Nationals Arm Race

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

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Who is your Nats “Franchise Four?”

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Zimmerman is one; who else you go? Photo team official

Zimmerman is one; who else you go? Photo team official

(Note: I posted this briefly last week but it got caught up in all the transactions, so I pulled it and am re-posting now).

When we traded Tyler Clippard in January 2015, we traded one of the longest serving Nationals players and traded someone who had grown to be a hugely important player to this franchise.  And in the comments section as we discussed the merits of the trade, someone mentioned that Clippard was clearly in the Nats “Hall of Fame.”

Earlier this month, MLB announced a “Franchise Four” concept to be unveiled with this year’s all-star game … except that the Washington “franchise” does not include either previous Washington-based team.  So, no Walter Johnson or Frank Howard for our historical team; just a bunch of guys who toiled in Montreal 25 years ago.   Johnson and Howard appear in Minnesota and Texas’ “franchise four” list respectively.  I get why MLB did it this way; to avoid the inevitable arguments about teams that have moved and to ensure the Montreal players had a place to be recognized, but it did seem kind of tone deaf to not include Washington players for the current Washington team.  Anyway.

It got me thinking.  Who else belongs in our fledgling team’s “hall of fame?”  Or, assuming that Washington did not matriculate from Montreal, who do you think are our real “franchise four” starting from 2005?  In no particular order, here’s my take on the Washington Nationals franchise current “Hall of Fame.”

1. Ryan ZimmermanHow Acquired: 1st round pick in 2005, debuted in the majors in that same season.  Tenure with Franchise: 10 years (9 full MLB seasons), signed through 2019 with 2020 option.  Franchise Impact: long considered the proverbial “Face of the Franchise,” Zimmerman has collected a number of individual awards for this team over the years.  Peaked in 2009 with a 33 homer/106 RBI season that netted him his sole All-Star appearance, a Gold Glove, and a Silver Slugger.  Since has struggled with injuries and is transitioning to first base, but when healthy remains a solid middle-of-the-order bat.  Off the field hosts a major charity in the name of his mother at the ball park each year and seems likely to spend his entire career with the team.  Where is he now? Manning first base for your 2015 Nationals.

2. Livan Hernandez: How Acquired: traded to Montreal in 2003 (and then re-signed as a FA in 2009). Tenure with Franchise: Parts of 5 seasons  Franchise Impact: Threw the first game in Nationals franchise history on 4/4/2005, and then threw the first home game in franchise history 10 days later.  Was the Nats first all-star and was their opening day starter several times.  Where is he now? After hanging them up, Livan now serves in an advisory role with the Nationals mentoring young pitchers.  There was a funny story about Livan’s role last off-season about how he was a “life coach” to the younger players.

3. Ian Desmond: How Acquired: 3rd round pick in 2004; he is the last remaining player drafted while the team was in Montreal who has stayed with the team.   Tenure with Franchise: 11 years (5 full MLB seasons).  Franchise Impact: As of 2015, the longest tenured National, a player who we well traveled in the minors and who struggled in his first few years in the majors before breaking out in 2012.  Where is he now? Still our starting shortstop, but reportedly turned down a 9-figure contract and stands to become a free agent this coming off-season.

4. Tyler ClippardHow Acquired: Acquired in 2007 for Jonathan Albaladejo in what might have been Jim Bowden‘s best trade as a GM.  Tenure with Franchise: 7 years (6 full MLB seasons).  Franchise Impact: Clippard pitched in parts of 7 seasons for the Nats, served as its closer for most of 2012 but mostly served as the highest leverage reliever out of the pen, filling the crucial 8th inning role (and more important than the closer role in many cases) for years.  Two time all-star and critical bullpen stalwart for two playoff teams.  Threw 70+ innings out of the pen for five straight years.  Fan favorite (who can forget his walk-up “Peaches” song that became iconic in 2012) and media favorite too.  Where is he now?  Traded to Oakland in the past off-season for Yunel Escobar, a trade that I understood and agreed with, but was sad to see nonetheless.

Honorable Mentions/possible future candidates

5. Jayson Werth: How Acquired: Free Agent Signing in Dec 2010.  Easily the largest FA signing to that date, and a signing that was met with roundly poor reviews around baseball.   Tenure with Franchise: Starting his 5th year.  Franchise Impact: It wasn’t as if Werth was a lesser player coming out of Philadelphia; its just that nobody thought he was a 9-figure player.  The Nats made a statement to the league that their time acting as a poor franchise was up, and (in my opinion) Werth was a statement contract to that end.   He struggled in his first season, but has put up solid numbers since and reportedly is an important veteran influence in the clubhouse.  Where is he now? Hurt to start the 2015 season, but soon to be the starting left-fielder, having finally been nudged over from his long-standing position in RF to make room for the superior defensive player Bryce Harper.

