Nationals Arm Race

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

Archive for the ‘jeremy hellickson’ tag

Ask Collier 12/26/18 Edition

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Did the team make the right decision on Roark?  Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Did the team make the right decision on Roark? Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

MLB.com Nats beat reporter Jamal Collier gives us a holiday gift with a post-Xmas mailbag dated 12/26/18.

Here’s how I would have answered the questions he took.

Q: It Harper comes back to the Nats looking for 330/10, do the Nats go over the tax or let him walk?

A: Isn’t it obvious by now?  You let him walk.  I think this was pretty clear from two observations:

  1. Mike Rizzo has already spent his $30M AAV, and spent it quickly
  2. Mark Lerner pretty much said as much in ill-advised remarks to a reporter.

The Luxury Tax strikes yet again; the Lerner family, multi-billionaires, will not spend an additional 10-15M above some imaginary payroll number to keep one of the league’s most marketable players.   Player salaries actually FELL for the first time in two decades, as clubs in total spent less than they have since 2004.   Maybe one of these big-spending clubs will break the bank and hand Bryce Harper and Scott Boras their goal; the largest contract in the history of the game.  But it sounds like its a reach, and it definitely doesn’t seem to be happening in Washington.

Collier refuses to get into hypotheticals, then notes that the Luxury tax for last year was “only” a couple million dollars.  Yeah, and only a couple of high-end draft picks, and only the reason why the club fired one of Rizzo’s most trusted advisors for absolutely screwing it up.  

—-

Q: Roark trade more about getting a LHP or the analytics told them he was on MAJOR decline year? $10M for innings eater is the going rate

A: I think the team was taking a calculated gamble that Tanner Roark‘s best years are behind him.   Despite appearances or opinions, Roark was basically a league average pitcher last year.  That’s a significant step ABOVE a replacement level/5th starter type.  But, he’s been trending down, he’s heading into his age 32 year, and the team thought it could spend his $10M better.  I don’t think lefty versus righty had anything to do with it.  Of course, they basically replaced him with an even older Anibal Sanchez, so sorry for sounding hypocritical on his age.  But while Roark struggled to even get to his 98 ERA+ figure last year … Sanchez had a late-career ephiphany that led him to being one of the top pitchers in all of baseball for the 2nd half of last year.  A better trend line in the end.

Collier agrees, that this was a gamble betting that Roark is set to regress in 2019.

Q: If the Nats go out and sign one or two back end of the rotation starters, what does that do to the development of Joe Ross and Erick Fedde? Moved to the bullpen? Sent to Triple A?

A: I’d have a hard time seeing the Nats signing a MLB-contract for another starter at this point, because Joe Ross has nothing to prove in AAA.  But Erick Fedde does.   Joe Ross has proven he can be an effective MLB starter, with his 125 ERA+ in 19 starts in 2016 as evidence.   Now he’ll be 26, with a new elbow, and looking to answer the question whether he’s back from TJ surgery.  For me, for a relatively affordable salary (1st year arb estimate of $2.5M), that’s a great gamble to go with on your 5th starter.  If he suddenly comes out in 2016 mode, 20-25% above league average

Technically both players have one minor league option left, so the team could opt to send them both to Fresno to get lit up in PCL parks and prove nothing.  I expect that for Fedde and we’ll have to take his stats with a grain of salt.

That being said, I do expect the team to sign at least one more MLFA veteran starter in the Jeremy Hellickson ilk, to go to Fresno and be some rotation insurance/catch lightning in a bottle again.

collier kind of gives a non-answer, but he does think Ross could work out of the bullpen (I don’t).

Q:  In my opinion, 2B is their biggest [remaining] priority. Any movement on that front? There are so many available as an upgrade!

A: Well, either 2B or maybe more middle relief help.  Right now the team is looking at this for each spot:

  • 2B: Howie Kendrick starter, Wilmer Difo backup, with Adrian Sanchez and Matt Reynolds as options (Sanchez has an option, Reynolds does not).
  • Middle Relief: right now you’re looking at Justin Miller/Wander Suero/Koda Glover as RHP middle relief options, and Sammy Solis/Matt Grace as lefty options.

Which one of those scares you more?  For me, probably middle relief.  Reliever performance is so variable that its hard to look at the guys who did well last year (Miller, Suero, Grace) and count on them in 2019, just like its hard to look at the guys who struggled (Glover, Solis) and just assume they’re washed up.  But, if you buy more arms, its one in, one out on the roster, so who makes way?

Collier says the team is focusing on one-year deals for one of the many 2B out there, to coincide with the expected arrival of Carter Kieboom.  Makes sense.

Q: Other than what Zimmerman and Rizzo have said publically, is there any rumblings about reworking Zim’s contract? Sentimentality aside, would it be wise for the Nats to lengthen the deal in any way?

A: Hmmm.  man tough question.  Zimmerman is owed $18M for 2019, then has a $2M buyout or another $18M year in 2020.   He’ll be 34 in 2019, 35 in 2020.

When he’s healthy,  he’s good for 25-30 homers, a .300 BA, a .500 slugging, and an OPS+ figure in the 120-130 range.  When he’s not … he misses vast chunks of the season, hits in the .250 range, and has about as many homers as a typical middle infielder.

Its notable that he *already* has a 5yr/$10M personal services contract with the team in place upon his retirement, so even if he hangs them up after playing for an other team he’s coming back here for the long haul.  So he’s going to be associated with the team for a while.

First things first: if he puts up another 120 OPS+ season in 2019 and is healthy, I think its an easy option to pick up for 2020.  From there, again if he continues to provide value I can see perhaps the team extending him on a year by year contract kinda similar to what they’ve given Matt Adams the last couple of years.  I’m sure Zimmerman would take that, given his history, his Virginia roots, the fact that he’s settled here, etc.  At some point it’ll become pretty clear its time for him to hang it up … at which point he transitions to the front office nicely with a hope of staying in management for a while.

That’s what i’m hoping for.

Collier notes that both sides want to continue the relationship, so something should get worked out.

 

2018 Non-Tender Decisions

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Roark is the big decision the team faces. Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Roark is the big decision the team faces. Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Its that time of the year as noted.  Lets get right to it.

