November 13, 2018

Patches Below the Waterline to Put Washington Back in the Winners Circle in 2018

June 22, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Tom Boswell likened the addition of Kelvin Herrera to the Nationals bullpen as adding sheet metal instead of tin foil to a significant hole in their bullpen. Herrera is hopefully the first of several moves that the Washington Nationals front office will surprise us with this summer as they look to address the new reality of the NL East, where Atlanta and Philadelphia are suddenly real competitors.

The minor leaguer of greatest note sent to Kansas City in the Herrera trade was Kelvin Gutierrez, a 23-year old navigating Double-A Harrisburg with a .274/.321/.391 slash line. Not enough pop so far for a corner infielder, which points to how little the Nationals gave up for Herrera.

Are there more trades like that out there? Washington fans should hope so, because the Braves are not going to wilt. They play baseball without looking to see what it will do for their endorsement contracts. So the considerable weaknesses in the Washington Nationals ship of state need a bit more sheet metal if it is to sail into the harbor in October, horns blaring and fire boats spraying loudly.

Here is a blue print for patching the other notable weaknesses both for 2018 and the near future.

The biggest problem in the playoffs and for the team currently is the lack of starting pitching depth. Everyone points to Washington pitching for its excellence, but the injury to Stephen Strasburg, regardless its severity, has laid bare the lack of depth in the system. Eric Fedde is not ready and neither is Jefry Rodriguez. They are symptomatic of the overall lack of pitching depth in the organization and it therefore behooves the Nats to add from the top down.

The kudos for Washington pitching start with Max Scherzer, and he is the most dominant pitcher in the game right now. Stephen Strasburg is as good as any number two starter, but from there there are problems that are not apparent at above the water line. Gio Gonzalez is a wonderful pitcher in an objective context. He is having another good season, but as the summer wears on and the heat turns up on a team that is not scoring runs, he feels the warmth more than others. As F.P. Santangelo opines, it makes Gio speed up his delivery and is the source of an inconsistency that will only worsen as the playoffs approach. Tanner Roark is a decent number four but counting on Roark and Gio Gonzalez to pitch Washington back to another NL East title, seems problematic to me. Can the Nationals win the NL East with them? Maybe so, but the more vexing question is whether they can win anything more than that.

The Texas Rangers have Cole Hamels left from when they believed they might have enough to compete several seasons ago. He has bounced back from a disappointing 2017 season to put up quality numbers again, specifically a 3.41 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 92 innings. The swing and miss stuff is still there. He is 34 years old and has a contract that carries a$20 million option for 2019. He also has a no-trade clause that rules out teams like the Dodgers and Yankees. In fact, there are only a handful of teams not on his list, but Washington is one of them. To me that spells “o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-i-t-y.”

Gio Gonzalez is in his walk year after the Nationals exercised a $12 million option on him for 2018. Would the Nationals do well to resign him? Many fans would say yes, and there is more than just sentiment to recommend him. He has been dominant at times. But he led the league in walks last season and while he has learned to pitch without the 94 mph fastball, he still gets rattled with men on base. Given the walk rate, that happens too often and as the stakes get higher in the post-season, his control of the game overall tends to diminish accordingly.

Hamels, by comparison, has a 7-6 record and a 3.48 ERA over almost 100 innings of post-season work. Gio’s ERA is 4.78 over 26 innings. Hamels has the experience and proven record Gio does not and that is what recommends Hamels as Washington’s no. 3 starter in the second half as they try to catch a very talented Cobb County Braves team.

It is not necessarily an either/or. Having two competitive aging lefties is not out of the question, either in 2018 or 2019. Making Gio a qualifying offer at the end of the season would not be a high risk venture. If he takes it, c’est la vie. The Nats have two quality lefties in the rotation to split Scherzer and Strasburg. But first Washington needs to walk through the door Hamels has left open for them. Would he accept a trade to the Yankees? Why not step up and moot that question. GM Mike Rizzo should let the engine room know that we are still moving full speed. There is no stopping after Kelvin Herrera, just more of the same.

There are two notable trade pieces for the Nationals. Brian Goodwin had a fine year in 2017 and finally demonstrated the potential that made him a first round draft pick. But he needs a change of scenery and someplace where the outfield is not crowded with potential stars like Victor Robles and Juan Soto. Daniel Johnson was the Nationals Minor League Player of the Year, but like Goodwin, he is stuck behind Soto and Robles. Johnson should be enough to pry loose Hamels, although something more would probably be required. The Nationals minor league system is not full of high quality options, but there is enough to fix holes.

The past void to fill is at catcher. Matt Wieters has been a disappointment of considerable proportions. His age shows in his injuries and in watching the ball squirt through his legs during the playoffs in 2017 when he could not get down fast enough to glove the errant pitch. Why queue that up for a re-run? Wilson Ramos is probably the most obvious trade target. He is a free agent with a more costly contract than either Denard Span or Alex Colome’s. But there is not a lot of fluff at catcher for the Rays and Ramos is good at handling a young staff. It is hard to see the Rays hanging on to him long term however, so between now and July 31 they are likely to move him. They are grooming Nick Cuiffo, in his first full year at Durham, to catch in 2019 and have veteran Adam Moore for August and September. So a trade can be made to work.

I doubt Ramos cares much for the sentiment of returning to DC. He wants a good situation where veteran leadership is in control. Maybe he cannot be signed long term to play alongside Ryan Zimmerman again who foolishly air mailed the throw that tore up Ramos’ knee. But the Buffalo is the most obvious answer for 2018 and it would be more than wise to invest whatever it takes to pry him loose.

That is the blue print. This is not rocket science or Rocket Man. This is baseball and the equations are easy to master. Kelvin Herrera, Wilson Ramos and Cole Hamels will make the existing Nationals into a far better club, one that can win the 2018 NL East and compete again in 2019. The price should be within reason, so get out the abacus, do the math and let’s boogie down Broadway. There is no All-Star Game luster that will be remembered if DC fans have to watch the “candle-light chop” in October.

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