Nationals Baseball: How did they get here - Part 2

Friday, May 24, 2013

How did they get here - Part 2

It's easy enough to dismiss most of what has happened this year to bad luck or at least things out of the team's control. Werth's injury. Ramos' injury. La Roche starting slow. Gio starting slow. Some back-end bullpen blowouts from guys you trusted fully.  Even Espinosa, the current punching bag of the fans, who out there wouldn't have had him start the season and play at least a month, if not more? How can you blame a management when it's putting a team everyone thought was great out there and it doesn't perform.

But this ignores the fact that the team did take gambles during the off-season.  They were minor gambles, seemingly pretty innocuous at the time, but they've all blown up in the Nats faces and contributed a fair amount to the struggles up to this point.

The signing of Dan Haren was the first gamble. On another team this would have been a bigger deal, but on the Nats, with 3 rotation guys who were expected to be good to very good and Detwiler looking like a fine back of the rotation guy, Haren didn't have to be great. He merely needed to be ok and eat up innings. He did battle an injury last year, but he seemed to pull through it and get stronger as the year went on. If he was right, he could be fantastic moving from the AL to the NL. Edwin Jackson, who filled this role last year, wanted a big contract and proved to be unreliable, so why not take a chance on a guy that might end up giving you one of the best rotations of all-time?

The problem though was depth. In that the Nats have none with starting pitching. Edwin Jackson was a machine went brought in for this role. He had no significant injury history in the past 4+ years and was only 28.  Haren on the other hand had just battled injury and was going to be 32 and that's less reliable.  If you didn't want to dip into your AAA pitching because it wasn't very good, then bringing in Haren was not the best move. Now it turns out he hasn't gotten injured, but he has given the Nats a performance very much like what they'd expect from a throw-away arm that would replace an injured Haren.Worse yet with a slow start from Gio and Stras not being dominant, the Haren issues meant more innings were needed from the front part of a pen which was a problem because of gamble #2.

The second gamble the Nats made was to cut out some of the middle reliever cost and set up a slightly unusual bullpen contstruction. Rizzo knows enough that a pen doesn't really need a lefty. If you have good enough pitchers they will get anyone out. For this reason he let Mike Gonzalez & Sean Burnett walk
to be replaced by Rafeal Soriano. With Soriano, Clippard, and Storen at the back end it presumably wouldn't matter who they faced because they'd get them out. This gamble worked out ok for the most part.

But then he also decided to roll with Zach Duke instead of Tom Gorzelanny to save a few dollars. While Gorzelanny had proved over the course of a couple grooming years that he was up to the job of middle relief, Duke had only one year post his last failed starter attempt and the results were mixed. Yes while up with the Nats he looked good, but the longer time he spent that year was in AAA and the stats are decidedly unimpressive. The other gamble he took was keeping H-Rod on the staff.  H-Rod had no defined role. He's just a live arm that is around because Rizzo is desperate to prove he didn't lose that Willingham deal. Maybe he'll develop, maybe not, but he's nothing to be relied on. Of course with a rotation and back-end of the pen like the Nats have, the two gambles would hardly matter, right?

Back to where we ended gamble #1 - Haren failed though, and Gio wasn't sharp and Stras wasn't going deep.  All of a sudden the Nats didn't need fewer bullpen innings they needed more. 20% more in April in comparison to 2012. Add in a couple of back-end blow-ups with Storen looking especially shaky, and you really do need all hands on deck. But Duke's shown he is that mediocre AAA arm that he looked like last year. And H-Rod remained an enigma. A guy you wanted to use when you are up a lot or down a lot just to see if he can get it, now had to be used when needed. He hasn't been as terrible as Duke but he hasn't done well and he's flirted with disaster enough times that you don't want to use him. The Nats pen went from strength to weakness in the blink of an eye. It's might have evened out with Strasburg and Gio doing better so Davey can pick and choose as he likes, but Ross got injured, leaving that Haren and "not Detwiler" spot as trouble. Hopefully when Detwiler comes back that'll help finally put the top back on this exploding soda bottle.

