Nationals Arm Race

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Rizzo the gambler; how have his injury-risk signings/picks done?


Rendon was probably Rizzo's best injury gambit. Photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via

Rendon was probably Rizzo’s best injury gambit. Photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via

By now, we’ve grown accustomed to it.  Nats GM Mike Rizzo acquires yet another player with a questionable injury past, hoping to find a new market inefficiency and getting a better player in the long term than how the rest of the league valued the player in the short term.  This topic came up last week as the Nats seemingly severed ties with Matthew Purke and we immediately began talking about the wasted bonus money … three days later he re-signed a minor league deal, but he’s still an integral part of this discussion.

This post attempts to go through all of Rizzo’s injury-risk player acquisitions (draft, trade or FA), to see how he’s doing in terms of these high risk acquisitions.  I may have missed out on someone; please let me know if you think someone else merits discussion.  I’m sure there’s deep-draft picks worth discussing in prior drafts that our readers may remember; please pipe up in the comments section.  In each section they’re basically in reverse chronological order.


  • Erick Fedde, 1st round pick in 2014 (18th overall), RHP from UNLV, $2.5M bonus (over-slot, ~10th pick money).  I reviewed this pick after it happened and maintain the same stance I had in June; I thought Fedde was over paid and over drafted, but (in the Nats defense) the combination of the picks right before us (which included one Brandon Finnegan, who was on the Royals post-season roster) and right after us probably sealed Fedde’s selection.  Verdict: Obviously, it is far too early to tell how Fedde will turn out, so there is no judgement to pass here.  Fedde had the Tommy John surgery in Mid May, so he won’t even throw his first pro pitch until mid next season.
  • Lucas Giolito, 1st round pick in 2012 (16th overall), RHP from Harvard-Westlake HS (CA), $2.9M bonus (well over-slot, equivalent to 7th overall pick slot).  Giolito was rumored to be in the mix for 1-1 in 2012 before a “strain” in his pitching elbow caused him to miss most of his senior year.  This “strain” turned out to really be a “partial tear,” but the Nats saw value in getting a potential 1st overall talent mid-first round.  Giolito rehabbed, threw a few innings, then had TJ surgery on 8/31/12.  Since, Giolito’s rehab went perfectly, throwing 40 innings in 2013 and another 100 in 2014.  Despite his limited workload in 2014, he was named the Nats minor league pitcher of the year and has rocketed up prospect charts.  He currently is the unquestioned #1 Nats minor league prospect and should feature as a top 10 prospect in all of baseball.  Verdict: so far, so good.  They say there’s “no such thing as a pitching prospect,” so the wheels could still come off the bus, but Giolito is trending up and the gamble is looking like it will pay off.
  • Kevin Dicharry, 24th round pick in 2012, RHP from Texas.   Dicharry was good early in his college career but missed most of his college career with shoulder issues.  His pro debut was good enough: a 2.84 ERA in 25 GCL innings in 2012.  He started 2013 in Short-A, got hit hard in 3 outings, and was abruptly released to my surprise.  Verdict: failure … but it’s kind of hard to say that a 24th round pick was a failure for not panning out, even if he was perfectly healthy.
  • Robert Orlan, 30th round pick in 2012, RHP from UNC.  Orlan suffered an elbow injury late in the 2012 college season and was immediately placed on the 60-day DL by the team after they drafted him.  Baseball Prospectus does not have any injury/surgery history, so I do not know what, if any procedures he had done in 2012.  Orlan was decent for Auburn in 2013 but struggled in 2014 and couldn’t make the level jump to full-season ball.  He’s already been relegated to the bullpen and may not be long for the org.  Verdict: not looking good … but again, hard to really pass any harsh judgement on a 30th round pick.  The fact that he has even lasted two pro years makes him a success already.
  • Anthony Rendon, 1st round pick in 2011 (6th overall), 3B from Rice.  $6M bonus, well over-slot at the time.  Rendon’s dropping out of the top 2-3 picks was a huge draft-day shock; we’re talking about a college player of the year who scouts had penciled in as the 2011 1-1 pick for nearly two years.  But nagging ankle injuries in both his sophomore and junior year scared off the teams above Washington, who probably tripped over themselves running to the podium to take him.  We know the rest of the story now; by mid 2013 he was a starter, and he posted a 6.5 bWAR season in 2014.  Verdict: huge success so far.
  • Matthew Purke, 3rd round pick in 2011, LHP from TCU.  Given a $4.15M MLB contract.  The impetus for this post.  Purke was a 1st round pick out of high school, then went 16-0 in his freshman year of college, earning 2nd team all American honors.  Shoulder bursitis cost him a ton of starts his sophomore year, but the Nats gambled on him anyway.  A healthy Purke would have easily been a top 10 pick in 2011, so the Nats got a potential top 10 talent in the 3rd round.  Of course, we know how this story goes from here: Purke could never get going in 2012 and had to have shoulder surgery.  Then he throws 90 decent innings in 2013 … only to drop off a cliff in 2014 before having TJ surgery.  Now he’s out until at least June 2015.  But, as we’ve seen this week, at least he’s not on the 40-man roster any more.  But more time remains to be seen as to whether Rizzo’s $4M gamble can pay off in any capacity.  Verdict: check back at the end of 2015, but not looking great.
  • Sammy Solis, 2nd round pick in 2010.  A herniated disc in his back cost him the entire 2009 season, but he roared back with a solid 2010 to profile as the 2nd round pick he ended up being.
  • Nathan Karns, 12th round pick in 2009, RHP from Texas Tech.  Karns was hurt when he got drafted, and didn’t throw a pitch in 2009 or 2010.  He had to have shoulder surgery in June of 2010.  He finally made his pro debut in 2011, and by 2012 was the Nats minor league pitcher of the year after going 11-4 with a 2.17 ERA across low-A and high-A.  By mid 2013 he was making his MLB debut to provide cover for injured starters.   Karns was flipped to Tampa Bay in the Jose Lobaton deal (also bringing back two decent prospects in Felipe Rivero and Drew Vettleson) and spent most of 2014 in Durham (where he took a step back, posting a 9-9 record with a 5.08 ERA in 27 AAA starts).  Verdict: success for the team, given what he helped acquire, even if he’s struggling for Tampa Bay.  (Thanks to commenter JohnC for reminding me to fully list his trade bounty).

