Monday, April 2, 2012

FJB's 2012 Season Preview

So the season preview is getting posted 10 games into the season. Oh well. I promise to refund every dime you've ever paid to the site.

* * *

This is the year we've all been waiting for. Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann are poised to give the Nationals one of the best 1-2 combinations in the league. The Lerners' early penny-pinching ways have been replaced by aggressive spending in the draft and free agency and trades of cost-controlled prospects for expensive, arbitration-eligible veterans. Only a commitment to prudent player development is keeping Bryce Harper from exploding on the league right now. Even the cement plant is gone.

At least that's the story we're being told. Is this really the year the Nationals become relevant? Or is this simply the first time fans of the Nationals-Expos franchise can indulge in ordinary spring training optimism without being intoxicated or completely uninformed?

One thing is clear: The pitching is for real. Yes, guys could get hurt, but that's true with every team. Zimmermann handled more or less a full workload last season and established himself as one of the 20-30 best starting pitchers in baseball. Strasburg has been every bit the true ace he was expected to be whenever he's been on the mound, and the history of Tommy John is good enough that there's no evidence-based reason to worry about him any more than anyone else at this stage in his career.

Gio Gonzalez would have been the undisputed ace of any Nationals team from 2006-2011--and for that matter Edwin Jackson probably would have been too. John Lannan should finally get to shine in a role that really suits him: solid, innings-eating fifth starter, and I think that's still what will happen this year. Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, and Tom Gorzelanny give them credible options for depth if needed, and it's always needed.

It's the hitting that will hold this team back. Even a rosiest projections say the Nationals will field bottom-third starters in centerfield, shortstop, first base, and probably right field. And as long as Morse is out they have the worst left field situation that MLB has seen since the 102-loss Scats of 2008 (if Wily Mo Pena ever gets ahold of one, look out!).

Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos are nice young complimentary players, but neither is really special. So despite all the hype, the Nationals are again fielding a line-up in which only Ryan Zimmerman is really a good bet to be an above average player. That's been the case every year since 2006, and as much progress as they've made as a franchise, that hasn't really changed. Bryce Harper certainly will change that shortly, but if he's in DC anytime before September, that's bad news for a team that should be prioritizing his development over anything for this year.

Still the Nationals have a pretty good chance to remain relevant into late August or later. If nothing else, there's the extra playoff spot, which means that a full one out of every three teams will get a spot in at least a play-in game. That means that regardless of your division, it only takes about 88-89 wins to get in, and all .500 teams will have realistic hopes very late in the year. Which is the point of the expansion, even if it does make a mockery of the regular season--personally I obsess over the regular season but barely even watch the playoffs since it's such an insult to baseball. But I digress.

The other thing the Nationals have going for them is six games against the Orioles. Mets fans have never really had a reason to care, but in a tight race it's a huge advantage for the Nationals to get two series against one of the worst franchises in baseball every year. Those are games that they're not playing against the Yankees or other teams in the far-superior American League and could be worth easily 2-3 wins.

The bullpen figures to be very good again, but relief pitchers are such a fickle bunch who really knows.

Ultimately it will come down to the starting pitching. If Strasburg, Zimmermann, Jackson, and Gonzalez perform as expected, Washington will see a baseball team finish above .500 for the third time since World War II.

Most fans will consider that a success even if they finish 82-80, but personally I think given how much they've invested in winning now they need to make the playoffs to consider this season a success. Am I greedy? Maybe, but if they're not at least in the mix this year, it will be hard to define most of their most recent big moves as successes.

Obviously they mortgaged the future to get Jayson Werth. As awful as he looks now, imagine what he'll be like in 2017 when his back-loaded deal is kicking in at $21 million a year. Makes the Alfonso Soriano contract look pretty good by comparison. The second half of this decade could be rough.

But the move that told me this team was going all in for 2012 was the Gio Gonzalez trade. Simply put, 2012 is the only year that Gio is likely to provide more value than the players the Nationals traded to get him. And on a per-dollar basis he probably won't even outperform them this year.

Even though he's the only guy in MLB now, Tommy Milone isn't worth crying over--he's basically a #6 or 7 starter, the kind of guy a good team keeps in AAA for depth. Brad Peacock however has a more than decent chance of matching Gio's value by next year if not sooner. Derek Norris could be a solid second division starter now, and still has all-star upside. And then there's A.J. Cole, the most talented player in the trade. He's still a couple years away, but unless the Nationals contend now, it's really hard to justify giving up this much for Gonzalez.

And that's assuming Gonzalez performs as expected, which I'm not at all confident about. This is a guy who at his very best has been among the league leaders in walks. He's gotten great outcomes the last two years, but that's been in an extreme pitcher's park in the hitting-deprived AL West with a BABIP, strand rate, and HR/FB rate that are all due for regression. If he's not the guy they're expecting that trade could become Jayson Werth-level disaster.

The other concern I have about the long-term outlook for this team is that they don't have a ton of resources left to upgrade. The core that they have now is probably the group that will determine how good they can be. And even if they add an MVP candidate in Harper it might not be enough offense to get there.

They've signed major long-term deals with Zimmerman, Werth, and Gonzalez. Assuming all goes well at some point soon they'll want to start talking extensions with Strasburg, Zimmermann, and even Harper. So how many more big free agent signings do they have in their budget? I'd guess one at most unless there's a big change on the revenue side.

Their minor league system is now pretty well depleted between promotions and trade, so that despite all the high draft picks they're ranked middle of the pack, and their most valuable assets are injury risks (see: Rendon, Purke).

So if they need to add a big bat make a final push, where does it come from? Most likely from the player development system, but this team doesn't have much of a track record developing bats from within. And even the best scouting and development teams struggle to develop above average players without high draft picks and/or trading veterans. Brian Goodwin and Rendon are high ceiling players. Destin Hood and Michael Taylor are interesting but a long way off. That's it as far as bats go, and presumably the days of drafting in the top 10 are over.

So where does this leave me as a Nationals fan? I'm rooting for them to contend this year, and it feels good to be able to do that with an honest expectation that it could actually happen. But I'm also already feeling the clock ticking on this team's window of opportunity, and I worry that Mike Rizzo has started selling long-term assets to win now a year or two too soon.

This team has come a long way from the back to back 100-loss seasons that the Bowden-Kasten regime wrought, but it's not enough to win 85 games a year for a few years before the window closes and the team sinks back into a long rebuild. And I'm not sure I see enough to do better than that--at least not yet.

Season Preview Coming Up

With lots of traffic coming over from the Washington Post article today (thanks Marc!) I thought I'd let everyone know that I do plan to write up my thoughts on the upcoming season. Spoiler alert: I'm not going to predict that this is the worst Nationals team of all time.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Feeling Bad about Nyjer Morgan? Blame Riggleman

It's the manager's job to manage the players. Things got so out of control with Morgan that Mike Rizzo had to get rid of him. That didn't happen in Pittsburgh and it obviously hasn't happened in Milwaukee.

Is Morgan insane? Sure. But he has ability. The Nationals would have been a better team with him in 2011. Good managers/coaches get the best out of guys like this. If Phil Jackson could get hall of fame performances from Dennis Rodman, then Jim Riggleman should have been able to keep things from completely spinning out of control with Nyjer Morgan.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Top 1B Prospect: Not Chris Marrero

On August 27, Chris Marrero made his major league debut. Marrero's debut got a lot of people excited because he was the 15th overall pick in the 2006 draft and the #1 prospect in the organization going into the 2008 season according to Baseball America.

Fans should have saved their excitement. In 117 plate appearances, Marrero whiffed 27 times and drew just 4 walks. He had 27 hits, but just 5 of them went for extra bases--all doubles.

Marrero's .248 / .274 / .294 line was good for a 53 wRC+--meaning that adjusting for park effects and run environment, Marrero was 53% as good as the average hitter, and that's including pitchers and premium fielders, which Marrero clearly is not.