The third gamble was the worst one. Rizzo, bet hard on the bench. Last year Bernadina put up a career year. Tracy hit better than he had in years. Moore hit better than could ever had been expected looking at his minor league stats. Lombo basically maxed out initial expectations. Rather than see this as a lucky break that needed to be addressed, Rizzo doubled down. This was to be his bench. It would probably not be an issue. With Span replacing Morse, only Werth and Zimm had an injury history and both looked pretty healthy to end last year. The Nats might not even need the bench that much.

Whoops. Werth did get injured again (as one would expect at his age) and Danny, who looked injured at the end of last year, still looks injured. Zimm has predictably missed a few games (he will every year) and Bryce managed to bang himself up. It's not any more time, I bet, than last year with Morse being out a lot early and then Werth going down, but if Rizzo was hoping for fewer at bats from his bench he didn't get it. The bench in turn didn't only predictably regress, it crashed right past that. Bernadina is putting up the requisite worst year of his career to balance out the best one. Tracy isn't hitting at all. Moore is being exploited as badly as we thought he might based on his minor league numbers. Lombo is hitting like expected which is not exactly a good thing. They are the worst bench in the majors right now.

I've said before that if you are going to scrimp and save somewhere you do it at the edges. Your bench and your middle relief are the first two places to start. But as this season has indicated, you really don't want to scrimp and save anywhere if you want to be sure you will win. You don't know what will happen and you don't want a few bad performances or injuries to reveal your team's soft underbelly. This is why the best teams generally have the highest payrolls. Along with the superstars, they keep the Gorzelannys. They look at the OF situation and they sign a Reed Johnson or Scott Hairston and try to work it out. It doesn't mean that these moves will succeed (look at Hairston's numbers right now) but they try to get to the most wins, not the most wins per marginal dollar.

The Nats paid for this shortcut approach and a Haren gamble gone badly with a .500 record up to Memorial Day weekend. The Haren gamble may turn around, but the shortcuts will need to be addressed. Can it be done internally? Eury Perez? Anthony Rendon? Abad & Rosenbaum? Maybe. But that's a question Nats fans were hoping not to have in late May.


Erich said...

Good point about Gorzelanny's departure. It's been lost in the sorry state of the offense, but not having true 6th guy of the rotation out in the bullpen has been costly so far. But how many wins does Gorzelanny really bring over a year? One? Two? I guess it's just when these things start to add up.

Matt said...

Nothing to say, just awesome article Harper!

(And yeah, I know my enjoyment is irrelevant to soulless automotons).

Chas R said...

Good stuff Harper. The bench is clearly the biggest issue given the injuries we have suffered. I will never understand why we didn't keep Morse. Sure, it would have bene unfair to him to sit him on the bench, but he sure would have been getting plenty of playing time now. I really like Tyler Moore and Chad Tracy, but I would never have relied on them to contribute to a World Series contender.... definitely needed to upgrade there.

I think the hitting can be fixed internally though... unlike the pitching...

blovy8 said...

Well, while the bench scrimping is technically true in dollar amount, would you rather have another OF in his mid 30s no longer able to play well enough to start with established weaknesses and limitations, or a guy in his mid 20s who may become good enough to start and or who can perhaps make adjustments and at least have value to another team? Should we not have believed Bernadina's approach had improved and the switch had turned on for him somehow? Should we not have bought the power potential in 3 years of Moore's HR/FB stats, even with the K's and bad D?

I think it's the development mindset at work, more than a budget thing. That's Rizzo. If he's wrong, it won't be hard to get a guy like Jonny Gomes again, if that's what you want instead of Moore. You scout a guy, and see if he can play. You don't figure that out in a week, a month, or a several years sometimes.

Now, I've complained about not re-signing Burnett, and the guy has already visited the DL. Surely he's a bit of damaged goods, but he was a pretty solid character. Rizzo says he didn't want to give a reliever multiple years, but then goes and signs Soriano. I don't remember Burnett ripping a teammate when he threw a bad slider. He stood there and answered questions and said he needed to pitch better. The results are different when you don't have to get a particular guy out, but at least Burnett was a lefty that could get righties out. I don't see a LH reliever ready to to do that in the entire organization. Duke has been a disaster, but something was up with Gorzelanny, he barely pitched in September. Probably a story we'll never know about. There's a while to go, and time enough to make changes. But I bet Tracy's job as the first lefty off the bench would be a lot easier if he knew he was getting the sinker/slider RH guy instead of some lefty throwing a slider at him from 1st base where he might figure out his release point by the third game in the series.

