Nationals Baseball: March 2015

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Rendon Update

Anthony Rendon still can't play. He can move his knee from front to back (good!) but still feels problems moving side to side (bad!). The pain isn't subsiding so they are going to another couple doctors to get the best possible diagnosis.  Doctor #1, James Andrews said, yep no tear. I'd bet doctor #2 says the same thing. So what's the problem?

Well, the short of it is that injuries heal at different rates for different people. That's just the way it goes. When an injury happens, we are given the average time injuries take to heal, but that's just an average. If it takes on average 4 weeks to heal from an injury some people may heal in a couple weeks and other may take a month and a half.  There may even be some crazy examples where someone feels better in just a couple days and other people take months to get right. We generally expect athletes to heal on the fast end due to their physical condition and the resources they have at hand. However, the most important thing is the healing ability of the body, something we can't really know.

Can we do any better knowing it's an MCL sprain? Well we can get a more specific average! Let's use this page as an example.
In the case of a first degree sprain, sporting activities should not be undertaken for about 3 weeks. For second degree sprains, the rehabilitation period will be between 6 and 8 weeks.
Very binary isn't it? The injury recovery times don't even overlap. Either you are ready in 3 weeks or you are ready in 6-8 weeks. (We're ignoring the 3rd option because it involves a tear)  What about week 4 or 5? Clearly some people heal during that period, right?

We know it's already been three weeks, but that doesn't automatically mean it's a 2nd degree sprain. It could just mean he's slow to heal from a 1st degree sprain. The Nats called it a mild sprain, which would seem to indicate the lesser degree (though I haven't heard what the doctors think. They just agreed it was a sprain) So that's probably it.  Hopefully someone will get info on the severity of the sprain to confirm this.

This is all well and good but how long then will it take Rendon to heal? What's like the upper limit? Well, diving around into the internet and message boards and comments and the like... let's see... he'll definitely be ready to go within a year or so.

That too broad? Another week or another 48? Well this goes back to knowing the average time it takes to heal. That's a helpful number. But as a statistician I can tell you that for most basic statistical analyses you need two values, the average and the variance. The average tells you the middle point, the variance tells you the spread.  Here are two examples of weeks of injury healing time.

Example 1 :  1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4, 4, 5
Example 2 : 0.5, 0.5, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, 5, 13

Both of those give you an average healing time of 3 weeks. In Example 1 though you are pretty well centered around the 3 week period (your variance is low). In Example 2 there is a decent chance you heal in a few days and a not crazy chance it takes you months to heal (the variance is high). I can't be sure because I lack data but anecdotally, knee injuries seem to resemble the latter example more than the former. A lot of people heal up as expected but a handful can take forever.

The more worrisome part than Nats fans beyond the "I don't know" aspect is the fact that I think being a professional athlete actually lengthens the time out here. You really want to make sure it is healed before you start doing athletic activities. For you or me that means light jogging. For Rendon, as far as we are concerned, this means going at close to 100% against other professional athletes. They won't be allowed to slowly get back into things, or at least we won't consider that time "being back".  So Rendon and Joe Q Public could feel the same after week 6 but while Joe Q Public might say he's ready because he can start doing some stationary bike exercise again, Rendon can't say it because he won't be major league ready.

But cautious is good here. A reinjury would mean certainly more time off than the first time (that obviously wasn't enough) or worse, a more serious injury. Given Rendon has missed 3 weeks already, let's say he comes back in two more, then goes down quickly. You'd be talking mid-June, All-Star break for a return? The Nats have to be very cautious here.

I'm not a doctor. I haven't seen Rendon's workouts. We can only go on what we hear. But what I'm hearing is a guy that should take at least a couple more weeks off.  Forget Opening Day, let's hope for April.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Monday : A Boz too far

I always want to open these types of posts with "Nobody loves Boz more than me", but of course that isn't close to true. I imagine thousands upon thousands of DC area residents have more affection toward the man and his writing. That said, I do think he's a very very good writer and much more willing to look at baseball in new ways than most of his generation. Still, there are times where his unofficial role as Nationals Cheerleader / Mouthpiece goes a bit too far and a couple examples popped up the last few days.

First was the column which can be summed up as "The Nats are awesome!"  The conceit of the article was as follows:
The Nats were basically an expansion team when they came to DC and the fact they got good so quickly is amazing. And they have a bright future which is even more amazing. 
It's true... mostly. But it's the "Where's the sunnyside? Here? You call this bright? Paint everything glossy white and bring in some mirrors!" take that Boz can put out there sometimes.

First off the Nats were not an expansion team. That seems like a silly distinction to make, but it isn't. (Boz himself makes it - then says "ehhhh best I can do" which really isn't the case but hey) Yes, the year before the Nats had middling major legaue talent and a terrible farm system. But an an expansion team has no major league talent and no farm system. They build it all from scratch. It's not fair to compare the Nats to that. For example, Baseball America ranked the Nats minor league talent at 26th coming into 2005. That's bad, but certainly not the worst. What were the Nats then? A bad team with a bad farm system. There are a handful of these types of teams out there each year. They had special circumstances with the gutting of minor league system guys, not players, but workers, but still not an expansion. Doesn't compare. Don't do it.

But let's say you can overcome the sanity that would keep you from making that comparison. What exactly does Boz say?

"14 expansion teams. Five took forever to get to 90 wins" PAUSE

That's true but is it a case of arbitrary endpoints? ... Nope! Took them all a long time to get to around a 90 win team. Now you can make the case that a team like the Angels were actually good very quickly but not 90 win good, more like .500 good, but that's not what Boz was saying so we'll give him this. You win this round Boz!

