December 11, 2019

Should Washington Nationals trade Tyler Clippard?

I usually stay out of the fray when it comes to the Hot Stove league. Generally, I’d rather comment on what happened rather than try to sift through all the noise that the click-baiters are trying to generate this time of year.

But one of the Washington Nationals biggest decisions — among several, I might add — is whether to seize a good opportunity to move a reliable, veteran player that is going to get expensive very quickly before he is eligible for free agency.

Not Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister or Ian Desmond, though the same applies to all three.

No, obviously from the title of the article you know that I’m already talking about Tyler Clippard.

Clippard, 30 on opening day, is already getting bites from general managers across the league. Nats GM Mike Rizzo said on the radio the other day he’s already “penciled in” Drew Storen as closer for next season, which leaves Clippard as the main set-up guy again, a role he’s performed admirably the past six-plus seasons, including two all-star campaigns.

Clippard has shown no signs of slowing down, posting a 7-4 record, 2.18 ERA, 0.995 WHIP and 10.5/2.9 K/BB ration last season. In fact, it might have been his most impressive season, including his 32-save year of 2012.

But here’s the deal: desperate teams will dramatically overpay for a closer, and Clippard could fill that bill. He’s reliable, consistent and excellent. He’s also going to get very expensive for a set-up guy very quickly, but still have a quite reasonable salary for a closer.

Think that’s screwed up? Sure it is. But that’s how desperate teams think. To go out on the free agent market to acquire a veteran closer is a fool’s errand, and it’s prohibitively expensive. One needs to look no further than the two-year Rafael Soriano experiment here.

So smaller or mid-market teams looking for a veteran reliever that can close can do that on the trade market easier than outbid the bigger-market teams in free agency.

Clippard made $5.875 million last season and is 3rd year arbitration eligible, meaning this is his last arbitration before becoming a free agent at the age of 31 after the upcoming season. Considering his track record of excellence, two all-star noms and almost unprecedented reliability, Clippard will probably command $8 million-plus in arbitration this year.

Can the Nats afford to pay their set-up guy $8 million, and have any hope of re-signing Zimmermann, Fister or Desmond? Not to even mention looking down the road at Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper.

Mike Rizzo and the Lerner family are going to have some bridges to cross in the next couple of seasons, and this is one of them. The team has plenty of arms currently in the bullpen and plenty more candidates where they came from. If Rizzo has proven one thing as GM, it’s that he loves stockpiling mid-level starter prospects with big arms and has had real good success turning them into reliable relievers.

Clippard was the first.

Despite the Lerner’s deep pockets, they aren’t limitless — at least when it comes to baseball finances. Rizzo might have to start to pick-and-choose on the players he retains and the players he moves to re-stock the cupboards.

Clippard might be that first hard choice this winter, even before Zimmermann, Fister or Desmond.

NATS/P-NATS: Potomac Nationals Hot Stove Banquet

Logo from P-Nats website

The Potomac Nationals are thrilled to announce that on Sunday, January 29th, their 17th Annual Hot Stove Banquet is returning to the Hyatt Fairfax at Fair Lakes. Join the P-Nats for an evening of food, fun and camaraderie as the club heads down the home stretch of the offseason and looks toward Opening Day 2012.

Danny Rosenbaum, who has been named the 2011 Potomac Nationals Player of the Year, will be on hand to accept his award and greet fans. Rosenbaum, whose excellence earned him a promotion to AA for the last six weeks of the season, starred on the mound for Potomac in the 2011 campaign. The lefthander posted a 2.59 ERA in 20 starts for Potomac; in 132 innings he struck out 108 and walked just 41.

Rosenbaum’s signature moment came on June 4 in Wilmington: the southpaw out-dueled Noel Arguelles and tossed a complete-game shutout against the Blue Rocks. In nine innings, Rosenbaum allowed only three hits, struck out six and walked only one during the dominant outing.

In his final start with Potomac on July 31, Rosenbaum struck out 11 Frederick Keys over eight overpowering innings. He allowed just two hits in a 5-2 Nats win that offered a perfect exclamation point to Rosenbaum’s Potomac career.

