Nationals Arm Race

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

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Ask Collier & Happy Thanksgiving

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Why do so many people think TRADING Harper is the way to win the 2018 World Series? Photo via fanragsports.com

Why do so many people think TRADING Harper is the way to win the 2018 World Series? Photo via fanragsports.com

A nice little surprise just before the Turkey day weekend: an ask Jamal Collier post on mlb.com.


Q: Would you consider trading Harper? I am one of his biggest fans, and I know the desire to win next year, but would the return be worth it in the long run?

A: Forensicane; don’t bother reading this next answer, because you’re not going to like it.

Teams attempting to WIN THE WORLD SERIES in the coming year do not trade their marquee players.  Not only that, but teams attempting to win don’t trade one of the best players in the league.  \

Not only that, but lets say for the sake of argument that the Nats WERE willing to trade Harper.  He’s got one  year of control left.  He’s set to make north of $20M in 2018.  He’s an injury risk.  And he’s absolutely going to Free Agency.  How much does anyone really think he’ll realistically fetch in trade right now?  If he were cost controlled or had multiple years of control left (like an Adam Eaton or a Jonathan Lucroy when he fetched a lot a couple years back) he’d get a kings ransom.  But he’s not; he’ll cost a significant portion of a team’s payroll in 2018 and gets just one year of service.

And then there’s this: why does anyone think this ownership group will trade him??  For many years, we’ve asked why the Angels hold on to Mike Trout and “waste” his talents on a sub-.500 team.  The answer is always the same: the owner in Los Angeles doesn’t want to move his marquee asset.  Why does anyone think that the Lerner group isn’t thinking the same thing?  Baseball is still relatively “new” in this town, still fighting it out for the casual sports fan.  What kind of message does it send to the casual fan base if you move your most marketable asset?  Who else on the Nats is getting goofy TV spots with national telecom companies?

So, no, the team isn’t trading Harper, nor should they.  Instead they should be doing *everything* they can to win in 2018 before he (and many others) walk out the door.  And (lets not forget), while I think its a certainty that Harper is in NY or LA in 2019 … we also were pretty sure Stephen Strasburg was heading out the door too, so you just never know.

Collier also expresses similar exasperation at the number of these questions he’s getting, then re-iterates many of the arguments above.


Q: You don’t list Adam Lind as a possible signee. Why not? Is it that Brian Goodwin can fill that role … but who is the backup first baseman?

A: I think Lind could resign … similarly to the way that Stephen Drew thought he could parlay his successful 2016 into a starting gig for 2017, Lind probably thinks the same.  Finding veteran bat-only beefy 1B/PH types on the open market is not tough; the Nats have specialized in this for years.  So they’ll do what they always have done; wait out the market, sign someone on the cheap later in the off-season if they get desperate, or otherwise have a cattle call in spring training for the backup bench bat.

Its worth noting that, much like one-year relievers, sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle with your pinch hitters and its worth cutting bat early, not later.  Consider some of the year over  year stat lines for our primary bench bats recently:

  • Adam Lind: great in 2017 (.303/.362/.513): can he repeat that in 2018?
  • Clint Robinson: awesome in 2015 (.272/.358/.424), then awful in 2016 (.235/.305/.332)
  • Chris Heisey: adequate in 2016 (.216/.290/.446), then fell off a cliff in 2017 (.162/.215/.270)
  • Tyler Moore: fantastic in 2012 (.263/.327/.513), then a combined .216/.264/.362 over PT roles the next three seasons before finally getting cut loose.
  • Chad Tracy: good in 2012 (.269/.343/.441), then not so good in 2013 (.202/.243/.326)

And some of these guys never even had a “good” season (ahem, Matt Stairs).

So, perhaps the smart thing to do is to let Lind go (as well as Albers for similar reasons) and try some one new.

Goodwin as a backup 1B??   No, that doesn’t make a ton of sense (he’s only 6’0″ and is an outfielder by trade), but he could feature as a backup outfielder easily enough.  Honestly, the “backup 1B” if Ryan Zimmerman goes down for any length of time probably is Daniel Murphy, with his position getting covered by Wilmer Difo.

Collier notes that it was the Nats who declined their part of the $5M mutual option, which somewhat surprised me honestly.  I would have thought it would have been the player to decline that and shoot for something more.  Nonetheless, it makes the odds of a reunion a bit lower. 


