When it comes to ranking an organization’s top prospects there are lots of places to look, but the one that gets the most attention is Baseball America. It is essentially the quintessential list of an organizations top prospects, and so it was a bit of a surprise when the list came out and AJ Cole was ranked as the sixth best prospect in the organization. It was an interesting development as AJ Cole was the organization’s number two prospect the season before and did nothing but perform in 2014 with a 3.16 ERA and 3.47 K/BB ratio split between two levels. Cole’s K/9 dropped from 9.5 the previous season to 7.5 in 2014, but he still didn’t walk many hitters and the results were there. In other words Cole did nothing to deserve to drop all the way from second to sixth.
What happened then was some other names become trendier and they shot up the Nationals prospect rankings and in reality Cole isn’t the number sixth prospect, but the seventh but we’ll get to that later. Michael Taylor replaced Cole as the number two prospect in the organization and his rise up the leader boards came due to a very strong 2014. Taylor blasted homer after homer in the minor leagues despite an insanely high strikeout rate and finished the season with a few impressive showings at the major league level. Taylor is regarded as the best defender in the Nats minor league system and if his 2014 power display is for real then his upside is tremendous. This one isn’t that puzzling as the upside of a power hitting 20-30 homer excellent defensive centerfielder is far more valuable than that of a mid-rotation starter.
The Braves are in the midst of what could be termed a reconstruction, a re-imagining, or a full on rebuild. The first move of the Braves off-season came before the season was even over when the fired General Manager Frank Wren towards the end of September. Just six short months before Frank Wren was being heralded as one of the best GM’s in baseball because of smart team friendly deals handed out to Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, and Julio Teheran. The big reason given for Frank Wren’s firing was that he hadn’t done well in free agency. Seeing as Ervin Santana, Aaron Harang, and Gavin Floyd all helped to hold together a rotation beset by injury the reason wasn’t that all the free agent signings were bad, but that BJ Upton is terrible.
Building through the farm system and strong minor league depth are hallmarks of the Braves organization, and the vast majority of the Braves 2014 roster was either homegrown talent or talent acquired in a trade of homegrown talent. The Justin Upton trade was a masterpiece in which the Braves lived off the reputation of a strong farm system to trade nothing of significance to the Diamondbacks for Justin Upton. In all aspects aside from the BJ Upton signing Frank Wren had done a good job but the Braves were built to contend for the NL East and they hadn’t done that in 2014 and someone had to pay the price.
Aside from being traded by the Nats Steven Souza Jr. and Ross Detwiler have something else in common. If they were to enter Spring Training with the Nats they’d both be in competition for small roles on the main roster. Detwiler would’ve competed with Blake Treinen, Taylor Hill, and Taylor Jordan to be the long reliever/swing man and Steven Souza would’ve been in a competition for a bench spot. The Texas Rangers traded for Detwiler in order to get a starting pitcher and the Rays view Steven Souza as one of their everyday outfielders. Roles they weren’t going to have on the Nats and roles that wouldn’t have brought much in return in a trade. So before they earned those roles the Nats traded them to teams that viewed them as more.
Steven Souza netted the Nats the most in return bringing back Joe Ross and Trea Turner. You can go read NatsGM.com for more information on the return for Steven Souza, but the main point is the Nats traded a 26 year old late bloomer for a couple of former first round picks with a chance to be special. For the Rays Steven Souza makes a lot of sense. He has five tool potential and because he is 26 years old the Rays have him under control for all the seasons of his prime. Older minor league players have become an undervalued commodity. The exact type of thing the Rays would covet.
The Nats needs haven’t changed since the season ended and yet they’ve been silent since that day. Sure they’ve traded Ross Detwiler and added a couple of minor league free agents but those aren’t moves that effect the major league roster. The Nats have a 25 man roster that could win them 90+ games even with Danny Espinosa starting at second base and Tyler Moore as the main right handed option off the bench. The pitching staff is one of the best in baseball and a productive Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman playing closer to the 140 games he normally does is going to make a bigger difference than the loss of Adam LaRoche and a few bench players.
A fourth winning season can be achieved with no moves at all and all the rumors about the Nats are of them trying to trade expiring contracts in order to acquire players with more years of control. The Mets and Marlins are both teams on the rise but are still missing enough pieces that a lot would have to break right for them to contend in the NL East in 2015 and the Braves have spent the off-season shooting themselves in the foot. The Washington Nationals don’t need their strongest team on the field to win the NL East.
All this has been stated before as has my belief that the best way to win the World Series is to be in the playoffs season after season after season, and the easiest road to achieving that goal may lie in a trade of one or more of the expiring contracts. The Nationals value those players highly and have repeatedly asked for top 20 prospects to move them. That is the price and as of yet no one has been willing to meet it. Not much has changed since the final day of the season, but that won’t be the case forever and as more free agents come off the board and other players are fill the gaps on different teams perhaps then another team that has been quiet but lacks a roster that can win 90+ games as is will come calling to Mike Rizzo willing to pay his price, but until that time comes the Nats are going to wait for the market to come to them.
