Nationals Arm Race

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Ladson’s inbox 12/18/12

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Lots of loogy talk in this off-season; Burnett's a hard man to replace. Photo: masnsports.com

Another edition of mlb.com’s Nationals beat reporter Bill Ladson’s Inbox, this time from 12/18/12.

As always, I write my response before reading his, and sometimes edit questions for clarity.

Q: Who will replace Sean Burnett as the lefty specialist in the bullpen?

Q: Is there any chance of the Nationals getting J.P. Howell to fill Burnett’s spot? Do you think the club needs him?

A: The Nats 2013 Loogy right now is likely to be minor league acquiree and former franchise 1st round pick Bill Bray.  If he’s healthy, and if he makes the team.  He’s the leader in the clubhouse right now, given the real lack of left handed relief in the farm system right now.  Clicking on baseball-reference’s great franchise pitching depth chart, there’s really not a single viable option that pitched above AA still in the system (I like Patrick McCoy, who did decently in AA, but he wasn’t picked up in Rule 5, which implies to me that he’s definitely not MLB ready).  Zach Duke seems set to be the Tom Gorzelanny replacement; the long-relief/spot-start/mop-up guy, and not necessarily the one-out guy.  The team is still involved with rumors of signing J.P. Howell, and of course could still re-sign Michael Gonzalez, who did so wonderfully for is in 2012.  However, lots of teams are in on lefty specialists right now and we may get out-bid.  I’m partial to Bray; he is a Virginia guy, went to William & Mary, and is the cousin of a buddy of mine (who, when I saw him last weekend, promised to have access to tickets if Bray makes the team).  Lets cross our fingers (stated completely selfishly).

Do we “need” Howell/Gonzalez?  I don’t know if we “need” another lefty, but I’d like another lefty in case Bray isn’t ready to go.  So I’d like to see another acquisition of someone for depth.  I think the bullpen looks better with a second lefty late-innings guy.  Ladson wrote almost exactly what I just wrote, naming all the same points.

Q: When looking at the 40-man roster, could you tell me what Yunesky Maya has to offer?

A: Maya still serves as last-ditch starter help, in case of a rash of injuries at the MLB level.  Despite his poor performances in two prior MLB stints, he’d still be preferable to other career minor league veteran options we probably will have in AAA this year (thinking the likes of Roark, Broderick, or Mandel).  His salary is guaranteed; we might as well keep him around as insurance.  If you’re looking to complain about a 40-man spot being wasted, look no further than Carlos Rivero.   Ladson calls the Maya signing Mike Rizzo‘s worst, and says the same thing I do about starter insurance.

Q: Who do you think has more of an upside: Michael Morse or Adam LaRoche?

A: An oddly worded question; I’m not sure either guy truly has upside at this point in their careers.  Michael Morse is in the last year of a contract, his sub-par defense has him outside of Rizzo’s vision of a pro-defense team, and there’s no guarantee that his 31 homer performance in 2011 wasn’t a complete one-off.  Adam LaRoche is already in his decline years and any guaranteed money is considered a big risk.  The best thing to do for the team would be to get LaRoche to return on as short of a guaranteed contract as he’ll take, and to flip Morse for some farm system depth (vastly depleted in the last 14 calendar months).   But, life isn’t that simple.  LaRoche has to be thinking for himself, and knows that this is the best and last time he’ll have to earn an 8-figure guaranteed deal.  So he has to max things out.  If someone else offers him 3 guaranteed years, he just has to take it.  He’ll never get $13M/year offered to him again.  Which would leave Morse in a contract year playing an easier defensive position (1B), and hopefully being 100% healthy he puts up another 2011 season.   Ladson is a pro-LaRoche guy.

Q: Considering his last outing in the postseason against the Cardinals, is Drew Storen the Nationals’ closer entering Spring Training, or will he have to win the job?

A: One badly timed blow-up won’t cost Drew Storen his job; he earned it back after taking a back seat to Tyler Clippard all summer, and that’s how things will stand going into 2013.  Clippard really struggled down the stretch in the role, and I cannot see any spring training competition at this point.   One thing that wouldn’t surprise me would be a trade though; only one guy can close, but both Clippard and Storen are closer-quality arms.  It could be lucrative to the team in terms of prospect depth to move one or the other to a team in need of a closer (and a team that values saves).  This move may not occur until next off-season though, when Clippard’s salary expectations will be far higher than the team may be willing to stomach for a non-closer.   Ladson says he expects Storen to be 100% and to get 30-35 saves.

Q: Burnett, who was a valuable asset in the bullpen, signed a two-year deal with the Angels. Couldn’t the Nationals have matched that kind of deal?

A: Yes they could have matched the Angel’s offer for Sean Burnett; it really wasn’t that much money.  But, by saving a few million here and there suddenly you have enough to buy a front-line starter.  That’s the right way to build a team in a fiscally responsible way.  That being said, I think perhaps the team was surprised that Burnett “only” signed a 2 year deal, given Jeremy Affeldt‘s 3 year contract for more money (Burnett’s deal has a 3rd year club option).   But Rizzo belives in the same thing that I believe in; bullpen arms are a commodity, can be found for relatively little money and you can get great performance for your dollar.  Think about Gonzalez last year; he was a minor league signing mid-season, and he posted a 132 ERA+ for us in 35 2/3 innings.  I think Bray could absolutely be this year’s version of Gonzalez.  Ladson has a good point: he thinks the Nats were slightly scared off by Burnett’s off -season elbow surgery and didn’t want to guarantee 2 years.

Q: Johnson’s favoritism drives me crazy, and I’m weary of reading about him trying to coax LaRoche into signing. Doesn’t favoritism bother the rest of the team, perhaps cause discord? And does the ballclub truly believe LaRoche can achieve the same numbers next year? I am dubious.

