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Nationals 2013 post-mortem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ask Boswell 9/9/13 Edition

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Haren continues to make friends in Washington.  Photo nats official via espn.com

Haren continues to make friends in Washington. Photo nats official via espn.com

With the NFL kicked off and Washington set to return to hits sports normalcy (95% redskins, 5% for the rest of the town’s sports), Tom Boswell did  his weekly chat on 9/9/13.  Lets see if he took any baseball questions:

As always, I write a response here before reading his, and edit questions for clarity:

Q: I guess they should have traded Haren; Oh Well.

A: If Mike Rizzo got any sort of viable offer for Dan Haren after he passed through waivers, then  yeah I’d be pretty irritated right now.  The “rumors” were that he was asking for a ton in terms of prospects; but who knows if anonymous GM quotes are reliable.   But this is also quite a bit of hind-sight is 20/20; you can’t know if Haren’s going to continue to be good or if suddenly he’s going to fall off a cliff.  If any player struggled, hit the D/L, returned and then was great 4 starts in a row, i’d also have thought to myself, “hey, that D/L trip fixed him!”  I’m not going to kill the Nats management over not moving Haren post-trade deadline, other than to say this: the entire organization has been in denial for MONTHS about this team, its construction, its manager, its makeup and its capabilities.  I’m on record saying there should have been a managerial move long before it came to where we are today.   That is the bigger problem with this organization.  Boswell seems to be less forgiving than me; he calls this one of Rizzo’s worst moves.

Q: Should the Nats just shut down Harper at this point?

A: No, not unless there’s a medical reason.  Bryce Harper came back home to  have a hip analysis and it looks like a couple of games.  If there was something deeper, this organization (which has clearly shown itself to be medically conservative) would absolutely make a move.   Boswell has a different take, clearly criticizing Nats management for bungling several injury recoveries this year.  Hmm.

Q: NL Central predictions?

A: St. Louis wins it with their home-heavy schedule running in, Cincinnati uses a ridiculously easy schedule heading in to claim the WC home game and Pittsburgh still wins 90 but has to go to  Pittsburgh and loses the coin flip game.  Boswell just says that the Nats aren’t going to make it.

Q: How much do you attribute the Nats decline this year to poor medical management? For some reason, they continue to let Harper self-manage. And now the LaRoche weight loss issue.

A: There’s definitely some odd things going on medically with this team, and have been all year, but I blame the bulk of this team’s troubles primarily on three factors:

  1. Too much clubhouse chemistry damage; adding a cancer in Rafael Soriano, removing fun loving respected vets Michael Morse and Mark DeRosa, and really leaving the team leaderless in some aspects.  Ask yourself: who is the “leader” of the offense?  Of the pitching staff?  There’s no Dustin Pedroia on this team; a guy who is vocal and loud and rallies the troops; the long term contract vets on this team aren’t leaders, and guys like Harper clearly aren’t generating the respect he deserves in his own clubhouse (as evidenced by the beanball war with Atlanta and nobody stepping up to get his back).
  2. Offense: The bench offense just falling apart, along with key guys (Adam LaRoche) just not coming close to performing like he did in 2012 and Denard Span really failing to be the guy we thought he was going to be.  Oh, and Davey Johnson really failing to react soon enough to make changes.
  3. The starters really taking a step back with no roster coverage, with Haren really, really hurting the team (they are now 9-18 in his 27 starts).

Boswell says the Nats have an explanation for every medical issue that has arisen.

Q: Does Strasburg have a composure/maturity problem?

A: This goes back to the whole meltdown Stephen Strasburg had earlier in the season when Ryan Zimmerman threw a ball away; the most recent issue was the Chicago Cubs game when a tough grounder to short wasn’t converted into an out by covering-man Anthony Rendon and he promptly gave up a 3-run bomb.

I think I’d answer two ways: First yes I think he needs to work on keeping his emotions in check on the field.  But Secondly, pitchers have an absolute right to be upset when they work a hitter to hit his pitch, get the grounder he wants and a guy who shouldn’t even been playing SS throws the ball away.  Boswell makes a good point; he’s only 25.  He’s still young.  But yes he still has a ways to go.

(Note: I did not see the 2-balk game, nor read about it.  That was the genesis of this question.  If the questioner meant to ask, is Strasburg mentally focused enough?  Then I’d probably say, not yesterday!)

Q: Athletics or Rangers?

A: Tough call with Oakland vs Texas; I’d go Oakland.   As does Boswell.

Q: Nats are 65-51 in games not started by Haren: wouldn’t even a .500 or a little better starter have put the Nats in contention?

A: Possibly.  Assume you replace Haren’s 9-18 team record with a 5th starter who guided the team to a 13-13 record in his games; that’s only 4 games more in the Win column, pushing them from 73-69 to 77-65.  That’s still outside the division and outside the wild-card.  But you’re closer.  Boswell basically does the same logic.

Q: Is Ryan Zimmerman’s abdominal surgery part to blame as well as his shoulder?

A: Possibly; it isn’t hard to see a direct link between the drop of Ryan Zimmerman‘s UZR/150 numbers and his surgeries.  They both happened the same instant.  Boswell embarrasses himself by saying to ignore the fangraphs numbers.  Sorry; stats are stats; Zimmerman just made his 20th error of the season, by itself indicative of nothing but a clear indicator of what he’s done to the team this year.

Q: Do the Nationals tweak for 2014, or do they need to make big changes in the roster. What do you think of these predictions: LaRoche becomes an expensive bench player, Span and Gio traded.

A: Reactions to these predictions?  Ridiculous, more ridiculous and ridiculously ridiculous.  LaRoche is Rizzo’s buddy; he’s going to play 1B.  Span‘s value is nearly nothing right now, despite his 19 game hitting streak, why trade someone who’s worth nothing when you can keep him on the cheap and see if he regains his hitting stroke?  If not, trade him for nothing next year.  Lastly; go look at Gonzalez‘s contract for the next 4  years and tell me who we get in return that gives us that kind of value?   And if you trade these three guys, who’s playing 1B, CF and #2 starter??  Why even take this question?

Larger question: Tweaks or major changes for 2014?  I think you’re looking at tweaks.  Basically the entire team is signed through next year.  They thought this was a winner this year.  I’m sure Rizzo’s ego will continue to tell him its a winner next year.  Absolute worst case for the next 12 calendar months for Nats fans: team starts hot next spring, fades slowly, slowly but stays a few games out of WC through the trade deadline, then falls apart after the point at which we could move all these expiring contracts for prospects.  Boswell says tweaks, though a new SP is needed.

 

Ladson’s inbox 1/22/13

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Does Boras run the Nats? The national narrative certainly seems to think so. Photo Ezra Shaw/Getty images via espn.com

I love a diversion.  Bill Ladson’s inbox is always a diversion.  Here’s 1/22/13’s edition.

Q: Why do the Nationals need another closer in Rafael Soriano?

