Nationals Arm Race

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

Ask Boswell 12/10/12 edition


Denard Span's "best of 2012" defensive catch, highlighting more of what we can expect in 2013. Photo

I wasn’t expecting much baseball talk in Ask Boswell this week (12/10/12), not with the Redskins on a 4-game winning streak.  But there were some significant baseball moves to discuss, and a ton of baseball questions made their way in.  So here we go.  As always, I read the question and answer before reading Tom Boswell‘s response, and sometimes edit questions for clarity:

Q: I find it hard to imagine any starter of worth will sign with the Nats now that there are five rotation certainties in place.  Will the Nats get the starter depth they desire?

A: There is definitely a class of starter out there who absolutely would take a minor league contract with a team like the Nats in order to rehabilitate their FA value, which may have been eroded due to injury or a bad season.  Who would sign Erik Bedard (as an example) to anything guaranteed right now?  Or Jonathan Sanchez?   I would say though that more likely is the team acquiring guys on the minor league free agent market (where there’s 100s of guys available) and trading for farm system depth (I could envision both Michael Morse and Danny Espinosa being moved for prospect depth right now).  Boswell didn’t really address this part of the question, instead focusing on the next question.

Q: Why did Rizzo non-tender Gorzelanny, who as the LHP long man could spot start? He has been effective at times, the non-tender now seems like a false economy.

A: Simple econonmics; despite Tom Gorzelanny‘s salary being miniscule in the grand scheme of things, they couldn’t tender him and risk getting an un-acceptable award in arbitration.  I posted on the topic ahead of the non-tender deadline.  I’m hopeful that Gorzelanny re-signs with the team at something close to his 2012 salary.  But, that being said the bullpen looks awfully full right now and there might not be room for him.  5 returning RH relievers, new signing Zach Duke and only one spot left, likely being filled by Bill Bray in a pure LOOGY move.  Boswell points out that Duke exactly replicates what Gorzelanny would have given us at a fraction of the price.  Enough said.

Q: How do you like the Denard Span acquisition versus Philly’s acquisition of Ben Revere?   Should the Nats have acquired Revere instead of Span?  Do the Nats have an internal CF option after Span’s contract ends?

A: I posted my opinion on the Span deal here; quick analysis: liked the Denard Span deal but didn’t like that they made it.   Now, if I compare the Span to the Revere deals, I can’t help but say that I think Philadelphia overpaid, badly.  Trevor May was Philly’s #1 prospect in their system.  May for Revere may have been a decent deal (akin to our own Alex Meyer for Span), but throwing in a servicable starter with 46 decent MLB starts under his belt was questionable.  It isn’t like Ben Revere is the second coming of Joe DiMaggio; he had a 89 OPS+ last year in his third pro season.  Great defense absolutely, but at what cost at the plate?  At least Span profiles as a better-than-league-average hitter.   The Span contract is for 2 years, by which time the Nats have a slew of potential replacements (in likely order Goodwin, Perez, Hood, Taylor), so yes there’s plenty of rising talent in the system at center.  Boswell doubts the talent of Trevor May despite the consensus scouting opinion of the player, but he likes Worley and thinks the Phillies “took a flier on talent.”  He does think Span > Revere though.

Q: Have the Nats done enough to their roster to win it all?  Do they need another closer?

A: I believe the team has already done enough to re-qualify for the 2013 playoffs, especially in the NL East where Miami and the Mets are reeling, barring a slate of pitching injuries.  I can make a legitimate argument (tease for a future post) that the WAR improvements expected from our existing players (Strasburg, Harper, a full season of Werth, etc), plus addition by subtraction for players who hurt us last year (Nady, DeRosa, Henry Rodriguez, etc) alone will result in a better team than 2012.   Do we need another closer?  No, but I think one more right handed option out of the pen could help.   That being said, we don’t really have any 25-man room right now given the anticipated pen.  I liked last year’s Brad Lidge signing as a way to get some bullpen help, but doubt the team will do it this year.  As far as Drew Storen goes, he’s a top notch reliever and does not need to be replaced.  But I could see the team flipping him or Tyler Clippard as they get more expensive.  Boswell says the Los Angeles acquisitions change the game, and teams like the Nats may have to re-think their approaches.

Q: What do you think of the Shields trade? Who comes out ahead? Do the Rays have enough pitching to remain AL East contenders, even after trading their No 1 starter?

