Nationals Baseball: Monday Quickie - Not a threat but unable to be dismissed

Monday, March 12, 2018

Monday Quickie - Not a threat but unable to be dismissed

The Phillies signed Jake Arrieta.  We've talked before about how the Phillies are setting up a playoff team for 2019. Before yesterday they had a player 26 or younger at six out of eight offensive positions and potentially at 4 out of  5 rotation spots that they would use 2018 to evaluate*. They have a lot of payroll room even after Carlos Santana signed, that they would attack the deep 2019 free agent market with. If things broke as expected they should be a playoff contender, and if things broke right they could be a division dominator for a few years.

There was one potential cause for concern though. While the Phillies had 4 (or more) young arms they could evaluate this year, these weren't necessarily highly thought of arms. Guys like Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively, and Zach Eflin would be lucky to end up reliable back of the rotation arms. The more talented arms of Jared Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez could be special but are beginning to age into "they are what they are" territory. This wouldn't be too big an issue, you evaluate then spend money to fix, if next year's FA class had an abundance of pitchers. But it doesn't for sure.

Now it could. It could have Clayton Kershaw and David Price but more likely you are looking at a class headlined by the likes of Drew Pomeranz and Gio Gonzalez. These are decent arms. Maybe even guys you can pass off as #2s, but they aren't rotation fixes. So if the Phillies wanted to ensure the rotation would be in 2019 they needed to make a move this year, while a decent class of FA pitching sat out there, passed over by the usual suspects.

The Phillies did it - they signed Jake Arrieta. They now have a front of the line pitcher for the next couple of years, who along with Aaron Nola (who is actually very good) should give the Phillies a respectable 1-2 and a much better chance of filling in a playoff caliber rotation.

The contract is a three year deal... sort of.  30, 25, 20 million guaranteed. Jake can walk after 2 if he chooses UNLESS before the end of that season the Phillies exercise an option to keep Jake for two years past this end date (at a probable 25 per minimum).  The way this contract should be seen is that if Jake is terrible in year 1 and/or 2 the Phillies have an out after three years. If Jake is good or better, he likely gets a contract similar to what he wanted to get. If Jake is ok... he likely gets a chance to pick another team to move forward with after 2 years.

OK enough with the abstract.

How good is Jake? 
 He's good but all the trends were  going the wrong way the last couple years. That wasn't so much as issue in 2016 when you were starting from 2015's Cy Young season, but in 2017 it got kind of problematic. His FB speed is dropping, so the hits are going up along with the home runs. He seems to be able though to work through things better than in his youth, so a total meltdown would be a surprise. But he was basically the pitcher you saw last year.  He's still young enough to believe he can get back to what he was. He is also coming off a much stronger second half of 2017.  Still prevailing wisdom would put him at basically the pitcher he was in 2017 until he proves otherwise. This makes him not an ace, but a #2 behind Nola. Don't dismiss the importance of this though. When you add a pitcher to the rotation you kick off a #5. The difference between that player kicked off and the player put in can be huge. In this case you are likely leaving off a AAAA pitcher and replacing him with a solid #2. That's worth 2-3 wins at least.

How good are the Phillies?
Probably .500 good, with a chance to be WC good if they catch some breaks (or sign Alex Cobb). Their pitching wasn't as bad as you might think for being ranked 10th in the NL. There was some solid pen work, which they've bolstered through FA. They were as close to league average as 11th. I'd expect, with the improvements made and with general aging, for the group to be slightly above average in 2018, and there is better chance for a big improvement as it would only take one of Velasquez/Eickhoff to "get it" to fill in with a better than average #3 and one of Eflin, Pivetta, Lively to "get it" to follow with a better than average #4.

On the flip side the offense wasn't as good as you might think as they were an honest 12th and clearly behind even the 11th team. As they'll be basically starting young players all around there is a decent chance that they'll struggle to score again. Alfaro (C) and Crawford (SS) have lost some luster. Franco has lost his way. And the OF is full of B-level prospects (and I'm including Rhys Hoskins).  It's not that one or two of these guys may not succeed long term, maybe even break out. However, a couple of stars being found in this group seems unlikely as of today. Instead this group is likely to produce one very good player, a couple of good players, and be the foundation for whatever FA they sign next year. I'd expect an improved offense but one that lingers below average. The variability of it though is wild.

