Nationals Arm Race

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

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The Nats should just move Detwiler

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Detwiler's being wasted right now.  Photo: Cathy T via nationalsdailynews.com

Detwiler’s being wasted right now. Photo: Cathy T via nationalsdailynews.com

How do you go from being the 5th most important pitcher on a MLB staff (yes, I believe the 5th starter is more important than the closer or any other bullpen guy, a statsitical fact that can be easily seen by WAR contributions by even the best closers), to being the least important, aka the last guy out of the pen, the swingman or long man, the mop-up guy?

Well, that’s what’s happening to Ross Detwiler so far this year.

Now, its sort of hard to feel a ton of compassion for a guy who is making $3M this year guaranteed, whether he pitches 50 times or five.   So this article isn’t so much about Detwiler or his salary, but about things like “opportunity costs” and the relative value of players in particular roles, and how teams can turn replaceable assets into needed depth.

Coming into this season, I figured (along with many) that Detwiler’s pre-injury 2013 performance, coupled with his break-out 2012 season would earn him the 5th rotation spot.  As it turned out, not only did the team not want to give him that spot … but they have repeatedly passed over Detwiler to make starts when the opportunity has arisen.  When Doug Fister went down with injury, Detwiler wasn’t pulled back into the rotation; the starts were given to Taylor Jordan.  When Jordan proved unreliable and was sent down, the team called up Blake Treinen and gave him a spot start on 5/6/14 instead of throwing Detwiler.

Which makes you wonder; what’s the point of keeping a high-priced/high-talent “swing man” if you never let him do his role??  Detwiler’s usage so far in 2014 has been more like a middle reliever than a long-man; in 9 appearances (before last night) he’s logged 14 2/3 innings.  Now, on the one hand this is a relatively good sign; if you’re never using your swing-man for 4 inning stints it means your starters are pitching well.  But on the other hand … the team is clearly wasting Detwiler’s talents.  Of the 66 batters he had faced prior to 5/6/14′s debacle, only SIX of them were classified as “high leverage” situations by baseball-reference.com.  He’s being used as a mop-up guy.

You don’t use power lefty capable starters as mop-up guys.  Its a waste of their skills and talent, and ends up leading to human-nature meltdowns like we saw out of Detwiler on 5/6/14.

Here’s a quick history of the Nats longmen in recent years: Ross OhlendorfZach DukeTanner Roark (to some extent in late 2013), Tom GorzelannyMiguel BatistaSaul Rivera (to some extent), Stephen Shell, Micah Bowie and Levale Speigner (though honestly, dipping back into the 2007-2008 timeframe is tough because our starters were so bad, it was difficult to find who the designated “long-man” really was because eventually they were starting too).  There’s common features to most all of these guys: they’re generally either veterans signed to MLFA deals or on one year deals for limited money, or they’re rookies who earned their way up and provided some value.  The point is this;  you don’t pay your long-man good money, and you certainly don’t waste a good former starter in the long-man position.

The missed opportunity cost for the Nats is this: they can turn Detwiler into something of value in trade for some other team out there, right now.  Go look at our favorite trade partner Oakland’s #4 and #5 starters stats (Straily and Milone); we could move Detwiler to Oakland and get something of use back in a heartbeat and it’d make both teams better.   The Yankees would kill for a reliable 5th starter right now, with Pineda hurt or suspended, Nova lost to Tommy John and Nuno ineffective.   The Mariners are now 9-deep into their starter depth chart and are treading water.   I’ll bet you couldn’t even name Pittsburgh’s 5th starter right now.   Cincinnati’s two starters down right now and that’s before Johnny Cueto gets his inevitable D/L trip (he made 3 such trips last year).  So there’s definitely teams out there who expect to contend with starter depth issues.

Meanwhile, the Nats have 4 or 5 guys in AAA right now who could fill the role that Detwiler is playing right now, for less money and just as well, and we’d be a better team with Detwiler’s return in trade for it.   Every additional injury further thins this team and highlights more need for backup hitters (right now as we speak, we don’t have a SINGLE middle infielder on the 40-man who could get called-up to cover … and our only two out-field 40-man options Eury Perez and Michael Taylor are basically a pinch runner and a guy who’se got a month above A-ball.   (Admittedly, this situation has somewhat cleared up recently with Hairston‘s return and considering that we also have Souza and Moore back in the minors … but we still need some depth).

Move Detwiler, get some closer-to-the-majors bats, and install Treinen as that last-guy in the bullpen.  Or call back Aaron Barrett or Ryan Mattheus and just leave t hem in the bullpen instead of making them rack up frequent flier miles.  If you want another lefty, re-call Aaron Laffey and/or Xavier Cedeno and leave them on the club for a while.  You don’t need your best prospect pitching mop-up/low-leverage innings in 8-0 games.

(I’m not the only one talking about this right now: WP’s James Wagner has peppered Matt Williams about it and MLBTradeRumors Jeff Todd mentioned it prominently this week as well).

Opening Day Starter Trivia – Updated for 2014

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CC Sabathia continues to be the active leader in Opening Day starts. Photo via wiki/flickr.

Some of my favorite trivia questions  revolves around Opening Day Starters.  With another Opening Day in the books, here’s some useless trivia related to Opening Day starters.  I’ve updated my Opening Day Starters spreadsheet to Google Docs and created a link in the “Nationals Arm Race creation” section along the right.  Fyi, on a team-by-team basis you can query Baseball-Reference.com for the opening day lineups (here’s the Washington/Montreal franchise’ opening day lineup history as an example).

Current Active Leaders in Opening Day Starts

11 CC Sabathia
9 Mark Buehrle
7 Felix Hernandez
7 Justin Verlander
6 Bartolo Colon
6 Tim Hudson
6 Jered Weaver
6 James Shields
5 Josh Beckett
5 Yovanni Gallardo
4 Jake Peavy
4 Tim Lincecum
4 Clayton Kershaw
4 Jon Lester
3 Strasburg, Cueto, Wainwright, Price, Masterson, Nolasco
2 Lee, Samardzija, Liriano, Dickey, Sale, Feldman

Those players bolded in the list above had 2014 opening day starts and added to their totals.   (Note; there’s plenty of guys out there with 2 or 3 opening day starts but who did not extend their count in 2014; they are not included here).  With the retirement of Roy HalladayCC Sabathia extends his active lead in this category.  Mark Buehrle has given over the reigns of opening day starter possibly for good, based on his standing in the Toronto rotation.  Meanwhile the next closest competitors (Justin Vernalder and Felix Hernandez) could eventually supplant Sabathia, especially if he continues to struggle and gets replaced as the Yankees’ ace.

Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander continue to be the best bets to broach the all-time records (see below) based on their ages, their current counts and their new long-term contracts.

Answers to other Opening Day start trivia:

Current Active Leader in consecutive Opening Day Starts: Sabathia with 9 consecutive, split among two teams.  Second is Verlander with 7 straight, albeit all with the same team.  There was talk about how his Cy Young-winning rotation mate Max Scherzer should have gotten the ball this year, given Verlander’s 2013 struggles.

Most ever Opening Day Starts all-timeTom Seaver with 16 in his career.

Most ever Consecutive Opening Day Starts: Hall of Fame lightning rod Jack Morris, who made 14 straight such starts.

Number of first-time opening day starters in 2014: Ten (10) guys got the ball on opening day for the first time, slightly down from last year’s 13.  Injuries gave some pitchers the ball on opening day over other expected rotation mates (this is definitely the case with the likes of Julio Teheran, Tanner ScheppersSonny Gray, Dillon Gee, Jorge De La Rosa), and its probably the case that others got the ball on opening day thanks to their own personal ascention to the “lead-dog” spot on their teams (Jose Fernandez, Madison Bumgarner).  The other three newbies (Andrew CashnerWade Miley, and Chris Tillman) probably fall somewhere inbetween these categories.

Who seems most likely to break Seaver or Morris’ Records at this point? Still Sabathia, who already has 11 opening day starts (and 9 straight), is the #1 in New York, is only 32 and still has four years on his current deal. However, he took a big step backwards in 2013 performance-wise, and the Yankees spent a ton of money on Masahiro Tanaka, and there could be a passing of the torch if Tanaka blows it out in 2014.  Meanwhile Hernandez already has 7 opening day starts, just signed a deal that takes him through 2019 with a relatively easy option for 2020.   That’s many more seasons under contract and he’d only be 34 years of age by its end.   He could be the standard holder if he stays healthy and continues to pitch like an ace.

Most Inconsisent team using Opening Day Pitchers: Oakland.  They’ve used 9 different opening day starters in the last 9 seasons, and that’s likely to continue since both the candidates for this year had injuries that forced them to go to a rookie for 2014.  Pittsburgh is right behind them;  they have used 7 different opening day starters in the last 7 seasons, and 13 different starters in the last 15 seasons. The Nats have at some point employed no less than three former Pittsburgh opening day starters: Ron Villone, Oliver Perez and Zach Duke.   Colorado, Baltimore and Minnesota have also struggled for most of the past decade to find a dominant, reliable “Ace” and constantly cycle through new opening day starters, and once again each is using a different guy in 2014.

