Nationals Arm Race

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

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Ask Collier; what’s up with the bullpen?

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I'd like to note that Matt Albers is officially listed as 6'1", 225lbs. photo via outsidepitchmlb.com

I’d like to note (using this picture as reference) that Matt Albers is officially listed as 6’1″, 225lbs. photo via outsidepitchmlb.com

A mid-April mailbag from Nats MLB.com beat reporter Jamal Collier.  Probably spurred on by these ugly numbers: 6.00, 6.43, 3.18, 6.75, 10.80, 8.10, and 11.57.  Those are the current (as of 4/18/17) ERAs of the seven “original” bullpen members of your 2017 Nationals.   The only one under 6 is Koda Glover, and for completion I should add that NRI Matt Albers has managed to throw 3 clean innings to help keep the bullpen ERA down.

You  may be saying to yourself, “Man, the Nats bullpen has been the worst in the majors!”  You’re close, but wrong.  There are several teams by any measure that have actually been worse than Washington, believe it or not.  By ERA, there are 3 worse teams.  By fWAR, there are 2 worse teams.  And by FIP there’s one bullpen worse than ours.  In every case, Philadelphia’s bullpen has been even worse.   So we have that going for us.

Lets get to the question.  As always, I answer the question before reading Collier’s answer and sometimes edit questions for clarity.

Q: Why is the bullpen struggling?

A: Because its mid-April, because everything is Small Sample Sizes (SSS), because the Nats struck lightening in a bottle in 2016 while completely remaking their bullpen on the fly but may have struck out this year.  Here’s the opening day roster bullpens over the last few years to highlight just how much turnover we’ve had:

  • 2013: Soriano, Storen, Clippard, Mattheus, Stammen, Rodriguez, Duke
  • 2014: Soriano, Clippard, Storen, Stammen, Blevins, Barrett, Detwiler
  • 2015: Storen, Janssen, Stammen, Thornton*, Cedeno*, Barrett, Roark
  • 2016: Papelbon, Treinen, Kelley, Belisle, Perez*, Rivero*, Petit
  • 2017: Treinen, Kelley, Glover, Blanton, Solis*, Romero*, Perez*

Meaning:

  • From 2013->2014: 4 holdovers, 3 new guys
  • From 2014->2015: 3 holdovers, 4 new guys.
  • From 2015->2016: 0 holdovers, 7 new guys
  • From 2016->2017: 3 holdovers, 4 new guys

Frankly, the fact that a 100% remade bullpen was so successful last year was amazing.  Perhaps now we’re seeing the downside of this lack of consistency.

I trust most of the guys in the 2017 bullpen, based on prior history.  I think I know what to expect out of Treinen, Kelley, Glover, Blanton, Solis and Perez.  Romero we all knew is/was a lottery ticket, and he may be DFA fodder soon.  Albers the NRI could be this year’s Todd Coffey; a successful middle reliever who we got for peanuts.  I think we just need some time.

That being said, lets look role by role and ask ourselves if we think this year’s bullpen is “better” than last.

  • Will Treinen (as closer) be better than Papelbon?  I like his chances.
  • Will Kelley repeat his success of 2016?  No reason not to think so
  • Will Glover give the team what Treinen did last year?  I’m confident.
  • Is Blanton better than Belisle?  Undoubtedly yes.
  • Can Solis match Rivero’s lefty production?  Seems like it based on what he did last year
  • Is Perez the same guy he was last year?  Probably.
  • Can Romero be as bad as Petit was last  year?  Yeah, he probably could.

Maybe you don’t agree with me on these quick takes … but on a general level the message is this: the bullpen this year should be just as good as last year’s.

Collier delves into FIP to find some unluckiness, also notes its SSS.  And he notes that its a MLB-wide trend; bullpens are awful everywhere for some reason this year.


 

Q: How much rope does Blake have left? Is he staying put only because the other options have also struggled?

A: See above: its April 18th.  Treinen has 4 save opportunities, blew one (where he gave up just one hit to blow it), but his most recent outing was an ugly one necessitating some Bryce Harper heroics.  My choice to close would have been Shawn Kelley honestly; more experience, more swing and miss stuff, more proven capabilities of getting guys out on both sides of the plate.  But the team chose otherwise, mostly due to Kelley’s twice-repaired elbow and the need to go back to back nights.  Ask yourself; how often do we need a closer to go back to back nights?  Lets look at last year’s closer Mark Melancon and count how many times he pitched in back to back games for the entirety of 2016: I counted 16 times in 75 appearances.  And in most of those cases, he then got several days off.  I just can’t believe Kelley’s arm is SO FRAGILE that he can’t throw back to back nights.

