Nationals Arm Race

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

Archive for the ‘matt williams’ tag

Nats run themselves out of the home opener

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Desmond's ill-timed steal affects home opener.  Photo Drew Kinback/Natsnq.com

Desmond’s ill-timed steal affects home opener. Photo Drew Kinback/Natsnq.com

I like Matt Williams.  I thought he was the obvious choice for manager of this team, and I thought he made a great change of pace from Davey Johnson‘s laissez-faire approach.

But, man, I’m seeing some warning signs thus far through four games in some of his decisions.   Base running and lineup construction specifically.

The Nats made not one, not two, but THREE critical base-running errors in Friday’s home opener 2-1 loss to Atlanta.  Lets see if we can correctly second-guess these moves:

1. Gee, I wonder what would happen if I sent a guy with 20 speed (Adam LaRoche) home when a guy with an 80 arm (Andrelton Simmons) is getting ready to make the relay?    Oh, you think the 20-runner gets thrown out by 15 feet?  Check.  This isn’t on Williams of course … but if he holds LaRoche the team has 2nd and 3rd with one out (run expectancy: 1.44) versus just Zimmerman on third with two outs (RE: .385).  That’s huge.  If LaRoche stays put the team is almost guaranteed a run and perhaps more (a single scores two).  What happens?  Bryce Harper strikes out to end the inning.

2. One on, one out, and Harper gets thrown out trying to steal second on such an obvious steal attempt that the Braves pitched out and one of the lesser defensive catchers in the game (Evan Gattis) had Harper so dead to rights that he stopped running to second.  He was out by 20 feet.   This wouldn’t have led to much of anything likely .. but come on.  Maybe Harper gets to third on Ian Desmond‘s subsequent single up the middle.

3. The most egregious, the most obvious bone-headed running error though was the one that changed the game most.  After Desmond’s ground rule double (an opinion here: why was this call missed in the first place?  Every frigging little leaguer in the country knows the universal thing to do when a ball gets stuck in the fence; you raise your hands and its an automatic ground rule double.  Have MLB umpires just forgotten this?  Why did we need a 5-minute replay, arguments from both managers and a complete waste of time to determine this??), Desmond INEXPLICABLY tried to steal third and was again thrown out by 15 feet.   Why would you possibly try to steal third there?   You’re on second base with none out; RE of 1.1.  Your hitters have three shots to get a single to drive you in from there.

This steal completely changed the course of the game; instead of having a guy on second with none out, who you could bunt to third with Lobaton and then sac fly with Nate McCloud and voila; game tied.  Nope; instead Lobaton walks, McClouth feebly flies out (also removing the starter Jordan Zimmermann in the process) and opportunity wasted.

Just dumb, all around.

One last thing: why the F is Harper batting 6th??   He’s got the most power on the team, in arguably.  He’s one of the better hitters on the team.  The 6-hole bats approximately 30 times less per season than each subsequent position above it.  It just doesn’t make sense to be batting him behind guys who hit .220 last year.  I just don’t get it, and i’m not the only one out there who’s noticing this as well.  There’s a ton of science behind lineup construction that goes against conventional thinking, and hitting Harper 6th just invites criticism needlessly.  Hit the guy 4th and leave him there.

I won’t bother to comment on Harper taking strike-3 down the frigging middle of the plate in the 8th; that was pretty inexplicable to me too.  And I’ll give Williams a pass for yanking the effective Zimmermann after just 81 pitches; he was sick yesterday and the Desmond CS basically forced the move.

Nats have to play smarter.

Grr.  Great day at the ballpark wasted.

DC-IBWA pre-season predictions for Nats 2014 individual leaders

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Happy Opening day!

Every season David Nichols (editor in chief of DC Pro Sports Blog) organizes the unofficial DC Chapter of Nats bloggers to do some surveying about will happen, and then a post-mortem about what happened.

For 2014; here’s how the DCIBWA members voted in total.

And here’s how I voted:

1. Who will lead the Nats in home runs in 2014?  Hard not to go with the kid Bryce Harper.  I’ll predict he manages to stay healthy, stop running into walls, and hits 32 bombs out of mostly the middle of the order.  Last year’s leader was Ryan Zimmerman, who I like for 20-25 homers again but not as many as Harper.

2. Who will lead the Nats in RBI?  I’m going with Ryan Zimmerman here, mostly because I feel like he’s going to be the beneficiary of many guys getting on base ahead of him and will have plenty of RBI opportunities.  Last year’s leader was Jayson Werth by a hair; something tells me he’s more of a table-setter this year (a #2 hitter) rather than a middle of the order bat.  I could be wrong though.  (Insert obligatory argument about lineup construction and dazzle us with your proof of why your best hitter should be batting 2nd while the 3rd place hitter should be one of your lesser batters…)

3. Who will lead the Nats in stolen bases?  I’ll go with 2013 leader Ian Desmond again; Denard Span is the obvious choice here but he seems to have lost a step.  All in all, speed on this team seems to be lacking on this team; will Matt Williams be a more- or less-aggressive manager on the basepaths?

4. Who will lead the staff in wins?  Stephen Strasburg, who I feel is destined for a break-out season with no leashes and no afterthoughts of his injury.  He’s two years removed from TJ recovery; when 2013 staff wins leader Jordan Zimmermann was in his 3rd year back he went 19-9 and got Cy Young votes.  I predict a 20 win season for Mr. Strasburg, some serious consideration for a Cy Young, and a significant arbitration fight next off-season.

5. How many games will Ryan Zimmerman play first base?  I’ll go with 10-12, maybe fewer.  Perhaps once a week he’ll go over to the other corner.  Something tells me that Adam LaRoche in a contract season will step it up and make it really tough to take his bat out of the lineup.  And something else tells me that Zimmerman may return to his plus-defense now that his shoulder issues are seemingly behind him, and we’ll be talking about how we can stick with him at 3rd for the long haul when the season is over.  (I may be eating my words on Zimmerman here; he’s already shown some air-mailing tendencies during Spring; such a shame that his arm is affecting his overall defense so badly).  For what its worth, Zimmerman has played a grand total of 2 innings at first this spring.

6. Who starts more games: Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, Ross Ohlendorf?  Tanner Roark.  The winner of the 5th starter spot will pitch to a relatively non-descript league average for months, while the loser (Taylor Jordan) toils in obscurity in Syracuse, waiting for Roark to fail or someone to get hurt.  Ross Ohlendorf‘s trip to the 60-day D/L means he’s likely a non-factor for the first half, and Ross Detwiler‘s trip to the bullpen looks permanent.  (When I wrote the first draft of this in Mid Feb, it was Detwiler).  Even given what has transpired at the end of spring (Fister’s D/L trip meaning both guys are in the rotation), I feel like Roark is going to stick when Fister comes back.

7. Who will get more at bats for the Nats this season: Danny Espinosa or Jamey Carroll?  Danny Espinosa obviously, since Carroll has already been released.  But even in my first draft of this post in Feb, I was predicting that Espinosa would win the backup middle infielder battle with Jamey Carroll.  I just didn’t think the team was ready to punt on a former 20-home run guy with superior defense.

8.  Which minor leaguer are you most interested in keeping tabs on this season?  Instead of copping out and saying an obvious name from our consensus top 3 prospects (Giolito, Cole and Goodwin), I’m going to throw out a couple other names that really intrigue me.  Matt Skole lost all of 2013 by virtue of a freak injury but impressed last year; i’d like to see him bash his way into consideration for a call-up.  I’d like to see what 2013 draftee Austin Voth can do in a full season; I like this guy as a sleeper, a potential Tim Hudson-esque mid-rotation starter who doesn’t get a ton of credit because of his size but suddenly is posting double-digit wins for your team.  I’d like to see what Matthew Purke does this year; the shine is off this guy; I’d really like to see him put himself back into relevance with this organization.  Like everyone else Stephen Souza has really elevated his status; what can he bring to the table if he gets an opportunity?  And lastly we now know that fireballer Blake Treinen is in the AAA rotation; is he a behind-the-scenes important piece of rotation depth for this farm system now?

9.  Who will reach majors first: Sammy Solis, A.J. Cole, Lucas Giolito or Matt Purke?   Well, this one is easy to me; Sammy Solis is on the 40-man, is 25, and is already being talked about as being a potential loogy in 2014.  After that I’d predict Purke (also by virtue of  his 40-man placement); if Purke shows the team something or anything this year, he could earn a Sept 1 call-up to help in the pennant race.  After that say Cole since he will be put on the 40-man this coming off-season (if not before) and then Giolito last; he’s not rule-5 eligible til 2016 and would have to pitch his way into relevance before then (much like Taylor Jordan did in 2013).

10. How many all-stars will the Nats have? Who?  I’ll predict three: Strasburg, Desmond and Harper.

11. Total wins and what place in the division?  94 wins, 1st place in division.  This could trend higher with every new Atlanta injury.

Essay: What should be the single most important development for the Nats this season?

Hitting in the clutch.  The 2013 team to score 80 fewer runs than the magical 2012 team despite a lineup that seemed better on paper.  A lot of this regression was due to the drop-off in bench production, but an awful lot of it was due to coming up weak in the clutch.  In high-leverage batting situations (as defined by fangraphs), the Nats were dead last in 2013.  This team needs to do better all the way up and down the lineup.  We need Harper healthy.  We need Span producing like he did in September.  I’d like to see something better out of LaRoche in 2014.  Give us that and all these great pitchers will look that much better.

