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February 27, 2012 / Nat Anacostia

The deals the Nats made (and didn’t make) this off-season

First, congratulations to Mike Rizzo and Ryan Zimmerman for getting the extension done. I think that’s very good news for the future of the franchise.

With spring training getting underway, I thought I’d take a look back at the off-season. If I had to describe the Nationals’ offseason in one word, it would be “confusing.”

Going into the off-season, the Nats had a lot of young talent, but they still had holes. Stephen Strasburg would be back in 2012, but would face an innings limit. Bryce Harper might make his debut, but probably wouldn’t be ready to contribute. Anthony Rendon was at least a year away from the majors. With young players like Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos, and Jordan Zimmermann who were still improving, this year’s offseason seemed like an opportunity to fill some of the gaps and build toward championship runs in 2013–15.

Rizzo went into the off-season with two announced priorities—a center fielder (preferably one who could bat leadoff) and starting pitching. Without any good free agent center fielders available and unable to find a willing trading partner, Rizzo gave up on the center fielder and re-signed Rick Ankiel. He was more successful with the pitching, where he delivered the Nats’ two big deals of the off-season—trading with the Athletics for Gio Gonzalez and signing Edwin Jackson as a free agent.

The thing I find confusing about these deals is that both are “win now” deals—the Gonzalez trade because the prospects the Nats gave up are likely to provide more value after 2012 than Gonzalez, and the Jackson signing because it’s a one-year deal. For a team that is set to peak in 2013 and later, I find these deals confusing.

With respect to evaluating these deals, I agree with Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, who rated the Jackson acquisition as the fifth-best transaction of the off-season, but the Nats’ trade for Gonzalez as the fifth-worst. While there’s a chance that Gonzalez could become the dominating work horse that Rizzo envisions, that will depend on him turning around his walk rate. That’s possible, but it’s a gamble. If he doesn’t, the likely outcome is that the Nats just paid a boatload of talent and money for five seasons of league-average performance.

A perhaps more interesting question is what deals the Nats missed out on that they could have made. There weren’t many bargains in this year’s free agent market. It was mostly characterized by overpayments.*

*A fair deal requires a balance between the risk of a player’s performance falling below the the contracted level and the risk that they will surpass the contracted level. At a minimum, that means you have to be able to imagine the player surpassing the contracted performance. For example, consider the Pujols contract—10 years, $240 million—is essentially paying for 48 wins above replace (WAR) at $5 million per win. Is it possible that he could surpass that? Based on history, I’d have to say it’s very unlikely—according to Baseball-Reference.com, only four players since 1920 have recorded more than 48 WAR during their age 32 to 41 seasons. And two of those players (Babe Ruth and Willie Mays) were distinctly better than Pujols going into their age 32 seasons, while a third was Barry Bond (enough said). That leaves only Hank Aaron as a comparable player who surpassed 48 WAR (with 51 WAR). In contrast, many comparable players (e.g., Jimmie Foxx, Frank Robinson, etc.) fell well short.

So, looking over the list of high-profile free agent signings from the 2011/12 off-season, I see lots of deals that I’m glad the Nats didn’t make, including the two players most associated with the team in rumors floated in the press (Prince Fielder, 9 years and $214 million; Mark Buehrle, 4 years and $58 million). Despite the overpayments for Pujols, Fielder, Buehrle, Jonathan Papelbon, Aramis Ramirez, and Michael Cuddyer, there actually were a few prominent deals this off-season that weren’t obvious overpays. A couple of these deals could have made sense for the Nats.

Yu Darvish (6 years, $112 million including the $52 million posting fee) wasn’t a bargain, but his contract did seem like a fair price to me. There’s obviously some elevated risk for this pitcher because of his lack of major league experience, but it’s clear from observing his velocity, control, and mix of pitches that he has skills that can be effective at the major league level. He will need to average about 3.7 WAR per year over the next six years for the Rangers’ contract to pay for itself. The people who are most knowledgeable about Japanese statistics, however, think he can be even better than that. I was quite disappointed that the Nats didn’t even submit a bid. With a sealed bid auction, all they needed to do was pick a fair price and submit a bid without the risk of getting into the kind of bidding war that so often leads teams to overpay.

The next one really was a bargain. When I heard that the Marlins had signed José Reyes for six year, $106 million, I immediately wondered why the Nats hadn’t made a higher bid. I understand that his health is a question mark, but when he’s healthy he’s the second best shortstop in baseball. And it’s not as if the Nats couldn’t use a leadoff hitter and an upgrade at shortstop. Between Desmond and Lombardozzi, the Nats would have had a backup to cover the position when Reyes wasn’t available.

Trades are trickier to evaluate since we usually don’t know what other teams were willing to offer. This week, though, Tom Boswell of The Washington Post revealed a stunning deal that the Nats let get away from the mid-season of 2010. Apparently, at the time, the Rays were willing to trade Matt Moore (now considered the top pitching prospect in baseball) for Adam Dunn. Of course, it’s unfair to judge a trade a year and a half later based on what we know now, but this article by John Sickels of Minor League Ball provides a contemporary perspective on Moore’s prospects. Even without knowing what we’ve learned since, that one seems like too good a deal for the Nats to have passed up.

Looking over this year’s off-season, while I think the team is better than before (at least for this season), I still found it confusing. I don’t understand why Rizzo seems to be pursuing a win-now strategy when I think it clearly would make more sense to focus on the 2013–15 time frame. And I still don’t have a sense of how much the Lerners are willing to spend in pursuit of winning. The Nats are still spending like a small-market, budget conscious team, though Washington clearly has the potential to be a large market.

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