Nats have 7 arbitration-eligible players.   Four of them are no-brainers to tender and negotiate with in Arbitration.  2019 salary guesses are MLBtraderumor estimates that are now pretty well accepted as the best analysis estimates out there.  I feel like the Nats are a bit generous and usually end up paying slightly more than their estimates, but these will work for now.

Arbitration Eligible Player2018 salary/contract2019 estimate
Rendon, Anthony1 yr/$12.3M (18)$17.6M
Turner, Trea1 yr/$0.5772M (18)$5.3M
Ross, Joe1 yr/$0.5679M (18)1.5M
Barraclough, Kyle1yr/$1.9M (18)$1.9M

Joe Ross at $1.5M could be an absolute steal and could be a factor in consideration for Tanner Roark‘s decision later on.  If Ross returns to his 2016 form for this salary we’ll be in great shape for next year’s playoff race.  Rendon and Turner are obvious players to continue with, and/or to consider some longer term contract negotiations with.  Lastly, the team just traded for Barraclough, he’s relatively affordable, and will be a key arm in the 2019 bullpen, so he’s not going anywhere.

Lets talk about the more iffy candidates:

Arbitration Eligible Player2018 salary/contract2019 estimate
Roark, Tanner1 yr/$6.475M (18)$9.8M
Taylor, Michael1 yr/$2.525M (18)$3.2M
Solis, Sammy1 yr/$0.5603M (18)$900k

First, i’ll just say this: I feel like the team is going to tender Michael A Taylor  He’s got too much value  as a defender, his projected salary in the $3.2M range is going to be better than projections for similar outfielders on the market … but he’s 27 not 33, plays Gold Glove-calibre defense and has shown some flashes of capability at the plate.  I think he makes perfect sense as a 4th outfielder.

I also don’t think i’m going out on a limb saying that its likey that Sammy Solis has thrown his last pitch for the team.  He was patently awful in 2018, couldn’t get lefties out at all, and even though his projected salary is a pittance ($900k), his big limiting factor is his lack of options.  He burned his last minor league option in 2018, so if he can’t make the team he’s gonna get DFA’d anyway.  Might as well get it out of the way now and clear the roster spot.

So, lets get to the main discussion item.  What to do with Tanner Roark?  He’s projecting to a $9.8M salary in his last year of Arbitration.  That’s a hefty sum.  He was fantastic as a starter for this team in 2014 and 2016.  He struggled when the team jerked around his role in 2015.  And the last two seasons he’s essentially been a just-slightly-worse-than-average MLB starter.  Sounds like a classic 4th starter type.  So is a 4th starter worth $9.8M?

He’s not getting any younger; he’ll be playing in his age 32 season next year.  He’s trending the wrong way; you can easily make the argument that the odds of him being more 2018 next year than 2016 are high.

So the real question is this: can you replace him in the trade market or in Free Agency and find someone comparable?   There havn’t been many signings thus far to use as a barometer for this off-season, but one stuck out in my mind; CC Sabathia.  Sabathia is older, fatter, and better.  And he signed for $8M.  All the projections for 4th/5th starter types seem to be falling in the $6M AAV range.

Unfortunately for the team; they’ve basically shredded the top of their starting pitcher prospect ranks in trades lately so they have no real options for internal replacement here.  If you non-tender Roark, then w/o additional acquisitions your 2019 Rotation is:

  • Scherzer, Strasburg, Joe Ross, Erick Fedde, and Jefry Rodriguez with Austin Voth and Kyle McGowin in AAA.

That’s two aces and 5 question marks.  TJ surgery recovery rates are now in the 80% I believe … but Ross won’t be throwing more than 160 innings or so in 2019.  Does anyone here Fedde is ready to be anything other than a spot-starter?  Same with the others.  The Nats are already looking at buying at least 2 starters on the open market (to replace Gio Gonzalez and to compete for 5th starter in a Jeremy Hellickson– type signing).  If you cut Roark loose … you have to buy another starter.  (or trade for one of course … but at this point does anyone have the stomach to part with any more top prospects?)

So if you non-tender Roark, you lose a guy who has never gotten hurt, answers the bell, eats innings and can be pretty dominant.  Isn’t that what you want in a solid 4th starter?   What are you going to get on the FA market for that price that’s better?

If it were me, i’d tender him.

Prediction: only Solis is non-tendered.

Actual tender results for 2018:  all arb-eligible players tendered.  Solis (the one we thought was in most jeopardy) negotiated a contract ahead of time.  1 yr, $850k so just slightly below MLBtraderumor’s estimate.  If he flails in spring training the Nats can cut him in mid March for just 1/6th of $850k or just $141k guaranteed.  Not a bad deal.

 


Here’s a great history of the Nats non-tender deadline decisions over the years, research I first did for last year’s post and which I’ll keep carrying forward.

  • 2018: no-one non-tendered (Roark, Taylor, Solis all candidates in one form or another).  Solis negotiated a contract pre-deadline leading to his tender.
  • 2017: No non-tender candidates; all arb-eligible players tendered contracts at the deadline.
  • 2016: we non-tendered Ben Revere, waived Aaron Barrett before having to make the NT decision, and declined Yusmeiro Petit‘s option as a way of “non-tendering” him.
  • 2015: we non-tendered Craig Stammen, but kept NT candidates Jose Lobaton and Tyler Moore (eventually trading Moore after waiving him at the end of spring training).
  • 2014: we did not non-tender anyone, though a couple weeks later traded NT candidate Ross Detwiler to Texas for two guys who never really panned out for us (Chris Bostick and Abel de los Santos).
  • 2013: we did not non-tender anyone, only Ross Ohlendorf was a candidate, and in retrospect he probably should have been NT’d since he didn’t throw a pitch for the Nationals in 2014.
  • 2012: we non-tendered three guys (Jesus FloresTom Gorzelanny, John Lannan) in the face of a huge amount of arbitration players (10).
  • 2011: we non-tendered Doug Slaten deservedly, but tendered candidate Gorzellany.
  • 2010: we non-tendered Chien-Ming WangWil Nieves, Joel Peralta.  We also outrighted 5 guys prior to the NT deadline, DFA’d two more in December, and DFA/dreleased four more guys prior to Spring training in a very busy off-season.
  • 2009: we non-tendered Scott Olsen, Mike MacDougal
  • 2008: we non-tendered Tim Redding, now the Pitching coach for our Auburn Short-A team, so I guess there was no hard feelings there :-)
  • 2007: we non-tendered Nook LoganMike O’Conner.
  • 2006: we non-tendered or declined options for Ryan Drese, Brian Lawrence, Zach Day (it might have only been Day who was officially non-tendered)
  • 2005: we non-tendered Carlos BaergaPreston WilsonJunior Spivey.

