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Minor League Age Appropropriateness for 2014

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Taylor Hill is one of the younger hurlers in AAA.  Photo via milb.com/Potomac Nats official

Taylor Hill is one of the younger hurlers in AAA. Photo via milb.com/Potomac Nats official

Age Appropriateness by minor league level is a topic I come back to year after year.  Click here for this analysis in 2011, and then here for the same analysis for 2013 (I must have been really busy in April of 2012 to have missed out on such fun analysis).

I won’t repeat a ton of the build-up to this topic; see last year’s post for a ton of rule-of-thumb discussions and what not.  Basically the point of this post is to talk about the average/median ages of pitchers in the various full season minor league levels, then take a look at our four full-season affiliate rosters to see how our guys rank.  I’m very much of the belief that age matters in prospects, and that it should be taken into consideration when looking at a guy’s performance.

Data Taxonomy: I’ve taken every pitcher on every team’s roster in each of the four leagues that the Nats have farm teams in (AAA = International, AA = Eastern, High-A = Carolina, Low-A = South Atlantic), put them into a spreadsheet, calculated their ages at the end of this season (9/1/14) and then calculated the four quartile figures in terms of age.  I only used pitchers in our leagues as opposed to the entire level across all of baseball thinking that different leagues may have different needs (I’m thinking how the California League and the Pacific Coast League has so many hitters parks and thus the pitchers may linger there longer, skewing the numbers).  I also standardized the numbers to be at the end of the season as opposed to the beginning, so that people can talk about a player’s “Age 25 season” for example.   I’ve labeled the four quartiles as follows: “Really Young” means the lowest quartile or youngest 25% of players, “Young” means the 2nd quartile or 25-50%, “Old” means the 3rd quartile or 50-75% range, and “Really Old” means anyone in the 75th quartile or above for the league.

(Click here for the whole worksheet of player data I used to do this post on Google Docs).


First, a look at how these age rankings have fared over the past few years:

Age Appropriate Matrix 2011-2014

2011 AAA AA High-A Low-A
Really Young 25.54 or younger 24.44 or  younger 22.65 or younger 21.88 or younger
Young 25.54 – 26.93 24.44 – 25.37 22.65 – 23.83 21.88 – 22.84
Old 26.93 – 28.79 25.37 – 26.65 23.83 – 24.77 22.84 – 23.65
Really Old 28.79 or older 26.65 or older 24.77 or older 23.65 or older
2013 AAA AA High-A Low-A
Really Young 25.91 or younger 24.02 or younger 23.08 or younger 21.69 or younger
Young 25.92 – 27.75 24.02 – 25.17 23.08 – 24.00 21.69 – 22.66
Old 27.75 – 30.35 25.17 – 26.84 24.00 – 24.91 22.66 – 23.39
Really Old 30.35 or older 26.84 or older 24.91 or older 23.39 or older
2014 AAA AA High-A Low-A
Really Young 25.85 or younger 24.13 or younger 22.74 or younger 21.84 or younger
Young 25.86 – 27.47 24.14 – 25.27 22-74 – 23.63 21.84 – 22.65
Old 27.47 – 29.58 25.27 – 26.77 23.63 – 24.53 22.65 – 23.69
Really Old 29.58 or older 26.78 or older 24.53 or older 23.70  or older

At a  high level:

  • AAA’s median age has risen from 2011, but 2014’s teams are getting slightly younger; all these threshold ages are slightly below 2013’s numbers.
  • AA is more or less the same; the median age only differs by 1/10th of a year from last year
  • High A: is getting younger; its threshold ages are all about a half a year or more younger this year
  • Low A seems about the same; its median age is identical to last year’s.

Here’s a look at the Nationals’ four full season minor league pitching staffs, with the ages listed and the “age appropriate” label given.   All rosters are as of 4/18/14.

AAA Syracuse

Team First Name Last Name DOB Age as of 9/1/14 Age Status
Syracuse (Wash) Aaron Barrett 1/2/1988 26.66 Young
Syracuse (Wash) Xavier Cedeno 8/26/1986 28.02 Old
Syracuse (Wash) Manny Delcarmen 2/16/1982 32.54 Really Old
Syracuse (Wash) Christian Garcia 8/24/1985 29.02 Old
Syracuse (Wash) Taylor Hill 3/12/1989 25.47 Really Young
Syracuse (Wash) Aaron Laffey 4/15/1985 29.38 Old
Syracuse (Wash) Warner Madrigal 3/21/1984 30.45 Really Old
Syracuse (Wash) Ryan Mattheus 11/10/1983 30.81 Really Old
Syracuse (Wash) Brad Meyers 9/13/1985 28.97 Old
Syracuse (Wash) Omar Poveda 9/28/1987 26.93 Young
Syracuse (Wash) Tyler Robertson 12/23/1987 26.69 Young
Syracuse (Wash) Josh Roenicke 8/4/1982 32.08 Really Old
Syracuse (Wash) Danny Rosenbaum 10/10/1987 26.89 Young
Syracuse (Wash) Daniel Stange 12/22/1985 28.69 Old
Syracuse (Wash) Ryan Tatusko 3/27/1985 29.43 Old

Discussion: Even by AAA standards as a “spare parts” league, our AAA squad is pretty old.  We have four guys in their 30s, only one of which is on our 40-man roster (Ryan Mattheus).  Our youngest guy in AAA may also be the most surprising pitcher to make this squad; Taylor Hill.  This squad will just get older once Michael Gonzalez makes his way to upstate New York (which has already happened inbetween the time of this data capture and the time of this post).

Oldest Guy in the International League: Fairfax’s own Shawn Camp, a 10 year MLB veteran who signed on with Philly as a MLFA last off-season and looks like he may be back and forth between Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia all year.  Also amongst the old crowd in the International league are interesting names from the past, including Johan Santana, and a few former Nats in Luis Ayala, Chien-Ming Wang and Yunesky Maya (who signed on with Atlanta for 2014).

