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Gonzalez to play in WBC: why this is really Bad News for the Nats

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Gonzalez decides rolls the dice with his 2013 performance. Photo via Wikipedia/Flickr from user muohace_dc

Word came out over the weekend that suddenly embattled Nats pitcher Gio Gonzalez has accepted an invitation to play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, replacing Kris Medlen (who is anticipating having a child right around the same time).

Why is this bad news for the team?

Simply put: there’s a really bad track record for Pitchers who throw in the WBC the subsequent season, both league-wide and especially with the Nats.

Speaking just about the Nats first: Here’s a quick table showing the before and after ERA and ERA+ figures for the five Nationals pitchers who played in the first two iterations of the WBC (the “before” year is the season leading up to the WBC, while the “after” year shows performance in the season following the WBC):

WBC Yr Pitcher Name ERA before ERA After ERA+ before ERA+ after
2006 Luis Ayala 2.66 inj 153 inj
2006 Chad Cordero 1.82 3.19 225 134
2006 Gary Majewski 2.93 4.61 139 96
2009 Joel Hanrahan 3.95 4.78 109 89
2009 Saul Rivera 3.96 6.1 109 70

As you can see; every single one of our pitchers was either injured or regressed (mostly significantly) after playing in the WBC.  Ayala’s injury cost him the entire 2006 season.  I talked about this discovered phenomenon back in November, 2012 when trying to predict who may participate in the WBC (and where I actually predicted that Gonzalez would play, though the rest of my team USA predictions were wrong).

But this is just our team’s experiences.  How about Baseball wide?  MLB has endeavored itself to argue that participation in the WBC does not lead to an increase in injuries amongst its players and especially pitchers.  But we’re not talking about injuries here; we’re talking about performance.   Here are two very well done studies that show the negative impact of pitching in the WBC:

  1. This July 2010 study on Fangraphs
  2. This Feb 2013 study from BaseballPress.com

The BaseballPress one shows some of the same numbers I’ve shown above, but conducts the analysis across every pitcher who participated in both WBCs.  And the results are pretty evident; across the board on average pitchers regressed both in the year of the WBC and in the year after.  Plain and simple.

It isn’t hard to figure out why these guys regress; playing in the WBC interupts the decades-old Spring Training plans for getting a starting pitcher ready for a season by slowly bringing him along in terms of innings and pitch counts.  And, suddenly exposing both starters and relievers to high-leverage situations in February/March that they aren’t ready for either physically or mentally puts undue stress on these guys that (as we have seen) manifests itself later on down the road.

In the comments section of another post, someone asked what would stop the Nats from steamrolling to the World Series this year.  I answered “rotation injuries” and “bad luck in the playoffs.”  Well, now thanks to Gonzalez we can add two more items: PED suspensions and WBC regression.

Written by Todd Boss

February 11th, 2013 at 9:45 am

Possible 2013 WBC Nationals participants?

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Harper makes perfect sense to represent the US in 2013 WBC. Photo GQ magazine Mar 2012

I read a quickie piece with some Mike Rizzo quotes from the Washington Time’s beat reporter Amanda Comak on November 11th, 2012 and there was an interesting tidbit at the bottom: per Comak,  Rizzo has not been approached yet about any Washington Nationals participation in the WBC, but would approach each request on a “case-by-case basis” to determine what is in the best interests of the team.  This got me thinking about possible Nats representatives on 2013 WBC teams.

Lets take a quick look at the Nationals representatives on WBC teams from the past, talk about whether its really in the best interests of the team to even let these guys play, and then talk about who may be candidates for the 2013 WBC regardless.

(Note: I’ve added updates highlighted in red since the original 11/21/12 publication date on players mentioned here).

Washington has sent a decent number of players to play in the WBC over the years, with very mixed results for the team’s interests.  In 2006 the team sent seven different players to the inaugural WBC:

  • Luis Ayala for Mexico
  • Chad Cordero, Gary Majewski and Brian Schneider for team USA
  • Ronnie Belliard, Alberto Castillo, and Wily Mo Pena for the Dominican Republic.

The tournament was marred for the team by a blown UCL ligament to Ayala, who had undergone elbow surgery earlier in the off-season but pitched for his home country anyway.  The team did not want Ayala to participate in the inaugural event, did not want him used by the Mexican team, and team officials were “livid” by the injury, which cost Ayala the season and cost the team its 8th inning setup guy.  Ayala recovered to pitch again in 2008 but was never as effective, and was shipped out in 2009 for a PTBNL.  Coincidentally, I suspect the team still harbors some ill-will towards Ayala to this day.  Meanwhile the other two relievers who participated both experienced regressions in form; Cordero’s ERA nearly doubled (from 1.82 to 3.19) from his breakout 2005 season while Majewski’s numbers dipped slightly before he was traded in the big Cincinnati deal of 2006.

