Nationals Arm Race

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

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Spring Training 2017 NRI Discussion

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Who will be this year's Chris Heisey? Photo via Washington Times

Who will be this year’s Chris Heisey? Photo via Washington Times

Third year running for this post: Here’s a link to 2016’s version and a link to 2015’s post.

Every year the team invites a bunch of Non-Roster Invitees (NRIs) to Spring Training, and every year we wonder if any of these guys have a chance to make the team.  This post discusses the NRIs and their chances.  Through out the winter some NRIs were announced with signings; on 2/11/17 the full list of NRIs was announced.

This is no throw-away post: here’s what has happened to Washington Nationals NRIs the last two spring trainings:

Summary of NRIs from ST 2016: 20 NRIs total (plus perhaps a couple more that got signed late):

  • Two (2) made the 25-man roster: (Chris Heisey and as noted in the comments, thanks for the correction, Matt Belisle).
  • Two (2) eventually got added and called up (Lucas Giolito, Sean Burnett)
  • Two (2) have since been added to 40-man (Matt Skole, Austin Voth)

Summary of NRIs from ST 2015: 20 NRis total:

  • Two (2) made the 25-man roster out of spring (Dan Uggla and Clint Robinson)
  • Two (2) others eventually got added and called up (Rafael Martin and Emmanuel Burriss)
  • Two (2) others were young catchers since added to the 40-man (Spencer Kieboom, Pedro Severino)

So that’s six NRIs from 2016 that eventually played for the Nats or got added to the 40-man roster, and six from the year .  So odds are a handful of these players will eventually have a major league impact for this team.  Lets take a look at 2017’s NRI roster.  From the mlb.com NRI roster, lets break them down by position.


Starters

  • RHP Jacob Turner: once upon a time he was halfway decent for an NL East team (Miami), but lost his effectiveness somewhere in the 2014 timeframe and hasn’t gotten it back.  Seems like AAA rotation filler to me.
  • RHP Vance Worley: an interesting minor league signing; why couldn’t he get a 40-man contract after the season he just had in Baltimore?  Could be a sneaky effective pickup.
  • RHP Jeremy Guthrie: 272  career starts but none in the majors since getting dumped from Kansas City’s 2015 rotation.  In 2016 he posted an ERA north of 7.00 for Miami and San Diego’s AAA squads.  He’ll be 38.  I’m not sure he’s really any better of a “spare starter” option than what we already have in house.
  • RHP Erick Fedde: his invite clearly indicates to me that the MLB staff wants to get a look at him, figuring that he’s taken over as the next big thing in terms of starting pitcher prospects.  With all due respect to A.J. Cole and Austin Voth, its really Fedde that I’d like to see pitching in the majors if/when we have a month long starter injury later this summer.
  • RHP Taylor Hill; may be up to see if he’s got anything left in the tank, or perhaps to eat some split squad innings?  Once you’re off the 40-man it seems pretty hard to get back, and that’s the dilemna that Hill faces.
  • RHP Kyle McGowin, recently acquired in the Danny Espinosa deal.  I’m guessing the team wants to see what they have.  McGowin’s 2016 numbers were awful … but pitching in the PCL is generally awful, so its hard to scout the stat line here.

FWIW, a couple of these guys who I’ve called “starters” (Turner and Worley) may actually still be starters, but they’re close enough to starting that the team could look at them as such. I could see Worley getting the last spot in the MLB rotation and acting as a swing man/6th starter, not unlike what we used Yusmeiro Petit for last year.  The minor league invites mean that the whole AAA rotation will be in camp.  Unless the team suffers 3 SP injuries in camp, nobody here is making the 25-man on 4/1.

