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Tweak It - Don't Blow It Up (Nats 2014). Chapter 2 - A Modest Proposal

In my previous installment, I looked back at the 2013 roster. A team that was in many ways the same team as the 2012 team that won 98 games had to scramble over the last two months just to win 86 games. Based on 2012, we all saw great things in 2013 - well, we were concerned about the lack of LHRP, and the starting pitching depth (Yunesky Maya? Chris Young?). But IRWT, right? Well, yes. But after the 2013 season perhaps he could use some suggestions. So ... a modest proposal.

Opening Thoughts

Joe Posnanski recently had a great blog post titled Manage like Jimmy Dugan (as an aside, I highly recommend Posnanski's blog; it's a great read). The concept, in a nutshell, is that managers often feel the need to insert themselves into game, especially a high-stakes game, because of the overwhelming pressure to do something, dammit! As Posnanski notes:

I have long believed that managers hurt their teams as much or more than they help when they decide, as Bugs Bunny once did, that a moment calls for a little stragety.

I think the rule sometimes applies to General Managers/team officials as well. It's easier to do something, because you're not inert, you're not accused of negligence, and even if what you did was stupid, you can always come up with a rationale. But if you do nothing, you get accused of complacency, of sleeping on the job, or being mentally off in Bora Bora. But ironically, the moves you don't make are often the winning ones. But they are harder to see, and you don't get credit for it.

How does this apply to the Nats 2014?

I believe that the idea of doing something in order to "shake things up" may be atavistically satisfying to fans who were frustrated by watching the team underperform last year. But if you want changes, the new manager is a pretty big change (for better or worse). Major roster changes are likely to do more harm than good. And yes, I believe that the Nats are already better than average. They finished 86-76, 6th of 15 NL teams and tied with the Royals for 12th among the 30 MLB teams, and the roster at the end of the season was better than the roster that played the first two months. It's also still a young team; only five of the 42 players on the 40 man roster* will be over 30 by the end of next season (Werth, Hairston, LaRoche, Soriano, Ohlendorf). Werth is the only one of the five who is likely to be on the team after 2014. Zimmerman and Stammen turn 30 next year.

With a good, still young team blowing up the team isn't the answer - a few tweaks are more in order, because the team is essentially sound. So yes, I’d be perfectly happy with the Nationals going forward with essentially the same roster. Werth will almost certainly regress, but the Nationals have good reason to believe that they will get better seasons from several other players due to recovery from injury (Ramos, Zimmerman), gaining of experience (Harper and Rendon particularly, but also Lombardozzi and Moore) or regression to career norms (Hairston and ALR). For ALR, I don’t expect him to repeat 2012 or 2013, but as I've posted in a couple of comments my expectation for him would be to postively regress to something just under his career averages, discounting some for age. Say about .260/.335/.465, and .800 OPS with about 23-25 HRs. Downright mediocre for a first baseman, but given the thin free agent market I’m not sure the Nationals really have any better options out there. The other players, other than Rafael Soriano, are at an age where they should be able to maintain or improve their level of production.

So there is solid reason to think that the offense will be better. The pitching is basically fine (more below) and I think defensively the club will also be fine with improved health (3b, c) and experience (2b) allowing an already above average unit (#11 of 30 in defensive efficiency in 2013) to return to the level of the very good/excellent unit of 2012 (#5 of 30). To help that along, I would flip Harper and Werth to take advantage of Harper's arm.

Certainly additional tweaks will be required. Offensively Denard Span is a wild card - which Span will show up next year? Harper and Werth are also injury risks. For that reason, OF depth is essential. Hairston and Moore are platoon options only, and Moore will have to continue to improve defensively to be a part of that conversation. As for the rotation, the first three are obviously set. I would bring in another arm (Josh Johnson? – he could be had pretty cheaply, and his peripherals were much better than his traditional stats) to compete with Detwiler, Jordan, Roark and Karns for the #4-5 slots. No guy who is guaranteed a starting spot, but a guy who sees a decent chance to win a starting spot on a good team. That way if he doesn't win the spot he gets jettisoned without a second thought. Bring back Ross Ohlendorf (he is still under team control) to compete as well. The expectation is that Detwiler and New Guy fill out the rotation, while the first loser of the competion becomes the long guy/spot starter in the bullpen. The other three go to AAA for rotation depth, which is already better than the rotation depth they had last year. As I noted above, last year they had Chris Young and Yunesky Maya - a has-been and a never-was - for rotation depth. Whoever doesn't make the 25 man roster, the Nats are better off with those three guys than they were last year. Indeed, with more pitchers moving up in the system (Solis, Cole), I feel much better about the rotation going into 2014 than I did going into 2013.

