Nationals Baseball: Now what?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Now what?

I said it constantly over this series of the games but this Mets team does not scare me (for an NL East title) The Nats team I expect to see over the course of the rest of the season is better than the Mets team I expect to see over the course of the rest of the season. There are 60 games left. That difference will show. That doesn't mean I like this Nats team, the one on the field for the series, better that the Mets. That's kind of a push. It means that with Strasburg, Rendon, Werth, Zimmerman all likely back soon and Span maybe back later, that team is certainly deeper and almost certainly better than the Mets. So while the comeback victory was super fun it merely confirms what I had already thought.

I'd like the Nats to pull away now so we don't have to even talk about this anymore, but with Washington playing Pittsburgh, a pull away is probably not happening. It'll have to wait until the next series versus the Mets in a little over a week. Oh well.

The question then is 'What do the Nats do now?' Yunel Escobar seems slated for a DL stint, perhaps a long one, but with Rendon back that's not so much of a problem with the line-up as with the bench. Ian might even be hitting again (maybe... maybe)! Do the Nats make a move to get better when they likely don't have to to take the division?

I say yes. 

I've talked about this before, but it bears repeating. In my opinion, the point of athletic competition, as opposed to athletic endeavor, is to win.  In professional sports the dual nature of winning, winning games versus winning championships, can be seen as leading to conflict between now and later. But most understand this is faux conflict. Everyone agrees that the winning of championships take precedence. If you are not in line for a championship, it make sense to sacrifice the winning of games now to try to set up the future. If you are in line for a championship, it make sense to sacrifice the winning of games in the future to try to set up the now. That is in large part how it worked in the past. However, in today's baseball, a third type of winning has been introduced, the winning of theoretical championships in the future, and that type has for some reason assumed the top position. Now even teams in one piece away from the playoffs or one fix away from fielding the best team possible refuse to deal prospects of value. The future must be protected. 

In reality, the future is extremely volatile. In baseball, you have 30 teams, each trying to do the same thing, where a good team wins 56% of their games and a bad team wins 44%. With that slim difference between success and failure, an injury or two can derail a season, and a break out or two can turn a maybe team into a powerhouse. Planning for future success is smart, but depending on it is a fool's decision.

Don't believe me? We can even look back in the Nats brief history to see that it is true.  In 2012, the Nats were in arguably the best position a team could be. Heading toward the high 90s in wins. A very young pitching staff (23, 26, 26, 26) with three guys pitching like aces and a 4th guy that looked almost as good. A lights out closer just as young (24) and a decent group of not old set-up men. At worse top 5-ish young position players at 2b (25), SS (26), and 3B (27), another with that potential at C (24), and the league's best offensive prospect, who was still a teenager, in the OF. The only "old" players that were important were a 30 year old OF masher, a do-it-all veteran who had been injured but came back to put up a solid half-season, and a dependable 1B bat.

The questions for 2013 were limited - could they find a LHRP? Who would be the 5th starter? And the biggest one - do you re-sign the OF masher or dependable 1B because both are up for FA and you'd rather move the teenager to a corner OF spot? That's it. That's the list. All those names I mentioned above that weren't FAs to be? Only one would be a free agent before the 2015 season was over. You could hardly find a team in recent history better set-up for a window of success.

So when time came to potentially sit one of those aces because he was returning from injury it seemed like a safe move. Strasburg sat. They sacrificed the now in some measure for a future that looked completely secure.

In 2013 - Strasburg pitched well but the Nats missed the playoffs
In 2014 - Strasburg pitched well but the Nats won the NL East by 17 games. They did finish 1st overall in the NL by 2 games. He pitched a decent Game 1 but the Nats lost the game.
In 2015 - Strasburg, arguably injured, pitched poorly, sat out, pitched well briefly, went out again. He has barely helped a team struggling to overcome injuries to take the division.

So in 2012 the Nats looked to the future and saw the potential need for a healthy Strasburg to lead them to multiple titles. In mid-2015 we can look back and say if Strasburg did pitch in those playoffs and blew his arm out, that it would have had nearly no impact on the Nats fortunes since then. It would have probably cost them the #1 seed in 2014, that's it as of today. And that was as sure a scenario as I can possibly come up with.