A: A great question; I’ve said in the past that Davey Johnson‘s overt recruiting of LaRoche in the media has to be grating to Morse.  If LaRoche signs elsewhere, I would absolutely believe there may be some discord in the clubhouse between Morse and Johnson that will need to be addressed.  Other readers on this blog don’t necessarily believe this is the case, saying that Morse has to know that “its a business.”  But how would you feel if your boss was overtly recruiting your replacement?  I’d be pissed.  Can LaRoche match his 2012 numbers in 2013?  Sure.  The odds are against him though.  Its more likely to expect declines in production natural with his advancing age.  Ladson says the players love Johnson and would never question him, but didn’t even mention Morse’s name.

Q: Do you think Ian Desmond can pull off another incredible year in 2013?

A: Sure!  Do I think Ian Desmond could also regress at the plate to his pre 2012 numbers?  Yes I do.  I really have no idea what to expect out of guys like Desmond and Roger Bernadina, who both had career years and significantly improved their offense over their career norms.  Are these one-time improvements?  Meanwhile, a guy like Danny Espinosa is in the reverse situation; he’s regressing year to year, and needs to make a leap like Desmond made.  Predictions?   I think all three players stay roughly where they are, Espinosa starts losing ABs against lefties to Lombardozzi, and Rendon starts to force the team’s hand by tearing up AAA in early 2013.   Ladson is really pro-Desmond, saying that he’ll go down as one of the great short-stops in baseball.  That’s heavy praise.

Duke, Bray signings: excellent, under the radar moves for Rizzo

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Zach Duke seems an easy one-for-one replacement for Tom Gorzelanny. Photo AP Photo/Jeff Roberson via rr.com

It was clear that the Nats stood to lose all three of their left-handed relievers this off-season, either by free agency (Sean Burnett, Michael Gonzalez) or by salary-driven non-tenders (Tom Gorzelanny).  And it also became pretty clear that the price for quality left-handed relief is on the rise, on the backs of Jeremy Affeldt‘s 3yr/$18M deal to remain with San Francisco.  The Nats have all-but-announced that Burnett is going to be too expensive for them as a result.  Furthermore, the Nats farm system faces a specific lack of quality left-handed reliever options in the upper minors (2012 Nats farmhands Atahualpa Severino having been DFA’d off the 40-man roster in 2012, Corey VanAllen posting a 6+ ERA in 2012, and Patrick McCoy only having reached AA.  Plus both Severino and VanAllen are minor league free agents to boot), so the team clearly was on the market for FA lefty relief.

Mike Rizzo took two nice steps towards rebuilding this lefty reliever depth with the 12/3/12 signings of Zach Duke and Bill Bray to one year deals.  Duke salvaged his career in 2012 by putting in a 15-5 season in AAA starting, then providing decent (albeit generally low-leverage) relief for the big club in September.  He signs a major league deal, significant because he has 6+ years of service time and thus cannot be sent back to AAA without consent; clearly Duke is meant to be in the bullpen in 2013.  He seems to be a perfect like-for-like replacement for Gorzelanny, a lefty ex-starter who has the flexibility to pitch anywhere from one-batter to 5 innings as needed.  Its tough to draw a ton of conclusions from Duke’s 13 2/3 September innings (short sample sizes), but his numbers were great (1.32 ERA, 1.098 whip and 10/4 k/bb in those innings).  I don’t think I like Duke as much as Gorzelanny, but at the likely price (terms were not announced but I’d be shocked if this was for much more than a $1.5M deal) compared to what Gorzelanny likely makes in arbitration ($3M or more) this represents a good bit of business.

Meanwhile, re-obtaining Bill Bray returns a special player to the fold; Bray was the franchise’ #1 draft pick in 2004.  He’s a local kid (grew up in Virginia Beach, went to William and Mary, and he’s the cousin of a buddy of mine.  Apologies for the name dropping :-) ), and he represents a pretty good gamble by the team.  His numbers with Cincinnati are very up-and-down, but when he’s on, he’s good.  Signing Bray on a minor league deal allows him to compete for the 2nd lefty spot in the bullpen, but also gives the team 40-man roster flexibility to stash him in AAA to start the year if he’s still not recovered from his 2012 injuries (he missed most of 2012 after two separate muscle strain issues).  Or, if he’s looking like he’s in a 5.00 ERA form versus a 2.90 ERA form, there’s no damage in letting him work out kinks in Syracuse.  I like this move a lot.

Two good pieces of business to start the Winter Meetings for Rizzo.

As a side note, the Adam Kilgore article in the Post this morning reports a couple of interesting points:

  • The Nats plan on working Duke out as a starter this coming spring.  Now, as mentioned above Duke cannot be optioned to the minors by virtue of his service time, so I’m hoping that this move is merely as insurance against a spring training injury to one of the rotation members.  I’m not worried about Duke’s ability to adapt to a drop to the bullpen though; he did so admirably enough in September of last  year after starting in Syracuse the whole summer.
  • Christian Garcia is once again reported as “taking on a starter’s workload” in 2013 Spring Training.  I had an email chat with Luke Erickson about this topic and may turn it into an opinion piece.  What do we make of Garcia’s constantly reported conversion to being a starter?

Nats Arbitration Decisions; my predictions

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Tyler Clippard faces what could be a very interesting arbitration case this offseason. Photo Jonathan Newton/wp.com

Once the dust settled on this year’s Super-2 cutoff (and we discovered that Drew Storen will be arbitration eligible this year while Ryan Perry will not), the Nats will have no less than TEN arbitration-eligible players this off-season, setting the stage for some non-tender decisions, some possible contract extensions, and (hopefully not) some arbitration cases.  The Non-tender deadline isn’t until November 30th, but its never too soon to talk about what the team may do.

