Nationals Baseball: Incrementalism

Friday, February 09, 2018


Seeing the Nats sit on a hole at catcher and a questionable rotation situation makes me wonder. I say the Nats always do stuff like this. They try to figure out where the bar is for winning at get just past it and then hope luck and injuries don't screw them.  But is this true? Have the Nats ever solved all their issues before a year? Have they ever gone after the best solutions when a good one will suffice? Let's see.

After 2012 - Another starter, a lefty relief arm to replace the departing Burnett, strengthen a surprisingly good but still honestly questionable bench.

First the Nats would create a new hole by trading Mike Morse. We all knew it was coming. They had given out signs that it would be Morse or LaRoche because they didn't like Morse in the OF or Bryce in CF, but still it didn't have to happen. Keeping Morse, while improving the OF,  would have addressed part of the bench issue. So after they traded for Span they could have kept Morse. But they didn't.  GOOD, NOT GREAT, SOLUTION AFTER CREATING PROBLEM.

They did add a starter by adding Dan Haren which wasn't a bad deal but they had the flexibility to do something splashier (we'll see them do that a couple times later). They chose to simply fill the hole in front of them.  GOOD, NOT GREAT, SOLUTION

The Nats would address the pen, but not in the way we thought. They'd be talked into picking up Soriano which didn't give the Nats a lefty but in theory gave the Nats a killer back end of the pen. Theory gave way to reality though as they completely misread what losing the closer role would do to Storen. It ended up being a wash. GOOD, NOT GREAT, SOLUTION TO A PROBLEM THAT DIDN'T EXIST

They did nothing to the bench and it failed miserably. POOR SOLUTION

After 2013 - bench needs fixing, bullpen needs arms, back of the rotation again needs someone maybe two someones

The Nats would half try to fix the bench by adding Nate McLouth. They'd also bring in Kevin Frandsen and keep Scott Hairston but those guys were fillers. Nate McLouth didn't work but it was an honest effort. His collapse was surprising. Also Rendon would push Danny to the bench so it wasn't as imperative to go out and get someone. GOOD, NOT GREAT, ONE THIRD-SOLUTION THAT DIDN'T WORK OUT

The Nats wouldn't go out and pay for someone, or make a trade for an ace but Rizzo would trade for Doug Fister, which was more than they needed. This would pay immediate dividends as Fister would luck into a great year. GREAT SOLUTION! (but didn't pay for it)

They'd only bring in Blevins to help with the pen, letting the rest come from within. It mostly worked.  POOR SOLUTION THAT WORKED OUT. IT HAPPENS

After 2014 - A super play anywhere guy and a good bench player or two or three quality bench guys to help deal with the departing LaRoche, a back of the pen guy to replace the departing Soriano

2014 was a great year but fragility came into play again with Zimm and Bryce and Ramos missing lots of time. The Nats were able to cover for it but it'd be hard to expect that again. The masses (re: Me) were clamoring for Zobrist. The Nats instead traded for Yunel Escobar and let Danny fill the bench role again. Yuney would go to have a good year but it was a surprise. The rest of the bench were fill ins again. GOOD, NOT GREAT, SOLUTION

The Nats also did nothing in the pen. In fact they made the pen worse by trading away Clippard (who'd be a FA after the season) and Blevins (who had the temerity to take the team into arbitration) and Detwiler (that was ok but it was still innings to fill). They thought maybe they could surprise with Casey Janssen. They could not. POOR SOLUTION

What they did do was sign Scherzer, who has been awesome.  GREATEST SOLUTION TO A PROBLEM THAT DIDN'T EXIST

After 2015 - a better C back-up or starter, a super play anywhere guy, a SS, a CF, bench help, a starter maybe, the guts to get rid of both Storen and Papelbon and then get a few relief arms

The Nats would roll with what they had at catcher and Ramos would bounce back to finally have a good healthy year (until he got injured again) POOR SOLUTION THAT WORKED OUT UNTIL IT BIT THE NATS IN THE BUTT AT THE END

They didn't get a super play anywhere guy to help with the loss of Desmond and shaky MI play. Instead they traded Yunel, creating a pretty desperate need for a MI and then signed Murphy after trying and failing at other solutions. GOOD, NOT GREAT, SOLUTION THAT TURNED OUT GREAT

They traded for Ben Revere which did get rid of Storen at the same time. GOOD, NOT GREAT, SOLUTION

The bench help was Stephen Drew plus a lot of junk. GOOD, NOT GREAT, ONE THIRD-SOLUTION