Youngest Guy in the International League: Former Nat Robbie Ray, who will not turn 23 until after season’s end.  Side note on Ray: i was listening to a Jonah Keri podcast where a guest was openly questioning the Doug Fister trade, now that Fister’s out with an injury and Ray’s fast tracking his way to a very early majors appointment.  Nothing nefarious suggested (as in, the Tigers knew that Fister was damaged goods), but he also said he was at about a “0%” surprise factor when Fister got hurt this spring.  Interesting.  

A couple of other very young guys in this league include some big-time pitching prospects: Marcus Strohman for Toronto, Trevor Bauer for Cleveland and Kevin Gausman for Baltimore.

Percentage of International League pitchers on MLB 40-man rosters: 36.95%, quite a bit higher than last year.  Four of Syracuse’ 15 pitchers are on the 40-man and two of them (Aaron Barrett and Xavier Cedeno) have already made the trips up and back to and from the majors this month.  Of course, the Nats have already shuffled around these two and Blake Treinen quite a bit and its just a few weeks into the season.


AA Harrisburg

Team First Name Last Name DOB Age as of 9/1/14 Age Status
Harrisburg (Wash) Gabriel Alfaro 6/14/1983 31.22 Really Old
Harrisburg (Wash) Colin Bates 3/10/1988 26.48 Old
Harrisburg (Wash) A.J. Cole 1/5/1992 22.66 Really Young
Harrisburg (Wash) Paul Demny 8/3/1989 25.08 Young
Harrisburg (Wash) Robert Gilliam 11/29/1987 26.76 Old
Harrisburg (Wash) Matt Grace 12/14/1988 25.71 Old
Harrisburg (Wash) Tyler Herron 8/5/1986 28.07 Really Old
Harrisburg (Wash) Neil Holland 8/14/1988 26.05 Old
Harrisburg (Wash) Zach Jackson 5/13/1983 31.30 Really Old
Harrisburg (Wash) Pat Lehman 10/18/1986 27.87 Really Old
Harrisburg (Wash) Rafael Martin 5/16/1984 30.29 Really Old
Harrisburg (Wash) Richie Mirowski 4/30/1989 25.34 Old
Harrisburg (Wash) Ryan Perry 2/13/1987 27.55 Really Old
Harrisburg (Wash) Matt Purke 7/17/1990 24.13 Really Young
Harrisburg (Wash) Felipe Rivero 7/5/1991 23.16 Really Young
Harrisburg (Wash) Blake Schwartz 10/9/1989 24.90 Young
Harrisburg (Wash) Sammy Solis 8/10/1988 26.06 Old

Discussion: As with Syracuse, our Harrisburg squad is very old; 12 of the 17 pitchers on the squad are above the median age for the league, and 6 of them are in the oldest quartile.  Our three youngest hurlers are (arguably) our three most important arms in AA: A.J. Cole, Felipe Rivero and Matt Purke (with apologies to Sammy Solis, who lists as an “older” guy thanks to his losing a year to TJ surgery).  It seems to me like Harrisburg is populated with hangers-on; that the bullpen is filled with org arms.

Oldest Guy in the Eastern League: Minnesota’s Matt Guerrier, who was traded in the final year of his contract last summer but couldn’t find a 40-man job and signed back on with the team he spent the early part of his career with.  His placement in AA was temporary; he’s already back with AAA.  Ironically the 2nd oldest player in the Eastern league is also on Minnesota’s team: Virgil Vasquez, who is in his 12th pro season with just a handful of major league appearances over that time and who came back into affiliated ball after two seasons of indy league.

Youngest Guy in the Eastern League: San Francisco’s Adalberto Mejia, a lefty starter prospect who jumped straight from the DSL to low-A and has climbed steadily since.  Interestingly, the six youngest players in the league all play for either the San Francisco or Baltimore franchises, including Zach Davies and Dylan Bundy for Bowie.

Percentage of Eastern League pitchers on MLB 40-man rosters: just 5.33% (9 of 169), down from last year’s 8.24%.  Interestingly 3 of those total of 9 are Nats farmhands, including one of the last remnants of the now-extinct draft-day MLB deal in Purke.


High-A Potomac

Team First Name Last Name DOB Age as of 9/1/14 Age Status
Potomac (Wash) Dakota Bacus 4/2/1991 23.42 Young
Potomac (Wash) Robert Benincasa 9/5/1990 23.99 Old
Potomac (Wash) Ian Dickson 9/16/1990 23.96 Old
Potomac (Wash) Brian Dupra 12/15/1988 25.71 Really Old
Potomac (Wash) Pedro Encarnacion 6/26/1991 23.18 Young
Potomac (Wash) Bryan Harper 12/29/1989 24.67 Really Old
Potomac (Wash) Travis Henke 7/9/1988 26.15 Really Old
Potomac (Wash) Nick Lee 1/13/1991 23.63 Young
Potomac (Wash) Gilberto Mendez 11/17/1992 21.79 Really Young
Potomac (Wash) Brett Mooneyham 1/24/1990 24.60 Really Old
Potomac (Wash) Ronald Pena 9/19/1991 22.95 Young
Potomac (Wash) Brian Rauh 7/23/1991 23.11 Young
Potomac (Wash) Derek Self 1/14/1990 24.63 Really Old

Discussion: Do you sense a trend?  Five of Potomac’s 13 arms are “Really Old” for the league.  Thankfully four of our 5 starters here are “young” for the league right now.  The only exception is Brett Mooneyham, who is now “really old” for high-A and yet is still scuffling along.

Oldest Guy in the Carolina League: Baltimore’s Eunchul Choi, a 30-yr old South Korean pitcher who Baltimore signed as a MLFA three off-seasons ago and who apparently has yet to throw a professional inning.

Youngest Guy in the Carolina League: Atlanta’s Lucas Sims, who (no surprise) was the youngest player in the South Atlantic league when we did this analysis last year.  All he did in 2013 was go 12-4 with 134 K’s in 116 innings as the youngest guy in the league.  It looks like Atlanta may have yet another young, big-time arm in its rotation in a couple of years.

