Nationals Arm Race

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

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Qualifying Offers; are they working?

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In the wake of several posts I’ve seen on the topic of Qualifying Offers (one long-winded piece from the long-winded windbag Murray Chass here, accusing the owners of collusion in the cases of Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales instead of just understanding the state of the game, another from the more reasonable Jayson Stark here, talking about some potential fixes, and their respective agent Scott Boras whining about anonymous executive quotes in an ESPN article here), I thought I’d do some quantitiative-summary analysis of the Q.O. so far.

I think its fairly inarguable to state that the system isn’t really working how the players envisioned; especially as two decent FAs still sit un-signed.  Clearly the players union did not realize just how much teams are valuing draft picks, to the point where they’d rather keep a mid-first rounder than sign a decent middle-aged free agent.  I also believe that several of the players this past off-season got *really* bad advice on the state of the market for their services, and wholy deserve their fates.  Baseball is changing; we’re seeing metrics highlighting the value of defense, we’re seeing positional flexibility win out over inflexibility, and we’re seeing teams go with youth over veterans even when the cost difference is rather negligible.  That middle-aged, defensively challenged free agents (especially Morales) didn’t see this is entirely on them.  The situation is even worse for players of advancing years, who are not even getting contract offers after decent seasons and are being forced into early retirement in some cases.

Here’s part of a spreadsheet I put together, analyzing the eight guys who were faced with Q.O. decisions after the 2012 season:

Year Player Old Team New Team Draft Pick Forfeited Signing Date Subsequent contract (w/o options) Money up/down per AAV Q.O. Screw the player?
2012 Josh Hamilton TEX LAA 1-22 12/13/2012 5yrs/$125M 11.7 No
2012 Michael Bourn ATL CLE 2sup-69 2/11/2013 4yrs/$48M -1.3 Sort of
2012 Kyle Lohse STL MIL 1-17 3/25/2013 3yrs/$33M -2.3 Yes
2012 Adam LaRoche WAS WAS none 1/16/2012 2/$24 -1.3 Yes
2012 B.J. Upton TB ATL 1-28 11/28/2012 5/$75.25M 1.95 No
2012 Hiroki Kuroda NYY NYY none 11/20/2012 1yr/$15M 1.7 No
2012 Rafael Soriano NYY WAS 1-29 1/8/2013 2yr/$28M (lots deferred) 0.7 Sort of
2012 Nick Swisher NYY CLE 2-43 12/23/2012 4yr/$56M 0.7 No

Arguably, 3 of the 8 players in question were never going to be affected by the Q.O. (Hamilton and Upton because of the known long-term deals they were going to get, and Kuroda for being nearly guaranteed to return to the Yankees).  So, by my way of thinking 4 of the remaining 5 players in the  2012 FA class had their earnings either curtailed or affected by the presence of the Q.O.:

  • Michael Bourn got a longer deal with more guaranteed money, but he got less in AAV than the Q.O. he turned down, so perhaps my view is arguable that he was affected.
  • Rafael Soriano languished on the FA market until the Nats suprisingly signed him; his AAV in “real” dollars was significantly less in its estimate per year than the Q.O. he turned down (most estimates i’ve seen are at $11M/year with all the deferred money in his deal).  I hope Soriano keeps sending his agent Xmas cards; clearly Boras pulled a rabbit out of a hat to get him signed here.
  • Adam LaRoche saw very little interest in his services and returned to the Nats on a discounted deal; meanwhile players with comparable skills but without compensation issues earned more years and more dollars.  Shane Victorino; 3yrs/$39M as an example.
  • Kyle Lohse probably suffered the worst fate; he didn’t sign until a week before the season and for more than a 15% discount per year.  Meanwhile lesser pitcher Edwin Jackson got 4yrs/$52M by way of comparison, without a Q.O. attached to him.

Now here’s the same information for the thirteen players who dealt with (or who are dealing with) the issue after the 2013 season:

Year Player Old Team New Team Draft Pick Forfeited Signing Date Subsequent contract (w/o options) Money up/down per AAV Q.O. Screw the player?
2013 Carlos Beltran STL NYY 1sup-29 12/??/2013 3yrs/$45M 0.9 No
2013 Robinson Cano NYY SEA 2-47 12/12/2013 10yrs/$240M 9.9 No
2013 Shin-Soo Choo CIN TEX 1-22 12/??/2013 7yrs/$130M 4.47 No
2013 Nelson Cruz TEX BAL 2-56 2/22/2014 1yr/$8M -6.1 Yes
2013 Stephen Drew BOS unsigned ?? unsigned unsigned Yes
2013 Jacoby Ellsbury BOS NYY 1sup-30 12/13/2013 7yrs/$153M 7.76 No
2013 Curtis Granderson NYY NYM 2-51 12/??/13 4yrs/$60M 0.9 No
2013 Ubaldo Jimenez CLE BAL 1-17 2/19/2014 4yrs/$50M -1.6 Yes
2013 Hiroki Kuroda NYY NYY none 12/6/2013 1yr/$16M 1.9 No
2013 Brian McCann ATL NYY 1-18 12/3/2013 5yrs/$85M 2.9 No
2013 Kendrys Morales SEA unsigned ?? unsigned unsigned Yes
2013 Mike Napoli BOS BOS none 12/12/2013 2yrs/$32M 1.9 No
2013 Ervin Santana KC ATL 1-29 3/12/2014 1yr/$14.1M 0 Yes

Similarly to 2012, there were several FAs in this class for whom the Q.O. meant nothing: Cano, Choo, Ellsbury, McCann and Kuroda.  So, by my way of thinking 5 of the remaining 8 players had their contracts impacted … but two in a much more visible way:

  • Drew and Morales remain unsigned to this point … and its hard to envision a scenario right now where any team would sign these players until after the Rule 4 draft in early June.  Why give up a draft pick at this point?   On the bright side for both players, there may be a veritable bidding war for their services after the draft, and they could get decent contracts which have (by rule) no further draft pick compensation issues.
  • Nelson Cruz had to take a $6M pay-cut due to his not taking the Q.O., a serious miscalculation of his market by him and his agent.
  • You may argue whether or not Ubaldo Jimenez really got screwed here, since he got $50M guaranteed in a four year deal.  But his AAV is a good 10% less than the Q.O. that he spurned form Cleveland.
  • You can also argue about Ervin Santana, who signed for *exactly* the Q.O. amount once Atlanta lost most of their rotation for the year.  I still say he was impacted because of the amount of time it took and his subsequent service time loss to start the season.

If i’m a future veteran FA … i’d be rather worried.

So, what’s the fix?  Some say that this situation will naturally just take care of itself; next off-season maybe some players will finally take the Q.O. (remember; we’ve yet to have a single player take the offer), which in turn should make some teams wary of offering them in subsequent years.   But by the time this situation naturally plays itself out, it’ll be time for the next bargaining session.

I think the MLBPA needs to (in the next bargaining session) cut the cord on the link between draft picks and free agent compensation once and for all.  The entire reason draft pick compensation was invented was to “help” the little guys who lost free agents to the big teams.  But look at the list of the teams who are generally offering Q.O.’s to players right now: 6 of the 21 total offer’d players were from the Yankees, another 3 from Boston.  Those aren’t exactly teams “in need” of being given more picks in the draft.  In fact, of the 21 players who have gone through this system, by my count just THREE played for a team that I’d qualify as a “small market” (Upton from Tampa Bay, Jimenez from Cleveland and Santana from Kansas City).  Every other player plays for either a major market or a successful team in a mid-sized market.  How is this system “working” as per its original intent, at all??

Maybe the right way of doing things is to punish the big teams for signing FAs … but don’t allow them to “game” the system by subsequently gaining more picks back.   The Yankees signed four Q.O. affected free agents this past off-season … but only really lost one draft pick thanks to them having offered up and received their own compensatory picks for the players they knew they were going to lose anyway.  Why aren’t the Yankees being forced to lose their first four ROUNDS of draft picks?  If you’re in the top 10 in payroll, you only can lose in the draft pick compensation game, not win.

Footnote: Yes I acknowledge that, “in the grand scheme of things” it is really difficult to feel sorrow for a player for “only” earning $8M/year when he could have signed for $14.1M.  And its pretty hard to feel empathy for someone who feels slighted because he “only” got a 1-year 8 figure deal.  In some ways the money figures we talk about remind me of the infamous quote from NBA player Latrell Sprewell, who turned down a contract offer of $21M on the grounds that he “needed to be able to feed his family.”   For the sake of this post, lets dispense with the typical comments I see on the internet about how much money these guys are making as compared to middle-americans who struggle to get by on the median incomes for this country.  Baseball players participate in an economic market just like the rest of us; it just happens to value their talents at levels measured in the tens of millions of dollars instead of the tens of thousands that us normal people are used to.  For a huge, huge majority of professional baseball players, even a few seasons at the MLB minimum is all they’re ever going to see as payoff for years and years of incredibly curtailed earnings in the minors, and I’ll never consider these guys “overpaid.”