 

Detwiler to bullpen… the first shoe to drop this spring

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If he's out, who's in?  Photo Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

If he’s out, who’s in? Photo Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

So, big news out of camp today is Matt Williams announced decision to “start the season” with Ross Detwiler in the bullpen.   Adam Kilgore broke the news earlier today and now it’s been picked up by some of the bigger sites and other Nats beat reporters.

I’m on record with having predicted Detwiler for the 5th starter, dating back to my (too-early) December 2013 post predicting the rotations across the system.  I stand by my arguments made at the time, but cannot argue with decisions made by those who watch these guys day-in and day-out.  Detwiler’s stats this spring leave something to be desired (insert standard anti-Spring training stats/short sample size arguments here), and we all know that a) the team needs another lefty reliever, b) Detwiler’s reliever stats are excellent,  and c) the Bullpen was pretty bad last year and needed improving anyway.

Detwiler in the bullpen definitely improves the group as a whole, and opens up a spot for someone unexpected to start the season in the rotation.

So, now what are we predicting?  Something like this?

  • Rotation: Strasburg, Gio, Zimm, Fister and Jordan
  • Bullpen: Soraino, Clippard, Storen, Stammen, Blevins (L), Detwiler (L) and Roark
  • D/L: Ohlendorf (back), Mattheus (chest), Davis (elbow)

Or are we thinking that Roark may pip Jordan for the 5th spot, which would give perhaps a guy like Aaron Barrett (whose Spring stats are stellar) or maybe even fan favorite Christian Garcia the 7th spot in the pen for the time being while Jordan heads to AAA?  Or, is Fister starting the year on the D/L as well, meaning both Jordan and Roark may be pressed into action?  Or, if Fister does hit the D/L is Detwiler getting pulled back into the fray as a starter again?  Or do we throw a NRI a bone and keep someone like Michael Gonzalez and/or Luis Ayala?  (doubtful on these last two guys: Gonzalez has yet to pitch in a game and Ayala’s gotten shelled).

If it were me, I”d go with Roark in the rotation until he falters (if he falters), stick Jordan in AAA to continue getting starts on a regular basis, keep Detwiler as 2nd lefty/long man and give a hard-throwing righty like Garcia a shot to show us what he’s got at the MLB level.

Thoughts?  First controversial move by our manager; I wonder how the players are taking it.

Written by Todd Boss

March 17th, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Ask Boswell 3/3/14 edition

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Walter's hot start to the spring has him in a lot of people's thoughts... Photo unk via wp.com

Walter’s hot start to the spring has him in a lot of people’s thoughts… Photo unk via wp.com

Well, the entire DC area was off-work with yesterday’s (hopefully) final snowfall of the season snarling roads and cancelling work.  But Tom Boswell was busy chatting.  Here’s how i’d have answered his baseball-related questions from his WP chat session on 3/3/14.

Q: Walters is 5-5 and making some impressive defensive plays. Do you foresee him being more than a September call up this year – perhaps a quality utility player? He also seems like a sharp kid and an interesting character.

A: Well, the only “impressive play” I’ve seen Zach Walters pull off was a 2-run scoring throwing error … but that’s just a “short sample size.”   To answer this question; yes I think Walters is more than a 9/1 call up this year; I think he’s going to be the first guy called up (ahead of both Jamie Carroll and/or Mike Fontenot at this point) if we need middle infield coverage.  I’m worried about his defense (as has been noted in this space before), so I dunno how much we want to depend on him … but so far he’s looking impressive indeed at the plate.  What more does he have to prove in AAA?   The more he hits, the more he pressures the organization to give him a shot at the MLB level.  Boswell doesn’t know either; there’s no room at the inn for him here; maybe a trade is in order to either move him or free up space for him.

Q: If Danny Espinosa can find his swing and cut down on the strikeouts, could Matt Williams get 300+ ABs for him alternating between 2nd/SS/3rd as a super utility?

A: I’m pretty sure that’s the plan for him even if he doesn’t necessarily “find his swing” right now.   Who would you rather go to war with as your backup infielder right now?  Danny Espinosa or a 40-yr old punch-less middle infielder like Carrol or Fontenot?  More and more I think the decision may be Espinosa vs Walters.  Boswell agrees, thinking Espinosa *is* going to be the primary utility guy for this team.

Q: Does Mussina get in to HOF?

A: Hmm.   That is a tough one.   On the one hand his career bWAR is *way* up there (82.7, which puts him in some very heady company right around 50th best in the history of the game). JAWS likes him, and the “Hall of Fame Standards” metric on B-R.com thinks he’s borderline.  On the other hand his ERA isn’t fantastic (career 3.68, career ERA+ of 123, which is about what Jimmy Key or Tim Hudson are pitching to for their careers).  Didn’t get the magical 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts.  Never won a Cy Young but was in the top 6 in voting 9 times out of 18 years.  Five all-star appearances, seven gold gloves.  7-8 with a 3.42 ERA in 139 2/3 post season innings, where he peaked in his 1997 exploits in an epic Baltimore vs Cleveland series.  I think he was unquestionably one of the best arms in the game for a period of time, even if Cy Young’s don’t show it.  He did not have the greatest reputation with the media though.

Answer?  I’d vote for him, but i’m a “bigger hall” guy.  I think he’s the type who gets in after a few votes to gather steam as people remember how good he was.  But I think its also telling that his best player comparable on B-R is Andy Pettitte, another very borderline hall-of-fame guy.  There’s certainly no PED usage issues with Mussina; maybe that’s enough to get him votes that other players will never get.  Boswell agrees with my sentiments here.

Q: What are the Syracuse Chiefs expecting in terms of a pitching staff this year?

A: In December 2013, here’s what I predicted for Syracuse’s pitching staff:

  • AAA Rotation: Jordan, Karns, Rosenbaum (L), Young, MLFA or two?
  • AAA Bullpen: Barrett, Mattheus, Garcia, Davis,  Cedeno (L), Robertson (L), Herron (AA?), Alfaro, Stange, Delcarmen
  • AAA Release candidates: Meyers, Lehman

What’s happened since then?  We traded away Karns, resigned Ryan Tatusko, resigned Tyler Robinson, signed Clay Hensley , signed a lefty Zack Jackson, signed a righty Warner Madrigal, signed former Nat Luis Ayala, traded for Felipe Rivero, signed Josh Roenicke and (just today) signed another former Nat Reliever Michael Gonzalez.

Phew.  That’s a lot of guys signed who all look like they belong in AAA.   I honestly have no idea how spring training is going to shake out but I do see one issue here: none of these new guys coming in are starters.  So with Karns traded away, we’re looking at just 3-4 true starters left out of all these guys.  Does Tatusko go back into the rotation?   Do the Nats throw a bone to one of the remaining veteran FA starters out there (Joe Saunders has local connections, and Barry Zito could use some work).

If I had to guess, right now, what 5 starters and 7-8 relievers break camp and fly to upstate NY i’d go with the following:

  • AAA Rotation: Jordan, Rosenbaum, Young, Myers, Tatusko
  • AAA Bullpen: Barrett (closer), Davis, Cedeno (L), Robertson (L), Ayala, Gonzalez, Rivero (L), Delcarmen.
  • AAA D/L: Mattheus, Garcia (come on, you know its going to happen)

As for the rest of these guys?  Maybe some push back to AA, maybe the rest exercise out clauses and hit MLFA again.  But there definitely seems like a ton of 4-A/AAA guys for not a lot of spots.  Boswell has no idea and openly solicits input from people who do follow the Nats minors.

Q: Why is the opener in Australia a real game instead of an Exhibition?

A: Probably because the moment it becomes an exhibition thousands of miles away … teams would basically send their AAA squads.  And MLB knows it, so they have to be “real games.”  Boswell just notes how unfair it is to the teams that play.

Q: What’s the best way to get Bryce Harper’s autograph on a special piece of memorabilia?

A: Probably to go to Spring Training and bring along a little kid :-)  That’s my plan, eventually, to use Son-as-proxy to get cool autographs.  Of course, I also have this thing where everytime i’m in a position to get an autograph I have the player customize it to my son … cheesy, sure.  But i’m not acquiring autographs to re-sell them or some fool thing.    Boswell doens’t have any good advice.

Q: Assuming you could afford them all and they would resign, if you had to who on the current roster to make “lifelong” Nats – who would you choose among Desmond/Zimmermann/Strasburg/Harper? And who is the most replaceable?

A: Great question.  The kind that will inevitably lead to 30+ comments here :-)

Assuming money is no object and that they’d all re-sign, I think your “lifelong” Nats have to be in order Desmond, Harper, Strasburg, and then Zimmermann.  All four if you can get them.   I think they’re replaceable in this order: Zimmermann, Strasburg, Desmond and Harper.  But even that order is splitting hairs between Strasburg and Desmond; who is more replaceable?  A top-5 short stop in the league or a top-10 arm?  I dunno.  Harper is in a league by himself; you just can’t replicate power hitters who matriculate to the majors by age 19.

I think Zimmermann is the most replaceable by our pipeline of upper-end arms.  The other three guys, not so much.

By the way, this question goes to the essence of my arguments against “Big Money GMs” as postulated in the post and comments sections of my big GM Rankings post last week.  This question is entirely moot if you have a $200M payroll.  Do you think Brian Cashman ever had to sit down with his ownership and go, “ok we’ve got Derek JeterMariano RiveraBernie Williams and Jorge Posada coming up on the end of their deals: we can only keep a couple of them; which ones are we letting walk?”

