
  • St Louis traded away their least effective starter (Shelby Miller) and acquired the best defensive RF in the game (Jason Heyward).  Not a bad bit of work.  But they now will go into 2015 with a question mark in the rotation; prospect Carlos Martinez will get the first shot and could be good; oft-injured Jaime Garcia is still hanging around, and there’s a couple of good arms in AAA who could matriculate into the rotation via the bullpen as Martinez did in 2014.  It could end up being addition by subtraction (Martinez for Miller) but we’ll see.
  • Arizona has boldly re-made their rotation this off-season, dealing away 2014 opening day starter Wade Miley for a couple of SP prospects and dealing for 6 arms in total thus far.  New rotation may not be flashy at the top (the enigmatic Josh Collmenter is slated for the opening day start in 2015) and is followed by former Tampa pitcher Jeremy Hellickson (traded for prospects), the two pitchers acquired from Boston for Miley in Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster and then a cattle-call for the 5th starter competition this spring.  Arizona also ended up with former Nats farm-hand Robbie Ray, still have the highly regarded Archie Bradley waiting for his free agent clock to get pushed out a year, plus 2013’s darling Patrick Corbin coming off of TJ, not to mention Bronson Arroyo coming back from TJ later in the season.  So there’s a lot of arms out there to choose from, eventually.  But getting to Bradley-Corbin-Hellickson-de la Rosa-Webster from where they’ll start will be rough.
  • San Francisco‘s 2015 rotation could be just as effective as it needs to be (after all, they won the 2014 world series having lost Matt Cain mid-season and given the ineffective Tim Lincecum 26 starts).  They seem to set to go with Cain, WS hero Madison Bumgarner, the age-less Tim Hudson, and then with Lincecum and re-signed aging FA Jake Peavy.  This pushes Yusmeiro Petit to the bullpen for the time being and seemingly closes the door on Ryan Vogelsong‘s SF time.  Rumor had it that they were all over Jon Lester… and missed.  So a big acquisition to permanently sent Lincecum to the pen could still be in the works.  SF’s bigger issue is the loss of offense.  But the NL West is so weak they could still sneak into the playoffs again.  I list them as question marks though because Cain might not be healthy, Lincecum could still suck, and Hudson and Peavy combined are nearly 80 years of age.
  • San Diego has completely re-made their offense; do they have the pitching they need to compete?   They signed Brandon Morrow to replace 32 awful starts they gave to Eric Stults last year; that should be an improvement.  But they’ve traded away their 2nd best guy (Jesse Hahn) and are now set to have two lesser starters (Odrisamer Despaigne and Robbie Erlin) compete for the rotation.  The Padres re-signed lottery ticket Josh Johnson (coming off what seems like his millionth season-ending arm injury) and still have TJ survivor Cory Luebke in the wings, possibly ready for April 1st.  Their 1-2-3 of Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and Ian Kennedy isn’t that inspiring, but in San Diego’s home park, you don’t have to be Sandy Koufax to succeed.  Have they done enough to compete in the NL West?

Which team has taken the biggest step back?  Clearly for me its Arizona.

Who is left?

Well, clearly the two big FA names are Max Scherzer and James Shields.  Scherzer gambled heavily on himself when he turned down 6/$144M.  Would the Tigers make him a new offer?  Are the Nationals possibly involved (I hope not for the sake of the team’s chemistry; what would it say to players if the Nats jettisoned Jordan Zimmermann so they could give Scherzer $150M?).   He’d make a great fit in San Francisco … who wanted Lester but would get nearly the same great performance out of Scherzer.  Meanwhile Shields could fit in Boston or for the Dodgers to give them the depth they’ve lost.

