NatsGM’s Washington Nationals Off-Season 2011-2012 – Part 2

Part Two: Pitching

Pitchers currently on the 40-Man Roster: (22)  Collin Balester, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Todd Coffey (FA), Ross Detwiler, Tom Gorzelanny, Livan Hernandez (FA), Cole Kimball, John Lannan, Ryan Mattheus, Yunesky Maya, Tom Milone, Brad Peacock, Matt Purke, Henry Rodriguez, Atahualpa Severino, Doug Slaten, Craig Stammen, Drew Storen, Stephen Strasburg, Chien-Ming Wang (FA), and Jordan Zimmermann.

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

NatsGM Off-Season Transactions -> Traded RHP Brad Peacock, LHP Ross Detwiler and OF Roger Bernadina for CF Peter Bourjos.  Signed Free Agent RHP Roy Oswalt to a 2-year, $27 million dollar contract.  Re-Signed RHP Chien-Ming Wang to a 1-year, $1.75 million dollar contract plus incentives.

The pitching staff was a pleasant surprise for the Nationals in 2011, as they outperformed most if not all preseason expectations.  The Nationals finished 7th in the majors with a staff ERA of 3.58, 26th in strikeouts with 1049, 9th in walks with 477, and 5th in home runs allowed with a total of 129.  The starting rotation was just ordinary last season, ranking 28th overall in total innings pitched with 928.2, 3rd in total walks allowed with 266, 28th in total strikeouts with 585, and 23rd in batting average against with .270.  The statistics show that the Nationals did a nice job pitching to contact and not walking opposing batters, however it also highlights that the rotation needs to pitch deeper into games so as to not tax the bullpen and it needs to miss more bats in 2012.  Clearly with the return of Stephen Strasburg and the lack of any innings restriction on Jordan Zimmermann next season should naturally improve these results, nevertheless, this still needs marked improvement.

The bullpen was outstanding in 2011 ranking 4th in innings pitched with 520.2, 10th in runs allowed with 202, 24th in walks allowed with 211, 5th in strikeouts with 464, and 5th in batting average against with .230.  The sheer amount of innings the bullpen pitched will naturally lead to poor rankings in walks allowed and runs allowed, but the bullpen did an excellent job preventing runs and striking out hitters.  Mike Rizzo has done a great job rebuilding the bullpen from the shambles it was two seasons ago when he took over into a team strength.  Assuming the team does not trade from its depth this off-season, the bullpen looks to be the backbone of a solid pitching staff again next season.

In doing this exercise, I wanted to find a way to add an impressive #3 starting pitcher to the rotation to team with Strasburg and Zimmerman and I wanted to make every effort not to trade from the depth and talent of the bullpen, while finding a way to sign a strong lefty-on-lefty reliever to give Davey Johnson another weapon.  In part 1 of this piece, I spent $43.821 million on offense, thus leaving me about $31 million for the pitching staff within this hypothetical $75 million budget.  Here is how I would fill out the 2012 pitching staff, position-by-position.

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Leading the Nationals starting rotation in 2012 will be the talented duo of Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.  I am not sure how many more superlatives can be used to describe Strasburg, but he returned to the majors in September after recovering from Tommy John surgery and was absolutely dominant.  Over his five starts and 24 innings pitched, Strasburg had a 1.50 ERA with 24 strikeouts and just 2 walks!  The 2 walks stand out to me as simply incredible, as command of the strike zone is notorious for taking some time to return after Tommy John surgery… not for Strasburg.  The Nationals will likely keep him on a similar innings restriction as they did Jordan Zimmermann this past season and limit him to about 25 starts and 160 innings to protect his arm and his future.  Strasburg is a true “ace” pitcher and makes the Nationals significantly more intimidating entering 2012.

Jordan Zimmermann’s first full season after Tommy John surgery could only be classified as a fabulous success; Zimmermann was a model of consistency last season, making 26 starts and pitching 161.1 innings, producing a 3.18 ERA with a K/9 of 6.92 and a BB/9 of 1.73.  There is always some worry and doubt when a pitcher returns from arm surgery, but Zimmermann returned last season and looked brand new.  Most, if not all of the restrictions should be lifted this season, and I expect to see Zimmermann pitch 33-35 starts, a total of 200 innings and form one of the top young pitching duos in all of baseball with Mr. Strasburg.