Boswell goes slightly different order of replaceability, putting Strasburg ahead of Desmond because the Nats have Espinosa and Walters.  Uh … not sure I think either of those two guys is a “replacement” for Desmond right now Mr. Boswell.  Nonetheless he also postulates that the Nats really can only keep two of the four, and that internally they keep a “5 max contract” limit in place, meaning that they still have some flexibility to keep three of these four guys.  

Q: I am not impressed with the Nats’ bench, because it is a bucket full of strikeouts. Does this open a door for Jamey Carroll to make the Opening Day roster? Would it be a bad sign if he did?

A: I cut-n-pasted this whole question because I love the “bucket-full of strikeouts” line.   Maybe a grizzled vet keeps Carroll instead of Espinosa or Tyler Moore.  Maybe not.  But if you carry Carroll instead of Moore, you are trading one commodity (defense) for another (power).  I’d rather have Moore but understand the positional flexibility of Carroll.   Boswell seems to intimate the decision will be Carroll vs Walters: why does everyone assume Moore is making this team with two other backup outfielders already under multi-million dollar contracts??  

Q: If Zach Walters continues his excellent play from the end of last year deep into the Spring, and Danny Espinosa parties like it’s 2012, do you see the Nats dealing Espinosa this year, or are his defensive skills at short and second too valuable to lose?

A: Yes, I think Espinosa will eventually be traded, as I’ve noted many times here (best summarized in this 1/2/14 Ladson inbox response).   But, he has to regain value first.  If he’s suddenly returning to a near 100 ops+ hitter with his defensive prowness, there’s a whole slew of teams that could use an upgrade at the position (just perusing RotoWorld depth charts, I can see a 2011-esque Espinosa being a desirable choice to current options for at least Houston, Minnesota, Miami, maybe the Mets, Pittsburgh, San Diego, maybe Chicago (WS), maybe the Angels, maybe Seattle, and maybe the Dodgers (so they can move Hanley Ramirez back to 3B).   And that doesn’t even look at the 2B options out there that he could ably fill.  Boswell notes this little nugget; the Dodgers sniffed around on Espinosa exactly to do what I just said; move Hanley back to third.  

Q:  Should we be concerned about middle infield depth? If Espinosa can’t hit over .200, who’s left? Jamey Carroll’s OBP was .267 in 227 ABs last season… yikes.

A:  I’m not concerned because we should only have to count on one of these guys.  Espinosa (as mentioned ad naseum) had a pretty legitimate excuse for his BA last year; he was hurt.  He’s healthy now; there should be no reason he doesn’t return to at least a .240 guy with power he was for his first couple of seasons.  Boswell points at his new favorite fan boy Zach Walters.

Q: Assuming the Nats fifth starter (whoever it may be though I’m pulling for Detwiler) has a great “fifth starter” season, how good can we expect it to be? Has any fifth starter won 15-20 games? 

A: I think a “good” season out of our 5th starter would be 28 starts, a 14-8 record or something like that, and an ERA in the 3.50 range.  I’d love to see that happen.  Has a 5th starter ever won 15-20 games?  I have no idea how you’d find that out; it isn’t as if starters are “labeled” by their rotational rankings like we do in the sportswriting world.  I looked up a couple of options though to see how some “5th” starters fared on some very good teams (looking up the winningest teams I could think of in the 5th starter era)

  • The 5th starter for the 108 win 1986 Mets was Rick Aguilera; he went 10-7 with a 3.66 ERA.
  • The 114-game winning 1998 Yankees 5th starter was Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who went 12-4 and had the best ERA+ on the staff, but he wasn’t exactly a “normal” 5th starter.   In reality by the time the playoffs rolled around the real 5th starter was Hideki Irabu: he was 13-9 in the regular season but didn’t get a start in the post-season.
  • Lastly the 116-game winning 2001 Mariners’ 5th starter seemed to be John Halama, who went 10-7 despite a 4.73 ERA and was replaced mid-season by rookie Joel Pineiro. 

Boswell notes a good point; if a “5th starter” wins 20 games … people forget he was the 5th starter.

Q: He had 38 (or thereabouts) errors in Syracuse this year. I don’t think there should be any serious talk of him spending significant time with the Nats until he can clean up his fielding in AAA.

A: I wonder if the person who sent in this question also reads me.  By the way: the break down of Errors (per b-r.com) was 31 errors in 104 games at short to go along with 7 additional errors in 27 games while playing third.  That’s a LOT of errors.  And it is almost entirely consistent with the number of errors he committed in 2012 in AA.  So this wasn’t a fluke season.

We all hear stories about how crummy minor league fields are and how they contribute to poor fielding numbers for players.  Have you ever played on a pro field?  They’re miles better than any amateur field and looked beyond immaculate to me.  I wonder just how much nicer they can get honestly.

But, yes I do somewhat agree with the questioner here; I’d like to see Walters have a cleaner fielding season before counting on him.  That being said, we should all remember that we were ready to string up Ian Desmond for his fielding issues … now he’s a gold-glove calibre talent.   Boswell brings up Desmond’s incredibly poor minor league fielding record … maybe there’s more truth to the whole minor league field issue than we thought.

Q: Do you think Storen might not be long for the team? I’ve felt for some time that Game 5 in 2012 truly affected how Rizzo sees him. Also, many like to say they have three guys who have closed in the bullpen. I feel the 7th, 8th and 9th are all different so that theory doesn’t always work. Thoughts?

A: I’m not sure if 2012 has anything to do with it: Drew Storen definitely got squeezed in that inning and in some ways was very unlucky.  And as my dad likes to point out, Davey Johnson‘s usage of Storen in the series (and his bullpen management overall) really left something to be desired.  Nonetheless, to answer the question no I think Storen is eventually moved, not because of any bad blood but because of simple economics.  We’ve got a really expensive bullpen and three closer-quality guys when only one is needed.  At some point we will cash in.  I’m not sure I believe that 7th/8th/9th innings require different mindsets; you still want guys who can get people out, you want swing-and-miss talents, you want people who can keep the ball in the park and not walk anyone.  Boswell doesn’t really answer the question.

 

Ask Boswell 2/24/14

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You know you want to be there right now.  Photo via wp.com

You know you want to be there right now. Photo via wp.com

The chats come fast and furious; here’s Tom Boswell‘s 2/24/14 online chat.  Not much in this one; i’m thinking we’ll struggle to get to the 50 comments we got on last weeks’ version.

As always, I answer here before reading Boswell’s answer, and freely edit the “questions” for clarity here.  I left out a couple of his non Nats questions this time around.

Q: Predictions on Harper’s line this year?

A: I’ll go .275/.375/.500 with 32 homers.  That’s probably optimistic, but hey, there’s no reason not to project 30 homers for a guy with 80 power.  Boswell went .285/.380/.510 and 30 homers.  Pretty close.  We both just stepped up Harper’s 162-game averages from b-r.com frankly.

Q: Predictions on Fister’s line this year?

A: Now here, i’ll probably be even more optimistic.   I think he goes 17-9 in 200 innings or so, posting a 3.10 ERA and a 1.25 whip.    His K/9 will rise slightly and his ERA will drop thanks to dozens of at-bats against opposing pitchers instead of DHs.   If he can get a couple more wins he’s into Cy Young territory.  Boswell goes 15-11 with a 3.20 era.  

Q: Why is MLB having a hard time coming up with home-plate collision rules?

A: Because there’s no easy answer.  The questioner makes it sound like ASA (as in, the Amateur Softball Association) is so much smarter than MLB because they have a give yourself up rule.  Well duh.  They’re amateurs, as in “these people don’t get paid to do this so lets not build in rules that promote massive injuries.”  My amateur baseball leagues were the same way; “Slide or give yourself up; we all have to go to work tomorrow.”   In the Pros, it isn’t that simple.  One game can decide a pennant, which decides millions of dollars for a team and can change the outcome of a franchise and a fan base.   Honestly, I don’t know quite how i’d write the rules, other than to demand that the catcher not block the plate while demanding that the runner not purposely barge into the guy.  What happens the first time the catcher DOES purposely block the plate and a runner avoids him, only to lose the out and the manager goes ballistic when the old-school umpire fails to properly call the play?  Or the reverse; what happens the firs ttime a runner blasts a catcher who’s giving up part of the plate and somehow doesn’t get automatically called out?  I don’t know; I await the rules like everyone else in baseball.  Boswell is reserving judgement til he talks to more guys about the new rules.

Q: What version of Denard Span will we see this year?

A: I sure hope its the September 2013 edition.  If it isn’t, then at least I hope Matt Williams has the intelligence to quickly move him out of the leadoff spot instead of stubbornly allowing him to hit .220 for months on end from the lineup spot that gets the most at-bats.  Boswell opines about Span and it isn’t positive, but he doesn’t have a guess either.

Q: Does an extension for Trout make sense right now?

A: For whom?  For the Angels or for Mike Trout?  Rumors of a 6yr $150M deal out there for Trout; that’s a $25M AAV buying out one pre-arb year and three arbitration years of Trout.  How does that make ANY sense for the Angels to do?   Even assuming that Trout sents some sort of record for his arbitration years (I believe the record is Ryan Howard‘s 1st year $10M award), he’s not going to come close to that amount over the next four years.  He gets at or close to the MLB minimum this year (call it $550k).  Lets assume that Trout is a $30M player; that’d put his three arbitration numbers at roughly $12M, $18M and $24M.  Under this scenario, the Angels get the next four full seasons of Trout for $54.5 million dollars.  Why would the Angels agree to pay him $100m MORE at this point to guarantee two more years?   Honestly, this is a fantastic deal for Trout and if the Angels offer it up, grab it.   Boswell didn’t even answer the Trout/Angels question.

