Nationals Arm Race

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Dodgers win the Series: Welcome to the off-season

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ARLINGTON, TX – OCTOBER 27: Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers holds the commissioners trophy after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 in Game Six to win the 2020 MLB World Series at Globe Life Field on Tuesday, October 27, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The end of the world series brings the beginning of baseball’s off-season, and the Nats wasted no time officially declaring its free agents to be.

I’m tempted to write about some of the hot-button stories that led from Game 6, notably surrounding Blake Snell‘s ridiculous hook (reminiscent of the Greinke hook in game 7 of last year’s WS) and Justin Turner‘s returning to the field after testing positive for Covid-19. But others have covered it far better than me (both on Snell and on Turner).

See the Nats transaction list officially for all the 9 declaration for 2020 players done on 10/28/20.

As of this writing, the 40-man is as empty as I can ever remember, having shed 9 FAs yesterday and another 10 outrights between Oct 10th and Oct 15th. By my accounting (and per the Big Board)

Notably, a number of players who had options were also declared FAs yesterday, as discussed here. We talked previously about possibly considering options for some of these guys, but none were taken. Adam Eaton, Howie Kendrick, Anibal Sanchez and Eric Thames all declined.

As it stands now, the 40-man roster sits at just 28 players. Joe Ross will be the 29th once he’s restored. Technically its at just 25 players, as procedurally the team has not activated its three remaining 60-day DL guys (Strasburg, Castro, Romero).

Lots of work to be done this off-season and the first big decisions just passed by with little fan fare.

Nats Off-Season Roster Considerations

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Do the Nats bring back this famous celebration couple? Photo via Brobible

Since we have no playoffs to discuss, we’re pivoting immediately into off-season mode.

The Nats procedurally on 9/28/20 activated all their 10-day DL players. They also procedurally recalled the last three remaining players from the 40-man alternative site for the purposes of off-season moves. Amazingly, they ended the season with 9 players on the 10-day DL and just one healthy player on the 40-man roster not already playing (Raudy Read).

https://www.mlb.com/nationals/roster/transactions/2020/09

Free Agents to-be are immediately declared FAs at 8am Central time the day after the World Series ends. The team doesn’t have to restore its 60-day DL players until 5 days after the World Series ends, which allows them to add them back after free agents are declared and after the team has a small exclusive window to negotiate. So, we have to wait for about a month to see the next dominos fall, but we can start to speculate now.

Based on my records, here’s how our roster will look in the off-season, which will drive the decisions to make. We’ll classify these players into 5 categories

Category 1: Players under a “veteran” contract for 2021 (7): Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Hudson, Harris, Gomes, Castro. Seven players but a huge payroll hit (per Cots, these 7 players count for $120M or so in cap space next year.


Category 2: Pre-Arbitration players under full team control (22): Voth, Fedde, Crowe, Finnegan, Harper, McGowin, Braymer, Espino, AWilliams (TJ aug 2020), Read, Garcia, Noll, Robles, Stevenson, Hernandez, Bacus, Rainey, Bourque, Kieboom, Sanchez, Romero, Barrera. That’s a ton of players on pre-arb deals, which is important since they will represent a huge chunk of the active roster in 2021. I think a few of these pre-arb guys are in discussion for “first 40-man guy to get DFA’d when the team needs room” territory (Noll, Williams, Sanchez) but for now, they’re all in play. Note: a couple of these guys were technically MLFA signings in 2020 so i’m not sure if they are now pre-arb or still FAs. Apologies if I got their status wrong).


Category 3: Arbitration-eligible players for 2021 (8). Here’s where we start discussions. Player by player:

