How Involved in Free Agency Should the Nats Be?
Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Davis, and Yadier Molina all have something in common and it isn't being finalists for 2013 MVP awards. None of them were acquired via free agency. The last time the MVP award went to a player acquired via free agency it was in 2004 when Vladimir Guerrero won it in the AL and Barry Bonds in the NL, but 2004 was a very different environment. Baseball didn't have the same emphasis on young players and signing them early to long term deals. Less and less players are even making it to free agency. Look at the available first basemen and the teams that started the off-season with a need at first base and imagine what Joey Votto would have gotten as a free agent this off-season. Instead of making it to free agency Joey Votto signed a $200 million extension to stay with the Reds. To date it is the largest contract given out to a non-free agent and better than the $225 million deals given out to Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez.
Votto isn't the only player who would have been a free agent this off-season if they hadn't signed a deal. David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman, and Adam Wainwright were all scheduled to become free agents this off-season, but they were all locked up by the clubs that drafted them. If Vladimir Guerrero were approaching free agency in this day and age he would either be signed to a long term deal or traded to a team that could sign him to a long term deal. It is rare these days that an MVP caliber player even makes it to free agency. Look again at the list of the six 2013 MVP finalists. Four of them were drafted by their current clubs, one was traded for as a struggling prospect from another organization, and Miguel Cabrera was part of a Marlins salary dump. Great players just don't become free agents anymore and with contracts being given out to buy up arbitration and a couple free agent years, the ones that do are often older than the free agents in years past.
The average players prime happens from their age 27-32 seasons and most players are now hitting free agency at 30 or older. The aforementioned MVP level players are typically players on a Hall of Fame career path and have extended primes but still it isn't that extended. Robinson Cano is one of those rare great players that has made it to free agency. He is the best second baseman in baseball, but he is also heading into his age 31 season. If he does have an extended prime then the signing team will ideally get four seasons of his current production and then a couple seasons of steady decline and then come the dead money years. If it takes an eight year deal to sign Cano then for half of the deal he should be what he has been for the past couple seasons and then a steady decline leading into one or two dead money years. For a player that is the best at his position in baseball it could be worth it and even in his decline years he will be better than the majority of second basemen in baseball, but this is assuming that Cano has the extended prime of a Hall of Fame level player. If he doesn't then the contract is going to end up poorly.
By the time Albert Pujols signed with the Angels he had already had a Hall of Fame career, but injuries have plagued him in what should have been two of his productive years under the contract and now, with those productive years lost, the contract is looking worse and worse by the day. Because of Pujols the next free agent to get over $200 million is going to have to be a much younger one. Pujols was heading into his age 32 season at the time he signed his contract with the Angels. That is only one year older than Cano. It isn't enough of a difference in age to make a team go down the $200 million path.
Robinson Cano makes sense for the Nationals. He makes sense for every team. He is after all, the best second baseman in baseball. Only one team can have that at a time. The Nationals would have to do some reshuffling with their infield but it is worth it for a player of Cano's ability and the Nationals are in win now mode, but even though Cano stands as a clear upgrade it may not be the wisest move. Think about the Boston Red Sox free agent strategy in the 2013 off-season. The Red Sox could have signed Josh Hamilton for a $25 million AAV but instead they went out and spent that money on shorter deals for Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli. Those two combined earned $26 million in 2013, one million more than Josh Hamilton's AAV. The advantage of using the same amount of money to sign multiple players has a couple layers. By signing two players there is a chance that if one disappoints the other won't, it is filling multiple holes instead of just one, and most players that take less money will also take fewer years.
With the Nationals needs being more on the fringes of the roster they could add a back-up catcher, fourth outfielder, utility infielder, fourth starter, and a bullpen arm for Cano's AAV, and the Nationals may not even need that many things. This off-season the going rate for a back of the rotation starter is between $10-15 million. The expected ERA for that type of starter is between 4.00-4.50. That is right in line with the career ERAs of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes who both signed deals this weekend with the Twins. The Twins are in a different place than the Nationals. They need guys to give them innings while their prospects develop and then to serve as back of the rotation starters when they do. The Nationals need around four hundred innings from two rotation spots and if Ross Detwiler is healthy he will have one of those spots. Detwiler's health can't be entirely trusted but then there is Taylor Jordan who played for the Nats last season and while he didn't strike out very many batters he also didn't walk very many and his 3.66 ERA is right in line with his 3.49 FIP. Behind those two the Nationals have depth in Tanner Roark and Ross Ohlendorf who could fill bullpen roles if Detwiler and Jordan are given the last two rotation spots, but after that the Nats depth in the minors is suddenly looking a lot better.
