January 25, 2015

OPINION: Escobar has tough task of making Nationals fans forget he was traded for Clippard

Tyler Clippard pitching at Nats Park, July 10, 2011 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Tyler Clippard pitching at Nats Park, July 10, 2011 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

The Washington Nationals traded two-time All-Star Tyler Clippard to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for much-traveled shortstop Yunel Escobar, the ninth time since he’s become general manager that Mike Rizzo has made a trade with his Oakland counterpart, Billy Beane. On paper, it’s the type of trade Major League general managers dream of making: trading an expensive, fungible asset — in this case, the most-used relief pitcher of the past four seasons — for an at-least average every day player, and saving money in the process.

But fans don’t root for teams on paper.

Escobar, 32, is the very definition of average big league shortstop. At least, he was up until last season. He owns a lifetime .276/.347/.381 slash line in eight seasons. He had been a positive WAR player every year of his career… up until last season, when he hit .258/.324/.340 with not even passable defense. In fact, he was one of the worst shortstops defensively in all of baseball.

Is that a blip? Is it signaling the beginning of the end for Escobar? We’ll have to wait and see. But considering his previous indefensible attitude problems — and the player he was traded for — Nats fans are going to have a hard time hoping for this guy to succeed.

Tyler Clippard was a fan-favorite. Actually, that’s stating it lightly. Acquired before the 2008 season for fellow reliever Jonathan Albaladejo (in what surely is Jim Bowden’s crowning achievement as Nats GM), Clippard arrived as a lightly regarded two-pitch starter with injury concerns. Soon, he would be sent to the bullpen, where his exploding fastball and damn-near unhittable changeup would wreak havoc on batters, first in the International League as a member of the Columbus Clippers and Syracuse Chiefs, then as a valuable member of the Nats pen.

Clippard went on to post All-Star seasons in 2011 and this past season, dominating on an almost nightly basis in his familiar eighth inning role, setting up for the likes of Matt Capps, Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano.

Clippard, behind those wonderfully goofy goggles, was a rarity — as affable and approachable off the field as he was dominant on it. The press loved him for his smart, engaging insights after games and during batting practice. Fans loved him for being approachable at the ballpark, at fan events and on social media. He was, succinctly, the perfect guy to have on your team.

Now, that team is the Oakland A’s. At least, for now. It’s no secret A’s GM Billy Beane is rebuilding and rebranding his team, and a veteran soon-to-be free agent like Clippard probably won’t call the Oakland Coliseum home for very long. He’ll probably be shipped off at midseason for a couple of middling prospects as Beane goes about his latest great rebuild.

The bottom line here is, as it so often is, money.

Clippard, in his last year of arbitration before becoming a free agent at the end of the year, will command around $10 million this season after his arbitration hearing. Two-time All-Stars don’t come cheap. Escobar is under contract for two more years, with a team option for a third, and is due a very reasonable $13 million, provided his defensive numbers last season were an aberration and he continues to hit.

2013 NatsFest, 1/26/2013: Pitcher Tyler Clippard signing autographs (Photo by Lisa Milisa)

2013 NatsFest, 1/26/2013: Pitcher Tyler Clippard signing autographs (Photo by Lisa Milisa)

There is another factor. Escobar will probably be slated to play second base for the Nats, a job he hasn’t filled since his rookie year in ’07. But since he’s under contract for two more year at least, he provides the team with insurance should they trade, or simply allow to walk, current shortstop Ian Desmond — like Clippard, a free agent at season’s end. The Nats are particularly vulnerable at middle infield, and most of Rizzo’s moves this offseason have been to address that glaring weakness. He traded one of his most reliable players, in fact, to address it.

And what of the bullpen? Drew Storen was already slated to become the closer. Now, Matt Williams is going to have to come up with another eighth inning guy. Aaron Barrett? Craig Stammen? Blake Treinen? Heaven forbid, Heath Bell??? Everyone of them slots back one inning, regardless of who gets the eighth. Veteran lefty Matt Thornton becomes a stabilizing force, and Rizzo’s ninja-like acquisition of Thornton last season looks that much more important at this point.

This is a tough business, and this isn’t an easy pill for Nats fans to swallow — sending away a universally liked player in his prime for a fairly unlikable one that is probably already past his. It was probably a tough call for Mike Rizzo, too. On paper, this move looks reasonable. More than reasonable, actually. Clippard was going to get prohibitively expensive. Escobar is an at-least average affordable every day player. GM’s make that trade 99 times out of 100.

But fans don’t play on paper.