Let's go with a classic and timely example - Doyle Alexander for Smoltz. You certainly know Alexander didn't get the Tigers another title and Smoltz became a Hall of Famer. You probably know Alexander did basically all he could and without him the Tigers don't make the playoffs that year. What it's doubtful that you think of is what Smoltz on the Tigers would have been like. The Tigers would miss the playoffs by one game in 88 but Smoltz was seen as unlikely to be playing for the Tigers by then and in fact struggled in a brief major league outing with the Braves. The Tigers wouldn't come close to the playoffs again before Smoltz would hit FA, though I suppose with Smoltz that maybe the 91 squad would have been close enough to make a move around the trade deadline. Maybe. Getting Smoltz helped the Braves, yes. But losing Smoltz really did nothing to the Tigers.

I can pull out a deal where things worked in reverse too. Deals where a guy was dealt for nothing and helped the team win (McGriff, Schilling, Lee got the Phillies to WS). But the reality is most trades are CC Sabathia for Matt LaPorta, Rob Bryson, Zach Jackson and Michael Brantley.  Did the Brewers win? Nope. Did all those players become good? Nope. Did the player that did become good help the team win any championships? Nope.  Or they are Matt Holliday for Clatyon Moretnsen, Shane Peterson, and Brett Wallace. Did that player help the Cardinals win under his current contract? Nope. Did any of those players become good? Nope. Holliday would help the Cardinals in later years but they still had to sign him to a big contract. The trade merely got them an inside track. Most trades are nothings.

With most trades being nothings you may say "why bother trading?" Ok that's fine if that's your opinion, you nihilist. But for me it comes down to the point of athletic competition again. There is no one out there that thinks that hoping these guys all hit coming back from injury and hoping the pen works itself out is the best option for the Nats winning this year. How can you look at the players and say "You give it 100% to win it all. We in the front office are going to give it 90-95%! That should be enough! Team!"

This doesn't mean trade everyone for anything that helps a little in 2015. It means that the balance needs to be set correctly. The guys that are B-Level prospects who might be ok next year or down the road should be actively shopped. The A-level prospects who are already helping or seem like good bets to be good next year shouldn't be untouchable. The Giolitos... well there's a reason why people go back to Smoltz/Bagwell for lopsided deals. The "seem like sure things" aren't traded often.

I may be a soulless automaton, but I'm a soulless automaton who was programmed to understand that winning it all is what matters. The caution that made sense in 2012 when the window was clear, does not make sense in 2015 when the window is muddy. There are big changes coming to the Nats in 2016 and beyond. They could be good. They could not. All that I am sure of is they are very likely to make the playoffs this season and based on those facts above they need to act in a more urgent fashion. Anything less is an antithesis to the reason you get into competitive sports in the first place.


Anonymous said...

I agree Harper, this Nats team on the field right now is very similar to the Mets just without Harper.

Chas R said...

Yup. Completely agree. Hope Rizzo does too. Need a veteran bat and a consistent back of the bullpen arm- please!

John O'Connor said...

Flags fly forever.

Chas R said...

Another problem though is making big trades to help the team today doesn't guarantee anything. Look at the As last year.

Rob said...

Absent a big bat coming into the lineup, I think the window is closed for the Nats. They'll make the playoffs this year, but won't get out of the first round.

Bote Man said...

I doubt that getting 1 or 2 bullpen arms will do much to help the Nats since Matty fails to use his bullpen most effectively most times. That would just be moving around the deck chairs.

What the Nationals need are a couple decent hitters to allow the bench players to warm the bench. Even though the likes of Taylor and Robinson have been good enough to inch the team ahead of the Mets, they are not starters and probably would be better when they are used if they get the rest available to backups. The old starters returning from injury do not inspire confidence, save for Rendon.