P-Nats fans will also have their first chance to meet the team’s new manager, Brian Rupp. A special keynote speaker will be announced shortly to highlight a full program. In addition to a plated meal, the Nationals will host a cocktail hour and a silent auction to benefit S.P.A.R.K (Supporting Partnerships and Resources for Kids), formerly known as the Prince William County Public Schools Education Foundation.

Members of the Potomac Nationals’ Booster Club can attend the Hot Stove Banquet for just $40; non-members will be admitted for $45. All children 12 and under can get in for just $20.

As part of their ongoing efforts to support education and the local community, the Nationals will contribute all proceeds from the silent auction to S.P.A.R.K. The auction will feature memorabilia from all sports and professional teams around the country, as well as signed Nationals memorabilia. The auction will also include vacation packages, the opportunity to be GM for a day at a P-Nats home game in 2012, and much more. The silent auction will run from 5:30 until 7:45, while the Dinner and Program get underway at 6:30. Cocktails will be served from 5:30 until 6:30.

Tickets can only be purchased prior to the event; no payments will be taken at the door. Call 703-590-2311, extension 212 or email shooke@potomacnationals.com to sign up for one of the great days on the Potomac Nationals’ 2012 calendar!

To view the official invitation,click here.

The Hyatt Fairfax at Fair Lakes has undergone major renovations and will host the P-Nats in one of their versatile ballrooms. Conveniently located off Route 66, this AAA Three Diamond hotel in Fairfax Virginia is located within minutes of premier shopping malls, major corporate offices, both Dulles and Reagan National airports, and the landmark sights of Washington DC.

Check back on the Nationals’ website for an announcement of the Keynote Speaker and additional details for the Hot Stove Banquet.

NATS/SENATORS: Harrisburg Senators Hot Stove Dinner

The Harrisburg Senators, the Washington Nationals Double-A affiliate, is having their second annual Hot Stove Dinner on Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 6:00 p.m. at the Sheraton Harrisburg-Hershey. Tickets are $65 each or a table of ten is $600. Net proceeds from the dinner will benefit the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) Program.

The Senators have several special guests committed including Nationals Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Player Development, Bob Boone; Assistant General Manager, Bryan Minnitti; Director of Player Development, Doug Harris; and Director of Minor League Operations, Mark Scialabba. Another special guest coming to the dinner is the new Senators Manager, Matt LeCroy.

Frank Howard will be a featured guest. During his 6 year tenure with the Dodgers, Howard was named NL Rookie of the Year in 1960 and also helped them win the 1963 World Series. Howard, who starred for the Washington Senators from 1965 – 1971, led the American League in home runs with 44 in 1968 and 1970.

Former Phillies great Bob Boone will be the night’s keynote speaker. During his time as a player, Boone was a four-time All-Star (1976, 1978, 1979 and 1983), won seven Rawlings Gold Gloves including two at ages 40 and 41. Boone went to the post season with the Phillies in 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1980 and with the Angels in 1982 and 1986.

The evening begins with a cocktail hour at 6:00pm, followed by dinner at 7:00pm, and then the keynote speakers. Throughout the evening there will be a silent auction and, at the conclusion of the program, a raffle is taking place with the proceeds from both benefiting the RBI program. Some of the items to be raffled and auctioned include a Bryce Harper autographed ball, a Ryan Zimmerman autographed bat, a LeSean McCoy autographed jersey, and much more!

“We’re excited to begin the 2012 season with a great event benefiting the RBI program,” said Senators Team President Kevin Kulp. “It’ll give all of our fans a chance to talk baseball, and meet our new manager Matt LeCroy. What better way to spend a cold winter night than with fellow Senators fans talking baseball? Last year was our first Hot Stove Banquet and it was a resounding success. We look forward to building on that one and creating an even more powerful event. It is going to be a great night.”

The RBI program, started in 1989, is now in over 200 cities worldwide, and has provided over 100,000 boys and girls the opportunity to play baseball and softball. Through 2009, MLB clubs have drafted over 170 RBI participants. The program is designed to increase participation and interest in baseball while encouraging academic participation and achievement. The program also promotes greater inclusion of minorities into the game and teaches the value of teamwork.

