NatsGM’s Washington Nationals Off-Season 2011-2012

Part One- Offense

Batters currently on the 40-Man Roster: (20)  Jesus Flores, Wilson Ramos, Ivan Rodriguez (FA), Alex Cora (FA), Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Adam LaRoche, Steve Lombardozzi, Chris Marrero, Mike Morse, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Rick Ankiel (FA), Roger Bernadina, Brian Bixler, Corey Brown, Jonny Gomes (FA), Bryce Harper, Laynce Nix (FA), and Jayson Werth.

Projected 2012 Payroll ->  $75 million    (2011 $68.3 million)

NatsGM’s Off-Season “Transactions” -> Traded RHP Brad Peacock, LHP Ross Detwiler, and OF Roger Bernadina for Anaheim CF Peter Bourjos.  Re-signed Laynce Nix to a 1-year $1.25 million and re-signed Rick Ankiel for 1-year $1.75 million.

 

The Washington Nationals struggled offensively in 2011, putridly producing a .242/.309/.383 offensive line for the season.  They finished 24th overall in runs scored with 624, 15th overall in home runs with 154, 22nd in total walks with 470, and dead last in the major leagues with 1323 total strikeouts.  While a fair amount of the disappointment offensively can be attributed to the lengthy injures to Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman, and the underwhelming performance from Jayson Werth in his first season in Washington, the message is clear, the offense needs to improve in 2012.

In addition to those players, two clear weaknesses were exposed in 2011, specifically the absence of a true leadoff hitter and the overwhelming number of strikeouts.  The Nationals had the worst production of any team in baseball in 2011 out of the leadoff position, seeing a line of .226/.285/.347 for the season.  This must improve if the Nationals want to advance offensively in 2012.    Finally, while I am the first to concede that a strikeout is an out just the same as any other, it is worth pointing out that the bottom 5 teams in total strikeouts last season (Washington, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Cleveland) did not see great success in the won-loss column while the best two teams in baseball in this category, Texas and St. Louis, are playing in the World Series.  The Nationals have a lineup full of players that strike out frequently so they will never be at the top of this category but they must cut down on the strikeouts and put the ball in play more if they wish to substantially improve the team batting average and on-base percentage next year.

In this exercise, I have tried to improve the on-base percentage and overall production from the leadoff hitter, permanently find an everyday center fielder, and improve the offense overall while still valuing the importance of defense and staying within a $75 million dollar budget.  I used $75 million as a budget because it would represent a 10% increase from 2011, which is a sizable jump.  Typically if clubs decide to increase their overall payroll by more than this, the team is trumpeting it in the media to help drum up interest and ticket sales.  Certainly this $75 million payroll is the biggest assumption I make in this piece and for this reason I do not envision the Nationals signing one of the major free agents on the market this winter.  Obviously if they increase payroll to $85-$90 million which the D.C. metro area could easily support, then a lot of free agents and players available by trade that I deemed too expensive for the budget quickly become affordable.  So please keep that in mind.  Without further ado, I give you my Nationals off-season plan, position by position.

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One of the many wonderful success stories for the Nationals in 2011 was the development of Wilson Ramos from a prospect needing experience to one of the brighter young catchers in the major leagues.  Ramos began spring training expecting a strict platoon with Ivan Rodriguez, but Ramos ended up playing 113 games behind the plate and produced a .267/.334/.445 offensive output while playing stellar defense behind the plate.  Ramos has made himself into an above average starting catcher and looks to be the long-term answer for the Nationals behind the plate for many years to come.

Both Ivan Rodriguez and Jesus Flores acted as the backup to Ramos last season, and while there is a large sentiment to re-sign Rodriguez because of his defensive skills, leadership, and intangibles, the Nationals cannot rationalize sending Flores back to Triple-A again this season and it is difficult to justify the type of salary Rodriguez would command as a backup.  If Flores is somehow included in a trade package this winter, then I would be first in line to lead the “Re-sign Pudge Rodriguez Bandwagon”.  But I do not see Flores traded this winter, and thus think he will return to serve as the backup catcher in 2012.

