Nationals Baseball: How the Nats were built - FA and trades

Friday, March 06, 2015

How the Nats were built - FA and trades

Coming out of 2009 Rizzo found himself starting to plan for success in the near future. Things set in motion before he got to DC, early on while he was drafting, and recently when he was in control all seemed to be reaching their critical point at the same time. This team could be a .500 team, maybe even a playoff contender, soon. But a couple more moves could seal the deal. Another starter, another arm or two in the pen, a big bat at first or the outfield would help remove some of the uncertainty that remained. Assuming most everything went off without a hitch, that is.

But everything didn't go off without a hitch. Three issues that developed by the middle of 2010; Strasburg, ace of the future, got injured, John Lannan, useful rotation arm, got injured, and worst of all Jesus Flores, catcher of the future, had setback after setback in his recovery.

The latter problem was solved by serendipity. The Nats brought in Matt Capps in a classic non-contender deal. They'd sign him to a short cheap contract, hope that he performs, and if he did trade him for something. Capps did perform to the point that he was the Nats All-Star rep. Teams needing relief help came sniffing around the Nats for Capps, including the Twins. At the same time, the Twins had a young catching prospect who was blocked in theory by Joe Mauer. The Nats asked for him in the deal. Everyone thought that was way too much for Capps, everyone but the Twins. All of a sudden the Nats had another 'ready for his major league trial' catcher on the team.

At this point we finally get to the Jayson Werth deal. Like we said earlier the Nats still needed a big bat. Zimm was going to be great and Morse showed he could hit, but it wasn't likely that Desmond or Espinosa would be anything special and Ramos could take time to develop. They tried and failed for Teixeira going into 2009. I'm sure Rizzo went to Werth and showed him Zimm, the MI, Ramos, Morse, Bryce, Storen, Clippard, and the fact ZNN and Detwiler recovered on time and looked ok, so they knew what to do with Strasburg. I'm sure that mattered a little. I'm also sure the Nats gave Werth more money and years than anyone else and he grabbed it like anyone would.

Werth was a gambit because of his age but he was a player that was relatively healthy (he had some wrist problems previously but they hadn't been an issue for 3 years) and a player that did everything well. He had patience, he had power, he had decent speed, had been good in the field, and was striking out fewer times each year. About the only thing you could say about him was he average sometimes dipped a little low but he was coming off a .296 year. In other words, if one skill dropped off it was likely he had enough skill elsewhere to still contribute to the Nats.

Things were set-up so 2011 would be a crossroads year. Would ZNN and Detwiler pitch well? Would Strasburg recover on schedule? The more "yeses" the Nats got, the brighter the future looked. By year's end those questions were all answered in the affirmative. Not only that, Ramos looked great. Morse crushed the ball. Espinosa hit better than expected. Ryan Mattheus, received in a 2009 trade for Joe Biemel, was pretty good in the pen. True, Werth looked off but there was little the Nats could do there - this early in a long expensive contract you cross your fingers and hope things get better.

At this point Rizzo put the final piece of the puzzle in place. With three starters no more than two years removed from major surgery he needed a reliable pitcher. After failing to land Mark Beurhle, the Nats looked for a trade. The Athletics, still trying to piece things back together, were looking at potential deals for their 25 year old lefty Gio Gonzalez. After some back and forth the Nats finally gave up Peacock, Milone, Norris, and Cole to get Gio. It was a lot but getting Gio negated most of the need for Peacock and Milone. You bring in Gio because you expect Stras, ZNN, to be healthy. Ramos' strong play meant Norris wasn't as needed. The final piece was in place

The Nats entered 2012 as a team on the rise. They were liked to finish around .500 behind that strong rotation, which included Edwin Jackson now and if things worked out they might be on the outskirts of a playoff run. We'd see if the window was actually open or if the Nats were still a player or two away. Well it was open all right. Gio and ZNN took big steps forward. Strasburg did exactly what they wanted. Detwiler won a role and was great. LaRoche and Werth both bounced back and Desmond surprised everyone by becoming a star. Add to that shockingly good bench production and the Nats found themselves running away with the division and now poised to dominate the East for the next several years.

The short of these three posts is this : It wasn't just Werth coming and bringing some veteran magic to the Nats that made them win. He was just one piece, an important one, but just one, that set up the Nats for a long run of success. The macro view shows us that the Nats lucked out that various players acquired from 2004 through 2008 all worked out to become impactful players around the same time in 2009/2010. That gave them a strong base that when coupled with the obvious draft additions of Strasburg and Bryce meant that Rizzo basically had a .500 team in 2012 as a starting point. We didn't know that then but we can see that now. Rizzo the GM completed the work by drafting an ready-now closer, jumping on a chance to fix a catcher issue, getting that big bat to sign, and trading for that last good starter all of who would be under team control as long as that base would be. After that it was finding/lucking into the last bits and pieces to take the team from an annual playoff contender to annual playoff favorite.

