Nationals Arm Race

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

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Ladson inbox 1/2/14

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Espinosa's role with the Nats is still a major concern for fans. Photo AP via mlb.com

Espinosa’s role with the Nats is still a major concern for fans. Photo AP via mlb.com

Ah, what a great way to bring in the new year, with another edition of Bill Ladson‘s inbox (dated 1/2/14).

As always, these are real questions from presumably real people, and I answer here before reading Ladson’s answer.

Q: Do you think that Denard Span will be the leadoff hitter, with maybe Ian Desmond batting second? If so, shouldn’t the order be reversed since Desmond is a much better offensive player?

A: The answer to this question goes to the evolving lineup construction question and a rising opinion in the Sabre ranks that states that a team’s “best” hitter should be batting 2nd.  Joe Sheehan discussed why the Reds specifically should have been batting Joey Votto 2nd instead of 3rd in this July 2013 article on SI.com, but his arguments were less about Votto and more about the idiocy of Dusty Baker‘s insistence on batting a sub-par hitter ahead of Votto all year.  The real proof is from Tom Tango in his publication The Book, which is summarized in this 2009 BeyondtheBoxScore post by Sky Kalkman.  Basically the argument is that a #2 hitter is slightly more important situationally than a #3 hitter, based on the fact that the #2 hitter bats more frequently than the #3 hitter, often bats with the bases empty and thus needs to be both a high OBP and a high average guy to be able to either set things up for the #3/#4 guys behind him or to do something with the #1 guy who just got on base ahead of him.

Now that being said, nothing trumps a good OBP in the lead-off spot.  Last year our best OBP guy was Jayson Werth, but he also had the best average AND hit 25 homers.  Hmm; maybe Werth is your #2 hitter right now.   Desmond’s OBP was slightly better than Span’s on the season (.331 to .327), but Desmond hits for a ton of power.  Span is the prototypical lead-off hitter; he’s a lefty, he’s fast, and he normally gets on at a .350 OBP clip (career .351).  So right now if it were me I’d be batting Span 1, Werth 2 and Desmond somewhere around #5.

Todd Boss the Nats manager puts out this line-up opening day: Span-Werth-Zimmerman-Harper-Desmond-LaRoche-Ramos-Rendon-Strasburg.  Good lefty/righty balance, has your best all-around hitter in the #2 hole and your best power hitter in the #4 hole, with Desmond getting more ABs than LaRoche right now and the rest of the lineup cascading down normally.

Ladson posts his lineup, which uses more conventional thinking and has LaRoche batting before Desmond.  I think he’s wrong there; LaRoche was clearly not a better hitter than Desmond and has no business batting ahead of him in this lineup right now.

Q: The Nationals recently signed D.C. native Emmanuel Burriss to a Minor League contract. Is he a viable candidate for a backup role with the club in 2014?

A: I think the Emmanuel Burriss signing was about AAA depth, not a real attempt to find a utility infielder who can contribute at the MLB club.  Look at his 2013 slash line: .213/.270/.221.  Wow, that’s really bad.   Of course, that’s still better than what Danny Espinosa did last  year … Presumably Burriss is competing with Espinosa and Zach Walters for that backup middle infielder spot.  Burriss’s problem is that he’s a minor league/non 40-man signing while both Espinosa and Walters are already on the 40-man … so for the time being I see him with fellow locally-tied minor league signee Wil Rhymes (he went to college at W&M) as Syracuse’s middle infield.  Ladson thinks he’s a candidate but not a starter … and then predicts that the team will be trading Espinosa.

Q: If Espinosa makes the team as a bench player, my concern is his clubhouse attitude. Do you think management shares this concern as well?

A: Great question; who here knows Espinosa personally to see how he may react?  Who here works in the Nationals organization and can effectively judge Espinosa’s character, given everything that’s happened to him in the past year (injuries, performance, loss of starting job and demotion)?  Not me, and presumably nobody reading this, so its all just fan speculation.

So, given that I don’t know anything about the guy, here’s what I think: He has to realize that a) he’s no longer a starter here and b) he’s not even guaranteed a bench spot thanks to his 27 OPS+ hitting last year.  But, he also has to realize that his best shot at this point of regaining a starter job in the majors is going to be to perform, and perform ably, wherever he gets his chance, and thus either improve his trade value to make him more valuable to other organizations or possibly to force his way over someone in the Nats organization.  That chance may end up being full time in AAA but it’ll be better for him if he’s at least a backup in the majors.  If he doesn’t realize these things, then his representation is doing him a massive disservice (and I don’t think Scott Boras is bad at his job).  So my guess is that he’ll swallow his pride knowing he has to be in the majors to show that he can produce in the majors and will embrace his role.

There’s also the small issues of money and  service time; he’s making peanuts in AAA versus what he makes riding the bench in the majors.  And, if he makes the bench for at least 2 months or so in 2014 he accrues enough service time to hit arbitration following next season … which means either a pay raise or freedom to move to another organization where he may not be as blocked as he is in Washington.  So no matter what, it is in his best interests professionally and financially to make the team, no matter what the role, out of spring training.

One last point: just ONE injury anywhere in the infield opens a massive swinging door for him to not only get playing time but likely to start.  He has to be ready.

Ladson says Espinosa works hard and that Jayson Werth would get him in line if he had an attitude problem.  

Q: What is the situation behind the plate? Ever since Ivan Rodriguez retired, it seems that’s been an injury-riddled spot. Why aren’t the Nationals making any moves for a backup catcher?

