Nationals Arm Race

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Nats Draft History; what were the rumors on draft day historically?

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Zimmerman was the Nats first ever pick. Photo unknown credit via fantasyknuckleheads.com

Zimmerman was the Nats first ever pick. Photo unknown credit via fantasyknuckleheads.com

I thought I’d do a different take on the “history of Nats drafts.”  What was the mood/feel around the team approaching draft day year after year?  Who do we think they were focusing on as the big day rolled around and why?  We focus mostly on the first round pick, where so many of the mock drafts focus, but we’ll also mention significant moves further down.

To be honest, I didn’t really start closely following the draft and track who the Nats were “rumored” to be with until the 2008 draft.   So if you remember something differently than me, please feel free to chime in.  I also focus pretty heavily on the early picks here, simply because teams generally get the most value out of their 1st round picks, and the thought processes in taking the first round pick often is the focus of draft analysis and mock drafts posted head of each actual draft.

The Draft Tracker xls (created by Brian Oliver, now maintained by SpringFieldFan) is vital for any Nats fan interested in tracking the teams’ drafting history.

  • 2005: Nats picked 4th overall and did not have a 2nd or 3rd round picks (the 2nd round pick went to Colorado for the Vinny Castilla FA signing and the 3rd round pick went to Minnesota as compesation for the Cristian Guzman signing)).  The team was also under MLB control and was (presumably) given quite strict financial guidelines over signings.  Given those considerations, they knew they needed a splash with their #1 overall pick, they needed someone affordable and they needed someone that would speak to their new fan-base.  They wanted college draftees, quick to the majors.  The team was looking at the three top 3rd Basemen in the draft.  Ryan ZimmermanRyan Braun and Alex Gordon.  All three were playing at good schools with good numbers.  Gordon went 2nd overall to Kansas City and the Nats snapped up Zimmerman.  Zimmerman signed quickly for an acceptable amount ($2.9M as the 4th overall pick) and was playing in the majors by September.   Zimmerman’s selection made sense geographically (he grew up in Va Beach and attended UVA) and it made sense considering the talent available at the Nats pick.  MASN’s David Huzzard printed a retrospective of the 2005 draft ahead of 2014’s draft.
  • 2006Thanks to a couple of FA losses (Hector Carrasco and Esteban Loiaza), the team had two extra picks in the first two rounds.  The team had a roller coaster 2005; first place at mid-season and then a collapse as MLB refused to allow reinforcements.  By draft-day 2006 the team was firmly under the control of Jim Bowden, and his philosophy had always skewed towards “toolsy” players, potential over actual.   But the team didn’t have an owner yet, so were still operating under MLB’s guidelines.  These two facts were quite evident by looking at the haul the Nats had with their early picks.  6 picks in the top 4 rounds and they were all high school players.  Chris Marrero, Colten Willems, Stephen Englund, Sean Black, Stephen King and Glenn Gibson.    The team got Marrero for a relatively cheap $1.6M deal mid-way through the first round, failed to sign Black altogether, and got 5 of these 6 players to sign for around $5M all told.  The team on the field was under-performing thanks to a limited MLB-dictated budget, but Bowden was drafting for the longer run.  Unfortunately none of these high school players ever amounted to much of anything, with only Marrero ever reaching the majors and Willems retiring before ever advancing out of A-Ball.
  • 2007: The team had another haul of upper-end draft picks, thanks to their acquisition of Alfonso Soriano and his type-A free agency sending them both an extra first rounder and a supplimental first rounder.   The team took lefty Ross Detwiler from small school Missouri State with the 6th overall pick, a selection that has been lampooned based on who else was available at the time (Madison Bumgarner and Jason Heyward in particular), but literature from 2007 supports his selection at 6th overall.  After Detwiler, the nats spent their two supplimental first round picks on high school raw talents (as was Bowden’s custom), neither of which ever panned out (Josh Smoker and Michael Burgess).  This draft turned into one of the more productive in Nat history, with at least four current major leaguers picked (along with Detwiler, Stephen SouzaDerek Norris and especially 2nd round pick Jordan Zimmermann, so it is unfair to focus on the misses out of 2007.  This was easily Bowden’s best draft while in charge in Washington.
  • 2008: The year of Aaron Crow.  Crow had a strong summer and a strong spring and was the 2nd best college arm in the draft, no question.  There was apparently antagonism between Bowden and Crow’s agents from the moment that he was drafted, and the negotiations between the sides never really came together.  The signing deadline came and went with no signature, and Crow went to Indy ball before getting picked the following summer.  There was talk about how the Crow non-signing was purposeful; the Nats spent significantly less money in the draft in 2008 than they had in 2007 and the ownership group was still being labeled as “cheap.”  Either way, this lack of signing was one more bullet in the ammunition guns of opinion makers in the industry about the state of the Nationals organization under the leadership of Bowden.  This would serve to be his last draft; he was embroiled in the bonus scandal over the off-season and relinquished his job ahead of the 2009 season.
  • 2009: We all are quite familiar with the story by now; Stephen Strasburg was a laconic out-of-shape hurler in high school who barely merited a college spot, then re-made himself into the “greatest pitching prospect of all time” while at San Diego State.   Despite his reported bonus demands (he ended up with more than $15M deal) and his representation (Scott Boras), the Nats never seriously considered not selecting him with the first overall pick.  For me the big question was who the Nats were going to take at #10. I wanted another starter, and there were some significant college pitchers projected to be available at #9.  Kyle GibsonAlex White,  Tyler Maztek, Chad Jenkins and Tanner Scheppers were all left on the board to draft a Stanford reliever in Drew Storen.  Keith Law had Storen ranked as his 28th prospect, a guy who was clearly “good” but who was over-drafted by nearly 20 spots.  This had “signability pick” written all over it, a thought that was even more proven when the team drafted college senior Trevor Holder with their 3rd pick and signed him for 1/2 of slot.  Holder wasn’t even his team’s friday starter and had a 4.48 ERA.  So, the team got Strasburg and paid him significant money, and the 2008 draft misstep turned into an effective closer in Storen, so the draft wasn’t a disaster, but with a bit more money allocated (remember, this was the same year they were paying Guzman $8M to be a mediocre shortstop) the team really could have hit it out of the park.
