Reaction to and analysis of developments for the Nats and O’s at their camps
1. Are either the Nationals or the Orioles going to bite on the rest of the frozen free-agent market’s top starting pitchers?
We are now into March, and the likes of Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn remain unsigned. MLB’s frozen free-agent market – a result of analytics, teams wanting to avoid the luxury tax, teams wanting to save for next offseason’s all-time-great crop of free agents and this free-agent crop just not being that good – continues.
And this is not just the case regarding starting pitchers. Third baseman Mike Moustakas remains unsigned. Heck, did you see what happened with Adam Lind this week? The Yankees on Friday (March 2) announced the signing of Lind to a minor-league contract with an invite to major-league spring training. This is a guy who had a 123 OPS+ over 301 plate appearances for the Nats last season. And yet the best that he could do was a minor-league deal. Now we understand even further why the Nats declined Lind’s $5 million option for this coming season. As good as he was for them last season, the market has clearly dictated that he isn’t worth the kind of money. Once again, Ninja Mike Rizzo knows best.
But back to the starting pitchers. The Nats continue to be mentioned regarding Arrieta, who is a Scott Boras client. USA Today MLB insider Bob Nightengale tweeted on Wednesday (Feb. 28), “The Washington #Nats remain engaged with Jake Arrieta and continue to monitor market as he remains top prize,” though Nats insider Jorge Castillo of The Washington Post reported on Friday (March 2) that the Nats “have set a price on Arrieta and are willing to do business if Arrieta’s demands match. But the Nationals haven’t engaged on Arrieta recently, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Instead, three other teams have been in contact, though that doesn’t signify the Nationals are out of the running.”
Whatever the case, until Arrieta is signed, the Nats are going to continue to come up as a potential landing spot for him. And they should. The Lerners’ love affair with Boras clients is reason enough. But when you are an “all-in” team to the extent that the Nats are (and have made no secret of with how they’ve spoken since the decision to not bring back Dusty Baker as manager), spending big money for a no. 3 or even no. 4 starter is not beyond the realm of possibility. MLB insider Chris De Luca of The Chicago Sun-Times said on Friday (March 2) that Arrieta’s “most likely option at this point is a three-year deal.” If that’s the case, then why not be interested if you’re the Nats?
Look, I would be very leery of signing Arrieta. There are some major red flags with him. His average fastball velocity went from 94.3 in 2016 to 92.6 in 2017. His HR/9 went from 0.5 from 2014-16 to 1.2 in 2017. He has declined each of the last two seasons off his incredible 2015 season. He’s going into his age-32 season.
But Arrieta still has some things going for him. He has made at least 30 starts each of the last three seasons. His declining peripherals last season still were good enough for a 123 ERA+. And if you buy into postseason pedigree, this is a guy with a 3.08 ERA and 11.3 K/9 in 52 2/3 playoff innings over the last three seasons.
But what about Cobb and Lynn? Each figures to come even cheaper than Arrieta at this point. And whereas it’s almost impossible to see Arrieta signing back with his original team, the O’s, who employed a pitching coach in Rick Adair who Arrieta and others (including Zach Britton) hated, why shouldn’t the O’s be in on Cobb or Lynn? Every indication is that the O’s have decided to give it one more run, despite having a number of key free-agents-to-be and despite the American League East being so top-heavy with Boston and the Yankees. Well, if you’re going to give it another run, then you better do better than Andrew Cashner and Chris Tillman as your offseason moves of significance for upgrading what was the worst starting pitching in the majors last season. Cobb or Lynn could make sense for either the Nats or the O’s.
Cobb is entering his age-30 season. He was quite good for Tampa Bay in 2013 and 2014 (134 ERA+ over 49 starts) but missed all of 2015 and most of 2016 due to Tommy John surgery. But he bounced back last season with a 113 ERA+ over 29 starts. And his average fastball velocity last season was 92.2, the second-best of his career.
Lynn is entering his age-31 season. He had a 131 ERA+ in 379 innings over 64 starts in 2014 and 2015, missed 2016 due to Tommy John surgery but was really good again in 2017: 124 ERA+ in 186 1/3 innings over 33 starts, though his average fastball velocity was down to 92.6 off being at 93.2 in 2015. He does also have a spotty postseason history (4.50 ERA in 52 innings), including giving up the Werthquake – Jayson Werth’s walk-off tie-breaking full-count 13-pitch solo homer in the bottom of the ninth of the 2-1 win over St. Louis to force an NLDS Game 5 in Oct. 2012.
Both Cobb and Lynn were extended qualifying offers, meaning that any team that signs them other then their most-recent teams is subject to a draft-pick loss, but the penalties are far less harsh as compared to those in the previous CBA.
Arrieta, Cobb and Lynn all are flawed. That’s a huge part of why each remains unsigned. But if you are the all-in Nats or the foolishly-still-in O’s, these guys who should be being looked at, especially as their prices presumably continue to fall.
2. Tim Tebow vs. the Nationals
It was pretty cool seeing Max Scherzer dominate Tim Tebow as Mad Max did in the Nats’ 2-1 win over the Mets on Friday afternoon (March 2). Scherzer was dominant, tossing three perfect innings with five strikeouts. He began the bottom of the second by striking out Tebow on three pitches. The total time of the plate appearance was timed at 49 seconds. Talk about pace of play.
Tebow has no chance of being a meaningful major-league player. He had a .309 on-base percentage and .347 slugging percentage for the Mets’ A-level minor-league teams last season. He’s entering his age-30 season. I like Tebow, and I’m not one of these people who is outraged over him getting this opportunity. But understand that he does not profile in any way as someone who has a realistic shot at ever amounting to anything as a major-league player. And his plate appearances, however inconsequential, do take away opportunities for younger and more legitimate Mets prospects.
It is worth noting that Tebow did get a hit later in Friday’s game, as he laced a two-out first-pitch line-drive single off the Nats’ top pitching prospect, Erick Fedde, in the bottom of the fourth. Fedde tossed two scoreless innings as he continues to compete with A.J. Cole for the no. 5 spot in the Nats’ rotation. Cole remains the favorite in no small part due to being out of minor-league options. But he did look good in the Nats’ 6-2 win over Atlanta on Thursday (March 1), tossing two scoreless innings with three strikeouts. Cole, by the way, bulked up to about 240 pounds during the offseason.