Nationals Arm Race

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

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Ladson’s inbox 12/19/13

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Harper behind the plate?  Photo GQ magazine Mar 2012

Harper behind the plate? Photo GQ magazine Mar 2012

Well, it isn’t like I didn’t have enough content to publish this week (with 7 seasonal reviews coming out, each of them between 1500 and 3000 words).  But Nats mlb.com beat reporter Bill Ladson had to come out with an inbox on 12/19/13, so lets do some rare weekend posting so we can talk about the system-wide pitching staff projections on monday.

As always, these are real questions from (presumably) real people.  I write my response here before reading his to avoid bias, and edit questions for clarity.  Here we go:

Q: Are the Nationals done as far as improving the team for next year?

A: I don’t think so: I still see a veteran catcher, a better backup infielder, and another lefty in the pen as possible acqusitions.  On my little “off-season Nats todo-list” the only one of these that I think *must* happen is the backup catcher.  Per mlbtraderumors.com 2014 FA Tracker I see some names still out there that could work: John Buck i’ve heard in rumors somewhere, and someone like Kelly Stoppach could work.  Honestly I havn’t done a ton of research on veteran backup catchers, so these may be awful suggestions.

Right now whose your backup infielders?  Are you ready to go to war with either Zach Walters or Danny Espinosa in that role?  Steve Lombardozzi got 300+ plate appearances in 2013, more the year before.  Jerry Hairston got 238 PAs in 2011 while Alex Cora ot 172.  Basically the point is this: your backup infielder is going to get a LOT of at-bats.  You need to have someone reliable.  I would not entirely call either Walters (lack of experience) or Espinosa (apparent lack of capability) proven right now.

I don’t see the need to go all out for another lefty reliever, but i’m also not Mike Rizzo.  We have some options internally that we could use.

Ladson mentions middle infield and a backup catcher as well, and then surprises me with his mention of Shin-Soo Choo, a personal favorite of mine who I’d love to see here hitting lead-off and playing LF in the short-term.  But not in center, where he proved he was awful last year, and not for 7 years and 9-figures like he seems to be set to get.  I’d be absolutely shocked if the Nats committed those kind of dollars for Choo, given his age and likely fall-off.

Q: With MLB looking to ban home-plate collisions, could you see the Nats giving Bryce Harper a chance behind the plate if Wilson Ramos can’t stay healthy? 

A: No way.  It isn’t just about collisions; its the wear and tear, its taking a guy’s bat out of the lineup once or twice a week.  Harper was never going to be a full time catcher, not with his once-in-a-generation premium bat.  Ladson agrees.

Q: Do you think pitchers Nathan Karns, Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole will be used in spot starts this season?

A: Karns yes, Cole doubtful and Giolito no way.   It all comes down to 40-man roster manipulations.  Right now Karns is on the roster so he can get called up and down every week and it has no effect on anything but his service time accumulation (which teams have shown lately that they’re less and less concerned about).  Cole, if he dominates in AA could see a similar call-up to what Taylor Jordan and Karns got last year … except that the team has significantly more starter depth this year.  Maybe Cole can be a 9/1/13 call-up; he is rule-5 eligible after the 2014 season and will have to be added to the 40-man roster anyway.  As for Giolito, there’s just no way he’s sniffing the majors until he’s ready.  Right now he’s the prize asset in the farm system and he needs to develop so that he can arrive in the majors right as the team needs to make some key decisions on personnel.   Ladson agrees.

Q: Could you please explain to me why Zach Walters is only No. 11 on the list of the Nats’ top prospects? The numbers he put up last season are pretty amazing.

A: Mostly people seem to be concerned about his OBP, which has dropped at every level and was only .286 in Syracuse last  year.  He has always struck out a ton; 134 in 134 games last year, more or less averaging a K/game for his ML career.  That being said … you don’t find guys who can hit 29 homers and play Shortstop on trees.  And last I checked, you trade off some OBP and some excessive K’s for guys who can hit a ton of bombs.  Maybe scouts are just in denial.  Lots of people think the team should flip him now based on his 2013 season, but if he can do anything close to those numbers in the majors he’s doubly-valuable.  Ladson thinks he’ll be ranked much higher in the 2014 rankings.

Q: Who do you think will win the fifth spot in the Nationals’ rotation?

