Nationals Baseball: To Tweak or To Go Big

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

To Tweak or To Go Big

It's easy to fix a bad team. That isn't meant to dismiss the job Rizzo has done, but it's the truth. If you are given the right resources ($$$ for FA and draft picks) you should be able to turn a losing team into a .500 one in just a few years. The holes are often obvious and more importantly deep. Take a look at the Astros right now.  You could sign a couple FA at SS and OF, they don't even have to be particularly good ones, just league average, and you'd perk up the offense. The rotation is so bad nearly anyone you can sign would improve it. Outside of picking up a catcher, you could literally do anything and this team might get better. Down this low the cost of each win is low and the answers are easy.

Where the Nats are the answers are harder to come by. You can't get better simply by signing "anyone". You usually don't have big gaping obvious holes. Instead you have good players that need to be replaced by very good or great ones if any sort of strides are to be made. The question is, are the Nats going to do that or are they going to be content to bring in one starting pitcher (the only easy fix) and make another go at it?

Here are some of the hard questions awaiting the Nats

Adam LaRoche (101 OPS+) Adam is basically an average hitter now and his fielding slipped. He's going to turn 34 in November an age where collapsing is more likely than rebirth. Do you go with Adam at a position where you normally look for great offensive production?

Anthony Rendon (96+) After a blistering start Anthony has settled down into a punch and judy place with an unimpressive average. (Whoever it was that mocked me for saying Rendon could finish hitting .250 with a little bad luck... SUCK IT) Obviously he's a rookie so expectations are he'll improve a bit next year, but what if he doesn't? His overall value is already questionable as he's not a good fielder at 2nd where he currently plays out of position.

Denard Span (98+) Unlike Rendon, Span is meant to be a fielding first type of guy, and he's coming through where that's concerned. But we've all seen what a slumping Span offers the team at the plate, a big squadoosh. He doesn't get on base or hit for any power so if he's not singling, he's not doing anything. The Nats thought they could carry a defensive guy in the lineup back when they thought they were a Top 5ish offense. Do they think the same thing now?

Do they need another pitcher or do they need another ace? Both ZNN and Gio have pitched well this year, but not to the expectations set by last year. They were at 133 and 136 ERA+ last year, respectively which is like having two #1s, to go along with the other #1 Strasburg.  They are both at 114 now, which is very good #2/#3 territory, but it's not the same "you can't beat us, THIS guy is starting" pitching as the Nats had last year. Also, you're looking at a top 3 that's been remarkably healthy recently. Strasburg & ZNN haven't missed significant time since their respective comebacks and Gio has been the same way since 2009. It's not to say it will happen. Maybe this is the one thing the Nats do right. But odds are sooner or later it won't be a Detwiler that needs half a season off.  With all this being the case, is it enough to simply grab a pretty good #4 type (for example AJ Burnett - not that anyone wants him just an example) or do you try to go out and get someone special?

The Nats can just tweak the roster and go into 2014 with playoff expectations. A competent #4, plus a complete overhaul of the bench would still seemingly leave the Nats, young and healthy, as a strong WC and possible division contender. But it also is asking for several things to go right instead of wrong and offers the Nats no cushion on those expectations. Failure to go big, might just have the Nats going nowhere again.


Jay said...

Last year, after 98 wins, I think most everyone would have said "tweak." Rizzo spent big on Haren and Soriano, and traded big for Span. Setting aside whether those moves worked, I'd expect him to make some significant acquisitions again. Whether he replaces LaRoche, Rendon or Span, however, probably depends more on what's available than how those players performed this season.

Strasburger said...

Until we lose another game, I won't read this blog. See you soon.

ocw5000 said...

It's great to see everyone mashing now, but I think it's going to lead to a false sense of confidence heading into next year. It feels like the end of every Wizards season the last 4 years (Woohoo! beat the Raptors in April! Watch out for us next year after we start 1-12!). Zim is going to end up with career averages by crushing the AAAA talent on NL East bottom dwellers in September, and we'll look back in February and say "yeah he had a normal Zim year." No he didn't.