The dinner is $65 per person, or $600 for a table of ten. Tickets are available online through the Senators website at www.senatorsbaseball.com or by calling Emily Winslow at 231-4444 ext. 109. No tickets will be sold the day of the event. The deadline to purchase a ticket for this wonderful event is Monday, January 30th.

DONE DEAL: Nationals acquire Gio Gonzalez from A’s

PEACOCK, MILONE, NORRIS, COLE SENT TO OAKLAND TO COMPLETE BLOCKBUSTER DEAL

According to multiple reports, the Washington Nationals have acquired left-handed starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland A’s in exchange for RHP Brad Peacock, LHP Tom Milone, catcher Derek Norris and RHP A.J. Cole.  Peacock and Milone both made their Major League debuts last season after the rosters expanded in September.

Gonzalez, 26, was an American League All-Star last season, a campaign where he finished 16-12 with a 3.12 ERA, 1.317 WHIP, 197 strikeouts and 91 walks, which led the junior circuit.  That followed his 2010 season where he posted a 15-9 record with a 3.23 ERA and 1.311 WHIP.  For his career, he’s average 8.6 K/9 while walking 4.4 per nine.  For a more elaborate analysis of his career statistics, please click here

Gonzalez joins Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann to form a formidable, young, cost-controlled top of the Nats rotation, to be followed in some order by Chien-Ming Wang and John Lannan, with Ross Detwiler — who is out of options — competing for a role.

The Nationals paid a steep price for a classic, left-handed power pitcher.  Peacock (3), Cole (4) and Norris (9) were among the Nats top five prospects, according to Baseball America, with Milone in the second ten among Nats top minor league players. 

Peacock rose fast in the Nats system, showing a plus fastball and nasty knuckle-curve, but has yet to develop a consistent third pitch that would seem necessary to thrive as a starter in the big leagues.  Milone is a soft-tossing control specialist from the left side.  The lack of velocity on his fastball seems to limit his prospect status, but all he ever does when he goes up a level is succeed.  Norris has tremendous plate discipline (.403 career MiLB OBP) and power from the catching position, but sometimes has trouble making consistent contact, as his career minor league .249 batting average would attest to.

Cole, 20 on Jan. 5, is a heralded starting prospect with the highest ceiling of any of the players traded.  A fourth round pick in the 2010 draft, he slipped due to a college commitment, but the Nats got him signed and into their system.  He went 4-7 with a 4.04 ERA and 1.247 WHIP for Low-A Hagerstown last year, but struck out 10.9 per nine innings while walking just 2.4 per nine.

This move, sacrificing much of the Nationals MLB starting pitching depth and two of their top minor league prospects, signals a “go for it” attitude from GM Mike Rizzo.  The Nats had been very quiet on the Hot Stove League up until today, bidding for Mark Buerhle and losing to division rival Miami, and staying out of the Yu Darvish bidding altogether.

It’s a testament to the job Rizzo and his staff have done in recent drafts, to have the number and quality of prospects to pull off a trade of this magnitude.  All-Star pitchers don’t get traded every day (though Gonzalez joins Mat Latos this week in changing addresses for similar prospect packages), and Rizzo has built one of the strongest, youngest rotations in the National League.  Time will tell how much it really cost him and his team, but the Nats now have a pitching staff that should be strong enough to contend for a wild card spot this season.

The trade does not come without risk though.  As noted in my analysis Wednesday, Gonzalez has one of the highest walk rates of any active starter and has benefitted from pitching in the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in the big leagues in Oakland.  He also has an unusually high strand rate and unusually low extra-base hit rate, which could raise a red flag once ballpark factors are considered.  But he misses a lot of bats, has a tremendous breaking ball, and does it all from the left side, particularly important when facing some of the lineups in the N. L. East.

The move leaves open speculation that Rizzo might not be done.  In trading some of his top prospects, he might consider going “all in” and going after free agent 1B Prince Fielder, which would only cost the team some of the Lerner’s money.  Signing a legitimate clean-up hitter to round out the batting order to go along with the talented young pitching staff could vault the Nats from Wild Card possibilities to legitimate contender status.