 

2014 Projected Pitching Staffs and Rotations; entire Nats system

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Mr. Detwiler's 2014 assignment will have cascading effects for MLB and AAA.  Photo Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

Mr. Detwiler’s 2014 role will have serious cascading effects for MLB and AAA. Photo Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

OK here we are.  We did seven comprehensive pitching staff reviews (the GCL review is here, which has links to the other 6 reviews) in order to arrive at this post.

So, without further ado, here’s what I’m predicting for all seven systems right now, absent any more deals (like say for a MLB lefty or another starter or trading a closer to Chicago):

 MLB Level

  • MLB Rotation: Strasburg, Gonzalez (L), Zimmermann, Fister, Detwiler (L)
  • MLB Bullpen: Soriano, Storen, Clippard, Stammen, Blevens (L), Ohlendorf, Roark
    MLB out of Org: Haren, Duke (L), Abad (L), Krol (L), HRodriguez

Discussion: the 5th starter competition could shake out so many different ways, that it almost is not worth predicting.  I can see any of the following scenarios playing out:

  • Detwiler gets one last shot at the 5th starter as the incumbent, pushing Jordan to AAA and Ohlendorf/Roark to the bullpen (my current prediction).
  • Jordan wins the 5th starter, pushing Detwiler to the bullpen as a power lefty by virtue of his lack of options.  This would push (likely) Roark to AAA.
  • Roark wins the 5th starter, continuing his blistering sub 2.00 ERA pace from September, pushing Detwiler to the bullpen and Jordan to AAA.
  • Less likely, Karns wins the 5th spot, which pushes Detwiler to the bullpen and Roark & Jordan to AAA.
  • Even more less likely, Ohlendorf wins the spot, which pushes Detwiler to the bullpen but lets Roark stay as the long man/spot-starter.
  • Mike Rizzo shocks us again with another starter acquisition; Detwiler goes to the bullpen, Ohlendorf stays as long man, and Roark & Jordan are in AAA.

Why am I predicting Detwiler will win the rotation spot?  Partly because of options, but partly because I’ve sort of come back around on him after looking more closely at his 2013 season.  He had a decent to good 2012; he posted a 118 ERA+ and even if his advanced FIP/SIERA didn’t indicate he was quite that good, he was still more than a servicable 5th starter.  Then in his first seven 2013 starts he was also very good (he had a 2.53 ERA in his first 7 starts and 42 2/3 innings … he got hurt in his 8th start).  The rest of his season was a mess, with him fighting injury and ballooning his seasonal ERA from 2.53 to more than 4.00 in five more starts.   If he comes back healthy to start 2014, why wouldn’t we expect more of the same performance that he had at the start of 2013?  For these two reasons, I think Detwiler breaks camp as the 5th starter.  Now …. I have zero confidence that he’ll remain healthy enough to keep his spot in the rotation, but that’s a problem for another day.  And a problem for which this team has plenty of coverage.

Another scenario that could affect this predition: Rizzo acquires yet another lefty reliever (latest rumors were about Scott Downs before he signed elsewhere, but I’m sure a trade could be arranged), which complicates any of these predictions because it means one less spot for either Ohlendorf or Roark.  For a team that seems so obsessed with left-handed relievers, we sure have let a bunch of them go in recent years (Duke, Abad, Krol this year, Gorzelanny, Lannan, Burnett and Gonzalez last year).  Maybe we should just hang on to one or two of these guys?  I will say this: I do NOT believe that the Nats will choose Xavier Cedeno and his 6 2013 MLB innings for the Nats over Roark just because he’s left handed at this point.

Personally, I think Roark and Ohlendorf pitched like big leagers last year and deserve to stay in the majors until they prove otherwise.  Ohlendorf’s recent $1.25M deal seems to indicate he’s more likely to stick than Roark, but perhaps the long-man/spot starter competition is open as well.  This pushes previous stalwards in the bullpen (specifically Ryan Mattheus ) to AAA.   I will say this though: if you expect to win, you have to go north with your 25 best guys no matter how much they make or their option status.  And at the end of last year, that undoubtedly included Tanner Roark.  So thats why I’m going with Roark in the pen to start the season.

One other wrinkle; does Rizzo trade one of Storen or Clippard to Chicago, who desperately needs a closer?  This seems less likely, especially for a team that has World Series aspirations, but the truth is this team is paying a LOT of money into its bullpen ($25M and counting), has three closer-quality guys, and potentially a log jam of righties (see the AAA bullpen prediction for more).  I see this as less likely unless Chicago sends back pieces that we really need, but rumors get started because GMs are talking, so maybe this still happens.  But if a guy like that is traded, then that re-opens a slot for the deposed Mattheus or possibly the newly healthy an electric Garcia.   I think these are lesser possibilities and both those guys are pushed to AAA to begin the season.

I’m sure this section garners plenty of discussion; have at it in the comments :-)

AAA Level

  • AAA Rotation: Jordan, Karns, Rosenbaum (L), Young, MLFA or two?
  • AAA Bullpen: Barrett, Mattheus, Garcia, Davis,  Cedeno (L), Robertson (L), Herron (AA?), Alfaro, Stange, Delcarmen
  • AAA Release candidates: Meyers, Lehman
  • AAA out of Org: Maya, Tatusko, Clay, Mandel, Torra, Broadway, Crotta, Lowe, Kimball, Accardo, Bramhall, Romero (L)

Discussion

So, the projected AAA rotation has one hold over in Rosenbaum, two “promotions” in Jordan and Karns, and then a whole bunch of question marks.  Is Chris Young healthy enough to pitch this year?  Is Brad Meyers?  Right now i’ve got Meyers as a release candidate, figuring that he hasn’t been healthy in two years and may be finished.  I have to think that the team will give a couple of lower-level free agents minor league contracts to try to pitch their way back into the league, much as they have done with the likes of Zach Duke, Ross Ohlendorf and Young in the last couple of off-seasons.  There’s plenty of guys out there who may make sense; a quick glance at the current list of free agents offers intriguing names (think of someone like a Joe Saunders or a Barry Zito or an Aaron Harang; do you think these guys are getting guaranteed contracts for 2014?).  I’m predicting that at least one or two of these types of guys get MLFA deals and end up in the AAA rotation, though I suppose at least one guy i’m projecting from the AA rotation could start in AAA.

The AAA bullpen has a couple of MLB-quality arms in Ryan Mattheus and Christian Garcia who we know can contribute at the MLB level but who end up here because of a numbers game at the big club.  The AAA closer likely is Aaron Barrett, newly added to the 40-man and looking to make his mark.  Erik Davis is here, who I kind of soured on last season but his numbers in small MLB samples were good and I think he can contribute in a Craig Stammen sort of way going forward.  We have a couple of hold-over loogies in Xavier Cedeno and Tyler Robertson, the latter of which successfully passed through waivers and was outrighted to Syracuse last month.   We already have three off-season MLFA signings (Gabriel Alfaro, Daniel Stange, Manny Delcarmen) who all project as righty middle relievers, making it seemingly less likely that the team will retain some of its own MLFAs (the likes of Ryan Tatusko and Jeff Mandel being longer serving Nats minor leaguers who pitched decently in 2013).

But as you can see there’s more candidates here than there is room on the Syracuse roster (10 for 7 spots, and that’s assuming that Pat Lehman doesn’t make the cut either).  There will be injuries and D/L stints among these guys, but there may also be some releases next March.

Still, a AAA rotation led by Jordan and Karns (and possibly Ohlendorf and/or Roark if another move is made at the MLB level) leaves Syracuse with a pretty good staff to start the season.  And I like the fact that we have one reasonably accomplished MLB starter (Jordan) waiting in the wings to go along with a guy who might get there soon (Karns), to go with potentially a couple other former major league guys who are working their way back.

AA Level

  • AA Rotation: Cole, Hill, Solis (L), Schwartz, Treinen (AAA?)
  • AA Bullpen: Benincasa, Mirowski, Holland,  Swynenberg, Grace (L), Bates, KPerez, Gilliam (swingman), Spann (L)
  • AA release candidates: Perry, Selik, Demny, RMartin
  • AA out of Org: Broderick, Ray, McCoy, Frias, Holder, Bray

Discussion

We’ll see this trend again and again; despite the fact that the likes of A.J. Cole and Taylor Hill reached AA last year, the organization seems to like seeing these guys “beat the level” a second season in a row before moving guys up.  And so I see these guys in AA again.  Sammy Solis here is no surprise; he’s nearly 26 and has been mentioned as a MLB bullpen candidate already.  Meanwhile for the time being i’ve got Blake Treinen here, repeating the level, but can also see him moving up to AAA.  His numbers were good but not *that* good last year, and I left him in AA assuming that the team will try out some re-treads in the AAA rotation.  Lastly Blake Schwartz gets a deserved promotion after leading Potomac in IP, wins and starts last year.

