The Washington Nationals State Of The Union Part 1: Fall 2013 Through Spring 2014
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1. Find a Manager
There are moves that can be made without a new manager in place, but this is the most important thing the Nationals have to do this off-season. Not having the leader of the team will make all the other moves more difficult.
Players want to know who they are playing for and the manager is going to have a lot of input into what free agents the Nationals go after for the bench and bullpen, which happen to be their two biggest needs personnel-wise.
It is also important to get the new manager in place early so that he has an entire off-season to communicate with the players already in the majors and to familiarize himself with the system and the minor leaguers that could help during the season.
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2. Lock up Ian Desmond
This move doesn’t necessarily depend on having a manager in place, but it could. If the Nationals wait too long in hiring the manager and Desmond doesn’t know who he is going to be playing for it could slow negotiations to a point where it is close enough to arbitration that Desmond tables discussions until the following off-season.
It is unlikely that that would happen. Every indication from Desmond is that he enjoys playing in Washington. He has embraced the community, interacts with fans, and is a leader on the field.
He wants to stay here and the Nationals should want him to stay here. As far as what the contract will look like consider that Jimmy Rollins has comparable career numbers and is making $11 million a year at a more advanced age.
With that in mind, something around six years for $70 million sounds fair for both sides.
3. Jose Abreu
It has almost become a yearly event for a feared Cuban slugger to be a free agent. In 2011 it was Cespedes and in 2012, Puig.
Now it is Abreu’s turn and from all reports out of Cuba he is a better hitter than either of the other two. He also happens to be a first baseman.
It is a very weak first base market this off-season to the point that if LaRoche were a free agent he would be the most desired name.
The Nationals have LaRoche in house but he is coming off a disappointing season and the Nationals have no minor league depth at the position.
The Nats have no first baseman of the future and it isn’t until after the 2015 season when Chris Davis becomes a free agent that there is any help from that avenue.
The Nats should be very motivated to sign Abreu but the weakness of the first base market will make a lot of other teams just as motivated.
Abreu will go to the team that offers the most money, and this time the Nationals need to ensure it is them.
4. How To Use The Bench
I am going to start off by mentioning that these are the types of posts that can turn bloggers bad.
Laying out a way to build a team and then getting stuck in that way can lead to undue criticism of a GM when they then go out and build the team in a different way.
Team building is a lot like cat skinning in the fact that there is more than one way to do it. So while this is how I would try to construct my bench if I were a GM, I am not and there is probably a good reason for that.
If I were in charge of putting together the Nats bench there would be a couple things I would focus on as weaknesses from the 2012 bench. The first one is obvious: the Nats bench couldn’t hit.
Most of the problem came from the left side as both Tracy and Bernadina were awful, but both Moore and Lombardozzi struggled as well.
Lombardozzi, as a switch hitter, can be counted as struggling from the left and right.
Scott Hairston provided some better production from the right side and while his overall .224/.246/.379 batting line doesn’t look good, his .271/.294/.458 line against left handed pitching is acceptable from a bench player and better than anything that anyone else provided.
Fortunately, Hairston is the only one remaining under contract. Lombardozzi and Moore are still under team control but both have options to the minors and should start 2014 there.
The overall impact of the Nats poor bench was a -3.1 combined fWAR for Moore, Lombardozzi, Tracy, Suzuki, and Bernadina.
Three more wins wouldn’t have gotten the Nationals in the playoffs, but it would have been closer than where they finished and that is with a replacement bench.
A good bench would have gone a bit into the positive and would have gotten them to the playoffs.
As mentioned before the overall hitting of the Nats bench was the biggest issue. Washington Nationals pinch hitters hit .208/.250/.358 compared to the NL average of .221/.288/.333.
The even larger issue with the bench is how they hit as starters.
During the month of May Ramos, Harper, Werth, and Zimmerman all spent time on the DL, and for that month Roger Bernadina was the best of the bench bats with a .605 OPS.
The Nats bench in 2013 was putrid and it has to improve for 2014.
If I were in charge the first player I would go after wouldn’t be an obvious one. Another weakness of the Nats bench was defense.
Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, and Chad Tracy were all negative in the defensive component of fWAR and while, inexplicably, positive Roger Bernadina is known to take some strange routes to the baseball.
So not only was the Nats bench not providing offense they weren’t providing defense either. Look back up at the previous paragraph and check those slash lines.
Nats pinch hitters weren’t that far off from the league average when it came to hitting. It was a negative but by providing no value through defense they made themselves an even more substantial negative, especially when they had to fill in full time due to injuries.
Think for a second about the construction of the Nats bench by defensive position.
Both Tracy and Moore are DH types with no real defensive position, Scott Hairston is a back-up corner outfielder, Bernadina was a back-up corner outfielder, and Lombardozzi is a back-up second baseman that they sometimes stuck in a corner outfield.
