Reaction to and analysis of developments for the Nats and O’s at their camps
1. Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper had a lot to say – just not about his looming free agency
Bryce spoke to reporters on Monday (Feb. 19), the day on which position players other than catchers were due to report at Nats camp. The most notable thing said by Harper was what he didn’t say, as he refused to discuss his contract situation and referred all questions to his agent, Scott Boras. Bryce also threatened to leave the room if reporters started asking about him being a free agent after this coming season. That was overly harsh and did not come off well. It always cracks me up when anyone in D.C. sports acts like the sports media in this city is tough or hypercritical. Uh, that’s not at all the case. Spend about five minutes in New York City or Boston or Philadelphia; those markets have tough sports media. D.C. sports media is fine but not at all overwhelming, and at times it’s not good at all. I’ll leave that discussion for another time. But if Bryce truly is considering signing with, say, the Yankees, good luck threatening to leave the room if asked a certain question while playing for New York. He would get shredded for that kind of thing.
All of that said, I do give Bryce credit for squashing any potential #ChaChaCha. We have seen for years here in D.C. how consuming and burdensome a contract situation can become via the Redskins-Kirk Cousins saga. Harper seemingly slammed the door shut on his impending free agency became a soap opera this season. Good for him.
As for some other items from Harper on Monday:
Bryce openly advocated for the Nats to sign fellow Boras client Jake Arrieta, who has been linked to the Nats for much of this offseason and who we’ve talked about quite a bit as potentially signing with the Nats.
Bryce said that he feels well physically. That’s important if true, because as good as Harper is, he has played in more than 147 games just once in his six major-league seasons. He also said that he has had not setbacks off the hyperextended left knee, left-knee bone bruise and calf strain that caused him to miss 41 games last season.
Bryce said that he’s excited about having Kevin Long, a launch-angle guru, as the Nats’ new hitting coach. In fact, Bryce revealed that Mike Rizzo actually called Bryce during this offseason for his opinion on who he wanted on the coaching staff. Boy was that an interesting reveal. Why would the Nats be seeking Bryce’s input on something like this unless they had long-term plans to re-sign him?
Bryce expressed an excitement regarding Dave Martinez bringing more of a sabermetrics-based approach to managing. I second that excitement. I also can’t help but think of Harper refusing to comment on Dusty Baker’s future after the Nats’ NLDS Game 5 loss to the Cubs last October. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Bryce soured on Dusty and wanted a more analytically-inclined manager. And is it that farfetched to believe that this played in a role in the Lerners not bringing back Dusty despite Rizzo’s desire to bring back Dusty?
Bryce innocently answered a question about the Marlins’ fire sale this past offseason and then got attacked by Marlins manager Don Mattingly on Tuesday (Feb. 20): “Take care of your business, and we’ll take care of ours.” I don’t know if Mattingly is just trying to create an us-against-the-world mentality for his team, which is destined for 100 losses this coming season, or what, but Harper’s comments were not incendiary at all and represented what a lot of people – including myself – thought: the Marlins had one of the best outfields in the majors, and all that was needed was some starting pitching for the team to potentially be a contender.
2. Things are moving slowly with Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy
I said going into Nats spring training that my biggest injury worry for the Nats was Murphy’s recovery from microfracture surgery on his right knee on Oct. 20, not Adam Eaton’s recovery from a torn left ACL and torn left meniscus suffered on April 28. Well, already Eaton has said that he expects to be ready for the start of the regular season. But major questions remain regarding Murphy. He spoke on Tuesday (Feb. 20), saying that he had only begun very limited baseball activities and adding, “I don’t want to start playing games and then have to stop. So that’s kind of the mindset we’re taking right now.”
You can make a pretty good case that the single-best free-agent signing by Mike Rizzo has been Murphy’s three-year, $37.5 million contract in Jan. 2016. Murphy is tied for eighth in the majors with a 146 wRC+ over the last two seasons. Plate appearance for plate appearance, he has been an elite batter over his two seasons with the Nats. But he is going into his age-33 season, which just happens to be a contract season. And, at least right now, it doesn’t feel like he will be starting the season on time.
3. Nationals reliever Koda Glover is hurt again
We learned on Sunday (Feb. 18) that Glover had not yet thrown since reporting to Nats camp due to shoulder soreness. Now, an MRI exam revealed only inflammation. And Glover himself said the following day, “I’m not worried. I’ll be fine.” But I don’t know how you don’t worry about this. Glover has been lauded as a potential stud reliever for a while now, but he suffered a torn hip labrum in 2016 and dealt with lower-back stiffness and shoulder inflammation last season. And he has a history of not being forthcoming about injuries, though that does not appear to have been the case in this instance.
The Nats think that this is a big-enough deal that they on Wednesday (Feb. 21) announced agreement with reliever Joaquin Benoit on a one-year contract reportedly worth $1 million. He’s entering his age-40 season and is coming off struggling with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia last season.
This Glover situation is why the Nats re-signing Brandon Kintzler and still having Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson is a big deal. The Nats have the backend of their bullpen set. Whether all three are good again this coming season, of course, remains to be seen, but the Nats have their ace relievers lined up. Could you imagine if this was last spring training, and Glover was in a three-way battle for the closer role? He, if healthy, is a middle-innings piece for the Nats this coming season. He is not someone who the team is relying on for a late-innings role.
4. Holy shift
Nats infielders on Tuesday (Feb. 20) took a set of ground balls from shifted positions, with shortstops on the right side of second base, and second basemen in shallow right field. According to Nats insider Mark Zuckerman of MASNSports.com, that hadn’t been done by the Nats on a full-fledged scale before.