A: My posted opinion about the deal from 1/15/13.  Did they “need” another closer?  Probably not.  But, innings sent to Rafael Soriano cascades downwards and means that innings that would be given to lesser relievers will now be pitched by Clippard and Storen (assuming one of them isn’t moved of course), and overall the bullpen is improved.  I wonder if Ted Lerner didn’t pull a George Steinbrenner/Dan Snyder-esque move and force a player signing as a reaction to a singular event (aka Storen’s NLDS game 5 meltdown).  Its possible I suppose.  If so, you hate to see moves like this, because it undermines the GM and leads to poorly constructed rosters.  Ladson belives this is a reactionary move to the NLDS bullpen meltdown in total, not just Storen’s misfortunes.

Q: It seems like Washington takes all of Scott Boras’ clients and puts them on its roster.

A: I hate this Urban Myth that now pervades anyone’s analysis every time the Nats sign a Scott Boras client.  Check the proof: MLBtraderumors keeps a player agent database and guess what?  The Nats don’t even have the most clients of Boras.   The Nats have 7 Boras clients but Boston has 8.  Plus, three of the 7 Boras clients the Nats have were no-brainer 1st round draft picks (Harper, Strasburg and Rendon, and you could even argue a 4th such Boras pick in Goodwin that the team would have taken at that point in the draft irrespective of his representation) that the team was likely going to draft and sign no matter who represented them.  The fact is this: the Nats have become a premier FA destination, Boras represents a lot of good players on the FA, and the Nats have hired some of his players.  When Boston or Texas hires a Boras client, you don’t suddenly hear people sarcastically asking, “Does Boras run the Red Sox?” now do you?  I think its great that Rizzo and Boras have a good working relationship, because other teams/GMs do not, and it affects the quality of their teams as a result.  Ladson defends my point as well, saying similar things to what I’ve pointed out.

Q: Does the Nationals’ front office regret not making Edwin Jackson a qualifying offer? It seems he would have signed elsewhere and the Nats would have received a compensation pick that would help the farm system.

A: Great Question!  One I asked in this space myself on 11/5/12.  I honestly think the team believed that Edwin Jackson, who had a history of signing one year deals, would have taken the contract.  Either that or there was a hand-shake deal in place stating that the team wouldn’t extend the offer.  I don’t truly believe the latter part of this, because (as others have pointed out) it’d be illegal as per the latest CBA.  Either way, I thought it was a mistake at the time and the Nats indeed missed the opportunity to gain an extra pick.  Ladson believes point #1; he thinks the team was afraid that Jackson would take the deal.

Q: If there was one thing that could hold the Nationals back from winning the World Series this year, what would it be?

A: I’ll give you two things that could prevent the team from winning.  1) Injuries in our Rotation and 2) bad luck.  We’re very thin in terms of starters and a season-ending injury to one of our big names would be a bad impediment.  And, the playoffs are crap-shoots; 83 win teams (St. Louis in 2006) can get hot and win it all while 116 win teams (Seattle in 2001) get beat easily before ever getting to the World Series.   That being said, even a starter injury probably wouldn’t be fatal to this team’s chances of making the playoffs; the Mets and Marlins are moving backwards, the Braves seem to be treading water, and the Phillies are getting older by the day.  The division is there for the taking even without winning 98 games again.  Ladson says injuries.

Q: Is it true that the Nationals are interested in Kyle Lohse and plan to put Ross Detwiler in the bullpen?

A: Man, I hope not.  I like Kyle Lohse but there’s a reason he’s still on the FA market despite a TON of teams needing pitching help (and it isn’t just because of the lost draft pick).  He’s really not THAT good.  He had (easily) his best season last year, the definition of a contract year if there ever was one.  Career 98 ERA+.  I think he’s a good fit for a team that needs a 3rd starter, but the Nats aren’t that team.  I made my arguments for keeping Ross Detwiler in the rotation on 1/16/13, when rumors swirled about the team looking at Javier Vazquez.  Who would you rather roll the dice with?  A young, up and coming power lefty or a soft-tossing righty who’ll be 34 next year?  I think buying another $12M/year starter and pushing Detwiler to the bullpen just for the reason of “needing another lefty” in the bullpen is arbitrary and would be a waste of Detwiler’s promising 2012.  Ladson agrees, saying that Davey Johnson likes Detwiler in the rotation.

Q: Would Mark DeRosa be a viable managerial candidate for the Nationals in 2014?

A: Random question.  What makes you think Mark DeRosa won’t still be playing in 2014?  Plus, what ties does he have to this organization that would make you think that the Nats think he’s the heir apparent?  I mean, if we’re talking about former players who have put in the time with this organization, look no further than Matt LeCroy, who played for the team and has been managing in our minor league system for years.  Personally, I think the team will go with a “celebrity manager” when the time comes.  Ladson expresses some surprise at the question as well.

Q: After he was acquired from the Athletics for Michael Morse, where does A.J. Cole fall on the Nationals’ list of prospects?

A: I’d say he’s probably 3rd in line, after Rendon and Goodwin.  That’s about where he was when he was still in the system, and despite his rough 2012 in the California league he’s still very promising.  Ladson says 3rd, as does mlb.com’s rankings for the team.

Q: What did you think of what the Nationals received for Morse? Could they have gotten more — a Major League lefty reliever in addition to a starting prospect? Is the problem that Morse only had a total of two good seasons?

A: I think the Nats got what they could for Morse, frankly.  I would have liked to have seen a MLB lefty and a starting pitcher prospect in the lower-to mid minors.  Lots of people were using the Josh Willingham trade as a comp; both players are similar (both are good offense, no defense type guys in the last year of an affordable contract).  Willingham netted us a mlb reliever and a high-minors OF prospect.  However Morse’s defensive inabilities preceed him reputationally, and many scouts perceive his 2011 as a one-off instead of a ceiling of potential.  Ladson says they made a great deal.

Ask Boswell 12/10/12 edition

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Denard Span's "best of 2012" defensive catch, highlighting more of what we can expect in 2013. Photo NYpost.com

I wasn’t expecting much baseball talk in Ask Boswell this week (12/10/12), not with the Redskins on a 4-game winning streak.  But there were some significant baseball moves to discuss, and a ton of baseball questions made their way in.  So here we go.  As always, I read the question and answer before reading Tom Boswell‘s response, and sometimes edit questions for clarity:

Q: I find it hard to imagine any starter of worth will sign with the Nats now that there are five rotation certainties in place.  Will the Nats get the starter depth they desire?

A: There is definitely a class of starter out there who absolutely would take a minor league contract with a team like the Nats in order to rehabilitate their FA value, which may have been eroded due to injury or a bad season.  Who would sign Erik Bedard (as an example) to anything guaranteed right now?  Or Jonathan Sanchez?   I would say though that more likely is the team acquiring guys on the minor league free agent market (where there’s 100s of guys available) and trading for farm system depth (I could envision both Michael Morse and Danny Espinosa being moved for prospect depth right now).  Boswell didn’t really address this part of the question, instead focusing on the next question.

Q: Why did Rizzo non-tender Gorzelanny, who as the LHP long man could spot start? He has been effective at times, the non-tender now seems like a false economy.

A: Simple econonmics; despite Tom Gorzelanny‘s salary being miniscule in the grand scheme of things, they couldn’t tender him and risk getting an un-acceptable award in arbitration.  I posted on the topic ahead of the non-tender deadline.  I’m hopeful that Gorzelanny re-signs with the team at something close to his 2012 salary.  But, that being said the bullpen looks awfully full right now and there might not be room for him.  5 returning RH relievers, new signing Zach Duke and only one spot left, likely being filled by Bill Bray in a pure LOOGY move.  Boswell points out that Duke exactly replicates what Gorzelanny would have given us at a fraction of the price.  Enough said.