 

MLBTradeRumors FA prediction piece paints quite a rosy picture for the Nats…

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Could Keuchel look good in Nats colors too? photo via Houston Chronicle

Could Keuchel look good in Nats colors too? photo via Houston Chronicle

Baseball FA prediction pieces are, well, about worth the electrons they occupy in the interweb in terms of predictability.  But they’re off-season conversation starters, often good ones, and the first major publication of such a piece (from MLBtraderumors) seemed especially well thought out when it came to the Nats and their likely targets.  So I thought i’d pipe up.

Starting points: with the Trea Turner Super-2 fiasco and the Trevor Rosenthal signing, here’s a rough payroll figure for 2019:

  • $88M for 7 veteran players now under contract
  • $43M for the 7 arbitration eligible players we have (this assumes we re-sign everyone, including Sammy Solis and Michael Taylor and Tanner Roark even at $10M).
  • $8.75M for the remaining pre-arb players to fill out the 40-man (tangent: 26 players total $8.75M in salary outlay.  That’s less than what a 4th starter in Roark likely makes in arbitration.  While this has always been the case, I can’t help but think that this will become the defining issue of the next CBA negotiations).
  • $14.5M estimate for 2019 benefits
  • That totals $154.5M right now, leaving $51.5M or so for FA signings and moves.

So we have $51M to play with right now.  We primarily need a Starting Pitcher, a Catcher, and a 2b.  MLBtraderumors has us signing:

  • Dallas Keuchel for 4yrs/$82M for an AAV of $20.5M
  • Yasmani Grandal for 4yrs/$64M for an AAV of $16M
  • Brian Dozier, for 1yr/$10M.

So that’d be a total outlay of $46.5M on these three players, within the $51M budget but leaving precious little room for the “edge of the roster” kind of signings the team still needs (middle relief, loogy, corner infielder to platoon with Ryan Zimmerman, etc).

Its also notable that both Keuchel and Grandal would cost the Nats draft picks as Qualifying Offer extended players.  So if the team signed these two guys, they’d basically shred their 2019 draft.  Thanks to the idiocy of luxury tax management, if they signed one QO-assigned pick they’d lose their 2nd and 5th “highest picks” AND $1M from their international bonus pool.  If they signed a second QO assigned pick, they’d also give up their 3rd and 6th highest.  So, just so we’re on the same page, assuming the Nats lose Bryce Harper and sign both Keuchel and Grandal this is what their 2019 draft would look like:

  • 1st round: protected
  • 2nd round: forfeited
  • 3rd round: forfeited
  • 4th round: kept
  • post-4th round compensation pick for Harper: forfeited
  • 5th round: forfeited
  • 6th round and onwards; kept.

So we’d have just a 1st and 4th rounder, then 6th onward.  In other words … we’d be absolutely punting on the 2019 draft.

HOWEVER, here’s what your 25-man roster would look like with these 3 signings:

  • Rotation: Scherzer, Strasburg, Keuchel, Roark, Ross (with Fedde, Voth, JRodriguez as AAA backups prior to any Jeremy Hellickson-style reclamation signings)
  • Bullpen: Doolittle, Rosenthal, Barraclough, JMiller, Grace, Suero, Glober, Solis (pushing Adams, Gott, AWilliams and Cordero to AAA or to MLFA based on options issues).
  • Catching: Grandal, Kieboom with Severino/Read in competition (Severino has an options issue for 2019, complicating the situation).
  • Infield: Rendon, Turner, Dozier, Zimmerman (with Difo and Kendrick as backups)
  • Outfield: Soto, Eaton, Robles, with Taylor as a 4th outearning 2/3rds of the starting outfield.

I mean, that’s a heck of a rotation.  That’s 2 guys with Cy Youngs and a third in Strasburg who is clearly top 15 in the league.  Roark and Ross have both put up better-than-5th starter numbers.  I’d go to battle with that rotation.  The bullpen could use some bolstering, especially since Solis was so bad in 2018 and is out of options.  Kendrick backs up multiple spots when needed, Difo stays where he’s good ( a backup middle infielder).  We have a good starting C but will struggle during his off-days.

I’d be a-ok with this.

Now, lets say the team wanted to slightly vary its draft shredding.  They could replace Keuchel with Nathan Eovaldi or Charlie Morton both of whom have re-made their careers and wouldn’t have  QOs and would be cheaper.  Instead of Dozier they could go with someone like Jed Lawrie or DJ LeMahieu and get less production for less money and have a bit more for bullpen/backups.  There’s less on the Catcher market (would anyone trust Wilson Ramos and his two ACL injuries?), but there’s always the option to trade guys too.

thoughts?

 

Ask Collier: first mailbag of the 2018-19 off-season!

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The off season all revolves around Harper.  Photo via GQ Magazine

The off season all revolves around Harper. Photo via GQ Magazine

Hey there!  If its the Nat’s off-season, it must mean mail bag time.  We havn’t seen one from MLB.com beat reporter Jamal Collier in a while (what, was he busy or something? :-) but now we get one with some good discussion-generating questions.

Here’s how i’d answer the questions he took.


 

Q: As a fan of the great outfield we had at the end of the year. Are the Nationals considering trading Adam Eaton if they resign Bryce Harper?

A: Indeed, an outfield of Soto, Eaton, and Harper is pretty awesome, if (biiiiig if) all are healthy and producing at optimal levels.  And the on top of that we have a top-5 prospect in all of baseball Victor Robles who no longer can be kept in the minors.  So that’s four solid players who all would start for any team in this league on one team.  So what do we do?

Well … only one of these four guys is a Free Agent: Harper

And, only one of these guys is projected to make a ridiculous, franchise altering amount of money in free agency: Harper.