In the bullpen I think Robert Benincasa is your closer to start, with Richie Mirowski and Neil Holland continuing to put up dominating late-innings relief.  All three guys should be pushing for promotions to AAA.  We’re a little light on lefties here admittedly.  A couple of injury-prone guys in Ryan Perry and Cameron Selik are listed as release candidates in the face of a number of guys meriting placement here.  Paul Demny and Rafael Martin have been around forever and may also be release candidates at this point, but they also could (at least in Demny’s case) convert to relief and try to rekindle their careers.  Lastly, there’s newly acquired Matthew Spann, the bounty for the Nats gambit on David Dejesus near the end of last season.   He’s a lefty who looks like he could start but i’ve got him in the bullpen for now.

High-A Level

  • High-A rotation: Purke (L), Anderson, Mooneyham (L), Encarnacion, Bacus, Turnbull (bullpen?) (L)
  • High-A bullpen: Wort (AA?), Holt (AA?), Fischer, Henke, Mendez, Harper (L), Davis, Thomas (L), RPena (swingman), Dickson (swingman)
  • High-A release candidates: Dupra, Rauh (starter?), Meza (L)
  • High-A out of org: Pineyro, Hawkins

Discussion

I don’t think there’s too many surprises in this rotation: Matthew Purke leads the line and should push for a promotion mid-season.  If he doesn’t dominate High-A at this point it may be time to think about moving him to the pen.   The same can be said about Brett Mooneyham and especially Kylin Turnbull, two guys who (by now) should have accomplished this level.   Otherwise the rest of this projected rotation are three guys who succeeded in Low-A in 2013: Dixon AndersonPedro Encarnacion and Dakoda Bacus.

In the bullpen, at this point i’m not sure who the closer candidates are to start the season.  Perhaps Greg Holt starts in the role.  Perhaps low-A phenom Gilberto Mendez gets a shot at closing.  Both Holt and Rob Wort may belong in AA at this point; Wort began 2013 there but there’s a lot of relievers in that AA section who would have to get hurt/be released to make room for these two guys right now.  There’s a couple of decent swingmen candidates here in Ronald Pena and Ian Dickson both started for long stretches in Hagerstown and could be useful guys in Potomac.    There’s a lot of names in the mix here for this bullpen; from here on down there could be plenty of releases come the end of spring.

 

Low-A Level

  • Low-A rotation: Giolito, Johansen, Voth, Lee (high-A?) (L), Orlan (L)
  • Low-A bullpen: Self (high-A?), Selsor (swingman), Ullmann, Pivetta, Simms, Hollins, Napoli (L), Bafidis (L), Suero (swingman), Valdez, Walsh (L), Aries
  • Low-A release candidates: Joyce, Waterman, Boyden
  • Low-A out of org: McKenzie, Smith

Discussion

I like this rotation, a lot.  Two of our best prospects, a third guy in Austin Voth who impressed last year, a guy in Nick Lee who probably deserves a high-A rotation spot and then Auburn’s staff leader in Robert Orlan.  Jake Johansen may find himself needing a promotion quickly, if he’s all that he’s cracked up to be.

The bullpen is going to be tough; basically every college aged short-season guy who pitched well in 2013 is named in this bullpen competition.  There’s a couple of interesting DSL graduates in Wander Suero and Phillips Valdez, some big arms in Ryan Ullmann and Nick Pivetta, and some polished college-aged lefties in David Napoli, Cory Bafidis and Jake Walsh.   I have 15 names here for 7-8 spots; Viera’s extended spring training could be busy this year.

 

Short-A Level

  • Short-A rotation: Barrientos, JRodriguez, Silvestre (high-A?) (L), and then 2013 draftees and/or drop-downs from Low-A
  • Short-A bullpen: DWilliams, Cooper, KRodriguez, Derosier, Webb (L), Spezial (L), 2013 draftees and drop-downs from Low-A
  • Short-A release candidates: Sylvestri, Grisz
  • Short-A out of org: Hudgins, Simko, Dicharry

GCL Level

  • Rookie Rotation: Ott (L), 2013 draftees and DSL graduates
  • Rookie bullpen: RLopez, 2013 draftees and DSL graduates
  • Rookie release candidates: DRamos, MRodriguez

Discussion

Its frankly impossible to predict the short-season squads, since (especially Auburn) they exist to park newly signed draftees.  However, I do see a ton of guys who competed and succeeded in the GCL this year who won’t necessarily make the Hagerstown squad, and I see them forming a good chunk of the Auburn squad.   The rest of the Auburn squad will be populated with upper-end 2014 draftees and losers from the Hagerstown pitching staff competition.  More of the same with the 2014 GCL squad, which was heavily tilted with DSL graduates this year.  The Nats tend to focus on college arms and thus only small college guys are generally put in the GCL in their draft year.

Nationals/MLB Pitching Staff Year in Review; 2013

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Jordan Zimmermann was the real "ace" of the 2013 Nats.  Photo Unk.

Jordan Zimmermann was the real “ace” of the 2013 Nats. Photo Unk.

I began thinking about system-wide predictions for the pitching staffs for the 2014 teams and realized that I heavily depend on doing staff-by-staff analysis to do the predictions.  I wasn’t going to do these review posts this year (mostly because they’re incredibly time consuming) but I also realize they’re a) the best way to do predictions for the coming year and b) the best way to becoming more vigilant in really forming an opinion on all the short-season guys.

So, without further ado, and despite the fact that its mid December and this post should have been done two months ago, here’s the first of many organizational reviews of the pitching staffs of our various affiliates for the 2013 season.  We’ll start with the Majors and move downwards.

Here’s the same version of 2012′s post for a historical review.

I think we all know how the major league squad did, so I’ll try to be brief here for the stalwarts we know are going to be with the team in 2014.  (Editor’s note: “brief” has turned into nearly 3,000 words.  oh well).  A lot of this analysis is for the “Outlook for next season” sections, which help me drive the predictions for all the pitching staffs next year.  All stats are courtesy of either Baseball-Reference’s Washington 2013 page or via Fangraph’s Washington 2013 page.  Also useful here are the Big Board and the Nats Draft Tracker.

Washington starters.  The rotation started the season with Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Detwiler and Haren.  At season’s end it was Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Haren and Roark, though not necessarily in that exact order thanks to skipped starts, ejections/washed out outings and some re-ordering at the all-star break.

