Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

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Nats 2018 #5 Starter competition

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Is Cole the 2018 5th starter?  Photo AP

Is Cole the 2018 5th starter? Photo AP

Interesting news on 1/11/18: Edwin Jackson has re-signed a split minor league deal  with decent compensation if he makes the major league team ($1.5M plus another $1.4M in incentives).

Lots of rumors about the team eventually buying a more established 5th starter, either on the open market or in trade.  There’s too many names still out there to even begin to discuss, from marquee 8-figure free agents (Yu Darvish) to Nats-favorite Scott Boras clients he’s likely to go over Rizzo’s head about (Jake Arrieta) to trade candidates from rebuilding teams (Tampa, Miami, Pittsburgh and their  valuable arms like Gerrit Cole, Chris Archer, though inbetween the time I started this post and published it, Cole had already been traded to the keep-getting-richer Astros).  Bur for now, we don’t have any of these guys … so we’re still projected for a fun spring training competition.

So, what does the #5 starter competition look like right now?  Basically there’s four primary candidates now in-house and signed for 2018.  Lets rank them in likely order of winning the job:

#1: A.J. Cole

I think right now Cole has the inside track, even given the Milone and Jackson signings.  Cole’s 2018 numbers were decent at the MLB level: 3-5 with a 3.81 ERA even if his periperhals were bad (5.88 fip, 1.50 whip).  His AAA numbers in 2017 were awful (5.88 ERA in 18 starts), but then again the entire Syracuse rotation was awful in 2018.  But, he did show some promise last  year and he’s out of options, so I can’t help but think that he’ll get a shot to stick on the MLB roster until he proves he’s either staying or going one last time.

#2 : Edwin Jackson:

He made an ok case for the job based on what he was able to do last  year.   No, he wasn’t awesome: in 13 starts he was 5-6 with a 5.07 ERA and even worse peripherals (5.88 FIP, 1.4 whip).  That’s about what he did for San Diego in 2016, so It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.   But he’s a known quantity, he throws hard, he never gets hurt.  He also clearly will work in the minors to get another shot at the majors and didn’t sign back up with this team on a whim, so odds are he could get stashed in Syracuse for a bit and wait out his chance.

#3 Tommy Milone: the prodigal son returns to the fold.  Initially sent away in the Gio Gonzalez trade 7 years ago, he pitched well for both Oakland and Minnesota before falling off a cliff in 2016.  His 2017 was not pretty: a combined 7.63 ERA for two different teams.  He also signed a minor league deal that I suspect may have an opt-out if he fails to make the team.  Hopefully not; he did log some AAA time in the last two seasons and may also opt to stick around.  Is it possible he returns to his career form (a 4.37 ERA and a 91 ERA+ figure)?  Maybe; he’d have to do a lot better though to make his case for t he 5th starter.

#4: Erick Fedde; our top starting pitcher prospect and sole arm in AAA or AA (or perhaps even  high-A at this point) which represents a significant draft investment (outside of Mariano Rivera Jr that is … who is already a reliever).  And he did not look ready in his debut last fall.  3 starts. 9.39 ERA … even if two of those starts were against tough competition (home to Colorado, then away vs the Cubs).  Short Sample Size, yadda-yadda, he got knocked around.  He needs more AAA time and you’d have to think he’s starting the year either in XST (if its too cold in Syracuse) or in upstate NY.


So, what about our minor league depth past these four guys?  Honestly: there’s not a ton of depth we can count on in AAA or AA.  The 40-man names are Fedde, Cole, Voth and Jefry Rodriguez.  That’s it.

