Nationals Arm Race

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

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Nats all-star review (2012 edition)

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Gonzalez gets a very deserving NL All-Star selection. Photo unknown via WP.com

(Note: i’m copying a large chunk of 2011’s version of this post to give a running history of the Nats all-stars later on below).

MLB announced the 2012 all-star rosters and the Nats, for the first time in their history in Washington, have 3 representatives.  Here’s a discussion:

2012

  • Nationals All-Star representatives: Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Ian Desmond
  • Possible Snubs: Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper, Craig Stammen
  • Narrative: The two starters Strasburg and Gonzalez were the obvious candidates, and my personal prediction was that they’d be the only two candidates selected.  The inclusion of Desmond is a surprise, but also a testament to how far he’s come as a player in 2012.  I entered the season figuring that Desmond would be closer to a demotion than the all-star team, and his power from the short stop position has been a huge shot in the arm to our challenged offense.  LaRoche has had a fantastic come back season but fared little shot against better, more well-known NL first basemen so his non-inclusion is not too surprising.  Stammen has been our best bullpen arm, but like LaRoche fared little chance of getting selected during a year when the Nats had two deserving starters.  Lastly Mr. Harper; he wasn’t on the ballot so fared little shot of being included, but has been put on the “last man in” ballot, up against a series of established veterans and future hall of famers.  We’ll see if celebrity wins out.  Before his slump the last two weeks he was clearly among the best hitters in the league despite his age.

(Editors Note: Harper was subsequently added on 7/7/12 to replace the injured Giancarlo Stanton).

Coincidentally, I thought Matt Kemp‘s decision to go public with his snub of Harper for the home run derby was both short sighted and disappointing.  If I was Bud Selig, I’d take the opportunity to make this year’s derby the most watched mid-season baseball event ever by forcing the inclusion of both Harper and uber-rookie Mike Trout.  Ask yourself this: 1) do you bother to watch the home run derby now?  And 2) if Harper and Trout were in it, would you watch this year’s version?  For me, even as an avid baseball fan I don’t bother to watch the event and wasn’t planning on it this year … but with these two guys in, it’d be must-see TV.  I hate it when Baseball misses such an obvious chance to showcase players and take advantage of the prevailing storylines of the season; it seems to happen year after year.

For a trip down Memory lane, here’s the Nationals all stars by year and talk about their selection, whether they were deserving, and who got snubbed each year.

2005

  • Nationals All-Star representatives: Livan Hernandez, Chad Cordero
  • Possible Snubs: Nick Johnson, John Patterson.
  • Narrative: The Nats went into the All Star break surprisingly in first place, having run to a 50-31 record by the halfway point.  Should a first place team have gotten more than just two representatives?  Perhaps.  But the team was filled with non-stars and played far over its head to go 50-31 (as evidenced by the reverse 31-50 record the rest of the way).

2006

  • Nationals All-Star representatives: Alfonso Soriano
  • Possible Snubs: Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman
  • Narrative: Soriano made the team as an elected starter, the only time the Nats have had such an honor.  Our pitching staff took massive steps backwards and no starter came even close to meriting a spot.  Cordero was good but not lights out as he had been in 2005.  Soriano’s 40-40 season is a poster child for “contract year” production and he has failed to come close to such production since.  The team was poor and getting worse.  Johnson had a career year but got overshadowed by bigger, better first basemen in the league (a recurring theme for our first basemen over the years).

2007

  • Nationals All-Star representatives: Dmitri Young
  • Possible Snubs: Ryan Zimmerman, Shawn Hill (though I wouldn’t argue for either)
  • Narrative: Young gets a deserved all-star appearance en route to comeback player of the year.  Zimmerman played a full season but didn’t dominate.  Our rotation featured 6 primary starters, none of whom are still in the league now, though Hill showed flashes of dominance throughout the year.

2008

  • Nationals All-Star representatives: Cristian Guzman
  • Possible Snubs: Jon Rauch
  • Narrative: The first of two “hitting rock-bottom” seasons for the team; no one really merited selection.  Zimmerman was coming off of hamate-bone surgery in November 2007 and the team was more or less awful across the board.  Rauch performed ably after Cordero went down with season-ending (and basically career-ending) shoulder surgery.   Guzman’s selection a great example of why one-per-team rules don’t make any sense.  Guzman ended up playing far longer than he deserved in the game itself by virtue of the 15-inning affair.

2009

  • Nationals All-Star representatives: Ryan Zimmerman
  • Possible Snubs: Adam Dunn
  • Narrative: The addition of Dunn and Willingham to the lineup gave Zimmerman the protection he never had, and he produced with his career-best season.  His first and deserved all-star appearance en-route to a 33 homer season.  Dunn continued his monster homer totals with little all-star recognition.

2010

  • Nationals All-Star representatives: Matt Capps
  • Possible Snubs: Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, Ryan Zimmerman, Steven Strasburg
  • Narrative: Capps was clearly deserving, having a breakout season as a closer after his off-season non-tender from the Pirates.  The 3-4-5 hitters Zimmerman-Dunn-Willingham all had dominant offensive seasons as the team improved markedly from its 103-loss season.  But perhaps the surprise non-inclusion was Strasburg, who despite only having a few starts as of the all-star break was already the talk of baseball.  I think MLB missed a great PR opportunity to name him to the team to give him the exposure that the rest of the national media expected.  But in the end, Capps was a deserving candidate and I can’t argue that our hitters did anything special enough to merit inclusion.

2011

  • Nationals All-Star representatives: Tyler Clippard
  • Possible Snubs: Danny Espinosa, Michael Morse, Drew Storen, Jordan Zimmermann
  • Narrative: While Clippard was (arguably) the Nats best and most important reliever, I think Zimmermann was a more rightful choice.  He was 10th in the league in ERA at the time of the selections and has put in a series of dominant performances.  Meanwhile Espinosa is on pace for a 28homer season and almost a certain Rookie-of-the-Year award (though a precipitous fall-off in the 2nd half cost him any realistic shot at the ROY), and perhaps both players are just too young to be known around the league.  Lastly Morse is certainly known and he merited a spot in the “last man in” vote sponsored by MLB (though he fared little chance against popular players in this last-man-in voting).

NL East Rotation Preview

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Remember this guy? He’ll be 100% for next spring and may spell a changing of the guard in the division. Photo via AllansGraphics.com

With major moves being made this off-season for the rotations of the NL East teams, we seem set to be in store for some serious pitching duels intradivision in 2012.  How do the rotations stack up, right now?  If the season started tomorrow, here’s what we’d be looking at for rotations:

Philadelphia Atlanta Miami Washington New York
#1 Halladay Hudson Johnson Strasburg Santana?
#2 Lee Jurrjens Buehrle Gonzalez Dickey
#3 Hamels Hanson Sanchez Zimmermann Pelfrey
#4 Worley Beachy Nolasco Jackson Niese
#5 Pineiro Delgado Zambrano Wang Gee
In the mix Blanton, Kendrick, Willis? Minor, Teheran Vazquez?Volstad, LeBlanc Lannan, Detwiler, Gorzelanny Young? Schwinden?

By team, some observations:

  • Philadelphia plans on replacing Roy Oswalt‘s 2011 starts with a call-up who looked pretty good last year in Worley. Joe Blanton looks like the odd-man out and his $8.5M salary may be wasted by virtue of an underrated but saavy acquisition of Joel Pineiro.  The Oswalt trade didn’t give the team what it seeked (a World Series title) but it didn’t cost them a ton in prospects either (JA Happ didn’t exactly light it up for Houston).  They’ve signed Dontrelle Willis for rotation depth.  Still, you can’t argue with three Cy Young candidates at the top of your rotation, and this team remains the team to beat in the division despite injuries (Ryan Howard) and aging (every single projected starter not named Hunter Pence is 30 or older, and Pence will be 29).   The pitching staff was #1 in ERA in the NL and I can’t imagine them dropping far from that.    If Worley performs like he did in 2011, and if Pineiro returns to his St. Louis form, then this is just as tough a 1-5 as last year.
  • Atlanta should have won the wild card last year and seems set to roll out a rather similar rotation this year.  They’ll replace their worst starter Derek Lowe with starts from one of three up-and-coming rookies (I’ve got Delgado slated there now but likely Mike Minor wins the #5 spot in spring training) and should be improved.  Hudson is a year older and hasn’t missed a start in 2 years, but is slow coming back from off-season back surgery and may or may not be ready for opeing day.  The staff was #4 in the NL in team ERA and should do nothing but improve … but there’s some serious injury question marks.  Their incredible SP minor league depth should get them through.
  • Miami has a some major question marks, despite acquiring Mark Buehrle to slot into their #2 spot.  They will cross their fingers on Josh Johnson; if he’s not healthy this team will be really hurt.  Nolasco can be brilliant or awful from start to start.   We still don’t know if Vazquez is retiring or returning; my initial guess would have been that he was too good in 2011 (3.69 era, 106 era+) and too young (reportedly 34 but i’ve never heard of any age-questioning here) to retire.  To provide cover though, the team traded for the volatile but possibly still talented Carlos Zambrano to slot in at #5.  Which Zambrano will they get?  And will his notorious clubhouse antics gibe with new hot-head manager Ozzie Guillen? On paper, a 1-5 of Johnson, Buehrle, Nolasco, Sanchez and Zambrano spells an awful lot of power and a lot of Ks.  They could be tough.  They should improve on last year’s #10 team ERA ranking.
  • Washington just got a lot better, replacing 29 mostly awful Livan Hernandez starts with a healthy Stephen Strasburg and likewise replacing 35 combined mediocre starts out of Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny with newly acquired power lefty Gio Gonzalez and power righty Edwin Jackson. They were 6th in the NL in team ERA, have mostly the same bullpen in place (5th best in the league in ERA in 2011) and seem set to improve.   Chien-Ming Wang seems set for the #5 spot, leaving John Lannan potentially being the most expensive pitcher in Syracuse.   The jeopardy the team now has is an utter lack of starting pitching depth; Peacock and Milone WERE our 2012 rotational safety nets; now we have just Detwiler, Gorzelanny and a couple guys who clearly seem to be AAA starters.  For this reason the team probably keeps Lannan around with the eventual goal of having him provide cover until our next wave of high-end pitching prospects develop.  Either way, this rotation and bullpen look to be improved from 2011.
  • New York faces a grim 2012, not only in the rotation but also in the front office.  We’re hearing reports that Johan Santana is still too hurt to make opening day (though he’s since spelled some of these concerns with his first spring training outing).  Converted knuckleballer R.A. Dickey spent his off-season in a nasty fight with management over his charity climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  All their other starters posted ERAs in the mid to upper 4’s (or worse) with ERA+ figures in the 78-82 range.  And there doesn’t seem to be help coming on the Free Agency front (since the team can’t afford to keep operations running without bank loans) or on the prospect front (a quick glance at their AAA and AA starting talent resulted in ONE starter who had a minor league era in the respectable range, an 18th rounder in AA).  I think this team is finishing dead last in 2012 and may lose 100 games despite their payroll.  And to add insult to injury, the owners were just forced to cough up $83 million in a pre-trial settlement over their Madhoff scandal involvement.  Tough times are ahead for the Mets.

