Nationals Arm Race

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Nats & Vazquez; Do people really think Detwiler is going to the bullpen?

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Do people really think Detwiler is heading to the bullpen? Photo: Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

By now we’ve all seen the reports; the Nats have been to Puerto Rico to scout Javier Vazquez, the veteran starter who inexplicably “retired” after an effective 2011 at the age of 34.  According to Adam Kilgore‘s initial reports and as stated in other places on line Vazquez is apparently hitting the mid 90s in winter ball and is looking to possibly re-start his pro career.  Kilgore reports that the Nats are looking to offer Vazquez a minor league contract with an “out clause” if he’s not assigned to the Majors by a certain date.

This out clause arrangement seems to make perfect sense for the Nats.  We have a full rotation, we need starter depth in AAA, and Vazquez is a risk having been out of the league for a year, despite how good he looks in a winter ball league that rates at best at being a “weak AAA” level of talent.

What I don’t understand in some of these reports is the claim that the team would love to sign Vazquez and then drop Ross Detwiler to the bullpen.  Mike Axisa from MLBtraderumors stated as much in his report and I got into it with a NY-based blogger who keeps stating that Detwiler “belongs” in the bullpen without really giving much in the way of proof.

Here’s what Detwiler did in 2012: 10-8, 3.40 ERA and a 1.22 whip in 164 1/3 innings and 27 starts.  He posted a 117 ERA+, good for 12th in the league among qualified starters.  He’s a lefty who averages 92-93 and can reach 96 in a division with a number of teams with lefty power (especially Philadelphia).  And he saved the Nats bacon by giving the team its best post-season start in the NLCS.  He is still cheap (he’s first year arbitration eligible this year), meaning he provides great value for the dollar as a starter.

Why exactly would the Nats be looking to replace Detwiler in the rotation??  And why would the team be looking at a reclamation project like Vazquez to be his replacement?  Vazquez’s 2011 numbers were good (13-11, 3.69 era, 1.183 whip) but not earth shattering (106 ERA+ in 2011 after getting hammered in New York the year prior).   Detwiler was a significantly better pitcher by this measure in 2012 than Vazquez was in 2011.   If you had the 12th best pitcher (by ERA+) in the league installed as your 5th starter, why exactly would you be looking to replace him?

Then there’s the “personnel issues” involved with Vazquez at this point.  Why did he walk away from the game?  Wouldn’t you be concerned about his committment levels and his drive at this point?  Why would a team want to give him anything other than a non-guaranteed deal?

Yes, I realize the team’s bullpen, as it is currently constructed, is light on left-handed relievers.  We’ll ignore for the time being the fact that our existing RHPs out there mostly have good lefty splits.  If you go on the assumption that the team “needs” another left handed reliever, there are certainly better ways to fill that spot than by wasting an excellent starter by putting him in the pen.  Any statistical measure of player value will show you that even a medicore starter is usually “worth” more than even an excellent closer; sometimes FAR more.  A quick proof: Craig Kimbrel‘s 2012 season as the Braves closer was epic and historical, and was worth a 3.6 fWAR.  That would only have qualified him for 25th in the league, tied with Kyle Lohse and just ahead of our own Jordan Zimmermann.   And that was for one of the best reliever seasons ever seen.  Rafael Soriano was an excellent closer last  year and only had an fWar of 1.2, a more typical closer number, which would have been about 77th in the league in fWAR, around what Bruce Chen and Edinson Volquez provided in 2012.

In the end, it may not matter; if Vazquez is coming back there’s plenty of teams that make much more sense for him to join that would give him a guaranteed MLB deal and a guaranteed rotation spot.  Any of the bottom 4-5 teams in my Rotation Rankings would make sense.  Returning to Miami would make too much sense, based on where he pitched last and proximity to his home in Puerto Rico.  But it bugs me just the same that people don’t use some common sense when looking at what Detwiler gave the team last year and assuming that he is better served in the bullpen to make way for a lesser pitcher.  I’ll fully admit; I have not always been a Detwiler fan.  But after what he showed the team in 2012, I think you stick with him in 2013 no matter what.