Now, I don't mean to beat up on a 23-year-old getting his first cup of coffee. It's a small sample size. He's young enough that he still has time to get better.

But because of his pedigree as a heralded high-round pick, fans and media tend to vastly overrate his potential. And for a guy who talks a lot about meritocracy, GM Mike Rizzo gave Marrero a pretty much completely undeserved promotion.

In fact, Marrero might not even be the top first base prospect in the Nationals organization anymore. That's because while Marrero has been doing just barely enough to keep getting promoted, a late-round pick who lots of fans haven't even heard of has been earning every chance he's gotten. That guy is Tyler Moore.

Granted, Moore is about 18 months older than Marrero, and he was a level behind him each of the last two years. But still, Moore clubbed 62 homers in 2010-2011, while Marrero hit just 32. Even accounting for age differences, what Moore did this year in AA is more impressive than what Marrero did with AAA Syracuse. Plus, Moore isn't anyone's idea of a great fielder, but he's got a good arm and he's more agile than Marrero, which isn't saying a lot.

Scouts and stats guys alike doubt that Moore can overcome his lack of plate discipline to continue his success against the highest levels. This year, he struck out 139 times against just 30 walks in 546 plate appearances. If he can't improve his command of the strike zone, he'll have a hard time finding his way into hitters' counts and major league pitching will expose the holes in his swing. And while the homers are sexy, his .314 OBP means he's simply making too many outs.

Then again, a lot of people thought he'd get exposed in AA, and he handled that just fine thank you very much.

I don't think either Moore or Marrero is likely to ever be a productive major league starter. The right-right profile is tough to overcome, and the offensive standards are just so absurdly high at first base. If they want a championship caliber first baseman (Adam LaRoche ain't it), they're probably going to have to go after a free agent like Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols (why not?) or trade for someone like Kevin Youkilis.

But if these guys continue on their current paths in 2012, the next guy I'd like to see get a look in Nationals Park would be Tyler Moore, not Chris Marrero.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A.J. Burnett, John Lackey, C.J. Wilson

After the 2008 season, A.J. Burnett, a good but not great pitcher, was the second best free agent starting pitcher available after CC Sabathia. The Yankees gave him five years and $82 million. After the 2009 season, John Lackey was the best of a lackluster group of free agent starting pitchers. He got five years and $82 million.

We know both the Yankees and especially the Red Sox would love a second chance at those decisions.

Fast forward to today. There again aren't any elite starting pitchers in the free agent class (though Sabathia is likely to opt out of his deal in New York, he surely isn't going anywhere). Available are guys like Mark Buerhle, Edwin Jackson, and, the guy who is showing up at the top of a lot of teams' lists, C.J. Wilson.

Wilson has emerged over the last two seasons as a very good starting pitcher. In 427.1 innings since Texas converted him to the rotation, he's given them 427+ innings in two seasons and a shiny 3.14 ERA while pitching in arguably the AL's worst ballpark for pitchers.

Wilson's peripherals indicate that he's been a bit lucky, with xFIPs of 4.06 and 3.41. But he's got excellent ground ball rates (49%) and this year he improved both his K rate and BB rate and put up a K:BB ratio just a hair under 3. That's fantastic. Plus, he's 30 years old and doesn't have ton of mileage on his arm given his history as a reliever. And he's left-handed.

All this is to say that especially with so few options available, some team will again convince themselves to massively overpay for a good, not great, starting pitcher.

Let's hope it's not the Nationals. They should let the Red Sox or Yankees make this mistake again. Pitchers are incredibly volatile commodities, and it's almost always a bad gamble to commit the kind of money that Burnett and Lackey got, unless you're talking about a truly elite pitcher like Sabathia (or last season's top free agent Cliff Lee).

Fans in Washington suffered through so many years of skinflint ownership that it's almost impossible to imagine worrying about overspending. But it's really easy to end up in a box like the Cubs are in now--old, bad teams, locked into huge contracts that are impossible to move, and a bad farm system undercut by years of lost free agent compensation picks.

Jayson Werth is essentially the Nationals' version of Alfonso Soriano. Wilson could easily become their Carlos Zambrano.

To make the playoffs next year, the Nationals need to add a starting pitcher or two in free agency, but they'd be much better off throwing two-year deals at guys like Buerhle or Jackson or a one-year deal for Hiroki Kuroda or even Jason Marquis.

Even if they have to overpay on a per-year basis to get one of those guys, they'd be better off than getting into a bidding war for the best pitcher available who isn't really that good.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Terry Francona: Why Bother?

When Terry Francona resigned as manager of the Boston Red Sox, some folks started talking about whether he'd be a good fit for the Nationals. I say why bother? Unless Davey Johnson if flat-out refusing to take the job long-term, he's clearly the guy for the job.

First, I don't really understand people saying that it's ridiculous for Francona to lose his job in Boston. He missed the playoffs two years in a row with massive payrolls. Last season, you could blame injuries. Although personally I think that was a bit overdone--I hear the world's smallest violin playing for a guy who gets to roll out a line-up with Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, and Adrian Betre for most of the season.

But this year Boston was loaded. MVP candidates all over the line-up. They had a massive lead going into September. Yes, the injuries in the rotation hurt, but the guy had a month to figure out how to muddle through a few competent starts, and he couldn't do it. He didn't need to find 5 outstanding starters. He just needed to make sure they didn't have a total meltdown in all five spots in the rotation, and he couldn't do it. And as long as Afredo Aceves was sitting in the bullpen, you can't say he tried everything.

And all that wouldn't have mattered if it wasn't for the horrible start to the season. That happened on his watch. Add to that the public criticism by players like Lackey and David Ortiz--I think it's fair to say Francona wasn't commanding respect in the clubhouse.

Hey, Francona won two World Series. He buried the Curse of the Bambino. He's probably one of the better managers in the game. But is he a guy the Nationals should want so badly that they'd be willing to toss aside Davey Johnson? No way.

When Jim Riggleman left, the Nationals either lucked out or had done a brilliant job of contingency planning by having one of the best managers in baseball waiting in the wings. The Lerners should put a boatload of money on the table, lock up Davey, and move on to more difficult decisions, like filling the gaping holes in the lineup and starting rotation.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Right Track/Wrong Track Results... And a New Poll!

Nothing new under the sun. Nationals fan optimism remains sky-high, and it's pretty hard to argue otherwise. Be sure to vote on this month's poll in the upper right corner of the blog.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Next Step Is A Lot Harder

Watching these final weeks of the season tick down, I've been digesting the meaning of the 2011 season. Certainly, this year marked the end of the cellar-dwelling, laughingstock "Natinals" era in Washington. Thank gawd.

I took a Murphy's Law approach to my own Nationals predictions before the 2011 season, guessing for instance that Jordan Zimmermann would struggle with command in his first season back from Tommy John. I (and plenty of others) saw Michael Morse as the second coming of Wily Mo Pena, a career part-time player with massive holes in his swing who would be exposed in full-time duty. Relief pitcher performance tends to fluctuate wildly from year to year, and I guessed that the Nationals might be due for a run of bad outings. I figured Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa would struggle more in their first years of full-time duty. I didn't see Davey Johnson coming.

(I also guessed that Ryan Zimmerman would miss time, Jim Riggleman would be gone, and Jayson Werth wouldn't adjust well to playing with a huge contract for a non-contender. So I got a few things right.)

Those were all reasonable concerns, but to guess that everything that could go wrong would go wrong--that was pretty unlikely. But hey! It's the Nationals!

Not anymore. They spend like a normal team now (if not more). They've been picking at the top of the draft for a decade. Jim Bowden is gone. So is Stan Kasten and his multiple, conflicting lines of authority.

But the even bigger factor is the simple fact that it's really hard to be--and stay--as bad as the Nationals were. And in the reduced run-scoring environment of the last two seasons, plus the overall mediocrity of the National League, it's even harder.