Right Handed Relievers

  • RHP Matt Albers; Great in 2015, awful in 2016.  Wrong side of 30, losing his swing and miss stuff.  Seems like he’s just in camp to rebuild value and likely opts out if he doesn’t make the team.
  • RHP Mike Broadway: career journeyman, was formerly with Nats in 2013 time-frame.  Little MLB experience, seems like he’s AAA insurance.
  • RHP Joe Nathan: 377 career saves, but he’s 42, was last effective as a 38yr old in 2013, and this seems like perhaps an audition for him to take a role on a coaching staff here.
  • RHP Dustin Antolin: longtime Toronto farm hand who spent 3 straight years in their AA team and was a part-time closer for their AAA team last year with good results; seems like a safe bet to close in AAA and serve as middle relief insurance.
  • RHP Derek Eitel; similar to Antolin; long time farm hand who finished a ton of games in AAA for San Diego last year.  Averaged a K/inning but had a ton of walks.
  • RHP Wander Suero: a long-serving middle relief option for the team, Suero has grown up in the system.  He’s entering his 8th pro season and I’m guessing the team wants to see if he’s a MLB middle relief option and/or an option to eventually add to the 40-man roster ahead of his pending MLFA deadline.

Left handed Relievers

  • LHP Tim Collins:  hasn’t pitched in 2 years thanks to a failed TJ surgery that cost him a second season, but was pretty effective for Kansas City to that point.  I think he has to think he’s heading to AAA to prove to teams that he’s ok.
  • LHP Braulio Lara: seems like a lottery ticket based on performances from a few years past; he got shelled in Korea, shelled in AAA recently.
  • LHP Neal Cotts: long time reliever who has had some bouts of success over the years, but who didn’t make it out of AAA last year.  Can’t see him supplanting the 40-man guys ahead of him on the Loogy pecking order.
  • LHP Nick Lee, who like Hill before him was on the 40-man and then passed through waivers to get removed from it.  He was good enough to protect in 2015 (putting up good numbers in a closing role for AA) but really struggled with his control in 2016 (42 walks in 50 innings).  Perhaps a mechanical tweak can put him back on the radar to being an effective reliever.

Tangent: The recent addition of optionless Enny Romero may complicate a 25-man path for these guys.  Or perhaps not; the arm they gave up (Jeffrey Rosa) was so insignificant that I had to look him up because I forgot who he was.  In case you were wondering, Rosa was the “ace” of this year’s GCL team, getting 11 starts and posting a 4.91 ERA.  As a 21 year old.  So that means he was a 19-yr old IFA signing from a land where most players of note sign at 16 and only the rare cases make it to 18 and still have a minor league impact.  So perhaps the team isn’t entirely wedded to Romero making the roster/challenging his no-options status.  That trade was more about Tampa shedding a 40-man spot and getting something (anything) in return.

Discussion:  So, no real “closers” in here, even if you somehow think Nathan can still produce (I don’t).  I think a couple of these guys will exercise opt-outs and the rest will sign up in AAA.  I can’t see any of them seriously challenging any of the existing 40-man arms for a spot.  The one exception could be Collins for me; he was good, had bad luck with his injury and could very well come back and be effective; is he a better Loogy option than our current set of lefties (Perez, Solis, Romero and Grace)?  I doubt it.  I like the call-up of Suero and Lee; i think its a good idea for the team to see what they have here.

Catchers:

  • Jhonatan Solano, who probably reprises his role as AAA backup for Syracause and is in camp mostly to help with all the warm-up duties.

Infielders:

  • Emmanuel Burriss: we are quite familiar with Burriss, who is a Washington DC native and was with the org two years ago.  I see little chance of him breaking with the team but he’ll do exactly what he did for us in 2015: toil in Syracuse, wait for an injury in the infield and bide his time until he can get some MLB at-bats.  In 2015 he was up by June 26th; what are the odds that the Nats infield holds up without injury again in 2017?
  • Grant Green; primarily a 2B, but can play like a utility guy around the field.  He’s a former 1st round pick and a highly regarded prospect; don’t see much of a position for him though.  Will he stick around if he doesn’t make the team?
  • Corban Joseph: owns a grand total of 7 MLB at-bats, and that was in 2013.  He has toiled in the minors for the last four full seasons, bouncing around organizations.  He plays 1B and 2B and seems like the backup to the backup for Daniel Murphy.  In other words, if Joseph is playing, we’ve really suffered some serious injuries.
  • Neftali Soto: the 2016 MLFA signing had such a solid year for the organization that they re-signed him and gave him the NRI invite this year.  I suppose he’s Ryan Zimmerman insurance … but like Snyder is a RH hitter who is more or less limited to 1B.  Hard to see a pathway for him.
  • Drew Ward: this NRI seems a bit premature; he was in A-ball a year ago this time.  But Ward also faces Rule-5 protection this coming off-season and is one of the few remaining hopes of the 2013 draft class of producing much in the way of MLB talent for the home team.  He could be a replacement for an Anthony Rendon injury at some point too.