A: I believe Tampa Bay fleeced Kansas City; Shields was NOT their #1 starter (David PriceJeremy Hellickson) or honestly maybe not even their #3 (Matt Moore, at least on potential).  So the Rays traded a mid-rotation starter who they wanted to move anyway, along with a long-man in Wade Davis for the best prospect in the minors right now  (Wil Myers), the Royal’s #1 pitching prospect (Jake Odorizzi), another high-end pitching prospect (Mike Montgomery, a former highly regarded arm), and yet another minor league player.  That is just frankly ridiculous.  If you had told me the trade was simply Myers for both Shields and Davis, I could have squinted and understood.  But the addition of the other prospects made this a complete heist for Tampa.  You don’t trade the best prospect in the minor leagues for anything less than an ACE starter.  Does Tampa have enough to remain AL east contenders?  Absolutely yes; this was a trade of spare parts for Tampa (akin to the Nats trading Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi for some other team’s two best prospects) and they didn’t give up anything that they weren’t already planning on replacing.  Dayton Moore has gone all in on this move; if the Royals do not win the division in 2013, he’s out of a job.  Boswell didn’t really offer an opinion, just saying that the Rays are still stocked and noting that the price in prospects was why the Nats stayed away.  Disappointed not to read an opinion on the trade.

Q: Will Harper be hitting cleanup this year and, if so, what’s your thinking on this?

A: Answer: It depends.  If the team does NOT re-sign Adam LaRoche, then they have precious little left-handed hitting in the lineup, and Harper will be forced to bat somewhere in the middle of the order.  Cleanup may have to be the spot.  If LaRoche does come back, then the team can spread out its lefty power and continue with a similar lineup to what they used last year (going Harper-Zimmerman-LaRoche-Werth for L-R-L-R).  I certainly don’t think that someone like Harper will have any issues batting clean-up in the major leagues; one thing he’s never been accused of lacking is pride.  Boswell agrees with the opinion here, and then talks about just how much respect Harper earned in his rookie season.

Q: Should I be worried about our pitching depth? Our pitching was remarkably healthy this year and if that doesn’t hold true, especially with questions about Haren’s health I am not sure we can assume that will hold true this season. Don’t we need another starter or two who could eat innings if needed?

A: Yes, we have a depth issue.  Especially given that we’ve traded nearly an entire AAA team worth of rotation insurance in the last two off-seasons (Milone, Peacock, Meyer, Rosenbaum all traded away or lost to rule 5 in the last two off-seasons).  But Dan Haren has been remarkably durable through his career, only missing 28 games in his entire career to injury.  So lets temper the whole “Haren is fragile narrative.”  He’s not; he just happened to have an injury in 2012.  I’m assuming, until proven otherwise, that Haren will return to his previous form and throw 220 innings.  Does this mean that we weren’t lucky in 2012 and should plan for someone to get hurt in the rotation?  Absolutely.  I believe this is why moving either Michael Morse or Danny Espinosa for starter depth is wise.  Boswell reminds the reader about Duke’s starting capability and the team’s plans for Christian Garcia.  There’s also Ryan Perry.  And there’s also the slew of guys who won’t get MLB jobs but who aren’t ready to hang them up who will be there for the taking.  You know, guys exactly like Duke was last year 2 days before the start of the season.

Q: Don’t you think that if LaRoche was going to re-sign that he would have by now? If he goes, have the Nat’s alienated Morse?

A: No; the baseball off-season moves slowly, and few moves happen before the Winter Meetings anyway.  LaRoche is right on schedule for his negotiations.  Now, the team’s overt coveting of LaRoche has to have Morse pissed.  I would be; clearly the team is planning for your exit on a day to day basis in the open press.  Which is a real shame, because I like Morse and don’t think he did anything to warrant being treated this way.  Boswell somehow thinks that this whole dance is a compliment to Morse.  I don’t get it.

Q: Rizzo has a 2 year offer on the table for LaRoche, and history says he’s not likely to budge. Moreover, with other options like Morse and Moore, there’s no reason for him to. If another team needed help at 1B and was willing to give LaRoche 3 years, wouldn’t they have done so already? You’ve said all along you see the Nats and LaRoche amicably parting ways. Still see it that way?

A: Rizzo can budge on his demands.  Hey; at least it isn’t a four year deal that LaRoche is demanding.  I think a 2year deal with a club option for a 3rd makes a lot of sense for the team.  For the player, not so much.  This is LaRoche’s last chance at the free agent bonanza; he has to get the biggest contract he can.  The market for LaRoche won’t completely clear until Josh Hamilton signs.  While they’re not apples-to-apples comparisons, they are both lefty power hitters.  If a team that wanted Hamilton doesn’t get him, they can come looking for LaRoche to fit a middle of the order lefty bat.  The team still needs and wants LaRoche for two main reasons; plus defense and lefty power.  They’ll take a step backwards in both categories by going with Morse at first and Moore as first guy off the bench.  At the beginning of the off-season I thought LaRoche was leaving, because he’d want (and get) a 4 year deal.  Now I think he may be back.  Boswell now thinks LaRoche may be back and the team may give a 3rd year.