Percentage of Carolina League pitchers on MLB 40-man rosters: 0%.  Now that teams are prevented from signing draftees to MLB deals, the odds of ever seeing a non-rehabbing 40-man player below AA seem to be slim.


Low-A Hagerstown

Team First Name Last Name DOB Age as of 9/1/14 Age Status
Hagerstown (Wash) Dixon Anderson 7/2/1989 25.17 Really Old
Hagerstown (Wash) Andrew Cooper 6/27/1992 22.18 Young
Hagerstown (Wash) Cody Davis 7/21/1990 24.11 Really Old
Hagerstown (Wash) Wirkin Estevez 3/15/1992 22.46 Young
Hagerstown (Wash) Lucas Giolito 7/14/1994 20.13 Really Young
Hagerstown (Wash) L.J. Hollins 7/31/1991 23.09 Old
Hagerstown (Wash) Jake Johansen 1/23/1991 23.61 Old
Hagerstown (Wash) Nick Pivetta 2/14/1993 21.54 Really Young
Hagerstown (Wash) Hector Silvestre 12/14/1992 21.71 Really Young
Hagerstown (Wash) John Simms 1/17/1992 22.62 Young
Hagerstown (Wash) Matthew Spann 2/17/1991 23.54 Old
Hagerstown (Wash) Wander Suero 9/15/1991 22.96 Old
Hagerstown (Wash) Justin Thomas 10/21/1990 23.86 Really Old
Hagerstown (Wash) Kylin Turnbull 9/12/1989 24.97 Really Old
Hagerstown (Wash) Ryan Ullmann 8/12/1991 23.06 Old
Hagerstown (Wash) Austin Voth 6/26/1992 22.18 Young
Hagerstown (Wash) Jake Walsh 1/1/1991 23.67 Old

Discussion: Hagerstown’s squad isn’t quite as “old” as I thought it’d be, thanks to a couple of really young starters being on the squad (Lucas Giolito and  Nick Pivetta).  But, the team also has two of the 10 oldest players in the league in Dixon Anderson and Kylin Turnbull.  Anderson can be excused somewhat, since he lost time to injury, but he also is repeating low-A and should have been on Potomac’s squad (in this humble opinion).  Maybe he will be soon thanks to the spate of injuries in Potomac.  Meanwhile Turnbull looks like he may be a draft bust; he hasn’t been able to perform above low-A despite his draft-day pedigree.

Oldest Guy in the South Atlantic League: New  York’s Conor Mullee, who hails from Ashburn, attended Broad Run HS and was plucked out of a small college (St. Peters University).  But interesting he was a hitter in college and then immediately switched to pitching.  He blew out his arm and missed all of 2011 after TJ surgery … then missed all of 2013 as well.  He currently sits on Charleston’s 7-day D/L as the oldest guy in the league by 6 months.

Youngest Guy in the South Atlantic League: Texas’ Akeem Bostick, a 2nd round pick in 2013 out of a South Carolina high school who more than held his own in the Arizona rookie league.  Also amongst the youngsters in the Sally league are Baltimore’s big-time prospect Hunter Harvey and our own Giolito.

Percentage of South Atlantic League pitchers on MLB 40-man rosters: 0%.


Conclusion:

I think its safe to say that the Nats draft strategy of focusing primarily on college-age arms is starting to be seen; our pitching squads are filled with “older” guys.  But interestingly these older arms seem to mostly be in the bullpens, while our starting corps are by and large filled with “younger” arms relative to their league-wide colleagues.

 

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.

 

Two months in; Stuck in Neutral

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So my dad calls me the other day and immediately exclaims, “What’s wrong with this team?!?

Today, the season is 57 games old.  Two months old.  Almost exactly 1/3 old.  And the Nationals, the supposed power houses, next-coming-of the 1927 Yankees, the possible 110 win Nationals, are a .500 team.  Actually, a game under .500 with the weekend series loss to Atlanta.

We’ve talked about the Nats early schedule (as has Tom Boswell recently), chock full of 2012 playoff contenders.   But 2013 is a new season and in reality the Nats as of two months in have played the 14th ranked schedule of 30 teams (3 days ago it was 19th ranked … so these rankings move fast).   We’ve talked about the injuries, the offense in general, defense, the bench, Drew StorenDanny Espinosa, and Dan Haren all as contributing factors. A couple of prominent national baseball writers pipped in on 5/31/13 on this topic: Jay Jaffe on si.com and then Rob Neyer on BaseballNation.com, offering some suggestions, possible trades (Ian Kinsler?) and possible call-ups (the obvious Anthony Rendon).

But here’s my scary thought, as proposed to my dad.  What if .500 is exactly what this team is?

The 2011 Nationals finished .500.  The 2012 Nationals surprised us all and won 98 games.  Now the team is back to its 2011 levels.  Is it possible that this was always a .500 team for whom everything went perfectly right in 2012?  All the stars were in alignment in 2012 in terms of hitting, bench play and coming out parties for guys like Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper and Gio Gonzalez.   Now in 2013 are we just seeing all these guys revert to their normal production levels?

Were we just spoiled by the amazing bench production we got last year?  Here’s a quick table (stats as of 5/31/13):

player 2012 OPS+ 2013 OPS+ Career OPS+
Bernadina 113 34 85
Moore 125 27 90
Lombardozzi 83 55 74
Tracy 112 19 97

In other words, all four primary bench guys outperformed their career OPS+ values (mostly by a 25-30% factor) in 2012, and now all four guys are hitting so far below replacement level as to be drastically hurting the club.

