Nationals Baseball: Patience vs Paralysis

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Patience vs Paralysis

The Nats are now officially out of the playoffs. The question that we're going to try to see answered over and over again over the next couple weeks is "Why?", but that question had been answered long ago. The bench, back of the rotation, and bullpen had flaws that were exposed by injury. These flaws were not addressed in a timely fashion. A few months ago this was not apparent to everyone. It was hard to imagine that the Nats, a 98 win powerhouse, could be dropped to a below .500 team simply because their play at the margins was so bad. This past few months clears that up though. They are not a below .500 team. They are only going to miss the playoffs by a few games. Now you can clearly see why a few games lost when they didn't have to be 3 months ago matters.

The margins are not the only reason the Nats are on the outside looking in as September ends. Every good team has an off month. It's a long season and you can't be several games over every month (well you CAN, that's what 100+ win teams do, but I digress) The Nats were only together for 3 months this year but they still managed to have that off month. July's 11-16 record, with Bryce back and Ramos back and Werth back, is close to unforgivable. That's the type of month that could cost you a division title. You can't blame that on Espinosa or Tyler Moore or 1st half Haren.

There will be people looking to blame someone for the failure. A departing Davey makes an easy target, but really the issue lies with Rizzo. Rizzo did his job as if he was still overseeing a rebuilding team, rather than one that was already built.  Boswell notes that the team has patience and needs that consistent tone. I couldn't disagree more. Patience is for the team on the rise, the team ascending. The team ascendant needs urgency.

If you look at the job Rizzo did this year overall it can be hard to pick out the failure exactly. This team should have been very good. Like I've said before, all these baseball analysts picking the Nats are not morons. The talent was there. But Rizzo did fail and it's easier to see if you look at Rizzo's job a little differently than just putting the best 25/40 guys out on the field. Instead break the roster construction into three parts. There's the assembly of your "base team", the guys you play everyday, the rotation spots, and your main relief arms. Then there is what I like to call "disaster prep". This is putting together your bench and remaining pitching staff trying to account for where obvious issues may occur. (For example, if the Yankees start Jeter at SS next year Cashman better have a SS worthy of starting in the majors on hand. If not he's failed at his job even though he made a fine base team decision.) The third part is "damage control". This is dealing with the issues that were not obvious that pop up during the season.

Rizzo excelled at assembling the base team. While some things didn't work out exactly, it is hard to find fault in his logic at the time. Span for Morse made sense for an offense that looked like it might bust out with Bryce Harper entering superstardom and getting full years from Werth and Ramos. You could carry the average Span at the plate and he could help fix the OF defense situation. Haren and Detwiler at the end of the rotation? The Top 3 are so strong that gambles at the back end make sense. Detwiler looked really good at the end of last year. Haren could give the Nats one of the best rotations in recent memory if he bounced back. Adding Soriano looked like it was strengthening a strength. The one flaw is that their long relief man was weakened by going from Gorzelanny to Duke, but that's like the last man in the base team.

Rizzo struggled with disaster prep. The Nats had a few areas that needed shoring up. Their OF, C, CI, and back of the rotation were all injury risks. I can't really fault the choices Rizzo made in the OF or with C. Bernadina had been an adequate #4 for a few years now, was not old, and was coming off his best year. Tyler Moore at least deserved a shot at the #5 spot, albeit with a short leash given his late season failings. Kurt Suzuki is about the best you are going to do for a back-up C. Rizzo failed to do anything at the corners leaving fan-favorite but not a good player Lombardozzi and too-old to trust Chad Tracy in place. This didn't come into play really but I wanted to note it. You prepare for disasters but you hope they never come. Rizzo also blew it when it came to pitching depth. With Haren and Detwiler coming off seasons where they were injured (not to mention having two post-TJ pitchers at the top of your rotation) a good 6th starter, even maybe a reliable 7th would be crucial. Instead Rizzo looked to rely on guys like Chirs Young and Yuneksy Maya. Big mistake.