Not to take anything away from the progress the Nationals have made upgrading the talent in the franchise, but Philadelphia is probably the only really good team the Nationals played all season--and even they're not a great team because of their problems scoring runs. The Brewers and D'Backs are solid, but no one is going to mistake them for juggernauts. The Braves and Cardinals are both deeply flawed. And everyone else in the National League really truly stinks.

In interleague, the Nationals got 6 games against Baltimore (pretty soon people are going to notice that it's really unfair that the Nationals get two series against the Orioles while the Mets have to play the Yankees.) And then they got 9 games against the White Sox, Mariners, and Angels. That's 12 interleague games against truly rotten teams, plus 6 more against the just-OK Angels and White Sox. Not many NL teams got off so easy.

Again, I'm not dissing the Nationals because of who they played. They can't control that--and all you can do is beat the teams you're scheduled to play. But it's pretty hard to lose more than 90 games in the NL right now. Look at the lengths Houston had to go to.

Now, Mike Rizzo says the Nationals are a frontline starting pitcher and an top-of-the-order centerfielder away from contending in the NL. Is he right?

Maybe, although remember that those are two of the hardest things to find in all of baseball. It's a little like saying all the economy needs is an increase in consumer demand and a solution to the European debt crisis.

And even then, if Michael Morse regresses, or Zimmermann and/or Stephen Strasburg don't do what we expect, or this, that, and the other... There are plenty of ways the Nationals could upgrade at a couple key spots and remain stuck right around .500.

The league is shaped like a bell curve. Not a ton of teams finish with 90 or more losses, while not very many teams finish with 90 or more wins. Lots of teams finish clustered around 81-81. It took a lot of work to get from consecutive 59-win seasons to this year's quasi-.500, 80-81 team. But getting from 80 wins to 90 wins is way, way harder. The low-hanging fruit has been plucked. Now the hard part--and the fun part--begins.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Boz Bugs Me

I haven't read a Tom Boswell chat in months, but I clicked on one today and instantly got annoyed. Good to see he hasn't lost that affect on me.

Here's what set me off:

The stat guys, among other things, still don't grasp the inherent advanatages of groundball pitchers. They get far more GIDPs. Lannan's very high in that. Few stats even touch GIDP. Anbd batting average on balls in play is almost always lower for sinkerballers.

So, yes, Lannan is better than his FIP __every year. His biggest liability is that, even pitching vastly better against lefties, he still has big trouble against the Phils and the big RH bats of the Marlins. When you play 72 games inside your division, you have to look at matchups. Lannan got stuck facing the Phils six times this year. Davey loves the idea of three LH starters in '12, if that's how the competition falls out. But Peacock's stuff and Wang's pedigree as a penant-race Yankee certainly put them in the picture.

The value of groundballs has been sabermetric conventional wisdom for decades. Take this 2006 post from U.S.S. Mariner. Or this 2004 Nate Silver piece on Baseball Prospectus. That's just what I found in a couple minutes of Googling.

Saying statistical analysts don't appreciate the value of the groundball is like saying stat guys don't sufficiently despise the bunt. (Come to think of it, it's exactly the same.)

And then he adds embarrassment to insult by claiming that groundball pitchers have lower BABIPs. It's just the opposite, and that's another basic sabermetric observation established long ago. Groundballs become hits more often. But they're better for pitchers because they never become home runs. That's all there is to it.

But what really bugs me isn't so much how Boz is wrong--I got over that a long time ago. It's how smug he his, how completely oblivious to the possibility that he may not have mastered everything there was to know about baseball by 1980.

If he's not going to even try to keep up with the times (as is so painfully obvious), he should at least offer a touch of humility when dismissing the people who are still working hard to advance our understanding of the game.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Ivan Rodriguez Has a Good Face

Yesterday, I saw Moneyball. Much of the movie is spent showing "old school baseball men" saying dumb things, grossly misevaluating players based on faulty assumptions, putting way too much weight on intangibles, and fundamentally failing to understand how baseball games are won and how to measure player value.

A lot of folks (and I mostly agree) have commented that the movie isn't really fair to the scouts and broadcasters, reducing them to caricatures and stereotypes. If you're a frustrated stathead, it's kind of fun, but who really believes that Grady Fuson and his scouts really evaluated players based on how attractive their girlfriends are or whether they had a "good face" or not?

Then, I came home, flipped on the Nationals game and saw Ivan Rodriguez come to the plate as a pinch hitter in the 6th inning. He was greeted by a standing ovation at Nationals Park, with Bob and F.P. gushing about how much Rodriguez has "meant to the team."

It could have been one of those scenes in Moneyball about idiot baseball men who don't have a clue. In fact, if Aaron Sorkin had written a scene like that for the movie, it would have been attacked as an unfair cheap shot.

Consider: over the last two seasons, Rodriguez has played in 153 games. He's hit .253 / .288 / .340. Yeah, it's the "year of the pitcher," but that's awful.

As a National, Rodriguez has a combined wRC+ of 66--meaning that his offense is about 66% as good as an average major league hitter. Fifty-one other catchers had at least 200 plate appearances and a better wRC+ over that two-year span. Guys like Josh Bard. Matt Treanor. Eli Whiteside. All basically equal or better hitters over the last two years than Ivan Rodriguez.

Granted, Rodriguez is still a good defensive catcher, and he's thrown out a high percentage of baserunners for the Nationals. A lot of catcher value is in their defense. I'm not underestimating that. But his hitting is so awful, that no amount of excellent fielding could justify having his bat in the lineup as often as the Nationals have the last two years.

And of course the biggest difference between Rodriguez and those players is salary. Pudge was paid the handsome sum of $6 million to make outs for two years. Those other guys mostly played on minor league contracts and got paid the major league minimum.

Rodriguez got the biggest contract of any catcher available during the 2009-2010 off season. Rod Barajas (92 wRC+) got a one-year deal worth $500,000. Yorvit Torrealba (93) got one year and $1.25 million. John Buck (100) got one year and $2 million. Miguel Olivo (80) got a one-year deal and $2.5 million. Even the 40-year-old, career fall-back option Henry Blanco would have been a better choice, with his one-year, $775k contract and 76 wRC+.

Colby Lewis, Coco Crisp, Aubrey Huff, and Brett Myers all signed one-year deals that off season worth less than Rodriguez's $6 million deal.

And you can't accuse me of 20-20 hindsight. At the time I wanted Torrealba. My second choices were Olivo and Greg Zaun, who was ok for Milwaukee before his shoulder finally gave out and forced him to retire. (And I suggested trading for Wilson Ramos! Man, that was a pretty smart post!)

Rodriguez hasn't played a ton this year, and the biggest potential downside to his signing was that he may have ended up blocking better young players like Ramos, Jesus Flores, or Derek Norris. That hasn't been an issue, since Ramos got his playing time, Flores hasn't been healthy, and Norris hasn't earned the opportunity.

Still, despite the overwhelming hard evidence that Ivan Rodriguez has been one of the least valuable players in baseball over the last two seasons and an awful $6 million signing, we hear every time he plays about his mystical "intangible value." I guess his wife must be really, really hot.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Right Track/Wrong Track Results... And a New Poll!

Holy cow! You people have been reading your Charles Krauthammer! It's an all-time high for Nationals fan optimism, as 93% of the 113 people who voted last month say the team is on the right track.

As we detected 2 years ago (I was on hiatus at this point last summer), it helps the mood when the Nationals spend a lot at the draft signing deadline. Losing 9 out of 10 might temper things in September, but then maybe not. Fans have been pretty darn bullish for two solid years now.

Be sure to vote on this month's poll in the upper right corner of the blog.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Two More Wins to Prove Me Wrong

My preseason prediction for the Nationals: 64 wins. Right now they're at 63-73.

Obviously I was overly pessimistic on this team. In my defense, I've done pretty well over the years betting the under on the Nationals. And of course, they've now lost nine of ten.

Anyone care to make a prediction on when they get to finally break out the bubbly for the 65th win and say "screw you" to FJB?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

What to Expect from Chris Marrero

Chris Marrero makes his major league debut tonight. It's been a long time coming for the 2006 first round pick, who Jim Bowden at the time comped to Miguel Cabrera.