I think the answer to the above questions goes along the following, topic by topic:

  • No, this is better than a .500 team.  The 2013 team is absolutely better than the 2011 team that rallied in September to finish 80-81.  The rotation now is leaps and bounds better than the 2011 rotation.  The offense (on potential anyway) is better.
  • This team is by-and-large the exact same team as the 2012 98 win team.  You can quibble about the loss of Michael Morse‘s charisma and power versus the fire-starting abilities of Denard Span at the top of the order, but then you also have to acknowledge the runs-saved so far this season by having an additional plus-plus defender in the outfield.  Haren versus Edwin Jackson?  At least a wash.  Bullpen additions and subtractions?  Perhaps replacing Burnett, Gorzelanny and Gonzalez with just Zach Duke and Rafael Soriano has weakened the bullpen.  Perhaps not, considering Soriano’s pedigree as a closer and its cascading effect on the rest of the bullpen.
  • The bench over produced in 2012 and is underproducing thus far in 2013, per career averages.  A bit of expected regression to the mean should indicate rising bench offensive production from here on out.  It almost has to; there’s just no way that these four guys are going to hit THIS badly the rest of the season.

But, the early season damage as been done.  At this point, just for the team to match its 2012 win total they’d have to finish the season 70-35.  That’s a .667 winning percentage.  That’s a 110-win pace for a season.  The NL Central right now has three teams with better records than either Atlanta or Washington, the two pre-season NL favorites, meaning there may not even be a NL Wild-Card to fall back on.  This team needs to focus on winning the division or there may not be an October.

This sounds like something Yogi Berra would say, but here goes: you have to score to win.  For me, if they start scoring runs and out-hitting teams, the issues we have with defense, the bullpen and injured starters will become secondary concerns.  As we speak, these Nationals are hitting .229 AS A TEAM.  That’s unbelievable.   Almost amazingly bad.  They’re 28th in batting average.  They’re dead last in team OBP (on a pace for a modern seasonal low OBP in fact), 27th in team slugging, 29th in wOBA and 28th in wRC+.

They need Werth back in the middle of the order.  They need a healthy Harper, who hasn’t been the same since the LA wall crash but really hasn’t been the same since hitting the wall in Atlanta in late April (from a tweet by Mark Zuckerman: Bryce Harper’s stats before April 29 collision in ATL: .356/.437/.744. His stats since: .183/.315/.350).  They’re finally getting LaRoche back on track, and Zimmerman is hitting well.  They need to stop giving at bats to Espinosa, and they need Ramos back to help spell Suzuki (he’s catching nearly every game and his offense has bottomed out in the last month).

I’m going under the assumption, by the way, that Strasburg misses at most one start and that Detwiler returns straight away.  I don’t think Nathan Karns is ready for the big time and the team needs to find another spot starter in the short term (Stammen?).

June is here; a weak schedule and an opportunity to get some wins.  If we’re still .500 on July 1st, then we’ll probably have run out of excuses and decided that we are who we are.

Ladson’s inbox 1/7/13 Edition

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Readers ask creative questions for keeping Morse around. It won't matter. Photo Cheryl Nichols/Nats News Network

Slow week for baseball news; I’m sure that will end tomorrow when the Hall of Fame class (or lack there of) is announced.  Meanwhile MLB.com’s Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson published a mailbag on 1/7/13.  Here’s how I would have answered his questions.

Update: after I wrote this, LaRoche signed.  So much for a slow news week for our Nats.  Some of the below may now be slightly dated analysis.

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

Q: If Anthony Rendon stays healthy, could you see Ryan Zimmerman moving to first base and Rendon playing third base?

A: Yes, absolutely.  I’m now firmly on the following succession plan: Rendon hits his way to the majors, proves he can play excellent 3B defense, and we move Zimmerman and his nearing-Chuck Knoblock/Steve Sax issues with his throwing arm to first base.   Zimmerman would save the wear and tear on his body by not having to field bunts and dive for as many grounders, and would not have to make any more casual throws across the diamond (he’s proven that under duress or when hurried that he is very accurate, a clear indication that when he doesn’t think about the throw, he makes it).   And we install Rendon at third where by all accounts he’s just as good a defender as Zimmerman is.

However.  There’s a few things that need to happen for this plan to work.  Rendon (as the question mentions) needs to stay healthy.  He needs to prove he can hit MLB pitching.  And the Nats need to NOT lock up first base for the next three seasons with Adam LaRoche, else the position is blocked, Zimmerman stays at 3B for the duration of LaRoche’s deal and Rendon will have to push someone else off their position (Espinosa at 2b is the likely target … but Espinosa is nearly a 4 win player despite his strikeouts.  They don’t grow 4 win players on trees).   So Rendon may be stuck until another solution presents itself, perhaps by way of injury.

Update: with LaRoche’s signing,  we now know that Zimmerman isn’t moving to 1B for at least two  years, so now Rendon’s path is more complicated.

Ladson kind of hedges and says “well, lets just see what happens.”

Q: Why the talk of trading Michael Morse when trading Jayson Werth would be far better for the team? Besides all the money it would free up, Morse is three years younger, hits far better, especially with men on base, and has more power.

A: Because who in their right mind would take Jayson Werth with the massively backloaded contract he’s currently on while he’s in his decline years in his mid 30s and has shown himself suddenly to be injury prone??  That sentence is exactly the reason that the Werth contract was and is criticized as being one of the “worst in the game.”   Because its unmoveable.   He’s going to be paid $21.57 million dollars in the year 2017 when he’s 38.   If Werth was still producing at his last Philadelphia year level (he posted a 4.3 bWAR in 2010, which using a rough FA estimate of $5M/war would mean he was “valued” at exactly $21.5M), there wouldn’t be as much complaining.  But in the first two years of the contract, he hasn’t produced anywhere near that WAR value (bWARs of 1.0 and 0.6 in the first two years of the contract).  Yes he was hurt in 2012, but its not like he’s giving back the money for the 81 games he didn’t play.

This is such an ignorant question, you wonder why Ladson took it.

All that being said, yes I understand why the Nats made the Werth deal.  I think it was done fully well knowing what an albatross it was to be.  It was done to acquire the competitive nature of Werth and to send a message to the league that the Nationals were a new regime post Jim Bowden.

