Nationals Arm Race

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Ladson’s inbox 1/7/13 Edition

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Readers ask creative questions for keeping Morse around. It won't matter. Photo Cheryl Nichols/Nats News Network

Slow week for baseball news; I’m sure that will end tomorrow when the Hall of Fame class (or lack there of) is announced.  Meanwhile MLB.com’s Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson published a mailbag on 1/7/13.  Here’s how I would have answered his questions.

Update: after I wrote this, LaRoche signed.  So much for a slow news week for our Nats.  Some of the below may now be slightly dated analysis.

As always, I write the response here before reading his, and edit questions for clarity/conciseness.

Q: If Anthony Rendon stays healthy, could you see Ryan Zimmerman moving to first base and Rendon playing third base?

A: Yes, absolutely.  I’m now firmly on the following succession plan: Rendon hits his way to the majors, proves he can play excellent 3B defense, and we move Zimmerman and his nearing-Chuck Knoblock/Steve Sax issues with his throwing arm to first base.   Zimmerman would save the wear and tear on his body by not having to field bunts and dive for as many grounders, and would not have to make any more casual throws across the diamond (he’s proven that under duress or when hurried that he is very accurate, a clear indication that when he doesn’t think about the throw, he makes it).   And we install Rendon at third where by all accounts he’s just as good a defender as Zimmerman is.

However.  There’s a few things that need to happen for this plan to work.  Rendon (as the question mentions) needs to stay healthy.  He needs to prove he can hit MLB pitching.  And the Nats need to NOT lock up first base for the next three seasons with Adam LaRoche, else the position is blocked, Zimmerman stays at 3B for the duration of LaRoche’s deal and Rendon will have to push someone else off their position (Espinosa at 2b is the likely target … but Espinosa is nearly a 4 win player despite his strikeouts.  They don’t grow 4 win players on trees).   So Rendon may be stuck until another solution presents itself, perhaps by way of injury.

Update: with LaRoche’s signing,  we now know that Zimmerman isn’t moving to 1B for at least two  years, so now Rendon’s path is more complicated.

Ladson kind of hedges and says “well, lets just see what happens.”

Q: Why the talk of trading Michael Morse when trading Jayson Werth would be far better for the team? Besides all the money it would free up, Morse is three years younger, hits far better, especially with men on base, and has more power.

A: Because who in their right mind would take Jayson Werth with the massively backloaded contract he’s currently on while he’s in his decline years in his mid 30s and has shown himself suddenly to be injury prone??  That sentence is exactly the reason that the Werth contract was and is criticized as being one of the “worst in the game.”   Because its unmoveable.   He’s going to be paid $21.57 million dollars in the year 2017 when he’s 38.   If Werth was still producing at his last Philadelphia year level (he posted a 4.3 bWAR in 2010, which using a rough FA estimate of $5M/war would mean he was “valued” at exactly $21.5M), there wouldn’t be as much complaining.  But in the first two years of the contract, he hasn’t produced anywhere near that WAR value (bWARs of 1.0 and 0.6 in the first two years of the contract).  Yes he was hurt in 2012, but its not like he’s giving back the money for the 81 games he didn’t play.

This is such an ignorant question, you wonder why Ladson took it.

All that being said, yes I understand why the Nats made the Werth deal.  I think it was done fully well knowing what an albatross it was to be.  It was done to acquire the competitive nature of Werth and to send a message to the league that the Nationals were a new regime post Jim Bowden.

Ladson talks about Werth’s “non number” contributions to the team, saying he’s more valuable than numbers suggest.  I think that’s a really myopic viewpoint of Werth’s contract, his production and the point of the question.

Q: Any worries about losing three left-handers out of the bullpen? That was a big strength last year. What are the options?

A: Was our three lefties really that big of a strenth last year?  Other readers here have pointed out Michael Gonzalez‘s complete inability to deal with right-handers (they hit him for a .297/.378/.484 slash line in 2012), meaning that the team really could only trust Gonzalez for solely lefty-lefty matchups.  Tom Gorzelanny was the 7th guy out of the pen, the long-man/mop-up guy whose large majority of IP were defined as “low leverage,” implying that despite his excellent ERA in 2012 his production can be replaced relatively easily.  Sean Burnett was inarguably great … but also was commanding 3 year guaranteed contracts in a baseball management era where we now know that relievers should be treated as fungible assets and never guaranteed major money to.  So allowing him to leave was the right decision to make.