Moreover, it's been a long time coming for the entire draft class of 2006, which was stacked with high school players who didn't pan out. In fact, as NFA Brian points out on Twitter, Marrero is the first high school player from that entire draft to appear in the majors, and Cole Kimball is the only player of any pedigree from that draft to make the bigs (although they did turn fourth round pick Glenn Gibson into Elijah Dukes).

Brad Peacock, the 41st round pick from 2006, probably won't be far behind, and he's suddenly looking like the guy who could salvage an otherwise miserable draft conducted by a scouting department gutted by MLB ownership of the franchise.

But after that the cupboard is pretty bare. It's possible that a couple relievers like Hassan Pena, Cory Van Allen, or Zech Zinicola will some day throw some mop-up innings in the majors, and "Don't call me Mary" Tyler Moore has followed up his breakout 2010 enough that he'll probably be a bench guy at some point.

But Chris Marrero is the man of the hour, and the question is, what can Nationals fans expect from him?

The short answer is that you should keep your expectations in check. He's a former #1 prospect, and you've been hearing about him for a long time, but he's really not a top prospect anymore.

First, you gotta have a really premium bat to be an even average MLB first baseman, and Marrero has yet to demonstrate that he can be that kind of hitter. First basemen who hit and throw right-handed have an even steeper mountain to climb. He hasn't appeared in the Baseball America top 100 list since 2007, and he fell all the way to #9 among Nationals prospects coming into this season.

He has a long swing, and he's very slow, which means he's going to struggle with batting average at the major league level. And while he has some raw power, his hit tool hasn't allowed the power to materialize in game situations. He's a bad fielder.

This year he's hitting .300 / .375 / .449 at AAA, which sounds ok, but there's a huge gap between AAA and the majors. A decent rule of thumb is to shave 20% off the top of whatever a guy is doing at AAA (though in fairness the International League is a pretty pitcher-friendly place).

Recently Marrero's been slumping, going 8 for his last 39 with 8 Ks, 3 walks, and just one XBP in his last ten games. He gets to debut in Great American Small Park against RHP Mike Leake.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Now I Can Die Happy

I've been paid tribute in a Hitler meme (I think). This may be the pinnacle of my blogging life.

I will admit that I was a little irritated when with no outs and a runner on first with the Sea Dogs up 1-0 in the 8th inning, Derek Norris sac bunted. Yeah, that's what we came to see. But I didn't go execute any generals.

And there were lots of good things about game one at Hadlock Field. Yes, Bryce Harper signed autographs before and after the game (I didn't get one--hands were full with a fourth-month-old and three-year-old). Tanner Roark, a pitcher who came to the Nationals with Ryan Tatusko from Texas for Cristian Guzman, took a no-hitter into the seventh. Cory Van Allen and Rafael Martin looked good in relief. I got to see possible future MLB bench guys Tyler Moore and Erik Komatsu. They have Baxter's on tap. And yes, I got my Ryan Kalish bobblehead.

Tonight it's Danny Rosenbaum and his 1.40 ERA. I'll be the one in the general admission section plotting revenge.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Mike Morse Post

Let's get this out of the way first: Mike Rizzo deserves mad props for uncovering the beast that has become Mike Morse in 2011.

I had no idea that Morse had this kind of season in him--though in my defense, I don't know anyone else who did either. Baseball Reference has Jason Michaels as the most comparable player in league history to Morse through age 28, and PECOTA's 90th percentile projection for Morse this season (i.e. the outcome with a 10% likelihood of occurring) was .312 / .374 / .505--a peg below what he's actually done.

I considered the Morse for Ryan Langerhans deal a junk-for-junk non-move, the kind of deal where two teams trade players they've both gotten tired of, only to later learn why the other organization wasn't interested in holding onto their guy in the first place. If anything I figured Langerhans had a better chance at giving the Nationals at least some value in the future because of his glove.

And then at the start of this season I criticized Rizzo for taking a really good bench player and pressing him into full-time duty where I expected him to get exposed.

Now we know that Rizzo absolutely picked Jack Zduriencik's pocket. (Geez, the Mariners could use Mike Morse's bat right now, eh?) If Mike Morse never gets another hit for the Nationals, this will be one of the most lopsided deals we've seen since 2005.

It's really hard to underestimate how good Morse has been. His .319 / .369 / .557 line puts him just shade below the MVP contenders. His .395 wOBA is third best among all first basemen in the NL, and if you wanted to play some arbitrary end-points games and chop off his slump at the start of the season, you could probably pull some numbers that look positively Pujols-like

Put it this way: if the season ended today he'd have the second highest single-season wOBA of any Nationals player since the team came to Washington (trailing only Nick Johnson's massively under-appreciated 2006). That's right--Morse has been a more valuable all-around hitter for the Nationals than Alfonso Soriano, Adam Dunn, or Ryan Zimmerman ever were. And we're talking about an essentially free talent acquisition, the biggest out-of-nowhere season by any player not named Bautista in years.

(Speaking of Jose Bautista, how come people wanna speculate about him being on the juice but we never ever hear that about Morse? I mean, Joey Bats has never been linked to steroids ever, which is more than we can say about Morse. I don't have any evidence, but since I keep waiting for someone to be irresponsible enough to bring it up, why not me?)

Now it's time for me to do what I do and splash some cold water. First, let's remember that Morse is not young. He's 29 years old, which is usually at or just a bit past most players' peak years.

Second, we need to remember why this guy toiled around mostly in the minor leagues in three organizations for basically a decade having the career of Jason Michaels. He's been injury prone for his entire career. He's not a very good defender, even playing on the extreme end of the defensive spectrum (errorless streak and comps to Adam Dunn notwithstanding).

And most of all, he rarely if ever takes a walk, which until this season has prevented his 5 o'clock power from ever actualizing in game situations. And that's a part of his game hasn't improved at all this season--his unintentional walk rate is a Guzman-esque 4.7%. It's just incredibly rare for any player to be able to be as productive as Morse has been this year while drawing so few walks.

How rare? Well, let's see. Morse is at 23 walks so far this season, about 0.2 per game played, and there are 39 games to play. So that would mean he's in line for about 8 more walks for the year if he plays more or less every game.

Let's be a bit generous and say that Morse will finish the season with 35 walks. Here's the list of every player in the expansion era since 1961 who has had a 153 OPS+ (same as Morse's this year) while drawing 35 or fewer walks: Tony Oliva in 1971 and Andre Dawson, Chet Lemon, and Bill Madlock (oddly) all in 1981.

So you're talking about a player who at age 29 is displaying a skill set that not only has he personally never displayed, very few players in the last 50 years of baseball have ever displayed.

Does that mean the Morse's season is just a giant fluke? Well, to an extent, yes, it probably does. But Morse might continue to be a useful, even quite good player for another year or two (beyond that is probably expecting too much).

He's really cut down on his strikeout rate since coming to Washington, and that should continue to help him. And he can be equally below average defensively at a couple different positions, which gives the team some flexibility in finding places for him to play.

But I don't think the team should stop trying to replace him. I'm interested in seeing Derek Norris at first base, and if they want to make a run at Prince Fielder (or I guess Pujols) this off-season, Morse shouldn't stop them.

One good thing is that Morse is still under team control for another year, so there shouldn't be any risk of giving him some big contract, at least not yet.

Bottom line, Nationals fans should really enjoy this season, take it for what it is, but don't start raising your hopes too much. Things that have virtually never happened before are pretty unlikely to ever happen again.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

For the Record, the Nationals Overpaid on their Draft Picks

In the last few days, I've started to feel a little guilty about writing this the day after the signing deadline: "the team isn't just spending big--they're spending smart."

I still believe 100% in the main point I was making, that the draft is an incredible buyer's market, because the price teams pay for talent in the draft is massively suppressed by the collective bargaining agreement. Just look at the $30 million contract that Aroldis Chapman got compared to the $8 million that Garrett Cole got.