The bullpen should remain an asset. My off-the-wall suggestion: I’d love to see them pick up Eric O’Flaherty as he comes off TJ surgery - make the Nats better and take an asset away from the Braves. But with Abad, Cedeno and Krol they’re already better off from the left side than they were with Duke last year (which is good, because O'Flaherty isn't going to be available until June). Say, Ohlendorf as the long guy, New Guy (O'Flaherty?) and/or some combination of Abad, Cedeno or Krol from the left side. Stammen, Storen, Clippard and Soriano round out the initial seven. The "other" one or two LHRP and and Garcia (back in the bullpen where he belongs) warming up in AAA for the inevitable injuries and ineffectiveness.

Clippard is going to be expensive for a relief pitcher - probably $5-6 million. But the Nationals can afford it, and it's hard to see that they're going to get someone better. But I would move Storen or Clippard as part of a package to get a true OF with thump, or as part of a Gio-like trade. I'm just not sure whether that player is available at a reasonable rate. If the David Price market floats back to the Nationals they could get involved, but I have enough concerns about him that I wouldn’t be in the "at any Price!" camp for him. IMHO, the Nationals should move their money much harder after extending Desmond, Zimmermann, and Ramos. Yes, Ramos. This is a calculated risk, but his injury history may make him open to obtaining security rather than rolling the dice on the future, and it would give the Nats a way to lock down some of their potential impact talent in a way that enables them to keep costs down and thus their "window" open longer. Because I don't trust Solano or Leon as backups yet, and Nieto isn't ready, I would get a backup catcher, preferably one that hits LH with some pop. Dioner Navarro is a possibility, if he doesn't get an offer to start somewhere else. If they brought back Kurt Suzuki at a much reduced rate, I'd be OK with that, too.

The base roster looks like this, more or less:

Rotation: Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Detwiler, New Guy (Johnson?). Depth: Ohlendorf, Jordan, Roark, Karns.

Bullpen: Ohlendorf, New Guy (O'Flaherty?)/Abad/Krol/Cedeno from the left and Stammen, Storen, Clippard, and Soriano from the right.

Regulars: Ramos, LaRoche, Rendon, Desmond, Zimmerman, Werth, Span, Harper.

Bench: Lombardozzi, Hairston, Moore, Catcher (Navarro?), and IF depth (Kobernus?) or a LH bat off of the bench (DeJesus?).

I'd look forward to watching that team in 2014.

In miscellaneous notes, Mauro Gomez is a long shot to push Moore off the roster. They are both RH 1b who pulverize AAA pitching and haven't made the leap to the majors yet. But the Nats already have Hairston as a RH bench bat. Yes, he's not a regular, and he's not much against RHP. But he's really good against LHP The Nats could use some LH thump off the bench, and I don't think that Corey Brown is the answer. David DeJesus is an interesting possibility, assuming that the Rays don't pick up his option. DeJesus also would give the team a viable alternative if one of the starters got hurt for an extended period of time. They would need another backup infielder. I'd love the Nats to get Ben Zobrist, but (a) the Rays will pick up his option; and (b) even if they don't, he's going to get a starting gig someplace. Kobernus is in the mix here - he's versatile, and offers interesting pinch-running possibilities. But he would likely be better served playing every day in AAA. I would also keep Espinosa in AAA at SS because he has no trade value, he needs to fix his swing, and right now he is a better backup SS option than Walters if Desmond (God forbid) gets hurt for any length of time. Espinosa is also a "Plan C" if Zimmerman, Rendon or Lombardozzi get hurt.

Bottom line

I think the team should be aggressive this offseason, just not in the big ticket, flashy way. Once the World Series is over, name the new manager (#TeamKnorr!). Free agents become available five days after the World Series ends. While most of the focus is on Cano, Ellsbury, McCann, Choo and Garcia, the Nats move hard and fast on targeted free agents (O'Flaherty, DeJesus, Navarro?). As the offseason moves on, then work on extensions for Desmond, Zimmerman and Ramos. Ante up for Clippard, because they need him. Do due diligence on exploring possibilities for packaging some near-MLB pitching and possibly some bullpen help and minor leaguers for a Gio-type trade (good player approaching arbitration that a cash strapped team can't afford) for an outfielder or starting pitcher. I didn't really see a good target for such a move, but Rizzo and his men obviously have a better idea than I do. But don't overpay, keep your powder dry and prospects ready for potential moves at the trading deadline. Once the roster is set, flexibility is the key to deal with injuries and ineffectiveness.

If I get a chance in the next couple of weeks, I'll try to do a "roads not to be taken" post talking about David Price, Robinson Cano, and Jose Abreu.

How many days until pitchers and catchers report?

*Once the postseason ends, the Nationals will have to count the two players (Detwiler and Garcia) who are on the 60 day DL. They won't need to make any moves, however, as Haren and Tracy will become free agents. Other players on the 40 man roster that might get released to make room for a trade or to protect a minor leaguer from the Rule 5 draft include Abad, Erik Davis, Corey Brown, Ryan Mattheus, Mauro Gomez and Chris Marrero)

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