Past the two big names, you have older guys likely to go on one year deals.  There’s no longer really room for Ryan Vogelsong in SF; he could be a decent option for someone.   Aaron Harang has earned himself a likely 2 year deal as someone’s back of the rotation guy.  Guys like Kyle Kendrick or Joe Saunders could be someone’s starter insurance policy.  And of course there’s a slew of injury guys who are like pitching lottery tickets.  Beachy, Billingsley, and Alexi Ogando all sound intriguing as reclamation cases.

But, once you get past Scherzer and Shields, anyone looking for a big upgrade will have to hit the trade market.  The problem there seems to be this: there’s just not that many teams that are already waving the white flag for 2015.   From reading the tea leaves this off-season, Atlanta is giving up, Cincinnati may be close, Philadelphia has begrudgingly admitted they’re not going to win, Arizona has already traded away its assets, Colorado is stuck in neutral, Oakland may look like they’re rebuilding but they still will be competitive in 2015, and  young teams like Houston and Tampa aren’t giving up what they currently have.  So a GM might have to get creative to improve their team at this point.

Written by Todd Boss

December 22nd, 2014 at 9:24 am

Posted in Majors Pitching

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Best contracts in the game right now

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Sal Perez is the best value contract in the game right now.  photo via si.com

Sal Perez is the best value contract in the game right now. photo via si.com

Inspired by Steve AdamsMLBTR chat on 11/18/14, I thought this was a fascinating topic.  What players have the best value contracts in the game right now?

For several years, the answer here was Evan Longoria, who signed a 6yr/$17.5M contract in 2008 and promptly put up three straight seasons north of 7.0 bWAR.  We’re into the option years on that original deal, which are still pretty affordable, and Longoria did get a 9-figure extension, so he’s not entirely in this discussion any longer.  Call him the “godfather” of ridiculously good value contracts.

Using the obvious websites (baseball-reference.com and Cots’ salary database now at BaseballProspectus.com), lets take a look at some candidates.  Note; I refer to a “valuation” of $6M per win above replacement as a way to “value” production.  There are some known limitations to equating salary to this figure, and there are others who estimate it even higher, but $6M per is still a decent estimate to use as a quick estimate of a player’s “monetary” production on the field.

Note: we are NOT including the litany of pre-arb players who are putting up huge seasons.  This is mostly trying to focus on those players who have signed for affordable contracts but who are delivering huge value.  Thus players like Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rendon, Kyle Seager, Corey Kluber and Starling Marte are not included here.

Candidate contracts: I’ve arranged these in my opinion of the order of value:

  • Sal Perez: 5 years/$7M (2012-16), plus 2017-19 club options worth just a *combined* $14.75M.  This for a guy who has made the all-star team and won the catcher Gold Glove two years running.  Wow.
  • Chris Sale: 5 years/$32.5M (2013-17), plus 2018-19 options of $12.5M and $13.5M.  This for a guy who led the AL this year in ERA+ and has received significant Cy Young votes 3 years running.  His bWAR in the last three seasons: 5.9, 6.9 and 6.6.  That’s crazy.
  • Jose Altuve: 4 years/$12.5M (2014-17), plus 2018-19 options at $6M and $6.5M.   Two-time all-star, led the AL in both hits and batting average in 2014.   Just put up a 6.6 bWAR season … and the Astros got it for just $1.25M in salary.
  • Jonathan Lucroy: 5 years/$11M (2012-16), plus 2017 option at $5.25M.  this late bloomer signed an incredibly affordable deal, then had a break out 2014 season where he posted a 6.7 bWAR, made the All-Star team, finished 4th in the MVP voting and should have won the gold glove as the best framing catcher in the game.   His total salary for the remaining three years of his contract is just $12.25M.
  • Madison Bumgarner.  Current contract: 5 years/$35M (2013-17), plus 2018-19 options at $12M each.  Bumgarner was 4th in Cy Young voting this year with a 4 bWAR season but (as we all know) dominated the playoffs, single-handedly handing the Giants their 3rd World Series title in the last 5 seasons.  A 4-war season is worth at least $24M on the open market these days, but he earned just $3.75M this year.  His options can vest and increase with certain achievements, but even at their max $16M value he’s still a massive bargain.
  • Yasiel Puig: 7 years/$42M (2012-18).  Everyone thought the Dodgers were crazy to commit $42M to an unknown; now it looks like a massive bargain.  For $2M salaries the last two years he’s put up 4.9 and 5.4 bWAR seasons.
  • Julio Teheran: 6 years/$32.4M (2014-19).  This contract gets expensive later, but in 2014 he was paid just $800k to put up a 4.0 win season.  If Teheran continues to be the #2 pitcher he showed this year, the Braves have great value on their hands.
  • Jose Quintana: 5 years/$21M (2014-18).  Thanks to the crummy team he toils for, Quintana’s exploits have gone unnoticed.  But he’s now got a career 117 ERA+ and has reached 200 innings both of the last two seasons and is signed for a song going forward.  Its no wonder analysts scoff when his name is mentioned in trade talks.
  • Michael Brantley: 4 years/$25M (2014-17), plus 2018 option of $11M).  This is preliminary, but based on his 7 bWAR season in 2014 (for just a $1.5M salary), this could be a huge bargain.  Is he a flash in the 2014 pan or is he for real?  If he’s for real, the Indians have a fantastic value going forward.
  • Ben Zobrist: 4 years/$18M (2010-13), plus 2014-15 options of $7 and $7.5M.  This was the poster child for years of affordable contracts (once Evan Longoria got his extension).  He’s averaged 4.75 bWAR over the past four seasons while playing six or seven different positions for the Rays.  Even in the final 2015 season at $7.5M, he’s projecting at 4 bWAR, still a significant under-value.  Keith Law calls  him “the best contract value” in MLB history; maybe he should be higher on this list.
  • Mike Trout: 6 years/$144.5M (2015-20).  No, a $33.25M salary in 2020 isn’t really a bargain, but the Angels are still getting the best player in baseball for $1M in 2014 and $5.25M in 2015.  Even if Trout declines to “just” a 6 bWAR player for the next 6 years … the Angels are still coming out ahead on the $6M/WAR evaluation technique.
  • John Lackey: 1yr/mlb minimum (2015).  He had a quirk in his previous contract that vested a MLB-minimum year thanks to an injury a couple years ago, so the Cardinals get the benefit of a veteran innings-eating 100 ERA+ starter at the league minimum.  Nothing to sneeze at, even if its just a one year contract.  On the open market you have to think he’s worth $8-$10M/season.
  • Steve Pearce: 1 year/$850k (2014).  This isn’t really a true candidate like the other players here, but Pearce’s story is worth noting.  He was DFA’d and *released* in April and re-signed a couple days later, but still posted a 6 bWAR season for Baltimore this year.  He’s arbitration eligible for 2015 but how far could his salary really rise after an 850k salary?
  • Jonathan Singleton: 5yrs/$10M plus 3 club options.  He may not profile as being worth this contract now … but if he lives up anywhere close to expectations, those later option years at $2-$2.5M are going to look pretty darn good.  No wonder the players union howled when he signed this deal.
  • Adam Jones: 4yrs/$62M is nothing to shake a stick at, even if his “gold glove” defense is rather suspect.
  • Edwin Encarnacion: 3 years/$29M (2013-15), plus 2016 club option of $10M.  Yeah that’s a pretty good deal.
  • Jose Bautista: 5 years/$65M (2011-15), plus 2016 option of $14M.   $14M for a guy who probably would have gotten 33% more had he been a FA two years ago.

How about the same analysis for the Nats?  The clear best value players on the team are Anthony Rendon and Tanner Roark.  Both Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister delivered pretty good WAR/pay value.  Denard Span just gave us a 3.6 bWAR season for $6.5M in salary; a pretty good deal.  But none of these contracts really contend with the above list.

Did I miss anyone obvious?  Do you agree with my rankings above?