What do you guys think?  In terms of Washington, more than a few pundits have stated that the addition of Gonzalez makes the Nats a wild card contender, right now, and that was before the Jackson move finally brought some plaudits from typically cynical national baseball writers when considering signings by this franchise.

Do you think the Nats have now supplanted the Braves as having the 2nd best rotation in the division (as ESPN’s Buster Olney is opining?)  I think they have; I think Atlanta’s starters may be taking a slight step back while our quintet looks to be a solid, young but relatively experienced core.

Nats Off-season News Items Wrap-up 2/19/12 edition

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RIP Gary Carter, one of only two Montreal Expos enshrined in Cooperstown. Photo via garycarter.org

This is your semi-weekly/periodic wrap-up of Nats and other baseball news that caught my eye.  I try to publish this about weekly or if it gets up to about 1500 words, so that it’s not to voluminous.

Nationals In General

  • Mark Zuckerman writes about a favorite topic of mine w/r/t the current Nats 40-man roster and its construction.  See here for a similar discussion of the 2011 Nats (along with analysis of the 8 playoff teams) from last October.  Clearly the more players you’re using as your “primary 15″ that were developed in house, the better you’re doing as a player development machine.  But there’s also the measure of cashing in those prospects in order to acquire resources.  (Coincidentally the “primary 15″ of a team means its 8 starters in the field, 5 rotation members, setup man and closer).  By last year’s end, the Nats were starting 9 of these 15 as players developed in house and were down to just three acquired via FA/Waivers.  That’s a massive step up from just a few years prior, when most of the team was FA/Waiver pickups.  We’ll revisit this topic once the 25-man rosters for teams are finalized and play starts in April.
  • The Washington Franchise leads the league in employment of Negative WAR players over the past decade.   A staggering 31% of our players in this time have shown negative WARs per season.   This is not surprising given what we know of the construction of the first few iterations of the Nationals; Zuckerman has done studies in the past related to the staggering number of players the Nats have played at the MLB level who, after leaving us, never appeared in a major league game again.   The last time Zuckerman did this study that I could find was Nov 2010, when he identified 59 such players just since 2005.  I don’t know what percentage that is of all players who appeared for us in that time-frame, but it seems high.  (note: I just did some analysis and will return with a blog posting on this topic soon).
  • Back to the negative war topic, here’s a list of such negative WAR seasons for the 2011 iteration of the team: Alex Cora, Jesus Flores, Chris Marrero, Steve Lombardozzi, Matt Stairs, Livan Hernandez, Doug Slaten, Brian Broderick, Yuniesky Maya, Collin Balester and Chad Gaudin.  That’s 11 of the 44 players who appeared in the majors for us last year, or exactly 25%.  So we’re not exactly out of the woods yes; clearly we continue to employ a ton of players who end up hurting the team.  (For the record I used bWAR instead of fWAR for this, since its a bit easier to see that data.  But i’d guess the analysis would come out the same for either measurement method).
  • Another article on Edwin Jackson and pitch-tipping.  Is it possible that a player could play for years and never have a hitter teammate tell him he’s tipping his pitches?  I think it depends on what team the pitcher plays for.  Mike Mussina infamously was told he tipped his change up once he moved to the Yankees, and he made the adjustment that enabled his stellar 2006 season.  Maybe the team should have just kept its mouth shut about their thoughts and not told every reporter in every press conference that they think their new $11M pitcher is flawed.

Free Agents/Player Transaction News

  • Interesting thoughts on whether “4-A” players really do exist and how to quantify them from Fangraphs.com.  Read through the comments for some better thoughts.  For me, this issue touches on two opinions I’ve been growing.  1st; yes there does exist 4-A players; the Nats have shown to have a slew of them recently.  Guys whose minor league performance literally disappears upon reaching the majors.  I don’t know how to quantify it but there’s clearly guys who bounce freely between the two levels and seem destined to max out as such a 4-A player.  2ndly: Is AAA now a “lesser” league than AA?  Perhaps not with all systems (for example, Tampa Bay insists all their prospects play full seasons at each level, as does Atlanta), but for the Nats we’ve seen some interesting promotion behavior lately.  Stephen Strasburg got hit harder in AA than in AAA during his brief minor league apprenticeship, but the difference is rather slight.  But watching the games you got the distinct feeling that his AA competition was getting decent wood on the bat, while in AAA it was like he was pitching to little leaguers.  This goes to my theory that AAA is morphing into a “spare parts” league, where teams stash backup utility players (mostly catchers, middle infielders, relief pitchers) who are on the 40-man and can quickly be recalled to fill a spot, while AA is the place where your rising prospects play full seasons in preparation for promotion to the majors.  Jordan Zimmermann never pitched a AAA inning, rising from a full season in Harrisburg straight to our rotaton.  Strasburg probably could have done the same.  Will we see Bryce Harper jump straight from AA to the Majors or will the strategy of Mike Rizzo going forward be more Tampa-esque, requiring each prospect to “master” each level rising upwards?
  • A surprise team lands Yoenis Cespedes, namely the penny-pinching Oakland A’s in a 4yr/$36M deal.  4 years and $36M!?  That’s more than they will spend in payroll on their entire TEAM in 2012.  Maybe.  That’s a lot of cash for a completely unproven, if talented player who I’d say is not entirely MLB ready.

General Baseball News

  • Excellent article on the Demise of the Spitball and other Doctoring techniques from Grantland’s Jonah Keri, whose writing I’ve always liked and who is working on a historical retrospective on the Montreal Expos franchise.   Keri’s article talks about the Kenny Rogers pine-tar incident in the 2006 World series, but I don’t consider that “doctoring” the baseball.  That was simply using pine-tar to get a better grip on a cold, wet night.  Not that its legal; just different from the more conventional definition of a “spitball.”   Keri’s conclusion as to why the spitball has disappeared is attributed to the invention of the modern split-fingered fastball (attributed to Bruce Sutter) and to the lack of proper teachers (the craft of doctoring the ball has been handed down generation to generation by pitching coaches).  But honestly I believe the decline is more attributable to two other factors; the lingering stigma of getting caught being higher now post-PED era than every before, and the fact that the true “spitball” is damn difficult to throw (imagine trying to “throw” a baseball with the same motion you might use to squirt a pumpkin seed from your fingers?  That’s what throwing a spitball is like to a certain extent).
  • In typical modern day sabrematrician blogger nerd fashion, someone at a stats-oriented site goes about attacking another writer’s observation column.  In this case, it is someone at Baseball Prospectus attacking the Verducci Effect.  I can’t argue with his stats (other than to quibble with the lack of publication of his control group for comparison), but I suspect he misses the point.  I don’t think Verducci passes this list off as a statistical study; i think its passed off as a subjective list of candidate pitchers who HE THINKS may regress.  See, there’s the rub.  He’s already done the breakdown from the “control” group of pitchers who may be candidates for his study but whom he thinks may not be in jeopardy.  So I’m presuming that, because of this pre-selection and expression of opinion this is no longer a statistical study but an opinion piece.  I’d liken it to analyzing statistically the results of an amateur scout’s player recommendations; sure you could run one in order to judge a scout’s prognostication ability, but there’s so much variation in what happens to players once they sign that it wouldn’t be meaning ful.  I guess my take away is this: Verducci does a pretty durn good job of predicting red-flags for these pitchers (84% over the past 5 years), that maybe we should just recognize his study for what it is, and not overanalyze it to try to discredit it.
  • A nice article about another favorite topic of mine: the relationship between Wins and salary.  The familiar narrative is that payroll discrepancies are killing modern baseball, and to a certain extent I do agree; its no coincidence that the high payroll Yankees have only missed one playoff appearance in the nearly-20 years since the wild card era began.  But the ratio of wins to salary is dropping.  Why?  Because several teams have sacrificed several seasons to basically reset and start over.   Tampa Bay and Texas are the best recent examples, but we’re also seeing remnants of this theory here in Washington and starting anew in Houston and Chicago.
  • Nice little Intro to Sabremetrics from Espn-W.  The author doesn’t go into the real in-depth stats that a lot of people are gravitating to but does cover the basics.  OPS, Fip, UZr, wOBA, Vorp and WAR.  Now if we could only decide on a standard WAR.  :-)
  • Another classy move from baseball’s classiest organization; the Miami Marlins.  Yeah, lets un-retire the number of a former employee who died tragically since, well, he didn’t work for the current ownership group.

