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Pressing issues for the Nats this off-season

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Will Dusty get another contract here? Photo via UPI

Will Dusty get another contract here? Photo via UPI

Since our season is over (but the hot-stove has not yet kicked in), i’ll piggy back on the recent posts to this same topic done by Mark Zuckerman at MASN and by Chelsea Janes at WP.

Their posts both touched on some of the same issues; i’ll take those issues and add in a few of my own.

Major issues for the Nats to address this coming off-season, how I would address them and what I think the team will do:

  1. Resolve Dusty Baker situation.  Many reports have noted that the team wants him back and that he wants to return.  I see little that he could have done differently in the 5-game NLDS loss to use as evidence that he’s not the right guy (you can’t lose when your pitchers throw 6 no-hit innings in playoff starts), and he’s so clearly a better man-manager than his predecessor Matt Williams that I see no reason not to extend him.   I know that the Lerner’s don’t like to do long term contracts, and lets just hope they offer Baker the raise he deserves for two straight division titles (and, in my opinion, the NL Manager of the Year in 2017 award that he should get for working around so many injuries this year).
  2. Should we bring back Jayson Werth?   Yes he’s the “club house leader,” yes he’s been here for seven years and has settled in the DC area.  But he struggled this year with both injuries and performance, is entering his age 39  year, posted a negative bWAR in 2017, and the team has a surplus of outfielders who are probably MLB “starters” heading into 2018, more than we can even field.  I think the team says to Werth something along the lines of the following: Go see if you can find a DH/part time OF job in the AL for a couple years until you’re done playing and then we’ll hire you back as a special assistant/hitting instructor/bench coach or something.  I’m not entirely convinced that Werth is a DC lifer though; he’s been kind of a nomad in his career.  Drafted by Baltimore, traded to Toronto (with whom he debuted), traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, signed as a FA with Philly for four years, then with us for seven.  Yes he’s been with us the longest, but this isn’t a situation like Ryan Zimmerman where we’re the only org he’s known.  I think he heads off to the AL for a couple years then comes back to the fold with a front office job.
  3. What do we do at Catcher?  I’ll quickly repeat what we’ve been discussing in the comments of previous posts; yes I know Matt Wieters struggled badly at the plate this year, yes I know he botched the 5th inning of that fateful game 5.  But he’s not going to decline a $10M offer after this season, nor is the team going to swallow that amount of money.  Prepare yourselves for another season of Wieters, who we can only hope bounces back in his “contract year” and gets a bump in performance.  Meanwhile, as much as we love the Jose Lobaton cheerleader routine, we do need more production from the backup.  Even though Lobaton got just 158 ABs this year, he still managed to put up a -1.0 bWAR figure.  That’s hard to do.  If only we could just have him only play for us in the playoffs … (big hit in game 5 in 2017, the clutch 3-run homer in 2016).  I suspect the team will go with Wieters and Pedro Severino as his backup, getting Severino at least two starts a week to get him up to speed on MLB pitching, then making a 2019 decision based on whether Severino looks like he could hit enough to be a full time starter or if he remains the backup to some FA acquisition.  We have others in the pipeline who may prove themselves worthy soon (Raudy Read in AAA, Taylor Gushue in AA, Jakson Reetz in High-A, Tres Barrera in Low-A, plus long-serving minor leaguers Spencer Kieboom and Jhonatan Solano in the AAA fold who may or may not come back for 2018).
  4. Will they pursue FA extensions with key players?  Namely, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy.  Lets take them one by one:
    1. Harper: lets face it, there’s NO WAY he’s not hitting free agency.  Scott Boras client with a chance to set the all time contract record?  Both guys have the ego required to pursue that avenue.  And yes, while some Boras clients (Stephen Strasburg) have taken pre-FA deals, very few do.  You hire Boras generally to get the biggest value deal and to leverage his relationships with owners so as to negotiate directly with them and that’s what Harper will do.