I was pissed that they went into last year with OF they had, but that obviously worked out with guys doing better than expected and Harper up more quickly. The options I probably would have paid for like Fukodome sucked. That's as much of a dice roll as sticking with Moore for two months, or picking up the good part of Mike Gonzalez's year after all of baseball passed on him. Maybe forking out for a better 4th outfielder than Bernie would have been prudent, but if that were the case, they should have screwed Morse by keeping him and let Potomac have a worse staff. That's what teams going for it do, but we know that's not how Rizzo operates. Going for it to him means strengthening the organization, and trading for little pieces when you have to.
Do Reed Johnson and Gorzelanny make this a .600 club, I doubt it.

DezoPenguin said...


The point Harper's getting at is that you'd rather have better players, period. I don't know what you were looking at about Gorzo with regard to last year, but he didn't pitch like he was hurt and he certainly isn't pitching that way this year--everything in his track record says that he'd be a better player doing the exact same thing as Duke.

I can certainly see the point of some of the moves: taking Haren instead of EJax, keeping Bernie as 4-5 OF (if nothing else, his defense is as good as ever even this year), keeping Lombo as utility IF, maybe even keeping HRod around to see if he puts it together. And trading Morse made sense--as useful a guy as he was, you don't keep him around if you're not intending to play him as a starter, not at his price tag and with his limited skill set ("hitting for power").

It's bad luck that all of these fringe moves (except signing Haren--he's stayed healthy and whatever his pitching flaws he HAS pitched better than EJax!--and choosing LaRoche over Morse) have turned out badly. But some better personnel decisions could have better minimized the risk of having such a scenario happen (do we really need Tracy AND Moore on the same bench, even if they were both playing *well*? Neither one of them can do anything other than hit, except Tracy can play some 3B poorly but apparently not OF).

Chris said...

I do wish Eury had played more while he was up. I understand that you want to get try to get the regular bench guys going, but it would have been a nice opportunity to see if he has ability. Even if he'd been terrible, it would not have been much worse than we were getting from the guys who did play.

blovy8 said...

My point is, they had already stopped using Gorzelanny in favor of Duke. You don't pay 4 million in arbitration for a reliever your manager won't use. The guy wanted to be a starter, just as Morse wanted to play every day, so why come back here?

blovy8 said...

Yeah, in the dead air and big ballparks on the west coast, at least Perez's speed, if he got on, would help.

Donald said...

Good article, but it's maybe a bit too easy to criticize in hind-sight. The Nats starting depth is nil because they spent it to get Gio and Span. I don't begrudge either of those moves. An argument could be made that they should have stuck with Harper in CF and Morse in LF but with no Span and Werth getting hurt, who'd lead off? It'd probably be Espinosa and you can imagine how we'd be criticizing that turn of events.

If they hadn't signed Haren, who should they have picked? Maybe spend the 3 years on Lohse? There weren't a lot of 1 year options out there that seemed safer than Haren that I recall.

As for the pen, given how Storen has been doing, I'm actually glad they picked up Soriano, though he hasn't been great either. I think letting Burnett go was certainly understandable. I don't know how much Gorzelanny ended up getting when he left, but they should be able to dump Duke and get a better fill in from somewhere. Of all the positions that should be the easiest to fill, right? The sin there has probably been in sticking with Duke as long as they have, but he alone hasn't put the Nats where they are. Having Garcia get injured may have been their biggest blow for the pen.

As for the bench, I definitely understand the criticism but what would you have done differently? If they hadn't signed Tracy, they'd have signed some other guy not good enough to start who'd be just as much a gamble. Maybe it would have paid off, but it would have been a gamble all the same. As for the Bernie, it was either the bench or lose him. After his career year last year, no GM would have just let him go, particularly with no strong option to take his place. Lombo is their most versatile player who can sub almost anywhere, so I still think he's an okay guy to have around. Moore was probably the biggest gamble but again, what would you have done? Start him in Syracuse and have who? Or would you have sent him down by now? If so, who'd have been called up? I think we are getting very close to the time where that will happen but doing it a month or two ago would have seemed like a panic move.