(post-posting thanks to NationalsProspect’s Luke Erickson, who provided the Orlan injury link and reminded me of Solis’ back injury during college).

Trade Acquisitions

  • Denard Span, acquired from Minnesota on 11/29/12 for Alex Meyer.  Span missed a huge chunk of the 2011 season after suffering a pretty bad concussion.  He missed a month in 2012 after injuring his shoulder diving for a ball.  So there was some legitimate injury concerns following Span around, though I don’t recall really discussing it at the time.  I didn’t necessarily like the trade when it happened, but that was more because I thought Bryce Harper could be our center fielder for the next decade.  Nonetheless, after struggling for stretches, Span inarguably was worth every cent of his exercised option for 2015, and though this wasn’t *that* big of an injury gamble, it has paid off.  Verdict: Success.
  • Ryan Mattheus was acquired on 7/31/09 from the Rockies for Joe Beimel, just two weeks after he underwent Tommy John surgery.   By mid 2011 he was an effective middle reliever for the team, and contributed a 1.3 bWAR season in 2012 as a good 6th/7th inning right hander.  In 2013 he broke his pitching hand in a fit of pique and basically never recovered; he lost his bullpen spot to Aaron Barrett in 2014 and, being out of options and not really having that great a season in AAA, was released last month.  Verdict: Success, considering what we gave up and considering that he may still be with the organization had he not punched a wall.  (Thanks to commenter Wally for reminding me of the Mattheus acquisition).