In 2009, the team had 5 participants:

  • Pete Orr playing for Canada
  • Joel Hanrahan and Adam Dunn playing for the USA
  • Saul Rivera and Ivan Rodriguez playing for Puerto Rico.

The WBC seemed to energize particularly Dunn, who enjoyed playing in a post-season atmosphere for the first (and only) time in his career.  Nobody suffered any injuries, but Hanrahan in particular may have been affected by his lack of a proper spring training; he posted a 7.71 ERA for the team while losing the closer spot and was shipped to Pittsburgh.  Ironically, Rivera also experienced a huge regression of form, going from a 3.96 ERA in 2008 to a 6.10 ERA in 2009 and was eventually released.

This begs the question; do we even WANT our pitchers playing on this team?  The first two WBCs have shown pretty distinctly that our pitchers have regressed greatly after playing.  This only makes sense: the spring training routines are greatly impacted to play in this event.  We may see a ton of front-office resistance to specific guys (especially those coming off injury) playing in the 2013 event.  Which could affect the eligibility of some specific players for 2013.

Now, which Nats may play for the 2013 teams?  First off, looking at the Nationals 40-man roster, we have become an amazingly heavy USA-born team (we’ll get to non-40man roster players in a moment). Thanks to the Nats big board resource (originated by Brian Oliver and now maintained by “SpringfieldFan”), which has the country of origin for players, here’s a breakdown of the home-country of our current 36 active (as of November 15th, 2012) roster players:

  • USA: 27 (would be 29 if adding in our rule-5 avoidance players)
  • Venezuela: 5 (Jesus Flores, Sandy Leon, Wilson Ramos, Henry Rodriguez, and Carlos Rivero)
  • Cuba: 1 (Yunesky Maya)
  • Columbia: 1 (Jhonatan Solano)
  • Dominican Republic: 1 (Eury Perez)
  • Netherlands (via Curacao): 1 (Roger Bernadina)

As you can see, the massive bulk of our team is USA born, and essentially our entire post-season starting roster was USA born as well.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that these USA-born players will actually play for team USA (Alex Rodriguez played for Puerto Rico despite being born and raised in Miami, and our own Danny Espinosa is eligible to play for Mexico by virtue of his first-generation born in the US status), but almost all of these guys will be up for consideration for the USA team.  And this only accounts for our 40-man players; as we’ll see below there’s plenty of lower-minors players from smaller countries that will participate.

Who from the Nationals franchise may make a 2013 WBC roster?  First off, thanks to James Wagner‘s 11/15/12 NatsJournal post we already know of three WBC participants; Solano is on the Columbian team, minor leaguer Jimmy Van Ostrand is on the Canadian team, and A-ball catcher Adrian Nieto is on the Spanish team.  Curacao qualifies to play with the Netherlands, and I’d guess that Bernadina would make a great choice considering the lack of Dutch players in baseball (Baseball Continuum’s projections agree.  And as of 12/4/12 he’s officially been listed as a Netherlands participant).. Venezuela is already qualified for the main draw and has a relatively strong possible team.  The Baseball Continuum blog posted an early projection of the Venezuelan team and listed Flores as a likely participant (specifically mentioning that Ramos wasn’t considered due to injury recovery; I’d suspect these two players to switch based on Ramos’ recovery and Flores’ awful 2012).   If Henry Rodriguez was healthy i’d guess he would be on that list too, but his season-ending surgery probably precludes his participation.  The Dominican Republic has perhaps the strongest depth and has no need for the recently called up Perez among its outfield depth.  Maya’s defection eliminates him from discussion for the Cuban team.  (12/4/12 update): Chien-Ming Wang has been announced as a member of Chinese Taipei’s team (for the purposes of this article I investigated all 2012 Nats).

Which leaves our large contingent of American players.  A couple of writers have started postulating on these rosters (David Schoenfield‘s very early guess as to a potential USA roster is here, Baseball Continuum’s latest projection is here).  So using these two posts as a starting point, lets go position-by-position and give some thoughts as to who may get some consideration.  Keep in mind the WBC rosters are generally very reliever heavy, since no starter is going to be “allowed” to pitch a complete game in March.