Here’s a quick glance at our other minor league starters out there who are more likely to be AA or AAA fodder (in rough order of their consideration for the job/likely 2018 assignments)

AAA projected rotation (over-top of those four names above who miss out and who don’t opt out, that is):

  • Jared Long (he may or may not be a MLFA still; rosterresource.com shows him on the Nats roster but milb.com shows him as a FA): if he’s still with us, he showed two years running he was better than AA.  I’d like to see him with a long run in AAA to see if he’s a viable candidate to move up.
  • John Simms: this home grown product (2013 11th round draftee) has earned promotion after promotion and should start 2018 in AAA.  He doesn’t have shutdown stuff, but could be a sneaky candidate for spot starts.
  • Logan Darnell; this 2018 MLFA signing from Tampa had good AAA success several years running for other organizations and seems like a clear AAA arm eater for now.  Can he be more?
  • Austin Voth; two years ago looked like he could be the next Tanner Roark, but a brutal 2017 season got him demoted to AA.  He posted a 3.15 ERA in AAA in 2016; can he get back there?   If not, then he’s in clear danger of being first man off the 40-man roster if a spot is needed.
  • Greg Ross: as with Voth, the Greg Ross train got derailed in upstate New York in 2017, also earning him a demotion.  He re-signed though for 2018 to give it another shot and might start in AAA given past success in AA.

Note: at least one of these names likely gets pushed down, especially since Fedde likely isn’t winning the 5th starter job.  Jackson and Milone as veterans may have opt-outs and are not likely to stick around, but you never know.  And if Cole doesn’t make the team, he’s passing through waivers before he gets to AAA and may not make it.  So the AAA rotation will be in flux right up until 4/1/18.

AA projected rotation (on top of whoever above might get pushed down, likely Ross then Voth)

  • Wirkin Estevez had good AA numbers in 2017 (3.63 ERA in 11 starts after promotion from high-A) and re-signed a ML deal to stay with the organization.   He’s probably first AA starter for a need-based promotion.
  • Tyler Mapes missed all of 2017 after a very solid AA 2016 season; if he’s healthy, he starts here looking to repeat his 2016 performance before getting moved up.
  • Kyle McGowin; our trade bounty for Danny Espinosa has shown two years running his inability to succeed in AAA.  He likely starts in AA again in 2018 given the log-jam in Syracuse.
  • Matt Crownover had a 4.50 ERA in a full AA season; nothing to really prove he needs to move up (especially given his weak K/9 rates), so likely starts in AA again looking for a mid-season promotion.
  • Jefry Rodriguez: the newest member of the 40-man roster, Rodriguez will hope to harness his high-A success from last year at the next step up.

Nobody in AA right now who looks like he could help immediately; Rodriguez though may get some spot-start/double header duty since he’s on the 40-man and doesn’t require a corresponding move.


 

So; are you satisfied with a ST 2018 competition or do you think we need to spend money or prospects on another arm?

Keep in mind; the division is a mess, with Atlanta not really trying, Miami actively getting worse and Philadelphia making curious moves.  Only the Mets will challenge, and their big move this off-season has been to sign Adrian Gonzalez .  So we don’t need a $20M/year 5th starter.  And there’s the luxury tax considerations that keep coming up.

thoughts?

A weekend of injuries, moves and trades

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Ross down and out. Photo Getty Images via federalbaseball.com

Ross down and out.
Photo Getty Images via federalbaseball.com

As I mentioned in the comments on the previous post, I was away from computer all weekend so I missed the opportunity to comment on all the major things that went down.

So this is a clearing house of thoughts.


 

Joe Ross to undergo Tommy John; I don’t think anyone saw this coming, but then again nobody saw it coming with Stephen Strasburg either.  With Stras it seemed to be a one-pitch injury.  Ross’ pitch f/x data for his last start indicated that he was definitely off his typical velocity; compare his 90mph average on July 9th to his July 4th start, where he started routinely in the 93-94 range, before dropping off a cliff towards the end of his outing.  If I had to guess, I’d guess he might have injured his arm somewhere in the 7th inning or so of his July 4th start and tried to give it a go the next outing before his teammate Max Scherzer spotted his distress.  Ross finishes a struggle of a 2017 season where he got an amazing 10.55 runs per 27 outs of support; in 6 of his 13 starts the team scored more than 10 runs for him.  He clearly had settled down from early season issues, throwing four consecutive quality starts and again looking like perhaps the best #5 starter in the league.  Now he’s out until the all star break of next year at best, likely until September of 2018.  He’s only 24, mind  you, but this injury comes at a tough time for him; he’ll be arbitration eligible for the first time after the 2018 season, one in which he may only  make a handful of starts.  So this will cost Ross millions of dollars…. and will save the Nats at a time when they may be looking to save pennies for Bryce Harper.