Free Agent Signings

  • Dan Haren, 1yr $13M for the 2013 season.  Haren had missed time in 2012 for a back issue, and had taken a huge uncharacteristic step backwards in performance from 2011.  It was enough so that some thought (including me) the Nats were going to get a bounce-back season and a return to his #2 starter form.  Uh, no.  Haren at one point in the 2013 season was the *worst* starter statistically in the league (the team was just 4-11 in his first 15 starts, and he had a 6.15 ERA when he was summarily sent to the D/L with a soft tissue injury that even Haren himself didn’t know he had).  He bounced back enough in the 2nd half to save his statistical season, but the damage was done.  Verdict: failure of a signing, but to be fair I don’t believe Haren’s issues in 2013 were lingering back issues.
  • Chien-Ming Wang.  Signed a combined 3  years of contracts worth $7M from 2010-2012.  He had shoulder surgery in July of 2009.  He missed the whole 2010 season, most of 2011 too.  But he showed *just* enough in the tail end of 2011 to earn a $4M deal for 2012, where he promptly got hammered.  To make matters worse, the guy whose rotation spot he took (Ross Detwiler) was usually the one coming in to relief him and pretty soon it was apparent the team had gone with the wrong horse.   In the end, Wang gave the team 94 innings and 6 wins for his 3 guaranteed contracts.  Verdict: well, a failure, but didn’t hurt the team as they raced to 98 wins in 2012.  Just cost money.
  • Brad Lidge: he missed most of 2011, his final season in Philadelphia, and the Nats took him on a 1yr/$1M flier.  After overcoming sports hernia surgery, Lidge gave up 12 hits and 11 walks in just 9 1/3 innings before being mercifully released, never to play again.  Verdict: failure, but a good gamble.
  • Christian Garcia was picked up as a MLFA in mid 2011 after the Yankees gave up on him following his third elbow surgery in 5 years.  He was un-hittable in our minor league system in 2012 (he gave up just 31 hits in 52 minor league innings that year), was called up and was effective enough to be added to the 2012 post-season roster.  Unfortunately, Garcia’s injury luck did him no favors: he lost all of 2013 to a partial flexor tear in his arm, and never made it back in 2014, eventually being released in June of 2014.  All that promise, just couldn’t stay  healthy.  Verdict: can’t possibly call a MLFA mid-season waiver claim a failure, no matter how little the team got out of him.  Another good gamble.


Conclusion: actually Rizzo looks pretty good here.  His draft pickups have mostly worked out; just Purke stands out as a possible loser.  His only real injury-risk trade acquisition worked out.  Haren and Wang were pretty high-visibility failures … but Lidge and Garcia were low-cost risks that had good upside if they worked out.

Did I miss anyone?

Nats Franchise FA history; biggest, best, worst deals


Jayson Werth is certainly our most expensive FA, by a considerable sum. Photo Mitchell Layton/Getty Images NA

The second in a series: The first looked at the Biggest/Best/Worst Trades of the Washington Nationals era and was posted in late March.  Yes, it took me 8 months to return to this series, despite writing most of this post in July.  Here in Part 2, we’ll look at the biggest, best and worst Free Agent signings in the tenures of both Jim Bowden and Mike Rizzo. In the last section we’ll look at Draft picks.

Ground rules for this article:

1. When considering a Free Agent we’ll only consider the FIRST signing in this list.  So, for guys who have signed multiple one-year free agent contracts in a row (guys like Rick Ankiel and Chien-Ming Wang), we’ll only consider them as a single signing.  For others who signed here and then left, only to come back (example: Livan Hernandez) we’ll consider them as separate signings.

2. We are considering extensions given to existing players (since they don’t fit elsewhere).  You can consider an extension just a pre-emptive free agent contract.

3. We’re mostly focusing here on Major League free agents; each year we sign many minor league FAs ahead of camp.  If a Minor League FA signing ends up having a decent impact on the major league team, we’ll note him (good recent example being Laynce Nix).

Just for review, here’s the tenure period of both GMs:

  • Nov 2004 – Mar 2009: Jim Bowden
  • Mar 2009 – present: Mike Rizzo

The team has made dozens and dozens of signings: I won’t try to go through them all here.  For those interested, here’s my List of Free Agents from over the years (also available on the links section to the right of this blog).  I put up a similar notes file (List of Trades and Trading Partners) from the first post of this series, also available in the list of resources on the right-hand side of the blog.

Jim Bowden Tenure: Nov 2004 – Mar 2009

Bowden’s Biggest Free Agent Signings

  • 2006: Nick Johnson 3yr $16.5M
  • 2007: Austin Kearns 3yr $16.5M
  • 2008: Cristian Guzman 2yr $16M
  • 2009: Adam Dunn 2yr $20M

I wonder sometimes if Bowden doesn’t sit in his ESPN office as he writes his blogs and ask himself what he could have done here had he had more money to spend.  Look at this list; Bowden’s biggest deal in 5 off-seasons was a 2yr/$20M contract for a slugger who really had nowhere else to go that off-season.  Jayson Werth will make more than that annually starting in 2014.