    2. Rendon: he’s still got two arb years: what I think the team will do is do a 2-year deal to buy out the Arb years and get cost containment.  MLBtraderumors projected Rendon’s arb salary for 2018 at $11.5M and they’re usually pretty accurate; I could see the nats offering Rendon a 2yr/$26M deal for $10M in 2018 then $16M in 2019 or something like that … maybe a little higher in his final year given his MVP-calibre season.  That’d be good for the team because Rendon might be a $20M/year player, and good for Rendon b/c he’s injury prone.  Past this though … Rendon is also a Boras client but he projects to me kind of like Strasburg in that he’s low-key and may want to commit to DC longer term.  Of course, Rendon is also a Houston lifer (born, high school and college there) so he could also want a return trip home to play for his home town team.  Probably an issue for the 2020 hot-stove season.
    3. Murphy: the Nats have gotten such a huge bargain with the Murphy signing.  He’ll only be 34 at the beginning of his next deal, and he plays a position (2B) that isn’t nearly as taxing as an OF or other infield position.  I would feel completely comfortable offering him another 3 year deal, increasing the dollars to maybe $16M/year (3yrs/$48M).
  5. Do they need to pursue a Starting Pitcher?  Absolutely, 100% yes.   Joe Ross is out for basically the whole of 2018, they traded away all their AAA depth last off-season, and the guys remaining in AAA (A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde) did not grab the 5th starter job like they had the chance to in 2017.  Edwin Jackson probably earned himself a shot elsewhere but was too inconsistent for my tastes.  I think the team splurges here, trying to get the best additional veteran starter they can find either on the free market or in trade.  The market for starters is intriguing: Yu DarvishJake Arrieta are Cy-Young quality arms available.  There’s some decent SPs like Masahiro Tanaka and Johnny Cueto who can opt out but who also may just stay put.  There’s #4 starter types like Lance Lynn and Jeremy Hellickson who are available and could be good 5th starters for us.  There’s guys who have put up good seasons but have struggled lately (Jaime GarciaFrancisco LirianoClay Buchholz) who could be intriguing.  So it’ll be interesting to see who they get.
  6. What is the Nats 2018 outfield?  Do they stick with Internal options or do they hit the FA/trade Markets?   I like a potential 2018 outfield of Taylor/Eaton/Harper.  I like Taylor in CF providing better defense than Eaton right now, given that ACL injuries really are 2-year recoveries.  Given Taylor’s big 2017 and his “Michael A Tater” NLDS, he’s more than earned a starting spot in 2018.  That leaves some surplus in the OF for 2018 … something we’ll talk about next.  There are some intriguing names out there on the FA market (J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Lorenzo Cain) who could slot into either LF or CF as needed and give a hopeful boost to the offense … but are any of those guys and their 8-figure salaries guarantees to be better than the cost-contained Taylor?  I don’t think so, and that’s why I think we stick with him.
  7. Do the Nats leverage their sudden depth of position players in trade this off-season?  In particular, i’m talking about Wilmer Difo and Brian Goodwin, both of whom played extremely well when given the opportunity and who both proved that they’re MLB starting quality.   If we stick with Taylor as a starter, then you have both Goodwin and Andrew Stevenson as able backups and that’s one too many.  If we (going back to the previous point) buy another outfielder, then that’s even more surplus.  I’m of the opinion that the team needs to sell high on both Difo and Goodwin and acquire needed assets (5th starter, bullpen help, near-to-the-majors pitching prospects).
  8. What do we do with the benchDrew, Lobaton, Kendrick, de Aza, Raburn all FAs, Lind has a player option but may want to try to parlay his excellent PH season into a FTE job.  So that leaves … not much.
    1. We have already talked about a backup catcher above
    2. We need a RH bench bat who can play corners (1B/LF): that was Chris Heisey to start the year .. but he’s long gone.  Kendrick ably filled this role … but he won’t sign back on as a utility guy given his excellent 2017.
    3. If Lind doesn’t exercise his $5M player option, we’ll need a big bopper lefty on the bench again.  We do have a guy like this on the farm and on our 40-man (Jose Marmolejos) but is he MLB ready?  He had a nice AA season, but AA to the majors is a jump.
    4. If we flip Difo, we’ll need a backup middle infielder.  Do we keep him assuming that Turner/Murphy will get hit with injuries (as they both are apt to do?)  Turner missed months, Murphy missed nearly 20 games in each of the past two years; is that enough to keep someone around versus flipping them?
    5. We do seem OK with backup outfielders right now, assuming that Andrew Stevenson is sufficient as a 4th OF/CF-capable defensive replacement/pinch runner type.

So, that’s potentially a brand new bench.  Luckily its not too hard to find veteran big-hitting RH or LH bats; we seem to do this every year and have some luck.  Middle infielders?  Would you sign up for another year of Drew?  I don’t think I would at this point; he just seems to brittle to count on.   I suspect the team will be quite active in this area.

