Last season, 11 MLB teams won at least 91 games and made it to some type of playoff, wild card, or tie breaker game. Nine of those teams had a # 2 catcher with an OPS of at least .650; over all 11 teams, the average OPS of the # 2 catcher was .711 in 252 plate appearances. Although there are a lot of weak-hitting backup catchers in Major League Baseball, it is not characteristic of championship teams to have a hole in their lineup when the backup catcher plays.
Before this morning, it looked like the Nats were heading into the season with a gaping hole at their backup catcher slot. The backup catchers on their 40-man roster were Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon. Last year, Solano’s OPS was .523 in Triple A and Leon’s was .542 in Double A. Furthermore, their primary catcher, Wilson Ramos, has had several injuries and played only 103 games over the last two seasons. While the Nats had Chris Snyder and Koyie Hill available under minor league contracts, neither of them bring much of a bat either.
With today’s announcement of the trade of Nate Karns for Jose Lobaton and two additional prospects who haven’t been named yet, Mike Rizzo has taken a small step toward filling that hole. Although Lobaton had a .249/.320/.394 line last season, his career line of .228/.311/.343 is probably more indicative of his projected hitting ability. Furthermore, reports of a weak throwing arm and below average ability at framing pitches* leaves me wondering just how much of an upgrade he’ll be over Solano and Leon. Nevertheless, this was the one roster hole that most needed filling, and I’m glad to see Rizzo make this move.
* Update: I notice that there are reports that Rizzo said Lobaton’s ability to frame pitches was a “key” to the Lobaton deal, which would contradict my statement about “below average ability at framing pitches.” So I need to clarify. First, it’s a bit hard to find data on pitch framing, so I hadn’t actually checked his record before writing this; I was just remembering a comment by Harper a couple days ago on Nationals Baseball blog. According to StatCorner, it looks like Lobaton is about average at pitch framing, neither unusually good or bad. I misinterpreted Harper’s point, which was that Lobaton became expendible because he was not nearly as good at pitch framing as the Rays’ Jose Molina, who everyone agrees is one of the best at framing. So I was wrong, but it would also seem hard to defend Rizzo’s comment about pitch framing being a key to the deal.
There is a sense in which Rizzo may be right, that pitch framing mattered. It’s when you look at the bottom of the list, the worst pitch framers. This list includes not only Koyie Hill, whom the Nationals control under a minor league contract, but other free agent catchers that the Nats passed on, such as John Buck. So even though Lobaton’s average pitch framing is what made him expendible by the Rays, it may also have been the key that made him more attractive to Rizzo than Buck.
With the exception of the Doug Fister trade, it’s been a pretty quiet off-season for the Nats. With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report in less than two weeks, I guess I’ll go ahead and try to sum up the moves and where they leave the team.
A good reference point for comparison is the roster as of the All-Star break last July. At that point, the team was mostly healthy, with only Ross Detwiler and Ryan Mattheus on the DL. The team’s playoff odds (according to coolstandings.com) were 20%, so there was still a reasonable hope that they could come back from a lethargic first half and make a run for it. Later that summer, Kurt Suzuki was traded and Roger Bernadina was released. After the season, free agents Dan Haren and Chad Tracy left the team without any known attempt to retain them, and Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Fernando Abad were traded away.
The striking thing is that none of the team’s core left. The departing players were the # 4 starter, the backup catcher, three bench guys, and two lefty relievers. All eight starting position players, four of the five starters, and six members of the bullpen were retained.
The big acquisition, of course, was Fister as the # 4 starter. A groundball pitcher with a 5% walk rate last season (12th lowest in the majors), he represents a solid upgrade from Haren. Nate McLouth was signed as a free agent on a two-year deal, taking Bernadina’s place as the backup outfielder. Although Bernadina was a more versatile fielder, McLouth projects as a league average hitter, making him an overall upgrade from the Shark. For the bullpen, Mike Rizzo acquired lefty Jerry Blevins via trade.