The other thing to consider with the Phillies moving forward is they do have a couple more legit prospects in the pipeline with Sixto Sanchez (think a pitching prospect somewhere between a Robles and a Soto) and Scott Kingery (college ball guy looking to be the next Utley) and a decent group beyond that so that the spigot isn't suddenly turned off after 2018.

I see a squad that should have a rotation that rounds into form in 2018 and a line-up that figures out where the holes are at the same time. The sooner these things come together the more of a threat the Phillies will be, because they should be able to deal for a guy like Machado down the stretch (assuming they believe this means a long-term signing to follow).  For now, see the Phillies as a team not to be dismissed. They should bounce around .500 and ultimately fall out of the playoff race in September as better teams make stronger moves. However, a fast start by them and a slow start by the Nats would make the season a lot more interesting. The Nats should be solidly 10-15 games better than the Phillies, so falling back by 5-10 early could mean a season of playing catch-up.

*And the non Carlos Santana players listed here are 27 and 28 this upcoming year.


Ole PBN said...

I really feel like in today's baseball climate, teams are willing to tank for a handful for years, to then accumulate draft picks and save money for a handful of years of prosperity. You see with this teams like KC, CLE, PHI, PIT, SF, HOU. The crucial part of this philosophy is when you do make that leap to being relevant, with your once-prospects now-turned starters, you better make the most of it. So far, Houston absolutely capitalized going essentially 1-1, making it all the way on the first try. This won't last forever, just as the Phillies dominance 10 years ago eventually faded. But it's knocking on the door again for them. On the flip side, teams like BOS, NYY, and LAD can survive the ebb and flow of young talent with deep pockets, acquiring FA's to stay afloat in the top-tier of their respective divisions. But everyone else it seems needs to find another way. The Nat's being one of them. Not to be all doom and gloom, but we really... and I mean REALLY squandered incredible opportunities to make a run from 2012-2017.

I know that reality isn't lost on anyone in this thread, but because the future is so uncertain, who knows what this franchise will become. I could see a team that slips into 2nd/3rd place within the next 3-5 years, therefore giving the Lerner's an excuse to cut ties with the man who brought them to greatness to begin with (Rizzo). Then they become synonymous with DC sports lore. I hope I'm wrong.

Jay said...

I have to say I feel like the Lerner family holds themselves to a different standard than everyone else associated with the Nats. They didn't bring Dusty back bc he didn't win in the playoffs. Yet they bring back essentially the same team. If anyone in the rotation gets hurt for any extended period of time it is going to get ugly quickly. They haven't signed Rizzo to an extension I guess in part because the Nats haven't won in the playoffs. Yet they don't listen to Rizzo. Last year he was set to sign Holland and trade for Robertson. Instead we went with Blake Treinen as the closer. We saw how long that lasted. Year after year it seems the Lerner family does just enough but never any more than that. They cut corners on scouting expenses and other smaller things. They signed Scherzer and Strasburg which was great. I just wish they would listen to their baseball people and stay out of the way. Oh well.

Still seeking a real catchet said...

I consider it baseball criminal negligence that Jonathan Lucroy could have been had for $6.5 million, and the Nats didn’t take advantage of it (and neither did any other contenders).

Yes, history is full of bad contracts for veterans, but teams are overcorecting WAY too far in the opposite direction now. This is insane.

Chas R said...

The National League Least is certainly looking a lot stronger these days with the Phillies and Braves getting close and the moves the Mets made this year. Of course, the Marlins are likely to be MLB's punching bag for years to come.

sirc said...

I want the NL East to get better. It will be better this season than last, but next year both the Braves and Phils should be fighting fit, assuming that they both part with cash to bolster their chances.