  • Stephen Strasburg  had a down year for a supposed “Ace” in this league by conventional stats (8-9, 3.00 ERA) but by most advanced measures Strasburg was still in the top 10-15 pitchers in the league.  He still averaged more than a K/inning, he had the 2nd highest fastball velocity for any starter in the majors (only behind Matt Harvey).  He suffered from incredibly bad run support all year; the Nats scored 2 runs or less in 16 of his 30 starts and he got Losses or No-Decisions no less than 13 times when he allowed two or fewer earned runs and pitched enough to qualify for the decision.  That’s crazy.  With normal run support of 3-4 runs a game Strasburg easily could have had a record like 17-6 with a 3.00 era and been in the running for Cy Young votes.  On the bright side; he made 30 starts in year two post Tommy John surgery, and he should be in full force for 2014. Outlook for next season: 2014′s opening day starter.
  • Gio Gonzalez took a step back from his magical 2012 season and more closely resembled the starter that he was for Oakland in 2010-2011.  Which isn’t a bad thing; he still posted a 3-war season, he was still a 113 ERA+ guy, and he answered the bell every time his spot was up for the 4th year running.   He was a bit more hittable this year, gave up nearly twice as many homers as in 2012 (but in line with his years prior) and we got a glance of what we can probably expect from him going forward.  On the year he was 11-8 with a 3.36 ERA, and like Strasburg he had a number of no-decisions where the team just didn’t score him any runs.  Outlook for next season: 2014′s #2 starter.
  • Jordan Zimmermann had his best season as a pro, posting a 19-9 record with a 3.25 ERA and a 1.088 whip.  This earned him a 7th place Cy Young award finish and likely earned him tens of millions of dollars on his eventual contract extension.  Zimmermann maintained a 4/1 K/BB rate, good for 13th among all qualified starters and even better considering the velocity at which he pitches (9th in the league in vFA at 93.9mph).  A side note on just how amazing Matt Harvey is: he was 2nd in the league in K/BB and FIRST in vFA; that’s a pretty special combination.  Zimmermann seems set to broach 8 figures in arbitration and it may behoove the team to try to work out a contract extension before he hits the open market.  Outlook for next season: 2014′s #3 starter.
  • Ross Detwiler made 8 decent starts in April and May before missing a month thanks to an oblique strain, then made 5 mostly mediocre starts in June before being lost for the season thanks to a herniated disc in his back.  Detwiler’s injury exposed the one glaring weakness in the construction of the 2013 Nationals; absolutely no starting pitching depth.  Much ink has been spilled here and elsewhere on Detwiler’s status for 2014, but I will say this: look at his game logs from the early part of the season and you’ll find that his performance was north of expectations for a #5 starter.  Because of this (and his option-less status frankly), I am predicting for now that he’ll win the 5th starter battle in the spring (more on this after all the organization reviews are done and we talk about 2014 predictions).  The question will be; can he stay healthy and can he keep the job?  Outlook for next season: 2014′s #5 starter.
  • Dan Haren was, as we all know, awful in April, mostly awful in May and god-awful in June.  He hit the D/L for a brief stint in what was an obvious “forced” trip, for when he was asked he didn’t even know for what injury he was being shelved for.  At the time of his D/L trip he literally was the worst or close to the worst starting pitcher in the game by nearly any statistical measure.   Yes he picked up his performance after the D/L trip, but by that point the damage had been done.  He had game after game where suddenly the offense was down 5-6 runs and the game was basically over.  For the year the team was 11-19 in his starts.  Not a great return for the $13M contract he signed.  The Nats didn’t dare to offer him a qualifying offer and his tenure ended with an ironic slap in the face as he pitched one of his best games in his final Washington appearance.   Outlook for next season: signed with Los Angeles Dodgers for 1yr/$10m to be their 4th or 5th starter.
  • Nathan Karns was the first minor league reinforcement starter to get the call (here’s my “first look” post at his 5/28/13 debut).  In three starts he got hit hard: 17 hits and 5 homers that resulted in a 7.50 ERA and a return to AA.  We’ll talk more about Karns in the Harrisburg review.  Based on what I saw, it may be that he’s eventually bound for the bullpen, where he can throw harder for shorter bursts.  But his value as a starter is obvious if he can corral all of his pitches.  Outlook for next season: AAA rotation.
  • Taylor Jordan got the call-up when the team finally lost patience with Haren and sent him to the D/L in June (here’s my “first look” post at his 6/28/13 debut).  Jordan looked pretty good in his 9 starts, posting a 3.66 ERA and a 3.49 FIP.  Not bad considering where he started the year (in Potomac’s rotation).  Jordan was shut down in Mid-August thanks to the organizational innings limit for post-Tommy John surgery pitchers (he threw a total of 142 across 3 levels on the  year).  Now the big question; what to do with him for 2014?  Unfortunately for Jordan (and as we’ll talk about in a moment), his departure opened the door for other opportunistic pitchers and he may have been passed on the organizational depth chart.  For now, I’m predicting that Jordan won’t win the 5th starter job over Detwiler and will be sent to Syracuse to get starts and serve as the organizational starter depth that we struggled with in 2013.   Outlook for next season: AAA rotation.
  • Ross Ohlendorf took a minor league gig with the Nationals to try to revitalize his career and went a somewhat pedestrian looking 4-6 in 13 starts at AAA.  He re-vamped his wind-up and mechanics, threw with some good pace and eventually a streak of good starts led to his June call-up.  He spent the rest of the season as the Nats’ long-man/spot starter, getting 16 apperances and 7 starts in posting a servicable 3.28 ERA.  He seemed to tire when featured as a starter, only going past the 5th inning three times, and Davey Johnson eventually seemed hesitatant to use him because of it.  Eventually, a shoulder strain 15 day D/L trip and a poor spot-start in early September opened the door for others to grab starts (see below), but Ohlendorf remained the emergency starter for the rest of the season.  Outlook for next season: he did enough to get tendered a contract (which he quickly signed; 1yr/$1.25M), and seemingly he will slot back in as the long-man/spot-starter role for the MLB team.  He doesn’t seem to have enough to compete and win the 5th starter competition.  Will the team dump him to AAA as an inexpensive starter insurance policy?  I doubt it for now; they probably opt to keep Ohlendorf as the last guy out of the pen and keep Jordan on regular starts in AAA.
  • Tanner Roark toiled in AAA most of the season, and seemingly was set to exit the organization as a MLFA before earning a call-up in August.  Roark’s body of work both in 2013 and over the past few seasons warranted his call-up, and his mixture of success both in the starter role and in a long-relief role in AAA made him the perfect candidate to replace Ohlendorf when he hit the D/L.  All Roark did upon arriving in the majors is pitch lights-out (a 252 ERA+) in 50 innings mixed with starts and relief apperances.  Here was my “first look” post on his relief debut, and by the end of the season he was putting in a series of effective starts in the rotation.  Outlook for next season: he’ll compete for the 5th starter job in spring but may not win it.  Its hard to imagine a guy who threw 50+ innings of 1.50 ERA ball to NOT make the team the following spring;  I see him as the 6th guy in the bullpen and the first emergency starter in case someone gets hurt.
  • Zach Duke got one spot-start but was mostly a reliever; see the next section.

Washington relievers.  We’ll work the relievers backwards from the closer down the pen, starting with the original 7 guys in the pen to start the season and work from there.

  • Rafael Soriano was a surprise FA signing late in the 2012-2013 off-season, seemingly a Scott Boras special for the Nats.  His signing unsettled the bullpen, brought in a veteran with a history of malcontentness and under-performance when he wasn’t closing (just look at his stats in closer and non-closer seasons), cost a ton of money, and cost the team their 1st round draft pick (which could have netted them quite a prospect, as discussed in my draft review post here).  Other than that, I thought it was a fantastic signing (sarcasm).  For the year he went 43 for 49 in save opportunities, finished 58 games (important b/c his 2015 option vests if he “finishes” more than 120 games), and pitched relatively pedestrian stats for a highly paid closer: 3.11 era, 122 ERA+, 1.230 whip.  Certainly he wasn’t putting up the kind of lights out numbers we saw from other such highly paid closers.   Outlook for next season: back in the closer role, hopefully finishing fewer than 62 games so we can jettison him and his $11M salary.
  • Tyler Clippard returned to his dominant ways of 2011, throwing 71 innings of 2.42 ERA/158 ERA+ ball.  He showed why he’s best suited to keep in the 8th inning role even if it costs him money in arbitration.  He remains the most effective reliever in the pen and is well worth the $6M he seems set to attain in arbitration.  A more interesting question eventually awaits the team; is Clippard going to price himself out of our bullpen?  Perhaps not this off-season but maybe next, he should be moved to a team to assume their closer role and provide value commensurate with his rising salary.  Outlook for next season: back in the 8th inning role.
  • Drew Storen seemed to be the most unsettled by the Soriano acquisition, perhaps coupled with PTSD from his meltdown in the 2012 NLCS game 5.  He was ineffective in April, got it together for a while but then just blew up in July, giving up 14 runs in 9 innings and earning a demotion to work on his (admittedly) inconsistent mechanics.  To his credit, when he returned he was back to normal, giving up just 3 runs in 20 innings to finish out the season.  Lets hope he’s back to normal and can contribute for 2014.  Thanks to his inconsistent 2013, his name isn’t being mentioned as much in trade rumors, so hopefully that gives him some peace of mind this off-season. Outlook for next season: back in the 7th/8th inning role.
  • Craig Stammen continued his excellent workhorse performance as the classic right-handed middle reliever.  He put up a 2.76 ERA in 81 innings over 55 appearances.  Nothing much to say here; the biggest question with Stammen may be what happens NEXT off-season, when he faces the third and fourth arbitration years.  What kind of contract would you pay for him?  Is he going to price himself out of our bullpen?  We’ll see.  Outlook for next season: back in the 6th/7th inning middle relief role.
  • Ryan Mattheus was putting up the expected decent middle relief numbers when he imploded in San Diego in late May, giving up 5 runs in an inning.  In a fit of pique he punched a wall, broke his pitching hand (didn’t he ever see Bull Durham?  Never swing with your pitching hand!) and was sent to the D/L.  More importantly, I think the organization lost quite a bit of respect for him.  He returned two months later but pitched relatively poorly the rest of the season, finishing with a 6.27 ERA.   That’s just not going to cut it, not with the kind of arms who are pushing for spots lower down in the organization.  I think Mattheus will lose the competition for middle relief coming out of spring and will be sent to AAA as reliever depth.  Outlook for next season: AAA bullpen.
  • Henry Rodriguez was his typical self for the Nats early in the season; wild, ineffective and out of options, limiting the team’s flexibility.  Somewhere along the line the team finally gave up; DFA’ing Rodriguez  and somehow working out a trade to get something back (Ian Dickson from the Cubs).  Thus ends a long, frustrating tenure with the team.  The Cubs, for what its worth, DFA’d Rodriguez just 6 weeks after acquiring him, outrighted him to AAA Iowa, where apparently he got hurt after just 3 games and finished the season on the D/L.  He’s pitching in winter ball now so it must have been a minor injury.  Outlook for next season: on Chicago’s AAA team presumably.
  • Zach Duke was inexplicably ineffective for the team in the early parts of 2013, and was subsequently released in early June after the team presumably lost patience with him after an awful spot start and an even more unnerving 4 walk relief outing.   It goes to show you; sometimes you cannot trust small sample sizes.  Duke pitched great in September 2012, awful in April 2013 … but then was absolutely fantastic for Cincinnati down the stretch working primarily as a loogy.  Go figure; maybe our loogy solution was in the pen the whole time.  Outlook for next season: he’s not listed as a FA, so presumably he’s still under contract to Cincinnati right now.
  • Fernando Abad was a MLFA signing last off-season who pitched great for Syracuse and earned a call-up in May.   He toiled in the pen decently most of the year for the big-club but wasn’t considered valuable enough to keep.  The team DFA’d him ahead of this year’s rule-5 draft and then worked out a trade with our favorite GM Billy Beane.  This somewhat surprised me given Abad’s macro numbers for 2013 (3.35 ERA in 37 innings) but not when considering his lefty splits (a .306/.338/.452 lefty-lefty split for the year).  Outlook for next season: in Oakland’s organization.
  • Ian Krol exploded onto the scene for this team, getting a surprise  call-up in June from AA that coincided with the Duke and Rodriguez DFAs.  Here’s my “first look” post on him, pointing out the issue (he really has just one pitch) that would eventually drive him back to the minors.  Still, for a 22-yr old who had no experience above AA, he pitched pretty well; he maintained a sub 3.00 ERA until mid August and finished the year with a 3.95 ERA in 27 innings.  His lefty split numbers: .220/.273/.320.  This was good enough to intrigue Detroit, and Krol was included in the package that acquired Doug Fister.   Outlook for next season: in Detroit’s organization.
  • Erik Davis was Syracuse’s closer in name for a bulk of the season, earning 15 saves while posting a 3.10 ERA in 52+ innings.  He was a Sept 2012 pre-rule5 40-man addition and spent a week in the MLB pen in June before getting recalled for September.  In 10 MLB appearances he gave up zero runs in 9 of them and showed excellent middle-reliever stuff (12/1 K/BB ratio in 8 2/3 innings).  Outlook for next season: AAA bullpen again; he won’t beat out the names above him for the MLB bullpen.
  • Xavier Cedeno was an April 2013 waiver claim off of Houston (of all teams), who spent most of the season in Syracuse (save for a quick June call-up).  In September, he pitched pretty effectively, giving up just one run in 9 outings and 12+ innings for the Nats.  He clearly hasn’t shown the team enough to be counted on as the go-to loogy, considering the Nats off-season trade for Jeremy Blevens and their talk of using the likes of Detwiler and/or Sammy Solis as lefty reliever help in 2014.    Outlook for next season: Syracuse bullpen.
  • Lastly, Yunesky Maya got a call-up to provide bullpen relief, got blitzed, DFA’d and outrighted.  See the Syracuse writeup for more.