Gorzelanny has been replaced by Zach Duke, who (as I’ll begrudingly admit that “peric the troll” was right about, stemming from a conversation here last September) seems to be a better option and who seems to have been given all of Gorzelanny’s appearances last September (Gorzelanny didn’t appear in a game for nearly two weeks in the middle September).

However, I will admit that I am slightly worried about the fact that we seem set to replace the value of both Gonzalez and Burnett at this point with Bill Bray, who may or may not even make the team.  I really thought we’d win the J.P. Howell FA sweepstakes.  Now at this point, I’m guessing perhaps the team just trusts the matchups and remembers that Tyler Clippard is lights out against lefties despite being a RHP (lefties hit him for a .170/.260/.259 slash line in 2012, a year when Clippard was significantly worse than in 2011).  Maybe the team finds a MLFA or a career reclamation project out there (much as they did with Gonzalez and Duke last year).   Or (most likely) maybe the team demands a lefty bullpen arm in trade for the eventual Michael Morse transaction once LaRoche signs on for 2013 and beyond).  We’ll see; lots of hot-stove league left.

Ladson thinks there’s more acquisitions coming.

Q: Morse was drafted as a shortstop, so is there a way the Nationals could convert Michael into a second baseman?

A: If Morse’s mobility is that poor in LF, he’d be considered a statute at 2nd.  There’s just no way he could possibly move there at this point.  Besides, Espinosa is considered a very good defender and the Nats regime values plus defense.  He may have been a shortstop once, but that was long ago.  Ladson says its never going to happen.

Q: What are the chances the Nats try to make a trade for Giancarlo Stanton? Then they can put Werth or Bryce Harper at first base.

A: Hah.  Well, I’m sure the Nats (and most every other team in the league) would kill to have Stanton.  But Stanton is probably the most valuable resource in the game; a pre-arbitration premiere slugger.  The only thing more valuable probably is a pre-arbitration Ace starter (think Tim Lincecum before he hit arbitration).   Stanton is under team control for four more years and isn’t even arbitration eligible yet.  On the open market he’s worth $25M/year; he’s set to earn somewhere in the mid $500,000 in 2013.   It would have to take something well north of the prospect haul that Tampa Bay got in the James Shields trade, and that trade netted Tampa Wil Myers, basically the best propsect in the game.

The Nats (and most teams in the game) simply do not have enough prospect depth to pry Stanton away.  And, the Marlins would have to be crazy to trade him intra-division.  Just isn’t happening.  I think the penny pinching Marlins keep him for another year and trade him before he hits arbitration, making him someone elses’s escalating salary issue.   Ladson says that the team wouldn’t trade for Stanton because their outfield is set for the next two seasons.  Really!?  You wouldn’t trade away Span or Werth, even if you paid their entire ride, to acquire someone with the talent of Stanton?

Q: What are the Nats’ plans with Jhonatan Solano going forward?

A: Catcher depth.  Despite his .300+ BA in his short MLB stint, I don’t think he’s anything more than a 4-A player.  We keep him on the 40-man until his options expire and then DFA him, all the while he serves as a 3rd catcher in case Ramos/Suzuki gets hurt.   Ladson points out that Suzuki is a FA after 2013, so perhaps Solano becomes the #2 in 2014 and beyond.  However, Suzuki has a club option for 2014 that could move this schedule out a year.

Ask Boswell 12/31/12 Edition

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Where did all our 2012 lefties go? Photo Nationals stock.

Even in the basking glow of the Redskin’s first NFC East title since 1999, there were still a few Nationals questions thrown into Tom Boswell‘s 12/31/12 Chat at washingtonpost.com.  Here’s a mini chat-response edition.

As always, I edit questions for clarity and answer here as I read down the chat before reading Boswell’s response.

Q: I can’t understand why the Nats have allowed all three of their lefty relievers to depart without serious efforts to re-sign them.