Clippard was here through the darkest years of the Washington Nationals — he saw damn near 400 losses in four seasons — and made it through to the other side. If the Nats go on to win it all in the next year or two, there will be fans that won’t find it as sweet since Clippard won’t be a part of it.

No, even if Escobar performs up to his career OBP, fans aren’t going to recover from this one. And if Escobar slides any more from last season’s performance, or the bullpen becomes a liability instead of a strength, he’s going to have a tough time of it here in DC.

And for Nats fans, this is — perhaps — just the beginning. With Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Denard Span and Doug Fister all slated for free agency following the 2015 season, this could just be the first goodbye of many to come in the very near future.

Tyler Clippard struggled in the 10th inning - Miami Marlins v. Washington Nationals, 9/7/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Tyler Clippard pitching to the Miami Marlins 9/7/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

OPINION: Tough saying goodbye to fan-favorite in offseason trade

No sooner had I finished saying that this was one of the hardest times in the baseball year than events have proven that out. In a trade with the Oakland A’s, the Nationals have acquired SS Yunel Escobar, and sent Tyler Clippard westward. This is the sort of late winter bombshell that you so rarely see, but can be a part of the landscape when it feels farthest from the warm summer days with green fields and a scorebook.

Trades like this one are absolutely the most difficult on the fan when they’re done in mid-winter. All we’ll hear about in the Natosphere for the next week or two — or heaven forfend, longer — is the aftermath of the this trade, and all it will be is hot air until April. Sure there’s time in Florida where we’ll see how Escobar handles the move to second or third base and how Clippard adapts to the Cactus league, but none of that is very meaningful.

No, to see the results of this trade we have to wait painful months while the winter drags on and while the talk-radio-and-columnist crowd chew this parcel of information over and over, slicing and dicing the statistical lines, the story lines from off the field, and all the intangible little things that we spend our winters working with.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve come to so dread the off-season, when live data stops being a possible outlet, and we’re left purely to the world of forecasts. I’ll come right out and say that there is no good possible way to forecast a baseball season — if there were, it’d be patented and marketed and sold to teams who would all use it religiously — we’re left with the awkward and clumsy moments where all of us try to imagine what will be based on what has been.

Predicting the weather is an impossible job.

Predicting a baseball season makes that look easy.

And so we’re left picking up the pieces as one of the fan favorite stalwart Nationals is headed for Oakland gold and green, trying to make sense of what happens when one of your favorite ballplayers will suit up for someone else next year. One of the brilliantly irrational, yet utterly human, parts of baseball is the fan relationship with a player. You have favorites on the diamond and at the plate, and it goes back to the littlest human kindness at a fan event, or an autograph before the game.

When I was 11, my favorite Oakland Athletic for about half the season was a call-up named Billy Beane. I remember he got some favorable press in the Sacramento Bee, and then at the next game I went to, he signed my glove because I went to find him. Beane played 37 games in that 1989 season, and he was left off the post-season roster, but man he was my guy for those games. I’d cheer like he was a starter, and a key part of that team, even though he was a bench guy only up for part of the time.

There will come a time when I will have to explain to my crying son that the team he loves has traded the player he loves to another city, and that that’s part of the game. I’m really not looking forward to that day. I know that many parents throughout Natstown are in similar situations tonight and trying to figure out what they can say to their child who just lost their favorite summertime friend, and I find myself at a loss for what to say in this circumstance.

Sometimes, trades make sense. They hurt a little, but you can look at the balance sheet and figure this makes the team better. I’m not sure this trade fits that bill. Yes, the Nationals have a deep bullpen, and will be able to slot in someone like Blake Treinen into the eighth inning slot, or move to a collaborative late-innings effort if the Heath Bell signing turns into something viable.

Yes, they have a need at second, and Escobar can fill that need, and be an option at short if they can’t come to terms with Desmond. However, I don’t see that Clippard was going to be anything less than their eighth inning man this year, in for another 70+ appearances. If we look at Escobar’s past performance defensively, though, he took a major step backward in 2014, turning in the worst UZR/150 season at shortstop since the stat was invented, and his off-field disrespect, it’s hard to come away feeling good about this particular trade.

But we don’t know.

And we can’t know for months.

And that makes it all the worse right now, as all we have to stare at are numbers on screens and highlight reels.

I can’t wrap this up without saying thank you to Tyler Clippard, who was always a joy to watch out of the bullpen, and to listen to after the game. He always had something thoughtful and genuine to say, something that wasn’t just a stack of cliches.