2014 Rotation Rankings 1-30

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The ace on the best rotation in the game.  Photo: talksportsphilly.com

The ace on the best rotation in the game. Photo: talksportsphilly.com

Last year, with my excitement over Washington’s Dan Haren signing and my supposition that Washington had the best rotation in the game, I ranked all 30 team’s rotations ahead of the 2013 season.  Then, after the season was done, I revisited these pre-season rankings with a post-mortem to see how close (or, more appropriately, how far off) my rankings turned out to be.

Here’s the 2014 version of this same post: Pre-season rankings of the MLB’s rotations; 1 through 30.  Warning; this is another huge post.  I guess I’m just verbose.  At this point midway through Spring Training there’s just a couple of possible FAs left that could have altered these rankings (Ervin Santana being the important name unsigned right now), so I thought it was time to publish.

The top teams are easy to guess; once you get into the 20s, it becomes pretty difficult to distinguish between these teams.  Nonetheless, here we go (I heavily depended on baseball-reference.com and mlbdepthcharts.com for this post, along with ESPN’s transaction list per team and Baseball Prospectus’ injury reports for individual players).

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Written by Todd Boss

March 10th, 2014 at 9:50 am

Posted in Majors Pitching

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Ladson’s inbox 12/11/12

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LaRoche; Staying or going? Photo Rob Carr/Getty Images via bleacherreport.com

Hey, everybody’s doing inbox responses this week.  Here’s Bill Ladson‘s latest inbox column, dated 12/11/12.

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

Q: Are you pleased with the Denard Span trade? Or do you think the Nats should have tried to sign Michael Bourn?

A: My thoughts are pretty clear on the Denard Span trade; in a sentence, I didn’t think we needed to make the trade, but the deal we struck was fair.  If it comes down to Span versus Michael Bourn, there’s no question in my mind you go with Span; Bourn wants too much money, is older, they’re roughly equivalent in terms of UZR/150, and Bourn has lesser career batting stats (104 OPS+ career for Span versus 90 for Bourn).  I think there’s a reason that BJ Upton signed and most teams with CF needs/wants have solved them (Phillies and Ben Revere, Giants and re-signing Angel Pagan, Braves and Upton, Nats and Span, etc) and Bourn still sits unsigned; he and his super-agent Scott Boras are over-valuing his services.  Ladson says he likes Span for his contract and his age versus Bourn.

Q: Why are the Nats thinking about getting rid of a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy in Adam LaRoche?

A: First, lets be fair; the Nats are “not getting rid” of the Free Agent Adam LaRoche; he’s a free agent and can sign anywhere he chooses.  Maybe LaRoche is tired of the humidity in Washington and wants to find a team closer to home.  Maybe his wife really likes the Pacific Northwest and he’s looking to move to Seattle.  Ok seriously; the problem with LaRoche is simply his age; yes he was 30/100 THIS year; what will he do next year?  More importantly, what would he do 3 years from now when he’s 35 and earning $15M/year or so?  That’s the risk in any FA contract for someone in his 30s, and these types of contracts have a tendency to add up and really hamstring your budgets.  Just look at the Yankees and Phillies right now; think the Phillies wish they had about $50M in payroll flexibility to improve their .500 team?  The team really doesn’t want to commit more than a couple years, but at LaRoche’s age this is really his last shot at a big-time, life altering guaranteed contract.  He really needs to get as much guaranteed money as he can.  If the Red Sox give him a 3year guaranteed contract, he really needs to take it.  Ladson states the obvious; Nats offering 2 years, LaRoche wants 3.

Q: Who will be the Nats’ second baseman in 2013 — Danny Espinosa or Steve Lombardozzi?

A: Danny Espinosa.  The team showed patience waiting for Ian Desmond to turn it around and seem likely to do the same with Espinosa.  Now, if it were me, I wouldn’t mind cashing in Espinosa’s defensive stature and 20-home run prowness and shed his 190Ks/season to obtain some farm system depth and just live with Steve Lombardozzi playing 2nd and batting 8th, but there’s really no reason to do that right now.  Espinosa is at MLB minimum and may make the leap; and Lombardozzi may really just be a utility/backup infielder type.  Ladson predicts a gold glove and an All-Star appearance for Espinosa.  That made me chuckle.  He’s very optimistic.

Q: What does the Span trade mean for the future of Tyler Moore? Moore has good pop and belongs in the everyday lineup.

A: Well, clearly the Span acquisition means that Tyler Moore is at best looking at another season of backup at-bats.  What is more important to Moore is what happens with LaRoche/Michael Morse.  Because those are the blockers to Moore getting actual playing time right now.  Moore’s production last season was great for a first  year guy; .840 OPS, 124 OPS+, a 22 home run full season pace.  He hit righties better than lefties, which fares well for his maturation as a hitter.  But there’s just no room for him right now.  I suspect he may be trade bait if the team signs LaRoche to a 3year deal, just as Morse will be.  Ladson states the obvious; Moore will come off the bench this year.

Q: Who will be the Nationals’ starting catcher on Opening Day?

A: Great question.  I’d go with Kurt Suzuki for now, until hearing how Wilson Ramos‘ recovery is going.  Remember, Ramos had to have two knee surgeries last summer; I don’t think its a guarantee that he’s ready opening day.  Ladson agrees, saying the team is taking it slow w/ Ramos.

Q: Do you think Michael Morse is a defensive liability in the outfield? If LaRoche signs with the Nats, what impact will that have on Morse?

A: Yes he’s a defensive liability in LF.  But I don’t mind having a 30 homer defensive liability in left.  But I’m not the GM of the Nationals who seems dead set on replacing all sub-par defenders on his roster.  If LaRoche signs, it pretty clearly means an imminent trade of Morse, since it makes little sense to have his bat sitting in a backup capacity.   Ladson doesn’t think he’s as big of a liability in LF as I do, pointing out that Morse seemed like he was playing hurt at the end of the season.

Q: What will the Nats do with Chien-Ming Wang?

A: Nothing.  Chien-Ming Wang is a free agent and can sign anywhere he wants.  If the Nats give him another dollar of guaranteed money I’ll be furious.  Ladson says he’s not coming back and may not sign til mid-season, ala Roy Oswalt.

Span for Meyer; Understand it but don’t entirely like it

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The team gets the lead-off hitter it has needed for years in Denard Span. Photo Bruce Kluckhohn/Minnesota Twins via twitter

At least Nats fans can start understanding the team’s off-season plans a little more clearly now.  The first domino has fallen.  The Nats acquired Denard Span from Minnesota for Alex Meyer yesterday.

I’ve argued against a center field acquisition for a while now.  Here’s three primary reasons why:

1. I don’t feel the Nats needed a center fielder.  Bryce Harper put up a 17.6 UZR/150 in 715+ innings while showing a plus-plus arm (both statistically and for any casual observers).   He’s just turning 20.  There is no reason to think he cannot ably patrol center for at least the next few years.  I’ve used this analogy before, but I feel like its the Yankees approaching Mickey Mantle after his first season in center and saying, “Hey Mick, we like you in center but we have this barely above league average guy At least until point #2 possibly comes to play:

2. Brian Goodwin, along with Destin Hood, Eury Perez, Michael Taylor and any other marginal OF prospect the team has is now effectively blocked for at least the next 3 years and possibly longer.  Span is signed through 2014 (with a very affordable 2015 option), Jayson Werth signed through 2017, and Harper is under team control through at least 2017.   There’s your outfield for the next 3 years guaranteed, 2/3rds of which is locked up for the next 5.  I just feel that the better path would have been to let Harper play CF until Goodwin or Perez seems ready (clearly Godwin is an upper-end prospect who has impressed ever since he was drafted, and the team didn’t add Perez to their 40-man roster just to give him the extra salary) and just make do with a slugger in left field.

3. The loss of Alex Meyer represents the best healthy starter arm in the entire system, a system which is becoming thinner and thinner (with this trade on the backs of the Gio trade I’d guess the Nats are now going to be in the bottom 5 farm systems when rankings start coming out).  You can argue whether or not Meyer was going to stick as a starter (see the “bright side” points below), but inarguably this weakens the farm system in general and further weakens a specific problem that may pop up sooner than later; starting pitcher depth.  If one of our big 4 suffers a spring training injury, it is difficult to see who may step up and be counted on for starts.

