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November 30, 2013 / Nat Anacostia

Hot stove league: The Nationals’ shopping list

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.


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