A: Catcher is an injury-riddled spot for nearly everyone in the league; the guys get beat up and miss time no matter if they’re the best or worst guy in the league.  I’m guessing the team is actively in the market for backup catchers, but so are a bunch of other teams.   I still count 10 catchers out there available in free agency and I’m guessing teams in need are all still jockeying for position with the better and lesser candidates.  I’m sure we’ll sign at least one more guy to be in the mix with Jhonatan Solano, Sandy Leon and Chris Snyder.  Plus there’s this: nearly every catcher who can still crouch will get a spring training gig because there’s just so many arms that need to throw simaltaneously for these teams.  So we’re sure to see more guys sign up.   Ladson says they’re trying to acquire more catcher depth but have been unsuccessful.

Q: How come Zach Walters is not being given a decent shot at making the team out of Spring Training? He has pop and is adequate defensively.

A: I don’t think people are saying that; I think the consensus seems to be that the backup infielder spot is Espinosa versus Walters right now.  Who would you rather have?  I think i’d lean towards one more chance for Espinosa (the guy did hit 20 homers in 2011 after all) and then either trade him or move him out.  The concern with Walters (despite his 29 homers in AAA in 2013) is his strike-outs; they’re pretty high.  You put up with 1 K/game if  you get 30 homers … not if you get 10.  He hit nearly 30 in AAA; can he do that in the majors?  Ladson points out an important note; new manager Matt Williams knows Walters from when they were both in the Arizona system.  Hmm.  Will that have an effect?

Q: Would you try to get Eric O’Flaherty on the Nats if you were Mike Rizzo?

A: I’m not sure I would; he had TJ surgery in late May 2013 (5/21/13 specifically), meaning he’s looking at likely a May 2014 return date.  So he’s likely missing the first 2 months of the season, and even then he’s on a shorter leash next season.  Is this what the Nats need?  My guess is that he re-signs an incentive deal with Atlanta out of some sort of professional courtesy for having gotten injured on their watch.  Ladsons agrees with me and thinks he goes back to Atlanta.

Q: Shouldn’t the Nats bid on pitcher Masahiro Tanaka?

A: Bid yes.  Go crazy and blow $20M/year on the guy?  No way.  Scouting reports thus far seem to indicate that Masahiro Tanaka is good but not Yu Darvish-good.  And this team needs to start thinking about extending its own known quantity guys versus blowing that money on a lottery ticket like Tanaka.  My guess is that a team with deeper pockets (Los Angeles, New York) or a team with more desparation (Seattle) agrees to pay Tanaka just ridiculous amounts of money.   Ted Lerner seems to be indicating we’re nearing the team’s payroll budget and we’re going to start having to get creative fitting in some of these mid-to-upper level talents we have now accumulated.  Ladson doesn’t really consider the merits or consideration of Tanaka, instead just saying the rotation is set.  I’m not sure that was the question.

 

Are we too worried about pitch counts?

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Ohmygod Strasburg only threw 80 pitches on opening day what's wrong with him?! Photo: howtowatchsports.com

The Nats handling of Stephen Strasburg in 2012 certainly caused more than its fair share of discussion in the sports world, to the point where people (read, me) don’t really want to talk about it anymore because they’re too hunkered down into their own opinions on the matter.  Hence a sense of relief washed over Mike Rizzo defenders when 2013 rolled around, knowing that “the reins were off” (how many times have we heard that cliche so far this year?)

So what happens on Opening Day?  Strasburg gets lifted after 80 pitches and sets of another mini fire-storm of discussion (also witness here and here).   ”Why’d he come out?  Is he hurt?  Are the Nats over-protective?  Are they limiting his pitches??”  *sigh*  No dammit; there’s about Zero good reasons to push any pitcher in April, the Nats have a strong bullpen that will need work, and if your guy isn’t going 9, why bother pushing him through 8 if you don’t have to?  Here’s an interesting observation for those who think he got pulled too early; check Strasburg’s 2012 game logs and look what happened on Opening Day 2012: he went 7 innings on 82 pitches and left.  Wow; its like deja-vu!  Except nobody heard a peep about it last year.  Baseball writers are such hypocrites sometimes (ok rant off).

Note: here’s a story on Grantland from last September from writer Rany Jazayerli, who writes the very good “Rany on the Royals” blog and who does possibly the best baseball podcast out there with Joe Sheehan, talking about pitch counts and the Strasburg situation.  I don’t want to bring back up the Strasburg shutdown situation (which he argues should have happened later than it did) but he has links to other studies on this topic.

Anyway; the situation got me thinking about an old draft post I had about Pitch Counts in general, that stemmed from a podcast conversation on the topic from months ago.  Just last week I posted about Johan Santana, who re-injured his surgically repaired shoulder in 2012 pretty much the day after he was allowed to go 134 pitches to complete a no-hitter.   The general consensus among baseball pundits and professionals is that 100 pitches per outing is a good “benchmark” for starters.  If you get much above 110-115 pitches in an outing you’re pushing it.

But do these pitch counts make sense?  In 2007 Little League established a new set of guidelines for youth pitching limits, going away from the old innings pitched per week limits and going by pitch counts.  Here’s the general guidelines for pitch count limits and for mandatory rest periods now in place for youth baseball:

Age Max Pitches per Day Mandatory Days rest if throw Max
7-8 50 2 days
9-10 75 3 days
11-12 85 4 days
13-16 95 4 days
17-18 105 4 days

Basically, if you throw 76 or more pitches in a day, you’re sitting for 4 days, and the max pitches you can throw gradually rises as you age, topping out at 105 pitches for 17-18 year olds.  There’s a graduating rest scale for throwing fewer pitches by the number and by age (see the above links for exact details if you’re interested).

But here’s the point of this list; If its “ok” for a 17 year old amateur to throw 105 pitches and then rest for four days …. are you really telling me that a Major League Starter, a professional athlete paid millions of dollars with access to the best coaching and training staffs available, a man who is conditioned and trains year round to do nothing BUT throw a baseball for a living … you’re telling me that this person also works more or less off of a 100 pitch limit??