Harper has played for 7 nearly full-seasons: he has a total bWAR figure for his career is 27.4.   That’s an average of 3.9 bWAR per season.  Yes he had a monster 10 win season in his MVP season of 2015, but he’s also lost huge portions of several seasons to injury.  And that has to be part of the conversation when you consider whether you commit $200M to him for the next 7 years.

For me the answer is easy.  Juan Soto will make the MLB minimum (or near to it) next year; call it $600k.  He generated 3.0 bWAR in 116 games, which projects to a 4.1 Win season with 162 games.  I’d rather pay Soto $600k to give the team the same expected level of production as Harper would for 30-TIMES more money.   You let Harper walk, you go to war in 2019 with Soto in left, Robles in center, Eaton in right, finally have three outfields all in the “right” positions defensively, and then deal with a 4th outfielder from internal candidates.

NOW.  Letting a tranformative player like Harper go is … well its an “above the GM” decision.  Not only because of the impact on payroll, but because of his role with the team.  He’s a massively marketable star, transformative not just for the team but for the sport of professional baseball.  His $30M/year salary (or whatever he wants) is not just about payroll; you can’t put a price tag on the marketability of a player of his stature and what it means for the team.  He puts “butts in the seats.”  He is in national commercial ad campaigns.  He’s a foil (for better or for worse) across the sport.  Do you just let a guy like this walk?  They’re getting basically *nothing* back for him (a compensation pick between the 4th and 5th rounds, thanks to the criminally poor job the team did in managing the luxury cap over the last two years), so that barely factors into the discussion.

Now, lets say, for the sake of argument, that the team does re-sign Harper.  Yeah for me, if you re-sign Harper, you’re going to have to move either Eaton or Robles.  So … which do you move?   Eaton, like Harper, has been just crushed by injury the last two years, producing a fraction of his value the 3 years prior.  So even though he’s still quite affordable, trading him this off-season would be trading pretty low.  Robles is still the unknown; yeah he’s an amazing prospect, but is he going to have a Juan Soto-like 2019?  Robles can be the centerpiece of a trade that could return a significant player in an area of need for this team (mid-level Starter or quality starting Catcher).  Would you prefer to go that route?

For me; i’m on record.  I want to part ways with Harper, field a starting OF that costs less than half of a one-year Harper salary figure and allocate his projected payroll towards other areas of need.

Collier echos my concerns about trading Eaton low, but also notes that … well this is THE decision that the team faces, probably the biggest one in a decade.  We can’t know until the Harper decision is made.


Q: What’s Michael A. Taylor’s future with this team?

A: For me, despite Michael Taylorawesome 2017 season, he’s reverted back to form.  He’s a 4th outfielder.  Great defensively, poor offensively.  Can play all three OF positions, plays CF excellently.  But he still strikes out 33% of the time and cannot be trusted.  After his 2018, its not like he has real trade value, and he’s now also arbitration eligible so he’s not exactly cheap.  Is he a non-tender candidate?  Probably not, but assuming the team goes with my plan of letting Harper walk and going with a starting OF of Soto-Robles-Eaton, then for me Taylor is an ideal 4th and competes in the spring with Andrew Stevenson for that role.  He should win it, then be coupled with a corner-OF bench bat type who can play LF in a pinch.

Honestly, you learned everything you needed to know by looking at the amount of playing time Taylor got this past September once Robles came up.  Almost none.

Now, if the team reasigns Harper?  I don’t think much changes; the team moves either Eaton or Robles, still leaving Taylor as the 4th.

Collier thinks they’ll explore moving him “before his trade value falls anymore.” Uh … too late dude!


 

Q: Who are the free agent starting pitchers that Nationals will attempt to sign?

A: Taking a quick gander at the list of available starters …  there’s all kinds of interesting names.  Who knows who they may end up with.

Lets start with, what do they need?  They’re keeping Scherzer, Strasburg, Roark, and Ross.  They can either go to war with a 5th starter like Fedde or McGowin or Voth or Jefry Rodriguez, or look at free agency to improve the back end.  I’d love to get a 3rd starter-quality guy to slot in behind the big two, then hope for a better season from Roark (something closer to 2016 than 2018), and hope for Ross to come back to what we know he’s capable of.  That’s a potentially solid rotation for me.

We also might be focusing on a lefty, since Gio Gonzalez was our only lefty starter.  But I don’t think that should be a huge factor honestly.  The team needs to find the best value and availability.

I don’t see them pursuing a $20M/year guy.  Not with the amount of money already going to their two #1 starters and certainly not given the possibilty of their re-signing Harper.

So, lets think about middle-of-the road lefty veteran starters.  How about someone like a Jaime Garcia, or Hyung-Jin Ryu?

If they can’t land a lefty, there’s a slew of interesting names out there that are righties.  I like Nathan EovaldiWade Miley, Garrett Richards.

Collier hedges and says the obvious; we won’t know until they decide what they’re doing with Harper.  Yeah i get it.  He mentions that Patrick Corbin is probably out of the conversation (duh; he’ll be like the 4th most expensive player this off-season) and mentions re-upping with Jeremy Hellicksonwhich I don’t think happens b/c he pitched himself into a decent sized contract..  Its also worth mentioning; maybe the team goes the trade route, which opens up the realm of possibles to half the league’s starters if they’re willing to give up Robles or Carter Kieboom in trade.


 

Q: At what point will the Nats start looking for a more durable first baseman? Zim has averaged only 100 games a season over the last five years.

A:  Uh, the second Ryan Zimmerman isn’t guaranteed 8 figures a year?  And, by the way, what is this guy missing with the current roster construction?  We were nearly to the point of an 1980s Orioles John Lowenstein/Gary Roenecke type platoon this year between Zimmerman and the lefty hitting Matt Adams.  The team is already mitigating Zimmerna’s annual health issues with a backup.

And guess what?  They’ll do it again this off-season.  Look for the team to sign another Adams clone, someone like Lucas Duda or Steve Pearce or Pedro Alvarez.  Heck, maybe they’ll re-sign Adams.

Collier basically says the same thing I did.


Q: Will Riz let Difo and Kieboom fight it out for 2b in spring training or will he look for a veteran 2b, using Kendrick in a super utility role?