Other than that, all of the other slots have been filled from within the organization. The utility infielders appear to be Tyler Moore at first base and Danny Espinosa at second base and shortstop. (I’d guess that when Ryan Zimmerman needs a day off, they’d shift Anthony Rendon over to third and let Espinosa cover second.) The backup catcher appears to be Jhonatan Solano, with Sandy Leon also available. Non-roster invitees include Jamey Carroll, Chris Young, Chris Snyder, and and Mike Fontenot.
So let’s assess the roster that Rizzo’s put together.
No moves were expected in the starting lineup, and none occurred. There are no glaring holes among the starters, though at this stage I’d say that Adam LaRoche projects as a below average first baseman, and Rendon and Denard Span as only average at their positions. Nevertheless, IF everyone is healthy (a big if, obviously), the Nats potentially have an above average starting lineup, both offensively and defensively. Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, and Rendon, in particular, each have the potential to have a breakout season if they are healthy and can reach the potential that they seem to have.
The starting pitching, again if everyone is healthy, also has a lot of potential. Although I worried a lot last season about the gradual decline in Stephen Strasburg‘s performance, he still has tremendous stuff and has the potential to develop into one of the very best pitchers in baseball. And while we might expect a little regression from Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, any team in baseball would love to have them. Adding Fister, all of the top four should be projected to turn in above-average performances. Detwiler will probably start the season as the fifth starter, though Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark are also possible candidates.
Although the bullpen doesn’t project as especially strong, I tend not to worry about it too much. I guess one reason is that at some point during the season, I sort of expect Detwiler to be moved to the bullpen. Furthermore, as long as he’s healthy, I would expect him to thrive there, which would obviously take care of the need for another lefty in the bullpen. Relying on his fastball for 88% of his pitches last season, his opponents’ OPS increased markedly the second and third times through the order (.663 the first time, .896 the second time through, and .939 the third time through the order). These factors point to a pitcher who will likely perform much better in relief.
The bench is where I’m disappointed in what Rizzo has accomplished, or failed to accomplish, this winter. Backup catcher is a huge hole–there’s simply no evidence that either Solano or Leon is a major league hitter. You might live with that if you thought you could count on Ramos to give you 130 games, but he played 78 games last season and 25 the year before. The lack of a quality backup catcher is a gaping hole on this roster.
In the infield, there’s a lot of uncertainty. If Espinosa is fully healthy and can play like he did in 2011 and the first half of 2012, he’d be one of the best backup infielders in baseball. The problem is that we didn’t see any evidence last season that he was recovered and is capable of that. Moore is a defensive liability any place other than first base, and as a pinch hitter seems redundant (and inferior) to Scott Hairston. There have been rumors of continued interest in Jeff Baker; I hope that’s true, since the current infield bench seems awfully risky.
The Nats should have a good shot in a weak division, and the Fister signing made it a good off-season. Unfortunately, the weak bench, which was one of the Nats’ biggest problems last season, really hasn’t been improved.
The Nats have traded Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray for Doug Fister. The move is already being described as a “steal”—read Dave Cameron’s analysis at FanGraphs. Fister is a relatively low cost starting pitcher under team control for two more seasons. The FanGraphs/Steamer projection for Fister’s 2014 is for 168 innings of 3.80 ERA, 3.50 FIP (3.2 wins above replacement), 6.5 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9. And that’s pretty much the pitcher he’s been for the last three seasons. Plus he has the advantage of moving from the American League to the National (and to a decent infield, which is important for a ground ball pitcher). While we liked Lombo and thought Krol and Ray had bright futures, it’s still hard to argue that this isn’t a great move by Mike Rizzo.
Congratulations to the Nationals on one of the best moves of this off-season.
I’m getting this post finished and posted a couple of weeks later than I originally planned – life intervenes – but even though there’s been some action on the market in the last couple of weeks, the Nats’ position and needs really haven’t changed too much. So here’s some data on projections for Nats players and free agents. I conclude with some thoughts on the Nats’ strategy this off season.
I’m pulling two sources of information—a series of articles on Bleacher Report that rank players at each position, and the Steamer projections that are available on the FanGraphs website. I selected these because both are forward looking—projecting performance next season rather than looking backwards at past performance. I list the Nats players followed by prominent free agents at the position. After each player, I list his age in 2014, followed by his Bleacher Report ranking relative to all players at the position, and his Steamer projection (in units of wins above replacement). Following Bleacher Report, I grouped all the corner outfielders together.
