Nationals Baseball

Friday, December 09, 2016

How do I like them

I like Adam Eaton as much as people who generally like Adam Eaton

I like the fact that he's an all-around player. He basically does everything well... except hit for power. Now, if you ask me what's the most important thing a player can do "hit for power" is probably #1, which is why he's not a quiet superstar in my opinion. But an All-Star caliber player? One with enough skills that if something isn't working he can contribute in other ways? All at an age where severe drop offs in talent would be surprising? Yes. The only way you can think otherwise is if you still evaluate players mainly on the AVG HR RBI set of stats.

I think the Nats have solved their CF problem in a good way, allowing them the ability, after this year to go for either a CF or a corner OF, depending on what they see as the best fit. I think they've found their Werth replacement, a productive outfielder who will help the team for half a decade.

I like Lucas Giolito less than most with casual knowledge in the Nats but apparently more than most that follow the Nats and their stats at a hardcore level

A lot of people with casual knowledge remember the hype for Lucas Giolito and see his rankings in the minor league Top 100 lists and think he may still be an ace sooner rather than later. I don't. I think the ship of "dominant early 20s starter" has sailed. Oh it's certainly not impossible for later blossoming to occur but 1) typically aces have at least untouchable stuff (if not be completely dominant) throughout development, and 2) the Nats see Giolito as a ticking clock. The TJ arm will go at some point around year 8. If he's more of a Lester (some touchy minor league seasons, took a couple major league seasons to settle in - Ace at 24) well you are now 7 years in on that arm before you get any significant return, if any.

On the other hand a lot of people have just given up on Giolito.  The velocity went and he got hit hard in the majors so he stinks.  I don't go that far. Here's a guy that undeniably has all the stuff you could want. He did fairly dominate the low minors at an age that was young for that and had swing and miss stuff in High-A ball just 18 months ago. The transition to AA did cause some issues. More hittable, less swing and missable in 2015. He improved on those a little in 2016 but at the same time became wilder negating those marginal improvements. But if you look more closely he got better as the year went on. In his first 7 games in AA he had four games where he walked 3 or more and 2 games where he walked one. Only one outing giving up a run or less, despite being held to shorter outings (no more than 4 IP) to start the year.  Only one outing striking out more batters than IP. In his second 7 he had two games where he walked 3 or more and 4 games where he walked only 1. Only one outing giving up more than 2 earned runs, despite now pitching 6 innings regularly. He struck out more batters than IP 3 times. He would spend most of the rest of the season bouncing between AAA and the majors but we saw something similar in his longest AA stint of 4 games. The first two games were rough, the next two were very good.

I think Lucas Giolito could be thrown in the majors and be a back of the rotation starter today. I think with time (or AAA seasoning) he's going to be a fine middle of the rotation pitcher, maybe a #2. Assuming his arm holds up.

I like Reynaldo Lopez less than most.

Most seem to think that Lopez could be a decent back of the rotation pitcher and failing that would be a strong reliever. I'm not sure where that is coming from.  Lopez' minor league success has come from being unhittable but not in the "strike everyone out" way. Instead it's in a weird, incredibly low BABIP way. Perhaps there is something to this, an ability to get the worst contact but I have my doubts. Mainly because he didn't get that in 2012 or 2013 or 2015 or his 2016 stints in AA or the majors. In all these places he was hit just normally and that led to expected ERAs from the below average to the "what I would put up if I were pitching". He did seem to strike out a lot of guys in AA this year.  However much like the BABIP thing it's an isolated incident. He didn't strike out a lot of guys at any other time at any other level. So if you like Lopez a lot you have basically convinced yourself that these two blips that are something like 33% and 25%  of his career are what is going to happen for him down the road at the same time. Call me crazy but I'd rather bet on the things that happened during 67% and 75% of career, including parts of last year, continuing forward. Maybe one gets solved (I'd bet on him striking out guys before maintaining crazy BABIPs) but it will definitely cap his expectations.

For those who say "Well I watched him in the majors last year and I liked what I saw" let's remember something. He pitched 44 innings in the majors last year. 23.2 of those innings, more than half, were against the 2nd, 3rd and 4th worst offense in the NL*. He still posted an ERA of 4.90.  In the other 21.1 innings when he wasn't facing the dregs of the league he gave up 15 earned runs. He was unusable.

I think Reynaldo Lopez won't ever amount to much in the major leagues

*All in the NL East! Adnd the worst? THE PHILLIES. The NL East had crazy bad offenses last year. 

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Eaton Back and Forth

The Nats traded for Adam Eaton. The gave up Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and ... let me check... Dane Dunning.  Good, Bad? Let's go over it

OK so how good is Adam Eaton? Pretty good. He's a good average hitter (high .280s) with good patience (top 3rd type walk rate) who makes good contact. He has excellent speed on the base paths. He's a plus corner outfielder who has shown a very good arm following shoulder surgery.

