Nationals Baseball: Down goes Giolito!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Down goes Giolito!

Lucas Giolito was sent down yesterday.  Almost no one seems to think he couldn't pitch in the majors right now, but Rizzo says he needs to work on nuance.


Basically Lucas Giolito is being held down because it makes fiscal sense to do so, and it can be justified in a practical sense.

Fiscally, Lucas Giolito's future arbitration and free agency targets are at stake. I won't bore with exact details, but suffice to say how much money the Nats would need to spend on Giolito over his first decade of playing changes dramatically based on service time and service time is measured in pretty standard ways. Delay Lucas until the end of April and you push back his FA a year. Delay Lucas until the middle of June and you (likely) push back his arbitration a year. Delay Lucas until September and you can work his debut in 2017 in a way to delay these things one more time. Given that Lucas is likely to be good relatively quickly, a year of arbitration is worth millions and his FA cost would be 10s of millions. It's fiscally responsible to hold Lucas down.

Of course that's only true though if it doesn't hurt the product on the field, as a winning team drives more revenue (given the sunk cost of salaries already agreed upon). And it very well won't hurt the product on the field in 2016. The Nats have three long time starters who are at least good in Scherzer, Gio, and Stras. They have a fourth starter, Ross, who in 70 innings last year was also good, making a shift back to the minors unreasonable. And their supposed fifth starter, Roark, was good two years ago, when he was allowed to start full-time, and is a fair bet to be good again. The Nats might have 5 good starters. What else do you need? It's true Giolito should be better than Roark and Gio and Ross, but he's a wild card, especially in his first year. He could be worse than all 5 in 2016, so why push it?

Also Giolito didn't exactly dominate AA last year. 3.80 ERA. 48 hits in 47 innings. Strike outs down from over 10 to 8.6. Walks up from around 2.5 to over 3.0. It could be worthwhile to see that he handles AAA first, that he has that step up, before throwing him into the deep end. Remember Lucas may be as close to a sure thing as pitching prospects get, but he's still not a sure thing.

So the Nats can justify it and it will likely save them money. What's the downside?

Well there are two - if you click on the link you'll see the argument that Lucas is a ticking clock. At least according to what the Nats say, there is an expected post TJ life span for an arm and Lucas, who had his surgery YEARS ago (2012), is passing the half way point on that life span. You don't use him in the majors and you are wasting a precious year saving for an later "cheap" year that may never come because his arm might (and in the Nats mind, likely will) blow out again.

The second reason is if you believe that he's a better option than Roark (or Ross or Gio) then you are costing the team some level of success by going with someone else. How much? Who knows? But in a season where the gulf between good and the bad in the NL is as large as we've ever expected, it's not crazy that the Mets/Nats loser stays home. With that in mind every win matters and going with a B choice to save a buck could be the difference between playing baseball in October and playing golf.

I'm an all-in kind of guy but I do see the Nats position and it's the same position that makes spending about 20 million less than last year with the idea that it may be spent in-season (we pray) reasonable. It's smart. The cost of using Giolito in 2016 and the cost of spending on trades mid-season only kicks in if a certain situation is met. It only kicks in if the Nats are within striking distance of the Mets or vice versa come certain dates. While that is a likely scenario (both teams are good and there is a smaller number of games played by mid-June or mid July that makes being well ahead or well out harder) it is far from the only possible scenario. If the Nats are well-out for whatever reason - they don't have to bring Giolito up, they don't have to spend money on a trade. Same holds true for if they are well-up. So why spend the money now, or set Giolito in motion now, when there is say a 33% chance you won't have to do it at all? It's not smart.

Of course sports isn't about "smart", it's about winning. Fans don't care if abstractly what you are doing makes sense, if practically it means you aren't trying you're hardest to win. To keep the fans from turning, they are placated with the idea of wins today traded for wins tomorrow. That way the team appears to be primarily interested in winning, not costs.