9. What do we do with the bullpen Right now, given the departing FA relievers (Perez, Kintzler, Blanton, Albers), our “standing pat” bullpen for 2018 looks something like this:

  1. Closer: Doolittle
  2. 7th/8th inning guys: Madsen, Kelley, Glover
  3. Lefties: Solis, Romero
  4. Long Man: Grace/Cole
  5. Minors options: Adams, Gott

So, that’s a pretty solid looking bullpen if two guys in particular are healthy: Kelley and Glover.  Our entire strategy in the off-season seems to hinge on the health of these two.  I have no guesses; so lets assume one of them is good and one of them has a significant all of 2018 injury.  That means we probably pursue another Matt Albers type in the off-season.  Meanwhile, there’s a difference of opinion on the value of both our current lefties: Romero’s ancillary numbers were barely adequate and lefties hit him for nearly a .300 BAA, so he’s not exactly an effective lefty.  Solis blew up this season, posting a seasonal ERA of nearly 6.00 (his FIP was much better) and getting demoted at one point.  But he gets lefties out, Baker trusts him, and I can’t see him not being a part of the solution.  If the team thought they could improve upon Romero, perhaps they also pursue a lefty reliever (or resign the swashbuckler Perez).  I’m ok with Grace as a long man (though his K/9 rates leave something to be desired) but I’d also like to see the team convert Cole to relief at this point.  There’s some options issues to consider; Solis, Romero, Cole, and Grace are all out of options for next year, so they all either make the team or get cut loose.

 


So Summary:

  1. Bring back Baker
  2. Say good bye to Werth
  3. Stand pat on catcher with internal options
  4. Buy out Rendon’s arb years this year, talk about Murphy next year
  5. Get a decent 5th starter
  6. Go with Taylor/Eaton/Harper with Stevenson as your backup in the OF
  7. Yes, trade Goodwin and Difo for stuff
  8. Get one middle RH reliever, one middle LF reliever, convert Cole to relief
  9. Cattle call for bench bats next spring.

Am I missing anything?  Lots of talking points here.

 

 

AFL 2017; who is going and why

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Robles headlines our AFL contingent for 2017. Photo via milb.com

Robles headlines our AFL contingent for 2017. Photo via milb.com

Arizona Fall League 2017 rosters were announced earlier this week.

Here’s the Nats announced participants: Victor Robles, Dakota Bacus, Jimmy Cordero, Kyle McGowin, Austen Williams, Taylor Gushue, Kelvin Gutierrez.

So, that’s an interesting bunch.  We generally see AFL participants named for one of several reasons:

  1. They were hurt and need more ABs/Innings on the year.
  2. They’re uber prospects from the mid-minors who the team wants to see challenged as a “finishing school” kind of situation.
  3. They’re rule-5 eligible in November and the team wants to make a decision on whether or not they’re worth protecting.
  4. The AFL roster is short a catcher, pitcher or middle infielder so the team has to pony up one to fill the roster.
  5. They’re working on something new … a new pitch, switch hitting, etc.

So, given those rules, lets do quick judgements on why these particular players are playing in Arizona.

  • Robles: Reason #2: he’s the team’s undisputed #1 prospect; he’s heading to AFL as a finishing school challenge ahead of him likely working his way into a 2018 call-up.
  • Bacus: Reason #1 and perhaps Reason #3 as well: Bacus missed two months this year on the D/L, but also took a big step forward performance-wise.  He’s been Rule-5 eligible for two years now, but suddenly he’s succeeding at a high enough level that the team may be thinking about protecting him.
  • Cordero: #3 primarily: Cordero was outrighted in August and has had a pretty ugly 2017 season stat-wise.  But he was on a 40-man roster prior to his acquisition for a reason, and the team may want to see a bit more of him before deciding whether to protect him again.
  • McGowin: Reason #1, maybe #5: McGowin missed about two months with two different D/L stints … and was demoted twice this year.  Is the team looking to convert him to relief?  I don’t think he’s a rule-5 jeopardy even though he’s eligible for the 2nd time.
  • Williams: #3 mostly; Williams is Rule-5 eligible for the first time but struggled in AA for the second year running.  He did miss some time this year, but this seems more like a “challenge” AFL placement.
  • Gushue: #3 again, perhaps #4: Gushue is probably under advisement for rule-5 protection by virtue of the fact that he’s a Catcher and he can hit, even if he’s repeating High-A again in 2017.  You can never have too many catchers on the roster for depth, and with the team likely parting ways with Jose Lobaton we’ll need more on the roster.  Catchers on AFL rosters are also in short supply, so there’s a double reason here too.
  • Gutierrez: #1 primarily: he’s shown promise at the plate 3 years running at successive levels, but got hurt and missed a chunk of time after making the Carolina league all-star team.  He’ll get some catch up ABs in Arizona and the team will get to see him challenged too (he’s never been above High-A).