Q: Can you do a bit of an explainer about the new luxury tax rules, where Nats are with respect to threshold right now, and how that’ll inform Rizzo’s offseason (speculating anyway)?

A: Without going into it in great detail (I have a post about Nats payroll coming soon), right now as we stand I have the Nats 2018 payroll at about $170M in “real dollars” (counting arb estimates and deferred payments), but about $10M  higher in the eyes of MLB’s luxury tax calculators thanks to the Strasburg and Scherzer deals.  The team broached $190m with last season’s mid-season transactions and thus became a luxury tax spender for the first time (which will cost them significantly if they were to go after a QO-attached free agent, not that I think they will).

The luxury tax threshold for 2018 is $197M (see this wikipedia page for the link and figures).  So, I suppose the team has about $17M or so of “wiggle room” for transactions this off-season plus next mid-season.  That isn’t a lot, and all the high-priced players on our payroll are either key pieces or immovable (thanks Matt Wieters).   So unless they swing a huge salary, or trade some young assets in payroll-offsetting moves, I think the team will do very little this off-season.

Collier notes similar sentiments.


 

Q: Last year, the four top outfielders were out due to injuries for extensive periods of time. Shouldn’t they have six top-notch outfielders to draw from next year?

A: Easy to say in theory, harder in practice.   You generally only care 4 or perhaps 5 outfielders on a 25-man roster … so how do you make an argument to your 5th and 6th “top-notch” outfielders that they have to hang out in Syracuse for half the season until they’re needed?  Not to mention options statuses, 5-year veteran limitations and other things that get in the way of stuff like this.  This isn’t the 1950s when you could just stash players all over without regard to service time issues.

No, the better way to go is to have your named starters, then depend on your prospect depth to cover things.  And honestly, that’s kinda where the Nats are.  Going into 2018 without any moves, you’re looking at:

  • Starting OF of Eaton, Taylor and Harper.
  • 4th and 5th outfielders Goodwin and Stevenson, both prospects that we developed and being paid the MLB min.
  • 6th outfielder in the name of Victor Robles, who is just one of the best prospects in the game.
  • 7th and further depth still with the likes of Bautista or perhaps the Cuban Yadiel Hernandez who is 30 and could be closer than we think.  We have Jose Marmolejos on the roster still; couldn’t he fill in at LF even if he’s primarily a 1B?  And then there’s further-away prospects like Daniel Johnson, who hit pretty well between Low-A and High-A, seems like he’ll start in AA in 2018 and might push his way up.

That’s not too bad.  Btw, how good defensively is our OF projected to be in 2018?  Eaton at a corner in 2016 was one of the best in the majors, Harper has consistently been a positive-metric fielding RF with one of the best arms in the game, and Taylor just showed how statistically he rivaled the best defensive center fielders in the game.  You can’t discount this fact, and it will show itself next year as more fly balls are turned into outs.

Collier likes where our OF depth is.


Q: Why should we believe in Dave Martinez? What makes him different ?

A: I have not weighed in on the manager selection yet.  I thought firing Dusty Baker was a mistake, and that the team did not need to break in a new manager in the critical transition year of 2018.

Nonetheless, Martinez does click some boxes for me; he was a successful player with a long career and can command respect from even the veterans on this team.  He may not have direct managerial experience, but 10 years as Joe Maddon‘s bench coach is nothing to shake a stick at.  He had interviewed for vacancies for years, and deserved a shot.  Details of his contract show that he’s severely under-paid and this probably factored into the team’s decision to hire him (for whatever reason, this team remains “cheap” at the manager’s position), but I think he can do the job.

What makes him different?  Well, he’s clearly learned the “ropes” of managing underneath the game’s best, and in that position he would have had many opportunities to evaluate Maddon’s decisions, privately decide what he would have done, and then seen how things play out.  So he should be able to take the best of what the Cubs are doing and augment those experiences with those opinions he had that were not necessarily taken but which he believed were right.   I’m hopeful that his regime will go well.

Collier notes the points above, but also very fairly says that in reality we have no idea how he’ll manage here since he’s never done so before.  

 

2017 Rule-5 Addition analysis/predictions

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Will Gushue get the call this weekend? Photo via mlb.com

Will Gushue get the call this weekend? Photo via mlb.com

We do this every year.  We argue about it every year.  This is now the 8th version of this post (see the bottom for links/summary of the first seven).  Thanks to long-since implemented service time changes the Rule-5 draft remains mitigated in importance.  Yet here we are talking about it again, because we’re some of the few people out there who obsess about the edges of the 40-man roster, and who have meticulously studied our prospects for years and who don’t necessarily want to see the promising ones head out the door for a pittance.   So here we are.

