On January 14, 2015, the Washington Nationals traded long-time setup man Tyler Clippard to the Oakland Athletics for Yunel Escobar. It was a move that made plenty of sense for both sides at the time. The Nats appeared to be in need of someone who could improve their offensive output at second base this season. Escobar has historically been a shortstop who can handle the bat. His reasonable contract for the next three seasons made him a logical fit to take over at second base for 2015 and move back to his natural position across the bag at shortstop in 2016 and 2017.
Clippard was entering his final year of arbitration last offseason, which didn't figure to come cheap. It didn't. He and the A's settled at $8.3 million, which made him the ninth highest paid relief pitcher this season. Mind you, I didn't say closer, but relief pitcher. Clippard didn't necessarily figure to be Oakland's closer this season. After posting a 2.73 ERA and 1.71 FIP last season, it seemed like incumbent closer Sean Doolittle would probably return to the role once he recovered from what was initially called a slight rotator cuff tear. Alas, Doolittle didn't make his season debut until May 28. That's the only big league game in which he's pitched this season.
After trading away Clippard, the Nats signed Casey Janssen (speaking of preseason shoulder injuries) to try and replace him in the setup role. Janssen didn't make his season debut until May 23 himself, and has had kind of an up and down season since returning. Before Janssen returned, the Nats lost their only other veteran right-hander, Craig Stammen, to a season-ending injury. Basically, this bullpen has been trying to replace Tyler Clippard since January.
With the A's eleven games out in the division and eight games out in the wildcard race, they figure to be selling at the deadline. Oakland has a handful of players with expiring contracts, including Clippard, who should draw plenty of interest from contending teams at the deadline. Oakland GM Billy Beane has always shown a willingness to wheel and deal at the deadline. He also has a reputation for being a GM who is able to accept when it's time to start planning for next year. Beane already made his first big move of deadline season Thursday, trading Scott Kazmir to the Astros for a pair of prospects.
Perhaps the answer to the question of who the Nats will finally find to replace Tyler Clippard is... Tyler Clippard.
Why could the Nats use him?
Clippard has been an excellent reliever for the past seven years, posting a 2.87 ERA and 3.66 FIP. Over the past five seasons, Clippard ranks tenth in baseball among qualified relievers with 6.4 fWAR. His 2.65 ERA in that span ranks 34th (of 279), though his 3.30 FIP is a less impressive 74th. Clippard has always posted big strikeout numbers, and ranks 42nd among that group of 279 relievers with 10.27 K/9 since 2010.
Clippard doesn't have the insane velocity of a Chapman or Kimbrel. His fastball velocity is average, sitting in the low nineties (91.4 average fastball this season) and occasionally touching 94-95. He does command his fastball well, and gets good rising action on it to induce a fair amount of whiffs when he takes opposing hitters up the ladder. Clippard is best known for his changeup, which seems to have lost some velocity this season. His changeup for the past five years in D.C. sat at 80-81 MPH, but it's averaging 78.8 MPH this season in Oakland. He still gets great downward movement on it and throws it with a lot of backspin, resulting in a ton of fly balls. He occasionally mixes in a curveball, but it's pretty rare to see him break that pitch out. Per Brooks Baseball, he's thrown 13 curveballs all season.
Unlike Chapman or Kimbrel, Clippard would likely slide right back into the "eighth inning" spot that his trade vacated this offseason. He'd be capable of handling the ninth inning if anything happened to Storen, as he's shown in 2012 (32 of 37 in save opps) and this season (17 of 21). Though I don't buy into the argument that closing is a different animal from pitching in other (earlier) high leverage spots, Clippard could be a pretty good case study for proponents of that theory. His 3.72 ERA in 2012, when he was the Nats primary closer for most of the season, was far and away the worst ERA of his career since moving to the bullpen. The metrics tell us that he's actually been considerably worse than he was in 2012 this season, when he's been closing in Oakland. We'll look at those in a bit.
How would the Nationals use him?
Unquestionably, Clippard would slide into the role that he occupied with the Nats last season... and for pretty much every season outside of 2012 when Drew Storen missed much of the year. Clippard would take over as the primary setup man for the Nationals, likely spending most (all?) of his time pitching in the eighth inning in high leverage spots.
The hope would be that adding Clippard would create a ripple effect throughout the rest of the bullpen. Casey Janssen, Matt Thornton, and (if/when he returns) David Carpenter seem capable of handling setup roles, but adding Clippard would give Matt Williams a little more freedom with their usage. It would also strengthen the sixth and/or seventh men in the bullpen, as the added depth could help them avoid having to continually try out rookies like Rafael Martin and Abel de los Santos. Instead, Aaron Barrett, Tanner Roark, and/or Blake Treinen would be battling for those final two spots.