We’re all curious to see how Robles fares against top-end minor league competition of course.  But who among the rest of these guys is even considered a top end “prospect” in our system?  The next closest thing to a “top 10” guy is Gutierrez, who has been in the 8-12 range on the last few rankings.  Gushue was ranked 25th on MLBpipeline.com’s mid-season ranking; the rest of these guys are not even on the top 30.  So, not a great crop of talent necessarily but a slew of guys who the team may want to add at the fringes of the roster later on.

 

MLBpipeline.com mid-season Nats top 30 shows our Farm turnover

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Robles is a beatt. Photo via milb.com

Robles is a beatt. Photo via milb.com

Now is about the time when you start to see a few of the more enterprising pundits out there releasing Mid-season top X lists.  Most guys just do minors-wide updates:

MLBPipeline.com though has a fully updated Nats system top 30, including the 2017 draft prospects, and the list is kind of telling.  Lets dive into it, looking at some of the new guys, the guys who are off the list, the movers and the fallers.

(Note: for reference, here’s my master list of Nats prospect rankings, updated to this MLBpipeline list and updated for player movement even up to the most recent trades).

  • The Top 4 hasn’t changedVictor Robles, Juan Soto, Erick Fedde and Carter Kieboom remain our top 4 prospects, as they have been ever since we parted ways with Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez (more on them later).  Now, whether this will still be the case in a week’s time, when the trade deadline has passed, remains to be seen.  Robles remains the #1 guy, the guy who I think the team is looking at to have a “passing of the torch” moment once Bryce Harper departs town, and remains an incredible bargain in terms of bonus-dollars-versus-prospect status ($225k bonus in 2014).  Soto has streaked up the ranks: prior to the beginning of the 2016 season he wasn’t even in the top 30 lists; now he’s pushing Robles at the top.
  • Six of our Top 30 are 2017 draftees: This was the point that surprised me, looking at the list.  MLB’s #5, 6, 16, 19, 22 and 24th ranked players have played for about a month now in our low minors.  #5 and #6 (the ones that are somewhat meaningful) are of course our top two drafted arms Seth Romero and Wil Crowe.  The reason there’s so much room for adding new draftees though is…
  • We’ve lost a TON of prospects in the last 12 months: Just looking at my master list, here’s the departures from prospect lists lately:
    • Graduated: Grace, Glover, Cole, Goodwin this year, Turner last year
    • Traded:  Neuse, Luzardo this year, Giolito, Lopez, Dunning, Hearn, Schrock, Avila last year or last off-season.  Dunning in particular was in our system so shortly that he never made it to a ranking list.

That’s 13 guys, some of whom were pretty prominently ranked and all of whom were mentioned here or there on various lists.

Now, how about the guys that are left?  Here’s some guys who are really shooting up, rankings wise (and yes, some of their rise is due to the surgical removal of so many guys above them … nonetheless, these guys have all played well):

  • Juan Soto: as mentioned above; MLB has him #2 now.  A year ago he was in the 15-17 range, and prior to 2016 season he was a nobody, outside the top 30.
  • Yasel Antuna: our big-money 2016 IFA signing is not disappointing; he had no playing time this time last year and was ranked in the 19-25 range just based on his bonus.  Now?  He’s hitting .300 as a 17-yr old in the GCL with nearly a .40o OBP (as of this writing).
  • Daniel Johnson: recently promoted and it was well earned: Johnson hit 17 homers in the first half in Hagerstown (not an easy place to hit for power), made the all-star team, and got promoted.  MLB.com has him 10th right now; they had him #29th in April.
  • Blake Perkins: It looks like he’s finally getting the hang of switch hitting, and his OPS in Low-A is 200 points higher than it was last year.  He has generally been in the 16-20 range of prospects; now he’s at #11.
  • McKenzie Mills: the lefty Low-A starter has exploded this year; he sits at 12-2 with more than a K/inning for Hagerstown, made the All-Star team and seems ready for a promotion.  MLB has him at #18 in our system; he’s never even been an honorable mention before.
  • Raudy Read: he’s stepped it up a bit, hitting for some power and holding his slash line to respectable levels as a 23-yr old in AA (and on the 40-man roster).
  • Taylor Gushue: also a 23-yr old catcher, with an OPS above .820 one level below Read in High-A.  Never before ranked (at least for us), MLB.com has him 25th now.  I could see these two catchers pushing each other and pushing the likes of Severino and Lobaton off the 40-man.