Q: I realize that the life with LaRoche is much preferred by the Nats. However, do you think there will be much of drop off in the quality of Nats play? Even without him, I have no doubt that the Nats will still win their share of games and make the playoffs (assuming the starting rotation stays relatively healthy). All starters are strike out pitchers. Offensive production should be about eqaul (though not as balanced),and Morse/Moore will probably make a few more errors. I feel like moving Zimmerman to first in 2014 and have Rendon starting at third would be the ideal way to make sure the core stays in tact.

A: I mostly agree; we’ll live without LaRoche but will be righty-heavy.  Morse is healthy and has shown 30 homer capabilities in the past; why wouldn’t he do that again in 2013?  It is a contract  year for him after all.  Meanwhile. the “save first base for Ryan Zimmerman” plan is one I’m 100% for; we’re just waiting for Anthony Rendon to show up.  Boswell cautions to temper expectations for Rendon, who hasn’t had an injury-free season in years.

Q: Why does Shane Victorino get a 3 year deal before Adam LaRoche?

A: Because the Red Sox made a rash, poor signing?  The LaRoche market just hasn’t played out yet.  Plus, filling a first baseman versus a corner outfielder is more risky for teams, so they do more due diligence.  Boswell doesn’t like the Victorino deal.  At all.

Q: Michael Young had the lowest WAR of ANY position player last year, do you really think he’s an upgrade for the Phillies? Personally, I can’t wait for those fans to start booing him 2 weeks into the season.

A: Yes, Michael Young looked pretty bad statistically last year.  But i’m guessing that a change of scenery may help him.  Texas has spent the past several seasons acquiring players to overtly replace Young; the year after he won a gold glove at short the team asked him to make way for Elvis Andrus and he moved to third.  Then the team moved him off of third when they acquired Adrian Beltre.  Then the team moved him to first … but then gave most of the starts at first to Mitch Moreland Maybe his 2012 was just pure disappointment in his treatment by the club where he’d played his entire career.  I think though that at his age (36 next year) he’ll be lucky to be just replacement level.  Boswell states the obvious; the Phillies are hoping for the 2011 version of Young, not the 2012 version.

9 Responses to 'Ask Boswell 12/10/12 edition'

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  1. If the idea of keeping LaRoche is because he offers a left handed power bat to offset a righty-heavy lineup, consider this:

    Morse vs. RHP: .292/.343/.487
    LaRoche vs. RHP: .274/.348/.495

    That’s not a whole lot of difference, even if you assume that LaRoche carries his numbers forward as he ages into his mid 30’s.

    As for lineup, I think Werth bats #2 behind Span, getting two OBP guys up at the top of the order ahead of the thumpers. If LaRoche resigns, then the lineup goes Span/Werth/Harper/Zimmerman/LaRoche/Desmond through the top six spots (LRLRLR), and if LaRoche goes, then the lineup goes Span/Werth/Zimmerman/Harper/Morse/Desmond. If Espinosa figures it out and Ramos is 100%, I like the Nats 1-8 spots a LOT (1-9 when Strasburg or Zimmermann are on the hill ;-).

    John C.

    11 Dec 12 at 12:58 pm

  2. Totally fair point on L/R splits for Morse/LaRoche. I wonder if the team is reading this. I’m not disagreeing with you at all, and I think the team would be completly fine with Morse playing 1B in 2013. But the tea leaves seem to read differently. Rizzo wants LaRoche back. I think he’s obsessed with LaRoche’s 1B defense. Nevermind that Morse was a short stop coming up, should ably field the 1B position, and is big enough to provide a large enough target to reel in Zimmerman’s sometimes (most of the time?) errant un-pressured throws across the diamond. Morse is cost controlled, would be half the payroll of LaRoche in 2013, the team coudl take him or leave him at the end of the season, and NOT locking up LaRoche at 1B for 3 years gives the team a lot of positional flexibility moving forward (keep 1B open for Zimmerman to move over if Rendon is ready to play, let Moore take over his natural position at some point, etc).

    Not disagreeing that Werth makes MORE sense batting 2nd. Again, reading tea leaves it seems like the team wants to return him to a RBI slot in the lineup. I guess its the difference between saying what I (or you) think the team should do versus trying to interpret what we think is going to happen.