  • Suero (A1); lock to tender
  • Turner (A3): lock to tender
  • Soto (A1): lock to tender. I saw something recently that seemed to indicate he may or may not be a Super-2 guy, but he was projecting to be Super-2 after last off-season so i’m assuming he’s Arb-eligible this year.
  • Taylor (A4); Nothing has really changed with Taylor; he struggled at the plate again but hit a few bombs, which drove his OPS+ figure up a bit from what you’d expect for someone who hit below .200. The change in Taylor in 2020 is that his defensive numbers COST him WAR this year instead of helped. Probably Small Sample Size driven, but Taylor’s bigger problem is that his direct competition as “4th outfielder” on this roster Andrew Stevenson just blew up in 2020, making Taylor an obvious non-tender candidate.
  • Guerra (A4); his contract status is odd; he has bounced back and forth on and off the roster and signed a combo major/minor FA deal this past off-season. But Cots lists him as arb-eligible, so i’m not entirely sure if he’s a FA or if he’s arb eligible. My guess is that the team cuts another deal with him and non-tenders him if he’s eligible then immediately re-signs him the next day.
  • Barrett (A3); another odd case; how much does sentimentality count? The team called up a slew of other prospects before recalling Barrett this year, he pitched in 2 games then hit the DL. It seems to me he’s a non-tender candidate and at age 32 could be facing one last shot at making a MLB roster next year.
  • Elias (A3); 2020 a lost season for Elias, who went onto the 60-day DL early and barely pitched in 2019 for this team as well (thanks to the idiotic decision in Aug 2019 to allow him to hit, which resulted in a leg injury with him running out a grounder in a meaningless at bat). The Nats didn’t give up a ton to acquire him (giving up two decent minor league arms in Taylor Guilbeau and Elvis Alvarado) so I can’t imagine them non-tendering him, but how do you do salary evaluation of a player who misses an entire year?
  • JRoss (A3); he opted out in 2020, and his absence was felt immediately when it became clear his 5th starter replacements could not cut it. I think you tender him and he goes back into the starter competition for 2021. Worst case he gets cut mid-way through spring training and the Nats escape with 1/6th of his salary.

Category 4: Players with Options for 2021 (5): here’s where we start having some tougher decisions.

  • Sanchez: $12M club option, $2M buyout: I’m not sure how you take this option if you’re the Nats after the season we just saw. Sanchez was lucky to post the numbers he did in 2019 (his FIP was more than a half a point higher than his ERA), and he bottomed out in 2020. Decline the option, pay the buyout.
  • Thames: $4M mutual option, $1M buyout. Thames posted just a 65 OPS+ playing primarily as a 1B/DH type. That’s just patently awful, considering how many options there were on the market for “non-mobile mid-30s slugger.” Decline the option, pay the buyout.
  • Holt: $5M club option, $750k buyout. He took a significant step back from his Boston numbers, which resulted in Milwaukee cutting bait on him a month into a 2year deal. Despite his positional flexibility (he played 6 positions in 20 games for the Nats) I don’t see how you guarantee $5M to a guy who didn’t “wow” you in his audition. Decline the option, pay the buyout.
  • Eaton: $10.5M club option, $1.5M buyout. Phew; what do you do here. His fourth straight year in offensive decline. He was awful defensively. But he’s only 31; does the team take the $10.5M option and roll the dice that 2020 was an anomoly? If they cut him, do they have a replacement minor leaguer that makes sense (not really no). So do they roll the dice that they can get comparable production on the FA market for the same price? How much does sentimentality factor in here? Clubhouse presence and managerial relationship? Again, he’s only 31, which is a lot different from 36 (see next). I think the team exercises the option.
  • Kendrick: $6.5M mutual option, $2.25M buyout. Word came out a few days ago that Kendrick was considering retirement until he got hurt. I’m not sure I buy that, not with a 6.5M option on the table and more gas left in the tank. Another sentimental pick here; a guy who can plug in multiple positions in a pinch and who now has the DH to settle into if need be. Also a factor here; much like in poker, if you’re into a hand already for the big blind, why not make a call for a little bit more? Declining the option only saves them $4M, and it may be worth the cost to keep a veteran presence around one more time. I mean, if Eaton is there, you gotta keep his buddy Howie right? Exercise the option.

Category 5: Unrestricted FAs (6). Now, there’s nothing the team can really do with these guys since they’re FAs. But we can talk about whether or not we think the team pursues them in the off-season:

  • Suzuki; do you re-sign a 37yr old catcher? He’s been amazingly consistent at the plate the last few years while splitting time pretty evenly with Gomes. Still sporting a decent OBP. Is he getting pushed out by rising minor league depth (hardly, unless you think Read or Barrera is an option in the majors in 2021). I might pursue a 1-yr deal.
  • Cabrera: reverted to his 2018-19 form at the plate, league average providing poor, slow, aging defense at multiple infield positions. I think you move on.
  • Harrison really showed a jolt for this team, but he’s a 2B on a team with a prospect seemingly installed there for the longer run.
  • Doolittle: tough one. Struggled last year, struggled this year. A huge part of the community, outspoken leader. Maybe bring him back on an incentive-laden deal?
  • Freeman (TJ Aug 2020); really bad timing on his TJ surgery, as he’s a FA and will be rehabbing on his own.
  • Zimmerman, the most difficult decision of all. The team was onboard with a $2M deal for 2020 before he opted out for completely understandable family reasons. 2020 was his age 35 season; I’d guarantee him a $2M incentive-laden deal to be a 1B/DH platoon with a lefty slugger for 2021 absolutely. When he’s healthy he can hit, and doing nothing but DHing will help keep him on the field. Its worth a flier for a guy who is either retiring to the Nats front office or playing in 2021.