This move clearly forces the Nationals hand on Michael Morse, and now the team may end up negotiating from a point of weakness if they need to move him.  The decision path for the team now is clearly “Morse or LaRoche” at first base.  If the team does bring back Adam LaRoche suddenly Morse is without a lineup spot and his trade value diminishes quickly.  If the rumors are true that LaRoche is “only” seeking a 3 year deal, the Nats should stumble over themselves to offer him a 3 year deal (3yrs $40M seems more than fair based on what LaRoche did for us last year) and lock up the plus-defender/middle of the order bat.

This move also cannot be a happy day for Tyler Moore; he’s clearly set on being a backup now in 2013 no matter what happens with Morse/LaRoche, despite promising numbers in 2012.   Well, unless the team fails to re-sign LaRoche AND moves Morse (which I suppose is still possible but would make little sense), which would then install Moore as the every day first baseman.  Between Moore, Morse possibly being out of a position and Goodwin being blocked for years to come, you have to think we’re going to see some more moves involving these players (hopefully to acquire a starter, or some starter depth in the minors).


Now, on the bright side (since I’ve been accused of being too negative in my analysis), I will say the following:

1. We did not give up a ton for Span.  I like Meyer, but I’m afraid he may not stick as a starter.  The scouting knock on him has always related to his tall frame and repeatability of his delivery.  He has a funky leg kick and slightly weird mechanics, further muddying the waters.  Lastly he’s a huge guy and he (at first glance in videos) seems to really throw standing up and doesn’t use a ton of his lower body.  All of this spells “reliever” in his future.  If Meyer tops out as a fireballing reliever, this trade looks even better.

2. Span inarguably fills a need; a high OBP leadoff hitter.  He’s a .357 career OBP guy with speed and who hits lefty, a nearly perfect fit for what this lineup needs at the top.  Leadoff hitters generally come from one of three positions: CF, SS and 2B.  If the team decided it NEEDED a leadoff guy, and with Desmond and Espinosa locked into the SS and 2B slots for the time being, clearly the only place the team could go was a center-fielder.  The USAToday article linked at the top said it best (paraphrasing): this move is as if you bought a new chair for your living room, which forced you to have to move around your furniture.  You didn’t necessarily need the new chair, but it certainly makes your living room look better.  This move enables Werth to move further down in the lineup and return to his power stroke.

3. We didn’t spend good money after bad on BJ Upton or Michael Bourn, who’s 5yr/$75M demands would have been a real waste of money.  Span’s contract is great: 5yrs for $16.5M guaranteed plus a $9M option in 2015.   The Nats acquired a desired resource without appreciably increasing payroll, allowing them to focus (perhaps) on a FA starter.

Initial reaction to the trade in the Baseball World seems mixed, which is great since it probably indicates that this is a pretty fair trade all in all.  Keith Law doesn’t like it of  course, but that’s because Law believes every low-minors big arm is turning into Justin Verlander (Law also thought the Gio Gonzalez trade was a “huge win” for Oakland because they got AJ Cole, the same AJ Cole who put up a 7.82 ERA in high-A this year and was forced to repeat Low-A).  Meanwhile Dave Cameron calls this a “huge win” for Washington, focusing on Span’s numbers and mentioning the same concerns about Meyer that I do.  Rob Neyer pays a complement to Mike Rizzo and the Nats and says the team is well-positioned for several years.  Ken Rosenthal talks about the about-face the franchise has done in the last 3 years in the eyes of potential Free Agents, specifically Zack Greinke, who declined the Nats trade offer 2 years ago but now could be the final piece in building a juggernaut.


Coincidentally, those who think this moves Harper to LEFT field may be mistaken.  Werth’s defense in right has inarguably slipped (he posted a -14.2 UZR/150 in right this year, a significant drop from his previous decent-to-good seasons there).  I think Harper should play right field, with his gun for an arm protecting against 1st-to-3rd runners while Werth should immediately put up great UZR numbers in left.  Possible lineup in 2013 (assuming for now that LaRoche is leaving):

  1. Span (L) – CF
  2. Werth (R) -LF
  3. Zimmerman (R) – 3B
  4. Harper (L) – RF
  5. Morse (R) – 1B
  6. Desmond (R) – SS
  7. Espinosa (S) – 2B
  8. Suzuki (R) – C
  9. Pitcher.

L-R-R-L-R-R-S-R for good balance.  I could also see Desmond and Werth switching spots in the lineup.  Harper to cleanup may be a bit early, but without adding another lefty bat the lineup could have too many right-handed hitters in a row.

Now, what if LaRoche re-signs?  Then suddenly this lineup has pretty good balance.  With LaRoche in the fold i’d probably go like this:

  1. Span (L) – CF
  2. Werth (R) -LF
  3. Harper (L) – RF
  4. Zimmerman (R) – 3B
  5. LaRoche (L) – 1B
  6. Desmond (R) – SS
  7. Espinosa (S) – 2B
  8. Suzuki (R) – C
  9. Pitcher.

That’d be a slight modification over where these guys hit last year, but would give nearly perfect lefty-righty balance.


In the end, you have to give up something you value to get something you value.  The Nats made a good trade, despite my thinking they didn’t need to make the trade in the first place.  They’re an improved team on the field for 2013.

Ladson’s Inbox: 11/16/12 edition

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Werth; the most expensive lead-off hitter in the majors? Photo Mitchell Layton/Getty Images NA

Another edition of mlb.com Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson‘s inbox for 11/16/12.  As always, I write my responses before reading his and edit some questions for clarity.

Q: Why are the Nats looking for a lead-off batter when Jayson Werth appeared to do the job very well in 2012? Do the Nats think someone can do that job better, or do they think Werth belongs elsewhere in the batting order?

A: A decent question, which the questioner answered him (her?) self, frankly.  From quotes I read from Davey Johnson at the time, when Jayson Werth came back from the wrist injury the team was missing any reasonable lead-off option and Johnson asked Werth if he’d do it.  He enthusiastically said yes.  My personal opinion is that Werth’s wrist injury probably wasn’t entirely healed to his liking, thus sapping his power stroke and making it easier for him to focus on contact hitting and OBP from the lead-off spot than it would be for him to return to his middle-of-the-order power.  He couldn’t have had a better lead-off hitter-esque split from his time there; .309/.388/.450 when hitting from the #1 position this season.  That is fantastic.  But realistically the Nats need to find another, proper lead-off hitter for two main reasons (one practical, one political); Practically; Werth is a bigger, better hitter than a lead-off guy and needs to be in the middle of the order, driving in runs with his power potential.  Politically; you don’t spend #126M on a lead-off guy.  I hate to say it, but it is what it is.  I wish the Nats had a better internal lead-off option; Danny Espinosa is the natural person to install there.  Switch hitter, a very good hitter in the minors.  But so far in his career he’s incredibly strike-out prone, his average is disappointing and his lefty/righty splits are awful (as addressed in a separate question further down).  The reason the “Nats want a lead-off-centerfielder” rumors won’t go away is directly tied to this fact.  Ladson agrees, mentioning frequent FA target Michael Bourn and Angel Pagan as options.

Q: Given Roger Bernadina’s improved hitting this past season, is there any possibility that the Nats may try him as a leadoff hitter?

A: Roger Bernadina absolutely turned a corner professionally in 2012, increasing his OPS+ figure fully 30 points from 2011 and posting a split line of .291/.372/.405.  Yeah, that’d be a fantastic line to have at lead-off.  I’ll freely admit that I thought Bernadina was closer to a DFA than he was to a valuable spot on this team last spring training.  We already know just how good a center-fielder he is defensively, and he’s lefty so he puts another lefty bat in the lineup and would allow the team to move Bryce Harper deeper into the order.  Imagine a lineup of Bernadina-Desmond-Zimmerman-Harper-Morse-Werth-Espinosa-Suzuki; LRRLRRSR, giving good lefty-righty balance through the lineup.  This lineup of course assumes Adam LaRoche departs as a FA (which I think is likely).  Now, do I think this is going to happen?  No.  I believe the team views Bernadina as a 4th outfielder, a super-sub, defensive replacement for later innings and he thrived in that role last year.  But that being said, if the FA market proves too costly (or if the Nats choose to go all-in on a SP and leave the batting lineup as-is), this is absolutely a viable option to try in 2013.  Ladson agrees with my sentiments; the Nats view Bernadina as a 4th outfielder.