We'll spend the money later. Giolito will be healthy and great for the Nats later. It's smart because of the success we are going to have later. Will they? Will he? Is it? As we've seen with the Strasburg shutdown, his subsequent injuries, and the two missed playoffs in 4 years with a team that was projected to win the division, there are no guarantees. They aren't trading anything. They are gambling and gambling in a way that's smart for them. Is it best for the fans? I don't think so, but it's an opinion question that is answered on a personal level and for most is usually "proved" by what takes place. Should Lucas Giolito have started the year with the Nats? Ask me in 6 months and I'll have the accepted answer.


blovy8 said...

While I agree that getting a lot of ML innings from Giolito is optimal, I think soft-pedaling him early on in the year is more easily done in the minors. Also, if you really aren't certain of your back end guys, the first two months would be a good time to figure that out. Do lefties still hammer Ross? Is Roark a 4.80 era pumpkin? Can Gio get through more than five innings a game? Well, that doesn't matter so much, he's got the job.

Also, there's the flexible nature of options for guys like Giolito, isn't there? They can bring him up and down and he won't have a lot of those pesky days of service time. What do you suppose his limit is, 160 innings? Maybe it's a good idea to have some of those left for September, at least, since a healthy and effective Joe Ross would be at the point of throwing more innings than he ever has before by then.

Markus said...

What are you thinking for the most likely arrival date? Any chance that he pushes an underperformer out of the rotation or is his call up more dependent on a starters injury?
Ultimately I think that if you are pushing arbitration back, its essentially useless (first round of arbitration can't be worth that much money, right?). I understand an extra year of control and think we should go for it, but the reason that pushing arbitration back is futile is because we would still be getting a (hopefully great) long year out a sub $600k player. If you are going to pay 5million a year for Nate McLouth, then paying a deserving home grown player an extra mil is so worth it for the message that you send them.

Harper said...

blovy8 - Sending him down can only really be framed as "bad for 2016" as opposed to "bad for future" and it's not even necessarily clear that it's bad for 2016. As you go through LOTS of ways to justify it. Of course you ask me and I say at this point put the best 25 out there and let's go. And I think he's one of the 25.

Markus - I think September call-up, maybe. I think they'll start him in Harrisburg first to help extend his time down there. Raise him to Syracuse no later than mid-season and get him to ~140 IP this season. September call-up depends on how he'd fit into Nats at that time and where he is on the 140. Earlier is dependent on both him being undeniable and there being a place for him. If he's dominating AAA but they've got 5 guys under 3.75 ERA in the rotation they won't bring him up.

Money is money. They traded Blevins for basically asking for 10s of thousands more than they wanted to give. They won't consider a few million cheap. And in the end - they know the "message" sent ultimately is how much you offer them when they hit FA.

John C. said...

Well, surprisingly, I disagree with several of the central premises of this post.

"Of course sports isn't about 'smart', it's about winning. Fans don't care if abstractly what you are doing makes sense, if practically it means you aren't trying you're hardest to win. To keep the fans from turning, they are placated with the idea of wins today traded for wins tomorrow. That way the team appears to be primarily interested in winning, not costs."

It's not placating at all - smart is smart, and maximizing your chance to win doesn't necessarily mean maximizing your chance to win RIGHT NOW. I want the organization that I root for to BE smart. Putting all your eggs into one basket leads to teams like last year's Marlins, Padres and Red Sox. They were the offseason darlings, and all of them finished with worse records than a battered, snakebit, poorly managed Nationals team. Commenters love "all in" because it's urgent, it's exciting, it generates clicks. The Padres went all in in a big way, crapped out, and now are facing a long slow climb out of the hole that they dug. Do you think that makes Padres' fans happy? Do you think they care about their GM making moves like trading away Ross and Turner (thanks, Mr. Pressler!) to push for the 2015 playoffs?

"As we've seen with the Strasburg shutdown, his subsequent injuries, and the two missed playoffs in 4 years with a team that was projected to win the division, there are no guarantees."

