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Nationals And Orioles Takeaways From Week 1 Of Spring Training

Galdi gives his analysis of the Nats and O’s as their camps have begun

 

 

1. Nationals president of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo says that he is confident that he will be re-signed by the Lerners

Rizzo’s contract expires on Oct. 31 according to a piece by USA Today MLB insider Bob Nightengale on Jan. 18.  Rizzo on Friday (Feb. 16) said the following regarding his contract situation: “We’ve got a great rapport and a great trust.  I’m confident that things will work out.”

Rizzo’s looking free agency – not Bryce Harper’s – is the most significant contract situation facing the Nats.  And while Rizzo said publicly what he should say, it remains impossible to ignore that Nightengale piece that came out about a month ago.  The piece reeked of Rizzo having sounding off to Nightengale – who has had a lot of Nats intel over the years – regarding the contract situation.  Among the nuggets in that piece:

  • That Rizzo’s contract expires on Oct. 31
  • That Rizzo is earning $2.5 million in the final year of a five-year, $10 million contract
  • That the Lerners hadn’t had a single conversation yet with Rizzo about his contract
  • That players in Rizzo’s trades have generated 73.4 Wins Above Replacement compared to a 48.0 WAR by those who departed

Where do you think all of that information came from – the Nats Info Fairy?  All of that smelled so much like Rizzo having unloaded to Nightengale, who, by the way, isn’t a big sabermetrics guy, and so it was awfully curious that he had that WAR nugget on Rizzo trades.  Heck, Rizzo himself was quoted in the piece: “When you look at what we accomplished, it’s really unsung and underappreciated. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished here.  I like it here.  I love the city.  I love the team I put together.  I like being a GM in the NL East.  And I want to stay here.  I just think I deserve to be treated like some of the best GMs in the game are, too.  I know we haven’t won the World Series, but I get tired of hearing how we can’t win the big one, or we can’t get out of the first round.  We haven’t had that many chances.  We were without baseball for 35 years here, and we cranked it up pretty good.  We’re pretty damn good at what we do.’’ 

The Lerners’ history is that they wait until nearly the last-possible second to deal with non-player contracts.  Ask Jim Riggleman.  Ask Dusty Baker.  Ask Rizzo himself, whose two-year option that takes him through this season was picked up months after many people – including myself – thought that it should have been.  I don’t think that we’ll be seeing Rizzo’s contract situation being settled anytime soon.

But I do know that it should be.  I believe him to be a top-five general manager in MLB.  And I believe that re-signing him should be the single most important contractual goal over the next year – yes, more important than re-signing Harper.  The most important person for a major-league club these days is the GM – GMs have become rock stars in many ways.  The Nats have an elite one in Rizzo.  The fact they’ve had Rizzo is why they wouldn’t be doomed if they did lose Harper after this coming season.  Think about that.

The longer that this goes on, the longer that you have to wonder how much more fed up Rizzo may be becoming.  Because unlike Riggleman and Dusty, Rizzo would have another job equal to his current one in a heartbeat.  And the ultimate fear for the Nats fan is that Rizzo decides that he doesn’t need this anymore – the financial games, the having to sign players who he doesn’t want to sign (Matt Wieters) – and leaves the organization after this season.


New Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez, left, speaks during a baseball press conference next to general manager Mike Rizzo, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

 

2. Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton should be ready for the start of the Nats’ regular season

Arguably the most noteworthy revelation from Nats spring training this week was Eaton saying on Wednesday (Feb. 14) that he should be ready for the start of the Nats’ regular season: “Unless something unforeseen happens, I think that’s easily attainable.”

Eaton suffering a torn left ACL and torn left meniscus (and a high-left-ankle sprain) last April 28 was a brutal blow.  He was terrific for the Nats over 23 games, posting a 120 OPS+ over 107 plate appearances.  I still have doubts about trading three top pitching prospects in Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning for Eaton in Dec. 2016, but there’s no denying that Eaton was quite good in the brief time we saw him play for the Nats last season.  And you still have to love that the Nats can have Eaton under contract for four more seasons for a total of just $34.4 million.

The Nats’ defense has been an underrated problem for the last three seasons.  Here are the Nats’ recent rankings in Defensive Runs Saved:

  • 2017 – tied for no. 25 (-44),
  • 2016 – tied for no. 17 (-14)
  • 2015 – no. 20 (-8)

But the Nats this season have a chance to have one of the best outfields – both offensively and defensively – in the majors.  Bryce Harper, as long as he stays healthy, is an offensive force, and he is a plus-defender in right field (nine career Defensive Runs Saved).  Michael A. Taylor took giants steps forward both offensively and defensively last season, during which he had eight Defensive Runs Saved in center field off having had -7 over his first three seasons.  And then there’s Eaton, who is moving to left field, which was manned not-so-capably by Jayson Werth for the Nats in recent seasons.  Eaton has -14 Defensive Runs Saved in 3,283 career innings in center field.  He has 25 Defensive Runs Saved in 1,316 career innings in corner-outfield spots.