He's not old (Turned 28 on Tuesday! Happy Birthday!) so you can reasonably expect him to continue to perform for several years and he's making a crazy low salary for someone performing at his level. Only 4 million this year and very reasonable numbers for 4 years after that*.

So what's the downside? Well, he has below average power, which can be a tough sell for a corner outfielder. Of course he'll play CF for the Nats so that lessens the power issue but that also lessens his defensive impact. He's likely only an average CF.

Is that it for downside? Yeah, probably. He's a very good player who does a lot well and nothing terribly for a minimal cost.

But what about the cost? Did the Nats give up too much?

Let's take the "no" side first. It is true Giolito was a prized prospect but Lucas had issues this year and apparently the league quickly soured him. The loss of velocity and the lack of dominance in the minors suggest a pitcher that won't develop into an ace and may be looking at another TJ surgery sooner rather than later. Reynaldo Lopez was everyone's new hotness when it comes to Nats minor league starters but the Nats themselves were inclined to see him as a future pen arm rather than a closer. Both pitchers struggled mightily in their first taste of the majors. Dunning is an interesting arm who had a good year in low A (a 1st round draft pick - as were the other two) but would need another good year in 2017 with improved peripherals to make anyones top lists.

The flip side is though that Giolito did have that high ranking, Top 7 across the board in back to back years. Scouts are not idiots and everyone was in agreement on his overall potential. While that ace potential may not be reached, it does seem likely that he still becomes an effective rotation pitcher. He was able to seemingly improve over the course of both his AA and AAA stints this year. Lopez didn't have the pedigree of Giolito but showed an ability to compete in AA and AAA, that at the very least suggests he deserves a longer look.  Both these guys are in their early 20s so performance improvements are certainly not out of the question.

So the most likely scenario is the Nats gave up two extremely cheap back of the rotation starters, coming into form over the next two seasons with one potentially morphing into an effective reliever for a very cheap more than solid CF, who will effectively help over 5. Seems fair when I think about it.

Of course Lito and Lopez have all the upside. It's unlikely Eaton busts out to be a 25 homer guy, but could either of these guys have it click and become special? Yes.  Of course they could also crap out. It's the story for all prop sects but with guys who made lists the idea of a special player isn't the pipe dream it is for most prospects traded.

The Nats did need a CF though and Eaton fills that gap cheaply for a long while. That not only potentially frees up money this year - but leaves money available in future years. For those that want to envision a Nationals future with Bryce rather than without that's important.

What I see coming next is a series of moves. I see Espinosa traded now that it's settled they don't need him. They can save money and avoid any problems he may have sitting. I see Drew being brought back.  I don't see a reliever signed. That's too much money unless... Perhaps they trade for Colome as has been bandied about. An interesting move would be to bring in Colome AND Smyly and then get rid of Gio which would free up money. That could be followed by a Jansen signing.  But that's just a thought though. I've heard nothing like that. And what do the Nats have to offer if Robles is not going anywhere?

And the questions abound on why the souring on Lito? Is it more performance or talent? There's the thought that his arm is ticking and with the slower development the Nats didn't see getting that much out of him before surgery #2.  Of course if he's injured - he won't pass a physical for a trade. So he's likely not injured but that makes his issues mechanical which means fixable.

And what about Cutch - rumors were they could have gotten him for just one of these guys. Cutch wouldn't have fit the money or control that Eaton had but he was an MVP type - a game changer - as recently as 2015. Would it have been better to gamble on him and save yourself one of these arms?

Because what happens to the depth? Voth is an ok guy in reserve, at least as competent as most guys getting a try, but if he fails? Do they love Fedde? And what if, god forbid, two guys go down - it just happened this year. Maybe there's another move for a SP coming?

Ok I'm tired - that's a lot of rambling. Discuss amongst yourselves

*since you are too lazy to look it up yourself 6m, 8.4m, 9.5m, 10.5m with the last two being team options) 

Where we are so far

The Nats lost out on Sale. This is not that unexpected. I twice almost said something like "Why aren't the Red Sox doing something? They need pitching and can afford to lose a couple prospects." but didn't. What a fool Past Harper was! Turns out the Red Sox were putting something together that featured what might be the consensus #1 prospect going into next year in Yoan Moncada.

The initial reaction was very much "The White Sox would want Moncada instead of Robles AND Giolito??!?!" This of course completely ignores the second part of the deal for the Red Sox, Michael Kopech who made as many pre-season Top 100 lists as Nats favorite Reynaldo Lopez. He's a legit prospect, not just a name added. So Moncada+ vs Robles, Giolito+ might draw question marks but Moncada, Kopech+ vs Robles, Giolio+ shouldn't.

And yet it still does with some of you doesn't it? You think "That's like two Top 20 guys at worst, Two Top 10 guys at best. Kopech isn't climbing THAT much" but you ignore a basic truth about rankings. The further you get from the middle the more distorted things tend to get. It's not hard picking the best and worst, it's hard distinguishing one middle from another. If you are ranking 100 things it's very likely that the difference between 1 and 2 and 99 and 100 are much greater than the difference between 49-50-51. Now the back end doesn't actually come into play when we're talking about minor league rankings since we're pulling 100 out of thousands. But the top part is there.