Q: Projected Nats Bench right now?

A: Well, you need a catcher (Jose Lobatan).  You need an outfielder and we have two under contract for more than a MLB min (Scott Hairston and Nate McLouth).  You need a guy who can play both shortstop and second base .. and for me that guy is Danny Espinosa.  After that you kind of look at what you need in terms of flexibilty off the bench for the last stop.  These four guys include two switch hitters (Lobaton and Espinosa), a righty with some pop (Hairston), and a lefty with some pop (McLouth).  Is Tyler Moore that 25th guy thanks to his prodigous power from the right side?   Is the better way to go with another utility guy like Jamie Carroll or Mike Fontenot?  I don’t know.  I think its Moore for now.  Boswell says Moore for sure and then a coinflip between Espinosa and Carroll; i think its the other way around frankly.

Q: Do Tall pitchers release the ball closer to the plate?

A: Yes of course.  One of the reasons a guy like Chris Young could succeed despite having only an 86mph fastball; the ball was a foot closer to the plate by the time he released it.  I pointed this out when looking at Lucas Giolito‘s mechanics; he’s a huge guy and he takes a massive stride, and I’ll bet he releases the ball a couple feet closer to the plate than some of his peers.   Boswell discounts the advantage tall pitchers have.

Q: Is there “really” a competition for 2nd right now?  

A: Not in my eyes.  I think Rendon is entrenched at 2nd for the next 6 years and Espinosa will be trade bait before we know it.  Boswell says doubtful.

Q: When does Giolito arrive and how does he fit in?

A: Not for a couple more years.  He starts in Low-A with an eye towards mid-season promotion to High-A.  Repeat that in 2015 and he ends the season in AA.  So then you’re looking at an early to mid-season call up in 2016 to keep his service clock off.  That’s a normal progression for a high schooler.   That still puts him in the majors before his 22nd birthday.

How does he fit in?  Well, he projects by all accounts as a #1 starter with a huge arm and big upside.  But the year 2016 could be a pretty significant season for this franchise: Zimmermann, Fister and Detwiler all are FAs that season.   So this team will be looking for starters.  The big 1-2 punch will still be here (Strasburg and Gonzalez) and perhaps one of these FAs to be, but we’ll need reinforcements by that point.  Thankfully we have more than a few already knocking on the door and Giolito could be another new guy joining in.  Boswell hasn’t seen him but reminds us all that he’s only 19.

Ask Boswell 2/18/14 Edition

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Lots of questions about Mr. Williams.  Photo Nats official 2014 via sportingnews.com

Lots of questions about Mr. Williams. Photo Nats official 2014 via sportingnews.com

Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell must be in heaven: he’s at Spring Training, in 80 degree weather, talking baseball.  Here’s his 2/18/14 WP chat edition and how i’d have answered his baseball questions.  He did an extra long session, doing an hour and then coming back for even more questions, so this is a huge post.

Q: Which Nat is most and least likely to benefit from Matt Williams’ detail-oriented approach?

A: I’ll take the easy way out on this one: I’ll say that the rookies are most likely to benefit and the veterans are least-likely.  But that’s probably not very fair because it assumes that our vets will automatically have a hard time adjusting to a new voice.  In reality, Matt Williamspedigree as a player is going to shut just about any veteran up; name one player on this team who has accomplished anything close to what Williams did as a player?   I mean, we’re talking about a guy with multiple All Star appearances, multiple Gold Gloves, multiple Silver Sluggers, a couple near MVP seasons, more than 200 post-season at-bats spread across 5 post-season trips, three trips to the World Series and one ring.  He also played in two specific games that are both counted among the best games of the last 50 years (Game 7 of the 1997 World Series and 2001′s Game 7 of the World Series).

That’s a heck of a lot of accomplishments.  Who in their right mind is looking him in the fact and doubting his wisdom about anything?

Boswell points out a number of guys who are “introverts” who like the structure, mentions Rafael Soriano as a possible problem child … but then also notes Soriano lost a ton of weight and is playing for a contract, so he doesn’t expect any issues.  Fair enough.

Q: Where can I get good details on the Nats spring training schedules in Viera?

A: CSN’s Mark Zuckerman posts a great intro-to-spring training on his Natsinsider.com blog each year.  Here’s parts 1 and 2, focusing on the Nats baseball Complex and the Town of Viera.  Boswell speaks highly of watching bullpen sessions.  Can’t blame him; man I want to do Spring Training sometime!

Q: What does the Yankees signing of Masahiro Tanaka do for the Yankees season?

A: Not much in my opinion.   Despite Tanaka’s pedigree and $175M paycheck, he’s being touted by his own team as a “#3 starter.”  That’s a heck of a lot of money for a #3 starter.  Now in reality scouts liken him to a young Dan Haren (in terms of his repertoire), but he’s still not nearly in the same Ace class as the most recent Japanese import Yu Darvish.  Plus he’s got to deal with the inevitable adjustment to this country, a new language, 10,000 obnoxious NY beat reporters, the food, the city, and that pesky 4-days of rest schedule we have here for our starters.

As for the Yankees chances in 2014 in general, check out their current depth chart: Their rotation is set to be Sabathia (coming off an awful year), 40-yr old Kuroda, TanakaIvan Nova and David Phelps.  Does that sound like a 95-win rotation?   Here’s their infield: Mark Teixeira (15 games last year), Brian Roberts (77 games last year), Derek Jeter (17 games last year), and Eduardo Nunez (90 games last year).   Does that infield inspire confidence?  What makes anyone think that infield is lasting even a quarter of the season without a major injury?  Plus, Buster Olney or Jayson Stark recently mentioned this factoid:  ”No team has ever in the history of the game had a winning season starting a shortstop as old as Jeter.”    Yes the Yankees made some significant signings (Beltran, Ellsbury, McCann).  But I don’t think its enough to make up for what’s going to happen to their infield.  I think years of overpaying for FAs and being unlucky in their player development has caught up with the Yankees in a big way and they’ll be lucky to be a .500 team this year.  Boswell points out that PECOTA has them as 82-80.   And then he drops a scary subtle hint saying that Ian Desmond has already declined an $85M deal and may have his sights on becoming the next Yankees long-term shortstop.  Ouch.  Thankfully the timing doesn’t quite work out; Jeter retires after this year and the Nats have Desmond locked up for two seasons.

Q: Can you go into the stadium and see the view from your seats before committing to a Season Ticket?

A: No idea, but I’d bet the answer is yes.  We could do that before, you know back when I was a season ticket holder, pre Nats stadium, pre kids, pre getting-royally-screwed-in-the-new-stadium-relocation game.  Boswell assumes yes, and posts an answer confirming it from another fan later on who did exactly this.

Q: Why is the name Redskins such a hotbutton while the Braves gets almost no press?

A: (I couldn’t resist this question even if not entirely about Baseball): Probably because one name is a slur and the other is just a noun.  In a politically correct world no person-indicating moniker would ever be used as a team nickname … but then again you can get rather ridiculous (is “Padre” and the drawing of a priest with a goofy smile swinging a bat offensive to the clergy?  I’m of Irish descent; what if I said that the Notre Dame “Fighting Irish” is offensive to me because of my culture?).   Plus, frankly, I don’t get why little Danny Snyder won’t just frigging change the name; I mean, how many gazillions of dollars of new merchandise sales would he get if he re-branded the team?  Why is he so obstinate about this issue?  Every time he posts some dumb letter defending the name it makes him look more and more like a little rich whiny fan-boy who grew up loving the team despite being too sickly to actually play, and now he’s clinging to an iconic symbol of his youth.  As if it was a ratty security blanket.   Boswell talks about cultural change and social progress and hints that he’s going to post his official opinion on the matter soon.

Q: Has Jeter’s retirement caused TOO much media attention?

A: Honestly, I don’t feel like it has; at least not as much as the questioner, who whined about all the coverage and news items related to Jeter.  Perhaps its because he’s gone up against the Olympics and NBC’s force-fed human interest coverage machine that I havn’t noticed.

Olympics Rant/Tangent: Seriously; I thought I had seen it all with NBC’s ridiculous coverage over the years of figure skaters as “athletes” … now the coverage of these silly snowboarders has surpassed it.  I’m sorry; if your “sport” requires judges who take into consideration your “style” or your “costume,” then it isn’t a sport.  ”Team skating?”  ”Ice Dancing?”  Why not just have a frigging spinning contest or see who can coast the longest on one skate or some other useless reason to award a few more gold medals?  In my opinion, if there isn’t a score or a race to a finish line or one man versus another in a contest … you’re not a sport.  Nothing against figure skaters specifically; what they do is amazing, requires elegance and strength and years of training.  But so does Ballet; why is one an olympic sport and the other a performance art?  All those cirque-de-soleil performers?  Why isn’t that an olympic sport too?

Tangent/Rant off.