But if you look at the Nationals' signings purely in the context of draft dollars, they clearly overpaid. A couple days before the draft, Baseball America's Jim Callis put the "over-under" for the combined cost of signing the Nationals top three picks at $9 million, and the Nationals spent $11 million--and then threw another $4.15 million at Matt Purke. Scoring the negotiations, it was a blowout for Boras on every card.

Let's start with Brian Goodwin. Taken with the 34th overall pick in the supplemental first round, Goodwin got $3 million, the ninth biggest bonus paid to any player in the draft. It tied for the third-highest bonus ever outside of the first round and almost $2 million more than Corey Spangenberg, the only junior college position player taken higher than Goodwin at #10 overall.

I and most other fans I know have (appropriately) focused on the fact that Goodwin was generally considered better than the 34th best talent in the draft, so if you only look at draft order the Nationals got good value. But if you had told anyone in the industry prior to draft that Goodwin would get that kind of money, they would have laughed. Scott Boras scored an incredible deal for his client, probably double what he had any right to expect.

Matt Purke was the real eyebrow-raiser. Everyone knows the story by now. Drafted out of high school, Purke was ready to take a $6 million offer from Texas, but MLB, in control of the Rangers' finances at the time, blocked it. Then, just eight months ago, the TCU lefty was rated alongside Anthony Rendon and Garrett Cole as the potential top pick in a strong draft. But then he had shoulder problems, which some scouts think might be related to his slingy, low-three-quarters arm slot.

If healthy, Purke has potential frontline stuff. But health is a huge factor in how you have to value any pick, especially pitchers. And shoulders aren't like elbows--you don't just give a guy a new ligament and wait 18 monts for him to return to normal.

That's why most folks thought Purke and the Nationals probably wouldn't (shouldn't, even) make a deal. The established market value for a fourth-round pick with at best iffy medicals--even one with Purke's upside--probably isn't much more than a million dollars or so. And Purke, observers figured, could get closer to the $6 million that Texas wanted to pay him if he could just go out next year and show that his shoulder was ok.

But the Nationals made all that moot by simply offering him a contract that basically assumes that his health is not an issue. Which it clearly is.

All this was even more surprising because when the Nationals drafted him, Mike Rizzo (wisely, I thought) said the team would follow his performance in summer leagues and make their decision accordingly. Well, Purke didn't play summer ball. He hasn't pitched a single inning anywhere since the draft. The team says they were convinced by Purke's workouts and bullpen sessions, but scouts will tell you there's a big difference between side sessions and facing live batters.

I'm really nitpicking now, but even the Alex Meyer deal is a bit of an overpay. Now, because Meyer turned down $2 million from the Red Sox out of high school--and Scott Boras doesn't like to give back money--it's long been assumed that Meyer's price tag would begin with a 2. But still, that's still more than the bonuses paid to Tyler Anderson, Matt Barnes, Sonny Gray, or Chris Reed, four college pitchers picked ahead of him.

Don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled by what the Nationals did in the draft. I've been arguing for years that the draft is by far the cheapest source of premium talent, and that with a $68 million payroll in a large, wealthy market, the Nationals have plenty of resources to load up the farm system with high-upside gambles. And besides, it's fun.

But the nagging question in my mind is this: Are the Nationals aggressively exploiting market inefficiencies in a way that will lead to long term success? Or are they just throwing money at anyone who will take it?

Flushing $4 million down the toilet on one damaged goods pitcher isn't going to break any MLB team. But it won't take many Jayson Werth-type mistakes to put this franchise an a real financial straight-jacket, as opposed to the self-imposed limits of the Stan Kasten era.

It's just so hard for Nationals fans to worry about profligate spending after years of skinflint ownership. Can you even imagine the Nationals failing the way Jim Hendry failed in Chicago, saddling his team with massive contracts for a roster full of replacement level players or worse?

Then again, maybe I'm just an extreme pessimist who doesn't know how to respond to good news. After all, I worked my guts out to get Obama elected, and on election night in 2008, when everyone else was partying, all I could think about what what a nightmare the midterms would be in 2010. Here's hoping the Nationals aren't quite as perennially deflating as those other guys in Washington.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Washington Nationals: Large Market Spenders?

No team in baseball spent more on the draft in 2009 ($11.5 mil) and 2010 ($11.9 mil) than the Washington Nationals. This year's draft makes those look cheap by comparison

Remember, in those two drafts the Nationals had the #1 overall pick, and with generational talents Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper available, the Nationals were guaranteed to be the top spenders in the draft if they got their top picks signed.

This year, the Nationals blew away their own records without the benefit of the #1 overall pick, though with the #6 pick in a deep draft they got a #1 type talent in Anthony Rendon.

The big news from last night is that the Nationals not only spent $6 million on Rendon--they spent a total of nearly $12 million on their top four picks combined, including $2.75 million on fourth round pick Matt Purke, a #1 overall talent who slid because of medical and signability issues.

Turn back the clock three years, and this kind of spending is nearly unthinkable. This is a team that walked away from the #9 pick the draft in 2008 over a difference of a couple hundred thousand dollars. They took Ross Detwiler, not a huge reach, but a guy with low bonus demands, with the #6 pick in 2007. They let their second round pick in 2006 walk.

The Nationals of that era never would have drafted Purke, much less signed him. They probably would have walked away from Brian Goodwin and/or Alex Meyer before spending what they did last night.

This year, the Nationals drafted and spent like a large market team looking to leverage their financial clout to maximum advantage. (Of course, one of the curious things about MLB is that in fact it's the small market teams like the Pirates, Rays, and Royals that have been most aggressive in their draft spending, while teams like the Astros and Mets have played it cheap. But that's a whole other post.)

Even more exciting, the team isn't just spending big--they're spending smart. As OMG points out, even teams that spend "big" in the draft don't spend much in the context of MLB economics. That's because the amateurs are screwed by the CBA, and will probably be screwed even worse in the next agreement.

And this draft is one of the deepest, strongest drafts in recent memory, while next year's draft is expected to be one of the weakest. If there was ever a year to draft and spend aggressively, this was it.

That's why, combined with their aggressive moves in free agency over the last two years (Werth, Teixeira, and various other smaller deals) and their willingness to pick up contracts in trades (Willingham, Gomes), I have to wonder--have the Nationals, over the last 2-3 years, evolved into a large market spender?

Other than Yuniesky Maya, they still haven't done a lot internationally, and their MLB payroll is still pretty low. But let's face it there's only so much you can spend on.

The question on my mind is what exactly changed? How did the Lerners go from one of the league's biggest skinflints to one a team that's regularly getting blasted by other teams for "irresponsible" spending?

More and more, the Aaron Crow meltdown feels like the turning point. The front office was split there, with Kasten and Bowden defending the team's decision to walk away, and Mike Rizzo openly disagreeing. Since then, Kasten and Bowden are gone, and it's now Rizzo's team.

But what changed in the owners' box? The conspiracy part of my brain thinks that maybe part of Bud Selig's deal to award the franchise to the Lerners was a gentleman's agreement to hold down spending, with Stan Kasten as the babysitter to make sure that happened.

That would be illegal collusion (which we know the owners aren't above), so no one's going to come out and say it, but I would love it if Mark Lerner would make himself available for an honest in-depth interview in which he admitted his change in thinking and discuss why.

See me (and Bryce Harper) at Hadlock Field!

The Harpersburg Senators will be visiting my new hometown of Portland, Maine next week to take on the Portland Sea Dogs at Hadlock Field, which Keith Law recently cited as his favorite minor league field in the country.

If you're going to be in the area, lemme know. Maybe we can meet up, or at least I can give you food recommendations.

And if anyone with the team happens to see this and wants to throw me a press credential, don't be shy. I'll behave, I promise.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What to Watch For: Signing Deadline

Tomorrow is the signing deadline for players drafted in June, an event which gives every hard-core Nationals fan the willies since the Aaron Crow fiasco of 2008.* Here are some things to watch for as the clock ticks towards midnight.