Q: How do you like the Denard Span acquisition versus Philly’s acquisition of Ben Revere?   Should the Nats have acquired Revere instead of Span?  Do the Nats have an internal CF option after Span’s contract ends?

A: I posted my opinion on the Span deal here; quick analysis: liked the Denard Span deal but didn’t like that they made it.   Now, if I compare the Span to the Revere deals, I can’t help but say that I think Philadelphia overpaid, badly.  Trevor May was Philly’s #1 prospect in their system.  May for Revere may have been a decent deal (akin to our own Alex Meyer for Span), but throwing in a servicable starter with 46 decent MLB starts under his belt was questionable.  It isn’t like Ben Revere is the second coming of Joe DiMaggio; he had a 89 OPS+ last year in his third pro season.  Great defense absolutely, but at what cost at the plate?  At least Span profiles as a better-than-league-average hitter.   The Span contract is for 2 years, by which time the Nats have a slew of potential replacements (in likely order Goodwin, Perez, Hood, Taylor), so yes there’s plenty of rising talent in the system at center.  Boswell doubts the talent of Trevor May despite the consensus scouting opinion of the player, but he likes Worley and thinks the Phillies “took a flier on talent.”  He does think Span > Revere though.

Q: Have the Nats done enough to their roster to win it all?  Do they need another closer?

A: I believe the team has already done enough to re-qualify for the 2013 playoffs, especially in the NL East where Miami and the Mets are reeling, barring a slate of pitching injuries.  I can make a legitimate argument (tease for a future post) that the WAR improvements expected from our existing players (Strasburg, Harper, a full season of Werth, etc), plus addition by subtraction for players who hurt us last year (Nady, DeRosa, Henry Rodriguez, etc) alone will result in a better team than 2012.   Do we need another closer?  No, but I think one more right handed option out of the pen could help.   That being said, we don’t really have any 25-man room right now given the anticipated pen.  I liked last year’s Brad Lidge signing as a way to get some bullpen help, but doubt the team will do it this year.  As far as Drew Storen goes, he’s a top notch reliever and does not need to be replaced.  But I could see the team flipping him or Tyler Clippard as they get more expensive.  Boswell says the Los Angeles acquisitions change the game, and teams like the Nats may have to re-think their approaches.

Q: What do you think of the Shields trade? Who comes out ahead? Do the Rays have enough pitching to remain AL East contenders, even after trading their No 1 starter?

A: I believe Tampa Bay fleeced Kansas City; Shields was NOT their #1 starter (David PriceJeremy Hellickson) or honestly maybe not even their #3 (Matt Moore, at least on potential).  So the Rays traded a mid-rotation starter who they wanted to move anyway, along with a long-man in Wade Davis for the best prospect in the minors right now  (Wil Myers), the Royal’s #1 pitching prospect (Jake Odorizzi), another high-end pitching prospect (Mike Montgomery, a former highly regarded arm), and yet another minor league player.  That is just frankly ridiculous.  If you had told me the trade was simply Myers for both Shields and Davis, I could have squinted and understood.  But the addition of the other prospects made this a complete heist for Tampa.  You don’t trade the best prospect in the minor leagues for anything less than an ACE starter.  Does Tampa have enough to remain AL east contenders?  Absolutely yes; this was a trade of spare parts for Tampa (akin to the Nats trading Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi for some other team’s two best prospects) and they didn’t give up anything that they weren’t already planning on replacing.  Dayton Moore has gone all in on this move; if the Royals do not win the division in 2013, he’s out of a job.  Boswell didn’t really offer an opinion, just saying that the Rays are still stocked and noting that the price in prospects was why the Nats stayed away.  Disappointed not to read an opinion on the trade.

Q: Will Harper be hitting cleanup this year and, if so, what’s your thinking on this?

A: Answer: It depends.  If the team does NOT re-sign Adam LaRoche, then they have precious little left-handed hitting in the lineup, and Harper will be forced to bat somewhere in the middle of the order.  Cleanup may have to be the spot.  If LaRoche does come back, then the team can spread out its lefty power and continue with a similar lineup to what they used last year (going Harper-Zimmerman-LaRoche-Werth for L-R-L-R).  I certainly don’t think that someone like Harper will have any issues batting clean-up in the major leagues; one thing he’s never been accused of lacking is pride.  Boswell agrees with the opinion here, and then talks about just how much respect Harper earned in his rookie season.

Q: Should I be worried about our pitching depth? Our pitching was remarkably healthy this year and if that doesn’t hold true, especially with questions about Haren’s health I am not sure we can assume that will hold true this season. Don’t we need another starter or two who could eat innings if needed?

A: Yes, we have a depth issue.  Especially given that we’ve traded nearly an entire AAA team worth of rotation insurance in the last two off-seasons (Milone, Peacock, Meyer, Rosenbaum all traded away or lost to rule 5 in the last two off-seasons).  But Dan Haren has been remarkably durable through his career, only missing 28 games in his entire career to injury.  So lets temper the whole “Haren is fragile narrative.”  He’s not; he just happened to have an injury in 2012.  I’m assuming, until proven otherwise, that Haren will return to his previous form and throw 220 innings.  Does this mean that we weren’t lucky in 2012 and should plan for someone to get hurt in the rotation?  Absolutely.  I believe this is why moving either Michael Morse or Danny Espinosa for starter depth is wise.  Boswell reminds the reader about Duke’s starting capability and the team’s plans for Christian Garcia.  There’s also Ryan Perry.  And there’s also the slew of guys who won’t get MLB jobs but who aren’t ready to hang them up who will be there for the taking.  You know, guys exactly like Duke was last year 2 days before the start of the season.

Q: Don’t you think that if LaRoche was going to re-sign that he would have by now? If he goes, have the Nat’s alienated Morse?

A: No; the baseball off-season moves slowly, and few moves happen before the Winter Meetings anyway.  LaRoche is right on schedule for his negotiations.  Now, the team’s overt coveting of LaRoche has to have Morse pissed.  I would be; clearly the team is planning for your exit on a day to day basis in the open press.  Which is a real shame, because I like Morse and don’t think he did anything to warrant being treated this way.  Boswell somehow thinks that this whole dance is a compliment to Morse.  I don’t get it.

Q: Rizzo has a 2 year offer on the table for LaRoche, and history says he’s not likely to budge. Moreover, with other options like Morse and Moore, there’s no reason for him to. If another team needed help at 1B and was willing to give LaRoche 3 years, wouldn’t they have done so already? You’ve said all along you see the Nats and LaRoche amicably parting ways. Still see it that way?