Plus, those couple of hitters could be in the lineup nearly every day as opposed to a bullpen arm which would be misused when not needed in consecutive games only to be unavailable when really needed in that 3rd game. I have no idea who the best targets should be so I'm hoping Rizzo pulls a couple rabbits out of his hat again and surprises me next week. I hear Lucroy can catch a little bit as well as hit, for example.

Kevin Rusch said...

The problem I see with that argument is that having a better team doesn't really help you with the world series any given time (which sounds crazy, but look at the results.) By comparison, being a team that makes the playoffs frequently, does. I mean, you can point to the Braves and say "15 division wins and only 1 series." But on the other hand, look at the Giants. Not once in the last 5 years has that team scared me, but they keep winning trophies. Is it because they're just better? Lucky? Have Mystique and Aura moved to the Bay like everyone else? I don't know, but I think I'd rather take the team that will have all these regulars back, and keep the young pieces around (Giolito, Turner, Ross, etc) than cash in the possibility of getting to a few more Octobers.

DezoPenguin said...

I agree with Bote Man. Bullpen arms are simply not the problem. They're part of the problem (if you have seven clones of Dellin Betances or Wade Davis in your pen, even Williams can't screw it up by running Blake Treinen out over and over instead of more qualified options), but not a big one. The Nats bullpen is currently functionally competent (more so if Carpenter hadn't gotten hurt), and the tweaks so far have actually helped resolve problems along the way.

The issue is the lineup. Bryce is incredible, yes. Yuney has been good all year, but now he's hurt and will at the least miss a few games for tests and rest, maybe more if there proves to be a genuine problem. Span was good but got hurt. Rendon has been hurt. Werth and Zimmerman have been bad and hurt. Desmond and Ramos have been healthy but played badly. Espinosa has been astonishingly productive, Robinson has been a minor miracle, and Taylor has been so good on defense (I just read yesterday that by UZR he's been the best outfielder in the majors this year, unbelievably) that he's produced positive WAR, but his hitting has steadily gotten worse (yesterday afternoon notwithstanding). Injured guys can't be assumed to be coming back and playing well (especially given that, as noted, some weren't even playing well before the injuries).

So yes, win now. Make the move. Everybody in the minors but Giolito, Turner, and Ross should be considered moveable for the right deal. But improve the bats first, not the pen.

Bjd1207 said...

To everyone wanting bats - get specific. Who are you looking to replace? We know that the "bench-warmers" currently manning the field should be back on the bench. But that'll happen when Rendon, Zim, Werth, and Span come back. Do you believe certain members of that group won't return or return well this year? What type of a player do you make a move for, and who do you sit to get them in the field?

I think the bullpen is a much bigger concern because outside of Storen just about everyone else has been shaky, and these are our top-line guys (unlike the lineup). We're not waiting on better arms to come back from the DL, and in its current form I think the bullpen will let us down in the playoffs. Jannsen seems to be getting back to form, Thornton/Rivero seem OK from the left side, but Treinen, Barrett, Roark (now), Carpenter, and everyone else we've tried out hasn't been able to cut it.

A top-tier reliever or closer settles things down alot, with him/Storen at the back of the pen. Thornton/Jannsen/Rivero for 6th & 7th inning duties, and everyone else pushed into lower leverage situations.

Chas R said...

I agree with Bjd. I am optimistic that of Zim, JW, Rendon, and Span, at least 2 of those 4 will hit consistently. At any rate, they are certainly going to play, which leaves no starting spots to replace. I suppose you could get a Zobrist type as a bench bat and versatile defender, but is he really worth the cost?

Anonymous said...

Adam Lind and Francisco Rodriguez could fill voids beautifully for a playoff roster this year. I don't know if putting Zim in a platoon fresh off a big contract extension is feasible to the FO, but it certainly wouldn't hurt. Rodriguez shores up the backend bullpen and losing Difo and an arm or two in A ball for those two rentals should be all it takes.

John C. said...

Unsurprisingly, I (partially) dissent from Harper's view. Harper is not taking the "soulless automaton" view, he's taking the emotional, "BANZAI!" view. Rizzo is much closer to a soulless automaton about this, which is a good thing for the Nats.

