Monday, February 8, 2010

Free Agents: Who's Left?

There are just twelve days until pitchers and catchers report, but it's not too late for Mike Rizzo to make the 2010 Nationals better. Such useful contributors as Odalis Perez, Joe Beimel, and Ronnie Belliard have been added during Spring Training over the past few years. Here's a look at some of the guys still looking for work who might be able to help the Nationals.
  • Russell Branyan
The 34-year-old Branyan was reportedly looking for a three-year deal in the neighborhood of $20 million, which explains why he's still looking for work. At this point, he'd do well to get a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $5 million.

Branyan would be an excellent fit on the Nationals' current roster, giving them a true first baseman, backup to Ryan Zimmerman, and a left-handed thumper whom they could platoon with Elijah Dukes and Josh Willingham by sliding Adam Dunn back and forth between first base and the outfield. And in the event that the Nationals find a trading partner for Willingham or Rizzo finally does away with Dukes (as he's clearly always intended to), they'll need someone.

Branyan has always had great power and patience, and for years he's been underrated by GMs paying too much attention to his strikeouts. Last year, finally given a full time job by Jack "would have been a better choice than Rizzo" Zduriencik, Branyan pummeled righties to the tune of .267 / .363 / .542. He faded in the second half, but based on his overall track record, there's no reason to think he won't repeat his overall 2009 line this year.

  • Johnny Damon
Even a month ago, this would have seemed crazy. Why would Johnny Damon come to DC, and where would the Nationals play him?

Well, Damon overestimated the market for his services (badly) and now he's in a position where he might have to just take what he can get. I've even heard he might just retire if no one offers him a starting job, which seems crazy. As for the second part, he'd be the second best player on the team on day one, so make room. He walks, he hits for power, some of the metrics say he declined last year in the field and he can't throw, but I'll argue with anyone who doubts he'd be a significant upgrade over Willingham or Dunn in left. He could be flipped for prospects at mid-year or would be an automatic type-A free agent going into 2011.

I wouldn't want them to block Dukes, but Rizzo's already probably decided to non-tender Dukes after next year anyway. Regardless, assuming Damon can be had on a discounted one-year contract between $5 and $7 million, just make room. Trade Dunn. Trade Willingham. Whatever. This would be a massive bargain to make the team better, so just do it.
  • Braden Looper
The Nationals need at least one more veteran starting pitcher to take pressure off the youngsters they need to break in over the next year or three. While I worry about guys like Adam Kennedy and Willingham blocking young position players, I worry even more about young pitchers being over-exposed. When pitchers are asked to throw too many innings, the risk of injury goes way up. And if you're going to protect a Strasburg or a Stammen, someone else needs to provide the innings. You can't just make the bullpen throw 3-4 innings every night.

Looper is one of the few remaining pitchers who may be able to fill that need. He basically has two key selling points: 393.6 innings over the last two years, and he'll be cheap. But he's extremely hittable, and the team will lose most of the games he starts. Still that's better than reading about Stephen Strasburg going down to Birmingham after pitching through pain a la Jordan Zimmermann.

  • Jarrod Washburn
Washburn is another guy who misread the demand for his services and now risks having to just take what he can get. He's been saying all winter that he only wanted to pitch for certain teams. The Twins, thought to be one of those teams, offered a one-year, $5 million contract, and he turned it down. Now they don't need him, and Washburn is making noise about retiring, probably as a negotiating ploy since there's apparently no market for him at the price he wants. The fact is that he's a good left-handed pitcher who can be counted on for 150-170 innings with an ERA below 4.50. Moving to the easier league for the first time, he might be better than that.
  • Chien-Ming Wang
The big question is his health. Over the last two years, his velocity has declined, his walks have gone up, and he's missed a bunch of time. He's coming off surgery for a torn shoulder capsule, which I've never heard of, but it sounds terrible. But if he can come back close to the guy he was, he's a very useful pitcher. He's never struck anyone out, but he pounds the zone with groundballs and would benefit from the move to the easier league. Still, this is a definite buyer-beware situation, and he's anything but the solution to the innings need.
  • Joe Beimel
Most people assume the Nationals' bullpen will be better this year than last year. I agree with that, but when measuring how much better, you have to factor in the loss of one of the most valuable relievers on the team last season, Joe Beimel. I don't know who is going to give the Nationals the 39.2 innings of 3.40 ERA relief work Beimel did before being traded to Colorado.
  • Kiko Calero
Calero was extremely effective for Florida last year, giving them 60 inning with a 1.35 ERA. He's always walked too many and had extreme flyball tendencies, but when you K 10.35 per 9 innings, you can get away with that.
  • Chan Ho Park
Park has to been one of the more underrated pitchers in baseball over the last few years, owing to the fact that he bombed after signing a big contract in Texas eight years ago. He allowed a sparkling .231 / .296 / .280 line as a reliever last year, and with his strong groundball rates and 2.20 K:BB ratio over the last two seasons, he'd rank as the third or fourth best starter on the team right now. He might not leave Philly to relieve, but he'd help the Nationals either in the rotation or bullpen.
  • Russ Springer
He's old as dirt, but last year at age 41 he posted the best K:BB ratio of his career--3.41. He's another big-time flyball pitcher, but assuming he doesn't finally hit the career wall, he'd be a quality add.


