Nationals Baseball: Next year may really be next year, are the Lerners ready?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Next year may really be next year, are the Lerners ready?

You know that I don't think the Nats should have signed Prince Fielder. Or more accurately, they shouldn't have matched or beaten that contract that he got in order to bring him to Washington. The only way you commit to a contract that has that much potential wasted money on the back end is if you are sure the player can make a playoff difference NOW.  For the Tigers, Prince can.  The Nats, though, have too much variability in their expected performance to feel sure that they are just one player and one season away. Another year will help whittle down the problem areas further (one hopes) so they can go into next off-season with laser focus and get the pieces they really need (assuming it all hasn't come down like a house of cards.  Unlikely but still not outside the realm of possibility.   I give it... 15% chance?  Something like that.  So before you say I'm being negative that's an 85% chance they are still on the playoff track come 2013.)

One of the things the Nats could use next year is one more arm to make the rotation one of the best in baseball. (especially since the free agent bats are going to be slim pickings) Next offseason looks like a fantastic one for free agent pitching.  Cain, Greinke, Hamels are all currently slated to be free agents. These are potential top of the order starters who will be under 30 in 2013. But if they do get into free agency they are going to be pricey.   It starts with 5 for 85 (Weaver's extension) and goes up from there (for Cain and Hamels at least, we have to see how Greinke does this season for him to be up there).  If anyone gets signed (Grienke was talking extension, Cain seems to be the Giants priority over Lincecum...) the price for the remaining guy gets that much higher.

The Nats have show real reluctance in paying the market price for free agent pitching.  While rumors had the Nats going well over 20 million for Prince at a reasonable contract length, the Nats essentially lowballed Mark Buehrle.  Rizzo seems to have a sense that competitive teams don't have to overpay for free agents even though that is disproven every off-season.  Based on all this can you really see the Nats giving out the Sabathia like deal that they'll need to, to get a Hamels or Cain?

By not ridiculously overpaying for Prince the Nats have set the fanbase up to expect them to ridiculously overpay for a young arm next offseason. Of course that's right now. Maybe the rotation will bust out and Detwiler will become a stud while Purke and Meyer cruise through the minors, leaving the Nats with no need for that last arm.  Maybe. But if this doesn't happen and if there is any faltering with the Strasburg, ZNN, Gio triumvirate the Nats fans will expect that type of big move.  I still don't trust that they will make it.

Once is a mistake, twice is a pattern.  The Werth deal sets the precedent but does not by itself create a new normal. The Lerners need to come through with that next big deal to make me believe they are willing to pay, and coming in second with big money doesn't count. Continually offering just enough to NOT get the deal done does not make one a big spender, it makes them as effectively cheap as the guy that doesn't even bother to put out deals.  No, they have to actually pull the trigger. Will they? We'll may find out in 11 months or so.

52 comments:

Angels12 said...

The Werth contract and the resulting year he put up is enough to make anyone a little gun shy when it comes to big money deals. The Nats have a good young team being built the right way, and I agree they should pull the trigger on the one missing piece, when they figure out what that piece really is, a center fielder, a starter, etc

Nick said...

Do you blame Rizzo for not wanting to shell out huge contracts for FA pitchers. Historically, those contracts are much riskier (has any 7+ year contract worked out for a pitcher besides CC, thus far?) for pitchers than position players. At this point, I feel that the Nats biggest need would a CF. The market will be flush with CF's next year, and I would rather take a chance on a 4 year deal with Bourn/Upton as opposed to a 7 year deal with a higher AAV on Hamels/Greinke/Cain.

Sec 204 Row H Seat 7 said...

I would rather enjoy (85% certainty)or grit my teeth (15%) this seaason then worry about next year.

Harper said...

Angles12 - I suppose, but I hate to think the org's thought process is "We're committed to moving in this direction, unless it looks at first to be wrong"

Nick - no I don't. But on some level ensuring a good 3-5 year run at titles takes overpaying for a couple players, usually a pitcher or two. The whole risk factor though is why what the Nats are doing (drafting so many pitchers) is the right move. Develop your own great pitchers, sign hitters and back of the rotation guys. Unfortunately for the Nats there aren't many impact hitters available. Upton/Bourn will help but I'm not sure either would make a #1 pitcher difference.

Sec 204 - It's a long offseason, there'll be plenty of focus by everyone on 2012 once pitchers and catchers start in like 2 weeks.

michael k said...

I've noticed a general trend in your posts, Harper. It's always "I'm glad they didn't pull the trigger in X free agent because he became so overpaid", coupled with "if the Lerners want to compete with the big boys they have to know to overpay for free agents."

So, which is it?

I think you're on to something, though, when you write that the Nats aren't 100% sure where their huge needs are, so waiting to overpay is best at the moment. I actually like that they didn't overpay for Buerhle or Fielder this off-season, and it seems you do, too. But then don't criticize them for not overpaying or not coming in first in the bidding if you like those (non)moves. I guess I'm being overly optimistic, thinking that they will pull the trigger when the right time comes. But considering both Buerhle and Fielder weren't the right times, there's no reason to worry yet...right?

Whoa_now said...

If they we're willing to spend in the high 20 per season for Prince, I see no reason they shouldn't allocate that money of one SP and one CF. If the Learners were willing to spend 170-190 mil range over the life of Prince's contract (7 yrs) then I expect that going forward from the Learners.

Add Greinke/Bourne to the team and Bourn has been mentioned in the 5 yr/50 mil range. 10 mil per season. Greinke is in line to get 15-16 mil per season. Done.