C: Wilson Ramos (26, # 11, 2.8);
Brian McCann (30, # 6, 3.2), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (29, # 18, 2.8). Ramos is one of the better catchers in baseball when he’s healthy, but can he stay healthy enough? His legs have sustained a lot of damage. Getting a solid backup catcher should be one of the Nats’ highest priorities this off-season.
1B: Adam LaRoche (34, # 12, 1.2); Mike Napoli (32, # 16, 2.6). After a disappointing season, LaRoche is barely projected as an average player, but this is a weak market for first baseman and there really aren’t many better options on the market this year. (Steamer is a lot more skeptical about LaRoche’s prospects than is Bleacher Report.)
2B: Anthony Rendon (24, # 16, 2.6)/Danny Espinosa (27, # 25, -0.2); Robinson Cano (31, # 1, 5.3), Omar Infante (32, # 10, 2.3), Mark Ellis (37, # 18, 1.4). As Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post wrote, one of the few ways that the Nats might upgrade their offense this off-season would be to sign Cano. If the team is willing to spend the money and commit to the years, it would clearly make the team better for the next few seasons. On the other hand, I think Mike Rizzo truly sees Rendon as his second baseman of the future.
3B: Ryan Zimmerman (29, # 12, 3.0); Juan Uribe (34, # 19, 2.9). Like LaRoche, Zimmerman’s performance has slipped in the last year (especially defensively), but all the alternatives available on the free agent market are clearly worse.
SS: Ian Desmond (28, # 3, 3.0); Stephen Drew (31, # 12, 1.9). Steamer is taking a short position on Desmond, but the Bleacher Report is a lot more optimistic.
Corner OF: Bleacher report lumps together LF and RF. Bryce Harper (21, # 2, 3.9)/Jayson Werth (35, # 10, 2.2); Carlos Beltran (37, # 18, 1.8). The Nats are pretty well set in the corner outfield positions and no moves are likely.
CF: Denard Span (30, # 16, 1.9); Jacoby Ellsbury (30, # 4, 3.8), Shin-Soo Choo (31, # 10, 2.9), Curtis Granderson (33, # 12, 2.2). I think that Bleacher Reports is overly optimistic about the abilities of Choo and Granderson to play center field; I see both more as corner outfielders. If the Nats wanted to spend a lot of money on a position upgrade, signing Ellsbury for center field would be the other place that they could do it, though with his injury history you’d probably need to keep Span around as a fourth outfielder. I don’t think it’s a move the Nats are likely to make, but it should be mentioned as a possibility.
SP: Stephen Strasburg (25, # 10, 4.2), Jordan Zimmermann (28, # 19, 2.5), Gio Gonzalez (28, # 30, 3.0), Ross Detwiler (28, # 148, N/A), Tanner Roark (N/A, 1.8); Masahiro Tanaka (25, N/A), Hiroki Kuroda (39, # 17, 3.5), Ervin Santana (31, # 32, 1.8), A.J. Burnett (37, # 41, 3.9), Matt Garza (30, # 43, 2,3), Bronson Arroyo (37, # 44, 0.9), Bartolo Colon (41, # 64, 2.9),
Ricky Nolasco (31, # 66, 2.7), Tim Hudson (38, # 78, 1.5), Scott Feldman (31, # 89, 2.7), Scott Kazmir (30, # 109, 2.1), Roberto Hernandez (33, # 114, 3.0), Ubaldo Jiminez (30, # 128, 2.1), Jason Hammel (31, # 144, 2.5). While the Nats’ top three seem set, for a fourth starter it doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to improve on their in-house options of Detwiler, Roark, Taylor Jordan, and Ross Ohlendorf. Garza’s name is mentioned because he doesn’t cost a draft pick, but there really seem to be quite a few free agents available who could shore up the back end of the rotation.
