Part 2- Pitching
Projected 2013 Payroll (Hypothetical) – $106 million (Total Offense: $66,671,000)
Currently on 40-Man Roster (18): Tyler Clippard, Erik Davis, Ross Detwiler, Christian Garcia, Gio Gonzalez, Tom Gorzelanny, Nathan Karns, Cole Kimball, John Lannan, Ryan Mattheus, Yunesky Maya, Ryan Perry, Matt Purke, Henry Rodriguez, Craig Stammen, Drew Storen, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann
The Washington Nationals pitching staff was the strength of the team in 2012, as they met or exceeded even the highest expectations entering the season. The Nationals finished 1st in the National League (2nd in MLB) with a staff ERA of 3.33, 3rd in total strikeouts (4th overall) with 1325, 10th in walks allowed (19th overall) with 497, 1st (2nd overall) in team WHIP (Walks + Hits divided by Innings Pitched) at 1.22, and 2nd (2nd overall) in fewest home runs allowed with 129. For context, in 2011 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 Nationals starting rotation was simply masterful last season, staying healthy and making the leap from players with immense potential into true superstar household names, boasting the best ERA in the National League (2nd in MLB) at 3.40, 18th in innings pitched with 953 innings pitched, 3rd in the National League (6th overall) in total strikeouts with 855, 9th in the NL (18th overall) in total walks with 301, and 1st in the National League (2nd overall) in Batting Average Against at .240. Certainly one would like to see the starters pitching deeper into games next season, some of which should occur naturally with the lack of an innings restriction on Stephen Strasburg and the continued maturation of young starters Ross Detwiler, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann. Otherwise, expect the starting rotation to continue to be an organizational strength in 2013 and beyond.
The Nationals bullpen had another outstanding season in 2012, as they were 3rd in the National League (7th overall) with a 3.23 ERA, 2nd in innings pitched with 515.1 (7th in MLB), 7th in total strikeouts (11th overall) with 470, 7th in the NL (10th in MLB) in walks allowed with 196, and 4th in batting average against (7th overall) at .231. Naturally the sheer number of innings the relievers pitched will artificially inflate the total strikeouts and walks allowed categories, but credit the bullpen for doing such an impressive job preventing runs last season, allowing only 200 last year, 6th best in the National League. Assuming the team does not trade from its depth this winter, the bullpen should continue to be one of the best relief corps in baseball again in 2013.
In this endeavor, my main concern was finding another starting pitcher to take the place of Edwin Jackson, who had a fine season with the team in 2012 but is angling for a multiyear contract, which the Nationals currently seem hesitant to give him. I needed to find a left-handed reliever to pair with Tom Gorzelanny as both Sean Burnett and Mike Gonzalez are free agents, and I wanted to make every effort not to trade any of the Nationals bullpen depth, as this has been to their success the past two years. In Part 1 of this piece, I spent $66,671,000 million dollars to construct the offense, thus leaving me approximately $40 million to construct the pitching staff while remaining within our hypothetical budget. Here is Part 2 of my 2012-2013 Washington Nationals Hypothetical offseason, The Pitching Staff…
#1 Starter – Stephen Strasburg $3,900,000
#2 Starter – Gio Gonzalez $6,350,000
#3 Starter – Jordan Zimmermann $4,800,000
#4 Starter – Ross Detwiler $2,100,000
#5 Starter – John Lannan $5,000,000
Total Starting Rotation $22,150,000
In one of the most over-discussed topics in recent baseball history, the Stephen Strasburg innings limit shutdown overshadowed his excellent first full season in the big leagues, in which he delivered the Nationals a 15-6 record with a 3.16 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 197 strikeouts against 48 walks in 159.1 innings pitched. Now that any innings restriction should be in his rearview mirror, Strasburg will open 2013 as the Nationals opening day starter and Ace of the pitching staff.