This is really a jumble of stuff thrown together. Arguably the Strasburg shutdown worked. Last year was the first time that he had meaningful injury issues since his TJ surgery in 2010; in 2013 and 2014 he averaged 30 starts and about 200 innings a season. Compare that with Kris Medlen. What the "there are no guarantees" crowd never seems to acknowledge is that there are no guarantees with going all in. Again, ask the Padres about that. Or to use a Nats example, it's hard to see in 2012 how having Strasburg would have helped in the NLDS, because the guy who replaced him (Detwiler) had his biggest shining moment as a Nat and delivered the best pitching performance of any Nats starter.

As for Giolito, his performance in AA last year gives more than enough reason to be concerned that throwing him into the MLB level would generate no better results than Ross or Roark. Remember Ben McDonald? David Clyde? Todd van Poppel? It's not only sensible in the long term to look out for Giolito's development, it's easily arguable that it's sensible in the short term as well. Giolito is getting a lot of buzz. If the buzz is justified, then he'll be in DC soon enough. If it's not the Nationals will have avoided shooting both themselves and Giolito in the foot.

Old Man River said...

^^ Love this post - very well said John C.

Mythra said...

While I believe Giolito to be a future All Star, I'm in the camp that says let him make Rizzo call his number. Same advice for Turner. Play lights out in AAA. Make ESPN and the other talking heads ask Rizzo a million times why those 2 aren't in the Show. Yes, having Giolito, Harper and Turner as cornerstones for the next 3-4 seasons to build around is hopefully going to be great to watch. I personally think Strasburg was rushed to the Bigs and only really learned to pitch the last few seasons. He just learned to hold runners last season before the injuries, after all. Talent is great and will always be in demand. Talent that can do all the fundamentals well is usually only forged by time spent learning the game and riding buses in the minors.

Anonymous said...

Going all-in is still gambling. In fact, any plan is a gamble. Pick the one with the highest chance of working and go.

Harper said...

John C - there are obviously more thoughtful fans, like you, who appreciate the Nats approach as is. Try to win enough games every year to get into the playoffs, thus increasing odds of winning series by increasing number of chances. It's a long term strategy that also fits nicely in with a a team not looking to max out budget (which is honestly like 25+ of the 30 teams). That's why at the end I say "Is it best for the fans?'s an opinion question that is answered on a personal level" You may think like this. I was for the Strasburg shutdown for essentially the same reason.

I also imagine you understand while the odds are better, you are trading in one unknown (creating best Nats team for NOW - make playoffs - win) for another (getting the Nats in the playoffs over and over - win). I think most fans want to win now and would be angry if the team said something that vague and ill-defined, that you are probably sacrificing winning now for maybe winning later. Hence "placate"

As for the "all-in" teams. I can selectively pick-out teams to prove my side too. The general points remain the same. "All-in" generally leads to more talent which usually leads to more wins which leads to marginally better odds to win WS in this season. However the key words there are "generally", "usually" and "marginally". Things can go wrong and even if they don't the odds don't increase that much. but they do increase.

I'd say the real central premise of the post is the end. In sports, right and wrong is decided by results, as unfair as that may be. The Padres fans aren't unhappy because the team went all in. They are unhappy because the team went all in and lost. They would also be unhappy if the team didn't go all in and lost, even if they future was brighter. They would simply be more hopeful.

We see this in your very own shutdown comment - The shutdown worked, you say, because he pitched well and generally healthy for the next few years. But do we know it was the shutdown? No, not at all. He might have done the same without being shutdown. But those that like the shutdown claim it was right because look at the results. Another crowd might claim the shutdown didn't work because the Nats haven't won anything yet because of, or with, Strasburg, which was the ultimate goal. For them the results, the Nats didn't win, proves it was wrong (we also have no idea how Strasburg pitching would have changed the 2012 playoffs - it is far too simple to say Detwiler pitched well in his place therefore no impact)

With this team I like gambling for the now as opposed with for the future. I was more gung-ho about the 2012 Nats future which is why I felt a shutdown was appropriate. But looking back I don't think I appreciate how very variable future success is. That added to the fact that I'm less inclined to like the 2016 Nats future, makes me more inclined to ask the team to go "all-in" at the very least in ways that don't mortgage the future. Like trying Giolito in the rotation (he can be sent back down) or adding more FAs (assuming they have a higher payroll ceiling then we've seen - which as you know I argue all teams should)

Bjd1207 said...