Q: What do you think of Tony Beasley taking over as Nats manager after Davey Johnson calls it quits? Beasley has the experience. He just needs a chance.

A: Honestly I’d expect Mike Rizzo to bring on-board a more experienced skipper if/when Johnson hangs them up.  Perhaps someone from his Arizona days.  How many teams really promote from within for on-field management?  Ladson thinks Randy Knorr is the heir-apparent.

Q: Why don’t the Nats consider left-hander John Lannan a No. 4 or 5 starter in ’13? Lannan showed he can pitch well in the past.

A: Man, how many times have I answered this question?  Lannan is a league-average pitcher, posting a career ERA+ of 103.  He isn’t a fireballer and rarely “dominates” a game.  Mike Rizzo wants power arms and just doesn’t rate Lannan.  He’ll look here and high for a harder-thrower for the 5th starter spot and is likely to roll the dice with hurlers Ryan Perry or Christian Garcia before he goes with Lannan next year.  Besides; Lannan would need to be tendered a contract and likely earns at least a nominal raise over the $5M he earned for toiling in AAA last year.  It just is not good value to pay $5M for a 5th starter when you’ve got MLB-minimum guys that can possibly do the job just as well.  Look for Lannan to get non-tendered and be pitching for a 2nd division team in 2013.  Ladson mirrors exactly what I wrote here.

Q: What are the chances of our GM, Mike Rizzo, going after a shutdown closer?

A: Zero.  Rizzo (rightly so in my mind) doesn’t rate closers on the open market as worthwhile investments.  I agree; I think relievers are fungible assets that are to be used and discarded as needed.  Now, if a former closer can be had on the open market cheap, Rizzo absolutely will bring them in.  He’s done this more than once in the past; Brad Lidge in 2012, Matt Capps in 2010.  Lidge didn’t work out at all but he only cost the team $1M.   Capps turned out fantastically, made the all-star team and was flipped for Wilson Ramos in what I think is Rizzo’s best trade (well, the Gio Gonzalez trade wasn’t half bad either).  The pickings on the closer FA market are slim, but I could see the team taking a flier on an injury reclamation project like Ryan Madson or Brett Myers.  Perhaps even re-signing Capps, who lost his closer role and could be inserted in middle-relief.  We do have bigger priorities though; namely replacing our 3 lefty specialists (Tom Gorzelanny is still tied to the club but isn’t a guarantee to get tendered).  Ladson says the team has a shutdown closer in Drew Storen and will focus elsewhere.

Q: Is Danny Espinosa really a switch-hitter? He is just horrible from the left side. Why doesn’t he just bat from the right side?

A: Great question, one that I’ve asked many times myself.  His career splits lefty/righty are pretty telling. .227/.306/.393 from the left side, .276/.346/.467 from the right.  He’s an all-star caliber hitter from the right-side only, posting a 124 OPS+.  I privately wonder if the team isn’t going to make the decision for him, and a full spring training just hitting from the right-side could be in order.  Of course, his value as a right-handed only hitter is greatly diminished.  Plus there’s a life-time of adjustments to be had; if you’ve been facing right handed arms from the left side your whole life, who is to say that you won’t similarly struggle once you’re seeing breaking pitches from the other side?  A tough call.  My gut says he sticks it out and the team shows the same patience with him that they showed with Desmond, who rewarded the team with a breakthrough 2012.  Ladson reports that Johnson has “all the confidence in the world” in Espinosa.  Looks like 2013 is a make-it or break-it year for  him.

Q: Can Zach Duke start for the Nationals? How does he compare with Zack Greinke?

A: Wow; comparing Zach Duke (a minor league FA signing this year with a career 49-74 record) to Zack Greinke (inarguably the top FA pitcher on the market with a Cy Young to his name) is sort of like comparing a fast-food joint to a steak-house.  There is no comparison; Duke is going to be lucky to get a guaranteed contract while Greinke is likely to get a nine-figure deal.  Can Duke start for this team?  Well, assuming the team resigns him (he’s a free agent) he’s not even as good as Lannan, who they could lock up for 2013 if they choose.  And (as discussed above) if the team doesn’t rate Lannan they certainly wouldn’t rate Duke.  I don’t think Duke even could feature as a LOOGY; he likely seeks another shot at starting in 2013 somewhere.  Ladson agrees, albeit without the hyperbole of my answer.

Q: What will the Nats do with Yunesky Maya? He appears he found himself while pitching a full season with Triple-A Syracuse.

A: I’d hardly say 11-10 with a 3.88 ERA in AAA is “finding himself.”  I’ll admit Yunesky Maya had some decent starts down the stretch, but he also had some awful ones.  Just like he did all season.  Maya got two shots in 2010 and 2011 to stick in the majors and failed both times.  I don’t think he’ll get a third.  Look for the Nats to obtain a 4th minor league option on Maya by virtue of his having fewer than 5 pro seasons and him spending 2013, his last of a 4yr $8M contract, as starter insurance in Syracuse again.  Ladson states that Maya is rule-5 eligible; Uh, perhaps you need to read up on the purpose of that draft Bill.  Its for NON 40-man roster guys.

Q: What’s up with Chris Marrero? Haven’t heard anything about him replacing Adam LaRoche at first base.

A: Another lost season for Chris Marrero, who spent a huge amount of time recovering from an off-season hamstring injury and ended up playing just 37 games in Syracuse after several rehab stops in the lower minors.  Zero home runs in AAA for the year.  I hate to say it, but Marrero has been passed by on the depth chart for first base, and the team would absolutely look at Michael Morse first and Tyler Moore second to man first base at the major league level before giving Marrero a shot.  His positional inflexibility really hurts him, in that he’s not showing the kind of power you need to at the position to get promoted upwards.  He’s still young though (born in 1988, he’s only 24).  Maybe he’s worth including in trade to another club.  Ladson didn’t say much; i’m not sure he really knows what the team plans for Marrero either.


Ladson’s Inbox: 10/22/12 edition

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LaRoche's status with the team will dictate a number of cascading roster moves. Photo Rob Carr/Getty Images via bleacherreport.com

I havn’t seen mlb.com beat reporter Bill Ladson do an inbox response since February.  So I was excited to see one pop in this past Monday, 10/22/12.  As a reminder, I write my response before reading his, and sometimes edit questions for clarity.

Q: What are the Nationals’ plans for Tyler Moore? He is a power hitter who deserves to play every day. If Adam LaRoche returns next year, where does Moore fit in?

A: Tyler Moore indeed had excellent numbers in limited action, getting called up at the end of April to cover for a dearth of outfielders on the Nats roster.  His slash line was .263/.327/.513 for an OPS+ of 124 with 10 homers in 156 Abs.   Thats a homer ever 15.6 ABs and correlates to nearly a 40 homer pace for a full season of roughly 600 at-bats.  That is of course if you believe in what we saw in 2012 versus the continued lack of respect for Moore from the scouting pundits (who think his minor league power numbers were more a function of age than talent, and who continued to think that Moore had too many holes in his swing to be an impact MLB player).

Unfortunately though for Moore, if Adam LaRoche is re-signed there may not be an immediate place for Moore in the lineup.  LaRoche can only play 1B, Michael Morse is signed through 2013 and has become a club and fan favorite in LF.   Those are basically the only two positions Moore can play.

I think the better question here is, “Will the Nats extend Adam LaRoche?”  Because that’s the question that drives several other roster moves for 2013.  If LaRoche comes back and the team favors giving Moore more playing time, maybe they package Morse in trade.  Perhaps Moore sits and waits for another injury to give him playing time; LaRoche was incredibly healthy in 2012 and could regress for 2013.  Or, perhaps LaRoche (as basically the leading 1B power hitter on the FA market) will get a 3-4 year deal (likely) and the Nats won’t over-pay for his decline years, will install Moore at first and keep Morse in left.   Honestly, I think this last scenario is what plays out, and we’ll see Moore as your starting first baseman in 2013.

Ladson basically echos exactly what I say above.  Glad we’re on the same page.

Q: Do you think the Nationals will go after Michael Bourn this offseason?