Summary

Washington’s rotation was by most measures a top 5-6 rotation in the majors (7th in starter ERA, 6th in starter FIP and 3rd in starter xFIP/SIERA).   Clearly we look to be improved on the rotation side, with Haren’s starts being replaced by the underrated Doug Fister, with a healthy Detwiler and with plenty of reinforcements to back the starters up.  Look for this to continue to be a source of strength in 2014.

The bullpen however was not a source of strength last year, ranking between 17th and 19th in the macro pitching categories (17th bullpen ERA, 19th bullpen xFIP and 18th in bullpen SIERA).  Has the team done enough to improve the bullpen for 2014 by just replacing the under-performers with call-ups and signings?

Nationals 2013 post-mortem

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This may be the last time i use Haren's picture in a Nats uniform on this blog.  Photo via Zimbio.com

This may be the last time I use Haren’s picture in a Nats uniform on this blog. Photo via Zimbio.com

They say success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.  Well, here’s a whole slew of orphan-causing problems that befell this team this year.  I started this post months ago, when the team sputtered in July and suddenly sat at 54-60.  None of these bullet points are surprises.  Maybe I forgot some key points; feel free to tack ‘em on.   This is a cathartic, washing my hands of the 2013 season, where so many things conspired to go wrongly.

  1. Davey Johnson, for continued pitching/bullpen mismanagement episode after episode, for seemingly losing the clubhouse (see below), for sticking with severely under-performing players (Espinosa, Haren especially) far, far too long, for failing to react to repeated beanings of his best player, and for generally looking old, tired and out-matched this year at press conference after press conference.  This team needs a new voice, a disciplinarian who will command more respect than what Johnson was commanding from this team.  My vote is for Matt Williams.
  2. Injuries.  Every team has injuries; I’m not going to write some simplistic statement that says “well if we had So-and-So healthy all year we’d have won the division.”   Look at St. Louis: they’re missing Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia basically all year and still won the best division in the game.  I think the issue most people will have with the Nats is the way their players’ injuries were handled.  Bryce Harper missed the whole month of June after several wall collisions finally caught up to him and he was clearly in pain the rest of the season.  Did the team not allow him to get healthy at the end of April?  Meanwhile you have to take serious issue with either the team, Danny Espinosa or both over the handling of his injuries.  What good did it do anyone to allow Espinosa to try to play through the significant shoulder injury he apparently has?  Why has he STILL not had the surgery done to fix it?  It sounds to me like there’s some serious stubbornness on both sides of this fence.  Ross Detwiler looked to be on the verge of a breakout season in 2012 … and now he’s back to being the broken down starter he’s mostly been during his time here.  In his 6 pro seasons he’s not pitched full seasons in 3 of them.   This isn’t necessarily on the team .. but I will ask this: at what point do you go into a season counting on Detwiler to break down instead of the reverse?  It goes to proper roster planning (also mentioned later on).
  3. Bench production, for regressing so far past the mean from last year’s over production.  Did you know that Steve Lombardozzi got more than 300 plate appearances this year with this slash line: .255/.276/.337?  I know you need backup utility infielders, but man, that’s a huge 68 OPS+ hole getting a ton of ABs.  Our opening-day bench of Lombardozzi/Moore/Bernadina/Tracy posted these OPS+ figures in 2012: 82/123/111/111.  In 2013?  69/66/43/55.  Wow.  That’s just a startling drop-off in production.  To add insult to injury Kurt Suzuki‘s OPS+ went from a respectable 95 last year to 64 this year.  Basically every pinch hitting spot or guy off the bench covering for a starter turned into an 0-4 outing.  We know that at least 3 of these 5 bench guys are gone; who will replace them?
  4. Dan Haren.  $13M for one of the worst starters in the game, even given his little August rebound.  The team finished 4 games out of the wild card, 10 games back of Atlanta.   In Dan Haren’s 30 starts, the Nats went 11-19.  In every other pitcher’s starts, the team went 75-57.   That’s a .568 winning percentage, which equates to 92 wins.  Even a #5 starter who gave the team a 50/50 chance of winning on any given sunday would have basically put the team into the WC game.  Haren was just a really really poor FA acquisition who contributed a huge part to the downfall of the team.  I wonder at this point if the Nats didn’t fail to do the proper medical due diligence on Haren; there was a reason the proposed trade to the Cubs fell through and there was a reason the Angels did not give him a qualifying offer.  I fully admit: I was completely on board with the signing, thinking we were getting the pre 2012 Haren.  Wrong; something clearly changed for him after the 2011 season and I wonder how much longer he can stay in the league after his last two seasons.  I’m sure he’ll get another one-year deal for 2014 based on his stronger finish, but another 5+ ERA season may finish him.
  5. Offense in general: The team scored 656 runs on the year.  That’s down fully 75 runs from last year, when they were 10th in the league in scoring.  Had they produced like they did last year in 2013 (about 10th in the league in runs scored and other key indicators),  they’d have scored around 700 runs, probably good for at least 10 more wins (under the rough estimate that it takes about 4 “extra” runs per win).  With 10 more wins … they’re winning the division again (since some of those added wins come at the hands of Atlanta).
  6. Hitting in the Clutch: Ask any sabre-nerd and they’ll tell you that “clutch” doesn’t exist and that all aspects of batting (good or bad) with RISP is merely coincidence (this came up again recently with David Ortiz’ game-changing NLCS homer).  I don’t entirely buy it. I think hitting with runners on base is a skill that can be practiced and honed.  I think there’s importance to driving runners in when you have the opportunity.  I think a batter with a runner on third and less than one out can absolutely look for a ball that he can hit into the air, thus driving in the run.  Anyway: let’s look at how well the Nats offense hit in the clutch this season (see this team-stats split link at tFangraphs).  The Nats team batting average with runners on base is ranked 19th in the league; its wRC+ as a team 17th.  However, change “runners on base” to “high leverage” in the Fangraphs split and you get this: Nats were 29th in high leverage batting average, 28th in wRC+. That’s right: almost dead last in the league in high-leverage hitting for the year.  When they came to bat in situations that mattered, they were one of the worst teams in the league.  Any way you slice it … that’s not “clutch.”
  7. Clubhouse Issues: I know that many readers here get irritated with presumptions of “chemistry” issues, writing comments about how we have no idea what really goes on in the clubhouse.  Fair enough; we don’t need to rehash the argument.  Absent any proof, I believe something might have been amiss.  Reporters have noted the losses of free-spirit Morse and the level headed DeRosa.  The Soriano acquisition brought a known surly loner with behavior problems into a tight knit bullpen and resulted in the chain reaction demotion of two guys (Storen and Clippard) who didn’t necessarily deserve to be demoted.  I believe Harper was fed up with Johnson’s message and was caught on camera more than once clearly ignoring or showing disdain to something he was being told.  To say nothing of the ridiculousness of Harper getting hit over and over without any of his teammates getting his back.   Can a new manager fix this?  Probably.  Can a leadership void fix this?  Definitely.  Perhaps with Jayson Werth‘s great season he can step up in the clubhouse and be the voice of reason moreso than it seems he has been before (either because he was struggling on the field or collapsing under the weight of his contract).
  8. Rizzo’s mis-management of the 2013 roster: Rizzo just had to have his speedy leadoff/centerfielder, and Span underperformed when it counted (I’m on record stating over and over that the team is wasting Harper’s defensive capabilities in left and blocking a power-hitter acquisition by sticking with Span in center.  But what’s done is done).  The opening day roster had no left handed specialists, a move that I quasi-defended at the time but which turned out to be disastrous.  We relied on a MLFA (and frankly, we over-relied an incredibly short sample size) for the long man (Duke) and he failed. We had absolutely no starting pitching depth in the high Minors and got rather lucky that Taylor Jordan materialized out of the thin air of high-A and Tanner Roark suddenly added 5 mph to his fastball and turned into an effective MLB hurler.  We had a $120M payroll but were depending on bargain basement acquisitions in key roles.  That just has to change for 2014.  Don’t go looking to save pennies on the proverbial dollar by non-tendering useful guys (as they did with Tom Gorzelanny last year); do the right thing and lock these guys up.  You had enough to waste $30M on Soriano but couldn’t find the scratch to keep around half of 2012′s bullpen?
  9. Pressure. this team had no pressure last year, and all of the pressure this year.  Nearly every baseball pundit with a blog, microphone or column picked them to win the division (me included), and lots picked them to win 100+ games (me included).  Look at how awfully they fared this year against the NL playoff bound teams:
  • Stl: 0-6, scoring just 8 runs in 6 games.
  • LA Dodgers: 1-5
  • Atlanta: 6-13.  Outscored 73-49
  • Pittsburgh: 3-4
  • Cincinnati: 4-3 but outscored 36-27 thanks to a 15-0 spanking the 2nd week of the season.