After mortgaging quite a bit of the Nationals farm system last winter in sending AJ Cole, Tom Milone, Derek Norris, and Brad Peacock to Oakland to acquire him, Gio Gonzalez responded by flourishing in his first season in Washington, posting a 21-8 record with a 2.89 ERA, 1.129 WHIP, with 207 strikeouts against 149 hits and 76 walks allowed while finishing 3rd in the National League CY Young Award voting. His infectious and vibrant personality was a positive addition to the clubhouse, and by signing a 5-year contract extension with the Nationals last winter, Gio should remain at the front of the Washington rotation in 2013 and future seasons.
Last season was Jordan Zimmermann’s first full year back from his Tommy John surgery in 2009, and he was truly outstanding in 2012, providing the Nationals with a 2.94 ERA in 32 starts and 195.2 innings pitched, allowing 186 hits and 43 walks while striking out 153 batters. Zimmermann did seem to tire down the stretch, posting a 4.41 ERA in September with 36 hits and 11 walks allowed over 34.2 innings pitched but with a full offseason to recover and another year removed from his elbow surgery, expect Jordan to build on his terrific season this past year and establish himself as one of the best right-handed starters in the National League.
Like a proud father watching his son, Nationals fans observed Ross Detwiler go from a talented but inconsistent pitcher who struggled repeating his delivery to one of the best young left-handed starting pitchers in baseball last season, posting a 10-8 record with a 3.40 ERA in 164.1 innings pitched with 105 strikeouts against 52 walks. In addition, Detwiler was masterful in Game 4 against St. Louis, pitching 6 innings and only allowing 1 run on 3 hits to the surging Cardinal lineup. Although it took Detwiler a while to refine his delivery, Ross has two above-average fastballs and a developing breaking pitch, giving him some of the best pure left-handed stuff in the National League, and is still scratching the surface of his potential. The Nationals patience with Detwiler’s development should be rewarded in the years to come, and we should expect another solid season from Ross in 2013.
Those four starters are firmly entrenched but after declining to offer Edwin Jackson salary arbitration, the Nationals must find a replacement for the 189.2 innings he pitched this past season. As with every offseason, almost every team is looking to acquire starting pitching, and fortunately this winter offers some interesting names in seemingly every price point and category. If you are looking to sign a #1 starter, let me introduce you to Zach Greinke. If you cannot fit an Ace into the payroll, a quality #2 or #3 starting pitcher such as Dan Haren, Kyle Lohse, Anibal Sanchez, or Ryan Dempster would bolster most every team’s roster. If they do not suit your fancy, there is still Shaun Marcum, Brandon McCarthy, Edwin Jackson, Jeremy Guthrie, Joe Saunders, and Joe Blanton who can add depth to most any starting rotation. Rather than free agency, perhaps you want to find a pitcher via the trade market, Ricky Nolasco, Gavin Floyd, Jason Vargas, Justin Masterson, and the majority of the Tampa Bay rotation is available in the right deal.
I must admit I thought the Nationals made a mistake not offering salary arbitration to Edwin Jackson, who would have been expensive at $13 million dollars but would have required only a 1-year commitment. At 29-years-old Jackson has made it known he is seeking a multiyear commitment, attempting to capitalize on his 2012 season in which he made 31 starts and pitched 189.2 innings with a 4.03 ERA, 1.218 WHIP, and 168 strikeouts against 58 walks. If Jackson accepted arbitration, the team would continue to have one of the best rotations in baseball, and if he signed elsewhere, the Nationals would receive a draft choice as compensation. This seemed like a win-win scenario for me, but the front office disagreed with me, making it fairly official Jackson’s time in Washington has ended. This decision leaves the Nationals in the position of looking for a starting pitcher, specifically a consistent veteran innings-eater, capable and expected to produce similar or better numbers than Jackson did in 2012.
