March 26, 2015

Washington Nationals Spring Training: Will Dan Uggla make this team?

One of the more interesting (okay, perhaps only interesting) position battles this spring in the Washington Nationals camp centers around second base, considering the guy they traded for to play the spot, Yunel Escobar, hasn’t taken a swing in a game yet due to “general soreness” and back issues since he got here.

Considering the back issues were one of the lingering things that plagued him all season last year, it’s not a good start to his Nats career and could very well be an indication of the value the Nats are going to get for him.

The guys that have been playing the position while Escobar convalesces are incumbent Danny Espinosa, who’s attempting to turn himself into a right-handed only hitter, and Dan Uggla, who was last seen in the bigs hitting .149/.229/.213 last season between Atlanta and 12 appearances for San Francisco.

Uggla, now 35, doesn’t seem to be that worthy of a reclamation project — he hasn’t hit above .233 since 2010. But he did hit 22 homers as recently as 2013, and Nats GM Mike Rizzo loves the guy, so the Nats took a shot.

According to Uggla, he played through an undiagnosed oculomotor dysfunction as a result of getting hit in the head twice and is now fully healthy. His spring results thus far are encouraging: he’s hitting .333 with an OBP over .450 and hit his second homer Saturday against the Marlins.

The Nats are playing with found money with regards to Uggla, as the Braves are on the hook for his ridiculous salary. If he can prove useful again at the big league level, it’s a double-bonus.

The problem is that if Uggla isn’t playing every day, his value is limited. Uggla has only played second base his entire career. He’s not a good defender or runner, so if he’s relegated to the bench, it’s almost exclusively as a right-handed pinch-hitter, effectively limiting manager Matt Williams to a three-man bench. He could probably serve at first base in an emergency basis.

Escobar is right-handed. Tyler Moore is out of options. If they don’t trade him, he’s a right-handed pinch-hitter. Kevin Frandsen is a right-handed pinch-hitter. Espinosa is now a right-handed pinch-hitter. You get where I’m going with this.

Espinosa is not out of options. Perhaps the most sensible thing — if Uggla’s hitting seems sustainable — is to send Espinosa to Syracuse to concentrate on hitting right-handed, and go with a bench of Moore, Escobar, Frandsen and Tony Gwynn Jr, at least until Denard Span or Jayson Werth is healthy to play again.

Of course, all this is dependent on Anthony Rendon getting healthy and getting back in the lineup at third base. If he’s not ready to start the season on the active roster, all bets are off.

Washington Nationals Spring Training: Nats fall to Mets 11-9

Stephen Strasburg had a problem with an in-grown toenail, so the Washington Nationals starter stayed home to pitch in a simulated game rather than face the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie. He was better off, as A.J. Cole had a tough go of it early, then the Mets pounded the Nats bullpen in the eighth for nine runs and the Mets won 11-9 in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Cole, the Nats No. 2 pitching prospect, had a rough go of it early against the Mets regulars.  He went 1 2/3 innings, allowing one earned run on four hits and two walks without a strikeout. He threw 47 pitches total, 27 for strikes. [Read more…]

Washington Nationals Spring Training Preview: The Infielders

This week, District Sports Page will review the players currently on the Washington Nationals 40-man roster and their potential contributions to the Major League roster this season.

Monday: Catchers
Tuesday: Infielders
Wednesday: Outfielders
Thursday: Starters
Friday: Bullpen

FIRST BASE

Ryan Zimmerman
2014: 240 PAs, .280/.342/.449 with 5 HRs, 184 RBIs (0.4 WAR). .948 FD% at 3B.

We’ve seen this coming for several season. With the expiration of Adam LaRoche’s tenure with the club, the Face of the Franchise ™ moves across the diamond to first base on a permanent basis. Some would say ‘about time.’ Now 30, Zimmerman’s throwing problems at third base were well-documented and his time in the outfield last season can be described as non-harmful at best. He made some plays, but the spectacular nature of some only outlined his lack of mobility for the wide open pastures of left field. It’s a shame, really, because before he injured his shoulder diving head-first into second base he really was one of the best defensive third basemen in the game. His bat will play at first, especially if he can get 500 plate appearances, but we’re all left wondering where he could have ranked on the all-time third base list if he could have stayed there.