A: Rizzo can budge on his demands.  Hey; at least it isn’t a four year deal that LaRoche is demanding.  I think a 2year deal with a club option for a 3rd makes a lot of sense for the team.  For the player, not so much.  This is LaRoche’s last chance at the free agent bonanza; he has to get the biggest contract he can.  The market for LaRoche won’t completely clear until Josh Hamilton signs.  While they’re not apples-to-apples comparisons, they are both lefty power hitters.  If a team that wanted Hamilton doesn’t get him, they can come looking for LaRoche to fit a middle of the order lefty bat.  The team still needs and wants LaRoche for two main reasons; plus defense and lefty power.  They’ll take a step backwards in both categories by going with Morse at first and Moore as first guy off the bench.  At the beginning of the off-season I thought LaRoche was leaving, because he’d want (and get) a 4 year deal.  Now I think he may be back.  Boswell now thinks LaRoche may be back and the team may give a 3rd year.

Q: I realize that the life with LaRoche is much preferred by the Nats. However, do you think there will be much of drop off in the quality of Nats play? Even without him, I have no doubt that the Nats will still win their share of games and make the playoffs (assuming the starting rotation stays relatively healthy). All starters are strike out pitchers. Offensive production should be about eqaul (though not as balanced),and Morse/Moore will probably make a few more errors. I feel like moving Zimmerman to first in 2014 and have Rendon starting at third would be the ideal way to make sure the core stays in tact.

A: I mostly agree; we’ll live without LaRoche but will be righty-heavy.  Morse is healthy and has shown 30 homer capabilities in the past; why wouldn’t he do that again in 2013?  It is a contract  year for him after all.  Meanwhile. the “save first base for Ryan Zimmerman” plan is one I’m 100% for; we’re just waiting for Anthony Rendon to show up.  Boswell cautions to temper expectations for Rendon, who hasn’t had an injury-free season in years.

Q: Why does Shane Victorino get a 3 year deal before Adam LaRoche?

A: Because the Red Sox made a rash, poor signing?  The LaRoche market just hasn’t played out yet.  Plus, filling a first baseman versus a corner outfielder is more risky for teams, so they do more due diligence.  Boswell doesn’t like the Victorino deal.  At all.

Q: Michael Young had the lowest WAR of ANY position player last year, do you really think he’s an upgrade for the Phillies? Personally, I can’t wait for those fans to start booing him 2 weeks into the season.

A: Yes, Michael Young looked pretty bad statistically last year.  But i’m guessing that a change of scenery may help him.  Texas has spent the past several seasons acquiring players to overtly replace Young; the year after he won a gold glove at short the team asked him to make way for Elvis Andrus and he moved to third.  Then the team moved him off of third when they acquired Adrian Beltre.  Then the team moved him to first … but then gave most of the starts at first to Mitch Moreland Maybe his 2012 was just pure disappointment in his treatment by the club where he’d played his entire career.  I think though that at his age (36 next year) he’ll be lucky to be just replacement level.  Boswell states the obvious; the Phillies are hoping for the 2011 version of Young, not the 2012 version.




Dan Haren; another excellent signing

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Dan Haren fulfils the team's need for a 5th (but not a #5) starter. Photo unknown via wikipedia

The Nats filled their 5th starter hole today, signing Dan Haren to a 1yr/$13M deal.

Haren looks like a possible fantastic pick-up for this rotation, giving them a legitimate #2 MLB starter capable pitcher to supplement the four returning rotation members from 2012.  He’s a sinker-ball pitcher (throws the sinker 34% of the time) who can reach 90-91 and throws a large variety of pitches en route to a career 7.6 K/9 rate.  I think he just may be fantastic in the NL east.  Even Keith Law likes the deal, a surprise since I can’t remember the last time he “approved” of a deal the Nats have made.

Haren struggled with back issues off-and-on in 2012, depressing both his numbers, his velocity and his free agency value, but heretofor was an incredibly durable pitcher (he’s averaged 219 innings per 162 games over his entire career, throwing 238 1/3 in 2011) with a penchant for putting up lights-out numbers (he had a 1.003 WHIP for an entire season in 2009 for Arizona, pitching in a hitter’s park).  Law noted that back issues all year were the cause of both his dropped velocity and his rising sinker, leading to his elevated ERA, and that a healthy Haren should have no problems returning to his typical form.  Some have noted concerns about his hip (sportswriters tweeting that Boston reviewed his medical records and passed on signing him), but others have noted that the Angels (who seemingly know his medical history the best) had a 2-year deal on the table.  If the Angels wanted him back, I’m more confident that the Nats don’t have damaged goods on their hands.

I really like this deal.  Haren was on the second-tier of free agents that I thought would be good fits here (Dempster, Sanchez, McCarthy being other examples) but I never thought he’d leave Los Angeles.  I understand why he was forced to sign a one-year deal (a very ill-timed injury plagued season, in his contract year), but he now has a chance to move to the NL, rebuild some FA value and springboard into 2013 free agency much as Edwin Jackson did last year.  I have always considered him a near-Ace pitcher in this league, and it may be the Nats great fortune to get him on a one year deal.

With this piece of business, I only see a couple more moves/decisions required this off-season:

  • Re-Sign Adam LaRoche and/or install Michael Morse at first for 2013.
  • Maybe sign one more lefty, possibly Michael Gonzalez (or not, if you’re confident that Bill Bray is healthy).
  • Maybe pursue some middle infield depth, looking to replace the Mark DeRosa role from 2012.

Coincidentally, does Haren’s signing mean the team is no longer looking to move Morse?  Lots of the talks with Tampa and Baltimore seemed to surround trading for MLB starting pitching.  But now there’s no room in the rotation.  Maybe now we’re looking to trade Morse for prospects instead of MLB ready guys, a move I’m completely on-board with given the farm system drain of our starters lately.

Nats Arbitration Decisions; my predictions

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Tyler Clippard faces what could be a very interesting arbitration case this offseason. Photo Jonathan Newton/wp.com

Once the dust settled on this year’s Super-2 cutoff (and we discovered that Drew Storen will be arbitration eligible this year while Ryan Perry will not), the Nats will have no less than TEN arbitration-eligible players this off-season, setting the stage for some non-tender decisions, some possible contract extensions, and (hopefully not) some arbitration cases.  The Non-tender deadline isn’t until November 30th, but its never too soon to talk about what the team may do.

Here’s the 10 players eligible, a discussion as to what kind of salary they may obtain and whether or not the team will even tender a contract.  Note: the salary estimates are from mlbtraderumors Matt Swartz‘s arbitration projections model, with my own thoughts adjusting up or down based on opinion and noted as such).  Arbitration salaries essentially try to project the full FA value of a player and then award 40%/60%/80% of that FA salary in each of the three typical arbitration years.  For guys getting a 4th, I generally assume they’re getting nearly 100% of their FA value in the last year.

