Friday, February 13, 2015

Spring Training Preview: Washington Nationals

What a wild winter it has been in baseball! The great news is, pitchers and catchers are only a few days from reporting to spring training sites in Florida and Arizona, which of course is always something to look forward to during the dark, cold days of February. And while there has been a lot of moving and shaking going on, perhaps no team more boldly announced its intentions to gun for a World Series title in 2015 than the Washington Nationals with their mid-January acquisition of Max Scherzer in free agency.* That bombshell followed a relatively quiet off-season for the team that saw them make only one potentially puzzling move, a trade of premiere setup man and great clubhouse guy Tyler Clippard to Oakland for malcontent shortstop Yunel Escobar, who will in all likelihood be the second baseman this year. Let's run down what has happened so far and what might still come before the start of the season for the presumptive National League favorites in the nation's capital city.

*Which makes the Nationals even more of a Scott Boras All-Star Ensemble than they were before. To wit; Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, and Danny Espinosa are all Boras clients. That's a quarter of the roster, and all of them (with the possible exception of Espinosa) will be key players for the Nationals this year.

I have to admit, I am continually impressed with how close to the vest Mike Rizzo and the Nationals brass play their cards. I don't remember reading anywhere that acquiring Scherzer was a possibility, because of course the team already had the best rotation, one through five, in the entire sport. So now what do they do with their surplus? Contrary to the opinions of many, the arrival of Scherzer doesn't mean that they HAVE to trade one of the other five; they could send Roark back to the bullpen and have him ready if and when one of their more expensive starters gets injured. That flexibility means that they can wait to be overwhelmed with an offer for someone, although the idea of getting Xander Bogaerts or some other premiere prospect for one year of Zimmermann is pure fantasy.

Since a trade IS a real possibility, let's analyze the options and see what might fetch the Nationals the highest-quality return:

  (A) - Jordan Zimmermann, age 29, one year remaining at $16.5 million; Zimmermann is, I believe, a top-fifteen pitcher in baseball, who doesn't really have swing-and-miss stuff but does have a consistent track record of producing bad contact. He would immediately be the best pitcher on twenty teams in baseball, but is hitting free agency next winter and will probably command something in the same neighborhood as Jon Lester did from the Cubs (six years, $150 million).

  (B) - Doug Fister, age 31, one year remaining at $11.4 million; Fister is the most underrated pitcher in baseball, a good athlete who induces a ton of ground balls and harmless pop-ups. Traditionalists overlook him (even though he's 6'8") because he doesn't throw very hard, with an average fastball velocity of 88 mph. Analytics don't always care for him because he doesn't strike very many guys out. Yet he's been one of the better pitchers in baseball for four years now.

  (C) - Stephen Strasburg, age 26, two years remaining at roughly $20 million (one more year of arbitration); a lot of Nationals fans (cue my parents) have come to believe that Strasburg can't perform in the clutch, and/or that he's not worth the hype. Yes, he still has composure issues when his defense makes mistakes behind him (although these diminished significantly in the second half of 2014), but he also has better swing-and-miss stuff than perhaps any other pitcher in the sport, with high-90s heat (in two varieties), a devastating curve, and a changeup that disappears, plus a slider that he started sporting last year. That arsenal is reflected in his career strikeout rate of 10.3 per nine innings, a mark which is third in the history of baseball among all starters with at least 600 innings under their belt, behind only Randy Johnson and Mark Prior. Prior, of course, invites an unwelcome comparison thanks to his injury history, and there are legitimate concerns about Strasburg's max-effort delivery. Regardless, he's a lot better than a lot of Nationals fans give him credit for.

  (D) - Gio Gonzalez, age 29, two years remaining at $23 million combined, plus a $12 million team option for 2017 and a $12 million vesting option for 2017; the erratic Gonzalez is suddenly very cheap in today's market. He's probably good for seventy or eighty percent of what you could get from Jon Lester at forty percent of the cost. He's prone to the occasional ugly start (ugly as in five walks and seven hits in three laborious innings), but also misses a lot of bats.

  (E) - Tanner Roark, age 28, two years remaining before arbitration; Roark is the great unknown, as I don't know how sure anyone is that his 250 innings represent something real or a guy who will turn back into a twenty-fifth round pumpkin (who was once traded for Cristian Guzman) after another trip through the league. If his performance is real, or close to it, he offers five years of cost control as a very serviceable third or fourth starter on most teams.

*My full top fifteen, in order: Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Scherzer, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner, David Price, Jon Lester, Adam Wainwright, Cole Hamels, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto, Fister, Corey Kluber, Zack Greinke. Yes, that's four Nationals in the top fifteen. Yes, Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez will find themselves back on this list quickly (and fairly high at that) with a return to full health.

Given age, ability, and service time considerations, I would think that two years of the supremely talented Strasburg would fetch the most in a trade, followed by Roark (assuming some GM out there believes he's for real), Zimmermann, Gonzalez, and Fister. Zimmermann only rates above Gonzalez because more teams see him as an impact guy, an actual ace, whereas Gonzalez is seen as more of a workhorse with occasional bursts of greatness. The other consideration to trading a starting pitcher is what to do if one of the guys that they keep gets hurt. Never fear, Nationals fans.

