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What is the benchmark for a “good” or “bad” draft?

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Will Fedde make the 2014 draft a "success?"  Photo via chicagonow.com

Will Fedde make the 2014 draft a “success?” Photo via chicagonow.com

The title of my previous post was pretty simple: “Nats 2014 Draft == failure.”  And it resulted in a rather spirited debate in the comments about the 2014 draft, the 2008 draft in hindsight, etc.

In that debate, I postulated my benchmarks for judging whether or not a team’s draft was “good” or not.  Here were the six guidelines I stated for judgement, going round by round/section by section in the draft:

  • a. 1st rounder: future MLB above average regular to all-star
  • b. 2nd rounder: future MLB regular
  • c. 3rd-5th: expect at least one future MLB player in at least a backup/bullpen role
  • d. 6th-10th: hope for at least one player to reach the MLB level.
  • e. 11th-20th: hope for at least three players who matriculate to AA or higher
  • f. 20th and above: hope for one-two players to matriculate to AA or higher

Lets go back through all 10 Nats drafts and see whether these guidelines hold up.  For each of the 6 requirements, we’ll give a quick “yes/no the condition was met” for each year.  Critical to this analysis is the Nats DraftTracker XLS, milb.com and baseball-reference.com for searching for old players.  Also useful is the Baseball America executive database, which populated the staff in charge of each draft.


2005: Owner: MLB.  President: n/a.  GM: Jim Bowden.  Scouting Director: Dana Brown.

  • a. Yes: 1st rounder Ryan Zimmerman: MLB above average regular (former all-star)
  • b. n/a: we had no 2nd rounder; forfeited for Vinny Castilla
  • c. Yes:  4th rounder Justin Maxwell turned into a 4th outfielder.  No 3rd rounder.
  • d. Yes: 6th rounder Marco Estrada has turned into a decent starter (albeit for someone else after we released him)
  • e. Yes: 11th rounder John Lannan and 12th rounder Craig Stammen turned into MLBers, far above expectations here.  18th rounder  Tim Pahuta had long ML career for us, playing 3 years at AA.
  • f. Yes: 33rd rounder Ryan Butcher was a 6yr MLFA who left the org but now has MLB experience with Atlanta.  No other 20th+ round draftees made it out of A-ball, but Butcher’s MLB matriculation makes up for it.

2005: Success, inarguably.  6 guys matriculating to the majors is a winning draft, especially considering the lack of a 2nd or 3rd round pick, the ownership confusion, and the budget restrictions put on the team.


2006: Owner: MLB.  President: n/a.  GM: Bowden.  Scouting Director: Brown

  • a. No: 1st rounder Chris Marrero looks like a 4-a guy at best and 1st rounder Colten Willems never made it above A-ball.
  • b. No: the team failed to sign 2nd rounder Sean Black and 2nd rounder Stephen Englund never made it out of low-A.
  • c. No: none of their 3rd-5th picks made the majors.  The highest one of these guys got was 5th rounder Corey VanAllen, who did pitch in AAA after passing through the rule-5 draft and finished out his 6-years with the org.  VanAllen is in Indy ball in 2014.
  • d. No: they didn’t even sign their 7th, 9th or 10th round picks.  The closest they got to a MLBer here was 6th rounder Zech Zinicola, who played at AAA for quite a while, was rule-5 picked and returned, and now sits in Baltimore’s AA team.
  • e. Yes: 12th rounder Cole Kimball made it the majors briefly, while 17th rounder Erik Arnesen, 18th rounder Adam Carr and 13th rounder Hassan Pena all toiled in AAA for several years. 
  • f. Yes, sort of.  We’re all well aware of the success of 41st rounder Brad Peacock, but he was picked under the “draft-and-follow” system that no longer exists.  So while yes it was a 41st round pick, in our current system Peacock wouldn’t have been picked at all and/or wouldn’t have signed but would have been picked the subsequent year based on his great first-college juco season.   Of the rest of the 20th+ round picks, one guy had a couple months in AA (26th rounder Brett Logan) to serve as a backup catcher; he hit .102/.170/.122 in 20 games in 2007 and was released.

2006: Failure: 3 guys who have MLB appearances but near zero impact for this team.  Peacock enabled the Nats to get Gio Gonzalez but I think we see now that Peacock wasn’t the driving prospect in that deal (now that Derek Norris has made an all-star team).

For as much as went right for the team in the 2005 draft, it went wrong in 2006.  Was the lack of signing their 7th, 9th and 10th round picks evident of “fiscal restraint” demanded by the other 29 owners?  Clearly to me, the focus on HS drafted personnel in this draft has Bowden’s hands all over it, and almost none of them panned out in the slightest.

 


2007: Owner: Ted Lerner group.  President: Stan Kasten.  GM: Bowden.  Scouting Director: Brown.  Assistant GM/VP, Baseball Operations: Mike Rizzo

  • a. No: The team went one-for-three on its first rounders: Michael Burgess got to AA in his fourth pro season but never further, was flipped for Tom Gorzelanny.  Josh Smoker‘s failure has been well documented here.  But Ross Detwiler, for all the complaining about his usage and role in this space, did make the majors and looked like a good 4th starter (in 2012).  I still believe he could start in this league and is better than a long-man.   However, the condition is that a first round pick turns into a successful regular, and this crop failed in all regards.
  • b. Yes.  2nd rounder Jordan Zimmermann is now a 2-time all-star and is probably the best 2nd round pick the organization has ever had.  His successes make up for their other 2nd rounder Jake Smolinksi who has made his MLB debut but not until he became a 6-yr MLFA.
  • c. Yes.  4th rounder Derek Norris made the 2014 all-star team for Oakland.  3rd rounder Stephen Souza has debuted in the majors and looks quite promising (albeit blocked) for our AAA team.  5th rounder Brad Meyers toiled for us in AAA for years before being released this spring after a long injury recovery.
  • d. Yes: 10th round pick Patrick McCoy made it to AAA for us, signed with Detroit as a MLFA and debuted this year.  We should note for the record though that 6th rounder Jack McGeary was paid as if he was a low-1st rounder and failed pretty spectacularly here.
  • e. Yes: 20th rounder Jeff Mandel was a long-serving org arm at AA and AAA.   11th rounder Bill Rhinehart was looking like a find, appearning on Nats system prospect lists for a while and getting to AAA before getting flipped for Jonny Gomes.
  • f. Yes: 28th rounder Boomer Whiting made it to Syracuse before getting released in 2011.   48th rounder (!) Kyle Gunderson was flipped for Logan Kensing in 2009 and made it to Miami/Florida’s AAA squad before getting released.  

2007: Success: despite the 1st round failures and the McGeary disaster, the breadth of success in the other categories and the production of the remaining guys weighs out.


2008: Owner: Lerner.  President: Kasten.  GM: Bowden.  Scouting Director: Brown.  Assistant GM/VP, Baseball Operations: Rizzo

  • a. No: as is well documented, the Nats failed to sign 1st round pick Aaron Crow.
  • b. No/Inc: 2nd round pick Destin Hood has already passed through Rule-5 waivers once, but has found himself in 2014 and is hitting great for Syracuse (2014′s AAA line: .308/.353/.502).  It does make one wonder if he’s worth adding to the 40-man once the season is over to keep him; he’s finishing his 7th pro year and is in line for minor league free agency.
  • c. Yes: 3rd rounder Danny Espinosa has his critics, but he’s at least a MLB backup or possibly more.  5th rounder Adrian Nieto has stuck with the White Sox after getting plucked in the Rule-5 draft last year and hasn’t been half bad.
  • d. Yes: 10th rounder Tommy Milone has shown his capabilities as a MLB starter.  d. 6th-10th: hope for at least one player to reach the MLB level.  6th rounder Paul Demny remains in the system (on the D/L in Harrisburg) but doesn’t seem like he’ll go much higher at this point.
  • e. Yes: 16th rounder Tyler Moore has put in meaningful at-bats for the Nats for a few years now.  And 19th rounder Steve Lombardozzi looks to be a solid utility/backup infielder in this league for years.  Lastly I wonder if the team gave up on 15th rounder J.P. Ramirez too soon; he was paid like a 2nd round pick but was released prior to his MLFA period.  He may have only made it to high-A, but his last season was somewhat decent.
  • f. No: as far as I can tell, nobody of note came in rounds 20 or above from this draft.

2008: Failure: How would you judge this draft?   We failed to sign the first rounder, which for me is a huge negative.  The second rounder may or may not ever debut in the majors, which is also for me a huge negative because of the huge prevalence of 1st and 2nd rounders on MLB rosters.  But we got four (5 counting Nieto) other MLBers out of the rest of the draft, including some very deep-dive picks that you rarely find (Moore and Lombardozzi, aside from Peacock, are the two lowest round picks to ever make it to the majors for this team).


2009:  Owner: Lerner.  President: Kasten. GM: Rizzo.  Scouting Director: Brown

  • a. Yes: no arguing about either first round pick here: both Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen have pitched at all-star levels in their careers.
  • b. No: 2nd Rounder Jeff Kobernus may have made his MLB debut, but he’s nowhere close to being a “regular” in the majors right now and doens’t seem to be trending that way either.
  • c. No: 3rd round pick Trevor Holder was a gross over-draft (albeit with known reasons; the team committed an *awful* lot of money to the first two guys on this list) and was released in 2013.  4th rounder A.J. Morris looked quite promising for us, was flipped in the Gorzelanny deal, and this year is pitching effectively for Pittsburgh’s AAA squad after being taken in the minor league Rule-5 portion last off-season.  And the Nats failed to sign their 5th rounder.  So even if Morris pans out as a MLB-capable player, he’s doing it for someone else.
  • d. Yes: 9th round pick Taylor Jordan was effective for the team last year and may yet figure in the team’s plans despite his mysterious D/L trip right now.  And 6th round pick Michael Taylor has rocketed up the prospect lists for this team, is crushing AA pitching right now, is on the team’s 40-man roster and may very well get a look as 2015′s starting center fielder.
  • e. Yes: 12th rounder Nathan Karns made the org look quite intelligent when he gave spot starts in 2013 after rocketing up the farm system after finally recovering from arm issues.  I wonder if the success they had with Karns was the first impetus for Rizzo to take more gambles on high-end-but-injured arms.  13th rounder Patrick Lehman has bounced around as an org arm for years.  11th rounder Juston Bloxom played a couple years in AA before getting released this year.  16th rounder Sean Nicol is splitting time between AA and AAA this year.   Finally, I wanted to note something I never knew before studying this: the Nats drafted Marcus Strohman in the 18th round out of HS; this is the same Strohman who went in the first round three years later to Toronto and who is currently holding down a rotation spot for the playoff-pushing Blue Jays.  Wow.  He’s listed as a SS on the draft-tracker but clearly is a MLB-calibre starter.
  • f. Yes: 22nd rounder Danny Rosenbaum has been Syracuse’s “ace” for three seasons now.  And a slew of guys drafted in the 20s stuck around for years as middle relievers (Mitchell Clegg, Matt Swynenberg, Evan Bronson, Rob Wort, and Shane McCatty).  You just can’t ask for more out of your picks in rounds 20-30.