Sirc said...

In the opening moments of game 2 of the series in San Fran, F.P. Santangelo claimed that in numerous discussions with Nats management that the team had decided to field their best defensive team each night and try to win low scoring, close games.

That night is was evident in a lineup that included Danny at second and Roger Bernadina in Left.

In theory, this type of philosophy is less concerned with pitcher/hitter matchups, instead focusing on including the best defensive option at each position and putting the batting order together after that.

They lost the game, but the Nats were ahead 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth, and but for (take your pick) a bad alignment call from the bench or a bad play in right field on a routine fly ball, they win the game.

The very next night they seemingly threw the defense-first philosophy out the window by starting Tyler Moore in left field over Bernadina, obviously an attempt to match up better against a left handed starter.

I believe strongly that the defense first strategy is the only logical way to go at this point.

Throw out the terrible hitting numbers of all options at both second base and left field, and instead focus on Lombo and Moore versus the far superior defensive abilities of Espinosa and Bernadina.

None of those 4 are getting on base. None are hitting for any sort of power, nor are they drawing walks consistently.

So let's look at the only thing that those 4 can possibly contribute: Defense.

Moore is a terrible defensive player. Lombo is pretty good defensively. Danny is really good defensively. Bernadina is really good defensively.

This is my case.

Also, and this falls into the "not for nothing" category, a week ago Lombo got on base in the ninth. Davey pinch ran for him with Eury Perez. Lombo is surprisingly slow for a tiny little (I've stood next to him more than once, he's surprisingly small) slap hitting second baseman.

Harper said...

Erich - exactly it's not that these things individually are bad, but it adds up.

Matt - that's something to say. and thanks. I filed it away in my harddrive

Chaz R - Yes the injuries (if we include Danny) don't happen and the offensive bench issues are barely noticed. The pitching is still an issue to start but right now would look ok (which helps mitigate the fact there is less organizationally available to fix problems). I think Moore or Tracy could be on a WS bench but not Moore, Tracy. Lombo & Bernie and whatever guy is here in case Suzuki runs away.

blovy / Dezo - I think Dezo covered most of it. For Gorzo vs Duke I always felt the end of the season was a "hot hand" situation. Duke was hot and Davey was riding him. I never thought he fell out of favor or anything. I mean he could have, I just didn't see it like that. As for wanting to be a starter... why Milwaukee then?

The development angle is interesting, I think you may be right, but I don't think you can sit on 2 out of 4 non-catcher bench guys as development projects when your other two are probably mediocre. Not when your goals are lofty. There's a reason the Burnetts get those deals like he did. You need that lack of variance. They can, as you say, still get those guys but not doing it to start helped put them here. Doesn't make them .600 though, but it kicks them when injuries and surprise meltdowns have put them down.

Chris - no excuse not to play Eury in my opinion. I suppose you want to see all you can of Moore and maybe you want to get Bernie out of a slump but Lombo in the OF. You know what he is. He isn't going to be sent down. you could have afforded at least his spots. (but really I'd rather he took Moores)

Donald - it's definitely hindsight criticism. None of these decisions, when they took place, were terrible. I had little issue with the middle relief moves, and the Haren signing was a gamble I couldn't argue hard against. Only the bench bothered me, but again their was an argument there. I'm not really saying "what a stupid GM!" more "our GM gambled here, here, and here and it didn't pay off. Let's recognize that"

What would have I done? Hmmm good question. At the time, I didn't think much about the bench. Other than pick up someone for Moore's spot (and really that could have been the struggling Hairston) I don't know I'd have done anything. I do know I wanted Greinke and I would have wanted Bourn over Span if I knew the Nats could get him for what the Indians did. For middle relief I would have probably resigned everyone and would have DEFINITELY used Cristian Garcia in the pen and sent H-Rod down.

Is all this a better team? Probably. Is it currently better than the Braves. I doubt it. Is it a lot more expensive? Yes.