Here’s the 10 players eligible, a discussion as to what kind of salary they may obtain and whether or not the team will even tender a contract.  Note: the salary estimates are from mlbtraderumors Matt Swartz‘s arbitration projections model, with my own thoughts adjusting up or down based on opinion and noted as such).  Arbitration salaries essentially try to project the full FA value of a player and then award 40%/60%/80% of that FA salary in each of the three typical arbitration years.  For guys getting a 4th, I generally assume they’re getting nearly 100% of their FA value in the last year.

Locks to get a Contract Tender

  • Ian Desmond. 1st year Eligible/$3.2M estimate: Breakout season in 2012 will earn him plenty of dollars in his first and subsequent arbitration cases.  $3.2M equates to nearly a $10M/year full FA value, probably fair for now but could escalate if Desmond continues to provide Gold Glove calibre defense to go along with middle-of-the-order power.  It may be slightly early to think about a longer-term contract extension for Desmond; I’d want to wait and see if his 2012 production continues into 2013.  Remember; he’s just one year removed from a time when most Nats fans wanted him replaced.
  • Drew Storen: 1st year Eligible/$1.7M estimate: Storen will get a 4th year of eligiblity by virtue of a quick call-up after getting drafted.  $1.7 over 4 arb years equates roughly to a FA value of $7M/year, which seems a bit low for a good closer.  I’d guess Storen could get slightly more money, though the team probably argues that his injuries in 2012 prevented him from giving full value, and is probably why he’s estimated at $1.7 instead of nearer to the $4M that Chad Cordero got his first arb year with this team.  Rizzo has dangled Storen in trade talks in the past, but seems likely to keep him (at the possible expense of Clippard) for the coming season.
  • Craig Stammen: 1st year Eligible/$900k estimate: Another super-2 guy who was incredibly valuable to the team this year.  I’d guess he’ll get more than 900k despite his role as a middle reliever, since 900k is barely more than the typical veteran minimum (which is roughly $800k, what Mark DeRosa made in 2012).  Though, 900k equates to roughly a $3.5M FA value, which seems high for the kind of middle relief right-hander that are a dime a dozen in this league.  I’d guess Stammen is the right kind of guy for the team to buy out a couple of arbitration years, much as they did with Sean Burnett a couple years ago.   But, being a fungible middle-relief arm, don’t look for anything other than a 2 year deal so the team is protected in case of injury.
  • Jordan Zimmermann: 2nd year eligible, $4.9M estimate: Another super-2 guy who will get a 4th year of arbitration, this estimate also seems low considering the season that Zimmerman just put in.  It also roughly equates his FA value at roughly $10M a year, which I’d guess is also undervaluing Zimmermann.  Ask yourself; if he was on the open market, you’d have to think he’s getting more than $10M/year (point of comparison: Kyle Lohse turned down a 13.3M qualifying option and may get 4/60; who would you rather have?)
  • Tyler Clippard: 2nd year eligible, $4.6M estimate: I see this estimate as high frankly, as being too much of a raise over his 2012 salary of $1.625 despite his being the closer most this year.  Clippard said it himself; its better to be the closer, get the saves and get the salary.  But $4.6M for a setup guy is way too hefty.  If Clippard comes in this high with his demand, look for an ugly arbitration hearing.  Honestly, I could see Clippard being a trade candidate and making this arbitration decision someone else’s headache, and the team goes into 2013 with Storen firmly entrenched as the closer with the likes of Mattheus, Garcia and Henry Rodriguez vying for the 8th inning role.
  • Ross Detwiler: 1st year eligible, $2.2M estimate: This seems right in line with what Jordan Zimmermann got last year ($2.3M in his first eligible year).  A successful young starter going through this process the first time.
  • Roger Bernadina: 1st year eligible, $1.1M estimate: A year ago I thought Bernadina was going to get DFA’d at the end of spring training.  Now I wonder if he’s got enough value to be flipped in trade after a standout season for this team as its 4th outfielder.  $1.1m is very reasonable for a 4th outfielder with his defensive skills, so don’t be surprised to see Bernadina remain in this role with the team for several years.