Rizzo failed miserably with damage control. During the season things happened that nobody would reasonably plan for. Espinosa's injury turned him into a AAA hitter (if that). Rizzo's reaction? No deals. Wait and see if we can't get Rendon to play 2nd. Ramos got injured again real early in the season leaving Suzuki as the everyday catcher with no solid back-ups. Rizzo's reaction? No deals. Wait it out. When the inevitable OF injuries did occur the disaster prep failed as well. Not only did Tyler Moore's bad play continue, but Bernadina crashed out - having the worst season of his career. Rizzo's reaction? No deals until July 7th (at which point everyone was back). Pitching failures and injuries lead to a chain reaction exposing not only the failure to prepare adequately for this obvious disaster, but the issues with long relief and bullpen depth. Rizzo's reaction? No deals. See if we can scrape by with that's on hand.

Mike Rizzo sat on his hands for 3 months waiting for the team he assembled to come back together and play like we all knew they could. That was far too long and it cost the Nats the playoffs. Why did he do that? I could hypothesize several reasons; money issues, may present difficult roster issues upon returns, didn't want to deplete an already weak farm system, but I think it was far simpler than that. I think Rizzo didn't do anything this year because not doing anything worked last year. In 2012 disasters happened and the preparations were weak. Morse went down. Ramos went down. Werth went down. Storen went down. To fill their roles he had Ankiel, Nady, Flores, Lidge and H-Rod. Rizzo stood around and did nothing. He watched them fail. Then he watched Bernadina and Tracy and Bryce and Moore and the guys in the pen show up and carry the team in the absence of the base guys. Other than a trade for Suzuki he did very little.

It's important to look at that Suzuki deal. Wilson Ramos, the planned starter, went down for the year in mid May. Mike Rizzo let Jesus Flores and the collection of nobodies the Nats had in the minors hold down that position for over 2 and a half months before bringing in a replacement. That's crazy. You had to know by mid-June that Flores wasn't going to cut it. But Rizzo didn't do anything.

Mike Rizzo has spent the past 2 seasons on autopilot while games are being played. Here is the team I assembled, let's see what happens. That worked in 2012 but it didn't in 2013 and I'm telling you it's going to fail more often than not if your goals are lofty. The Nats may make the playoffs a few times, but if their goals are winning pennants and World Serieseses, Mike Rizzo needs to adjust his approach. His base roster construction is great. His disaster prep is serviceable. His damage control simply does not exist. It needs to.

We'll see the team do this, that, and the other in the offseason trying to shore up the pen and the back of the rotation and the bench. All this is good and honestly I think we can trust Rizzo with this work. The real test for him and therefore for this team, comes in mid-June next year. When Desmond is out and Gio is out and the team's 3 game lead on the Braves is now a 2 game deficit. What does Rizzo do then? Does he continue to fiddle while the team burns? Or does he learn to be urgent and make the deals that might hurt tomorrow to help today?


Hoo said...

I think you're too generous to Rizzo on the bullpen deconstruction. Choosing Duke over Gorzo was dumb given the fact that Duke was a semi-successful reclamation project and Gorzo is essentially a proven piece. If your goal is the Series then choosing Duke over Gorzo is fricking dumb.

There's a good reason why Duke has been floating between minors and majors while Gorzo floats between MLB teams.

Going cheap with Duke, stubborn with H-Rod and the we don't need a lefty are not surprising given Rizzo's character. But they blew-up big time and were quite costly, as was the Haren gamble.

I don't have too much of a problem with the original bench construction only sticking with it when it was flailing.

Harper said...

hoo - maybe if the long reliever was slated to be the replacement starter (like Ohlendorf eventually became) I can see the import. But I really saw Duke as just a long reliever with the staff replacements coming from the minors. So it's not a huge deal, especially when you have 3 studs and bring in a guy if healthy that should eat up innings. Bad call but not something to get up in arms about. And H-Rod was literally the last man in the pen. So he matters less than Duke. It's all bad gambles but I think not fixing the issues caused by the bad gambles is worse than the gambles themselves.

Strasburger said...

This post is right on.

You can't just build your perfect team and sit back and tie your own hands while everything goes wrong.

How the hell is this guy not more driven by results when he's a GM!?

Even the moves he did make, he made two steps too late.

So depressing to see the team just staring at the field after that last pop out by who other than LaRoche.


Jeff Hayes said...

Great article. It's hard to argue with your analysis. Let's hope Rizzo is reading your blog and takes this to heart.

But how much weight do you put on Davey's aggressive/long ball philosophy that dominated the team most of the year as an additional contributing factor. The Post ran a piece in August about how often the Nats were swinging on 3-0 pitches and I can recall a few games this year in which aggression at the plate cost us a game.