(Note: I’m still considering our Free Agents as “Nats players” for the purposes of this analysis, since this really goes position by position from our 2012 team to find candidates).

  • Catcher: Kurt Suzuki isn’t nearly in the class of the likes of Buster Posey, Brian McCann, Joe Mauer, or Matt Weiters.  There are a ton of quality american backstops right now.
  • First Base: Free Agent Adam LaRoche probably faces far too much competition from the likes of Prince Fielder, Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Allen Craig, Eric Hosmer, and Mark Teixeira to make this team.  If it were me, I’d go with Fielder and Teixeira.  But, LaRoche’s great 2012 season and his Gold Glove recognition may get him a spot.  He is a FA though, so i’d guess he won’t commit until he signs and gets the go-ahead from his new team.  Or, perhaps he uses the WBC to showcase himself?  Not likely needed; he should sign long before the WBC kicks off in March.
  • Second Base: Danny Espinosa is a decent player, but not in the same league as  Shoenfield’s projection of Dustin Pedroia and Ben Zobrist.  Brandon Phillips is also in the mix for the team.
  • Shortstop: Ian Desmond‘s breakout 2013 season may get him some consideration.  There’s not a lot of American quality short stops out there.  Troy Tulowitzki is the obvious leading choice (as was Derek Jeter in the first two WBCs), but is he ready to come back from injury?  Looking around the majors there are a couple other possibilities (JJ Hardy, Brendan Ryan, Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Crawford all could be alternatives as well).   I think Desmond’s combination of offense and defense, combined with Tulowitzki’s injury recovery could get him on the team.
  • Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman cannot break the hegomony of David Wright and Evan Longoria right now, even given Longoria’s injury struggles this season.  Chase Headley and David Freese are also in the 3b mix.  12/4/12 update: Apparently Wright is committed, Longoria is out due to injury recovery and Headley “was not asked,” so perhaps Zimmerman is back in the mix.
  • Outfielders: I think Bryce Harper is a natural to make this team, not only on talent but also because of the brand-name recognition (and TV ratings and fan interest) it would generate.  Same goes for Mike Trout.  Otherwise there’s a slew of top-end american players who can man the outfield and they read like the top of the MVP boards: Braun, Kemp, McCutchen, Stanton, Hamilton, and Granderson are all candidates to make this team.  12/6/12 update: Scott Boras has stated that Harper will skip the WBC to focus on his sophomore season.
  • Starters: The two logical Nats candidates to be considered would be Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg.  But lets be honest; there is no way in hell Strasburg would be allowed to play.  Could Gonzalez make this team?  Given the depth of American starter talent right now (just off the top of my head: Verlander, LincecumCain, Hamels, Halladay, Kershaw, Lee, Weaver, Sabathia, Medlen, and so on) perhaps this will be a selection of attrition moreso than a selection of availability.  So if a number of the older guys on this list beg out, perhaps Gio gets his shot.  The WBC’s location in San Francisco has already lead to Ryan Vogelsong committing to play in his home town, and could lead to other Bay Area players signing up.  I’m not sure any of the rest of our starters are really candidates, given the reputations of the above list plus the reliever-heavy nature of the roster.
  • Relievers: our two most well known relievers (Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen) are possibilities; would the Nats block Storen based on his 2012 injury?  Craig Stammen‘s breakout 2012 season could get him looks, based on the reliever-heavy needs of the team.  Normally Sean Burnett may be in the loogy mix, but there’s better lefty relievers out there AND Burnett’s FA status may lead him to bow out to curry favor to his new team (Schoenfeld lists Burnett as a possible member back in July, before knowing he’s declared free agency).  The question is, would you take Clippard/Storen against the likes of this list of quality american back-of-the-bullpen arms: Kimbrel, Ventors, Marshall, League, Janssen, Papelbon, Hanrahan, Motte, Boggs, Bailey, Reed, and Nathan?  Possibly, considering that a lot of these guys probably bow out.  We’ve sent multiple relievers to each of the past two WBCs and its likely going to be the same thing this year.

Summary: here’s my guesses as to which Nats (and recent ex-Nats) will play in the WBC:

  • Venezuela: Ramos
  • Spain: Nieto
  • Canada: Van Ostrand
  • Columbia: Solano
  • Netherlands: Bernadina
  • Chinese Taipei: Wang
  • USA: Harper, Desmond, Gonzalez, Clippard.  Perhaps Zimmerman and Stammen.