A: No no no!  As I opined on September 13th, after seeing yet another Jim Bowden article intoning last off-season’s mantra of “the Nats need a center fielder,” the Nats HAVE a center fielder, and a darn good one, in Bryce Harper.  Harper finished the season with the 4th best UZR/150 for any CF with 500+ innings, even better than the vaunted defensive wizard Mike Trout.  It took about 5 games for his arm to be respected league wide, and he’s only 19 and will only get better.  Why would we possible move Harper off CF in the next 4-5 years?  Yes, eventually we expect a bulked up power hitting Harper to move to a corner spot, but not at age 20.  Besides, if Harper moves off CF … who makes way in left or right?  Do you move Jayson Werth to left field?  If so, then what happens to Michael Morse?  Do you move him?  Harper’s defensive value is wasted in right field.  Werth’s defensive value (while inarguably slipping) is also wasted in left field, where you can “hide” a poor defensive player who is plus-plus power.

*sigh* I wish this rumor would go away.  I’m pretty sure the Yankees never said to Mickey Mantle at age 19, “Hey Mick!  We like you in center but we to move you to a corner outfielder so we can sign a sub-average hitter to lead-off and play in your position.”  Of course not, so why would the Nats do so?

Unfortunately Ladson perpetuates the ridiculous myth himself and says he thinks the team goes after Bourn and puts Harper in LF.  Just ridiculous.

Q: Any news on Cole Kimball’s recovery?  Will we see him in a Nats uniform in 2013?

A: Shoulder injuries in power pitchers are never an easy recovery.  That’s why we never really saw Kimball in the summer and why he’s currently in the AFL getting some extra time on the hill.  As of this writing he only has 3 2/3 innings, so not much to go by.  We are seeing some reports that he looks decent.  2013 prognosis?   He faces an uphill battle to make the bullpen; there’s several right handers that are now clearly ahead of him on the depth chart.  Storen, Clippard, and Stammen are locks (if not traded).  Rodriguez has no options.  Mattheus has pitched his way onto this team.  That’s your 5 righties out of the pen (Davey Johnson likes 2 lefties).   And we havn’t even talked about Christain Garcia, who pitched well enough to make the post season roster.   So the answer may be that Kimball starts in AAA and waits for an opportunity.  Ladson says he thinks Kimball can make the 2013 bullpen.  How exactly?  Who is he going to be ahead of?  Not much provided in the way of deep analysis, Bill.

Q: Do you think there is any chance the Nationals bring up Corey Brown to play center and bat second?

A: No.  Brown looks to me like the definition of a 4-A guy, and will be stashed in AAA as outfield depth until further notice.  Batting second?  Really?  We’re currently batting Werth at leadoff despite his having middle-of-the-order power.  What makes anyone think Brown deserves to bat anywhere in this lineup, let alone ahead of the power guys?  And, if Brown makes the 25-man roster which outfielder does he replace?  Certainly not the starters in Morse, Harper and Werth.  Certainly not Roger Bernadina, who more than earned his stay.  And certainly not above Moore.   Ladson agrees.

Q: What do you think about the addition of Kurt Suzuki to the roster?

A: Somewhat of a panic/reactionary move at the time, but it has worked out great for both sides.  Jesus Flores wasn’t stopping the one-way street for opposing base-runners, and we needed more of a plus-defensive guy behind the plate.  Flores did himself  no favors batting .213 either.  Suzuki immediately upped his batting stroke too,  batting .267 here after hitting just .218 in Oakland in 2012.  Clearly Suzuki and Wilson Ramos are your two catchers heading into 2013.  What do we do with Flores?  Do we dare non-tender him and give him away?  Do we tender him and try to trade him?  I’d hope for the latter, thinking that even a .213 hitting catcher has value in this league.  I hate to say it, but Ramos can’t stay on the field and we needed the insurance.  Ladson agrees, but doesn’t mention Flores’ fate.

Q: The Shark, aka Roger Bernadina, had a career year and will probably get a raise this offseason. Do you think the Nats are going to try to move him, or can we expect to see The Shark with the team next year?

A: Great question.  Do we sell-high on Bernadina and make-do with a 4th outfielder like Corey Brown or Eury Perez in 2013?  We could, if it brought us back something worth having.  We do have some rising quality OF depth that would replace Bernadina (Brian Goodwin comes to mind, perhaps even Anthony Rendon if he hits his way to the majors in 2013).    Ladson thinks Bernadina will be back.  I have no problem with that; he hit great this year, knew his role and is fantastic defensively.

Q: Do you think Davey Johnson is the best manager in Nationals/Expos history? Felipe Alou is tough to beat, but Davey has my vote on this one.

A: Why not Jim Fanning?  He led the franchise to its only prior post-season appearance.  I dunno; what exactly makes a “good” manager?  I think Johnson has absolutely done better with this team than anyone thought, so yeah that makes him a great manager (and my favorite for winning NL Manager of the Year).  Best ever for the franchise?  Why do people think Felipe Alou was so great?  His last three Expos teams each lost 90 or more games.  Who can really talk intelligently about how well Buck Rodgers mangaged the team in the mid 1980s?  The team improved 19 wins from 1978 to 1979 under Dick Williams.  Those are good managers too.  Ladson thinks Johnson is the best ever but says Alou was great.  I don’t get it.

Roster Construction Analysis of 10 Playoff Teams; 2012 edition

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Justin Verlander is one of the most important home-grown players in the 2012 playoffs. Photo unk via rumorsandrants.com

Every year I do a bit of “Team Construction” analysis to kind of gauge the trends in roster construction.  Last year’s post is here, and the links to the side have the underlying spreadsheet of player acquisition methods so you can see the pure details.  This topic was also covered in-depth by John Sickels on his minorleaguebaseball.com blog for another viewpoint.

Borrowing from last year’s post, there are four main ways teams can acquire players:

  1. Draft: The player is with the original team that drafted him.  In the case of international free agents, if they’re signed as 16-year olds they are considered in this category as well (i.e., Ichiro Suzuki is not a developed player, but an international Free Agent).  It could be better defined as “Club developed players.”  Simple examples for the Nats: Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
  2. Traded MLBers: The player was acquired by the team by virtue of trading an established MLB player.  Most of the time these days, this means the player was acquired as a prospect (since most trades seem to be of the prospect-for-established player kind).  Example for the Nats would be Michael Morse, who was acquired by our trading an established MLB player in Ryan Langerhans for Morse while he was still (essentially) a minor leaguer.
  3. Traded Prospects: The player was acquired by the team by virtue of trading prospects.  This is essentially the reverse of #2.  The Nats key example is Gio Gonzalez.
  4. Free Agent: The player was acquired in free agency.  This category also includes two other types of acquisitions: waiver claims and cash purchases.  These three categories are lumped together since all three indicate that a team has acquired a player with zero outlay in terms of development or prospects.  Examples for the Nats: Edwin Jackson, Adam LaRoche.

Here is the summary of roster construction and “Construction Strategy Category” that we’ll talk about next.  Note that I only count the “core players” on a team for this analysis.  The core players is defined as the 5-man starting rotation, the setup and closer, the 8 out-field players, and the DH for AL teams.  I didn’t extend this all the way to the 25-man roster, figuring that these core 15 players are the main reasons teams win and advance.  That and huge chunks of the bullpen and the bench are either fill-in FAs or draftees and it would skew the analysis of how teams really got to the playoffs.  Here’s the summary (the table is sorted by count of Draftees):

Season Team Drafted/Developed Traded Prospects Traded MLBs FA/Waivers Ttl Constr Method
2012 Atlanta 11 1 3 0 15 #1
2012 St. Louis 9 0 2 4 15 #1/#4
2012 Washington 8 3 1 3 15 #2
2012 San Francisco 8 2 2 3 15 #2
2012 Cincinnati 8 2 3 2 15 #1
2012 New York Yankees 5 2 1 8 16 #4
2012 Detroit 5 5 2 4 16 #2/#4
2012 Texas 4 2 7 3 16 #3/#4
2012 Baltimore 3 1 8 4 16 #3
2012 Oakland 2 1 7 6 16 #3

So, what are the four construction methods I’ve identified? Again borrowing from last year’s version of this post, they are (with this year’s examples).  The complication this year is that some of the 10 playoff teams don’t fall neatly into one specific category.

Method #1: Build from within 100%: (Cincinnati, Atlanta).   Atlanta, amazingly, didn’t use a single Free Agent among its core 15 this year.  They made a couple of key trades to acquire a few starters, but the rest of their lineup is home-grown draftees.  That may change next year as they try to replace Chipper Jones, Michael Bourn and possibly Brian McCann, who may leave via free agency.  Meanwhile Cincinnati has just a couple of free agents and mostly rely on guys they’ve grown as well.