Most likely Non-Tender candidates

  • Jesus Flores: 4th year eligible, $1.2M estimate.  Flores represents an interesting test case.  Clearly he no longer has a 25-man catcher spot, having fallen behind both Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki on the depth chart.  The team also has shown itself to have decent rising catcher depth in the likes of Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano.  And Flores really regressed this year both offensively and defensively, so much so that the team had to go out and acquire Suzuki late in the season.   So I completely understand those that think that Flores is a non-tender candidate.  BUT, you don’t just cut loose valuable commodities, and a healthy catcher who can serve as a backup in the majors is still worth keeping.  That being said (as I reported in an earlier post), Flores seems to have achieved 5 service years, meaning that despite his option availability he’d have to agree to be assigned to AAA.  Which means his flexibility is completely compromised for this team in 2013.  The only remaining reason to sign him would be as insurance in case Suzuki or Ramos get hurt in spring training.  If he doesn’t get traded in the next two weeks, look for a non-tender.
  • Tom Gorzelanny: 4th year eligible, $2.8M estimate.  I’m not sure I agree with the MLBtraderumor estimate here, because the likelihood of players getting pay DECREASES in arbitration is pretty slim.  Its not like Gorzelanny posted a 6.00 ERA in 2012 after all.  Gorzelanny made $3M in 2012, where he predominantly served as our long-man/mop-up guy out of the pen.   The question the team has to ask itself is this; is $3M too expensive for the last guy out of the pen?  I believe it is, and thus I believe Gorzelanny is destined to get non-tendered.  I believe the team likes him but his salary isn’t matching up to his role any longer, so I see him being forced to take a significant salary cut if he wanted to stay here.  Were I the Nationals, I’d rather take a shot at a MLB-minimum guy (or even a rule-5 guy) in that mop-up role.  The only thing that gives me pause in declaring that the team is ready to cut ties with a lefty reliever is the apparent sky-high cost of lefty relievers on the market; Jeremy Affeldt just signed a 3 year $18M deal to stay with San Francisco.  Would this contract convince the Nats management that perhaps Gorzelanny is a player worth hanging on to?
  • John Lannan: 3rd year eligible, $5M estimate.  There are two schools of thought with Lannan in the Natmosphere right now.  One group believes that the team will let Edwin Jackson walk, Lannan will naturally take his place as the 5th starter and the team won’t pursue any starter talent in trade or in free agency.  The other school of thought (and the one to which I subscribe to) states that Mike Rizzo values power arms and doesn’t rate Lannan at all, that $5M (which I think is a low estimate if he were to actually reach arbitration) is far too expensive for a soft-tossing 5th starter, and that the team will be actively searching for a 5th power arm to replace Jackson in the rotation.  I think the team would rather take that $5M+ and use it to pay an acquisition versus continuing to fund Lannan’s sub 100 ERA+ exploits.  This opinion ignores the rising cost of lefty starters, and the relative dearth of quality starts on the FA market, so perhaps the Nats hang on to him one more year.

Having so many arbitration eligible guys means that the Nats payroll will take a significant hit.  Assuming that the team tenders the above 8 players (including Flores), here’s what the payroll implication will be:

Player 2011 salary 2012 estimate
Desmond $512,500 $3,200,000
Storen $498,750 $1,700,000
Stammen $485,000 $900,000
Zimmermann $2,300,000 $4,900,000
Clippard $1,650,000 $4,600,000
Detwiler $485,000 $2,200,000
Bernadina $493,500 $1,100,000
Flores $815,000 $1,200,000
subttl $7,239,750 $19,800,000
Gorzelanny $3,000,000 $2,800,000
Lannan $5,000,000 $5,000,000

The team needs to plan on paying more than twice it did in 2013 for the services of the top 8 arbitration eligible players in 2012.  Most of that money can be made up by non-tendering both Gorzelanny and Lannan … except that those players would need to then be replaced on the roster.   Still, getting these 8 players for less than $20M a year while the Yankees owe Alex Rodriguez $28M for 2013 alone sort of puts things in context.  It is a good problem to have, having to pay your arbitration-eligible stars more and more each year.

Setting the Market for Sean Burnett

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The price of lefty relievers like Sean Burnett has gone up. Photo Winslow Townson/Getty images via bleacherreport.com

Word came down yesterday that the Giants have re-signed their own lefty specialist Jeremy Affeldt to an expected 3 year, $18M deal.

No wonder Sean Burnett declined his side of the 2013 mutual option (for $3.5M) he had in his last contract.  Because clearly, if Affeldt is getting a $6M AAV contract at the age of 33 after a 3 year stint with San Francisco in which he posted a 3.09 ERA, 1.32 whip and a 117 ERA+ over 175 IP in 187 games, then Burnett should be in line for even more.

Burnett’s numbers over the last 3 years:  a 2.76 ERA, 1.231 whip, 144 ERA+ and throwing 176 1/3 innings.  And he’s only 29.

So, if Burnett is younger, has better numbers across the board in nearly identical IPs but throwing in much more of a hitters park than Affeldt does in San Francisco, what can we expect for Burnett’s contract demands now?  10% more than what Affeldt got?  20% more?  And, more importantly, will the Nats match it and spend $6-$7M/year on a left-handed specialist?

Even more to the point, if this is the market for relievers … perhaps this team should think twice before non-tendering someone like Tom Gorzelanny, who may be a bargain at something close to his 2012 $3M/year salary.

In any case, I think one thing is clear; there’s going to be some serious money spent this off-season on players that one may not think are really that worth it.  Will the Nationals jump in and spend the money they’ll need to in order to compete?

Written by Todd Boss

November 13th, 2012 at 9:35 am

Washington/MLB Pitching Staff Year in Review; 2012

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The Nats staff was led start to finish by 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez, even if Strasburg was the lead story all year. Photo Joy Absalon/US Presswire via usatoday.com

This is the final post in a series of posts reviewing the Nats pitching staffs at various levels, and has been about 5 weeks in the making.  Since the minor league seasons end September 1st, all the minor league versions have already been posted.  Here’s links for the farm system: AAA is hereAA is hereHigh-A is hereLow-A is hereShort-A is hereGCL is here. Tomorrow I’ll post the organization-wide far-too-early predictions for who will be at what level (and in what role) in 2013, summarizing all of the “Outlook for Next year” points for every pitcher in the system.