Harper trots out the ultimate deceased equine, the Strasburg shutdown, saying that the Nats gained nothing by shutting Strasburg down (because watching him be one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2013 and 2014 had no value, because FLAGS). The problem is that, with Detwiler pitching the game of his career in the NLDS in lieu of Strasburg coupled with Strasburg's uneven performance down the stretch, there's at least as good an argument that the Nats didn't lose anything either. At any rate, water under the bridge.

The folly is that there is some magic formula for playoff success. The playoffs are as close to a coin toss as you can imagine. Look at the last 15 years of divisional play and the #1 seed for each league is no more likely to win than the team coming out of the Wild Card game. 15 of the 30 #1 seeds lost in the Divisional Round. 8 of the 15 that made it to the Championship Round lost! But of the remaining 7, four actually won the WS. Coin toss. Many fans and pundits have gotten caught up in bullpen production as the magic playoff bullet, because of the Royals last year. The Giants' bullpen wasn't anything special, and yet they actually won because of Bumgarner's amazing run. The Diamondbacks' bullpen in 2001 was lousy, and they still won largely because of two dominant starting pitchers. The 2009 Yankees, after years of losing as the #1 seed, got to the WS because Alex Rodriguez finally had a dominant postseason up until the WS, and then Hidecki Matsui went nuts in the WS. Go figure baseball, especially in small sample sizes/short series.

So the key is to make the playoffs, to have a seat at the table so that you can be the team that goes on a run. Well, the Nationals are in excellent shape for that already. Fangraphs has their playoff odds at 88.9% to win the division, 91.3% to make the playoffs. Baseball Prospectus (as posted on the MLB web site) isn't quite as bullish, but still has the Nats at 76% to win the NL East and 81.7% to make the playoffs. Given those odds right now, it's hard to see a move that changes those odds significantly - there are too many variables (who else gets hurt? what other teams get hot? etc).

Rizzo seems to realize this, because he's certainly a long term guy. With the exception of Walters-for-Cabrera last year, he hasn't really made a short term move. Even nicking Thornton and Carpenter from the Yankees in consecutive seasons wasn't solely a short term move as each was under team control going forward.

My dissent is only partial, because if there is a move out there to make, at a reasonable cost, I have no problem with the team doing it. The difference between me and many other commenters (and some pundits) is that I assume that if the "right move" is out there that Rizzo pulls the trigger - and that if there isn't a move, there wasn't one that moved the scales enough to justify the cost. Rizzo builds for the long haul, and that's the right way because building for the short haul doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding piece. I couldn't agree more. And by the way, this is one of the biggest reasons why so many Oakland A's fans have abandoned their team in the last several years in spite of Billy Beane being almost universally accepted as a great G.M. Fans (usually correctly) want to try to win now, and they sense that Beane is one of those guys who's more interested in trying to win the future.

Chas R said...

Beane just traded Kazmir to the Astros for 2 second tier prospects that both seem to be 2-4 years form MLB ready.

DezoPenguin said...

Replying to Bjd, because he raises a good point:

The problem with asking "what bats?" is that the Nationals have so many injuries now that we don't actually know who we're going to need to be replacing in August and September. Right field is covered by Harper (and if that changes, then the rest of the questions just fell into irrelevancy, because the Nats without Harper are basically the Mets with a longer DL). We hope that some of Span, Rendon, Werth, Zimmerman (and possibly Escobar) will come back and hit. We can assume that some won't, because only the Cardinals and even-year Giants get that kind of blind luck. We can hope that Ramos and Desmond and Taylor start hitting. We can pray that Espinosa and Robinson don't stop hitting. But there are literally seven positions on the diamond that are--at best--"good player coming off injury, not sure how he'll respond."

Therefore, if I were Rizzo, what I would do above all is target versatility. The scenario we want to avoid is one in which we have to plug in Mets-like batters at multiple positions. So that means being in on guys like Zobrist (for all his allegedly down offense, he's sporting a 118 WRC+ ) or Brock Holt, to begin with. I would trade for Danny Espinosa if he wasn't already on the team. In the OF, we want guys who can play all three positions, not just the corners--Carlos Gomez, for example, or if the Diamondbacks left some of Towers's stupidity lying around the office, maybe A.J. Pollock. It's likely that between Span, Werth, and Taylor, we can get one functional or even above-average OF spot, but I don't believe we can fill two with any confidence. In the infield, again, versatility would be key. At the least, we want someone who can play 2B and 3B or 2B and SS.