Are we too worried about pitch counts?  If Strasburg hits 115 pitches, are we really going to start talking about how the world is ending and how Davey Johnson is abusing his pitcher?  What is a more realistic pitch count limit for professionals?

Research seems to show that there is a Pitch Count threshold at which even professionals seem to be affected.  And that limit seems to be right around 120 pitches per outing.  This Baseball Prospectus study in 2002 by Keith Woolner shows that a 120+ pitch outing will result in a distinct drop-off in subsequent pitching performances in pitchers for the next few weeks, supporting the notion that you can really “over-work” a pitcher to the detriment of his health (as we saw with Santana clearly; his ERA pre and post 134 pitch performance in 2012 was 2.75 and 8.27).  I just wish this research was updated: he based it off of stats from a decade ago and I feel like enough has changed in the game that the study needs revisiting.

I can’t find any “in-game” pitch count studies showing how much a pitcher’s performance dropped off after the 120th pitch, but the BP study mentioned here is really the concern.  If your performance is impacted for weeks after a long outing, that’s proof enough for me to yank a guy before he gets to 120 pitches in a game.

So perhaps we SHOULD be worried about pitch counts, but only if we get someone above 120 pitches.  Here’s a quick glance at the max pitches our 5 starters threw last year:

  • Strasburg: 119 pitches on June 8th in Boston, a season-high 13 Ks.
  • Gonzalez: 119 pitches on Aug 31st to finish off a 5-hit shutout against St. Louis.
  • Zimmermann: 112 pitches on Sept 29th against St. Louis, his final start of the regular season.
  • Jackson: 123 pitches on Aug 30th to complete 8 innings of 4-hit ball vs St. Louis.
  • Detwiler: 100 pitches on May 25th to labor through 4 1/3 in Atlanta.

and just for good measure:

  • Haren: 126 pitches on May 24th vs Seattle to finish off a 4-hit shutout with 14 Ks.

You can see how managers sometimes go against their better judgement to allow pitchers to finish off shutouts and no-hitters.  Two of these six pitchers had their highest totals trying to finish off shutouts.  How do you tell a guy with a shutout through eight innings that he’s done because he’s reached some arbitrary pitch limit?   Interestingly, Johnson allowed two of his guys to get their highest totals in the August show-down series with St. Louis.  What’s also interesting about the above numbers is just how little Detwiler was trusted; his MAX effort all year was 100 pitches; talk about being treated with kid gloves.  I wonder if he’s going to be trusted to go deeper into games this year.

Conclusion: I’ll now scoff anytime someone whines about a 100 or 110 pitch limit for a pro, but will go bananas if our guys broach 120 unless there’s mitigating circumstances.

(post-script: Counter point from Jeff Passan who talks about pitch count abuse done to the obscene in Japan).

Nats Off-season News Items Wrap-up 11/18/11 edition

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With more Wild Cards, get ready to see scenes like this more and more. AP Photo via infopop.cc

Here’s a weekly wrap up of Nats-related news items, along with other general interest baseball articles, with my thoughts as appropriate.  (Note: these news items are more or less chronological in the Saturday-to-Friday blog post news cycle i’m using, with me going back and adding in clarifying links as needed).