2009: Success: I’ll take a couple of misses in the 2nd and 3rd rounds given the amount of talent they picked up in the middle and late rounds.  Great draft.  6 guys who have debuted in the majors with at least another one likely coming soon.


Note: from 2010 onwards, most of the judgement calls are still “in progress.”  We’ll use projections and “small sample sizes” to pass judgement.  It is what it is.  Feel free to criticize in the comments about using projections and national pundit scouting reports to make judgements.


2010:  Owner: Lerner.  President: Kasten.  GM: Rizzo.  Scouting Director: Kris Kline

  • a. Yes: 1st rounder Bryce Harper has turned into everything the hype suggested.  Fun fact; when he went on an rehab assignment in Potomac, he was the 2nd youngest guy on the roster.  Remember that when you criticize the guy for not being better than he already is: if he was “playing by the rules,” he’d be jsut finishing his junior year of college.
  • b. No/Inc: 2nd rounder Sammy Solis has been one injury issue after another.  He missed all of 2012 with Tommy John, came back slowly in 2013, but now sits on the AA D/L with another “elbow” issue.  He was protected on the 40-man roster last fall, but you have to wonder what’s to come of him.  He’s finishing his 5th pro season and he’s got exactly one start above A-Ball.
  • c. Yes/Inc: 4th rounder A.J. Cole was paid like a late first rounder, and after some struggles he’s really come onto the scene this year.  He was already really young for AA and “solved” it, and is now in AAA holding his own.  The other guys in this category are less impressive: both Rick Hague and Jason Martinson are repeating AA and not really hitting well enough to push for promotions.  This could be a side-effect of the huge amount of money committed to Harper and Cole.
  • d. Yes: 9th round pick Aaron Barrett went from unknown/unrecognized prospect to the Nats 40-man roster last fall to being lights-out middle reliever in the major league pen this year.  As a 9th round college senior pick.  8th rounder Matthew Grace may be next; after toiling as a mediocre starter, he became a reliever in 2013 and has been lights out in AA and AAA this year.  And he’s not just a LOOGY: 56 IP in 33 appearances and he’s given up just 6 ER in that time.
  • e. Yes: 15th round pick David Freitas, after getting traded to Oakland for Kurt Suzuki, got traded again to Baltimore and now is in AAA.   12th round pick Robbie Ray has made his MLB debut for Detroit after going over in the Doug Fister deal.  11th rounder Neil Holland toils in the Harrisburg pen admirably.
  • f. Yes: 23rd rounder Colin Bates and 26th rounder Christopher Manno both are in the Harrisburg pen.  22nd rounder Cameron Selik made it to AA before hitting his ceiling and being released earlier this year.   And 32nd rounder Randolph Oduber is a starting OF in Potomac with decent splits and a shot of moving up.

2010: Success: It may have been a no-brainer to take Harper, and it may have been an example of the “checkbook” winning in their picks of Cole and Ray, but you have to hand it to this team; they bought two high-end prep guys out of their college and they’re both looking like huge successes.   And they got a MLB servicable reliever out of a college senior sign who they paid just $35,000 in bonus money.  Great work.


2011: Owner: Lerner.  President/GM: Rizzo.  Scouting Director Kline

  • a.  Yes: 1st rounder Anthony Rendon was on everyone’s “all star snub” lists this year, while their other 1st rounder Alex Meyer remains one of the top pitching prospects in the game and seems likely to debut later this year.   Their supp-1st rounder Brian Goodwin remains on every pundit’s prospect lists even if he seemingly has been passed on the organizational “future starting Center-fielder” depth chart.   There’s no chance the team leaves him exposed in the upcoming rule-5 draft, so he’ll have at least three more years to prove he belongs.
  • b. n/a: forfeited for Adam LaRoche signing.
  • c. No/Inc: Right now our 3rd through 5th picks are looking iffy; 4th rounder Matthew Purke was paid like an upper first rounder and has been a massive disappointment.  Right now he’s recovering from Tommy John and faces an uncertain future.  4th rounder Kylin Turnbull has gotten lit up in high-A this year, his second crack at the league.  5th rounder Matt Skole may be the most promising of the bunch; he crushed 27 homers in his first season of full-season ball only to miss all of 2013 because of a freak injury.  Can Skole continue developing and make the majors on a full-time basis?  Can Purke at this point?
  • d. Yes: With the call-up of 6th rounder Taylor Hill earlier this year, this category is met.  Which is good because the rest of the 6th-10th rounders from this year are struggling.  Two are already released/retired, one is MIA and the lone remaining active player (Brian Dupra) is struggling as a starter/swing-man in AA.  But Hill is a huge win; a college senior draftee on minimal bonus rocketing through the minors and forcing his way onto the 25-man roster.
  • e. Yes/Inc:  It is far too early to fully judge this category, but it is looking promising despite the fact that the team failed to sign SIX of its ten picks beween the 11th and 20th round.  11th rounder Caleb Ramsey is already in AA.  16th rounder Deion Williams is on the mound (not a SS as in the Draft Tracker) and is struggling in short-A.   18th rounder Nick Lee is struggling in Potomac this year but has shown a huge arm and seems like he’ll eventually convert to loogy (especially considering his undersized stature); I can see Lee making it far as a matchup lefty reliever with swing-and-miss stuff.  The lone failure at this point is 12th rounder Blake Monar, sort of inexplicably released after a decent 2012 season in Short-A.   
  • f. Yes: 30th round pick Bryan Harper earned his way to Harrisburg.   45th round college senior pick Richie Mirowski also made it to AA, where he wasn’t half bad last year, though at the moment he’s back in Potomac.   And there’s three other players drafted in the 20th or higher who are active on Potomac’s roster this year and who may get moved up.   Decent production out of the bottom of this draft so far.

2011: Projected Success: As discussed before, I believe the selection of Rendon was a “no-brainer” based on a unique set of circumstances that occured on draft day, but credit the management team for having the stones to pick him when other GMs didn’t.   I’m sure the Mariners (especially) would like a re-do on that draft (they picked 2nd overall, got soft-tossing local product Danny Hultzen, who was sidelined last year with all sorts of shoulder issues and is no sure bet to ever make it back.   They rolled the dice with Purke and so far seem to be losing, but Purke was himself a 1-1 talent at one point (remember, he had his $4M+ deal with Texas pulled thanks to MLB-stewardship at the time) and was probably worth the risk.   I’d like to see Skole reach the majors in some capacity before declaring this draft a full success.

 


Note: from here onwards, everything is a projection and is based on scouting the stat lines.  I’m going to sound negative where others sound positive and vice versa.  Hey, its better than writing nothing.


2012: Owner: Lerner.  President/GM: Rizzo.  Scouting Director Kline

  • a. Yes/inc: 1st rounder Lucas Giolito (so far) has shown himself to be at full speed post TJ surgery and is mostly in the top 10-15 of every professional scouting pundit’s list for best prospect in the entirety of the minors.  He’s got a #1 starter ceiling, a huge frame and three plus pitches.  He’s projecting to be everything you’d hope for from an upper first rounder.
  • b. No/inc: It is hard to squint at 2nd rounder Tony Renda at this point and project him as a future “MLB regular.”  Sure he’s hitting .297 in Potomac, and sure his numbers at the plate have not varied much in his three pro seasons.  Unfortunately he’s vastly undersized and he has no power in a time where pro middle infielders are expected to provide serious pop.   Maybe he can forge a career like Jamey Carroll or like a Jose Altuve, but the odds are against him.  I don’t mean to discount the guy because he’s 5’8″ but we all know there’s a significant bias in the industry towards undersized guys.  Heck, a pitcher is considered “short” if he isn’t 6’2″ these days.
  • c. No/inc: So far the guys picked 3rd-5th are also struggling.  3rd rounder Brett Mooneyham‘s struggles are well documented here.  4th rounder Brandon Miller continues to show great power but has missed much of this season with a hamstring injury (he’s on rehab in the GCL as we speak).  Lastly 5th rounder Spencer Keiboom suffered a blown UCL that basically cost him the whole 2013 season.  He’s got great numbers in low-A this year but is two years too old for the league.  Keiboom’s talents more centered on his defense than his bat, so he may still push forward as a future backup catcher.  But until he does, this category falls in the “no” side.
  • d. Maybe/inc: The leading hope for some MLB success out of our 6th-10th round picks right now resides in one of two middle relievers: 7th round pick Robert Benincasa or 9th round pick Derek Self.   You never know; one of these guys could turn into the next Aaron Barrett.  8th round SS Stephen Perez made the all-star team this year in Potomac and could feature as a future utility infielder.  The team has already released its 6th round pick Hayden Jennings, and their 10th rounder (local Rockville product Craig Manual) was a college senior catcher who is backing up other catchers in the system for the time being).  He may continue to hang around but unless he gets a starting gig he’s going to get replaced by someone newer.
  • e. Yes/inc: 17th rounder Blake Schwartz has already made it to AA, where he struggled and he now sits back in Potomac (where he was great last year, go figure).  11th rounder Brian Rauh got a spot-start in AA last year but has bounced in and out of the Potomac rotation this year.  16th rounder Ronald Pena is working his way off injury but faces a long road to move up thanks to a lack of swing-and-miss stuff.   The team has already released four of its 11th-20th round picks; the remaining out-field players (12th rounder Carlos Lopez and 19th rounder Bryan Lippincott) both seem to face long odds as college senior draftees still residing in the low minors to even make it up to AA at this point.  To be fair, Lopez missed most of 2013 with an unknown injury, so we’ll give him a slight pass.   Lippincott sits in XST right now.
  • f. No/inc: 33rd rounder Mike McQuillan has hung around and currently serves as a utility guy/bench player for Potomac.   A couple of relievers remain on squads: 29th rounder Leonard Hollins is hurt but is on a full-season squad, and 30th rounder Robert Orlan was with Hagerstown to start the season but is back in Auburn.   The rest of the 20th round and up guys features carnage; eight college senior draftees already released to go along with 10 unsigned (mostly high schoolers) picks in the later rounds.  One unsigned pick looks interesting; all-american freshman UNC player Skye Bolt may be a big-time 2015 draft pick.   But otherwise, I’m predicting that we dont’ get even a AA player out of the last  20 rounds of this draft at this point.

2012: Projected Failure: Frankly, this is looking like it may be a one player draft.  At this point, I don’t think you can look at *any* other player in this draft and project even a bench/fringe 25-man roster guy besides Giolito.  Now ask yourself: if Giolito fulfills expectations and becomes an “ace,” a top 15-20 arm in the majors while the rest of this draft basically becomes high-A and AA filler, does that change your opinion of the draft success/failure?