Method #2: Ride your developed Core and use your prospects to acquire big names: (Washington, San Francisco and Detroit to an extent): The Nats have transformed themselves over just a couple of seasons, relying less on FAs to plug holes caused by an awful farm system to having most of their core team developed at home (See the table further below to follow the transformation of our team over the past few seasons).  Those spots they couldn’t depend on have been filled by trades (three guys acquired by flipping prospects for them; in addition to Gonzalez Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Clippard also count here).  San Francisco has seen their payroll skyrocket as they extend their home-grown talent, but for the most part they have stayed true to the team development concept.  Their one major Free Agent (Barry Zito) is notoriously one of the worst contracts in baseball and it is somewhat surprising to even see him on the post-season roster.  He wouldn’t be if Tim Lincecum was pitching in 2012 like he has regularly done in previous seasons.  Detroit was entirely in method #2 until they decided to spend money like the Yankees; we’ll revisit in #4.

Method #3: Go Young and grow up Strong (Baltimore, Oakland and Texas to an extent): Baltimore acquired a massive chunk of their rosters by flipping major leaguers for prospects and watching them blossom into a surprise playoff team.  Oakland has made a habit of getting rid of guys before they hit arbitration; fully 7 of their squad was acquired this way.  The difference is that Oakland has been forced to buy a big chunk of their core group on the FA market, depending on cast-offs like Brandon Inge and Jonny Gomes to plug leaks and get production on the cheap.  I’m guessing that Oakland will transform more into Category #1 as the vast amount of prospects they’ve landed lately continue to matriculate.  Lastly Texas was entirely in this category before they dropped major money on the likes of Adrian Beltre and Yu Darvish, transforming them into a spending power to go with their still-excellent farm system.

Method #4: Spend what it takes to win: (New York fully with St Louis, Texas and Detroit partially here): The Yankees are the class-A example of this method (along with Boston and the Dodgers frankly), but the spending that St. Louis, Texas and Detroit cannot be overlooked.  The Yankees more and more are depending on expensive FA purchases to replace what their farm system is not developing, and the problem is only being brought into more focus this off-season.  Their 3 primary starters are FA acquisitions, their biggest FA is looking like a contract catastrophe, and their developed guys are not stepping up and taking over major roles (especially on the pitching staff).  The other three teams mentioned here are mostly built on home-grown talent, but have spent so much money on the FA market lately that they are broaching into the upper echelons of MLB payroll.  St. Louis is almost entirely built from within (as noted by other columnists doing this same type of analysis) but still has depended on a couple of key FAs to advance as far as they have.

Conclusions:

  • There’s no real formula to building a playoff team, as we see from the spread of the 10 teams among the four methods defined.
  • I think its safe to say that the most difficult methods to depend on are #1 and #3.  You need to have a very good farm system to depend on the #1 method to work for you, and over the past few years only a couple of teams really have had success using this method (Atlanta and Tampa Bay).  Kansas City has tried #1 for years and has gone nowhere.  The #3 method is also frought with issues, since it requires a ton of patience from your fan base and may not be sustainable.  Would anyone be surprised if both Oakland and Baltimore collapsed next season?  Probably not; you really need to build on a base of players once you’ve established yourself as a good team and continue to augment, either through trade or through FAs.  But even that can be dangerous; just ask Philadelphia this year, owners of the 2nd biggest payroll in baseball and just a 3rd place team.
  • Is Category #1 and #3 the same?  No, not really. #1 teams rely much more heavily on personally developed prospects, while #3 teams purposely set out to acquire prospects in trade to combine with their own development mis-fortunes.  If Baltimore had a better farm system, they wouldn’t have needed to jettison so many established MLBers to acquire prospects, and they’d probably be closer to a #2 team (a wealthy team who supplements developed players with key FAs, much like what Washington is doing).
  • Oakland is really a unique case; they do develop players but get rid of them because of a self-imposed incredibly restrictive salary cap.  Imagine what Billy Beane could do with that team if he could have purchased just $30M of players on the open market (which would have still left Oakland in the bottom third of payroll).
  • Buying your way to a team (method #4) can work, but only if you have nearly unlimited money and everything goes right for you.  There’s almost no excuse for a $175M payroll to get beat to the playoffs by a $55M payroll team (Oakland).  That is unless you overpay for poor FA targets, install the wrong manager and saddle yourself with the worst clubhouse in baseball.  In case you were wondering, the 2012 Boston Red Sox were a classic case of why money cannot buy happiness, and why unlimited funds do not necessarily guarantee playoff baseball.  The Angels are another example; owing most of their season’s turnaround and success to Mike Trout and his MLB minimum salary providing nearly 10 WAR despite having the 3rd largest payroll in baseball and having just purchased the games pre-emminent hitter in Albert Pujols.
  • Frequent commenter Clark has a good point; classifying Mark Teixeira and Raul Ibanez as the same type of player (acquired via free agency) is a bit mis-leading.  Clearly a $150M player isn’t the same as a $1M player.  But, for the purposes of analyzing how much of your team is “bought” versus “developed” the point remains the same whether its a bargain basement guy or a $20M/year player.

So, if I had just purchased a new team, what construction method would I follow?  I guess it depends; if I thought I had a patient fan base, I’d probably do exactly what is going on in Houston.  I’d gut the MLB roster, trade every tradeable asset and start over payroll-wise.  I’d follow strategy #1 until I was at least competitive, and then i’d probably switch over to a #2 strategy or a #3 strategy, depending on just how good my developed players were.  You hope for #3; it implies you’ve got so much in-house talent that all you need to do is keep extending your key guys and you’ll keep winning.

I don’t think #4 is a sustainable way of building rosters.  The Yankees have gotten away with it for years, but only because they initially had a banner crop of developed players (the “core four”) to depend on up their spine.  Would anyone be surprised if the Yankees fail to make the playoffs next year?  Alex Rodriguez looks incredibly old, Derek Jeter just broke his ankle, they’re losing a number of hitters to FA and they only have a couple of starters locked up.  Where’s their starting pitching for 2013?  And what happens if they finally get hit with injuries to their rotation to the extent that Boston did this year?  I think this is why you see $80M payroll teams beating out $170M payroll teams all the time; teams get bloated, they over pay their own players and suddenly are old, inflexible and unable to adjust financially to buy what they need.

Lastly, here’s what the Nats roster has done over the past few seasons:

Season Team Drafted/Developed Traded Prospects Traded MLBs FA/Waivers Ttl Constr Method
2010 Washington (end of 2010) 7 1 2 5 15 #2
2011 Wash (2011 opening day) 6 2 1 6 15 #2
2011 Wash (primary Roster for season) 6 2 2 5 15 #2
2011 Wash (end of season) 9 1 2 3 15 #2
2012 Washington (playoff roster) 8 3 1 3 15 #2

The team has been slowly replacing Free Agents with home-grown or acquired talent, and as we all know is well on its way towards a strong, home grown team.  This year’s core team only uses 3 pure FAs: Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth and Edwin Jackson.  We could very well see LaRoche replaced outright with the home grown Tyler Moore, and if the team replaced Jackson with someone like John Lannan (not that we’ll possibly see that happen), we could be down to just one FA in the core squad.

Who still thinks the Nats will pursue a CF in the off-season?

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Harper has turned into a very good defensive CF. Photo Gary Vasquez/US Presswire via Natsinsider.com

Jim Bowden was the latest pundit to repeat the often-mentioned mantra “The Nats need a Center Fielder,” but this isn’t entirely a “pick on Jim Bowden” post.  Most pundits think the Nats are still in love with BJ Upton or newly in love with Michael Bourn and will aggressively pursue one or the other this coming off-season.  Now, that tired statement may have been true in the 2011 off-season, but anyone who still prints this now hasn’t been watching what has been going on in the Nats outfield this season.

To put it simply; Bryce Harper has turned into a very good defensive center fielder.  And there’s no reason to move him off the position for a number of years.

It only took about a week for rumors of Harper’s arm to circulate around the league; within a week or so 3rd base coaches were already playing it conservatively and refused to challenge his arm.  It only took a couple of Sportscenter highlight throws from the outfield to earn that praise.  Harper has 3 outfield assists on the year and probably won’t get too many more given the reputation he’s already earned.

But his arm is just one part of the equation.  Click here for the advanced fielding measure “UZR/150” for all 2012 center-fielders with at least 500 innings played.  Harper currently possesses a 28.6 UZR/150, good for 2nd in the league and far above vaunted defensive outfield wizard (and fellow Rookie phenom) Mike Trout.  In fact, he’s just ahead of Bourn and only behind reserve outfielder Craig Gentry.  To put this into english; right now Harper is just about the best defensive center field in the league.  He’s very fast, shows great range on the ball, and his errors have generally been on over-aggressive throws instead of dropped balls.