    I think in the abstract locking up a chunk of payroll to LaRoche leads the team further towards the Yankee/Phillie model of having aging guys on larger salaries hamstringing your budget. What’s the cardinal rule of maintaining roster/payroll flexibility? Avoid massive contracts for decline years for sluggers. And that seems to be the definition of a 3 year deal for LaRoche. (ok, maybe not the “massive” part, but still). This team is already going to have to make some serious decisions once Strasburg and Harper hit arbitration, and you can only have so many $15-$20m players and still be competitive. Unless you’re the Dodgers.

    Todd Boss

    11 Dec 12 at 1:25 pm

  3. ALR v Morse: I am kind of ambivalent. My gut tells me that ALR fits better, but I wouldn’t be upset if Morse is the 1B next year, and I do think Boz is right that Morse will hit better than ALR next year.

    But ALR gives the Nats arguably the best infield defense in baseball (maybe Tampa with Escobar and Loney added), and I like good defense.

    I would hold firm at 2 years for Laroche (and I assume it would be close to $25m).


    11 Dec 12 at 1:53 pm

  4. I agree with Wally. I really like LaRoche, but we don’t need him. Morse played 1B very well in ’11, and I think he’ll hit better than LaRoche. Both players are great clubhouse guys, and I hate to lose either, but that’s baseball.

    Todd, I’m not sure I agree that Morse must be pissed about this. He had to see this as a possibility. He’s a minus defensive outfielder on a team that values defense, and there’s a logjam at 1B. Morse would also probably agree that ALR is a better defender and a team leader. And it’s a shame that this is playing out in the media, but hot stove rumors are all that baseball writers have to print right now. The Nats aren’t creating these stories; the press is. I doubt that Morse takes any of this as a compliment, as Boswell wrote, but I doubt he’s mad at the team, either.


    11 Dec 12 at 3:00 pm

  5. How could Morse not be upset reading Davey Johnson being quoted as saying things like, “I’ll move all of Adam’s cows to florida to get him to stay,” when such a move directly leads to Morse being surplus goods and needing to be traded? I read it directly as, “the Nats have made a series of moves designed to end my tenure with the team” or, “The Nats want LaRoche more than they want me.” Davey sin’t being quoted as saying things like “I think Michael will play a great first base for us in 2013.”

    I guess it goes more towards my beef with the Span trade. We didn’t NEED Span; could have gotten along just fine with Harper in CF. Without Span, nobody slides to left to take Morse’s spot and he’s got a position in 2013. Which is a better hitting team: Span/Harper/Werth/LaRoche or Morse/Harper/Werth/LaRoche? Or, for sake of argument since LaRoche still may not sign: Span/Harper/Werth/Morse?

    Todd Boss

    11 Dec 12 at 3:08 pm

  6. I think the best pure hitting numbers will go Morse/ALR/Span and the highest WAR will be Span/ALR/Morse, but partly that is due to a formula bias in WAR favoring good fielders at premium spots.

    But as I think more about this, the Nats should sign ALR and keep Morse. First, they are going for it now, and Morse’s salary isn’t a budget- buster. This would be very similar to keeping Lannan last year. Second, Morse’s positional flexibility (along with Harper’s) provides a hedge against 4 positions of injury, all manned by people with injury histories (ok, maybe not Harper). Third, Morse can have the DH slot in something like 15-20 inter league games. Fourth, he’d be a great PH. fifth, I don’t think we will get very much back in a trade for Morse. One year of a poor fielding good bat doesn’t bring back a lot in this market (see, Willingham, Josh).

    Tyler Moore probably gets bumped to AAA in this scenario, and Morse is probably least happy in this scenario, which might seem unfair to them. but I think it gives us unquestionably our strongest roster, and Rizzo should be trying to give us the best chance to win within budget constraints.


    11 Dec 12 at 4:30 pm

  7. Hmm. The one major difference between Lannan and Morse as insurance policies is options status; we could send Lannan to AAA but cannot send Morse there (no options AND he’s > 5 years service time). So that means he sits and sulks on the bench. That’s just bad karma to me. Even given your scenario above; he’s a 30 homer capable guy if he plays a full season. I’d much rather flip him for prospects even if we’re not getting 100 cents back on the dollar. I understand and relatively agree on the Willingham comp … but Morse is > Willingham in terms of defense. Willingham is a walking train wreck; go check out his injury history. Its the longest list i’ve ever seen for any player. Neck, back, knee, more back issues .. he can barely move. Morse is just “big.” He can still move, at least for me relatively well enough to man first.

    Btw, i’ve gone on record several times that I *hated* the Willingham trade in the first place 🙂 You don’t need a track star to play left field. Goes back to my “why did we need Span” argument. I just don’t believe there’s that many defensive runs to be saved by having Willie Mays manning left field for most normal teams.