 

3. A.J. Cole – and not Erick Fedde – is the internal favorite for the no. 5 spot in the Nationals’ rotation

Manager Dave Martinez on Friday (Feb. 16) admitted the following: “Obviously, if A.J. goes out and does what he’s capable of doing…he threw a bullpen today, and he was phenomenal.  He really was.  That was fun to see and very exciting, a fifth starter with that kind of arm.  And the way he pitched last year to finish up the season, he’s got the upper hand.  But like I said, spring training is long.  We’ll just have to see.  My biggest concern: he comes out here, and he’s healthy and ready to go.”

The Nats have always liked Cole.  They took him in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, dealt him to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez trade in December 2011 but then reacquired Cole in the three-team trade with the A’s and Seattle in Jan. 2013.

But Cole just hasn’t been that good at the major-league level.  He has a 4.52 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 22 major-league games (17 starts) over the last three seasons.  You don’t write-off a guy because of those numbers, but at some point don’t you stop using him as a go-to spot starter?

The good news for Cole is that he did pitch well late last season, posting a 2.70 ERA over his final seven games.  But the last six of those games came in September, during which teams have expanded rosters and often are playing prospects.

I really think that this has as much to do with Cole being out of minor-league options as anything.  The Nats like him, don’t want to risk losing him and don’t view the gap between him and the other two internal candidates for the no. 5 spot in the rotation – Erick Fedde and Edwin Jackson – as that sizable.

And it’s that last part that may be the biggest takeaway of all.  My how Fedde’s stock seemingly has fallen.  He was the no. 60 prospect in all of baseball per MLB Pipeline in Jan. 2017 but wasn’t ranked among the top 100 prospects last month.  Fedde last season was toggled between starter and reliever in the minors, was disappointing over three major-league starts and then was shut down in September due to a right forearm flexor strain.  It seems to me like he should be the one with the upper hand in this competition if the Nats still truly believe in him.  Maybe they do, but this is starting to come off like what happened with Lucas Giolito – a highly-touted Nats pitching prospect who the organization sours on and, in Giolito’s case, trades away.


4. Nationals catcher Matt Wieters has lost 14 pounds

Who knows how much this means, but Wieters showed up at Nats camp as Nats pitchers and catchers reported to spring training on Wednesday (Feb. 14) weighing 224 pounds, a stark difference from the 238 pounds at which he finished last season.  He also opened up about his struggles in that disastrous top of the fifth in the Nats’ NLDS Game 5 loss to the Cubs last October: “I had to forgive myself.  I had to forgive a lot of different things.”

I am always skeptical of these weight-loss stories in sports.  Every athlete is in the best shape of his life going into every camp.  And even if Wieters is now a chiseled 224 pounds, will that necessarily translate into better performance?  It’s important to understand how bad he was in 2017.  He had a career-worst -0.6 bWAR last season and is going into his age-32 season.  He was the worst hitting catcher in the majors last season: wRC+ of 62, which was no. 33 out of 33 catchers each with at least 300 plate appearances.  His framing numbers were terrible again: Baseball Prospectus ranked Wieters no. 108 out 110 catchers with -13.6 Framing Runs Above Average.  The decision to sign Wieters last Feb. 24 to a one-year, $10.5 million contract with a $10.5 million player option for 2018 was a Lerners-driven decision that looks so bad, especially with the Nats reportedly trying to trade for Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto these last few months.

Wieters did post a 1.7 bWAR with the Orioles in 2016, so the notion of him being better this season isn’t some impossible dream.  Heck, who saw Ryan Zimmerman’s Ryan-aissance coming last season?  But Wieters’ career OPS+ is 94.  He has never been the offensive force that he was supposed to be – “Mauer with power” – when the O’s took him with the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft.  And Wieters’ pitch-framing numbers have been bad for years, and when I had Mike Maddux on The Morning Blitz with Al Galdi during last spring training, the then-Nats pitching coach didn’t exactly deny the value of pitch-framing stats.  I just don’t know how bullish the Nats fan realistically can be about Wieters in 2018.