  • Great news: Wilson Ramos was rescued with apparently on 11/11/11 no bodily harm and no ransom paid.  This is a great end to this saga, which really could have gone so much worse for Ramos and his family.  Mark Zuckerman reports on the details of the rescue.
  • Interesting read from Jon Paul Morosi, who interviews an anonymous american player about life in the Venezuelan Winter League.  The player wanted to stay anonymous, but he didn’t seem to really say anything of note that would require protecting his identity.  Better safe than sorry though.
  • Joe Sheehan, writing for si.com, mentions both Bryce Harper and Sammy Solis in his AFL review of players to watch on 11/10/11.  He saw Solis’ 4-inning/9 K game and was impressed.  I would be to if a 6’5″ lefty could throw 94mph and punch out guys at will.  That’s Solis’ “ceiling.”
  • As if it wasn’t enough to do analysis of the current FA crop, Buster Olney apparently was bored and did a year-too-early analysis of the 2012 free agent crop.  I only post this because it corresponds with one of my frequent matras about this off season; don’t waste your FA dollars competing for 2-3 front-line pitchers.  Wait for 2012 when there’s 10-12 good candidates.
  • More BA links related to the Nats top 10 prospects, announced last week.  Here’s the free version of the top-10 with scouting reports, the Organization quick-overview page.
  • BA’s Jim Callis 11/9/11 editorial piece about how the Nats picked “a good time to be bad.”
  • For Yu Darvish fans, yet another scouting reportAnd another oneTom Verducci posted a very well done piece demonstrating how most pitchers from NPB hit “The Wall” 2 years into their MLB careers, also noting that there has never been a single Japanese pitcher to make more than one all-star team.  Fangraphs.com has a bunch more articles on Darvish from a few weeks ago, and BaseballAmerica has some as well for you to find at your leisure.  Side-story: In one of the weekly chats last week (can’t remember which one) a very good point was made about using previous Japanese pitchers as comparisons to Darvish.  The chat-host flat out called it racist.  I have certainly drawn those same comparisons, looking at player’s birth place (as a way of determining NPB-graduates) and asking whether or not there’s ever been a huge success story for a Japanese-born pitcher.  I don’t view this as racist; just factual.  When I point out that there’s never been (for example) a French-born star baseball player, there isn’t a subsequent implication that “there fore all French baseball players are crap.”  Therefore I will continue to point out that Darvish, as a NPB-graduate, comes with risk no matter what his scouting report or genetic make up happens to be.  And my stance is that the risk involved isn’t worth the likely 9-figure price tag.
  • Wow the Marlins are doing some serious FA inquiries.  Rumors this week that they’re talking with Jose Reyes, Albert Pujols, Mark Buehrle AND new Cuban FA Yoenis Cespedes.  Those players alone would probably represent something in the range of $400M of guaranteed contracts.  I just have a really hard time believing that this club, which has sucked revenue sharing money for years and easily transferred it into the owner’s pockets, will suddenly do an about-face and actually spend the money they need to be competitive.  Really hard time believing it until I see it.  Jeff Passan agrees with me.
  • Thanks to DistrictOnDeck for transcribing a few points of the Mike Rizzo-Jim Bowden conversation on mlb radio this week.  I can’t help but taking note of the glaring discrepancy in Rizzo’s double-speak when it comes to pitching.  Despite having his 1-2-3 already being set for the 2012 rotation (Strasburg, Zimmermann, Lannan) and re-signing Wang this week, Rizzo still says that at the same time he wants to “bring in another starter” AND have the likes of Milone/Peacock/Detwiler compete for the 5th starter.  Well, which is it?  Because if you buy another FA starter, there is no 5th spot available.  Not unless we’re about to see a non-tender for John Lannan.
  • Excellent post from David Schoenfeld, in the wake of the Ryan Madson $44M contract being withdrawn, about the value of closers and the need to have a marquee closer at all in the modern game.  In the post, he lists the named closers of the past 10 WS winners, and his point is this; its littered with names of guys who were clearly not elite-level closers.
  • Interesting opinion piece from Jim Breen on FanGraphs about Hard-Slotting.  Breen posits the same opinion i’ve read over and over from Keith Law in the anti-draft slotting camp; they both claim it will “drive players to other sports.”  They use names like Zach Lee, Bubba Starling, and Archie Bradley as recent examples of guys who were legitimate 2-sport stars and were “bought” out of football commitments at major Div-I universities by virtue of the large bonuses they received.  Here’s the problem I have with this stance: where’s the proof?  I just have a hard time believing that these athletes, when presented with a choice, would have a larger-than-slot bonus make up their minds.  You’re either a baseball-first player or not, irrespective of your talents and desires in a secondary sport.  Nowhere in these arguments have I ever seen an interview or a survey where these two-sport stars are actually asked the basic question, “Would you be playing college football if your guaranteed baseball bonus was smaller than what you got.”  Its all assumptions, and this article is no different (posting the assumption that Lee “would not be playing  baseball right now if there was a hard-slotting system.”
  • Good information to know from Dave Cameron‘s fangraphs chat: the BABIP on ground-balls is .235 for ground balls, .130 for fly balls, .720 for line drives.  Cool.
  • Here’s a funny article from Baseball Prospectus on Hot Stove League terminology and how to interpret it.
  • Joe Lemire writes a great piece highlighting the safety issues and general decline of Venezuelan baseball over the past decade, in light of the Ramos kidnapping.