Tyler Moore
2014: 100 PAs, .231/.300.385 with 4 HRs, 14 RBIs (0.4 WAR). .948 FD% at 1B.

Ah, Tyler Moore. Some saw his power numbers in the minors and salivated. Sure, he was old at every level and didn’t really have a position, but he kept hitting home runs — 31 two years running in Potomac and Harrisburg. Surely, the skill would translate as he ascended into the big leagues! Well, maybe, maybe not. Moore still has power, but more (Moore) often than not flails away at the better pitching in the big leagues. It’s a story told time and again about thick-bodied minor league sluggers without a natural position on the diamond (cough Steven Souza cough). Moore has hit 10 homers in both of the past two seasons at Syracuse and now represents little more than a bat off the bench and emergency starter. If Zimmerman can’t give them 500 plate appearances, the team could be in a little trouble.

SECOND BASE

Yunel Escobar
2014: 529 PAs, .258/.324/.340 with 7 HRs, 39 RBIs (-0.2 WAR) with TBY. .965 FD% at SS.

The Nats traded older prospect Steven Souza Jr Tyler Clippard for the much-traveled shortstop with the hopes of plugging him into the abyss at second base. Escobar was one of the worst fielding shortstops in all of baseball last season by any metric you’d like to use, so the move to second base should help him recover some value. GM Mike Rizzo said Escobar battled back and hamstring issues all season long which affected his fielding. While hamstrings heal, back issues are usually chronic in nature. All that aside, his bat is pretty meh, especially for a guy that stays in the lineup every day, apparently whether he’s healthy or injured. His last good year was in 2011 when he hit .290/.369/.413. But his average has been .253, .256, .258 in the three years since. It’s a shame Rizzo felt like he had to give up a prospect of value for this skill set.

Danny Espinosa
2014: 364 PAs, .219/.283/.351 with 8 HRs, 27 RBIs, 8 SB/1 CS (0.0 WAR). .990 FD% at 2B, .978 at SS.

The reason Rizzo felt like he had to trade for Escobar. Espinosa once tantalized with 20-20 capability with Gold Glove caliber defense. But after playing through shoulder and hand injuries, plus complete ineffectiveness from the left side, Espinosa is left trying to resurrect his career as a backup middle infielder. There’s a shred of hope that within his split against lefties last season (.301/.374/.485) there’s a serviceable right-handed hitter in there, as Rizzo said in the offseason Espinosa would abandon switch-hitting. But Espinosa hasn’t seen a breaking ball go away from him from a right-handed pitcher in 15 years, so it’ll be a fascinating transition should be become proficient at it. His defense is still very good at second and short, and at least we know he can still hit lefties, so there’s utility in that.

Wilmer Difo
2014 Low-A: 610 PAs, .315/.360/.470 with 14 HRs, 90 RBIs, 49 SB/9 CS.

Difo tore up the Sally last season at age 22 for Hagerstown. It came as a shock, since he’d hit a combined five home runs in his previous four minor league seasons and had hit above .265 once. He can run and is a decent fielder but has played all over the infield, so the Nats aren’t really sure where he’ll end up playing. Second base will probably be where he settles though, but he split duties just about down the middle between there and short last season. Difo’s eye-popping numbers from last year put him on the radar, now he’ll have to live up to his newly-minted “prospect” status. Double-A has a way of separating guys that had a good year in the Sally (a year old for the level) from true prospects.

THIRD BASE

Anthony Rendon
2014: 683 PAs, .287/.351/.473 with 21 HRs, 83 RBIs, 17 SB/3 CS (6.5 WAR). .958 FD% at 3B.

It’s hard to articulate how good a season Rendon had in 2014, and where his offensive game could still go. He was fifth in the N.L. in MVP balloting as a 24-year-old and won the Silver Slugger at third. He is, simply, one of the best offensive players in the league and a fine defender at two positions as well. The Nats have elected to keep him at third base, his natural position, choosing to acquire Yunel Escobar to play second base full-time. And oh yeah, still a couple of years yet before he hits “peak.”

SHORTSTOP

Ian Desmond
2014: 648 PAs, .255/.313/.430 with 24 HRs, 91 RBIs, 24 SB/5 CS (2.8 WAR). .963 FD% at SS.