Do you know how many times Kelley threw on back-to-back days in 2016?  Take a guess.  13 times.  So 13 times last year (or nearly as many as the closer Melancon) Kelley threw on back to back days, but suddenly in 2017 he’s too fragile to depend on to throw back to backs as the closer.

To get back to the question; I’m sure Glover will be closing sooner or later.  It was always looking that way.  How much rope does Treinen have?  Probably at least til mid May.

Collier says its early, that while Treinen has had some issues there’s no change coming anytime soon.


 

Q: Who do you see as potential options in the Minors in case the current bullpen members don’t figure things out and changes need to be made?

A: Great question.  When Albers got called and added to the active roster, it was a severe indictment of all remaining 40-man roster relievers.  That’s be Rafael Martin, Trevor Gott, Austin Adams, and to a lesser extent Jimmy Cordero and Matt Grace.  The first three guys are right handed options, all with MLB experience, all passed over for a guy the team signed for nothing.  That tells me that the team has little to no trust in any of those three guys at the major league level right now.  So who might the team call upon?  Here’s some thoughts:

  • From AAA: Adams is the only guy having a halfway decent season thus far; in 7 2/3rds innings he’s given up just 1 hit (!), walked 6, struck out 12.  The team just re-signed Joe Nathan but I sincerely hope he’s not a legitimate option.
  • From AA; the 5 best guys by WHIP are … the five starters.  So that’s good I guess.  Braulio Lara was an offseason MLFA with a lot of AAA time; he’s got decent AA stats right now and could be an option to move up, but not straight to the majors for me.  Then there’s Ryan Brinley, who is sharing in closing duties but is young and is a total lottery ticket; a 27th rounder from 2015 who is a shock to have even made it this far.  40-man member Cordero is down here… and has a 19.62 ERA right now.  Nice.
  • From XST: there’s three potentially interesting names that could make sense for the bullpen: Derek Eitel, John Lannan, and Josh Outman.  Eitel had solid AAA numbers last year and has been around for a while (age 29); he might be an option to look for.  Outman has parts of 7 years MLB experience, some starting, some relieving and could be an option.  Lastly, the new side-slinger Lannan could be a back-fill for an under-performing Loogie.

I guess the other option would be to take a starter from AAA or AA and bring him up in relief.  But the AAA starters are really struggling right now.  Hill is getting bombed, Voth has given up 15 hits in just 6 1/3 innings, Cole walked 5 guys in his first start, and Turner has a 1.73 whip through 2 turns.  And none of these guys are really known for their blazing fastballs; they’re all command and control starters.  The AA starters look better than the AAA starters, but a couple of them strategically have to stay as starters (namely Erick Fedde and Austen Williams, John Simms to a lesser extent).  Jaron Long and Greg Ross are both MLFA signings who the team may not have as much invested in … perhaps they could be put into shorter relief modes and considered for bullpen spots.  But that’s digging deep.

In other words … there’s not a lot of reinforcements that the team trusts right now.  The MLB bullpen will be given plenty of rope to straighten themselves out.

Collier mentions Albers’ success, Nathan signing, Cotts, Adams and Gott.

 

Minor League Full Season Staff Review 2017 – XST

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He's back! photo via sbnation

He’s back! photo via sbnation

(Last post in this series, then back to the big club).

We have looked at the four full-season staffs, guessing the roles, and talk about the changes of the staffs from the end of last year til now.

Let’s talk briefly about the 40 some-odd guys in XST or unassigned right now, name some surprises and perhaps talk about where they might slot in if/when they get a chance.

See here for Syracuse 2017 review, here for Harrisburg 2017 review, here for Potomac 2017 review, here for Hagerstown 2017 review.

Quick links for rosters for each full season affiliate:

And don’t forget the invaluable work of SpringfieldFan maintaining the Nats Big Board, now in its 12th season!

Notes: Extended Spring Training is abbreviated XST throughout.  Other abbreviations I use often: MLFA == Minor League Free Agent, OOO = Out of the Organization.

Note: since writing this mid last week, we’ve already seen more than a few names get assigned and removed from XST purgatory.  I’ll just cross them out and not change what I originally wrote below.