Not only do the Nationals have six above-average starters already on the major league roster, they're not exactly lacking for pitching depth in the minors, either, with four pitchers listed among Keith Law's top 100 prospects in the sport: A.J. Cole (98), Reynaldo Lopez (75), Joe Ross (63), and Lucas Giolito (8). Cole, who's been traded to the Athletics (for Gonzalez) and back (for Michael Morse in a three-team swap), is major-league ready after posting a 3.16 ERA in twenty-five starts across the two highest minor league levels last year, but currently has nowhere to go. Lopez is just 21 and might jump to AA this spring after destroying the New York-Penn and Sally Leagues at the A level last summer. Ross came from the Padres in the trade that sent Stephen Souza to Tampa Bay, and finished the year with very respectable numbers in AA San Antonio; he'll be 22 in May. And Giolito is widely regarded as a future star, especially after striking out more than a batter an inning in the Sally League as a teenager last year; he too should start 2015 at AA Harrisburg.

The point is, the Nationals can trade one of their current starters for help or upgrades elsewhere, knowing that Cole is ready now in case of emergency, and Giolito, Lopez, and/or Ross may be ready for the majors as soon as next spring. It's a strong position to be in, and because they dealt Clippard, they have the flexibility to slide Roark to the pen and use him as a fireman/long reliever/spot starter as needed. Also, what would the Nationals even need to upgrade elsewhere?

Should the team attempt to trade a pitcher, my guess is that they would be looking for a cost-controlled, All-Star caliber player at one of the following positions: second base (their greatest "need"), center field, or catcher. Some Nationals fans might express a desire for a more Proven Closer (TM), but there is absolutely zero reason to trade any of the five pitchers capable of providing two hundred above average to great innings per season because Drew Storen has had a couple of bad experiences in elimination games. That's the definition of not seeing the forest for the trees. Anyway, why those three positions?

Second base is probably the one position in the field that you could point to and say that the Nationals are below average there. Danny Espinosa has almost 1300 plate appearances that prove he can't hit left-handed (.213/.284/.362), although he does have the best infield glove on the team. Escobar hasn't posted a league-average OPS since 2011, and has a well-deserved reputation as a malcontent and potential clubhouse cancer. The team is so desperate to keep their options open that they took a spring training flier on Dan Uggla, who owns 233 career home runs but hasn't cracked the Mendoza Line since 2012, and will turn 35 next month.

Catcher and center field are both manned by capable performers, but neither Wilson Ramos nor Denard Span is a star, and Ramos is injury-prone even by the standards of catchers, with only one season of more than 88 games played. There also aren't any quality catchers in the farm system above high-A Potomac. Span is a quality defender who offers good speed and on-base ability but no power, and is a free agent at year's end. Depending on how confident the team is in Michael Taylor's development (he was Law's 71st-ranked prospect and actually reached the majors last fall), they could pursue another player there.

Second base, however, is still the most logical spot to go after someone better than what they have, and were I Mike Rizzo, my goal would be to market Roark and his five remaining years of team control to a team that needs pitching and has a surplus of middle infielders, which makes the two most obvious candidates the Cubs (who have to split Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Arismendy Alcantara between two positions) and the Rangers (who will have to decide what to do at some point between Rougned Odor and Jurickson Profar once the latter returns in mid-season). If they're willing to consider trading Strasburg, there's also the potential that the Red Sox could be persuaded to part with Bogaerts or Mookie Betts.

Anyway, enough about hypothetical trades! Let's take a look at the bats and gloves that will be behind this vaunted pitching staff this year. Although Jayson Werth will miss the start of the season thanks to shoulder surgery, every regular but Adam LaRoche and mid-season acquisition Asdrubal Cabrera is back for 2015. Ryan Zimmerman will slide across the diamond to take over for LaRoche, and should provide a similar level of offense (with significantly smaller platoon splits) so long as he can avoid the injury bug that cost him one hundred games a year ago. Ian Desmond is a solid defensive shortstop with power, which makes him one of the top three or four shortstops in the game. Span is a good bet to hit .285-.295 from the leadoff spot with a .345 or so OBP, and to run down a lot of fly balls in center field. Someone with four operable limbs will win the second base job. Ramos will catch about half the games. Werth will get on base a ton and flash occasional power, and cause a lot of women I know to swoon.

The real excitement in Washington, however, will derive from the two young players poised to make a serious leap and battle for National League MVP honors; Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper. Rendon started the season at second base and moved to his more natural third base spot after Zimmerman hit the disabled list, but neither the defensive switch nor it being his first full season caused him to blink; he hit .287/.351/.473, played outstanding defense, and ran the bases well (17-for-20 on steal attempts), all of which earned him a fifth-place MVP finish. There is nothing he doesn't do at least at an above average level, and he exudes a preternatural calm in his at-bats, spitting on pitches just outside of the zone, and rarely swinging at those which he can't drive. He's already the best third baseman in the National League, and is still getting better.

Harper, meanwhile, endured an injury-prone season, missing 62 games with various ailments (in particular a thumb injury, which is devastating to a power hitter) while posting a disappointing .273/.344/.423 line that was still eleven percent better than league average. Then he went and had the kind of performance in the NLDS that would have won him series MVP had the Nationals beaten the Giants, with almost a quarter mile's worth of home runs in four games. By the way, even though he'll be starting his fourth season this year, he's still one of the five youngest regulars in all of baseball. So chew on that for awhile. I think that assuming full health, the Harper of August through October is a reasonable expectation.

Finally, once again the Nationals will be in a division with two teams that will likely be bad (Atlanta and Philadelphia, which is just music to my ears), giving them more opportunities to prove their status as baseball's presumed best team. The Mets and Marlins will be frisky, but may not have all the horses to compete with Washington throughout the entire summer. In any case, as the temperature dips below freezing, keep yourself warm with the thought that next week from Florida you will hear one of the greatest sentences (and definitely the greatest in the passive voice) in the entirety of the English language: "Pitchers and catchers report for spring training."