Its hard to see any openings here, especially given the Stephen Drew re-signing.  Are any of these guys beating out Wilmer Difo?  Doubt it.

Outfielders

  • Brandon Snyder: another local product (Westfield HS in Chantilly) and another 1st round pick who has sputtered out.  He has some pop, but he bats right handed … and the RH bench spot is already committed (along with $1.4M) to Chris Heisey.  Snyder seems like AAA “spare parts” insurance for 2017.
  • Andrew Stevenson: I know he was a high draft pick, but based on what I saw of him in college i’m still kind of shocked he’s advanced so quickly.  He joins several other CF-capable players in camp and signals to me at least that the team clearly thinks he’s got a role going forward.

Note that there’s really nobody invited to compete with the likes of Michael Taylor/Brian Goodwin for 5th outfielder spot.  Yes Stevenson is a CF … does anyone think he’s MLB ready?  Snyder seems to be competition with Clint Robinson/Matt Skole/Chris Heisey for bench bat/corner spots.  He had good numbers in small sample sizes for Atlanta last  year; maybe he’s an option.  Problem is that he bats righty and the team already guaranteed money to Heisey, so there’s no direct competition for Robinson/Skole as a “corner lefty bat with some pop.”


 

Conclusion/predictions: I predict no NRIs make the team out of spring training right now.  But I could see several of these guys head to AAA and get call-ups in the case of a 60-day D/L trip.  And a number of the minor league invite guys will feature eventually.

 

Top 10 Arms; Starters and Relievers separately ranked

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Fedde probably #1 arm in the system ... and its tough after that. Photo via minorleagueball.com

Fedde probably #1 arm in the system … and its tough after that. Photo via minorleagueball.com

Every year, Luke Erickson over at NationalsProspects.com does a crowd-sourced ranking of the Top 10 “bats” and “arms” in the Nats farm system (link to the “Arms” post)

This year, I had such a hard time deciding upon my top 10 arms for Luke’s survey that I thought it would be worth doing my own post on the subject, temporarily stealing Luke’s idea.  I think its an interesting time for our farm system arm development; we’ve spent the off-season trading away a significant amount of arm depth, and what we have left made it kind of tough for me to even find 10 “arms” that were worth ranking.  Furthermore, how do you really compare starters and relievers?  Isn’t a mediocre starter prospect who has reached AAA better than a high-end reliever prospect in the lower minors?   Is our best reliever prospect (Koda Glover) a “better” or “worse” prospect than a really good-looking starter who is in A-Ball (like a Tyler Watson?)  How do you compare a good starter prospect in A ball with what looks like an org-arm in AAA?  Its potential versus reality, ceiling versus floor.  In the end, you have to make kind of a rolling judgement call to put PlayerA above PlayerB … leading to excellent arguments in the comments section.

So, taking these thoughts into account, here’s my top 10 ranked Arms, splitting guys into starters and relievers.  My rules: a “starter” is someone who was “predominantly” a starter this year.  A reliever is someone who, well, was a reliever and wasn’t getting starts unless there was some weird situation going on.  And since the lowest levels generally were doing tandem starting, if you were clearly a “pitch every 5th day” guy even if you weren’t starting, then i’m calling you a starter for these purposes.  This only comes into play with a couple of guys who were in and out of rotations this year; i’ve put them into the Relievers section.