  • I first took note of Tax issues during last off-season’s Cliff Lee sweepstakes, noting that he faced perhaps a 12% difference in salary by taking a deal to stay in Texas versus New York.  Eric Seidman looks at the same issue and more with his great article in FanGraphs titled “Jock Tax.”  Conclusion; taxes for athletes are ridiculously complex.
  • Phillies sign Jonathan Papelbon to a 4 yr/$50M contract.  Well, I guess they’re not going to be re-signing Ryan Madson. The Phillies resign Papelbon basically for the same money they had been paying Brad Lidge, so its not going to directly lead to an increase in their payroll.  But as someone who openly questions the value of closers in general, I have to criticize the move as wasting money on a player they could replace from within for a fraction of the cost.  David Schoenfield agrees with this sentiment.
  • Adam Kilgore has a nice little primer on the upcoming GM and Owners meetings in Milwaukee.  He does some quick Nats off-season planning analysis, and I agree with him that it’s looking more and more like the team is going to pursue someone like Mark Buehrle or Roy Oswalt, meaning that the Detwiler/Peacock/Milone battle for 5th starter may not actually happen.  This would imply the team is looking to trade these guys, presumably for CF talent.  Lots of moving parts.
  • Si.com’s Jon Heyman broke news on 11/14 from the GM meetings that prospective Houston Astro’s owner Jim Crane has accepted the condition of moving his team to the AL west as a prerequisite to ownership approval.   Interleague blurring, here we come.  ESPN reports that this MLB “demand” was a condition of the sale of the team to Crane.  You have to love Bud Selig and his hard-line ways, given his precious anti-trust exemption.
  • The Nats outrighted both Cole Kimball and Corey Brown from the 40-man on 11/16/11 and lost Kimball to Toronto.  My thoughts here along with a healthy discussion.
  • Courtesy of Craig Caltaterra, a fantastic blog entry just crucifying Peter Angelos.
  • Op-ed piece about proposed draft changes, from ESPN’s David Shoenfeld.
  • Another Collective bargaining agreement fall out: elimination of compensation picks for type-B free Agents.  Probably a wise move; type B free agents are usually not valued nearly as much as a supplemental first round pick, leading to hijinks in the draft system by teams who covet these picks.  Frankly, the revampment to the system that needs to be done is the reliever classification.  How is Darren Oliver, a 41-yr old loogy possibly a type A free agent??  That classification immediately eliminates half the league from even looking at him, and probably the other half as well (meaning they’d be giving up a 2nd round pick at worst).  The union has to be upset at the way their veteran players have their job movement limited by this classification.  Ironically, about 5 minutes after I wrote this, Buster Olney also used Oliver as an example as to why the system needs to change.
  • In the “no surprise here” category, Hanley Ramirez isn’t keen on switching positions should the Marlins, who have been woo-ing every FA out there this off season, somehow acquire Jose Reyes.  Ramirez is pretty much the ultimate non-team player and the Marlins have spent far too long coddling him and cow-towing to his demands.  Good luck EVER getting him to agree to anything that isn’t Hanley-first.
  • Ex-Nats rumors: Jason Marquis apparently has interest from his “hometown” NY Mets for a 2012 contract.  I say that’s great news for the Veteran hurler, who had to be dismayed when he broke his leg in a contract year.  Even if its a non-guaranteed deal, or for significantly less money than he got from us two years ago (2yrs $15M), he deserves another shot.
  • Interesting side effect of MLB’s obscure player transaction rules: by virtue of the Angels only sending Mike Trout down for 17 days instead of 20, the demotion still counted towards his 2011 service time.  This has two implications: Trout officially now has served his rookie season and won’t be eligible for the 2012 Rookie of the Year award, AND the Angels now are in serious jeopardy of exposing Trout to eventual “Super-2″ status.  The first point is a slight shame for Trout, who seems set to rocket into prominence in this league based on his minor league production.  The second point is “shame on the Angels” for not knowing the rules; if Trout is as good as promised, this mistake could cost them millions and millions of dollars.  WP Dave Sheinin did a great study about Stephen Strasburg‘s super-2 status, comparing it to Tim Lincecum‘s, and concluded that avoiding super-2 for superstars can save a team almost $20Million.  Seriously.
  • Why is this news?  The Nats and Ryan Zimmerman, a player who is signed through 2013 havn’t talked about a contract extension.  So what?  This shouldn’t be news until NEXT off-season.  I don’t care that Kemp signed a big deal, or that Braun got locked up for a few more years, or that Tulowitzki signed a ridiculous deal through 2020.  Just because YOU jumped off a bridge doesn’t mean I have to.  If i’m the Nats GM, I wouldn’t sign on for an 8year contract, let alone a 5year, for a guy who has missed significant chunks of the last few seasons through injury until I saw him back at the 155-160 game level.  He’s only 26, but has already had three major injuries (hamate bone surgery, left labrum and this year’s abdomen surgery).  Plus he missed the last couple weeks of the 2010 season with a muscle strain.  That’s a lot of medical on a young guy.  Maybe the musings of some other Nats bloggers on the topic could have some credence.
  • Its official; two wild cards coming in 2013Judge Landis is rolling in his grave.  Actually I’m somewhat ok with this news; I think more needs to be done to mitigate the possibilities of Wild Cards winning the World Series.  If a play-in round is introduced that thins your pitching staff and makes it harder to advance, i’m all for it.  I’m not a 100% traditionalist but I do like to see teams that win the most regular season games actually competing for the World Series, instead of the St. Louis Cardinals sneaking in as a last-second wild card and winning the championship.

