Nationals Arm Race

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Nats Non-News: Non-tender deadline, FA (lack of) market and Ohtani

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Are the Nats really in the mix for Japanese superstar Ohtani? Photo via cbssports.com

Are the Nats really in the mix for Japanese superstar Ohtani? Photo via cbssports.com

As many others have noticed … there isn’t a heck of a lot going on right now in the “hot stove” season.  But given where we are in the regular off-season calendar, lets bang out a couple of topics.

First: the Non-tender deadline.

For the first time in an awful long time, the Nats have no real obvious non-tender candidates on their roster.  They entered the off-season with just four arbitration-eligible players and they are all set to be crucial pieces for 2018:

  • Bryce Harper technically would have been arb-eligible but signed away his 4th year for north of $21M.
  • Anthony Rendon comes off easily his finest season as a pro (his numbers across the board eclipse his 2014 5th place MVP season) and he should be in line to more than double his $5.8M 2017 salary.
  • Tanner Roark struggled in 2017 (… perhaps caused/aided by the frequently-seen WBC hangover?) but is still slated to be our 4th starter on a rotation that doesn’t currently have a fifth and should be in line for about an $8M payday.
  • Michael Taylor has established himself as one of the premier defensive center fielders in the game, will be set to start in 2018, and faces arbitration for the first time (likely to get around a $2.5M check).

Compare this to previous non-tender years (with links to non-tender specific posts from years past):

  • 2016: we non-tendered Ben Revere, waived Aaron Barrett before having to make the NT decision, and declined Yusmeiro Petit‘s option as a way of “non-tendering” him.
  • 2015: we non-tendered Craig Stammen, but kept NT candidates Jose Lobaton and Tyler Moore (eventually trading Moore after waiving him at the end of spring training).
  • 2014: we did not non-tender anyone, though a couple weeks later traded NT candidate Ross Detwiler to Texas for two guys who never really panned out for us (Chris Bostick and Abel de los Santos).
  • 2013: we did not non-tender anyone, only Ross Ohlendorf was a candidate, and in retrospect he probably should have been NT’d since he didn’t throw a pitch for the Nationals in 2014.
  • 2012: we non-tendered three guys (Jesus FloresTom Gorzelanny, John Lannan) in the face of a huge amount of arbitration players (10).
  • 2011: we non-tendered Doug Slaten deservedly, but tendered candidate Gorzellany.
  • 2010: we non-tendered Chien-Ming WangWil Nieves, Joel Peralta.  We also outrighted 5 guys prior to the NT deadline, DFA’d two more in December, and DFA/dreleased four more guys prior to Spring training in a very busy off-season.
  • 2009: we non-tendered Scott Olsen, Mike MacDougal
  • 2008: we non-tendered Tim Redding, now the Pitching coach for our Auburn Short-A team, so I guess there was no hard feelings there :-)
  • 2007: we non-tendered Nook LoganMike O’Conner.
  • 2006: we non-tendered or declined options for Ryan Drese, Brian Lawrence, Zach Day (it might have only been Day who was officially non-tendered)
  • 2005: we non-tendered Carlos BaergaPreston WilsonJunior Spivey.

That’s a long trip down random memory lane for marginal Nationals players from yesteryear.

Post-publish edit: as expected, the team formally tendered contracts to the 3 arb-eligible players on 12/1/17.



The FA market in general seems to be held up by two major names: Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani.  Jeff Passan argues there’s other reasons (see this link) for the lack of movement, but one has to think the big names are a big part of it.  I also believe that this year’s “crop” of FAs is … well kind of underwhelming.  Here’s Passan’s ranking of FAs: his biggest names past Ohtani are Yu Darvish (who just sucked in the post-season, is coming off TJ surgery and doesn’t rate as the “Ace” he once was), J.D. Martinez (who blew up in 2017 but who has normally gotten a lot of his value from defense and he’s not getting any younger), Eric Hosmer (a 1B only guy, even if he’s really good, who seems like a safe bet to get over-pad and age badly) and Jake Arrieta (who has taken a step backwards from his Cy Young win and has already entered his decline years).  Plus, the “price” for signing some of these QO-attached guys (Hosmer, Arrieta plus other top-10 FAs like Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Wade Davis) will be quite steep for big-market and/or Luxury tax teams like our own Washington Nationals.