Washington starters.  The rotation started the season with Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson and Detwiler.  These 5 starters ended up making 150 of our 162 starts, a number that could have risen to somewhere in the 159-160 range had Strasburg not been shut-down and had the team resisted the Wang experiment.  This starter consistency is a huge part of why Washington was so successful this year.  Lets review each pitcher’s season:

  • Stephen Strasburg:  Somewhat lost in the season-long soap opera of “Shutdown-Gate” was the excellent return that Strasburg had.  Final season stats:  15-6, 3.16 ERA and 1.155 whip in 159 1/3 innings, good for a 125 ERA+.   His FIP and xFIP were 2.82/2.81 respectively, meaning his ERA was slightly unflattering on the season.  He dialed back his fastball a little bit as compared to the past two seasons, but can still throw a 95mph 2-seamer and an 88.7mph change-up with 8 inches of horizontal break, leading him to an 11.1 K/9 rate (which would have led the NL by nearly 2 K’s per 9 had he qualified).  Just a few stats for you in case you forgot just how awesome Strasburg can be.   He tired towards the end of the season (4.50 ERA in his last 5 starts combined, including a couple of downright ugly outings) and the shut-down probably came at just the right time.  Yes its too bad we don’t have him for the playoffs; we just have to hope this was the right decision and hope the team continues to make the playoffs. Outlook for next season: Washington’s 2013 opening day starter.
  • Gio Gonzalez came over in the much maligned trade in the off-season and promptly dropped his bb/9, increased his K/9 rates, dropped his ERA and finished the year leading the league in wins.  Final 2012 line: 21-9, 2.89 ERA, 1.129 whip.  He led the league (among qualifiers) in K/9.  He led the league in terms of fewest home-runs allowed.  He should get some consideration for the Cy Young (I’m predicting he comes in 3rd).  Just an all around fantastic debut for Gonzalez in Washington.  His goal in 2013 should be to improve on his post-season performances.  Outlook for next season: same as this year: Robin to Strasburg’s Batman.  Washington #2 starter.
  • Jordan Zimmermann toiled in the background of Washington’s two more well known aces and put up a season that had him being mentioned in Cy Young talks mid season.  Final numbers: 12-8, 2.94 ERA, 1.17 whip.  Some of his ancillary numbers were slightly worse in 2012 than in 2011 (his BB/9, his fip and xfip and his BABIP all trended the wrong way) and he seemed to drift on the mound in the latter part of the season.  It is perhaps explained by his increased workload two years removed from Tommy John surgery, or perhaps just the randomness that baseball is known for.  Either way, Zimmermann is tied to the club for at least 3 more seasons and forms the core of one of the best rotations in baseball.  Outlook for next season: same as 2012: #3 starter and underrated Matt Cain-esque performances for years to some.
  • Edwin Jackson was the man that Mike Rizzo wanted, and he got him, surprisingly signing a one-year deal for 2012 in the face of other multiple year offers and sliding into the Nats #4 starter role (despite being its highest paid pitcher).  Jackson’s military background and frequent moves seem to have led to his itinerant baseball career: he’s now pitched for 7 teams in 10 seasons.  The Nats got pretty much what was expected out of Jackson in 2012: hard-throwing MLB average production with flashes of brilliance (a 2-hit shutout against Cincinnati in April) and flashes of awfullness (8 earned runs given up in just 1 1/3 innings in St. Louis in September), and a .500 record inbetween.  Final year stats: 10-11, 4.03 ERA and a 1.218 whip.  Jackson switched agents this season, possibly indicating a disagreement over the way that Scott Boras has been handling his affairs, and seems set to finally cash in on his stability and fastball in a very weak starter market this off-season.  Which is what makes the team’s decision to NOT give him a Qualifying Offer this past week slightly curious; perhaps the team was worried that Jackson, having lived on year-to-year deals and seemingly comfortable gambling his long-term financial future by accepting these one-year deals, would have just taken them up on the $13.3M offer (it representing a nice raise from 2012′s $11M) and suddenly the Nats would be “stuck” with a guy they didn’t want.  That’s the only way I read the tea-leaves here.  Other than that, perhaps it just wouldn’t play well in the locker room to have the team’s highest paid pitcher as its 5th starter (though, that didn’t hurt the San Francisco Giants much as they won two of the last three World Series in the same boat).  Outlook for next season: pitching somewhere else.
  • Ross Detwiler surprisingly won the #5 starter job out of spring training, struggled in May, leading to his being replaced in the rotation by eternal experiment Chien-Ming Wang, then playing the good soldier and waiting out Wang’s inevitable injury relapse to regain his starting spot and keep it the rest of the way.  He pitched relatively effectively most of the season, resulting in a 10-8 record with a 3.40 ERA and 1.223 whip in 164 1/3 total innings.  Detwiler, after years of ineffectiveness and injury-prone disappointment, seemed to finally put things together for the team in 2012.  Unfortunately, a ridiculous 2007 call-up from Jim Bowden pre-maturely is forcing the Nats hand on Detwiler in terms of options status (he’s out of them) and arbitration pay (he’s a first time arbitration eligible player perhaps a couple seasons before he needed to be).  Nonetheless, even his escalating pay for next year will make him a bargain if he produces at this level again.  And we havn’t even mentioned the fact that he was the SOLE nats starter who redeemed himself in the post-season, a point that won’t be forgotten in subsequent years.  Outlook for next season: firmly entrenched as the #4 starter, pending any major subsequent FA or trade acquisitions.