2013: Owner: Lerner.  President/GM: Rizzo.  Scouting Director Kline

  • a. n/a: No 2013 first rounder thanks to the supurfluous signing of Rafael Soriano.  As noted at the time, the Nats missed out on players like Sean ManaeaRyan Stanek or Ian Clarkin, all of whom were available at the time of their lost 1st rounder.  Manaea in particular has flourished, rising up prospect list charts and sporting a healthy K/9 rate in high-A this year.  I’d like to call this in and among itself a failure (given my reservations about paying for saves in general), but have to admit that Soriano has been pretty durn good this year.
  • b. No/inc: 2nd rounder Jake Johansen thus far has not lived up to advance billing in his first year in full-season ball.  He’s averaging just 4.5 innings per outing and sports a 5.00 ERA and less than a K/inning.   I can understand the difficult adjustment to pro ball, but I don’t get how his vaunted velocity and size combination aren’t resulting in more swing-and-miss.    He’s given no indication that he can avoid what scouts have been saying all along (that he’s destined for the bullpen), he’s way too wild and way too hittable.
  • c. Yes/inc: the Nats collection of 3rd rounder Drew Ward, 4th rounder Nick Pivetta and now especially 5th rounder Austin Voth are making this management team look very smart.  All Voth has done since forcing his promotion to High-A is give up 10 hits and ONE earned run in 33 innings over five starts.  That’s just ridiculous.  And he’s doing it while maintaining a 36/5 K/BB ratio.  There’s zero reason for him to still be in Potomac at this point.  I don’t know what Voth’s ceiling is, but its getting pushed.
  • d. No/inc: Thanks to the new CBA’s rules, most 6th-10th rounders are throw-away/college senior picks these days.  So it’ll be awfully hard to depend on one of them turning into a 25-man roster guy.  The best bet out of this draft will be having either 6th rounder Cody Gunter or 7th rounder James Yezzo eventually matriculating to the majors.  The other guys in this category were 15k bonus college seniors, one of whom (9th rounder Jake Joyce has *already* been released).  Do we think either Gunter or Yezzo projects as a major leaguer?  Not right now: Gunter’s struggling in short-A for the 2nd year in a row and Yezzo is an undersized 1B showing little power.
  • e. Maybe/inc: Right now the pickings for the guys taken 11th-20th look pretty slim too.  Three were senior signs who have already been released and we failed to sign our 16th round pick Willie Allen (though can’t fault the Nats for that: doing research on him for last year’s draft review showed all sorts of inconsistencies with him, including whether he’s even still playing baseball in college).  But 11th rounder John Simms is looking like a great find; he’s already in the AA rotation and holding his own (though you could argue it was out of need, not performance).  Among those left, 10th rounder Brandon Middleton and 15th rounder Isaac Ballou are starting and playing well in Hagerstown, 12th rounder Andrew Cooper is strugging in low-A, 13th rounder John Costa has yet to debut for the team thanks to TJ surgery, and 17th rounder Geoffrey Perrott was a senior catcher who got a grand total of 13 at-bats in 2013 and has remained in XST so far thisyear, perhaps to serve as a bullpen catcher for others remaining in Viera and perhaps because he was hurt most of last year and may still be recovering.  If Simms continues to rise and we get a couple more longer-lasting prospects out of this crew, we’ll convert this to a success.
  • f. Maybe/Inc: The Nats picked seven college seniors in the 21st round or above and so far they’re all with Hagerstown.  Middle infielders Cody Dent (22nd rounder) and Willie Medina (31st rounder) both hit in the .220s last year, are hitting in the .220s (or worse) this year, and seem like they may not last the season.  However the pitchers in this bunch are looking better and better.  28th rounder Joey Webb has a 2.53 ERA, 30th rounder Ryan Ullmann has as 3.10 ERA and got a high-A up-and-back call-up, and 34th rounder Jake Walsh dominated Low-A and earned a call-up to Potomac.  Only 29th rounder Michael Sylvestri seems to be in trouble among these senior signs; after struggling in Short-A last year, he gave up a ton of runs in 6 mid-relief outings and is currently in re-assignment purgatory.  What of the non senior-signs?  24th round pick Matthew Derosier is struggling in short-A and 23rd round outfielder Garrett Gordon seems like he’s a bench player in Auburn.  But a revelation may be 25th round prep draft pick Travis Ott.  He holds a 2.10 ERA through 6 starts in Auburn despite being quite young for the league.  So, the trend seems good that we’ll get value out of the bottom part of this draft.

2013: Projected Failure: Sorry to say; no first rounder, a middle reliever out of your 2nd rounder, perhaps a 5th starter out of the 3-5 rounds, and some org filler from the bottom of the draft?  How many players from this draft do you realistically project to make the majors?


2014: Owner: Lerner.  President/GM: Rizzo.  Scouting Director Kline

  • a. Maybe/inc: 1st rounder Erick Fedde may project as a MLB rotation guy, but he’s not projecting as an ace level arm.  So if he comes back from surgery 100%, if he keeps moving up the chain, if he makes the majors and if he has an impact we’ll give this a yes.  Lots of ifs.
  • b. n/a:  we failed to sign our 2nd rounder Andrew Suarez.
  • c. Maybe/inc: The hopes here fall on 3rd rounder Jakson Reetz and 4th rounder Robbie Dickey, since our 5th rounder was a senior lefty out of non-baseball powerhouse Duke.   How do we dream on Reetz and Dickey?  Maybe Reetz turns into our next Derek Norris while Dickey turns into the next Austin Voth.  Lets hope so, because both so far have had rather inauspicious starts in the GCL (Reetz batting .220 and Dickey posting an ERA in the 12s).   To be fair Reetz is a kid and Dickey isn’t much older, so we have a long way to go before passing true judgement.
  • d. No/inc: We failed to sign the 8th round pick Austin Byler (and from reading the tea leaves, it didn’t seem like we were ever even close).  Our 7th, 8th and 10th round picks were low-bonus college seniors with little hope of advancing.  So this category falls squarely on the shoulders of 6th rounder Austin Williams, who looks ok so far in Short-A.
  • e. Far too Early: most of these guys who did sign are 15 games into short seasons.
  • f. Far too Early: most of these guys who did sign are 15 games into short seasons.

2014: Not promising: An injured first rounder, no 2nd rounder, really just a handful of non senior-signs elsewhere in the draft.  As I opined in the previous post discussion, I just don’t like the looks of this class.


So.  5200 words later, I think I actually like my guidelines.  I think though that the new CBA forces teams into making a bunch of “throw-away” picks in the 6th-10th rounds, so my criteria needs to be adjusted downward for that category in the last few years.  Otherwise I think it holds.

What say you?

 

Written by Todd Boss

July 23rd, 2014 at 10:52 am

Posted in Draft

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Nationals 2013 post-mortem

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This may be the last time i use Haren's picture in a Nats uniform on this blog.  Photo via Zimbio.com

This may be the last time I use Haren’s picture in a Nats uniform on this blog. Photo via Zimbio.com

They say success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.  Well, here’s a whole slew of orphan-causing problems that befell this team this year.  I started this post months ago, when the team sputtered in July and suddenly sat at 54-60.  None of these bullet points are surprises.  Maybe I forgot some key points; feel free to tack ‘em on.   This is a cathartic, washing my hands of the 2013 season, where so many things conspired to go wrongly.

  1. Davey Johnson, for continued pitching/bullpen mismanagement episode after episode, for seemingly losing the clubhouse (see below), for sticking with severely under-performing players (Espinosa, Haren especially) far, far too long, for failing to react to repeated beanings of his best player, and for generally looking old, tired and out-matched this year at press conference after press conference.  This team needs a new voice, a disciplinarian who will command more respect than what Johnson was commanding from this team.  My vote is for Matt Williams.
  2. Injuries.  Every team has injuries; I’m not going to write some simplistic statement that says “well if we had So-and-So healthy all year we’d have won the division.”   Look at St. Louis: they’re missing Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia basically all year and still won the best division in the game.  I think the issue most people will have with the Nats is the way their players’ injuries were handled.  Bryce Harper missed the whole month of June after several wall collisions finally caught up to him and he was clearly in pain the rest of the season.  Did the team not allow him to get healthy at the end of April?  Meanwhile you have to take serious issue with either the team, Danny Espinosa or both over the handling of his injuries.  What good did it do anyone to allow Espinosa to try to play through the significant shoulder injury he apparently has?  Why has he STILL not had the surgery done to fix it?  It sounds to me like there’s some serious stubbornness on both sides of this fence.  Ross Detwiler looked to be on the verge of a breakout season in 2012 … and now he’s back to being the broken down starter he’s mostly been during his time here.  In his 6 pro seasons he’s not pitched full seasons in 3 of them.   This isn’t necessarily on the team .. but I will ask this: at what point do you go into a season counting on Detwiler to break down instead of the reverse?  It goes to proper roster planning (also mentioned later on).
  3. Bench production, for regressing so far past the mean from last year’s over production.  Did you know that Steve Lombardozzi got more than 300 plate appearances this year with this slash line: .255/.276/.337?  I know you need backup utility infielders, but man, that’s a huge 68 OPS+ hole getting a ton of ABs.  Our opening-day bench of Lombardozzi/Moore/Bernadina/Tracy posted these OPS+ figures in 2012: 82/123/111/111.  In 2013?  69/66/43/55.  Wow.  That’s just a startling drop-off in production.  To add insult to injury Kurt Suzuki‘s OPS+ went from a respectable 95 last year to 64 this year.  Basically every pinch hitting spot or guy off the bench covering for a starter turned into an 0-4 outing.  We know that at least 3 of these 5 bench guys are gone; who will replace them?
  4. Dan Haren.  $13M for one of the worst starters in the game, even given his little August rebound.  The team finished 4 games out of the wild card, 10 games back of Atlanta.   In Dan Haren’s 30 starts, the Nats went 11-19.  In every other pitcher’s starts, the team went 75-57.   That’s a .568 winning percentage, which equates to 92 wins.  Even a #5 starter who gave the team a 50/50 chance of winning on any given sunday would have basically put the team into the WC game.  Haren was just a really really poor FA acquisition who contributed a huge part to the downfall of the team.  I wonder at this point if the Nats didn’t fail to do the proper medical due diligence on Haren; there was a reason the proposed trade to the Cubs fell through and there was a reason the Angels did not give him a qualifying offer.  I fully admit: I was completely on board with the signing, thinking we were getting the pre 2012 Haren.  Wrong; something clearly changed for him after the 2011 season and I wonder how much longer he can stay in the league after his last two seasons.  I’m sure he’ll get another one-year deal for 2014 based on his stronger finish, but another 5+ ERA season may finish him.
  5. Offense in general: The team scored 656 runs on the year.  That’s down fully 75 runs from last year, when they were 10th in the league in scoring.  Had they produced like they did last year in 2013 (about 10th in the league in runs scored and other key indicators),  they’d have scored around 700 runs, probably good for at least 10 more wins (under the rough estimate that it takes about 4 “extra” runs per win).  With 10 more wins … they’re winning the division again (since some of those added wins come at the hands of Atlanta).
  6. Hitting in the Clutch: Ask any sabre-nerd and they’ll tell you that “clutch” doesn’t exist and that all aspects of batting (good or bad) with RISP is merely coincidence (this came up again recently with David Ortiz’ game-changing NLCS homer).  I don’t entirely buy it. I think hitting with runners on base is a skill that can be practiced and honed.  I think there’s importance to driving runners in when you have the opportunity.  I think a batter with a runner on third and less than one out can absolutely look for a ball that he can hit into the air, thus driving in the run.  Anyway: let’s look at how well the Nats offense hit in the clutch this season (see this team-stats split link at tFangraphs).  The Nats team batting average with runners on base is ranked 19th in the league; its wRC+ as a team 17th.  However, change “runners on base” to “high leverage” in the Fangraphs split and you get this: Nats were 29th in high leverage batting average, 28th in wRC+. That’s right: almost dead last in the league in high-leverage hitting for the year.  When they came to bat in situations that mattered, they were one of the worst teams in the league.  Any way you slice it … that’s not “clutch.”
  7. Clubhouse Issues: I know that many readers here get irritated with presumptions of “chemistry” issues, writing comments about how we have no idea what really goes on in the clubhouse.  Fair enough; we don’t need to rehash the argument.  Absent any proof, I believe something might have been amiss.  Reporters have noted the losses of free-spirit Morse and the level headed DeRosa.  The Soriano acquisition brought a known surly loner with behavior problems into a tight knit bullpen and resulted in the chain reaction demotion of two guys (Storen and Clippard) who didn’t necessarily deserve to be demoted.  I believe Harper was fed up with Johnson’s message and was caught on camera more than once clearly ignoring or showing disdain to something he was being told.  To say nothing of the ridiculousness of Harper getting hit over and over without any of his teammates getting his back.   Can a new manager fix this?  Probably.  Can a leadership void fix this?  Definitely.  Perhaps with Jayson Werth‘s great season he can step up in the clubhouse and be the voice of reason moreso than it seems he has been before (either because he was struggling on the field or collapsing under the weight of his contract).
  8. Rizzo’s mis-management of the 2013 roster: Rizzo just had to have his speedy leadoff/centerfielder, and Span underperformed when it counted (I’m on record stating over and over that the team is wasting Harper’s defensive capabilities in left and blocking a power-hitter acquisition by sticking with Span in center.  But what’s done is done).  The opening day roster had no left handed specialists, a move that I quasi-defended at the time but which turned out to be disastrous.  We relied on a MLFA (and frankly, we over-relied an incredibly short sample size) for the long man (Duke) and he failed. We had absolutely no starting pitching depth in the high Minors and got rather lucky that Taylor Jordan materialized out of the thin air of high-A and Tanner Roark suddenly added 5 mph to his fastball and turned into an effective MLB hurler.  We had a $120M payroll but were depending on bargain basement acquisitions in key roles.  That just has to change for 2014.  Don’t go looking to save pennies on the proverbial dollar by non-tendering useful guys (as they did with Tom Gorzelanny last year); do the right thing and lock these guys up.  You had enough to waste $30M on Soriano but couldn’t find the scratch to keep around half of 2012′s bullpen?
  9. Pressure. this team had no pressure last year, and all of the pressure this year.  Nearly every baseball pundit with a blog, microphone or column picked them to win the division (me included), and lots picked them to win 100+ games (me included).  Look at how awfully they fared this year against the NL playoff bound teams:
  • Stl: 0-6, scoring just 8 runs in 6 games.
  • LA Dodgers: 1-5
  • Atlanta: 6-13.  Outscored 73-49
  • Pittsburgh: 3-4
  • Cincinnati: 4-3 but outscored 36-27 thanks to a 15-0 spanking the 2nd week of the season.