General News; other

  • Excellent article at Grantland.com on the Effects of CTE and the possible future (end?) of Football as we know it.  This is something I have been saying for a while and agree with; the increased awareness of concussions and their relationship to the longer term effects (the affliction known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE) may soon start to really change the way that people think about the sport.  More to the point, as a parent does the thought of repeated concussions inflicted on your young football-playing son give you pause?  It would for me.  Read this article and it makes some very good points.  90,000 recorded pre-collegiate concussions per year?!


Ladson’s inbox: 1/16/12 edition

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Lest anyone forget, Zimmerman is under contract for not one, but TWO more seasons! Photo unknown via fantasyknuckleheads.com

Another edition of mlb.com beat reporter Bill Ladson’s inbox, dated 1/16/12. Man you know I’ve been busy at work if I’ve had this canned and ready to publish for more than a week but couldn’t get online to do so.

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

Q: Why are the Nationals wasting time talking to Prince Fielder when they should be signing Ryan Zimmerman to a long-term contract before it is too late?

A: *sigh*  Why, why, why is it going to be “too late” to sign Ryan Zimmerman to a long term contract if it doesn’t happen right now?  Someone please check Cot’s before asking this question.   He’s signed through 2013!  I don’t believe Prince Fielder has anything to do with Zimmerman; we’re talking about a franchise that has been underspending on payroll by $35-$40 MILLION dollars the past few seasons.  People who claim that the Nationals “can’t afford both” Fielder and Zimmerman are expressing unsubstantiated opinions.  Ladson thankfully notes the fact that Zimmerman is signed through 2013.

Q: What role will Roger Bernadina play on this year’s team? I love the kid’s heart, but the people in power don’t seem so encouraged.

A: Hopefully none.  Nothing personal against Bernadina, but what more can we learn about the guy at this point?  1000 major league plate appearances, an 81 OPS+.  About the only thing he has going for him is that he’s pre-arbitration and is cheap.  This team is offensively challenged and needs outfielders who can slug something higher than .350.   Ladson thinks he’ll be the 4th outfielder, competing with Mike Cameron for center field.  I hope not; can’t we sign a stop-gap right fielder??

Q: Have the Nationals thought about moving Danny Espinosa or Ian Desmond to center field?

A: I doubt it.  What would that solve?  As soon as we moved one to CF, we’ve lost a plus defender in the middle infield with no assurance that they’d be any good in center, and we’d still need to find a solution for whatever position they’ve vacated.  We need to find an outfielder who can hit and put him in play.  Its that simple.  Ladson says nope.

Q: I am still a believer in Desmond although his batting average and power numbers declined last year. He is a big, strong kid who can hit 15 home runs and steal 30 bases if he can be more selective at the plate and figure out how opposing pitchers are trying to attack him. What do you see for Desmond in 2012?

A: 2012 is make it or break it season for Desmond.  Two full time seasons at the plate and he’s regressed each time.  You just cannot put a guy out there who’s 20% worse than the MLB average (i.e., an 80 ops+, his figure for the 2011 season) and be successful in the modern game.  What do I predict?  I think he’ll be similarly poor, will feature 7th or 8th in the order most of the year, and will force the team to look at replacement options starting in the trade season.  Ladson thinks Desmond’s late season surge bodes well for 2012; indeed he was great in the last two months of the season.  Lets hope he’s right.

Q: Assuming the Nats will not sign Fielder, would it be a good idea to sign an outfielder like Johnny Damon? Can you see him as a fit in Johnson’s lineup?

A: No; Damon is limited to playing LF in an easy-to-defend ball park (like Fenway) or a DH at this point.  His outfield arm is beyond weak.  He can hit though; but he has no position on this team.  If we’re going to go with Jayson Werth in CF, I think we should sign one of the good hitters still available in the RF marketLadson agrees with me that Damon is an AL-only player now.

Q: If the Nats acquire Fielder, would it be best for Adam LaRoche to be traded for a bench player who might start once a week?

A: Sure, if they could trade him.  Problem is, if LaRoche needs to be traded there’s not an awful lot of teams that would be interested.  See my post about the Prince Fielder market; maybe we could trade him to a team like Baltimore or Houston, but they’re not going to give us much in return, and we’ll be forced to pay most of his salary in make-weight.  If we sign Fielder, you might as well just release him.  Ladson points out that we’re not even sure LaRoche is healthy at this point.

Q: In all the talk about 2012, I haven’t heard a word about the status of catcher Ivan Rodriguez and right-hander Livan Hernandez. What are the Nats’ plans for those two fan favorites?

A: The wise fan would correctly assume that the lack of discussion about both Hernandez and Rodriguez would indicate that they are no longer in the team’s plans.  Because they’re not.  Both guys are probably out of baseball after 2011, given the calibre of players that remain unsigned so far this off season.  I’m sorry to say: Livan’s precipitous decline in performance in the latter half of 2011 eliminated his candidacy for the 2012 rotation.  And Rodriguez may be a great historical player and first rounder, but he hit .218 last season.  Ladson thankfully agrees.




2011 FA Market Analysis and Predictions for Starting Pitching

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Is CJ Wilson worth a 9 figure contract this off season? We’ll see. Photo Chris O’Meara/AP via livesportsdb.com

As the World Series ends, and as clubs start exercising (or more importantly, declining) player options, the FA market for starting pitching is starting to really take shape this off season.

The Nats don’t “need” Starting Pitching as they have in the past, but a quality veteran starting pitcher would certainly be preferred to the question marks that we might have if we used the likes of Ross Detwiler, Tommy Milone or Brad Peacock as a 5th starter in 2012.

Lets take a look at the starters on the market, put in some predictions as to what kind of money they’re going to get, and discuss whether or not the Nats should (or might) pursue them.  For reference, here’s a list of 2012 FAs from mlbtraderumors, as well as the Elias rankings as of the end of the 2011 season.  Remember, thanks to their end of the season run, the Nats 1st round pick is NOT protected and would be forfeited if they signed a type-A free agent.  So the FA types will be of importance when talking about each of the pitchers below.

Category: Aces (or nearly Aces) and Type-A starters.

  • CC Sabathia seems certain to opt-out of his remaining Yankee contract and will almost certainly re-up with the team.  11/1/11: he has done just that.  5yrs, $122M, fewer years honestly than I thought he’d demand.  He raises his AAV from $23M in the last deal to $24.4M and gets one additional guaranteed year.  The structure of the deal pays him $23M/year for the first four years, then $25M the last.  There’s an option for 2017 at $25M that he most likely makes if he stays healthy.
  • CJ Wilson is also a type-A FA and seems set on testing the market.  I would too if I were Wilson; I don’t think he’s an ace but he’s certainly going to be paid like one.  He seems set to get an AJ Burnett type deal (5yrs $85M) or perhaps more.  I hope the Nats don’t over-spend and get him.  I’d guess he heads to Boston; his free-spirit personal seems to fit with that franchise and the team just got a shock bit of news that John Lackey, despite how bad he was in 2011, is out for the entirety of 2012 with Tommy John surgery.
  • Roy Oswalt had his team option for $16M bought out on 10/25/11, but I’m guessing this is just a procedural move to re-sign him and keep the “big 4″ together for a few more years.  Oswalt’s on the wrong side of 30 and had a rough season of declining stats and missed starts, but still slots in as the best #4 starter in baseball and certainly didn’t come to Philadelphia for anything less than a World Series shot.  I’d guess he re-ups for 3 years, $36M with the Phillies.  Other pundits disagree and see him moving back to Texas to take over Wilson’s #1 spot on the Rangers rotation.
  • Edwin Jackson: another guy whose post season performances seem certain to hurt his FA prospects.  Big arm, good numbers, right age (only 28 hitting free agency), but a propensity to get hit hard and often.  Mike Rizzo loves him, tried to trade Adam Dunn for him in 2010, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to see the Nats go after him again.  Look for him signing with the Nats for 3 years and $28M.  Unless a pitching-starved big-money team like Boston or New York offers him a ton more than that.  I’m not really in favor of this deal for the Nats, but wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen.
  • Yu Darvish: as I opined here, I really do hope that the Nats do not spend fools money after Darvish.  A posting fee in the $40-$50M range, then at least that amount to sign the guy.  I know he’s got great numbers in Japan.  So did Dice-K.  There’s a halfway decent chance he doesn’t even get posted this year, so all ink spilled over Darvish could be moot.  Baseball Prospectus put out a great article about Darvish, including lots of analysis and links to others who share the same concerns that I do.  If you’re in the “pro-Yu” camp there’s a couple good articles on places like fangraphs that support your case.