Nats Off-season News Items Wrap-up 11/4/11 edition

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Wang re-ups for his 3rd year in a Nats uniform. Photo from Washington Nationals photo day.

Here’s a weekly wrap up of Nats-related news items, with my thoughts as appropriate.

  • MLBtraderumor’s Tim Dierkes announced that the cutoff for this year’s “Super-2″ status is 2 years, 146 days.  This cutoff means that two (and possibly three) Nats players made the cut and will be in line for a 4th arbitration season.  Jordan Zimmermann made it by 8 days, Tyler Clippard by 2 days (!), and Roger Bernadina (at least according to Amanda Comak‘s calculations; he’s missing from Dierkes’ list).  In Bernadina’s case, it may not matter, as he’s out of options for 2012, isn’t likely to make the roster anyway and seems a certainty for a non-tender.  We’ll save salary speculation for a future post as we get closer to the arbitration dates.  11/1 update: Dierkes responded to my comment in this blog posting and said that his personal calculations determined that Bernadina missed the cutoff.
  • Tim Dierkes is a busy man; he has a series of FA analysis by position and posted his Center Field analysis over the weekend.  Considering that the Nats have been looking for a quality center fielder essentially since moving to Washington, the analysis is a good read.  The news isn’t good; Dierkes only projects ONE viable CF FA candidate: Coco Crisp (quotes later in the week though confirm that Crisp wants to stay on the west coast, making him a less likely candidate).  He mentions Grady Sizemore as being worth a flier but no guarantee to be healthy.  There’s some “thinking outside the box” candidates, guys who are older and who could hold on to CF for another year, but if the Nats were to do that we might as well either go with Jayson Werth in center or re-sign Ankiel.  Trade potential BJ Upton is still there, and I’m sure he’s still available for the right price.  Perhaps the Nats could package a bunch of prospects for both Upton and Shields.  One other interesting name to consider: Melky Cabrera.  Nice season, nearly a 20/20 guy.  Getting a bit expensive for KC… maybe we could flip them some pitching surplus.
  • Sammy Solis has marginally improved as the AFL has gone forward, putting in a 4ip, 1run performance on Oct 29th.  Meanwhile, what is going on with Matthew Purke?  In three appearances through 10/29 he’s given up 11 runs on 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings.  Not good.  We may have to just shield our eyes until spring training.
  • Bill Ladson reported on a conversation he had with Mike Rizzo about the Nats off-season plans, and the takeaway seems to be that the team “has made no promises” to Adam LaRoche about playing time in 2012.  I just have a hard time believing that the team plans on just ignoring 1/8th of their payroll (LaRoche’s $8M salary on last year’s $68M payroll) by signing a replacement.  Rizzo pursued and signed LaRoche for a reason; good defense and adequate bat.  At least, that’s the idea.  Personally I have a hard time believing that Albert Pujols is leaving St. Louis, and I’ll bet that Fielder stays in the NL central as well (perhaps replacing Carlos Pena in Chicago as Theo Epstein‘s first big signing).
  • ESPN’s Buster Olney believes the Nats will look at Grady Sizemore, recently having his 2012 option declined by the Indians, as a center field option.  I suppose Sizemore is no more of a risk than it would be to resign Rick Ankiel, or to experiment with Werth in center and a player to be named (Laynce Nix?) in right.  It would be ironic to see Sizemore come back to the team that drafted and developed him, only to trade him in an incredibly damaging deal for a few months rental of Bartolo Colon.
  • Taken from a link in the previous Olney posting, the “Field of Dreams” property in Iowa used to make the movie of the same name is being sold.  Visitors come by the thousands even to this day to see the makeshift field built into a century-old farmland.  What I find neat is the apparent unassuming nature of the owners and the fact they’ve never really attempted to commercialize the property.  In that respect, it reminds me of Cooperstown, which I visited for the first time this past summer (blog post in the works with pictures) and found to be amazingly quant and un-tarnished by the type of tourist-driven revenue generators you find at other places in this country.
  • A post courtesy of Rob Neyer‘s blog about the seemingly imminent move of the Astros to the AL West points out a salient points the Houston fan base would have to put up with; more 9:05pm local starts as the team travels to play new rivals on the West coast.  This likely will badly affect their TV ratings.  Will the Astros take to having new divisional rivals in the Angels, A’s and Mariners well?  It doesn’t seem to have really hurt the Rangers, who have the same issue.  One has to think an intra-state, intra-divisional rivalry with the Rangers would be fantastic for both teams though.  Imagine 18 games and state bragging rights at stake for a state that takes its bragging rights (in all matters, both sports and non) very seriously.
  • All 8 of our free agents filed as soon as the FA filing period opened, as reported by Adam Kilgore.  I’ve got a post coming up on thoughts on the 8 free agents and which I think we should look at resigning.
  • Jon Heyman‘s first off-season column addresses some of the main “questions” facing baseball this off-season and he includes answering some of the major FA rumors.  He lists the Nats as favorites for both Prince Fielder and CJ Wilson.  Signing both would instantly add $30M of payroll to a team that already projects at somewhere in the $65M already basically allocated (we owe $45M in guaranteed contracts on the books now, probably somewhere in the range of $13M to clear our arbitration cases, and the rest being minimum salaries to 40-man guys).  Are the Lerners ready to step up and pay this kind of money?
  • Heyman’s article also notes that the last remaining issue in the MLB contract negotiations relates to Draft Slotting.  Bud Selig has been pushing hard for this, as he feels smaller market teams get screwed by agents who know bigger market teams will pay the money for their guys.  Meanwhile the league is apparently read to ditch free agent compensation picks as a bargaining chip.  Certainly the union has to like this (especially for relievers, who get labeled type-A and suddenly can’t find work).
  • Dodger Fan’s long nightmare may be over: Frank McCourt is apparently willing to sell the team for $1B in a deal that seems to completely remove him from gaining any additional benefit from the team (meaning, he has to divest the parking lots he was threatening to keep control over).  Now if only Bud Selig would consider a decent replacement owner instead of one of Selig’s friends or whoever greased his palm most recently … ah modern baseball.  11/2/update: maybe there won’t be a Selig-appointee; apparently the team will be sold at auction.  Great!  That means an owner not necessarily hand-picked by Selig and his cronies.  I’d love to see Mark Cuban get involved but apparently he was approached a few months ago and backed out.
  • Baseballamerica.com had a front-page feature on the Nats on 11/1.
  • FanGraphs’ top 15 Nats prospects wasn’t too surprising (also posted 11/1).  I’m amazed how high AJ Cole is (called the top pitcher in the system, barely eclipsing the promise of both Alex Meyer and Matthew Purke).  And I’m amazed how far Derek Norris has fallen.  The article also points out something rather interesting: the Potomac rotation could be Meyer, Purke, Cole, Ray and then someone like Selik.  Wow.
  • SI.com’s Ben Reiter put out his list of the top 50 FAs available and has the Nats on Jose Reyes and Coco Crisp, but not Prince Fielder or Edwin Jackson.  I guess I wouldn’t complain if we got both or either guy; either would ably fit into the lead-off spot that we’ve struggled with for years (and if we got both put them 1-2 … and move both Espinosa and Desmond’s .220 batting averages to the bottom of the order).
  • And here’s Tim Dierkes’s top 50 FA list with guesses on destinations: He has the Nats mentioned as an interested party with most of the top names and signing only CJ Wilson of his top 50 list.
  • And here USA Today’s Paul White‘s top 50 FA list, with the Nats projected to land Coco Crisp, Freddie Garcia (?!?) and Chein-Ming Wang.   His comment as to why we’d sign Garcia?  “Short term fix while the kids develop.”  It makes one wonder if he’s seen the state of our starting pitching frankly.  There’s little reason to doubt Milone or Peacock (or some combination of both) being able to fit into the 5th starter.
  • Ron Dibblewow.
  • Gold Glove winners announced; there doesn’t seem to be any egregiously bad winners like there was last year (Derek Jeter).  There were some complaints from the likes of Rob Neyers about the AL shortstop selection, using the Fielding Bible awards as his source.  But lets face it; the voters for the golden gloves probably spend about 20 seconds on it, when handed the form while dealing with a gazillion other items in September after a long season.  They’re voting reputations, not Uzr/150 results.  In fact i’d wager that fully 75% or more of the voters couldn’t tell you what Ultimate Zone Rating is or how it measures defensive capabilities.
  • SI’s Joe Sheehan puts out a nice overview of each division’s “state of franchise” post, and his thoughts on the Nats are interesting.  He has no idea if the team is going to be spooked byWerth’s contract and poor production, and suggests trading Tyler Clippard for a CF.
  • Chien-Ming Wang has officially re-signed with the team, per this SI article late Wednesday night.  We got details thursday: 1yr, $4M with some incentives.   That’s a bit more than I predicted (I was thinking something in the range of $2.5M as a guess).  But it still seems like a good deal, all things considered.  I’ll take a $4M #4 pitcher versus the $7.5M Marquis cost, and he seems like he could very well improve on his 2011 performance.
  • Byron Kerr has a rather effusive article on Sammy Solis (calling his fastball “lethal” and “high-velocity?”  Sorry Byron; he’s got #3 starter stuff, not Randy Johnson-esque power) and his efforts to learn a new pitch; a regular curve-ball.  Solis has used a knuckle-curve that spins/breaks more violently, but is harder to control.  He’s reached the point in his career where he needs alternatives to fastballs and change-ups that he can count on, and hopefully this helps him to the next level.  This is a common theme; high schoolers with merely upper 80s stuff can routinely get away with blowing the ball by most of the opposing lineups of weakling 16-18yr olds and sometimes experience a reality check when going up against hitters who can make the adjustment.
  • The Nats exposed Brian Bixler to waivers (i.e., designated him for assignment to remove him from the 40-man) and he got claimed by the Astros.  Not a major loss (he had a 47 ops+ last season), but still someone who could have helped out next year had he passed through to our AAA roster and been able to be “stashed” in Syracuse.  Best of luck to him.  His position is easily replaced from within from someone like Lombardozzi, or on the FA market similar to our 2011 signings of Hairston and Cora.
http://www.mlb.com/milb/stats/stats.jsp?pos=P&sid=l119&t=p_pbp&pid=545357