If the team does exactly what I say here, what would be our needs heading into the off-season? First lets see how this would look from a roster perspective (not counting FAs):

  • SP: Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, JRoss (A3), Voth, Fedde, Crowe, McGowin, Braymer, Espino, Romero
  • RP: Hudson, Harris, Suero, Elias, Finnegan, Harper, Bacus, Rainey, Bourque
  • C: Gomes, Read, Barrera
  • INF: Castro, Turner, Garcia, Noll, Kieboom, Sanchez, Kendrick
  • OF: Soto, Robles, Stevenson, Hernandez, Eaton

Immediate thoughts on areas of need:

  • Another starter. I’m just not sure you can go into 2021 with your 4th/5th starters being Ross, Voth, Fedde and Crowe. I’m not sure I trust what I saw from McGowin or Braymer. Espino has never really succeeded in the majors and seems like the definition of a 4-A guy. And Romero? Maybe he can step up now that he’s gotten his debut out of the way.
  • Reliever help: I see 5-6 mlb-quality relievers here, but we’d need like 12 on the 40-man roster.
  • Catcher; as discussed with Suzuki above
  • Infield: well, right now your starting infield in 2021 is Castro/Kieboom at 3rd, Turner at SS, Garcia/Castro at 2nd, Kendrick at 1st (if they exercise his option), with Noll and Sanchez in AAA or released. They probably need more depth here.
  • Outfield: If they exercise Eaton’s option, then little needs to be done. If they don’t, then they’ll need a starting corner OF.

In other words, they need help basically everywhere.

Thoughts? did I get anything wrong?

Ask Brittany 9/10/20

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Rizzo (finally) gets paid. Photo via mlb.com

Man, it seems like its been forever since we’ve seen a Nats beat reporter do a mailbag. And unfortunately the one I found is behind the Athletic’s paywall, By Athletic Nats beat reporter Brittany Ghiroli. No worries though; you’ll get the gist.

Q: What are your reactions to the (Mike) Rizzo contract?
A: It’s about damn time. I just do not understand why either Mike Rizzo or Davey Martinez entered this season w/o an extension. The only thing I can think is that both had had informal discussions with the ownership group that promised them extensions at a later time.

Brittany’s take: Finally. 3yr extension, with a big bump in pay from $4M/year on his previous deal. But she also notes how disrespectful this delay was to the rest of the front office staff, who live and die by Rizzo’s contract status. Hard to disagree.

Q: Have you heard about any extension talks with (Juan) Soto?  
A: I hope they have … but it seems unlikely. Juan Soto has already established himself as one of the league’s elite players, so there seems to be little incentive for him to sign away any flexibility. He got a “big” pre-arb raise, which frankly is still peanuts compared to his value, and he’s already guaranteed to be a Super-2 guy, meaning four arb years. If i’m the Nats maybe i’m doing what they did with Harper and Rendon; buy out the arb years with sizeable raises so they’re not arguing every off-season, see if they can get one post-arb FA year thrown in (he’s FA after 2024 season), and make it worthwhile to both sides.

Brittany notes that Soto’s agent is Scott Boras, so forget about an extension. She is unaware of any extension talk, but points out a couple of Braves deals that could serve as landmarks.

Q: Any details on whether the front office has moved on from competing this year to preparing for a stronger ’21 season?
A: Well, we saw no trades this year, meaning zero attempts to shore up multiple areas of need on the current roster. But then again, that might have been a factor of the price tag and our own depleted farm system. I mean, would you have wanted to give up Cade Cavalli or Jackson Rutledge for a month of a #3 starter hitting free agency after the season? Hell no. Meanwhile on the field, the team has been frisky this week, but (as of this writing on 9/11/20) remain 5.5 games out of a wild card spot and still projected for either the #6 or #7 overall pick next July.
Brittany notes the same thing: the lack of moves at the trade deadline tipped their hand.

Q: Any insight on moves Rizzo should consider in 2021 free agency?
A: man, it exhausts me to even start considering this. But here’s 2 minutes on their FA outlook. Using COTS site, they are set to lose Eaton, Sanchez, Doolittle, Suzuki, Kendrick, Thames, Holt, Cabrera, Zimmerman and Freeman to FA (yes some of these guys have options but … right now its hard to see any of these options exercised).