The infield looks rather squared away for the Nationals going into 2012, unless the club looks to upgrade both in talent and payroll at either shortstop or first base.  Assuming the Nationals play it low-key in this regard, we should expect Adam LaRoche to begin 2012 at first base, Danny Espinosa at second base, Ian Desmond at shortstop and Ryan Zimmerman at the hot corner.  LaRoche was a massive disappointment in 2011, as he injured his shoulder in spring training, tried to fight through the injury for 43 games before shutting it down with a .172/.288/.258 batting line for the season.  LaRoche is expected to be fully recovered by spring training, and a reversion to his career norms of .267/.337/.478 should be a nice upgrade to the #5 or #6 spot in the Nationals lineup, along with his well above-average defense at first base.

Danny Espinosa was another bright spot for the Nationals in 2011, as he cemented his status as the second base of the present and future for the Nationals last season.  While his 2011 batting line leaves something to be desired (.236/.323/.414), he played gold glove worthy defense in the field and slugged 21 home runs.  Espinosa needs to work on his hitting from the left side, and become more selective on pitches up in the zone, but he looks to be a potential all-star and a wonderful piece to the Nationals future.  Ian Desmond is expected to start at shortstop again in 2012, though it is expected that the Nationals will kick the tires of Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins.  Desmond in his rookie season of 2010 struggled woefully with his glove making far too many errors but showed promise with the bat hitting .269/.308/.392; in 2011, the exact opposite happened, as Ian makes tremendous strides and greatly improved with the glove, but saw his bat regress to .253/.298/.358 buoyed significantly by a 289/.338/.417 second half. Desmond was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Davey Johnson hiring and I am excited to see what he can do with a full spring training and season under the tutelage of Johnson.

Ryan Zimmerman struggled with an oblique injury this past season, allowing him to only play in 101 games and limited his home run production to 12.  However, his batting line was still impressive at .289/.355/.443 for the year, along with his consistently stellar defense at third base.  Zimmerman is my choice for best player in baseball no one talks about, and I hope one of the Nationals priorities this off-season is to agree to a long-term contract extension to keep him in Washington for the duration of his career.

The corner outfielders look fairly locked in for 2012, as it is expected that Mike Morse will begin in left field and Jayson Werth will be the everyday right fielder.  Morse was a revelation in 2011 and should be the winner of any “breakout player of the year” award this off-season.  As Nats fans, we have long seen the talent and promise of Morse and thought with playing time, he would be successful: boy did he prove “us” right in 2011 by hitting .303 with 31 home runs and driving in 95 runs.  Morse spent the majority of the season at first base filling in after LaRoche’s injury, but will shift back to left field to accommodate him in 2012.  We should expect some regression in his statistics next season, but he is a fantastic hitter and a big piece of the Nationals future.

Jayson Werth was underwhelming for the Nationals in the first season of a 7-year $126 million dollar contract in Washington, batting .232/.330/.389 with 20 home runs, 58 runs batted in, and did not play the level of quality defense he did previously in Philadelphia.  That said, he brought a terrific attitude to the ballpark each day that rubbed off on the team and did improve after the all-star break with a .255/ .345/.426.  I believe with the return of Adam LaRoche, improved health from Ryan Zimmerman, and another season to get comfortable with his hefty contract and the expectations that accompany such a deal, I anticipate he will return to his career averages of .264/.360/.464.

This still leaves a hole in center field, and after months of consideration and thought, I think the best solution to fill the hole in center field that could conceivably be available is Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim center fielder Peter Bourjos.  In attempting to fill this hole, I was looking for an outstanding defensive player that can cover a substantial amount of ground in center field, as Jayson Werth and Mike Morse are not the speediest outfielders, and a leadoff hitter with a track record of legitimately high on-base percentages along with some power in his bat, whom is under contract for a few seasons.

Before explaining why I decided on Bourjos, I want to mention why I did not choose some of the other often mentioned players such as BJ Upton, Matt Kemp, and Denard Span.  BJ Upton from Tampa Bay is an extremely talented young player that has shown flashes of All-Star talent as a center fielder but with the arrival of prospect Desmond Jennings in Tampa, along with Upton entering his final season of arbitration, he could see himself made available this winter.  His friendship with Ryan Zimmerman from growing up together in the Virginia Beach area and his elite athleticism make him a natural fit, but Upton is only under contract for 2012, is not the elite defender his skills might lead one to believe, and is not the leadoff hitter the Nationals covet.  I am also weary of trading with Tampa Bay, as their front office has done rather well in trades in recent seasons.  For these reasons, I would continue looking and pass on Upton.