Stay tuned Nats fans.  There might be Happy Holidays in Natstown yet.

Nationals close to deal with INF Mark DeRosa

According to multiple local and national sources, the Washington Nationals are just a physical exam away from signing veteran infielder Mark DeRosa to a Major League contract for the upcoming season.  DeRosa, 36, has spent the last two injury-plagued seasons with the San Francisco Giants.

DeRosa, over just 73 games in 2010-11, hit .235/.313/.279 with just six extra base hits with the Giants.  His latest wrist injury came in May and sidelined DeRosa until August, when he came back to hit .367 with .439 OBP in 29 games — but just 57 plate appearances.  He was mostly relegated to pinch-hit duty for the contending Giants.

DeRosa’s last good year came in 2009, split between Cleveland and St. Louis, when he hit .250/.319/.433 with 23 home runs and 78 RBIs, which earned him a two-year, $12 million contract with San Francisco.  But two wrist surgeries have completely robbed him of his extra-base power, as he had just one double after he returned from his latest surgery last August.

DeRosa is a career .272/.341/.416 hitter with 14 home runs per 162 games, and will most likely be used as a utility player and right-handed bat off the bench, most likely prohibiting the Nats from carrying Steve Lombardozzi on the roster in a similar capacity.

With the Nats claiming third baseman Carlos Rivero off waivers from the Phillies, if DeRosa passes his physical, they will have 38 player on the 40-man roster.

Rivero, 23, hit .260 with 16 homers, 71 RBI and a .326 on-base percentage in 136 combined games between Class AA Reading and Class AAA Lehigh Valley in 2010.  He should provide organizational depth at the third base position as prospect Anthony Rendon makes his way through the system.

Nationals mull Gio Gonzalez, but at what cost?

According to this report by esteemed MLB.com beat reporter Bill Ladson, the Washington Nationals have made Oakland A’s left-handed starter Gio Gonzalez their “top priority” this off-season, according to an unnamed baseball source.  The report mentions that Oakland is looking for a package of up to four young players.  Ladson specifically mentions that pitcher Brad Peacock and Derek Norris have been mentioned as possible trade candidates.

It’s no secret Oakland is looking to shed payroll and collect prospects in order to lower costs as they continue to try to swindle San Jose into building them a new baseball palace and get permission from Commissioner Bud Selig to move there.  Gonzalez became arbitration eligible this off-season and is due a HUGE raise from last season’s $420,000 contract.  He does not become a free agent until 2016, but should his career stats stay in line with his production of the last two seasons, that might not matter a whole lot to the dollar figures in his contract.  He’s going to get expensive quickly, and that doesn’t figure into Oakland’s plans.

The last two seasons, Gonzalez has quietly been one of the more productive starters in the American League.  He doesn’t get a lot of attention since he plays in relative obscurity in the Oakland market on a not-great team.  But his ERA has been solid (3.23 in 2010, 3.12 in 2011), though outperforms his FIP and xFIP fairly significantly due to extremely low home run rates and a high percentage of runners left on base.  It’s not uncommon for a pitcher to outperform his FIP and xFIP over the course of one season, but it’s interesting when a pitcher does so in back-to-back seasons in an identical manner (see: Lannan, John).

Gonzalez has classic power pitcher numbers: high strikeouts, high walks.  He’s averaged 8.6 K/9 over his four-year career and 4.4 BB/9.  He’s been able to mitigate his high walk rate with a low H/9 rate (7.7 in ’10, 7.8 in ’11) and low HR/9 rate (0.67 in ’10, 0.76 in ’11).  That’s predominantly why he’s been able to strand runners at rates over 77 percent.  He does generate a fair number of ground balls, but hardly elite.

Here’s the big caveat with Gonzalez:  His extra-base hit rates are, in a word, extraordinarily low.  He gives up extra bases at two-thirds the rate the average Major League pitcher does.  By the way, did I mention he has played his home games in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum the last two seasons with one of the best outfield defenses in the game?

