Nationals Arm Race

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

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When Zimmerman comes back …

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Zimmerman the outfielder?  Photo unknown via fantasyknuckleheads.com

Zimmerman the outfielder? Photo unknown via fantasyknuckleheads.com

… do you just go ahead and start fielding the lineup that we’ll be trotting out in 2015 anyway?

Leave Rendon at 3rd, leave Espinosa at 2nd, install Zimmerman at 1st and trade Adam LaRoche to a team that needs a first baseman?

Perhaps a couple weeks into the season you could have made that argument.  But there’s a few problems with this scenario:

  1. LaRoche is easily the team’s best hitter right now with a slash line better than the coveted .300/.400/.500.  You don’t trade the best hitter off of your offensively struggling team.
  2. Nobody makes trades 8 weeks into the season.  And most of the possible trade candidates for LaRoche (Baltimore, New York, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh) don’t make as much sense now as they may have a few weeks ago.
  3. Espinosa is starting to remind the team again why they demoted him last year, with his average now slipping towards Mendoza line territory.
  4. Despite the Nats awful stretch, they’re only 2.5 games out of first in the NL East, and that’s during a stretch when the meat of their order has been missing.  Its far too early to wave any white flags and/or start dismantling the team.

I’m sure part of LaRoche would love to get traded; it frees him of any qualifying offer complication this coming off-season, where at age 34 he’s likely looking at his last final grasp at a multi-year deal.  But the other part of LaRoche wants to stick with a winner, a team that gives him the best shot at getting back to the post-season (he’s only got a handful of games in his 11 year career playing in October).  On the other hand … the Nats would be crazy to give LaRoche a Q.O., so maybe the team is thinking, “hey, we need to move LaRoche and get *something* for him before we let him walk and get nothing for him.”

More likely the team is actually thinking this: “We were good enough to win last year, we’re good enough to win this year … so we’re keeping the band together until the bitter end, division title or not.”


Or, do you take interest in the fact that Zimmerman has been taking a ton of fly-balls and stick him in left?  I like this move: Zimmerman comes back, and you leave the infield as-is, stick him in left field and you’re a stronger lineup.  Zimmerman’s “yips” will disappear in Left Field; every throw he’ll make will either be a lob back into the infield after a single, or a max-effort peg to either 2nd or home that won’t allow him time to “think” about the throw.  Jon Heyman is now reporting that Zimmerman is being set-up to be a multi-positional player and his fly ball workouts were not (as Zimmerman claimed multiple times) just a “workout” routine.

(side note: I now exactly what Zimmerman is going through; as a 15-yr old middle infielder I tore my rotator cuff.  After rehab, I returned and found that I struggled to make simple throws from second base or short stop.  I had the yips myself.  I eventually moved into the outfield to finish off my career in a rather frustrating fashion.  After years of playing softball in my 20s, where nearly every infield throw is max-effort, I had regained a ton of my confidence and could return to playing middle infield on the diamond … but I still struggle on specific plays.  When I first came back I caught … and (like Sasser) struggled making the throw back to the pitcher sometimes.  Making a double-play turning toss from ss->2nd?  I sieze up every time and have resorted to flipping the ball under-handed.  It is a very frustrating situation to deal with.  Zimmerman acknowleding his issue and trying to do what’s best for the team by limiting his arm exposure shows great character).

Of course, then, when Harper comes back … what do you do?

Maybe you frigging finally sit Denard Span and his middling OBP (which was raised 40 points by his recent outburst and 4-4 game) and stick Harper in center.   I’ve had it with our lead-off hitter making outs nearly 8 out of 10 times up.  Yes Span is a plus defender in center and inarguably saves runs.  No, Harper would not be as good as Span in the field.   But at this point, replacing Harper’s production for Span’s in the lineup makes this a better team.