Looking at the rotation for 2018; as we’ll soon find out (read on), there’s not a whole lotta help on the farm, so the Nats are probably shopping for starters this coming off-season, unless you guys think Erick Fedde will be ready for prime time next April.

In the meantime, it leads to a sticky situation in the near term yet again for this team.  They traded away all their near-to-the-majors starting depth last off season, and have had to give starts already this season to three non-rotation guys (Jacob TurnerA.J. Cole and the ill-fated Jeremy Guthrie start early on).  Well, now their starting depth in the minors is even weaker; A.J. Cole’s AAA era this year  is a nifty 6.00 and the only other 40-man roster starter (Austin Voth) is even worse; he’s pitched to a 6.38 ERA in Syracuse this year and is either doing a rehab assignment or is being outright demoted to Harrisburg as we speak.

 


 

So instead of going with an internal option, the brain trust is enlisting the help of MLFA Edwin Jackson, who eternally owes Mike Rizzo a bottle of champagne for NOT offering him a qualifying offer when he became a FA after his run-of-the-mill 2012 season for us.  The lack of the QO enabled Jackson to get a 4 year deal he never would have gotten otherwise, but cost the Nats a pick that they probably could have used … heck a junior college starter drafted towards the end of the first round in 2013 … probably would have been Sean Manaea, currently dominating for the same Oakland As who just sent us our next wave of bullpen reinforcements (more on that in a moment).  But I digress.

We plan on giving Edwin Jackson another shot in the majors, despite his giving up 11 hits and 4 walks in 5 innings for Baltimore earlier this year, despite his pitching to a 5.89 ERA in San Diego last year (where everybody looks like a Cy Young winner).   I’ll say this: if the Nats can score in double digits for Jackson the same way they did for Ross … maybe it won’t matter than his ERA sits in the 6-7 range.  It’ll look like a slow-pitch softball game.

But what choice do the Nats have?  Erick Fedde you say?  Have you seen his inconsistency in Syracuse?  Its like the Nats didn’t learn from jerking Tanner Roark around a couple years ago; Starting pitchers are creatures of habit.  They eat the same meal 2 hours before they pitch, they do the same running and lifting sessions in-between outings.  If you have a successful starter, you don’t suddenly decide he’s a middle reliever.  So it should be of no surprise that Fedde’s all over the road right now.

Jacob Turner?  Well, he’ll be around too; I’m guessing he’s option 1-B to Jackson as 1-A.  But Turner is no savior; you don’t get DFA’d and pass through waivers and accept an outright to AAA as a pitching prospect in the modern game unless the rest of the league really, really doesn’t like you.  To say there’s a lack of quality starting pitching depth in the league right now is kind of an understatement.

Who else is starting for this team in the upper minors?  Here’s the rest of the Syracuse rotation right now: Sean O’Sullivan, Jared Long, Greg Ross.  Her’es their current AAA ERAs respectively: 4.40, 5.29, 6.34.  Here’s how we acquired them, again respectively: MLFA  in May of this year, MLFA in April of last year, and again MLFA in April of last year.  So three org guys just eating up AAA innings, none of which are pitching especially well.  No wonder Luke Erickson over at www.nationalsprospects.com has given up tracking the AAA team this year.

Maybe we drop down to AA: how’s that look?  Bleak.  Taylor Hill is already demoted once this year and is closer to a release than a promotion.  Austen Williams: 6.85 ERA.  Matthew Crownover is pushing a 5.00 ERA.  They just got Wirkin Estevez off the D/L: he’s only got 26 innings of 4.10 ERA pitching above A-Ball.   Lastly there’s  John Simms, the “Ace” of Harrisburg’s staff who is pitching there for the *fourth* successive season.  He’s got solid numbers: 4-6 with a 3.57 ERA but middling K/9 rates  and some hittability; would you rather roll the dice on a grizzled veteran with more than 1700 innings on his MLB resume or go with a guy who you refuse to promote even to AAA despite the same decently solid numbers year over year?  I think you have your answer.