Category: Mid-rotation/decent starting options.

  • Mark Buehrle is hitting the FA market, but i’d be shocked if he leaves Chicago at this point in his career.  I’m sure he’ll take a team friendly deal that extends his career out 3-4 more years, at which point he may very well retire a one-franchise guy with a surprisingly high number of career wins.
  • Hiroki Kuroda just finished off a sneaky-good season, going 13-16 with a 3.07 era.  The problem is that he’s 36 and had a ton of innings on his arm in the Nippon league prior to getting here.  He’d be a risk.  The Dodgers franchise is a mess but its the only team he’s known, and I’d guess he wants to stay on the west coast.  I’d guess he gets a decent 2-year deal from Seattle if the Dodgers can’t find the money.
  • Javier Vazquez looked washed up during last year’s FA market analysis, having lost 3-4 mph on his fastball and getting shelled in NY.  However, he had a great bounce-back season in Miami and i’d guess he re-ups there for the new season and new stadium.  However, there’s word out there that he may retire.  Hard to see a guy who just put in a decent, comeback season retire though, especially if guaranteed money is thrown around.

Category: Aging/Back of the Rotation starters

  • Bruce Chen has very quietly put together two pretty good seasons for the Royals all things considered, but will be 35 and may see a precipitous drop in production.  He’s not any better than the options the Nats face now, when you consider price and productivity.
  • Freddie Garcia had a revelation of a season for the Yankees; I’d think he stays there as insurance for 2012.   Still hard to believe the Yankees won 97 games giving no less than 51 starts to Garcia and Colon.
  • Bartolo Colon is in the same boat as Garcia, but is 38 to his 34 and may be cut loose to find another team willing to give him a shot with his stem-cell enhanced shoulder.
  • Joel Pineiro has never stayed healthy long enough to reach his potential, and he just laid an egg in his contract year in LA.  I’d be surprised if he got anything more than a 1yr $5M deal.
  • Aaron Harang: beware the veteran pitcher who goes to San Diego and suddenly looks like a #2 starter.  2011 numbers: 14-7, 3.64 era.  Home/Away splits?  3.05 era at home, 4.70 on the road.  I’m sure he’ll get some money, somewhere for a back-of-the-rotation job.
  • Livan Hernandez reportedly offered to move to the bullpen for the Nats, in order to stay here.  Unfortunately he pitched so poorly, and takes so long to warm up, that using him in extended relief really isn’t much of an option.  My guess is that Livan returns to his roots in Miami as the Marlins’ 5th starter on the cheap and enjoys one more spin around the league.
  • Jason Marquis, in a remarkable sense of timing by the Nats, was traded for Zack Walters and then promptly broke his leg.  Its too bad for Marquis, who clearly was using 2011 to regain some market value for his free agency this off-season.  At this point he certainly won’t be getting any 2year deals for 8 figures.  I’d guess he gets a 1yr $4M deal with some incentives, if that.
  • Chien-Ming Wang, by virtue of being in THIS section and not the next, has already had a successful 2011.  He is what he is right now; a guy trying to reclaim former glory and his former sinking fastball, and a guy who looks like a #4 starter who has capabilities of improving as he gets more and more innings into his repaired shoulder.  My guess is that he repays the Nats for nursing him back to health while providing him millions in salary and signs for a 2-year deal worth roughly $6-7M overall.
  • Tim Wakefield; I would have predicted him to possibly hang up the spikes until news of Lackey’s injury and Dice-K’s question mark.  Wakefield’s stats have really declined the past two years, but Boston seems in need of a back of the rotation guarantee that Wakefield’s $4M standing salary can fill, cheaply.
  • Brad Penny, Jeff FrancisPaul Maholm, Chris Capuano, Vicente Padilla, Rodrigo Lopez, Zack Duke, Aaron Cook, Kevin Milwood, Dontrelle Willis and anyone else not already mentioned: all of these guys were either so mediocre in 2011, went unsigned in 2011, or are so old, that i’d be surprised if more than just a few of them got major league deals for 2012.

Category: Reclamation Projects/Injury recovery guys.  The Nats have a history of pursuing former glory with recovering stars.  Would they try it again?

  • Adam Wainwright: his injury in spring training 2011 amazingly didn’t really cost the Cardinals, who marched right into the World Series without their #2 starter.  Wainwright’s injury couldn’t have been worsely timed in terms of his contract options; St Louis dodges a major payroll bullet by being able to opt out of millions of dollars of guaranteed money.  But Wainwright is free to look elsewhere.  Will he?  Doubtful: i’d guess he signs a one-year incentive-laden contract with St. Louis aimed towards regaining his career.  10/26/11 update: the team exercised its options on Wainwright, meaning he’s off the market.
  • Justin Duchscherer: had some lights out seasons, but missed all of 2009 and 2011 with injury.  Will anyone take a flier on him?
  • Chris Young and his 6′ 10″ faster-than-it-seems fastball only got 4 starts (2 against the Nats) before getting shoulder surgery.  Seems to run in the NY Mets family (see Santana, Johan).  It wasn’t as bad a surgery as it could have been, and he should return for 2012.  He’s now missed games in 4 straight seasons and its buyer-beware.
  • Jon Garland had season-ending surgery in July after just 9 starts, but when healthy is a 105 ERA+ guy, a 4th starter who can eat innings and be solid.  He had great durability up until this injury, having not missed a start since 2002.  But now its not clear if he’ll even be ready for 2012.
  • Ben Sheets is in almost the identical spot as Duchscherer; ironically both have a history of pitching in Oakland.
  • Rich Harden; mr Day Game split (or Mr. Unreliable Injury guy, if you play fantasy baseball) just finished yet another unproductive season with a 5+ ERA pitching in one of the best pitchers parks in baseball.  He seems set for a minor league contract for one last flier at a comeback.
  • Eric Bedard wasn’t half bad for Boston down the stretch, with a 9.0 k/9 rate on the season.  But at the end of the season he was yanked early in two critical games and i’d bet the team won’t be willing to roll the dice with him again.  We’ll see who overpays for his injury-plagued services in 2012.  With Boston’s sudden shortage of starters, look for Bedard to resign in Boston and start the year as Boston’s #4.
  • Brandon Webb: got some looks in spring training 2011, including from the Nats, but then went under the knife yet again.  You can usually come back from TJ surgery.  Shoulders are tougher.  He may be done.

Predictions:  I’d guess the Nats throw their name in the mix for Wilson but get scared off by his price tag.  Maybe we’ll post a respectable figure for Darvish.  But Rizzo goes hard after Jackson and we get him.  Meanwhile Rizzo also signs one of these injury reclamation projects to a nominal guaranteed contract to see what pans out.

Nats FA Decisions…

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Is Wang the only FA we resign? Photo courtesy of Nats320 blog/Jeff Saffelle

With the announcement that all 8 of our eligible free agents filed as soon as the FA filing period opened (as reported by Adam Kilgore), its time to talk about what the team could or should do with each of the 8 players.

Here’s a quick table showing our 8 free agents, their latest contract and their pay for 2011.

Player Current or 2011 Contract 2011 Salary
Ankiel, Rick 1yr/$1.5M $1,500,000
Coffey, Todd 1yr/$1.35M $1,350,000
Cora, Alex 1yr/$900k $900,000
Gomes, Jonny 2yr/$2.55M (10-11) $1,750,000
Hernandez, Livan 1yr/$850K $850,000
Nix, Laynce 1yr/$700k $700,000
Rodriguez, Ivan 2 yr/$6M (10-11) $3,000,000
Wang, Chien-Ming 1 yr/$1M plus bonuses $1,000,000

So, what should the team do with these guys?  In order (alphabetically):