Ladson talks about Werth’s “non number” contributions to the team, saying he’s more valuable than numbers suggest.  I think that’s a really myopic viewpoint of Werth’s contract, his production and the point of the question.

Q: Any worries about losing three left-handers out of the bullpen? That was a big strength last year. What are the options?

A: Was our three lefties really that big of a strenth last year?  Other readers here have pointed out Michael Gonzalez‘s complete inability to deal with right-handers (they hit him for a .297/.378/.484 slash line in 2012), meaning that the team really could only trust Gonzalez for solely lefty-lefty matchups.  Tom Gorzelanny was the 7th guy out of the pen, the long-man/mop-up guy whose large majority of IP were defined as “low leverage,” implying that despite his excellent ERA in 2012 his production can be replaced relatively easily.  Sean Burnett was inarguably great … but also was commanding 3 year guaranteed contracts in a baseball management era where we now know that relievers should be treated as fungible assets and never guaranteed major money to.  So allowing him to leave was the right decision to make.

Gorzelanny has been replaced by Zach Duke, who (as I’ll begrudingly admit that “peric the troll” was right about, stemming from a conversation here last September) seems to be a better option and who seems to have been given all of Gorzelanny’s appearances last September (Gorzelanny didn’t appear in a game for nearly two weeks in the middle September).

However, I will admit that I am slightly worried about the fact that we seem set to replace the value of both Gonzalez and Burnett at this point with Bill Bray, who may or may not even make the team.  I really thought we’d win the J.P. Howell FA sweepstakes.  Now at this point, I’m guessing perhaps the team just trusts the matchups and remembers that Tyler Clippard is lights out against lefties despite being a RHP (lefties hit him for a .170/.260/.259 slash line in 2012, a year when Clippard was significantly worse than in 2011).  Maybe the team finds a MLFA or a career reclamation project out there (much as they did with Gonzalez and Duke last year).   Or (most likely) maybe the team demands a lefty bullpen arm in trade for the eventual Michael Morse transaction once LaRoche signs on for 2013 and beyond).  We’ll see; lots of hot-stove league left.

Ladson thinks there’s more acquisitions coming.

Q: Morse was drafted as a shortstop, so is there a way the Nationals could convert Michael into a second baseman?

A: If Morse’s mobility is that poor in LF, he’d be considered a statute at 2nd.  There’s just no way he could possibly move there at this point.  Besides, Espinosa is considered a very good defender and the Nats regime values plus defense.  He may have been a shortstop once, but that was long ago.  Ladson says its never going to happen.

Q: What are the chances the Nats try to make a trade for Giancarlo Stanton? Then they can put Werth or Bryce Harper at first base.

A: Hah.  Well, I’m sure the Nats (and most every other team in the league) would kill to have Stanton.  But Stanton is probably the most valuable resource in the game; a pre-arbitration premiere slugger.  The only thing more valuable probably is a pre-arbitration Ace starter (think Tim Lincecum before he hit arbitration).   Stanton is under team control for four more years and isn’t even arbitration eligible yet.  On the open market he’s worth $25M/year; he’s set to earn somewhere in the mid $500,000 in 2013.   It would have to take something well north of the prospect haul that Tampa Bay got in the James Shields trade, and that trade netted Tampa Wil Myers, basically the best propsect in the game.

The Nats (and most teams in the game) simply do not have enough prospect depth to pry Stanton away.  And, the Marlins would have to be crazy to trade him intra-division.  Just isn’t happening.  I think the penny pinching Marlins keep him for another year and trade him before he hits arbitration, making him someone elses’s escalating salary issue.   Ladson says that the team wouldn’t trade for Stanton because their outfield is set for the next two seasons.  Really!?  You wouldn’t trade away Span or Werth, even if you paid their entire ride, to acquire someone with the talent of Stanton?

Q: What are the Nats’ plans with Jhonatan Solano going forward?

A: Catcher depth.  Despite his .300+ BA in his short MLB stint, I don’t think he’s anything more than a 4-A player.  We keep him on the 40-man until his options expire and then DFA him, all the while he serves as a 3rd catcher in case Ramos/Suzuki gets hurt.   Ladson points out that Suzuki is a FA after 2013, so perhaps Solano becomes the #2 in 2014 and beyond.  However, Suzuki has a club option for 2014 that could move this schedule out a year.

Ask Boswell 12/31/12 Edition

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Where did all our 2012 lefties go? Photo Nationals stock.

Even in the basking glow of the Redskin’s first NFC East title since 1999, there were still a few Nationals questions thrown into Tom Boswell‘s 12/31/12 Chat at washingtonpost.com.  Here’s a mini chat-response edition.

As always, I edit questions for clarity and answer here as I read down the chat before reading Boswell’s response.

Q: I can’t understand why the Nats have allowed all three of their lefty relievers to depart without serious efforts to re-sign them.

A: I think you have to look at all three guys individually.  Tom Gorzelanny was replaced by Zack Duke, who likely was cheaper than the 2yr/$5.7M contract Gorzelanny got from Milwaukee (we have no terms of the Duke deal available, but I’m guessing its around a 1yr $1.5M deal).  I just get the impression the team liked Duke better than Gorzelanny by the end of the 2012 season.  This, ironically, was also the position that “peric the troll” argued for at the end of last season, to give credit where credit is due.  Sean Burnett got 2yrs/$8M with a vesting option at $4.5M if he appears in 110 games over the next two seasons (a relatively easy option to attain considering he has averaged more than 70 games a year each of the last four seasons).   And the Nats likely believe that a 3 year contract for a reliever is too much.  Lastly, the team probably wanted Michael Gonzalez back but got out bid by Milwaukee for his 1yr/$2.2M deal.   So they’re now back on the market, possibly in on J.P. Howell on a deal for less than what Gonzalez want, but also have Bill Bray in the fold on a minor league deal.  I know these aren’t eye-popping numbers, but the way to build teams is to save money where you can and to stick to a methodology.  Mike Rizzo‘s methodology for building bullpens seems to be to save money where you can, knowing that more bullpen arms are available in the minors.   Boswell thinks the team has ably replaced at least two of these guys, but also says the team NEEDS to get Howell.