How far have we come in 2 years that the most bankable player on the team is Ian Desmond? He'll go .280 and 20/20 next year with above-average defense. Everyone else is a question mark. Will Bryce finally break out in 2014 or stay at .270/20HR guy for the next few years? Will Strasburg continue to have confounding experiences on the mound (2 balk-runs, getting the yips after drilling J.Upton, etc.) or settle into a true, no-excuses ace? Will Rendon remain a more jovial Lombardozzi or turn into Paul Molitor 2.0? Will Zim stop throwing like a girl and stay healthy enough to get closer to his 7 WAR years? Will Wilson Ramos tweak a hamstring by staring at a turkey sandwich and miss 3 months? What happens when Werth stops hiding HGH in his beard and goes back to hitting .270? Is Storen fixed and will that offset any Clippard regression in 2014 (he has to regress one of these years, right)?

If Werth's contract weren't such an albatross, I would sell high on him after the year he's had, the way we should have done with Morse after 2011. Another entry for your "Werth's Contract Sucks" diary.

Harper said...

Jay - I'm not sure of a big offensive move either, but I like a big splash in pitching. We'll see.

Strasburger - if that's what it takes to get the Nats in the playoffs, by all means, no one read this blog. I'll start writing entries in a fictional work log about a cobbler in the 1920s if that helps.


H. Smith came in with shoes. Two pair. Worn soles.

J. Ericson. Boots. One pair. Heel to be attached.

ocw5000- but what about their record since May 9th! (old joke)

Bryce is better than 20 HR (He has 19 in 101 games) but that's still not a break out. You're right there are a lot of questions, but that's par for the course. What you want is a lot of questions that don't have "he could be an average hitter" as an answer.

As much as I'd love trading out of that contract, he's good and you don't trade away good players when you want to win. He may not be this good in 2014 (in fact he won't) but it's hard to replace what he does give you. Sometimes you'll overpay, even grossly, but all that matters is you win.

Jay said...

If nothing else comes out of this season, the starting pitching depth at least looks better. After the top 3 and Detwiler, Karns, Roark and Jordan should all be ready to compete as 5th starters in spring training. Robbie Ray and AJ Cole might be ready mid-season. All of that says "one-year free agent" signing to address the fourth/fifth/sixth starter needs.

If that's the route Rizzo is heading, I hope he keeps in mind that one of the biggest problems this season was lack of roster flexibility. I'd hate to sign another $10m starter and then have to watch him struggle for 3 months because of his contract. Maybe it's better to try some mix of Karns/Jordan/Roark, using their options and abilities to pitch out of the pen to find the one whose most effective at any given time.

Wally said...

I think that they should go 'biggish'. Meaning more than a tweak, but not all in for a #2 SP. I just think the cost of that would be too much.

I think that they need at least one more reliable bat, and depending how they restructure the lineup, they have some leeway for it to be an IF or a corner OF. It is hard to throw out names without knowing the cost, but someone like Kendrick would like good in the line up. I guess that they could go crazy and try to take on Kemp's contract and injury history.

For SP - I'd love another #2 type to hedge against injury, but I just don't see it happening unless someone buys into Rendon as a 5 WAR player, which seems unlikely. I'd hate to give up Cole or Giolito, those are the kinds of things that haunt you.

Froggy said...

Although it looks like you must have written this piece before Gio pitched a 1 hitter, and Span continued his 20 game hitting streak and goes 3-5 with a dinger last night, I agree with most of the 'tweak' suggestions, but would still 'go big' if the opportunity presented.

As to the tweaks, Span is a ++ defender and looks like he might have made some good adjustments since Rick Schu arrived, isn't that what we wanted from him? I will agree that LaRoche (love the guy) in spite of his great defense, has been a hole offensively. Ramos on the other hand is showing middle of the order power. Move Ramos up and Span down to the 7 or 8 slot. As to Werth, he has carried the team for the past two months, so stop the hating. Zimm goes to 1b, Rendon to 3rd and we go for Cano at second.

Oh yeah, and we release Haren and trade Soriano for a bag of un-tucked jerseys.

Hoo said...

I believe some genius in the comments in yesterday's post had a similar take.