Locks to get a Contract Tender

  • Ian Desmond. 1st year Eligible/$3.2M estimate: Breakout season in 2012 will earn him plenty of dollars in his first and subsequent arbitration cases.  $3.2M equates to nearly a $10M/year full FA value, probably fair for now but could escalate if Desmond continues to provide Gold Glove calibre defense to go along with middle-of-the-order power.  It may be slightly early to think about a longer-term contract extension for Desmond; I’d want to wait and see if his 2012 production continues into 2013.  Remember; he’s just one year removed from a time when most Nats fans wanted him replaced.
  • Drew Storen: 1st year Eligible/$1.7M estimate: Storen will get a 4th year of eligiblity by virtue of a quick call-up after getting drafted.  $1.7 over 4 arb years equates roughly to a FA value of $7M/year, which seems a bit low for a good closer.  I’d guess Storen could get slightly more money, though the team probably argues that his injuries in 2012 prevented him from giving full value, and is probably why he’s estimated at $1.7 instead of nearer to the $4M that Chad Cordero got his first arb year with this team.  Rizzo has dangled Storen in trade talks in the past, but seems likely to keep him (at the possible expense of Clippard) for the coming season.
  • Craig Stammen: 1st year Eligible/$900k estimate: Another super-2 guy who was incredibly valuable to the team this year.  I’d guess he’ll get more than 900k despite his role as a middle reliever, since 900k is barely more than the typical veteran minimum (which is roughly $800k, what Mark DeRosa made in 2012).  Though, 900k equates to roughly a $3.5M FA value, which seems high for the kind of middle relief right-hander that are a dime a dozen in this league.  I’d guess Stammen is the right kind of guy for the team to buy out a couple of arbitration years, much as they did with Sean Burnett a couple years ago.   But, being a fungible middle-relief arm, don’t look for anything other than a 2 year deal so the team is protected in case of injury.
  • Jordan Zimmermann: 2nd year eligible, $4.9M estimate: Another super-2 guy who will get a 4th year of arbitration, this estimate also seems low considering the season that Zimmerman just put in.  It also roughly equates his FA value at roughly $10M a year, which I’d guess is also undervaluing Zimmermann.  Ask yourself; if he was on the open market, you’d have to think he’s getting more than $10M/year (point of comparison: Kyle Lohse turned down a 13.3M qualifying option and may get 4/60; who would you rather have?)
  • Tyler Clippard: 2nd year eligible, $4.6M estimate: I see this estimate as high frankly, as being too much of a raise over his 2012 salary of $1.625 despite his being the closer most this year.  Clippard said it himself; its better to be the closer, get the saves and get the salary.  But $4.6M for a setup guy is way too hefty.  If Clippard comes in this high with his demand, look for an ugly arbitration hearing.  Honestly, I could see Clippard being a trade candidate and making this arbitration decision someone else’s headache, and the team goes into 2013 with Storen firmly entrenched as the closer with the likes of Mattheus, Garcia and Henry Rodriguez vying for the 8th inning role.
  • Ross Detwiler: 1st year eligible, $2.2M estimate: This seems right in line with what Jordan Zimmermann got last year ($2.3M in his first eligible year).  A successful young starter going through this process the first time.
  • Roger Bernadina: 1st year eligible, $1.1M estimate: A year ago I thought Bernadina was going to get DFA’d at the end of spring training.  Now I wonder if he’s got enough value to be flipped in trade after a standout season for this team as its 4th outfielder.  $1.1m is very reasonable for a 4th outfielder with his defensive skills, so don’t be surprised to see Bernadina remain in this role with the team for several years.

Most likely Non-Tender candidates

  • Jesus Flores: 4th year eligible, $1.2M estimate.  Flores represents an interesting test case.  Clearly he no longer has a 25-man catcher spot, having fallen behind both Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki on the depth chart.  The team also has shown itself to have decent rising catcher depth in the likes of Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano.  And Flores really regressed this year both offensively and defensively, so much so that the team had to go out and acquire Suzuki late in the season.   So I completely understand those that think that Flores is a non-tender candidate.  BUT, you don’t just cut loose valuable commodities, and a healthy catcher who can serve as a backup in the majors is still worth keeping.  That being said (as I reported in an earlier post), Flores seems to have achieved 5 service years, meaning that despite his option availability he’d have to agree to be assigned to AAA.  Which means his flexibility is completely compromised for this team in 2013.  The only remaining reason to sign him would be as insurance in case Suzuki or Ramos get hurt in spring training.  If he doesn’t get traded in the next two weeks, look for a non-tender.
  • Tom Gorzelanny: 4th year eligible, $2.8M estimate.  I’m not sure I agree with the MLBtraderumor estimate here, because the likelihood of players getting pay DECREASES in arbitration is pretty slim.  Its not like Gorzelanny posted a 6.00 ERA in 2012 after all.  Gorzelanny made $3M in 2012, where he predominantly served as our long-man/mop-up guy out of the pen.   The question the team has to ask itself is this; is $3M too expensive for the last guy out of the pen?  I believe it is, and thus I believe Gorzelanny is destined to get non-tendered.  I believe the team likes him but his salary isn’t matching up to his role any longer, so I see him being forced to take a significant salary cut if he wanted to stay here.  Were I the Nationals, I’d rather take a shot at a MLB-minimum guy (or even a rule-5 guy) in that mop-up role.  The only thing that gives me pause in declaring that the team is ready to cut ties with a lefty reliever is the apparent sky-high cost of lefty relievers on the market; Jeremy Affeldt just signed a 3 year $18M deal to stay with San Francisco.  Would this contract convince the Nats management that perhaps Gorzelanny is a player worth hanging on to?
  • John Lannan: 3rd year eligible, $5M estimate.  There are two schools of thought with Lannan in the Natmosphere right now.  One group believes that the team will let Edwin Jackson walk, Lannan will naturally take his place as the 5th starter and the team won’t pursue any starter talent in trade or in free agency.  The other school of thought (and the one to which I subscribe to) states that Mike Rizzo values power arms and doesn’t rate Lannan at all, that $5M (which I think is a low estimate if he were to actually reach arbitration) is far too expensive for a soft-tossing 5th starter, and that the team will be actively searching for a 5th power arm to replace Jackson in the rotation.  I think the team would rather take that $5M+ and use it to pay an acquisition versus continuing to fund Lannan’s sub 100 ERA+ exploits.  This opinion ignores the rising cost of lefty starters, and the relative dearth of quality starts on the FA market, so perhaps the Nats hang on to him one more year.

Having so many arbitration eligible guys means that the Nats payroll will take a significant hit.  Assuming that the team tenders the above 8 players (including Flores), here’s what the payroll implication will be:

Player 2011 salary 2012 estimate
Desmond $512,500 $3,200,000
Storen $498,750 $1,700,000
Stammen $485,000 $900,000
Zimmermann $2,300,000 $4,900,000
Clippard $1,650,000 $4,600,000
Detwiler $485,000 $2,200,000
Bernadina $493,500 $1,100,000
Flores $815,000 $1,200,000
subttl $7,239,750 $19,800,000
Gorzelanny $3,000,000 $2,800,000
Lannan $5,000,000 $5,000,000

The team needs to plan on paying more than twice it did in 2013 for the services of the top 8 arbitration eligible players in 2012.  Most of that money can be made up by non-tendering both Gorzelanny and Lannan … except that those players would need to then be replaced on the roster.   Still, getting these 8 players for less than $20M a year while the Yankees owe Alex Rodriguez $28M for 2013 alone sort of puts things in context.  It is a good problem to have, having to pay your arbitration-eligible stars more and more each year.

MLB 2012-13 Off Season calendar

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Just as an FYI, I’ve created a link to a spreadsheet of key events, dates and deadlines for this coming MLB off-season.   A quick summary of those dates is listed below.  With the new CBA and new rules regarding contracts and options, I still have some guesses as to when the exact date for some contract specific items are.  Feel free to comment/provide feedback if you know the exact date.

Bolded/Italicized Events are post-2012 season awards, official or otherwise.