Positively Half St. said...

I guess I hadn't really thought about the depth of the pitching still available. As much as I like Willingham, I really would prefer to see Rizzo trade him for a pitcher (as he apparently tried to do), and then sign Branyan or Damon.

Damon seems to be on his way to Detroit, but I see nothing spoken of Branyan lately. He has to play somewhere.

Will said...

I hate to typecast myself, and become the JayB of Willie Harris, but I'm going to say it again: we don't need any more OFs, much less Johnny Damon. He's essentially an expensive Willie Harris.

Instead of using Harris at 2B, where he is not good defensively, we need to use him in LF, where his defense is historically good. Like Franklin Gutierrez good.

Over the 815 PA he's gotten over the past two seasons, Harris has been worth 4.1 WAR. That alone makes him immensely useful. Comparatively, Damon has been worth 6.6 WAR in 1249 PA. If Harris had received 1249 PA, he'd have been worth 6.3 WAR.

On top of that, Damon spent the large majority of his time (86%) in LF, his best position. Harris spent only 46% of his playing time in his best position, LF. As a result, Harris' value is being underrated. Had he spent all his time in LF, he'd have been worth 1.5 more wins, and that's in just the two half seasons he's played over the past two years.

Had he started in LF, playing about 150 games in each of the past two years, Harris would have been worth 8.7 WAR! To put how ridiculous this is into perspective, of all LFs in baseball, Harris would be the 4th best. Only Matt Holliday (12 WAR), Manny Ramirez (9.3) and Ryan Braun (8.8) were better.
That puts Willie Friggin Harris above Crawford, Damon, Ibanez, Bay and so on. He'd also be better than other notable players, such as Sizemore, Figgins, Markakis, Miguel Cabrera, Howard and Morneau.

There's some problems with these calculations, such as expecting Harris to keep up the same offensive and defensive production over 300 games. However, besides Harris' ridiculous 30.9 UZR in LF in 2008, none of the other figures are too far fetched. Even using his career UZR in LF of 18.6, he'd still have been worth 7.4 WAR over the past two seasons, which puts him amongst the Victorinos, McLouths and Grandersons of the world.

Steveospeak said...

I would be happy to add Damon (with a Willingham trade), and Washburn and Beimel.

Will I get what you are saying about Harris, but his numbers took a huge drop last season. He only started 15 games last year in left, i think that is well too small of a sample size to say he could do that over a full season. Yes the year before he was good, but in just about as many starts this season in Center he was down right awful. Willie Harris is a great utility player, but really should max out at 350-400 at bats.

Johnny Damon is a starter through and through. No he might no longer be a CF, or good defensively, but his offensive numbers are pretty impressive. As is his consistency, as he rarely injured. Neither his speed or power have really noticeably declined, which gives me every reason to believe he will be productive in 2010.

Steven said...

I think you're right to be putting more weight on fielding. But I don't actually think Willie can maintain the level of production you're projecting. I may be wrong, but I think 2008 was an outlier good season for him. I think he's a 1.5-2 WAR player, not a 3-4.

Will said...

I agree that expecting 4+ WAR out of Harris is probably unrealistic. But his 2008 season couldn't be an outlier, because his 2009 season was basically the same. The only difference was in 2008 he posted substantially better defensive numbers in CF than in '09 but I'm not advocating for him to play in CF. His defense in LF was relatively the same: wayyy above average.

However, despite hitting .235, he was still an above average hitter. His BB% increased to 14.5% to compensate for the low avg, and he finished with a .757 OPS, which was better than Guzman, Dukes and Gonzalez. I don't think it would be unrealistic to expect Harris to be able to maintain a wOBA around .330-340, which assumes a slight decline in offense. On top of that, Harris has posted a career UZR/150 of 18.6 in LF in 244 games. It's not implausible to expect him to keep up those same levels. Even a slight offensive and defensive decline, Harris is still a 3-3.5 WAR player.

The problem is that Harris is perceived as a utility player, because that's how he's always been used. It's that same flawed logic that caused the Indians to use Franklin Guttierrez as a role player.
Fortunately, Jack Z was able to recognize Gutierrez's defensive prowess and got him for cheap, and got almost 6 WAR in return.

There's nothing unique about Gutierrez. He was an excellent defender, but because of his average or slightly below average hitting, he wasn't viewed as a starter. Harris is an excellent defender, probably not as good as Gutierrez, and an average to slightly above average batter, probably slightly better than Gutierrez. It's too bad that everyone is still in the mindset that a guy with 20+ HRs is always better than a little guy with speed and excellent defense.
I expect more from you Steven than just dismissing the possibility that Harris is better than all of our OFs, and on top of that, using such a poor argument that you "think" Harris is a 1-2 WAR player. The numbers indicate that he's better than anything that could be expected from Dunn or Willingham, and he only costs $1.5mil.