It is the most beautifully irrational and human part of baseball that makes us love players as individual parts of the team that we watch and live and die by, and in that spirit I know that many Nationals fans across our fair city are hurting as they read these words. They are looking up flights to Oakland, and considering a trip to the Coliseum to see him in his new white cleats and golden stirrups. We get attached to players because they’re people, not parts, and that attachment is something that gives us joy in the season. We watch our favorite players go out there every night and put their heart and body into the fire, and they get traded and moved around, because baseball isn’t just a pastime, it’s a multi-billion dollar business, and that’s the sort of thing that happens.

It doesn’t make it easy, and it doesn’t always work out, but these are the sort of the business decisions that have to get made in baseball. It doesn’t hurt matters for the Nationals’ payroll that Escobar’s contract is about half of what Clippard’s would be this year after arbitration, and $10M relievers aren’t the sort of line item that make it past many budgets in MLB. After last season’s commentary on budgets, and no positive movement in the MASN case before the courts, the team would need to find $13M in savings to return to 2014 levels, and that’s before the final results of nine arbitration hearings are known. Should those hearings all end in favor of the players, the Nationals would be searching for additional savings to return to 2014 levels.

Overall, the Nationals have given up their rock-solid eighth inning reliever in exchange for a lifetime .276 hitter who had a rough season on the diamond last year, and who has had disciplinary problems related to problem behavior off the field.

That’s the sort of trade I dread this time of the year.

Nationals trade RHP Clippard to Athletics for SS Yunel Escobar

According to multiple media reports, the Nationals have traded right-handed reliever Tyler Clippard to the Oakland Athletics for shortstop Yunel Escobar. This move was first reported on twitter by Jon Heyman of CBS, and has been confirmed by Bill Ladson of MLB.com, and is now pending physicals. [Update: The Nationals have announced the deal in a press release excerpted below the break.]

Clippard, 29 this season, arrived in Washington from the New York Yankees in 2008 at the nadir of the Nationals franchise, and has been a towering force out of the bullpen since then. In 2011 and 2014, he would be the Nationals’ representative at the All-Star Game, and has been the 8th inning man for the Nationals for several seasons, averaging 70 appearances per season and amassing a 34-24 career recorded a 2.68 ERA. Clippard is in his final year of arbitration and was expected to claim between $8.5M and $10M this season.

Escobar, 32, arrives in Washington after a very short off-season stay in Oakland, having come from the Tampa Bay Rays organization. The Cuban-born shortstop has two years remaining on his contract and a third year under team control. Escobar is slated to earn $5M in 2015 and $7M in 2016. Primarily a shortstop, Escobar has played some games at 3B and 2B over his career, and would likely be a contender for the open 2B slot in the Nationals infield.

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Washington Nationals acquire Trea Turner, Joe Ross from Padres; send Steven Souza to Rays

According to multiple sources, the Washington Nationals completed a three-way deal with the San Diego Padres and the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Nats will acquire SS Trea Turner and RHP Joe Ross from San Diego and sent OF Steven Souza, Jr. and LHP Travis Ott to Tampa. Tampa sent Wil Myers and others to San Diego.

Turner and Ross are both former first round picks and were on the Padres Top 10 Prospect List.

Since Turner was drafted this past summer, he will have to be included in the deal as a “player to be named later” and will most likely play in extended spring training next season until the deal can be consummated.

Turner, 21, was the 13th overall pick by the Padres in last summer’s amateur draft. He hit .323/.406/.448 with four home runs and 23 steals in 27 opportunities between low- and high-A last year in 321 plate appearances. He grades out with 80 speed according to MLB scouts with the defensive ability to stick at shortstop.

Ross, 21, was the 25th overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Padres. In 62 minor league appearances (60 starts) he’s 15-18 with a 3.90 ERA, 1.308 WHIP, 7.2 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9. His strikeout numbers took a tick up last season moving from low- to high-A and he made four appearances in AA at the end of last season. According to one report, Ross features a plus fastball in the low 90’s with heavy life, a slider that projects as above average, and a changeup that is still mostly a show-me pitch.

Souza, 26 on opening day, enjoyed his career last season in Syracuse, hitting .350/.432/.590 with 18 home runs in 407 plate appearances. He will forever be remembered by Nats fans for making the spectacular diving catch to save Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter on the last day of the 2014 season.

Ott, 19, is a former 25th round pick in the 2013 draft. He’s 4-4 with a 3.96 ERA, 1.310 WHIP, 6.8 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9 in 23 appearances, mostly in rookie league and short-season A ball. He’s a soft-tossing lefty with limited MLB upside.

