Part 1 – Hitters
Projected 2013 Payroll (Hypothetical) – $106 million ($92,534,000 million in 2012)
Current 40-man Roster (20) : Roger Bernadina, Corey Brown, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Jesus Flores, Bryce Harper, Sandy Leon, Steve Lombardozzi, Chris Marrero, Tyler Moore, Mike Morse, Eury Perez, Wilson Ramos, Anthony Rendon, Carlos Rivero, Jhonatan Solano, Kurt Suzuki, Chad Tracy, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman
Now that we have had the proper time to allow our wounds to heal from the playoffs, it is time to officially turn the page on 2012, and begin to focus on 2013. Each year, the first offseason piece I write involves my hypothetical offseason, and what I would do if given the title of General Manager. Obviously there are numerous flaws in this task, given that I do not have the ability to look at player contracts, negotiate with agents, check medical records, etc., however, I have gone to great lengths to make sure the assumptions I make are as accurate as possible. This is not intended to be fantasy baseball, rather a real examination of the decisions the team must make this winter and how each decision affects another, and my opinion of the best choices the front office can make to maximize the team’s roster within payroll in 2013 and future years.
In this exercise, I have tried to identify the best resolution to the Nationals current situation with free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche and incumbent left fielder Mike Morse, and how the team should attempt to improve its on-base percentage and overall team defense while staying within a $106 million dollar budget. This number is the biggest assumption in the piece, as I am presuming the team increases payroll almost 14%, but considering overall attendance was up over 18% in 2012 year-over-year, the team reaped the benefits of three home playoffs games, and the Nationals television agreement is up for renegotiation with MASN, payroll should see another healthy increase in 2013 . Logically one could reason the Washington D.C. market can support a payroll in excess of $106 million, but in respect to being conservative with the numbers and making this as accurate as possible, I feel comfortable with this payroll ceiling. Obviously if the number is higher than $106 million, many other players and scenarios would be available to the Nationals this winter (and me in this article), so please keep this in mind. With these caveats being said, here is my 2012-2013 Washington Nationals hypothetical offseason, divided into two parts… Today is Part 1, The Offense-
My Hypothetical 2013 Starting Lineup
Catcher – Kurt Suzuki $6,450,000
First Base – Mike Morse $7,000,000
Second Base – Danny Espinosa $550,000
Shortstop – Ian Desmond $3,250,000
Third Base – Ryan Zimmerman $14,100,000
Left Field – Nick Swisher $13,000,000
Center Field – Bryce Harper $2,000,000
Right Field – Jayson Werth $16,571,000
Total Starters = $62,921,000
Entering last season, the catcher position was seen as one of the deeper positions on the team, but an unusual rash of injuries depleted the position and certainly tried the depth of the organization. Wilson Ramos entered last season looking to build on his impressive rookie season (.267/.334/.445 15 home runs), but a freak knee injury in early May left him with a torn ACL, abruptly ending his sophomore season. Reports have Ramos on schedule to be fully healthy for spring training, but expect the Nationals to bring him along slowly this spring to insure his long-term health.
As a result of Ramos’ injury, general manager Mike Rizzo acquired catcher Kurt Suzuki from Oakland in early August to slow the opposition’s running game and add a veteran presence behind the plate. Once in Washington, Suzuki batted .267/.321/.404 with 5 home runs in 146 at-bats and is a career .255/.311/.379 hitter, in addition to his reputation as an above-average defender behind the plate. Although both Ramos and Suzuki will likely receive less playing time than they might prefer this year, the pairing should form one of the best catching combinations in baseball, and this partnership could be mutually beneficial considering Ramos knee injury and could keep them fresh from the taxing summertime humidity of Washington D.C., saving them in expectation of a deep playoff run. Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano will serve as depth in the minor leagues in case of an injury, and the expectation is that Jesus Flores will be non-tendered if they cannot find a trade for him in the next few days.
The biggest decision for the Nationals front office this winter involves whether or not to re-sign incumbent first baseman Adam LaRoche after offering him salary arbitration last month, which LaRoche declined. Coming off a spectacular season that saw him hit 33 home runs and win the National League Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards, LaRoche is looking to parlay his success this season into a multiyear contract taking him through the majority of the rest of his career. If I could convince LaRoche to sign a 2-year contract to return, I would do so and be quite content, but it seems like if he was satisfied with only two years, he would have re-signed by now. Therefore, after much soul-searching and hard as I worked to find a way to re-sign LaRoche in this experiment, the severe risk of overpaying with a probable 3yr-4yr deal worth $12+ million annually would be far too limiting to the Nationals in future years. Without question, the Nationals will miss LaRoche’s defense at first base and his left-handed bat does a nice job balancing and complementing the Nationals predominantly right-handed lineup. That said, LaRoche turned 33-years-old earlier this month, is coming off his career season, and stands an excellent chance of being a below-average first baseman as soon as 2014. For these reasons, with reservation, I would allow LaRoche to sign elsewhere and replace him with Mike Morse as the starting first baseman in 2013.