Matt Kemp is another option and tough to ignore as one of the top players in all of baseball.  My hesitations with Kemp include the fact that he is likely to receive $15+ million in arbitration this winter, making him very difficult to fit within a $75 million dollar payroll, the Dodgers would command, and rightly so, a bevy of prospects in return for his services, and Kemp, while outstanding, is not the leadoff hitter or defensive wizard the Nationals desire.  While I would be thrilled to see Kemp in a Nats uniform, I think at present he is not a natural fit.

Denard Span is the final name I identified as a potential fit for the Nationals center field opening.  Span is not a new name to most Nationals fans, as there were heavy trade discussions between the Nats and Twins at the trade deadline about Span coming to Washington for Storen and others this past July.  Span is a native Washingtonian, with a strong career OBP, and is signed thru 2015, however, he suffered a concussion early last season and essentially missed the rest of the season with concussion-like symptoms.  Span is a solid fit, and I would not be upset if the Nationals trade for him this winter, but concussions particularly concern me, and his difficulty to put the symptoms behind him and return to the field makes me nervous.  I do not think the Nationals can afford to “swing and miss” on a trade to fill this urgent need in center field, so his injury concerns make me hesitant to part with the talent necessary to acquire Span.

So why Peter Bourjos?  I have long been a fan of Bourjos and think his game perfectly suits the needs of the Nationals in center field.  Bourjos, 24 and under team control through 2016, has plus speed and uses his athleticism to cover a lot of ground in center field, where he is well above-average to plus defender.  In his first full season in the majors , he produced a .271/.327/.438 with 12 home runs and 22 stolen bases, along with his terrific defense, in 147 games.  While the .327 OBP is not ideal (.350+ is considered solid), he has a track record of .350-.360 OBPs in the minor leagues.  I think Bourjos settles in as a future .280/.350/.440 center fielder with gold glove skills and I would aggressively try to acquire him this winter.

Bourjos could be available this off-season, as the Angels have outfielders Vernon Wells, Torii Hunter, and Bobby Abreu under contract for next season and uber-prospect Mike Trout ready to take over center field.  I would imagine the trade offer of Brad Peacock ( a top 50-100 prospect in baseball) Ross Detwiler (young major league ready left-handed pitcher) and Roger Bernadina (athletic defensive outfielder that could play for Trout if they wish to give him more time in the minors) would be an intriguing package for the Angels.  Obviously I do not know how each team values the players involved in this hypothetical trade, but my grander point is I think the Nationals and Angels match up well in a trade and think the Nationals should acquire Bourjos using Peacock and Detwiler as the key pieces.

Now that I have discussed the starting lineup, we need to round out the offense by describing the bench.  Serving as the bench infielders for the Nationals will be Chris Marrero and Brian Bixler.  Marrero was impressive in his September call up and showed that he deserves to be in the major leagues.  He will struggle to find at-bats with LaRoche returning, but I see him starting against left-handed pitchers and finding at-bats both pinch hitting and as the designated hitter in interleague play.  Most would expect Lombardozzi to claim the other bench spot (and he might) but I feel he is better served getting 200-300 regular at-bats at AAA rather than trying to find playing time behind Espinosa, Desmond, and Zimmerman.  However, if any of those three sustained an injury, I would expect Lombardozzi to be on the first plane to Washington.  In the meantime, I think Bixler would serve the bench role particularly well, as his defensive skills and versatility along with his tremendous speed make him an asset off any National League bench.