"Two were pretty much terrible for 7 years" PAUSE

Ok I'm sure that's true too. Where are the other 7 though? You can't say
"the history of expansion teams is, with few exceptions, an utter horror show" 
using only 50% of expansion teams. Let's look into the other 7

Washington Senators/Texas Rangers : Bad for a long time. Why not bring them up? Probably thinks it would be bad luck.
NY Mets : Suddenly became a very good team around year 8 and remained pretty good for 5+ years.
Milwaukee : 90 wins in year 10, were a pretty successful team for 6 years, and didn't crater again for about 15 years.
Royals : Gold Standard. decent by year 3, division challenging by year 7, dominant 5 year run, wouldn't really start to get bad until 20+ years after getting good.
Blue Jays : got decent around year 6/7, would go 11 years with 86+ wins (9 with 89+)
Marlins : would buy their way to a WS in year 7, luck into one in year 11 but mostly built up to middling around 2000 and stayed there for a decade
Diamondbacks : bought a decent team immediately. Would win their division in year 2, WS in year 4. Odd times in the 12 seasons since then. In six they had from 76-84 wins, three seasons 51-65 wins, two 90+, with little rhyme or reasons on where the good and bad appear.

What would this tell us? Well it would tell us that four TRUE expansion teams (Mets, Royals, Brewers, Blue Jays) got good and stayed good for a while within 10 years of appearing. Two more (Dbacks and Marlins) proved you could win quickly. So at the very least about 30% of all expansion teams did something like the Nats, who again are not an expansion team, have done.

What's the real take away then? What the Nats have done is impressive, but it's far from obliteratively remarkable.

The second column was about the inevitable departures of ZNN and Strasburg and why that's a good thing.  You see it's good because "some in baseball" believe that a TJ elbow lasts around 8 years. This would put ZNN and Strasburg done around 2017 and 2018 respectively, smack in the early part of their next contracts. Second Tommy Johns are also much less successful than firsts. Let them walk!

Of course this doesn't make that much sense if you think about their drafting plans.  Lucas Giolito and Erick Fedde underwent the surgery too. If you really believe in that rough 8 year time table than Giolito should be done around 2020, and he bounced back to elite levels quickly. Essentially you are drafting guys who will give you not 6-7 years but 3-4 years. The cost is cheap for three to four great years sure but you have to factor in the draft pick not made. What's the opportunity cost for not drafting another player who might give you that longer period of play under team control?

So how do to reconcile this? It's is probably one part "these guys are younger maybe they'll give us more years after the first surgery" and eighty hundred parts "we really have little idea how long an elbow lasts after TJ, but we'll say 8 years because that fits with our plans of not re-signing these guys"

Both these columns, when you get down to it, are coming from the same place. "Don't worry about the Nats and the decisions they make, and potentially the drop in wins to come. They are in good hands and know what they are doing." Perhaps that's true. It feels true, even to a doubter like me. But it's also possible that they've reached the end point with the money they are willing to spend and are now trying to justify not signing guys. They are also trying to keep costs down by gambling on injury prone type players who may spend their careers failing to live up to expectations. Matt Purke isn't walking through that door and right now Anthony Rendon is limping through it.

We don't know. We won't know until it happens. To be positive is fine. To be only positive is sort of delusional.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

If you're not worried, you're not paying attention

Everything else is coming along as planned. Yuney has had his at bats and seems to be on track for Opening Day.  Werth has just started to take BP. The recovery taking longer than he wants, but that's because he wants to be ready for Opening Day. He's still on track even if that means a week or so past Opening Day. Storen, who no one cares about, got his stitches out so we really should see him pitch in a day or two. I've been bothered that he hasn't but I can't figure how this particular injury would hold him back. So I expect him ready for Opening Day. Denard Span is still dead.

But Anthony Rendon, Rendon the key to this year and the future, he's not coming along as planned. They tell you they aren't worried in the long term because they can't find anything severe about the injury. Two MRIs haven't shown a tear (we've been told). It's just a bruise. He'll be fine.  Someday.

Here's the short of it though.  Rendon is injured, it's not getting better like they think it should, and they don't know why. That's worrisome.

It could work out. It probably will work out. But don't tell me you aren't worried about an injury that isn't healing and you don't have a reason why. Even if it turns out to be "guess he's a slow healer" THAT matters too.

Anyway - still division champs and all but worry all you want. You're concerns are valid.

Monday, March 23, 2015

It's Scherzer

Does it matter who starts Opening Day. Nah. But let's be honest here, Max starts because Max can do it again next year. You know who can't? Jordan Zimmermann. Because he won't be here. And Max could do it in 2017.  You know who can't? Stephen Strasburg.  Because he won't be here.

Just saying

Yuney starts today - will most likely play OD barring setback.  
Werth is a question mark. If he bats Wednesday I'd bet on him for Opening Day. If not, I'd bet not. 
Rendon is still not right, with no timetable for return. I'm saying no for OD
Storen still has pitched one inning and no one cares. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Updates

Escobar is going to try to take some BP over the weekend. Start playing on Monday.  That would probably put Opening Day as a possibility if he feels good but that might be pushing it.

Jayson Werth should play in the field today. Won't hit. I still think he'll push for Opening Day but he seems pretty adamant about "if I'm not ready I'm not ready" and letting that be a Werth decision. So basically we're at the whims of how he feels, which is fine, but it makes predicting when he'll play harder.

Denard Span played catch. At least he's verifiably not dead.

Still no word on Rendon. He hasn't played since the 9th which means we are closing in on two weeks on the injury that was initially going to be a "day or so" and then a "few days".  Over two weeks moves into "a few weeks" territory. The lack of news is never a good sign but the Nats are basically have the same... let's call it "prickly" attitude toward injury information that say the Patriots have. Which is even more stupid in baseball and even more stupid that that in Spring Training, but let it never be said that Mike Rizzo doesn't have a huge ego (and results that back it up... so far).

Just a reminder that Storen has thrown 1 inning so far.