Q: If I got in a time machine and went back to December 31, 2011 and told you to bet your house that both the Redskins and the Nats would win their respective divisions, would you have believed it? Furthermore, if I traveled to December 31, 2013, what is your guess regarding what the talk would be about?

A: Just talking about the Nats; if you had told me the 2012 Nats were winning the division I would have laughed.  I thought the team was improved from 81 wins, but not improved by 17 games.  Mark Zuckerman had a nice WAR-analysis piece after the Gio Gonzalez trade that showed that the team could be improved by 12 wins or so, but nobody thought the team would explode for 98 wins.  What’s a good prediction for 2013?  Well, borrowing on Zuckerman’s WAR analysis piece, you can make a legitimate argument that the team is setup to be improved again in 2013.  This is a teaser for a blog post coming this week, but the proof is out there.  If you eliminate the negative WAR guys (which, for the most part we already have) and then account for improvements from guys playing full seasons … we could easily be a 100+ win team.  Boswell says he wouldn’t have believed that both teams would win the divisions in 2012.

Q: Couldn’t the Nats sign LaRoche and keep Morse as their number one guy off the bench, sending Moore to AAA to play every day?

A: They could, but that would be a monumental waste of Michael Morse‘s abilities.  He’ll be healthy in 2013; when he was healthy in 2011 he hit 30 homers.  There’s no reason to think he won’t return to that form.  So, if the team retains Adam LaRoche, the prudent option is to move Morse for some farm system depth (depth which we desperately need).   Tyler Moore has nothing to prove in AAA; he NEEDS MLB at-bats.  I don’t have a problem with Moore being the super-sub he was in 2012 again, but he’s another guy who might be better served being traded as well.    Boswell points out Morse’s .857 OPS as a Nat and rightly points out that this is too big of a bat to sit idle.

Ladson’s Inbox 12/28/12 edition

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Rodriguez getting ready to fire in another pitch he has no idea where its going. Photo via humorfeast.blogspot.com

Holiday edition mailbag from MLB.com’s Nats beat writer Bill Ladson for 12/28/12.

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

Q: Where does Henry Rodriguez fit in the Nationals’ plan this upcoming season?

A: A good question; Mike Rizzo loves Rodriguez but I find him completely frustrating as a fan.   In 2011 he led the league in wild pitches despite only throwing 65 innings, and in 2012 he had a -0.7 WAR and a 69 ERA+ before hitting the DL for season ending surgery.  He’s got no minor league options and thus has to be either carried on the active roster or be subject to DL shenanigans.  Davey Johnson also loves him, and said he was the Nats best pitcher last spring training.  My guess is that Rodriguez holds it together for another spring, breaks camp with the team and then plays his way into a DFA.  The team can replace his 7th/8th inning innings with Christian Garcia rather easily (assuming of course that the team realizes that Garcia’s arm is too fragile to reliably be depended upon as a starter).  Ladson predicts he’ll be a middle reliever for this team in 2013.

Q: What are the Nats going to do with first baseman Chris Marrero?

A: Great question; he has one more minor league option, is clearly behind the likes of Chad Tracy and Tyler Moore on the first base backup pecking order, but really hasn’t got much left to prove in the minors.  He hit admirably enough at AA and AAA in 2010 and 2011.  I think Marrero’s problem is that he’s stuck at first base but has limited power capabilities.  If he played LF, perhaps you could deal with someone who didn’t look to hit more than a handful of homers at the MLB level.  But he plays a position that needs 25-30 homers of production.  I think he’s trade bait ultimately.  Ladson says the team’s bench is set and that Marrero may be traded.

Q: Isn’t it time to make Ross Detwiler the No. 4 starter? Also, what do you think of Nats’ rotation?

A: I’m not exactly sure what the questioner wants; does it really matter if Detwiler is #4 or #5?  Not really (not until the playoffs anyway).  Detwiler is the 5th starter inarguably on this team, looking at the accomplishments of the 4 other guys.

I think the rotation is either the best or competing to be the best in the sport.  I’ve got a future post ranking all 30 rotations (I’m more or less waiting for the last of the impact free agents to sign before publishing it), and (teaser) the Nats are in the top 3 without question.  However, the Nats rotation is very, very thin.  If one of the 5 guys goes down, I really don’t know who is going to step up to make starts.   Zach Duke?  Ryan Perry?  Lets pray for a healthy spring training.  Ladson says Detwiler is the 4th starter entering spring training, and that he likes the rotation.  Not a very deep answer.

Q: Bill Bray was an OK pitcher in his last stint with the Nationals. Do you think he will be anywhere near as good the second time around?

A: It all depends on his health.  A groin strain and then a back strain cost him more than 100 games last year.   Those injuries should be healed up well enough by now; if he was recovering from an arm injury I’d be more worried.  He posted a 133 ERA+ in 2011; i don’t see any reason why he couldn’t repeat that performance in 2013.  However, I still think the team needs to pursue one more lefty out of the pen.  Michael Gonzalez just signed with Milwaukee, meaning that all three of our lefty bullpen guys from 2012 are gone.  J.P. Howell remains available but competition is fierce for his services.  Ladson says it all depends on his health.

Q: Should the Nationals be concerned with the way Ryan Zimmerman was releasing the ball at the end of 2012 season?

A: Yes.  They should be concerned with the way he’s been throwing the ball for several years now, AND they should have been concerned with the effects of the shoulder injury that was bothering him all season.  Off-season surgery fixed the latter part.  As for the former … I think its just inevitable that Zimmerman moves to 1B.  At some point I feel his arm action is going to turn into some sort of Chuck Knoblock mental block.  Ladson reminds of Zimmerman’s surgery.

Q: Why don’t the Nationals just give Adam LaRoche a third year? If things don’t pan out by the third year, the team could trade him.