I think we’ll all be pretty frigging sick of Derek Jeter once August and September rolls-around.  Yeah he’s a great player, first ballot hall of famer.  But so are about 20-25 other guys playing right now.  I agree with the questioner’s rant about the over-coverage of all things Yankees.   Boswell points out that Jeter’s career WAR is one spot above Bobby Grich, so as to temper some expectations.  That’s harsh; even I recognize his importance to the game as a surpassing point than just whittling down all his accomplishments to one (dubious) number. 

Q: What is Livan Hernandez’s role on this team?

A: Whatever it is, I think its friggin awesome that he’s in Spring Training representing the Nats.  Kudos to whoever reached out and got him to come help out.  Livan Hernandez may have played all over the majors (9 teams in 17 seasons; that’s tough to do when you’re not a left-handed reliever) but he played the most of it with our franchise.  Boswell’s quoting of Drew Storen‘s description of Livan’s role is awesome: ”His job is life-coach, bleep-talker and being Livo.”   He also notes that Livan can provide some fielding and instruction on holding runners, a sore spot for several Nats starters.

Q: How is Christian Garcia looking so far? Any chance that he goes north with the club?

A: All reports list Christian Garcia as (finally) healthy.  But its telling that the team is already specifically pointing out that “he’s made it further than he did last year.”  It seems like his fragility is almost a running joke on the team now.  Chances of breaking into the 7-man bullpen?  Remote unless there’s injuries.  But if he goes to AAA and pitches lights out, he’ll be first guy back.   If he stays healthy (four words that should be attached to every single sentence ever written about Garcia).  Boswell says that if he’s healthy, he’s on the team.  I have a very hard time believing that; who makes way?  Not Soriano, Storen, Clippard or Stammen.  Not Blevins.  Ohlendorf?  Roark?  Roark’s numbers last fall were *better* than anything Garcia did in 2012 and in 4 times the innings.  Ohlendorf isn’t being paid north of $1M to screw around in upstate New York.  And, none of this takes into account the statements from Williams about liking to have two lefties in the bullpen… If it were me, I’d want to see Garcia pitch at least a month straight without hurting something on his person.  

Q: How would you grade Rizzo’s off-season?

A:  Pretty frigging good.  Fister: fantastic acquisition.  McLouth; not too bad, should help.  Lobaton: looking better and better, considering the pedigree i’m hearing about the two guys thrown into the deal (Vettleson and Rivero).  I don’t think his lack of acquiring a better lefty will hurt; Sammy Solis is impressing and could contribute immediately, newly acquired Rivero apparently has some stuff, and there’s still the likes of Cedeno and a couple other AAA guys who we could use.  Boswell says A- … and then tells a tid-bit about the Grant Balfour deal that fell through.

Q: Why are the Nats pitchers so bad at holding runners on?  Is this something they’re working on this Spring

A: Why?  beats me.  Maybe a better defensive catcher will help in that category.  They definitely seem to be working on it this spring as noted in the above Livo question.  Boswell doesn’t really answer the question but then uses this question as a segue into talking about Williams’ anger issues.  Random.

Q: If Ryan Zimmerman is going to play some first base … what the heck is Tyler Moore going to do?

A: A decent question, but which assumes that Tyler Moore is anything other than a bench bat.  And it assumes that Adam LaRoche is going to platoon.  I know plenty in the blogosphere want that to happen … but this is a contract year, and the last time couple times LaRoche faced a contract year he played pretty durn good.  Meanwhile, Moore seems like the kind of player who could use a change of scenery and a trade to a team with more playing time.  Boswell likes his swing.

Q: Is team improvement correlation or causation to a hitting coach change, like what happened last year with Eckstein’s firing?

A: You ask me, i’d say its correlation/coincidence.  It isn’t the hitting coach facing 95 mph fastballs.  But I’m no professional.  Boswell can’t figure it out either.

Q: Did they really need another catcher when they had both two young options and Synder as a proven vet? Why waste a pitching prospect with a high upside for a backup catcher who can’t throw out runners, already a major problem. Did Rizzo get taken by the Rays?

A: Sounds to me like this question-er is overvaluing the potential contributions of our catching prospects Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano, is incredibly overvaluing what Chris Snyder still brings to the table, and is overvaluing Nathan Karns and what is ceiling seems to realistically be.  Oh, and he’s undervaluing the prospects we got in return (both of which are in our top 14 according to mlbdraftinsider.com’s recent post).  I like the move, it fixes a hole for the team and gives a couple of prospects to shore up a thinned system, all for a guy who I think we all liked in Karns but who likely faces a ceiling of a reliever.  Boswell notes the need for a “real” backup catcher and notes that the team traded from depth.

Q: Have the Braves taken a step back this offseason and are really counting on BJ Upton to do anything on offense this year?

A: Yes and yes.  McCann is a  huge loss.  Tim Hudson may not “seem” like a loss given the Braves pitching depth, but he was their opening day starter in 2013 and was their bulldog staff leader (if not an “ace” in the literal sense of the word).   They also let go Paul Maholm, who gave them a ton of decent innings last year.  They’re depending on Brandon Beachy to come back healthy and on the rest of their young rotation to contribute.  Otherwise they did little this off-season other than extending a couple of guys.   As far as BJ Upton, what choice do they have but to run him out day after day at this point?  Same as Dan Uggla: those two guys are getting paid a ton of money and will be given every chance to prove themselves.  Boswell agrees.

Q: How often have you seen baseball players take a hometown discount?

A: Not very often: Roy Halladay took a bit less so he could play for Philly … because their spring training complex is in the same town as his full-time home.  Hard to think of obvious other players off-hand.  The asker questioned whether Jordan Zimmermann would consider less money to play for his “hometown” Brewers … without really considering the fact that Milwaukee is a cheap-skate franchise and will *never* come close to paying the 9-figure deal that Zimmermann probably earns in two years’ time.  Boswell doesn’t really answer the original question, just notes that so far our FA players are going for the money.

Q: In your opinion, who will end up being the fifth starter? Detwiler, Roark, or Jordan?

A: Ross Emery Detwiler, for the same reasons I pointed out in my 2014 Staff Projections post in late december.   Quoting myself from that post:

Why am I predicting Detwiler will win the rotation spot?  Partly because of options (Detwiler has none while Roark, Ohlendorf and Jordan all do), but partly because I’ve sort of come back around on him after looking more closely at his 2013 season.  He had a decent to good 2012; he posted a 118 ERA+ and even if his advanced FIP/SIERA didn’t indicate he was quite that good, he was still more than a servicable 5th starter.  Then in his first seven 2013 starts he was also very good (he had a 2.53 ERA in his first 7 starts and 42 2/3 innings … he got hurt in his 8th start).  The rest of his season was a mess, with him fighting injury and ballooning his seasonal ERA from 2.53 to more than 4.00 in five more starts.   If he comes back healthy to start 2014, why wouldn’t we expect more of the same performance that he had at the start of 2013?  For these reasons, I think Detwiler breaks camp as the 5th starter.

I like Tanner Roark and feel the team is going to find a way for him to be in the MLB bullpen.  I also now believe Taylor Jordan‘s off-season ankle injury will give the team an excuse to keep him in the minors a bit to season him up and maybe even keep some innings off his arm.   So it’ll be Detwiler until he either falters or gets hurt again.  At least we have a ton of options this year to cover for a starter injury.

Boswell says Detwiler as well but writes a ton on othe other guys, including a glowing talk about Roark.  And he throws in this tidbit: Detroit asked for Jordan and Robbie Ray before settling for Ray and spare parts.  Interesting.  

Q: What’s your read on how the last two bullpen spots play out?

A: Also borrowing from my Dec 2013 post, I’ll go with Ohlendorf and Roark.  Ohlendorf as the long-man, spot starter rubber arm guy.  Roark with the hope he continues his magical run of exceptional command and fearless relief.  I know that only leaves on lefty out there, and leaves guys like Ryan Mattheus and Christian Garcia in AAA.  Hey, I could be wrong.   Boswell doesn’t seem to guess.

Q: Do you think the coaches will let Espi continue to be a switch hitter or keep him as a lefty hitter only? 

A: I hope you mean righty hitter only; he is a career .220 lefty hitter but .262 righty. If I was the Nats brass, i’d try him as a righty-only guy.  But by all accounts Danny Espinosa is a bit stubborn and may not be open to limiting a unique skill that he may continue to think distinguishes himself from other competitors.  I continue to wonder just how hurt he was last year … as others have said, it isn’t like Espinosa suddenly forgot how to hit.  Yes he was always somewhat limited as a player, but 20-homer capable middle infielders don’t grow on trees.  Boswell says the team isn’t messing with Espinosa, and that they want to see what he can do in 2014.  Fair enough.

Q: Are you worried about the power (or lack thereof) in the Nats lineup?

A: Not really.  The capability is there across the lineup.  Zimmerman has hit 30.  So has LaRoche.  Desmond has hit 20.  So has Espinosa.  Ramos has 20+ homer capability if he’s healthy.  Werth is good for 25 and has hit 30+ before.  And none of this talks about our best power hitter Harper and what he can do.   Basically the team is a whole bunch of guys with 20 homer capability.   The Nats were T-3th in the NL in homers last year as a team (trailing two teams in offensive parks) and should improve in this category with a healthy Harper.  Boswell just talks about Ramos’ stats extrapolated to a full season.

Q: Is praise of Williams’ approach tacit criticism of Davey Johnson’s?

A: Yeah probably.  That’s why you change managers; to change the message.  I’m not going to disparage Davey Johnson too much here other than to say what i’ve said before; the team needed a new voice.  Boswell points out that Johnson’s 2012 job was fantastic and that there’s “different jockeys for different horses.” I like that analogy.