First, the Nationals go into the last 24 hours with their top five picks all still unsigned. Lots of teams are in this situation, and for that, you can thank Bud Selig and his laughably ham-handed efforts to suppress signing bonuses.

I don't want to make this an entire post about why, when it comes to draft bonuses, MLB is (take your pick) incompetent, greedy, insane, maddening, self-defeating... But the upshot is that MLB tells teams and players that picks should be signed for their arbitrary, unilateral bonus recommendations, or "slots." Neither players nor teams think these slot recommendations are realistic, and they've been shown to be completely out of touch with reality over and over again.

The Nationals aren't going to sign any of these top picks for slot, and everyone knows that. But MLB won't allow teams to ink players for over-slot deals until the last minute, based on the illusion that players, agents, and teams don't already know that the slot recommendations are absurd bluffs.

For the Nationals that means there is a lot of work to get done in the final hours, which creates the potential for another Crow-like debacle with everyone wondering, "how did that happen?"

That said, I'd be stunned if the Nationals failed to sign any of their first three picks, Anthony Rendon, Alex Meyer, and Brian Goodwin--though it could cost the team a combined eight figures to get them all done. All three are Boras clients (remember when we didn't like that guy?), and reports that Rizzo spent the weekend talking to third-round pick Matt Purke increases the sense that these deals are done or close to it.

Rendon is the top college pick in the draft, and two years ago that distinction brought Dustin Ackley $7.5 million. Ackley was the #2 overall pick, while Rendon went #6, but it's still unlikely that Rendon goes for less than $6-7 million. Meyer turned down $2 million from the Red Sox out of high school in 2008, so don't count on him taking less than that. And Goodwin is a high-upside guy who could easily go back to school and try to increase his draft standing.

In each of these negotiations, a major factor will be the fact that this year's draft was considered very strong while next year's draft (especially the college class) is considered very weak. So if you're the Nationals, there's no way you can expect to get similar value with compensation picks next year, especially if they fail to sign Rendon or Meyer. And the players know they have a good chance of getting drafted in the same spot or higher if they wait.

The conventional wisdom is that the Nationals will not be able to sign their fourth pick, Matt Purke. If they don't, I wouldn't be too upset. The Rangers wanted to give Purke $6 million when they drafted him in 2009, but MLB blocked them (cuz clearly Selig knows more about scouting than Jon Daniels and his team, and screw the player--according to Bud, he should only get to negotiate with one team and Bud gets to veto the deal he strikes with that team too, but whatever). Purke was considered a potential 1-1 pick going into this season, but he had shoulder troubles that scared away most teams, for good reason.

So especially considering the weak 2012 draft class, Purke has a really good chance of getting his $6 million if he can go out next season and show people that he's ok. The question is how close the Nationals are willing to come to that figure, and how much Purke values security over opportunity. If Rizzo's final offer is around $2 million and Purke walks, it's kind of hard to blame either side.

Here's where you might be thinking, "Screw that kid! Two million in today's economy? Who does he think he is." And you'd be wrong. Remember, the collective bargaining agreement allows teams to pay players the league minimum for three full seasons. And the teams can and do blatantly manipulate players' service time by keeping top prospects in the minor far longer than they need to be. So bottom line, Purke and any other player drafted is at least 4-5 years away from another really big payday, and especially given the injury risk that pitchers face, their draft bonus is likely to be the only really big money they ever see. They'd be crazy not to leverage these negotiations to the max--especially in today's economy.

The fifth unsigned pick is fourth-rounder Kylin Turnbull. He's a 6'5", 21-year-old lefty with a lot of projection and a commitment to Oregon. In other words, he's not signing for slot either.

If the Nationals fail to sign any of these players (or even if they do), keep an eye on rounds 19 and 20 picks Hawtin Buchanan and Josh Laxer. These are two elite high school pitchers out of Mississippi who are both committed to Ole Miss. You assume these guys won't get signed, but teams sometimes throw first round money at guys like this as a Plan B when their top picks fail to sign.

*No, just because Drew Storen seems to be turning out to be a roughly similar player to Crow doesn't justify what the Nationals did. Good luck does not justify bad process, and this was probably the worst meltdown in the five-year history of the August 15 signing deadline. If you want you relive my many rants on the topic, you can search the blog for past articles on Aaron Crow. But one thing I'll add now is that the further we get from that era the more it seems that Stan Kasten was acting during that negotiation in particular and perhaps during his entire tenure in DC as a mole from the commissioner's office, keeping payroll and draft bonuses artificially suppressed in the (misguided) perceived interests of MLB and against the interests of the Nationals.

Friday, August 12, 2011

OMG! He Threw His Helmet!!

Bryce Harper was ejected from a game this week for throwing his helmet. Based on the media response, someone who dropped in from another planet knowing nothing about baseball would probably think this was quite an unusual event.

Here are a few other famously bad make-up players and managers. Boy, I hope Bryce doesn't turn out like any of these bums:

Just another stupid non-story from a sports media unwilling to let a little thing like journalistic integrity stand in the way of attracting cheap clicks and eyeballs. Maybe next we'll find out that Harper plays poker! GASPS!!!!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Trade Never Considered

In a recent post about the Nationals' failure to nab any of the talented young center fielders that have come available in the last few seasons, I tossed off a remark at the end that I wouldn't do a Drew Storen for Denard Span

I was taken to task in the comments and realized pretty quickly that I was wrong there. As NTP Nate asked, "You don't trade a right-handed reliever for a 27-year old with a .366 career OBP and plus defense in CF who's on a reasonable (5 yr/$16.5M) contract through 2014? Where are these type of guys growing on trees?"

In part, my error was that I hadn't really paid that much attention to Span this year. I remembered his down year in 2010 and assumed he wasn't doing much better this year given how the Twins are doing as a team. But he's actually having a nice bounce-back year, and it's looking like his down 2010 is the aberration.

After that, the argument for the deal is simple: every day players--especially up-the-middle players--are harder to find and worth more than relievers. If the reporting is accurate and the Twins were asking for Storen and a so-so prospect like Steve Lombardozzi, then I would have made that deal. (Of course, we don't really know whether it was Mike Rizzo or the Twins GM Bill Bill Smith who walked away, so I'm not going to get too worked up about this one rumor.)

But here's the real reason my knee-jerk reaction was to say no to Storen for Span: I was reacting as a fan. I like Drew Storen, and it's been exciting to see him come up and perform right away. It's really hard to say goodbye to your team's home grown players, and my heart said no before my head got a vote.

Which brings me to the real topic of this post: Setting aside my feelings as a fan, it's becoming increasingly clear to me that the player the Nationals should have traded last week was Ryan Zimmerman.

First, even despite losing a bunch of time (again) with an injury, Zimmerman's trade value is sky-high. Dave Cameron argued on Fangraphs that Zimmerman has the 10th highest trade value of any player in baseball, which may be a little high but is close. We all know he's one of the game's elite all-around players, and he's signed to a really team-friendly contract through next season.

But let's look at where the Nationals are at as a franchise. This year, they have met or exceeded any fan's highest expectations, and they are sitting in last place at 53-57 on pace for 78 wins. And while a few key things have gone wrong for the team this year (Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth), look at the things that have gone right.

Mike Morse has made it impossible to miss Adam LaRoche. Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos have done very well in their first full seasons. The bullpen has been very good. Laynce Nix? And really every single starting pitcher other than maybe Tom Gorzelanny has given the team a best-case-scenario performance.

The reality is that the window of opportunity to win with Ryan Zimmerman could very well be next year and the year after, as his contract expires in 2013. He's going to be a free agent going into his age 29 season and will command a huge contract, assuming nothing goes wrong for him over the next 2 years.

And let's face it, even if you project a healthy Strasburg, continued development from the young players, and a bounce-back year from Werth, the team still doesn't have enough to make the playoffs next season, barring some massive spending spree that starts but doesn't end with Albert Pujols.