Next Monday at 8pm is the deadline to set 40-man rosters ahead of the Winter Meetings, which include the Rule-5 draft.  With so many teams purposely tanking there’s going to be lots of usage of the draft this year.  Lets take a look at who is eligible, who might get protected and make some predictions.  I’ve got the Nats 40-man roster at 35 now, so there’s plenty of room to add names and do their off-season work.

As always, using the indispensable Nationals resource sites Draft tracker and the Big Board, and then looking up candidate acquisitions made via trade, here’s some thoughts on who might merit protection.   Also incredibly useful is Roster Resource’s Nats Roster, which keeps track of options, rule-5 status and the like.

The quick Rule-5 rules for 2017; any college-aged draftee from 2014 or before who isn’t already on the 40-man roster is Rule-5 eligible this coming off season, and any high-school aged draftee/International Free Agent from 2013 or before is newly eligible this year, assuming they were at least 18 as of June 5th of that year.


 

Newly Eligible 2014 draft College Players this year worth consideration for protection:

  • Austen Williams: he has featured at High-A 3 years running, got moved to AA for the 2nd year running this year and still continues to struggle with that leap.  I don’t think he’s a candidate to protect but is worth mentioning since he’s a long-serving starter in the organization.  The team sent him to the AFL perhaps as an audition for consideration.
  • Tyler Mapes: the 30th round pick continues to be found gold for this team … but he missed the entire 2017 with an injury.  Because of that he’s clearly not a rule-5 danger, but he could fit into the teams plans as a rotation member in AA or AAA this year.  He has a career 2.68 ERA in the minors, vastly outperforming most of the rest of his draft class.
  • Taylor Gushue: the 2017 trade acquisition had a solid year in High-A, is a catcher in a system that needs them, and seems like a lock to add.  He wasn’t set to the AFL for nothing.

Not mentioned: several other draftees from this class that are marginal prospects right now: Dale Carey, Matthew Page, Austin Davidson, Alec Keller, Robbie Dickey, Weston Davis, James Bourque.  All these guys are still in the lower minors.  Dickey represents the biggest investment ($400k signing bonus) and is one of the biggest disappointments from this draft.

Erick Fedde would have been the big name here to protect had he not already been added.  Trea Turner was also a 2014 college draftee.


 

Newly Eligible 2013 High School-age drafted players under consideration for protection

  • Drew Ward: he is literally the only 2013 HS draftee remaining in the system and is an interesting protection case.  He had a great 2016 (making the All Star team and shining in High-A) but has not translated that success to AA.  But, he’s only 22, and a 22-yr old struggling in AA isn’t that surprising.  Question is; do you protect him?  He’s blocked at the major league level by Anthony Rendon but that means little in a game where his value might be in trade versus production for the big league squad.  It wouldn’t surprise me if he got protected.

 

Newly Eligible 2013 signed IFAs under consideration for protection:

  • Edwin Lora: SS who has progressed neatly one level at a time for 5 years.  But he’s a career .238 hitter.  We need a backup utility fielder and he fits the bill, but he doesn’t seem to be ready.  I also don’t see him as a threat to get drafted.
  • Kelvin Gutierrez, 3B recently of the AFL who has shown some promise.  He’s a lock to get protected based on his production and his presence in Arizona.
  • Luis Reyes, RHP who started 26 games for Potomac this year.  He’s a bit wild, but he’s also a solid starter who projects to AA in 2018.  Is that enough to be a draft threat?   Maybe.
  • Anderson Franco, 3B: highly touted on prospect boards, but hit just .201 for low-A this year.  Not a draft candidate but someone to watch/hope for a rebound 2018.

Not mentioned: many 2013 IFA signings throughout the lower levels of the system.  This includes Aldrem Corridor, Joshual Ramirez, Luis Vilorio, Oliver Ortiz, Francys Peguero.  Honestly, I had not even heard of most of these guys and wouldn’t be surprised if I had their eligibility wrong.  They’re mostly in the very low minors.


 

Rule-5 Eligible hold-overs of note: 2013 or prior college draftees still hanging out in the system, or 2012 and prior HS/IFAs.