One last point: there was a question about MASN that Boswell went off on and gave some tidbits, including a shot at Bud Selig.  Its worth the read; click on the chat link and head to the bottom.

Ask Boswell 2/10/14 Edition

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I should photoshop in some Nats gear ...  Photo unk via zimbio.com

I should photoshop in some Nats gear … Photo unk via zimbio.com

I havn’t been doing many “Ask Boswell” posts lately; its the off-season and long-time Washington Post writer Tom Boswell isn’t generally taking a ton of baseball questions in December.  But, its the week Spring Training opens and Boswell is heading down, so we check in on the questions baseball fans may be writing.  Here’s his 2/10/14 edition.

Here’s his baseball-specific questions, and how I’d have answered them.  Questions edited for clarity.

Q: Into which of your four categories of baseball managers do you expect Matt Williams to fall? And where would you place Buck Showalter?

A: Before answering, you’d have to know what Boswell’s Four Categories are; they stem from an article he published more than 20 years ago.  They are “Little Napoleon,” the “Peerless Leader”, the “Tall Tactician,” and the “Uncle Robbie.”   See this Oct 2011 chat for some explanations of the types.   I would say that Matt Williams is clearly the Peerless Leader while Buck Showalter features as the Uncle Robbie type.  I tend to classify managers into just two main categories: they’re either Disciplinarians or Player Managers.  I view Williams as a disciplinarian (how could he not be; his nickname is “the Big Marine”).  And I viewed Davey Johnson as more of a Player’s manager.  You have to contrast one with the next when you change managers to give players a new message … hard is it to find someone who has the characteristics of both sides of that coin who can last for years and years (think Joe Torre or Bobby Cox).  Boswell hedges, saying Williams and Showalter both display multiple characteristics … and then seems to back away from his own theory by saying that characterizing people into simple descriptions isn’t entirely fair. 

Q: Why were the Nats interested in Grant Balfour if they already have plenty of late innings relievers?

A: Probably because the bullpen was a weakness last year (bymost  macro measures about the 19th or 20th in the league) and a bulldog like Grant Balfour would have only made it better.  Ask yourself: would you rather have Ross Ohlendorf or Ryan Mattheus going in the 7th or Balfour?  Yeah, I thought so.   Mike Rizzo has said that he loves making deals in late January/early February because he knows there are deals to be made.  Players without contracts as spring training starts begin to panic, and come down from their salary demands.  If you could get a closer-quality guy for just a few million a year … yeah you make that deal every time.    Yes I know Balfour eventually signed for 2/$12m, but the point stands.   There’s players out there right now that would still improve this team, and you never know what kinds of deals may happen tomorrow.  Boswell doesn’t think there was real interest … but then says the bullpen needs to improve in 2013.  I’m not sure I buy that; I think there was interest but he had a better offer.

Q: According to a Grantland.com article, MLB has been paying the Nats some money to make up for the TV rights “gap” between what they are getting under the current deal and what they “should” be getting. If true, is this an admission by MLB that the current deal is unfair? Wouldn’t it make more sense to solve the situation as opposed to giving money under the table? Is MLB this powerless that they can’t force a solution between the two teams?

A: Well, we delved into this issue in the previous post here; I can’t wait to see what Boswell’s reaction is.   Boswell  doesn’t say much … he quotes a member of the Nats ownership group who seemed to imply that the solution wasn’t going to be done before Selig retires.  But he somehow “defends” the under-the-table payments as MLB being allowed to operate its business anyway it sees fit.  Odd answer.  I was hoping for an opinion here.

Q: For the last two years, the Nats have seemed to lack something perennial contenders like the Cardinals and Red Sox seem to possess. In short, it was hard to kill them off. You get a lead; they come back. You stay with them for a few innings; they pull away. Is there any validity to this non-statistical assessment? And will the Nats acquire this toughness in 2014 after the experience of overperforming in 2012 and underperforming in 2013?

A: Well, first, I’d clearly say that the 2012 Nats did not lack for the chutzpa; how do you win 98 games and not have the ability to finish teams off?   Their season splits that year against the crummy teams in the league were fantastic.  If you’re throwing out the entire 2012 season because of Drew Storen‘s meltdown in NLCS game 5 (where, remember, he had a clear game-and-series ending strike missed before giving up the crucial hit that buried the team), well that’s not fair either.  However the evidence clearly points to a distinct lack of clutch hitting team-wide for 2013; see this link at Fangraphs to see how the Nats were dead last in batting average in high leverage situations for 2013.

Do you lay some of this on the manager’s head?  Certainly I had more than a few complaints about the way Davey Johnson ran this team last year.  Will a more hard-nosed guy instill that toughness by default into his team in 2014?  Yeah I do think there will be some of that; the will of the manager leading his team.  Can’t measure it very well though.

Boswell gives a nice answer about toughness, gutting out pennant races, Williams’ effect, etc.  

Q: Matt Williams is cited as saying that he is developing new tactics to take advantage of the new rule against runner-catcher collisions at home plate. Any idea what those tactics might be? 

A: No idea.  Maybe have the pitcher half way up the line ready to trip the guy coming home?  Boswell teases the change but refuses to divulge it, instead intimating that it should be obvious to figure out…

Q: What might be the personal dynamics between Luis Ayala and Bryce Harper during Spring Training? Would Bryce carry a personal grudge about his plunking by Ayala, or would he blame the Braves as a team?

A: Hmm.  Wow, I didn’t realize it was Luis Ayala who hit Bryce Harper.  I remember the “important” plunking being done by Julio Teheran.  I’d guess Harper would think it is water under the bridge and would blame the team, not the player.  And if he didn’t, he’d have a grizzled vet like Jayson Werth or his new manager to tell him to cool it.  Besides; what are the odds of Ayala actually making this team?  Boswell agrees.

Q: If the Nats were to make one more move, either through a trade or signing of a FA, what do you think it would be? Where is the biggest need for an upgrade exist in the current roster in your opinion?

A: I’d have to say an accomplished major league catcher for backup may be the biggest need right now.  After that i’d say another left handed option out of the bullpen, and after that i’d say some better depth in the infield.  Boswell says backup catcher then goes on a 1,000 word tangent.

Q: What do you make of the two year (with huge salary escalation in the second year) deals for Desmond and Zimmermann?

A: The deals make sense in a couple ways: the backloaded contract allows the Nats to maintain their payroll in 2015 without going very much higher in 2014.  $30M comes off the books from the end of the contracts for LaRocheSoriano and Span; now they’ve committed about half of that just in 2nd year pay increases to Desmond and Zimmermann.   Both players would probably rather have their pay calculated this way; it makes their annual salaries that much higher as they reach free agency.  Honestly I think Zimmermann is going to end up playing elsewhere, while the $11M/year for Desmond is still pretty cheap.  In the end I’d sign Desmond to the long term deal and let Zimmermann walk, get the Q.O. draft pick and be replaced by one of the big arms we have coming up from the minors.  Boswell agrees.

Q: Do you see the Nats putting enough effort to sign international players outside of the traditional (Dominican Republic, Japan, Venezuela, etc) countries and into the Emerging Markets of Brazil, Aruba, Australia, Curacao? They’re starting to play baseball in China!

A: No, and for years they weren’t putting enough effort into IFAs from the traditional places either.   Look at our Big Board at the end of last season: where’s all the home grown IFAs?    Solano, Leon and Perez are on the 40-man … but they’re all backups/edge of the 25-man roster guys.  There wasn’t a SINGLE international free agent in AAA or AA developed by this  team by season’s end.  The entirety of these rosters were USA-born/drafted players and/or minor league free agents.  Just two had matriculated even to Potomac/High-A; two guys signed in 2007 who are now finally in high-A (one of whom was born in 87 and clearly isn’t a prospect any longer).    Look no further than at the WBC Dominican roster to see the value of developing talent out of the DSL.  At least we’re finally starting to see some guys creep onto the prospect lists out of our DSL graduate lists, guys like  Jefry Rodriguez and Pedro Severino being the two best examples.  Boswell didn’t really answer; another tangent of a response.

Q: A.J. Burnett: Wouldn’t signing him make a lot of sense for the Nats (assuming he can be had on a one-year deal)? Detwiler to the pen gives us another quality lefty and he’s excellent insurance for an injury to a starting pitcher. And the Nats saved some cash by backloading the two-year Desmond/Z’nn deals. What’s not to like here?

A: Can’t argue.   I’ve got us north of $130M in payroll now for 2014; would he do a 1yr/$13M deal and would Ted Lerner go north of $140M?  Maybe if MLB kicked in even more cash than they already are, we could turn it around on A.J. Burnett and have, hands down, by far the best rotation in the game.  Is that what this team needs?   Burnett > Detwiler, so it’d be an improvement.  And Detwiler’s bullpen splits have been great.  If it makes the team better, and its just about money, yeah i’d be for it.  Boswell poo-poos the deal because he doesn’t want to block the pitching pipeline?!   Whatever; the goal is to win the frigging World Series.

Q: I don’t believe Davey Johnson quietly fades into the sunset. Does he still have an official role with the Nats? Do you know if he has other plans? Do you expect you’ll see him in Florida?