By way of UZR/150 comparison, Bourne is clearly a top defender, but the other rumored target Upton actually boasts a -1.3 UZR/150 right now, indicating that he’s actually costing his team runs.

The common narrative is that the Nats want a lead-off/center fielder type so they can move Harper to one corner and Jayson Werth the other and have a plus outfield all the way around.  But lets face it; that’d be a monumental waste of Harper’s defensive talents right now.  An .850 OPS hitting center fielder with 30 homer capabilities is one of the rarest commodities in baseball, and usually good ones only come around once in a generation.  We already knew Harper was such a generational talent, but even I was surprised to see just how well statistically he has played CF thus far.  Do the Nats need a prototypical lead-off hitter?  Yes …. but not as long as Werth is willing to be in that role.  Here’s a fact; Werth has an OBP of .426 hitting lead-off this year, which would be the 2nd best OBP in the league (behind the amazing Joey Votto) if he qualified.  When you have almost an entire lineup of guys who have 20-hr power, someone has to bat lead-off.

The other problem with the “Nats get a free agent CF” scenario is that it leaves no room in the outfield for Michael Morse.  Buying another outfielder pushes Morse to 1B, which pushes Adam LaRoche out the door.  Now, this scenario may happen regardless (LaRoche absolutely should parlay his 2012 season into a multi-year FA deal, or at least explore the possibility), but I’d rather have the positional flexibility to give someone like Tyler Moore more starts, or to give the resurgent Roger Bernadina starts against right-handed starters, or even keep LF the rotating door between Moore, Bernadina and Lombardozzi so that all three valuable players can get playing time.  And if you don’t think the team really wants to give Moore playing time, then you havn’t been paying attention to his season.

Lastly there’s this: spending money on an unneeded CF means less money to spend on pieces that we WILL need; money towards either Edwin Jackson or his rotational replacement, money towards some bullpen reinforcements, or perhaps money to extend a trade target that we leverage to free up some positional log-jams (middle infield for example, between our current starters and the upper-end reinforcements on the way in the high minors).

There’s been comparisions of Harper to the vaunted Mickey Mantle in the past; if Harper sticks in CF for the next decade, those comparisons will just be all the more viable.

Ask Boswell 1/3/12 edition

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The Fielder-to-the-Nats rumors just won't die. Photo unknown via baltimoresportsreport.com

Happy New Year!  Here’s Tom Boswell‘s weekly Monday chat done today Tuesday 1/3/12. With the Redskins season mercifully over, I’d expect a bunch of questions related to post mortem-ing the team, but there’s also been a flurry of baseball moves.

Of the baseball questions he took, here’s how I’d have answered them.  As always, questions are edited for clarity and I write my own answer prior to reading his.

Q: Hey Bos, I don’t think the Nationals should sign him for top dollar. I don’t even think they should sign him for the right price and years. BUT, I think the Nats would be foolish not to CONSIDER signing him for the right price and years.

A: That’s crazy; for the right price and years, Prince Fielder is one of the best 10 hitters in the game.  This team needs offense, not more pitching.  It needs a big bopper in the middle of the order (ala Adam Dunn) and lineup protection for Zimmerman and Werth.  Its no coincidence that Zimmerman’s two best offensive seasons were with Dunn protecting him in the 4-hole, nor that our best offensive season in years came in 2009 with our 3-4-5 hitters all successful.  Now; do I want Fielder for 8-10 years?  No; nor does anyone else apparently.  Boswell intimates that the (cheap) Lerners are choosing between Fielder and Zimmerman.  He just can’t get off his ridiculous column of last week.

Q: What are your thoughts on the Gio Gonzalez trade? It seems like it was a pretty high cost to give up both Cole and Peacock.

A: I’ve posted my thoughts in this same space.  Short version: I like the trade for who we got based on our prospects not entirely fulfilling their promise.  Boswell says the trade should work for both sides but also talks about how difficult it was to get approval for the trade and the symbolism involved.

Q: So, are the Nats in on Fielder or not? Did Boras and Fielder meet with Rizzo and the Lerners in DC? What about a long term, Matt Moore type deal for Zimmermann (Jordan)? Who penciled in at CF?

A: So many questions.  My guesses: Nats are in on Fielder since the years may be dropping.  Boras definitely met with Rizzo/Lerners.  Its pre-mature to sign Zimmermann to a Moore deal (that deal may still backfire for Tampa; he’s only thrown a few MLB innings), and Mike Cameron is your opening day CFer.   Boswell doesn’t answer any of these questions, but gives out a great link at jdland.com pertaining to the removal of the eye-sore gravel factory!

Q: Why go for Gonzalez and not go for Fielder? You’re either all-in or not.

A: A fair question; I think the team looked at its 2012 rotation and saw weakness at the back end, as well as some innings limitations throughout, and thought it needed a guy who they could count on for innings.  Initially it was Buerhle but they got out bid, and lucky for them they ended up with a better player.  The prospects we gave up were significant … but then again, there’s a lot of people who say “there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect.”  Meaning, they’re high risk, high reward.  We traded 3 guys who may never amount to anything for a guy in Gonzalez who we KNOW what he is, right now. Boswell does some “big body” slugger analysis and seems to be talking himself into Fielder.

Q: Are the Nats really crazy (my opinion) enough to bring Bryce Harper up before May and risk losing him a year early to free agency? Granted a center field of Roger Bernadina and Mike Cameron or a similar right-handed batter is less than compelling, but what’s six weeks or so in the grand scheme of things? Basing so much of their strategy on Werth being the centerfielder for the season or more (not that he isn’t capable, a gamer, and all that) also seems high risk. What are the smart moves here?

A: Well put question.  I agree; 6 weeks over the course of 7 years is nothing, especially since it saves the team millions and millions by keeping Harper in the minors.  I’m ok starting the season with Cameron in center, Werth in right and Harper in AA.  Likewise, I’m also ok starting with Werth in center, a FA to be named in right, with an eye towards Harper in July.  Boswell agrees, but can’t help himself and does a ton of WAR analysis on young players.

Q: For those of us who read your stuff regularly and respect what you have to say, you owe us an explanation. What happened between your chat on December 19 and your column published less than 48 hours later that caused you to so radically change your view from “Rizzo has the authority to make to make deals” to “the cheapo Lerners just don’t get it.” And please don’t insult the intelligence of your readers by trying to say the two positions were totally consistent.

A: Wow.  Demanding a complete mea culpa from this ridiculous column (see my reaction to it).  Lets see what he says: Boswell says the facts changed between his chat and his column and then the deal.

Q: With the issues of the other NL east teams (some of which are pretty arguable in the question), does Fielder make the Nats a contender for the next 3 years?

A: Undoubtedly yes.  Mark Zuckerman did a nice little WAR analysis, showing how, without any more moves, the team could very well be a 90-91 win team in 2012.   With Fielder, we’d be closer to a 96 win team most likely.  Boswell agrees w/ the question, saying though that he thought the team wouldn’t contend til 2013.

Q:Who is the Nats CF in 2013?

A: Who possibly knows.  Upton will be a FA.  So will Michael Bourn.  Harper could (should?) be playing CF; he’s athletic enough and it would greatly enhance his value.  Werth can man RF for the time being and then we can find a bopper to play LF if Morse moves to 1b.  Or we buy Fielder, Morse stays in LF for a while and you’re set.  Boswell says Werth only goes to CF if Harper comes up… but I think it should be the reverse frankly.


Final word: there was a fantastic piece of analysis phrased in the form of a question, where a chatter did a good piece of investigative work and discovered that Oakland’s foul grounds perhaps costs Gonzalez 6-13 runs over the course of his career, or a run every 15th start or so.  Further proof in my mind that Oakland’s park effects are overstated.  Its a must read.  About 60% down in the chat.

My Answers to Boswell’s Chat Questions 8/29/11

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Is this your 2nd baseman/leadoff hitter of the future? Photo via midatlanticredsox.net

Man, back to back chats and inbox responses this week.  Boswell did his weekly chat on 8/29/11 and managed to fit in some Nats questions.  Here’s how i’d have answered them (you know, if I was a nationally known writer and had thousands of people eagerly asking my opinion on things…).

Q: If Steve Lombardozzi (pictured above) hits during his 9/1 call-up, is it time to move on from Desmond?