Other guys who got spot starts here and there (non-rehab):

  • Chien-Ming Wang suffered a fortuitiously timed “injury” at the end of spring training and spent the first 6 weeks pitching in the minors on “rehab.”  He was recalled, replaced Detwiler in the rotation and gave the team four increasingly awful starts before the team realized that Detwiler was the solution all-along.  Wang hung around long enough to prove he was incapable of pitching out of the bullpen, had another injury, and spent the next two months touring Washington’s minor league affiliates (Wang ended up making no less than 15 minor league starts this year, more starts than he had major league appearances) before getting recalled for a few late-season outings.  I think it is safe to say that the Wang experiment, after 3 years, $7M in pay and probably nearly that much in airfare taking Wang to-and-from his various rehab assignments, is officially over in Washington.  Outlook for next season: Minor League Free Agent with another organization.
  • John Lannan was Washington’s starter insurance policy this year, surprisingly getting beat out for the #5 starter job in spring training (this, two years removed from being the Nats opening Day starter) and then spending most of the year pitching ineffectively in Syracuse.  Lannan made two double-header starts during the season and then four “replacing Strasburg” starts in September, finishing up with a 4-1 record, a 4.13 ERA and a 97 ERA+ for the year, numbers slightly lower than his career averages but pretty typical for Lannan.  Lannan is who he is; a softer-tossing lefty with a clean medical record (the only time I believe he’s ever missed was in 2010 when his elbow was sore; he never went on the DL and only missed one start).  Lannan just doesn’t seem to be Rizzo’s kind of starter, and the rotation will undoubtedly be weaker just replacing Jackson one-for-one with Lannan.  Plus, Lannan’s arbitration cost will certainly be north of his 2012 $5M pay, which virtually guarantees that Lannan will be non-tendered on or before November 30th of 2012.  Lannan stated publically he wanted to be traded when he was demoted in April, and his non-tender opens a clean path for him to sell his wares to another organization that would guarantee him a rotation spot.  Outlook for next season: I believe Lannan’s time in Washington is done; look for him to sign a 1yr, $3M offer to be a back-of-the-rotation starter on a rebuilding team (Houston, Kansas City, Chicago perhaps).
  • Tom Gorzelanny got a spot start the last week of the season to save Gio Gonzalez’s arm once the Nats clinched the NL East.  We’ll talk about Gorzelanny in the reliever section.

Washington Relievers: taking a look at the relief corps at the end of the season.  We’ll review from the back of the rotation “forward,” starting with the closers and ending with the mop-up guys.

  • Drew Storen missed the first 3 1/2 months of the season from surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow (which may or may not be related to his inverted-W mechanics, a tease on a future blog post on the topic…).  Upon his return, he patiently waited for his chance while roommate Clippard struggled in the closer role and entered the post-season as the established closer.  We all know what happened in Game 5 of the NLDS unfortunately, but a 4-run blow-up looks like an aberration for Storen’s season in general: a 2.37 ERA and sub 1.00 whip in 30 1/3 mostly high-leverage innings.  His achieving super-2 status is worrisome for the team in perhaps 2015 when his salary has escalated, but for 2013, he will remain a relative bargain in the estimated $1.7-2M range.  Outlook for Next Season: unlike in previous seasons, I think Storen’s injury makes him less likely to be traded; teams would want to see a full injury free season.  He remains with the team as the established closer heading into 2013.
  • Tyler Clippard grabbed the reigns of the closer job after others failed to do so and stuck with it most of the season, collecting 32 saves in 37 save opportunities.  However, two losses and a bad blown save in September ballooned his ERA a full point in just 3 weeks and resulted with Clippard reverting to his 2011 role as 8th inning specialist.  He gave up a critical solo home run in the fateful game 5 NLDS loss but otherwise looked decent in the post-season.  The big decision the team now faces with Clippard is a large potential arbitration award; he will argue that he should be paid like a closer and will point at 32 saves as evidence that he’s a closer-quality player.  MLBtraderumors estimates Clippard’s salary rising from 1.625M to $4.6M on the strength of his season.  I suspect the team will return a far lower value and there could be an ugly arbitration hearing as a result.  Clippard’s decline in form from 2011 also cost him some trade value, though the Nats could still make the argument that he’s a closer-quality guy and look to move him to a team needing a closer.  Of course, that being said he’s an incredibly valuable member of this bullpen, a big reason the team won 98 games, and there’s no urgency to move him unless offered something great. Outlook for next season: Back in the 8th inning role, barring a surprise trade.
  • Ryan Mattheus‘s first full season with the club resulted in an excellent find for the bullpen, providing great RHP middle-relief in the 6th and 7th innings.  Final results: a 2.85 ERA, 1.146 whip and a 139 ERA+ in 66 1/3 innings.   I think Davey Johnson will be rueing the decision not to use Mattheus in the NLDS game 5 middle-relief situation for the entirey of the off-season.  Outlook for next season: firmly entrenched in the MLB bullpen.
  • Craig Stammen‘s conversion from 4-A starter to excellent middle reliever is complete; his 169 ERA+ showing in 88 1/3 2012 innings was fantastic.  As with a number of the Nats prominent bullpen arms, Stammen’s arbitration eligiblity may force the team’s hand at some point, but he seems set for a reasonable pay increase in 2013.  Outlook for next season: also firmly entrenched in the MLB bullpen.
  • Sean Burnett rebounded dramatically in 2012, returning to his excellent 2010 numbers and was an effective middle-to-late innings lefty reliever for the team.  2012 numbers: 2.38 ERA, 1.235 whip and a 167 ERA+ figure in 56 2/3 innings.  Burnett pitched out his contract year as best as could be expected, and subsequently declined his side of a mutual option for 2013.  This was an expected move; Burnett is arguably the best or 2nd best lefty reliever on the FA market (along with Jeremy Affeldt) and should look to cash in.  Will the Nats match his price on the open market or will they look elsewhere for solutions?  The team really doesn’t have much in the way of quality lefty relievers in either AAA or AA and face losing both Burnett and Michael Gonzalez this off-season.  Outlook for next season: Washington re-signs Burnett to a 3 year deal, possibly overpaying him but ensuring he remains with the team.
  • Mike Gonzalez was on the street in May, signed a minor league FA deal and ended up giving the Nats nearly a full season of high-quality lefty relief.  What a great signing.  Final 2012 numbers: in 35 2/3 innings he had a 3.03 ERA, greater than a K/inning, and a .179 BAA versus lefties.  I think it is safe to say Gonzalez made himself some money this season; apparently 10 teams have already inquired about his services.  Outlook for next season: Washington backs out of a FA bidding war for the 34-yr old and he signs a 2  year deal elsewhere.
  • Tom Gorzelanny served as the long-man/mop up guy for the year and continued his trend of excellent relief appearances (as compared to his numbers as a starter) in 2012.  He gave the team 72 innings, posted a 2.88 ERA and was constantly available for spot starts if needed.  The problem with Gorzelanny is the same problem the team probably will have with Lannan; he’s going to command more in arbitration than the team wants to pay.  Gorzelanny made $3M in 2012 and clearly will earn a raise after his 138 ERA+ season.  However, you just cannot pay mop-up guys that kind of money.  Look for the team to non-tender Gorzelanny on or before November 30th.  From there, once he hits the open market anything could happen, but teams know he’s no longer a starter.  Outlook for next season: Washington brings him back on a contract of similar value to the one he played under this year.
  • Henry Rodriguez continued his Jeckyl-and-Hyde career with this team, mostly on the “Hyde” side in 2012, pitching 29 1/3 mostly awful innings before hitting the DL to remove bone spurs from his elbow in August.  His injury report for 2012 is all over the road; he slammed his fingers in a bathroom door, then subsequently hit the 15-day DL for a strain in that same hand, then hurt his back (which is why he was on the 15- and then 60-day DL), then finally had the elbow procedure at the end of August.  Was his performance all related to his various maladies this year?  Possibly.  But it is safe to say that my patience has run out with H-Rod, and possibly management’s has as well.  He’s out of options and faces the competition of a slew of high-performing right-handers with great stuff and better control for the likely 5 bullpen spots in 2013.  Outlook for next season: Rodriguez fails to make the MLB bullpen out of spring training, gets stashed on the DL again, and eventually gets DFA’d as he shows a Steve Dalkowski inability to find the plate.

