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Nationals And Orioles Takeaways From Week 5 Of Spring Training

Reaction to and analysis of developments for the Nats and O’s at their camps

 

 

1. It seems almost certain that Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy will not be ready for the start of the regular season, but left fielder Adam Eaton appears good to go

We learned on Oct. 20 – the same day on which we learned that Dusty Baker was out as Nats manager – that Murphy had undergone microfracture surgery on his right knee that day.  His recovery has been slow and, while he is expected to be ready at some point during the first month of the season, the Nats now are all but saying for sure that he will not be ready for the March 29 season opener at Cincinnati.  President of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo said as much on MLB Network’s High Heat with Christopher Russo on Friday (March 16).

But Rizzo on that show also said that Adam Eaton is set to be in the Nats’ lineup for Saturday’s major-league spring-training game, his first of this spring training and his first major-league game since suffering a torn left ACL and torn left meniscus (and a high-left-ankle sprain) last April 28.

Eaton was terrific for the Nats over 23 games last season, 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.  And maybe as telling as anything is the extent to which Rizzo has praised Eaton’s toughness and ability to grind-out at-bats, something that was missing quite often for the Nats during their five-game NLDS loss to the Cubs last October. 

 

Washington Nationals’ Daniel Murphy bats during a baseball game against the New York Mets, Tuesday, July 4, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

 

2. The Nationals have signed a free-agent starter who is a Scott Boras client – just not Jake Arrieta 

We learned on Friday (March 16) that the Nats had agreed on a minor-league deal with Jeremy Hellickson.

Nats insider Mark Zuckerman of MASNSports.com called Hellickson “the sudden odds-on favorite to fill the final spot in the Nationals rotation.”  Boy is that interesting if true.

First of all, all we’ve heard for weeks is how A.J. Cole had bulked up, was looking good, is liked by the Nats and is the favorite for the no. 5 spot in the Nats’ rotation due in no small part to being out of minor-league options.  So much for all of that I guess.

But second of all, Hellickson, how can I put this, isn’t good.  Over 134 games (including 133 starts) over the last five seasons, he has a 4.69 ERA and 87 ERA+.  He’s not a strikeout pitcher.  He gives up home runs.  The Orioles acquired Hellickson from Philadelphia last July, and he was horrendous for them over 10 starts (6.97 ERA).  Hellickson’s 2016 season with the Phillies is his lone good season since 2013.  Unless the Nats feel like they have the key to getting him back on track, I don’t get at all why you would go with Hellickson over Cole or Fedde.

As for Arrieta, the Phillies on Monday (March 12) officially announced the signing of him to a multiyear contract.  This has ramifications for the Phillies, the Nats, the National League East and Major League Baseball in general.  Let’s discuss.

Takeaway no. 1: The Nats truly didn’t want Arrieta – One of the reasons that I kept talking about the potential of the Nats signing Arrieta these last few months was that this reeked of a situation in which the Nats would prove to be the ultimate landing spot.  Arrieta is a Scott Boras client; we all know about the Lerners’ love affair with Boras clients.  The Nats are an “all-in” team, and paying for someone like Arrieta to be a no. 3 or even no. 4 starter is an all-in-team kind of move.  Arrieta could have been the long-term replacement in the Nats’ rotation for Gio Gonzalez, who is expected to leave the Nats via free agency after this coming season.  Arrieta is known to be a cocky, bulldog-type pitcher, the kind of guy that Mike Rizzo loves.  And yet Rizzo never pulled the trigger.  I think that’s so telling.  And I can only think that what scares me about Arrieta also scares Rizzo.  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.  Arrieta isn’t bad, but he screams being a declining and aging pitcher.

Takeaway no. 2: The Phillies could be the 2015 Cubs or 2015 Houston Astros – The Phillies, like the Cubs and Astros a few years ago, are multiple years into a sabermetrics-driven total teardown.  The Cubs’ and Astros’ rebuilds both “arrived” a season sooner than expected.  Well, what about the Phillies?  They have now signed Arrieta and first baseman Carlos Santana since the end of last season, have rising young sluggers like Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams and have a first-year manager in Gabe Kapler who is open-minded, innovative and embracing of analytics.  The starting pitching is a concern, but Arrieta should help.  Don’t get me wrong, the Nats are still by miles the favorite to win the NL East.  But, especially in a division as weak as the NL East, the Phillies could be at least a wild-card contender.

Takeaway no. 3: Boras has been humbled big time this offseason – The word just a few months ago was that Boras wanted $200 million for Arrieta.  He instead got a three-year, $75 million contract and embarrassingly not until mid-March.  Another Boras client, third baseman Mike Moustakas, turned down a $17.4 million qualifying offer from Kansas City in November only to re-sign with the Royals to the tune of one year and $6.5 million earlier this month.  Boras has been a phenomenal agent over the years.  But even he was not immune to this offseason’s frozen free-agent market, which was 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.