Last off-season the Nationals couldn't get players to sign minor league deals. Guys like Scott Kazmir wanted to sign with clubs where they had a chance to make a roster on Opening Day. With a full five men in the rotation the Nationals didn't offer that possibility. With those players going elsewhere the Nationals weren't left with much depth in the minors. They had Yunesky Maya and Chris Young and that was it, or thought to be it. The actual pitchers that came up when injuries happened were Ross Ohlendorf, Nate Karns, Taylor Jordan, and Tanner Roark. A similar thing could happen this season. As of right now the starting five would be Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Detwiler, and Jordan with Roark and Ohlendorf serving as depth, but the Nationals have a couple pitching prospects about to make it to the AAA level and the Nationals are not afraid to promote prospects to fill in for injured players. It is more than slightly probable that by the time injuries, weather, or under performance force the Nationals to need an additional starter that Cole or Ray are ready for the majors and after them there are many Roark and Jordan types that the average Nats fan hasn't heard of. Pitchers like Taylor Hill, Blake Schwartz, and Paul Demny.
With the choice being to give Bronson Arroyo $10-15 million for two to three years or to trust a menagerie of homegrown talent to replicate his 200 innings and 4.00 ERA for much less money and with a much higher upside it doesn't look like much of a choice at all. The rotation isn't a real need for the Nationals. They have players that can give them the innings and production they need. The only question is how many of them will it take, and does that even matter? Where the Nationals really have a need is on the bench. The bullpen is much like the starting rotation. They could use an upgrade but Xavier Cedeno and Ian Krol can combine to replicate what a free agent LOOGY would do and with prospects like Aaron Barrett and Richie Mirowski projected to be ready by mid-season should Roark, Mattheus, or Ohlendorf struggle in their roles it is wiser for the Nats to spend their money elsewhere.
When it comes to the bench the one obvious need is a back-up catcher. The Nationals could use Solano or Leon but neither of them has hit at the major league level and with both John Buck and Yorvit Torrealba available there is no reason to rely on Solano or Leon. Moving down the bench to fourth outfielder, which is primarily a defensive position, the Nationals have a couple of those. Eury Perez could provide the Nationals with both a plus defender at all three outfield positions and a player with speed who has gotten on base in his minor league career, and even if Perez can't hit at the major league level he could serve as a late inning pinch runner to play Matt Williams game of aggressive base running. If the Nationals want a little more power from the fourth outfielder spot they could go with Corey Brown who has hit 47 homers over the last two seasons split between AAA and the majors.
Finding a utility infielder from within is a little more difficult. It isn't Steve Lombardozzi as he doesn't have the range to play short stop or the arm to play third. Jeff Kobernus has the athletic ability to play all three infield positions but spent most of last season in the outfield, and like Lombardozzi, Kobernus severely lacks power. Kobernus does have more speed and has stolen at least 40 bases over the last three seasons but it would be a risk to give a player that hasn't played short stop as a professional a utility infielder role. The Nats best internal move for an utility infielder is Danny Espinosa. He has the ability to play short, second, and third and if he can get his swing back can provide power off the bench. The utility infield position is lacking internally for the Nats but it isn't as dire as back-up catcher and they can make do. This might be a spot to spend a little bit of money to bring in multiple MiLB free agent types and let them fight it out in Spring Training.
The last spot on the bench is kind of up in the air and depends on what Matt Williams wants to do with it. It could go to a platoon partner for Adam LaRoche, like Tyler Moore, or it could go to a left handed power pinch hitter. If it is the former the Nats have that guy, but if it is the latter then the Nationals are going to have to bring in someone from the outside. Luckily for them both Raul Ibanez and Luke Scott are out there and have served as bench bats in past seasons. When it comes to building a bench there are a lot of options and sometimes the best method isn't to lock into one player but to sign multiple players to MiLB deals to compete with the internal talent and to ride the hot hand as much as possible as the year goes along. In theory a bench doesn't have to be set until the playoffs begin as long as the players a playoff team plans on using were in the system on September 1.
How involved in free agency should the Nats be? Given their needs it doesn't make sense to go all in. A few upgrades here and there on the fringes of the roster make sense, but so does signing the best second baseman in baseball. One way or another the Nationals won't be adding a future MVP, but there is a chance to improve the roster and the best way to do it is to spread the money around. Signing Cano makes sense but he improves a position that isn't a hole and forces the Nationals to move at least one player to an unfamiliar position. By spreading the money around the bench and bullpen the Nationals will be filling actual needs and getting multiple players gives the chance that one of them could outperform expectations whereas recent history shows most big free agents underperform expectations.