Amidst tremendous hype and expectations, the 2013 Washington Nationals fell short of their masterful 2012 season, finishing with a record of 86-76 and missing the playoffs. With rumors circulating tying the Nationals to superstars Robinson Cano, David Price, and Max Scherzer, we can expect general manager Mike Rizzo to be active this winter to reshape the roster. The Nationals enter this offseason with a seemingly short shopping list, as they figure to look for another starting pitcher, depth in the bullpen, and help for the bench.
Today in Part 1 of my offseason Master Plan, I focus on refining the National’s pitching staff for an anticipated return trip to the 2014 playoffs. Last season the pitching staff struggled with injuries to Ross Detwiler and Stephen Strasburg and uncharacteristically poor seasons from Dan Haren and Drew Storen.
Still the Nationals’ pitchers managed another quality season, posting a 3.59 team ERA (8th in MLB), 13th in total strikeouts (1,236), 1st in fewest walks allowed (405), and 13th in batting average against (.249). Certainly a far cry from their 2012 staff numbers of a 3.33 team ERA, 1,325 strikeouts, 497 walks allowed, and .237 batting average against, but solid numbers nonetheless.
For the Nationals to achieve their lofty team goals in 2014, the pitching staff must perform closer to their elite 2012 numbers than their 2013 statistics. In this endeavor, I attempted to obtain a quality #4 starting pitcher and bolstered the Nationals overall bullpen depth, all while staying within a reasonable $52-53 million dollar budget for the pitching staff.
2014 Payroll -> $129 million ($118.29 million in 2013)
#1 Traded 2B Danny Espinosa to Toronto for LHP Brett Cecil
#2 Traded RHP Ryan Mattheus and RHP Robert Benincasa to Minnesota for OF Ryan Doumit
#3 Traded RHP Rafael Soriano plus Cash to Arizona for RHP Brandon McCarthy
#3 Sign RHP Jesse Crain, 1-year $4.0 million plus $2 million in Incentives
#4 Non-Tendered RHP Ross Ohlendorf
2014 Starting Rotation
#1 Stephen Strasburg $ 3.9 million
#2 Gio Gonzalez $ 8.6 million
#3 Jordan Zimmermann $ 10.2 million
#4 (Brandon McCarthy) $ 9 million
#5 Ross Detwiler $ 2.6 million
Salary Total = $34.3 million
The Nationals starting rotation once again in 2014 will be front-lined by Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann. These three excellent starters could possibly form the strongest trio of pitchers in major league baseball.
In his second season after Tommy John surgery and first full season, Stephen Strasburg took additional steps toward blossoming into a true Ace-level starting pitcher, providing Washington with a 3.00 ERA and 191 strikeouts over 183 innings pitched. Recent offseason elbow surgery could affect his ability to stay healthy next season, but if things go as expected, Strasburg will be the Nationals starting pitcher on Opening Day.
Following a masterful season in 2012 with a 21-8 record, a 2.89 ERA, and a 3rd place finish in the NL Cy Young voting, Gio Gonzalez was nearly as good in 2013, giving the Nationals a 3.36 ERA, 1.252 WHIP, and 192 strikeouts in 195.2 innings pitched. Gio has evolved into one of the better starting pitchers in the National League and should post another excellent season in 2014.
Similar to Gio, Jordan Zimmermann has developed into one of the most underrated starting pitchers in baseball, posting a 19-9 record with a 3.25 ERA, and 161 strikeouts in 213.1 innings pitched in 2013. A #3 starter in name only, Zimmermann was selected as an All-Star this past season, likely the first of multiple career appearances for this terrific pitcher.
Unfortunately after Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann, question marks exist. After trying the past two years to find a #4 starter to solidify the rotation in Edwin Jackson and Dan Haren, the Nats again find themselves in the same predicament this winter. There is depth in free agent starters,however, rather than signing someone, my plan has the Nationals engaging Arizona in trade discussions centering on closer Rafael Soriano for starter Brandon McCarthy.
McCarthy, 30-years-old and in the final year of a 2-year $15.5 million deal, disappointed in the desert this past season, as injuries helped account for a 4.53 ERA over only 135 innings. However when healthy, McCarthy is a quality major league starter, owning a career 4.10 ERA and 1.295 WHIP over his 8-year career. McCarthy does not possess overwhelming stuff, but competes by limiting his walks (career 2.4 BB/9) and home runs allowed (1.0 per 9 innings).
Arizona’s most pressing need this offseason is finding a quality closer to solidify their bullpen, and they appear to possess depth in their starting rotation. With McCarthy scheduled to make $9 million this season, and Soriano making $11 million with a 2015 vesting option, this trade could quickly resolve the biggest weakness for each team while being nearly payroll neutral.
After a fantastic 2012 with a 3.40 ERA in 164.1 innings, Ross Detwiler struggled with injuries in 2013, pitching only 71.1 innings before being placed on the disabled list in early July. Questions surround Detwiler’s ability to stay healthy, but his track record of success and potential upside should give him the inside track for the #5 starter position entering spring training.