Pettitte was a very good pitcher… but no Hall of Famer

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Pettitte stares down another hitter. Photo noahhunt.org

Andy Pettitte‘s retirement (see my previous post for thoughts on its effect on the Yankees season) has lead to a series of inevitable posts about his Hall of Fame worthiness.  Si.com’s Joe Sheehan wrote this opinion piece after Pettitte’s retirement, saying that “Modern era of baseball demands Cooperstown find place for Pettitte.”  I won’t really go into his arguments except to say that he believed that Bert Blyleven was “wildly overqualified” for the hall, a position that I “wildly” disagree with and posted as much here about a month ago.  So its doubtful that I’d agree with his sentiments.

(Note; for the purposes of this article we will ignore the fact that Pettitte’s chances of getting voted into the hall in light of his PED usage admissions are somewhere between zero and nil anyway, and just think of his career in its merits).

So far, from what I’ve seen from the baseball columnists who have opined on the subject, there seems to be about a 50-50 split pro and con for the Hall.  Joe Lemire seems to agree with Pettitte’s own assertion that he is not Hall-worthy, Buster Olney thinks he’s a borderline candidate but th inks that he may be a Veteran’s committee inductee some day, and Jayson Stark thinks he’s not quite Hall worthy.

For me, Pettitte is NOT a Hall of Famer.  His career numbers show him to be a consistent hurler who was essentially a very good #3 pitcher on a number of very good Yankees teams.  He finishes his career with a 240-138 record, a career 3.88 era, 1.357 career whip and a 117 career ERA+.  His season-ending accomplishments include:

  • 3rd place in his Rookie of the Year voting (losing out to Marty Cordova and Garrett Anderson)
  • 5 years (out of 16) receiving Cy Young votes, though only one of those 5 years was actually meaningful in terms of the voting.  He finished 2nd to Pat Hentgen in the 1996 voting.
  • 3 all star appearances.

His enduring legacy is his post season career, where he has more appearances and more wins than any other pitcher.  He pitched in the post season in 13 of his 16 professional seasons, had 42 starts altogether, and compiled a 19-10 record with a 3.83 era and 1.304 whip.  These numbers are more or less in line with his career numbers, indicating that he was a good pitcher but not great.

I would be a stingy hall voter.  For me the qualifications of a Hall of Fame pitcher include all the analysis of career achievements, but also some semantical arguments:

  • Was the pitcher ever the best player on his team for a consistent period of time?  (no)
  • Was the pitcher a guaranteed shut-down hurler who was worth the price of admission? (no)
  • Was the pitcher regularly an all star and frequently STARTED the all star game? (no)
  • Were you, as a fan of the opposing team, ever “scared” to hear that Pettitte was going against your team? (not really).

At the bottom of Pettitte’s B-R page, his Hall of Fame Monitor score puts him at 42 .. which is better than Jack Morris but below the 50 range that generally qualifies a player as a HoFamer (this is Bill James‘ concoction and the one overall HoF score that I agree with).  But also more telling is the list of pitchers that Pettitte is most like.  Top two: David Wells, Kevin Brown. .  Ironic that these guys were also middle-of-the-rotation Yankees hurlers who gained many wins by virtue of being along for the ride on one of the best teams ever constructed (the late 1990s Yankees teams).

Bottom line; Pettitte was a good teammate and by all accounts a nice guy who made an awful lot of money in his career and goes down as one of the most decorated Yankees ever.  But he’s not one of the BEST ever.

The reported price for Greinke (updated)

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Zack Greinke at the Royal's photo day 2010. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images North America

12/19/10 update: this article is essentially moot: Zack Greinke was dealt to Milwaukee along with infielder Yuniesky Betancourt for four players (outfielder Lorenzo Cain, shortstop Alcides Escobar and pitching prospects Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress (who played HS ball in South Boston ironically enough).  I’m not familiar enough with the Milwaukee prospects to offer opinion one way or the other; here’s some opinions on the trade from FanGraphs, Ken Rosenthal, Jerry Crasnick, Joe Sheehan, and Keith Law.  Also from beat writers Kilgore and Zuckerman.

And, according to Jon Heyman via twitter, the Nats were close to a deal for Greinke in a deal that may or may not have included Storen and Espinosa.  Read more below.