A: I think you have to look at all three guys individually.  Tom Gorzelanny was replaced by Zack Duke, who likely was cheaper than the 2yr/$5.7M contract Gorzelanny got from Milwaukee (we have no terms of the Duke deal available, but I’m guessing its around a 1yr $1.5M deal).  I just get the impression the team liked Duke better than Gorzelanny by the end of the 2012 season.  This, ironically, was also the position that “peric the troll” argued for at the end of last season, to give credit where credit is due.  Sean Burnett got 2yrs/$8M with a vesting option at $4.5M if he appears in 110 games over the next two seasons (a relatively easy option to attain considering he has averaged more than 70 games a year each of the last four seasons).   And the Nats likely believe that a 3 year contract for a reliever is too much.  Lastly, the team probably wanted Michael Gonzalez back but got out bid by Milwaukee for his 1yr/$2.2M deal.   So they’re now back on the market, possibly in on J.P. Howell on a deal for less than what Gonzalez want, but also have Bill Bray in the fold on a minor league deal.  I know these aren’t eye-popping numbers, but the way to build teams is to save money where you can and to stick to a methodology.  Mike Rizzo‘s methodology for building bullpens seems to be to save money where you can, knowing that more bullpen arms are available in the minors.   Boswell thinks the team has ably replaced at least two of these guys, but also says the team NEEDS to get Howell.

Q: If I got in a time machine and went back to December 31, 2011 and told you to bet your house that both the Redskins and the Nats would win their respective divisions, would you have believed it? Furthermore, if I traveled to December 31, 2013, what is your guess regarding what the talk would be about?

A: Just talking about the Nats; if you had told me the 2012 Nats were winning the division I would have laughed.  I thought the team was improved from 81 wins, but not improved by 17 games.  Mark Zuckerman had a nice WAR-analysis piece after the Gio Gonzalez trade that showed that the team could be improved by 12 wins or so, but nobody thought the team would explode for 98 wins.  What’s a good prediction for 2013?  Well, borrowing on Zuckerman’s WAR analysis piece, you can make a legitimate argument that the team is setup to be improved again in 2013.  This is a teaser for a blog post coming this week, but the proof is out there.  If you eliminate the negative WAR guys (which, for the most part we already have) and then account for improvements from guys playing full seasons … we could easily be a 100+ win team.  Boswell says he wouldn’t have believed that both teams would win the divisions in 2012.

Q: Couldn’t the Nats sign LaRoche and keep Morse as their number one guy off the bench, sending Moore to AAA to play every day?

A: They could, but that would be a monumental waste of Michael Morse‘s abilities.  He’ll be healthy in 2013; when he was healthy in 2011 he hit 30 homers.  There’s no reason to think he won’t return to that form.  So, if the team retains Adam LaRoche, the prudent option is to move Morse for some farm system depth (depth which we desperately need).   Tyler Moore has nothing to prove in AAA; he NEEDS MLB at-bats.  I don’t have a problem with Moore being the super-sub he was in 2012 again, but he’s another guy who might be better served being traded as well.    Boswell points out Morse’s .857 OPS as a Nat and rightly points out that this is too big of a bat to sit idle.

Ladson’s Inbox 12/28/12 edition

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Rodriguez getting ready to fire in another pitch he has no idea where its going. Photo via humorfeast.blogspot.com

Holiday edition mailbag from MLB.com’s Nats beat writer Bill Ladson for 12/28/12.

As always, I write my response here before reading his, and sometimes edit questions for clarity.

Q: Where does Henry Rodriguez fit in the Nationals’ plan this upcoming season?

A: A good question; Mike Rizzo loves Rodriguez but I find him completely frustrating as a fan.   In 2011 he led the league in wild pitches despite only throwing 65 innings, and in 2012 he had a -0.7 WAR and a 69 ERA+ before hitting the DL for season ending surgery.  He’s got no minor league options and thus has to be either carried on the active roster or be subject to DL shenanigans.  Davey Johnson also loves him, and said he was the Nats best pitcher last spring training.  My guess is that Rodriguez holds it together for another spring, breaks camp with the team and then plays his way into a DFA.  The team can replace his 7th/8th inning innings with Christian Garcia rather easily (assuming of course that the team realizes that Garcia’s arm is too fragile to reliably be depended upon as a starter).  Ladson predicts he’ll be a middle reliever for this team in 2013.

Q: What are the Nats going to do with first baseman Chris Marrero?