A: That’s the question of the off-season.  We’ve argued about it over and again here, and will again next week when I post system-wide predictions.  We’ll save the arguments for then.  Ladson says Tanner Roark, which surprises me frankly.  Lets save arguments on this for my big prediction piece next week.

Q: Do you think Espinosa will be a valuable backup for the Nats?

A: Boy I hope so.  But something holds me back; what has changed from the point he was demoted til now?  He hasn’t gotten his shoulder fixed.  He hasn’t stopped switch hitting.  All he did was go to Syracuse and continue to hit poorly.  Why at this point would we think he’s going to do anything better than what he’s already shown us he can do?  Ladson expresses some doubts too.

 

2013 Fantasy Baseball post-mortem

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Verlander just killed me this year.  Photo unk via rumorsandrants.com

Verlander just killed me this year. Photo unk via rumorsandrants.com

My standard disclaimer; this is a whole huge post kvetching about my 2013 Fantasy Baseball team.  If you don’t play fantasy, feel free to skip this 3,000 word missive.  I’ll insert a “jump” line here so that RSS readers don’t have to see this whole massive post :-)

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Taylor Jordan: First Look

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Taylor Jordan trades in his minor league gear for a Nats kit for the first time.  Photo via wffn.net/hueytaxi on flikr.com

Taylor Jordan trades in his minor league gear for a Nats kit for the first time. Photo via wffn.net/hueytaxi on flikr.com

As Luke Erickson noted over on NationalsProspects.com, one of the Nats worst-kept secrets was finally let out of the bag when word broke that Nats 2013 minor-league sensation Taylor Jordan was in New York and was going to make his Major League debut on Saturday June 29th.  Starting in place of “injured” and ineffective starter Dan Haren, Jordan went up against one of the worst offensive teams in Baseball (the Mets are dead last in team batting average, hitting just .229 as a team as of 6/29′s game).  Lets review how Jordan did.

At the end of the day, (a 5-1 Loss for the Nats and a “Loss” for Jordan in his debut), Jordan’s line probably betrays how well he pitched on the day.  Jordan was pulled after 4 1/3 innings and was relatively unlucky to have given up the 3 runs (1 earned) that he did.  After a nervous first inning that included a walk and a HBP, Jordan induced one of many ground ball outs on the night to get out of the jam.  He cruised through the 2nd and 3rd innings relatively unscathed before some bad luck and a couple of bad pitches cost him a run in the third.  He got what looked to be a double-play ball to erase one runner who reached by error but the turn was slow (in fairness, a ball deep to the hole in 2nd and a fast runner conspired against the turn).  He then hung a slider against John Buck who hit it sharply to left to drive in the first of his charged runs in the 4th.

Ryan Zimmerman‘s questionable positioning against the Mets’ cleanup hitter Marlon Byrd led to two fielding errors on sharply hit balls that, despite their pace, should have been outs (why is he playing even with the bag there??  Does he really think Byrd is bunting batting out of the clean-up spot?)   Then a little-league sequence in the 5th led to the 2nd run being scored when Ian Desmond‘s attempt to get Daniel Murphy advancing to third led to a second run.  Jordan’s last charged run was on a sac fly/inherited runner allowed to score by his relief pitcher Craig Stammen.

Jordan featured a fastball that was regularly 91-92 but which peaked at 95.81.  He seemed to tire as the game went on; his peak fastballs were all in the first two innings (perhaps he was “amped up”).  His mechanics reminded you of Jered Weaver, with a sweeping cross-body motion that results in plenty of movement on his pitches.  He featured a very plus change-up, which he commanded well and was able to get key strikes on (he had no issues throwing it to lead-off a hitter, or at 2-0).  His slider didn’t move much, but it also featured as a plus pitch when he kept it down.  He was able to locate his fastball well, as best evidenced in David Wright‘s third at-bat against him, where Jordan fooled him badly with a slider, jammed him inside repeatedly and eventually forced a weak ground-ball to the shortstop to retire him in the 5th.  He gave up some sharply hit balls, but he also was very unlucky as a couple of flairs and bloops fell in just behind the infield.