Frankly, between the higher price of forced loss of picks due to our over-spending last season, our current payroll tightness (we seem to only have about $17M to spend to stay under the tax for all of next year) and the underwhelming lot of available players … i don’t see us really participating in this year’s sweepstakes.    Do we want to pony up for a middling 5th starter type like Jaime Garcia at the likely going price of $10M/year?  Or roll the dice with a MLFA like we did with some success last year (Edwin JacksonJacob Taylor).  Or just stay inhouse and let Erick Fedde continue to mature every 5th day on the mound?

Stanton, according to the tea-leaves i’m reading this week, seems like he’s heading to San Francisco, who is in desperate need for offense, outfielders and a franchise makeover after last year’s debacle.  Stanton could fit all three.  Which is great for him (he’s born and raised in California and would be joining a franchise that, despite its 2017 season, still has 3 WS titles in the last decade and a slew of marquee players to build around), great for the Nats (getting him out of the division), great for the “franchise” of Miami (who rids themselves of perhaps the 2nd worst contract in baseball behind Albert Pujols‘ and lets them get a relatively clean slate to start over for the new franchise ownership group), and of course awful for the “fans” of Miami, who thought they were finally getting rid of one of the worst owners in professional sports only to get slapped in the face with comical missteps by the new Derek Jeter-led ownership group, who managed to embarrass themselves in the most ridiculous way (by firing ceremonial Marlins legends for no good reason) early and then put themselves on the defensive needlessly by immediately crying poor and saying that they needed to pare payroll within a few days of taking over.  If i was a Miami fan I wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I also think its notable that the first ex-Nat ranked on Passan’s list comes in at #43; the “ripe for regression” Matt Albers.  Brandon Knitzler comes soon after him (who could be a re-signing candidate frankly for us, to put the “law firm” back together), then you have to get all the way down to #62 to find Jayson Werth.  As compared to next off-season, when the Nats will have the #1 guy on the list.


Coming back to Ohtani (I’m going with the h in the name since after much research that’s what seems like the right way to spell it) ….

First things first: I desperately hope the Nats get him.  Anyone who thinks that they’re better off without Ohtani is a fool; he’s set to become one of the biggest bargains in baseball.  For the small price of a $20M posting fee, you get a guy who throws 100, is an 80 runner, and hits the crap out of the ball.  For a miniscule bonus figure (the max any team has seems to be about $3.5M; the Nats only have $300k) and then a MLB min contract.  Its just amazing.  His presence could literally change the face of a franchise for a decade for about the same amount of money we will have paid Gio Gonzalez this year and next.  I doubt he picks us though; it seems more likely he picks either a major market team (NY, Boston) on the east coast or (more likely) one of the west coast teams for better proximity to Japan and a larger Asian native market (LA, SF, Seattle).  But its all speculation.

Hey, did I mention that the Nats need both another starter AND a lefty-bat off the bench, right now??  Ohtani would be perfect!

Side Note: why the heck is he coming over now and subjecting himself to MLB minimum contracts and arbitration??  He’s literally leaving $100M on the table by not waiting just two years and coming over un-restricted.  I just cannot believe he’s doing this and costing himself so much money.  I get the lip service comments about wanting to challenge himself, yadda yadda, but when there’s literally 9 figures of money on the table, I just don’t understand the decision.  He’s projected to be better than Daisuke Matsuzaka, better than Darvish, both of whom got many times more money (Dice-K got $52M to him, $103M in total cost plus his posting fee), while Darvish got $60M to him and cost the Rangers $111M total with posting fee).  It seems crazy.

Can’t wait to see where he goes, and I can’t wait to see if he’s the real deal.

Taylor Jordan: Never too soon to think about the future…

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Jordan is making a case for his future with this organization.  Photo via wffn.net/hueytaxi on flikr.com

Taylor Jordan is making a case for his future with this organization. Photo via wffn.net/hueytaxi on flikr.com

I’ll file this as one of the “Patently Obvious” responses that have come out of Mike Rizzo‘s mouth in response to a reporter’s question, but Rizzo went “on record” as saying that Taylor Jordan will “get every opportunity to be in the mix for the rotation next year” per beat reports (this example from Byron Kerr) after Jordan got his first major league victory in Sunday 7/28/13’s 14-1 blow-out of the Mets.

Well, of course he’ll get a chance to compete for the rotation.   He’s pitching a hell of a lot better right now than $13M man Dan Haren, for approximately 1/30th of the cost.  What GM doesn’t want that??