When the chips were down, they folded.  Especially against Atlanta, who pushed the team around, continually threw at us, and we had no reaction (that is until Strasburg suddenly had a fit of wildness which some will argue was less about standing up for his players and more about being off that day).   I lay this at the manager’s feet again.  Atlanta has proved time and again (and again) that they’re capable of acting like bullies when it comes to “unwritten rules” of the game, and Johnson let this go unchecked far too long.  A new manager with some balls will put an end to this nonesense, fast.  Sorry to sound crude, but it is what it is.  Johnson had no balls and made his entire team look weak in the face of the Braves.

Yes its great the team had a run in August and September.  What does it really mean?  Their schedule was cake in August and then filled with teams with AAA callups in September.  Who is the real Denard Span?  The guy who hit .235 in the middle of the summer or the guy who hit .303 in September?  Can Werth keep this kind of production up in the face of father time in 2014?  Can LaRoche return his OPS to something better than what a middling 2nd baseman can produce?  Can Harper stop running into walls and stay on the field?

I think the scarier part for Nats fans is the fact that this team is basically going to be the exact same team next year. Nearly every position player, likely the entire rotation (simply replace Haren with a healthy Detwiler), most all of the bullpen. There’s not a lot of holes here, not a lot of wiggle room.   Unless there’s a major trade on the horizon that drastically reshapes the roster, this is your team in 2014.  Can they turn it around and make up the 14 games they declined in the win column?

In summary; which of the above points IS the real issue behind 2013′s disaster?  And how do you fix it?  Because if you don’t address it, then 2014 is going to be the same story.

 

Ladson’s Inbox 10/4/13

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Wouldn't it be nice to see Price in a Washington uniform?  photo unk via strikesportsnetwork.com

Wouldn’t it be nice to see Price in a Washington uniform? photo unk via strikesportsnetwork.com

Nothing like a Bill Ladson inbox to start off your week!  This one is dated 10/4/13 and was posted late friday.  As always I write my response here before reading his and edit questions for clarity and conciseness.  Here we go.

Q: This past season, Adam LaRoche had a .403 slugging percentage, which might fly at shortstop, but not at first base. Do you think that Tyler Moore is good enough to be in a platoon with LaRoche, or should the Nats go after someone like James Loney to start most of the time?

A: Adam LaRoche‘s season was a disappointment for sure.  In addition to the noted poor slugging percentage, I’ll give you two more interesting stats.  He posted a bWAR of 0.9 for the year, which is only slightly better than the bWAR of 0.7 posted by Billy Hamilton during his two weeks of base-running terror in September.  And he ranked 20th of qualified first basemen in the league in terms of fWAR for the year.  James Loney put himself in a position to get a decent contract this year, with a nice slash line, a 118 OPS+ and a 7.2 UZR/150 at first.  But Loney’s problem is that he just doesn’t hit for enough power.  The Nats need LaRoche’s power, and I think at this point they stick with what they have for one more year and hope he rebounds.   I don’t think Tyler Moore is ready for prime time and will continue to be a power RH bat off the bench.  Lastly; who is taking LaRoche off our hands if we decide to replace him?  We’d have to pay most of his salary, get little in return, and I just don’t see this management team doing that.  Ladson agrees.

Q: How does Ross Ohlendorf fit in with the Nationals’ future plans? I see him as a great No. 4 or 5 starter.

A:  Ross Ohlendorf is in an interesting spot.   He was signed as a MLFA this past off-season, but did not accrue enough service time to get to 5 full years, so I believe he’s still tied to the club.  He should be arbitration eligible, and (per springfieldFan’s big board work) seems to have 2 options left.  So, on the one hand he pitched pretty well for us and I’d definitely tender him a contract for 2014; he’ll be relatively cheap even through arbitration.  I see him competing for the 4th/5th with the other obvious candidates (Karns, Jordan, Detwiler, Roark), but his longer term history as a starter in 2011 and 2012 does not inspire confidence.  His new motion helped him to a 3-1 record with a 3.52 ERA in 7 starts this year, but ultimately I see him settling into a long-man role similar to what he had this year.  Ladson agrees; he’s arb eligible but doesn’t seem like he can stick as a starter.

Q: I feel like the Nationals should go after center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. How do you feel about that?

A: Nope.  Jacoby Ellsbury is a nice player, but I feel like he’s somewhat of a one-season wonder.  Look at his career homer records and tell me how he hit 32 in 2011 when he’s never hit more than 9 in any other season??  Doesn’t that outlier scream out PEDs?  Plus he can’t stay healthy; he missed 30 games this year, half of last year, basically all of 2010.  He’s a Scott Boras client who is already making noise about getting more for Ellsbury than he got for Carl Crawford.  Would you pay $150M for 7 years of Ellsbury??

But here’s the other thing; as with LaRoche, this team has a center fielder under contract for 2014!  If the Nats want to make a change in center they’ll be selling somewhat low on Denard Span.  Personally I wouldn’t mind putting Harper in center, acquiring a big bopper for left and adding some muscle to this lineup.  But I just don’t see Mike Rizzo doing that and admitting defeat on the Span acquisition.  Ladson points out that Span’s great finish means he’s clearly not in line to be replaced; organizationally they have to be hopeful that his 2014 will resemble more closely the end of 2013, not the middle.  Fair enough; I can get on that bandwagon.

Q: Have you noticed how similar the home run swings of Wilson Ramos and Andres Galarraga are? Every time Ramos goes yard, he reminds me of The Big Cat.

A: I had not noticed, but sure, whatever.  No real question here otherwise.  I like Ramos, and he’s finally showing signs of durability after an injury-plagued career.   This is the kind of hard-hitting question that Ladson is known for taking.

Q: Do you think the Nationals should go after another pitcher or two during the free agency period?

A: I think the Dan Haren experience may have scared them off the FA market for a bit.  And this coming off-season’s FA market for Starting Pitching is really thin.  After spending $13M each of the last two years for Haren and Edwin Jackson (and getting bWARs of -0.1 and 2.0 respectively) the Nats have to be thinking that there’s better ways to spend money.  I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see another deal similar to the Gio Gonzalez deal, where we package a slew of close-to-the-majors players together for one decent-to-good pitcher.   The problem would be finding such a team; Oakland’s current slate of young starters mostly struggled this year and none of them are arb-eligible yet.  Maybe Tampa lines up; not only do they have to deal with David Price‘s rising salary but Jeremy Hellickson is arb-eligible for the first time too.  Hellickson took a major step back though in 2013; would Tampa use this to their advantage and keep him at a lower arb-number for one more year instead of selling low?   Would you trade, say, Karns, Roark and Kobernus for Hellickson?  Too much?  Too little?  Ladson says he could see them going after a pitcher either on FA or in Trade.

Q: Will Jhonatan Solano be the backup catcher out of Spring Training or will the Nationals try to bring in someone else? 

A: This is one of the bigger questions for this team this coming off-season: do the Nats go into 2014 with Ramos and a minor league call-up as his backup, or do they go for a veteran backup?  I’m guessing they may go the veteran FA route; there’s a ton of catchers on the FA market this year.  Jhonatan Solano may have peaked as a player: his AAA slashline as a 27 yr old this year was .214/.245/.279.   He’s been bouncing between AA and AAA since 2009.   Sandy Leon seemed like he was the future answer, but he bottomed out this year too after looking great in 2012.   I’d go with a veteran backup (Kurt Suzuki is a FA …) and wait out the kids one more season.  Ladson thinks FA route.

Q: Do you think a new manager will be able to change the hitting philosophy of the team and play more small ball instead of over-swinging and trying for home runs all of the time?

A: Is that the perception of this team’s offense in 2013?  That they over-swing all the time?  I think they just don’t hit well in the clutch.  Small-ball is a century old concept mostly debunked by modern stats in the game as being out-dated strategy.  Honestly, I want a manager who stands up for his players, who keeps them in line, who isn’t afraid to order a bean-ball when it is called for, and who doesn’t come across as a feeble old man (sorry Davey Johnson; that’s how I interpreted your last season).  Ladson says the hitting has settled since the firing of Rick Eckstein and the hiring of Rick Schu. 