  • Wander Suero: the 2010 IFA exploded onto the scene this year as the closer in AA and then AAA, posting a 1.79 ERA for the year and heading to the AFL.  He was already added to the roster two weeks ago.
  • John Simms: I’ve always liked this guy; he’s now worked his way to AAA and made 8 starts there last  year.  He isn’t a big K/9 guy, perhaps is seen as an org arm, but he’s got a good pedigree (Rice) and has made it to the cusp of the majors.  Is that enough to protect him?  Probably not.
  • Spencer Kieboom: he struggled enough in 2016 to get DFA’d in early 2017 … but then he hit pretty well in AAA this year.  Is that enough to get him back into the mix?
  • Dakota Bacus: he pitched pretty darn well in relief across High-A and AA this year, and was sent to AFL to get more innings.  Is he an option to add?  He didn’t have the numbers that Suero did, but perhaps the team thinks he could be an option out of the pen.
  • Kyle McGowin: an interesting case since he was sent to the AFL: he struggled badly in 2017, getting demoted to AA at one point and posting a 5.95 ERA for the year.  I don’t think we’d shed a tear if he was drafted, but I don’t think he’s meriting a 40-man spot right now.
  • Joan Baez; power arms don’t grow on trees, and even though he was “only” in high-A this year he’s well known enough to perhaps merit protection.

2013 or before College Draftees that are Rule-5 holdovers include David Masters, Isaac Ballou, Justin Thomas, Matthew DeRosier, Robert Benincasa, Derek Self, Brian Rauh, Ronald Pena, Robert Orlan, Steven Perez, Bryan Mejia, Osvaldo Abreu, Wirkin Estevez, Hector Silvestre, Jefry Rodriguez.  Perhaps at some points in their careers some of these guys seemed like locks, but for now they all toil in the lower minors (for the most part) hoping to put themselves into contention.

MLFAs who are technically Rule-5 eligible:  Yadiel Hernandez,  Irving Falou, Greg Ross, Jaron Long, Jordan Mills.  Long in particular has worked in AAA for three years now, but may be considered an org arm at this point.  Ross looked promising for a while, but struggled badly in 2017.


 

So, who would I protect?

  • Wander Suero (already added)
  • Kelvin Gutierrez
  • Taylor Gushue
  • Drew Ward
  • Joan Baez

Who would I consider: Kieboom, Bacus.  Maybe.

If they added these four additional guys they’d be at 39/40 on the roster, still leaving them immediate room for a FA signing or trade.   But there’s more than a few names on our 40-man currently that could be cut (starting with Voth, Gott, Bautista).  So we could see some manouvering this off-season.

Did I miss anyone?  this is kind of tough analysis without a massive white board with every name in the organization listed … something none of us have time to do for free.

Nats official protection announcement: Gutierrez and Jefry Rodriguez in kind of a shocker.


For a fun trip down memory lane, here’s the same Rule 5 Protection analysis post for 201620152014201320122011, and 2010.

By year, here’s who I predicted we’d add and who we did add.

  • 2017: Predicted: Gutierrez, Gushue, Ward, Baez.  Actual: Gutierrez and Jefry Rodriguez.
  • 2016: Predicted Voth, Bautista.  Actual: Voth, Bautista, Marmolejos, Read and Skole.
  • 2015: Predicted Kieboom, Bostick, Marmolejos-Diaz.  Actual: Kieboom, Bostick, Lee
  • 2014: Predicted Cole, Skole, Goodwin.  Hedged on Grace, Martin and Difo.  Actual: Cole, Goodwin, Difo, Grace.
  • 2013: Predicted Solis as the only lock (Souza already added).  Possibles mentioned in order Barrett, Taylor, Grace, Holland.  Actual: Solis, Barrett, Taylor.
  • 2012: Predicted Karns and McCoy, with Hood and Rosenbaum as maybes.  Actual: Karns and Davis.  I think we were all surprised by Davis’ inclusion, despite his good AA numbers that year.
  • 2011: Predicted Norris as a lock, guessed strongly on Moore, Meyers and Komatsu.  Actual: Norris, Moore, Solano, Perez.    This was poor analysis on my part; I did not consider the IFAs newly eligible.
  • 2010: Predicted Marrero, Meyers and Mandel.  Actual: Marrero, Carr and Kimball.
  • 2009: pre-dates my blog and thus no predictions, but Actual was Jaime, Thompson and Severino.
  • 2008: I might be wrong, but I don’t see any evidence of the team protecting *anyone* prior to the Rule-5 draft.  A bit of an indictment of the farm system at the time, I’d say :-)