When the Nats needed to give Span a day off Harper would shift to center and when Desmond needed a day off the starting second baseman would switch to short.
So when the Nats had their back-ups in not only was the offense weaker, but so was the defense, and that is why I would start my bench construction with a true utility player.
There are a number of these guys available this off-season and this may be where the Nats should use the MiLB deal to bring in a multitude of them, but if I were going to offer one defensive player a major league contract it would be Brendan Ryan.
Brendan Ryan is one of the best defensive players in baseball, and nearly all of his value is derived from his ability to play defense. He has three seasons of 10+ UZR at shortstop and an overall career UZR/150 of 11.7.
Early in his career with the Cardinals he played three infield positions and both corner outfield spots. The only reason he was ever a starting shortstop in the major leagues is that the Mariners decided that they were going to try to win with only defense.
He is a career .619 OPS hitter and should only be used as a pinch hitter deep in extra innings. It would be better to use some pitchers as pinch hitters before him, but that wouldn’t be his purpose on the bench.
He would be able to provide excellent infield defense at three positions and could spell Zimmerman, Desmond, and Rendon whenever they needed a day off.
When starting his value would come by improving the overall defense on the field which would soften the offensive drop off instead of making it worse, as the 2013 bench did.
If not Brendan Ryan then some other names to watch here would be guys like Willie Bloomquist or Nick Punto as they can provide somewhat close to the same thing, but when picking my dream defensive utility player I am going to pick the best.
Next up is another position that is mainly thought of as a defensive first position. Traditionally the back-up catcher is more often the catch and throw guy while the starter is the stronger offensive player.
As Wilson Ramos has struggled with injuries over the past two seasons it is my opinion that the Nationals shouldn’t go with the traditional catch and throw guy and should get someone who can provide some offense as well.
Carlos Ruiz would be my number one choice here, but it is likely that there is a starting job out there for him and so having him as the Nats back-up is a bit too much of a pipe dream.
Number two on the list is also a current NL East catcher and one with a fair amount of pop, for a catcher, John Buck.
For his career Buck has hit .234/.301/.400 and if he wasn’t a catcher no one would even mention him as a starter, but he always seems to end up in that role.
He also has a positive defensive ranking over the past four seasons and can provide both power and defense when spelling Ramos.
The only question with Buck is if he is willing to take a back-up role or if he will go to a second division team in order to start every day.
So far we have the defensive utility player in Brendan Ryan, back-up catcher in John Buck, and the hold over Scott Hairston for right handed pop. That leaves us needing a left handed power hitter to replace Chad Tracy and a fourth outfielder.
For the left handed power hitter I am going to go with a player formally of this region, Luke Scott.
Scott is a player that has attracted some controversy in his career, but never in the clubhouse and teammates have nothing but good things to say about him.
As far as the important part his hitting against right handed pitching is excellent with a career batting line of .266/.351/.494.
Scott wouldn’t provide much in the way of defense and can really only serve as a back-up at first base. But that isn’t his job, and that is why you have a utility player and fourth outfielder. Those are the two players that give the starters days off.
Luke Scott and Scott Hairston would be the pinch hitters. They would occasionally get starts when multiple everyday guys needed days off or due to injuries, but their main purpose would be to pinch hit. Which works perfectly as the average NL team used a pinch hitter for 1.5 plate appearances a game.
The final spot is fourth outfielder and because the Nationals are already sacrificing one hitter to have the super defensive sub they can’t do it here.
They need a fourth outfielder that can provide some offensive value and is close to a major league starter.
In my ultimate pipe dream world the Nats would go with a four man outfield rotation instead of a fourth outfielder and end up with either Curtis Granderson or Carlos Beltran for this spot, but as that is too much of a dream for the dream bench we’re going to get a little closer to reality and go with former Washington Nationals outfielder David DeJesus.
DeJesus was barely with the Nationals before being traded to the Rays for a minor league pitcher, but while here he represented what the Nats bench had been missing all season.
Once a proven major league player who had been a starter, but was now on the downturn of his career.
That is the type of player a bench should be made out of on a contending team, and it is going to cost a little more than a MiLB deal or a $1 or $2 million deal. DeJesus currently has an option for $7.5 million for next season and the Rays are unlikely to pick it up.
DeJesus for his career has hit .279/.353/.417 and can play all three outfield positions. DeJesus is better against right handed pitching than left handed pitching, but in those cases where a manger makes a change to face him Hairston can be brought in to face the lefty.
DeJesus’ main purpose would be to get a start a week at all three outfield positions and help keep Harper, Span, and Werth fresh and to fill in when any of the three get injured.
To review. In my dream world the Nats bench has a super utility plus-plus defender who will never pinch hit and bat eighth every time they have to start…
But can play three infield positions and possibly the corner outfield positions all while providing well above average defense, a right handed power hitter to take care of left handed reliever and to get starts for either Span or Harper against extra tough left handers.