Q: I think that left-hander David Price would be the ideal arm to add to the Nationals’ rotation. If he is willing to agree to an extension, do you think that he would be a good fit for the Nationals?

A: Price would be a great fit on every team in the majors.   Duh.  The problem is extracting him from Tampa.  Tampa is shrewd, drives a hard bargain, and wants to win every trade.  They’re not exactly the best team to try to negotiate with.  We’ve had this argument on this site many times; what would it really take to get Price out of Tampa?  Giolito, Jordan, Kobernus and Rendon maybe?  Would you make that deal or is that too much?

Of course, that being said … ask yourself this; was starting pitching *really* the reason this team failed in 2013?  No I don’t think it was.  Yes, the team was 10-19 in Haren’s starts … even if they’d finished .500 in Haren’s starts they were still out of the WC game.  No; this team took a significant step backwards offensively.  So the way to fix that should be to address the offense.  Problem is; all 8 starting fielders are under contract or under team control for 2014.  What do you do?  Get a couple of bench guys who can hit?  How does that help?

Ladson punts with his patented ‘lets see what happens’ line.

 

Ask Boswell 8/19/13 edition

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Arod, the greek tragedy figure. Photo John Munson/The Star-Ledger via nj.com

Arod, the greek tragedy figure. Photo John Munson/The Star-Ledger via nj.com

With somewhat of a lack of topics to write about lately, I turned to find a relatively deep Ask Boswell discussion on the Washington Post website 8/19/13.  Tom Boswell takes baseball questions, I provide my own answers.

As always, I’ll write answers here before reading his, and edit questions for clarity.  All stats quoted are as of 8/19/13.

Q: Leave it to the Red Sox to make A-Rod into a sympathetic figure!

A: Agree.  I wouldn’t normally have tuned into the expected 4.5 hour 8pm Sunday night game between Boston and New York, but just happened to see the first Alex Rodriguez at bat last night.  My immediate thought: Ryan Dempster‘s actions were pretty gutless and he should have been immediately ejected.   You throw at a guy once and miss?  You’ve made your point.  You had your chance to make a statement and missed.  But then throw two more balls inside then blatantly drill the guy on 3-0?  Sorry; that’s just bush league.  The umpires badly mismanaged that situation; Dempster should have been immediately ejected.  Joe Girardi had a very legitimate point at the time, and continued with very intelligent observations afterwards (where, paraphrased, he said that Dempster was a union rep, should have known better, and if he had a problem with the process of his own players’ union the time and place was elsewhere, not on a nationally televised game).

So, yeah, Alex Rodriguez did earn sympathy there.  How poetic was his home-run later in the game?  Were it me, I would have milked it for everything it was worth, making it a poster child for every egregious home-run celebration.  Bat flip, slow trot, kisses to the stands, fist pumps and multiple pointing to the sky.  But that’s just me.

Boswell doesn’t really say much about the question other than stating the obvious about the athlete and the situation.

Q: Wouldn’t it be better to show up the Braves by actually beating them once in a while, rather than throwing at them?

A: Not the point.  As I posted in this space over the weekend, there’s a code in the game that the Nats, for some unknown reason, were not keeping to.  Kudos to Stephen Strasburg for finally standing up for his own.  It has nothing to do with wins or losses on the field, it has to do with protecting yours.  Boswell says the Justin Upton plunking was done perfectly, but then questions the ejection for what a lot of people thought were just very wild pitches to Andrelton Simmons.

Q: Why did the Nats not keep Oliver Perez?

A: Who said it was just the Nats decision?  Oliver Perez piched as a starter for our AA team in 2011 and then signed another minor league deal with Seattle for 2012.  Only then he converted to a reliever and has had success since.  We don’t really know what happened; maybe the Nats offered to keep him but wouldn’t promise a AAA spot or a spring training invite.  Maybe Perez saw our rotation for 2012 and thought Seattle would give him a better shot at a MLB job.  Honestly I don’t remember a single word at the time indicating that either side wanted a 2012 deal.  Perez was good but not great in AA for us in 2011 (3-5, 3.09 ERA. 1.3 whip in 15 starts), far less than a guy who was once a very effective MLB starter.  Maybe we just though he was washed up.  Boswell questions whether a guy with a 4.25 ERA is even worth discussing.  Fair point

Q: Who would the Nationals “third-string” catcher be? If, for instance, Suzuki got injured and Ramos pinch-hit. -Who would be the preferred position player to pitch if they ran out of pitchers? 

A: Great question.  3rd string catcher?  I have no idea, maybe Steve Lombardozzi.  I do remember the team saying that despite Bryce Harper‘s youth position being predominantly catcher that he was not an option.  Pitcher?  Boy, another who knows.   I can’t remember a single positional player who has taken the mound for the Nats since they moved here.  The best guess would be a utility guy, either Lombardozzi or Scott Hairston.  Boswell guesses the same names I do.

Q: Do you think the Nats will make a serious effort to keep him next year? (I’m already writing off 2013) I’m sure he wants to play every day, but given Ramos’ physical issues that isn’t out of the question.

A: Kurt Suzuki is gone.  His $8.5M option for next year is way, way too much for what he has become; a once-a-week catcher.  Even given Wilson Ramos‘ fragility, you just can’t waste money at the backup catcher position.  Look for a 2014 spring training fight between Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano for the #2 catcher spot, and look for the team to add a lot of depth in the minor league ranks in the off-season.  Boswell notes the horrific catcher ERA of Suzuki compared to Ramos, and predicts a minor FA signing this coming off-season.

Q: Is there a more insincere human being in sports than A-Rod? Has he always been like this?

A: The above answer was my weekly quota of Alex Rodriguez discussion.  I will say this though; how do you really KNOW that A-rod is an “insincere human being?”  Do you know him personally?  Or are you just following the media narrative?  Boswell makes a good point; the damage he’s done to the game outweighs any sympathy you could have for him.

Q: You’ve said in the past the Nats would return to their career averages…eventually. Are the Nats reverting to their mean, or is this the new mean?

A: If 2012 was the high, maybe 2013 is the low.  Lets hope for somewhere in the middle for 2014.  Hell, i’ll settle for league average.  I did a quick little runs-scored analysis at the end of June that showed where the Nats record would have been if they had a league-average offense (tied for 1st place) or their 2012 offense (best record in majors).  You could quibble with the math, but I think we all know what has let down the team this year.  Boswell summarizes many of the same points I made … and then has some great stats isolating the bench’s collapse this year.

Q: Given Haren’s performance since returning from the DL, does Rizzo make him a qualifying offer for 2014?

A: Good question.  I just don’t see how you can give Dan Haren a qualifying offer.  The Q.O.  amount is going to increase; lets assume its $14M/year.  Would you give a guy with this stat line $14M?  7-11, 4.79 ERA?  Probably not (those are his season numbers).  His last 8 games (since coming off D/L?)  3-2, 2.25 ERA.   Yeah, that’s worthy of a Q.O.   Maybe the team avoids having to make a decision and flips him to someone needing a starter for September, since he passed through waivers.  That’d be advantageous to Haren too, meaning his signing next off-season won’t have compensation associated with it.  In any case, I think the performance of Taylor Jordan has clearly made Haren expendible, giving as good as or better performance for 1/26th the cost.  Use that $13M towards some hitting.  Boswell says no.

Q: When does Drew Storen replace Soriano as the Nats closer?  (After another blown save).

A: When Soriano’s contract is over.  You bought him, you’ve gotta use him.  Rafael Soriano‘s m.o. was always “good when he’s the closer, sullen underperformer when not.”  He was a poor signing when they got him, and continues to be wasted money.  But hey, its not my money.  Boswell agrees.

Q: When Magic Johnson’s group purchased the Dodgers, he was going to fire Mattingly, whom you said would be a very good manager. Does he still want to fire Donnie, now that the Dodgers have gone 42-8, the best MLB win stread in 100 years? Would you like to see him managing the Nats?

A: Well of course Don Mattingly isn’t going to be fired; he’s now neck and neck with Clint Hurdle for manager of the year.  I don’t have a good sense for what kind of manager he is; after Davey Johnson‘s laissez-faire attitude I know what kind of manager I do want; I want someone with some emotion.  Girardi proved a lot to me last night; lighting into an umpire who failed to control the game.  That’s the kind of emotion I want in my skipper.  Boswell gives some good managerial candidates.

Q: Who are the young pitchers the Nats thing are coming soon?

A: From AAA on downwards, here’s a few starters to keep an eye on: Nathan Karns, A.J. Cole, Robbie Ray, Taylor Hill, Sammy Solis, Matthew PurkeBlake Schwartz, Jake Johansen, Austin Voth and Lucas Gilioto.   Almost every guy on this list has performed well and/or earned a promotion in 2013.   Boswell points some of these guys out and then mentions that we need to produce some hitting too.

Q: Should I be worried that the Nats are going to become the new Caps, a talented team who just lacks the discipline to get it done when it matters?

A: No, because at its heart this is still the same basic team of guys who nearly won 100 games last year.  They need a new voice in the skipper’s office, one who reverses the course of Johnson and who properly motivates them.  Boswell says not to judge a team because of 3/4′s of one disappointing season.

Q: Zim’s surgically-repaired shoulder clearly affected his throwing this year — whether physically or mentally. However, his power numbers at the plate are down too, and we haven’t seen his usual late summer hot streak. Do you think his shoulder affected his hitting? If so, what’s the prognosis for next year for Zim’s hitting?

A: If his shoulder really is/was as bad as everyone seems to think, then yeah you can derive all sorts of bad performance indicators from it.  Next year?  Who knows; he should be healthy.  Of course, he was promised to be healthy by spring training of THIS year.  It takes me back to what I now perceive as disinformation from the team about the whole shoulder issue from the onset.  Either way, I think he’s playing 3B for this team in 2014 no matter what (well, unless the team somehow unloads Adam LaRoche).  Boswell shows some good stats showing Zimmerman’s consistency over the years, then goes on to rave about Jayson Werth.

Q: Will baseball be ruined by the addition of instant replay or have the times changed?

A: I think times have changed.  But from all accounts, the implementation will be typical of everything MLB does; half-done, ham-handed, inefficient and not going nearly as far as its counterparts.  Boswell isn’t a fan.

Q: With two years under his belt, he has a 3.00 ERA and a pretty good 27-19 record. He doesn’t hit 100 mph anymore. He hasn’t proven so far to be anything better than mediocre in the clutch. Not a bad track record, of course, but not anywhere near great. He’s 25 years old now. Is it time to adjust expectations?

A: Is this a baiting question?   Quotes ERA and W/L record as the sole ways to evaluate a pitcher (especially a pitcher who hasn’t yet pitched a full season).  What proof is there that he’s “mediocre in the clutch?”  He’s still the highest or 2nd highest average fastball of any starter in the league despite dialing it down, he’s still a league leader in K/9.  His ERA+ is still significantly above average both for this year and for his career.  What more do you want from the guy?  Ask any baseball pundit to give you a list of his top 5 starters in the league and he’s still on it.   Boswell gives some great historical stats, putting Strasburg in pretty elite company thus far.