A: Great question; he has one more minor league option, is clearly behind the likes of Chad Tracy and Tyler Moore on the first base backup pecking order, but really hasn’t got much left to prove in the minors.  He hit admirably enough at AA and AAA in 2010 and 2011.  I think Marrero’s problem is that he’s stuck at first base but has limited power capabilities.  If he played LF, perhaps you could deal with someone who didn’t look to hit more than a handful of homers at the MLB level.  But he plays a position that needs 25-30 homers of production.  I think he’s trade bait ultimately.  Ladson says the team’s bench is set and that Marrero may be traded.

Q: Isn’t it time to make Ross Detwiler the No. 4 starter? Also, what do you think of Nats’ rotation?

A: I’m not exactly sure what the questioner wants; does it really matter if Detwiler is #4 or #5?  Not really (not until the playoffs anyway).  Detwiler is the 5th starter inarguably on this team, looking at the accomplishments of the 4 other guys.

I think the rotation is either the best or competing to be the best in the sport.  I’ve got a future post ranking all 30 rotations (I’m more or less waiting for the last of the impact free agents to sign before publishing it), and (teaser) the Nats are in the top 3 without question.  However, the Nats rotation is very, very thin.  If one of the 5 guys goes down, I really don’t know who is going to step up to make starts.   Zach Duke?  Ryan Perry?  Lets pray for a healthy spring training.  Ladson says Detwiler is the 4th starter entering spring training, and that he likes the rotation.  Not a very deep answer.

Q: Bill Bray was an OK pitcher in his last stint with the Nationals. Do you think he will be anywhere near as good the second time around?

A: It all depends on his health.  A groin strain and then a back strain cost him more than 100 games last year.   Those injuries should be healed up well enough by now; if he was recovering from an arm injury I’d be more worried.  He posted a 133 ERA+ in 2011; i don’t see any reason why he couldn’t repeat that performance in 2013.  However, I still think the team needs to pursue one more lefty out of the pen.  Michael Gonzalez just signed with Milwaukee, meaning that all three of our lefty bullpen guys from 2012 are gone.  J.P. Howell remains available but competition is fierce for his services.  Ladson says it all depends on his health.

Q: Should the Nationals be concerned with the way Ryan Zimmerman was releasing the ball at the end of 2012 season?

A: Yes.  They should be concerned with the way he’s been throwing the ball for several years now, AND they should have been concerned with the effects of the shoulder injury that was bothering him all season.  Off-season surgery fixed the latter part.  As for the former … I think its just inevitable that Zimmerman moves to 1B.  At some point I feel his arm action is going to turn into some sort of Chuck Knoblock mental block.  Ladson reminds of Zimmerman’s surgery.

Q: Why don’t the Nationals just give Adam LaRoche a third year? If things don’t pan out by the third year, the team could trade him.

A: Good question.  The core of the team is locked up for 3 more years, why not extend the offer?  I think perhaps the answer relates to the massive amount of arbitration salary the team is looking at by 2015.  They might have 12-13 arbitration cases with escalating salary by then.   And its no guarantee to be able to trade Adam LaRoche in 2015; what kind of return would we get?  We’d likely get marginal prospects AND have to pay most of his salary.  I’m not even mentioning the obvious; he just turned 33; do you want to guarantee a 3rd year 8-figure salary to a 35-yr old?  Isn’t that exactly the kind of contracts that are killing the Phillies right now?  Plus, signing LaRoche locks of 1B for 3 years … meaning no room for Moore for 2 more years AND no room to move Zimmerman if his arm turns into mush.  I know the team likes LaRoche, but it makes more sense for the future of the team to let him walk.  Ladson echos my comments on age and having to eat money on a trade.  He also mentions that the team would like Matthew Skole at first by 2015, which I don’t necessarily think will happen (but we’ll see).

Ladson’s inbox 12/18/12

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Lots of loogy talk in this off-season; Burnett's a hard man to replace. Photo: masnsports.com

Another edition of mlb.com’s Nationals beat reporter Bill Ladson’s Inbox, this time from 12/18/12.

As always, I write my response before reading his, and sometimes edit questions for clarity.

Q: Who will replace Sean Burnett as the lefty specialist in the bullpen?

Q: Is there any chance of the Nationals getting J.P. Howell to fill Burnett’s spot? Do you think the club needs him?