RP: Bleacher Report only ranked the top 55, with Rafael Soriano (34, # 47, 0.3) and Tyler Clippard (29, # 27, 0.3) appearing on their list. Drew Storen and Craig Stammen are the other mainstays of the Nats’ bullpen, but the remainder seems to be in flux, with most of the focus on finding one or more lefties. In-house southpaw options include Ian Krol and Xavier Cedeno (with another possibility of converting a starting pitcher, such as Detwiler, Sammy Solis, or Robbie Ray, to a reliever). Lefty free agents who are still available include Boone Logan, JP Howell, Scott Downs, Oliver Perez, Eric O’Flaherty, and Matt Thornton.
Nats’ needs and strategy. For regular position players, the strategy is usually to identify your weakest position and try to make an improvement there. The Nats, however, have incumbents at each position who are mostly league average or better with no glaring weaknesses, so that suggests no moves for regulars. If the team did want to improve its regular lineup, the only obvious way to do it would be to chase the best available players regardless of the cost. This off-season, that means Cano or Ellsbury. I have to admit I still don’t have any clear idea of what budget the team thinks it’s operating under. If the Nats want to compete with the really big spenders (Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, etc.—I won’t list the Dodgers, since they seem to have moved into a different universe), this strategy might work. On the other hand, my impression is that the owners may want to keep the payroll mid-level, maybe more comparable to teams like the Braves and Cardinals. If that’s the case, they’re not going to pursue Cano or Ellsbury. Other potential regular position player upgrades, such as Choo, don’t really make much sense because the improvement would be modest relative to the cost.
The more likely strategy, and the one I’d recommend if they aren’t busting the bank, is to sign a free agent fourth starter. I’d love to see them pursue Tanaka, but I expect he’s also out of their price range. Garza seems like the next best option, especially considering that he doesn’t cost a draft pick. But there are a number of other options listed above. I just hope that Rizzo doesn’t go bargain hunting again, as he did with Dan Haren last year, and take a chance on damaged goods. I’d look for someone who can still throw hard and get strikeouts.
The team’s next highest priority, in my opinion, is a backup catcher. You always need a # 2 catcher, and with someone with an injury history like Ramos has, it’s essential that they be able to take over if Ramos goes down.
After that, comes the bench. After the terrible cost of the Nationals’ substandard bench this last season, I’d be terribly disappointed if Rizzo thinks he can go forward another season with bench players like Tyler Moore. A good left-handed bat, preferably one who can play some defense too, is a high priority, as is a fourth outfielder.
Finally, there’s the bullpen, where again the big need is a left-hander. I rank this lowest, because I think there’s a chance that the Nats could put together something decent with existing resources. But the bullpen is clearly not one of the team’s strengths at this point, so investing in improving it would make sense.
You’ll see that I’m not saying much different than everyone else who has already given their recommendations. But in this case, the conventional wisdom seems to work—strengthen the back of the rotation, the bench, and the bullpen.
It’s been widely reported that Matt Williams will be the Nationals’ new manager. I don’t know that much about Williams, so I don’t have too much to say. I think it’s good news that he’s got a lot of history with Mike Rizzo and that they apparently get along very well. We saw with Jim Riggleman just how bad things can get when a GM doesn’t hire, or even get along well, with a manager.
Although I think it’s a negative that Williams doesn’t have any managerial experience, even in the minor leagues, that’s not a disqualifier—just something I think might be helpful.
Ultimately, though, even though I sometimes gripe about managerial decisions, the fact is that we don’t know that much about the impact of managers, and most of the in-game strategies we write about probably have very little impact on team performance. Games are basically won and loss because of the players, rather than the managers.
I tend to think that perhaps 80% of a manager’s impact comes in areas we can’t directly observe and measure. I’m not just talking about things like providing motivation and discipline. Some things that are seldom mentioned, like making sure that there are good communications flowing between players and management—for example, are players reporting when they’re hurt? (or when they suspect that their teammate may be hurt?)—can really affect the performance of a team (and have sometimes adversely affected the Nats. Yet communications is not something I see discussed often in books on baseball management.
I wish Williams well in his new job and will certainly have more to say as we get a chance to observe him.
Seventy years ago yesterday, October 5, 1943, the Washington Homestead Grays won the Negro World Series, the first of three World Series championships that they would win over a six-season span.