I think in order, you splurge on a real starter. Let Det/Roark fight for #5 with preference to Det but with Jordan/Det/Roak you have stumbled upon some more depth. You just need to avoid a Haren-esque disaster. Which means, skipping Rizzo's preferred reclamation guys and get someone who a lower upside but a much higher downside.

Preferably try to sign Cano and Rendon to minors. Tough for him but this is a team that needs to win now and Rendon isn't that guy at this pt. I don't like Zim at first unless he remains dreadful at third. He has better value there at least for a bit. I don't much upgrade of Zim for LaRoche unless you sign a stellar 2b to allow Rendon to switch. And at the end of the day, LaRoche at 1b, Zim and 3b is more cost-effective than eating LaRoche's contract and making Zim a hugely overpaid, average 1st baseman.

I'd guess that Rizzo pulls of a pretty big deal this off-season like moving Rendon for the missing piece.

Donald said...

There are a few things we probably need to know, like what payroll cap Rizzo has to work with. I'd love to see them get a #2 SP but not if that means that can't extend Strasburg, Znn or Desmond.

The other area that could be strengthened is the pen. It was really off this year, other than Clippard and a brief, magical time for Krol, Abad and Roark. I don't want to go into next year with the same pen

Froggy said...

@Hoo, great minds think alike. ;-)

I see your point (and agree) about the tradeoff from moving Zim to 1b, but suggest that only if his shoulder/throwing motion isn't improved in the off season, which I hope is the case as he still gets to the ball as quick as ever and think it would be a shame not to see him at 3rd. For me, the crux offensively will be a Cano at 2b that allows shuffling at the corners.

Chaz R said...

Really good (and funny) post today Harper... and the comments are about as clever and funny as I have read here. No question, I have been thinking about all the same things posted by you guys. As I noted yesterday though, seems we are faced with many of the same questions we had at the end of last year:

Sadly, it seems we faced with many of the same questions from the end of last year:

Who's our #4 and #5 pitchers?
Who's playing 2B and 1B?
Can Storen be our closer?
Plus, the new big question is how can the bench be improved?

I personally am happy with Span. Although he was dreadful offensively for most of the year, he is a Gold Glove caliber CFer and has worked to bring his bat up to his career average.

I would vote for a not cutting corners on a real live honest to goodness SP- someone like a Garza. Then supercharge the bench as best you can with whatever top options are out there. Then let it ride for 2014. I know there are chances- LaRoche's bat, Zim's arm, Rendon's bat and fielding at 2B. I'm thinking these will work out, if not there are adjustments that can be made- Zim to 1B, etc.

One more big question is... what to do with Espi???? I guess he just stays where he is until he figures it out-???

Wally said...

I think the other big question this offseason is around extensions: Desi, JZimm and Stras are the obvious ones to consider, although a case could be made that Ramos is at the 'sweet spot' in his years of control where he might bite on a very team friendly offer.

It might be that one more year of arbitration gives Desi and JZimm enough financial security that they'll test the FA waters (in which case, the player rarely stays with his existing team), so it is possibly now or never.

Has Stras demonstrated enough health that you would throw a 5/$100m offer at him? Might not get it done anyway, but it would have to be awfully tempting to him, given pitcher health in general and his in particular.

ocw5000 said...

Signing Cano is as likely as trading for McCutcheon was two years ago, unless Jay-Z is secretly from DC and not an NYC-based mogul.

Harper said...

Sandstone jungle where dreams are tabled

Donald said...

I really hope they don't sign Cano. As good as he is, he's going to get one of those massive, long-term contracts that look awful in a few years (see: Pujols, Fielder, A-Rod, etc.). It might work out for a year or two, but would saddle the Nats for a long time to come.

At this point, I think the Nats are locked into Harper, Werth, Zimm, Desmond and Ramos. They are probably sticking with LaRoche (80%), though they don't have anyone waiting in AAA to take his place in 2015 unless they move Zimm over, so I could see a deal here, though I think it's unlikely. I think they are sticking with Span too (70%). Rizzo is probably hoping to keep him for one more year in the hopes that Goodwin takes a big leap for 2015. I think they are sticking with Rendon as 2B as well (60%), though this may be where they could make a move. They are still high on him, though and we've seen with Desmond and Espinosa how willing they are to stick with someone they think will develop.