More updates! . I think Matt is being optimistic - then again OD is a whole week into April. If you don't care about live ABs then the time to get healthy is there.

Spring Training Stats notes (only looking at (1) power, (2) crazy bad numbers that may indicate injury, or (3) crazy good numbers that may screw up bench make-up because you get hypnotized by these things)

  • No one is having a particularly powerful spring so no surprises there. 
  • Tony Gwynn Jr is hitting .407 and making a play for the OF bench role that will be there with Span out. Loads of major league info to tell you that's not a good idea. 
  • Skole is thing .421 with 2 homers and a double. but he is likely to go to the minors to get at bats. Tyler Moore has cooled down a bit (.357 with .714 SLG currently) but if they like him, they like him
  • No regular is hitting so bad that I'd worry about it. 
  • Xavier Cedeno is putting up a 0.21 WHIP while Blevins sports a 6.23 ERA. Shouldn't matter (Blevins WHIP is a decent 1.38) but you never know.  
  • Tanner Roark has looked terrible. I mean like crazy bad. There's Spring Training bad (say Stammen or Blevins this year) then there is 13 hits and 2 walks in 7.2 IP in cluding 3 homers. If you're looking for a possible injured Nats arm this is the one I'd keep an eye on.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Good news and bad news on the injury front over the weekend. The good news is Jayson Werth appears to be pretty much on schedule for his return. He may even play in some minor league games this upcoming weekend. If so, consider him a good bet for Opening Day.

If not... well probably the worst case would be the 16th of April but I would simply say "not Opening Day".  The problem would be just not getting enough at bats. The Florida segment of the minor leagues ends in two weeks from today, with two extra Yankees exhibitions before the start of the season. If he plays this weekend he could play in 10+ games. If not, then with the bye day on Tuesday, he probably plays in only 7 or so. He might not feel ready at that point. Still, whether it's April 6th, 8th, 10th or whenever it's still going to be on target with what was planned barring a setback. The rare Nats recovery that takes the time you were told it would.

The bad news is everything else. No news is not good news on the Span front. He's still expected to be out for a long time. Yuney Escobar did come back after his oblique strain. However it was at the full 10 days given as the max before hand and it wasn't right back into the swing of things. He merely resumed "baseball activities" which means he did some light tossing and exercised with the team. He still isn't taking any sort of batting practice. If the team is worried Werth might not get enough ABs to make Opening Day, well Yunel is clearly not. I'd peg him for a mid-April return.

The worst news is Rendon's "miss a few days" bruise that grew into a "miss a week" mild sprain, has progressed to a "no timetable" worrying situation. He's still sore, they won't let him play while he's sore, so he sits and waits and we all pray he doesn't get sent back for more tests.  Right now it's still a mild sprain - the MRI (which they did have - shhh don't listen other teams! Rizzo thinks you not knowing this is a strategic advantage!) showed that. Of course I'm sure those aren't 100% right and the last thing we want to find out is that the mild strain was misread and it's actually a small tear. The difference with Rendon is he's had some playing time in the Spring so he'll need less time to get ready.  Still given the Nats precautionary tendencies (correct in this case) I'd expect a slow return for Rendon and I'd peg him right now for a mid-April return too.  That's probably conservative (we could hear news today that would peg him for Opening Day) but I'd rather be conservative.

These players have to be replaced so what are the drop-offs between the starters and the replacements?

Jayson Werth to Nate McLouth.  Huge. Despite fielding like his beard has weaved itself into the grass below, Werth's bat is still incredibly strong. If you love McLouth he's probably a 1 win type player. Werth is probably a 4.5 win player. So it's something like a 3+ win difference over a season. (Moore would likely be an even bigger predicted gap) The good news is over the course of say 1-7 games that's a pretty meaningless distinction.

Yunel Escobar to Danny Espinosa. This depends on what kind of Yuney you think the Nats got. If you think it's 2014 Yuney (a fair guess seeing that it's the closest time-wise and he's coming off injury) it's a wash. If you think it's 2012/13 Yuney than the loss is a couple games or so.  Let's split the difference and say half a game? Again it's not going to amount to anything significant assuming Yuney misses ~9 games or so

Anthony Rendon to Kevin Frandsen. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHA. Ok You want to bet on Ian Stewart because he hit a few Spring home runs? Fine. I'll continue HAHAHAHAHHHAHAAHA.  We're talking a Grand Canyon esque gap between great and barely in the league. Hell even 2015 Rendon probably won't match 2014 Rendon and he's the same guy. 6.5 wins? 5.5? The gap is so large that even a small amount of missed time, say the ~9 games I predict, is around enough to lose a third a win.

All in all a half-win from the three combined injuries is a good guess up to this point. Then there's the big one.

Denard Span to Michael Taylor. The hardest one to judge but let's get something straight off the bat. Span was great last year. Taylor might match up to Span ok, but he doesn't match up to 2014-name-bandied-about-for-MVP-votes Span. Understand that.  People love Taylor's fielding and assume that'll be fine. I'm not as sure. Fielding can fail to translate as well. Remember, the "Harper can play CF" thoughts when he was in the minors? Yeah. Never happened. There's a lot more upside in those scout rankings than you think or else we'd have 20 guys fighting for rookie of the year each season.  But let's just say he can match the fielding for the sake of argument. Even acknowledging the issues with D-stats, we can admit 31 year old Span is probably slowing down. The bat is the real issue. Span was a force last year. Taylor struck out almost 40% of the time and that's not an outlier given his minor league tendencies. Through bat alone I'd expect a 3 win loss. If you want to say 2 that's fine, because we didn't predict Span himself to do as well, but that's still significant. Assuming Span is out half the year (a good guess) that's a win to a win and a half.