Desmond turned in another 20-20 season, his third in a row and third consecutive Silver Slugger. The production isn’t the concern with Desmond, who’s turned himself into one of the most consistent offensive performers at shortstop in the Majors. The defense isn’t the problem either — though he made a few more errors last season, he makes up for that in range and arm. With Desmond, you know what you’re gonna get on the field. As everyone knows by now, though, he’s a free agent at the end of the season, was subject of trade rumors all winter long, and will probably test the open market once the season concludes. The Nats even took precaution against Desmond leaving by trading for not just one shortstop prospect, but two, over the winter. I’d say the Nats are preparing for the likelihood of Desmond playing elsewhere next season.

Washington Nationals Game 128 Review: Nats Blow Past Giants, Win Series

BEHIND A SIX-RUN SIXTH, NATIONALS TAKE 2-OF-3 FROM SAN FRANCISCO

In front of 35,000-plus at Nationals Park on a beautiful Sunday afternoon for baseball, the Washington Nationals defeated the San Francisco Giants by a score of 14-6 to end their 10-game homestand. [Read more…]

Washington Nationals Game 112 Review: LaRoche, Espinosa Go Deep to Help Nats Top Mets

For those who criticized the Washington Nationals for their as-of-late inability to drive the ball deep, Danny Espinosa and Adam LaRoche did just that Wednesday night to contribute to a 7-1 win over the New York Mets at Nationals Park.

Nats starter Doug Fister asserted his standing as arguably the Nats’ top pitcher this season, allowing just one run over six hits and no walks through 7.1 innings pitched. His seemingly all-too-easy victory marked his 11th of the season, making him the team’s wins leader.

Mets left-hander Jon Niese did not have quite the same luck.

With one out in the bottom of the first, Niese gave up a double to Anthony Rendon. Jayson Werth followed through with a single, setting up Adam LaRoche for a two-run shot to put the Nats up 3-0 heading into the second.

All was quiet on both fronts from then onward, until the Nats reached the bottom of the sixth. [Read more…]

Statistically Speaking: Measuring Ryan Zimmerman’s value

Ryan Zimmerman has been a catalyst for the Washington Nationals offense from what seems to be time immemorial. Boasting a career .357 weighted on-base average (wOBA), which ranks second amongst third baseman and ninth in the National League since 2005 (minimum 5000 plate appearances), Zimmerman has been a consistent, potent offensive weapon for a team that has endured its share of toothless lineups. To the chagrin of the team and fans, this offense has sputtered in recent years, primarily due to a number of injuries that have forced him to miss significant time out of the lineup.

It’s been felt by many this season that when Zimmerman’s not penciled in the lineup card, the chances of runs being scored drop precipitously; the numbers confirm this to a certain extent, with the Nationals averaging 4.66 runs per game with Zimmerman in the lineup and 3.77 runs a game with him out. Compare this to the team’s overall scoring average—4.19 runs per game, fourth in the NL—and to the NL’s average runs scored per game—3.96 runs per game—and we pull back the curtain a little more as to how important Zimmerman’s bat is to the Nats; with him, they’re league beaters, but without him, they’re not even league average when it comes to plating runs.

Let’s keep pulling said curtain back and go back to wOBA to get a better grasp of the importance of Zimmerman in (and out of) the lineup, now, from a teammate’s perspective. With wOBA, we can better measure and apply a player’s offensive value and what exactly they contribute to the run scoring environment. It does require a little math in order to accurately weight each offensive contribution (singles, walks, and so on) for the current run environment, but thankfully, FanGraphs helps us with this process.

The wOBA formula for the 2014 season is:

wOBA = (0.691×uBB + 0.723×HBP + 0.892×1B + 1.280×2B + 1.630×3B + 2.126×HR) / (AB + BB – IBB + SF + HBP)

…and after plugging and chugging and some shuffling of stats into two ‘bins’—stats with Zimmerman (‘Zim’) and stats without him (‘no Zim’), we get the following numbers for the ‘Big 8′ of Nats players who get the lion’s share of starts: Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche, Wilson Ramos, Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, and Jayson Werth:

Name wOBA Zim wOBA, no Zim PA, Zim PA, no Zim
Desmond 0.363 0.282 212 236
Espinosa 0.314 0.278 123 184
Harper 0.340 0.319 102 95
LaRoche 0.347 0.377 228 157
Ramos 0.357 0.293 97 106
Rendon 0.397 0.316 223 249
Span 0.325 0.338 224 235
Werth 0.399 0.318 220 237

*PA: plate appearances

Using the following Rule of Thumb courtesy again of FanGraphs:

Rules of Thumb

Rating wOBA
Excellent .400
Great .370
Above Average .340
Average .320
Below Average .310
Poor .300
Awful .290

…we see that Zimmerman’s presence in the lineup makes Rendon and Werth borderline excellent and the others above average, except for Espinosa, who enjoys league average wOBA with him in the lineup. However, without him in the lineup, things change and for some of Zimmerman’s teammates, quite drastically.

Without Zimmerman, Ian Desmond’s offense takes a huge nosedive, going from above average, to worse than awful, per our rule of thumb; Espinosa suffers similar production drops, as does Ramos, Werth, and Rendon. Oddly enough, LaRoche’s and Span’s production actually improve ever so slightly without Zimmerman’s presence, with Span’s offense the least affected overall by Zimmerman’s bat.

Let’s go one further with the numbers and look at weighted runs created plus (wRC+), a stat that is built off of wOBA, but adds additional granularity in the form of park and league-adjustments, allowing the comparison of these stats with respect to the leagues and parks played in to be performed. Again, FanGraphs provides us the formula:

wRC+ = (((wRAA/PA + League R/PA) + (League R/PA – Park Factor* League R/PA))/ (AL or NL wRC/PA excluding pitchers))*100

Here, the calculations are a little hairier than wOBA. Thankfully, the heavy lifting has been done for us, courtesy Neil Weinberg over at New English D, where you can find a very nifty wRC+ calculator that you can use once you have the proper constants for a given metric and season, which you can find in several places over at FanGraphs.

With wRC+, we can again better measure a players worth (like wOBA), both can now look at these results from both a current and historical perspective. 100 is considered league average, with any number above or below 100 providing us the percentage difference better or worse a player is to average. An as example, we can say Zimmerman’s career 121 wRC+ means he has been 21 percent better than the league average hitter.

Without further ado, the Nats offense with and without Zimmerman, through the lens of wRC+:

Name wRC+, Zim wRC+, no Zim
Desmond 133 73
Espinosa 95 71
Harper 113 99
LaRoche 118 139
Ramos 125 81
Rendon 153 97
Span 103 103
Werth 154 98
Average 124.25 95.13

It should be no surprise that the numbers trend similar to wOBA, given wRC+ being based on wOBA. In general, the Nats are currently and historically a below average offensive team without Zimmerman in the lineup (95.13 average) and are roughly 25 percent better than average with him healthy and taking his hacks. What’s also interesting is how much the team’s offensive leaders of 2014—Desmond, Rendon, and Werth—rely upon Zim’s contributions. Again, the oddballs are LaRoche, who still shows improved numbers without Zimmerman, and Span, whose numbers are exactly the same with and without the Nat’s elder statesman in the lineup. This all being said, caution should be exercised when interpreting Harper’s and Ramos’s number, simply due to sample size considerations, with both having limited PA’s this year due to their own injuries.

Zimmerman’s presence in the Nationals lineup, while always desired, at times has been one that is often under-appreciated, given the talents of his teammates and his difficulties in staying on the field. The numbers presented reflect this, but should nonetheless be taken with a grain of salt, as other variables, in particular, the effects of where each player hits in the lineup and even where they play defensively, can all play potential roles in these results. While the team-level numbers obviously show his worth in the heart of the order, when parsing out the effect of his presence across each of his teammates, we see a much deeper need and reliance upon his pop and his importance to his teammates’ overall offensive successes.

Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs and current as of August 5th.
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Stuart Wallace is a Contributor to District Sports Page. A neuroscientist by day, the Nevada native also moonlights as an Associate Managing Editor for Beyond the Box Score and a contributor at Camden Depot and Gammons Daily. A former pitcher, his brief career is sadly highlighted by giving up a lot of home runs to former National Johnny Estrada. You can follow him on Twitter @TClippardsSpecs.