Granted, this scenario I am proposing of losing Adam LaRoche is not ideal and has warts to it as he is outstanding defensively and a leader in the clubhouse, but I think it is the best solution for these reasons: Morse is no longer a left fielder defensively because of his poor range, but his lack of foot speed and agility can be masked at first base and his huge frame and solid hands are assets at the position, meaning that while he will not be LaRoche’s equal defensively, with some work he could develop into an adequate defender at the position, and his offensive numbers project similarly or slightly better than LaRoche in 2013. Signed for 1-year and $7 million dollars, Morse should practically replicate LaRoche next season on a shorter and cheaper contract.
Aside from the franchise’s critical decision at first base, the rest of the infield is spoken for with Danny Espinosa the starting second baseman, Ian Desmond the everyday shortstop, and Ryan Zimmerman playing third base. Danny Espinosa was rather inconsistent this past season, seemingly alternating hot and cold streaks at the plate to produce a .247/.315/.402 batting line with 17 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 2012. Although Danny struggled batting left-handed more than the team would prefer (.233/.303/.391), Espinosa’s outstanding gold-glove caliber defense, impressive power numbers, and potential to breakout in his third full season in the major leagues make him one of the most promising young middle infielders in baseball.
While far from a guarantee, as I mentioned above many baseball players tend to “break out” in their third full season in the big leagues, and perhaps the greatest example in recent memory of this theory was the 2012 version of Ian Desmond, who finally realized his immense potential this year batting .292/.335/.511 with 25 home runs and 21 stolen bases, while missing a month with an oblique injury. The Nationals are expected to try and sign Desmond to a long-term contract extension this offseason, but regardless if they are successful in this quest or not, count on Ian being the team’s starting shortstop next season and beyond.
Ryan Zimmerman, the Face of the Franchise, struggled early last season with injuries, but after a miraculous cortisone shot in May, he exploded to post a .282/.346/.478 batting line with 25 home runs and 95 runs batted in. His quiet excellence is appreciated by Nationals fans better than the national media, and Zimmerman returns next season as a strong Gold Glove and Silver Slugger candidate as one of the best third baseman in baseball.
Two-thirds of the Nationals starting outfield is spoken for in team leader Jayson Werth and phenom Bryce Harper, although which exact positions they will man this season is still murky. Jayson Werth returned from a nasty wrist injury early in the season to produce a solid .300/.387/.440 batting line and proved an excellent leadoff hitter when forced into the role upon his return. Whether he finds himself batting atop the lineup next season or if they decide to drop him in the order to take advantage of his propensity to drive in runs, Werth figures to return next season in his role as Opening Day right fielder and team leader.
While it remains unclear if Bryce Harper acts as the Nationals starter in center field or a corner outfield position next season, what is most certainly clear is he just produced one of the best seasons for a teenager in baseball history. Harper arrived in Washington in late April due to Werth’s injury, and never looked back, hitting .270/.340/.477 with 22 home runs and 18 stolen bases while earning the National League Rookie of the Year Award. As mentioned earlier in regard to Werth, it will be interesting to see if Bryce continues to bat #2 in the lineup again in 2013 or if Davey Johnson decides to slide him down the lineup to maximize his chances to drive in runs. Either way, Bryce Harper is poised to build on his impressive rookie season and seems ready to become one of the most feared hitters in the National League, perhaps as soon as next year.
This still leaves a position available in the Nationals outfield, as I shifted Mike Morse to first base as it is time to acknowledge his defensive shortcomings in the outfield. Assuming the Nationals make the decision to improve their defense in the outfield, do they feel comfortable with Roger Bernadina and/or Tyler Moore in left field? Or do they decide to improve by obtaining someone else through free agency (Michael Bourn, Josh Hamilton, Shane Victorino, BJ Upton) or via trade (Shin-Soo Choo, Alex Gordon, Justin Upton), either the leadoff hitting center fielder the team has coveted since returning to Washington or a slugging corner outfielder?
So to answer this riddle I decided to ask a separate question… What does this outfielder need to be? He needs to be a left-handed hitter to theoretically replace Adam LaRoche and balance the predominantly right-handed hitting lineup. This player needs above-average to elite on-base skills and power in addition to being an asset defensively. There does not necessarily need to be a long-term commitment to the player, as the organization has promising outfield prospect Brian Goodwin along with others in the minor leagues, but the team could seek a permanent solution if the possibility presented itself. After much consideration for the best possible fit considering team need, contract expectations, and how it fits the organization’s plan in the short-term and long-term, I think the best solution for the Nationals is to sign free agent corner outfielder Nick Swisher to a 3-year $46.5 million dollar contract ($13.0, $14.5, $16.0) with a Mutual Option for 2016 at $17 million dollars with a $3 million dollar buyout.
Swisher, 32-years-old at the end of this month, is one of the more consistent players in baseball, posting 8 consecutive seasons of 20+ home runs, has played 148+ games 7 years-in-a-row, and owns a career .256/.361/.467 batting line. In addition, Swisher grades out as an average, or slightly above-average defender in right field, and has experience playing left field and first base. This signing keeps Bryce Harper in center field next season and creates the question if Swisher or Werth moves to left field. The defensive metrics, in addition to my eyes, tell me Swisher is the superior defender in right field, but Werth’s contract and standing in the clubhouse would make this less than a slam dunk decision. Either way, his addition would dramatically upgrade the Nationals offensively and defensively in the outfield.