Roark and Joe Ross were the obvious in-house solution to the losses of ZNN and Fister. They went with them. GOOD, NOT GREAT, SOLUTION

They would keep Papelbon though and fill around him with ok but flawed FA arms like Oliver Perez, Shawn Kelley, and Yusmiero Petit   WORSTEST SOLUTION BECAUSE IT KEPT PAPELBON

After 2016 - a C, a CF, a strong back up 1B, additional bench help, a dominant closer type to strengthen a surprisingly good but honestly still questionable pen

They tried to stop gap a solution with Derek Norris and their flawed in house guys until Matt Wieters dropped into their lap at a reasonable price. Every thing is a gamble though, right?  GOOD, NOT GREAT, SOLUTION THAT DIDN'T WORK OUT

They traded for Adam Eaton to fill CF. GREAT SOLUTION! (but didn't pay for it)

They signed Adam Lind to back up Zimmerman. I suppose you can fault the meh 2016 but his platoon numbers were still good enough. I'll say GREAT SOLUTION!?  OMG THEY DID IT!

They'd bring back an injured Drew, Heisey and the rest to fill out the bench in their normal half-hearted way. POOR SOLUTION but the bench overall I guess was the usual GOOD, NOT GREAT, ONE-THIRD SOLUTION

They tried to get a dominant closer for under market price and failed so then they went ahead and brought in Joe Blanton late and decided to let the surprisingly good pen take a crack at sorting out the back through talent. POOR SOLUTION

So what have we learned? The Nats generally have good solutions to problems. Their poor solutions are pretty much limited to the bench and pen - where they try to get away with things at the margins and it almost never works out as planned. At the same time, while the Nats can make great solutions to their problems, they don't want to pay for them, the only arguable great solution through FA being Adam Lind's signing. That doesn't mean they don't have great solutions sometimes. It's just that they have been Boras talking them into signing a guy in an area they don't need.

What's happening now?

After 2017 - a C dear god please, maybe an OF, specifically a guy like Lind to replace Lind, additional bench help, a starter, arguably a closer - definitely an arm or two if not

They've done nothing at catcher POOR SOLUTION

They did not bring in an OF preferring to let the returning Eaton, good last year MAT and young Robles figure out the two spots.  Honestly...I have to say looking at all these other ones this would qualify as a POOR SOLUTION. An injury returnee, a guy that was only good last year, and a rookie? I mean if I had a middle "eh solution" I'd give it that but I don't and I can't call this "good"  No way. So it gets poor.

They signed Adams to replace Lind. GREAT SOLUTION

And kept Kendrick, another MI would make the bench great but right now taken all together it's a  GOOD, NOT GREAT, TWO THIRDS-SOLUTION but it's very close to great because Howie and Adams are themselves great solutions

They seem ok doing nothing with the starter, bringing in some minor league contracts. POOR SOLUTION

They kept Kintzler but seem suffice to move forward with the rest of the pen as is. Since the pen ended the season strong with - you know - actually reliable and good arms - I'll go ahead and say this is a GOOD, NOT GREAT, SOLUTION

Again - no great solutions. Trying to get away with poor solutions in a few places where it may work out (OF) and some places it probably won't (SP, C)

This is the Nats. Looking at it now, they always try to skirt a corner here or there, but they generally take care of the problems at hand. Not getting a 5th starter or a C? That's new. They did try a poor solution in a place that mattered once before and it worked out. Ramos gave them that healthy productive year that he hadn't managed in his career. But letting two pass? While having that arguable one in the OF? I've made myself a lot more skeptical about this team today.  


Jay said...

The question is why do the Nats always try to cut corners?

Also, what solutions would you propose for this year? I'd sign Lucroy. I wouldn't trade for Realmuto unless the price comes down. He is not worth Robles or Soto in my book. I'd sign Darvish or Arrieta. I'd love a legit LH starter but there aren't really any of those guys out there this year. I'd go big in pitching bc they need a good 2 or 3 starter for the playoffs and in case Strasburg gets hurt again. I'd think seriously of gettin an OF and making MAT a 4th OF. I agree they need another arm for the BP. Doolittle has a legit injury history. Counting on him for the entire year is iffy at best.

PotomacFan said...

Harper -- great analysis. I strongly disagree with one aspect though:

"They did not bring in an OF preferring to let the returning Eaton, good last year MAT and young Robles figure out the two spots. Honestly...I have to say looking at all these other ones this would qualify as a POOR SOLUTION. An injury returnee, a guy that was only good last year, and a rookie? I mean if I had a middle "eh solution" I'd give it that but I don't and I can't call this "good" No way. So it gets poor."