March 2013 update: here’s the post-WBC actual list of participants when all was said and done, helped by  the list of rosters via Wikipedia.  MLB reports that nine (9) Nationals are participating in the classic, though the below list (excluding Wang) totals more.  They’re not counting Solano/Columbia, having lost in the preliminaries.

  • Columbia: Jhonatan Solano (AAA/Mlb in 2012)
  • Spain: Adrian Nieto (low-A in 2012)
  • Canada: Jimmy Van Ostrand (AA in 2012)
  • Italy: Matt Torra, Mike Costanzo (both AAA in 2012, Washington MLFA signings for 2013)
  • Netherlands: Roger Bernadina, Randolph Oduber (high-A in 2012)
  • Chinese Taipei: Chien-Ming Wang (former Nat, non-signed FA for 2013 start of season)
  • USA: Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler
  • Dominican Republic: Eury Perez (3/4/13 addition to DR team)

Nats Franchise Trade history; biggest, best, worst

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Was getting Gonzalez the "biggest" trade the franchise has ever made? Photo Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images via nydailynews.com

In response to a topic that came up in the comments section, I’ll do a 3-part series reviewing the biggest/best/worst moves by the franchise since arriving here in Washington.  We’ll differentiate between Jim Bowden and Mike Rizzo moves as we go through.  We’ll talk about trades, then draft picks, then FA signings.

First up: Trades.

The Nats have made dozens of trades since 2005, and by my records have traded with every team in the league save for three: Baltimore, Cleveland and the Los Angeles Angels.  In fact, the franchise has not done business with Baltimore in any capacity since the year 2000, a testament perhaps to the difficulties of dealing with Peter Angelos even before the team moved to Washington.  Now post-relocation, the conventional wisdom is that the two teams would never do business on the off-chance that one team ended up “winning” a trade with the other.

I’ll divide this post into into 3 sections: the “biggest” deal (not the most players, but the biggest impact/most news worthy), the “best” deal(s) and the “worst” deals.  For Rizzo, we’ll add a 4th category for “Too Early to Tell,” since the big off-season trade of last season probably won’t shake it self out for a few more years.

Jim Bowden Tenure: Nov 2004 – Mar 2009

Biggest Trades

  • 2005: Soriano deal
  • 2006: Kearns/Lopez deal
  • 2007: Milledge deal
  • 2008: Willingham/Olsen deal

The Alfonso Soriano move made all sorts of news; he wouldn’t move to LF, threatened not to play at all, then ended up putting in a 40/40 season in a pitcher’s ballpark and then resulted a host of national news as the team debated whether to trade him, re-sign him or let him go.  Bowden held firm on his demands in the trade market, never traded him and landed two compensatory draft picks (which the Nats turned into Jordan Zimmermann and Josh Smoker).

The Kearns/Lopez deal, in the end, was more about moving deck chairs than making progress for either team.  Bowden was obsessed with players that he knew from his Cincinnati days, and showed a proclivity to trade for or acquire them throughout his tenure here, and this deal was just the biggest example.  The only player in the deal who still remains with his original team is Bill Bray, and most of the players in the deal have become large disappointments for their careers or are out of baseball.  The Reds accused Bowden publically of selling them damaged goods (Gary Majewski got injured about 5 minutes after the trade was completed) and Kearns/Lopez never really lived up to anything close to their potential.

We’ll talk about the other two deals below.

Best Trades

  • 2007: Getting Tyler Clippard
  • 2009: Getting Michael Morse
  • 2008: Getting Willingham/Olsen

Bowden gets major credit for obtaining two core members of the current Nationals squad for almost nothing.  He obtained Tyler Clippard from the Yankees for Jonathan Albaladejo in a like-for-like trade of under-performing minor league relievers.  Of course we all know what’s happeend since; Clippard has become a super-star setup man, the 2011 league leader in holds.   Getting Michael Morse in return for sending the feeble Ryan Langerhans to Seattle in what most thought was a mercy trade at the time (i.e., trying to send good-guy Langerhans to a team that would actually play him) seems like one of the steals of the decade.  Nobody thought Morse had a fraction of the potential he’s now shown to have.

I include getting Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen as a win based on who we gave up: PJ Dean, Emilio Bonifacio and Jake Smolinski.  I’ve always had a soft spot for Willingham and thought his offense potential was the key to this deal; we got two major leaguers for two dead-end minor leaguers plus a backup infielder.  Luckily for the Nats, Florida was always ready to give up arbitration candidates to save a buck.