Now, I'll admit that there's been a lot of progress for this team. It's damn hard to go from 59 wins to 69 wins to 78 wins in three consecutive seasons. I can see how some fans might feel like the team is getting close. But it's really not. Look at the Nationals rotation. Now look at the Phillies' rotation. Back to the Nationals. Now back to the Phillies. Sadly, they aren't them, though in all fairness they probably smell about the same.

And here's the best news of all for the Nationals: they've had a nice little year on the farm. Brad Peacock is getting a lot of ink as the big breakthrough of 2011, but other guys like Sammy Solis, Robbie Ray, Tom Milone, and A.J. Cole are having very nice developmental seasons as well. That's a lot of arms coming together all at once, and draft picks Alex Meyer and Matt Purke are two more potential impact arms to add if they sign.

They still don't have impact bats in the system, and Derek Norris still hasn't really been able to follow up on his breakthrough in 2009, but Anthony Rendon will change that as soon as he signs (and oh by the way, you know what position he plays).

Bottom line, the Nationals have the best farm system they've had since coming to DC. And a lot of these guys aren't that far off. You can really see the makings of a contending group taking shape around Strasburg and Harper--a rising core of talent that can get good together at the same time from from 2013-2016.

Now, let's imagine the kind of prospect haul the team could get for Zimmerman and add that group to what they already have. If the Nationals had put Zimmerman on the market last week, he easily would have been the most valuable player on the market--far and away more valuable than Hunter Pence, Carlos Beltran, or even Ubaldo Jimenez. And all those guys fetched top-shelf prospects. And with third base so thin around the league, there would be no shortage of suitors.

With the internal development they've had, plus the 2011 draft, plus a blockbuster package of prospects, their under-25 organizational talent would suddenly be right up there with Kansas City and Texas as the best in baseball. And with that you really could be looking at a sustained run of playoff appearances and a World Series.

The first alternative is to resign Zimmerman to another long-term deal, which may or may not even be possible and will likely cost over $170 million, and keep trying to win now with a team built around him, Werth, Strasburg, maybe Harper, and whatever else you're willing to pay for in free agency. In this scenario, I think the Nationals can expect a sustained run of respectability, but it's hard to imagine how a true contender comes together.

Of course the other possibility is that they lose Zimmerman in free agency after 2013 and get a couple draft picks as compensation (and please Nationals fans stop cherry-picking Jordan Zimmermann to overstate the value of a second round draft pick, ok? Good luck does not make good process.)

Add all this together, and it's kind of surprising to me that there hasn't been any discussion of moving Zimmerman. It just makes a lot of sense if you can stop and think about it without getting emotional about The Face. And it's certainly not too late--they should be able to put him out on the market next year at the deadline and get as much or more in return assuming nothing else changes.

Of course, there's one other complicating factor here: Jayson Werth and his $126 million contract. Could the team really sell off a piece like Zimmerman while sitting on a contract like that for a 32-year-old? Most teams wouldn't, but that doesn't mean it's not the right move. It would just make one more way in which the Werth signing will likely be more of a hindrance than a help for this team.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Right Track/Wrong Track Results... And a New Poll!

Nationals fan confidence dipped a bit to 80% as the team followed a .630 June with a .423 July. But that's still a very high degree of optimism and basically where the fan base has been since Strasburg signed back in 2009.

Time to vote on the August poll in the upper right hand corner of the page.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Marquis & Hairston Traded

The Nationals traded away Jason Marquis today and appear to have gotten more value in return than I expected would be possible.

Dumping Marquis is a no-brainer. He's a free agent at the end of the season, and he hasn't done enough to return any draft picks for the Nationals if they lose him at the end of the season. So literally the guy is worth nothing to the tail-spinning Nationals. Plus, he's got over $2 million more dollars coming to him.

Worse yet, he's blocking prospects. Brad Peacock is definitely ready for a look against big league competition but someone had to go to make room. (Tom Milone is getting lots of love from Davey Johnson too, but I'm less convinced on him.)

My biggest question about trading Marquis is if there's anyone out there who would want him--or would be willing to give anything up and take the remainder of his contract anyway. We're talking about a pitcher who has a 3.95 ERA, which sounds good, but is actually a tick worse than the average performance by starting pitchers in the NL this season.

But Arizona came calling, and in return the Nationals got Zack Walters. He's a 21-year-old infielder hitting .302 / .377 / .485 in his second season of pro ball. Baseball America mentioned a comp to Geoff Blum in the 2011 Prospect Handbook, where Walters was ranked #29, though his stock has risen and he should rank higher with the Nationals next time around. He's a shortstop now but projects better as a utility man best suited for second base or third. He's also a switch hitter, which adds to his stock as a future bench option.

Overall, the Nationals would have been better off just dumping Marquis and his contract for nothing, and they did well to get anything of potential major league value here.

The Jerry Hairston trade is a similar story. The Brewers were desperate to get a second baseman after Rickie Weeks got hurt (and they've been hurting for anyone, anyone at all to play shortstop and third base).

Rizzo spotted the opportunity to get the Brewers to overpay. You might never hear of Erik Komatsu again, but he's got a chance to have a career as a fourth or fifth outfielder. He doesn't have much power, but he's hitting got a .393 OBP in AA, which is impressive, and he's 23 years old, so it's not like he's old for the league

If you're a Brewers fan, you've gotta be pulling your hair out that you have to trade any kind of prospect for a guy like Jerry Hairston. It's absolutely embarrassing not to have someone you can call up or plug in to do what he does. But Rizzo spotted the need and got something for basically nothing.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Danny Espinosa, Shortstop

When Davey Johnson was hired, he made comments about how important it is to use the rest of the season to find out what the team has going into next season. That's in part why Roger Bernadina has been getting so much playing time--to make sure that the team knew whether he could be the starter next year, or more likely not.

In that spirit, it's time to find out if Danny Espinosa can be an everyday shortstop. Because we know that, at least at this point, Ian Desmond cannot.

First let's focus on the good news. Espinosa was seen as a good prospect going into the season--a guy who someday would become a solid regular in the majors even. Well, he's already become that, and at age 24 he now has a chance--not a likelihood, but a chance--to become a perennial first division starter.

He's slumping a bit lately, but his power has exceeded scouts' expectations, and his approach has continued to mature. He's also stealing bases with an 86% success rate and doesn't make errors in the field (tonight was just his eighth). He's been a fantastic second basemen, and he's shown plenty of arm to make the transition to shortstop.

Long-term, Espinosa is more valuable to the Nationals as a shortstop for the simple reason that it's harder to find offensive-minded shortstops than second basemen. Also, you gotta figure that Anthony Rendon's fastest path to the majors is to transition to second, if not just hang around and wait for Ryan Zimmerman to hit free agency.

Regardless, the Nationals need to know going into next season whether they need to add a shortstop in the off-season or if the Espinosa is the answer. They have 58 games to figure that out, and time's a-wastin'.

That leaves the question of what to do with Desmond. He's been prominent in trade talks, which I guess makes sense. If someone sees Desmond as a 25-year-old starting shortstop and wants to give up that kind of value, then fine. But there's no reason to get frustrated and dump him.

Desmond was red-hot in his September call-up two years ago, and has done nothing but get worse and worse. Pitchers have adjusted, and Desmond hasn't responded. He's not getting in very many hitters' counts, and he isn't making nearly enough hard contact. But the tools are still there. He could still have a good career as a utility man. He could also improve his plate discipline, allowing his power to reemerge.

Teams way too often get tired of their own prospects when their development stalls. The Nationals should try to avoid that mistake, send Desmond down to Syracuse, start working him at second, third, and the corner outfield spots, and let him hit his way back.

But at the very least, Desmond shouldn't be blocking Danny Espinosa from proving himself as the team's true shortstop of the future.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Center Fielders Who Got Away

All the talk around the Nationals these days is how they are "feverishly" looking for a long-term answer in center field.