To round out the bench, I would offer arbitration to Laynce Nix and I would look to re-sign Rick Ankiel.  Nix has a powerful lefty bat and is a solid defender at both corner outfield spots who can capably handle the job in case of a lengthy injury, while Ankiel is above average defensively at each of the three outfield positions and would serve as a nice backup to Bourjos in center field.  I would offer Nix arbitration and assume that he returns to Washington, however, if he does sign with another team, the Nationals would receive a supplemental draft pick next June, not a bad consolation prize.  Either the Nationals have a nice bench player at a reasonable cost or they receive a Top 75 draft choice in June if Nix signs elsewhere.  Ankiel is an excellent bench player, and I expect he will shop his services around aggressively this winter to the highest bidder and team that guarantees him the most playing time.  However, I believe $1.75 million will secure his services, and think his defensive versatility and left-handed bat makes him well worth that price.

Overall, I would not make drastic changes with the offense heading into 2012.  I believe the addition of a quality leadoff hitter (Bourjos), improved health from Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman, and the expected offensive improvement from Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa, and Ian Desmond leaves me quite optimistic that the offense will greatly improve next season.

 

2012 Nationals Offense

Catcher -> Wilson Ramos ($425k)

First Base -> Adam LaRoche ($8.00 million)

Second Base -> Danny Espinosa  ($425k)

Shortstop -> Ian Desmond ($425k)

Third Base -> Ryan Zimmerman  ($12.10 million)

Left Field -> Mike Morse ($3.70 million)

Center Field -> (Peter Bourjos Anaheim Angels, signed through 2016 – $425k)

Right Field -> Jayson Werth ($13.571 million)

Bench

1) Jesus Flores ($900k)

2) Chris Marrero ($425K)

3) Brian Bixler ($425K)

4) Laynce Nix (Re-Sign 1yr. $1.25million)

5) Rick Ankiel (Re-Sign 1 yr. $1.75 million)

Total Cost:  $43,821,000

 

Part 2 – The Pitching Staff coming Monday! {Edit – Tuesday}

 

Big “Tip of the Fedora” goes out to Bloomberg BusinessWeek (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/anatomy-of-a-baseball-trade-10202011.html) that produced a terrific article late last week about the trade of Michael Bourn from Houston to the Braves at the trade deadline this past summer and how the trade transpired step-by-step.  This piece gives a nice insight into how a baseball trade occurs and the process involved in doing so.  I highly recommend you give it a read!

Follow me on Twitter @NatsGMdotcom, email me your questions and comments to nationalsgm@gmail.com, and “Like” me on Facebook search NatsGM.  Thanks for your support!

6 thoughts on “NatsGM’s Washington Nationals Off-Season 2011-2012”

  1. Absolutely spectacular piece! I am eagerly looking forward to Part 2…

    Thanks for your hard work, keep it up!
    Craig

  2. I am a big fan of Bourjos. That is a hefty package, but I agree that it needs to be high to be able to get him, and I would pay it. I also wa a big fan of Span, but agree that the only way to reliably prove that you are over a concussion is to actually play. They would have to buy low on him if they make a trade for him.

    Now, if your next article concludes that they ought to sign Roy Oswalt for 2/$25m, then you have found my christmas list!

  3. You don’t have to ‘splain your choice of Borjous even it is a pipe dream for the coming winter of hot stove baseball. We’ve been eyeing that kid for 2 + years. From the minors. He is the equivalent of getting another top prospect like Harper and Rendon and is decidedly better than one of their top picks Brian Goodwin who comes with a very similar set of skills. The difference? Don’t forget about the left-handed bat which Goodwin does indeed have.

    Based on what I keep hearing Rizzo (and before him Johnson) say they believe brash, young, but uber good Mr. Harper is now ready. Does he have speed? Have you been reading your NationalsProspects? 3.83 to first base, above average is 4.1?

    So, dude, who ya gonna call? Harper or Bourjos? And then maybe Rendon too? You don’t need no ghostbuster high OBP hitter with Rendon featuring the highest in all of college baseball … and then there’s the young Mr. Norris who looks about ready? Hmmm … and you think Peter Bourjos? Yes, he has that super high ceiling and a real love of the game to go with it. Can’t argue with that …

    The odd man out should be Werth but because of his contract he is starting in 2012 and 2013 and beyond. I think he is your center fielder like it or not. Is Harper better than Trout another top Angel prospect? Is Rendon better than all once he is in baseball shape?

    What you really should be focused on (and I am) is getting 1-2 top of the rotation starters and they should be young. I suspect Oswalt (not young) might be one. The other might come in trade: Zach Grienke.