The Nationals do have a reasonably good in-house candidate to act as the 5th starter in former opening day starter John Lannan, who owns a career 4.01 ERA and 1.424 WHIP in 783.2 innings pitched. Lannan spent the majority of 2012 in Triple-A Syracuse after being defeated by Ross Detwiler for the final slot in the starting rotation, but in the 6 starts and 32.2 innings Lannan pitched in Washington last year, he produced a 4-1 record with a 4.13 ERA, a 1.439 WHIP, and 17 strikeouts against 14 walks. Lannan made $5 million dollars last season in his second year of arbitration, and will command a similar salary in 2013, his last year under team control. While he is far from the definition of sexy, one should expect Lannan to pitch 160-190 approximately league average innings in 2013, meaning his numbers should be fairly similar to Edwin Jackson’s numbers next season at half the price.
This gives the Nationals an interesting predicament going forward this winter, because on a risk verses reward basis, it is going to be difficult for the team to significantly upgrade from John Lannan without increasing payroll both in 2013 and future seasons. Don’t believe me, for comparison sake-
John Lannan Career – 4.01 ERA, 1.424 WHIP, 410 strikeouts, 296 walks in 783.2 innings, ERA+ 103
Edwin Jackson Career – 4.40 ERA, 1.438 WHIP, 969 strikeouts, 497 walks in 1,268.2 innings, ERA+ 98
Anibal Sanchez Career – 3.75 ERA, 1.346 WHIP, 733 strikeouts, 320 walks in 869 innings, ERA+ 110
Dan Haren Career – 3.66 ERA, 1.181 WHIP, 1,585 strikeouts, 395 walks in 1,876.2 innings, ERA+ 116
Shaun Marcum Career – 3.75 ERA, 1.224 WHIP, 746 strikeouts, 282 walks in 916.2 innings, ERA+ 112
Zack Greinke Career – 3.77 ERA, 1.247 WHIP, 1,332 strikeouts, 379 walks in 1492 innings, ERA+ 114
Certainly this is a quick and crude comparison of just a few pitching categories, but what surprised me was how well Lannan compared with the others, particularly when considering the injury concerns of Haren and Marcum and the well-stated expectation that each pitcher expects a multiyear commitment at $10+ million dollars annually. If the Nationals training staff was happy with Dan Haren’s medicals and I was able to sign him to a 1-year contract with a mutual or team option for 2014, I would quickly make that signing and work to fit his salary into payroll, however with inferior starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie already able to secure a 3-year contract this winter, I question whether he will settle for less. Therefore, after considering every pitcher available and the consequences to signing or acquiring each player, I have (surprisingly) become convinced the best course of action for the Nationals both in the short-term and the long-term this winter is to offer salary arbitration to John Lannan to serve at the team’s 5th starter next season, and if they feel the need to improve during the year prospects Nathan Karns, Alex Meyer, Matt Purke, and Sammy Solis could potentially bolster the pitching staff, or they could look to acquire a starter via trade.
In addition, I would look to sign 2-3 minor league free agents to fill out the Syracuse rotation this season and acts as reinforcements behind the Nationals starters. Some names I would aggressively try to sign include Jeremy Bonderman, Dallas Braden, Philip Humber, and Chris Volstad. Finally, converted reliever Ryan Perry is expected to begin the year in Triple-A and serve as additional depth.
Closer – Drew Storen $1,700,000
Stopper – Tyler Clippard $4,400,000
Middle Relief – Craig Stammen $900,000
Middle Relief – Christian Garcia $550,000
LH Reliever – Mike Gonzalez (Re-Signed) $3,000,000
Long Relief RH – Ryan Mattheus $550,000
Long Relief LH – Tom Gorzelanny $2,800,000
Total Bullpen $13,900,000
Drew Storen had a year to forget in 2012, discovering bone chips in his pitching elbow during spring training which sidelined him until July, and blowing the save in devastating fashion in Game 5 against St. Louis. In between those terrible events, Storen returned midseason to provide the Nationals with a 2.37 ERA and 4 saves in 37 appearances and 30.1 innings pitched, giving up 22 hits and 8 walks against 24 strikeouts. Certainly it will take a while for Storen and Nationals fans to move on from the difficult blown save loss in the playoffs but this one outing is not indicative of his talent level, and expect Storen to return in 2013 as the Nationals closer and prove why he is one of the best young closers in baseball.