A: The question probably should have read: “Wil Rizzo let Difo and Howie Kendrick fight it out…”  Because Kieboom aint’ making this team in 2019.  For one, he’s never played 2B professionally.  Not that its a heavy lift going from SS to 2B (it isn’t) .. but he’s also just 60-some games removed from A-Ball.  Kieboom needs to go from the AFL back to AA and return his OPS figures back to the .880 level before even being considered for AAA.

Honestly, I think the team goes with Kendrick (assuming he’s recovered from his bad achilles injury) as the starter, with Difo as the utility guy.  Thanks to Kendrick’s injury and Daniel Murphy‘s prolonged recovery, Difo was essentially a starter this year.  And he did not impress, his average dropping 40 points from where it was last year.  I think that cements his status as a backup utility infielder who can cover middle infield positions in a pinch.  I’m glad we have someone on the bench who can at least hit at a 75 OPS+ figure; lets not push it.

That being said, for me Kieboom is the future here.  I think he might be ready after a half a season, and at that point you bring him up and slot him in at 2B.  He could eventually move to 3B if the team cannot retain Anthony Rendon, or can stay at 2B and be a Jeff Kent-style slugger.  I’d love to see that come together and have him join Soto and Robles as the core of the next generation of this team.

Collier thinks the team might look elsewhere for a starting 2B.  I think they can make-do from within and not waste money chasing another  Murphy replacement.

 

Strasburg to DL again; is this the official white flag?

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"My Neck hurts." "Oh yeah, something always frigging hurts with you, you snowflake." -- photo via WP

“My Neck hurts.” “Oh yeah, something always frigging hurts with you, you snowflake.” — photo via WP

At some point, you have to stop performing CPR and just call it.

I wonder if we’re at that point.  Today we learned that #2 starter Stephen “the Orchid” Strasburg is heading back to the D/L for what will be his 50th* career D/L trip (* estimated).  I just don’t see how this team goes on the run it needs without one of its best starters.

Even given Tanner Roark‘s wonderful start yesterday, the team (as of this writing) sits at 50-51.  They’re 7 games out of the Division lead, 5.5 games out of the WC, and face a massive uphill climb to make the playoffs.

To get to 90 wins (often regarded in the 2-wild card system as the minimum you’ll need) the team needs to go 40-21 in its remaining games.  That’s a .622 W/L percentage.  I suppose they could go on a 20-7 rampage like they did in May and make it up… but it seems less likely the longer this season goes along.

Of their remaining 61 games…

  • 7 against Atlanta
  • 9 against Philly
  • 7 against the Cubs
  • 7 against the Cardinals
  • 3 more against Milwaukee
  • 3 in Colorado to end the season

So that’s 36 of the remaining 61 games against teams that I think are patently better than us.  And we’ll have to play .622 ball against them AND hold serve against the scrubs we’re playing too.

Oh, and now we’re doing it with, by my count, our #9 starter in Tommy Milone called up.  Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio, Roark, Hellickson, Fedde, JRodriguez, Voth ahead of him in the pecking order.  I’m sure things will go great; lest you forget, Milone’s ERA in 2017 was 8.56 in 27 innings.  Actually, with an ERA like that, he’ll fit right into this team.

So yes, the Braves have scuffled recently and the Phillies are treading water.  And yes our Pythag record shows we’re better than 50-51.  All fair points.  But we’re nearly to August and are still playing .500 ball, with no signs of getting better.

And, as become apparent this week, thanks to the Nats doing such a bang-up job with payroll management this year, they snuck over the luxury tax threshold so the comp pick they’ll get for a once-in-a-generation player leaving next year via FA in Bryce Harper will be … voila!  A supplemental 4th rounder??  Are you frigging kidding me?  That’s all we’ll get by offering him a Qualifying Offer??  Wow, that Matt Wieters contract just keeps looking better and better doesn’t it?  I sure hope Scott Boras enjoys the boat he bought off of that commission that he screwed the Nats out of.  Can someone change the Lerner’s cell phone number so Boras can’t go over Mike Rizzo‘s head to make bad deals any more?

Nats should trade Harper and hope to get a MLB top 100 pick for the rental.  They should also shop around basically every other guy set to leave in FA.  That means Murphy, Gio, Madsen, Wieters, Kelley, heck lets through in Benoit and Reynolds and Adams and all the one-year MLFAs we’ve got too.   Its bargain basement shopping time in DC.  First come, first served.

Will this leadership team admit defeat and make these trades?  Probably not.  They’ll probably do something dumb in the next few days like trade a top prospect for 2 months of a dead-arm starter or a catcher we can just go buy next off-season with the $80M of saved payroll.   They’ll leverage the farm system yet again so they can be an 86 win team instead of an 81 win team.

But I could be wrong.  We’ll see what happens.

ps: I managed to write this whole post without mentioning the manager.  My stance is as clear now as it was the day they let Dusty Baker go, and nothing that Dave Martinez has done has made me think that he was in any way a better choice to manage this team and this set of players in the year 2018.  Any argument about the manager is tough to quantify … i prefer arguments I can back up with stats frankly, so my opinion on his handling of veterans, of Ryan Zimmerman, of the bullpen, of baserunning strategy, of lineup-construction, and of his seeming inability to stand up to the veterans on this team will stay with me.

Panic time for 2018

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The time has come to officially panic, both about Harper and this team. Photo via ftw/usatoday

The time has come to officially panic, both about Harper and this team. Photo via ftw/usatoday

I’ve certainly been among those making excuses for this team, and for players on the team, for a while now.   These points are true:

  • They are better than their pythagorean record; by runs scored versus runs against, they should be 45-39, in 2nd place ahead of the luckier Phillies but still 5 games back of the surprising Braves.
  • They’ve been incredibly unlucky in one run and extra inning games.  This is a direct input to the pythag record; they’re 8-16 in one run games and 2-4 in extra innings.  Both the teams ahead of them in the NL east have wildly better one-run records (13-6 and 18-7 respectively)
  • They’ve been just slaughtered with injury, at various times this year leading the NL in total players on the D/L and total man-games lost.
  • They’ve experienced a complete gutting of last year’s middle of the order, with Ryan Zimmerman disappearing for weeks on end with little-to-no idea when he’d come back, Daniel Murphy taking nearly half a season to recover from his surprise off-season knee injury, and Bryce Harper putting up one of his worst seasons … clearly pressing, expanding his zone and being amazingly unlucky in terms of BABIP thus far this season.