    Point: You are solving a problem which really isn’t a problem just based on your own astute analysis. Lots of really good hitters are coming back next year. LaRoche and Werth will hopefully be their usual selves. Improvements in Ramos, Desmond, Espinosa and no drop off for Morse. Then there’s the minors? Harper, Norris, and Rendon. But wait!! Then there’s Marerro, Flores, AND Tyler Moore who has hit 31 homers in two minor league levels two years in a row. Who ya gonna call?

    As for pitching? Stras will be in his first (innings limited) full year in the majors and you are depending on him to stabilize your rotation? Then Zimmermann who is only in his SECOND year? Has Detwiler really found it thanks to Davey’s patience with him? You still need a #1/#2 starter like a Cain, a Grienke. Either would be perfect clearly the preference would be for Cain.

    Back to your interesting scenario. The only way it works is if LaRoche disappears and the move Morse to first base … but we know Johnson might just decide to put Marerro there? So both LaRoche and Marerro would have to be bundled in your or some trade scenario I suspect. Then Morse could be moved to first base. Both need to move. The problem with this is that LaRoche again has something your guy Bourjos and these others do not: left-handed bat. AND GUESS WHAT Bryce Harper has? That’s right a high-ceiling Ted Williams-wannabe left handed bat. Harper with left-handed bat? Bourjos with another right handed bat? Goodwin still unknown but has left-handed bat?

    NatsGM, dude you are not thinking like Rizzo and Johnson … ;)

  4. @peric…

    Thanks for writing… lots of good points you made but I think there are two key differences between your POV and mine.

    I appreciate the compliment, but I disagree with your thesis that I am solving a problem that doesn’t need solving. The leadoff spot is a significant and massive hole in the organization (has been for 5 seasons now) and the injection of a legit leadoff hitter could be enough to make this a playoff team next year if EVERYTHING else works out. Currently, I do not see anyone in the organization, besides Goodwin, that projects as a leadoff type hitter. So there is almost no price too high to pay to find a long-term solution for that position.

    When doing this exercise, Norris, Rendon, and Goodwin never really entered my mind, as I think Norris still needs a full season in the minor leagues and I am not sure he is better than Ramos for 2-3 more years. Rendon was my top player in last June’s draft, but even optimistically he starts at Potomac next season and reaches Double-A mid-year, then goes to AZ fall league this time next year, starts at Harrisburg in 2013 and arrives in Washington late 2013. Goodwin, for all his plusses and talent (bear in mind, I had him as a top 10 player in the past draft, NO ONE is higher on him than I) but he is a raw prospect and is a year younger than the standard collegiate draft pick, so I see him starting in low-A next year and going level by level, reaching Washington late in 2014 if things work out. These guys are still a bit too far off and I firmly believe this team can compete next year with some luck, a leadoff hitter, and a #3SP.

    Second point, I think it lines up almost too perfectly that the Nationals have LaRoche at first base in 2012, then trade him at the deadline if Harper is ready or waive goodbye to him after next year and move Morse back to first, where he was terrific defensively. Then have Werth move to LF, Bourjos in CF, and Harper in RF, a great potential outfield with a bit of everything.

    Thanks for reading and writing… it is always good talking baseball with you

  5. It still begs the question: what do you do with Desmond? Johnson is very high on Desmond and I suspect he feels Desmond could and should lead off. Then it comes down to #2 and in 2012 you have a myriad of choices:

    1. Jayson Werth has proven he can be an effective #2 hitter and CF. That would be my first blush guess. With Zimmerman, Morse, Espinosa, Harper and LaRoche he really isn’t needed in the fifth slot. But he could be a very effective #2.

    2. The rationale behind an Espinosa is that as good an athlete as Werth is Espinosa is far better and likely the best on the team. He probably has the highest ceiling of any of the Nats young prospects and just past rookie players. Higher even than Rendon and Harper. Here’s one back-up lead-off guy.

    3. Yes indeed Mr. Norris will be in AAA for next season but he is a possibility. Does he replace Ramos who would be prime trade bait? Probably not his defense needs to improve a great deal more still … or he could end up backing up Ramos.