The St. Louis Cardinals are a team to be admired. I like them about as much as any other Nationals fan but as I’ve said many times before when it comes to staying at the top few teams do it as well as the Cardinals. The way they do it is an absurd awareness of when to trade a player, when to let them walk, and when to use a prospect or free agent to replace those wins on the roster.
When Albert Pujols walked away from the Cardinals they were losing a large chunk of wins but instead of having to get a new first baseman they let Allen Craig play the position and went out and paid Carlos Beltran to upgrade the outfield. Instead of trying to replace Albert Pujols they replaced his wins on the roster with a couple of players. The Cardinals did the same thing when they lost Carlos Beltran. They let internal options take over in the outfield and upgraded shortstop with the signing of Jhonny Peralta, and it again worked out for the Cardinals.
The recent news regarding the Nats and Jordan Zimmermann is that they have resumed talks on an extension. There are a couple theories floating about on why this has happened at this stage. The first being that the Nationals are going to make an offer that sounds good like a six year $115 million contract that isn’t close to what Jordan Zimmermann can get on the free agent market so that when they do trade him they can at least say they tried to keep him long term. My theory is that Mike Rizzo was shopping Jordan Zimmermann and found that what other teams were willing to pay wasn’t to his liking.
The Jeff Samardzija trade from the A’s to the White Sox gives us some idea of what was being offered for Jordan Zimmermann and just how overvalued control has become in the modern baseball market. Samardzija was worth 4.1 fWAR in 2014 and Jordan Zimmermann, 5.2 so it stands to reason that Jordan Zimmermann could bring back a little more in a trade but not significantly more. Samardzija netted the A’s Marcus Semien a 23 year old shortstop that is likely going to have to move to third base who has an OPS of .673 in 326 major league plate appearances, Chris Bassitt, a 25 year old starting pitcher who had a 3.94 ERA in 29.2 innings in 2014 but has decent numbers in the minor leagues over four seasons, and one more pitching prospect that has yet to be named.
I was reading an article the other day about a local athlete who is allegedly disliked by his teammates, has caused schisms and riffs among them, and who is more concerned about his image on social media, in commercials, and building a brand. This local athlete won rookie of the year in 2012, led his team to a division title, suffered injuries that held back his progress, and has yet to live up to his immense potential. I am of course talking about Bryce Harper. These exact same things can be said of a different local athlete on a different local team, and for that athlete circumstances are a lot different and mostly because that other local team is a complete comedy of errors.
Let’s imagine for a second that the local baseball team were suddenly bought by Dan Snyder. He has always wanted to own a winning team and has no idea how to make the football team a winner so he buys the baseball team that is already winning. The very first thing that happens is Mike Rizzo runs for the exit, and Dan Snyder hires Livan Hernandez to be his new team president and no GM is named because Dan Snyder is going to be the GM.
In 2012 the Washington Nationals used 43 players and of those 43 players only 17 made appearances for the 2014 Nationals. That may sound like a lot of turnover but most of the players that didn’t return were on the bench or in the bullpen. For the most part the core of the 2014 Nationals looked a lot like the 2012 Nationals and the 2015 Nationals won’t be much different from that. Adam LaRoche is gone and any of Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ian Desmond, or Denard Span could be traded, but even if one or two of those players are gone the Nats 2015 line-up and rotation won’t have much turnover.
Take a moment to imagine the most possible turnover for the Nationals. Every player on a one year deal is traded for more controllable players. So now the Nationals will have a new shortstop, center fielder, setup man, and two new starting pitchers, but even if all those moves happen a couple would be replaced by players currently in the organization. Michael Taylor would take over for Span and with the Nats already needing one middle infielder trading Desmond all but guarantees that Danny Espinosa would take one of those two spots.
In 2014 it would’ve taken 80 wins to win the NL East and since the close of the season the Braves have decided to go backwards, the Marlins are starting the season without Jose Fernandez, and while the Mets pitching will be very good all they’ve done so far is downgrade their outfield defense. The Mets and Marlins will be forces to contend with in the future but that future is more likely in 2016 or 2017 than 2015. The Braves were still the biggest threat to the Nationals and they’ve decided to take themselves out of the race.
Jason Heyward, who the Braves traded yesterday for Shelby Miller, was worth 5.1 fWAR in 2014. This was largely based on defense but his 110 wRC+ shouldn’t be ignored since he was only one of four Braves with over 100 PA to have a wRC+ over 100. Instead of riding out Heyward’s contract and taking the extra first round pick the Braves opted to bring in Shelby Miller, a pitcher that was worth 0.2 fWAR last season and 2.2 the year before. The big thing about Miller is he is controllable, but he isn’t the type of pitcher a team should be giving up a 5.0 WAR outfielder for, especially a team starved for offense.
