Thursday, July 26, 2012

Who's Next? (Nationals edition)

Now that we've covered some of the recent bigger trades, who still needs pieces, and who has pieces to sell?  According to the Worldwide Leader's playoff odds, eight American League teams (the Yankees, Rangers, White Sox, Tigers, Angels, A's, Red Sox, and Blue Jays) and seven National League teams (Nationals, Reds, Giants, Pirates, Cardinals, Braves, and Dodgers) have at least a 20% chance of making the postseason, with both the Rays in the AL and the Diamondbacks in the NL just under that number.  That's a lot of teams with winning records that could be looking to make moves.  As for who is available, for the right price your team may be able to acquire one or more of the following: Zack Greinke, Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Hunter Pence, almost any Miami Marlin (possibly including beer vendors), Shane Victorino, Yunel Escobar, James Shields, Jon Lester, Daniel Murphy, Josh Willingham, Alfonso Soriano (it's like seeing an old friend!), Bryan LaHair, Chase Headley, Denard Span, Justin Morneau, Jed Lowrie, Shaun Marcum, Huston Street, Brandon League, Jonathon Broxton, and any number of other decent relievers on bad teams.

My hometown Nationals are in a very interesting position as the deadline approaches.  If you follow baseball, you may have heard something about this innings limit that the Nats are going to stick to with Stephen Strasburg.  If they a) are seriously going to be the Strasmas Grinch and b) want to solidify their chances for a playoff spot, there are better options than turning that rotation spot over to John Lannan, a solid but thoroughly unremarkable pitcher currently toiling away in Syracuse due to lack of space on the roster.  And while the pitching staff has remained remarkably healthy all year, the lineup has not, with catcher Wilson Ramos out for the season since May, outfielders Michael Morse and Jayson Werth spending long stretches on the disabled list, and the recent loss of shortstop Ian Desmond (in the midst of something of a breakout year) for a month with a torn oblique.  Fortunately for the Nats, they have capable replacements in Danny Espinosa (moving from second to short) and Steve Lombardozzi (moving from the outfield back to the infield).  Werth has started his rehab assignment and should be back soon, although wrist injuries are tough to come back from quickly.  All this is to say that the Nationals might also be looking to add a decent bat to their lineup now who could be a weapon off of the bench in October.

It's entirely fitting that the Nationals are now in a position to be adding a marquee name or two, since ten years ago at this time, back when contraction was a distinct possibility as the Montreal Expos, then-GM Omar Minaya traded away more than 77 future WAR* worth of Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore to the Indians for a two-month rental of Bartolo Colon.  Colon pitched well, but the Expos were never in serious contention, and that gutting of their system helped lead the Nationals down the path that landed them Strasburg and Bryce Harper at the top of back-to-back drafts.

*That would be the baseball-reference version of WAR. If you prefer fangraphs, the total is 95.5.  Cue Jonah Keri sobbing in his beer.

Of course, one could say that the Nationals already made their big trade during the past off-season, when they sent A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock and Derek Norris to Oakland for Gio Gonzalez, who has been outstanding for Washington.  That trade sent the Nats tumbling to 21st in Keith Law's organizational rankings, and now that Harper is in the majors to stay, injury-prone third baseman Anthony Rendon is the only guy in Law's top 100 still in the Washington system.  So a blockbuster deal might be difficult to pull off.

If the Nats deal for a starting pitcher, odds are it probably won't be Greinke (because they don't want a mere two-month rental) or Dempster (same reason, plus he can veto any trade with his 10-and-5 rights).  That leaves Garza, Shields, Lester, and Marcum.  Shields and Marcum are also eligible for free agency this winter, so why are they more likely targets than Greinke?  For one thing, Shields has a 2013 team option worth $9 million, a very reasonable price for a 31-year-old to be who strikes out almost a batter an inning and has a strong career track record in baseball's toughest division.  For another, if the Nats pursue a soon-to-be free agent they will want to work out an extension beforehand.  Now that Cole Hamels has re-upped with Philadelphia, Greinke, just 28, is a lock to be the best pitcher on the open market this winter and also unquestionably the top free agent prize period (who doesn't have a team option, as Robinson Cano, David Wright, and Curtis Granderson all do).  He will probably want to test his value on the market and see if he can top the six years and $144 million that Hamels got, not out of the question given that a) they're the same age and b) plenty of teams will be bidding on him.*

*Although his social anxiety disorder may hold off overtures from, say, the Yankees and Red Sox.