This trade, as with last season’s deal for Doug Fister, is a bona fide and clear win for Nats GM Mike Rizzo. He moved an older prospect and a fringe at best lefty for two of the Padres top minor league prospects, both legitimate MLB talents. Turner obviously becomes the Nats best middle infield prospect, providing strong insurance if the Nats can’t — or won’t — re-sign Ian Desmond to a long-term contract. Ross is added to an already crowded stable of hard-throwing right-handed starters in the Nats minor league system.

Souza was clearly a fan favorite for his catch and power potential, but he had no place in the Nats outfield and, frankly, has limited MLB potential. He owns a long swing and is not a quality defender, despite his tremendous diving catch. The Nats got two of the three best players in this 11-player deal and didn’t give up the third. The Nats got better for the future without giving up any of the present.

Win-win for Rizzo and the Nats.

Washington Nationals trade Ross Detwiler to Rangers for minor leaguers

According to multiple reports, the Washington Nationals on Thursday traded LHP Ross Detwiler (29 opening day) to the Texas Rangers for two minor leaguers. According to USA Today, those players are 2B Chris Bostick and RHP Abel de los Santos.

Detwiler, the former No. 6 overall draft pick of the Nats, was left off the playoff roster last season as his stock had fallen from Game 4 playoff starter in ’12 to middle reliever to afterthought in two seasons.

The tall lefty battled delivery issues early in his career, which led to hip injuries and decreasing velocity. With the loss of speed, Detwiler also lost any semblance of a strikeout pitch, as he turned completely into a “generate weak contact” type of pitcher. He threw his sinking fastball over 90 percent of his pitches and never did develop suitable secondary pitches.

He has never struck out more than 5.8 per nine innings in his career.

Bostick, 22 in March, hit .251/.322/.412 in 130 games in double-A single-A last season in the Rangers organization with 11 homers and 24 steals. He exclusively played second base the past two seasons.

de los Santos, 22, was 5-3 with a 1.92 ERA, 0.959 WHIP and 10.4/2.9 K/BB ratio in 41 appearances between low and high-A for the Rangers last season. In 105 minor league appearances he owns a 9.2 K/9 ratio.

Perhaps the most significant by-product of the deal is shedding Detwiler’s $3 million contract for the upcoming season as the Nats still do not have an answer for their 2B/3B opening as the Winter Meetings come to a close.

Washington Nationals trade for Asdrubal Cabrera, per source

The Washington Nationals have traded for middle infielder Asdrubal Cabrera, late of the Cleveland Indians, per the Indians MLB.com beat writer. According to a further report, the Nats will send SS Zach Walters to Cleveland.

Cabrera will be a free agent at the end of the season.

Washington Capitals land Halak for Neuvirth, Klesla

The Washington Capitals acquired goalie Jaroslav Halak, the man that almost single-handedly knocked them out of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, and a third round pick in the 2015 draft from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for G Michal Neuvirth and D Rostislav Klesla, acquired Tuesday in a trade with Phoenix.

From the press release:

Halak, 28, has posted a record of 24-9-4 with a 2.23 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in 40 games with the St. Louis Blues this season. Halak currently sits ninth among NHL goaltenders in wins, 10th in goals-against average and third in shutouts (4).

Through his eight NHL seasons in Montreal and St. Louis, Halak has played in 260 career NHL games, earning a 139-81-26 record with a 2.38 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage. Additionally, Halak has appeared in 23 career playoff games with Montreal and St. Louis, posting a record of 10-11-0 with a 2.42 goals-against average and a ..923 save percentage. Halak’s career shootout save percentage of .711 ranks ninth among active goaltenders with at least 25 career shootouts.

While many thought goaltending was the least of the Caps problems this season, the move frees the team from Neuvirth’s salary next season. Combined with the Erat move on Tuesday, and the salary cap going up for next season, the Caps seem to be sitting pretty this offseason.

Washington Capitals acquire defenseman Klesla, prospect Chris Brown for Erat

Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee is a busy man these days. Tuesday morning he acquired LW Dustin Penner from the Anaheim Ducks, in the afternoon he shipped disgruntled winger Martin Erat, and minor leaguer John Mitchell, to the Phoenix Coyotes for veteran defenseman Rostislav Klesla, forward prospect Chris Brown and a fourth round draft pick in the 2015 draft.

From the press release on Brown:

Brown, 23, played in six games with the Coyotes this season, collecting 17 penalty minutes. In addition, he recorded 35 points (14 goals, 21 assists) and 68 penalty minutes in 51 games with the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League (AHL). Last season, Brown led the Pirates and all AHL rookies in scoring (29 goals) and ranked tied for third in the AHL with 14 power-play goals. He also made his NHL debut.

