Filtering by Tag: Offseason Moves

Refreshing Roster Issues

With less than a week left until pitchers and catchers report the Nationals have made a clear statement as to how they are going to fill the last three spots in the bench. Heading into 2013 they looked those positions down with members of the 2012 team. It was startling how complete the Nationals roster was heading into Spring Training. I know I'd never seen it before and while other contenders where wondering who was going to start at third or short or who would be the third starter the Nationals had a full 25 men. That isn't the case this Spring, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

There was a downside to the Nationals roster completeness. They couldn't attract as many minor league free agents as other teams. So when things went wrong with certain members of the bench the Nationals were lacking in back-up plans. As of right now the Nationals have two set members of the bench in Scott Hairston and Nate McLouth. Both have good splits against opposite hand pitching and together should form the average 1.5 pinch hitters NL teams use a game. The rest of the bench is going to be composed of a back-up catcher, utility infielder, and one other piece that is assumed to be a right handed hitter that can possibly platoon with LaRoche.

Looking at it position by position the Nationals back-up catcher situation was the most set heading into 2013. Kurt Suzuki had a solid end to his 2012 and was one of the more important Nationals hitters down the stretch, but in 2013 he didn't hit. He didn't just not hit, he hit below the average .633 OPS of a primary back-up catcher on an NL team. Catcher in and of itself isn't an offensive position and back-up catcher is even less so. Most teams look for pure defensive players as a back-up catcher, because if they had the offense to be a starter they would be. The Nats had traded for Suzuki and that gave them control over him and it appeared they had two starter quality catchers, but Suzuki failed as bad as any National in 2013, and this season the Nats are taking the exact opposite approach.

Between internal invites and minor league free agents invited to Spring Training the Nationals have six catchers competing for the back-up role, the three favorites being Snyder, Leon, and Solano. Between those three the Nationals will have a back-up catcher to start the season and if that catcher starts to struggle making the change won't be as difficult as it was last season when that change would have involved cutting a player owed millions of dollars. The Nationals strategy this season is much more of a quality through quantity approach to bench construction and they still may make a trade before the season starts, but whoever wins the job the Nationals will have more depth and more importantly more flexibility than they had in 2013.

The approach at utility infielder is much the same. Again utility infielder is a mainly defensive position because good hitting middle infielders are hard to find and a utility infielder has to be able to play short and second it is even harder to find a good hitting utility infielder. The favorite as of right now is Danny Espinosa and he certainly has the defense and if he accepts the role it almost doesn't matter what he hits because his defense is that good and that is the value he will bring to the team. Behind him are Jamey Carroll, Mike Fontenot, Zach Walters, and Jeff Kobernus, and any one of them would be a serviceable utility infielder if needed. Again this is the approach of quality through quantity with plenty of flexibility and low cost, easy to cut options, Between these five and any players that could be cut from other teams at the end of Spring Training or during the season the Nationals should be able to find a perfectly serviceable utility infielder.

The final bench spot is a bit of a mystery. The Nats pursuit of Mark Reynolds and Jeff Baker makes it appear as if they would like to have a right handed back-up first baseman in this final bench spot, but they could always go another direction. They could use this spot for a pinch runner or a second left handed bat as most relief pitchers will be right handed. This spot could simply be the best player available. With no clear role defined for this spot heading into Spring Training it is best that the Nationals keep their options open for this spot, but it is again a quality through quantity type of deal and could always be whatever utility infielder isn't a first choice as Matt Williams does appear to be focused on defense and defense was something that the 2013 Nats bench lacked.

A bench player by their nature is going to be a below average hitter. The days of the big slugger that can't play defense sitting on the bench waiting for his time to strike are gone. Modern baseball is played in a low run scoring environment and because of that any of these poor defensive sluggers that exist will be signed to be a starting DH in the AL. These players are simply not available to NL team and because of this the best move is to fill a bench with players that can play defense. The Nats didn't have that in 2013. Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi, Chad Tracy, and Roger Bernadina were all below average defenders and gave the Nationals no options to even consider using a defensive replacement.