After considering many options between trades and free agency to fill the #3 Starter position in the Nationals rotation (e.g. Edwin Jackson, Mark Buehrle, CJ Wilson, Yu Darvish, and Wade Davis) I believe the best solution is to sign Roy Oswalt from the Philadelphia Phillies.  I am making the assumption that the Phillies will not offer him arbitration, however, if they do offer him arbitration, I would have to reconsider my opinion, as Oswalt would be a Type A Free Agent, and signing him would cost the Nationals their first round selection in 2012 – a very steep price.  However, I think they will pass on offering him arbitration, mostly out of fear that he might accept, and if they do not offer him this arbitration, there is no cost to signing him.

I considered the trade market to fill this hole, but after my “hypothetical trade of Peter Bourjos” in Part 1, I did not want to trade any more pitching and/or prospects this off-season, so I shifted my focus more heavily to the free agent class.  In this search, my decision came down to two major considerations, specifically contract demands (years and dollars) and most importantly, which pitcher would I most want pitching a playoff game for my team.  With these points in mind, I expect the contract demands of Yu Darvish and CJ Wilson to be far too rich for my tastes and difficult to massage into this budget, so I would quickly pass on them.  Edwin Jackson and Mark Buehrle are both reliable, solid mid-rotation starting pitchers, and either would fit nicely into the Nationals rotation, but neither has the talent, skills, or “upside” (paging Hubie Brown) that Oswalt possesses.

Roy Oswalt, 34, did not have his best season in 2011, as he made only 23 starts and pitched 139 innings as he battled a back injury, but even in a down season, Oswalt still recorded a 3.69 ERA with 93 strikeouts against 33 walks. Prior to last season Oswalt had made 30 or more starts every year since 2003 with career numbers of 153-92 over 11 seasons and  2154 innings with a career 3.21 ERA.  When healthy he is an impressive front-of-the-rotation starter, thus, if his back problems are behind him, Oswalt will be a tremendous addition to the rotation and would transform the Nationals immediately into wild card contenders, not to mention a very intimidating opponent in any potential short series with Strasburg, Zimmermann and Oswalt as your starting rotation.

Capably handling the 4th starter role for the Nationals in 2012 will be veteran LHP John Lannan.  Lannan, 27, was extremely reliable again in 2011 with a record of 10-13 and a 3.70 ERA over 184.2 innings and 33 starts.  Aside from a rough two months in 2010, Lannan has been the definition of consistency since joining the Nationals and he is exactly what a team is looking for in a #4 starting pitcher.  Lannan will see a nice pay increase this winter through the arbitration process and continue his underappreciated reliability in 2012.

At the outset of writing this piece, I envisioned the 5th Starter position being split next season by veteran starters Chien-Ming Wang and Livan Hernandez.  With Strasburg on an innings limit next season, the Nationals will enter next season already knowing they will need to cover 6-8 starts, meaning pitching depth is a factor to consider.  That being said, I just could not find the money in the budget to re-sign Livan for next season, and while he would be a valuable asset in case of injury, I do not think the drop off in production from what Livan would produce verses Tom Milone or Craig Stammen is enough to justify his salary.  I am a big fan of Livan and hope the Nationals find a way to have him return next season, but I cannot find a way within this budget.

Therefore I expect Chien-Ming Wang to re-sign with the Nationals and take over as the #5 starter.  After spending almost two years rehabilitating from a shoulder injury, Wang returned to the majors in July and while rusty, showed signs of the stuff that made him a CY Young contender with the Yankees just a few seasons ago.  In 62.1 innings pitched, he went 4-3 with a 4.04 ERA, a K/9 rate of 3.61, a BB/9 rate of 1.88, and a 53.4% ground ball ratio.  Wang is a nice risk for the Nationals, if he stays healthy next season but does not see any improvement with his pitches, he should do a nice job gobbling up innings and pitching to contact, exactly what any team wants from its fifth starter.  On the contrary, if his sinker regains another 1-1.5mph and a bit more sink with an off-season to further strengthen his shoulder, the Nationals quickly have another intimidating #2 or # 3 starting pitcher.  Any team would be happy to take that gamble with their #5 starting pitcher.

 

After a shaky spring, there were some questions about whether Drew Storen was the closer of the future for the Nationals heading into opening day.  I guess Storen just needed a little longer than most to knock off the rust, because Storen quickly seized control of the closer role once the season started and established himself as one of the best young closers in baseball.  Storen pitched in 73 games and 75.1 innings last season, producing a 6-3 record with 43 saves, a 2.75 ERA and 74 strikeouts.  Storen has a bright future, and should be the Nationals closer for many years.