Bowden’s Best Free Agent Signings

  • 2006: Brian Schneider 4yr extension, $2.9M
  • 2007: Ronnie Belliard 1yr ML deal
  • 2007: Dmitri Young 1yr ML deal
  • 2008: Willie Harris 1yr $800K
  • 2009: Adam Dunn 2yr $20M

Bowden’s 2007 off-season was pretty amazing, looking back.  He assembled a team on the backs of Minor League Free Agents galore, one of which (Dmitri Young) ended up being our lone All-Star.  The team went 73-89 and gave 145 of its 162 starts to guys who aren’t even in the league any more (exceptions: Joel Hanrahan‘s 11 starts with 6.00 ERA and late-season call up John Lannan‘s 6 starts as a 22-yr old).  He was the master of the scrap heap and spun a team that should have lost 100 games into a respectable 73 win team.  Too bad that luck ran out in 2008 as the team bottomed out.  But you have to hand it to Bowden for these three 2007 signings; Hanrahan didn’t really pay off for the Nationals, ever, but did enable us to eventually get Sean Burnett, a valuable member of the team’s bullpen these last few years.

All things considered, I’d have to say that Adam Dunn may have been his best FA signing.  Dunn’s bat was mostly wasted during his two years here, considering the unbelievably bad pitching staffs that Bowden assembled.  But the combination of Zimmerman-Dunn-Willingham was a pretty fearsome 3-4-5.  Ironically, NOT re-signing Dunn may also have been one of Rizzo’s best non-moves, considering Dunn’s amazing 2011 collapse and the subsequent rise of Michael Morse (who would have continued to be a bit player if the Nats still had Dunn in LF).

Bowden’s Worst Free Agent Signings

  • 2007: Austin Kearns 3yr $16.5M
  • 2008: Paul Lo Duca 1yr $5M
  • 2008: Rob Mackowiak 1yr $1.5M
  • 2008: Johnny Estrada 1yr $1.25M
  • 2008: Cristian Guzman 2yr extension $16M
  • 2009: Daniel Cabrera 1yr $2.6M

2008 was as bad as 2007 was good for Bowden.  Nearly every move he made back-fired, some spectacularly.  Paul Lo Duca hadn’t been signed for a week when his name showed up prominently in the Mitchell Report; he was released before July.  Rob Mackowiak and Johnny Estrada were just stealing money; its still not clear what Bowden saw in these guys.  I hated the Kearns deal, never understood what Bowden saw in the guy.  Daniel Cabrera was so bad for us it was almost comical, and it was a relief when we DFA’d him after 8 starts.

But the worst FA signing has to the Guzman extension.  He seemed decent enough after coming back from an injury that cost him all of 2005 and most of 2006, but Bowden inexplicably extended him for 2 years for the same amount of money that he had earned the previous four … and almost immediately his production tailed off.   Its not that Guzman was that BAD in 2009 and 2010, its just that he was so vastly overpaid for what he gave the team.  We flipped him for two minor league pitchers, he promptly hit .152 in 15 games for Texas and he was out of the league.

Mike Rizzo Tenure: Mar 2009 – present

Rizzo’s Biggest Free Agent Signings

  • 2010: Ryan Zimmerman 5yr $45M
  • 2011: Jayson Werth 7yr $126M
  • 2012: Ryan Zimmermann 8yrs $100M
  • 2012: Gio Gonzalez 5yr $42M

Its ironic that I had to remove three deals from this list (LaRoche, Jackson, Marquis) that would have qualified for Bowden’s “biggest deal” list.  That’s because the size of these deals are just dwarfing what the team was willing to do under Bowden.  Lots of pundits have (and continue to) criticized the Jayson Werth deal, and it routinely appears on anyone’s list of “Worst Baseball Contracts.”  And his 2011 season confirmed just how bad this may have turned out for Washington.  But a bounceback 2012, which featured Werth putting up a 125 OPS+ despite missing a ton of time with a broken wrist, showing the flexibility of batting lead-off when the team needed him, plus providing the veteran leadership and professionalism that this young team needs certainly would earn back some of that contract value.  In hindsight, I think the team made this deal as a strawman, to send a message to the rest of the league that we were NOT a low-budget, poorly run team, and to pave the path back to respectability in the minds of other professionals out there that Washington can be a destination franchise.