During the 2011-12 season, Brown recorded 29 points (12 goals, 17 assists) and 66 penalty minutes in 38 games with University of Michigan (CCHA), setting career highs in assists, points and penalty minutes. Brown led all Michigan rookies in 2009-10 with 28 points (13 goals, 15 assists), and led the team with seven power-play goals in 45 games. He was also named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team. Brown registered 80 points (34 goals, 46 assists) and 183 penalty minutes in 125 regular season games during his three-year career with the Wolverines. The Flower Mound, Texas native was the first ever Michigan recruit from the state of Texas.

And info on Klesla:

Klesla, 31, collected four points (one goal, three assists) and 24 penalty minutes with the Coyotes this season. The native of Novy Jicin, Czech Republic, is a 14-year NHL veteran who has played for Columbus and Phoenix. The 6’3’’, 215-pound defenseman has appeared in 659 NHL games, recording 159 points (48 goals, 111 assists) and 620 penalty minutes. Additionally, Klesla has collected nine points (two goals, seven assists) and 11 penalty minutes in 23 career playoff games. Klesla was originally drafted by the Blue Jackets in the first round (fourth overall) in the 2000 NHL Draft.

Both players will report to AHL Hershey for the time being.

With Erat’s $4.5 million off the books for this year and next, McPhee now has some flexibility under the salary cap to address the blueline in a meaningful manner. Of course, every team in the league that considers itself a playoff caliber team would like to upgrade its defensive corps this time of year, but McPhee is a lot better off now to do it than he was a day ago.

Washington Capitals acquire Dustin Penner from Ducks

CAPS SEND 4TH ROUND PICK, ACQUIRED IN PERREAULT TRADE, BACK TO ANAHEIM

The Washington Capitals traded the fourth round pick they acquired from the Anaheim Ducks back to its origin and acquired veteran forward Dustin Penner, the team announced on Tuesday.

The 31-year-old, 6’4″, 240 left-handed shot should join Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom on the team’s top line, giving the Caps a big-bodied, experienced running mate for their best players.

From the press release:

Penner, 31, is a 10-year NHL veteran who has played for the Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim. The 6’4’’, 247-pound forward has appeared in 571 career NHL games, recording 307 points (150 goals, 157 assists) and 352 penalty minutes. In addition, Penner has collected 35 points (13 goals, 22 assists) and 58 penalty minutes in 78 career playoff games. Penner won the Stanley Cup with the Ducks in 2007 and with the Kings in 2012.

This season, Penner has recorded 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) and 28 penalty minutes while playing in 49 games for the Ducks. The Winkler, Manitoba native ranked fifth on the team in goals, sixth in points and assists and tied for fifth in plus/minus (22).

Penner will wear jersey No. 17 with Washington.

The move costs the Caps very little in terms of trade assets and, for now, Penner fits under the salary cap with Jack Hillen and Aaron Volpatti both on long-term injured reserve. But Hillen is expected to be activated before Wednesday’s game against Philadelphia, so there could be more dominoes to fall.

With the move, GM George McPhee signals that the Caps aren’t folding their tents and expect to make a late push to qualify for the playoffs. This could be just the first of several moves in advance of Wednesday’s trade deadline.

Washington Wizards to trade for Andre Miller

According to multiple sources, the Washington Wizards will acquire veteran point guard Andre Miller from the Denver Nuggets in a three-way deal with the Philadelphia Sixers. Forward Jan Vesely will go to Denver, while a Wizards second round pick, a Nuggets second rounder and guard Eric Maynor goes to Philly. It’s unclear at this posting what Philadelphia gives up in the deal.

Miller, 37, hasn’t played for the Nuggets since late December after an altercation with head coach Brian Shaw. Miller is averaging a career-low 5.9 points and 3.3 assists in 19 minutes per game over 30 appearances this season. He is on the books for $5 million this season and $4.6 million in 2014-15, the final year of his current contract.

The Wizards told the little-used Vesely, the former No. 6 overall pick in the 2011 draft, before the start of the season the team would not pick up his rookie option for 14-15, so his departure is not unexpected.

Maynor, 26, was signed by the Wizards to a two-year, $4.1 million contract last summer with the goal of making him John Wall’s back-up. The 2009 first-round pick had little impact this season, though, averaging 2.3 points and 1.7 assists in 9.3 minutes over 23 appearances for Washington.

Miller gives the Wizards a veteran backup point guard to John Wall as they attempt to secure a playoff spot.

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