When the chips were down, they folded.  Especially against Atlanta, who pushed the team around, continually threw at us, and we had no reaction (that is until Strasburg suddenly had a fit of wildness which some will argue was less about standing up for his players and more about being off that day).   I lay this at the manager’s feet again.  Atlanta has proved time and again (and again) that they’re capable of acting like bullies when it comes to “unwritten rules” of the game, and Johnson let this go unchecked far too long.  A new manager with some balls will put an end to this nonesense, fast.  Sorry to sound crude, but it is what it is.  Johnson had no balls and made his entire team look weak in the face of the Braves.

Yes its great the team had a run in August and September.  What does it really mean?  Their schedule was cake in August and then filled with teams with AAA callups in September.  Who is the real Denard Span?  The guy who hit .235 in the middle of the summer or the guy who hit .303 in September?  Can Werth keep this kind of production up in the face of father time in 2014?  Can LaRoche return his OPS to something better than what a middling 2nd baseman can produce?  Can Harper stop running into walls and stay on the field?

I think the scarier part for Nats fans is the fact that this team is basically going to be the exact same team next year. Nearly every position player, likely the entire rotation (simply replace Haren with a healthy Detwiler), most all of the bullpen. There’s not a lot of holes here, not a lot of wiggle room.   Unless there’s a major trade on the horizon that drastically reshapes the roster, this is your team in 2014.  Can they turn it around and make up the 14 games they declined in the win column?

In summary; which of the above points IS the real issue behind 2013′s disaster?  And how do you fix it?  Because if you don’t address it, then 2014 is going to be the same story.

 

One lesson learned from 2013: you can never have enough starting pitching

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If Detwiler is out for the year, the Nats have a problem. Photo: Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

If Detwiler is out for the year, the Nats have a problem. Photo: Haraz Ghanbari/AP via federalbaseball.com

We all knew the Nationals had a glaring, acknowledged weakness heading into the 2013 season; almost no quality starting pitching depth in the high minors.  We non-tendered former opening day starter John Lannan in lieu of paying him somewhere between $5M-$6M dollars to toil in Syracuse again.  We non-tendered former starter Tom Gorzelanny despite his excellent 2012 season for us instead of paying him a few millions dollars a year to continue to be the 7th guy out of the pen.  We traded away top starting pitching prospect Alex Meyer to acquire a center-fielder that (in my oft-stated opinion) we didn’t need.  We were blinded by the excellent but short-sample-sized performance of Zach Duke upon his call-up last September and chose to make him not only the sole lefty in our 2013 pen, but the long-man/spot starter as well.

And we talked ourselves into it.

In 2012 our primary rotation made 150 of 162 starts.  Those 12 missed starts were made by Chien-Ming Wang (five starts) in a quickly-aborted glimpse to see if the many millions of dollars invested in his recovery over the past few years were going to pay off (they did not), by Lannan (six) for a couple of mid-season spot starts and his Stephen Strasburg replacement plan in September, and one by Gorzelanny the day after the team clinched the division (editor note: mistakely originally put “pennant.”  Duh).  That’s it; otherwise the rotation was solid, consistent, and one of the best in the majors by any statistical measure.

Was it just hubris that led us to believe that the same thing would happen in 2013?  That our vaunted rotation (which I certainly thought was the best in the majors before the season started) would steamroll through another 150+ starts in 2013 as we marched to the inevitable World Series title?  Maybe so.

The latest blow is the news that Ross Detwiler‘s herniated disk may very well keep him out for the rest of 2013.  Taylor Jordan has been more than ably filling in for Detwiler … but in a familiar twist Jordan is facing an innings restriction limit.  After August 4th’s start he’s got 40 2/3 major league innings in 2013 to go with 90 1/3 in the minors for 131 total on the year.  He only threw 54 1/3 all of 2012 coming back from Tommy John surgery, and this year easily marks a professional career high (he’s never thrown more than 100 professional innings).  He’s going to get shut down, soon (in about four more starts per the Washington Times’ Amanda Comak, which would put him just about at the same 160ip limit that both Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann pitched to the year after their own TJ surgeries).  This leaves the team right back where they were on May 20th, when the whole “find a competent 5th starter” charade started.

Duke failed and was released.  Yunesky Maya got his last attempt at pitching in the majors and was outrighted (a move long overdue in the opinion of many Nats followers).  Nathan Karns got three bites at the apple and returned to AA with a 7.50 ERA.  Ross Ohlendorf gave us a fantastic spot start in a double header last week… and just went on the D/L after not being able to dial it up more than 85mph in his last appearance.  The only other 40-man starter in the whole of the minors is Matthew Purke, currently posting a 6.35 ERA in high-A.

Hey, at least Dan Haren suddenly resembles the 2009 version of himself, having tossed 14 innings oof one-run ball en route to winning his last two starts.  A month ago we were talking about releasing him.

So, what should the team do when Jordan is shutdown?  It sounds to me like in the short term we’ll go back to Ohlendorf as the 5th starter (assuming of course his recent “dead arm” injury doesn’t turn into much more than a quick D/L trip).   However, despite Ohlendorf’s excellent work for us thus far, lets not forget why he was available on a minor league deal in the first place; his ERAs in 2011 and 2012 were 8.15 and 7.77 respectively.  Odds are that he’s not likely to be that effective going forward.

Plus, Ohlendorf’s time in the rotation means the bullpen will need another guy … presumably one that can pitch long relief to replace Ohlendorf.  I’m not entirely sure any of the other relievers on the 40-man but in the minors (Drew StorenErik Davis or Tyler Robertson) fits the bill.  Craig Stammen has absolutely done that role in the past, but I think Stammen’s value to this team now lies in his 7th inning “bridge reliever” role, getting the team from a short start to the 8th/9th inning guys.

If Detwiler is indeed out for the year I think he should be immediately transferred to the 60-day D/L (opening up a spot on the 40-man roster) and I’d like to see Tanner Roark  get a look-see as the long man in the bullpen.  He’s put up very good numbers in AAA this season in a swing-man role and faces minor league free agency this off-season.  Or, I wouldn’t be opposed to keeping Ohlendorf in the pen and giving Danny Rosenbaum a shot at the 5th starter.  He’s been the most effective AAA starter all year and, despite not being that overpowering, could turn into another Tommy Milone-esque lefty starter that we could leverage in trade.  We may not have fantastic depth in the upper minors, but you never know who may suddenly be an effective MLB pitcher (see Krol, Ian).

(Editor’s note: after I wrote this mid-weekend MASN’s Byron Kerr wrote and posted almost identical analysis).

Is it time to fire Davey Johnson?

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Davey Johnson can't get this team in gear.  Is it time to go?  Photo Getty via mlb.com

Davey Johnson can’t get this team in gear. Is it time to go? Photo Getty via mlb.com

I know this is blasphemous to say.

