With opening day right around the corner, each day until then District Sports Page’s Nats staff will take a look at one of the biggest issues concerning your 2013 Washington Nationals. We borrowed a quote for the title of the series from Nats manager Davey Johnson’s Spring Training proclamation that he expects a “World Series or Bust” in Natstown this season.
We’ve also invited the other credentialed blogs to chip in with their answers. Then on Opening Day, look for the results to the DC Chapter of the Internet Baseball Writers Association Preseason Survey, where we polled The Natosphere on various topics related to the Nats, as we have for the last several seasons.
Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief, District Sports Page
Alyssa Wolice, Staff Writer, District Sports Page
Ted Starkey, Contributor to DSP, author and Editor at SBNation.com
Ryan Kelley, DSP Prospects Writer and founder of BaseballNewshound.com
Tom Bridge, Editor, WeLoveDC.com
Patrick Reddington, Editor, Federal Baseball
Joe Drugan, Managing Editor, The Nats Blog
1) Before we get going, how would you grade the off-season for GM Mike Rizzo?
Dave: Solid B. The team re-signed first baseman Adam LaRoche, traded for leadoff center fielder Denard Span and signed free agent closer Rafael Soriano and starter Dan Haren. The additions make an already good team very deep as well. The Nats sent a highly-ranked A-level prospect, RHP Alex Meyer, to the Twins for Span, but got one back (RHP A.J. Cole) when they traded OF Michael Morse to the Mariners. That’s how deep the Nats are now: they had no room to keep the full-time 30-homer power-bat fan favorite.
The Soriano move is the only one that I have questions about. He’s been a quality closer for a couple of teams, including two 40-save seasons, but he’s bounced back and forth between closer and set-up guy over his career. Plus, he’s 33, expensive, and on a two-year contract. That’s money spent on a luxury that could have gone to re-signing a homegrown player down the road. The Nats also allowed all three left-handed relievers from last season’s pen to depart via free agnecy. I’m not as worked up about that, as they retained Zach Duke to fill the “long man” role that Tom Gorzelanny occupied last season, and the stable of righties the Nats can trot out for the last few innings all have great lefty splits anyway. I’d rather have overall talent than a nominal mediocre “LOOGY” anyway.
Alyssa: Overall grade: A-. As the old adage goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While the Nats may not have made any front-page deals this offseason, a monster deal is only as valuable as the void it must fill. That said, the Nats had very few holes and did right by building upon the artillery they already have in place.
In my humble opinion, they fall short of earning a perfect “A” largely because they missed out on picking up a southpaw to add to their bullpen, and partially because they paid a pretty penny for Rafael Soriano to add power to an already-stacked relief corps. If Davey Johnson is correct in asserting that the pen doesn’t need another lefty, the deal for Soriano will be a solid one – the icing on the cake.
Although I, too, have a soft spot in my heart for A-ha, the three-team deal to off-load Michael Morse and pick up A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen was a smart one. With the addition of Denard Span in center, the Nationals have two phenomenal defensive players – and it’s too early to discount Jayson Werth’s arm in right. The loss of the 2011 No. 1 pick Alex Meyer isn’t a heavy one for D.C. as they don’t have a place for him – nor could they expect to anytime in the near future.
And, who could forget the acquisition of William Howard Taft to the Presidents’ roster? I’m not sure I’m ready to fork over my “Let Teddy Win” shirt just yet, but it’ll be interesting to see what shenanigans the Mount Rushmore Four plus-1 pull off in the middle of the fourth inning on Opening Day.
Ted: I’d call it a B+. It’s a bit difficult to improve on last year’s squad, and while the Nationals certainly didn’t take any big steps back, they also acquired Denard Span and Rafael Soriano to shore up the outfield and bullpen, respectively. Sometimes teams that seem to be on the cusp need a piece to put them over the top, and it didn’t seem like the Nats really tried to do that this winter, but still, they come back with a pretty solid ballclub.
Ryan: I give the Nats a B. They made some smart moves, but they also let some key players go. Their player development however, has continued to be a strength. One of the biggest strengths for the Nats last season was left-handed pitching, particularly in the bullpen. This offseason, they’ve seemingly lost that strength. For the past two years, the club has been almost equally dominant against right-handed hitters, posting a 3.35 ERA against them in 2011 and then a 3.29 mark last year. Against lefties though, they improved by more than half a run in a one-year span, from a 3.94 ERA to a 3.38 ERA.
The Nationals carried three southpaws in the bullpen last season, Burnett, Gorzelanny and Gonzalez. Burnett and Gorzelanny had career years posting 2.38 and 2.88 ERA’s respectively, while Gonzalez continued his steady production with a 3.03 ERA through 35 2/3 innings. The trio combined for a 2.73 ERA and held left-handed hitters to a .211 batting average. This offseason however, they allowed all three to depart via free agency. Even worse, they also failed to protect lefty prospect Danny Rosenbaum from the Rule-5 draft. Rosenbaum has performed remarkably well in spring training for the Rockies and could make the big club as a middle reliever.
So, the biggest loss for the Nats was their left-handed relief. They failed to make-up for the departure of some of their most important pieces. Zack Duke, Fernando Abad and Bill Bray were their only left-handed relievers in camp, and all three of them have been under-whelming. Bray is already back in the minors, Abad had a 2.57 ERA through seven innings but allowed lefties to hit .333 against him (6.00 ERA).
