Nationals Baseball: Offseason Position Discussion : Starting Pitching

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Offseason Position Discussion : Starting Pitching

Presumed Plan :  In some order : Strasburg, Zimmermann, Fister, Roark, and Gonzalez.  I'd guess... ZNN, Stras, Gio, Fister, Roark next year, if that stuff matters to you.

Spot starting duties will likely fall to Blake Treinen who had the better 2014, but Taylor Jordan and Ross Detwiler remain possibilities. It is likely that for a multi-month injury replacement AJ Cole would be given his shot.

Reasoning on Presumed Plan : Must we?

Fine. The Nats pitching staff had the best starting staff in the major last year with a combined ERA of 3.04 (1st) and WHIP of 1.14 (1st), thanks to a crazy low 1.90 BB/9. They didn't just keep the guys off base though. They held opponents to a majors-low .657 OPS and had the 5th best K/9 rate.

Unlike the Dodgers, who's staff stats were propped up by one phenomenal performance, each of the Nats starters were on some level good.  You could argue that the Nats top 4 all pitched well enough to be a #1 starter on some team, certainly no worse than a #2. Zimmermann was in the "OK if Kershaw couldn't get it who would you give the Cy Young to" discussion. Fister led the team in ERA. Strasburg led the league in strikeouts and despite the disappointment of not being dominating, was still impressive. Roark was a revelation, keeping men off base and balls in the park a half-step behind what Zimmermann was doing.

The odd man out, Gio Gonzalez, put up a 3.57 ERA, struck out 9.2 per nine and had a HR/9 rate that was lowest amongst all starters. Short of it : the Nats "#5" would be gladly taken as the #3 on most teams in the majors.

They are all under contract for 2015, underpaid, and the oldest (Fister) is 31 next year.  We're in "set-it and forget-it" land.

As for the back-ups, Blake Treinen had the best 2014 both in the minors and majors to put himself in the driver's seat for the long-relief/spot start role. However, they may prefer to start transitioning Blake to a full-time relief role, which his stuff seems suited for. If that's the case, Taylor Jordan might get that spot start spot. He has more of a full arsenal and had been in the 5th starter mix before Roark ran away with it. His 2014 was a mixed bag of failure, injury and recovery. Ross Detwiler, who had been in this role most of 2014 fell out of favor with the team after his second mediocre year in a row. He'd probably make tempting trade bait for someone banking on him being a victim of mis-use. But still the Nats may want the spot starter to be a lefty to counteract the right heavy rotation. Thus Detwiler, who's still cheap, remains in the mix.

AJ Cole is unlikely to play this role, as they prefer to get him starter innings in the minors. He wasn't as wowing as he was ending 2013 in AA, but he was sufficiently good in enough in AA in 2014 to deserve promotion where he maintained that level of performance in AAA. If he's doing well in AAA and someone goes down with a long-term injury, expect to see Cole, as he's likely to get first shot at the rotation hole left by either (or both) of ZNN and Fister leaving at year's end. 

Problems with Presumed Plan : There is some indication, fancy stats-wise, that a couple guys were getting lucky.  Fister had one of the highest LOB% in the majors, while having an unimpressive strikeout rate. Roark wasn't far behind. The HR/FB rates for ZNN, Gio, and Roark were all on the low side for both the league and themselves. Then end result is it's likely that you'd project significant increases in ERA from ZNN, Fister and Roark.

On the health side, there isn't much to worry about but Gio and Fister both missed month long chunks of time and Roark, at age 27 just threw more innings than he ever had in his career. How his body reacts to that in 2015 will be something to keep an eye on.

The biggest issue with the presumed plan is that it's a one year deal. Fister and Zimmermann both could bolt after 2015. The Nats have yet to offer a market-deal to a pitcher which makes the chances very unlikely both sign and worries fans that neither will. If both leave the Nats could be left filling in two rotation spots with young pitchers (Cole? Giolito?) who haven't had any major league experience because there hasn't been a place for them on the roster. Right now there is no long-term plan in place.

My take : Of course you start these 5. I do remain concerned that Roark has potential to be significantly worse in 2015 and that the Nats are due to get bit by the injury bug at some point but you can't argue with bringing back all 5 pitchers from the best staff top to bottom in the majors.

The truth is the staff could pitch 20% worse next year and still fight for a Top 10 spot in the majors. They are that good. Of course the Nats have only run away and hid with the division when the starters have carried the team, so I'd expect more of a fight next season as they drop back again to merely "very good". You can't blame the pitching staff for that, though. 

As for the long-term plan for the rotation that's a big question. I don't think it'll effect 2015 results but it needs to be decided one way or another. Personally I think Zimmermann is the guy to keep. However, he seems the most interested in maximizing his value and frankly the Nats do have 2 pitchers that they expect to need a trial run at starting in the next couple of years. Given that, I don't think we see ZNN signed, even though I'd love to.  Instead I think we see Desmond and Fister signed.