A: Good question.  The core of the team is locked up for 3 more years, why not extend the offer?  I think perhaps the answer relates to the massive amount of arbitration salary the team is looking at by 2015.  They might have 12-13 arbitration cases with escalating salary by then.   And its no guarantee to be able to trade Adam LaRoche in 2015; what kind of return would we get?  We’d likely get marginal prospects AND have to pay most of his salary.  I’m not even mentioning the obvious; he just turned 33; do you want to guarantee a 3rd year 8-figure salary to a 35-yr old?  Isn’t that exactly the kind of contracts that are killing the Phillies right now?  Plus, signing LaRoche locks of 1B for 3 years … meaning no room for Moore for 2 more years AND no room to move Zimmerman if his arm turns into mush.  I know the team likes LaRoche, but it makes more sense for the future of the team to let him walk.  Ladson echos my comments on age and having to eat money on a trade.  He also mentions that the team would like Matthew Skole at first by 2015, which I don’t necessarily think will happen (but we’ll see).

Ladson’s inbox 12/18/12

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Lots of loogy talk in this off-season; Burnett's a hard man to replace. Photo: masnsports.com

Another edition of mlb.com’s Nationals beat reporter Bill Ladson’s Inbox, this time from 12/18/12.

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

Q: Who will replace Sean Burnett as the lefty specialist in the bullpen?

Q: Is there any chance of the Nationals getting J.P. Howell to fill Burnett’s spot? Do you think the club needs him?

A: The Nats 2013 Loogy right now is likely to be minor league acquiree and former franchise 1st round pick Bill Bray.  If he’s healthy, and if he makes the team.  He’s the leader in the clubhouse right now, given the real lack of left handed relief in the farm system right now.  Clicking on baseball-reference’s great franchise pitching depth chart, there’s really not a single viable option that pitched above AA still in the system (I like Patrick McCoy, who did decently in AA, but he wasn’t picked up in Rule 5, which implies to me that he’s definitely not MLB ready).  Zach Duke seems set to be the Tom Gorzelanny replacement; the long-relief/spot-start/mop-up guy, and not necessarily the one-out guy.  The team is still involved with rumors of signing J.P. Howell, and of course could still re-sign Michael Gonzalez, who did so wonderfully for is in 2012.  However, lots of teams are in on lefty specialists right now and we may get out-bid.  I’m partial to Bray; he is a Virginia guy, went to William & Mary, and is the cousin of a buddy of mine (who, when I saw him last weekend, promised to have access to tickets if Bray makes the team).  Lets cross our fingers (stated completely selfishly).

Do we “need” Howell/Gonzalez?  I don’t know if we “need” another lefty, but I’d like another lefty in case Bray isn’t ready to go.  So I’d like to see another acquisition of someone for depth.  I think the bullpen looks better with a second lefty late-innings guy.  Ladson wrote almost exactly what I just wrote, naming all the same points.

Q: When looking at the 40-man roster, could you tell me what Yunesky Maya has to offer?

A: Maya still serves as last-ditch starter help, in case of a rash of injuries at the MLB level.  Despite his poor performances in two prior MLB stints, he’d still be preferable to other career minor league veteran options we probably will have in AAA this year (thinking the likes of Roark, Broderick, or Mandel).  His salary is guaranteed; we might as well keep him around as insurance.  If you’re looking to complain about a 40-man spot being wasted, look no further than Carlos Rivero.   Ladson calls the Maya signing Mike Rizzo‘s worst, and says the same thing I do about starter insurance.

Q: Who do you think has more of an upside: Michael Morse or Adam LaRoche?

A: An oddly worded question; I’m not sure either guy truly has upside at this point in their careers.  Michael Morse is in the last year of a contract, his sub-par defense has him outside of Rizzo’s vision of a pro-defense team, and there’s no guarantee that his 31 homer performance in 2011 wasn’t a complete one-off.  Adam LaRoche is already in his decline years and any guaranteed money is considered a big risk.  The best thing to do for the team would be to get LaRoche to return on as short of a guaranteed contract as he’ll take, and to flip Morse for some farm system depth (vastly depleted in the last 14 calendar months).   But, life isn’t that simple.  LaRoche has to be thinking for himself, and knows that this is the best and last time he’ll have to earn an 8-figure guaranteed deal.  So he has to max things out.  If someone else offers him 3 guaranteed years, he just has to take it.  He’ll never get $13M/year offered to him again.  Which would leave Morse in a contract year playing an easier defensive position (1B), and hopefully being 100% healthy he puts up another 2011 season.   Ladson is a pro-LaRoche guy.

Q: Considering his last outing in the postseason against the Cardinals, is Drew Storen the Nationals’ closer entering Spring Training, or will he have to win the job?

A: One badly timed blow-up won’t cost Drew Storen his job; he earned it back after taking a back seat to Tyler Clippard all summer, and that’s how things will stand going into 2013.  Clippard really struggled down the stretch in the role, and I cannot see any spring training competition at this point.   One thing that wouldn’t surprise me would be a trade though; only one guy can close, but both Clippard and Storen are closer-quality arms.  It could be lucrative to the team in terms of prospect depth to move one or the other to a team in need of a closer (and a team that values saves).  This move may not occur until next off-season though, when Clippard’s salary expectations will be far higher than the team may be willing to stomach for a non-closer.   Ladson says he expects Storen to be 100% and to get 30-35 saves.

Q: Burnett, who was a valuable asset in the bullpen, signed a two-year deal with the Angels. Couldn’t the Nationals have matched that kind of deal?