Q: Why has Bryce Harper not made the 20 year old leap we expected him to? Did the collision with the wall in LA derail his entire season?

A: A fair point; everyone saw his splits pre and post-LA wall.  His lefty splits are abhorrent.  But he hasn’t been the second coming of Mike Trout.  Maybe we just need to appreciate him for what he is right now.  Boswell mirrors what I said.

 

Is it time to fire Davey Johnson?

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Davey Johnson can't get this team in gear.  Is it time to go?  Photo Getty via mlb.com

Davey Johnson can’t get this team in gear. Is it time to go? Photo Getty via mlb.com

I know this is blasphemous to say.

I know it’ll never happen, not under this GM and not under this ownership group, both of whom have far more respect for Davey Johnson than to give him such an ignominious end to his time here.

And I know that Johnson is as good of a manager as is out there.  I may have been critical of his decisions here and there (especially related to yanking starters on low pitch counts), but I recognize he’s a Hall of Famer and cannot argue against his career accomplishments.

But I’m beginning to believe that the only way to shake this team out of its current malaise is to change the message coming from the top.

They tried demoting players who weren’t hitting (Danny EspinosaTyler Moore).   They’ve tried calling up their best remaining prospects (Anthony Rendon, Nathan Karns and Taylor Jordan).  They’ve tried cleaning house of underperforming relievers (Henry RodriguezZach Duke, and Drew Storen).  They’ve tried changing key staff (firing Rick Eckstein).  They’ve tried ridiculous lineups (your best power hitter Bryce Harper leading off??)   Nothing has made a difference; the team has basically been playing .500 ball for weeks and weeks now.

For whatever reason, this team of players, picked by every baseball pundit out there to make the playoffs and by a good portion to make it to or win the World Series, is now 10 games out of of the divisional lead.  They’re 10 games back of Atlanta, which themselves has only played .500 ball since mid April after a 12-1 start.  The Nats just finished June and July playing 50 games in a row against teams that missed the 2012 playoffs (perhaps not the best bench mark, since Pittsburgh has the best record in baseball this year, but still), and finished the stretch 5 games south of .500.

The team looks like its sleepwaking through games.  They look like they have no voice, no spark, no sense of urgency.  No leadership.

The trade deadline won’t help at all; the Nats have practically no tradeable assets.  Their only FAs to be are Dan Haren and Chad Tracy.  Kurt Suzuki has a 2014 option that clearly won’t be exercised, so he counts too.  But who is out there lineing up for these 3 guys?  Meanwhile, despite their offensive woes, there’s really not a spot on the field that can be improved through trade.  Go around the field and you’ve got players on deals that at least extend through 2014 (LaRoche and Span), or  you’ve got guys on major contracts (Zimmerman and Werth) or you’ve got cornerstone younger players (HarperRamosDesmond and Rendon).  Who are you going to replace?  Maybe you think about trading Rafael Soriano (after all, the last thing a losing team needs is a high-priced closer) but a quick glance at the teams in playoff contention does not easily find a team in need of a closer (the best candidate may be Pittsburgh, who just lost their closer Jason Grilli to a forearm injury, but they’re not exactly rolling in dollars nor likely to take on an $11M/year guy).

Maybe its time to bring in a new voice, and see if he can scare this team into an August and September run.

Sorry Davey; you know how the old saying goes.  You can’t fire 25 players, but its pretty easy to fire the manager.

Ask Boswell 7/22/13

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Denard Span is catching a lot of criticism right now.  Photo: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Denard Span is catching a lot of criticism right now. Photo: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Well, Phil Mickelson came out of nowhere to take the British Open over the weekend, NFL training camps are coming up soon and the Nats just got swept anemically at home.  I wonder how many baseball questions there are in this week’s ask Tom Boswell chat?  Lets find out.

As always, I answer here before reading Boswell’s response, only take his baseball/Nats questions and edit those questions for clarity.

Q: Is one of the reasons for the Nats malaise because they know Johnson is a short timer?

A: The implication of the question is this: if Davey Johnson suggests a change, the player says, “Eh, you’re gone by the end of the season, why should I listen to you?”  I have a hard time believing this for two reasons:

1. I’m not convinced there’s that much “coaching” going on in the majors.  Especially for veterans.  These guys are professionals, they’ve been playing professional baseball for years.  If you don’t know how to bunt, or how to field by the time you’ve made the majors then I don’t think you’re ever going to get it.  Maybe I’m wrong.

2. I’m also not convinced that managers really have that much to do with a game’s being won or lost.  Yes, disastrous bullpen decisions can back fire.  But its still on the hitters to hit, the starters to pitch, the fielders to make plays.

Related to #2; word came out today that the Nats have fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein.  Is this sort of like firing the secretary when the entire office puts out bad work?  Johnson was really upset by it and said so in the media … and I don’t have any doubt that this is a reactionary move to the poor offensive numbers.  But ask yourself; what is a new hitting coach going to do to turn this team of hitters around between now and September 30th?

Boswell gives Johnson lots of credit in 2012 for instilling confidence in the youngsters and garnering more respect out of the veterans (in comparison to Jim Riggleman). 

Q: Suzuki, Soriano, LaRoche. Any reason the Nats shouldn’t be sellers this year?

A: The Nats will not sell.  Because that would be Mike Rizzo admitting that all his moves last off-season were wrong.  And he’s not going to admit that.

Lets play the what-if game though; what if the Nats were to become sellers.  First guys on the block are FAs in their last (or only) year.  We only have a couple of those guys: Kurt SuzukiDan Haren and Chad Tracy.  Look at that list and ask yourself who would want these guys and what they’d be willing to give up?  Even newly acquired Scott Hairston is signed through 2014.  But then again, teams are smarter and generally won’t give up good prospects anymore for rentals.

One last point: the Red Sox blew a 9 game lead in September two years ago.  The Nats are only 7 out of the division lead, even playing as poorly as they have.  It’s still just mid July.

Boswell says wait until July 31st.  And interestingly he criticizes the Denard Span acquisition. 

Q: Can we get rid of Span?

A: Ironic that Boswell took this question right after killing him.  I have always thought that the Span acquisition was Rizzo being too clever, too focused on defense.  And so far it looks like the critics were right.  Span is posting an 86 OPS+ right now.  His OBP is about the same as the guy we had to jettison to make room for him (Michael Morse).   Except Morse at any moment can hit the ball 430 feet; it’d take Span 3 swings to get it that far.  To say nothing of driving out a fan favorite/good clubhouse guy.

Can we get rid of him?  Nope.  Stuck with him and most of this team through next season.  But, at that point he seems tailor made to flip to bring up someone like Brian Goodwin.

Boswell says that Bernadina isn’t the answer.

Q: Isn’t it galling to the team that Rafael Soriano acts differently on the mound — e.g., windup vs. stretch — depending on whether or not it is a save situation?

A: The word on Rafael Soriano wasn’t positive before he got here, and the whole “shirt untuck” seems to smack of showing people up.  And it’s clear to me that he’s a “Save snob;” look no further than his numbers in 2010, 2011 and 2012.  In2010 as a closer in Tampa?  226 ERA+.  The next year as a setup guy in New York?  4.12 era.  Then when Mariano Rivera goes down and he gets the closer job in 2012?  Back to being excellent.  If he purposely pitches differently in save vs non-save situations?  I’d be really, really pissed as a player.  But luckily the stats don’t support it; his ERA in non-save situations is better than in save situations, by a lot.  Boswell says that Soriano’s behavior is being noticed.  great.

Q: Should we start platooning Span with Hairston?

A: Is this what it’s come to with Span?  That we’re talking about platooning him with a guy hitting .170?  Yes Hairston’s lefty splits are good … but come on.  It isn’t like he’s an all-star slugger.  At least span brings plus-plus defense to center.  Bat him 8th, where his damage is limited.  Boswell says Yes its time to platoon.

Q: Everybody says Nats Park can’t get an All-Star Game because the surrounding area isn’t developed enough. But how does that explain sites like Busch Stadium (their development plan is further behind than ours), Angel Stadium (surrounded by parking lots and freeways), or Citi Field (surrounded by parking lots, a subway line, and a junkyard)?

A: Great question.  Maybe Bud Selig hasn’t seen all the development going on.  Or maybe Ted Lerner just don’t want to get on his knees and beg for it before the omnipowerful commissioner.  I do think its kind of ridiculous that baseball has chosen to return to parks that have previously hosted before giving a game to every new park.    Boswell doesn’t really answer.

Q: How good has Gio been over the past two months?

A: Before his 6 shutout/11k outing last weekend Gio Gonzalez had won 4 straight starts.  The worst of them was a 6 2/3 3 run performance that the team won easily anyway.  Maybe he’s pitching to score (ooh, don’t say that too loudly, the sabre nerds get all pissed).  Yeah he’s pitching great.  Boswell agrees.

Q: Should Krol start working later in games?

A: I’m still not entirely convinced Ian Krol can be more than a loogy.  Every time i’ve seen him, he’s been a one-pitch/one-trick guy.  I’ve literally never seen him throw his off-speed stuff for strikes.  Luckily the deception and velocity on his fastball are good enough to let him ride to a very good season statistically so far.  I’d stick with what we’re doing now; using him and Fernando Abad as situational relievers and leaving the hard work for Clippard and Soriano.  Drew Storen?  Now that’s another story.  Boswell says give him more work.

Q: I’ve seen a recent increase in the criticism of Davey Johnson’s managerial decisions. I can’t believe fans are blaming him for where the Nats currently stand. I put the blame on the players. It’s execution that’s at fault. Right? What else could/should Davey do that he hasn’t already tried?

A: Stop using poor relievers.  Stop pulling effective starters after 90 pitches.  Stop batting Span 1st and drop him to 8th where he belongs.  That’s what I’d do.  Boswell shared some ancedotes.

Q: I was so in favor of the Span acquisition, now it just looks horrible. Do you think he can get back to the .392 On Base Percentage he has in 2009 or is he really a .317 OBP guy? Will this team ever solve CF and lead off?

A: Just had this discussion with someone over email.  He does look horrible at the plate.  But he plays a great center field!  Rizzo just had to have his center fielder; well now you have him, and the guy he displaced (Mores) has about the same OBP this year as Span.  To go along with 200 points of slugging.  So there’s that.  You say “well Morse has been injured?”  I say sure … he got injured in Seattle.  No reason to assume the same thing would have happened here.  We gave up Morse’s power in the middle of the order and moved a perfectly capable defender (Harper) off center to acquire Span and have him drag down the top of the order.  Can’t do anything about it now (or until 2015 frankly): I say bat him 8th until he proves he deserves to return to the top.   Boswell points out that Span’s OBP is only 1% better than league average.

Q: Should we keep Soriano in the closer role?

A: Pretty much; $11M a year and he’ll be a sullen clubhouse cancer if he’s not closing.   He’s being paid way too much money to flip, even to teams that covet closers.  Well, maybe we can talk to Boston; they seem to be idiots when it comes to paying for closers (as noted in this space).   Boswell also mentions Boston but points out how battle-tested Soriano is, implying he has value.  I’m clearly on the record in my opinion about closers and paying big money for them, disagreed with the acquisition and disagree with Boswell here; if we could trade him, you do it.