A: If I was Johnson, and I knew what was right, i’d stay far away from this team.  He’s out, Williams is in, and any lingering around just undermines the new guy.  And if I was Mike Rizzo, i’d be thinking the same thing.  Give him a scouting job or some BS; just keep him away from the team.  Boswell says the exact same thing.

Q: I was surprised by A-Rod’s sudden decision to pull his lawsuit against MLB and, despite all the initial coverage.  Why’d he give up now?

A: I think he (finally) got some sage legal advice about his prospects.  And I think he finally listened to someone giving him sane counsel.  He’s got bigger problems ahead, like who is going to possibly give him a shot in 2015 or beyond… Wow, Boswell trashes him with some vindictiveness.  

Ladson inbox 1/2/14

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Espinosa's role with the Nats is still a major concern for fans. Photo AP via mlb.com

Espinosa’s role with the Nats is still a major concern for fans. Photo AP via mlb.com

Ah, what a great way to bring in the new year, with another edition of Bill Ladson‘s inbox (dated 1/2/14).

As always, these are real questions from presumably real people, and I answer here before reading Ladson’s answer.

Q: Do you think that Denard Span will be the leadoff hitter, with maybe Ian Desmond batting second? If so, shouldn’t the order be reversed since Desmond is a much better offensive player?

A: The answer to this question goes to the evolving lineup construction question and a rising opinion in the Sabre ranks that states that a team’s “best” hitter should be batting 2nd.  Joe Sheehan discussed why the Reds specifically should have been batting Joey Votto 2nd instead of 3rd in this July 2013 article on SI.com, but his arguments were less about Votto and more about the idiocy of Dusty Baker‘s insistence on batting a sub-par hitter ahead of Votto all year.  The real proof is from Tom Tango in his publication The Book, which is summarized in this 2009 BeyondtheBoxScore post by Sky Kalkman.  Basically the argument is that a #2 hitter is slightly more important situationally than a #3 hitter, based on the fact that the #2 hitter bats more frequently than the #3 hitter, often bats with the bases empty and thus needs to be both a high OBP and a high average guy to be able to either set things up for the #3/#4 guys behind him or to do something with the #1 guy who just got on base ahead of him.

Now that being said, nothing trumps a good OBP in the lead-off spot.  Last year our best OBP guy was Jayson Werth, but he also had the best average AND hit 25 homers.  Hmm; maybe Werth is your #2 hitter right now.   Desmond’s OBP was slightly better than Span’s on the season (.331 to .327), but Desmond hits for a ton of power.  Span is the prototypical lead-off hitter; he’s a lefty, he’s fast, and he normally gets on at a .350 OBP clip (career .351).  So right now if it were me I’d be batting Span 1, Werth 2 and Desmond somewhere around #5.

Todd Boss the Nats manager puts out this line-up opening day: Span-Werth-Zimmerman-Harper-Desmond-LaRoche-Ramos-Rendon-Strasburg.  Good lefty/righty balance, has your best all-around hitter in the #2 hole and your best power hitter in the #4 hole, with Desmond getting more ABs than LaRoche right now and the rest of the lineup cascading down normally.

Ladson posts his lineup, which uses more conventional thinking and has LaRoche batting before Desmond.  I think he’s wrong there; LaRoche was clearly not a better hitter than Desmond and has no business batting ahead of him in this lineup right now.

Q: The Nationals recently signed D.C. native Emmanuel Burriss to a Minor League contract. Is he a viable candidate for a backup role with the club in 2014?

A: I think the Emmanuel Burriss signing was about AAA depth, not a real attempt to find a utility infielder who can contribute at the MLB club.  Look at his 2013 slash line: .213/.270/.221.  Wow, that’s really bad.   Of course, that’s still better than what Danny Espinosa did last  year … Presumably Burriss is competing with Espinosa and Zach Walters for that backup middle infielder spot.  Burriss’s problem is that he’s a minor league/non 40-man signing while both Espinosa and Walters are already on the 40-man … so for the time being I see him with fellow locally-tied minor league signee Wil Rhymes (he went to college at W&M) as Syracuse’s middle infield.  Ladson thinks he’s a candidate but not a starter … and then predicts that the team will be trading Espinosa.

Q: If Espinosa makes the team as a bench player, my concern is his clubhouse attitude. Do you think management shares this concern as well?

A: Great question; who here knows Espinosa personally to see how he may react?  Who here works in the Nationals organization and can effectively judge Espinosa’s character, given everything that’s happened to him in the past year (injuries, performance, loss of starting job and demotion)?  Not me, and presumably nobody reading this, so its all just fan speculation.

So, given that I don’t know anything about the guy, here’s what I think: He has to realize that a) he’s no longer a starter here and b) he’s not even guaranteed a bench spot thanks to his 27 OPS+ hitting last year.  But, he also has to realize that his best shot at this point of regaining a starter job in the majors is going to be to perform, and perform ably, wherever he gets his chance, and thus either improve his trade value to make him more valuable to other organizations or possibly to force his way over someone in the Nats organization.  That chance may end up being full time in AAA but it’ll be better for him if he’s at least a backup in the majors.  If he doesn’t realize these things, then his representation is doing him a massive disservice (and I don’t think Scott Boras is bad at his job).  So my guess is that he’ll swallow his pride knowing he has to be in the majors to show that he can produce in the majors and will embrace his role.

There’s also the small issues of money and  service time; he’s making peanuts in AAA versus what he makes riding the bench in the majors.  And, if he makes the bench for at least 2 months or so in 2014 he accrues enough service time to hit arbitration following next season … which means either a pay raise or freedom to move to another organization where he may not be as blocked as he is in Washington.  So no matter what, it is in his best interests professionally and financially to make the team, no matter what the role, out of spring training.

One last point: just ONE injury anywhere in the infield opens a massive swinging door for him to not only get playing time but likely to start.  He has to be ready.

Ladson says Espinosa works hard and that Jayson Werth would get him in line if he had an attitude problem.  

Q: What is the situation behind the plate? Ever since Ivan Rodriguez retired, it seems that’s been an injury-riddled spot. Why aren’t the Nationals making any moves for a backup catcher?

A: Catcher is an injury-riddled spot for nearly everyone in the league; the guys get beat up and miss time no matter if they’re the best or worst guy in the league.  I’m guessing the team is actively in the market for backup catchers, but so are a bunch of other teams.   I still count 10 catchers out there available in free agency and I’m guessing teams in need are all still jockeying for position with the better and lesser candidates.  I’m sure we’ll sign at least one more guy to be in the mix with Jhonatan Solano, Sandy Leon and Chris Snyder.  Plus there’s this: nearly every catcher who can still crouch will get a spring training gig because there’s just so many arms that need to throw simaltaneously for these teams.  So we’re sure to see more guys sign up.   Ladson says they’re trying to acquire more catcher depth but have been unsuccessful.

Q: How come Zach Walters is not being given a decent shot at making the team out of Spring Training? He has pop and is adequate defensively.

A: I don’t think people are saying that; I think the consensus seems to be that the backup infielder spot is Espinosa versus Walters right now.  Who would you rather have?  I think i’d lean towards one more chance for Espinosa (the guy did hit 20 homers in 2011 after all) and then either trade him or move him out.  The concern with Walters (despite his 29 homers in AAA in 2013) is his strike-outs; they’re pretty high.  You put up with 1 K/game if  you get 30 homers … not if you get 10.  He hit nearly 30 in AAA; can he do that in the majors?  Ladson points out an important note; new manager Matt Williams knows Walters from when they were both in the Arizona system.  Hmm.  Will that have an effect?

Q: Would you try to get Eric O’Flaherty on the Nats if you were Mike Rizzo?

A: I’m not sure I would; he had TJ surgery in late May 2013 (5/21/13 specifically), meaning he’s looking at likely a May 2014 return date.  So he’s likely missing the first 2 months of the season, and even then he’s on a shorter leash next season.  Is this what the Nats need?  My guess is that he re-signs an incentive deal with Atlanta out of some sort of professional courtesy for having gotten injured on their watch.  Ladsons agrees with me and thinks he goes back to Atlanta.

Q: Shouldn’t the Nats bid on pitcher Masahiro Tanaka?

A: Bid yes.  Go crazy and blow $20M/year on the guy?  No way.  Scouting reports thus far seem to indicate that Masahiro Tanaka is good but not Yu Darvish-good.  And this team needs to start thinking about extending its own known quantity guys versus blowing that money on a lottery ticket like Tanaka.  My guess is that a team with deeper pockets (Los Angeles, New York) or a team with more desparation (Seattle) agrees to pay Tanaka just ridiculous amounts of money.   Ted Lerner seems to be indicating we’re nearing the team’s payroll budget and we’re going to start having to get creative fitting in some of these mid-to-upper level talents we have now accumulated.  Ladson doesn’t really consider the merits or consideration of Tanaka, instead just saying the rotation is set.  I’m not sure that was the question.

 

Nationals Arm Race Best Stories for 2013; Happy New Year!

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On the last day of 2013, I thought I’d take a quick peek back at the posts and discussion that shaped the blog this year.  Here’s a highlight reel by month of the most read and commented-upon posts in this space, as well as recaps of major events and personal favorite entries.

January 2013:

February 2013:

March 2013:

April 2013:

May 2013:

June 2013

July 2013

August 2013

September 2013

October 2013

November 2013

December 2013

Happy New Year!  Its been fun.