I know it’ll never happen, not under this GM and not under this ownership group, both of whom have far more respect for Davey Johnson than to give him such an ignominious end to his time here.

And I know that Johnson is as good of a manager as is out there.  I may have been critical of his decisions here and there (especially related to yanking starters on low pitch counts), but I recognize he’s a Hall of Famer and cannot argue against his career accomplishments.

But I’m beginning to believe that the only way to shake this team out of its current malaise is to change the message coming from the top.

They tried demoting players who weren’t hitting (Danny EspinosaTyler Moore).   They’ve tried calling up their best remaining prospects (Anthony Rendon, Nathan Karns and Taylor Jordan).  They’ve tried cleaning house of underperforming relievers (Henry RodriguezZach Duke, and Drew Storen).  They’ve tried changing key staff (firing Rick Eckstein).  They’ve tried ridiculous lineups (your best power hitter Bryce Harper leading off??)   Nothing has made a difference; the team has basically been playing .500 ball for weeks and weeks now.

For whatever reason, this team of players, picked by every baseball pundit out there to make the playoffs and by a good portion to make it to or win the World Series, is now 10 games out of of the divisional lead.  They’re 10 games back of Atlanta, which themselves has only played .500 ball since mid April after a 12-1 start.  The Nats just finished June and July playing 50 games in a row against teams that missed the 2012 playoffs (perhaps not the best bench mark, since Pittsburgh has the best record in baseball this year, but still), and finished the stretch 5 games south of .500.

The team looks like its sleepwaking through games.  They look like they have no voice, no spark, no sense of urgency.  No leadership.

The trade deadline won’t help at all; the Nats have practically no tradeable assets.  Their only FAs to be are Dan Haren and Chad Tracy.  Kurt Suzuki has a 2014 option that clearly won’t be exercised, so he counts too.  But who is out there lineing up for these 3 guys?  Meanwhile, despite their offensive woes, there’s really not a spot on the field that can be improved through trade.  Go around the field and you’ve got players on deals that at least extend through 2014 (LaRoche and Span), or  you’ve got guys on major contracts (Zimmerman and Werth) or you’ve got cornerstone younger players (HarperRamosDesmond and Rendon).  Who are you going to replace?  Maybe you think about trading Rafael Soriano (after all, the last thing a losing team needs is a high-priced closer) but a quick glance at the teams in playoff contention does not easily find a team in need of a closer (the best candidate may be Pittsburgh, who just lost their closer Jason Grilli to a forearm injury, but they’re not exactly rolling in dollars nor likely to take on an $11M/year guy).

Maybe its time to bring in a new voice, and see if he can scare this team into an August and September run.

Sorry Davey; you know how the old saying goes.  You can’t fire 25 players, but its pretty easy to fire the manager.

Time to pull the plug on Haren yet?

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How much longer is Haren going to be wearing this hat? Photo nats official via espn.com

The Nats management waited and waited, but finally gave in and dealt with season-long performance issues in Henry Rodriguez, Zach Duke, Danny Espinosa and Tyler Moore in the first two weeks of June, DFA-ing or demoting as needed and bringing in replacements to try to do a better job and turn this season around.

So, when will it be time to talk about the train-wreck season that Dan Haren is having?  For $13M, here’s what the team has gotten in his first 12 starts, including June 12th’s meltdown:

  • a 4-8 Record with a 5.70 ERA and a 67 ERA+ (his ERA is 6th worst in baseball for qualified pitchers).
  • A 6-10 team record in games in which he’s started
  • a league leading 17 home runs allowed

A quick glance at his advanced stats doesn’t give much credence to any apologists that may try to excuse his line either; his BABIP is slightly elevated but not overly so (.320) and his FIP is still an unsightly 5.06 (5th worst among qualified starters).  Only his expected xFIP and SIERA numbers are relatively respectable, but xFip is just an estimator stat and often times never comes to pass, since it assumes silly things like the fact that Haren can’t possibly keep giving up this many home runs… an assumption that continued to be disproven as he gave up two more in his most recent loss in Colorado.

Game-Log analysis: Haren has yet to have a start where he shut out the opponent.  He’s only got 5 quality starts out of 12.  In half his starts he’s allowed 4 or more runs (not good when your team’s offense is only scoring 3.4 runs a game).  Haren’s only really had a couple of starts that were “grade A” in my book (his best start of the year was an 8 inning 4 hit performance in Atlanta of all places).  In his defense, he has gotten awful run support (2.84 runs per start), heavily indicating team losses every time he pitches.

I’ll admit it; I talked myself into the Haren deal big time after it was announced.  I ignored his 2012 struggles, looked back to the near Cy Young guy he was in 2009 and thought this was the move that could push the Nats to a 105 win team.  Now clearly whatever excuses we made for his performance in 2012 (back injury leading to diminished velocity leading to loss of his sinker leading to crummy numbers) seem like they’re covering up for an aging sinkerballer who never had lights out velocity and who now looks dangerously close to extinct as his very-hittable fastball flattens out and gets hit harder and harder.

So what’s the answer here?

Don’t talk to me about his salary; that $13M is out the door already.  Kaput.  Gone.  Look up the definition of a “Sunk Cost” in economic terms.  If you were worried about $13M in annual salary then you shouldn’t have bought a $15M a year closer who isn’t exactly a complete shutdown guy (Tyler Clippard has almost identical stats this year to Rafael Soriano for a third of the price and he didn’t cost us a 1st round draft pick, which as it turned out could have been spent on one of two pre-draft top-10 talents).  The decision needs to be made; do you still want to try to “win now” in 2013 as all the other off-season moves seemed to indicate?  Because the solution likely is going to be a bit more money and a few more prospects.

Short term (as in, the next week): see how Ross Ohlendorf does in his spot start (Answer: uh, he did awesome, holding a good hitting team to two hits through 6 in the best hitters park in the league).  If he’s anything remotely close to effective, I think you look at an invented D/L trip for Haren and send him on a rehab assignment tour of the minors.

Mid-term (as in, for the next couple weeks): do we have anyone else in the minors worth checking out?  Not on the 40-man and not with enough experience.  Maybe we give Danny Rosenbaum a shot if another spot-start is needed after Detwiler and Strasburg come back.

Longer term (as in, the next two months); Look at the trade market and look at who may be available leading up to the trade deadline.  We’re already seeing some teams completely out of it and clearly some guys will be available:

  • The Cubs probably will look to move Scott Feldman and especially Matt Garza.
  • The Astros probably will cash in on Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris (nobody’s likely interested in Erik Bedard at this point).
  • The Marlins would listen for offers for Ricky Nolasco, though perhaps not intra-division.
  • The Mets aren’t winning this year and could be moving Shawn Marcum (though perhaps not intra-division).
  • I think eventually Seattle becomes a seller: Joe Saunders and Aaron Harang should be dangled.
  • I also think San Diego eventually realizes they’re not going to win the NL West: Edinson Volquez, waiver pickup Eric StultsClayton Richards and our old friend Jason Marquis all make for possible trade candidates.

A few other poorly performing teams are probably going to be too stubborn to wave the white flag, which cuts down on the number of guys that will be available (see the Los Angeles Angels, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto specifically).

The only problem with a trade market move is this: all these teams are going to want prospects back.  And the Nats prospect cupboard has been cleaned out recently to acquire all these fools who are underperforming so far in 2013.  I’m not an opposing GM, so I can’t say for sure, but from a quick look at the Nats best prospects in the minors right now (basically in order: Giolito, Goodwin, Cole, Karns, Garcia, Skole, Purke, Solis, Perez, then guys like Hood, Taylor, Walters, Ray and Jordan round out the list) and I see a lot of injured guys or players on injury rehab, backups or guys barely above or still in A-ball.  I’m not trading a valued asset for an injury-risk guy who has never gotten above AA.  Who on this list is going to fetch us a quality major league starter?

Maybe we trade Haren along with a huge chunk of his remaining salary and multiple prospects to one of these teams in order to get one of these 5th starters back.  But that’d be an awful trade when it was all said and done (about as awful as, say, the Giants trading Zack Wheeler to the Mets for 2 months of Carlos Beltran in a failed effort to make the playoffs in 2012; with all the Giants 2013 pitching issues do you think they wish they had Wheeler back right now??)

Or, it very well may be that the Nats are stuck; we knew going into the season we had no starter depth and those MLFAs we did acquire (Ohlendorf and Chris Young basically) probably aren’t the answer.  But something has to give; we can’t give away every 5th start like we seem to be doing now and claw back into the NL East race.

May 2013 Monthly review of Nats rotation by Opponent

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Welcome to the Majors Nathan Karns. Photo perfectgame.org

Continuing a monthly series of look-backs at our starters (here’s Apr 2013 post), here’s a monthly glance at how our .500 team is doing from a Starting Pitching standpoint.  As with last month, we’ll have “Grades” per outing, the team’s performance per opposing starter sliced and diced a few ways, and other per-starter stuff that I like to track.