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About 6 weeks ago the question of a possible Nat’s trade for Zack Greinke came up in a Keith Law chat (link is ESPN insider only) and the trade proposal was Zimmermann, Espinosa, Burgess and Detwiler.  I wrote about this theoretical deal at the time, saying it was too much to give up.

A glass-is-half empty analysis of these four players (which was apparently the opinion of Law, since he thought this would be a good deal for Washington) is something along the lines of the following: Zimmermann is promising pitcher but has yet to really produce consistently at the major league level.  Espinosa is also promising but is replaceable by our up-and-coming 2nd base prospects Lombardozzi and KobernusBurgess has been solidly improving as he’s progressed through the system but he’s still the toolsy/high promise player that Jim Bowden adored but which has never really panned out.  Lastly Detwiler has shown flashes of dominance but lost pretty much the entirety of 2010 to injury and is getting pushed further and further down the rotation depth chart.

The glass-is-half full opinion of these four players is simple: they represent the bulk of our farm system’s player development over the past few  years.  These four players represent the absolute cream of our drafting crop over the past few  years; a #1, a supplemental #1, a #2 and a #3 round draft pick.

Now today, we are hearing the TRUE bounty that Greinke would cost, and it is similarly heavy.   Greinke has hired new agents and apparently demanded a trade.  He also has a limited clause in his contract that allows him to block trades to certain teams, and the Nats are on that list.  According to Buster Olney though, the Royals and Nats have been talking and he discovered the actual price it would take (another ESPN insider link): Zimmerman, Espinosa and new closer Drew Storen.  On 12/24/10, KLaw reported that the offer was Zimmermann, Storen, Norris.  Wow that would have been quite the bounty.

This trade option replaces the unknown players (Detwiler and Burgess) with the known quantity (Storen), and only seems slightly less palatable than the Law chat proposal.  Can the Nats possibly give up 3 of their planned “starting 14″ players (the 8 out-field players, the 5 rotation guys and the closer) next year for Greinke?

Here’s my problem: Greinke had the makings of looking like an otherwise solid pitcher with a one-year wonder season that won him the Cy Young in 2009.  Is he really an “Ace” in this league?  His 2010 season was unremarkable (an ERA+ of exactly 100, meaning he performed at the mlb average), but now scouts are surmising that he was tired of his team going nowhere and he was “bored” most of the year.  But the fact remains there is no guarantee he returns to his 2009 performance.

If i’m Rizzo, I say no to this deal.

One last note about possibly overvaluing “prospects.”  Storen, Espinosa and Zimmermann are not prospects; they’ve graduated to becoming “promising young players.”  They have all made the majors, they’ve all competed at the highest levels and the Nats have a decent idea of what they can do.  Guys like Detwiler (because of his injury history) and players who have never reached the majors (Burgess as mentioned in this post) are the real “prospects” in question.  Teams and Fans overvalue prospects in a pseudo-parental relationship because they’ve watched the players grow up and grow.  But as Rosenthal pointed out (in the linked article above), prospects mostly flame out or don’t become major leaguers.  That’s the difference; teams MUST be willing to part with prospects to get real players.

How’s that anit-trust exemption looking now?

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A couple of interesting “leaks” have occurred this week, and enterprising investigative baseball reporters like Yahoo’s Jeff Passan and Baseball Prospectus’ Joe Sheehan (though writing for Sports Illustrated online here) have summarized a couple of startling baseball economics issues that might have some serious impact on the baseball landscape, the upcoming Union negotiations, and owner relationships in general.

First, the Passan article.  In essence, he criticizes the Marlins (and by proxy the Nationals for doing mostly the same thing) for browbeating the town of Miami into mostly funding their baseball stadium.  His criticism lies with the essense of the Sheehan article, namely that the Marlins claimed to be losing money while actually earning a TON of money and thus not spending as much as they “could” have to help with the ballpark financing.  The Marlins arguments are not helped by reports such as this one, or the release of Forbes baseball team valuations, or the fact that MLB and the players union basically told the team they had to spend more money in the spring of 2010.

The Sheehan article points out a fundamental flaw in baseball’s revenue sharing system; specifically that teams who want to make money can keep payroll low, be non contenders and take in millions in revenue sharing.  He singles out the Pirates, who made a large showing of deliberately trading away all its vets in the last two years, trading away near-arbitration eligible players and flat out releasing Matt Capps last year to save $500k in anticipated arbitration salary increases.  And it is hard not to argue with him.

What should be done?  First and foremost, you have to think that some owners are going to have something to say to their fellow owners.  Why should the Yankees be writing checks to Pittsburgh that are going straight into their owner’s pocket?  I agree 100% that revenue sharing money should be spent on the team.  No ifs ands or buts.  I can see this argument spilling over into an NFL-esque revenue sharing issue (where the wealthy teams like Washington, Dallas and New England are tired of evenly splitting revenues with other teams that don’t market as aggresively).

Relocation doesn’t seem to be an option.  A recent article in the St. Petersburg Times discussing the Rays possibilities of moving highlighted the issue: When the Expos moved to Washington, the last remaining obvious baseball market candidate was filled.  The next largest  major market without a major league baseball team is Portland, which is far smaller in terms of households and population than Tampa, Pittsburgh, and other so called “small markets.”  Frankly it would make more sense for a relocating team to move to Brooklyn, Riverside or even back to Montreal than it would to move to a place like Charlotte, Las Vegas, Portland or San Antonio.  Even Sacramento is a better option (and no one ever talks about moving a team there, not with the issues the Oakland A’s are having).

Honestly there is no good answer, just as there is no good answer on a salary cap/floor.  Get better owners (oh wait, the good ole boys club of Bud Selig prevents that too, resulting in shadier back room deals every time a team is sold.  See the Loria transaction in acquiring the Marlins in the first place).

*sigh*.

Written by Todd Boss

August 25th, 2010 at 1:15 pm