A left handed power hitter that should rarely appear in the field but can absolutely mash right handed pitching (Circa Raul Ibanez 1st half 2012) which would come in handy late in a game.
The team also could use a back-up catcher that provides good defense and occasional pop which could be handy if the new manager isn’t afraid of pinch hitting a back-up catcher, and finally a fourth outfielder that isn’t an offensive waste and can play all three outfield positions.
This is accomplished by having a bench of free agents Brendan Ryan, John Buck, Luke Scott, and David DeJesus to go with hold over Scott Hairston.
That both sounds and looks like a strong bench and one that would be a positive for the 2014 Nats.
I am certain it won’t turn out that way but I do expect to hear the Nats rumored to be in on a couple of those names and wouldn’t be surprised if Rizzo and the next manager follow the blueprint I laid out.
Or Rizzo could go in a completely different direction, but roster building is cat skinning, and while I like my way because it is my way it isn’t the only way.
5. The Bullpen
The composition of the bullpen wasn’t great from the start of the season. A lot is going to be made about the need for a left hander.
With Boone Logan and Oliver Perez available in free agency they should be targets, but if they end up elsewhere then adding a left hander becomes signing a lefty for the sake of signing a lefty and that is a mistake.
Combine that with Storen’s struggles and Soriano’s occasional hiccups and the weakness and lack of depth in the pen are quickly exposed.
Davey Johnson wanted two long relievers to start the season and Mike Rizzo wasn’t ready to give up on Henry Rodriguez.
In essence this gave the Nationals a four man pen and when Mattheus and Storen struggled it was a two man pen. Ian Krol and Fernando Abad helped for a short time, but had their troubles as well. Abad could be a part of the 2014 bullpen but he isn’t a left handed specialist, nor was he used as one.
In 2013 he had 101 plate appearances against right handers with a .619 OPS against and 65 plate appearances against left handers with a .790 OPS against.
He may be a left handed pitcher but he doesn’t get left handers out. Ian Krol is more of a lefty specialist with a .593 OPS against versus left handers and a .957 OPS against right handers.
The issue with Krol was that he faced right handers more than he did left handers. His numbers indicate that he could be the LOOGY in the bullpen next season, but even if he is the Nationals are going to need a couple more bodies out there to lock down the sixth and seventh innings as needed.
6. Fourth Starter
When Spring Training starts Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, and Ross Ohlendorf are going to be fighting for one or two rotation spots.
Wouldn’t it be better if they were fighting for one rotation spot, the long relief role, and the losers going to AAA as depth? The answer to that is: of course.
That means that while the starting free agent class isn’t that impressive the Nationals could luck out by not needing someone impressive.
They can concentrate on lower cost safer options.
Someone like Bronson Arroyo who has pitched 200 innings in eight of the last nine seasons and in the one he didn’t pitch 200 he pitched 199, or someone like Ricky Nolasco whose 4.37 career ERA is not going to impress anyone but has made over 30 starts in five of the last six seasons.
The Nats could even bring back Dan Haren for less money and hope that either he can reach a mid-4.00 ERA in a more consistent manner or that the second half of 2013 was an indication of what he’ll do in 2014.
The Nats don’t need to spend big money for this spot, but they also don’t need a big performer. They need innings and consistency. Someone that will keep the team in most of the games they pitch and hopefully end the season .500 while the Nationals end up winning 66% of the games the big three pitch.
*** The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of mlbreports.com and their partners***
A big thank-you goes out to our ‘Nationals Correspondent’ David Huzzard for preparing today’s featured article. David is a Pro bono sports writer for Citizens of Natstown, We Love DC, and Blown Save Win.
He is also the Co-host of The Citizens of Natstown Podcast.
David is from Fairfax, Va. You can follow him on Twitter and talk about the game of baseball. Follow @davidhuzzard
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Posted on October 8, 2013, in MLB Teams State Of the Unions, The Rest: Everything Baseball and tagged @citsofnatstown, @davidhuzzard on twitter, boone logan, Brendan Ryan, Bronson Arroyo, bryce harper, carlos beltran, carlos ruiz, chad tracy, Chris marrero, curtis granderson, dan haren, davey johnson, david Dejesus, David Huzzard, drew storen, fernando abad, geovany soto, henry rodriguez, ian desmond, ian krol, jimmy rollins, john buck, jordan zimmermann, jose abreau, matt garza, Mike Rizzo, nationals 25 man roster, nationals 40 man roster, nationals park, nick punto, oliver perez, rafael soriano, ricky nolasco, ross detwiler, ross ohlendorf, roy halladay, ryan mattheus, sandy leon, scott hairston, stephen strasburg, Tanner Roark, taylor jordan, tim lincecum, washington nationals state of the union, willie bloomquist, Wilson Ramos, www.citizensofnatstown.com, zach duke. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.