It may appear that the Nationals have more roster questions heading into Spring Training in 2014 than in 2013 but that isn't a bad thing. They had a rock solid 25 man roster heading into Spring of 2013 and that ended up being a negative. When things went wrong they lacked the flexibility and the depth to make changes. Both of those issues have been remedied to some degree and while the quality through quantity approach may not work it gives the Nationals better flexibility to make moves when things go wrong. And compared to some of the roster questions of past Nationals teams wondering who the back-up catcher or utility infielder will be isn't nearly as bad as wondering if the team will be able to field five starting pitchers.

The Nats Should Sign AJ Burnett

AJ Burnett has been on record all offseason that while he would like to pitch one more season he is also fine with retirement. AJ Burnett has reached the stage in his career, having made over $120 million, that it isn't only about the money for him and as he is only looking for a one year deal he will pick where he finishes his career. There are two big factors for AJ Burnett. The first is that he is going to want a chance to win as he pitched the Pirates to the playoffs last season and wouldn't want to finish out his career on a team with little to no chance to make it back there. The second is AJ Burnett's wife is from Maryland and that is where Burnett now makes his home and if he can't finish his career close to home he will retire.

Burnett's first choice would be to go back to the Pirates but they didn't offer him the $14 million qualifying offer because they were afraid he would accept. It is likely that the Pirates lack the money to sign Burnett, but the Nationals have made it a habit to sign a starting pitcher to a one year $13-15 million contract late in the off-season. In 2012 they did it with Edwin Jackson and in 2013, Dan Haren. Signing with the Nationals gives Burnett the ability to finish his career with a team with a good chance to win and pitch close to home. The only real competition the Nationals would have for Burnett's services are the Orioles and their desperation for pitching wouldn't mean that Burnett could pass the physical.

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Mark Reynolds and the Nats Continuing Bench Search

It was rumored the other day that the Nats are one of the team in on Mark Reynolds. This is interesting because Reynolds has connections to both Mike Rizzo from his Arizona days and Ryan Zimmerman from his UVA days. The Nats interest in Reynolds also shows us that they aren't finished in the restructuring of the bench or more to the point they want the final bench spot to be a right handed hitter that can play first whether it is Mark Reynolds, Jeff Baker, or Tyler Moore and that the least desirable option in their opinion is Tyler Moore. 

The Mark Reynolds/Mike Rizzo connection is an interesting one. If you go back and look at the mid to late 2000's Diamondbacks that are composed of the players Mike Rizzo helped to draft you notice a trend. Mark Reynolds, Justin Upton, Chris Snyder, Chris Young, and Stephen Drew all have similar skill sets. Each and every one of them is a low batting average hitter that strikes out a few too many times for the casual baseball fan, but all of them have above average power for their positions and have high enough walk rates to have a non-embarrassing on base percentage. In other words Mike Rizzo may walk like a scout, talk like a scout, and wear a Hawaiian shirt like a scout, but when it comes to viewing offensive players strikeouts and batting average mean next to nothing for him. 

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How Bad Were the Nats Off-Season Moves

I am going to start this by saying I do not think Mike Rizzo can becriticized 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.

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The Finish Line is Too Far Away

It is less than two weeks until Opening Day, but yet it feels so far away.This entire off-season has passed slowly. The trade for Denard Span came out of nowhere. Everyone was expecting the long period of waiting out Boras for Michael Bourn until both sides ironed out a deal, but then the Nats made a preemptive strike by trading Alex Meyer to the Twins for Denard Span. Span gives the Nats the lead-off hitter they have long desired and helps to upgrade the outfield defense. These two areas were perhaps the Nats weakest in 2012.     ​

Aside from adding a center fielder the biggest need for the Nationals was replacing Edwin Jackson. When the Nats made no effort to offer Jackson a qualifying offer it became clear that they were done with him and didn't even want to face any risk of him returning to the club. The Nats instead of trying to wait out the Kyle Lohse market or spend big money on Zack Greinke or Anibal Sanchez they instead opted to offer Dan Haren a one year deal. In Haren the Nats get a pitcher with the fifth best K/BB ratio of all time and a pitcher that has had multiple 6.0 fWAR seasons, the last as recently as 2011. Haren was hurt last season, but that is how the Nationals could get him on only a one year deal.   ​

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