A: The Nats 2013 Loogy right now is likely to be minor league acquiree and former franchise 1st round pick Bill Bray.  If he’s healthy, and if he makes the team.  He’s the leader in the clubhouse right now, given the real lack of left handed relief in the farm system right now.  Clicking on baseball-reference’s great franchise pitching depth chart, there’s really not a single viable option that pitched above AA still in the system (I like Patrick McCoy, who did decently in AA, but he wasn’t picked up in Rule 5, which implies to me that he’s definitely not MLB ready).  Zach Duke seems set to be the Tom Gorzelanny replacement; the long-relief/spot-start/mop-up guy, and not necessarily the one-out guy.  The team is still involved with rumors of signing J.P. Howell, and of course could still re-sign Michael Gonzalez, who did so wonderfully for is in 2012.  However, lots of teams are in on lefty specialists right now and we may get out-bid.  I’m partial to Bray; he is a Virginia guy, went to William & Mary, and is the cousin of a buddy of mine (who, when I saw him last weekend, promised to have access to tickets if Bray makes the team).  Lets cross our fingers (stated completely selfishly).

Do we “need” Howell/Gonzalez?  I don’t know if we “need” another lefty, but I’d like another lefty in case Bray isn’t ready to go.  So I’d like to see another acquisition of someone for depth.  I think the bullpen looks better with a second lefty late-innings guy.  Ladson wrote almost exactly what I just wrote, naming all the same points.

Q: When looking at the 40-man roster, could you tell me what Yunesky Maya has to offer?

A: Maya still serves as last-ditch starter help, in case of a rash of injuries at the MLB level.  Despite his poor performances in two prior MLB stints, he’d still be preferable to other career minor league veteran options we probably will have in AAA this year (thinking the likes of Roark, Broderick, or Mandel).  His salary is guaranteed; we might as well keep him around as insurance.  If you’re looking to complain about a 40-man spot being wasted, look no further than Carlos Rivero.   Ladson calls the Maya signing Mike Rizzo‘s worst, and says the same thing I do about starter insurance.

Q: Who do you think has more of an upside: Michael Morse or Adam LaRoche?

A: An oddly worded question; I’m not sure either guy truly has upside at this point in their careers.  Michael Morse is in the last year of a contract, his sub-par defense has him outside of Rizzo’s vision of a pro-defense team, and there’s no guarantee that his 31 homer performance in 2011 wasn’t a complete one-off.  Adam LaRoche is already in his decline years and any guaranteed money is considered a big risk.  The best thing to do for the team would be to get LaRoche to return on as short of a guaranteed contract as he’ll take, and to flip Morse for some farm system depth (vastly depleted in the last 14 calendar months).   But, life isn’t that simple.  LaRoche has to be thinking for himself, and knows that this is the best and last time he’ll have to earn an 8-figure guaranteed deal.  So he has to max things out.  If someone else offers him 3 guaranteed years, he just has to take it.  He’ll never get $13M/year offered to him again.  Which would leave Morse in a contract year playing an easier defensive position (1B), and hopefully being 100% healthy he puts up another 2011 season.   Ladson is a pro-LaRoche guy.

Q: Considering his last outing in the postseason against the Cardinals, is Drew Storen the Nationals’ closer entering Spring Training, or will he have to win the job?

A: One badly timed blow-up won’t cost Drew Storen his job; he earned it back after taking a back seat to Tyler Clippard all summer, and that’s how things will stand going into 2013.  Clippard really struggled down the stretch in the role, and I cannot see any spring training competition at this point.   One thing that wouldn’t surprise me would be a trade though; only one guy can close, but both Clippard and Storen are closer-quality arms.  It could be lucrative to the team in terms of prospect depth to move one or the other to a team in need of a closer (and a team that values saves).  This move may not occur until next off-season though, when Clippard’s salary expectations will be far higher than the team may be willing to stomach for a non-closer.   Ladson says he expects Storen to be 100% and to get 30-35 saves.

Q: Burnett, who was a valuable asset in the bullpen, signed a two-year deal with the Angels. Couldn’t the Nationals have matched that kind of deal?