So lets see how it goes.  Jackson’s Syracuse numbers for 2017 are pretty nifty; 20 innings, 9 hits, 22 ks.  Oh and 10 walks; we’ll just say that last part a little more quietly and focus on the positive.  As I noted in the comments section in another blog … we’re about to see just what the difference is between AAA and the majors.


Meanwhile, after more and more ridiculousness in the late-innings of games (including a 7 run collapse late last week that nearly blew a 10-run cushion), the Nats finally made their move to bolster the bullpen (and hopefully grease the skids for a wholesale shedding of deadweight off the 40-man roster by everyone involved in the latest debacle).  Rizzo called up his best buddy Billy Beane and pulled off what I think is a pretty good trade:

  • Acquire: Sean DoolittleRyan Madsen: both mid-30s one inning guys with excellent numbers this year and neither being one-year rentals.
  • Give up: Blake TreinenJesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse

Treinen just needs a mental D/L trip; there’s nothing appreciably different with his stuff from last year (when he was good) to this year (when he has been awful).  Classic change of scenery guy who returns to his drafting team and probably has a solid rest-of-2017.  Luzardo and Neuse are good prospects but  young and several years away; perfect for what Oakland wants.  I’m bummed they’re leaving (especially Luzardo, who by all accounts has come all the way back from TJ surgery and had looked solid in his early GCL outings).  Prior to 2017, Neuse was generally about our 8th best prospect and Luzardo 12th or so.  Both have improved their rankings with their play this year, so this may look more foolish if Luzardo becomes a #2 starter in a few years.   But as they say, you have to give up stuff to get stuff.

As others noted, the Nats managed to get these two guys without giving up any of their top ranked prospects (Robles, Soto, Fedde, Kieboom), which is a huge win.


 

Crazy weekend.  Sorry I missed it in realtime.

Its Moving Day/Giolito day!

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Graduation day has arrived. Photo unk via federalbaseball.com

Graduation day has arrived. Photo unk via federalbaseball.com

There were a TON of cascading moves announced today, with multiple guys moving up in our system.  Starting at the bottom:

  • GCL: 2016 draftees and RHPs Jacob Howell and Phil Morse got bumped to Auburn after one appearance each in the GCL.
  • Auburn then sent Angelo La Bruna, Robbie Dickey and Randy Encarnacion (who probably should have been higher honestly) to Hagerstown.  This will be Dickey’s third shot at Low-A but he was clearly not touchable in Short-A (8ip, 1H 11Ks in 3 outings so far this year).
  • Hagerstown then bumped up two great hitting prospects Max Schrock, Victor Robles and Trey Lambert to Potomac.  Robles and Schrock were both all-stars and both were flatly out-hitting Low-A.  Lambert has quietly been toiling in the bullpen and had a 27/2 K/BB ratio this year.  I tell you, i’m really starting to get excited about Robles, and I think Schrock is turning into a draft day steal.
  • Potomac then bumped up Drew Ward, Andrew Stevenson, Ryan Brinley and Boone Whiting to AA.   Three of these four were all-stars this year, and Whiting was in AAA all of last year so was wasting his efforts in high-A.  Kudos for Ward to get the promotion and get his prospect career back on track, and even more kudos for Stevenson to earn such a quick promotion to AA.
  • Harrisburg then moved up Chris Bostick, Zack Collier and suddenly dominant starter Reynaldo Lopez to Syracuse (they also put Wander Suero on the TIL list to account for the four promotions).  How about the season Lopez is having?  As noted in the comments, he’s leading AA in K/9 while maintaining a 3+ K/BB ratio.
  • Syracuse’s corresponding moves were mostly bloodshed: they released Scott Sizemore, Tony Campana and RHP Juan Gutierrez to make room.  They also promoted Rafael Martin for at least the day.  Lopez isn’t going to be pitching out of the bullpen though, so I’d imagine that Jared Long will get demoted to fill the vacated spot in AA.

Why is there an extra spot in AA’s rotation?

Because Lucas Giolito got called up!  Mid Monday the announcement came out; he’s making the start on Tuesday.  Get your DVRs ready!  I won’t go into Giolito too much; we all know what he’s supposed to be.  Question is; will he live up to the hype?


(if you want to see all the transactions organized by league, here’s the links I use):

Minor League Transaction announcement links