Think about minor league rankings the same way you think about the draft. The #1 guy almost everyone agrees on. The #2 and #3 are pretty clear, etc. etc. By the time you even get to #10 though fuzziness reigns. Your 10 might be someone else's 7 and another person's 19. And much like a draft I'd bet a lot of money that expected future performance drops off quickly when talking about these lists. This is all just a long winded way of saying if you have Moncada at 1 and Giolito at 5 and Robles at 15 you are likely saying you like Moncada A LOT more than Giolito who you like A LOT more than Robles. If Kopech was at like 50 in this scenario I'd bet his expectation would be a lot closer to Robles than Robles' expectation would be to Moncada's. And that's the reason the White Sox take the deal.

Now Barry noted this morning that Lopez might have also been thrown in. To me that does give the Nats the edge.. assuming there's still that "+" there. We've never heard of others though. And if you are going Moncada, Kopech+ vs Robles, Giolito, Lopez well I can see sticking with deal #1. Is that too much for the Nats to deal for Sale? Honestly probably not. If you get Sale you are assuming then your rotation is set for three seasons. Scherzer, Strasburg, Sale, Ross, Roark. None would have to go anywhere before Sale and Roark would be up for FA after 2019. What happens to Lopez and Giolito in the mean time there? Probably just get dealt for someone else. Yeah I know - they'd be great depth! But at some point being depth just serves to hurt their trade value, getting older and not getting any experience. Better to trade sooner rather than later. And if you are thinking "well Lopez moves to the pen!", congrats, you've likely decimated his value and put him in a new position where he may not succeed. I'm sure it would happen that way, him being shifted to relief, but you can't assume he'd just click become a dominant reliever. It doesn't work that way.

The other deal the Nats lost out on was for Melancon. He got a lot of money 4/62 from the Giants. It's too much money. The Nats don't ever spend too much money. That is great but it can also be a problem. We've noted before how it's super easy to go from terrible to bad, easy to go from bad to below average, hard to go from average to good, and very hard to go from good to great. All these changes may effect your teams success in the same way but the costs rise as you move up the scale. To gain a win at the bottom of the scale might be throwing in a decent minor leaguer contract player in place of one that should be out of the game. To gain a win at the top of the scale means bringing in the best at his position. This works individually but can also work at a team level as well. The Nats are looking to move to good to great. One place they could improve over pre-trade deadline Nats is at the closer position. They don't have control of every part of the market. The closer position is at a premium right now. So to improve here the Nats have to pay a lot.

I'm not saying they should have done the deal. I honestly am not sure they should have. I don't think I would have. But I do think that the reality of going from good to great as a team is that you are going to be looking at bringing in very good talent somewhere and it's likely in FA that talent will be overpriced. If you can't bring yourself to make that kind of deal then you limit yourself to waiting for a steal that may not come about, trying to make a trade that you may not be able to pull off, or hoping for a break-out that probably won't come. The surest method of improvement is throwing money at a good player. Don't committ to that and you are left with less sure ways of improvement and hence less sure improvement.

But again if this is all depressing to you the Nats won 95 games last year. Improvement means solidifying that mid 90s status as best they can with an eye toward winning a playoff series by maximizing talent in key places. No improvement means be expected to win in low 90s and compete for a NL East title as likely favorites (unless the Mets do something more) while understanding the most driving force in playoffs is beyond your control. We can rail against inactivity but we shouldn't get so wrapped up in it that we act like it's all or nothing. It's alot or more than alot.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Sale of the Century

You ever watch that game show? Jim Perry's greatest work. Don't bring none of that Card Sharks around here.

Anyway Nats have gone from being THIS CLOSE to getting Andrew McCutchen to being THIS CLOSE to getting Chris Sale. Why the movement? Well a couple reasons. First the Pirates wanted Robles for McCutchen but the Nats didn't want to give up Robles for McCutchen. I disagree but it is their right. They will give up Robles however, and potentially Giolito as well, for Sale.  What's the difference? Well with Sale you aren't hoping for a bounce back year. He was good last year. Cutch wasn't. Also Cutch has two bargain years left. Sale has three bigger bargain years left, when you factor in the premium on pitching. In short you are likely to get more from Sale, at a lower price, for longer. That's the difference.

"Great", you say "but we don't need another starting pitcher. At least not more than a CF or a closer or a catcher or let's be honest a 1B. Why trade for another starting pitcher and not one of those?" Well you could say Rizzo is just doing what Rizzo does - getting the best available rather than worry about what's out there. They did "strengthen a strength" getting Soriano. But then you think back and realize that wasn't a Rizzo move. That was a Lerner move. If you look back though you do see that Rizzo believes you can't have enough pitching.