To add insult to injury, #2 starter Stephen Strasburg threw his annual arm injury into play early this year, our mid-rotation guys have struggled, and our #5 starters keep going down with injury.

What else is true?  This is a team that’s kinda old; average age 29.1 (which is only 10th), but which is helped greatly by the presence of youngest-guy-in-the-league Juan Soto.  And Old teams get hurt, a lot.  Meanwhile  young teams (like Atlanta at 5th youngest and Philly who are the absolute youngest teams) don’t get hurt a lot.

This season is starting to remind me of a couple of past seasons:

  • 2012, when the Nats were significantly improved from 2011 and took the league by storm, frankly, a year before they thought they would.  To me, this is the 2018 Braves.   The Braves only won 72 games last year; now they’re on a pace to win 94 games.  That’s a massive difference year over year and they’re doing it with almost  no off-season moves; all internal.
  • 2015, when the Nats themselves showed similar season-long malaise and only came to life at the end of the season when it was too late and all they managed to do was cost themselves draft position the next year.

So what now?  They just finished a relatively brutal section of the schedule, playing a ton of AL East teams.  AL teams are bad match-ups for any NL team thanks to the DH’s impact on roster construction … even if they’re playing a crummy AL team like Tampa or Baltimore.  But to face off against the likes of Boston and New York, who are juggernauts, with a sputtering offense and missing a couple of key arms … well its no surprise to me they got swept.

The next 3 weeks will be the season.  They have 3 series against poor teams where they should be able to go 8-3 or 9-2 if they’re a legit team.  The should get at least one arm back in Hellickson and maybe Fedde can be replaced like for like with the surprising Jefry Rodriguez until Strasburg shows back up.   Then we have to hope for a post-all star game bump and take it to Atlanta in the first season post ASG to make up some ground.

Now, what does this team have going for it?

  • Harper just cannot continue to hit this badly; at some point he should have a solid month.
  • This team was dominant in May; it can play .600 ball when it needs to
  • Strasburg returns likely after the ASG
  • The Nats have one of the easiest remaining schedules in baseball; slightly easer than Philly and significantly easier than Atlanta.   The Nats have no more interleague games either.
  • Furthermore, the Nats have already done all their West Coast trips; their worst remaining road trip is to Colorado the last series of the season.   Both their NL East competitors still have big west coast trips to make.

So the big question is this: can this team get it together a little now, a little in August and put themselves in a position to take back the division?   If they scuffle and go just .500 between now and the ASG … then no way.

 

 

Written by Todd Boss

July 5th, 2018 at 11:18 am

Nats Pitching depth to now be tested…

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It sounds like its Fedde-time. Photo via minorleagueball.com

It sounds like its Fedde-time. Photo via minorleagueball.com

Well, we can’t really seem to go a season without a Stephen Strasburg injury … and this annual affair hit us over the weekend, with Strasburg looking ineffective, getting pulled, going for an MRI and quickly hitting the 10-day D/L with “right shoulder inflammation.”

This comes on the quick heels of two other SP issues for this team:

  • miracle MLFA off-season signing Jeremy Hellickson yanking his hamstring and exiting precisely one batter into his friday start, also hitting the D/L.
  • Off-season SP depth re-signing Edwin Jackson opting out of his minor league deal and departing the team (he signed with Oakland soon after).

So, it seemed like we could stand the absence of Hellickson thanks to the schedule over the next week and a half (plenty of off-days and no need for a 5th starter), and since his injury is listed as “mild” meaning he may only miss the minimum time … but with the loss of Strasburg we’ll need to reach into our depth.  So who’s getting the call?

(oh, btw on top of this, on 6/9/18 Brandon Knitzler strained his forearm and seems likely to be at least unavailable for a bit, if not on his way to the D/L too, so they’re needing reinforcements stat.  He was officially put on the D/L just after posting this on 6/10/18, resulting in both Trevor Gott and Wander Suero getting their tickets for a DC return…).

We’ve now seen all three of our non-active roster 40-man starters get MLB action this year … and they looked promising enough to have the loss of Jackson or even the presence of Tommy Milone in AAA seem like after-thoughts.  So who gets the call to cover for Strasburg?  Options:

  1. Erick Fedde: got one spot-start this year and looked solid: he gave up 3 runs in 5 2/3rds but pitched a lot better than his stat line.  He hasn’t looked as great for Syracuse; a 4.76 ERA and a 1.48 whip showing how he’s giving up too many base-runners.  Do you believe what you saw in the majors, or look at his AAA line for the year?  His most recent start: in Gwinnet, 5 1/3, 2runs, 9Ks but 10hits allowed.
  2. Austin Voth: has turned his career around, going from “next guy to get DFA’d” to a MLB call-up earlier this year (he did not appear).  His AAA ERA of 4.35 is a bit inflated; he’s giving up less than a hit/inning.  He had two bad outings in a row just after his call up/send-back, giving up 12 ER in 2 innings … but his last out ing (6/6/18) was stellar; 7IP, 4hits, 6Ks, 0 walks, 0 runs.  That’s the kind of stat line GMs like to see.
  3. Jefry Rodriguez: he was thrown into action when Hellickson went down and did awesome: 4 2/3 scoreless innings in his MLB debut.  Can’t ask for more than that.  He’s been good for AA Harrisburg this year; 12 starts, 3.57ERA, a bit wild though (24 walks in 63 innings).  Its interesting that he’s gotten MLB time but has yet to get pushed to AAA; perhaps they’re waiting for the typical Nats mid-season shuffle.  His most recent outing?  6/9/18: 5ip, 1 hit and just 65 pitches thrown (a hint?  why would he have gotten  yanked so quickly?)

You have to think it’ll be Fedde first.  Maybe what they do is promote Fedde, move Rodriguez to AAA.  Then if you need a second starter … it seems like Rodriguez has jumped Voth in the pecking order and is next in line.

It isn’t a very opportune time for this sudden loss of their second ace; their next nine games are AL East interleague play … which will be tough games even though both Toronto and Baltimore are struggling.  After that they get 6 games versus Philly interspersed with five more AL East games (including three at home against Boston) … so this might be a pretty crucial stage for this team.  Lets hope our depth stands up.