MLB Rotation Per-Start Grades for May:

  • Strasburg: C-,B-,A,A-,A+,C/inc
  • Gonzalez: C+,A+,C+,A,D-
  • Zimmermann: A+,A,A-,A,B+,D+
  • Haren: A+,D+,A-,F,C+,B+
  • Detwiler: C-,B,D-/inc -> D/L
  • Duke: F
  • Karns: D+

Discussion: Nats Pitcher YTD Stats from Baseball-Reference are here

Strasburg has stepped up his game after his well-documented 4-unearned run meltdown and has dominated his last three starts before straining his Lat on 5/31 (hence the “incomplete” grade).  Gonzalez remains up-and-down, as he was in April/  He’ll be excellent and then less than mediocre start to start.  Zimmermann‘s 6 run 7th in Baltimore is the only blip on an otherwise fantastic month which has put him into Cy Young contendor status.  Haren‘s up and down starts finished off with a heroic effort in Baltimore on 5/30/13, pitching into the 8th and giving up just two runs to one of the more potent offenses in the league.  Detwiler‘s month was cut-short by his injury and subsequent D/L trip.  Lastly the Nats one known glaring weakness heading into this season (Starting pitching depth) has been exposed with the two spot starts we’ve gotten from Duke and Karns.  I know Karns’ grade isn’t that fair considering the circumstances (MLB debut, hot night, tough hitting team), but his stat-line is what it is.


May Performance By Opponent Starting Pitcher Rotation Order Number

A look at the opposing team’s rotation ranked 1-5 in the order they’re appearing from opening day.

Starter # Record Opposing Starter in Wins Opposing Starter in Losses
1 3-4 Samardzija, Volquez, Hamels Burnett, Kershaw, Cain, Hammel
2 4-2 Maholm, Rodriguez, Sanchez, Bumgarner Jackson, Greinke
3 2-3 Medlen, Fister Feldman, Stults, Tillman
4 1-0 Kendrick
5 3-1 Locke, Beckett,Teheran Vogelsong
5+ 2-3 Smith, Gausman Cashner, Pettibone, Garcia

Thoughts; as always, not all opposing team #1 starters are the same.  But, the Nats actually fared pretty durn well against opposing #1 and #2 guys in May.  Where they struggled were against the #3 starters in May; you cannot lose to the likes of Scott Feldman, Eric Stults and Chris Tillman.  They also struggled with what I call “5+” starters; guys who were call-ups to replace opening day starters.  Sometimes a 5+ is a rising ace prospect (theoretically a Kevin Gausman or perhaps a Matt Harvey in the end of 2012) and sometimes they’re a 4-A guy (Jonathan Pettibone).  But usually you expect a winning record there.


May Performance By Opponent Starting Pitcher Actual Performance Rank Intra-Rotation

A ranking of opposing teams’ rotations by pure performance at the time of the series, using ERA+ heavily.

Starter # Record Opposing Starter in Wins Opposing Starter in Losses
1 1-3 Bumgarner Burnett, Kershaw, Cashner
2 6-2 Samardzija, Sanchez, Medlen, Fister, Kendrick, Locke Greinke, Tillman
3 3-2 Maholm, Rodriguez, Beckett Feldman, Pettibone
4 1-3 Teheran Cain, Stults, Garcia
5 2-3 Volquez, Hamels Hammel, Jackson, Vogelsong
5+ 2-0 Smith, Gausman

On the bright side; going 6-2 against the opposing team’s 2nd best starter isn’t bad.


May Performance By Opponent Starting Pitcher League-wide “Rank”

A team-independent assignment of a league-wide “rank” of what the starter is.  Is he an “Ace?”  Is he a #2?

Starter # Record Opposing Starter in Wins Opposing Starter in Losses
1 1-3 Hamels Kershaw, Greinke, Cain
2 4-0 Bumgarner, Samardzija, Sanchez, Medlen
3 3-2 Fister, Maholm, Volquez Burnett, Tillman
4 3-3 Kendrick, Rodriguez, Beckett Cashner, Hammel, Jackson
5 4-5 Locke, Smith, Gausman, Teheran Feldman, Pettibone, Stults, Garcia, Vogelsong

I like this table the best; It usually shows where a team really is over- or under-performing.  There’s no shame in going 1-3 against the league’s best hurlers.  And its fantastic to see the team going 4-0 against that collection of league-wide #2s.  It is downright awful to see the team go 4-5 against this collection of #5 starters.


May Records by Pitching Advantage

Start-by-start advantages in my own opinion and then looking at the results.

Wash 9-5 Strasburg-Hamels, Zimm-Maholm, Stras-Volquez, Zimm-Kendrick, Gonzalez-Rodriguez, Zimm-Beckett, Stras-Locke, Gio-Smith, Stras-Teheran Zimm-Tillman, Gio-Hammel, Stras-Jackson, Gio-Feldman, Zimm-Stults
Even 2-4 Gonzalez-Bumgarner, Zimm-Sanchez Strasburg-Cain, Detwiler-Burnett, Haren-Cashner, Haren-Garcia
Opp 4-4 Haren-Medlen, Karns-Gausman, Detwiler-Samarzija, Haren-Fister Haren-Kershaw, Detwiler-Greinke, Haren-Pettibone, Duke-Vogelsong

In other words, the team when 9-5 when I thought Washington had the pitching advantage, 2-4 when I thought the pitching matchup was even, and 4-4 when I thought the opposing team had the advantage.  This is about what I expected, perhaps wanting to see a slightly better record in our advantage’d starts.  The Strasburg-Edwin Jackson loss hurt, as did the Zimmermann-Stults loss.


May matchup analysis

Looking at the opposing starter rank that our guys are going up against to see how their competition fares.

Nats Starters Opponents matchup analysis Nats Record under starter
Strasburg Three #1s, One #2, Two #5s 4-2
Gonzalez One #1, Two #2s, a #3 and a #5+ 3-2
Zimmermann Two #2s, Two #3s, a #4 and a #5 4-2
Haren One #1, Two #3s, and Three #5+ 2-4
Detwiler Two #1s, One #2. 1-2
Duke One #5 0-1
Karns One #5+ 1-0
total record 15-13

Detwiler’s turn now basically matches up with the opposing teams’ best guys, while Haren is getting more and more #5 and #5+ guys but continues to struggle.

So, while I was out…

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Rodriguez DFA long overdue. Photo via humorfeast.blogspot.com

What a great time to have a 30-hour server outage.  Just as soon as the hammer drops on the Nationals Roster my site went kaplunk and I couldn’t post or host comments.  Grrr.  Moving the site next month to some place more stable.

So, focusing on the obvious, the Nats made a series of moves that some argue were overdue by about a couple years.  Some quick thoughts (since by now everyone’s weighed in so my comments are nothing obvious):

1. Henry Rodriguez DFA 16 walks in 18 innings this year in almost entirely low-leverage situations.  Long overdue move; if you can’t rely on a reliever, you need someone else.  I think the team hung on to him for far too long, and I struggled with  the acquisition to begin with as has often been repeated here.  Will he catch on with another team?  Probably; 100mph fastballs don’t grow on trees.    He can go be someone else’s Steve Dalkowski.

2. Zach Duke DFA: you had to see this coming; the Nats are paying the price for not tendering Tom Gorzelanny and thinking they could get by with Duke in that spot.  I did too; he was decent in AAA and great in September 2012.  But he’s been god-awful this year, and it looks like Rizzo is going to start spinning arms through the bullpen to find someone that can stick.  Unlike Davey Johnson, I don’t believe he’s going to get picked up off waivers and he’ll likely take his AAA assignment.

3. Danny Espinosa to the D/L and then (by assumption of his locker being cleaned out) banished to the minors: it was a-coming.  If he was hitting .230 with power and walks, he could have stuck on.  But you just cannot cost a struggling offense the kind of at-bats he was.  He’s got more than 1500 MLB plate appearances now; is this who he is?  I think Espinosa’s 2013 season may end up with him spending the rest of the year in AAA relearning how to hit before the team has to make a hard decision next year.

4. Anthony Rendon back up and at 2b: had to happen.  He’s ready for the MLB.  He had nothing left to prove by slicing up AA.  Can he play second?  Yeah I think he can; it isn’t rocket science.  If Rendon played shortstop in HS, he can make that transition.  Stick him at 6th or 7th in the order and let him play.

5. Ian Krol: this move came out of nowhere for me.  Suddenly mr “we don’t need a left handed reliever” Mike Rizzo has two of them in his bullpen.  He’s also managed to already call up both guys added to the 40-man roster last fall ahead of the rule-5 draft.  I’m sure both Krol and Erik Davis will struggle here and there, but should hold their own in short stints.

Summary: like the moves.  It is almost as if the Nats fanboy blogosphere got to play GM for a day and rid the team of all its issues in one fell swoop.  The timing couldn’t be better; 6 games against non-descript teams and even more non-descript starters.  Lets hope the combination of new blood and bad opponents sparks this team.