Then there is the management of the pitching staff. Recall how Davey stuck with Zimmermann, risking a loss, because he wanted to give him a chance to win his 18th game. How many times has pitcher selection been an issue?

Or what about pinch runners?

Over the course of a season, as we all know from watching the past month, even a few games lost can really impact things. If you can stomach it, read Kilgore's article on the 9 games the Nats let slip away.

Chas R said...

Very good stuff, Harper. Seems there is a similar theme out there about the Nats lack of depth, but without placing the blame on Rizzo. Clearly his lack of disaster planning and management has hurt the Nats. I don't want to totally bash him though, as I agree with you that he has brought the Nats a classy talented young team.

I do think the construction of the bullpen this year was flawed though, almost to the point of negligence. Letting Gorzo and Burnett go, relying H-Rod and Duke?! No solid lefty relievers? Hopefully Cedeno will continue to work out and Krol will find himself. He seems to have the talent, just needs to get some maturity.

I think the disaster did point out we have some depth in SP and/or long relief with Taylor Jordan, Roark, and Ohlendorf. With Jordan and Detwiler both back, and Roark and Ohlendorf in long relief, we might be good for 2014. What do you think?

Mark Patterson said...

I think expecting LaRoche to continue to have no platoon split as he did in 2012 was short sighted (244/300/430 against RHP for his career) and he never gave Davey a second option. Contrast that with all the assets that Billy Beane provided Melvin in platooning at positions of weakness. I realize that it's impossible to project how badly everyone on the bench would hit, but spending the $14 million a year we gave to Soriano on improving the bottom of the roster may have won a few more games.

TVargonaut said...

I was completely with you until the last sentence. "...might hurt tomorrow to help today." I agree that Rizzo needs to be more urgent and stop sitting around waiting for issues to fix themselves, but you don't want him to be completely focused on just 1 year either. The future is never a guarantee, but for a tema to be a perennial contender, you need guys in place for the future as well. I'm not excusing Rizzo at all, I think there were several things he could have done to help us reach the playoffs this year, but I guess my question to you is where would you draw the line? Any examples? As always, great post.

Froggy said...

Good synopsis Harper, as I have been a fairly (or unfairly) harsh critic of Rizzo for over two years now, I couldn't agree more. Like you said, Rizzo has done a good job of going one deep in establishing the base, but it is such a long season that when one deep fails due to injury or never getting going (LaRoche) you have to make mid-season deals.

@Hoo- your Duke vs. Gorzo comparison (floating between MLB teams vs the minors) was spot on.

I do agree that there did seem to be an over emphasis on the long ball especially if we were behind going into the 8th or 9th. If the infield is back, take the damn bunt for crissakes! I know LaRoche isn't the most fleet afoot guy, but I can't count how many times the other team had the shift on and the 3B was playing in the 6 hole leaving a bunt down the line wide open. It's a free base hit! Over time, those things add up.

Anyway, other than Werth, who is the complete player IMO, seems whenever we were down by one run going into the 9th, EVAHryone would swing away as if the coach said 'go win it'. To the point of little ball verses longball, it was interesting how the Cardinals scored over 760 runs to the Nats 643-ish, had a .269 to .253 BA (and that is skewed by our last 6 weeks of hitting), but only hit 121 HR to our 158. I think I heard Carpenter or F.P. say the Cards also have like 5 out of the top 10 highest BA with RISP?

Seems like Rizzo is really good at assessing or acquiring pitching talent depth (Haren and Duke v Gorzo aside), but needs an assistant GM in charge of hitting talent acquisition. Maybe that will be Davey's new job?

WiredHK said...

Nice post, Harper. I enjoyed all of it and found myself nodding my head a lot, however…is it remiss to not point out that this team, at all times this season (even with the base team playing), was mostly completely terrible against playoff-level teams? Their record stands at 17-33 against teams currently in the playoffs by my count. The breakdown is: April (6-11), May (6-5), June (1-2), July (1-8), Aug (1-5) and Sep (currently 2-2).

Granted, your goal is .500 vs the really good teams and much better against the rest to make the playoffs – but this team appears to be over-matched against the true really good teams. This suggests to me that simply tinkering with the disaster planning methodology may sneak us in to the playoffs, but we’re not getting anywhere even if we get in.