And here’s some guys whose prospect value has taken a nosedive this year:

  • Pedro Severino: speaking of catcher depth; Severino has seen his stats take a nose dive as he repeats AAA; his 1.048 OPS figure for the Nats last September seems like a mirage.   He’s still on the 40-man, and his reputation is more about his defense than his offense, but that’s still just a backup catcher ceiling.
  • Drew Ward: Year after year, Ward’s prospect value drops.  He used to be top 10; now he’s fallen to the 20-range.  He’s repeating AA and hitting just .224; he’ll be rule-5 eligible this coming off-season but I can’t see saving him with a roster spot right now.  If he doesn’t turn it around, he’ll end up in org-guy territory soon.
  • Austin Voth: perhaps the most curious of our falling prospects.  He was in the 6-7 range just a year and a half ago, then finished a full strong season in AAA.  2017?  He’s struggled, gotten demoted, and struggled further.
  • Jakson Reetz: he’s now pushed down to 26th, after routinely hanging out in the 10-15 range after being such a high draft pick.  He’s basically been socially promoted by virtue of his bonus figure, having never hit above .230 outside of complex ball.  He’s now backing up a guy in Gushue who’s 2 years older, but also has an OPS that’s 200 points better.
  • Anderson Franco: what happened here?  He was solid in rookie ball … and barely at the mendoza line in full season ball.  Another guy routinely given top 10 rankings early on; he’s now just hanging on ranked #27 by MLB.
  • Osvaldo Abreu: he’s moved up a level a year, now playing in AA, but his numbers have had corresponding declines with each promotion.  He wasn’t ever considered a major prospect, but now he’s barely considered a minor one.
  • Telmito Agustin: he couldn’t hack it in High-A and was demoted back to Low-A this year.  He’s only 20, so he has time, but he’s basically out of the prospect discussions for now.
  • Nick Banks & Rhett Wisemann: both big-time college program upper-end draft picks, both scuffling professionally.  Neither now ranked by MLB whereas both had cracks at the top 10 of our prospect lists at some point.
  • Joan Baez: you can’t teach velocity right?  Well for Potomac this year Baez had more walks than Ks … and more walks than innings pitched.  He’s now a 22-yr old in GCL beating up on a bunch of kids, hoping to get his mojo back.
  • Matt Skole: he’s still a “prospect” remember?  He’s 27, hitting .235 in AAA, and has yet to be called up even though the team is so short on hitters that they called up Severino this past week.  I put Skole in here just to see if MartyC is still reading.

And now for some predictions related to our prospects:

  • Fedde is getting called up and soon, and will exhaust his rookie eligibility before the season is over.  The team can’t let Edwin Jackson post 5+ ERAs like he’s been doing for the last few seasons.
  • Robles, Soto, Kieboom stay put to keep our top 4 in tact at the trade deadline.
  • I can see the team cashing in some lesser prospects in trade though, perhaps guys ranked in the 8-15 range.  Selling high on Daniel Johnson perhaps, or flipping some C depth from Severino, Read, Gushue, Kieboom.
  • #1 prospect next year: still Robles; he’s not debuting until at least the super-2 deadline next year.
  • # prospect once Robles graduates: It’ll be Soto.  For reasons explained in the next bullet point…
  • How quickly will Romero get to the Majors?  Pretty quickly.  I could see him ending next year in AA, then pushing for a spot in the 2019 staff.  He won’t be in the minors long enough to get ranked above Soto.  That is unless he turns out to continue his knuckle-headedness… at which point we’ll all write many comments about how we “told you so” for drafting him.

Did I miss anyone?

PS: fun trivia; there have only been eleven (11) different players to hold the title as “#1 Washington Nationals prospect” since Nov 2004.   I’ll bet you can’t name them all.