Date Event Nats Specific Impact
Oct 19th, 2012 MLB Comeback Players of the Year AL and NL Adam LaRoche possibly getting some votes?
Oct 23rd, 2012 Sporting News Comeback Players of the Year AL and NL Dunn, Posey winners
Oct 25th, 2012 Fielding Bible Awards given
Oct 28th, 2012 Roberto Clemente Award given Zimmerman nominated
Oct 28th, 2012 Last actual day of 2012 World Series; official end of 2012 season n/a
Oct 29th 2012 Official start of FA period (12:01am the day after the last game of the WS) LaRoche, Jackson, Burnett, Gonzalez, Duke, DeRosa
October 30th, 2012 Rawlings AL & NL Gold Glove Announcements Desmond, LaRoche are finalists
Nov 1st, 2012 Team and player options must be decided three days after the end of the World Series.  10/31/11 at midnight LaRoche, Burnett have options from the Nats.
Early November? Clubs have to re-set their 40-man rosters, moving all 60-day DL players back to active.  Happened in the past about 11/9.  May be changed date w/ new CBA
Nov 2nd, 2012 5pm: Deadline to make Qualifying offers for your own Fas (average of top 125 salaries or $13.3M for 2012).  5 days after end of WS Nats likely to make Qos to both Jackson and LaRoche, neither of whom is likely to take the deal and thus guaranteeing the Nats draft pick compensation if we lose both guys.
Nov 2nd, 2012 HoF “Veterans Committee” releases ballot.  Officially announced12/3/12
Nov 3rd, 2012 5 days after WS ends: Free agent filing period and exclusive negotiating window ends at 12:01 a.m. ET. Free agents can sign with any team. LaRoche, Jackson, Burnett, Gonzalez, Duke, DeRosa
Nov 3rd, 2012 Free Agency granted to all eligible Minor League free agents (5 days after the end of the WS).  Eligibility done on service time; 6 years ML service for college draftees or 7 years ML service for HS draftees or free agents under the age of 18. http://www.baseballamerica.com/blog/prospects/2012/11/minor-league-free-agents-2012/ has full list; notable names include Arneson, Pucetas, Severino, VanAllen
Nov 4th, 2012 Wilson Defensive Player of the Year awards, given by MLB to best defensive player on each club. Adam LaRoche wins the award for the Nationals.
Nov 5th, 2012 MLBPA announces “Players Choice” awards: Player of the year, Comeback Player of the year, etc No Nats awarded MLBPA’s version of the BBWAA awards.
Nov 7th, 2012 BBWAA Award Nominees announced on MLB networks
Nov 7-9, 2012 GM Meetings, Palm Springs, California for 2012 Rizzo may be laying groundwork for big FA signings.
Nov 8th, 2012 Last day for players to accept arbitration from current club. Would the Nats offer arbitration to its Fas?
Nov 8th, 2012 Louisville Slugger Silver Slugger Awards LaRoche, Desmond likely candidates.
Nov 9th, 2012 12 Days after WS ends: Players must accept or reject Qualifying Options LaRoche only Natioanls FA to get a QO.
Nov 12th, 2012 AL, NL Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Awards Harper or Willey?  We’ll see if Harper’s great finish gets him the award.
Nov 13th, 2012 AL and NL Manager of the Year Johnson should get the NL manager of the year for the Nats winning 17 more games than 2011.
Nov 14th 2012 AL and NL Cy Young Gio Gonzalez in the discussion but likely to lose out.
Nov 15th 2012 AL and NL Most Valuable Player No real Nats MVP candidates; perhaps LaRoche gets some top 5 votes.
Nov 15-18th, 2012 WBC Qualifier #4, Taiwan (Chinese Taipei, New Zealand, Phillipenes, Thailand)
Nov 15-19th, 2012 WBC Qualifier #3, Panama City (Brazil, Columbia, Nicaragua, Panama)
Mid November, 2012 Sporting News Executive of the Year announced I think Mike Rizzo is NL GM of the year.
Mid November, 2012 Owners Meetings, ? Location for 2012
Nov 20th, 2012 Day to file reserve lists for all Major and Minor League levels.  In other words, Last day to add players to 40-man to protect them from the Rule5 Draft A host of rule-5 eligible decisions pending for Nats; Rosenbaum, Karns, Kobernus, Hood, etc.
Nov 30th, 2012 Midnight: Deadline for teams to Tender contracts to arbitration eligible players.  If not tendered, those players immediately become free agents. Lannan, Gorzelanny, Flores possible non-tenders here.
Early December, 2012 Last day to request outright waivers to assign player prior to Rule 5 Draft
Dec 3rd-6th, 2012 Winter Meetings, Nashville, TN for 2012
Dec 3rd, 2012 HoF “Veterans Committee” officially releases ballot that was made public 11/2/11.
Early December, 2012 Baseball America announces its Executives of the Year
Dec 4th, 2012 MLB Balloting results announced for Hall of Fame Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in baseball broadcasting
Dec 6th, 2012 Rule 5 Draft.  Occurs at Winter meetings Nats are likely to at least participate in the Rule5 draft, but their draft position leaves them picking last of the 30 teams.  A utility infielder or a bullpen arm could be had here.
Dec 31st, 2012 Deadline for BBWAA ballots for HoF voting.
Jan 9th, 2013 Hall of Fame BBWAA voting announced; the HoF class of 2013.
Jan 5-15, 2013 Salary arbitration filing period Nats could have as many as 10 arbitration cases to settle (but more likely 7 or 8).
Mid January 2013 Salary arbitration figures exchanged
Feb 1-21, 2013 Salary arbitration hearings (actual hearing date per player picked at random)
Mid February 2013 Mandatory Spring Training reporting date for Pitchers and Catchers
Mid February 2013 Voluntary Spring Training reporting date for non-pitchers and catchers
Early March 2013 Contracts of unsigned players who are not yet eligible for Arbitration may be renewed
Mar 2-5, 2013 WBC First Round, Pool B in Taiwan (Korea, Netherlands, Australia, tbd)
Mar 2-6, 2013 WBC First Round, Pool A in Japan (Japan, Cuba, China, tba)
Early March 2013 First Spring Training Game for the Nats
Mar 7th-10th, 2013 WBC First Round, Pool C in Puerto Rico (Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, tba)
Mar 7th-10th, 2013 WBC First Round, Pool D in Phoenix (USA, Mexico, Italy, tbd)
Mid March 2013 Last day to place a player on unconditional release waivers and pay 30 days termination pay instead of 45 days.
Mar 17th-19th, 2013 WBC Championship round, San Francisco, CA
Late March 2013 Deadline to request unconditional release waivers without having to pay the player’s full salary
March 31st, 2013 2013 Season Opener
April 1st, 2013 Traditional Opening Day (Cincinnati) Nats open at home to Miami
April 15th, 2013 Jackie Robinson Day

September callups and the pending Nats Roster crunch

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Cole Kimball (remember him?) could be a victim of a roster crunch this off-season. Photo Rob Carr/Getty Images via zimbio.com

I took this discussion out of the comments section of the Giolito post in August and made it a separate discussion item, since the situation only got more “dire” with the 9/3/12 call-ups of both Christian Garcia and Zach Duke.