Maybe our stacked top of the rotation solves that issue once in the playoffs, but it would seem more likely (to me) that our average hitting really shows up as ugly when it has to face nothing but good opposing SPs, as well. I'm not sure we'd even score a run, for example, in a 5 game (getting swept) series vs Kershaw, Grienke and Ryu (or Nat Killer Nolasco). Isn't that a base team (offense) construction issue?

I'm curious on your take there. I guess just make the playoffs, then let the randomness of small sample sizes (playoff games) work in your favor but that doesn't feel right to me...

Donald said...

While I wish things had ended differently, I don't know how much things would have been different if Rizzo had made changes earlier. If he had replaced Haren in May, we would have missed his good stretch and it's not clear who he could have gotten or how they would have done.

The Post had an article today listing 9 games that could have gone differently. They are all games that we should have won but managed to pull defeat from the jaws of victory through errors, misreads, poor situational hitting, etc. In almost all cases, the culprits were established relievers blowing it (Soriano, Clippard, Storen, Stammen) or errors, mostly by Zimmerman. But with one possible exception, these weren't loses that were caused by a lack of bench depth, or missing a lefty reliever or not having a sixth or seventh starter waiting in the wings. They were just the core team screwing up.

I guess what I'm saying is that all teams have holes that they don't fill. The Braves are still trotting out Uggla and BJ Upton on a regular basis for gosh sake. But those holes are usually overcome by other guys stepping up, like Gattis or Freeman or J.Upton. In the Nats case, it just seemed like whenever one person made a mistake or played poorly, there was no one to counterbalance.

Unknown said...

Never commented on here, but just felt the need with this post!

What an excellent analysis! i find myself agreeing with almost all of your points.

Im interested in offseason targets....with Ramos' history riz has gotta pick up a decent catcher right? 4th outfielder or big bat that pushes somebody to the chad tracy role next year?

JonQuest said...

Another great post. Spot on.

Every team has a guy at the top who's playing the odds and gambling with every trade or non-trade. We can put a lot of blame on Rizzo, but in many of these cases he just simply chose to stand pat. Sometimes inaction is the hardest thing to do and the right thing to do. As the post title suggests; to be a good GM you must be patient, but if you stray over the line into paralysis you fail.

I blame Rizzo for not seeing the disaster of Zim, Espi, Lombo and Tracy all under-performing at the same time. Surely a WS-or-Bust team should have found a solution to that immediately. This was paralysis.

The rest was patience - he took chances standing pat and the cards didn't fall his way.

blovy8 said...

I think it's also possible that anyone Rizzo would have traded for could have been just as bad and cost a useful piece down the road once the deal was made. Typically, what happens is you get lucky with a hot streak from a mediocre player or you get stuck with a big contract when it does work out.

For instance, by WAR, Suzuki was pretty bad as a starting catcher this year for as much as he helped last season, and if you keep having to play him he hurts your flexibility next season or lots of sunk cost. But the options for an upgrade cost you while you wait for Ramos to heal.

Similarly, you can say, well, why not trade for a corner OF/RH 1b/2B when it becomes clear you have bench issues, but those guys get exposed when they play everyday. Even the Marlins don't play a "good" bench guy like Dobbs every day because he then gets exposed for who he is - i.e. NOT a starting player. Rendon is more as a hitter than most guys you can trade for in the middle infield, since his bat projects at third. They did go and get Hairston, and he did not do much. That's how it goes. The caliber of starter they could have traded for probably looks like Haren of 2012 maybe, but what does it cost you and do you lose the 10 good starts Haren had before he stunk again, and do you KNOW he can't adjust ever again? I don't have the crystal ball myself. It seems to me like you either get a guy with his own flaws or you take on a ton of money when you "go for it". The talent level of the gain from an early trade maybe wouldn't have gotten them six more wins really.
I don't see a 2b out there to add that much, I don't see figuring Span or Werth or Harper as lost causes to the point where you don't think Bernadina/Moore/whoever can't equal an adequate guy for a month as much as any player available in May or June. Everyone still thought they could win or asked for too much.

Anonymous said...