So all in all the injuries right now peg the Nats with about 2 wins fewer than you'd expect a healthy team to put up. That's not what you want to hear. Lucky for the Nats you probably also pegged the team for say 95/96 wins or something like that. so they are down to 93/94 win territory. Still an easy pick for division champs. The only thing that really starts to be a question is best record in the NL. Of course you see what an important injury Rendon's is. That's a huge fall-off and one that by itself could put the Nats from easy division title to a potential fight. There are a lot of things that can pick the Nats right back up (most obviously a Bryce breakout) but let's just get Rendon back healthy and not worry about finding the silver linings.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Don't get injured - long term view

That last list was focused on 2015. That's what I prefer because a lot can happen between now and later, a surprise guy develops and one guy isn't as needed. A prospect crashes and the only other prospect at that position becomes more critical. But as we stand here today (and because what if anything happened of consequence over the weekend?) here's the quick take on how I'd change things up thinking beyond 2015

#1 Rendon - long control, MVP potential
#2 Bryce - not quite as long control, question marks but way too talented and part of two-man offensive core
#3 Sherzer - the defacto ace they are working around for the next several years
#4 Zimmerman - He's paid a lot for a long time so it's better if he can play
#5 Giolito - you can't build around prospects BUT Top 10 guys... well it's hard to keep yourself from doing that and if the Nats let everyone walk in the next 2 years, he's the reason why.

#6 Roark - very cheap effective starter in hand for years if last year wasn't fluke
#7 Werth - Still three more years of big money and don't see corner OF replacement in minors
#8 Taylor - Next closest ready minor leaguer, allows for Span to walk which looks like it has to happen at this point
#9 Strasburg - Healthy Stras matters, as a rotation anchor in 2016 before leaving, a potential keeper if Giolito flames out, or trade bait.
#10 Gio - has potential to be underpaid starter through 2018. Of course mostly healthy last year didn't look great.

#10.5 RAMOS - dammit I knew I left someone out. 

#11 Escobar - keeps team desperate from needing to resign Ian or form some other short term solution
#12 Storen - there are guys in line but it'd be best if Storen were healthy for roughly same reasons as Strasburg.
#12 Turner - keeps team from needing new long term Ian solution, though long term sometimes things just luck out for you.
#13 Barrett - They like him and he's under control for a long time.
#14 Lobaton - Could be a temporary starter if Ramos goes or goes down. Most likely a nice back-up for 3 more years.
#15 Difo - Could move up this list quickly with good showing in AA, a little too question-marky though to be higher. Makes list because Nats MI prospects are shallow.

There you go - discuss. 20 days now!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Don't Get Injured List

We said during this off-season that it would almost certainly take injuries to keep the Nationals from making the playoffs. Well the injuries are coming.
  • Rendon bangs his knee
  • Yuney Escobar gets shut down for 7-10 days
  • Werth has off-season surgery and likely won't be ready for Opening Day
  • Span had his second surgery of the off-season and will probably miss months. 
I wouldn't exactly say they are "piling up" and as of right now there's no reason to believe the season has come off the rails (or even had to slow down because a cow wandered on the track), but the more injuries that we see now, the closer the Nats come to the point where the next one will matter in terms of playoffs or not. They've lost some cushion. That's something.

Here is my completely official ranking of the players in terms of who they can and can't afford to lose to injury.

The Indispensibles

#1 Rendon - Rendon showed himself to be an MVP caliber player in 2014, but just as important he plays a position where the Nats have no clear back-up. Perhaps a Trea Turner or Wilmer Difo could shift positions but we're not sure when these guys will be ready to contribute, let alone hoping them to do it this year while learning a new position. An injury to Rendon would almost certainly mean then a lot more Kevin Frandsen and stupid questions about Zimmerman moving back. Shudder. 

#2 Desmond - All that back-up stuff I just said about Rendon applies to Desmond too, but Turner wouldn't have to change positions and let's face it, Ian ain't Anthony with the bat. But while it's not as big a loss, Desmond down would take away a big power bat and would probably mean Espinosa at 2nd and Yuney at shortstop. Given Escobar's sudden aging in 2014, this is an iffy situation at best. 

#3 Span - Uh oh! Why does Span rank above his outfield compatriots? Because Span is the keystone here. It's his great defense that is needed to compensate for Bryce's lack of instincts and Werth's calcification. It's his decent offense that makes him a positive rather than a necessary neutral. It's his existence as a speedy CF that lets Matt put him at the top of the line-up, a spot that seemed to create constant unecessary headaches for managers and fans. Taylor might be able to get the defense down but they aren't high on him providing the offense, at least not in 2015. If he isn't hitting then he's not batting first which means... oh god, not this again. 

#4 Bryce - Losing either corner OF would be bad news as the back-up plans are questionable. The hope is Nate McLouth will bounce back but he's rehabbing from off-season surgery (you know how it is - one guy gets it they all have to) after him... Michael Taylor? Mike Carp? Tyler Moore? Jeff Kobernus? Or the most likely scenario... Frandsen. There are lots of solutions here so there are better chances of finding one that works but still there's likely a lot of crap to sort through. Why Bryce over Werth? I expect about the same total production from both so it comes down to Bryce being the lefty power bat in a line-up with no other lefty power bats (and with Span down for a while no other lefty)

#5 Werth - See the above. Werth may rank behind Span and Bryce but he could (should?) still be the best bat on the team so he's still indispensible, just not as indispensible to me. 

The Big Problems

#6 Storen - "What? I don't care about Storen! The guy's a choker and relief pitchers are a dime a dozen!" Sure I feel you. Now think about what would happen if Storen goes down.  I'll wait. 

Ugly ain't it? As much as we'd like to believe that the Nats are going to use a lack of guys in defined roles to maximize bullpen leverage the truth is they are going to fiddle with three or four guys until they find 7th and 8th innings guys because that's how baseball is. They should be able to do this but who knows how long it will take? Add one more hole to the mix and how won't it take up half the season at least. And the whole "closer" thing?  