On the day, he gave up 5 hits, two walks, and a HBP against just one strike-out (against his opposing number Dillon Gee, who he retired with another fantastic change-up).  He wasn’t very efficient on the mound, only throwing 48 of 84 pitches for strikes.  He wasn’t “nibbling” per se, but definitely works the corners and missed his spots.  In the 4th and 5th he was constantly falling behind hitters and (as Masn announcer J.P. Santangelo noted) it eventually caught up with him.  He got 9 ground outs to just 3 fly outs to go along with a handful of bloop singles, and to me its clear what his approach is.  Despite pretty decent K/9 numbers so far in the 2013 minor league season (72 Ks in 90 1/3 innings) he’s definitely a guy who is going to rely on location and a sinking fastball to induce grounders for outs.

All in all, in an oft-repeated mantra for 2013 you can’t win if you don’t score.  He probably was pulled when he should have been and isn’t really at fault for the loss (not when your offense only scores one run against a middling pitcher like Gee).  I think Jordan clearly has earned another start and probably sticks around for a while.

One last note: I can’t help but comment on a cynical but possibly true comment I read in one of the other Nats blogs (my apologies, I cannot remember who said it).  Is Jordan’s call-up a precursor to his being included in a possible trade, much as Mike Rizzo featured both Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock at the end of 2011 prior to shipping them off?  I ask this because Jordan doesn’t seem to be the typical Rizzo guy; he’s not going to overpower you, he doesn’t throw mid 90s.  Then again, neither does Haren and that didn’t stop Rizzo from signing him for $13M.

Either way, I look forward to his next outing.  I’m always excited to watch new guys on the mound.

Whats eating Stephen Strasburg?

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What's eating Gilbert Grape? Photo: howtowatchsports.com

Our Ace, and “Best in the League” by many pundits pitcher Stephen Strasburg is now 1-4 on the season with relatively pedestrian (for him) numbers so far (3.16 ERA, 3.32 FIP, 3.65 xFIP).

So what’s the problem?  Or, more importantly, what is NOT the problem?

First off; I think its safe to say we can ignore his inflated FIP and xFIP numbers for now.  As I pointed out in this April 4th post about my issues with fWAR, FIP focuses entirely on the “Three true outcomes” that a pitcher entirely controls and really does a poor job of measuring pitchers who induce a whole slew of weak ground balls (like Strasburg does).   This is easily seen by looking at the two example cases in the 4/4/13 post to see how FIP measures a guy who strikes out 9 but gives up 5 earned runs higher than a guy who strikes out just a few but gives up zero runs in an outing.

I also do not buy the opinions I’ve heard in various forums and podcasts that hitters are “squaring him up” a lot this year.  You heard this a lot after his 4/19/13 loss to the Mets, when he gave up back-to-back homers to Ike Davis and Lucas Duda in the 6th (two of the three homer’s he’s given up this year, the third being an out-of-this-world chest-high fastball just clubbed out by Evan Gattis).    I don’t buy this because observation has shown that he gives up a TON of bloops, dinks, infield nubbers, etc.  He also has a very low Line-Drive percentage right now; just 14.9% of the balls hit off of him so far this year have been classified as “line drives,” or hard-struck balls.

Dave Cameron of Fangraphs had a piece on ESPN talking about Strasburg and the Nats “pitch to contact” strategy that shows essentially that pitch-to-contact guys don’t really throw that fewer a number of pitches than guys who just try to strike you out.   Is Strasburg’s change in style leading to issues for him?  So far it doesn’t seem so: he’s averaging about 6 1/3 innings per start and has been right around 110 pitches each of his last four despite still going deeper into the game.  But his K/9 is absolutely down (from 11.1 last year to 8.0 this year).

No, I think Strasburg’s issues are these three items.

1. Bad first innings.  Tom Boswell had a great piece on this earlier this week, talking about how a lack of a first pitch strike has really cost Strasburg this year.  And he’s right; pretty much the absolute worst thing you can do as a pitcher is to show a hitter your fastball for a ball at 0-0.   Not only does the hitter get the timing down pretty well on your fastball, but he also gets ahead in the count.  Boswell is probably right in saying that hitters are now trying to jump on the first fastball they get, knowing that getting behind in the count against him is near-certain demise; but Strasburg has to make that adjustment too.  He can’t nibble on first pitch fastballs; he has to be smarter than that.

Strasburg has given up 15 total runs in 5 games this year; fully EIGHT of them have come in the first inning.  That just cannot continue.