 

Ladson’s Inbox 11/5/13 edition

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Can Roark win a 2014 rotation job? Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Can Roark win a 2014 rotation job? Photo Alex Brandon/AP via wp.com

Well, we finally got a manager, so hopefully MLB.com Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson will stop taking “Who do you think the next Nats Manager” questions.  I’m not ruling it out though :-)  Nonetheless, here’s the latest Ladson inbox, dated 11/5/13.  As always, I write my response before reading his and edit questions for clarity.

Q: Will Davey Johnson still play a role in the organization?

A: Who cares?  Does it matter?  Whatever role Davey Johnson could play would have so little significance on the on-field play of the 2014 team that I find it useless to even speculate.  I’m sure the Nats offered him a limited role out of respect, and I’d assume Johnson accepted it as long as it allowed him to go relax in Florida for a while, hoping another managerial job opens up.  Ladson expects he’ll consult to the team and advise on trades and FA signings because he’s such a great “talent evaluator.”  Hey Bill; if Johnson was such a great talent evaluator why exactly did he run Danny Espinosa out for so many at-bats?  Why didn’t he push to make a change in the rotation when it was clear that Dan Haren wasn’t pitching at even a replacement-level?  How come he didn’t see the rising talent that made such a difference in September?

Q: After Stephen StrasburgGio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, how do you see the rest of the rotation shaking out?

A: A good question.  After going into the 2013 season with almost no high-minors starting pitching depth, you have to think the team is going to cover themselves for 2014.  So count on there being more seemingly worthy candidates than roles going into spring training 2014.  The answer to this question may depend on payroll issues: right now Cots has the Nats with about $80M committed for 2014 prior to its arbitration cases, which MLBtraderumor’s Matt Swartz is estimating will run the team another $37.3M (which honestly I think is slightly low).  That’s roughly $117M in payroll before even looking at a single FA candidate.   You could save some of this money with non-tenders or trades (Tyler Clippard at $6.2M is a candidate to be moved), but not enough to get an impact player.

Will the ownership group expand the payroll even more for 2014, knowing their “window” with this group of players is shrinking?  Or will they stay the course and know that nearly $30M of mostly underperforming veteran FAs (LaRocheSpanSoriano) come off the books after next season, allowing them to reload in the FA market towards 2015 and beyond?

If ownership frees up some cash, by trade/non-tender or by expansion of the payroll limit, there are FA pitchers to be had.  I’ve seen more than one pundit with the Nats linked to Matt Garza, but I don’t see it; I don’t think he’s worth what people seem to think he’s going to get (4 yrs/$60M).  More likely is the team going with a modification of the Edwin Jackson/Dan Haren plan and getting a reclamation project in the ilk of Josh Johnson on a one-year/low paying contract with big incentives.

Less predictable is the trade acquisition.  Nobody saw the Gio Gonzalez trade coming until it happened, and something similar could happen now.  The team is in the same position generally this off-season as it was in 2011 in terms of having a slight surplus of closer-to-the-majors arms and bats and could put together a similar package.  If we moved Brad PeacockTommy MiloneDerek Norris and A.J. Cole for Gonzalez in 2011 (or in otherwords, a good-looking starter with great initial call-up numbers, a solid lefty starter who dominated AAA, a decent looking catcher prospect and a high-leverage low-minors prospect) would a similar package of something like Tanner RoarkNathan Karns, Eury Perez and Robbie Ray fetch a #2 starter in the trade market?   Oakland isn’t facing the same issue they were in 2011 with any of its pitchers, so the most likely eager-to-make-a-trade GM in Billy Beane is out.  But that being said, they’re paying Brett Anderson a LOT of money for Oakland’s payroll (roughly 1/6th of their payroll for next year), and he could be moved.  Anderson wouldn’t cost nearly this much in prospects, but would be a huge risk; he hasn’t pitched a full season in years.

Meanwhile everyone knows Tampa is looking to move David Price, but any trade for him has to start with your two best prospects and build from there, and the Nats are just back to the point where the farm system is looking respectable again.  I’m not sure the Nats are going to be willing to give up what the Rays will demand.  The Nats have done business lately with the Chicago Cubs, who may look to move the arbitration-eligible Jeff Samardzija, but they’d be selling incredibly low on him after his poor 2013.  Lastly the Tigers reportedly are considering moving Max Scherzer, who enters his last year of arbitration looking for a big pay day and with Ken Rosenthal reporting that the Nats are his best fit, but I just cannot see purposely moving a Cy Young winner and disrupting a team that continues to be one of the best in the AL.

With no FA acquisitions and no trades, I see a competition next spring that likely sees Ross Detwiler in the 4th spot (no options, theoretically healthy again), Tanner Roark in the 5th spot (he keeps his spot until he shows that his remarkable September numbers are human), Ross Ohlendorf as the spot starter/long man in the MLB pen, and Taylor Jordan-Nathan Karns being the #1 and #2 starters in AAA Syracuse.  Some speculate that Detwiler would lose out to both Roark and Jordan and become a lefty out of the pen … but I don’t see that.  I’m not counting it out, but I don’t see that happening if he’s healthy.

With any significant FA acquisition or trade, you line up Stras-Gio-Zimmermann-New Acquisition and Detwiler to start off 2014, just as you did in 2013.   Roark and Ohlendorf likely work out of the MLB pen and Jordan/Karns still in AAA.   Maybe Karns comes up and works the 7th inning as well, while Jordan remains starter insurance plan #1.

Ladson also mentions Price, also mentions what I do about the difficulties lining up, thinks the Nats will acquire someone for #4 spot and then says Roark has the inside edge on #5 spot, even over Detwiler (who he thinks could move to the bullpen). 

Q: What did you think about the Nationals hiring Williams as manager last week?

A: Well, I guess Ladson had to get in one last question about the managerial situation.  My take: I like the move, I think Matt Williams‘ combination of successful playing career and MLB coaching experience will instantly give him the respect of the veterans and the rookies on this team.   He will get this team in line, he will bring some old-school notions to this team and won’t back down in a fight (as Johnson clearly did with Atlanta all year).  I think he will give this team the spine it lacked and will do nothing but help move the team forward.

One other opinion; I do see some critics who say that Williams’ lack of direct managerial experience at any level hurts him.  I say BS; he was a major league coach for four years, working underneath a successful, respected manager.  He presumably contributed to the decision making process, got to witness first hand how decisions worked out, got to decide for himself how he would have handled situations, and in some ways I think this experience supercedes being a manager of a lower-level ball-club where there’s no egos and just a bunch of kids who you can cower into submission.

Ladson says its too early to tell, but that Williams had a great news conference.  Honestly I didn’t really expect much of an answer here from an employee of MLB.

Q: What is Christian Garcia‘s status? Will he join the Nationals in 2014? He was a great late addition to the bullpen in 2012.

A: He’s finally healthy, and pitching in the Mexican Winter League.  I think the team sees the error of its ways in trying to convert the injury-riddled pitcher to being a starter.  He’s working as a reliever in winter ball, and I hope to see him continue to work as a reliever in the spring.  I’d love to see him earn a spot in the bullpen; lord knows the team could use one more reliable arm in the 6th/7th inning (Ryan Mattheus needs to be on guard; your spot is in jeopardy for 2014).  Ladson agrees with everything I’ve said.

Q: Do you think the Nationals will trade Danny EspinosaTyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzithis winter or sign a couple free agents? I believe they need a lefty middle reliever, a left-handed bat coming off the bench and a veteran backup catcher.

A: Trading any of those three guys after the seasons they had at the plate would be selling incredibly low.  So no, I don’t think any of them get moved unless they’re part of a larger deal.  Espinosa needs to get healthy, learn how to hit left handed, and build trade value.  I believe he can be a valuable player for someone, somewhere, just based on his incredible defense.  But he has to hit better than .150.  Moore needs to return to his 2012 power ways, but I still see him as a useful player who we have no reason to trade; he still has options, he’s still pre-arbitration and thus he’s cheap.  Lombardozzi is the quintessential utility guy; he can play 2nd, 3rd, left, right.  You have to have one of these guys around … and if he can’t hit, it is’t going to kill you.  But when this player gets 300 ABs (as Lombardozzi got last year) … then you have a problem.  This is why the team got Scott Hairston and why they’re likely to give some looks to Zach Walters in 2014.   Maybe the team looks for a cheap veteran to replace Chad Tracy but i’d hope for a bit more positional flexibility.

I can also see the team kicking the tires on a veteran lefty but don’t entirely see the need; Ian Krol may have faltered down the stretch but he was mostly good.  Abad was good.  Cedeno was good.  We have all these guys locked up.  You see who wins a competition and switch them out if they’re ineffective.

Ladson thinks Espinosa is getting traded no matter what, and has played his last game as a National.

Q: Are Gold Glove Awards given with consideration to the offensive stats of a player? Otherwise, how could Denard Span miss out on the award this year?

A: They’re not supposed to be … but we all know old habits die hard and bit players who are awful at the plate often times have a hard time getting a Gold Glove.  Span as it turned out led all NL centerfielders in one defensive metric (Total Zone Total Fielding Runs), but I have zero problem with the NL winner Carlos Gomez.  Ladson says he was “shocked” that Span didn’t win, and then used “# of errors” as a metric.  Poor form Ladson; you need to reference some of the advanced stats in question.  Gomez led the NL in Defensive Runs Saved, one of the two major defensive metrics.  So your argument fails.  Span may have great range, but he wasn’t best in the Ultimate Zone Ratings measurement either.  See the Fielding Awards spreadsheet link to the right to see all the leaders in one place.