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.
The Nationals entered September with a 68-67 record, 7-1/2 behind the Reds for the wild card, and with the division title far out of reach. Davey Johnson, perhaps prescient, insisted throughout the month that the Nats would need to win 90 to have a shot at the post-season. That would require the Nats to go 22-5 in September, with the Reds going no better than 14-12. No wonder that according to coolstandings.com, the Nats’ odds of making the wild card were only 2.9%, but the team remained hopeful.
The month began at home with the last game of a series against the Mets. The Nats came from behind to win it 6-5, and the Reds lost, narrowing the gap to 6-1/2.
Next came a road trip that began against the Phillies. The Nats lost the first game when Tyler Clippard gave up the lead in the 8th. The Nats managed to win the next two, though. Meanwhile, the Reds also won two of three, maintaining their lead. On to Miami, where the Nats again took two of three. The Reds, however, won four straight, extending their lead to 8 games. On to New York, where the Nats’ offense exploded against the Mets, scoring 25 runs led by three home runs by Ryan Zimmerman on top of three he had just hit against the Marlins, sweeping the four game set against the Mets. The Reds went 1-2, and the gap narrowed to 5-1/2 games.
Returning home, the Nats faced the Phillies and took two of three. The Reds took one of three, and the lead narrowed to 4-1/2. The problem, however, was that the Nationals’ schedule was about to get tougher and the Reds’ schedule was about to get easier. The first game of a 3-game set against the Braves was rescheduled as part of a day-night doubleheader after the Navy Yard shooting, and it was a topsy-turvy match that the Nats finally won in walk-off fashion against Kimbrel. The Nats also took the nightcap to sweep the doubleheader, but lost the series finale the next day. The Reds won all three of their games, extending their lead to 5-1/2. The Nats home stand ended against the Marlins, and they had to sweep to keep their remote playoff chances alive. They lost game 3, however, and the team was now only one game away from elimination.
The end came the next night in St. Louis, where the Cardinals behind Adam Wainwright beat the Nats 4 to 3. The Cards went on to sweep the Nats before the Nats went on to take the first two against the Diamondbacks in Arizona, thereby ensuring that Johnson would retire with a managerial record 300 games over .500. The Nats lost the season finale, fielding a spring-training style team of bench players and call-ups.
Despite the disappointment, September was by far the Nats’ best month. They went 18-9, scoring 4.7 runs per game and allowing only 2.9. Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, and Denard Span, who completed a 29 game hiring streak, longest in the majors this season, all excelled with the bat. The Nats’ wRC+ was 104, third highest in the NL in September, and they were second in the league in runs scored. Their starters’ ERA was 2.77, also second in the league, and the relievers’ ERA of 2.63 ranked fourth. With the Nats’ projected starters for the season all healthy except for Ross Detwiler, fans could see that the pre-season hype wasn’t entirely misplaced. Now we look forward to an interesting hot stove season.
19-8 (4.70 R/G – 2.93 RA/G)
MVP for September:
Jayson Werth (.302/.398/.542, 26 G, 113 PA, 4 HR, 17 R, 18 RBI, 1.0 fWAR, 13.26 RE24).
Most valuable pitcher:
Tanner Roark (3-1, 2.03 R/9, 5 G, 31 IP, 6.1 K/9, 1.2 BB/9, 7.75 RE24).
Most valuable reliever:
Rafael Soriano (1-0, 0.00 R/9, 10 G, 10 IP, 7.2 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 5.4 H/9, 4.63 RE24, 0.92 WPA, 6 shutdowns, 0 meltdown).
Ian Krol (1–0, 11.57 R/9, –3.55 RE24, 5 G, 2-1/3 IP, 6 H, 1 HR, 1 BB, 71.4% LOB%, 0 shutdown, 2 meltdowns).
Best start this month:
Two starts share the honor: Gio Gonzalez (September 9, 9–0 win over the Mets in New York) pitched a one-hit shutout with 8 strikeouts and 2 walks with a game score of 91. Jordan Zimmermann (September 20, 8–0 win over the Marlins at home) pitched a two-hit shutout with 9 strikeouts and 1 walk, also for a game score of 91.
Dan Haren (September 6, 7–0 loss to the Marlins in Miami) lasted 3 innings and gave up 6 hits, 5 runs, 2 walks, and 1 home run, while getting 5 K with a game score of 30.