After spending 2010 and 2011 establishing himself as one of the best relievers in major league baseball, Tyler Clippard was forced into the closer role last season after Drew Storen injured his elbow and Henry Rodriguez lost control of the strike zone. Once placed in the closer role, Clippard was excellent most of the summer before an inconsistent stretch late in September to post a 3.72 ERA with 32 saves in 72.2 innings pitched, allowing 55 hits and 29 walks against 84 strikeouts. Many have wondered if the impressive innings total Clippard has posted the past 3 seasons caught up to him at the end of 2012, but those struggles aside, Clippard should return to Washington next season in his comfortable role as the 8th inning stopper and bridge to closer Drew Storen in the 9th inning.
After spending the majority of his early career as a starter with the Nationals, during the 2010 season the front office decided to shift Craig Stammen to the bullpen, and ever since he has flourished, posting a 2.34 ERA, 1.200 WHIP, and 87 strikeouts against 36 walks in 88.1 innings pitched last season. Stammen’s ability to strike hitters out, avoid giving up home runs, and to pitch multiple innings make him an asset pitching in relief, and he should return next season to pitch plenty of high leverage innings in the middle to late innings.
A testament to the Nationals scouting department, Christian Garcia overcame two Tommy John surgeries earlier in his career with the Yankees to sign with the Nationals at an open tryout in 2011. Garcia took advantage of his second chance as he dominated minor league hitters in 2012 with a 0.86 ERA and 21 saves in 52.1 innings pitched, allowing only 31 hits and 17 walks against 66 strikeouts, forcing the front office to summon him to Washington during September. Once arriving in Washington Garcia continued to dominate, using his 96-98mph fastball and above-average curveball and changeup to post a 2.13 ERA in 12.2 innings pitched with 15 strikeouts and two walks. Although there has been some scuttlebutt from various members of the Washington Nationals about him shifting to the starting rotation next year, I would expect the front office to eventually take the more prudent approach with Garcia, who has already rehabilitated from two Tommy John surgeries in the past, and have him remain a potentially dominating force in middle relief next season.
Like most Nationals fans, I hope the front office can reach an agreement with Sean Burnett to return to Washington, but being only 30-years-old and coming off a terrific season in 2012, Burnett is seeking a 3-4-year contract, meaning he very likely will pitch somewhere else next season. I would allow Burnett to sign elsewhere at these terms as well and would turn my attention to re-signing veteran lefty reliever Mike Gonzalez, who signed with the Nationals during the season and was excellent, producing a 3.03 ERA with 39 strikeouts and 16 walks in 35.2 innings and was especially effective against left-handed hitters, allowing only a .179/.257/.269 batting line and 1 home run last season. For his 10-year career, Gonzalez owns a 2.94 ERA with 451 strikeouts against 180 walks allowed and 56 saves in 394.1 innings pitched.
Rumors have Gonzalez wanting to return to Washington but insisting on a 2-year contract, giving the Nationals front office reason to hesitate considering he will turn 35-years-old next season. However, taking into account the limited market for left-handed relievers this winter and the Nationals clear need for another lefty in the bullpen next season, I would feel comfortable offering Gonzalez a 1-year contract worth $3.0 million dollars with a Mutual Option for 2014 worth $4.5 million, with a $1 million dollar buyout. Also, to further entice Gonzalez and his agent Scott Boras, I would include that the option is automatically triggered for 2014 if he makes 40 appearances during the 2013 season, something he has done 3 of the past 4 seasons.