Q: Is Jayson Werth immature and/or a hypocrite?

A: You’d have to read the whole question (which clearly implies the opinion of the asker), but there’s some vitriol in there.  I can’t think of any incidents that make me ever put Jayson Werth in the same maturity category as Nyjer Morgan.  I think the questioner is off-base here.  Boswell predictably defends Werth.  I will say this: go look at Werth’s hitting stats this year; he’s been very, very good.

 

Ladson’s Inbox 6/24/13

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What a week!  Both Bill Ladson and Tom Boswell doing chats/email inboxes!  As I sit here as my flight has been delayed a second time, I find myself with the time to bang out Ladson’s latest inbox.

As always, I write my response here before reading Ladson’s and edit questions as needed for clarity.

Q: With right-hander Dan Haren going on the disabled list, is it possible the Nationals will try and trade for left-hander Cliff Lee or another top-of-the-rotation pitcher near the Trade Deadline?

A: Rumors on the street are that Mike Rizzo is working the phones, hard.  That sounds to me like he’s looking for serious reinforcements to try to salvage this “go for broke” season.  But somehow I seriously doubt it’ll be Cliff Lee.  Lee is owed too much money, he’s already 34, and the likelihood of Philadelphia dealing intra-division seems remote.  There’s plenty of other pundits out there reviewing the likely pitchers on the Trade market and there’s some intriguing names out there.  But it’ll be a sellers market and the Nats farm system has already been thinned recently.  Will they thin it even more in a desperate attempt to keep the 2013 dream alive?  I hope not; we’re already seeing how poorly thought out trades by other teams in similar positions have backfired and cost their teams significant prospect depth.  As others have noted, Ladson predicts the callup of Taylor Jordan for the time being.  Lets hope he comes out of no where and pitches 6 shutout innings.

Q: Does Wilson Ramos remind you a bit of Jesus Flores — a promising young catcher who can’t seem to stay off the disabled list?

A: Yeah, except that Ramos is twice the size of Flores and still can’t stay healthy.  That Kurt Suzuki move is looking better and better.  Derek Norris has yet to really pan out in the majors for Oakland (hitting below .200 this year and for his career), and Suzuki is holding down the fort for now.  That being said, we need Ramos back to spell Suzuki, who seems to be tiring as he catches the large majority of the innings.  Ladson doesn’t say much … but says the Nats miss Ramos.  Duh.

Q: Is there any chance we might see Ryan Zimmerman at second base?

A: Zero chance.  He’s a big dude; he’s not a 2nd baseman.  Now, Anthony Rendon looks like a 2-bagger to me.  Shorter guy, agile, quick arm, good glove.   Ladson agrees.

Q: What do you think of the Nats’ start this year, compared to last? Are they a stronger team?

A: Lots of injuries, lots of under-performing on the offense, and a couple of depressing pitching issues.  They’re better than a .500 team but they need to have at least a league-average offense (not one of the worst).  Ladson says they need Harper back.  Duh.

 

 

 

Ask Boswell 6/17/13 Edition

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Anthony Rendon - What a draft day steal.  Photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via chron.com

He’s continued to hit in the pros like he used to in college.  Photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via chron.com

The Nats continue to struggle offensively.  They’re generally only above the Mets and the Marlins in key offensive categories, two teams that have basically given up for 2013.  They’re hitting worse than the Astros, a team that also had given up on 2013 before it started and whose payroll is 1/6th of ours.   Our best hitter Bryce Harper languishes on the D/L, but the team has (finally) made some adjustments and shed some of the underperforming players on its roster and rookie Anthony Rendon has been living up to his expectations.

So, what is Tom Boswell‘s weekly chat is going to be about?   Here’s his 6/17/13 version.  As it turned out many of the questions were about the US Open, and a few about Hockey and Football.  But lots about baseball.  As always I answer here before reading Boswell’s response and edit questions for clarity.

Q: Is Davey Johnson the problem with the Nats in 2013?

A: Despite some complaints about his Starting Pitcher and bullpen usage earlier this year, Davey Johnson isn’t the reason this team is losing.  Not with a team whose offense ranks 28th in the league in all the basic run-creating categories (Runs, Batting Average, OBP, and OPS+).   Changing the manager won’t help; all you can do is change the personnel.  And the Nats have done what they can; sending Tyler Moore and Danny Espinosa to the minors, calling up Rendon (slash line as of 6/16/13: .361/.426/.525; yeah that’s pretty darn good), giving Chris Marrero some at-bats.  The obvious: they need Harper back, they need the bench to start producing like it did in 2012, and they need Wilson Ramos to come back and spell the quietly falling-apart Kurt Suzuki (he’s now hitting just .215 with little power).  Boswell agrees; its the offense.

Q: Did Johnson screw up by not loading the bases in the Friday loss?

A: Situation: 2nd and 3rd with none out; do you load the bases?  I’d normally say that it depends on the matchups; a fly ball beats you anyway, so you’re looking for a pitching matchup that you can either get a punch out or a ground ball.  Well, they got their groundball; it just wasn’t enough to get the guy at the plate, who broke on contact and was fast.  A bases-loaded situation there means Suzuki doesn’t have to make the tag, just get the force out.  I guess Johnson could have loaded the bases.  Boswell points out the similarities to this and the NLCS Game 5 situation with Pete Kozma but doesn’t give an answer.

Q: Is Rick Eckstein culpable for the Nats Offensive woes?

A: Boswell answered an identical question on 5/28/13.   I’ll say the same thing again: I just don’t see how a hitting coach is responsible for players who suddenly hit 200 OPS points below their career averages as we’re seeing with a huge percentage of this team.  Rick Eckstein isn’t in the batter’s box; these guys are.  Boswell agrees, saying it isn’t Eckstein who is waving at balls a foot outside.

Q: Are the Nats just mentally fragile?

A: Possibly.  I think the weight of expectations is causing them to press.  But you have some veteran guys in that clubhouse (Jayson WerthAdam LaRoche especially) who should be leading the team and helping to manage this.  Maybe these guys just aren’t “Captain” material?  Notice too that the two most senior guys on the pitching staff (Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano) aren’t exactly the best role models either; Haren is struggling too much to command any respect, and Soriano doesn’t appear to be a big clubhouse influence (and I privately wonder if there isn’t lingering animosity towards Soriano’s signing from the rest of the bullpen, which seems relatively close in age and experience).  Boswell notes that the team leaders need to step up.

Q: Why is Dan Haren pitching again?

A: Asked and Answered here four days ago.  Boswell didn’t really answer.

Q: Should we eliminate pitcher Wins and Losses?

A: Well, if you’re a sabrematrician we should.  A pitcher can give up one hit in 5 innings (as Stephen Strasburg did on sunday) and take the loss, while a pitcher can give up 5 runs in 5 and get a win if his offense bails him out.  That in a nutshell is the issue most people have with the Win and Loss statistics.   I saw a stat on billy-ball.com today that Chad Billingsley took the loss in an 8-inning one-hit outing in 2011 (the run was un-earned to boot).  That’s pretty unlucky.  Bill James said recently that he continues to use W/L records simply because they’ve been the default way to express stats for pitchers for 100 years.  I now view them sort of as throw-away stats written ahead of the meaningful measurements for pitchers, things like Fip and xFip, perhaps Siera.  I like ERA+ and K/9 as good short-hand measurements too, but realize that every one of these stats has flaws.  The pitcher “Win” used to mean a lot more than it does now; when a guy went 9 innings every day instead of going 5 2/3 and having a bullpen close out more than a third of the game it becomes harder and harder to equate one with with another.  Boswell agrees.

Q: How much of Rendon’s hitting is a reflection of his talent, and how much of it is a product of teams not having a book on him yet? Certainly he’s not a .350 hitter, but is he a .300-.310 hitter?

A: Great question.  I think its part column A and part column B.  For one, he’s an exceptional hitter.  He wasn’t College Player of the Year as a sophomore at Rice by accident.  He should have been a 1-1 pick had it not been for lingering issues that dropped him into the Nats lap in 2011.  And in his short sample size so far in 2013 we’re seeing his great approach; fast hands, ability to use the whole field, opposite field power.  Now, a new hitter hasn’t had “the book” written on him (that’s what advance scouts do) so yes, we’ll expect to see teams identify weaknesses in Rendon’s swing and start pitching him accordingly.  The great players then adjust to the adjustments.  In the ESPN documentary Bryce Begins there was a very telling quote from Braves pitcher Kris Medlen, who commented that Harper had “already made the adjustment” to the way the Braves were pitching him from one series to the next.  The film then showed Harper fanning at a pitch to strike out .. and then clobbering the same pitch in a subsequent game.  That’s what pro hitters do to stay good, and that’s what Rendon is going to have to eventually do to keep his lofty average.  Boswell raves about his stat lines all the way up the minors.

Two months in; Stuck in Neutral

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So my dad calls me the other day and immediately exclaims, “What’s wrong with this team?!?

Today, the season is 57 games old.  Two months old.  Almost exactly 1/3 old.  And the Nationals, the supposed power houses, next-coming-of the 1927 Yankees, the possible 110 win Nationals, are a .500 team.  Actually, a game under .500 with the weekend series loss to Atlanta.

We’ve talked about the Nats early schedule (as has Tom Boswell recently), chock full of 2012 playoff contenders.   But 2013 is a new season and in reality the Nats as of two months in have played the 14th ranked schedule of 30 teams (3 days ago it was 19th ranked … so these rankings move fast).   We’ve talked about the injuries, the offense in general, defense, the bench, Drew StorenDanny Espinosa, and Dan Haren all as contributing factors. A couple of prominent national baseball writers pipped in on 5/31/13 on this topic: Jay Jaffe on si.com and then Rob Neyer on BaseballNation.com, offering some suggestions, possible trades (Ian Kinsler?) and possible call-ups (the obvious Anthony Rendon).

But here’s my scary thought, as proposed to my dad.  What if .500 is exactly what this team is?

The 2011 Nationals finished .500.  The 2012 Nationals surprised us all and won 98 games.  Now the team is back to its 2011 levels.  Is it possible that this was always a .500 team for whom everything went perfectly right in 2012?  All the stars were in alignment in 2012 in terms of hitting, bench play and coming out parties for guys like Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper and Gio Gonzalez.   Now in 2013 are we just seeing all these guys revert to their normal production levels?

Were we just spoiled by the amazing bench production we got last year?  Here’s a quick table (stats as of 5/31/13):

player 2012 OPS+ 2013 OPS+ Career OPS+
Bernadina 113 34 85
Moore 125 27 90
Lombardozzi 83 55 74
Tracy 112 19 97

In other words, all four primary bench guys outperformed their career OPS+ values (mostly by a 25-30% factor) in 2012, and now all four guys are hitting so far below replacement level as to be drastically hurting the club.