Gio Gonzalez (September 24, 2–0 loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis) pitched 7 innings and gave up 2 runs on 6 hits with no walks and 6 strikeouts (game score 63); unfortunately, the opposing picher Michael Wacha, went one out away from a no-hitter before Ryan Zimmerman finally beat out an infield single. Ross Ohlendorf (September 18, 5–2 loss to the Braves at home) gave up 3 runs on 4 hits (2 HR) with no walks and 6 strikeouts in 6 innings (game score 58). Jordan Zimmermann (September 25, 4–1 loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis) gave up 4 runs on 6 hits (1 HR) with no walks and 2 strikeouts in 7 innings (game score 51).
Jordan Zimmermann (September 10, 6–3 win over the Mets in New York) pitched 5 innings and gave up 3 runs on 8 hits with 1 walk and 4 strikeouts (game score 42).
Rafael Soriano (September 4, 3–2 win over the Phillies in Philadelphia) saved a one-run game, setting down three Phillies batters in order. (Win probability added .188).
Tyler Clippard (September 2, 3–2 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia) entered in the bottom of the 8th with a 2–1 lead. He got the first two batters out, then gave up a walk, a game-tying double, an intentional walk, and another single to give up the lead, before getting the final out. (Win probability added –.581)
Denard Span (September 17, 6–5 win over the Braves at home). In a wild game that had been rescheduled due to the Navy Yard shootings, Span came to bat in the bottom of the ninth against the Braves’ dominant closer, Craig Kimbrel, with one out, runners on second and third, and the Nats trailing 5–4. He hit a sharp ground ball to shortstop Andrelton Simmons, driving in Jeff Kobernus. Simmons booted the ball, allowing Anthony Rendon to score from second, giving the Nats the walk-off victory and Kimbrel his first, ever two-run blown save. (WPA .472) If you object to giving the clutch hit award to a reached-on-error, the runner-up was Jayson Werth for his two-out RBI double in the bottom of the 8th, giving the Nats the lead in their 6–5 win over the Mets at home on September 1 (WPA .321).
Wilson Ramos (September 2, 3–2 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia) struck out in the top of the ninth with the Nats trailing 3–2, one out, and runners on first and third (WPA –.212). Anthony Rendon followed with a game-ending strikeout.
Davey Johnson played for Earl Weaver for five years and is often thought of as his protégé. Weaver’s teams, of course, are known for excellent pitching and three-run homers. Johnson definitely supports the three-run homer, but I don’t really see Weaver’s influence so much in their management of pitching staffs.*
* In an earlier post, I noted Davey’s strong tendency to try to let a pitcher work his way out of trouble and finish an inning, a strategy that was not characteristic of Weaver.
Weaver wrote an excellent book, Weaver on Strategy, which distills his ideas on managing in a fun-to-read form. One section is titled, “How to tell if a pitcher is losing his edge.” Consider rule # 1:
Pay attention to foul balls. When a pitcher gets in a good groove, the hitters will usually foul his deliveries straight back. There’ll be plenty of foul tips. But if the hitters start making solid contact and belting the ball down the lines, watch out: they’re catching up with the guy on the mound.
The other rules are good too: Watch the catcher. See if the pitcher starts taking longer pauses between pitches. Beware of leadoff walks. Watch if weak hitters start pulling the ball. Watch where the pitches are going when they miss the strike zone. Watch the pitcher’s delivery. Weaver then adds that a couple of hard-hit balls can tell you all you need to know about what a pitcher has left.
I’ve often thought of these rules, especially this evening. When Uggla clobbered Ross Ohlendorf‘s first pitch in the sixth inning for a deep home run, I was concerned, especially in view of Ohlendorf’s long-standing difficulties going deep into games. If I were managing and I didn’t have someone warming up already, I would have had them warming up immediately. But then, two batters later, when Terdoslavich pulled a ball down the line, only a few feet from being the second home run of the inning, I knew Ohlendorf was done. I was shocked that Davey left him in to face Upton.
I don’t blame Ohlendorf for tonight’s loss as much as I blame Davey. And listening to his post-game interview, it’s clear that Davey wasn’t paying any attention to Earl Weaver’s rules for when a pitcher loses his edge.