How Bad Were the Nats Off-Season Moves

 

I am going to start this by saying I do not think Mike Rizzo can be criticized for his off-season moves. They looked right at the time, and they addressed the team's biggest needs. The Nats outfield defense in 2012 was putrid, and Span improved that. The Nats struggled with the inconsistency of Edwin Jackson winning a third of the games he pitched, and Dan Haren had a history of being one of the better pitchers in baseball and could be had on a one year deal because he was coming off a disappointing season. Michael Morse is injury prone and doesn't have a position on an NL team, and Adam LaRoche is one of the most consistent and durable first basemen in baseball. And the Nats made the decision to go with one lefty in the bullpen because the numbers indicated they had better pitchers who could get guys out from both sides of the plate.     

Looking back at the Span move it made perfect sense at the time. It addressed both of the Nationals biggest weaknesses, the lack of a lead-off hitter and outfield defense, and Span didn't come with the same long term commitment as Michael Bourn or BJ Upton. As it stands right now Denard Span is having a significantly better season than BJ Upton and his 1.7 fWAR is not that much different than Bourn's 2.0 fWAR just as his .269/.323/.371 batting line isn't much different from Bourn's .284/.337/.378 line. The biggest issue with Span is that he was left in the lead-off spot far too long into his struggles and that isn't on the GM. Someone has to bat eighth and despite what some people believe, the number eight hitter doesn't have to be a catcher. It can be the defensive specialist, slap hitting center fielder.  

Dan Haren is one of the best pitchers of the last decade. He is fifth all time in career K/BB ratio, and when he was signed the floor was thought to be no different than the season he had in 2012. At his presumed worst he was going to be no worse than Edwin Jackson and the ceiling was much higher. As it turns out the correct off-season move may have been to go after Kyle Lohse. That would have cost a draft pick, but the Nats would have had an innings eating back of the rotation starter that they needed. Dan Haren didn't work out and while his 5.49 ERA is bad, Edwin Jackson's 4.65 isn't great and the Cubs are locked into him for three more seasons while the Nats are done with Haren after this one. Also this season isn't over and Haren has been good in three of his four starts since coming off the DL, and of the three true outcomes the only one that isn't better than his career averages are homers and if I were to bet on an anomaly looking to be corrected in 2014 it would be on Dan Haren's HR/9.      

LaRoche vs. Michael Morse. This is the fun one, because LaRoche's offense hasn't been good, but this goes into the category of the season not being over. LaRoche is a career .812 OPS hitter and is at .718 after four months of the 2013 season. He is also a streaky hitter and his OPS by month breaks down as such .473, 1.024, .807, .511. Those are some impressive and big swings and his career OPS by month looks like this .695, .792, .776, .821, .911, .887. August is typically LaRoche's hottest month, and while July is normally one of his better months LaRoche is prone to long cold streaks. In many ways the 2013 season for LaRoche is the reverse of 2012 and perhaps he ends 2013 as hot as he began 2012. As far as Morse goes he has a -0.4 fWAR which is less than Ian Krol's 0.3 fWAR. AJ Cole has also made it to AA and has 9.3 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 between two levels for the season. As far as Morse himself goes he has played in only 58 games and his .736 OPS is only marginally better than Adam LaRoche's, and most of that OPS is bolstered by a hot first week of the season. Remove the first four games of the season and Morse has a .672 OPS.   

Now for the lefty in the bullpen debate. First off Mike Gonzalez suffers from the fact that he is Mike Gonzalez. The Nationals took a risk in signing him, caught lightening in the bottle and didn't think it would strike twice. Aside from all that, Drew Storen was going to be healthy and it was Storen that took Gonzalez's roster spot. Sean Burnett is owed a lot of money for a middle reliever and is currently on the DL and may not pitch next season. The Nats got the best out of Sean Burnett and now the Angels are going to deal with his decline. Also, Rafael Soriano was the pitcher replacing Sean Burnett. The biggest loss for the Nationals ended up being Tom Gorzelanny who was non-tendered by the Nats and replaced by Zach Duke. The reason Gorzelanny was non-tendered had nothing to do with talent or the Nats wanting him. He was paid $3 million in 2012 and being arbitration eligible in 2013 he was going to be due a 33% raise. Paying that much money for a long reliever isn't wise. A long reliever's job is to come into a game that is already out of hand and give the team innings and save the more important relievers. Gorzelanny did that job well but it isn't a difficult job. The fact that Zach Duke failed so miserably in one of the easier roles on an MLB roster was unexpected given his 2012 performance between AAA and the majors. As far as lefties in the bullpen the Nationals now have Ian Krol (acquired in the Morse trade) and Fernando Abad, but neither are lefty specialists. Abad has faced 64 right handed batters and 39 left handed batters while Krol has faced 41 right handed batters and 34 left handed batters. 

The combination of players the Nationals lost off the 2012 roster have been worse than the ones they gained. The issue with the 2013 Nationals has little to do with the off-season moves. They were adding players around the fringes for the most part. Think about the positions being discussed. No teams are sunk by their fifth starter or long reliever and even Adam LaRoche isn't part of the core. He is a role player as Morse would have been if he were here. The Nationals’ main issues in 2013 have been injuries, the underperformance or the bench, and the manager. If Mike Rizzo had a wholesale turnover of a bench that was extremely productive in 2012 it would have been bizarre. Sometimes in sports things just don't go your way. It doesn't mean Rizzo is a bad GM, that the off-season moves were bad, that the Nats window has closed, or that the Strasburg shutdown was a huge mistake. All it means is that 2013 didn't go as expected. The Nationals were given the highest odds of any team to make the playoffs before the season began, but even those odds were just over 50%. Sometimes the coin is heads and sometimes it is tails. 2013 is tails.  

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