What happens when you take a pitcher that gives up a lot of walks and few home runs and put him in a offense-neutral or offense-friendly park?  I think you see where I’m going with this.  Not surprisingly, his home numbers for his career are significantly better than his road numbers in equal playing time.  His ERA is three-quarters of a run higher on the road, with a correspondingly worse average, OBP and slugging against.  His road numbers are not terrible, I should point out, but still significantly worse than the favorable conditions of the Mausoleum.

Bottom line: Gonzalez is a good, but not elite pitcher.  He has had the benefit of playing in one of the biggest ballparks in the game over his career.  If he had enough innings to qualify, he would rank only above Oliver Perez in walks allowed per nine innings among active pitchers.  He’s going to get very expensive very quickly.  The Mat Latos comparisons are not fair. 

Again, Gonzalez has been a very productive pitcher for the A’s the last two seasons, I don’t want to confuse anybody.   His strikeout rates are excellent and very enticing.  But baseball isn’t played in a vacuum.  When conditions changes, results often change.   Don’t let his All-Star designation last season cloud your judgment.  With his walk rate, he’s not an “ace”, and no one should put a trade package together for him as such.  He’s worthy of acquiring, and would bolster the Nats rotation in the No. 3 slot, but not at the cost of depleting the farm system of much of its almost-MLB ready talent as rumored.

NATS/CHIEFS: Syracuse Chiefs Hot Stove Dinner

Updated: Bob Boone has been added. Brad Peacock was traded to Oakland so will no longer be part of dinner.

CARLOS DELGADO TO HEADLINE CHIEFS HOT STOVE DINNER
Newest Wall of Fame inductee will be joined by Beasley, Bynum, Peacock

Carlos Delgado will be inducted into the Syracuse Baseball Wall of Fame on February 3. (Photo: Chiefs Website)

Syracuse, NY—The Syracuse Chiefs, Triple-A Affiliate of the Washington Nationals, are pleased to announce that former Major League All-Star Carlos Delgado will headline the guest list at the team’s annual Hot Stove Dinner & Silent Auction. New Chiefs manager Tony Beasley and Chiefs players Brad Peacock and Seth Bynum will join Delgado at the head table.

Delgado, who appeared in 181 games for the Chiefs during his Minor League career, will be inducted into the Syracuse Baseball Wall of Fame in a special ceremony held at the Hot Stove. The slugging first baseman spent smacked 43 career home runs in a Chiefs uniform, primarily during the 1994 and 1995 seasons. Delgado was a key component of the 1994 Chiefs team that reached the Governors’ Cup finals.

A native of Puerto Rico, Delgado enjoyed a 17-year Major League career with the Toronto Blue Jays, Florida Marlins, and New York Mets, compiling a career batting average of .280 with 473 home runs. He was a two-time All-Star (2000 & 2003) and also won a Silver Slugger award in 2003 when he led the big leagues with 145 RBI.

“We are thrilled that Carlos Delgado will be able to attend this year’s Hot Stove to take his rightful place in the Syracuse Baseball Wall of Fame,” said Wall of Fame Selection Committee Chairman Ron Gersbacher. “He was the driving force behind one of the most potent offenses in franchise history and this honor is well deserved.”

Beasley guided the Double-A Harrisburg Senators to an 80-62 record last season, good enough to win the Eastern League’s Western Division. He was named to the managerial post in Syracuse earlier this month. Beasley is a three-time winner of Baseball America’s Manager of the Year award.

Pitching prospect Brad Peacock played at three levels of the Washington organization last year. The right-hander began the 2011 season in Harrisburg, where he was 10-2 with a 2.01 ERA in 16 games through July 4. Peacock was promoted to Syracuse after the All-Star Break and after allowing seven earned runs in his first start for the Chiefs he allowed only 10 more over his next eight outings. Peacock closed out the year by allowing only one earned run in 12 big league innings for the Nationals (0.75 ERA) over three appearances (two starts).

Peacock was selected as the Eastern League’s Pitcher of the Year and the Washington Nationals’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He is currently rated the second-best prospect in the Nationals chain by MiLB.com and he is third on Baseball America’s list.