A: I’d say not quite.  Desmond may have over 1000 major league at bats by now, and clearly has been regressing at the plate over the past few years, but the team loves him and probably gives him one more year before pulling the plug.  I think we all know Espinosa can take over at SS and that Lombardozzi is a great fit at 2b/leadoff.  The problem is; how do you evaluate Lombardozzi if you want to play Espinosa every day?   Boswell says Desmond will be a tough call, but says he’s coveted by other teams.  A trade may be in the future.

Q: Why didn’t the Nats factor into trades for CFs Rasmus or Bourn?

A: Good question frankly.   The team was making noise about wanting a CF all spring and all summer.  The questioner called the trade packages “middling” for both players, but I’d hardly call it that.  Both acquiring teams gave up good players to get these guys.  I think the Cardinals in particular will regret trading Rasmus and may think about what it is about their manager that makes it so difficult to get along with him.  Here’s an interesting point: The Nats just don’t trade with either team; there’s only minor league swaps between Washington and Houston/St. Louis over the past decade.  Perhaps Rizzo just doesn’t have a relationship with the GMs there.  Or more to the point, the Nats probably didn’t want to give up what it was going to take to get a guy like Rasmus (likely one of our good starters as it cost Toronto).  Boswell thinks the Nats didn’t want to overspend on a CF since Werth can play there and we have a couple of CF prospects (specifically mentioning Goodwin) that could fit in there later.

Q: Should the team take advantage of Harper’s 40-man status to just call him up for the experience?

A: Nope.  There’s no reason to give him service time in September, which would delay his 2012 call-up deeper into June.  Plus he’s got a pulled hamstring that seemed like a relatively serious issue.  The plan is and should stay the same; let him heal, send him to the Arizona Fall League for a bit more playing time, then shut him down til spring training.  Boswell says you have to earn call-ups and he doesn’t think Harper did.

Q: Is Davey Johnson the answer at manager?  Should we target a younger more inventive mind?

A: It is hard to say.  Unlike in other sports, Baseball’s landscape moves slowly.  Johnson already embraces most of the “newer” technologies or theories in the sport (advanced sabremetrics, video monitoring, lineup theories, reliever-leverage use).  So he should be ok.  He clearly deserves respect from his players, both based on his own playing career and his managerial accomplishments.  It is a big concerning that the team almost immediately started to underperform once he took the helm … but the team also couldn’t sustain its winning streak that Riggleman tried to make use of when he threatened to, and ultimately, resigned.  Boswell points to Davey Johnson’s career W/L percentage and says don’t be too quick to judge.  Fair enough.

Q: Since Gorzelanny and Wang cleared waivers, should we try to trade them?

A: Wang no, Gorzelanny yes.  Clearly Gorzelanny has fallen out of favor with this manager and the team.  Exactly why, i’m not sure; his numbers weren’t really that bad and are almost identical to Livan’s on the season.  He’s a lefty and his k/9 rates were the best of any starter on the team.  Once banished to the bullpen he didn’t appear for 13 days and had to beg to be used.  Sounds like a guy who is surplus to requirements and should be traded.  Meanwhile Wang is someone who I doubt anyone else would experiment with at this point in the season.  He is still a wild card.  Boswell advocates keeping Gorzelanny since he’s under team control through 2013.

Q: Follow up: will the Nats try to hold on to FAs to be Wang and Nix this off season?

A: Wang; it depends on how he does the rest of the way out, clearly.  But the team has invested $3M in these 11-12 2011 starts, so hopefully that good will turns into an offer to stay, if it comes to that.  Nix?  We seem to have too many outfielders.  Morse is going to start in left with LaRoche coming back in 2011, so that leaves Nix and Gomes without starting positions.  Nix has shown value but he hit better in 2010 and was non-tendered.  And his splits against lefties are beyond awful (3-27 on the season).  I’m guessing he’s released when the time comes and Gomes is in line to be the 4th outfielder in 2012.  Boswell says we should keep Wang if possible, and agrees with Nix being in a numbers game for LF/1B positions.

Q: Why did the Nats call up Marrero before 9/1?  Who else do you want to see come up?

A: Marrero filled a 25-man slot vacated by Mattheus, as the Nats had been playing with an extra bullpen guy since the trades.  No other special reason.  The questioner suggests that Bernadina is coming back up; I hate to say it but I think Bernadina is closer to a release than a callup.  We’ll definitely see Strasburg mid-next week.  We’ll probably see Lombardozzi, Peacock and Milone.  Meyers seems to be in shutdown mode so I doubt we’ll see him.  That’s about all I can think of.  Boswell points out an interesting tidbit: apparently Rizzo is worried about “exposing” someone off the 40-man if he calls up too many guys.  As I pointed out in this space, there’s clearly maneuvering room on the 40-man.  Not sure what the problem is.  If Rizzo is still obsessed with Garrett Mock, then this team has a bigger problem.

Q: Does the team just have a blind spot when it comes to Center Fielders?  Both Nyjer Morgan and Endy Chavez are hitting well for first place teams.  Is Rick Ankiel the answer for 2012?

A: Morgan clearly had to go (worn out his welcome).  Chavez was a trade in 2005, and we got Marlon Byrd for him.  He was nothing in 05 and now suddenly is halfway decent.  Hard to fault this team for that.  Meanwhile what to do about Ankiel?  I think he sticks around for 2012 as at least a 4th outfielder, probably a starter in CF until a prospect is ready.  Unless Rizzo pulls of a blockbuster trade (which I doubt).  Boswell doesn’t really answer the question, just gripes about Willingham’s production in Oakland.

Q: We have 3 catchers right now.  What happens next year?

A: Pudge is a FA and signs elsewhere.  And we have Ramos and Flores, with decent depth in Solano (AAA).  I don’t think Pudge is coming back; he can find work elsewhere with a contender and get another shot at the postseason.  Boswell wants Pudge back instead of Flores … which I’d agree is better but probably not happening.

Q: If lower minor leaguers are continually successful against MLB pitchers on rehab assignments, why don’t MLB hitters adopt the same approach?

A: A great question.  I’ve wondered this myself to a certain extent.  After watching Strasburg get lit up in Hagerstown but then shut down AAA hitters, you have to wonder what is going on?  I’d guess that the answer is something like, “if you swing out of your ass the first time up, you’re not going to see that pitch again and have to adjust.  And low-A hitters don’t adjust.”   Small sample sizes.  Boswell says the kids in low-A got lucky.  Sorry that’s a punt.  You can see Strasburg’s performances in low-A, AA and compare it to AAA and its night and day.  There has to be a better answer.

Q: Should Harper try to make it back for Harrisburg’s AA playoffs?

A: If he’s healthy, why not?  Good enough to start, good enough to play.  However, if he’s not ready then he’ll continue to stay on the DL.  Boswell agrees I guess.

Q: Does Scott Boras ever turn down a player?

A: I’m sure he does, as any agent probably has players he’s turned down.   Boswell says he’s selective, but finds it interesting that he represents some common-man players such as Alberto Gonzalez.

Q: How much lead time will we get for Strasburg’s first MLB start back?

A: Probably depends on his last start.  If he’s a go, and looks good, they’ll make the announcement the next day.  I’m sure they’re not really that worried about ticket sales.  Those tickets will go, fast. Boswell reiterates that one rainout blows all well-laid plans.

Q: Ross Detwiler; future trade bait or future rotational starter based on his 2011 numbers?

A: You can do a lot worse than a #5 starter with a sub 3.00 era (which he has for 2011 right now).  But we clearly have a surplus of young arms.  Assuming that 1-2-3 next year is Strasburg-Zimmermann-Lannan, we have some decisions.  Livan?  Probably gone.  Wang?  We’ll see but he could very well be #4 starter next year.  Then there’s Milone, Meyers and Peacock chomping at the bit in AAA.  And this doesn’t mention Gorzelanny.  I’m guessing some of these guys get traded, not sure which.  Boswell mentions two good points: Detwiler’s fip is far higher than his ERA, and that Detwiler is out of options so he may stick in 2012 just based on that fact.

Q: Baseball strategy question for you: Bottom of the 10th, runners on first and second, nobody out. Tie game. Batter at the plate is oh-fer, with three Ks, two looking. What do you do?

A: I think its pretty clear you bunt.   Trick question b/c this was the situation facing our $126M man Jayson Werth last week. I forgot to take into account a 3-4-5 guy.  In the playoffs or in a complete do-or-die situation even Werth bunts in this situation.

Q: What should we expect from Strasburg upon his return?

A: I’d expect decent to good numbers, but nothing other-worldly.  He’s still recovering and still working his way back.  2012 we can expect greatness again.  Boswell agrees.


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