Outside the Box Suggestion : This is the Nats strength. They have 5 starters and in Cole and Giolito they have two guys who project to fit into a major league rotation in some way. The problem is there isn't too much exciting behind these two which leaves the Nats to the FA market or re-signing Strasburg and Gio when their contracts run their course. (not to mention relying on Roark during this entire stretch).

So if you're not into the above plan, it makes sense to deal now from the strength.  But for what? MI help is very hard to come by, there isn't a team ready to compete that needs one more pitcher and has a glut of worthy MI that would make a ideal trade partner for say a ZNN or Fister. It's just not there. On the same level a lot of those MI prospects are so highly thought of that it would be hard to get them for a Strasburg. I've looked them up and down but I'll run into a guy and just talk myself out of it one way or another. I think Mookie Betts would fit well, but I also think the Red Sox (well at least those surrounding the Red Sox) have bought the hype with him, in part because neither Bogaerts or Bradley Jr showed well this year. Someone has to pan out right?

So my out of the box suggestion is to do exactly what we fear. Let Fister and ZNN walk. Promote Cole and Giolito next year. Rely on Strasburg, Roark, and Gio moving forward. Use that money to sign Kenta Maeda (who's skill set fits exactly with the Nats heavy GB strategy),  Jose Fernandez (the Cuban defector 2B), or Moncada or Olivera or Tomas. Throw money at the international market as it's probably the best bet in staying young and extending the window without breaking the bank.


cass said...

Zimmermann and Desmond need to be extended. Let Fister walk as he's older and more in danger of regression than Zimmermann. Do keep Fister for next year, though; don't trade him.

Don't worry about the kids. There will be injuries and at least one spot open in 2016.

I'd also try to extend Strasburg now after a downish year.

The Washington area is the richest in the U.S., right? The Nats can afford to keep their stars.

Harper said...

Fister is the lesser of the two pitchers but if ZNN really wants to max his value we're talking what? 6/105 as a starting point probably close to 7/140. I don't see the Nats willing to do that. Fister on the other hand - maybe you get him in the 5 / 90 range if you are lucky.

Yeah - the fact there are no Cole/Giolito plans for major league experience isn't worrying. 1) they probably will - these things happen 2) if they don't - that's great! Means everyone was healthy

Extending Strasburg now is a great idea but don't expect a team-friendly deal. Also - I've never really heard Strasburg commit to DC so I expect the Boras in his ear is whispering "test the market"

Anonymous said...

Can you explain how the international bonus pool money works. I think the nats have around 2 mil for that - for instance we wanted to sign one of the cuban infielders - for 8 mil (what the angels just paid) - do we then get taxed at 100% for the additional 6 mil?

Anonymous said...

Just to stir the pot up, what about ZNN to the Angels for Kendrick? Yeah, ZNN is better, but he gets paid a lot more next year.

Harper said...

anon #1 - I'm actually not clear at all. I'll look into it...

anon #4 - I thought about that but digging into it one of the things I learned was the Angles are looking to decrease payroll. Trading Kendrick is a possibility but it's far less likely for someone who will cost them more money. Now Fister? He might save them a little - but not much.

DezoPenguin said...

Here's an out-of-the-box thought: Keep these five and ship Cole out of town as the centerpiece of a package to get either Beltre or Donaldson, moving Rendon's "very good" 3B bat to become an "exceptional in the non-Robinson Cano category" 2B bat. Texas and Oakland both need pitching, after all. Cole fits Oakland's window nicely (they only have one more year of Shark and are unlikely to resign him if he pitches well enough to earn a big deal and unlikely to want to resign him if he doesn't), plus Beane has shown himself quite willing to give the Nationals ML talent in exchange for prospects. The Gio trade (and, for that matter, the Suzuki deal, since Kurt was great for us in 2012 even if not in 2013) shows that Rizzo and Beane can do a decent job putting together something that's a win-win.

(I'd suggest making inquires after Kinsler, but seriously, after the Fister trade I doubt Dombrowski even opens Rizzo's e-mails for fear that they contain malware that'll steal Price from him.)

Chinatown Express said...

Dezo: That deal gives me the willies. Ship Cole and we're only left with one pitching prospect we're confident in as an MLB starter, and Mr. Giolito might not be ready until '17. You can't make that deal unless you've already extended NN and Fister, can you? Unless you're just 100% all-in on 2015.

Anonymous said...

They probably will sign Desmond -- although for the life of me I can't figure out why.

How difficult can it be to find someone who *doesn't* lead the league in strikeouts and errors?

cass said...


I don't know if the Nats are willing to make those deals, but they should. This isn't a small market.