Fan favorite Seth Bynum will return to the Washington organization in 2012 after signing a Minor League contract with the Nationals this off-season. Bynum has spent the majority of the last three campaigns in a Chiefs uniform and was named to the International League’s mid-season All-Star team in 2009. The infielder has hit 43 home runs in 306 career Triple-A games.

ADDED:  Nationals Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Player Development Bob Boone has been added to the guest list for the Chiefs Hot Stove Dinner and Silent Auction.

Boone will be accompanied at the event by Nationals Assistant General Manager Bryan Minniti, Director of Player Development Doug Harris, and Director of Minor League Operations Mark Scialabba.  The Nationals contingent will join recently announced guests Carlos Delgado, Tony Beasley and Seth Bynum at the head table.

Four-time Major League All-Star catcher Bob Boone has been a member of Washington’s front office since December 2004.  Boone enjoyed a 19-year playing career as a catcher for Philadelphia, Anaheim, and Kansas City and was a member of the Phillies team that captured the 1980 World Series.  The native Californian won seven Rawlings Gold Gloves in his career and held the Major League record for games caught in a career (2225) at the time of his retirement in 1990.  Boone has worked in the front offices of the Philadelphia and Cincinnati organizations in addition to his tenure with the Nationals and he has also managed the Royals (1994-1997) and Reds (2001-2003).

“It is a tradition for our manager to attend the Hot Stove Dinner and we are glad that our fans will have a chance to meet Tony Beasley at this year’s event,” said Chiefs General Manager John Simone. “In addition, having players of the caliber of Seth Bynum and Brad Peacock will make the night that much better.”

The Hot Stove will take place on Friday, February 3 at the Holiday Inn Convention Center in Liverpool. A silent auction and cocktail hour will get underway at 5:30pm with the dinner program set to start at 7:00pm. The event will benefit the Syracuse Chiefs Charitable Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) corporation which implements programs to improve the health and educational opportunities of families and youth in the Central New York community and provides financial assistance to other 501(c)(3) organizations with similar purposes.

Tickets for the Hot Stove are $55 for adults and $25 for children 12 and younger or $500 for a table of ten. Fans may purchase tickets in person at the Chiefs ticket office at Alliance Bank Stadium or by calling 315-474-7833 during normal business hours, Monday-Friday from 9am to 5pm.

Are Nats looking overseas to fill their needs?

It’s widely accepted that the Washington Nationals are in the market this off-season for a No. 3 starter and a center fielder, preferably one that possesses a high enough OBP to hit in the lead-off spot.  Thus far, we’ve seen a bunch of free agent pitchers that could have fit the bill sign elsewhere, and the market for center fielders is slim, indeed.

Could the Nats turn their attention overseas to fill both slots?

The big name from Japan this winter is pitcher Yu Darvish, 25, who has put up otherworldly stats against mostly high Double-A/Triple A competition in the Japanese National League.  Last season, Darvish dominated his possibly final season in Japan with an 18-6 record, 10 complete games, six shutouts, a 1.44 ERA, 276 K’s (10.71 K/9) and 36 BB (1.40 BB/9) in 28 starts and 232.0 IP for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.   Them’s some crazy numbers.

Darvish, under the process the Japanese major league uses to allow their players to become free agents, was posted by the Fighters last Thursday, and any MLB team that wishes to have the rights to negotiate with the righty has until the middle of this week to submit their bid.  After the posting bids are processed, the team that won the bid then has 30 days to negotiate a contract.  If the posting team doesn’t receive what it thinks is an appropriate bid, they can take the player off the market.

The last two prominent Japanese pitchers that went through the posting process, Kei Igawa and Diasuke Matsuzaka, garnered posting fees of $26 million and $51 million respectively.  Darvish should command closer to Matsuzaka than Igawa.  Then the team that wins the bid has to negotiate a contract on top of that.  It’s a dicey proposition (all puns included) bidding on a Japanese player, with their gaudy stats and mysterious allure.  Neither Igawa nor Matsuzaka flourished — as their Japanese record might have indicated — once they got over to the states.