#7 Zimmerman - We like to think a Zimm renaissance is just around the corner but more likely he'll hit like .275 and have 23 homers and play pretty good first base. That's good. But that's not indispensibly good especially at first. The same guys that could take over at corner OF could take over at first, and probably play it better. Plus you could also move Werth there. 

#8-#10 ZNN/Max/Stras - Any order you like. I don't love Roark as much as most guys but it's clear he's a pretty good guy to have sitting out there as your 6th man. So losing a pitcher isn't as big a deal to the Nats as it is for most teams. Still ZNN/Max/Stras aren't ordinary pitchers, they're among the best and losing them will hurt unless you have a Top 20 guy to replace him. Despite Roark's 2014 I don't see him as that.

The We'd Rather Nots

#11 Gio - Gio isn't in the ZNN/Max/Stras category, he seems to be getting a bit older and losing some stuff, but he is the only lefty arm on the staff and among the possible replacements as well. You lose an aspect of the team if Gio goes down that they can't replace. 

#12 Ramos - This is less about Ramos than the chain of events losing him would set off. I expect Ramos will get injured. And here's a secret - Ramos hasn't hit all that well either. He is kind of replaceable. But catchers are hard to come by and losing Ramos makes Lobaton the starter (don't want) and Leon/Solano the back-ups (really don't want). 

The Well Whatevers

#13 Fister - Roark is pretty much just as good in my eyes. Hey, my list. I don't think the Nats miss a beat if Fister goes down. The only reason I'd care is that it takes away the pitching safety net in case there is another injury. 

#14 Escobar - The last regular, I don't think much of Escobar. His shoulder might have been the reason he couldn't hit or field last year. Maybe. But why couldn't he run either? I mean he's never been great but he basically was a statue last year. I think he's a marginal player who at 31 can no longer get over nicks and dings which hey, he's still getting. He'll likely be below average but could be terrible. So if he goes down and slick fielding pop-master every third AB strikeout Espinosa takes over. Eh. Don't really care.

The Other One that Matters

#15 Lobaton - Even if Ramos is healthy he's not playing 154. So the back-up catcher will get a non ignorable amount of plate appearances. Do you remember how bad Leon and Solano were? Lobaton didn't have a good 2014 but you still rather have him in this position than those two. 

Monday, March 09, 2015

Annual Reminder

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. That man's name is Mr. Spring Training Stats.

Who was the best Nationals hitter last year during Spring?

Steven Souza (.355 / .429 / .806) : I know you love the guy but do you remember what he hit in his very brief major league stint?  .130.

"But it did show up in a better minor league year!" you say. Ok. Let me introduce you to the 2nd best Nats hitter during Spring, Matt Skole. He crashed in AA, hitting .241 with less pop. Next best was Zach Walters who yes did have a better AAA season in 2014. Great. Hang that International League banner! Note: he wasn't good in the majors.

Ok but what about the best major league player?  That would be Wilson Ramos who ended up the 2nd worst regular for the Nats. Worst regular during Spring? Jayson Werth. He had the best year at the plate for the Nats.

Have I proven my point yet? You know who had a GREAT Spring last year? Roger Bernadina. .413 / .518 / .739 in 46 at bats (which is a lot for spring). He was terrible and is on the verge of being out of baseball. You know who had a TERRIBLE Spring last year? Yasiel Puig. .167 / .173 / .229. He did ok.

You're talking about a very limited number of at bats during a time where the goals of the hitter and the pitcher may not be the "get him out" "get on base" goals that exist for real games. Nothing here really matters. There's some talk that power increases are of interest. Ok, glance at that. But ignore everything else. Please. Before you start carrying the Nats to 110 wins with an outfield of Michael Taylor and Tyler Moore. 

Friday, March 06, 2015

How the Nats were built - FA and trades

Coming out of 2009 Rizzo found himself starting to plan for success in the near future. Things set in motion before he got to DC, early on while he was drafting, and recently when he was in control all seemed to be reaching their critical point at the same time. This team could be a .500 team, maybe even a playoff contender, soon. But a couple more moves could seal the deal. Another starter, another arm or two in the pen, a big bat at first or the outfield would help remove some of the uncertainty that remained. Assuming most everything went off without a hitch, that is.

But everything didn't go off without a hitch. Three issues that developed by the middle of 2010; Strasburg, ace of the future, got injured, John Lannan, useful rotation arm, got injured, and worst of all Jesus Flores, catcher of the future, had setback after setback in his recovery.

The latter problem was solved by serendipity. The Nats brought in Matt Capps in a classic non-contender deal. They'd sign him to a short cheap contract, hope that he performs, and if he did trade him for something. Capps did perform to the point that he was the Nats All-Star rep. Teams needing relief help came sniffing around the Nats for Capps, including the Twins. At the same time, the Twins had a young catching prospect who was blocked in theory by Joe Mauer. The Nats asked for him in the deal. Everyone thought that was way too much for Capps, everyone but the Twins. All of a sudden the Nats had another 'ready for his major league trial' catcher on the team.

At this point we finally get to the Jayson Werth deal. Like we said earlier the Nats still needed a big bat. Zimm was going to be great and Morse showed he could hit, but it wasn't likely that Desmond or Espinosa would be anything special and Ramos could take time to develop. They tried and failed for Teixeira going into 2009. I'm sure Rizzo went to Werth and showed him Zimm, the MI, Ramos, Morse, Bryce, Storen, Clippard, and the fact ZNN and Detwiler recovered on time and looked ok, so they knew what to do with Strasburg. I'm sure that mattered a little. I'm also sure the Nats gave Werth more money and years than anyone else and he grabbed it like anyone would.