Someone is finally doing it: Tampa using “Openers” instead of “Starters”

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Sergio Romo; Tampa's new #3 starter.

Sergio Romo; Tampa’s new #3 starter.  And #4 starter sometimes … photo via Zimbio.

The Tampa Bay Rays, thanks to a run of injuries to their starting rotation this spring, and perhaps a bit of typical organizational ingenuity, are doing something this year that has a lot of people talking; they’re essentially using a closer-quality pitcher to start games, get through the top of the opposing team’s order the first time, then hands it over to the real “starter” (or in most cases longer man) who pitches a typical starter-length outing.

They seem to be sticking to conventional outings for their two best starters (Chris Archer and Blake Snell) even now, but spring training elbow injuries to planned starters Brett Honeywell and Jose De Leon (both Tommy John surguries), plus recent injuries to #3 starter Jake Faria, Yonny Chirinos  (not Laurel Chirinos!) and Nathan Eovaldi and a lack of upper-end SP prospects has led them to this point.

This strategy is getting put to its biggest test over the Memorial Day weekend series they have with Baltimore, announcing that they’ll be “starting” relievers all three games.

So far this season, they’ve used the strategy at least twice; with Sergio Romo starting on back to back nights.

  • 5/20/18: Romo pitches the first and strikes out the side before handing off to starter Ryan Yarborough, who pitches 6+ and gets the win.
  • 5/21/18:  Romo, going back to back nights, faces the first 6 batters; walks two, gets the other four out, zero runs; the rest of the game is a bullpen game, but the team loses to Shohei Ohtani and the Angels.

Of course, reaction to the moves is already as you’d expect it to be, given our current climate of hot-take/knee jerk reactions.  You’ve got “get off my lawn” types talking about how this isn’t “good for the game.”  You’ve got Joel Sherman (who has been around the sport long enough to know what they’re doing) calling the strategy “Bizarre.”  And you’ve got progressive types like Houston’s A.J. Hinch praising the move.


 

So, what do I think of this?

Well …. honestly this is the natural evolution of the trend towards specialized relievers that we’ve been seeing lately.  A mediocre/failed starter can be converted to a highly valuable reliever by just having them throw harder and focus on mastering two pitches instead of attempting to master three or four, and it happens All The Time.  See Rivera, Mariano and Eckersley, Dennis for hall of fame exhibits A and B here (ok .. to be fair Eckersley was by  no means a failed starter … but he would not be in Cooperstown had he not become a dominant closer).

Well, what if you had an entire roster of specialized relievers instead of spending tens of millions of dollars on a rotation?

Take the Nats: our top four starters this year are earning north of $80M this season.  What if you had spread that $80M around on a bunch of closer/near-closer types, the kinds of guys who go for significantly less per annum?  What if you had an entire team of guys like Ryan Madsen ($7.6M) or Sean Doolittle ($4.3M) or Brandon Knitzler ($5.5M).  Heck, why not load up y our team with pre-arb guys like Sammy Solis ($560k) and Matt Grace ($557k) and spend that $80M on improving the out-field players?

I’ve often wondered if a team couldn’t just have essentially 12 relievers and would basically turn every game into a bullpen game.  What if you deployed your staff kind of like this:

  • Three “Closer” quality guys (like our Doolittle)
  • Three solid RH 7th/8th inning types like Madsen and Kelley.
  • Three left-handed match-up guys (Solis, Grace)
  • Three long-men types who could soak up innings but who can’t turn over a lineup more than twice (kind of like Jeremy Hellickson but perhaps more like a 4-A starter, or what Edwin Jackson is doing in AAA).

You take half this squad and they’re the A-team; that gives you 5-6 arms to pitch the first game of the week.  Then, they all get a break and the other 5-6 arms get the next game.  In a typical week every reliever then gets three to four days off with off-games and off-days.   The long-men only go every two days, since you’re asking them to do 3-4 innings, but still get plenty of rest.  So a pattern of games could look like this:

  • Game 1: Closer1 pitches the 1st, RH1 and LH1 combine to pitch 2nd and 3rd.  Longman1 comes in and throws 4th through the 7th.  Then depending on where you are in the game he returns for the 8th or you go to your RH2/LH2 guy before handing off to Closer2 in the 9th.  So that’s 5 to 6 arms used in the first game.
  • Game 2: Closer3 starts.  RH3 throws next two innings.  Longman2 throws innings 4-7.  LH3 finishes it out, perhaps throwing Closer1 a second day in a row if need be.
  • Game 3: Closer2 starts.  Perhaps you go right to Longman3 for a 5 inning stint.  Back to RH1 and LH1 for the 7th/8th, then either let these guys do a 2 inning stint or go back to Closer3 for back-to-backs to finish the game.

So the workload for a 3-game series goes like this:

  • Closers: 2 innings each with an off-day
  • RH guys: 2-3 innings each with an off-day
  • LH guys: 2-3 innings each with an off-day
  • Long-men: 3-4 innings each with two off-days

That’s basically 27 innings across three games, assuming your middle relievers throw a couple of 2-inning stints in there, or one of your long-men does 4 innings instead of three.

Tell me why this wouldn’t work?  Everyone gets a ton of rest, and if you burn out one of your longmen you just call up re-inforcements from AAA to do mop-up games here and there.  You always have a closer going against the top of the order in the first inning, then you try to work it out so that you can do match-ups the next time they come up with a 7th/8th inning quality guy.  The best hitters on the other team will eventually get a shot at your “long man…” but under this plan, they’re getting four at bats generally against four different arms.  That’s going to give the advantage to the pitcher every time; batters don’t get to study up the opposing starter every night for research; they’re going to be seeing gas, trick pitches and one-trick ponies that have ridiculous BAAs and BABIPs thanks to their specialty.


So, who would love this?

  • Owners.  no more 9-figure contracts for starters who have like a 50% injury rate.
  • Some Pitchers: more opportunities for guys who just couldn’t cut it as starters but who crush it as releivers.

Who wouldn’t like this?

  • High end starters: less jobs, less demand for you.  Maybe.  I mean, right now Tampa is sticking with their two solid starters and only doing this for the other slots.  Maybe a team with two Aces like the nats just lets them roll normally then does this kind of bullpen game the other three games out of five.
  • Any baseball fan born before 1970, since they hate any change, any game modification.  I mean come on, there’s people demanding that we ban the shift (including the commissioner).
  • The Players union; you’d have to think salaries would plummet
  • Maybe most every baseball fan?  Offense drives fan interest … and this plan is specifically designed to neutralize the opposing team’s best hitters.