Nats get Cabrera upgrade at second; Zimmerman insurance

The Washington Nationals acquired middle infielder Asdrubal Cabrera and cash considerations from the Cleveland Indians on Thursday in exchange for SS/LF Zach Walters.

Cabrera, 28, is hitting .246/.305/.386 with nine homers and 40 RBIs this season. He is a two-time All-Star with the Indians and is a .270/.331/.410 career hitter in over 900 MLB games.

Cabrera, a switch-hitter, will be a free agent following the 2014 season.

Walters, 24, hit .205/.279/.462 with three homers and five RBIs in 43 plate appearances for the Nats this season.

Cabrera is an instant upgrade over Danny Espinosa at second base. While he isn’t the hitter Ryan Zimmerman is, he provides adequate relief while the Nats miss Zimmerman’s big bat in the lineup. Cabrera is a good fielder that should transition to second base easily, though he hasn’t played the position since 2009.

With reports that Zimmerman sustained a Grade 3 strain of his right hamstring, the timetable for his return to baseball activities is six to eight weeks, meaning he’ll miss most of — if not all — the remainder of the regular season.

Cabrera is a fulltime MLB veteran to replace Zimmerman in the lineup, with Anthony Rendon handling the third base duties, as he has while Zimmerman is on the shelf.

This also allows the Nats to slot Espinosa as a right-handed pinch-hitter and defensive replacement, a position he’s more qualified to fill than everyday second baseman at this point in his career.

Some might lament Walters and the appeal of his Triple-A power, but the Nats obviously didn’t see him as a long-term solution in the Nats infield. His glove and contact skills just don’t play at the Major League level. The Nats tried him at second base in Syracuse this season and just didn’t see him making the necessary adjustments to compete at the big league level.

Consider this: with Ian Desmond eligible for free agency following next season, the Nats didn’t feel the need to retain the 24-year-old Walters as insurance for Desmond departing. That, in itself, should explain what the Nats thought about Walters future in the big leagues.

Overall, this is a big win for GM Mike Rizzo, acquiring an everyday big league veteran with All-Star bona fides, and cash to pay his salary, for a very low-upside minor league hitter.

Washington Nationals Game 103 Review: Soriano implodes; Marlins score four in ninth to complete comeback

Before the runs came late, Jordan Zimmermann was the story of the game.

The stoic Wisconsin right-hander, a two-time All-Star, commanded his fastball and dominated the Miami Marlins over seven innings, leading the Washington Nationals to a 6-0 lead into the late innings in Marlins Park in Miami.

But the Marlins didn’t get the script, getting eight hits in the last three innings to overcome the six-run deficit, capped by Jeff Baker’s walkoff double to lift Miami to a stunning, come-from-way-behind 7-6 win.

Zimmermann allowed two earned runs — both in the seven inning — on four hits and one walk, striking out six along the way. He left with the Nats leading comfortably at 6-2. [Read more…]

Washington Nationals Game 98 Review: Zimmerman injured, Nationals power past Rockies

RYAN ZIMMERMAN INJURED IN SIXTH AS NATIONALS RALLY PAST ROCKIES

A mile above sea level at Coors Field on Tuesday night, the Washington Nationals came back to defeat the Colorado Rockies 7-4. The victory didn’t come without a cost, however, as Ryan Zimmerman was pulled from the game in the sixth inning with a right leg injury.

The Nationals’ other Zimmerman(n), Jordan Zimmermann, took the mound for his first start since his early exit on July 11th due to a strained right biceps. On Tuesday, he just wasn’t his best and Washington fell into an early hole because of it. [Read more…]

Washington Nationals Game 97 Review: Desmond Leads Nationals Past Rockies

DESMOND GOES 5-FOR-5 AS NATIONALS DEFEAT ROCKIES

At Coors Field against the Colorado Rockies on Monday night to begin their nine game road trip, the Washington Nationals defeated the Rockies 7-2 thanks in large part to a big night from Ian Desmond.

Neither starting pitcher was overpowering, but in 5.2 innings, Doug Fister gave up two runs on nine hits with four strikeouts and two walks. For Colorado, Franklin Morales gave up four runs (three earned) on nine hits with three strikeouts and four walks.

Washington jumped ahead in the fourth inning and didn’t look back. [Read more…]

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