My Nats top 10 Starters:

1. Erick Fedde: He’s clearly come back from TJ, dominated for most of 2016, and probably debuts in the later half of 2017.
(1a. A.J. Cole, if you still think he’s got prospect status.  He exhausted his rookie status by service time in 2016 … but has yet to reach 50 IP in the majors, so Baseball America qualifies him as a prospect still.  I don’t view him as a prospect anymore; to me he’s a 6th starter/long-man candidate for 2017).
2. Austin Voth: he’s more than earned it, has nothing to prove in AAA, and frankly should have gotten a 40-man addition last September and gotten innings instead of Mat Latos.
3. Tyler Watson: had a great season competing against guys well older than him; could be looking at a jump to high-A in 2017 and he’s yet to turn 20.  I like his potential.
4. Weston Davis: I’m going with Davis over the more highly regarded (on prospect lists) Baez because of a slightly cleaner stat line.  Davis had a nice 2.67 ERA in Short-A as a 20-yr old.
5. Joan Baez: Full year starting in Low-A as a 21-yr old, good K/9 numbers, some wildness.  A step-up to High-A will clear the waters on him.
6. Matthew Crownover: great in Low-A, struggled in High-A.   Should be in the Potomac rotation for 2017, may turn into a useful lefty reliever if he can’t maintain stats as a starter.
7. Jesus Luzardo: entirely based on pre-draft reputation; hopefully he comes back strong, but he’s several years away from even doing what Watson is doing.
8. Tyler Mapes: the fact that a 30th round draft pick is on this list is, well, the obvious evidence of the current thin-ness of our pitching depth.  I love what Mapes has done, don’t get me wrong, but does anyone really expect him to  become an impact player in the majors?
9. McKenzie Mills: I could see Mills a bit higher here, but honestly anyone in the 6-10 rank here could be argued to be higher or lower.
10. Andrew Lee: solid for Hagerstown before hitting the D/L.  His spot here is assuming he didn’t blow out his rotator cuff or something that affects him longer term.

Honorable Mentions: Kyle McGowin, Yonathan Ramirez, Carlos AcevedoJaron LongAusten Williams, Jefry Rodriguez.  I could probably see arguments for Ramirez above perhaps Lee or Mills, but barely.  I don’t really bother looking at GCL or DSL guys, so if you want to argue that someone who got 40 innings of complex ball is better than someone who put up stats in an A-ball league … well i’m going to argue with you :-).

So, clearly there’s a huge gap between the AAA-calibre guys at the top and Watson, both in terms of service time and in career minor league achievement.  Our trades have resulted in this gap.  There also seems to be a pretty significant potential gap right after Baez; you go from prospect to lottery tickets and org-guys pretty quickly it seems.  Prior to these trades, I would likely have had Giolito 1, Lopez 2, Dunning right after Voth and perhaps Avila in discussions for being at the #10 spot.  Still, that’s half of your best starter prospects gone in a couple of weeks.

Nats top 10 Relievers; these are going to be more heavily aligned towards guys who are near the top of the system, for obvious reasons.  If you’re in A-ball and already a reliever … you’re in trouble unless you’re striking guys out at 12 K/9 clip … and we seem to have a habit of trading those guys (Hearn, Sanchez).
1. Koda Glover: for obvious reasons.  Despite how much we’ve talked about him this year, he’s only got 19 MLB innings and still has rookie status by service time.  We were mostly mystified by his drop-off of talent, until learning that he tore his hip labrum.  I, like many others, like him for a future closer.  Grow ’em, don’t buy ’em.
2. Austin Adams: our return bounty for Danny Espinosa: he had 61 Ks in 41 AA innings in 2016.  That’s 13.3 K/9.  That’s crazy.
3. Bryan Harper: he was clearly moving himself ahead of other lefty options in AAA before getting hurt; lets hope he recovers from TJ and puts himself back on the map.
4. Jimmy Cordero: pretty solid AA numbers for two seasons running; i’d like to see him in AAA to see if he’s a bullpen option in the mold of an Aaron Barrett/Craig Stammen role.
5. Matt Grace: may be on the downslope of his Nats career, given that he wasn’t depended upon in 2016 and the Nats felt the need to flip a future Hall of Fame prospect to acquire a 5-week loogy rental.  But he’s still an effective AAA reliever, which the rest of the guys below him cannot say.
6. Trevor Gott: our return bounty for Yunel Escobar was relatively effective for AAA this year, had good MLB numbers, but is anyone counting on him competing for the 2017 MLB bullpen?  He and Grace are my “first two guys to go” off the 40-man if we need room right now.
7. Andrew Robinson: this MLFA signing put up great AA numbers and seems to be sticking around; I think he competes for the AAA bullpen.
8. Wander Suero: Another guy who put up nice AA numbers for the team this year as a RH middle reliever.  He’s a bit old (25) and has been around the system forever (IFA signing in 2010), but should feature in AA or AAA this year.
9. Ryan Brinley: others have him higher based on his High-A dominance; he’s another Tyler Mapes-esque draft success story, a 2015 27th rounder who has rocketed up the system.   I’d like to see what he can do in AA in 2017.
10. John Simms: another one of the Nats great 11th round picks, he really may be a starter, but for now he’s here.  If he was being counted as a starter he’d probably be around the same ranking in the above list.
Honorable Mentions: Nick Lee, Mariano Rivera Jr., Grant Borne, Taylor Guilbeau, Steven Fuentes, Tommy Peterson, Jorge Pantoja: all guys who put up decent numbers for A or AA teams.
What do you guys think?  Did I miss anyone egregiously?