Thoughts?

Nats on a tear … while being hobbled on the D/L

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What a difference a year makes. Last year he was MLB's POTM; this year he's hitting .217 and is now on the D/L. Photo via WashingtonTimes.com

What a difference a year makes. Last year he was MLB’s POTM; this year he’s hitting .217 and is now on the D/L. Photo via WashingtonTimes.com

Another day, another D/L trip.  The latest is Ryan Zimmerman, whose position is more than ably being filled by Matt Adams, heading to the 10-day d/L with “back soreness” but which we know to be an oblique (which is a notoriously iffy injury, if indeed he has a real injury and this isn’t some sort of paper maneuver to get Adams more ABs.  Yes I’m a cynic).  This a day after starting catcher and $10M “homage to Scott Boras‘ ability to undermine Mike Rizzo‘s plans by repeatedly going over his head to ownership” Matt Wieters goes down with a “hamstring” injury (btw: he looked like a 50-yr old man running to first base; was it any surprise he came up hobbled?)

The Nats, as of 5/13/18, now have 10 guys on the D/L and an 11th suspended.  Only three of them even have a vague return date defined, and one of those is Joe Ross, who is recovering from Tommy John and whose return date is listed as “probably 2018.”  Nine of the 10 guys (not including Read) arguably are part of the “best 25” that our team would field, meaning we’re playing 9 guys out of 25 who should be in AAA.

This number of current players on the D/L, not surprisingly, leads the league and their cumulative totals of number of players, games lost and payroll wasted for the season is at or near the top.

Great.

Yet, somehow, during this period the team is on fire.   They’ve won 12 of 14.  They’re 13-7 in their last 20.  Went into the hot Arizona team and crushed them on their turf.

What’s going on?  How is this happening?

Part of this is the particular guys getting hurt; i.e. none of the rotation.  We’re getting a ton of quality starts, guys pitching deep into the games.  Under-rated at the time signing Jeremy Hellickson took a perfect game into the 7th.  That’s the definition of “found gold” for a 5th starter.   Five of the top Eight season-to-date guys by bWAR are the 5 rotation members.

But for the most part it has been part-time players stepping up big time.

  • Pedro Severino in for Wieters (and before that Miguel Montero, 2018’s first “Oblivion” candidate): posting a 98 OPS+ and providing stellar defense behind the plate.
  • Howie Kendrick in for Daniel Murphy?  113 OPS+ thank you very much.  Great signing.
  • Wilmer Difo covering for Anthony Rendon while he missed half the season thus far?  102 OPS+
  • Adams, as previously noted, is crushing the ball right now: 178 OPS+.
  • The hodge-podge of left fielders not named Adams?  well … that’s another story.  Thankfully  we can put most any ole stiff out there and still get production.

I thought this team did amazingly well last  year given its injuries … but now its looking even worse this year.   Yet they’re right where they need to be after a sluggish start.  What I worry about is missing a month of Scherzer, or having Harper  go down ye t again.

 

 

Opening Day Starter Useless Trivia for 2018

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Felix Hernandez made his leading 11th opening day start. Photo Keith Allison via flickr/CCL

Felix Hernandez made his leading 11th opening day start.
Photo Keith Allison via flickr/CCL

Every year I capture the Opening Day Starters into an XLS and then capture some useless trivia on it.  This is that post.

Google Doc XLS link: (the data is too big to make an HTML table): https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1Mv8gLgJOuJHEAf_pXNwPWGCNRL4RnYEyulH6rxMuudA/edit?usp=sharing

Max Scherzer made his 3rd  career opening day start, all in a Nat’s uniform (he never  got an Opening day start while pitching behind Justin Verlander in Detroit).   Stephen Strasburg has himself made four opening day starts, with these two guys covering every Nats opening day start dating to 2011.

The Nats have one other player with Opening day starts on their resume: Jeremy Hellickson made the 2016 and 2017 opening day starts for Philadelphia.  He currently sits in XST building up arm strength so he can take over for A.J. Cole as our fifth starter after he blows up a couple more times.  And its worth noting that former Nat Jordan Zimmermann earned his first ever such start for Detroit this year, shortly before getting hit in the head with a come-backer.

Here’s some useless trivia related to Opening Day Starts:

  • Active Leader: Tie at the top: Seattle’s Felix Hernandez with 11.  CC Sabathia also has 11, but hasn’t made the Yankee’s start since 2014.
  • Active Consecutive Leader: Also Hernandez, who has made 10 straight, missing one in 2008 when Erik Bedard took the mound in Game 1 as the new shiny FA signing that spring.  The next closest is Clayton Kershaw, who has made 8 straight for LA.
  • Other longish conseutive starts streak: Atlanta’s Julio Teheran with 5, Corey Kluber with 4, and Chris Archer with 4.
  • Madison BumgarnerMasahiro Tanaka and Dallas Keuchel all had 3-4 start streaks broken thanks to injury or being passed over for a different guy.
  • 13 of the 30 games were started by first time Opening Day starters this year, continuing a trend of new,  younger guys getting these starts.  In fact, I’d say that a couple of the opening day starters you’d be hard pressed to pull out of a lineup: Miami’s Jose Urena, Milwaukee’s Chase Anderson, and SF’s Ty Blach in particular.

All-time records:

  • Most Ever: Tom Seaver (16).  Tied for 2nd place with 14 is Jack Morris, Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton
  • Most Consecutive: Jack Morris (14)

Can Felix get 5 more starts to break Morris’ record?   He’s only signed through 2019 with an option for 2020, so he’d need to get an extension … something that’s more and more rare in today’s Baseball climate.

Thanks to that same trend against aging pitchers, a slew of former leaders of Opening Day starts may be permanently retired out of the game.  Guys like Jered WeaverTim Lincecum, Edison Volquez, Yovanni Gallardo (who was just DFA’d), Ricky NolascoJake Peavy and perhaps a few others, all of whom have at least 4-5 opening day starts to their name are struggling to find work right now or may be done.   Its turning into a young man’s game.