1B is at the same time my position of most and least worry. There are options there already: Robinson has been one of the genuinely productive guys, Zim is coming back (and at least was fielding very well when he was healthy), Moore can play there, and if we upgrade the OF we can try Werth there, plus Espinosa has already played there a few times this season when we were desperate. That's a lot of cards in the hand. On the other hand, Robinson may be a mirage, Zim is the injured regular who I think is least likely to hit effectively on his return (plantar fascitis being that kind of thing), Werth wasn't hitting before and learning 1B probably wouldn't help, we'll probably need Espi at one of the other infield spots, and Tyler Moore is the guy we're trying to not have to play via all this rosterbation. But overall, unless Rizzo has blackmail pictures that can get Paul Goldschmidt away from the D-backs, upgrading 1B should not be a priority; I'd put getting a bullpen arm or two over that. Similarly, while catcher needs improvement, I doubt there'd be one on the market that would actually *be* an improvement.

But ultimately, versatility is the key. Barring the miracle acquisition of a genuine star player for way too little cost, what I want Rizzo to try to acquire is a position player (or two) who's reliably above-average that we can count on being somewhere in the lineup regardless of which of the question marks (Rendon, Span, Werth, Zim, Yuney, Robinson, Desmond, Taylor) turn out positive and which bust.

I would consider Giolito, Turner, and Ross (especially if Ross actually stays in the rotation, of course!) off-limits in these kind of trade talks.

Donald said...

I agree with John C. I understand where Harper is coming from in the sense that adding better players should improve a team's chances at winning. So if you want to win now, you should add the best players now. But in a given series, I just don't see that really tipping the scale. And if you do believe that winning the WS is something of a crap shoot, then you maximize your changes by getting to roll the dice as often as possible.

That being said, I think the team could certainly stand to add a bullpen arm. But it's fairly clear that Rizzo doesn't value relievers all that much so I don't see him giving up a prime prospect for that.

@Anon -- I don't think fans are concerned so much over the supposed motivations of the GM. They want to see a good team on the field. If the team is good and competitive, the fans will show up. No fan on a play-off bound team would stop watching just because the GM didn't make a trade deadline deal. It's when the team sucks that fans turn away. That can be due to a GM rebuilding for the future, or getting stuck living with the 'win now' decisions of the past (see: Phillies, Tigers).

Robot said...

Replace the manager with someone who understands bullpen usage

Bjd1207 said...

Thanks for the response Dezo.

You're targeting of Zobrist makes a lot sense now that you lay it out. I'm still not convinced we'd have anywhere to put an outfielder if we got one, but if we got another utility guy like Zobrist that could push Desi (unless he's resurrected) out of the every day lineup then we could be in business. If Zim still stinks we can keep Robinson at 1b, if Zim's half-way decent then Rob can split time with Werth in LF.

Also enticing about Zobrist is the history of deals we have with the A's and the fact that Clippard is on the block too. Rizzo/Beane could get together to shore up two of our holes, and Beane seems more than willing to take talent that's a ways off (from Kazmir deal). So something like Reynaldo Lopez and Difo could pry away Zobrist/Clip? Maybe another AA or High A guy thrown in from our side?

Bote Man said...

Clippard is toast. He needs butter and strawberry jam more than a spot on an MLB roster these days.

Anonymous said...

Trade difo + cole for kimbrel. Padres would do it?

blovy8 said...

The team Beane constructed in Oakland has outscored it's opposition by plenty and is still way out of the playoff picture. What's the guy supposed to do? I think they're about 10 games off their Pythagorean record, which would have put them right in the thick of the wildcard race, if life were fair for him.