A: Yes they could have matched the Angel’s offer for Sean Burnett; it really wasn’t that much money.  But, by saving a few million here and there suddenly you have enough to buy a front-line starter.  That’s the right way to build a team in a fiscally responsible way.  That being said, I think perhaps the team was surprised that Burnett “only” signed a 2 year deal, given Jeremy Affeldt‘s 3 year contract for more money (Burnett’s deal has a 3rd year club option).   But Rizzo belives in the same thing that I believe in; bullpen arms are a commodity, can be found for relatively little money and you can get great performance for your dollar.  Think about Gonzalez last year; he was a minor league signing mid-season, and he posted a 132 ERA+ for us in 35 2/3 innings.  I think Bray could absolutely be this year’s version of Gonzalez.  Ladson has a good point: he thinks the Nats were slightly scared off by Burnett’s off -season elbow surgery and didn’t want to guarantee 2 years.

Q: Johnson’s favoritism drives me crazy, and I’m weary of reading about him trying to coax LaRoche into signing. Doesn’t favoritism bother the rest of the team, perhaps cause discord? And does the ballclub truly believe LaRoche can achieve the same numbers next year? I am dubious.

A: A great question; I’ve said in the past that Davey Johnson‘s overt recruiting of LaRoche in the media has to be grating to Morse.  If LaRoche signs elsewhere, I would absolutely believe there may be some discord in the clubhouse between Morse and Johnson that will need to be addressed.  Other readers on this blog don’t necessarily believe this is the case, saying that Morse has to know that “its a business.”  But how would you feel if your boss was overtly recruiting your replacement?  I’d be pissed.  Can LaRoche match his 2012 numbers in 2013?  Sure.  The odds are against him though.  Its more likely to expect declines in production natural with his advancing age.  Ladson says the players love Johnson and would never question him, but didn’t even mention Morse’s name.

Q: Do you think Ian Desmond can pull off another incredible year in 2013?

A: Sure!  Do I think Ian Desmond could also regress at the plate to his pre 2012 numbers?  Yes I do.  I really have no idea what to expect out of guys like Desmond and Roger Bernadina, who both had career years and significantly improved their offense over their career norms.  Are these one-time improvements?  Meanwhile, a guy like Danny Espinosa is in the reverse situation; he’s regressing year to year, and needs to make a leap like Desmond made.  Predictions?   I think all three players stay roughly where they are, Espinosa starts losing ABs against lefties to Lombardozzi, and Rendon starts to force the team’s hand by tearing up AAA in early 2013.   Ladson is really pro-Desmond, saying that he’ll go down as one of the great short-stops in baseball.  That’s heavy praise.

Dan Haren; another excellent signing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duke, Bray signings: excellent, under the radar moves for Rizzo

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Zach Duke seems an easy one-for-one replacement for Tom Gorzelanny. Photo AP Photo/Jeff Roberson via rr.com

It was clear that the Nats stood to lose all three of their left-handed relievers this off-season, either by free agency (Sean Burnett, Michael Gonzalez) or by salary-driven non-tenders (Tom Gorzelanny).  And it also became pretty clear that the price for quality left-handed relief is on the rise, on the backs of Jeremy Affeldt‘s 3yr/$18M deal to remain with San Francisco.  The Nats have all-but-announced that Burnett is going to be too expensive for them as a result.  Furthermore, the Nats farm system faces a specific lack of quality left-handed reliever options in the upper minors (2012 Nats farmhands Atahualpa Severino having been DFA’d off the 40-man roster in 2012, Corey VanAllen posting a 6+ ERA in 2012, and Patrick McCoy only having reached AA.  Plus both Severino and VanAllen are minor league free agents to boot), so the team clearly was on the market for FA lefty relief.

Mike Rizzo took two nice steps towards rebuilding this lefty reliever depth with the 12/3/12 signings of Zach Duke and Bill Bray to one year deals.  Duke salvaged his career in 2012 by putting in a 15-5 season in AAA starting, then providing decent (albeit generally low-leverage) relief for the big club in September.  He signs a major league deal, significant because he has 6+ years of service time and thus cannot be sent back to AAA without consent; clearly Duke is meant to be in the bullpen in 2013.  He seems to be a perfect like-for-like replacement for Gorzelanny, a lefty ex-starter who has the flexibility to pitch anywhere from one-batter to 5 innings as needed.  Its tough to draw a ton of conclusions from Duke’s 13 2/3 September innings (short sample sizes), but his numbers were great (1.32 ERA, 1.098 whip and 10/4 k/bb in those innings).  I don’t think I like Duke as much as Gorzelanny, but at the likely price (terms were not announced but I’d be shocked if this was for much more than a $1.5M deal) compared to what Gorzelanny likely makes in arbitration ($3M or more) this represents a good bit of business.

Meanwhile, re-obtaining Bill Bray returns a special player to the fold; Bray was the franchise’ #1 draft pick in 2004.  He’s a local kid (grew up in Virginia Beach, went to William and Mary, and he’s the cousin of a buddy of mine.  Apologies for the name dropping :-) ), and he represents a pretty good gamble by the team.  His numbers with Cincinnati are very up-and-down, but when he’s on, he’s good.  Signing Bray on a minor league deal allows him to compete for the 2nd lefty spot in the bullpen, but also gives the team 40-man roster flexibility to stash him in AAA to start the year if he’s still not recovered from his 2012 injuries (he missed most of 2012 after two separate muscle strain issues).  Or, if he’s looking like he’s in a 5.00 ERA form versus a 2.90 ERA form, there’s no damage in letting him work out kinks in Syracuse.  I like this move a lot.

Two good pieces of business to start the Winter Meetings for Rizzo.

As a side note, the Adam Kilgore article in the Post this morning reports a couple of interesting points:

  • The Nats plan on working Duke out as a starter this coming spring.  Now, as mentioned above Duke cannot be optioned to the minors by virtue of his service time, so I’m hoping that this move is merely as insurance against a spring training injury to one of the rotation members.  I’m not worried about Duke’s ability to adapt to a drop to the bullpen though; he did so admirably enough in September of last  year after starting in Syracuse the whole summer.
  • Christian Garcia is once again reported as “taking on a starter’s workload” in 2013 Spring Training.  I had an email chat with Luke Erickson about this topic and may turn it into an opinion piece.  What do we make of Garcia’s constantly reported conversion to being a starter?