Extended Spring Training Players to start the 2017 Full Season

I’m heavily depending on the great work of the Big Board for this list.  I count no less than 46 minor league pitchers who are still under contract to this team but who did not get a full season assignment.  A huge percentage of them were on Short-A or Rookie league teams and were more or less expected to repeat the short seasons.  I have not included anyone who was in the DSL last year as being in this list, coincidentally; I only try to keep track of the domestic leagues.

Below is a rough guess as to where these XST guys are intended to slot in if/when they get assigned:

  • AAA: Eitel, Guthrie, Lannan*, Outman, Nathan
  • AA: JDMartin, Blackmar, Benincasa, Rauh
  • High-A: Mayberry, JThomas*, Mendez
  • Low-A: JMorales, ALee, DeRosier, Howell, Dickey
  • Short-A: WPena, YRamierez, DRamos, Aponte, Cespedes, Fuentes, JGomez, Gunter, Mooney, Morse, Reid
  • Rookie: Alastre, Braymer, Baltrip, Amoroso, Barnett, Conner, Eusebio, German, Luzardo, McDonald, Peguero, NRamirez, Rishwain, Tindall, RWilliamson
  • unknown (been in XST for > 1yr): Bates, CFlores, AMartinez, Shackelford

Discussion

AAA: by the time you read this, Jeremy Guthrie may have already taken a spot start in the majors (update: he has, making Saturday’s 4/8/17 start in Philly), which will have implied that he’ll have been added to the 40-man and 25-man, and that he’ll more or less have guaranteed his spot up there for a while (since as a vet, he won’t be able to be assigned back to AAA w/o his consent/passing through waivers).  I’m guessing the other guys make their way to Syracuse at some point, perhaps as cascading back-fills if there’s injuries requiring call-ups to the majors.  2017 spring training NRI Joe Nathan, after this writing, got signed and assigned to AAA.

AA: I could see Martin slotting in at either AA (where he ended up last year) or at AAA (due to his experience).   Blackmar struggled in AA and could get pushed back to High-A.  The other two were release candidates to me.  Update: Blackmar re-assigned back to AA as expected to replace Arias in the rotation.

High-A: All three guys here pitched for Potomac last year, and all three pitched well.  Mendez earned a promotion to AA where he got hit, so maybe he just got caught in a numbers game.  None are release candidates to me so perhaps they all missed out on the AA team but have nothing left to prove in High-A.

Low-A: Morales, Lee and DeRosier were all hurt in 2016 (Morales for the whole season, Lee/DeRosier for just half), so it all depends on the extend of the injuries.  Howell was the fastest 2016 draft class riser .. so its kind of odd he wasn’t put on a full season team.  Maybe they thought he needed more time in Short-A.  Lastly I’m not sure what  you do with Robbie Dickey; two straight years bouncing between short- and low-A with little to show for it.  The 4th rounder represents a somewhat large investment by the club that hasn’t panned out and (even though the concept of “sunk cost” may apply here) he’ll likely get more shots to work out.

Short-A:  this list includes mostly guys who were at Auburn last  year and who didn’t make the  Hagerstown cut, but it also includes some guys who should have gone further by now, so I’d guess we’ll see some releases out of this list, especially once the Rule4 draft rolls around.

Rookie: same as with Short-A, especially for the college-age guys here.  I do look forward to the 2017 debut of Jesus Luzardo of course; he could quickly become our 2nd best starting pitching prospect.

Unknowns: what do you make of players who are on pace to miss nearly a year and a half of pro time?  I have no idea where any of these guys slot in any more and wouldn’t be surprised to see them all let go at this point.

Minor League Full Season Staff Review 2017 – Syracuse

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Will Cole be getting yet another AAA opening day start? Photo AP

Will Cole be getting yet another AAA opening day start? Photo AP

I slacked on minor league pitching analysis this off-season.  But i’m as excited as ever to see the four full-season affiliate rosters announced ahead of the beginning of the minor league season this weekend.  And i’m ready for another season of tracking minor league arms (kind of the bread and butter of this blog).

So lets take a look at the four staffs, guess the roles, and talk about the changes of the staffs from the end of last year til now.  I’ll do these in four posts to break them out and get more content/discussion.  First up: Syracuse.

Quick links for rosters for each full season affiliate:

And don’t forget the invaluable work of SpringfieldFan maintaining the Nats Big Board, now in its 12 season!