  • 2010: After another 100+ loss season, the Nats were fortunate to have another no-brainer, consensus #1 overall pick in Bryce Harper.   But the real story of the 2010 draft was Mike Rizzo’s finally convincing the ownership group and Ted Lerner of the power of the over-slot pick.  The Nationals gave Harper a 40-man deal and a lot of guaranteed money … but they also bought two high-end high school arms out of their college commitments for 1st-2nd round money (A.J. Cole and Robbie Ray).  The Nats were quickly becoming a team that was ignoring the advice of the penurious commissioner Bud Selig, known for railing against teams and owners who ignored his “slot recommendations.”  The Lerners tried to be friends with Selig and play by the rules, only to watch other teams out-spend and out-sign them.  Remember this fact when we see the next CBA come out, assigning slot deals ahead of time and implementing draconian policies on teams that over-spend in the draft.
  • 2011: The Nats were looking at a handful of players with their #6 pick; George Springer, Sonny Gray, Taylor Jungman, Jackie Bradley, and the like.  In a pretty shocking draft-day shake-up, teams passed on former college player of the year Anthony Rendon and suddenly he fell into the Nationals’ lap.  The sliding of Rendon to the Nats was amazing; Rendon was considered a clear consensus 1-1 pick for nearly 2 seasons, and the pro track record of BA college players of the year is pretty solid.   The Nats had two extra first rounders (compensation for type-A FA Adam Dunn) and the selection of Alex Meyer with the #17 overall pick was a given; some pundits had the Nats taking him at #6 overall, so much they were enthralled with the huge right hander from Kentucky.   As with 2010, the team continued to write big checks to convince Brian GoodwinMatt Purke and Kylin Turnbull to leave school early.  The Purke pick in particular showed that the Nats were willing to spend money to get big-time players and were willing to risk the dice on injury concerns.  The Nats had no 2nd rounder (lost as compensation for Adam LaRoche but with three 1st/supp-1st rounders got plenty of cracks at top-end talent.
  • 2012:  The Nats had a mid-draft pick after their .500 record in 2011 and were focusing on arms.  By now, Rizzo’s drafting mentality has been made evident; he focuses on college players, and more specifically college arms, unless an outlier falls into his lap.  Well, the definition of a draft-day outlier fell into the Nats lap in 2012 when Lucas Giolito, a big-time prep prospect who was under consideration of being the first ever high school right handed pitcher to go 1st overall early in the process.  Giolito’s size, power and secondary offerings were the makings of a 1-1 pick, but his senior prep season was derailed by what was initially called an “elbow strain” but which turned out to really be a “small elbow ligament tear.”  Nonetheless, the Nats grabbed him, signed him for over-slot money (nearly $3M), and they had their man.  Years later, Rizzo revealed that the next guy on their draft board was St. Louis sensation Michael Wacha … a “what if” question for this team that may be asked for quite a while, given Wacha’s quick rise and overall dominance at such a young age.  The rest of the Nats draft class was entirely about saving dollars to over-pay Giolito and buy him out of his college committment (as is seen by the bonus figures and senior draftees for the rest of the first 10 rounds), and we’re already seeing the after-effects of this strategy; the team has already released 10 of its 2012 draft class after just two pro seasons, and outside of Giolito its hard to see any potential impact players out of the entire class.  The Nats may get a couple of RHP bullpen arms, but little else.
  • 2013: The team knew it didn’t have a first rounder thanks to its signing of Rafael Soriano (though to be honest, knowing that they were picking last thanks to their MLB-best record in 2012, they probably weren’t as reticent about losing that pick), and the new CBA had taken affect, meaning that the team had a very limited budget for signing players.  Their first pick wasn’t until the end of the second round, and they went with a big power college arm in Jake Johansen.  It was impossible to predict who would be available to the Nats at the 68th pick (their first pick), so the Nats draft philosophy seemed to revert to default; lots of college players, lots of college arms.  Of their first 15 selected players, just one prep player was selected (Drew Ward) and a number of their guys signed  for significantly under-slot to pay Ward and a couple of other players.
  • 2014: After a disappointing 2013 season, the team kept its first round pick in a draft that seems deep on college arms but thin in other areas (especially college hitters).  The Nats farm system, after years of drafting predominantly college arms for the past few drafts, has plenty of arms but is thin on hitters, leading some pundits to presume the Nats are looking at college bats.  But a couple of late spring elbow injuries on significant names (James Hoffman and Erick Fedde) also has other pundits thinking that the Nats will have no concerns about taking a pitcher who is known to need Tommy John surgery (given their handling of the likes of Strasburg, Solis, Zimmermann and their picking of Giolito in 2012).  Mock drafts frequently have the Nats selecting Fedde at #18.  And indeed that is who the Nats select.  A run on high-end college arms just prior to the Nats pick probably sealed their fate on taking Fedde.  They take a good balance of pitchers and hitters in the top 10 rounds, almost entirely out of the college ranks (as is their custom).  Like 2013 and 2012, they gambled on one prep player in the top 10 (this year Jakson Reetz) and bought a high-end prep prospect out of his college committment, but otherwise stayed the course drafting college players.

The following links were crucial to doing this post:

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?