Werth was a gambit because of his age but he was a player that was relatively healthy (he had some wrist problems previously but they hadn't been an issue for 3 years) and a player that did everything well. He had patience, he had power, he had decent speed, had been good in the field, and was striking out fewer times each year. About the only thing you could say about him was he average sometimes dipped a little low but he was coming off a .296 year. In other words, if one skill dropped off it was likely he had enough skill elsewhere to still contribute to the Nats.

Things were set-up so 2011 would be a crossroads year. Would ZNN and Detwiler pitch well? Would Strasburg recover on schedule? The more "yeses" the Nats got, the brighter the future looked. By year's end those questions were all answered in the affirmative. Not only that, Ramos looked great. Morse crushed the ball. Espinosa hit better than expected. Ryan Mattheus, received in a 2009 trade for Joe Biemel, was pretty good in the pen. True, Werth looked off but there was little the Nats could do there - this early in a long expensive contract you cross your fingers and hope things get better.

At this point Rizzo put the final piece of the puzzle in place. With three starters no more than two years removed from major surgery he needed a reliable pitcher. After failing to land Mark Beurhle, the Nats looked for a trade. The Athletics, still trying to piece things back together, were looking at potential deals for their 25 year old lefty Gio Gonzalez. After some back and forth the Nats finally gave up Peacock, Milone, Norris, and Cole to get Gio. It was a lot but getting Gio negated most of the need for Peacock and Milone. You bring in Gio because you expect Stras, ZNN, to be healthy. Ramos' strong play meant Norris wasn't as needed. The final piece was in place

The Nats entered 2012 as a team on the rise. They were liked to finish around .500 behind that strong rotation, which included Edwin Jackson now and if things worked out they might be on the outskirts of a playoff run. We'd see if the window was actually open or if the Nats were still a player or two away. Well it was open all right. Gio and ZNN took big steps forward. Strasburg did exactly what they wanted. Detwiler won a role and was great. LaRoche and Werth both bounced back and Desmond surprised everyone by becoming a star. Add to that shockingly good bench production and the Nats found themselves running away with the division and now poised to dominate the East for the next several years.

The short of these three posts is this : It wasn't just Werth coming and bringing some veteran magic to the Nats that made them win. He was just one piece, an important one, but just one, that set up the Nats for a long run of success. The macro view shows us that the Nats lucked out that various players acquired from 2004 through 2008 all worked out to become impactful players around the same time in 2009/2010. That gave them a strong base that when coupled with the obvious draft additions of Strasburg and Bryce meant that Rizzo basically had a .500 team in 2012 as a starting point. We didn't know that then but we can see that now. Rizzo the GM completed the work by drafting an ready-now closer, jumping on a chance to fix a catcher issue, getting that big bat to sign, and trading for that last good starter all of who would be under team control as long as that base would be. After that it was finding/lucking into the last bits and pieces to take the team from an annual playoff contender to annual playoff favorite.

It takes a lot to go right to make a team like the Nats have had from 2012 to this year. To reduce it to cliches is selling Rizzo, and the power of good timing, short. It also suggests that to keep the window going we only need Rizzo to find/keep the right veteran player or two. The truth is they'll need some hefty mix of Giolito, Taylor, Cole, Ross, Turner, Lopez, Fedde, Difo and probably a young bat they trade for to develop around 2016 to keep it going. Or else they need to put more money into the team.

For now, let's marvel at the work the Nats have done and the luck the Nats have had and enjoy this 2015 season, the last year of this particular run of success.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

How the Nats were built - the draft

When Rizzo was hired the minor leagues were barren. Here take a look.  That's a sad state of affairs. With Ian Desmond floundering and Zimmerman graduated to the majors, the Nats' minor leagues were god awful terrible. You know how hard it is to have a system where the Top nine guys have no impact? You usually accidentally walk into a couple of decent players. A systematic dismantling by MLB to prepare for a sale followed by early missteps by Bowden rendered the minors all but dead and it was Rizzo's job to help bring them back to life. He would do just that.

The 2007 draft was a big one for the Nationals. For all of Bowden's early issues losing draft picks for Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman, holding back on re-signing Alfonso Soriano and Jose Guillen after 2006 would give the Nationals a handful of early round picks in 2007.

The most important of these picks would end up being Jordan Zimmermann. ZNN was not a loved prospect by some, but Rizzo and Kris Kline fought for drafting him in the 2nd round feeling that this college guy would get to the majors quick as a middle of the rotation guy. The Nats needed reliable young arms. He would reward their faith by crusing through the minors in 2007 and 2008. (Still he wouldn't make most prospect lists - though Sickels liked him) Given little resistance from the Nats system, he was given the #5 spot in the rotation for 2009. He would hold his own in the majors until needing Tommy John surgery. The rotation was not much better upon his return so despite a mediocre finish in 2010, he still had a rotation spot there for him in 2011. He stepped it up becoming the Nats best starter.

The other key pick in 2007 was their first one, another college pick, Ross Detwiler. Unlike ZNN, the prospect gurus loved Ross' live arm. The Nats liked him so much that they rushed him up to pitch in a single game in 2007 as sort of a preview for fans.  But truth was he wasn't worthy in 2007 and showed that was no fluke in 2008 struggling in high A-ball. 2009 went much smoother. He got a shot early and late that year and seemed to progress nicely. Unfortunately a hip injury derailed him until 2011. He came back nicely but things had changed between the time ZNN came back and Ross did. The signing of Edwin Jackson and the trade for Gio made him a fringe starter to start 2012, and he'd lose his role to Rizzo's Chien-Ming Wang obsession. Wang was terrible though. Detwiler got back in the rotation and was very effective giving the Nats yet another young starter.