Over the past eight months, two of the most talented young center fielders in baseball have changed teams. Both are 24 years old. One is under team control for the next three and a half years, and the other for four and a half. And both were traded for at most 60 cents on the dollar.

Still, despite the fact that the Nationals are "feverishly" looking for a long-term answer in center field (and have been for pretty much time immemorial, aside from brief, ill-fated love affair with Nyjer Morgan a couple years ago), neither Colby Rasmus nor Cameron Maybin are on the Washington Nationals.

Why? It can't be said that they didn't have the inventory to make deals. Especially in Maybin's case, anyone could have had him. He went to San Diego in exchange for a couple middle relievers. Maybin's been around for a long time, but he's still at an age that a lot of very good major leaguers are just getting their first taste of the majors. He hadn't put it together yet, but he's full of tools and the Marlins gave up on him way too soon.

Rasmus may have been a little tougher for the Nationals to pull off. Let's face it, Alex Anthopolous is proving himself to be one of the very best GMs in the game, and just being able to sniff out the opportunity to swing the complicated three-way deal that he made is impressive.

But even setting aside that part, do the Nationals have the pieces to make a deal like Anthopolous did? Maybe not. He gave up Zach Stewart, Jason Frasor, Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski, and Corey Patterson. Most teams including the Nationals could match the last four names on the list. Probably it would have cost Tyler Clippard and someone else out of the pen, but that's ok.

Stewart would have been the chip the Nationals would have had a hard time matching--a 24-year-old pitching prospect who some think could be a #2 but others think might end up in the bullpen. The Nationals probably would have had to offer A.J. Cole or Brad Peacock, and it's possible Williams would have preferred Stewart anyway, since he's closer than Cole and has better stuff than Peacock.

Still, everyone and their father knew that Tony LaRussa wanted Rasmus out of St. Louis, and that there was a deal to be made. Bottom line, Anthopolous made the deal, and Rizzo didn't.

The conventional wisdom is that the Nationals are hot on B.J. Upton, and maybe that's the deal that will get made. Upton is probably the most talented of them all, but he's also a free agent after next season and there are lots of questions about his work ethic.

From what I've read, it seems like the Nationals are offering something like Clippard, Ian Desmond, and maybe someone else, and the Rays are demanding at least Drew Storen. If that's true, I'm not sure it's a deal I want to make. I much rather would have gotten Cameron Maybin on the dirt-cheap.

We'll see what happens when the music stops, but right now it's hard not to look at Toronto and San Diego and wonder why we couldn't do what they did.
  • Oh and I almost forgot. Denard Span for Drew Storen? No thanks. Span's a fine player, but you don't trade away cost-controlled assets like Storen for guys like this. You should be able to find them easier ways.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Nats Get a DH

The Nationals traded two not-prospects for Jonny Gomes in a Bowden-esque junk-for-junk deal that fans usually like because they get a guy they've heard of for a couple guys they haven't.

Gomes probably becomes the short-side platoon partner for Laynce Nix, which I guess is fine. Neither guy can hit same-handed pitching, and presumably Davey Johnson will do a good job optimizing. But Gomes is a dreadful fielder and 30 years old. And he's earning $1.75 million, so as pointless moves go, it's not a cheap one, unless the Reds are picking up the contract for some reason.

Kilgore says Gomes is likely to be a type-B free agent, which I haven't checked but seems probably right. That means that this could be an example of the Nationals more or less buying a second or third round draft pick, which would be fine. Then again, they'd have to tender Gomes a contract if they want the pick, and if I was Gomes I'd accept arbitration in a heartbeat. I wouldn't expect him to get what he's getting now as a free agent, and players don't usually take pay cuts from arbitrators.

There's nothing much to fret about in what the Nationals gave up. Bill Rhinehart was a fringey prospect a few years ago, but then he regressed badly and more or less missed his window. He's had a nice season this year at AA, but he's 26 playing against much younger competition. The offensive standards for first basemen are so high that he's really not a guy with any kind of future in MLB anymore.

Christopher Manno is a 22-year-old lefty reliever drafted by the Nationals in the 26th round out of high school Duke in 2010. He's been striking out hitters by the bushel in A ball, but he's never been on John Sickels' top 20 or BA's top 31. That's all I know about him. Minor league relief pitcher, whatever.

Mostly this is the kind of deal that annoys me, because it suggests that Rizzo is focused on the wrong things. But probably it won't matter, and at least we don't have to hear Bowden talk about "light tower power" in the news conference.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hating Jayson Werth

Nationals fans have started to turn on the $126 million man, and it's utterly predictable, given his .218 batting average and unimpressive 11 HR. Fans were expecting a near-MVP caliber player, and they've gotten something like the second coming of Austin Kearns.

But before the boo-birds get too worked up, let's stop and consider whether he really deserves the ire.

First, Werth hasn't actually been that bad. He's clearly been unlucky; he has a .263 BABIP, 61 points below his career average. That's a huge aberration.

And despite that, he still has a 93 OPS+, which means he's about 93% as good as the average major league hitter. Now, that's not what you want from your right fielder, but if you normalize the balls in play numbers, his on-base percentage would be right in line with his .361 career average.

The low BABIP doesn't explain his power decline--his ISO power (SLG minus BA) is down to .152 from .236 last year. A ten-point decline could probably explained by leaving the hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, but not this. It's still possible that Werth could bounce back this year or next--a 350-AB power drought isn't that usual over the course of a players career. But if Werth finishes the season without ever getting hot, it'll be reasonable to worry.

But the real reason fans feel like Werth isn't meeting expectations is that expectations were unduly raised by his outrageous contract.

Werth had been a good player for about three and a half years in his ages 28-31 seasons. But really he'd only been a quality every day player for the last two full seasons, and it's not unusual for late bloomers like this to fade early. Werth also had big home-away splits in Philadelphia and a long track record of injuries.

Sure, most people figured that Werth would be good for at least a couple seasons and only really become a problem in the out-years of his seven year contract. And some looked at Werth's mix of athleticism, speed, power, defense, and contact ability and saw a guy who could age well.

The point is that casual fans wouldn't be nearly as frustrated with Werth if they hadn't been led to believe that the team was acquiring a perennial superstar. So if you want to boo anyone for Werth's contract, boo Mike Rizzo.

Although I'm not even sure I'd do that yet. Don't get me wrong--I think the Werth contract is one of the worst in baseball. But if he has a bounce-back year next season, and the Strasburg-led Nationals make the playoffs, then it'll be at least in part justified. And we're told that part of the reason that the Nationals made the move was to send a message and change perceptions.

The key question is whether the team is planning on expanding it's payroll over the next 3-4 years and by how much. If the Lerners are prepared to expand payroll to $150 million or more a year like the Phillies and Mets, then the Werth contract won't be crippling. If they intend to stay in the $70-90 range like the Indians or Rockies, then the Werth contract will make it nearly impossible to retain cornerstones like Ryan Zimmerman or compete for free agents in the future.

The true mark of a large-market team isn't so much giving out contracts like Werth's. It's the willingness to eat contracts like Werth's and keep on chugging. It's the ability to make mistakes and move on. The Yankees and Red Sox are full of bad contracts like this. John Lackey. Carl Pavano. J.D. Drew. Kei Igawa. A.J. Burnett. Rafael Soriano. Javy Vazquez. Derek Jeter. Julio Lugo. They survive these deals because they budget for a certain percentage of free agents to become busts, which is what you have to do if you want to play in the free agent market because free agents are by definition older, declining players who cost much more than they can be counted on to produce.

The average NL right fielder this season is hitting .267 / .340 / .438. If you normalized Werth's BABIP, that's basically what his stat line would be now. That's not what the team is paying for, but you can definitely win with that--if you can surround that guy with better players elsewhere. The key question is whether the Nationals are prepared to spend enough to do that. Either way, smart fans won't boo Werth. Blame Rizzo, or don't, but don't blame Jayson Werth for being Jayson Werth.