Beware the WARpire (VORPire)
The Nats acquisition of Jose Lobaton is yet another action to improve the fringes of the roster. When it comes down to it the Nationals have made a lot of smart moves this off-season. The main problem with the Nationals last year wasn't the starting players. They had seven of eight starting position players that hit above the league average and the one that didn't is a defensive wizard in centerfield. The biggest issue that plagued the Nationals during the 2013 season is that the positive contributions of many roster members were wiped out by the negative contributions of others.
Jayson Werth had a great season last year and amassed 4.6 fWAR. Now we travel to the bottom of the roster and add up Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, Kurt Suzuki, Chad Tracy, Roger Bernadina, Jhonatan Solano, Danny Espinosa, and Chris Marrero and suddenly Jayson Werth was worth a positive 0.3 wins to the Nationals. Those lurkers on the bottom of the roster are WARpires. They take the positive contributions of others and cancel them out. Essentially Jayson Werth’s great 2013 season didn’t count because there were so many negative contributors to the Nationals last season.
Projections on Jose Lobaton are optimistic about his offense. His .714 OPS of 2013 was a career high and while projections don’t see him repeating that they do have him at a .654 or .668 which is good for a back-up catcher. Offense isn’t the real reason the Nationals wanted Lobaton, and it isn’t the way any back-up catcher should be judged. Mike Rizzo views Lobaton as a good pitch framer and game caller and Lobaton has stated that his first act as a Nat is to get to know the pitching staff. That is the most important thing a catcher can do. They are more a member of the pitching staff than the are the line-up and their main duty is to help guide their pitchers through the opposing batting order.
Kurt Suzuki was below average as a game caller. Nationals’ pitchers in 2013 had a 3.95 ERA in 659 innings with Suzuki behind the plate and a 3.26 ERA in 667 2/3 innings with Wilson Ramos behind the plate. A team knows they are going to lose offense on the day any back-up plays, especially a back-up catcher, but what they cannot lose is defense, and that is what Jose Lobaton provides the Nationals. The same can be said of Nate McLouth and to some degree Danny Espinosa if he is healthy and can return anywhere close to his previous production.
That is the thing with utility players and back-up catchers. Their main role is to provide defense, and Danny Espinosa can do that. He did it last season while being one of the worst hitters in baseball, and it took an OPS of .465 to give him a -0.6 fWAR. Steve Lombardozzi was able to achieve around the same negative fWAR while being a much better hitter and staying healthier due to his -3.2 defensive rating. Even if Danny Espinosa hovers around a .600 OPS all season he won’t be any worse than replacement level and that means he won’t be a WARpire, and if he isn’t healthy the trigger will be pulled on him much quicker due to the fact that he’s no longer a starter and Jamey Carroll and Mike Fontenot were signed for that express purpose.
Most of the Nationals moves have been around the fringes, but the bottom of the roster can sink a contending team. At the bottom of it lurk WARpires waiting to suck and cancel out the production of others. These WARpires appear harmless to most. They aren’t the ones that will take the blame, how can a bench be blamed when the expectations were World Series or bust? The simple answer is think of that 4.3 fWAR they stole from Jayson Werth. Add that to the 86 games the Nationals did win and that puts them between 90 and 91 wins. At worse they’re in a one game play-off with the Reds for the final Wild Card spot and at best they win it outright. The Nationals roster still isn’t WARpire proof.
Danny Espinosa, Jamey Carroll, and Mike Fontenot could all fail while whoever grabs the final bench spot becomes a soul sucking WARpire, but the Nationals are better guarded against it. McLouth, Hairston, and Lobaton should all be 0.0 fWAR players are better in 2014, and if they can do that then the contributions of the rest of the roster will not be lost to the savages of the dreaded WARpire.