In 2008 the Nationals draft would not be as successful as Aaron Crow didn't sign and they swung and missed with several high picks. They did hit on an important one though as Danny Espinosa was drafted out of college in the 3rd round. In the minors Danny developed on schedule moving up to AAA ball in 2010 and seemed ready for a tryout. The only issue was that Danny was a shortstop and Ian Desmond was already pencilled into that position. The Nats would be losing Adam Kenneday and Cristian Guzman at year's end, so Danny was asked to move to 2nd. He did and the Nats liked him enough (and had no reason not to try young guys) that he was handed the 2nd base role in 2011. He looked good in 2011 and good enough in 2012 to figure he's be the Nats 2nd baseman for the immediate future.

2008 was a garbage year for the Nats. As you can imagine, the Nats minors didn't supply any new good young players and their reclamation projects didn't pan out. Even players they liked in 2007 failed in 2008. Kearns crashed. Zimm got hurt. Meat Hook got hurt. Nick got hurt (again). Lopez kept quitting.  There was an upside though. The Nats managed to squeak past the Mariners for the #1 pick in the 2009 draft. This was important because the #1 draft pick was a supposed generational talent at pitcher, Stephen Strasburg.  This was a guy that would be in the majors in a high rotation spot very very soon. The Nats made the easy pick, Strasburg dominated the minors, and would be in the majors by the end of 2010.  Unfortunately, just like Detwiler and ZNN, injuries would bring Strasburg down and he'd need Tommy John. He'd bounce back fine though and he a full time rotation guy in 2012... at least until they shut him down. He wasn't quite dominant yet but he was really good and there was reason to believe that great was just around the corner.

For all intents and purposes, Rizzo would take the reins over from Bowden in March of 2009. And by June he could see how this was all coming together. Desmond was finally looking ready in the minors. Zimmerman looked like a team carrier. Flores, though injured now, seemed like a solid bet at catcher. More importantly Zimmermann and Detwiler were finding themselves in the majors and they had Strasburg in hand. Lannan, while not loved, was young and effective enough to hold down a rotation spot for a few years. With a few smart moves, this team really could come together soon. With that in mind why not address the relief issue? Drew Storen was brought in specifically because he was close to major league ready and easy to sign. He would become the closer as soon as possible assuming no bumps. There were none. He dominated in almost every stop and was moved up the ladder quickly. He became the closer, and a very good one, on schedule in 2011.

2009 wasn't exactly a give-up year for the Nats but by this time the team he didn't feel there was any reason to keep passable but unimpressive arms. So the Nats waved bye to Tim Redding and Odalis Perez and hello to a gaggle of younger guys to see who would stick. Most didn't. Stammen (5.11), Mock (5.62), Martis (5.25), Olsen (6.00), Cabrera (5.85), and Balester (6.82) would start 75 of the Nats games that year.  By the time the All-Star break came around, the Nats were 9 games behind everyone in the league and in the driver's seat for the #1 pick in the 2010 draft. Again it was a supposed generational talent who could be ready for the majors soon, though likely not as quickly as Strasburg. Bryce Harper was a HS phenom who people thought could be the next great outfielder. The Nats eased into the #1 pick and made the obvious choice. Bryce wouldn't quite crush the minors as hoped, but the Nats had him on a fast track. A mediocre AA stint still got him moved to AAA in 2012 and a blah AAA showing didn't keep him from moving up to the majors in 2012. At that point he showed himself to be ready to be a major leaguer if not an All-Star type player.

What you see here is how a couple things working out early on changed how the Nats did things. Drafting in 2007 and 2008 were very normal affairs, drafting a mix of players to see what would work. In fact 2007 had a HS heavy vibe with 7 of their first 10 draft picks being HS players. A good Nationals team was still far in the future. But when things started to appear to come together in 2009, the goals shifted. Only 3 HS players in their first 10 picks in 2009, only 2 (if we technically count Bryce - which I do) in 2010, and none in 2011. Part of it was a philosophy shift, I'm sure, but part of it was an attempt to get players that would help quickly. They couldn't wait for a 5+ year development like they got from Desmond. They would likely need help by 2013 and they drafted accordingly.

You also see how while guys like Desmond and Zimmermann were let to develop naturally Strasburg and Bryce were fast tracked. Strasburg you could argue deserved it, but Bryce didn't, not by results. But there wasn't a good reason to let Bryce develop in the minors only to have his first season and potential growing pains happen in 2013 and 2014. The team had gotten good faster than expected so Bryce needed to do the same.

Again you can see how the timing worked. With Ian, ZNN, Detwiler, Desmond, Clippard, and Jesus Flores, all hitting the majors around 2009 and looking like real major league players, with Zimmerman already signed and Strasburg as sure of a pitching prospect as one can get, the Nats could stop planning for the far future and start looking at the near one. This wouldn't have been the case if say college guys developed in 2004/2005 and HS guys in 2007. In that case you'd have a couple guys looking good around 2007 and by the time a couple more guys looked good in 2012, those first guys would be looking at FA. But no, the Nats lucked out with the right mix of guys getting ready at the right time. That let them draft Storen and move forward with Espinosa. With Bryce Harper coming the Nats had a very strong core but it wasn't quite enough.

Rizzo is a smart GM and a smart GM knows even after getting a feel in the majors some guys can't stay at that level. Would Espinosa be able to hit enough? Would Desmond? Would Flores, ZNN, Detwiler bounce back from 2009 injuries?  Would Storen and Strasburg shine? Rizzo knew some of these answers would be no and that left too many holes for the team. There was work to be done trading and signing and here is where Rizzo would put the finishing touches on this core. 

Monday, March 02, 2015

How the Nats were built - Part 1 Pre-Rizzo

At the end of the 2009 season the Washington Nationals repeated as worst team in all of baseball with an embarrassing 59 wins.

By the end of the 2012 season the Washington Nationals would win 98 games. They would shut down Stephen Strasburg for the playoffs, following through with this decision based in some small part by the knowledge that they had a core of young players under team control. The team that was mired in failure a mere three years ago now looked to be winners for the foreseeable future.