Words cannot capture how solid and clutch Tyler Clippard was for the Nationals last season and it would be difficult for a relief pitcher to have a better season than he just completed.  Clippard provided a 3-0 record over 88.1 innings with a 1.83 ERA and 104 strikeouts, simply outstanding.  Clippard uses a 93-94mph fastball to set up one of the five best changeups in baseball and on occasion will mix in a swing and miss curveball.  I am sure the Nationals will receive tempting offers for Clippard this winter, but dependable late-inning relievers are nearly impossible to replace, so unless they receive an overwhelming offer, I expect Clippard to return to the Nationals next season.

Henry Rodriguez, 25 next season, was the key player in the Josh Willingham trade last winter and the NatsGM’s winner of the “Forrest Gump’s Life is Like a Box of Chocolates” award for 2011, because when he entered the game, you just never knew what you were going to get.  He allowed only 1 home run all season over 65.2 innings and struck out 9.59 batters per 9 innings but had a walk rate of 6.17 BB/9, second highest among NL relievers – Rodriguez did seem to steady himself in September, pitching in 12.1 innings and striking out 14 against 4 walks and 8 hits. Manager Davey Johnson gave him some late-inning, high leverage situations down the stretch and Rodriguez seemed to respond.  If Rodriguez can continue to harness his control and allow fewer walks, he has nearly unlimited potential and is a strong asset to the Nationals in middle relief.

I envision the other right-handed middle relief slot to go to Ryan Mattheus, a long-time favorite of mine.  Mattheus appeared in 35 games last season for the Nationals, posting an excellent 2.81 ERA in 32 innings pitched.  However, he produced a K/9 of 3.38 and a BB/9 of 4.42, providing evidence that Mattheus received his fair share of luck last season.  That said, Mattheus has averaged 7.22 K/9 in the minor leagues and closer to a strikeout per inning once shifted to the bullpen a few seasons ago, so I am a believer that he misses more bats next season and evolves into a solid asset in middle relief for the Nationals.

I am nominating Sean Burnett for the National’s “Jekyll and Hyde” award for 2011, as he was simply awful the first half of the season pitching to a 5.40 ERA over 31.2 innings, but was phenomenal in the second half with a 1.80 ERA over 25 innings.  According to media reports, he made some mechanical adjustments (he moved from one side of the rubber to the other) around mid-season and he responded better than ever.  Aside for the aforementioned slump early this past season, Burnett has been outstanding since arriving in Washington two plus years ago and should return to his customary 7th/8th inning role for the Nationals next season.

The Nationals need to find a left-handed reliever that excels at getting left-handed batters out, affectionately known as a LOOGY (Left-Handed One Out GuY).  Doug Slaten excelled in this role for the Nats in 2010 but could not produce the same magic in 2011.  With the large number of excellent left-handed hitters in the NL East (i.e. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Brian McCann, Chipper Jones), the Nationals missed having this matchup advantage last season and need to locate someone to fill this role for next year.  With Slaten expected to command $900,000-$1 million as an arbitration-eligible player, I expect he will be non-tendered.  Unfortunately, the left-handed reliever market is rather thin this off-season (especially with Jeremy Affelt and Javier Lopez both re-signing with San Francisco), and without much more than a minimum salary available for this position, I expect Mike Rizzo to wait until January and see whom might be remaining on the market either as a low salaried veteran or a Non-Roster Invitee to compete with Atahualpa Severino for this spot in spring training.

As I began trying to round out the bullpen for 2012, I wanted to find a way to keep Tom Gorzelanny as the team’s long-reliever/spot starter because he flourished in this role once he was demoted from the starting rotation last season.  However, as an arbitration eligible player likely to command between $2.3-$2.7 million dollars, he is far too expensive for a pitcher likely to only contribute 80-100 innings in long relief.  If the Nationals can bring him back on a cheaper contract, I would be in favor of it, but I expect the Nationals not to tender him a contract and allow him to become a free agent.

The Nationals do have quality options to fill the role such as Collin Balester and Yunesky Maya, but I have long been a fan of Craig Stammen and think he would excel as a long reliever.   Stammen has a mediocre history as a starter, but my thought has always been that he was better suited as a reliever because his fastball adds some velocity out of the bullpen, he rarely walks hitters, and has a propensity to produce ground balls (50.9% in 2010, 52.4 % in 2011) which can strand inherited runners and force double plays.  These skills, along with his history as a starter, make him a nice option to round out this impressive relief corps.

****

I expect the starting rotation to greatly improve from last season, as the return of staff “ace” Stephen Strasburg, an additional 40 innings from Jordan Zimmermann, and 200 innings from new arrival Roy Oswalt should impressively bolster the rotation.  Their presence should have the Nationals pitching staff pitching deeper into games, striking out more batters, and decreasing the staff batting average against and number of walks allowed.  All of these positives should directly lead to an improved overall staff ERA.