The 2012 rotation only lost Edwin Jackson, but Rizzo didn't bargain hunt or let rookies try to fill in the 5th spot, he went out and signed a decent veteran arm in Dan Haren. Haren would be out after 2013 and Detwiler got hurt, but the Top 3 was still in place. Rizzo could have went with those guys and tried a mix of Roark, Ohelndorf, Jordan, maybe Karns in the back of the rotation. Nope. He went out and traded for Doug Fister leaving only one spot up for grabs. After 2014 there were actually no holes in the rotation, but Rizzo knew holes would be coming soon so he went out and along with Boras/Lerner signed Max Scherzer. Roark got pushed off for a year to come back in 2016 when ZNN left and opened up a spot. Now that injury and performance has made us doubt Strasburg, Ross, and Gio Rizzo looks to go out and trade for Sale. It fits a pattern.

But there's another reason you trade for Sale as a priority beyond talent, value, and preference. A reason that I hate to bring up but hangs over the team almost every year. You trade for Sale because of payroll. You see the Nats are basically at 150 million in payroll right now, factoring in arbitration salaries. That's about what the Nats would like to spend by all indications, maybe slightly too much.  They've kicked Revere to the curb and let Petit walk as expected. Still though, that just gets them down to their max. They can't take in a big contract without losing one. They don't have that many left they can afford to lose though. Danny Espinosa is one but he can't cover a Cutch or Sale himself. The one contract that can is Gio. But if you bring in Cutch and trade Gio you've got a more questionable rotation situation. Gio wasn't great anymore but he was fine for a back of the rotation pitcher and more importantly he was reliable. You have to replace that. Bring in Sale and trade Gio... well everything matches up fine then. This is cynical but after the Nats went through last season at 145 and didn't add serious payroll at trade deadline it was clear the drop from their 2015 peak wasn't strategic. It was a return to normal.

The White Sox would have liked Turner for Sale. This is ridiculous. The White Sox kind of know that. Their fans don't.  But it is! Sale is a unique commodity, an ace, still young, under very reasonable contract control for three seasons. That should fetch a lot. It should fetch a #1 prospect (like Moncada) or maybe a top prospect who's done well in a month of playing (like Swanson) or even two guys who will definitely be Top 25 guys, might both be Top 10 (like yes, Robles and Giolito) but Trea Turner is none of this. Trea Turner is not a prospect. He is not really a question mark. Trea Turner came in and performed at the highest level for basically half a season. He would have won the ROY for half a season if not for someone doing a tiny bit less than he did but for a full season, in Corey Seager. Oh yes, Seager was a legit MVP candidate. Turner is a guy you feel real strongly will be good next year and if he's good next year , he should be good for the next several. It's very likely he'll be better than just good. It's certainly possible he'll be great. All for dirt cheap prices. So the comparision is a good, potentially great position player for no money for 6 years vs a probably great pitcher for reasonable money for 3.  There is no deal here.

Should the Nats trade for Sale? I said yes just a few weeks ago. It does mean potentially a rebuild rather than an ebb. A trading of Roark, Rendon, and maybe last year Sale for prospects going into 2019 with an eye on a getting back up by 2021. But is that so bad? I'll let you know something. This will come tumbling down at some point. No team wins forever. At least not with a "draft, develop, smart signings" plan. Eventually you run into just enough bad luck or bad judgment to drop you out of contention, and once out of contention - well the temptation to blow it up rather than set it back becomes real strong.

One more thing before we go, if the Nats trade - great. Makes the off-season that more exciting, sets up the likely end of the "Bryce era" as a true WS chase. If they don't though, don't be depressed. They should address their holes but they lived with them most of last year and won 95 games. They could easily do something similar in 2017. There are things that look down but things that look up too.  They could do nothing and right now I'd still probably have them winning the East. This isn't a team teetering between success and failure in 2017. It's a team that should be a success in 2017 regardless of what they do in the offseason. 

Monday, December 05, 2016

Who is Victor Robles?

Many fans have responded to the news that the Nats are being asked for Victor Robles in exchange for Andrew McCutchen with knee-jerk predictability. "HE'S ONE OF OUR TOP PROSPECTS!!! UNTOUCHABLE!!!!" It's not just a Nats fans thing.  That is pretty much guaranteed to be said about any team's Top 1-3 guys in the system when brought up in trade talks. We overvalue our own and assume that because they are the top guys in our system that they are future major leaguers just waiting for their big break. It's usually not true.

But that doesn't mean it's always not true! Someone has to be the major leaguers of tomorrow. The question is - is Robles that? And if so, what kind of major leaguer is he likely to be?