Then resign Zimmerman

Your starting rotation? Stras/Greinke/Zimm/Gio would be the huge. That is a rotation that could take you deep into playoffs for a year in and year out if everyone stays healthy.

Add Bourn to the top of the lineup. Gigantic difference. Defense and OBP. Our lineup would be incredible deep. Bourn/_____/Zimm/Morse/Werth/Harper/Espinosa/Wilson. Either Desi picks it up or Rendon or Lombo steps in.

Ask one question who would you rather have next season at spring training?
Prince Fielder or Bourn/Greinke.

the only problem with this question is that the Learners have to go out and spend the cash.

Harper said...

mk - it's both, it's just a timing issue. They haven't gotten to the "one more piece" time period yet or come accross a perfect fit that would, in my mind, justify the overpay (Fielder was very close but his body type and fielding preclude a very long term deal for a NL team - I would have been angry if someone grabbed him for say 5 years - 27 million per) But it will happen. Next year with CFs or SPs (you almost always need a starter) and the way the team is trending - it looks unavoidable.

If I felt the Lerners were ready to be a perennial 200 million dollar payroll team I'd be angrier at letting Prince pass because he was a close fit, but I don't have that faith. I think they have one, maybe two big signings left with the Werth deal still in play. That being the case you have to make those FA deals be closer to perfect.

Whoa-now - Assuming Bryce becomes what he should be - I'd rather have Bourn/Greinke. But you're making some big assumptions about that lineup holding up

Nick said...

Harper, you are absolutely correct that Bourn/Upton won't have the same impact as a #1 starter. However, they come at a much cheaper price which allows Rizzo greater flexibility. Additionally, the improvement of a Bourn/Upton over a Bernadina Cameron platoon (or Werth in CF where he doesn't provide much defensive value) would be huge. I would rather see that payroll invested at a position with less risk and one where the system is weaker internally.

Wally said...

I don't really agree with your argument, although I do agree with the conclusion. For instance, The only way you commit to a contract that has that much potential wasted money on the back end is if you are sure the player can make a playoff difference NOW. 

A team can never be sure. And it is probably safe to say that a team would be wise to avoid 7 yr contracts in all circumstances. But what I think the Lerners will face, and I agree with your general skepticism, is whether to 'go first'. Meaning, will they commit to a much higher financial outlay in anticipation of generating higher revenues through success, or will they require some evidence that it is coming before they make the commitment. I think that they are inherently conservative business people, not significant risk takers, so I am very skeptical that they will get up to a $120m payroll level before their revenue levels are already close to sustaining it.

The Lerners bought the team with a lot of debt, and have maintained a comfortably positive margin each year that they owned it, enabling them to pay down their debt quite a bit. Spending big on the draft is relative peanuts. Werth's contract was also easy to afford, in hindsight, when they are taking home $30+m a year. But revenue sharing is being phased out, so their comfortable niche is no longer available to them.

What happens in 2015, when payroll should be north of $100m annually and the team, even if it has been successful, has the inevitable hiccup or two? Do they keep going, like the Chicago teams, or do they slide back like Pitt? I am skeptical that they keep spending.

It gets mentioned very frequently that the Lerners are the richest owners in baseball, but it is a meaningless, if not outright misleading, fact (assuming it is true). They are not going to dig into that wealth to fund the team. The better question is whether they will be aggressive in trying to build a franchise that justifies a high spend on baseball, or whether they will be conservative until the revenues are there.

I think the latter, but there is a chance that this crop of Strasburg, Bryce, etc make them break into a winning cycle, creating higher revenues and then they spend wisely to maintain a successful level, like ATL or MIN.

Nattydread said...

The fanboy in me wants to see the Rise of the Nats through gradual improvement of a core of young players who get better together, tough out the bad years, and, in a magic year, gel (Lerner economy mode).

It SEEMs as if this as the New Plan because there weren't that many moves (so far) this off-season and hopes seem to be on Strasberg/Harper rather than FAs.

Then again, its the batting that needs a shakeup because incremental improvement won't raise them from the KO leaders they are to contenders. In this, Rizzo's lack of trade and trickery has disappointed me.

Harper said...

Nick - fair enough. There is more chance for the Nats to develop another decent starter in the next 2-3 years than a major league ready CF.

Wally - This is a dangerous game you play allowing the ownership to solely support the team based on it's own revenue stream. What if Washington NEVER gets the support to generate enough revenues to justify a $120 million dollar payroll. It's a team with a gimped TV contract, in football town full of transients from all over the nation, if not the world. Will you just throw up your hands at it and saying "OK, you're conservative so I understand why you are only putting in 90 million and watching the team fall a few wins short?"

Nattydread - there's still time. Don't count Rizzo out.

blovy8 said...

I think the Lerners are ready, but I'm not assuming that we are automatically going to be able to sign the exact free agent center fielder who fits the club next year either. Upton is not a leadoff hitter, and it's not as though other teams won't want to sign a young 4 WAR guy if they can, even if on the surface of it, they don't need the upgrade. Look at the clubs buying 1st baseman! To me, that's why the internal/trade route strategy is the one to pursue. The lesson of that Oakland trade is instructive, though, because it looks like we're doomed to acquire players who aren't any better than Bernadina in value this way. Sizemore Curse? Of course, it backfired on him too. We may just need to lower the expectations for that position. November 2012 is going to sound a lot like November 2011 from Rizzo if no deals happen. Need a veteran starting pitcher and a center fielder and a better bench.

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