6. Stephen Strasburg: How Acquired: First overall pick in June 2009, Signed a 4yr/$15.1M MLB contract and called at the time the greatest college pitching prospect in the game’s history.  Tenure with Franchise: Starting his 6th season.  Franchise Impact: Certainly has been a central part of several bits of news-generating controversy involving the franchise; his bonus figure was record setting, his service time manipulation was controversial (he was kept in the minors so as to avoid “super-2” status and then struck-out 14 guys in his debut), his arm injury sudden and unexpected (and which resulted in the termination of controversial broadcaster Rob Dibble) … and then of course his recovery plan and innings limit/shut-down in 2012 was industry-wide news (and still is, since the Nats havn’t won a WS yet and will continue to be reminded as much until they do).   On the field; he’s been a good pitcher, with a career ERA+ of 127, has made three opening day starts for the team, but has “disappointed” in the respect that he hasn’t been the second coming of Roger Clemens given his post-pro career hype.  Where is he now? Supplanted as the 2015 opening day starter, Strasburg is the 2015 Nats “#3 starter” and is under contract for one more season.

7. Bryce Harper: How Acquired: First overall pick in June 2010.  Signed a 5 years/$9.9M MLB deal as a 17yr old.  Tenure with Franchise: Starting his 4th MLB season.  Franchise Impact: Harper arrived with all the hype you could expect of someone who had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16 year old.  The “narrative” behind Harper preceded him wherever he went, with adjectives such as “brash,” “arrogant,” and “egotistical” seemingly included in every story about him.  All he’s done is debut as a 19-yr old, still remain as the youngest player in the majors as he starts his 4th full pro season, and hold a career slash line (.272/.351/.466) somewhat comparable to Reggie Jackson‘s (.262/.356/.490).   Harper “broke out” in the 2014 playoffs after yet another injury plagued regular season, carrying the team (along with fellow  youngster Anthony Rendon) and hopefully putting himself in a position to realize his potential in 2015.  Where is he now?  RF, #3 hitter for the 2015 Nats.

8. Chad Cordero: How Acquired: First round pick by the Expos in 2003.  Tenure with Franchise: 6 years (2 with Montreal, 4 with Washington).  Franchise Impact: Led the league in saves during the Washington debut season and was one of the Nationals first two all-stars.  Finished a great 2005 season 5th in Cy Young voting and became known by his moniker, “The Chief” throughout the Washington baseball community.  Pitched at a more pedestrian pace in 2006 and 2007 before shredding his shoulder in 2008 (torn labrum).  Unfortunately the injury essentially ended his career; he bounced around the minors until 2013 but never really got another shot.  His tenure with the team ended rather poorly (yet another Jim Bowden misstep), which may explain why he hasn’t really had a place with the organization since. Where is he now? As of 2015, Cordero has re-enrolled at his alma-mater Cal State Fullerton and is listed as an “undergraduate assistant” with their baseball program, which I think is fantastic.  Getting his degree and getting coaching experience.

9. Jordan Zimmermann: How Acquired: 2nd round pick by the Nats in 2007.  Tenure with Franchise: Starting his 7th MLB season.  Franchise Impact: After being drafted out of a small Div II school and surviving Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann has blossomed into being an under-rated durable starter, the kind of pitching back-bone that championship teams need and depend on.  His value became apparent when he tied for the league lead in wins in 2013 and then finished off the 2014 season with a no-hitter and then a dominant 3-hit, 8 2/3 inning infamous appearance in the 2014 NLDS (infamous since the bullpen subsequently blew the game).  Negotiations have not gone anywhere to extend him, and he stands to become a key FA loss this coming off-season.  Where is he now?  The Nats 2015 #2 starter.

Honorable Mentions: Drew Storen, Nick Johnson, Dmitri Young, Adam Dunn, Alfonso Soriano?

Anyone you think I missed?  And if you say Cristian Guzman I will delete your comment :-)

 

 

Mitch Williams on 106.7 inre Strasburg Shutdown, Mechanics

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Would you listen if this guy was criticising your pitching mechanics? Photo unknown via insidesocal.com

I just happened to catch former MLB pitcher and current MLB.com analyst Mitch Williams calling into the morning show on 106.7 this am.  And I felt compelled to immediately call into the show to rebut some of the more arguable statements he made.  Of course, this being Washington DC they only took 2 calls (one of which immediately changed the subject to golf; nice screening there WJFK) before moving onto a football-related segment, so I’ll exhaust my need to speak up in this space.

Williams had lots to say about Stephen Strasburg‘s mechanics, Mike Rizzo‘s decision to shut him down, and other fun stuff.

First off, I find it ironic that a guy with some of the worst mechanics in the last 25 years has the audacity to question Strasburg’s mechanics.  Williams nearly dislocated his left shoulder on every delivery and fell off to the 3rd base side so badly that he nearly hit the ground on each pitch (as is displayed in the photo above).  Strasburg, on the other hand, was considered to have impeccable mechanics upon hitting the draft and you really had to squint to find flaws in his delivery.  Google searches on the topic are so muddied with opinions that its hard to find actual scouting reports from his amateur days versus “hindsight is 20/20” pieces that look for flaws to explain his 2010 injury.  But its ironic that Strasburg suddenly has all these mechanical issues according to pundits, because he got injured.