In reality, if Espinosa is still hitting in the low .200s and everyone’s coming back, then he’ll be the one that makes way.  I don’t think I like Zimmerman for 2nd base like other pundits do. For one, the guy’s too big for 2nd and I don’t think he’s mobile enough to play that position at this point in his career.  But mainly, if he’s got a hitch in his throw from 3rd, he’ll have it even worse from 2nd, where a ton of throws are very casual/toss it over throws and you can go completely mental.   There’s a reason that the famous cases of “baseball yips” are either 2nd basemen (Steve SaxChuck Knoblock) and catchers (Mackey Sasser).  These two positions make a lot of unpressured throws, and guys can get “yippy.”

So that means Rendon back to 2nd, Zimmerman back to 3rd, and the fanbase back to holding its collective breath everytime he gets a grounder.  At least until spring training 2015, when this all goes away by itself when LaRoche hits free agency and Zimmerman permanently attaches a 1st basemen’s glove to his left hand.

I’ll give credit where credit is due though on Zimmerman taking fly-balls and apparently being amenable to trying out the outfield: seeing a gold-glove winning veteran on a 9-figure deal trying a new position mid-career, perhaps acknowledging that he has a problem is refreshing.  Remember the nightmare we had with Alfonso Soriano moving to left field?  And word came out recently that Rickie Weeksrefused to consider” a position switch from 2nd to left, a rather disappointing turn of events for his team, who are paying the underperforming infielder $11M to ride the pine this year.  Instead Zimmerman looks to be doing the team-first thing, working out at a new position where he can get back into the lineup AND not hurt the team anymore.  It isn’t unheard of for hall-of-fame calibre players to move positions (see Yount, Robin), nor is it unheard of to see plus-defenders try alternate positions for the betterment of the team (see the likes of Manny Machado and Jurickson Profar, both fantastic fielding shortstops who are playing other positions to allow entrenched veterans who may not necessarily be better fielders stay at short).  Heck, look at what Rendon did; he was a third baseman all the way … and he made the move to 2nd and has done reasonably well there.

We’ll see what happens when Zimmerman gets off the d/l.

 

 

Ladson’s Inbox 4/18/13

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I’m sure there’s going to be some nervous questions with the Nats uneven start in MLB.com Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson‘s latest mailbox (dated 4/18/13).  Lets dive in.

Q: Will the Nationals stick with right-hander Dan Haren for long if he continues to struggle?

A: I would think so.  You can’t judge a pitcher after 3 starts.  But you can start to make changes after about 6-8 starts.  The big concern with Dan Haren right now is clearly his control; he’s missing out over the plate a lot, and he’s getting hammered.  He’s not going to overpower you; he relies on control and command and a sinking fastball.  Right now he’s struggling with all three.  He’s giving up a TON of hits (26 in 13 innings) for a very ugly WHIP.  But he’s not walking anybody (1 walk on the season).

Is he washed up?  That’s hard to imagine; he’s only 32.  His money is guaranteed; will his immense salary give the team pause to replace him?  They didn’t hesitate to send down John Lannan and his $4M salary last spring … but $13M is a different story.

Ladson second guesses the acquisition, which I think is pretty gutless if he’s not on record before with these concerns (which I cannot say that I recall seeing).  Otherwise he says its early and check back in a month.

Q: What is Plan B for Haren’s spot in the rotation?

A: Well now that’s a good question.

Your AAA candidates right now aren’t exactly enticing.  They’re in AAA for a reason.   Yunesky Maya has proven several times why he isn’t a MLB quality player and is playing out the string in Syracuse.  Danny Rosenbaum couldn’t make the Rockies rotation, one of the worst in the game (but to be fair, he’s still a prospect and could turn into a new version of Tommy Milone with some more seasoning).  Ryan Perry hasn’t looked convincing since his acquisition.  Ross Ohlendorf hasn’t looked bad so far this year in Syracuse, but he’s sort of like the 2013 version of Zach Duke, a guy who couldn’t catch on with a MLB team so he’s trying his luck on a ML contract.  Tanner Roark has been awful so far this year and likely gets replaced in the rotation by … Chris Young, who looks to be the #1 call-up option once he’s back throwing regularly, but again, if he was that good, he’d have picked up with another team.  We don’t really have any upper-end starting prospects anywhere in the system right now close enough to be a decent option either.  The best bet even in AA is Nathan Karns and he’s been awful so far  (wish you had Alex Meyer back yet?  3 starts and a 1.69 ERA so far for Minnesota’s AA team).  The Nats have very little starting pitching depth, we all knew it, and Haren’s troubles are somewhat of a nightmare situation for the team.