  • Rick Ankiel could be an interesting decision for this team.  His 2011 line was bad (.239/.296/.363), and he really wasn’t any better down the stretch than he was at the beginning of the season.  Ankiel tempts and entices you with periodic flashes of power but generally had really poor batting stats.  On the plus side, he’s a lefty in a Right-handed heavy lineup.  He also plays a fantastic Center Field (11.6 uzr/150 on the year in center) and has one of the best outfield arms in the game.  All this screams 4th outfielder at best, and Ankiel may struggle to match his $1.5M salary in 2012.  The Nats may view him as a decent 4th outfielder option, but may not be willing to guarantee him money.  I’m guessing he goes elsewhere looking for a starting job or a guaranteed major league contract.
  • Todd Coffey, by the end of the season, seemed to be a reliable right handed option out of the bullpen for this team.  He had a 3.62 era on the season and a decent whip of 1.2.  His splits on the year show a different story; he was lights out in May, god-awful in June and July before regaining his consistency in the end of the season.  For me, he’s a replace-able asset that should be available in spades on the FA market or from within the farm system.  I’m guessing the team rolls the dice on another one of the middle-relief right handers on the market.  Had Cole Kimball not gone down with injury, the question would be completely moot for 2012.
  • Alex Cora probably will find work on a minor league free agent deal somewhere for 2012; he has that “backup middle infielder” skill set that gives him a good shot of finding work in 2012 despite his horrible batting line in 2011 (a 51 ops+ hitting .224 in 156 ABs for the Nats).  For the Nats, we saw that up and coming prospect Steve Lombardozzi can play both 2nd and SS in a backup role in September and I’m guessing we use a combination of him and Brian Bixler off the bench in 2012 as cheaper alternatives to the FAs Cora and Jerry Hairston that the team used in 2011.
  • Jonny Gomes was acquired mid-season in a questionable trade that sent blocked 1B prospect Bill Rhinehart and blogger favorite Christopher Manno to the Reds.  At first glance the trade seemed to be about acquiring the compensation pick that Gomes would fetch (who at the time had type-B FA status).  After listening to management interviews though the trade seemed to be more about Johnson replacing the impotent Matt Stairs as his primary pinch hitter on the bench.  It became clear that Gomes’ skills not only were not worth the 1.75M contract he was on, but that he was barely worth a 25-man roster spot.  Gomes hit .204 for the team in the 2nd half, mostly as a right-handed power option off the bench and lost his type-B status by years end.  Despite clearly being a good teammate and free-spirit in the clubhouse, Gomes seems destined for a non-guaranteed contract elsewhere for 2012.
  • Livan Hernandez is hitting the FA market despite being our opening day starter and perhaps the most iconic player of this team’s tenure in Washington (with apologies to Ryan Zimmerman, of course).  Hernandez just finished a very up-and-down season, culminating with his being “shut-down” in September (ostensibly to allow rookies to play, but it may have also been somewhat of a mercy-killing after a slew of abysmal performances).  One need only look at his 2011 splits to see the problem with Livan: when he won he was very, very good (8-0, 1.26era in his 8 victories).  But when he lost he gave the offensively-meager team almost no chance to win (a 6.05 ERA in 13 losses) and was nearly as bad in his 8 no-decisions (5.93 era).  I’m sorry, but when you make 29 starts and have an era in the 6’s for 21 of them, you no longer merit a starting spot.  The team will swallow its heart and allow Livan to leave in free agency.  Just a couple months ago I was advocating to keep him, thinking he’d be a great backup plan and a good influence on the pitching corps.  Those points both may be true, but his declining performance coupled with his extraordinarily long warm-up routine pretty much precludes effective use out of the bullpen (where guys need to be warm in 10-15 pitches).  I’ll bet Livan finds a 5th starter job somewhere though; perhaps a sentimental return to Florida, a stop-gap one-year contract for the pitching-poor Mets, or elsewhere.
  • Laynce Nix was hot in Spring Training, and equally as hot in April and May, but tailed off badly and ended the year with a relatively MLB-average 103 ops+ and a slash line of .250/.299/.451.  He did have 16 homers in just 351 plate appearances, nearly a 30homer pace for a full season.  Of course, he’d never get a full season of At bats since his lefty-righty splits are so bad (.263 versus .111 … he was 3 for 27 against lefties this year with 4 walks).  What should the team do?  Nix could be a nice part of a platoon in right field with a good right-handed hitter like Chris Marrero … except we’re pretty sure that we’d take a severe dip in defense if we did such a thing.  Of course, nobody told the Cardinals they couldn’t put Lance Berkman in the outfield, and he promptly put in a -14.4 uzr/150 rating in right while bashing his way to a .547 slugging percentage and a 166 ops+.   Not that Nix is capable of Berkman’s level of productivity, but I still think he could have value as a 4th out-fielder/Davey Johnson prototypical power guy off the bench.  Not to mention a lefty on a team whose primary power guys (Werth, Zimmerman and Morse) are all righty.  I predict he resigns on a one year deal.
  • Ivan Rodriguez really wants to get to 3,000 hits, but man he looked old this year.  He only managed 27 hits in 124 at bats while ceding the starting job to the more capable Wilson Ramos.  Clearly Pudge isn’t coming back to the Nats; the better question is whether there’s a backup job for him anywhere in the league.  Probably so, but he’ll struggle to ever reach 3,000.
  • Chien-Ming Wang, as we already know, is negotiating to stay with the team.  And despite this blogger’s opinion that the team erred in setting up Wang’s 2011 contract, it seems like he probably is coming back.  I’m guessing he signs a moderate 2-year deal with somewhere in the range of $6-8M in guaranteed money.

So, in the end I’m guessing we re-sign one (and perhaps two) of our 8 free agents.  This means we’ll be somewhat active on the FA market looking to back-fill some of the positions these guys filled this year.   But not totally so; players coming back from injury and players rising from the minor league ranks are expected to take the place of players that we had to buy on the FA market in the past.  That’s great news for the team in general; lowered payroll and further proof that our farm system is developing real talent.

Consider re-upping for OF cover
Let him go. Replaceable commodity.
Non-type A/B FA: let him walk
Decline arbitration b/c he’d likely take it. Missed type-B status
Non-type A/B FA: let him walk despite his offer to be a pullpen guy
Consider re-signing for 2012
Non-type A/B FA: let him walk
Re-sign to a 2-year deal; seems healthy, get some ROI

Boswell Chat 10/24/11: My answers to his Baseball questions

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Hall of Famer? Yes. Best hitter ever? Almost. Photo: unknown via fantasyknuckleheads.com

Tom Boswell did his monday morning chat on 10/24 after a week off; in-between taking questions about the death of the Redskins, he managed to fit in some baseball and Nats questions.  Here’s how i’d have answered them…

Questions are edited for clarity and space, and I write my answer before reading Boswell’s.  We’ll only address baseball-related questions.

Q: Is there any question at this point that Pujols has joined Ted Williams and Babe as the three best hitters ever?

A: (side note; this is just AFTER Pujols‘ 3-homer performance in game 3 of the World Series, just the third time that’s ever been done).  If Pujols retired tomorrow here’s what his career lines would look like: 455 homers, .328 career hitter, 170 career OPS+, 3 MVPs and another six times in the top 5 candidates (four times coming in 2nd place).  That by itself is Hall of Fame worthy, no doubt.

By the time he retires?  I think clearly he’ll be mentioned as either the best or 2nd best right-handed hitter of all time (Willie Mays) and in a small grouping with Mays, Ruth and Williams as the best all-around hitters to ever play the game.  Absolutely.  I don’t think Pujols needed a 3-homer World Series game to cement that status either.    Boswell agrees, saying that Pujols joins the list just behind Ruth.

Q: Thanks for pointing out he did all his damage after the Cards were ahead in Game 3. We’re so quick to pronounce “best ever…” these days that it was good to get some context.

A:Very fair comment.  Pujols may have a 3-homer game, but it doesn’t nearly have the significance of Reggie Jackson‘s 3-homer game.  Also fair about pronouncing current stars “the best ever” without much context to those that came before.  Ruth’s domination of baseball and the country at large is so difficult to understate that we’ll never really be able to draw a modern comparison.  Boswell agrees, at least with the first part.

Q: Game 5 prediction (on the night of this chat)?

A: I’d pick Carpenter and the Cardinals.  I don’t trust CJ Wilson and don’t think he’s nearly the pitcher that Carpenter is.  I stick with my St Louis in 6 predictionBoswell goes against logic and says that Wilson will outpitch Carpenter.

Q: Do Lefties with high-heat give a significant advantage over right-handers with comparable velocities?

A: Absolutely.  Lefties are already rare enough and effective enough that any left hander with velocity in the upper 80s can usually find work in this league.  There’s a reason for that.  Add a few more mph and the cache of left-handers who can reach the mid 90s in this league can be counted on one hand.  They are special, and they are valuable.  Boswell doesn’t have a good explanation.

Q: With all the issues in Boston, should the Nats be calling the Red Sox to see who they might get in trade?

A: Sure.  But the Red Sox are prospect hounds and will want our farm system depth in return.  The guys they’re probably willing to trade are probably not going to be the guys we want anyway.  Boswell didn’t really answer the question but mentioned that Ellsbury will be a FA after 2013 … gee, only 3 years too late for the leadoff/CF that we need!

Q: Boswell had previously described baseball Managers as one of four types: Little Napoleon, the Peerless Leader, the Tall Tactician, and the Uncle Robbie.  Who are the best four examples of each type now in the modern game?

A: Interesting question.  Here’s a list of 2011’s baseball managers to choose from.  I’ll guess that Ozzie Guillen is the Napoleon manager, Tony LaRussa is the peerless leader, Ron Roenicke is the Tall Tactician, and Joe Madden is little Robbie.  Boswell’s answers werent’ close to mine; perhaps because its his manager classifications to begin with.

Q: Was the strike zone in game 4 inconsistent?

A: I thought it was; in the bottom of the first a strike 3 was called on Elvus Andrus that had been a ball earlier in the count.  And that wide zone continued throughout.  Its no wonder Holland looked so unhittable.  Boswell blames the TV strike tracker as being misleading.

Q: Could Albert Pujols go to the Rangers?