Before getting into the below analysis, let me say this: I’m absolutely supported all of the 40-man additions or the 9/1 call-ups; they were all required, important moves and, especially with the early-season catcher crunch, were vital to ensuring the continued success of the team through the September push.  Adding these two latest arms to a well-used bullpen, plus the 9/1/12 call-ups of of eventual 5th starter John Lannan, catcher depth in Sandy Leon and defensive replacement/pinch runner Eury Perez signal that this team used every avenue in its arsenal to win down the stretch and secure not only a playoff entry, but the #1 seed.

Garcia and Duke were new 40-man additions; to make room at the time the club put Henry Rodriguez on the 60-day dl (apropos since he just had season-ending elbow surgery).  The 40-man roster was filled to a full 40 active players, with an additional three on 60-day DL (Kimball and Ramos joining H-Rod on the 60-day list).

So, why am I worried about a future 40-man roster crunch?  Because with all these additions, we’re going to have to make some tough choices once it comes time to protect guys from the rule-5 draft.  Some have said that the expected Free Agents and Non-Tenders will immediately ease the roster crunch, but I’d counter that these players will have to immediately be filled through free-agency and aren’t going to offer the relief one may expect.

Lets do some analysis for the 43 guys (40 on 40-man plus 3 60-day DL) we’re talking about.   Here’s how these 43 guys are categorized in terms of contract status for next year:

  • Seven (7) guys under contract for next year.  Werth, Zimmerman, Morse, Gio Gonzalez, Maya, Tracy, Suzuki.
  • Eighteen (18)  guys who are pre-arbitration; Strasburg, Rendon, Purke, Harper, Espinosa, Ramos, Henry Rodriguez, Lombardozzi, Marrero, Mattheus, Kimball, Moore, Perez, Rivero, Solano, Garcia, Leon, Brown.  Some of these are non-tender candidates; we’ll get to them below.
  • Nine (9) guys who are arbitration-eligible but who are (in my opinion) not in Non-Tender jeopardy: Zimmermann, Clippard, Flores, Desmond, Storen, Bernadina, Detwiler, Stammen, Perry.  Both Perry and Storen may or may not actually hit Arbitration status per Cots, but the logic still stands that they’d be tied to the team regardless.  Are any of these guys non-tender candidates?  See below.  [Editor’s Note] we now know that Storen DID hit super-2 status, while Perry missed out on arbitration for the year.  Most of this post was written prior to this knowledge.
  • Four (4) pure FAs that immediately come off books: Mike Gonzalez, Jackson, Wang, DeRosa.
  • Two (2) more guys with mutual options that, as it turned out, declined their side and became free agents anway (LaRoche and Burnett).
  • Three (3) easy Non-tender guesses: I think the team non-tenders Gorzelanny, Lannan and Duke (but looks to bring Gorzelanny back as a long-man).  There are other possible non-tenders on this roster; we’ll talk about them later on.

So, on the day the FA’s clear and the 60-day guys get put back on the 40-man we’ll be at 43-6 FAs = 37 players.  So, assuming both 43-6 FAs=37 to start, perhaps down to 34 at the non-tender deadline. That leaves 6 spots opened up … but if my scenario plays out as described above with 6 FAs and 3 non tenders, that includes no less than FIVE of our primary 25-man roster all season. Which means most likely we’ll be active in the FA market looking for replacements for those five guys. First example: Who replaces Edwin Jackson? The next guys in line are Lannan and Wang; both likely gone. After that is perhaps Perry or Maya, both on 40-man but so far both proven not to be able to get out MLB hitters. So we’re going to be looking for another starter. Same goes with replacing Burnett and Gonzalez as lefties out of the pen, and replacing DeRosa as mlb-veteran utility infielder.

My point is that, yeah we have a lot of guys getting cut but we can’t just leave those spots open on the 40-man; we’ll need to immediately fill them with MLB deals in free agency. So we go from 34 open spots probably almost immediately to 38 or 39 with these eventual FA  replacement signings…. and boom, you have your roster crunch when it comes to rule5.

I have a draft version of the 2012 rule 5 pre-draft recommendations and it could get ugly, but to do some quick analysis here’s the Draft Tracker google xls: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AmkEIm1TLiXQdGhVRjRfNW81SG8xRlROQ1ZxZzNfbUE&hl=en#gid=0.  Yellow shaded cells are 2012 R5 eligible but don’t forget 2011 R5 guys who have stepped up and may need protecting. At first glance in the conversation to be protected has to include: Kobernus, Rosenbaum, Karns, Hood, and Demny. I’m not saying they all need to be protected, but some of them may.

My point is this; if the team wants to protect more than 1-2 guys, they’re looking at a one-for-one replacement on the 40-man roster.  Maybe they do DFA Marrero and Kimball, but they probably don’t want to.  Marrero is only 24.  Kimball was relatively successful before going down with shoulder surgery and is the kind of reliever that Rizzo loves.

This is the essence of the “roster crunch” that this team faces this off-season.

Nats Playoff Rotation & Bullpen Decisions

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20-game Winner Gonzalez is our likely #1 starter in the playoffs. Photo Joy Absalon/US Presswire via usatoday.com

The Nats rotation has been incredibly stable this year; only a mid-season experiment with Chien-Ming Wang interrupted a near season-long quintet of starters unmarred by injury or poor performance.  The shutdown and playoff unavailability of Stephen Strasburg is well, well documented, so we won’t talk about him here.  But two important decisions await Davey Johnson in terms of his playoff roster construction: playoff rotation and bullpen construction.  Lets take these questions one-by-one:

1. What is your playoff rotation?  Here’s the evolution of our rotation this year:

  • The year started off with your starters in this order: Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Jackson and then Detwiler. The starters went R-L-R-R-L.
  • After the All Star Break, Johnson shuffled the starters and re-ordered them to go Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Strasburg, Jackson, Detwiler (still R-L-R-R-L), ostensibly to give Strasburg a bit more rest and extend his season a few days.
  • On August 3rd (around a double-header) Zimmermann and Gonzalez switched places.  Now you’ve got Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Jackson and Detwiler (L-R-R-R-L).  All three RHSPs are in order, as are the two LHSPs.
  • On August 15th around an off day, Detwiler and Jackson switched places, probably to keep Detwiler on regular rest and probably to fix the aforementioned issue of 3 RHSPs in a row (starters now Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Detwiler, Jackson for L-R-R-L-R).
  • On September 12th, John Lannan replaces the shut-down Strasburg in the rotation.  Now we’re Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Lannan, Detwiler and Jackson for L-R-L-L-R.

If we play out the rotation the rest of the season, barring any more rain-outs or injuries, the starters will be (Starting 9/21):

9/21: Jackson
9/22: Gonzalez
9/23: spot starter Wang, to give the rotation its regular rest.
9/24: Zimmermann
9/25: Lannan
9/26: Detwiler
9/27: Jackson
9/28: Gonzalez
9/29: Zimmermann
9/30: Lannan
10/1: Detwiler
10/2: Jackson
10/3: Gonzalez

At this point I’m going to assume that the Nats will win the division and go straight to the divisional series, which (per MLB’s playoff schedule) starts either Saturday 10/6 or Sunday 10/7.  Which day the Nats start will be critical; if the Nats are the #1 seed they’ll start Sunday; if they’re the #2 seed they’ll start Saturday.