    4. Mr. Rendon could be a lot better than you suspect … another Zim and he had the highest OBP in college baseball. What if he starts out in high A and moves quickly to AA? He as both glove and bat so this scenario is not all that unlikely.

    5. Bryce Harper. He’s your second back-up lead-off guy. He has the speed and the batter’s eye and with that home run power no infield should ever think about playing up for the bunt.

    6. Roger Bernadina. Seems unlikely at this point but here is another sub-30 really good athlete … I suspect Johnson prefers this guy to the fly swatter utility types Riggleman adored. He’s either traded or on the 24 man roster.

    As far as your predictions; Bernadina is on the 24-man, a lock. Johnson likes him. I think Rick Ankiel makes it but I think they let Laynce Nix go. He was way too often injured or nicked up when he was really needed. Not sure about Gomes. Again, Norris seems like he could do just as well if not better than Gomes if he could learn to play the outfield as well as catcher. If ends up backing up Ramos instead of Flores (trading Flores) that would add another big hairy chested guy on Johnson’s bench. And then there’s Mr. Tyler Moore … he of the 31 homers. He appears to be like Harper in that it takes him some time to get started at ever level. But once he does watch out! I expect it will be Mr. Moore AND NOT Harper (who will make the 24-man out of ST) who will replace Adam LaRoche if he is traded by the trade deadline. Giving Johnson a whole heck of a lot of YOUNG power hitters. The dearth of lefties would, however, stand out.

    And why is young (and Peter Borjous definitely fits that category) better? Just look at the world series and performances by Allen Craig and David Freese.

    However, to get a Borjous I believe major changes to the roster and team chemistry would be precipitated. I don’t think Johnson wants to do that even if Rizzo and ownership are tempted. Johnson appears to prefer working mostly from within.

    It does makes the Werth signing look more and more suspect. They appear to end up with better from within. Surprisingly enough! But in the grand scheme of things it was necessary to prove that Nats were serious and for real. So, Werth is there for the long-term. Werth will still be there in 2013-2014 when you think that Goodwin could ostensibly be ready. Its possible that toolsy football star Destin Hood might finally grasp the game and he too could be a possibility from AA. Eury Perez is still there as well. So, Werth will definitely block players. But then Anthony Rendon, who could be the top prospect of all, is blocked!

    We’ll see how the Nats Farm system ranks beginning this spring … it should jump quite a bit higher due to the high end prospects. But depth is still lacking.

  6. @Peric…

    I think we simply disagree on some things…

    1) I do think Werth should be a #2 hitter but I don’t think he proven himself successful in center field. I think he is passable there and will only get worse as he ages. Frankly, I was underwhelmed with him in right field this year, so I want to move him to left field ASAP.

    2)You discussed Desmond,Espinosa, Rendon, and Harper as possible leadoff guys… I don’t think Ian or Danny is up to the job and Rendon and Harper’s power and run producing capabilites would be squandered leading off. Keep Desmond batting #7 and at shortstop. If it were me, I would bat the lineup: Bourjos, Werth, Zimmerman, Morse, LaRoche, Espy, Desmond, Ramos, Pitcher.

    3) As I have shown, in this hypothetical off-season I trade Bernadina to Anaheim: if he isn’t dealt, a low probability in my opinion, than he does find himself in the bench role I have currently occupied by Ankiel. I would be fine with Roger as a 4th/5th outfielder. But he is not a mlb caliber starter and not a leadoff hitter for a decent team.

    4) I think you might be the first person to put Bryce Harper and Tyler Moore in the same sentence (I was just the second, lol.)… I give credit to him for his success, but he screams 4-A player to me, certainly not a major piece of the puzzle. I hope I am wrong in this regard, but the infrequency with which his name comes up with scouts leads me to believe this true.

    Finally, you make a terrific point with the Werth signing… how different and more appealing does Washington look without that contract? The Nats would be in the running to sign at least one of the big free agents and possibly could sign two this winter if not for Werth’s deal. I think he bounces back in 2011 but that was a case of jumping the gun by the Nats (my humble opinion).

    Thanks again for writing, and great baseball talk back and forth, I really enjoy it!

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