So that means the team is in need of: 1-2 Starting pitchers, a corner OF, two veteran lefty relievers, a starting quality catcher, and a big chunk of their infield depth. Assuming they go young in 2021 the infield could be anchored by Kieboom, Turner and Garcia, so they’d be in the market for a 1B/DH platoon, plus a couple of utility guys who can move around. So, not a ton but also some work to do. the have $126M committed before arb raises of roughly $25M (could be more depending on how much Soto gets), so that leaves about $50M of FA room to work with. We can’t get a good SP and a solid catcher for that, but we should be able to get the edges covered.

Brittany repeats the same list of players, and says the priorities will be similar to what I put.

Nats do absolutely nothing at Trade Deadline

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https://www.mlb.com/nationals/news/nationals-no-trades-2020-trade-deadline

The Nats on 8/31/20 are 12-20.  They have the second worst record in the NL.  They have the 5th worst record in the majors.  But thanks to the crazy 2020 playoff structure they sit just 3.5 games out of a Wild Card spot.  They’ve had season-ending injuries or opt-outs of multiple planned core players; they’ve lost to presumed rotation members in Joe Ross and Stephen Strasburg, they’ve lost a middle-of-the-order off-season acquisition bat in Starlin Castro.  They’ve lost both their lefty specialist relievers in Roenis Elias and Sam Freeman.  They lost an important bench bat/team leader in Ryan Zimmerman.  They’re now throwing out AAA starters twice every five games, and have had severely disappointing seasons from a slew of players they were counting on (Anibel Sanchez, Adam Eaton, Carter Kieboom, Eric Thames, Daniel Hudson, Sean Doolittle, and so on).

So what did they do at the deadline?  Zip.  Nothing.  Nada.

Maybe the farm system is now so utterly depleted (given that they’ve already called up their consensus #1, #2, #5 and #10 prospects on the year with little impact) that they couldn’t offer enough in trade to actually acquire someone they wanted.   Perhaps more to the point, the price tag it would have taken to acquire starters (given the spate of pitcher injuries this year and the competition in the area) may have been too high for the team’s taste (how pissed would you be if they had flipped someone like Jackson Rutledge or Cade Cavalli yesterday for a 3rd starter one-month rental?).   It seems foolish to think they have the cavalry coming in to help; right now the only 10-day DL player they have is Seth Romero, who is only up because they needed a lefty bullpen arm.  Brock Holt?  That’s not a savior.  Neither is Josh Harrison (though to be honest he has hit well).  So I guess the plan is to assume that all those veterans listed above who have sucked so far are short sample size regression to the mean candidates and they’ll be rebounding … within the next few days?

Meanwhile, the rest of the division at least tried to improve:

Not earth shattering moves, but it is notable that the Braves lead the division with a rotation that’s being held together with scotch tape, and they just acquired Milone to fill in because he’s better than whatever else they apparently have at their disposal (remember when people shuddered at the pipeline of starters in the Atlanta system?  yeah’ they’ve all crapped the bed this year).

So, what to make of this?  Are you happy they did nothing?  did we want a sell-off?  Or do we have confidence they can turn it around and squeak into the crap-shoot playoffs for 2020?

Spring Training 2020 NRI Discussion

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Nationals at Orioles 7/16/19

Nationals at Orioles 7/16/19

The Nationals, on the first day of spring training, announced their list of Non-Roster Invitees (NRIs) for 2020.

Here’s our 6th year running NRI analysis.  With this post, I’ve also got the Big Board officially updated to account for all 22 guys.  These 22 signings confirmed at least 6 new MLFA signings unknown until today (Freeman, Ward, Snyder, Wilson, Shuck and Self), so those details are on the page too.

Now, before you say “who cares” here’s some stats.  In the last five seasons (through 2019):

  • 6 NRIs made the 25-man roster straight out of Spring Training (and Guthrie technically made it 6 since he got called up a few days later and was always intended to be the 5th starter in 2017).  Basically every year an NRI has made the roster for 5 seasons running.
  • 21 NRIs eventually played for the MLB team at some point that same season.

So its likely that we’re going to see a lot of these NRIs at some point in the future.  Like, on average at least 4-5 of these NRIs are going to play for this team in 2020.