So I guess LA is where we send unwanted infielders…

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We'll need a new leader in the clubhouse for best facial hair now. Photo Nats 2016 official

We’ll need a new leader in the clubhouse for best facial hair now. Photo Nats 2016 official

Woke up this morning to hear about a move that most of Nats town either was pining for or at least was expecting; Danny Espinosa was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for two RH pitching prospects in Austin Adams and Kyle McGowin.

So, I guess the Angels is where we trade unneeded infielders now; this trade is almost identical in structure and timing to last year’s Yunel Escobar trade.  And if you wanted to send a player as far away from the NL East as you could, I suppose the Angels is just about the furthest possible team that you could send him.

Espinosa may be happy to be out of town (as evidenced by his skipping the Nats winterfest event this weekend, either because he was reading the writing on the wall or because he knew he had just been “layered” on the depth chart), but he’s going to a team where Escobar and Andrelton Simmons are already ahead of him on the infield depth chart.  I suppose he slides into 2nd for LA, making a pretty awesome DP combo in terms of defensive capabilities.  Also, he’s an Orange County native and can probably live in his own home and commute to Anaheim, so that’s a nice silver lining for the infielder.

Meanwhile, what are the Nats getting back?  Lets take a quick look;

  • Austin Adams posted very solid late-inning reliever numbers for AA for the 2nd year running (odd; why wasn’t he promoted to AAA this year?).  Salient numbers for me: 61/24 K/BB in 41 innings.  That’s a heck of a K-rate.  He was just added to the Angels’ 40-man roster so this is a 40-man neutral trade.  I’m guessing we install Adams as the closer in Syracuse for 2017 and he may get a shot to pitch in the majors quickly.   In fact, if you look at the Nats current bullpen depth, he may now very well be the 4th or 5th best RH reliever (though i’d expect more moves to acquire a true “closer” and another veteran RH arm in the ilk of Matt Belisle before the off-season is done).
  • McGowin is a starter whose AAA numbers look awful … because remember the PCL is anemia to pitchers.  His AA numbers weren’t necessarily dazzling either, so he may be organizational depth and seems an obvious candidate for the Syracuse rotation in 2017.  I’ll be curious to see what he can do in a set of ball-parks not in the PCL.

Verdict on the Trade; we got about what I thought we’d get; one starter, one reliever prospect.   GMs aren’t dumb anymore (well, can’t really speak for Colorado’s GM right now but…) so trading Espinosa AFTER we had clearly replaced him cost us leverage.  Neither guy we got is a significantly ranked prospect …. but minor league relievers are never ranked highly, and Adams buttresses an area of need for this team, so in that respect its a good trade.

25-man roster implications: Difo is now the sole backup we have that can play middle infield in a pinch, meaning I’d anticipate another veteran MIF signing soon.  Like others I’d love to get Stephen Drew back, but he really improved his value in 2016 and may be looking at more significant jobs than being a backup to two of the more promising middle infield players in the game.

Written by Todd Boss

December 11th, 2016 at 8:08 am