The Nats have scouted Darvish intensely and figured to be one of the MLB teams that submitted a posting bid, but only GM Mike Rizzo (and his owners) know for sure. 

Today, we found out that the Tokyo Yakult Swallows submitted posting paperwork on their center fielder, Norichika Aoki.  Aoki has an impressive pedigree in his own right, and some have called him the best hitting prospect in Japan since Ichiro Suzuki.  Aoki, 29, is a three-time Central League batting champion, a six-time Gold Glove winner and owns a lifetime .329 batting average in eight seasons.  He hits left and throws right, and has posted some decent stolen base numbers in the past, though he stole just eight (against three caught stealing) last season.

The posing fee on Aoki will be considerably less than that for Darvish, but it could still climb as high as $10 million for just the negotiating rights.

The free agent list for center fielders is short, and starts with Coco Crisp.  But Crisp is 32 and has played more than 139 games just twice in his 10-year career.   He led the American League in steals this past season with 49 in 136 games, but hit just .264/.314/.379.  The Nats have long been rumored to be in on Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton should he become available for trade, but the 27-year old is even less of an ideal lead-off hitter than Crisp, and would be expensive in terms of players needed to acquire the toolsy outfielder.

All Aoki and Darvish would cost is money.  Could they be the solutions to the Nats two biggest off-season problems?  We’ll find out in the next week which MLB won the rights to negotiate with both players.  But will their talent translate to the Major Leagues?  We won’t know that answer for a while, but history says that it’s a risky proposition.  For every Ichiro there seems to be a dozen Kei Igawas.  Signing one of these Japanese imports is risky enough.  Can the Nats afford — monetarily and playing time-wise — to take a chance on both?

Nats acquire reliever Ryan Perry from Tigers

The Washington Nationals made their first significant move of the off-season today, acquiring underperforming right-handed reliever Ryan Perry from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for right-handed reliever Collin Balester, the team announced this afternoon.

Perry, 25 in February, is a former first round pick (No. 21 overall) of the Tigers from the 2008 draft.  Perry is long on talent, but has yet to harness that talent at the Major League level.  He pitched in 36 games last season (37.0 IP) with a 2-0 record, 5.35 ERA, 1.622 WHIP, 5.8 K/9 and a whopping 5.1 BB/9. 

Overall in his big league career, Perry is 5-6 with a 4.07 ERA and 1.438 WHIP in 149 appearances, all in relief.  Perry spent a month in AAA Toledo in July and August as the Tigers sent him down to get control of his fastball.  When he returned to the bigs in mid-August, Perry limited the runs he allowed, pitching to a 3.07 ERA after his recall, but the wildness remained, as he walked eight and struck out eight in his final 16 appearances of 2010.

Balester, 25, was originally drafted by the Montreal Expos in the fourth round in 2004.  He came up as a starter but was moved to the bullpen full-time in an effort to utilize his power arm.  He has had bouts of success over three years with the Nats, but never seemed to stick in the big leagues.  He takes a lifetime record of 5-16 with a 5.17 ERA in 62 games (22 starts) for the Nationals with him to Detroit.

One important factor in the deal is that Perry has an option remaining, meaning he can be sent to the minors without being subject to waivers.  Balester was out of options.

Nats leave Winter Meetings much as they entered

The Washington Nationals had a pretty quiet Winter Meetings by all accounts, save for losing a couple of Rule 5 picks.  They watched some of the biggest names in the market go elsewhere, including to a division rival trying desperately to generate enough interest in their team to fill their new stadium, while they sat pat (for now) in their pursuit of a center fielder (one preferably who can hit leadoff), a dependable veteran starter, and bench help.

The biggest news of the meetings was Albert Pujols bolting the National League for the greener ($$$) pastures of Anaheim.  Los Angeles also added C.J. Wilson on a relatively modest five-year, $77.5 million deal.  Those deals overshadowed the Miami Marlins’ bid for respectability earlier in the week with the signing of SS Jose Reyes (six years, $106 million) and LHP Mark Buerhle (four years, $58 million).   The only other deal with repercussions to the Nats was Laynce Nix moving up U.S. 95 to Philly on a two-year, $2.5 million deal.