I also think acting like a small market tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Zimmermann is a very good pitcher in his prime and is a quite popular home-grown talent. Sign him.

I know that making deals for fans that don't help the team is counter-productive (Hello Adam Dunn!), but this isn't one of those cases.

If Rizzo or ownership has a problem with paying good, reliable pitchers big money, well, they need to get over it.

I would take a look at how TJ pitchers do several years after their surgeries, though. Not sure if the data is out there. I've heard the surgery is good for 8-10 years but have no idea if that's accurate or not.

Jay said...

I agree with cass. Don't tell me that we are going to grow through the farm system. Have years where Odalis Perez is the opening day starter. Lose hundreds of games. Finally get to be a good team because the farm system produces. Then let everyone leave bc they are too expensive.

Think about it. Adam Kilgore wrote an article that with the current roster the payroll will be around $140 million. The article ends stating the Nats will need to get creative to keep the team together. Did I miss something??? Zimmerman and Werth are the only big money guys. Werth is the only free agent. Sure Zimmermann costs a lot this year - $16.5 million, but most of the team is either cheap or in arbitration. If they can't afford to keep people now - how is it going to be any different with Strasburg and Harper??

If you run the team like it's Tampa, then Tampa is what you will get. Spend the money. Keep the team together. If anything spend some extra money and get a great 2nd or 3rd baseman. The Lerners are the wealthiest owners in baseball. Don't be fooled by the "we're maxed out" stuff.

JWLumley said...

@Harper - When people think of Intl. FA's they think of Puig and Yu. They forget all of the Dice-K's and other guys who flopped. Yes, there's been a nice run of highly touted International FA's working out, but the market for them is out of control. No way would I sign one of the International FA's unless the price was very right. Call Texas, who needs pitching and deal a pitcher for whoever the Baseball Ops people think is best. Either that or call Chicago and deal for Addison Reed. Yes, I know it would probably be a high price to pay, but Reed is special and he solves the Desmond problem. Then use the money to go out and sign a FA pitcher for this year from the glut of very good starters out there. They could also deal for Zobrist or Howie Kendrick. Zobrist plays for a team that looks like it will begin rebuilding and Kendrick plays for a team that needs pitching. I'd prefer a Cole for Zobrist deal, but maybe a package of Detwiler and someone else could get Kendrick.

The Nats should deal from their strength and look to move a SP to solve some positional problems because bats are much more valuable than pitchers right now although they're not being priced that way.

Anonymous said...

Two questions: If Desmond weren't the 'Last Expo'and under team control, would we deal him?

And, how the heck does Span not get a GG?

JWLumley said...

Also, as for NN, with the glut of starting pitchers hitting the market, I think we're actually going to see that market go down somewhat instead of going up. There's just too many good pitchers available and with the increased strike zone size starting pitching is too readily available. Smart teams will see this and won't break the bank for starting pitching.

Zimmerman11 said...

These guys are pretty F'in good, AMIRITE???

I've probably been the most Desmond is the last Expo, gotta keep him guy, so I'll say this...if they don't sign SOMEONE... if Stras n Harp both leave, then I'm done rooting for this team (or any team)... I'll just watch good players whenever there is an intriguing game or matchup. So much easier that way!

JWLumley said...

@Z11 They'll sign some of these guys. I just think they're trying to be responsible and not make bad deals. I can get behind that. Look at the Yankees. For years they bought players and everyone thought it was the key to their success, while overlooking the fact that they'd drafted very well in the mid to late 90's. Now, all of the chickens are coming home to roost and they're probably not going to be good anytime soon because their players are getting older. Contrast that with the Cardinals who let Pujols walk and they've been good and look to remain good. The Nats should only sign Desmond, NN and Fister if it's the right deal. Sometimes the right deal is an overpay, but sometimes you've got to let them walk.

blovy8 said...

I saw an arbitration estimate for Clippard of 9.3 million. That's an awful lot to pay for 70 innings - no way an extension's coming for him either I would think, but that doesn't seem to be a deal they could move. Detwiler has to be on the trading block for sure.

I wonder if new VP/asst GM Bob Miller was heavily involved in Homer Bailey's extension negotiations with the Reds? I wonder if that wasn't actually market value though...maybe a different voice changes the likelihood of keeping Fister or Zimmermann, but I'm with you, Harper - I still don't see how the Nats could give Znn the Hamelseque deal he probably wants unless this becomes a club willing to butt up against the luxury tax. It'll be even less likely with Strasburg, so it is interesting to dangle him in a blockbuster deal, do we want the headache that is Puig?

BxJaycobb said...

There's no chance you get Donaldson for a package centered around Cole. He's the second best player in the American League and under control for multiple years. It would have to be a package that included something ridiculous like Giolito and Taylor etc