A: I guess he could … but that doesn’t seem to be the way he’s going.  He seems set to stay in the NL and stay in the mid-west.  I think he’s either staying in St Louis or going to save the Cubs.  Texas might as well light Michael Young on fire if they got Pujols and, for the 3rd or 4th season in a row, asked their franchise leader to move positions for incoming talent.  Boswell predicts Pujols stays in StLouis.

Q: Should Texas have pulled Holland after the 7th to retain him for the 7th game?

A: Nope.  Texas’ bullpen was shredded and its much more important to have a fresh Feliz than a starter on 2 days rest.  Of course, Washington USED Felix in a non-save situation to finish off the game.  Waste.  At least the rest of the bullpen got a night off.  Boswell disagrees with me, saying the team should have pulled him in the 7th to have him in game 7.

Q: What are the odds of the following players returning next season: Livan Hernandez, Ivan Rodriguez, Chien-Ming Wang, Jonny Gomes, Laynce Nix and Rick Ankiel?

A: Livan: 10%.  Ivan 1%.  Wang 80%.  Gomes: 25%.  Nix: 40%.  Ankiel 40%.  Boswell didn’t offer percentages, just saying that he thinks Wang will be back and that Johnson loves guys like Gomes and Nix on the bench.

Q: How long does it take Theo Epstein to turn around the Cubs?

A: I’ll say most of the 5 years he’s signed up for right now.  His starting pitching is a MESS, he’s got an aging, expensive team with big contracts and little wiggle room, and he’s got very little in terms of young players.  He needs all his bad contracts to age off, he needs to scout and draft better, and he needs time.  Boswell punted.

What is the “ceiling” of the various Nats pitching prospects?

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Will Matt Purke fulfil his former Ace-starter promise? Photo AP/Nati Harnik

Its nearly impossible to project high-end pitching prospects, the further they are from the minors.  Think of someone like Colten Willems, our #1 draft pick in 2006 who retired before ever getting out of high-A.  Or perhaps Josh Smoker, a supplemental 1st rounder in 2007 who struggled with injury and is now a situational lefty in the high-A bullpen, four-plus years into his pro career.

But, it is fun to think about the upper-end, best case scenario and what it would mean for this team.  I’m sure that this post will garner a ton of disagreement; feel free to make your case in the comments pro or against what i’ve posted.  I know that some people are already drinking the kool-aid on September call-ups Peacock and Milone, but I’m not (read below for more).  I’ve included all our current starters and most of the upper-end draftees over the past few years.

(post-publishing note: a commenter asked what I “meant” by a #1 or a #5 starter.  Here’s text pulled from the comments as to how i’m defining each of these level of starters:)

  • #1 starter is one of the best 15-20 pitchers in the league, someone who you’re genuinely surprised if he performs badly on a given day, mentioned in Cy Young conversations.  Verlander, Lincecum, Halladay.
  • #2 starter: a slight step down from your elite, but still a reliable starter.  The “robin” to the ace’s “batman.”  I’m thinking Matt Cain, Chad Billingsly, Cole Hamels, Clay Buchholz as examples.  Not the best guy on their rotation but a great #2 guy.
  • #3: better than your league average pitcher, someone who is solid, consistent innings eater and who routinely gives you quality starts but not much more than that.  I’m thinking someone like a Jonathan Sanchez, Derek Holland, Edwin Jackson, someone like that.
  • #4: is basically someone defined as someone who’s a slight step above the back-of-the-rotation guy, a mlb veteran guy who knows how to pitch but doesn’t have the best stuff to really go much beyond.  John Lannan is a great example of a #4 starter.  Freddie Garcia, John Lackey, Jon Garland, Jason Marquis are other examples.
  • #5: just good enough to fill out your rotation.  Starters at the back end who all you’re hoping for is 6 innings and keeping your team in the game.  On our team, Livan Hernandez, Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen in past years.

Nationals Starter prospect Ceilings (per scouting reports, personal observations)

#1: Strasburg
#2: Zimmermann, Cole
#3: Purke
#4: Lannan, Ray
#5: Detwiler, Turnbull, Solis
4-A starter: Milone, Meyers, Rosenbaum
MLB bullpen: Meyer, Peacock, Stammen
Minors starter: Maya, Martis, McGeary, Jordan, Grace
Minors bullpen: Holder, Smoker

Discussion.

#1 Starters: Stephen Strasburg, in my mind, is already an “Ace” starter in this league, ranking up among the 15-20 best arms out there.  When he’s healthy.  In 2010 he posted MLB-best k/9 rates and would have clearly led the league in some sabremetric measures of pitching in his debut season had he qualified.  But health is the big question mark; is he going to become the next Justin Verlander or the next Mark Prior?  Only time will tell.

#2 Starters: Jordan Zimmermann has achieved Robin to Strasburg’s Batman in this rotation, and seems set to be a pretty good rotational guy for the next few years.  AJ Cole pitched well in his first full season, is a big kid who was touching 96 in HS.  He could be a big arm who slides into the rotation as a dominant arm.  Some think his ceiling is even higher than a #2 starter.

#3 Starters: Matt Purke was a 1-1 talent (1st round, 1st overall draft pick) before suffering shoulder bursitis, and the Nats took a gamble on him.  But its a great gamble; he has Ace material, throwing mid 90s from the left hand side with completely dominating stuff.  He was rated BA’s #14 prospect coming out of high school and had a $4M signing bonus deal turned down by MLB.  He allowed the Nats medical staff to do a dye-injection MRI and were satisfied with the results.  His deal could be remembered as a steal of the 2011 draft if he pans out.  However recent scouting reports have listed his stuff as “ordinary,” so a #3 starter seems like a good middle ground for now.  If his arm is really ok, he’ll start to show it next spring (hopefully at high-A) and he’ll rocket up the prospect lists soon enough.

#4 Starters: Perhaps one could argue that John Lannan is a #3 starter but I don’t believe so; I think he’s a solid, underrated #4 starter on a decent rotation.  If you compare Lannan to the #4 starters on a number of teams, he compares favorably, and you’d clearly take Lannan if given the choice.  The problem is; he’s just not flashy.  We’ll never get appropriate trade value for him because his W/L numbers are mediocre and his K/9 rate isn’t that impressive.  I’d guess that he sticks in our rotation until he reaches free agency, at which point its likely that some of our developing power arms will be ready to take over.   Robbie Ray had a fantastic debut season and may even be better than a #4 ceiling; certainly he put up as good of numbers as his 2010 draft classmate AJ Cole, but his stuff doesn’t project as highly.

Here’s where a number of arguments are probably to be had, starting at the #5 ceiling.

#5 Starters: Ross Detwiler really has yet to fully show his full capabilities, but lefties that throw mid 90s don’t grow on trees.  2012 is a make or break year for him with this organization, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him moved in the off-season so that the team doesn’t have to deal with his option status when constructing the rotation next spring.  I put him with slightly better stuff than the 4-A guys below.  I’m still not sold on him as a MLB starter, but saw a lot out of him this season that shows improvement over where he was in the organization in 2010.   2011 draftee Kylin Turnbull was overshadowed by the high-end talents drafted ahead of him, but he’s lefty, throws well and is projectionable.  Thanks to Sean Hogan‘s excellent draft research, some scouting reports are here.  Right now it sounds to me like Turnbull has a bit more power than someone like Milone and perhaps can get more missed bats.  For now i’m listing him as a #5 starter ceiling; if he was a righty he’d probably be in the MLB bullpen category.  Lastly Sammy Solis projects thus far as somewhere between a a #3 range starter, a mid rotation guy who has 3 plus pitches and can be a lefty work horse out of the rotation and a back-of-the bullpen guy with mediocre stuff but good constitution.  He may not have the best stuff, but being lefty and being a solid, Mark Buehrle build could mean he’s a slightly better version of John Lannan for this team.  We’ll see how he does in AA in 2012.

4-A starters: (for those that don’t know what is meant by “4-A or AAAA,” it means someone who is better than a AAA pitcher but not quite good enough to get out major league hitters on a consistent basis).  Tommy Milone had a great September debut and has impeccable control in the minors, but I don’t see him having good enough stuff to consistently get major league hitters out.  Now, I could be wrong and he could have Greg Maddux-esque control, at which point he doesn’t need mid-90s heat.  But from what I saw in his September starts, I don’t think he’s got what it takes to stick in the majors.  Brad Meyers could end up in the same position as Milone; a guy who dominates in the minors but who can’t cut in the majors.  It doesn’t look like he’ll even get a shot at the 2012 rotation with the crowded 40-man roster.  Lastly Denny Rosenbaum seems cut from the same cloth as Milone; a softer-tossing lefty without great K/9 rates in the low minors but who is effective enough at getting guys out.

Bound for the bullpen (but good enough to stick in the majors): 2011 draftee Alex Meyer is going to go one way or the other: he’s either going to be a wild man out of the bullpen or a near #1 starter.  Scouts seem to be pretty split as to which way he’s going to go.  Right now, based on the struggles he had early in his college career, I’m guessing he struggles to maintain his forward momentum and ends up a Cole Kimball-esque hard throwing option out of the pen.  Meanwhile, what to make of Brad Peacock?  I know he just finished off a fantastic minor league season and had two effective September starts (giving up just one run in 12 innings over two starts).  But to me I see a guy with good life and heavy reliance on one pitch (a 4-seam fastball), a good 2nd pitch (change-up) no confidence in his third pitch (loopy curveball) and no fourth pitch.  To me, that says bullpen.  Lastly i’m clumping in Craig Stammen here, who couldn’t really cut it as a full time starter in 2010 and spent the entire 2011 season starting in AAA.  I think he can be an effective guy out of the MLB bullpen if he’s given the shot.  I like Stammen and perhaps this is a bit high of a ceiling for him; i wouldn’t be surprised a bit if he misses out on the 2012 bullpen and slips into minor league free agency frankly.