Tom Gorzelanny is expected to return to the Nationals again in 2013 as the other left-handed pitcher in the bullpen and someone capable of pitching multiple innings and making the occasional spot start. While he struggled with inconsistency earlier in his career as a pure starting pitcher, Gorzelanny seems to have found his niche as a reliever, flourishing in relief last season posting a 2.88 ERA with 62 strikeouts, 30 walks, and 65 hits allowed in 72 innings pitched. Entering his final year of arbitration, Gorzelanny should be a strong contributor to the Nationals relief corps next season.
The seventh and final position in the Nationals bullpen should have some competition, with Ryan Mattheus entering spring training with the inside track to secure the last spot. Mattheus used his excellent sinker and slider repertoire to post a 2.85 ERA with 41 strikeouts, 19 walks, and 8 home runs allowed in 66.1 innings pitched last season and was particularly effective against right-handed hitters, holding them to a .240/.293/.373 batting line in 2012. Henry Rodriguez flashed some moments of brilliance in amongst extreme bouts of wildness last season and saw his season abruptly ended with a right elbow injury in August; he remains a candidate to be traded this winter but if not, he will enter Viera next spring hoping to prove his lack of command last year was due to his injury. A true wild-card, if his command can improve, he gives the Nationals a dimension with his overwhelming fastball velocity they do not currently have in the bullpen. Erik Davis, Cole Kimball and Yunesky Maya are expected to begin the season in Triple-A Syracuse and will serve as depth in case of injury during the year.
Total Salary for Pitching – $36,050,000 ($3,279,000 Under Budget)
Similar to Part 1 on the offense, I went against my initial instinct to tinker with the pitching staff, deciding to offer arbitration to John Lannan to round out the starting rotation and re-sign Mike Gonzalez to act as a second left-hander and veteran presence in the bullpen. As stated earlier, the Nationals were atop many of the major pitching categories last season, and I do not anticipate major regression coming from any of the team’s pitchers next year. While the offense should improve next year, make no mistake, the eventual success of the Nationals in 2013 will depend on their youthful and overwhelmingly talented pitching staff.
While pondering the Nationals pitching staff, I found two main concerns entering 2013: First, the starting rotation last season was extraordinarily healthy, with Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Jackson, and Detwiler combining to make 150 of 162 total starts. There is certainly no scientific data to tell me the starters will develop more injuries and/or miss more starts next year, but my gut instinct tells me this level of consistency from the starting rotation will be difficult to maintain in 2013. Secondly, I know the Nationals have terrific depth in their bullpen, but the starting rotation has not been pitching enough total innings the past few seasons, putting additional strain on the relief corps. There should be some natural improvement in this regard next season due to Strasburg’s lack of any restriction and the further maturation of starters Ross Detwiler, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann, but the starting rotation must make it their goal to pitch 975-1,000 innings next season to truly establish itself as one of the elite rotations in major league baseball.
After many years of drafting and harnessing their young pitching prospects, the Nationals pitching staff developed into one of the best in baseball last season, leading the National League in ERA and the principle reason the team won the National League East in 2012. The starting rotation should again be one of the best in baseball, and with another year of development and maturation from the Nationals front four starters and the projected lateral move from Edwin Jackson to John Lannan, there stands an excellent chance their performance could improve in 2013. If this occurs as I expect, the relief corps should have fewer innings to pitch, allowing Davey Johnson to maximize the usage of his best relievers in high-leverage situations, which logic dictates would give them an excellent chance of continuing to post excellent results and serve as one of the best bullpens in baseball. If their pitchers can remain relatively healthy, especially those in the rotation, I am optimistic the pitching staff will lead the Nationals to the playoffs again next season. I cannot wait for Viera and spring training to begin. Play Ball!
“Tip of the Fedora” and Thanks to Fangraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, MLB.com, and MLBTradeRumors.com for their help with the numbers I’ve used throughout this article.
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