One of the side effects of the Doug Fister trade is it unleashed a legion of Nats fans that were actually opposed to the trade. These people all seemed to exist on the MASN Nationals Facebook page and their comments were collected on the @MASNCommenter Twitter account. This offseason they’re back and they’re on a mission. A mission to trade Bryce Harper, but not for anything good. They want to trade the 22 year old with a career .816 OPS for a closer.
A closer sounds like something very important. A team can win a game for eight innings and then lose it in one because of a poor performance by a closer. That isn’t good and when it happens it leads to some of the most disheartening loses, but teams don’t always lose when a closer blows a save, and a save situation is dictated by a team being up by three runs in the ninth inning. Of the Nats 96 wins only 45 of them included a save. More than half the time when the Nats won it didn’t even require a save.
After losing in the first round of the playoffs the Los Angeles Dodgers went out and hired Andrew Friedman to be their team president and are still searching for a GM. This is the reaction of a team that views not winning in the post-season to be a failure. The Nationals made no such move and shouldn’t. There are some that have said Matt Williams should be done after this season and if Mike Rizzo can’t take the Nationals deep into the post-season in 2015 then perhaps he should be gone as well. A 96 win season should never be viewed as a failure.
The playoffs are a funky thing. The Los Angeles Angels got swept by the Royals in the first round of the playoffs and the Royals are currently on an eight game post-season winning streak. The Royals are a good team, but even bad teams can get hot. The Washington Nationals suffered sweeps at the hands of the under .500 Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins this season. Any team can sweep another team in a short series. A cold good team meets a hot bad team and there is a recipe for a sweep. It is less likely in the playoffs as teams get to line up their pitching staffs but it still happens where a lesser team wins in dominating fashion because baseball is not a game made for small sample sizes.
James O’Hara contributed to this report.
With so many players in the last year of their deals and Mike Rizzo being a GM that likes to think more about the year after next than simply next year this could be an interesting off-season for the Nationals. With the potential for it to go in so many directions and for it to be quite unpredictable I am going to highlight a few of the players the Nats could go after starting with an international free agent who is going to be posted this November. Jung-Ho Kang is a shortstop by trade and has won the KBO equivalent of the gold glove but there are questions about both his bat and his glove, and how they translate to the major leagues.
Those questions exist about every international free agent or hot prospect for that matter. Until a player does it at the major league level there are going to be questions. There were questions about Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, and Jose Abreu as well and so far they have all had success in the major leagues, but that doesn’t mean the questions are unfounded. Jung-Ho Kang could be a flop, and there isn’t as much track record for KBO hitters as there is for Cuban hitters or Japanese pitchers. Teams should be wary, but they should also recognize this as a way to get talent that doesn’t cost prospects with a larger upside reward than regular free agency.
The window of opportunity is one of sports writer’s favorite clichés. It is a metaphor that many sports fans buy into because teams do go from being bad to being good and then back to bad, but this isn’t always the case. The Cardinals and Giants are playing yet again in the NLCS, and the last time one of those two teams wasn’t in the NLCS was 2009 when the Phillies and Dodgers matched up in that series. The strange thing about the Cardinals three straight NLCS appearances is that they’ve all come after Albert Pujols left via free agency. That was supposed to be when their window closed or start to close, but by filling the gaps with smart free agent signings, trades, and prospects the Cardinals have remained good.
This is why it is silly when people talk about the Nationals window closing. Even if the Nationals were banned from making free agent signings, trades, or drafting new players they could put a decent team on the field after Desmond, Zimmermann, Clippard, Fister, Span, Strasburg, Ramos, and Storen have all left via free agency after the 2015 and 2016 seasons. This is why 2017 is the year most people pick for when the Nationals window will be closed, but even if the Nats fail to re-sign any of the above players and are banned from making player acquisitions they still have the ability to put a competitive team on the field in 2017.
The corpse of the Nats 2014 season isn’t even cold and it’s time to look ahead to the off-season. I sat and listened to the final game of the Nats season in pitch darkness as the thunder echoed and the storm raged outside my windows. Charlie and Dave’s voices guided me to the bitter bloody end as the Washington Nationals slit their own wrist on the field in San Francisco. Gio Gonzalez botched a comebacker and then faked out Rendon as he first went for and then peeled away from a bunted ball. Matt Williams went to his 8th best reliever in a critical spot after the Nats had tied the game and it all blew up.
The Nats shouldn’t be judged by the playoff series. The 162 games they played before that were far more important than those four. It is hard to deny that Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth’s bats looked old and slow. They Nats may have squeezed the last drops of talent from LaRoche and the dead money years of Werth’s contract may be at hand. Both of them had fine seasons, but two hits between the three and four hitters has a lot to do with the Nats offensive shortcomings in the series against the Giants.