As for the bench, I think they keep Lombo and probably Solano, though if they could find a better back up catcher it would be a good insurance policy. Tyler Moore may be playing himself onto the bench again for 2014, though I don't know if Rizzo will fall for that 2 years in a row. They are probably sticking with Hairston as well.

So it doesn't leave that much room for changes, does it?

blobby said...

I think the 2012/2013 Red Sox are an instructive example. Jonah Keri, take it away:

"Really, everything the Red Sox did — and especially what they didn't do — boiled down to recognizing what they had. While critics lamented a team that appeared content with mediocrity, Cherington and company kept cooler heads, and recognized September 2011 and the entire 2012 season for what they were: wildly unlikely scenarios that didn't reflect the true quality of the organization's talent, both at the major league level and on the farm. When Nate Silver introduced his PECOTA projection system for players in 2003, he took great care to define its parameters. PECOTA's forecasts considered many possible outcomes for each individual player, from a 10th-percentile projection that would include injuries and numbers way down from career norms, all the way up to a 90th-percentile breakout that would shock the baseball world and thrill fantasy players savvy and lucky enough to take the plunge. What the Red Sox experienced over 1⅙ seasons amounted to a first-percentile outcome, the lowest of the low."

So the only question to really answer is whether the 2013 Nats are a 50th percentile outcome (nope), a 25th percentile outcome (probable), or a 10th percentile outcome (quite possible). The big things that went wrong for us this year are all subject to wild fluctuations: Injuries, bench performance, and bullpen performance. Combine those this a bunch of guys performing below career levels, and it was enough to derail the season. All of this is just a long-winded way of agreeing with the people that besides getting a real starting pitcher to solidify the rotation, our moves should be about improving our depth (primarily on the bench). I mean, if the Lerners feel really good about their stock portfolio, I have no problem with them giving Cano approximately a jillion dollars, but that's not going to happen. As Harper and many others have noted, our mistake before this season was assuming that last season represented our true talent level, rather than a high-percentile outcome.

Nattydread said...

After picking up two quick games on Reds losses to the Cubs, I am reconsidering throwing in the towel. If the Nats survive the next Haren start, I'll be on the bandwagon until further notice.

Perhaps you could delay the full post-mortem a bit with discussions of Werth's new value and Span's 21 game streak.

blovy8 said...

The Nationals certainly didn't feel like they were jinxing anything by exhorting me to reserve my postseason strips yesterday.

Anonymous said...

Fix a bad team?

Mythical Monkey said...

Well, I'm pretty sure that unless some team out there we don't know about makes an offer we can't refuse, LaRoche, Span and Rendon will all be back next year -- LaRoche because we'd have to eat his contract which we're not going to do, Span because he's under team control, is a great fielder and has come alive at the plate at least enough to contribute, and Rendon because he's a rookie with promise and why would you throw in the towel on him now?

The areas to work on are the bottom of the rotation and the bench, both of which were pretty terrible most of the year. We went into the season with the idea we'd roll 7s again and wound up having make a hard 6. Hopefully, Rizzo will be more realistic about things like retread starters, declining benchwarmers and left-handed bullpen relief.

Which sounds like I'm in the tweak camp, and I guess it's the tweak camp by default -- they're not going to start eating contracts and throwing out bonus babies with the bathwater just to bring in a new set of question marks. They have openings in the rotation, the bench and the bullpen -- that's what they'll focus on.

Anagramsci said...

I definitely like the idea of focusing on beefing up the back end of the rotation, left-handed relief + the bench. The only thing wrong with Span is that he should be hitting 8th, not leadoff. The lineup should be good enough as is to win 90 to 100 as long they put the people who can get on base at the top of the order and get rid of Haren-style futility.

Kenny B. said...

"Will Wilson Ramos tweak a hamstring by staring at a turkey sandwich and miss 3 months? "

I was skeptical of your approach, but you got me with this one.

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