Other Relievers who appeared for the Nats in 2012

  • Brad Lidge signed a 1yr $1M deal in the off-season which I thought was a steal.  However, the 35-yr old wasn’t able to hold onto either the closer job or a bullpen job in general after posting a 9.64 ERA in his first 11 appearances.  Lidge was released in late June and (as far as I can tell) did not get picked up by another team.  Outlook for next season: Likely out of baseball and facing retirement.
  • Christian Garcia blew through the minors, earned a 9/1 call up after years of injury issues and pitched well enough to earn the 8th bullpen spot on the post-season roster.  That’s quite a rise from where Garcia was in July 2011, when the Nationals signed him as a minor league free agent after the Yankees gave up on the once electrifying prospect.   He threw well enough in his short MLB stint that the team has made noise about converting him back to a starter.  While I’d love to see Garcia’s stuff in a starting role, the odds of him converting back successfully are slim; he has twice had elbow surgery (2009 and 2010) and had an additional knee issue before that.   I think the team will take the safer route and keep him as a middle-relief candidate who throws his nasty stuff.  Outlook for next season: MLB middle reliever.
  • Ryan Perry was ineffective in 7 appearances in relief and was subsequently dumped to AA and converted back to a starter.  His AA season was reviewed here: he was good in AA, but how does that translate to his 2013?  His lack of options and probable lack of a 25-man roster spot may  conspire against him unless he gets an extra option.  A commenter here claims that Perry will get a 4th option because he got to the majors so quickly.  A quick google of the rule indicates this may be the case; the rule is explained here by BaseballAmerica’s Jim Callis, and Perry, by virtue of being drafted in 2008 and then making the majors by 2009 may indeed qualify.  Lets hope so.  Outlook for next season: (assuming he gets an extra option): AAA rotation.
  • Zach Duke was awareded a 9/1 call-up after an excellent season toiling in AAA for the club.  He was a minor league FA signee and seems to have done enough to earn another shot at a major league starting job.  Just not for Washington.  Outlook for next season: MLFA with another club.

Summary

The Nats pitching staff led the league in ERA while being its 3rd youngest squad.  The 5 core starters made 150 of 162 starts and we used just 8 starters all year, a fantastic turn around from the likes of 2010 (14 different starters) or 2009 (12 different starters).  Consistency in the rotation is a huge key to success for major league teams, and the Nats experienced just that in 2012.

Tweaks are needed for 2013.  We’re potentially losing all three of the lefties in the pen.  We have two closer-quality arms but only need one.  And we’re likely looking for a 5th starter.  Our AAA and AA teams aren’t quite ready to deliver replacements, so one-year deals may be in order.  Not much else to complain about after a 98 win season.

Nats non-tender deadline decisions

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Is Gorzelanny going to be tendered? Find out today. Photo via Nats.

The next big date on the MLB offseason calendar happens today, Monday December 12th.  This is the “Non-Tender Deadline,” or the last day for teams to tender 2012 contracts to players under reserve.  In english, this means that all the Nats arbitration eligible players must be “tendered” a 2012 contract by this date or else they become immediate free agents.

Here’s a list of the Nationals that are arbitration eligible this off-season, their 2011 salary and an estimate of what they would cost for 2012 if offered arbitration.