Speaking of that 2010 injury, Williams intimated that the infamous “Inverted W” was the reason Strasburg got hurt.  I just have an awful hard time with that theory.  First, its a THEORY and is merely a coincidental piece of evidence in pitcher injuries.  You can find examples of pitchers who get into this position pre-delivery who have never had any injury issues just as easily as you can cherry-pick guys like Strasburg or Mark Prior who have suffered injuries.  More importantly, the Inverted W is more indicative of SHOULDER injuries in pitchers, not elbow ligament tears.  Shoulder injuries in pitchers are by and large wear-and-tear injuries, caused by over use and over-throwing over hundreds and thousands of pitches.  You don’t generally throw one pitch and tear completely through your labrum or rotator cuff.   However, elbow injuries to the UCL are almost entirely singular, acute injuries caused on a specific pitch.  We all can remember the exact pitch Strasburg threw to injure his arm and the grimace on his face after he threw it (as well as the blowhard Rob Dibble comments …. but we’ll choose to ignore those).

I wrote at the time my opinion on why Strasburg got hurt, and it had nothing to do with his pitching mechanics (my pet theory: Ivan Rodriguez fell in love with Strasburg’s change-up, had him throwing too many of them, and the vastly increased stress on his elbow caused the injury.  See the Aug 2010 post linked above for more detail).  I think its irresponsible for Williams to get onto a local radio show and opine that Strasburg “needs to change his mechanics” because of the injury, or else he’ll always be an injury concern.  Because in reality, nobody knows.  Personally I think teams trying to “change mechanics” in pitchers is a mistake; you throw one way your entire life, from age 5-6 onwards, and your entire shoulder/arm combination becomes inured to that method of throwing.  How can anyone think that suddenly as a 25 yr old you can even change the fundamental way you throw a baseball and be successful?  Adjustments, no problem.  Fix slight timing issues or slight changes to your wind up?  Sure.  Core changes to arm slots and arm loading?  Problematic.

Williams continued with the same tired themes we’ve been hearing from National writers (i.e., the Veterans aren’t going to like this, its a team game, the Nats should have managed this better, the Nats are foolish not to go for it, etc).  But he fails to mention what most fail to mention; Rizzo arrived at this shutdown decision with Strasburg the SAME way he did with Jordan Zimmermann last year; he talked with the surgeon who performed the surgery (Dr. Lewis Yocum in LA, the same doctor apparently about to pronounce the same fate on our 2012 #1 draft pick Lucas Giolito) and arrived at a prescribed, pre-defined innings limit.  You notice we’re in the EXACT same position as we were with Zimmermann in 2011, yet without any of the national media interest.  (And so far, that limit has worked out pretty darn well for the Nats and Zimmermann; right now, he’s 2nd best in the NL in several macro pitching categories; bWAR, ERA and ERA+, while being top 10 in WHIP, K/BB, and BB/9).

The way I look at it is thus: if you or I had Heart Surgery, your Cardiologist probably would recommend a course of recovery.  For the first X months, avoid any activity, then ease your way back to vigorous activity over a period of Y more months.  And you’d follow that advice, right?  Well, the pitching arm of a Major League Starter pretty much is equivalent to the heart of a normal person; without that arm, you’re not a major leaguer any more.  So when you get surgery on it, you listen to your doctor and do exactly what he says.  If someone told that same heart patient that, well because we’re really close to the World Series, you should really ignore your surgeon and just go for it for the betterment of the team, what would you say?  You’d probably say, “well, this may help the team make this one short term goal but I may be dead a lot sooner because of it.”  In my mind, that’s what Strasburg/Rizzo are doing; they’re following the same advice that has now led to Zimmermann having a fantastic (and healthy) 2012 season.

And one caller, to his credit, did point out a very important fact: the story on Strasburg hasn’t really changed all year.  There was a communicated shutdown expectation to Strasburg and the team in spring training.  Its only the National media that is now catching onto this and thrusting microphones into our players’ faces and asking for reactions that are getting over blown and taken out of context.   I guess this is what its like day in, day out in New York and Boston…

There are no absolutes in life; Strasburg could absolutely re-injure himself in 2 years time and turn into this generation’s Mark Prior.  Or he could be like Chris Carpenter, who had the TJ surgery in 2007 then recovered to a 17-4 record in 2009 as a guy in his mid 30s.  But anyone who thinks they know otherwise is just stating an opinion.  And everyone has an opinion.  I support the shutdown, I think its prudent for the longer term position of this team, and I don’t think 2012 is a once-in-a-lifetime shot for this franchise.  Of the “core 15” of the Nats (8 positional players, 5 starters and 2 relievers) exactly ONE guy is a free agent or not presented with at least an option for 2013.  Most of these guys are either signed long term or under team control for at least another FOUR seasons.  So this team isn’t going anywhere.  You play it safe and get ready for a 4-5 year run.

That’s MY opinion.  :-)