2. Bad luck; we’ve watched his games, and he’s not exactly getting pounded when he gives up most of these runs.   Check out the game-logs for his losses:

  • April 7th; 6 runs given up to Cincinnati: in the first he gave up his runs after two infield singles and a walk turned into a 2-rbi double, the only well-hit ball of the inning.  He gave up 3 more in the 6th on some better hit balls and had one runner score after he departed.
  • April 13th: 6 innings pitched, zero earned runs and a loss; Ryan Zimmerman threw away a routine 3rd out and the next guy up clubbed a homer.  Yes, he gave up a homer (it wasn’t as if he made a bad pitch there; Gattis just crushed it) but he never should have been in the position in the first place.
  • April 19th: Two more unearned runs in the first when Desmond booted the first ball of the day; a weak dribbler up the middle.  He gave up two more hits in the 1st but only Buck‘s was really a line-drive.   By the 6th inning he gave up two bombed homers; no bad luck there.
  • April 24th: the lead-off double was earned, but the rest of the hits in the first were opposite field shorter line drives, with the required Nationals infield error thrown in to ensure unearned runs contributing to his day.

Only four of his 15 runs allowed were deemed to be unearned, but we’ve watched the games.  Zimmerman’s error against the Braves decided that game.  Desmond’s error against the Mets set the tone.  The team went down 3-0 in the first against both Cincy and St. Louis at a time when the offense was struggling.  Just can’t do that.  Speaking of the offense…

3. Lack of Run Support.  In his five starts, Strasburg’s offense has scored this many runs for him: 2,3,1,1, and 2.  That’s 1.8 runs per game!  Maybe Bob Gibson in 1968 could have gotten wins with that little run support, but certainly not Strasburg.  The Nats YESTERDAY gave Gio Gonzalez nearly the same total run support that Strasburg has gotten all year.

Written by Todd Boss

April 26th, 2013 at 11:12 am

Loria a disgrace to the Game

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Jeffrey Loria, the biggest con-man in Miami. Photo unknown via si.com

A couple of months ago, I posted an entry titled “Is Jeffrey Loria the worst owner in sports?” after a series of off-season gaffes came to light.  Perhaps that title was prone to hyperbole, as the comment section talked about other awful owners in professional sports.  However, I’m bringing up the topic again.

The previous post was written before Heath Bell was shipped off to Arizona, before Ozzie Guillen was officially fired, and (the reason for this re-hashing of the topic) before the absolutely ridiculous fire-sale trade announced yesterday evening, where the Marlins shipped off the rest of 2011′s off-season acquisitions (Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle), along with their best starting pitcher (Josh Johnson), their starting catcher (John Buck) and a valuable utility player in former Nat Emilio Bonifacio to the Toronto Blue Jays for a quartet of malcontents and decent-at-best prospects.  Oh, just for good measure the Marlins kicked in $4M dollars of (likely) revenue sharing money to boot.

I completely agree with the initial reactions from national baseball writers Bob Nightengale (who called the team a “Ponzi Scheme“), Ken Rosenthal (who says Loria should “just sell the team“), Buster Olney (who calls the Marlins the “Ultimate con“), from Scott Miller (saying that Loria “must be stopped“), from Keith Law (who called the deal a “boondoggle“) and from Jeff Passan (who calls this “a Baseball Tragedy“).  Passan’s article in-particular is worth a read, as it details all the shameful behaviors of Loria and his son-in-law, napoleonistic team president David Samson, in gory details.  You’ll feel the heat of anger just reading each new incident that these two con artists have perpetrated over the years.

Most infuriating to me is that this represents just the latest profiteering injustice that Bud Selig has empowered Loria to commit.  Going back to his days with the Expos (who he left in shambles and which directly led to our first years of franchise incompetence), continuing through to the criminal negotiations resulting in a mostly-publicly funded stadium, now resulting in this dismantling (which leaves the team with roughly $20M in committed 2013 payroll).  The shame is that Loria will pocket MILLIONS and millions more dollars by shedding all these ill-thought contracts.  How is that fair to the baseball fans in Miami, or the taxpayers in Florida, or the players that remain on that team (see Giancarlo Stanton‘s tweet for his opinion of the move), or to the other owners, or to the players union in general?

Selig should absolutely veto this trade in the “Best interests of Baseball” clause, and should force Loria to sell.  The reaction and upheaval from the national media is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed reading and folling the sport.  Enough is enough.  I realize that these moves only benefit us as Nationals fans (since the Miami team is now likely to lose nearly 110 games, ala the 2012 Houston Astros), but my sense of fair play and businessmen obtaining ill-gotten profits spurs me to write this post today.