Much like when we looked at Giolito about a year ago, I like to look at why exactly we are excited by Robles and how other players who hit same points turned out. So why are we excited by Robles? Sure he's got the tools, etc. but "tools, etc." doesn't get you talked about like you could be a Top 10 prospect. You need production to go along with it. We are excited because as a 19 year old Robles put up a .305 / .405 / .459 line in class A ball. That is a young age for class A, so being that good is basically a flashing sign saying "this kid might be special".  But how special? Well let's look at all the guys at age 19* who put up a .850 or higher OPS in the Sally** league and what happened to them

KJ Woods - terrible in A+ in 2016, but didn't hit before 2015 so not really comparable to Robles or almost everyone on this list
Austin Meadows - would hit immediately in A+ ball in 2015, then hit in AA at the end of same year. Hit in AA to start 2016. Not great in AAA but injured. Expected to be a major leaguer in 2017
Ryan McMahon - hit in A+ ball in 2015. Did not hit in AA in 2016.
Chance Sisco - 2015 hit a little worse in A+ ball, a little worse that that in AA ball. 2016 Hit well in AA. Catcher who should help part of 2017
Joey Gallo - What did happen to Joey Gallo? He CRUSHED in A ball at 19. 38 homers! 2014 - CRUSHED A+ ball. Powered through AA. 2015 CRUSHED AA, struggled mightily in AAA. Got ML time, didn't hit. 2016 Good in AAA. An unimpressive cup of coffee in Texas. Will probably get a big chuck of time in majors in 2017 to see where he's at. Fun prospect with ELITE power. 
Nick Williams - 2014 hit well enough in A+ ball to get a AA trial. Failed. 2015 AA went much better. 2016 did just ok in AAA. Not quite a KJ Woods type, but not with other real prospects here, either
Alen Hanson - KJ Woods type. Been moved up to do it but never really hit all that great. Looks like a AAA guy.
Trevor Story - Stepped back in 2013 but then got it in 2014... then struggled in AA. But then adapted in 2015 and was a good starter for Colorado in 2016.
Gary Sanchez - didn't hit like that again until 2015 but hit well enough to get moved along, given he's a catcher. Hit well in AAA in 2016. Performance upon call-up to majors shockingly good. Will see a lot of playing time in 2017 to see how fluky that was.
Johnathan Schoop - moved up and basically made an Oriole in 2014 just because, not because he earned it. Struggled terribly in 2014. A fair major leaguer in 2015/6.
Christian Yelich - never stopped hitting. Also reached majors in 2013 but deserved to. Hit fairly well in majors before breaking out in 2016.
Nolan Arenando - hit in 2011 but not in AA in 2012, but after an impressive Fall League got a AAA shot in 2013 was killing it so got a major league shot hasn't looked back. Not as good offensively as you might think (Coors you know) but a very good major leaguer

One thing should be flat out obvious. Victor Robles is not helping the 2017 Nats. Victor Robles is very very likely not helping the 2018 Nats either. That's the case across the board here. If he were an 18 year old maybe you look for immediate fast impact - the names there are Bryce, Stanton, Freeman, Machado, Heyward. But he's not so you don't. So we're looking at the 2019 Nats for the likely earliest time Robles will be up and helping the Nats offensively. And that's an optimistic projection. More likely is that it'll be 2020 or so before he really develops.

The second thing is that a lot of these guys are big power big K guys. Robles is an average and patience guy.  On one hand that's great. The strikeout issue is the sticking point for many a great minor leaguer who can't hack it in the majors. That shouldn't be an issue for Robles. On the other hand, that's not great. The power is what makes players special. If Robles can't develop it then his impact on the future Nats is limited.

Since we hit a lot of decent players right at the end there I went back and looked at a few more years and they were more like 2012 on than 2010/2011. A mixed bag at best. That's not to say Robles can't develop, just that a very good 19 year A-ball season doesn't mean all that much when it comes to major league success. I think what will be telling for Victor is what we see in 2017. The true flame-outs seemed to all quickly drop back into not hitting. If Victor does that - well then he might be a flameout. (might) If he keeps hitting then I'd seriously doubt that a flameout is in his future.

But still we're talking flameouts here. Guys that never make the majors or barely play. A guy good enough to just make the majors on the bench or to be a blah starter for a couple years shouldn't be enough to hold up a trade. Is that what Robles is likely to be? My guess, and I stress guess, is no. I think he's better than that. But I see him as a .280 slap hitter with patience in 2020. If he's got great speed and defense still at that point, then there's a lot of value there. A leadoff hitter, CF for cheap for 6 years. If he doesn't then he's just a line-up piece. A 3rd/4th OF who you play because he saves the ton of money you need to get much better at his position. Where you fall here matters, but also consider the time frame. Where will the Nats be in 2020? Do you think Max and Stras will still be dealing? That Rendon and Roark will still be here and good?

Keeping Robles is betting on 2020 being a time where Robles being a very good leadoff type matters.  I don't see myself making that bet. I'm sorry. Not because I think the Nats will be bad then, but because I understand I have no idea how the Nats will be by then and keeping a Robles type for the giant question mark fog of four years down the road seems silly to me. If you don't like Cutch fine. Don't trade for him. But don't let it be Robles that holds you up.

*Remember age is super impt here so 18 year olds and 20 year olds need not apply.

**Remember league is super impt here too. Some leagues are super hitter friendly. The Sally isn't one of those though.

Friday, December 02, 2016

McCutchen - what's your price

The talk around the Nats getting Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates is heating up.  Personally, I don't think anything will happen before the Winter Meetings.  Why? Because it doesn't really make sense for either team to get the deal done right this second.