Marcum, meanwhile, who will also be an unrestricted free agent, is one of the more underrated starters in baseball, with career numbers of 7.3 K/9, a 114 ERA+, and a 4.23 FIP that has trended almost half a run lower than that each of the past three seasons.  He's underrated because he's pitched his entire career in Toronto and Milwaukee, but I would hazard a guess to say that he would be the second-best pitcher on as many as half the staffs in baseball.  On the Nationals he would be fourth, but that only speaks to the quality of their rotation.  So the possibility exists that Washington could trade for Marcum and extend his contract at a discount.

Lester and Garza, meanwhile, are two guys who each need a change of scenery, but for very different reasons.  Lester, a 28-year-old southpaw, is signed through next year with a $14 million option for 2014.  He's a two-time All-Star who has mysteriously been getting knocked around this year, with his WHIP rising to almost 1.50 even as his walk rate has dropped from 3.5/9 to 2.8/9.  He was at the center of the ridiculous fried-chicken-and-beer brouhaha last September, and it's entirely possible that all he needs to regain his form (especially at his age) is a new address and an escape from the Boston media frenzy.  Garza, on the other hand, merely needs to be on a good team.  Also 28, but a righty, Garza has incredible stuff but seems to lack focus at times.  However, he is typically at his best in the biggest situations, with solid records in both his five playoff starts and in his career against the AL East.  I think he may just get bored pitching for a bottom-feeder such as the Cubs.  He is under team control through 2013.

Of the available options, I feel like Garza would offer the best value at the best possible price for the Nationals.  Trading for Shields means dealing with the Rays' front office, who are unlikely to give up a proven performer for less than a major package, particularly if he will only cost $9 million next year.  Marcum is 31, three years older than Garza and Lester, and more likely to leave for free agency this winter.  Lester's significant drop in performance is worrisome, whereas Garza has been cruising along at the same level for several years, regardless of competition.  Also, the Red Sox are more likely to stick it out and fight for a playoff berth with what they have, unlike the hapless Cubs.  So what would Garza cost?  I would hazard a guess that Theo Epstein would be looking for one major league-ready player and probably two decent-to-good prospects from the minors. Could they swing a deal for Garza with John Lannan, Alex Meyer, and Destin Hood?  Ideally they can make a trade for a pitcher without giving up Rendon, their best hitting prospect.

If they trade for a bat, however, they probably will have to give up Rendon.  But there are several indicators that point to Washington not jumping in on a hitter.  For one, the options are weak.  The best hitters out there are probably Escobar, Willingham, and Headley, none of whom offers a real upgrade from Desmond, Morse, and Ryan Zimmerman, respectively.  For another, Jayson Werth is expected back within a week, and the team felt good enough about its outfield depth that they designated plus defender Rick Ankiel for assignment recently.  With the versatility of Lombardozzi, a good infielder if a so-so outfielder, they are prepared to weather the storm in Desmond's absence.  And at catcher, the one offensive black hole in the lineup (Ramos' regular replacement, Jesus Flores, has a .228/.267/.332 season line), there are no options on the market.  So despite the great quality and depth of their pitching staff, they are more likely to trade for an arm than a bat.

A third option in what has become a two-horse race in the NL East (Washington and Atlanta) is to drive up the bidding on one of the pitchers that the Braves are after (which is all of them) in order to either block Atlanta from acquiring a Greinke, or at least force them to give up more prime assets than they want to.  And these are just two of the teams looking for some help.  However it shakes out, this year's trading season should be one of the more exciting ones we've seen in recent years.