I'm not excited by Zobrist or any realistic targets out there. If we go out of the playoffs in the first round again and Desmond goes 2 for 20, I'm not really going to feel like the extra two walks Zobrist might have gotten will be the difference. The club really misses Stammen and his versatility more than needing Zobrist's. A RH reliever should be possible with little pain involved, but I'm kind of worried about what they'll settle for - I think the Kimbrel salary would makes a further deal necessary even if you think Rizzo would be willing to dump some future pieces. Cole is hurt right now and was struggling in Syracuse, so I also wonder if you could get anyone excited about him. The Cabrera deal last year was free for the Nats, for instance. I agree that F-Rod is probably a good target, but they're probably gonna balk at the 2016 salary.

The team would be better off investing in bubble wrap for the guys we already have.

Anonymous said...

@BJD and Dezo - While I like Zorbist a lot, I don't necessarily think the infield backup is that necessary given (a) when at full strength we already have 4 starting caliber infielders (yay Espi revival and hopefully Desi!)and (b) September means Turner will become the 5th member of that cohort. I see Lopez and Turner filling two needs (long relief and Infield depth) in a month.

I'm more considered about finding a power bat that can hit for average, a la Zimmerman at his peak. The OF is in dire need of depth without a good replacement in the farm. MAT has been clutch for sure, but right now the stats indicate that Taylor is more Bernadina than Span, and all the other backups are more deadweight, barring Espinosa going out there. I imagine for a shallower price (Difo and a throw in arm maybe?) we can get Cespedes .291 avg, .810 OPS and 14hrs for less than it would cost to get Zorbist and his .254/.759 and 5hrs. Granted, Zorbist is a walk machine and Cespedes Ks a lot more, but other than that I don't see an advantage for Zorbist unless you really think we'll lose 3/5 starting non-1b infielders in September.

In truth A season rewards players like Zorbist who constantly perform aover average, but the playoffs are about players who can really overpower another team when they turn it on, and of the options mentioned only Cespedes (and Chapman) have that ability.

Bjd1207 said...

Zuckerman tweeted that 2 Reds scouts will be watching Fedde pitch tonight. If we get chapman I'm gonna be over the moon. And similar to the Clippard/Zobrist thing is Bruce/Chapman too pie in the sky? I think I'm getting about 12 steps ahead of myself

SM said...

The Reds may have been scouting Fedde, but the guy they really want on that Auburn squad is Victor Robles.

blovy8 said...

MLB Trade Rumors says the asking price on Chapman is "exorbitant". That sounds like a lot more than Fedde from the Nats. The guy is making 8 million this year and eight figures next season in arbitration. I seriously doubt the bullpen is where they're looking to add payroll. They could probably get Papelbon for peanuts with money thrown in and have their viable alternate closer. Not that I like the guy, but he's been effective.

Bjd1207 said...

I think Pap already hit his vesting option so he's $13M for this year and $13M for next. But would probably draw less in prospects than Chapman.

But payroll-wise Chap would be slightly cheaper I think (unless as you say the Phils foot some of the bill for Pap)

Unknown said...

Their idiot is doing as well as our best pitcher. I know the answer, Randy... clearly we must counter with an idiot. Who is the worst, stupidest idiot we have? Yes, perfect.

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Mattyice said...

Mets strike first - added Uribe and Johnson from the Braves. Does Rizzo hold tight and hope that the recent edition of desi is more than a flash in the pan? If desi stays hot and one of span, rendon, Werth, or Zim plays well I think we still win the east without any additions.

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Zimmerman11 said...

Dodged a bullet with Escobar... and Rendon is back hopefully for more than 10 games or so this time... but Ian has started to turn it around the last week. Does MW have a decision to make now that Ian's heating up?

Maybe getting all the bench bats lots of playing time will turn out to be a good thing... and maybe giving the old codgers some days off down the stretch will pay dividends (assuming we can put a little room between us and the Mets).

Nervous about Jayson Stark tweeting out "if the Nats make a move, it will be a Big One". MLB trade rumors has Nats in on Paps, Kimbrel, and Chapman. And hopeful the Mets' big move is getting Kelly Johnson and they don't go making moves tryin' to win this season.

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