Why is it when fans and pundits reference tanking to rebuild examples they rarely mention our Nationals? As success stories go, the Cubs and Astros have had greater ultimate success but the Nats' results have also been excellent.

Ole PBN said...

I think its because we never really "tanked" in the sense that some of the other teams did. A fall from prominence only to rise again. The Nats, when they came to DC, were cellar dwellers and remained that way until 2011. An impressive rise nonetheless. As Drake used to say: "started at the bottom, now we here." (fyi I'm a little embarrassed by that reference, but couldn't resist the opportunity)

sirc said...

I remember it differently. The Nats were good the year they arrived and were in first place at the all star break only to fade and finish in distant second to the Braves, but still a .500 club. They added the following winter, still under MLB control, and had a terrible season.

They added Soriano the following winter, then the Lerners bought the team. In the wake of the Dominican fiasco, Rizzo was promoted and a genuine tear-down happened. Rizzo signed a few free agents and flipped them for youngins, all while ensuring that the team was in position to draft 2 generational talents with first picks.

They stayed bad while waiting to see who of the youngins would stick, and waiting for their string of top prospects to reach the Majors.

That feels like a tear down and rebuild, by design, to me.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Arrieta, you say, "This makes him not an ace, but a #2 behind Nola." I realize you are talking in the context of how he improves the Phillies pen, but I don't recall you being so high on him in earlier posts, specifically as it relates to the Nats trying to pick him up. Is it because the contract he signed is more 'reasonable' than what was anticipated it would cost to get him?

Anonymous said...

Do you think that the slow FA market will continue next year apart from the supserstar talent or was this more of a one-time thing due to a number of factors? E.g. will Lance Lynn sign another 1 year deal next year or is it more likely he then signs for a longer term deal?

sirc said...

4 million for Neil Walker seems like a good deal. Danny Espinosa was the casualty of that signing. The Yankees are pretty scary.

DezoPenguin said...

Harper, I think you are way higher on the Phillies and Arietta than most. For example, a quick glance at Fangraphs suggests that Steamer projects him at 3.1 fWAR and ZiPS at 2.7. Meanwhile, those systems project Gio for 2.6/3.0 and Tanner for 2.1/2.2 (note that Fangraphs WAR doesn't much like Tanner; even in his good 2014 and 2016 seasons his FIP was about a run above his ERA).

I mean, would we be saying that the Phillies added a real #2 behind Nola if they'd signed Gio for 3/$75M? Yet by the numbers, they're surprisingly similar. Especially if you believe Arietta's ascending HR/FB% trend is an issue (pitching in Philly certainly won't help that).

Likewise, Fangraphs has the Phillies' projected standings *after* the Arietta signing at 75-87. Mind you, those kind of projections have broad error curves, but that's still "roughly .500 is the upside" not the expectation.

I'm not arguing that he doesn't improve their team; on the contrary, I think he was a good signing for them (though not so much the third-year opt-out). But unless a *lot* breaks right for them, I think they'll be fighting the Braves for third place all year.

Josh Higham said...

Yeah, like Dezo and Anon (12:02), I'm curious about characterizing Arrieta as a #2. Because the Phillies rotation is so weak, he is their #2, but his similarities to the Nats' strong but not "playoff worthy" 3 and 4 cannot be overstated, especially with his recent homer bug.

KW said...

On a scale of 0 to 10, my concern about the Phils right now is about 0.5. Between Arrieta and Santana, they're spending $43.33 this year. For that amount, they could have had Lynn, Cobb, Moose, Neil Walker, Lucroy, and probably more. The signing of Arrieta was an attention-grabbing move, but not an intelligent one. It also wasn't smart for a rebuilding team to give up the draft picks and international bonus money.

Oh well, I'm all for the other teams in the division continuing to make dumb moves!

Anonymous said...

^^ Perfectly stated. Thank you.

blovy8 said...

Arrieta's not taking a spot of anyone who deserves it, and they have the money, so why not? The guy who has a bit of a beef would be Tommy Joseph. He might have to go to Japan in this market. Anyone who can throw the ball halfway decent will find work regardless of what Arrieta makes.