Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Five More Minor League Contracts--Has Anything Really Changed?

Yesterday, the Nationals signed five more minor league free agents. Before I get into my take on these guys, I have to say that as much as this off-season has felt like a turning the page for the team, making a competitive offer for their first big time free agent, the actual moves this team has made since the end of the 2008 season suggest that nothing much at all has changed.

No team in baseball has filled more key roles in recent years through minor league free agents than the Nationals. Odalis Perez, Tim Redding, Joel Hanrahan, Mike Bascik, Jason Simontacchi, Dmitri Young, Ron Belliard... all minor league free agents thrust into roles where they were counted on to make major contributions as starters or key relievers.

I don't have a problem with taking a flyer on inviting guys to camp who were once productive major leaguers or former prospects who maybe still have some talent. And the last time the Nationals announced a slew of these signings I tried to be optimistic. You might uncover a Dmitri Young who bounces back and has a really good season after everyone else had given up on him. And if that happens, great. You have another guy who can help you win, a guy you have to find playing time for. But usually you get replacement-level performance or worse, and to count on guys like this year in and year out the way the Nationals have is just a direct path to loserdom.

That's what I worry is happening this year, with guys like Jorge Sosa, Gustavo Chacin, Matt Whitney, and J.D. Martin getting penciled in for key roles that ought to be filled by either young rising talent or legitimate major league veterans. The team is certainly not done constructing the 2009 roster, but so far it's feeling very same old, same old.

Here are the five new Nationals:
  • Jose Castillo
Castillo is a 2B/3B who has tripped into starting jobs in two of the last three seasons on very bad teams. He isn't a really good fielder (career UZRs of -9.6 and 1.0 at 2B and 3B, respectively). At the plate he's a hacker with just a little pop and awful on-base skills. Ronnie Belliard is a better version of the same guy, and if we decide to carry an additional backup infielder we'd be better off using Alberto Gonzalez.
  • Corey Patterson
Patterson last year was absolutely dead last among MLB hitters with at least 350 AB in OPS, wOBA, RC/27, and pretty much every other rate stat measuring overall offensive value that you want to choose. He was just plain awful. In his defense, he had a truly bizarrely low BABIP of .219, but no amount of statistical analysis can explain away Patterson's 2008. Prior to that, he was a decently useful fourth outfielder, but his poor plate discipline, bad on-base skills, and unimpressive power numbers kept the former Cub top prospect from becoming anything more than a defensive replacement and pinch runner. But that's a role that Ryan Langerhans, Willie Harris, and Roger Bernadina would all fill more effectively than Patterson. With Lastings Milledge, Josh Willingham, Elijah Dukes, and Austin Kearns battling for the three starting jobs, Wily Mo Pena hanging around, Justin Maxwell hopefully pushing for an opportunity, and even Leonard Davis hanging around maybe earning an opportunity... what possible role would Corey Patterson fill?
  • Jorge Sosa
Of all the guys we signed, Sosa is the one who seems most likely to break camp with the team. And that's not good news. Currently though we have at least a couple holes in the bullpen, and Sosa I'm sure will be given an opportunity to at least fill Jesus Colome's shoes as the mop-up man. He's a fastball-slider-change guy, but he doesn't get the groundball rates (35.4% career) that you often associate with these types (think Luis Ayala, Daniel Cabrera, or Armando Galarraga). And he has never had very good strikeout numbers (4.98 Ks per 9 last year). And his command isn't very good (4.57 BB/9 last year). At first glance he had a very nice breakout season in 2005 with a 13-3 record and 2.55 ERA, but he did that on the strength of an 85.1% strand rate, .273 BABIP, and 7.1% HR/FB rate. His FIP even that year was 4.35. Expect an ERA in the high 5s or low 6s in whatever innings he throws. He's also suspended till late April because of a 50-game amphetamine suspension.
  • Gustavo Chacin
Pronounced "Sha-Seen," Chacin shouldn't be given a chance to compete with Jason Bergmann, Garrett Mock, and Jordan Zimmermann for the last spot in the rotation (assuming the first four are Lannan, Cabrera, Olsen, and Balester), but I can't think of any other reason to bring him here. He, like Sosa, had one good year in 2005, and although it was somewhat less of a mirage, it's no more likely to recur. Chacin is lefty with a wacky delivery that was deceptive for one time through the league. But he's never missed many bats (career best K/9 of 5.36 in 2005), and his fastball velocity since then has declined from 89 to 86 because of elbow problems. His cutter is allegedly his best pitch. His command has always been ok, but lacking major league stuff it doesn't matter much.
  • Gustavo Molina
Not related to or as good as the catching Molina brothers Yadier, Bengie, and Jose, Gustavo Molina will be another option to back up Jesus Flores after Wil Nieves and Luke Montz. I would rather see them bring in either a younger player with upside (by trading for a John Jaso, Miguel Montero, or Jason Jaramillo) or a switch-hitter (like Greg Zaun or Josh Bard). But if Molina outperforms Nieves in Spring Training he could make the team, though there's no chance he'll make the team better.