I don't see this as a poor solution at all. Eaton may take some time, but he should be good. MAT is what he is: I don't expect his hitting to match last season, but his defense is close to elite. So, you have a solid outfield with Harper, Eaton and MAT, with Kendrick as the back-up. Robles is a wild card. While waiting for Robles to be ready for the major leagues (which may already be the case), I don't see that the Nats needed to do anything else. ESPECIALLY because they need to save their money (and prospects and/or draft picks) for 3/4/5 starter and maybe a catcher (although I have advocated waiting until mid-season to pick up a catcher).

DezoPenguin said...

I'll be honest; I don't understand the skepticism about the outfield. Eaton has been above-average (and great in a corner) all his career, so unless the medical people are telling Rizzo to watch out, that's not a problem. Apparently healthy players with six-win upsides (and again, that's not a hypothetical, that's literally his last full season) are not problems to be solved.

Now, Taylor is something different. If Taylor repeats 2017 as a full-time starter than we get one of the top defensive CFs in all of baseball with a slightly-below-average bat and about four wins. If 2017 did not reflect genuine improvement but rather luck, then he'll need to be a replacement. As you've noted, the first replacement is Robles, who is indeed a rookie but is also projected to be the guy who makes letting Bryce Harper sign somewhere else in free agency not hurt so bad. If running him out there is Plan A with Goodwin or Stevenson or someone like that as Plan B, then yeah, that's a risky move for a team with World Series aspirations, but Robles himself is Plan B.

So, the question is, how would you improve on the current Nats OF. There's only two real ways: you replace Taylor with a player who gives you similar expected value but a lower floor, or you replace Taylor with a genuine star player.

Note that the "similar value but greater certainty" player pretty much has to be a CF. You could sign, say, J.D. Martinez for LF and slide Eaton to center, but you have to accept then that Eaton is probably going to lose about two wins or so of potential value from that move. Only a star LF could replace Taylor's value AND the value Eaton loses by switching positions.

Trading for Stanton, Ozuna, or Yelich might have been a good plan (indeed, Yelich+Realmuto would have justified emptying the non-Robles part of the farm), but Stanton wasn't coming here (he wasn't on the list), so that basically just leaves two possibilities. Other teams with star outfielders haven't been selling them off.

Similarly, the bench--Goodwin and Difo aren't stars, but they're perfectly fine as OF4 and Utility Infielder. Guys good enough to make you more confident than Difo does for replacing Turner for a long period of time aren't out there to act as backups. (Guys good enough to make losing Rendon not hurt are guys who no sane manager doesn't find a way to put in the lineup somewhere.) Added to Kendrick and Adams, there isn't anything about this bench that makes me say "we need to find better guys."

C is a sucking chest wound. Especially now that Read is out for 80 games and can't even possibly surprise us. You're right; that absolutely needs fixing. Fifth starter is similar, in that we have a bunch of low-ceiling guys (Cole, Milone, Jackson) who might be adequate or might suck, and one guy with a higher ceiling (Fedde) who has an equally no floor and no real reason to assume will turn into a good player. I think you're right that one of these problems requires a solution before the season starts. We can fudge past one of the two, but probably not both at once.

AC said...

I agree with others here that Kendrick should be factored into the OF equation. I think you would reasonably expect Eaton, Kendrick, or Robles to be an improvement over Werth there last year. Also Difo improves the IF situation and mitigates the need to hold Kendrick for 2B. Difo seems to have consistently hit lefties much better than righties throughout his career, which makes him a great fill-in for Murphy against LHPs.

One worry not flagged here is on Murphy's return from surgery. Hopefully he'll be alright, but it's hard to imagine he'll be back to his former mobility at second, such as it was. Bryce is going to be super busy fielding grounders that get through on the right side.

Harper said...

Jay - because solutions in FA are costly with $, and solutions in trade are costly with prospect and the Nats plan is always to try to balance so they (1) aren't spending crazy amounts of money and (2) have an eye on the future. So if you can cut yourself 15 million by scrimping on the bench and hope to fill in the holes in a way that costs you like 5 million and minimal prospects later. It makes sense. The gamble is getting there.

I like the LuCroy idea if he can take a 2 year deal or a reasonable 3 year one. Nats don't have anything on the horizon. Darvish/Arrieta is expensive but the Nats have never set themselves up for a rotation with fewer than 3 good arms and right now that's staring down at them in 2020. Still I think they do something like extend Roark and maybe grab a Lackey. Relief arms are almost all gone so too expensive and impact OF also too expensive - especially if the hope is they won't even need that player.