A: Yes they could have matched the Angel’s offer for Sean Burnett; it really wasn’t that much money.  But, by saving a few million here and there suddenly you have enough to buy a front-line starter.  That’s the right way to build a team in a fiscally responsible way.  That being said, I think perhaps the team was surprised that Burnett “only” signed a 2 year deal, given Jeremy Affeldt‘s 3 year contract for more money (Burnett’s deal has a 3rd year club option).   But Rizzo belives in the same thing that I believe in; bullpen arms are a commodity, can be found for relatively little money and you can get great performance for your dollar.  Think about Gonzalez last year; he was a minor league signing mid-season, and he posted a 132 ERA+ for us in 35 2/3 innings.  I think Bray could absolutely be this year’s version of Gonzalez.  Ladson has a good point: he thinks the Nats were slightly scared off by Burnett’s off -season elbow surgery and didn’t want to guarantee 2 years.

Q: Johnson’s favoritism drives me crazy, and I’m weary of reading about him trying to coax LaRoche into signing. Doesn’t favoritism bother the rest of the team, perhaps cause discord? And does the ballclub truly believe LaRoche can achieve the same numbers next year? I am dubious.

A: A great question; I’ve said in the past that Davey Johnson‘s overt recruiting of LaRoche in the media has to be grating to Morse.  If LaRoche signs elsewhere, I would absolutely believe there may be some discord in the clubhouse between Morse and Johnson that will need to be addressed.  Other readers on this blog don’t necessarily believe this is the case, saying that Morse has to know that “its a business.”  But how would you feel if your boss was overtly recruiting your replacement?  I’d be pissed.  Can LaRoche match his 2012 numbers in 2013?  Sure.  The odds are against him though.  Its more likely to expect declines in production natural with his advancing age.  Ladson says the players love Johnson and would never question him, but didn’t even mention Morse’s name.

Q: Do you think Ian Desmond can pull off another incredible year in 2013?

A: Sure!  Do I think Ian Desmond could also regress at the plate to his pre 2012 numbers?  Yes I do.  I really have no idea what to expect out of guys like Desmond and Roger Bernadina, who both had career years and significantly improved their offense over their career norms.  Are these one-time improvements?  Meanwhile, a guy like Danny Espinosa is in the reverse situation; he’s regressing year to year, and needs to make a leap like Desmond made.  Predictions?   I think all three players stay roughly where they are, Espinosa starts losing ABs against lefties to Lombardozzi, and Rendon starts to force the team’s hand by tearing up AAA in early 2013.   Ladson is really pro-Desmond, saying that he’ll go down as one of the great short-stops in baseball.  That’s heavy praise.

Nats 2013 Salary Status Updated – Post Haren, Duke signings

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Oh, how much changes in just a couple days during the Winter Meetings.  The signing of Dan Haren and to a lesser extent Zach Duke now provide a bit more clarity to the Nats off-season plans.  Terms of the Duke deal have yet to be disclosed, but I’m going under the assumption that its about a one year, $1.5M deal to be safe.

Using the 12/3/12 post on this same topic as a point of reference (I won’t repeat all the contract details here; see this post for the way I arrive at these numbers, or click on the 2013 Payroll Worksheet link along the right-hand side of the blog), here’s where the Nats payroll now breaks down:

Players under Contract for 2013:

  • was 12 players for $66,708,500
  • now 14 players for $81,208,500

Arbitration Cases for 2013: remains 7 players with an $18,600,000 estimate.

Pre-Arbitration players with club-Assigned Salaries: remains 7 players with a $3,490,000 estimate.

Totaled up, the Nats now stand at an estimated 2013 payroll of $103,298,500.  As Mark Zuckerman alluded to, this is the first time the Nats payroll has broached 9 figures.


My theory is that the team has a working goal of $110M salary.   If we sit at $103M now, with a couple of signings/decisions yet to be made (namely, to Adam LaRoche or not to Adam LaRoche and to find another loogy), can we hit $110M?  Seems so:

- Add LaRoche at $14M/per.

- Subtract Morse at $6.75M for 2013.

- Add Loogy-to-be-named (JP Howell?) at a nominal amount (he made $1.35M last year and seems like he could be had for about the same this year).

$103M + $14M – $6.75M + $1.5M = $111.7M dollars, or just slightly above a $110M budget.  Seems like a workable plan to me.  If $110M was a hard and fast budget line, we could eschew the final loogy signing and hope that Bill Bray makes the team out of camp, earning something close to a veteran minimum salary of about $800k.

Written by Todd Boss

December 5th, 2012 at 2:58 pm