@John C - Spectacular post. 100% agree with your position with fans that really follow the team through thick and thin. They want to see reasoned, calculated decisions that are consistent with an overarching goal (going for a pennant, restocking for the future, etc.)

Only other contribution I have is on Giolito specifically. I read somewhere in the dozen or so articles about him the past month that while he was in Double A the Nats development staff wouldn't allow him to throw his curve alot of the time. They wanted him to focus on fastball command and developing his change-up so he wasn't allowed to throw the curve (his most comfortable out-pitch) at all for alot of the games.

That's not to say he doesn't need more time to get the entire arsenal working in AA/AAA this year, I still think that's a sound strategy. But I think it mitigates the importance of the performance stats coming out of his AA stretch (higher era, lower K/9)

Dmitri Young said...

Interesting debate. I think everyone basically agrees on the micro issue here: it makes sense to send Giolito down to preserve another season of team control. As with anything, there are tons of unknowables and we'll see if we think it's as good a decision down the road. On balance, one thing we do know for now - that holding him down will get the Nats another year of team control - outweighs the other knowns and reasonable assessments of unknowns. Depending on his development, injuries, and performance of current rotations, maybe the calculus changes during the year.

On the macro level, I think all people who think about sports and baseball want their team to be smart and have a plan for current and future success. In baseball, I believe building a team that has a chance to win the division every year gives you the best chance of winning a World Series when the balls bounce your way... BUT, I am not taking Rizzo or the Lerner's word that move X is appropriately calculated to do that without at least a few grains of salt.

Both the Lerners and Rizzo benefit from the team not making aggressive "all-in" or "more-in moves", as doing so saves the team money in the short term and allows Rizzo to survive bouts of poor results by pointing to the process. In the analytics era, young, cost-controlled picks or players are becoming valued over better players now. Like Bryce Harper said, a pick at the end of the first round was not better than a season or two of Ian Desmond at reasonable annual salary. I think most executives in baseball would agree. However, the pick is better than Ian for the GM who can push off judgment on the results of his moves for several years of paychecks instead of being judged in the middle of the next June.

I'm pretty happy with the Lerners and am definitely happy with Rizzo. It's just that after considering Harper's position, seeing the Nats inflexibility at the 2015 trading deadline, and listening to the Lerner's bellyaching this offseason about payroll, I am not going to zealously care about their bottom line. I say err on the side of near-term success within reason and let them spend their way out of whatever mistakes we make if doing so can continue the success.

SM said...

I suspect that one can forge, fold, layer and hammer this argument like a katana swordsmith, non-stop, forever and a day, and never complete it with any degree of satisfaction. A fascinating and compelling give-and-take.

But for those advocating more time in the minors (and on the buses) for Giolito, I would ask this: Would the Nationals have been better off as a team if Bryce Harper had spent another year in the minors?

Jay said...

I agree with SM. I say let him stay in the minors till the end of April (like Harper did). If he's doing great and the team needs a starter or a shot in the proverbial arm then bring him up. Rizzo has shown that he is willing to bring people up if he thinks they will help - Ross last year, Rendon, Harper. We'll see what happens.

DezoPenguin said...

@JohnC: While I happen to agree with your conclusions about Giolito and about the Nats taking the long approach, I would note that the major problem with the Padres' moves last offseason was that they didn't look very sensible on their face--trusting Kemp to bounce back, trusting that Meyers could play center, trusting that Shields would be worth the money, giving up players like Ross and Turner.