7 pitchers deep? When Haren cost 14 million, having 3 more of him is a costly effort (and it only works if it turns out not to be Haren). Beyond that you have to have good pitchers who are willing not to be pitching often, or in AAA. I'm not saying pitching isn't important, but 7 top line starters isn't going to happen.

blovy8 said...

Good point and in a way that was one of the things that spoiled us for this season, that last year they had Lannan sitting in AAA to mop up for Strasburg and juggled Wang into the rotation while Detwiler honed his command in the bullpen. That reminds me that perhaps they should be thinking about Det as more of a swing man to hold his innings down. He's very good one time though, but man, he's beginning to seem too spindly to last a legit 180 innings a year and the curveball he had several years ago is never coming back.

Wally said...

Mostly agree with the Rizzo criticisms. I don't pretend it is easy to predict whether a guy is going to bounce back (Zim) or stay bad (Espy), but it is what he gets paid for and he either needs to create I ternally options or get themin the market. Ideally he builds the farm to the point where what he can get on the market (Scott Hairston) is available in Syracuse. I think the criticism about no back up starters is flawed, though (and I admit to feeling the same way at the time).

Without trying to look it up, I'd bet the Nats are top 5ish in WAR from backup starters (Ohlendorf, Roark, Jordan). He took a gamble on Chris Young as his 6/7 starter, and although he flamed out due to injury, I thought it was a reasonable gamble.

But you aren't mentioning one part of the team that underperformed and I think it was critical: the big three SPs. Those guys are off 3WAR from 2012, and when you build your team to be dominant at the top of the rotation and they aren't, it really hurts. If they equal 2012's performance, we are 90+ wins this year. Their underperformance gets hidden because the fallback trio did so well.

nattydread said...

Great piece.

I'd add that both Rizzo and Davey were horrible at managing injured players.

Espinosa, Harper, Zimmerman, Ramos and Werth all played hurt at times --- usually with little "adult" supervision wrt their injuries. Harper was especially misused.

Donald said...

So the Nats just got swept by St. Louis, where we managed to score 4 runs over 3 games. It feels to me like this is how so much of the season went. And this wasn't due to the bench or injuries or Haren. We can blame Rizzo if we want, but if the core team had delivered more often, no one would have noticed the rest.

Froggy said...

Jordan Zimmermann goes 19-9...

...just like our season. Good, but not good enough.

Oh well, we'll get 'em next year boys!

Anonymous said...

Phillies fan here. It sounds like you're asking Rizzo to be more like Rubin Amaro Jr (who Philadelphia commenters like to call Ruin Tomorrow Jr).

Amaro has the urgency you're talking about, but not so much with the patience. Want to trade GMs?

Anonymous said...

One scary thing is that both the wildcards from the NL may have 92+ plus wins. Whether that is a one year mirage, or going to be more of the standard may impact the risk/reward the NATS will have to look at when evaluating the roster.

Mark Patrick said...

Is anyone ANYONE going to point out that Rizzo still needs a fucking kettle corn vendor at Nats Park?!

Chaos56 said...

Okay, stepping in to give props to the soulless automaton's first ballot Hall of Famer. You're all fans (which means you hate the Yankees) but Mariano's career is something none of us will ever see in our lifetimes. Gossage was ridiculous in his day but the Sandman is the greatest non-starter ever. As hard as it is to type the words, I'd like to have seen one more postseason for Rivera.


Chaos56 said...

......and now to my team. The base team is fine, maybe platoon somebody at 1b to start the year since LaRoche has only started one year hot in his life (last year). Love to sign Cano, not happening. Get a bench with hitters, not defensive replacements. Pitching? I believe the minors are a year or less from having 4 or 5 #4/5 starters. You know the guys that pitched this year but Rosenbaum and Giolito and others are in the pipe. The days of Yunesky are done!


Steve From Virginia said...

GM can only sign players that are available (otherwise Rizzo would have signed Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera and Yasiel Puig in the offseason).

Rizzo could only sign players Davey wanted (which is why Gorzelanny was jettisoned).

Rizzo did not have unlimited budget (otherwise, Greinke would be a Nat).

Steve From Virginia said...

GM can only sign players that are available (otherwise Rizzo would have signed Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera and Yasiel Puig in the offseason).

Rizzo could only sign players Davey wanted (which is why Gorzelanny was jettisoned).

Rizzo did not have unlimited budget (otherwise, Greinke would be a Nat).