Rizzo’s Best Free Agent Signings

  • 2009: Julian Tavarez 1yr ML
  • 2009: Joe Beimel 1yr $2M
  • 2010: Livan Hernandez 1yr ML 900k
  • 2011: Jerry Hairston 1yr $2M
  • 2010: Matt Capps 1yr $3.5M
  • 2010: Joel Peralta 1yr ML
  • 2011: Todd Coffey 1yr $1.35M
  • 2011: Laynce Nix 1yr ML

In terms of impact-per-dollar, I think the first Livan Hernandez year of his return was probably the best FA signing that Rizzo has done.  Hernandez went 10-12 with a 3.66 ERA and a 110 ERA+ for less than a million dollars on the FA market.  That’s roughly $90k a Win, when most teams are paying more than $1M/win for free agent starting pitching.   However clearly Rizzo’s most shrewd FA deal was the Matt Capps signing.  He took Capps off the scrap heap; he was released by Pittsburgh after a horrid 2009, and his half season of excellent relief for us turned into Wilson Ramos and a minor leaguer (Joe Testa), returned in trade from Minnesota.  I will also mention that the value that minor league signings Julian Tavarez, Joel Peralta, and Laynce Nix gave the team was also fantastic, considering where these players were in their careers prior to joining us.

Rizzo’s Worst Free Agent Signings

  • 2010: Yunesky Maya 4yr $8M
  • 2010: Ivan Rodriguez 2yr $6M
  • 2010: Jason Marquis 2yr $15M
  • 2011: Matt Stairs 1yr ML
  • 2012: Brad Lidge 1yr $1M
  • Chein Ming Wang: all of them.

2010, Rizzo’s first FA class, didn’t turn out very well did it? Yunesky Maya has been a pretty big disappointment, giving the team just one MLB win for an $8M investment.  Ivan Rodriguez just proved to be slightly too old to be worth the starter money he was paid; you could argue that the leadership he provided was worth the money.   And Jason Marquis, bought as a stop-gap for a failed farm system, was god-awful in 2010.  I won’t completely kill Rizzo for the Brad Lidge experiment; it was worth a $1M flier to see if he had anything left in the tank.  Matt Stairs would have been another fine, low-cost experiment except for the fact that the team kept giving him at-bats for weeks/months after it was clear he was washed up.

For me the worst FA signing was related to the money poured down the Chien-Ming Wang rathole for three years running.  The Nats ended up investing $8M total over three years to get 16 starts, 6 wins and a 4.94 ERA.

Rizzo’s Too Early to Tell Free Agent Signings

  • 2011: Jayson Werth 7yr $126M
  • 2012: Ryan Zimmermann 8yrs $100M
  • 2012: Gio Gonzalez 5yr $42M

So far, Werth’s contract is trending as an over-pay, Zimmerman’s as an injury concern, and Gonzalez trending as a complete steal (21 wins for $8.4M AAV in 2012?  That’s a fantastic return for the money).  Pundits have stated that the Nats have “two 9-figure contracts but zero 9-figure players” (I read it at the time of the Zimmerman signing but cannot find the link).  I think that’s slightly unfair to these players, but until Zimmerman can stay healthy enough to produce at his 2009 level, you have to admit that he may be overpaid as well.  Perhaps Zimmerman’s brittle health issues can be alleviated if he makes the move to 1B, where he can continue to play gold glove calibre defense but have less of a tax on his body.  This analysis obviously does not take Zimmerman’s “value” to the franchise into account, which may be unfair when considering this contract (nobody really said Derek Jeter‘s latest contract was a massive overpay considering his service to the Yankees,  his “stature” as the captain and his eventual Hall of Fame induction; for the Yankees to cut him loose would have been a massive public relations gaffe).

Coincidentally, I didn’t view the contracts of guys like LaRoche, Jackson, or Morse as being specifically “good” or “bad.”   I think LaRoche’s one bad/one good season plus Jackson’s MLB average season was just about on-par with expectations for their contracts.  Morse’s 2011 production was pre-contract, so we’ll see how his 2013 goes.

Thoughts?  Any FA signings or extensions out there that stick in your minds that you thought should be mentioned?