Ladson says simply that Chris Young is next in line.

Q: Even if Johnson is not worried about Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing errors, do you think we should be worried?

A: Davey Johnson is clearly protecting his player in the media right now.  Ryan Zimmerman‘s arm is a HUGE concern for this team.  He’s getting very close to a Steve Sax/Chuck Knoblock mental state where he literally cannot make any routine throw any longer.  And that’s really bad for this team, which has no place to put him.  The team just had to acquire Denard Span, which pushed the plus-defender Bryce Harper to left, which cost the team Michael Morse.

Lest you think I’m being a “hind sight is 20/20″ hypocrite here, I’m on record pretty plainly that I didn’t think the Span deal was “necessary,” and pointed out a lot of the issues that we now face in terms of players being blocked and of the loss of Meyr.  One of my oft-repeated mantras is that you “can hide players in left and at first base.”  Meaning, you don’t need a gold glover at 1B or in LF if it means more offense.  But that’s not what Mike Rizzo has chosen to do in Washington.  Instead he ran out of town the lesser defender Morse (if you do want a dose of hindsight analysis, Morse is only leading the AL in Homers as we speak and has a 160 OPS+).

Well, now Zimmerman can’t move to first for at least two years, and LaRoche can’t play anything but first base (Morse could at least lumber around left field if he wasn’t on the sac).  Zimmermandoesn’t rate as a 2nd baseman … so Anthony Rendon is seemingly blocked right now.  Nobody’s going anywhere in the outfield … the Nats are locked into this lineup whether they like it or not.

So, yeah I’m worried.

Ladson says he trusts what Johnson says and also thinks that Zimmerman’s shoulder isn’t 100pct.  What!?  Since when has anyone said that?  In fact, all we’ve heard all spring training is that his shoulder is ready to go.

Q: Does Daniel Rosenbaum have a future in the Nationals’ organization, and if not, what do you see the Nats doing with him?

A: We alluded to Rosenbaum briefly above; lets talk about him in more depth.  I think Rosenbaum represents the kind of softer-tossing control lefty that Rizzo doesn’t entirely favor.  He wants a guy who can miss bats, power pitchers with higher K potentials.  Rosenbaum’s numbers in AAA so far look great at a macro level (2 starts, 6 hits allowed an a sterling 0.82 era) but there’s one rather troubling number: only 3 strikeouts in 11 innings.  In AA last year he had 99 Ks in 155 innings.  I just don’t think that’s enough swing-and-miss potential to be effective in the modern game.  Rizzo traded away Milone, who features as a similar pitcher to what Rosenbaum offers, for somewhat similar reasons.

What is his future?  Perhaps continuing to serve as a backup starter in the minor leagues, perhaps serving as trade fodder for the next off-season’s manouverings.  Ladson says the same essentially.

Q: Do you think Johnson should have had Zimmerman play more innings during Spring Training to get comfortable with his throwing motion?

A: The number of spring training innings for established veteran hitters is immaterial; Spring Training is almost entirely so that the pitching staff can build up the arm strength needed to go 6-7 innings from day one.  So, no, I don’t think any change in time played in Viera would have made a difference here.   Ladson agrees.

Q: Why is the bulk of our lineup sitting in the Marlins series (Danny Espinosa, Bryce Harper, Denard Span)?

A: Harper and Span because they had the flu, Espinosa because he got a huge bruise from a HBP.  Nothing nefarious here.  Ladson confirms/agrees.





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.