@SM: A variant of the same response--obviously, Harper coming up in 2012 was key for the Nationals, but that's because the outfield had a complete meltdown (Morse taking over at 1B for LaRoche, Werth getting hurt), leaving us with either calling up Harper or signing sub-replacement-level players. I mean, we spent several months with Rick Ankiel as our CF (albeit with some exciting plays).

This debate is different--we have three players, two spots, and no idea which two are going to the best. Was Ross's 2015 for real, and can he handle the innings load? Can Roark pitch like 2014 again, or has he permanently turned into a fifth-starter pumpkin? Is Giolito ready for the majors, or does he still need some seasoning? All three have significant upside, and significant risks.

But I still think Rizzo is making the best move. Start with Giolito in the minors, and if Ross and Roark pitch well, then he can stay there and preserve a service year, and we still have him ready to fill in for injury (or Ross running out of gas) later in the season. If Ross or Roark (please not both!) backslide, then Rizzo can still bring Giolito up and try him instead.

Flapjack said...

Agreed, Lucas has done nothing in the Grapefruit League to undermine his case for starting now. But Ross and Roark have, as well. The only SP who hasn't is Gio (earning him the season's second start -- a vote of non-confidence). But hey it's spring. And do we really want an all righty staff?

As for going all-in, I imagine that if the Nats, not the Mets, had signed Cespedes last year, the mood here would be brighter. I can see why Rizzo played out his hand, though. (Who knew that Scherzer would hit a dead spot or that Span would never come back? Or that Rendon would struggle?)

As for the win-now-because-the-future-ain't-necessarily-so-great argument, I think this deserves a whole nother column. I'm with Boswell. I see the farm system as strong. Perhaps it's just wishful thinking on my part, because I so dread the prospect of going through another blow-up-rebuild cycle in order to improve our drafting position and accumulate other teams' prospects (a scenario in which Rizzo also goes). I think we all know what needs to go right.

The cumulative result in spring training tells me that this team has plenty of pop and pitching to contend. The questions are few and the answers, should we need them, are at hand. If we do need that next gen, and they don't produce, then we panic.

John C. said...

Harper, to be fair, I said "arguably" the shutdown worked. I freely acknowledge the existence of variables that make causation uncertain.

I think that the Nats are being aggressive, but they have their lines that they won't go past in terms of cost. They were in on several free agents, but ultimately stepped back when other teams made more valuable offers that the Nationals were not willing to match. Given the MASN mess, I'm pretty happy with the amount of money the team is willing to spend. I know that other people aren't, and would rather that the Lerners went all Mike Ilitch with the Nationals. Well, Ilitch has as many championships as the Lerners do over the last ten years, and he also has an aging roster of overpaid stars and a crappy farm system. As you say, results.

I guess one area that I am different from many (not all) fans is that I tend to give the team/GM/manager a pass as long as I can understand the argument for the way that they are doing something, even if it's not what I think that I would do in their shoes. Because I acknowledge that there's a chance that they're right and I'm wrong. A chance enhanced by the fact that they have a lot more resources and a lot more knowledge to bring to the decisions that they are making.

Nine days to Opening Day ...

JE34 said...

Sometime this season, there will be an opportunity to bring up a starter from the minors to handle part of a day/night doubleheader that results from inclement weather. That'll be when we see our boy Lucas, unless one of the 5 in the rotation gets hurt or underwhelms badly in the first few months of the season. Nice position to be in.

And if it happens at home, it'll sell a few more tickets than AJ Cole or Taylor Jordan did.

Chinatown Express said...

Unrelated: Fangraphs says MAT will have a lower slugging % than Revere. That seems crazy on its face, right?

DezoPenguin said...

Tyler Moore waived! Could Harper's long National nightmare be over?

(...okay, I just had to make the pun)

Anonymous said...

How have we gone so long without a celebratory post from Harper about this?