 

5. Brutal honesty from Nationals reliever Brandon Kintzler

How about what Kintzler said on Wednesday (Feb. 14), the day on which Nats pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla.?  Kintzler sounded like a guy who was not happy about the modest contract he signed in re-signing with the Nats in December: “I mean, if my name’s not Wade Davis, it’s a stressful market.  I thought I would have done a lot better.  I thought there would be more teams that wanted me.  I don’t know, these computer programs everyone uses, I guess…fantasy baseball.  It wasn’t great.  But I’m glad we got it done then.  I wouldn’t want to be out there right now.  That’s a stressful situation.”

That right there is a reliever who was humbled by what he had to settle for.  The Nats re-signed Kintzler at a bargain price: a one-year, $5 million contract with a $5 million player option and $10 million club option for 2019.  For comparison’s sake, former Oriole Tommy Hunter signed a two-year, $18 million with Philadelphia.  Kintzler had a 147 ERA+ 71 1/3 innings for the Nats and Minnesota last season; Hunter had a 159 ERA+ in 58 2/3 innings for Tampa Bay.

But there are reasons that Kintzler had to settle for the relatively-modest contract, and, yes, those reasons have to do with “computer programs.”

  • Age: he’s going into his age-33 season
  • He’s not a strikeout pitcher: 5.3 K/9 over the last two seasons
  • He’s not immune to putting guys on base: 1.186 WHIP over the last two seasons; that’s not great for a reliever

But what Kintzler does bring to a bullpen is the ability to induce ground balls.  He is a ground-ball-inducing gangsta, which is very appealing in this day and age of players being fixated on launch angles and bashing home runs at insane rates.  Kintzler is no. 14 among all qualified relievers over the last two seasons in ground-ball percentage (58.0).  He is no. 29 among all qualified relievers over the last two seasons in HR/9 (0.72).  The Nats’ #Can’tTrussIt Bullpen of last season had a massive home-run problem, highlighted by guys like Shawn Kelley and Joe Blanton.  You shouldn’t have worry about that at all with Kintzler.

Additionally, Kintzler doesn’t walk guys.  He is seventh among all qualified relievers over the last two seasons in BB/9 (1.72).

Kintzler may not be happy with what he re-signed with the Nats for, but the Nats should be thrilled having him back on this contract.

 

6. The Orioles finally have done something about their rotation!

The O’s on Thursday night (Feb. 15) officially announced the signing of Andrew Cashner to a two-year contract.  It reportedly is worth just $16 million but includes incentives and a potential option for 2020 that could bring the total value to $41 million.  The 2020 potential option has to do with how many innings he totals over the next two seasons: 340 innings for a vesting option, 360 innings for a player option.

Cashner is going into his age-31 season.  He’s coming off the best season of his career, having posted a 138 ERA+ in 166 2/3 innings over 28 starts for Texas last season.  That kind of run prevention is terrific and would be well worth this contract.

But the problem is what went into that run prevention.  Cashner’s peripherals reek of a guy who got lucky last season.  Consider the following:

  • Cashner’s BABIP allowed last season was just .267 according to MLB.com.  League average is around .300.  Anything below that can be a sign of abnormally-good luck.  The good news is that Casher’s batted-ball stats were better last season, including him posting a career-best soft-contact-allowed percentage of 18.5.  Has he learned to allow less-damaging contact, or was he just plain lucky last season?
  • Cashner’s average-fastball velocity per Fangraphs has declined each of the last seasons, going from 96.2 in 2015 to 94.2 last season.
  • Cashner is not at all a strikeout pitcher.  Among all starting pitchers who threw at least 162 innings last season, he ranked dead last – no. 56 out of 56 – in strikeouts per nine innings at 4.64.  In a bandbox of ballpark like Oriole Park at Camden Yards and in a division as brutal as the American League East, you’ve got to be able to miss bats.  Cashner doesn’t do that.  He, by the way, is an example of why you can’t judge a pitcher by his size.  Cashner is listed as being 6-6 and 235 pounds and yet had the lowest K/9 among qualified starting pitchers last season.
  • Cashner’s Fielding Independent Pitching – FIP – was a woeful 4.61 last season.  FIP is an ERA-like number that measures that which a pitcher is struly most responsible for – home runs allowed, walks allowed, hit-by-pitches allowed and strikeouts.

Look, the O’s had to do something.  If they’re not going to unload their free-agent-to-be assets as I have been begging the team to do, then the O’s need to do the opposite and go all-in.  The worst place that you can be is in the middle.  If the O’s truly are trying to make one last run with Manny Machado and company, then they should load up on pitchers to fortify a rotation that has been an embarrassment for years and see what happens.  Cashner is a start, but he’s a flawed start, and if there isn’t much more to come, then what’s the point?

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