But in either case I think we’re going to see some manipulation of the above schedule, because I think the team wants Gonzalez to start the opener.   And he cannot start an opener on 10/6 or 10/3 if he throws 10/3.   We may see him skipped on 9/28 and then throwing a start 10/1 (which I’d be happy for; that’s the last game I have tix for this year), which would put him on regular rest for either a 10/6 or 10/7 start.

After that though, there’s some decisions to be made.  The NLDS ridiculously gives the lower-seed the first two home games, so I think Johnson may want to have some options available to him for his 2nd, 3rd, and 4th starter (I think its a pretty basic assumption that Lannan is being left completely off the playoff roster; more on this later down when talking about the bullpen options).  Here’s the home/away splits of our 4 likely playoff starters (numbers as of 9/21/12).

Interesting; Zimmermann is far more effective away, Detwiler is far more effective at home, and Jackson is just about the same either way.  This seems to imply that Zimmermann is your best bet to take the 2nd start, away from home, then line up Detwiler-Jackson-Gonzalez (or some combination thereof) at home.

Here’s another take; Johnson likes to play match-ups with certain teams.  Will the Nats opponent factor into the equation?  Assuming the Nats are the #1 seed, your likely wild-card winners right now are Atlanta and St. Louis (its hard to see a scenario where St. Louis loses its current 3 game WC lead in the next 12 days, but it could happen, but for the purposes of this article we’ll assume these two teams hold on).  How do these teams fare against lefty versus righty starters?

  • Atlanta is hitting .247 as a team versus Lefties with an 86 wRC+.  That’s bad.
  • Atlanta is hitting .251 as a team versus Righties with a 97 wRC+.  That’s certainly better than they do versus lefties.
  • St. Louis is hitting .275 as a team versus Lefties with an 113 wRC+.  That’s basically 2nd in the majors behind the uber-hitting Rangers.
  • St. Louis is hitting .270 as a team versus Righties with a 104 wRC+.  That’s roughly a 10% difference in Run Creation.

So, it seems like if we play Atlanta, we want to load up on Lefties while if we play St. Louis we want to load up on Righties.  This would seem to indicate that, if Atlanta is our opponent we’ll want to go Gonzalez-Zimmermann-Detwiler-Jackson-Gonzalez again, meaning Atlanta has to face 2 lefties in the first 3 games plus 3 out of 5.  If we play St. Louis, you’d think that we’ll want to switch up Detwiler and Jackson so that St. Louis gets L-R-R-L-L.  The idea being that once we get home, even though we’re lefty-heavy we’ll have the advantage.

However, with the #1, #2 and #3 seeds far from settled with a week and a half to go, lets also look at the same logic for both Cincinnati and San Francisco, since its conceivable at this point we could be playing either of these teams (use the same links in the Atlanta links above to see these statistics):

  • Cincinnati is hitting .268 as a team versus Lefties with an 107 wRC+.   Both Tied for 6th in the majors.
  • Cincinnati is hitting .248 as a team versus Righties with a 89 wRC+.
  • San Francisco is hitting .268 as a team versus Lefties with an 96 wRC+.
  • San Francisco is hitting .270 as a team versus Righties with a 98 wRC+.

Conclusions?  Cincinnati matches up very well against lefties and struggles against righties, while San Francisco is a pretty well balanced team with no real weakness against either side.

One last factor is post-season experience, of which this group has very little.  Jackson is the sole guy with any post season experience, it being last year with potential opponent St. Louis.  I cannot see Johnson bumping any of the guys who are pitching better than him though, at least in a short series, based on this veteran experience (we’ll revisit this though in a 7-game series, where the identity of the 4th starter is incredibly important, as he only goes once in that series).

In any scenario, I think your first two starters away are going to be Gonzalez and Zimmermann.  After that will depend on the opponent.

2. What is your playoff bullpen?  By virtue of the fact that we don’t need a 5th starter, the team can carry an extra player.  Here’s the bullpen as it sits now, divided into “regulars” and 9/1 call-ups:

  • Regulars: Burnett, Clippard, MGonzalez, Gorzelanny, Mattheus, Stammen, Storen
  • Sept 1 callups: Duke, Garcia, Wang (and technically Lannan).

I think this decision is pretty simple; you keep the 7 “regulars” and add in power arm Christian Garcia, who has been lights out since arriving, as an extra middle-relief guy.  There’s no reason to have minor league starters Duke, Wang or Lannan on the post-season roster; the only function they’d have is as long-men, but the regulars include two such arms already in Stammen and Gorzelanny.

The possibility exists that Johnson will opt for an extra bench guy instead of an 8th bullpen arm, but I doubt he’d choose that route.  Your “extra” bench guys right now are Leon (3rd catcher), Brown and Perez (ofs), and one of either DeRosa or Tracy (technically it was DeRosa who got added off the DL after roster expansion; he likely would have been delayed in the minors had this happened earlier in the season).  I can’t see any reason to keep any of these guys on a post-season roster at the expense of an 8th reliever.  Tracy gets a few ABs a week and can only play 1B, while DeRosa can provide cover at multiple positions and seems to have more value.  I could be wrong though; Tracy continues to deliver timely pinch hits in the clutch (as he did this past weekend).

Man, it feels good to talk about playoff baseball!

Did the Nats call up the wrong OF?

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Harper knows he's ready; is the Media? Photo GQ magazine Mar 2012

As the rest of the free world now knows, Bryce Harper has gotten called up to give the incredibly weakened Nats lineup some potential offense.  Sometimes moves can be planned and orchestrated (such as keeping Stephen Strasburg in the minors in 2010 past the super-2 deadline), and sometimes your hand is called.  With Michael Morse out indefinitely, and with the most fragile $100m player this side of Carl Crawford (aka, F.O.T.F. Ryan Zimmerman) heading to the DL yet again, this team suddenly is without 55-60 homers and 200 RBIs in the middle of its order.

So, we’ll roll the dice with the 19-yr old Harper.

But, should the team really have called up a much more mature, much more MLB-ready member of the Syracuse Chiefs?  A guy who is currently putting up this line in AAA: .278/.354/.556 with 6 homers in 20 games?  A guy who has hit 30+ homers in two successive seasons, at two successive levels of the minors and is currently on a pace for more than 40 in AAA?  Yes I’m talking about Tyler Moore, a 16th round draft pick who has come out of nowhere to become (arguably) this team’s 3rd best hitting prospect in the minors today.

Yes, I know he’s a 1B primarily, and he’s just started taking reps in LF.  But after watching Xavier Nady lumber towards balls in LF and watching Mark DeRosa turn routine RF fly balls into adventures, how much worse could it be to stick him out there instead and juggle Harper with Werth and Ankiel in CF and RF (matchup dependent)?  Scouts and pundits have routinely discounted Moore’s abilities, and Mike Rizzo‘s scouting trip last week apparently made his mind up for him, so perhaps there’s a method to his madness.  Maybe Moore really isn’t an OF option despite his LF experiments.  We’re not watching him game in and game out, just typing out blog posts from our dining room table.

Either way, the Nats should get at least a more competent batter in the line-up.  If Harper comes up and starts blasting the ball all the better.