Minors starter: This list of guys looks like they’re destined to be “organization guys” for this team.  Yuniesky Maya was clearly not the pitcher the team thought he was when he got his 4-year contract; he’s gotten a couple shots at the majors over the past two seasons and has not capitalized.  I think he’s going to be ensconced in the AAA rotation for the near future, unless someone can figure out how to trade him.  He certainly isn’t a better MLB starting option than any of the guys listed above him.  Shairon Martis mostly earned this fate when he successfully passed through waivers and off our 40-man roster.  His worth ethic and conditioning came into question in the organization, and he went from a 22yr old starter in 2009 to a AA starter in 2011.  He had pretty good numbers in AA, but that doesn’t really prove much for a guy who was in a MLB rotation two years prior.  Jack McGeary is finally back from two years of mediocracy and Tommy John surgery, but faces a pretty steep climb back into future rotational pictures.  For now, i’m guessing he struggles to ever make it, topping out as a minor league starter once he hits his free agency period.  For now, i’m also classifying both Taylor Jordan and Matthew Grace as org guys, continuing to rise up as 4th or 5th starters but never really making an impact.

Minors bullpen: Lastly, i’m listing both high-end draft picks of the past few years Trevor Holder and Josh Smoker as topped out as minor league bullpen guys.  Smoker seems like he’s already there, having come back from an arm injury but still only having risen to high-A in his fourth pro season.  He put up good numbers as a loogy/bullpen guy this year, and perhaps his real ceiling is the MLB bullpen, but getting a loogy out of a first round draft pick is still a major disappointment.  Holder was clearly an over-draft in the Strasburg year, getting picked up in the 3rd round when he wasn’t even in some team’s top 10, and has done nothing to earn his draft position.  He posted a 5.77 era in high-A this year, repeating the level and leaving the team clearly in a conundrum as to what to do with him.  I think he is destined for a bullpen role in 2012, perhaps in high-A again, and may be short-lived for the franchise.

Is there someone I’m missing?  Agree, Disagree?  Discuss in the comments section.

Ladson’s latest inbox; my answers to his questions 10/3/11

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MLB beat writer Bill Ladson doesn’t do mailbags that often, and when he does sometimes his answers are arguable.  Here’s his 10/3/11 edition.

Q: Do you think Davey Johnson will return as manager of the Nationals in 2012?

A: Yes; there’s no reason to replace him at this point and the team finished the year strong.  Ladson says he’s coming back.

Q: Are the Nationals thinking about moving Ian Desmond to center field, Danny Espinosa to shortstop and Stephen Lombardozzi to second? They always say that shortstops are the best skilled players. I think they will get the center fielder they need and improve their infield defense.

A: (the same question was posed in Boswell’s chat on monday): I don’t think Desmond helps the team in Center.  You need more production out of center fielders.  If Desmond can’t cut it for this team at Short, we’ll trade him and put Espinosa there.  Lombardozzi hasn’t shown me that he’s anything more than a Brian Bixler-utility guy, and the team may bide its time until Anthony Rendon is ready.  Ladson reminds us how much the team, and Johnson, likes Desmond.

Q: If the Nationals are looking for a center fielder, why not Carlos Beltran, even though he is aging and has been hurt in the past? He seems to fit all of the Nationals’ needs and is a good veteran presence for some of the young players.

A: Three primary reasons: Beltran isn’t a center fielder anymore.  He’s now a corner outfielder at this point in his career.  Plus I think you’d be overpaying for a contract year.  Lastly, he’s a type-A free agent, meaning it would cost us your #16 overall pick.  Ladson points out that he’s a corner outfielder.  He’d be for a one-year deal, that’s it.

Q: Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan are locks for next year’s rotation. Considering Mike Rizzo would like to acquire a veteran starter, that would mean that Chien-Ming Wang (if re-signed), Ross Detwiler, Brad Peacock, Tom Milone and the other Minor Leaguers will all be fighting for one spot?

A: This seems like the current situation, yes.  However, I would not be surprised to see some of this starter depth flipped for a plus defender that we can put out in leadoff/center field.  Lannan could be trade bait (though I think we’d struggle to get enough for him to match how this team values him).  Wang is no sure thing to re-sign.  Detwiler pretty much HAS to make the team in 2012, so you may have your rotation already stated. Ladson just says generically that you can never have enough depth.

Q: I think Chris Marrero has proven in a short time that he is a Major League hitter. What role, if any, do you think he will have with the team next season?

A: Good question: he hit well, but doesn’t seem to have the power you need to man the First Base position in the majors.  Its tough to take a .300 hitter out of the lineup though.  Of course, he wasn’t a .300 hitter by the end of the season (final slash line: .248/.274/.294); a 5-game slide to end the season cost him 40 batting average points.  Marrero’s problem is a lack of power.  His slugging percentage wasn’t even at .300; it needs to be closer to .500 to play first base.  I think he starts 2012 back in AAA, waiting for an injury or slow Adam LaRoche start to get a call-back.  Ladson predicts trade chip or 2012 bench player.

Q: Since being sent to the bullpen, Tom Gorzelanny has done a pretty decent job. Do you see him back in the bullpen next year?

A: Yes you bet.  Gorzelanny’s bullpen split for 2011 was great; 2.42 era in 15 games.  He immediately takes over the primary long-man/spot-starter role and features as a middle reliever as needed.  He’s just the kind of guy that Davey Johnson likes in the pen.  Ladson agrees.

Q: You have reported that the Nats’ front office isn’t sold on outfielder Roger Bernadina. Please explain how Werth, Jonny Gomes and Brian Bixler are improvements.

A: At least Werth provides enough power and OBP to pull his OPS+ value up to nearly 100 in a season where he struggled mightily.  Bernadina doesn’t get on base nearly as much and doesn’t slug as much, meaning on average he’s about 20% less valuable a hitter than a MLB average player.  And he’s done this consistently across 1000+ at bats at the major league level.

Gomes is not an improvement; he was a mid-season bench augmentation who probably gets non-tendered in November.  Meanwhile, Bixler is not an apples-to-apples comparison.  Teams need utility infielders to provide cover at 2nd, short and 3rd.  Bernadina is a backup outfielder who can be replaced, and is replaceable.

I’m not sold on Bernadina either; he’s had plenty of chances and i doubt he’s part of the organization in 2012.  Ladson says he never said these three guys were replacements for Bernadina, but thinks that Gomes and Bixler are not with the team in 2012.

Q: Despite his inconsistency, Hernandez definitely shows that he wants to stay with the Nationals and brings so much to the clubhouse. He is even willing to become a long reliever. With that in mind, do you think he’ll be re-signed?

A: Good question.  Initially I thought he’d be resigned as a valuable and cheap middle relief/spot starter guy.  But now i’m worried there’s not going to be room for the guy in the bullpen.  I think our 2012 bullpen starts with Storen, Clippard, Burnett, Mattheus, HRodriguez, Gorzelanny as near locks.  The 7th guy could be a FA signing, or perhaps Peacock or even Stammen.  Livan needs too long to warm up to really be useful in the bullpen.  Sorry to say; i think we part ways.  Ladson says that Gorzelanny is the “swingman” and that the team won’t need two.  Fair enough.



Boswell Chat 10/3/11: My answers to his Baseball questions

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The Nats season may be over, and the Redskins may be 3-1 (thus implying that 98% of local sports radio be devoted to the minutae of the team), but i’m hoping Tom Boswell takes some baseball questions still during his normal monday morning chat.

Questions are edited for clarity and space, and I write my answer before reading Boswell’s.  We’ll only address baseball-related questions.

Q: Was the last day of the 2011 baseball season the greatest day in baseball history?

A: Well, considering that baseball’s been played for 150+ years, and we’ve only lived to see and judge 25-30 years of it, and we’ve only had baseball readily available on TV to the extent where we could truly appreciate a night like what happened … its tough to say its the best ever.  Yes absolutely though it was the best in recent memory.  Boswell agrees.

Q: Thoughts on the Red Sox’s parting ways with Franconia and possibly Epstein?

A: The Red Sox spent an awful lot of money … and ended up with an awful lot of injuries to those well-paid players, especially in the rotation.  In September they were basically without 3/5ths at one point of the opening day roster.  No team can survive that, especially one that has traded so many of its prospects lately to acquire the hitting talent it has.  Terry Franconia has been there a while and, while its probably not his fault the team plummeted as it did, he’ll take the fall.  Theo Epstein: I’d think he’d want to stay and try to get one more WS win out of this team.  Unfortunately it probably isn’t happening any time soon: his team still has a bunch of under-performers under contract for 2012 and looks to be stuck with a bloated payroll without many impact players, again.  Boswell thinks Franconia got the short end of the stick, and that any firing of Epstein would be a major over-reaction.  Agreed.