Player Current or 2011 Contract 2011 2012 2012 guess
Clippard, Tyler 1 yr/$0.443M (11) $443,000 Arb 1 $1,700,000
Flores, Jesus 1 yr/$0.75M (11) $750,000 Arb 3 $800,000
Gorzelanny, Tom 1 yr/$2.1M (11) $2,100,000 Arb 3 $2,800,000
Lannan, John 1yr/2.75M (11) $2,750,000 Arb 2 $4,500,000
Morse, Michael 1 yr/$1.05M (11) $1,050,000 Arb 2 $3,900,000
Slaten, Doug 1 yr/$0.695M; (11) $695,000 Arb 3 $900,000
Zimmermann, Jordan 1 yr/$0.415M (11) $415,000 Arb 1 $1,800,000

Both Tyler Clippard and Jordan Zimmermann achieved “super-2″ status, meaning they’ll get a 4th arbitration year down the road.  Contrary to other reports, Roger Bernadina did NOT qualify for this super-2 status, despite being right on the borderline of service days.  The above salary guesses are partly taken from mlbtraderumors.com analysis and partly adjusted to what I think the player would really earn.

Side note on the way to estimate/guess the salaries: For those with three years of arbitration, the salary achieved is usually a representation of an eventual percent of the FA salary would be for the player, based on the arbitration year.  These percentages are usually 40% of FA value for the first year of arbitration, 60% for second and 80% for third year.  Thus, using John Lannan as an example, his first year Arbitration salary was $2.75M, meaning that his 100% FA salary value would be $6.875M/year.  After his good 2011 season though, I’m estimating his 100% value to be $7.5M/year, or exactly what we paid Jason Marquis per year, which puts his 2012 arbitration figure at the $4.5M estimate.

So, what should the Nats do with these arbitration cases?

To me, five of these seven cases are straight-forward; you absolutely tender Clippard, Flores, Lannan, Morse and Zimmerman.  MASN’s Pete Kerzel posted his thoughts on this same topic over the weekend and seemed to indicate there would be a question as to whether we would tender Flores; that’s crazy talk.  In a league where quality catchers are a scarcity and with Flores tearing up the Venezeulan Winter League right now, there’s no reason to think the team would possibly lose him.  After all, we just put a journeyman AAA catcher Jhonatan Solano on the 40-man specifically to keep HIM from being poached.  Also, I hear rumblings that Lannan may be non-tendered under the theory that he’s not providing value worth what he’s going to be paid (roughly $4.8-$4.9M); again I think that’s misguided.  He’s a solid pitcher who gives good innings from the left hand side, and he’s only been improving since he earned a spot in the rotation.  He’s never missed a start due to injury, and if not for the first half of 2010 (when he lost his way and was demoted) he’d have a sub 4.00 career ERA, a rarity in this league.  Replacing him on the open market would absolutely cost more than he’s set to earn next year.  Plus, with any decent run support (the Nats averaged only 3.6 runs/game in games when he started in 2011) he’d probably have a much better W/L record.

That leaves Gorzelanny and Slaten.  Case by case.

1. Doug Slaten.  Here’s a list of pertinent stats for Slaten’s 2011 season as the primary LOOGY out of our pen:

  • 4.41 era.
  • 2.143 whip.  That’s so ridiculously bad as to be almost laughable.  He gave up 26 hits and 9 walks in 16 1/3 innings.
  • He had a -0.1 WAR.
  • He had a .356 batting average against.
  • Opposing batters had a 1.036 OPS with him on the hill.
  • He allowed 47% of inherited runners to SCORE.  Not advance, but score.  15 of 32 runners.
  • Lastly, in lefty-lefty matchups, the whole reasons he is put into games?  Lefties hit him for this slash line: .333/.368/.639 for nifty 1.007 OPS.

He struggled with injury last year, and yes its difficult to determine how much of the above performance was due to the lingering effects of the injury.  So be it; this isn’t personal; he was awful in the role and he’s replaceable either from within (Severino, VanAllen or Smoker) or on the FA market (where there’s always an older lefty in the Ron Villone mold looking for work).  Verdict: Basically, not only should Slaten not be tendered a contract, he should have been flat out released months ago.

2. Tom Gorzelanny.  A tougher call.  The Nats traded three prospects just a year ago to acquire him (though, in fairness, none of the three guys we traded have done much to improve their prospect status; AJ Morris didn’t play any 2011 games, Graham Hicks had a 4.01 era in 14 starts while repeating low A-ball for the 3rd time, and Michael Burgess batted .225 after being demoted to high-A.  So it seems we basically got Gorzelanny for nearly nothing).  He lost his spot in our starting rotation after 15 starts in 2011, but was excellent in 15 relief appearances.  His starter/reliever splits show a 4.46 era in his 15 starts but a 2.42 era in 15 relief appearances.

I think Gorzelanny would make an excellent long-man/spot starter out of the bullpen, a role that Davey Johnson values heavily.  His flexibility to be anything from a one-out guy to a 6 inning spot starter is indeed invaluable, and his 8.2 k/9 rate from the left hand side shows that he can be a shut down pitcher,when he needs it.

So what is the problem?  His salary.  Is he set to make more than a mediocre middle reliever is worth?  He made $2.1M this year in his first arbitration year, when his salary and value was being measured as a starter.  One would have to think that he’d easily get an increase if the team tendered him (I estimated $2.8M for his 2012 salary if tendered), and it would be difficult to argue against an increase despite his failure as a starter.  So the question becomes: is $2.8M too much money for a middle reliever?   A quick glance at some of the reliever FA signings thus far gives some comparables : Jeremy Affeldt signed a 1yr/$5M contract and Javier Lopez signed a 2yr/$8.5M.   Both these guys are mostly loogies (especially Lopez) but also both had far better numbers than Gorzelanny, even just looking at his reliever splits.  Meanwhile a couple of non-closer right-handed middle relievers (Dotel, Frasor) signed deals for between $3.5 and $3.75M/year but aren’t nearly the long-man capable guys that Gorzelanny is. So perhaps a salary in the $2.8M range for Gorzelanny isn’t too bad.

Verdict: Tender him.