Duke, a journeyman trying to re-find his step, has looked strong overall with a 2.08 ERA and nine K’s in eight innings, but hasn’t shown a platoon split—lefties are hitting .200 against him while righties are at .217. Duke looks like he should be a quality middle reliever for the Nats, but considering lefties are batting .279 off of him in his career, it’s hard to believe he alone can make up for the dominant southpaws the Nats lost over the winter.
I also didn’t like the Rafael Soriano signing. It’s a massive waste of money. First of all, no matter how much you blame Drew Storen for the Nats playoff loss, relievers aren’t worth that much payroll—unless they’re Mariano Rivera. But more importantly, Soriano has proven throughout his career, time and time again, that he isn’t a team player and that he won’t perform until his contract year. Although he did have nice numbers last year, it was mostly a mirage.
Saves aren’t telling of a pitchers talent and are a very volatile state. The fact is, Soriano was a bust until last season, and he largely benefited from: 1) luck 2) a tremendous defense behind him 3) and a tremendous bullpen. His fastball velocity has dropped annually since 2007, and is approaching bat-speed level. And, his 3.75 xFIP is very similar to the 4.18 mark he posted the year before. His LOB% was abnormally high, his HR/9 and HR/FB were abnormally low. So, there’s a good chance that the highest paid reliever will be a bust.
On the bright side, the Nationals managed to improve their defense, their lineup and their pitching rotation. My favorite move was their signing Dan Haren. One of the most durable starters in the game, Haren has averaged 220 innings pitched of 3.56-ERA baseball since 2006 and his xFIP has never eclipsed 4.00 since becoming a full-time starter. He’s the team’s number-five starter right now, and he’s a perfect fit for a young, fragile Nats rotation.
Though they had to part with Alex Meyer, one of my favorite young pitching prospects, the Nats did haul in a quality everyday centerfielder in Denard Span. They needed a left-handed bat, and Span is a decent one. I don’t expect big things from him, and a top-tier pitching prospect is a hefty price. But, it’s hard to find a quality centerfielder these days, especially at a reasonable salary. Span allows Harper to slide over to an outfielder corner, which should help the kid focus on his best tool—the bat—and his glove should also be Golden there.
Span’s defense is plus, and as long as he can get on-base at an above-average clip (.357 in his career), it won’t matter that he has almost no power and his legs are already deteriorating. All he has to do is be a quality player for a couple of years before Brian Goodwin takes over as an All-Star everyday centerfielder.
Tom: It’s hard for writers (credentialed or otherwise) to peek into negotiation processes, and thus, it’s impossible for us to make a 100% call on any given move, but I really think the Nationals move for Denard Span was a solid one. Sure, they lost pitching prospect Alex Meyer in the transaction, but given the strength of the Nats’ rotation it’s hard to see him having a spot on the roster when he’s ready in 2014. Let’s also not forget the signing of Dan Haren, which could turn out to be a gem, or the trade for prospects to the Mariners and A’s for Michael Morse.
A moment to pause there, because it seems apropos: the loss of Michael Morse is a spiritual one, and the fan portion of me will miss him most dearly. There is no one among our number who didn’t like Morse’s contributions to the 2012 Nationals, but not one of us saw the team signing him to an extension. And not one of us would prefer his defense to that of Bryce Harper or Jayson Werth. This was the right move, but I have to say it’s painful to say goodbye to a player as beloved as Morse is. I’ll be pouring some out for him on opening day while humming Norwegian pop music. Thanks for all the fish, Mikey Mo.
Patrick: It would be hard to argue that the offseason was anything but an A. After winning 98 games, the Nationals added the center fielder/leadoff man they’ve been looking for and improved the outfield defense at the same time by trading for Denard Span and they moved Bryce Harper to left with Jayson Werth in right. It’s tough giving up a pitcher as talented as Alex Meyer for Span, but Mike Rizzo got a controllable player for a few years at a ridiculous discount compared to what the free agent center fielders got on the market this winter and improved his overall outfield defense at the same time while giving the OF prospects in the system time to develop. That’s good GMing.
They re-signed Adam LaRoche and have Tyler Moore to back up at first if necessary and Chris Marrero behind him with Matt Skole in the system, so they were set at first and able to trade one year of control of Michael Morse for a pitcher in A.J. Cole who essentially replaces Meyer in the organization. In addition to Cole, they added two more young prospects in the deal to replenish the system a bit. On top of that the Nationals went out and signed a shutdown (when healthy) closer in Rafael Soriano to an extremely team-friendly deal to solidify the back of a bullpen that can go head-to-head with the Braves’ pen and then added Dan Haren, who, again, when healthy and at his best, could be a significant upgrade over Edwin Jackson.
Did they have to add a legit late-inning lefty to earn the A+? Rizzo did try according to Davey Johnson, so it would seem they thought so in spite of the fact that they’re comfortable with their RHPs going against lefties.
Joe: It’s hard to imagine giving much lower than an A, here. The team didn’t have many glaring holes after a 98-win season, and the few issues that they had were resolved in the offseason. The Nationals haven’t had a true leadoff hitter or centerfielder, well, ever. Mike Rizzo solved that all in one trade this offseason when the team acquired Denard Span. They also made their very good bullpen even better with the Rafael Soriano signing, they brought back Adam LaRoche, who was the team’s 2012 MVP, and the Dan Haren signing, if he’s even mostly healthy, would be a significant upgrade over Edwin Jackson from last year.
The Nats didn’t have to do much to earn this high grade, but the grade is well deserved, nonetheless. You can’t downgrade the team because they’re so good they didn’t have to make many moves, can you?