Here’s the list of 22 NRI’s for 2020

  • RH Starters: Wil Crowe, Paolo Espino
  • RH Relievers; Dakota Bacus, Bryan Bonnell, Javy Guerra, Jhonatan German, David Hernandez, Kevin Quackenbush, Derek Self
  • LH Starters: none
  • LH Relievers: Fernando Abad, Sam Freeman
  • Catchers: Wellington Castro, Taylor Gushue, Jakson Reetz
  • Infielders: Luis Garcia, Brandon Snyder Drew WardJacob Wilson
  • Outfielders: Emilio Bonifacio, Yadiel Hernandez, JB Shuck, Mac Williamson

(interestingly, there is at least one off-season MLFA signing that I had listed as being given an NRI; Tyler Eppler, who is not listed here.)

So lets squint and make some predictions.

  1. Do any of these guys stand a chance at making the Opening day roster?  Honestly, I don’t see it this year.  If there’s an injury sure, but right now the 26-man opening day roster seems pretty set.  Even at the edges of the bullpen and bench, it doesn’t seem like we have a ton of competition.
    1. Squinting at the bullpen, it seems like the last two spots will be going two guys (Roenis Elias and Austin Voth) who don’t seem likely to get sent to AAA (for reliability and options).  Elias is the only other lefty besides Doolittle, so maybe Abad/Freeman have a shot?  Guerra is a franchise favorite who probably gets called up at some point after what he did for the team last year.
    2. The edge of the Bench basically is Eric Thames, Ryan Zimmerman and Wilmer Difo: if someone beats out Difo they’re going to have to be able to play a serviceable short-stop; not sure who of the NRI infielders fits that bill.  Certainly not Snyder, Ward or Wilson, all of whom are corner guys.  And if you want to argue with a straight face that 19-yr old Luis Garcia is breaking camp with the team … well i’m just not going to consider you as someone who understands how modern baseball works.
  2. Do any of these guys project to feature at all in 2020?  At all?  Yeah definitely: I can see a couple of the relievers getting called up, especially since a number of them have MLB experience.  I could see Crowe getting the call in case we get shredded with injuries in the rotation.  I could see a flexible guy with past ties to the club like Bonifacio getting called up.
  3. Who among these guys project to eventually get on the 40-man?  past the above, Garcia obviously, but its hard to make an argument for too many others.  There’s really only like one or two “prospects” here that are called up for the experience; nearly the entire list are MLFAs that will be providing Fresno depth.

NRI Details by year, in case you were wondering…

Summary of NRIs for 2020:

  • Three (3) made the 30-man roster out of Spring training: Javy Guerra, Sam Freeman, Emilio Bonifacio
  • X eventually got added and called-up: tbd by end of 2020 season
  • X more since been added to 40-man post 2020-season: tbd before 20201 season

Summary of NRIs for 2019: 18 total

  • One (1) made the 25-man roster out of spring: Jake Noll
  • Three (3) more eventually got added and called up:  Aaron Barrett, Tres Barrera, Carter Kieboom
  • Zero (0) others have since been added to 40-man (as of 2/6/20).

Summary of NRIs from ST 2018: 21 NRIs total:

  • One (1) made the 25-man roster out of spring: Miguel Montero
  • Four (4) eventually got added and called up:  Tim Collins, Moises Sierra, Jimmy Cordero, Spencer Kieboom.  Special Mention to Edwin Jackson, who opted out of Washington then excelled for Oakland later in 2018).
  • Zero (0) others have since been added to 40-man

Summary of NRIs from ST 2017: 24 NRIs total:

  • Zero (0) made the 25-man roster out of spring (though technically one kinda was; see next).
  • Five (5) eventually got added and called up (Jeremy Guthrie, Matt Albers, Grant Green, Jacob Turner and Andrew Stevenson): Guthrie was the 5th starter, stashed in XST for a few days before his ill-fated debut.
  • Five (5) have since been added to 40-man (Erick Fedde, Taylor Hill, Kyle McGowin, Wander Suero, Tim Collins)

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

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

Summary of NRIs from ST 2015: 20 NRIs total:

  • Two (2) made the 25-man roster out of spring (Dan Uggla and Clint Robinson).  Adding Reed Johnson as a late-spring signee who made the team after his release from Miami (H/T Sao)
  • Two (2) others eventually got added and called up (Rafael Martin and Emmanuel Burriss)
  • Two (2) others were young catchers since added to the 40-man (Spencer Kieboom, Pedro Severino)

(I believe the above analysis is correct; feel free to comment if i’ve missed someone.  this is a bit tougher to keep track of b/c the team often signs MLFAs mid-spring then technically gives them NRIs … especially for Vets, and I may miss some from the original announcements).