The Pirates probably have several prices set in their mind for McCutchen. There's a price they'd love to get, a price they expect to get, and a minimum price they'd take if they had to. In order to get a price closer to the former rather than the latter, it makes sense for them to shop around McCutchen to the most teams possible and the Winter Meetings is a great place to feel out if they've completed that work. Of course the Nats can force the issue by giving the Pirates something close to that "love to get" price. But...

The Nats probably have ideas to about what they'd give up for Cutch. What they'd like to give up, what they will give up if necessary. Right now all they can do is offer roughly what they'd like to and keep ramping it up if it feels like the Pirates aren't going to take it. The Pirates have all the leverage. Go to the Winter Meetings and get a feeling that the market for Cutch isn't that hot and then you've got some leverage and can keep the price low. Sure you risk someone coming in with a better deal, but if you know the other people involved and feel you are very likely to be able to outbid them, waiting makes sense.

So I don't expect a deal to get done until Sunday or after. Sorry. But maybe I'm wrong!

What would I give up for Cutch? I'd go two good prospects deep.  I would go Robles and Giolito or Robles and Lopez. But I love Cutch. Something I wouldn't do? Robles and Ross. Do I think Lito and maybe Lopez will be better ML pitchers than Ross... I guess so. But I think with much higher certainty that I know what Ross' floor is and that's still a major league pitcher. I don't mind giving away potential. I do mind giving away actual. Ross himself? Sure. But not with your best offensive prospect.

What about Cutch himself? Contract wise it's a fine grab.  He's not super expensive (14 million) and the team has control over a second year (14.75 team option). He's normally worth so much more that even a big drop in stats would be still worth the price. And yet last year he wasn't worth it.

The average dropped but so did the patience. His speed isn't quite there anymore. It may have been a particularly bad defensive year but the general trend is yes, he's not below average in CF. (Which is completely understandable as a guy who at his peak was probably just a bit above average).  The only thing that's holding up is the power.

What do the fancy stats say? Is it bad luck? BABIP... a little low for him, even considering a speed drop. However the way he hits' the ball suggests more flyball and fewer hard hit balls. That's a good combination for lowering BABIP. The more flyballs thing has been a several year thing so it's the drop in hard hit balls (and increase in soft hit balls) that is driving this issue. So then we look at swings - is he swinging at worse pitches? Not really - swings on pitches outside the zone is down and contact on these pitches (usually bad contact) is down too. But that's another thing - He's making a lot less contact meaning the K-rate is up. Highest of his career - up four straight year. So if it's not the type of contact is it bat speed? That's not a bad guess.

The gamble on him is then, that he will improve. I'd say there's a pretty good chance he will. The pretty good chance though is not of back to MVP level, just a mild general improvement, the defense won't seem as bad (it bounces around and was particularly low last year), the BABIP might tick up, the K-rate and BB-rate can probably be worked on a little as it doesn't seem to be a recognition issue.  If that happen then it's a good chance he'll be worth his contract and that means a good chance he'll be a good player.

Can he be a great player again? That's more of a gamble but it is in the realm of the possibility.  Guys have off years for whatever reasons all the time. Some lingering injury, something psychological, some early bad luck rolling into a situation where you are pressing all year long. For example what happened to your own beloved Dusty Baker in 1978?(the 76 was clearly an injury thing) On the flipside can he be terrible? I suppose so. If he continues to decline - let's say more Ks fewer walks and no change elsewhere, then you are just repeating the problems of this year - a non-performing CF at a MUCH more expensive price plus below average defense (though I'd bet you anything that improves from this year).

The potential tipping point though is the fact it would probably be ok if he just stays the same for two more years. Again - let's say D "improves" and offense is same. That's an above average player.  This year was a disaster in CF before Turner and while Espinosa has a lot more going for him than people like to admit, he's not an above average player. This would improve the team a decent amount. Sure you can probably get this improvement more cheaply.  Sitting on Revere for a year might do it. But you would likely be gambling on that being as high as you get. No chance for the MVP season like you get from Cutch, while probably having the same "this could still be a disaster" floor.

So that's why I lean toward trading for him.  And I'd go ahead and do Lopez/Robles and not think twice.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Offseason Position Discussion : Starting Pitching

Getting close to the Winter Meetings now.  Are you ready to be sneaking around hotels hoping to overhear bits and pieces of information like good little spies? No? You have jobs and lives? What good are you?  

Last Year's Discussion
Last year's rotation was pretty set and we knew it. Max, Stras, Gio, Roark, and Ross.

We didn't have any real issue with the plan. Yes, we worried about Strasburg's health. Yes, we worried about Gio's decline. Yes, we (well more "I") worried about Ross' limited history. Yes, we worried if  Roark could do it again. But these were all good bets to take and as a whole the biggest rotation worry was depth. After these five it wasn't clear who would fill in, especially early in the year.