The Homestead Grays were the dominant team of the Negro National League (the eastern league), having won six of the last seven league championships. The team featured five future Hall of Famers—left fielder and leadoff hitter Cool Papa Bell, first baseman Buck Leonard hitting third, catcher Josh Gibson hitting cleanup, third baseman Jud Wilson, and pitcher Ray Brown. Rounding out their regular roster were Sam Bankhead at shortstop, Howard Easterling at second base, Jerry Benjamin in center field, Vic Harris in right field, and pitchers Johnny Wright and Roy Partlow. While the Grays were loaded with stars, it should be noted that most of the players on their 1943 roster were old. Wilson was 47 years old, Bell was 40, Harris was 38, Leonard and Brown were both 35, and Bankhead was 32. Only 31-year old Gibson and 26-year old Wright could be considered to have been in their prime. Of course, it was the middle of the World War II and many of the younger players had been drafted.
The Grays, originally from Pittsburgh, had begun playing about half their home games at Griffith Stadium in Washington in 1940. After an especially successful season in 1942, in which they lost the World Series to the Kansas City Monarchs, they adopted Washington as their primary home and played the 1943 season as the Washington Homestead Grays. The Negro National League played a split season format, but because the Grays won both halves of the season, no playoff series was needed.
Their opponents were the Birmingham Black Barons, champions of the western Negro American League. The Black Barons’ roster did not include Hall of Famers, but it was a talented team that would win consecutive pennants. Prominent players for the Black Barons included shortstop Piper Davis, second baseman Tommy Sampson, right fielder Clyde Spearman, and catcher Ted (Double Duty) Radcliffe. Birmingham won the league playoff series against the Chicago American Giants to win the pennant.
The first game was played in Washington at Griffith stadium on the evening of Tuesday, September 21. The Black Barons took the opener 4 to 2, with Al Saylor on the mound for Birmingham facing Wright. A second game was played on Thursday in Baltimore, but it was called after 12 innings with the score tied 5 to 5. The next evening, they played again in Griffith Stadium before 7,000 fans. It again went to extra innings, and the Grays were able to win 4 to 3 to tie the series at one game apiece.
The next three games were played in Chicago, Columbus Ohio, and Indianapolis—the Negro World Series usually included several games held in neutral sites. On Sunday afternoon, September 26, the Grays beat the Black Barons 9 to 0 at Comiskey Park. They scored runs in the second (on an Easterling double) and third (on a Leonard triple) before breaking it open with six runs in the 6th. Wright pitched a 5-hit shutout. On Tuesday night, September 28, the Black Barons defeated the Grays 11 to 10 in Columbus. The Grays pulled ahead 6 to 2, but the Barons tied it in the bottom of the fifth and scored 5 more in the 7th to take an 11-6 lead. Gibson hit a grand slam home run in the 8th to narrow the lead to one run, but the Barons held on to win and tie the series at two games each. The next evening in Indianapolis, the Grays regained the lead with an 8-0 victory in Indianapolis. Wright again pitched a shutout, allowing 8 hits.
The series continued on Sunday October 3 at Rickwood Park in Birmingham. This time it was a pitching duel, with both Birmingham’s John Markham and Washington’s Partlow pitching 10 scoreless innings before Partlow allowed a two-out triple to Birmingham’s Leonard Lindsay, followed by a single from Ed Steele for a 1 to 0 walk-off win. The series was tied at three games each. The finale was played on Tuesday October 5 at Rickwood Park. Wright was pitching for Washington, but he was knocked out in the sixth inning when the Black Barons took a 4-2 lead. Brown came on in relief. In the top of the 8th, Leonard walked and Gibson, Easterling, Harris, and Bankhead each singled, scoring four runs and giving the Grays a 6-4 lead. They added two more in the 9th and won the game 8-4, clinching their first World Series title. Additional titles would follow in 1944 and in 1948.
I relied on contemporary newspaper articles from the Baltimore Afro American, which are available from Google News Archives.
For general background on the Homestead Grays during their Washington years, see Brad Snyder,Beyond the Shadow of the Senators: The Untold Story of the Homestead Grays and the Integration of Baseball, Contemporary Books, 2003.