Worst Trades

  • 2007: Milledge deal

Honestly, I had a hard time really saying that I thought one of Bowden’s trades was egregiously bad.  Most of his deals (outside the deals mentioned above as biggest or best) were minor leaguer swaps or dumping veterans at the trade deadline.  Even the acquisition of Elijah Dukes wasn’t really that “bad” based on who we gave up (Glenn Gibson, who was released a couple years later by Tampa Bay and ended up back with us anyway).

However, the acquisition of Lastings Milledge for Ryan Church and Brian Schneider might be the one trade that I’d most quibble with.  Bowden showed his obsession with “toolsy” and “potential” players in this deal, acquiring the malcontent Milledge and giving the Mets two immediate starters.  At the time I certainly defended the deal; neither Church or Schneider were slated to be starters for the 2008 Nats so you could argue that we got a plus prospect for two backups.  I know I certainly argued that point.  Church seemed to be a brooding platoon outfielder who wouldn’t be happy unless he was starting and Schneider had lost his starting spot to Jesus Flores and was a relatively weak hitter.

As it has worked out Church was a very productive player for New York, Flores got hurt and left the team in a very serious catcher-dearth position, and Milledge turned out to be not nearly the talent that we thought we were getting.  By the time we flipped him to Pittsburgh in 2009 he was barely hitting his weight in AAA and was completely out of the picture for this team.

Mike Rizzo Tenure: Mar 2009 – present

Biggest Trades

  • 2011: Gio Gonzalez deal

  • 2009: Morgan/Burnett deal

  • 2010: Ramos for Capps deal

  • 2011: Henry Rodriguez/Willingham deal

  • 2011: Gorzelanny deal

You have to hand it to Mike Rizzo; he’s not been afraid to make deals.  In his 3 year tenure he’s made 5 significant deals that have vastly changed the way this team is constructed.  Two of those deals (Morgan/Burnett and the Willingham deals) were mostly about cleaning up the roster to get it more in his image of pro-clubhouse guys and pro-defense.  Trading away Milledge and Willingham succeeded in moving the team towards these goals.  The Gorzelanny and Gonzalez trades were about acquiring power arms to shore up the rotation, another tenant of Rizzo-constructed teams.

Best Trades

  • 2010: getting Wilson Ramos

Clearly Rizzo’s best move was stealing Wilson Ramos for a closer (Matt Capps) that we had ample candidates for internally.  The Twins panicked post-Joe Nathan injury and overloaded their bullpen with closer candidates.  Meanwhile Rizzo turned an astute FA signing (a minor league signing that turned into an All Star) into an even more astute trade by getting a nearly MLB-ready catcher in return for a guy who the team wouldn’t be re-signing anyway.  Great move.

Worst Trades

  • 2011: Gomes for Rhinehart/Manno
  • 2009: Bruney for ptbnl (eventually rule5 top pick Jamie Hoffman)

Most readers here loved Christopher Manno and the promise he was showing in A-ball.  Most were also aghast to see Manno go the other way to Cincinnati for a 4th outfielder Jonny Gomes.  At the time, the argument was that Davey Johnson wanted a bat off the bench and that the team needed some OF depth.  What really happened was that Gomes hit his way out of his type-B arbitration status and played so poorly the 2nd half of 2011 that the team couldn’t dare offer him arbitration to get a compensatory draft pick.  So we traded two decent prospects for a half season of awful production.  Not a good move.

Even worse, trading anything to acquire Brian Bruney.  The team acquired Bruney, promptly argued against him and beat him in arbitration, and then (unsurprisingly) Bruney vastly underperformed until being flat out released a few months into the 2010 season.  For me this is a lesson in what not to do with your arbitration eligible players.  It wasn’t so much what we gave up (the first pick in the rule-5 draft *could* have been used to acquire someone of value), it was what we got in return.

Too Early to Tell Trades

  • 2011: Gio Gonzalez deal

Pro-prospect pundits (anyone at Baseball Prospectus, Keith Law, etc) will already tell you that the Nats vastly overpaid for Gio Gonzalez.  That’s because they value the potential of prospects more than the proven commodity of the major league player.  But the fact is this; you KNOW what you’re getting in Gonzalez but you have no idea how a low-A prospect will play out.  The Nats rolled the dice that AJ Cole isn’t going to turn into the next incarnation of Justin Verlander and that Brad Peacock‘s promise will peak as a middle reliever.  The only way to tell how this trade turns out is to track the progress of those players we gave up versus what Gonzalez does for this team over the next 3-4 years.

Thoughts?  Any trades out there that stick in your minds that you thought should be mentioned?