PF - I mean it's fair to argue with that one. I just couldn't call it good but could call it poor so I settled there. I didn't like either spot though but I didn't want to create a new level after I got through all those other ones. I like Eaton but I can't just immediately say he'll be good after injury. I liked what I saw in MAT last year - he could be a good starter, I just feel he's more probably a 4th. I like Robles as a player, I just don't think he'll be impact ready in 2018. And while Howie is a great back-up plan I expect him at 2nd to start the year - then who knows? He can't fix every issue that shows up (and not become one himself). All in all it adds up to a bad bet, but I think the likeliest outcomes is that Eaton is fine - a little below where he is normally and MAT and Robles and Kendrick are ok covering that 3rd spot with streaks of very good and in July, assuming all goes to plan, we're thinking "do we want a rental?"

Dezo - see above for my reasoning - short answer is I can't jsut say "guy missed season will be fine" and since I can't say that I can't say I like the OF. If this were Eaton after 2016 - it is a good solution. Yeah - it would be costly to get assurances that Nats OF would be better and that's why Nats (and every team) don't just go out and do it.

You like Goodwin Difo a lot more than me. I think they are both below 4th OF and 1st UI.

I think your final point is the right one though - other issues (if they exist) like bench, pen, can be figured out later Nats usually do. OF is close enough that some don't worry. But the C / 5 SP thing aren't and it's odd that the Nats have let these both slide when usually they'd fix both. I want to see both addressed honestly - they can let everything else stand and assume it'll work out like it did in 2014, 2016, 2017.

AC - said above I like Howie and I don't like Difo (you are right about platoon but that's the less helpful side) I think Howie, if good which is probable, will help Nats alot but with Murphy out, Rendon's history, Bryce's history, I can't just pencil him into the other 2 OF slot situation. In a perfect world I think he would solve it.

Kevin Rusch said...

Here's the thing about the 5th starter - the Nats barely need one. "Replacement level" would be just fine. I mean, think about it - this is a guy who, if he's good, will be in the bullpen in October. The Nats are again likely to clinch sometime around Labor Day. If resources are limited, go get Lucroy and sign 3 or 4 lower-end FAs as they get desperate in a week or two.

Josh Higham said...

@Kevin Rusch - there's some justifiable concern that Gio cannot start a playoff game and should be the 5th guy who becomes a bullpen guy in October.

Chas R said...

The offseason isn't over yet. I am still betting Rizzo gets a legit MLB arm for #4/5 SP. C I'm not so sure about... seems they will cross their fingers that Weiters has something left

Bgsmitty43 said...

I like the solutions Mike Rizzo has come up with for the Nationals. Some deals last year solidified their bullpen. A great free agent pick up in Lind and addition of Kendrick late in season was superb. Plus, their system is developing young players to play in the Bigs. I think Zimmerman, Rendon, Taylor, Goodwin, Cole, Fedde, Severino, Harper, and Difo have all been schooled in the Nats system. They are doing something right there. I feel good with their solutions for this year, even with Wieters because he brings things to the team things that can't be measured (wisdom for pitchers, a veteran presence in the clubhouse). I'm a bit concerned with this idea that the Nats will easily waltz into the division championship. Too many good players and teams that can over achieve. Lastly, why are many just waiting for Michael Taylor to fail. The man is an elite CF, can throw runners out on the bases, steals bases, and hits HRs in the playoffs (one to secure a win against a monstrous wind and the other in game 5 to put the Nats in the lead 4-1). Yes, he needs to work on the Ks, but he has overcome some adversity to prove his worth. Give him a chance! Go Nats!

BxJaycobb said...

Harper. I have to agree with the folks who said your most glaringly suspect call is saying the OF doesn’t look good. You’ve got a guy who was an all star value player last year (MAT, not expecting that again, but his defense plus hitting even a little below last year is an above average starter) the you have Eaton coming back....but note that he’s not being asked to play CF, so he’s not a guarantee to be himself but I think it would be a bit surprising if he collapsed, and then you have Robles, who I personally think could step in if needed right now and be a passable starter. Then there’s that other guy in RF. Like.....if Robles didn’t exist, MAYBE i say it’s a suspect plan/solution because you’re relying on two guys who aren’t solid guarantees to be good, but he does. Given that, I don’t think it’s possible to say anything besides that the Nats outfield is extremely deep and solid. At the very least t can’t be the same grade as their utter non-addressing of 5th starter and C, which deserve a D and and F respectively. But the OF might be the last thing I’d worry about on this team.

