May 28, 2023

The Lighting of the Hot Stove

October 17, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Perhaps the Hot Stove season does not commence until after the World Series. Or maybe it adds fuel to the fire. Either way there are instructive failures from last year to consider. There were Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth–just two of the biggest disappointments among the 2011 free agent class. Then at the summit is Adam Dunn’s collapse of epic proportions that belongs in a class of its own. Aggregating high-priced talent in Boston may have undermined overall team chemistry proving that even $170 million cannot buy a pennant.

But will results like those prevent MLB ownership from digging deep for the current crop of free agents? I’m thinking not. C.C. Sabathia and C.J. Wilson will walk away with big money, long-term deals and both will end up in high-end markets. Will either of them deign to grace the lowly Nationals and pitch Washington into the playoffs??  Dreams–especially cold winter ones–are made of this.

The rumor mills keep opining that the Washington Nationals “may” be willing to “make a big splash” by signing someone like Wilson or Sabathia. Does that mean that Jayson Werth’s splash was worth the effort? It DID give the team credibility or was that only with rumor blogs.

Werth certainly did not make the team a winner. So rather than looking for more splash, hopefully Mike Rizzo is looking for winners when shopping the free agent aisles or evaluating trades. Is C.J. Wilson still hungry for more and as motivated as Cliff Lee? Is Sabathia overweight and thus an injury waiting to happen, or a Livan Hernadez who can pitch until he is 40 without cease?

The Nationals strong September means they will have to part with a first round draft pick for any Type A free agent signing this off season. Rizzo may be more inclined to trade for his needs rather than use the credit card.  Werth, Crawford and Dunn have a lot of GMs talking trade, but many of them have so depleted their organizations that there is hardly anything left to trade. And even the trade market is fairly thin.

Rizzo has talked trade frequently when asked how he will approach the off-season. During the season the most frequent rumors had Rizzo talking with the Rays and Twins. Rizzo liked the Twins’ Denard Span, but Span never was able to return to the field after a concussion in June. Rizzo was interested in B.J. Upton, but the Rays can hardly afford to shed offense, so the price tag there is going to be prohibitive. So how does the puzzle fit?

As much as Rizzo might wish to avoid signing free agents, finding the right trading partner and getting the right puzzle piece at an affordable price is much more difficult than opening the check book. After all, the Nationals have had one of the lowest team salaries for several years and their attendance has remained steady at just under 2 million, but was almost 3 million when the team was winning in 2005. Even “Mad Money’s” Jim Cramer could love that growth potential.

The Twins should be the right trading partner. They need pitching help, both in the bullpen and in the rotation. Rizzo may have enough of both to deal. If Denard Span were healthy, the two teams could resume negotiations, but Span was never able to achieve the form he had before the concussion. It will be impossible to evaluate Span during the off-season, so Denard Span as the everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter for Washington looks like a long shot.

The Nationals bullpen has been one of their strengths for the past two seasons, based on the emergence of Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen. But there is more. Henry Rodriguez, a 24-year old Venezuelan, was acquired for Josh Willingham from Oakland. His 101 mph fastball intrigued Rizzo but his command was limited at best. During the second half of 2011, Rodriguez began to harness his very nasty stuff, posting two saves in September and a 2.19 ERA, with 14 Ks to only 4 BBs in 12 innings to finish out the season looking every bit like a closer.

The other team looking for bullpen help is Tampa Bay. Other than Kyle Farnsworth the Rays will be building a new bullpen from scratch once again. Rodriguez and Storen are both affordable, something attractive to the Rays. If they could shed James Shields’ $7 million contract for a possible closer with a price tag at under $1 million, that would free up money to go after the bat they desperately need hitting behind Evan Longoria.

The Rays have three of the best young hurlers in baseball in Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, and David Price. Despite their protests about not trading pitching last season, their post season performance will increase the pressure to add offense with Shields’ $7 million.

And Shields is their best trade bait. He is coming off his best season and has thrown 200+ innings for each of the last five seasons. It is that kind of consistency that might convince Mike Rizzo to pull the switch.

But trading his very talented bullpen pieces may be too painful for Rizzo and Tampa may balk again, deciding it can find another Joel Peralta on the cheap again in the off season. With Span a risky venture and Tampa a finicky partner, Rizzo may have to settle for a second best option, but one that may work the best overall.

Free agency may be Rizzo’s path of least resistence even if it costs him draft picks. After all, the amateur draft is not the only way to build a better mouse trap. But more importantly, the ability to find a good fit for the Nationals very specific needs is easiest by squeezing the melons in aisle A.

If the Nationals want a top tier starting pitcher, C.J. Wilson is not the only one available. The Nationals could use the left-handed strength that he would bring and he is certainly enough to push them into the playoffs and a very exciting possibility. But Edwin Jackson or Mark Buerhle would work just as well at the top of a rotation that fronts Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.