Backup #1 – Roger Bernadina $1,100,000
Backup #2 – Steve Lombardozzi $550,000
Backup #3 – Tyler Moore $550,000
Backup #4 – Wilson Ramos $550,000
Backup #5 – Chad Tracy $1,000,000 plus Incentives
Total Bench = $3,750,000
The Nationals bench, better known collectively as The Goon Squad, produced one of the best seasons in recent memory in 2012, hitting .283/.372/.429 for the season and showing a propensity at pinch hitting with a .288/.367/.420 batting line with 4 home runs. The Nationals bench had been a particular team weakness in 2011 and seasons prior, but Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson re-shaped their bench last season and made it one of the strengths of the team. Most of the main components are expected to return in 2013, hoping to recapture the collective magic the group had last year.
After teasing the Nationals front office and fans for years with his combination of tools and talent, Roger Bernadina found his niche this season as a late-inning defensive replacement and as a left-handed pinch hitter, batting .291/.372/.405 with 5 home runs and 15 stolen bases in 129 games and 227 at-bats. Bernadina should receive a nice raise in arbitration this winter and expects to return as a versatile backup outfielder at all three positions. Steve Lombardozzi batted .273/.317/.354 over 384 at-bats in 2012, starting in left field and second base during the lengthy injuries to Mike Morse and Ian Desmond during the year. Lombardozzi’s lack of power makes him less than ideal as a starter, but his defensive versatility, ability to switch hit, and his quick, line drive swing profiles well in a reserve capacity.
Tyler Moore first caught my eye with his impressive play in Viera last spring, and cemented himself as a fan favorite with his monster hit in Game 1 against the Cardinals. Moore capitalized on his early season promotion to bat .263/.327/.513 with 10 home runs in 156 at-bats in Washington last year. A below-average defensive player with more swing and miss than ideal, Moore profiles as a productive and versatile right-handed power hitter off the bench who is particularly effective against left-handed pitching and should resume that role in Washington in 2013. Chad Tracy arrived in spring training with little fanfare but took advantage of a non-roster invitation to spring training and turned it into a key role as a left-handed pinch hitter with power and veteran presence in the clubhouse. Tracy found a knack for pinch hitting in 2012 hitting .275/.367/.431, enticing Mike Rizzo to sign him to a guaranteed contract for 2013. Tracy’s ability to capably play both first and third base defensively, his skill as a left-handed pinch hitter, and veteran leadership should make him the leader of The Goon Squad again next season.
Total Offense = $66,671,000
Overall I did little to tinker with the Nationals offense this winter, focusing on the assumption that healthier seasons from Mike Morse, Wilson Ramos, and Jayson Werth, and some natural improvement from Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper should allow the offense to have better numbers in 2013. Certainly some regression should be expected from Ian Desmond and the bench as a whole next year, but overall I expect the team to stay consistent with their 9th place finish in Batting Average .261, 6th in Slugging Percentage .428, and 8th in Home Runs with 194. The one area I believe the Nationals need to focus on improving is its .322 On-Base Percentage, 12th best in baseball. This was the major factor in the only roster move I made on offense.
The only change I made was allowing Adam LaRoche to sign elsewhere as a free agent and collecting draft pick compensation, and replacing him with someone younger, more versatile, and most importantly, with greater on-base skills in Nick Swisher. His ability to switch-hit replaces LaRoche’s left-handed bat and balances the Nationals lineup, and Swisher’s career .361 on-base percentage is superior to LaRoche’s .338 on-base percentage, and, in my opinion, upgrades the offense overall. Also, Swisher’s ability to play both corner outfield spots and first base allows the Nationals some position flexibility in the years ahead, as the team has future roster questions as Mike Morse is only signed through 2013, Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing motion could eventually force him to first base, super-prospects CF Brian Goodwin and 3B Anthony Rendon could hit their way to Washington in the next 18 months, and Bryce Harper will inevitably physically outgrow playing center field.
Signing Swisher means giving his former team, the New York Yankees, our 1st round pick as draft compensation next June, a major obstacle and the biggest negative to signing him this winter. However, with the Nationals needing to upgrade their offense before next season, the fact that Adam LaRoche signing elsewhere will net the team a similar draft pick to the one they lose, and each of the options available this winter (aside from Shane Victorino) would cost the Nationals either a draft pick for a free agent or prospects in a trade, I decided to go ahead and sign the best fit for the team, and the most consistent, safest player on a risk verses reward basis available on the market in Nick Swisher. The entirety of these reasons, along with my feeling that he can be signed to a contract similar to LaRoche this winter due to supply and demand considerations of the plentiful outfielder market verses the limited market for first baseman, has convinced me signing Swisher is the smartest move for the Nationals to upgrade their lineup this winter, while staying within a hypothetical $106 million dollar budget.
Part 2- The Pitching Staff coming Thanksgiving Weekend!
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