BxJaycobb said...

I just think that you can get another starter to replace Gio in playoffs at deadline. It’s harder to solve a C problem...and very tough to do BOTH. You gotta take care of one of them, so I’m disappointed they haven’t taken care of C. I would sign lucroy or trade Soto for realmuto then see what lance Lynn or one of the rays starters wants on FA. If it’s too much then role with Cole and get somebody at deadline.

Anonymous said...

I think this is the only site complaining about the Nats not improving their OF and that in itself isn't accurate. Last season, our starting OF accounted for slightly over 200 games. Players like Taylor and Goodwin stepped up beautifully plus we have one of the top prospects in baseball in Robles waiting for an opportunity. Since the Nats want Robles to play daily, we had just 4 OF to start the season, 1 short of the desired amount, so we re-signed Kendrick who was terrific for us last season and though he was once an infielder and could still play there, he's become more an OF. We are quite loaded in the OF.

Flapjack said...

Sorry to be quarrelsome,I found this analysis deficient because you didn't rate the players we "should" have picked up in your view(s) at the time. Kenley Jansen? Sure, I suppose. But we offered him a very rich package that was matched by the Dodgers. (Hmmm, which city would you rather live in?) Or what if we had landed Malancon? Or Justin Heyward? With the benefit of hindsight, how would you rate other contending teams' choices and results? (Dusty could have pushed the Nats to a 100-win season last year, had he not let up on the gas -- proving to me at least that the Nats weren't the victims of tight-fisted management.) The Astros and Yanks are blessed with (currently) young cores and can strategically add a veteran here or there to put foam on the cappuccino. This underscores that it's the young guys who hold the keys to long term success. Which is to say that if you don't believe in your rookies, you'll trade away the future.

Fangraphs recently did an analysis of how all of this year's unsigned stars would do if mustered into a 25 man roster. They concluded that this team probably wouldn't be good enough to contend, but the best 20 of them would cost $245MM. Collectively, they are a horrible value. If this is the inventory one is shopping from, I'd say caveat emptor.

I'll give you this: You were dead right to fret (midseason) about the quality of our catchers last year. But it took a couple of fluke plays in game 5 for that weakness to become the team's Achilles Heel.

I'm hoping that Taylor and Goodwin continue to develop this year, and that one or both of them can be traded for a young, possibly still minor-league LHP. Gotta believe, Harper.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to remain Anonymous. Having trouble with my Google Account. Anyway...Cubs just signed Darvish, so now I feel the Nats have some pressure to respond with more than a AAAA 5th starter. I assume Darvish, despite his poor WS showing, will be solid for the Cubs and now we have to face him in post-season, most likely. Cubs have replaced Arrieta with Darvish, getting a little better, possibly, but at least not losing ground.

Your turn, Rizzo/Lerner Clan...

Mike H

sirc said...

Buster Olney suggested that Arieta could sign w/ Philadelphia for 4/100 or 3/75. A 3 year deal makes Arieta significantly more appealing to me. Olney might be wrong, but if true the Nats should go for it.

I don't like Lynn at all. Cobb has upside because pre-injury he was trending toward front of the rotation numbers. I'd prefer Cobb to Lynn anytime.

Anonymous said...

If Arrietta would sign a 3 year deal, he be a very attractive option, maybe even at 4 years, but remember that's what Cobb and Lynn are likely to get and they will be a lot cheaper. There is so much less risk with them than Arrietta.

AC said...

Flapjack: "Fangraphs recently did an analysis of how all of this year's unsigned stars would do if mustered into a 25 man roster. They concluded that this team probably wouldn't be good enough to contend, but the best 20 of them would cost $245MM. Collectively, they are a horrible value. If this is the inventory one is shopping from, I'd say caveat emptor."

That team doesn't resemble a real Major League team, none of which have anything close to 20 free agents. Obviously where you can you use your artificially cheap guys on their pre-FA contracts, but that doesn't mean you just throw up your hands at free agency because you don't get the same value for salary as you will for Trea Turner. Would, for example, Jonathan Lucroy on a per $/WAR calculation be worth signing? Probably not. But you know what? He'd fill a gap and bring a starting spot up from terrible to mediocre. That's worth "over paying" for. In fact it's only logical for the Nationals to be the ones to over pay for him, or another catcher, because he is more valuable to the Nationals than any other team because Matt Wieters is a higher opportunity cost than any other team has to pay.