It’s about time! The Nats’ resistance to defensive shifts has been bizarre and counterproductive. Arguably the biggest trend in Major League Baseball this decade has been the increase in shifts. Shifts save runs. And yet one of the few teams that have not been in on this trend has been the Nats. Here are their rankings in shifts over the last four seasons:
And it would be one thing if the Nats weren’t shifting but still were having good defenses. That has not been the case. The Nats’ defense has been an underrated problem for the last three seasons. Here are the Nats’ recent rankings in Defensive Runs Saved:
Dave Martinez and Joe Maddon had Tampa Bay at the forefront of the shift movement a decade ago. We can only hope that – finally – the Nats are about to get in on this trend.
5. Tilly is back
The Orioles on Wednesday (Feb. 21) officially announced the re-signing of starting pitcher Chris Tillman to a one-year contract reportedly worth $3 million with an additional $7 million in incentives. By the way, the reporting has been that Tillman’s offers from other teams were minor-league deals, so I don’t quite get why the O’s felt compelled to give him a $3 million major-league contract. But bottom line this is step no. 2 of the O’s filling the three open spots in their mess of a rotation, which had the worst ERA (5.70) in the majors last season.
Of course, a major reason for the O’s having a 5.70 starting-pitching ERA last season was Tillman. He was horrendous, posting a 7.84 ERA and 55 ERA+ over 24 games, including 19 starts. It is that last number that is most disturbing. That a guy who was this bad was allowed to make 19 starts last season is such an indictment of the Orioles’ ability to identify, draft and develop starting pitching.
That said, I am fine with the O’s re-signing Tillman. His 2017 was thrown off by right-shoulder bursitis that caused him to make his season debut until May 7 and knocked his mechanics out of whack. This is a guy who was the closest thing that the O’s had to an ace in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016. He is entering just his age-30 season.
But Tillman has been woeful in two of the last three seasons. The O’s can’t just go into this coming season counting on Tillman reverting to being a quality starting pitcher. He should be an option and not a definite piece. As I said after the O’s signed Andrew Cashner, there needs to be more done to upgrade this Orioles rotation if the team is going to stubbornly insist on not trading away its free-agent-to-be assets and again truly try to win this coming season. If you’re going to be “in,” then you need to be all-in. Going halfway is the worst thing you can do.
Along those lines, have you noticed what Tampa Bay has been doing? Unloading. The Rays since the middle of December have traded third baseman Evan Longoria to San Francisco, starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi to Minnesota and outfielder Steven Souza Jr. (the former Nat) to Arizona as part of a three-team trade with the Yankees. The Rays recognize that it’s 2004 all over again, that the American League East is Boston, the Yankees and then everyone else, especially with the Red Sox this week finally agreeing on a deal with free-agent slugger J.D. Martinez. The Rays aren’t wasting their time pretending like they have a chance this season. They don’t. And so they are restocking for another run in a few seasons. I have been advocating for the O’s to do this. I would love for them to prove me wrong. We shall see.
6. The Orioles signed outfielder Colby Rasmus
The O’s on Wednesday (Feb. 21) announced the signing of Rasmus to a minor-league contract with an invite to major-league spring training. He’s entering his age-31 season. He is a lefty hitter who has a .761 OPS against right-handed pitching over the last three seasons. But what I like the most about Rasmus is his defense. He has 38 Defensive Runs Saved in 8,328 career innings in the outfield. He has 24 Defensive Runs Saved over the last two seasons with Tampa Bay and Houston. The Orioles’ outfield defense has been a major issue in recent seasons. Rasmus, assuming that he makes the team, can help.
7. Major League Baseball’s new pace-of-play initiatives will accomplish nothing
As you likely know, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has been big for years on quickening the pace of games. This often gets misinterpreted as length of games; the two are different. A major issue for MLB is that it skews old, and a reason for that is believed to be the lack of actual action in games. Some of that has to do with the rise of what are called the three “true” outcomes – home runs, walks and strikeouts. More plays are resulting in one of those three outcomes more than ever before, and so actual plays on which balls are in-play are lessening.
But the bigger reason for the lack of actual action in MLB games is the time between pitches. Studies have been done on this, and it’s undeniable. As much as the rises in strikeouts and walks and lengthier commercial breaks have contributed to slower-moving games, nothing has been worse than the time between pitches.
And so Manfred, astutely, has attempted to do something about this.
In February 2015, MLB and the MLB Players Association announced multiple pace-of-play initiatives, including enforcement of the batter’s-box rule requiring a batter to keep at least one foot in the batter’s box unless one of a group of exceptions occurs. Well, this quickly became a joke, as players violated this left and right with little-to-no consequence.
Over the last few years there has been talk of pitch clocks, which are used in the lower levels of baseball without any problems. There had also been talk of a between-batter timer. MLB and the MLBPA could agree on nothing more prior to the 2017 season than the useless change to the intentional-walk rule, as we went from the traditional four-pitch walk to a dugout signal. Manfred actually had the power to unilaterally impose changes without the MLBPA’s approval for this coming season.
But, instead, Manfred went soft. Maybe this is because he genuinely wants agreement with the MLBPA. Maybe this is because he didn’t want to increase acrimony with the MLBPA off its recent whining regarding this offseason’s frozen free-agent market. Whatever the case, MLB on Monday (Feb. 19) announced pace-of-play initiatives that essentially amount to nothing. There is no pitch clock. There is no between-batter timer. The crux of the initiatives is a limit of six mound visits per team per nine innings, but there are so many exceptions that the limit is practically pointless. And even with this players have complained, including Houston starting pitcher Justin Verlander. It’s too bad. MLB and the MLBPA had a real opportunity here. As they say in baseball, maybe next year.