It takes a lot to go right to make a team like the Nats have had from 2012 to this year. To reduce it to cliches is selling Rizzo, and the power of good timing, short. It also suggests that to keep the window going we only need Rizzo to find/keep the right veteran player or two. The truth is they'll need some hefty mix of Giolito, Taylor, Cole, Ross, Turner, Lopez, Fedde, Difo and probably a young bat they trade for to develop around 2016 to keep it going. Or else they need to put more money into the team.

For now, let's marvel at the work the Nats have done and the luck the Nats have had and enjoy this 2015 season, the last year of this particular run of success.


Hoo said...

Don't forget throwing Riggleman overboard and bringing in Davy. Rizzo was smart enough to know the difference between a caretaker manager and a manager of a contender.

Compare the Nats making the move for manager as they moved into contention with their hoops counterpart the Wizards.

Excellent series and a few trip down memory lane.

Anonymous said...

MASN's hiring of Don Sutton was key to getting and keeping me engaged. I don't know if I would still find his analysis appealing as I've learned more about the game, but listening to him talk strategy in at-bats where the Nats were almost always overmatched got me into baseball. Also, Dmitri Young's weight and batting average.

sirc said...

Really enjoyed these articles Harper. Thanks.

Donald said...

I was trying to construct the counter argument about signing Werth being the turning point moment, but just couldn't. I know that a lot of folks said that before Werth, no free agent wanted to come to DC, and by signing him, it showed that the Nats were serious about contending and spending real money. But really, where's the evidence of that? They signed LaRoche a month or two after Werth, but I don't recall LaRoche having a ton of competing contracts at the time. And that was pretty much it for 2011 into 2012 by which point the Nats were winning, which was certainly much more of a driver in attracting talent.

The other argument for Werth is that he some how changed the culture, but again, it's hard to credit Werth with the team turning around when so many other things went right.

John C. said...

On Werth and the Nats' culture, I simply accept that we cannot quantify it. That doesn't mean there was no effect; it could well be that we just don't have the measuring tools.

I do know that in my experience small unit cohesion and effectiveness are dramatically impacted by low level leadership. At the squad or platoon level, the Sgt. or CPO equivalent matters a lot.

Bjd1207 said...

@Donald - Yea my biggest problem with the Werth narrative is that there's no way to tell which way the causation happened.

Did Werth's signing begin a new era in which management was now willing to spend on FA's? Or had that change in management already happened and Werth was just the first step?

Similarly with the "culture" thing. Did Werth sign here because he saw the front-office and clubhouse seemed to be in the right place? Or was he responsible for much of the shift in the clubhouse (I don't think he'd impact front office guys either way).

All we seem to be able to say for certain is these two things roughly coincided:

1. Nationals started winning more
2. Jayson Werth was signed

I want to say they're more related than ice cream sales and shark attacks, but it may just be straight up coincidence

Bjd1207 said...

And your trouble with developing the counter-argument shows why this narrative is invalid, it's non-falsifiable

Donald said...

@John C. -- I definitely agree that leadership in the clubhouse is critical to cohesion and effectiveness. And I'm sure Werth contributed. But Zim, Desmond, and even LaRoche were providing a lot of leadership too -- maybe more.

One thing that I recall reading a few years ago was that Werth was instrumental in pushing for better conditions and better food and better training techniques. I'm sure that made some contribution. Here's the link:

Anonymous said...

As my mother used to say, never criticize someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes... because that way, you're a mile away and you have their shoes.

But, hey, this is the internet! Harper, I actually liked your three-part bludgeoning of the Werth-was-it straw man, but the narrative jumped around and I had a hard time following which year was which (tables would have helped.) I came away with the general sense that Rizzo had had a particularly good run. But, then, I knew that. I'm not yearning for the full Michael Lewis Monty, but the story really is about Rizzo. The trades have been good, the drafts have been good, the hiring of minor league and front office staff has been good, the timing (even the bad luck) has been good. The next few off seasons will be all about whether Riz is the genius the last few seasons make him out to be. It's good to see you thinking about it.

John C. said...

It's a long leap from "I can't quantify the effect that Werth had on the culture" to "the assertion that Werth had a positive impact on the Nats' culture is false."