The usual narrative of the Nats rise overlooks how it happened. It reduces the complex mix of drafting, signing, timing and luck to a mere three events; the signing of Werth and the back-to-back draftings of Strasburg and Bryce Harper. The latter symbolizes the young talent brought to the Nationals, the former symbolizing the "winning culture". Of course this is silly. The winning culture came, not with signing Werth, but with assembling the talent that it takes to win. The talent assembled was far more than Strasburg and Bryce, who would have an impact but would be far from the team carriers most thought they could be.  

In order to properly tell the story let's first look at the core that Rizzo saw late in 2012

C  Ramos 24
2B Espinosa 25
SS Desmond 26
3B Zimmerman 27
CF Bryce 19
RF Werth 33

SP Strasburg 23
SP Zimmermann 26
SP Gonzalez 26
SP Detwiler 26

RP Storen 24
RP Clippard 27
RP Stammen 28
RP Mattheus 28

There were other important parts to the 2012 team, but this was the core I was talking about. There are 14 players here either signed or under team control through the end of 2015. Only one, Jayson Werth, was over the age of 28 meaning that there was little chance that age would greatly diminish the abilities of this team, and making it more unlikely that injuries would play a part. I'd argue that the heart of a baseball team is a mere 17 players  - 8 offensive starters, 5 starters, 4 relievers - the players where if all goes well they would have 90+% of the ABs and pitch 90+% of the innings. Things never go completely well but because you don't know where they'll fail you plan around those 17.  That means the Nats were left a mere 3 players away from filling all 17 slots for 2013 and potentially didn't have to worry about any key spot until 2016.

How did the Nats get to this amazing place so quickly from the depths of despair?

The work done PR (pre-Rizzo)

It's easy to assign all the success to Mike Rizzo for the current success of the Nats, but that would be overstating things just a bit. I'm not going to tell you anything that went on before Mike Rizzo joined the team in the middle of 2006 "laid the groundwork" for the Nats success. Talk about an overstatement. But it is true some important things were already in place when he walked in the door.

The most important piece was Ryan Zimmerman. An young All-Star, MVP type caliber player who played a position that sometimes lacks easy to find talent, he would seemingly be a cornerstone to any future runs.  He was drafted in that great draft class of 2005, would develop immediately into a MLB starter and would further blossom into a star as the Nats bottomed out. A Virginia native he wanted to stay and made that clear, all the Nats had to do was not mess up the deal. He was originally under control through 2011 but they (Katsen/Bowden - Rizzo was on board by now but more of a development guy) signed him before 2009 to a deal that would keep him in DC through 2013. With the inside track already laid down, Rizzo would extend that deal through 2020 prior to the 2012 season.

Ian Desmond was a HS short stop drafted in the 3rd round by Omar Minaya for the being forcibly euthanized 2004 Montreal Expos. He would develop slowly, performing wretchedly on an attempted fast track through AA in 2006, instead he would move up on the promise of age and perform just well enough when at the next level. It wasn't until 2009, his 6th year in the minors, that Desmond would suddenly have a break through season and force his way up into the majors. This helped keep his clock from starting earlier. Much like in the minors, in 2010 and 2011 he would perform well enough in the majors to stay but would not impress anyone. This would lead to questions on whether the Nats would be better off getting another MI and forcing one of Danny or Ian to the bench. But then in 2012 he would break through providing Rizzo with a SS for the immediate future. 

After the 2007 season, the Yankees were looking to sell high on a very young starter they didn't like named Tyler Clippard. They thought they matched up well with the Nats who needed starters, and could grab a reliever for him. Bowden, always up for a deal, agreed and sent Jonathan Albaladejo to New York. The Yankees were right. Clippard wasn't going to pan out as a starter. His walk rate was too high in AAA and simply unusable in the majors. But the Nats saw his unhittable stuff and gave Clippard a chance as a relief pitcher. He still didn't have great command but the limited role allowed his other aspects to shine brighter. After starring in AAA in a relief role he was promoted for good in 2009 and has steadily improved since to become the Nats key relief arm during this run.

Craig Stammen had been drafted in 2005 as a potential starter and was moved through the minors with that in mind. He was unimpressive early and by the end of 2007 it was doubtful whether he'd stick around much longer, putting up a 4.18 ERA and a 1.68 WHIP in A+ ball as a 23 year old. But the Nats didn't have the best minor league system which afforded Stammen another shot and he came through in 2008 pitching great in A+, then great in AA which allowed him to move up to the more age approriate AAA. He would stop there for the year but in 2009 he put up an impressive start leading to a major league shot. He'd fail as a major league starter given solid chances in 2009 and 2010 and would be equally as unimpressive in AAA in 2011. However, Davey wanted a righty long man in his pen so Stammen got the call in 2012 and was an effective mop-up guy and has remained in the pen as "the other guy" mopping up 6th and 7th innings.

You'll notice one big key here is the timing of the development of these players. Zimmerman was immediately a star, which meant he had to get paid very soon in the process. He wanted to stay which I'm sure made the whole thing easier, but still his immediate development was something that couldn't be repeated for everyone or else some of these guys would be walking before the Nats coalesced into a annual winner. Clippard was drafted out of HS in 2003, Desmond drafted out of HS in 2004, Stammen as a junior in college in 2005.  Yet Desmond and Stammen would both crack the majors at the same time in 2009 and Clippard would put in his first major innings that same year. This wasn't a plan, either. The Nats holding back talent until it was time. Look at the minor league stats, these guys came up this way organically. This type of luck in timing is crucial.

So when Rizzo took over the whole shebang early in 2009, three key spots for the future plus one useful arm were in rounding into form. That's a nice thing to walk into, however that's hardly enough to open a window of winning. To do that Rizzo would have to rely on some of his own work in the draft and get some new work done on the phones, and he'd have to get that timing to keep working out for him.