    If you know you’re signing LaRoche, then you ask all parties to hold off on putting pen to paper, start calling around to teams that could use Morse (two leading candidates being Seattle and Tampa) and make that deal, before anybody knows you’ve signed LaRoche.

    Todd Boss

    11 Dec 12 at 5:10 pm

  8. I’m OK with the Span trade, because it gets them an OBP guy at the top of the order to go with the plus defense. It also makes for at least one guy in the lineup who doesn’t whiff all the time. I’m tired of the Nats hitters and pitchers striving to see who can record more strikeouts (remarkably, they tied last year: 1,325 K’s for, 1,325 K’s against). The failure to put the ball in play hurt a lot of rallies last year.

    While Harper did very well in CF last year, the team was adamant about saving wear and tear on him by moving him into a corner position. When the trade was made, my first thought was “goodbye, Adam – thanks for 2012.” The trade really makes sense if they pocket the draft pick for LaRoche (he’s going to play somewhere in 2013), play Morse at 1b for one year and then move Moore, Rendon or Lombardozzi into the infield depending on development and where the needs are. I do agree that if they bring back LaRoche the trade makes less sense, but still may well be a net positive. Even with Morse at 1b I like their defense a lot. They were already very successful at turning batted balls into outs last year (the best measure of defense IMHO), finishing 5th in MLB and 1st in the NL in that measure according to Baseball Prospectus. That should improve in 2013.

    John C.

    11 Dec 12 at 7:13 pm

  9. Not to pick on you John, but I really don’t like the whole “wear and tear” argument for Harper and needing to move him out of center field. We’re not talking about a 32 yr old veteran with three knee surgeries here; we’re talking about a 20yr old kid, with zero injury history ever and who is in fantastic shape. And, ditto to the narrative that Harper is somehow “too big” to play center. Bryce Harper is listed as 6’3″, 215lb. Here’s some comparable CFs: Ken Griffey Jr: 6’3″ 195 (10 gold gloves), Torii Hunter 6’2″ 225lb (9 gold gloves), and Andruw Jones 6’1, 225lb (10 gold gloves). Troy Tulowitzki is 6’3″ 215lb and plays shortstop at a gold glove level, for crying out loud. To say nothing of the fact that a guy like LeBron James is listed as 6’8″ 250lb and plays four positions on the basketball court; does anyone say that James needs to move to a different position to save wear and tear on his body? These guys are professional athletes, gifted physically, and have at their disposal dozens of specialists that help them maintain workouts, nutrition, and physical health. I just think its one of many lazy baseball writer narratives to just say “Oh, he’s 6’3″ he’s too big to play .”

    rant off. sorry.

    Can’t argue with the K angle, absolutely. Here’s an interesting fact; here’s the number of Nats strikeouts in the 5 game NLDS.
    – Game 1: 13 Ks
    – Game 2: 11 Ks
    – Game 3: 5 K’s
    – Game 4: 6 Ks
    – Game 5: 11 Ks
    Total of 46 Ks in 5 games, or 132 outs (they “missed” 3 outs in game 4) That’s 34.8%. 34.8% of the time against a good rotation they struck out. Which is about on a par of what they did on the season (roughly assuming 27 outs per 81 games, which isn’t entirely true b/c the team didn’t get all 3 outs in the home frame of any home win), 1325/4374 = about 30% of outs on the season by virtue of Ks. We weren’t the worst in the league but we were close. Espinosa is the main culpret of course, and Harper should lower his K rate his 2nd time through a full season, but then again, baseball logic says that you put up with more Ks if you have a player with home-run power. And the Nats basically field an entire lineup (save the Catcher) of guys who either have or did hit 20+ homers. Its sort of something we may be stuck with.

    For me, roster construction is about choices. Yes, Span makes the outfield better, gives us a high OBP guy at the top of the order. That’s great. But at what cost? At the cost of our best/most advanced starting pitching prospect. So you ask; is it better to have a center fielder or is it better to have an upper-end prospect who may be ready in a year or two? We could have gotten by with Harper in CF, saved the pick and then maybe perhaps in two years instead of paying a FA 4th starter $11-$13M on a one-year deal we’re paying a hot-shot prospect $490k to get nearly the same production and we’re spending that $13M on another need. Maybe Rizzo was ok parting with Meyers because internally the team doesn’t think he can stick as a starter, and therefore a starting CF with greater than 100 OPS+ for his career and plus-plus defense always outweighs just another right handed relief pitcher. I can buy that argument ….. but only if Meyers washes out as a starter.

    Todd Boss

    12 Dec 12 at 10:14 am

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