 

3. An important point about mega-money contracts in Major League Baseball as we creep closer to Bryce Harper’s contract season with the Nationals

Thomas Boswell had an interesting column posted on Wednesday (March 14) on WashingtonPost.com regarding the Nats, Harper and free agency.  The basic point was that this offseason of the frozen free-agent market represents a new world order, one in which Harper will not be getting the $400 million or $500 million free-agent contract that has been speculated about.  As Boswell says, “The 10-year, $400 million Bryce Harper contract that everybody has been speculating about for years — that’s dead.”

Boswell’s column makes a number of good points about the cost-efficiency of draft picks and international signings.  But a point not at all addressed in the column is maybe the biggest point of all – that so many mega-money contracts have turned out to be total flops, so much so that the teams that signed these deals have wanted out of these deals about an hour after signing them.  Consider the following from just this decade:

Troy Tulowitzki – He signed a 10-year, $157.75 million contract extension with Colorado in Nov. 2010.  He played in an average of 88 games per season from 2012-14.  The Rockies traded him to Toronto in July 2015.

Adrian Gonzalez –   He signed a seven-year, $154 million contract extension with Boston in April 2011.  The Red Sox traded him to the Dodgers in Aug. 2012.

Matt Kemp – He signed an eight-year, $160 million contract extension with the Dodgers in Nov. 2011.  He was traded by the Dodgers to San Diego in Dec. 2014, was traded from the Padres to Atlanta in July 2016 and then was traded from the Braves back to the Dodgers this past December.

Albert Pujols – He signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels in Dec. 2011.  He had a bWAR of -1.8 last season.  He still has four seasons left on the contract.

Felix Hernandez – He signed a seven-year, $175 million contract extension with Seattle in Feb. 2013.  King Felix was great in 2014, but here are his stats over the last three seasons: 3.79 ERA, 105 ERA+ over 72 starts (an average of 24 per year).

Miguel Cabrera – He signed a 10-year, $292 million contract extension with Detroit in March 2014 despite still having two years and $44 million left on his contract.  He had been an excellent hitter, but he had a horrendous .399 slugging percentage over 529 plate appearances last season.  He still has six years left on his extension.

Giancarlo Stanton – He signed a 13-year, $325 million contract extension with Miami in Nov. 2014.  Stanton played in a total of 193 games over the 2015 and 2016 seasons, did have a monstrous National League MVP campaign last season but was dealt by the Marlins to the Yankees this past December.  The trade, by the way, included the Marlins giving the Yankees $30 million.

Zach Greinke – He signed a six-year, $206.5 million contract with Arizona in Dec. 2015.  Greinke was a big disappointment in 2016, was much better this past season, but the Diamondbacks reportedly were trying to trade him as of a few months ago.

There are many other contracts that I could have gone into.  But I think that I’ve made my point.

Not every $150+ million contract has been a flop.  Max Scherzer’s seven-year, $210 million deal with the Nats has worked out beautifully so far.  Mike Trout has been a bargain for the Angels at six years and $144.5 million.  But for every Scherzer or Trout contract, there have been five Tulowitzki, Kemp, King Felix, Pujols and Stanton contracts.

Harper is an exceptional talent and is young enough to where you could argue that a 10-year contract makes sense.  But his injury history is undeniable.  Just like the history of mega-money contracts in MLB.  They just don’t work out.

 

4. New Nationals manager Dave Martinez is open to bullpening!

I spent a lot time last week writing and talking about how the Orioles and even Nats should be more open to bullpening, an all-encompassing term for aggressive and progressive usage of relievers.  Well, how about what Martinez said this past Sunday (March 11)?  Regarding The Law Firm – Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler – Martinez has said that Doolittle will be the closer, but Martinez also said this: “The one thing for sure is we’re going to take care of those guys.  We’re not going to burn them out.  It’s a long season, so all three of them know that, on any given day, they might be asked to close out a game.”

Interestingly, Martinez also mentioned Joaquin Benoit, who is entering his age-40 season, as another pitcher who could factor into high-leverage situations.

The stat Win Probability Added (WPA) really has shined the spotlight on how much good bullpening can do.  WPA is the ultimate context dependent statistic.  You get credit based on how much your action contributes to the odds of winning, meaning that a home run in a 1-1 game in the 9th is dramatically more valuable than a homer in a 10-1 game in the 9th.  Six of the top 10 pitchers in the majors last season in WPA were relievers.  The top two pitchers in the majors in 2016 in WPA were relievers (Zach Britton and Andrew Miller).  A reliever properly deployed in high-leverage situations can be even more valuable in terms of contributing to winning than a starting pitcher, even when throwing 150 fewer innings.