One of the big reasons I started this blog was to talk about the development of Nats minor league pitchers.  Back in the dark days, when the team was spending $15M on the FA market to acquire 5th starters like Jason Marquis, I became convinced that the single most valuable commodity in Major League Baseball (in terms of talent development and acquisition) was the pre-arbitration starting pitcher.   Our farm system had the “Loria/Bowden” holes in terms of player development in the 2007-2009 time frame and for a few years the team couldn’t develop an effective starter, instead relying on guys like Marquis and on other minor league/low-end free agent signings (think Tim ReddingDaniel Cabrera, and the aging Livan Hernandez being examples).   Rizzo came in, put the emphasis on drafting and development, and now the opening day rotation features 3 home-grown guys and a fourth in Gio Gonzalez who was acquired by trading other home-grown guys.

One of my biggest data-collection projects was the information behind my regular “Pitcher Wins on the Free Agency Market” post.   After looking at pretty much every significant FA pitcher signing that baseball has ever had, and calculating salary versus wins, it became clear that teams are historically doing well if they get about one win per $1M spent on a FA pitcher.  Sign a guy for $13M a year?  You hope to get 13 wins out of him.

But this analysis also shows just how valuable the pre-arbitration, cost-controlled starter is.  Consider Clay Buchholz for Boston in 2010; he goes 17-7 in his 3rd active year, earning the MLB minimum of $443,000.  That 17-win capability eventually earned him a $12-$13M/year contract, but while he was getting the minimum he was winning games for Boston for pennies on the dollar versus what it would have cost Boston to purchase that capability on the open market.

Combine this point with the continually dwindling talent available on the FA market these as teams lock up their players earlier and more frequently, and the price for pitching just continues to go higher.  Zack Greinke signed a 6 year $147M contract paying him more than $24M annually last summer partly because he was the only significant pitcher out there.  Grienke is talented, don’t get me wrong, but outside of his unbelievable 2009 season he’s basically pitched like a #3 starter.   Even this year, he’s pitching to a rather pedestrian 103 ERA+, just barely above the league average of adjusted ERA for starters.  Not exactly what you expect for that kind of money.  The 2014 Free Agent Market in terms of pitching is looking equally as bare as 2013.   The best guy out there may be Matt Garza, who again is talented but is also injury prone and not exactly a league-wide Ace.   Get past Garza and you’re looking at inconsistent (Ricky Nolasco or Phil Hughes), injury plagued (Shawn Marcum or Colby Lewis), just old guys (Freddy Garcia, Hiroki Kuroda) and pure wild cards (Tim Lincecum or Scott Kazmir).

There’s a reason Tampa went nearly 8 full seasons without having a Free Agent acquisition start a game for them; they know exactly what it means to develop effective starters, and they have a stableful of them.  Trade away James Shields and Wade Davis?  No problem; just call up Chris Archer and Alex Colome (never mind the rest of their Durham rotation).

So, back to Jordan.  If the Nats can find an effective 4th or 5th starter from their farm system right now, it frees them from the one-year hired gun strategy of Haren and Edwin Jackson.  It gives them the flexibility to continue to allow their best prospects in the lower minors to develop (i’m thinking specifically of A.J. ColeRobbie RaySammy Solis, and Matthew Purke, though Cole and Ray aren’t exactly in the “low” minors anymore with their promotions to AA).  It gives them the depth they did not have this year to cover for a starting pitcher injury.   It gives them time to let Nathan Karns figure out if he’s going to be a starter or a reliever at the MLB level.  It gives them added payroll flexibility can go towards fixing holes in the short term.  Longer term it allows the team to spend money on extending the core guys, or allows them to consider whether the rising price tag on someone like Ross Detwiler is worth paying (much like they cut loose John Lannan last year).  If you’re going to pay market value for Strasburg and Harper, then you’re going to need some low-cost players who can contribute to counter balance the payroll.

Or, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see this either, it gives Rizzo interesting trade chips that he could package with other guys to acquire the Haren/Jackson hurler instead of buying him.

Two years ago we acquired Gonzalez for two near-to-the-majors starters, a surplus catcher prospect and a low-minors/high profile arm.  Right now it seems like we could put nearly the same package together (Jordan, Karns, Jhonatan Solano or Sandy Leon and then a decent arm from A-ball, or maybe even a Ray or Cole) and move them for such a resource.  I wouldn’t put it past Rizzo; Jordan may be looking good right now, but his peripherals don’t project as a “Rizzo Guy.”  Neither did Tommy Milone so he got shipped out; will Jordan be a 5th starter candidate in 2014 or trade bait?

Personally, I’d like to see Jordan succeed.  He’s a great success story; unhearalded 9th rounder coming off an injury that most of us thought was good, but who also thought that finishing the year successfully at high-A would have been a great achievement.  Instead he blows through high-A and AA ball and is now more than holding his own in the majors.