Well it turns out that didn't matter much early in the year. Stras would miss a couple games in June but the first 80 games were not only basically injury free, but free of worry as well. Max scuffled a bit in April but that cleared up fine. Roark did do it again. Strasburg looked good. Ross looked good. Yes, Gio really had us looking at alternatives after a poor May and June, but one pitcher in a rotation being in trouble isn't a worry. It's a season going well.

At that point things unraveled a bit. Ross' injury in July essentially put the Gio issue on the back burner. The depth issue we worried about did not get clearer as the year went on and Lopez, Giolito, and Cole all struggled as replacements. Ross would never really get back and worse, Strasburg would be shut down as the year drew to a close. Now the Nats, who half-way through the year were four deep, were two deep and if they hadn't faced the Dodgers in the playoffs would have had a very tough call on starting the struggling Gio or the maybe healthy Ross.

They made it to the finish line but just barely.

Presumed Plan 
Max, Stras, Roark, one of Gio/Ross, something new.

Reasoning on Presumed Plan 
Max won the Cy Young. He's got a huge long contract. He's in.
Roark got a Cy Young vote (just one but it was deserved). He's super cheap. He's in.

At this point we run into the problem the Nats would like to solve. They have two pitchers who they feel they can rely on (as much as you can) to be healthy and good. That means they have to hope things work out for one of the rest to set them up decently for the playoffs, which they presume to make. If it's Strasburg, great! It's hard to imagine him not being good if he's healthy. If it's not Strasburg then it's a question mark on how good a thing that is. Rather than leave it up to the fates again, the Nats would be wise to make a deal, and they've already floated out there that Gio is available and that they were willing to trade a starter last year.

Even if they don't get a new starter, it's very likely that Lopez or Giolito (or both) will need to start getting some full-time major league work next season. They both handled AAA pretty well last year. It was in limited innings, so a second go around would be advisable, but it would surprise me if at least one of them wasn't doing well enough by the All-Star break to warrant a long look in the majors.

It won't be Strasburg going though. Yes, he's got a team-friendly contract for someone with his age and performance record, but the injury history can't be ignored. His forearm issues probably make him expendable in trade by the Nats, but also probably make him not a target for anyone else. Perhaps if he came back fully last year, but he didn't. He's in.

It could easily be Gio. He's much older than Ross and clearly on the decline. He's got value though. He's on a team friendly deal. You wouldn't be tied to a long contract - 2 years at most. He's not old (31 next year). He's durable. Plus teams could always use lefties. Of course that goes for the Nats too.

It could also easily be Ross. Ross didn't do much wrong last year, but he also didn't make himself untradable, a la Trea Turner. He was more hittable last year, without improving in other areas. He failed to surpass the 150 IP mark he hit as a career high in 2015, leaving questions about his durability. But he's still young (24 next year), and figures to be at worst a #3ish type for 3/4 of a season and is under team control through 2021. Of course for the Nats he's a #4 and that means he has more value to some other team than he does for the Nats. That means it's worth exploring what he can bring back.

Problems with Presumed Plan  
There's always concerns with pitching injuries. That is baseball life. Given that, nothing much has changed about what we said last year. There isn't a clear replacement available right now if the Nats suffer injuries. So making a trade would potentially make things worse in that regard.

On the first guys mentioned you can nitpick issues. Max did struggle a bit going to the end of the year and you all know I think his workload and age is setting himself up for an extended period of missed time. As for Roark, his peripherals (highest BB/9, lowest K/9 of any Nats starter) do not inspire the confidence.

Strasburg... it all comes down to injuries doesn't it? He seemed to turn a corner last year in learning how to pitch and not just overpower the opponent but the fragility remains. Which ever of the last two are kept, big issues remain. Gio could easily finally go over the border into "innings eating 5th starter" land which he seems inexorably moving over to. Ross has to prove he can pitch a full season and some improvement or at least a steadiness, would be nice. 

My Take 
Max and Tanner are set. This isn't a question. You can nitpick Max, but CY YOUNG. You can nitpick Roark, but at this point who's betting on him not being at least good next year? Being hard to hit is hard to quantify in fancy stats but he seems to have it. Strasburg also has to be in. If you try to trade him you are selling low and the Nats need a healthy Strasburg as much as any other team.

Ok so who to deal? Gio is more expendable, but Ross will bring back more.  Gio has particular value as a lefty, as we saw in the playoffs, but Ross sets up the team better for the future, even if he settles in at the back of the rotation for the next few seasons.

I have to say you first try to trade Gio. Yes, lefties are necessary but it took a particular match-up to make that an issue and I'll take my chances that doesn't come up again. Good pitchers should beat any team any way. If you can keep Ross you do it because unlike Gio he can be in Washington 4-5 years from now, still cheap. At worst he'd be Gio, ably filling innings. At best he'd be another teams #2/#3 sitting in your four spot. There is an injury/durability question no-doubt, but at 24 I'm willing to bet on him, especially given that Gio is likely only in DC for one more year.