JayB said...

Talk about a one day swing in my view of if the Nats are on the right track of wrong track....Tex to C Patterson is as big a one day swing as is possible. Pokey Reese resign is next it seems.

Steven, this is why we need to spend now and improve the product now. Yes their is a risk to FA signings but we know our Farm talent is not good at all and we know our MLB roster is a joke. They just can not go into the season with so such a poor talent pool. This team is looking at losing 110 games unless and Zim's loyalty.....Fan base is going to be down to 7K by August when then sign two top picks, both who were picket like Detwilier because they would sign for slot numbers.

Steven said...

I'm for re-signing Zim and spending on a Derek Lowe and an Adam Dunn.

JayB said...

I was for signing Alfonso, De Rosa then Tori Hunter and Lohse but I did not get any of that either (go back in NJ and you will see those were my picks for FA in those years, really), and as Boz asks today in his writing, it did not have to be this bad....I like the Lowe choice, Dunn is just too much of a hack in the field for my eyes......

Steve Shoup said...

Steven as long as none of these guys don't make the opening day roster i'm fine with it. I have no problem with signing a bunch of depth guys, its not as if these 5 are going to be keeping AA and AAA spots away from our top prospects. Given the injuries we had last year i'm not surprised to see so many ML free agents to offer some depth in the system.

I too now hope that the Nats make a move on Dunn now. I think his defensive struggles will be lessened at 1B. Though that would leave no room for Nick Johnson. I def. don't want Lowe. With Tex off the market I don't think anyone is worth giving up our 2nd round pick for with the possible exception of Oliver Perez. I also feel Lowe benefited greatly by pitching in a pitchers park and in prob the best pitching park division (outside of Colorado). Also I think the nats will likely have a worse defense than the dodgers and that doesn't always bode well for a GB pitcher.

I would rather sign Penny or Garland to multi year deals. Another option would be to kick the tires on 1 year deals for veterans guys like Pettite (who the yankees may move on from), Glavine, Randy Johnson, even Pedro. That way they wouldn't tie down resources in the future and can bridge the gap so we don't have to rush any of our young pitchers.

@JayB: I understand your frustration about not getting Tex and not having any top talent, but really there is nothing wrong with having our number 10 pick sign for slot. Every year there are plenty of picks that sign for slot or near slot (around $100K above) in the top half of the draft that turn out to be great prospects. Look at the debuts of Aaron Hicks and Brett Wallace, or top guys from 07 like Dominguez, Laporta, Parker and Heyward ( i think he signed a bit over). The point is slot is not a bad thing in that area of the draft it just depends on what you are looking for. In 07 all those teams could have drafted Porcello or they could have gotten the guy they wanted and maybe go over slot later in the draft. Thats what the A's did this year going for slot in the 1st round but giving a number over slot bonuses later.

Collin said...

After reading Boz's column, that begs the question then, who should the Nats have signed in 06 and 07 that would have been the difference for Tex in 08? Certainly not Hunter or Jones. Rowand... maybe? Spending big money on a pitcher is too risky without an offense to surround him, so who? Sure, hindsight is 20-20 but I don't seem many players that would have made sense by employing this strategy.

Steven said...

Collin--you're exactly right about that, and it's the thing that never gets acknowledged by Boz--that he's been wrong wrong wrong about all the FAs he's wanted the team to sign for 2 years. It doesn't justify never spending money, but it would be nice if he would once in a while acknowledge that the team was right to pass on Rowand, Jones, Hunter, Zito... If you want to fault the team's spending, focus on the failure to re-sign Zim, Crow, Black, the lack of int'l FAs.

Steven said...

Shoup--Re: "as long as none of these guys don't make the opening day roster"--precisely my point. But the Nationals track record is to not only carry guys like this but count on them. We'll see who's in the bullpen and rotation come April.