Sirc - can't disagree with everyone not hitting you have to play the guys that give you something. Assuming there's no big handed split I'm missing that's Bernie and Espinosa, for Stras, ZNN and Det, and Bernie and Lombo for Haren and Gio (who are more FB guys so you can trade Lombo's more consistent slap hitting for Espy's D)

Donald said...

So how about some predictions? Boswell has an article out about how the Nats schedule is going to get easier. Does that alone solve things, or do they make changes?

When Werth comes back, I think Maya goes down.

I think Moore gets sent down before the all-star break to be replaced by Kobernus. (this may be a long-shot).

Garcia is just starting to rehab. I think they use Abad a few times to kick the tires. When Garcia is ready, my guess is that Abad is the one to go down, but it should be Rodriquez.

I don't think Danny will be the starting 2b by the end of the year. I think it'll be Rendon.

cass said...

Harper: Would you have signed Soriano? If not, then I don't think your moves would have been more expensive. Unless you would have brought the bullpen guys back and signed Soriano.

Of course, I imagine we all suspect that Soriano was an ownership move, but the ownership should really be committing the dollars and letting their GM decide who to sign.

Erich said...

Bone chip for Espi... DL now?

Unknown said...

@Erich. Davey has said they're sitting him 2-3 days and then seeing how he feels. This screams to put him on DL give hime surgery for the shoulder and wrist (if needed), and let him rest for the year and come back next year 100%. The Espinosa Saga continues...

Anonymous said...

We don't get to the offense as an explanation until point 3? Seriously, you lead with signing Haren over Jackson and his 6+ ERA this year as the biggest mistake?

cass said...


You did read this, right?

"The third gamble was the worst one."

Froggy said...

Harper- you nailed it with Rizzo v. Henry = Rizzo being stubborn re the Willingham deal. I agree with you and Blovy8 that the salary aspects kind of forced Rizzo's hand on letting Gorzo, Gonzalez and Burnett walk, and then rolling the dice on Soriano making us a mile wide but 2 inches deep in the BP.

As to Moore, he had ONE good month last year: June. The league didn't know who he was and he was following Werth, ZMN, LaRoche or Morse and getting a diet of fastballs. Once everyone figured out don't pitch him FB, he stunk it up. Remove June and he was a .208 hitter.

Why would anyone think he is suddenly going to 'figure it out' when he:
A, Doesn't have a plan when he goes up to bat
B, Isn't patient
C, Can't hit a breaking ball.

Time to give someone from the system some time, or go out and find a Scott Hairston.

Donald said...

The Nats are likely to call up Jeff Kobernus and send down Maya with Espinosa having to rest a few days. If he hits half way decent, then when Werth comes back, it's entirely possible that he sticks and Moore goes to Syracuse.

blovy8 said...

I'm not trying to be an apologist for his results, or saying it's GOING to happen, but if Moore is patient and strikes out less than 30 percent of the time, he can live as a bench player off of fastballs, hanging breaking balls, and similar mistakes and be a pretty average bench player. It's not worth holding a spot for him, but there's probably not a big upgrade RH power hitter available without hurting depth at some other point. He's already at the age where you're probably only going to get more than a few years out of him anyway, but his power is a shiny object like Henry Rodriguez's stuff. There's bound to be a team with a guy disgruntled OF making a few million where taking another chance on Moore makes sense. But you aren't going to get another player who can hit a homer every 20 plate appearances so easily.

Anonymous said...

Harper - can you put up some predictions/what we should expect for the next couple series?

Section 222 said...

H-Rod is out of options. He can't be "sent down." Garcia has been hurt, otherwise he might have forced the issue though I think they really wanted to try him as a starter in AAA.

Eury Perez can't hit major league pitching yet. That's why Davey didn't start him. He can pinch run though, and I agree he should have been used more for that.

Morse is in his contract year, and we had to get something decent for him. No way they were keeping him as insurance, as much as we might wish he were available now.

Last year we were lucky to have Lannan stashed in AAA for spot starts. Chris Young was this year's Lannan, but he hasn't panned out. Nor has Duke. Tough to predict that, though neither was as tested as likely as Lannan to succeed.

I thought FP's comment was just a lame attempt to justify the Nats' keeping Espi in the lineup. Still can't understand why he's not on the DL. And yesterday Davey said he might be able to pinch hit in a few days. Oh joy.