Q: Did the Orioles “over-celebrate” by beating the Red Sox on the last day?

A: Maybe so.  But its hard to fault the team for playing and winning a playoff-caliber game.  Boswell didn’t answer this part, but did talk about Matt Moore and how good he’s looked.  Moore was the subject of an analysis post I did over the weekend.  He looked fantastic and could be a secret weapon for Tampa Bay this playoffs.

Q: Will the Red Sox find someone to manage their club as good as Franconia?

A: Probably not; there’s a ton of good candidates out there but in all likelihood we won’t see a major discipline guy taking over.  Odds are that we’ll see a bench coach or someone within the organization.  Boswell says if Valentine goes, expect even more drama.

Q: (Great Question): should a team’s success factor into the Cy Young and MVP voting?

A: Cy Young: no.  It shouldn’t matter how the team does.  If a guy is the best pitcher in the league, he’s the best pitcher.  Yes “Wins” are a flawed statistic, giving credit to a pitcher for only half the battle in winning a ball game.  But mostly pitching is an individual, mano-y-mano embarkment.   MVP?  Yes I believe the team’s position in the standings has an effect.  Simple question; how can you be the Most Valuable Player in the league for a team that is 20 games under .500?  I just don’t think you can be.  If you’re not leading a team to the playoffs, or playing meaningful games 100% of the time, then it doesn’t matter how valuable you are to your own team, let alone the rest of the league.  Boswell posits an argument i’ve never heard; batters get 650-700 plate appearances but starting pitchers face > 1000 batters.  Good argument; still not enough to get me to consider pitchers for MVP awards.

Q: How did a supposedly great analysis team like the Red Sox err so badly in the Carl Crawford contract?

A: Carl Crawford was a nice player in Tampa, but it was always going to be a risk putting someone who wasn’t used to the pressure cooker of baseball in Boston or New York who wasn’t used to it.  The Red Sox vastly overpaid for Crawford, feeling as if they had to pay him more than the Jayson Werth contract, and they ended up with a lesser player.  Boswell points out some interesting observations; Crawford’s power is to right, he never pulls the ball and his asset in defense is speed.  All three of those points are completely negated by playing in Fenway.  Could get ugly in Boston.

Q: When are the Nats going to re-sign Ryan Zimmerman?

A: I’d guess after NEXT season.  Despite the supposed pressure to get him re-upped on a big contract, he already IS on a big contract.  And that contract runs through 2013.  So he’s still got two years on it, so no point in talking about it or worrying about it.   Boswell says the team should push this, but guesses Zimmerman waits until he has a good start to 2012 to negotiate from strength, not from the weakness following a sub-par year as he had in 2011.

Q: Did Davey Johnson have a bad road split?  Is he going to be the 2012 manager?

A: Just did some quick analysis: the team had 38 road games after Johnson took over and went 18-20 in them.  That’s actually better than their overall 36-45 record on the road all season.  I don’t know why there’s stories about a manager search; why wouldn’t he come back to manage in 2012?  Boswell notes he went 40-40 after the initial 3-game series loss to the Angels.

Q: Thoughts on Jose Reyes’ sitting down to protect his average?

A: Bush league.  Ted Williams, he is not.  If your manager takes you out to give the home crowd a chance to give you one last cheer, that’s acceptable.  To ask out of a game after bunting for a hit is akin to an NBA player purposely missing a shot to get an extra rebound so as to get a triple-double.  Boswell agrees.

Q: Do the Nats need to get a high priced FA starting pitcher?

A: Well.  Lets answer the question this way.  Yes, they need another FA pitcher, but there’s not one available this year that will be worth the money.  This season’s crop of FA starters is weak and the two big money teams both desperately need starting pitching and will be driving prices WAY up on guys like CJ Wilson and Edwin Jackson, far over what they’re worth.  I think the team needs to stay out of these feeding frenzies.  2013’s crop is far better, and we also have enough pitching depth to possibly work a trade.  Boswell says its a tough call then reminds everyone we went after Greinke hard and couldn’t believe the deal was turned down.

Q: What do the Nats do with the leadoff position for 2012?

A: Amazingly, they go into this off-season with pretty much the same issue they had LAST off season.  They need a reliable lead-off hitter, and they need a reliable center fielder.  They’d love to get one guy who can do both jobs.  Personally, I think a trade is happening this off season, with the team going after BJ Upton again, pitching Tampa Bay to save the $6-$7M they’re going to have to pay him in his last arbitration year.  There’s a couple of FA center fielders of note, but they’re under performers or injury risks (David DeJesus, Grady Sizemore being the two names i’d think about).  Might as well roll the dice with one more year of Rick Ankiel. Boswell notes that Goodwin and Rendon could be hitting 1-2 in a couple years.  Not exactly the question that was asked.

Q: Have the Nats considered moving Desmond to CF, and sliding Espinosa to SS and playing Lombardozzi at 2B?

A: Hmmmm.  I havn’t seen this particular formation postulated.  I’d say this is a no-go because Lombardozzi looked 110% overmatched in his September call-up and may have a ceiling of utility guy.   But its an interesting question.  What about Lombardozzi in center?  The question is; can he hit leadoff?  Boswell doesn’t think Desmond can ever be a good enough leadoff hitter.

Q: Do the Nats make a run at Terry Franconia?

A: No way.  Johnson is just as good a manager.  You stick with what you have.  Boswell agrees.

Q: Is CJ Wilson worth giving up our first round pick in free agency?  What about Pujols or Fielder?

A: Yes …. but he’s not going to be worth the sky-high salary that he’ll be offered by the Yankees to come in and help restore their pitching staff.  Both Pujols/Fielder would be great in the short term but would likely be albatross contracts before they’re said and done (as A-Rod’s already looks, and as Ryan Howards looks like it will be).  Boswell says he likes our current arms more than Wilson, and says Morse at $4M is better value than Pujols at $25M.  True.

Q:  What do you make of the way the Nats finished the season?

A: Very promising … with some caution.  Beware September success, since your young guys often times are playing other team’s younger guys.   The only meaningful games we really played in September were against teams in playoff races (Atlanta).  I will say that the big take away from this finish was just how poorly the team fared by giving starts to Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis.  Once those guys were removed from the rotation and replaced with our upper end prospects, the team won and won frequently.  Boswell agrees, pointing out that this team got to 80 wins, only one of which was by Strasburg!

Q: Were the 80 wins ahead of your expectations?

A: Absolutely.  I can’t find any proof of this, but I think 72-75 wins was considered a great goal for 2011.  80 wins, a 10 game improvement over 2010 (itself a 10 game improvement over 2009) is a huge win for this team.  Another 10-game improvement suddenly puts this team squarely into Wild Card competition, and another 10-game improvement in 2013 puts us as World Series contenders.  I think this is a great path and a great goal.    Boswell predicted 72 at start, bumped to 77 mid-season.

Q: What does the Nats focus on in the offseason? SP or CF/Leadoff guy?

A: I always classify off-season priorities as follows: Fantasy, Reality and Less Likely.  I’ll post a more detailed post about this after the WS is over, but Fantasy for me is Pujols or a frontline Starter, Reality includes attempting to find a center fielder and then filling in some holes in the bullpen and on the bench.  Boswell didn’t address.

Q: Who do you think is on the trading block for the Nats? Lannan has been getting a lot of play lately? Would BJ Upton be the best option for us?

A: The Nats clearly have pitching depth, and have more major league ready starters than they have spots for.  Lannan is an underrated starter and could be a good #3 or #4 starter for a contender.  Problem is, the Rays have zero need for a starter like John Lannan and it would probably cost the Nats a much better prospect to pry loose someone like BJ Upton.  I’d like to have Upton but don’t want to burn a high-end prospect like Norris or Rendon to get him.  Boswell correctly points out that Lannan is undervalued by other teams besides us, who don’t see his improvements and every day accomplishments.  Upton is a wild card for sure.

Q: Could the Nats go after an “Impact” bat, like Michael Cuddyer?

A:  Cuddyer isn’t really an impact bat in the same vein as Pujols or Fielder.  I don’t see a spot for Cuddyer, who can play a bunch of positions but everything he can play is a position we’re ably filling right now (RF, 2B, 3B, 1B).   Boswell thinks our hitters are scheduled for a rebound.

Q: Are the Phillies vulnerable?  Can the Brewers make a run?

A: Phillies don’t *seem* vulnerable, not with 3 shutdown arms and a 4th who would be most team’s best hurler.  The Brewers look like they could go far, with a good balance of pitching and hitting.  Boswell says that the Card’s 3 potent hitters could make things dicey for Philly.

Q: What is the best WS match up for TV?  What’s the best matchup for the true fan?

A: TV: the two biggest markest clearly (NYY vs Philly).   For the fans?  It’d be nice to see two long-suffering franchises go at it (Detroit-Milwaukee).  I’d like to see big money versus little money (Philly-Tampa), which would also match the two best pitching staffs.  For offense-minded teams it’d probably be Texas (or NY) versus St. Louis.  NYY-St. Louis is great for traditionalists; these are the two teams with the most WS victories.  Boswell likes it when non-traditional powers get into the series.

Wow, that was a lot of baseball talk.