Washington can sign Chien- ming Wang without penalty and negotiations have supposedly begun with Wang willing to give the Nationals a better deal because of their support during the past few seasons. An incentive-laden contract seems reasonable. Assuming Wang returns to DC, the Nationals would have a rotation of Strasburg, Zimmermann, Wang, and John Lannan. Even the addition of durable starter like Buerhle or Jackson, and keeping the very talented bullpen in tact, would give the Nationals a top tier pitching staff that can compete with Philadelphia or Atlanta.

The problem is Washington’s offense that was one of the worst in the National League. The need is to add fifty to seventy-five runs and get to the 700 run threshold that all four NL playoff teams managed. Part of that–at least 25 runs–will come from having a healthy Ryan Zimmerman for at least most of the 2012 season. A resurgence of Jayson Werth to something closer to his performance with the Phillies would help. But adding a reliable stick that exceeds Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina–both less than league average outfielders–is a must.

The “big splash” is to sign Jose Reyes to a Carl Crawford contract and hope Reyes stays healthy and that his wheels don’t lose anything in the process. But signing Reyes or even Jimmy Rollins–a popular option that pokes a stick in the eyes of the Phillies–means trading Ian Desmond. Desmond is a popular and able player–though a vexing one. And the other concern is that neither Reyes nor Rollins play center field.

Reyes did something that no Nationals player accomplished this season. He scored 101 runs. On paper, Reyes instantly makes the Nationals a contender by adding approximately fifty runs all by himself. But he leaves the Nationals with Rick Ankiel in center.

And there is something troubling about the electric shortstop for the Mets. He has yet to play with a team that converts on its potential. All of those late summer disasters in Flushing Meadows are troubling.

Adding an additional outfielder may be the best fit. There are easy options on this front as well. Coco Crisp is option one. He is on the downside of his prime and does not play as well in center field as he once did, but his offensive numbers kept pace last year in Oakland. His .275 career batting average and his .330 OBP are an upgrade over Ankiel, though a tepid one. He translate into no more than 25 additional runs over the 2011 totals.

Michael Cuddyer does not hit lead-off, but can play numerous positions on the diamond. He is best in right field and would mean that Jayson Werth moves to center field. With Zimmerman healthy all season and Adam LaRoche returning at first base, Cuddyer becomes another potent bat and insurance against injury almost any where on the diamond. Cuddyer–a Virginia native–is a more potent upgrade than Crisp, though he fits less well at the top of the lineup. His career .273/.343/.459 slash line would likely add 30-35 runs to the Nationals offensive production.

A lineup of Desmond, Werth, Zimmerman, Morse, LaRoche, Cuddyer, Espinosa and Ramos is capable of scoring 700 runs and pushing the Nationals into the playoffs, and one of Crisp, Werth Zimmerman, Morse, LaRoche, Espinosa, Desmond and Ramos is only slightly less good. With an additional starter, either of those rosters provide good defense and a legitimate chance at the playoffs.

The downside of free agency is losing draft picks. If the Nationals add two Type A free agents, they have shot holes in their June amateur draft. But there is more than one way to build a better mouse trap.

Signing a pitcher will block the path for young pitchers Ross Detwiler, Tom Milone and Brad Peacock. Peacock demonstrated in a handful of September starts that he is probably ready for the show, but could use the extra seasoning. Milone may pitch his best out of the bullpen and as a spot starter.

The one pitcher most blocked by a free agent signing is Ross Detwiler. He needs a chance to show what he can do if given a chance to pitch every fifth day. In the second half of 2011 Detwiler often looked like he had found the potential that made the Nationals expend a sixth overall pick on him in the 2007 draft. Trading Detwiler and other extra pieces like Roger Bernadina could recoup some of the organization strength that will be lost by signing free agents. The 2012 draft is not as strong as the last one where the Nationals were extremely successful, so it might be the perfect time to draw a bye during the early rounds next June.

What is certain is that the Nationals are just a few pieces away from being in a spot to contend in the NL East. There are numerous options available for Mike Rizzo to make Washington a legitimate playoff contender for 2012. There hasn’t been as much reason for excitement in Washington since 1932 when Joe Cronin and Clark Griffith went to the ownership meetings in December and returned with Earl Whitehill and Lefty Stewart (see Gary Sarnoff’s Wrecking Crew of ’33).

Does that mean that Mike Rizzo needs to add a dominant lefty like C.J. Wilson or Mark Buerhle between now and next April? Hot stove questions like those abound this year in DC. Baseball fans will be watching Rizzo like the paparazzi watch Paris Hilton. Or maybe not. But this off-season could get exciting in a hurry regardless what floats your boat. Stay tuned.

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