Note: in the below list, “missing” means that the player was on a 2016 roster, is still listed as active but is not found anywhere on a 2017 full-season roster as expected.  Most are still sitting in Extended Spring Training (abbreviated XST throughout) with the intent of getting assigned as injuries or releases occur, but some may be release candidates.   Other abbreviations I use often: MLFA == Minor League Free Agent, OOO = Out of the Organization.


AAA/Syracuse 2017:

  • starters: Cole, Voth, THill, Turner, JRoss
  • spot starts/swingman:
  • bullpen: Adams, Gott, Grace*, Martin, Albers, Antolin, Broadway, Cotts,
  • dl/restricted: Swynenberg (still restricted), Barrett, Collins*, Harper*, McGowin
  • cut/released/FAs from 2016: Laffey*, Espino, Giolito (trade), RLopez (trade), EDavis, De Fratus, Arroyo, Harmening
  • missing from 2016: none

Discussion:

As often happens with AAA squads, this group of players is about half home-grown (I count 8 drafted players out of the 17 on the roster) and half MLFA or acquired depth.  And this group is missing more than a few names that we know will eventually be here and play major roles; Jeremy Guthrie probably slides into the rotation spot that Joe Ross is temporarily holding.  But XST also currently holds players like John Lannan and Josh Outman, both of whom were MLFA signings this past off-season with the intent of providing AAA depth.

And as you often see in AAA, there’s huge turnover from last year.  Eight guys on the AAA rosters at the end of last year are out of the organization now, 6 by free agency and two by the much discussed Adam Eaton trade.   I was kind of bummed to see Paolo Espino go in particular, but I like the potential of former major leaguers like Jacob Turner and the aforementioned Guthrie (who looked pretty good in spring training, for what that’s worth).

Rotation guess: not too hard to squint and see this rotation go A.J. Cole, Austin Voth and Taylor Hill at the top.  After that i’m assuming it goes Turner-Guthrie (after Ross gets called back up).  Perhaps we’ll also see 2017 MLFA Kyle McGowin after he returns from whatever ailment has him on the D/L.

Reliever thoughts: I was happy to see the team re-sign Aaron Barrett; he may not ever contribute again but it was a good gesture to bring him back into the fold.  Interested to see what Lannan can provide.  The four relievers on the 40-man roster all seem to be on thin-ice with the org; are we expecting anything of value from any of Adams, Gott, Grace or Martin any more?  I don’t mean to sound like a debbie downer, but at this point those four guys are my first four to get cut if space is needed.  Its kind of amazing to me that this team has so little reliever depth at the upper level of the minors given the ridiculous amount of pitching they’ve drafted in the past few  years.

Interestingly, Matt Swynenberg remains on the AAA restricted list, where he’s been since he retired on 5/1/15.  I’m not sure why at this point the team doesn’t just release him, if only to clean up the official MILB.com roster on the web page.  :-)

Who am I focusing on: Voth, Turner, Adams and Gott to see if they’ve got any future value, Guthrie, Lannan when they get there, McGowin when he gets off of the D/L.

 

A look at Oakland’s amazing 2012 season so far

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Tommy Milone has made Oakland’s 2012 rotation surprisingly good. Photo AP/Ben Margot via dailyrepublic.com

I’ll admit it; after watching Billy Beane wheel and deal this past off-season, trading away most of his starting rotation and letting most of his FA hitters walk, I was predicting a 55 win season for this team.  They were banking on a proposed move to San Jose and I saw these moves as a purposeful bottoming out while playing out the string in Oakland, ahead of a lucrative move to the South Bay.  Well, that move seems interminably stalled, and many pundits predicted a near record loss season for this team, especially considering the massive moves that the Angels had made, coupled with the 2-time defending AL champs Texas being in the same division.

Instead, they sit at 56-48 and if the season ended today, right now on August 2nd, the Oakland A’s and their $55M payroll (2nd lowest in the league by a couple hundred thousand dollars) would be the 2nd wild-card and would play the Los Angeles Angels, they of the $154M payroll (and counting, considering this was their opening day payroll and they’ve taken on with the Zack Greinke deal at the trade deadline).

How did this happen?  Lets look at the evolution of the Starting Rotation, because what this group is doing is nothing short of amazing.