Martinez’s openness to bullpening seemed more about keeping The Law Firm healthy than about innovative strategy, but I’ve got to think that a guy as analytically inclined as him is aware of and will embrace the benefits of deploying ace relievers in non-traditional and non-closing situations that are high-leverage.

 

5. Chris Tillman’s spring-training debut could not have gone much worse and further highlighted two Orioles frustrations that we’ve discussed

It was impossible to ignore what went on in Nationals and Orioles spring-training games on Tuesday (March 13).  Max Scherzer was dominant in a 7-4 win over the Mets: five scoreless innings, nine strikeouts.  And then we had the polar opposite in the Orioles’ 7-5 win over Minnesota.  Chris Tillman, making his spring-training debut, was horrendous.  He gave up four runs in two innings.  He issued six walks over those two innings.  He threw only 27 of his 62 pitches for strikes and got first-pitch strikes on just three batters.  Making things even worse was who the Twins’ starter was and what he did.  Lance Lynn tossed three scoreless and hitless innings with five strikeouts.

On the one hand, we’re talking about spring-training games.  They should almost never be read into.  But on the other hand, we’re talking about the O’s, who have had horrendous starting pitching for years and who are entering this coming season in the worst possible place as a team – the middle.  As I have said time and again, if the O’s truly 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, then go all-in.  If you’re going to give it another run, then you better do better than Tillman and Andrew Cashner as your offseason moves of significance for upgrading what was the worst starting pitching in the majors last season.  Tillman looking this bad in his spring-training debut off being so bad last season (7.84 ERA and a 55 ERA+ over 24 games, including 19 starts) was the last thing that the O’s fan needed.  And Lynn, one of a number of pitchers in this offseason’s frozen free-agent market who could have been had on the relative cheap, provided a close-up reminder of what could have been.

Another takeaway from Tillman struggling in his spring-training debut is a question – why in the world did the O’s give this guy guaranteed money?  The O’s re-signed Tillman on Feb. 21 to a one-year contract reportedly worth $3 million with an additional $7 million in incentives.  The reporting was that his offers from other teams were minor-league deals, and so I never got why the O’s felt compelled to give him a $3 million major-league contract.  This is the same team that has totally punted on the international market due to its cost and has never spent more than $50 million on a free-agent pitcher.  And yet the O’s gave $3 million guaranteed to a guy had had a 7.84 ERA last season?  Yet another thing that makes no sense about this team.

 

6. Mark Trumbo vs. Chris Davis – who is more likely to bounce back for the Orioles this coming season?

Thursday (March 15) was a bad day for the Orioles.  We learned that outfielder/first baseman Mark Trumbo is expected to miss three to four weeks with a right-quad strain and that third baseman Ryan Mountcastle, the team’s no. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline last month, is expected to miss four to six weeks with a fractured right hand.  The Mountcastle injury is bad enough.  But the Trumbo injury, of course, is the bigger item.

The O’s contending in 2018 is contingent on a number of things going well.  Among those things is Trumbo bouncing back from a terrible 2017.  Off leading the majors with 47 homers in 2016, he had a putrid OPS+ of just 83 over 146 games last season.  Trumbo slugged .397 in 2017 off slugging .533 in 2016 – that’s a 136-point drop.

I actually didn’t have a problem with the O’s re-signing Trumbo in Jan. 2017, mainly because of the price – a three-year, $37.5 million contract.  If he gives the O’s an OPS+ of, say, 115 or better in each of the next two seasons, that contract will look just fine.

Chris Davis, of course, is a different story.

Now, I will not be revisionist.  I loudly endorsed the O’s re-signing Davis to that seven-year, $161 million contract in Jan. 2016.  That kind of money back then (you know, way back then, two years ago, when $100+ million contracts were practically becoming the norm) wasn’t that egregious.  Davis was coming off having led the majors in homers in two of the previous three seasons.  Yes, he was entering his age-30 season, but he also was (and still is) an athletic guy (remember, this is someone who can play right field and third base).  He is a good defensively at first base.

But the Davis contract right now looks terrible.  Few players in the majors have been as negatively impacted by being shifted on than Davis.  He by miles has the worst strikeout percentage in the majors over the last two seasons (34.8; the next-worst is Mike Napoli’s 31.6).  Davis had a -0.1 bWAR last season.

I still do believe that Davis can rebound.  He’s only going into his age-32 season.  He has gotten much better at drawing walks over the last five seasons.  And this still is a guy who is second in the majors in homers over the last five seasons.

Trumbo, Davis and Chris Tillman are the three guys the O’s most need to bounce back in 2018.

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