That being said if you can trade Ross to get much better for the next 2+ years you do it. Like if Ross is necessary to get Sale, well nice knowing you Joe! He does have more value for another team than the Nats where if things go right he wouldn't break the Top 3 until Roark maybe leaves in 2020. Let him flourish somewhere else for 4-5 years and let the Nats dominate here for 2-3. That seems right.

Out of the Box Idea
The Nats have gone starting pitching first for this entire time frame. It's gotten them a lot of wins, three division titles... and no playoff series wins. Let's shake things up. Let's trade Ross and Gio AND Roark. Ross, Gio and whatever else is necessary over to Arizona for Goldschmidt and Castillo. Roark and whatever else is left to Col for Charlie Blackmon. Let's try slugging it to a championship for a change.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Max and the Terrible, Not-Good, Very-Good, Excellent, Just Good, Passable Cy Young Season

Max Scherzer won the Cy Young last Wednesday and I was taken to task for not celebrating it in verse and rhyme. Cy Young! That's great! We must gather together and feast in his name! Right?

Well I can give you three big reasons why the celebration was a head nod and not a shout. First, there isn't anything particularly compelling about this. We've been pretty much talking about Max on and off all year. We know he's been very good. We realized he was a Cy Young contender and before the awards we noted he was a likely favorite. As a previous winner who wasn't short-changed in front of us it's hard to get all that excited for "excellent player gets his due, which he has also gotten before because he was an excellent player then as well". Second, Max was objectively better last year. No, he didn't win more games but other than a few Ks (and just a few 8 more in one fewer third of an inning) he walked a lot fewer, gave up fewer homers, and threw 4 complete games, 3 shutouts, and 2 no-hitters*. Third, let's face it Max got the "Clayton Kershaw got hurt, so who do we give it to now" Cy Young award.

So there's why we're not jumping up and down in the aisles. But that's not to say Max doesn't deserve his due. So how did Max end up with a Cy Young? The short answer is the meat of the Max Scherzer season was amazing.

As you probably remember, Max's season started pretty poorly. Seven starts in and his ERA sat at 4.60.  He had flashes of his dominant 2015 self but something was off. He wasn't unhittable. He wasn't as in control. And most disturbingly he was getting bombed, capped off by a four homer game against the Cubs. Giving up homers while not keeping guys off base - that's not just a bad combination - it's a losing one.

Max had to get it together and he mostly did. Over the next few games he got unhittable again. He got back in control. He... well he kept getting bombed but as he let fewer and fewer guys on base those homers mattered less and less. Solo homers don't kill you. He didn't have perfect games, but he gave the Nats games they should win. Max seemed to be getting back into form.

By mid-season, Max would conquer the HR issue as well. In June and July he'd have almost as many homerless games (5) as games with a homer (6) and only one multi-homer game.  He was on the top of his game. In 13 starts from June 1st through August 9th he put up these numbers. A .163 / .209 / .288 line against him. 1.7 BB/9, 11.8 K/9, 0.9 HR/9.** This was about as good as a pitcher can be over an extended period.  This 40% of an historic season is what got Max the Cy Young.

Why do I say that? Because things starting to unravel a bit as the season drew to a close. While he kept the homers down, he started to get hit a bit again. He started to walk a bit again. It wasn't a big deal. Without the homers he was still keeping offenses down and it was still Cy Young caliber type pitching, but it was a break from the dominance we had started to become accustomed to. For instance, during that 13 game stretch Max had allowed more baserunners than IP twice. In the next 7 games he did it 4 times. As much as Max was rounding into form to during the end of May, he was falling out of it now.

As the season ended all of issues that plagued Max to start the year were back. He was walking too many. He was getting hit more than he had all year and now the homers were back. It took guile and luck to keep the runs from getting on the board but he managed to mostly do that. It was a poor finish (4.38 ERA over last 4 games) but it could have been worse. While I still hold that it was that awesome middle that got Max the Cy Young, not falling apart at the end helped a lot too. He's not just a thrower, he's a pitcher and pitching well when he didn't have his best stuff kept the team in the game and the team rewarded him.

See the funny part of Max's season is that while he was falling out of form to end the year the team really had his back. They would win every single one of his last 10 starts and he would pick up the W in 8 of them. Wins don't mean what they used to, but it couldn't hurt voters to see that big 20 next to his name.

Max's season wasn't ideal. It did have some valleys, but they weren't so low to take away from the towering peaks. It was a deserved award and in a season where three other Nats members just lost out to slightly more deserving candidates, it's glad to see Max not get minorly screwed out of his rightful award.

*And a 9 inning, 1 hit, 16K game that proceeded a no-hitter. That's the best back-to-back pitching performance you are going to see. 

**I know I keep harping on this but I feel like some people may still not get it so let me note here that Clayton Kershaw's worst 13 game stretch was better than Max's best. That is how good Kershaw was last year and really the last 3 seasons. Not that he deserved to win the Cy Young. He didn't. 80 IP is a big difference.