I think the answer to the above questions goes along the following, topic by topic:

  • No, this is better than a .500 team.  The 2013 team is absolutely better than the 2011 team that rallied in September to finish 80-81.  The rotation now is leaps and bounds better than the 2011 rotation.  The offense (on potential anyway) is better.
  • This team is by-and-large the exact same team as the 2012 98 win team.  You can quibble about the loss of Michael Morse‘s charisma and power versus the fire-starting abilities of Denard Span at the top of the order, but then you also have to acknowledge the runs-saved so far this season by having an additional plus-plus defender in the outfield.  Haren versus Edwin Jackson?  At least a wash.  Bullpen additions and subtractions?  Perhaps replacing Burnett, Gorzelanny and Gonzalez with just Zach Duke and Rafael Soriano has weakened the bullpen.  Perhaps not, considering Soriano’s pedigree as a closer and its cascading effect on the rest of the bullpen.
  • The bench over produced in 2012 and is underproducing thus far in 2013, per career averages.  A bit of expected regression to the mean should indicate rising bench offensive production from here on out.  It almost has to; there’s just no way that these four guys are going to hit THIS badly the rest of the season.

But, the early season damage as been done.  At this point, just for the team to match its 2012 win total they’d have to finish the season 70-35.  That’s a .667 winning percentage.  That’s a 110-win pace for a season.  The NL Central right now has three teams with better records than either Atlanta or Washington, the two pre-season NL favorites, meaning there may not even be a NL Wild-Card to fall back on.  This team needs to focus on winning the division or there may not be an October.

This sounds like something Yogi Berra would say, but here goes: you have to score to win.  For me, if they start scoring runs and out-hitting teams, the issues we have with defense, the bullpen and injured starters will become secondary concerns.  As we speak, these Nationals are hitting .229 AS A TEAM.  That’s unbelievable.   Almost amazingly bad.  They’re 28th in batting average.  They’re dead last in team OBP (on a pace for a modern seasonal low OBP in fact), 27th in team slugging, 29th in wOBA and 28th in wRC+.

They need Werth back in the middle of the order.  They need a healthy Harper, who hasn’t been the same since the LA wall crash but really hasn’t been the same since hitting the wall in Atlanta in late April (from a tweet by Mark Zuckerman: Bryce Harper’s stats before April 29 collision in ATL: .356/.437/.744. His stats since: .183/.315/.350).  They’re finally getting LaRoche back on track, and Zimmerman is hitting well.  They need to stop giving at bats to Espinosa, and they need Ramos back to help spell Suzuki (he’s catching nearly every game and his offense has bottomed out in the last month).

I’m going under the assumption, by the way, that Strasburg misses at most one start and that Detwiler returns straight away.  I don’t think Nathan Karns is ready for the big time and the team needs to find another spot starter in the short term (Stammen?).

June is here; a weak schedule and an opportunity to get some wins.  If we’re still .500 on July 1st, then we’ll probably have run out of excuses and decided that we are who we are.

Ask Boswell 5/28/13 Edition

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Apparently shelving Danny Espinosa will solve all the Nats problems. Photo AP via mlb.com

Its the end of May, the Nats are still lingering around .500.  Are the natives getting restless in Washington?  Lets check in on Tom Boswell‘s 5/28/13 chat.

Q: Pretend there is some kind of supplemental draft and only 3 players are available – Machado, Harper and Trout. Would you mind channeling your inner Mel Kiper and give us your “big board” and rank these 3 phenoms?

A: I’d likely go Trout, Harper and Machado.   I think Trout slightly beats out Harper right now in terms of overall talent, though its really really close.  I like Trout’s advantage on the basepaths and in the outfield.  Harper’s 80 power is hard to find though.  Meanwhile Machado’s supposed defensive prowness isn’t even being exploited by the O’s, but given that he plays a premium position to either Trout or Harper he may end up being in the mix for #1 overall too.   Boswell puts them in the same order.

Q: Can Ryan Zimmerman play 2B? What about moving him over there and making room for Rendon at third? Ryan played SS in college and in his major league debut, and his quick reflexes seem to give him the range necessary to play the position. And the best part: the throws are a lot shorter from 2B.

A: Michael Morse played shortstop in high school, why wouldn’t we want him to play middle infield now?   (sorry, taking a ridiculous similar stance with a player’s athletic abilities NOW versus when he was 18 or 21).  I perceive Zimmerman to be “quick” but at the same time “slow.”  I don’t think he’s make it as a middle infielder any more.  Boswell says almost the same thing; he’s “quick but not fast.”  Wow, Boswell and I are 2-for-2 like minded so far!

Q: Is Espinosa ever going to find his swing? I know you were tooting his horn a while back, do you still feel the same about him?

A: Danny Espinosa needs to stop hiding significant injuries from his management.  You can’t blame him though; he knows he’s likely out of a job if he sits and someone else succeeds in his place while he heals.  But, this is now two major injures he’s basically hidden and tried to play through.  No judgement can be made about him any more before he gets completely healthy.  I believe the team should D/L him, get both his injuries fixed and re-assess when he’s healthy.  He’s certainly not doing the team any favors by hitting .150 with loose bone fragments in his wrist.  Of course, his current BABIP is .202;  That’s so low as to be amazing, so even with his struggles he should be set to improve.  Wow, Me and Bos are 3-for-3; he talks a bit about Espinosa plus tools, his issues post first 1,000 at-bats, and then mirrors my statement of wanting him shutdown to heal for the rest of 2013.

Q: Shouldn’t Harper just be placed on the DL until he heals up enough that he won’t be missing a few games every week? The way they’re doing it, the team is short a player and a bat for two or three days on a regular basis, or has Harper playing at 70 percent

A: I agree.  Harper‘s splits since running into the wall at the end of April are pretty distinct.  April: 1.150 OPS.  May: .687 OPS.  And that was before Los Angeles.  An now he’s got this knee issue.   I think he needs a D/L trip, rest, sit in the hot tub for two weeks and come back refreshed.  Between him and Espinosa and Detwiler the team has been playing 22 against 25 for days now.  Boswell agrees; he thinks Harper should have been given the 7-day D/L stint when he hit the wall.

Q: Has anyone suggested Espinosa get his vision tested? He has absolutely no pitch recognition, he looks like the world’s [biggest] guess hitter.

A: I don’t think its his vision.  I think he’s just an awful left-handed hitter, and unfortunately he takes most of his switch-hitting swings from the left side.  He’s just lost at the plate.  I went through a game like this once; the umpire’s zone was so unpredictable that I was just up at the plate swinging at whatever came.  It was like BP when you know you’re only getting 10 swings and the pitcher sucks; swing at everything.  Boswell says Espinosa has the worst plate discipline on the team, and talks about how Espinsoa is swinging before the ball even comes to the plate.  Sounds familiar.

Q: With a lack luster offense, poor defense, a bullpen you can’t seem to count on and only two starters pitching well, why do you believe the Nats will turn it around?

A: Because of their upcoming schedule of course!  Here’s my post on the topic on April 24th.  The gist of it is this; by the time May 31st rolls around, the Nats will have played 27 of their 55 games against 2012 playoff contenders.  Look at their season so far; they’ve played the Reds, the Braves, the Cardinals, the Reds again, 4 at Atlanta, the Tigers, at the Giants and now 4 straight against Baltimore.   June and July are significantly easier.  Look at the teams they play for the next 8 weeks; yes Cleveland and Arizona are improved, but a lot of the games on their slate are easy, winnable games.  You can get confident quickly when you have a bunch of winnable games.

To this question specifically, the offense has absolutely been affected by injuries.  People will get healthier.  The Defense was great last year; what changed?  If anything we’ve got a better defensive team now than in 2012 (replaced Morse with Span, replaced Flores with Suzuki).  The bullpen is fixable; Storen has just been unlucky, not bad.  Only 2 starters doing well?  I’d say at least 3 are doing well (Strasburg, Detwiler and of course Zimmermann, one is inconsistent but at the high end when he’s on (Gonzalez) and one has been a pretty severe disappointment in Haren.  My hope is that Haren slowly gets back to a 100 ERA+ level pitcher and then is left off the playoff roster.  Boswell eventually talks about the schedule, but goes off on a huge Pecota Rest-of-Season projection tangent.

Q: Big day (maybe) for the Nationals future if Karns can establish himself as a future 3-4-5 starter. Everything I hear and read about him says he has plus stuff and makeup, and an especially good fastball. What are you looking for tonight vs. the Os and how many starts can we expect Karns to make?

A: I’m looking for Nathan Karns to make it through the lineup tonight against Baltimore giving up just a minimum of damage frankly.  I don’t think Karns has a servicable 3rd pitch, which means he can get by on heat and his great slider for a while … but eventually Baltimore’s hitters are too good to get fooled more than twice.  I’ll be ecstatic with a line like this: 6 ip, 2 runs, 5 hits, 2 walks, 6 k’s.   I think he makes this start and perhaps 1 more before going back down when Detwiler returns.  Boswell didn’t really answer the question.  Editor Update: Karns had flashes of good and bad in last night’s game, going 4 1/3 and giving up 3 runs on 5 hits and two homers.  Didn’t agree with Johnson’s yanking him and taking away his Win though.

Q: Are the Nats and Harper going the way of Shanahan and RGIII with this knee business OR will we see common sense prevail so we can see our best player Harper rest up and make a difference when it really counts? Didn’t Harper come to bat with the score already 5-1 (6-1 ?) , in the bottom 8th when the Nats already had a commanding lead?

A: Hardly the same situation.  A brused knee from a foul ball versus a blown ACL?  Come on.  Must be someone begging the question.  Boswell does have some criticism for the Harper handling considering the kid gloves that Strasburg has been handled with his whole career.

Q: Why are people praising Espinosa for being “tough” and playing through his broken wrist? He was HURTING the team, it’s time to sit down at that point!

A: Because we live in a macho football culture, and playing through pain is a football mentality.  Boswell punts.

Q: The Nationals bats have not lived up to expectations. What move or moves could the Nationals make to get these bats going? Maybe a new hitting coach, an additional hitting coach, minor league players or some through a trade.

A: Why do people think hitting coaches make a difference?  Is Rick Eckstein part of the problem here?

Actually, looking at the Nats starting eight hitters; four of them have OPS+ figures > 100 (meaning they’re better than MLB average).   Suzuki is a bit below but he’s the catcher.  Span has slowly started to be come a liability at the top; he’s only got a .332 OBP with zero power right now.  Espinosa of course is the big black hole.  So while we’re knowingly in a rut offensively … the individual pieces aren’t really that bad.  There’s some bats in the minors but not much.  We really have very little prospect depth that’s tradeable for a bat mid-season.  This is your team ladies and gentlemen; get used to it.  Boswell also says we have to ride it out, but points out that the team hasn’t been healthy and has replaced Morse’s ABs with almost zero production from our bench.

Q: Any early predictions as to who will be managing the Nats next season? Davey’s also dropped a couple of hints that his retirement isn’t entirely his idea. Assuming they don’t win the World Series and he gets to ride off into the sunset, any chance that he comes back next year?

A: I’m continually amazed at the amount of curiosity about the manager.  Maybe Davey Johnson is back, maybe he isn’t.  Maybe the team hires a name guy, maybe they hire from within.  Lets focus on 2013 first.  Boswell mentions Don Mattingly, as we’ve heard in the national media.