While I think the Nationals bullpen will struggle to equal last season’s impressive results because of natural regression, the improvement of the starting rotation should be a net positive on the bullpen.  Because the bullpen should have fewer innings to pitch, this will allow Davey Johnson to maximize the usage of his best relievers in high-leverage situations.  Further to this point, if the bullpen enters fewer situations with runners on base because of the improved rotation, this should lead to fewer inherited runners allowed to score and improved results for the pitching staff overall.

The National’s pitching staff was solid last season, and with the expected improvements from the starting rotation and the return of a deep and talented bullpen, I think the Nationals and their fans should expect improvement in 2012.  If the starting rotation stays healthy, the bullpen continues with their excellence, and the team has their fair share of luck, the Nationals should be contending for a wild card next September.  There is limited availability left on the National’s bandwagon, so I hope you catch my optimism and enthusiasm, as the Nationals have a real chance to be contender as early as next season.

 

2012 Starting Rotation

Starter #1 -> Stephen Strasburg ($4.875 million)

Starter #2 -> Jordan Zimmermann (Arb. $1.750 million)

Starter #3 -> (Roy Oswalt Free Agent Contract 2-year $27 million ($12.5mm in 2012))

Starter #4 -> John Lannan ($4.750 million)

Starter #5 –> Chien-Ming Wang ($1.750 million plus incentives)

 

2012 Bullpen

Closer -> Drew Storen ($425K)

Stopper -> Tyler Clippard (Arb. $1.70 million)

Middle Relief -> Henry Rodriguez ($425K)

Middle Relief -> Ryan Mattheus ($425K)

Middle Relief -> Sean Burnett ($2.30 million)

LOOGY -> Atahualpa Severino or {Free Agent} ($425K)

Long Relief -> Craig Stammen ($425K)

 

Rotation $25,625,000

Bullpen $6,125,000

Overall: $31,750,000

2012 Total Payroll: $43,821,000 + $31,750,000 = $75,571,000

 

Big “Tip of the Fedora” goes to Davey Johnson, GM Mike Rizzo, the Nationals and all Nationals fans.  The rumors came true and Davey was announced as the Nationals manager for 2012, which is fantastic news, as he is one of, if not the best, managers in baseball.  He is a real asset in the dugout and to the organization.  Another piece of good news Nats fans – get excited!

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!

5 thoughts on “NatsGM’s Washington Nationals Off-Season 2011-2012 – Part 2”

  1. Ryan

    Great write up, and I am a huge fan of your offseason moves. 99.9% in line with it, the only difference is that I would bring back Gorzy too up to $3m. That is a little pricey for him, but not crazy, since he has been very effective as a lefty in the pen, bith here and with CHC. Lopez, as you mentioned, resigned with SFG @4/$8m. He is better than Gorzy, but not all that much.

    If they pull off your moves, they would have to be a serious contender for WC.

  2. Another outstanding piece…. not sure the Nats can get Oswalt for only 2 years and $27 million, but I hope you are right!

    Keep up your tremendous work-

  3. Great work. If you’re not on the Nats’ payroll – you should be.

    I’m a little nervous about Zimmerman and we have Rendon to be here soon. Why not flip Zimmerman now to Seattle for Michael Pineda? Lord knows they need the offense and Pineda was awesome this year with only 2 pitches. What happens when he develops a changeup in the next year or two. Imagine Stras – Zimmerman – Pineda in 2 years! Seattle would probably do this deal b/c they have 3 potential #1 starters in the minors!

    1. You do not, DO NOT, trade Ryan Zimmerman unless and until Anthony Rendon proves that his shoulder is healthy and that he is big league ready with the bat and the glove. The Nationals have a lot more pitching in the pipeline than they have third basemen. It is just too early to even consider making that trade.

  4. @Matt… I like your idea of trying to get Pineda from Seattle, but I think Zimmerman is more valuable than Pineda, and think we need to wait until Rendon proves he is healthy and has 500 ABs in the minors before I trade the Face of the Franchise. But I do wonder if you could get Pineda this winter from Seattle for some desperately needed offense- Thanks for posting, and good thought about Pineda-

    @John C. I agree, I don’t want to move Zimmerman, I think we can contend next season and trading him would be impossible to replace in the short-term. Maybe someday Rendon forces Zimmerman to shift positions or has him traded, but hopefully not this winter. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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