Obviously, the Nats had been mentioned as “in” on Wilson and Buerhle, two of the three acknowledged top pitchers on the market, along with 34-year old Roy Oswalt.  Wilson or Buerhle brought the extra added benefit of throwing left-handed and either seemed like a good fit in the Nats rotation, with right-handers Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Chien-Ming Wang already pencilled in.  If the Nats were still interested in acquiring a lefty via free agency, the oft-injured Erik Bedard and Jeff Francis are still on the market, though both are a considerable drop-off from the Wilson/Buerhle tandem, and frankly may not be any better than players they already have under contract.

Mike Rizzo has to be concerned about the moves the Marlins have made, adding an All-Star caliber shortstop and top lefty pitcher to an already formidable array of talent moving into their state-of-the-art retractable roof stadium.  As if the Nats needed any more competition to move up the ranks of the N.L. East, the Marlins are definitely throwing their hat into the ring to get top-of-the-division competitive in a hurry. 

The Marlins can now boast a top-heavy rotation of Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Buerhle, with Heath Bell (three years, $27 million) closing games for them.   It remains to be seen if new skipper Ozzie Guillen can massage Hanley Ramirez’ ego enough to convince him to play third (or center field), but the Marlins are much more dangerous now than they were this time last week.

So where does that leave the Nationals?

Well, several top-of-the-marquee free agents remain, such as Prince Fielder, Jimmy Rollins, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Beltran.  Any could be an intriguing fit for the Nats, depending on the price.  One could envision a scenario where Rizzo could make a play for any of these players.  Fielder would certainly fill that middle-of-the-order bat Rizzo covets, but his defense and fitness level are limiting factors when talking about a long-term contract.  Rollins would be an upgrade over Desmond at short, but isn’t a high-OBP guy you’d like to see at the top of the order. 

Ramirez’ combo of offense and defense make him very attractive, but he’s a natural third baseman and if the Nats pursued he’d probably be asked to move to first, limiting his value.  And Beltran’s days of playing center are over, so if the Nats brought him in it would be to play right field, with Werth moving over to center, something he may very well do anyway.

The pitching situation is a little more dicey.  After Oswalt (and his bad back), the list drops off precipitously.  Edwin Jackson (a player linked to the Nats previously), Javier Vazquez and Hiroki Kuroda are the next best available.  But neither Vazquez nor Kuroda want to pitch anywhere but where they were last season, so they probably aren’t realistic options.  No, if the Nats are going to upgrade their No. 3 pitcher spot, it will most likely come via trade.  They’ve been mentioned in the Gio Gonzalez sweepstakes, as have a number of teams, and the return for Gonzalez will be steep.

Japanese sensation Yu Darvish is also out there, but he could cost some $30 million just to get the right to negoitate with him.

The Nationals are in a precarious situation as the free agent market starts to settle.  The problem is that the Nats really don’t know what they need, and probably won’t until spring training.  They hope that 1B Adam LaRoche is healthy and available to play full-time right from the get-go, but the honest truth is that no one knows how strong his left shoulder is until he faces live pitching.  He hads extensive surgery and the recovery time can he lengthy (ask Jesus Flores).  If LaRoche can’t go — and with Chris Marrero out an undetermined time with a torn hamstring — that will require Michael Morse moving back to first base, freeing up an outfield spot. 

The Nats kind of have an injury-prompted game of musical chairs going on right now, and it’s tough for Rizzo to make decisions for his team for next year without really knowing where the needs are.  But one thing is certain.  The Nats desperately need a table-setter at the top of the order.  As much as they wanted and hoped Ian Desmond would be that player, the more at bats he gets the more it shows he’s more of a bottom-of-the-order slasher; a middle infielder with decent pop and good speed, but not enough plate discipline to be a catalyst. 

Is a No. 3 pitcher and lead-off hitter out there for Rizzo, either via free agency or trade?  Christmas is rapidly approaching, and most top free agents like to know where they are playing before the holidays.  Can Rizzo work some holiday magic for the Nats this year?

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