Does he have any weaknesses?
Advanced metrics tell us that Tyler Clippard is having arguably the worst season of his career......
His strikeouts are way down. His walks are way up. Clippard has always been a bit of a fly ball pitcher, but it's been extreme this season at 63.2%, nearly 8 points higher than his career average. He's been able to get away with most of this because of a .214 BABIP allowed (less extreme than it looks... he has a .234 career BABIP allowed) and a career low 4.5% HR/FB rate. Those numbers are likely to regress a bit as the sample size grows. The HR/FB rate has likely also been aided a bit by his spacious home park in Oakland. All of this has led to his highest FIP since his rookie season and a career worst (as a reliever) 5.30 xFIP.
Specifically, his biggest weakness has been the walk. He was never great at avoiding free passes when he was with the Nationals, but his walk rate has been absolutely terrible this season. His 4.89 BB/9 is the seventh highest rate among qualified relievers this season. When combined with a dwindling strikeout rate, that's not such a good sign.
What's his contract status?
Clippard is earning $8.3 million this season, so he's due somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million the rest of the way. He's a free agent at year's end. I would think that several teams would look at him as a potential closer in the offseason for a similar average annual value to what he's making this season. I wouldn't anticipate the Nats being the team that signs him in the offseason.
What will the A's be looking for?
Historically, Oakland tries to turn their closers into big league ready (or thereabouts) prospects. Beane isn't a stranger to working with a limited payroll, so he likes to get players that will contribute cheap and contribute relatively quickly. In the case of Clippard, he has a very good reliever who probably wouldn't close on most of the contending teams in the market for relief help. Unfortunately, he's nothing more than a rental to any team that acquires him, and Beane really wouldn't have much of a bargaining tool with regards to draft pick compensation. Clippard figures to get a yearly salary similar to his current $8.3 million on the open market, so it would seem foolish for him to turn down a 1 year, $15.3 million offer (the qualifying offer amount for this offseason).
In order for Oakland to receive anything massive for Clippard, he'd likely have to be tied to someone else (Ben Zobrist?). Fifteen to twenty innings worth of a reliever (even a very good one) simply aren't worth giving away a key prospect. It seems that their primary needs in their system are in the outfield and on the mound. You can never have enough pitching, after all.
There were reports earlier this season that the Nats and A's discussed Michael Taylor, but that had to be in a deal where the Nats were getting both Clippard and Zobrist. At this point, it would likely take extreme desperation on the Nats part to give up much (if anything) more than six years of Taylor alone to get two months worth of Clippard and Zobrist. If the Nats went after Clippard alone, I would think that the A's would probably push for someone like Reynaldo Lopez and eventually settle for Austin Voth or Nick Pivetta. Maybe Beane tries for one of the latter two plus a lottery ticket.
What could/should the Nats offer?
I would think that a Voth or Pivetta would be fairly reasonable. Let's go with Voth. Voth's stock as a prospect has some helium as he's followed up his breakout performance in the low minors last season with a strong showing at AA. Based on his production since he's turned pro, he certainly looks like he's got a big league future in the rotation. Scouts haven't necessarily agreed, as he doesn't have a big fastball and his secondary pitches are average to slightly above average. His command and pitchability have played up so far, though. The Nats would miss having an arm like Voth in the system, but the A's aren't going to just give Clippard away.
Stat of the day
Tyler Clippard is the all-time leader in Nationals history (see? I can avoid including that other team you guys don't like hearing about in their history) in fWAR among relievers. His 6.2 WAR is 1.5 wins better than Drew Storen's career total. Jon Rauch (3.7), Craig Stammen (3.0), and Saul Rivera (1.9, and remember... it's Saah-oohl!) round out the top five.
Will the Nationals trade for Tyler Clippard?
It's seemed like a no-brainer for about two months now. I'm generally not a big fan of paying up for relievers, but I'd rather see Rizzo pony up and take a run at Chapman or Kimbrel. At the end of the day, I do think that they'll end up making a deal for Clippard. All the signs are there.
The Nats and A's have done business on numerous occasions in the past. The Nats really seem to need help near the back of the bullpen, and everyone is pining for them to get Clippard back. The A's are already starting to sell off pieces, and no team in the market is likely to value Clippard as highly as the Nats do. Despite the news that the Reds were scouting Erick Fedde last night, this is the direction the Nats will likely go. It's just a question of whether Clip will be bringing anyone with him and how much he's going to cost.