In 2011, the Oakland had 10 different guys start games for them.  Here’s a quick summary (* indicates a left hander on baseball-reference.com pages):

Name Age W L W-L% ERA G GS
Trevor Cahill 23 12 14 0.462 4.16 34 34
Gio Gonzalez* 25 16 12 0.571 3.12 32 32
Brandon McCarthy 27 9 9 0.5 3.32 25 25
Guillermo Moscoso 27 8 10 0.444 3.38 23 21
Rich Harden 29 4 4 0.5 5.12 15 15
Brett Anderson* 23 3 6 0.333 4 13 13
Josh Outman* 26 3 5 0.375 3.7 13 9
Tyson Ross 24 3 3 0.5 2.75 9 6
Graham Godfrey 26 1 2 0.333 3.96 5 4
Dallas Braden* 27 1 1 0.5 3 3 3

Here’s what happened to each of these guys (good link for trade details from baseball-reference.com here; this link shows the latest trade between Oakland and all other teams but quickly shows all these 2011 deals listed here):

  • Cahill traded to Arizona
  • Gonzalez traded to Washington
  • Moscoso traded to Colorado
  • Harden left via free agency, and as far as I can tell he remains unsigned.
  • Outman traded (with Moscoso) to Colorado.
  • Anderson had Tommy John surgery in June of 2011 and is in the minors rehabbing now.
  • Braden had shoulder surgery in April of 2011 and has not pitched since.

They traded or released the starters who made nearly 80% of their starts in 2011.  That leaves 3 guys who had any MLB starts last year: Brandon McCarthy, Tyson Ross and Graham Godfrey, a total of 35 starts.  To add insult to injury, Oakland traded their 2011 closer Andrew Bailey to Boston last December.

So, what does the Oakland rotation look like this year?  Here’s the same data through August 1st:

Name Age W L W-L% ERA G GS
Tommy Milone* 25 9 8 0.529 3.68 21 21
Bartolo Colon 39 7 8 0.467 3.78 20 20
Jarrod Parker 23 7 5 0.583 3.44 18 18
Brandon McCarthy 28 6 3 0.667 2.54 12 12
Travis Blackley* 29 3 3 0.5 3.15 14 10
Tyson Ross 25 2 8 0.2 6.35 12 12
A.J. Griffin 24 3 0 1 2.51 7 7
Graham Godfrey 27 0 4 0 6.43 5 4

So, where’d all these guys come from?

  • Milone: acquired from Washington in the Gonzalez Deal
  • Colon: bottom-of-the-barrel FA signing (1yr/$2M).
  • Parker: acquired from Arizona in the Cahill deal.
  • McCarthy; signed a 1yr/$4.275M FA deal after accepting arbitration from the team after last year
  • Blackley: selected OFF WAIVERS from San Francisco earlier this year
  • Ross: homegrown: a 2nd round pick in 2008
  • Griffen: also homegrown; he was a 13th round draft pick by Oakland in 2010.
  • Godfrey: acquired from Toronto in the 2007 Scutaro deal

Ross and Godfrey got demoted after poor performance, and McCarthy currently sits on the DL, giving Oakland this current rotation: Colon, Blackley, Griffen, Milone, Parker.  All 5 guys with ERAs under 3.78 and all with ERA+ of at least 104 and mostly greater than that.  And, when McCarthy comes back he’s essentially the best pitcher of any of them.  AND, this is all being done with out Dalles Braden and Brett Anderson, two guys who were core components of the 2010 rotation and who would clearly be in the 2012 rotation if not for injury.  AND, Oakland just announced today they’re promoting one of their best starter prospects in Dan Straily for a spot start this coming friday.

Wow.

And, when Braden, Anderson and McCarthy come back, that gives Oakland a major surplus of pitching that can be flipped in the coming off-season for even more prospects and hitting (much as they did this past off-season).

Combine this pitching revolution with the schrewd Yoenis Cespedes signing (who immediately became the highest paid player on the team), the explosion of Josh Reddick (acquired in the Andrew Bailey deal from Boston), unexpected output from DH/FA signee (and ex-Nat) Jonny Gomes and a solid season from Seth Smith (acquired in the Moscoso deal) and you’ve got a team that is producing enough to win.  They’re not an offensive juggernaut (mostly ranked 12th-13th in the 14-team AL in the major offensive categories) but you don’t need to score 8 runs a game when you have a staff ERA of 3.47.

As much as Moneyball critics will hate to hear it, I think Billy Beane is your easy choice for AL Executive of the year right now.