Other pitchers expected to compete for the #5 starter position include Taylor Jordan, Nate Karns, and Tanner Roark. All three pitchers made favorable impressions last season, but the Nationals would prefer to see Jordan and Karns receive additional seasoning in Triple-A , and Roark capture a spot in the bullpen.
Closer Drew Storen $3.60 million
Stopper Tyler Clippard $6 million
RH Set-Up Jesse Crain $4 million plus Incentives
LH Set-Up Brett Cecil $900,000
Mid-Relief Craig Stammen $1.375 million
Mid-Relief Christian Garcia $500,000
Long Reliever Tanner Roark $500,000
Bullpen Salary Total = $16.875 million
Pitching Staff Salary Total = $51.175 million
After blowing the save in Game 5 in 2012 and then watching the Nationals sign Soriano last winter, Storen seemed unsettled much of 2013 and struggled to a 4.52 ERA in 61.2 innings pitched. For various reasons, most anticipate the Nationals will try to trade one of Clippard, Storen, or Soriano this offseason.
I expect the Nationals to aggressively shop Soriano and gamble on Storen rebounding to his previous norms, specifically a career 3.40 ERA, 1.172 WHIP, and 8.4 K/9 ratio. With a mid-90s fastball, a quality slider, and experience in the role, there is little reason Storen cannot return to the closer role in the Nationals bullpen next year.
An elite set-up man, Clippard completed another excellent season in 2013, pitching 71 innings with a 2.41 ERA, 0.859 WHIP and 73 strikeouts. Clippard will receive quite a raise in arbitration this winter, but expect him to continue his usual brilliance in the late innings in 2014.
Jesse Crain was perhaps the best reliever in baseball in the first half of last season, posting a 0.74 ERA with 46 strikeouts over 36.2 innings along with a selection to the AL all-star team. Unfortunately Crain suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in early July. Coming off an injury, Crain will likely seek a 1-year contract to improve his value before next winter. A hard-throwing reliever with a mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider, Crain would be another power arm to add to the Nationals bullpen and help negate the loss of Soriano. Washington should offer Crain a 1-year contract worth $4 million dollars, with another $2 million in incentives, and gamble he stays healthy in 2014.
To help combat the Nationals difficulties last season with their left-handed relief corps, I propose the Nationals trade Danny Espinosa to Toronto, who needs a second baseman, for LHP Brett Cecil. A former University of Maryland product and 2013 all-star, Cecil spent years struggling as a starter before flourishing as a reliever, throwing 60.2 innings with a 2.82 ERA and 70 strikeouts last season.With a powerful curveball and a heavy fastball, Cecil is particularly effective against left-handed hitters, holding them to a .458 OPS in 2013 and a career .618 OPS. Cecil is entering his first year of arbitration, and Toronto could relish the opportunity to acquire four years of an everyday player, Espinosa, for three seasons of a reliever. This trade could resolve a big issue for the other team and superficially makes sense for each club.
Craig Stammen had another excellent season in middle relief, making 55 appearances and throwing 81.2 innings with a 2.76 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 2013. Signed for just $1.375 million in 2014, expect this groundball specialist to continue pitching in the middle innings next year.
Christian Garcia enters the spring as a true X-factor, as his strikeout acumen could give the Nationals a valuable weapon in the middle innings. However his lengthy injury history makes him difficult to count on to stay healthy. If Garcia cannot seize the job in Viera or ends up on the disabled list, he will face competition from Fernando Abad, Xavier Cedeno, Erik Davis, and Ian Krol.
Emerging from near anonymity last year, Tanner Roark made a lasting impression with a 7-1 record and a 1.51 ERA after receiving an August promotion. Roark should compete for the 5th starter position, but if he falls short, he should be an asset in long relief and as a spot starter.
While dreams of adding David Price, Jeff Samardzija, or Max Scherzer to the starting rotation would be magnificent, unless the Nationals significantly increase payroll this forthcoming season, it is difficult to manage another superstar salary within the budget. Not to mention the cost in terms of young players to trade for one of these pitchers, which would further deplete an already mediocre farm system.
Therefore I took the approach that the Nationals would eventually pass on these names, and instead focus on trying to find a #4 starter either via trade or free agency. Although free agency is deep with pitching, I see an opportunity to part with Soriano to fill a need in the rotation in Brandon McCarthy. McCarthy has struggled with injuries in the past, but he is an above-average starting pitcher angling for a multiyear free agent contract next winter. This formula has not worked the past two offseasons with Edwin Jackson or Dan Haren, but I figure “third times a charm” this winter with McCarthy.
Trading for McCarthy means parting with quality closer Rafael Soriano, who had a productive season in Washington last year, but seemed to be a poor fit in terms of chemistry. Sending Soriano to Arizona does resolve issues for each team, but would hypothetically leave the Nationals without much depth in the bullpen.
Therefore the Nationals should divert some of Soriano’s salary to upgrading their setup men, specifically by signing Jesse Crain and trading for Brett Cecil. Crain’s power arsenal would be a nice contrast to Clippard and he could close if Storen happens to struggle. Cecil resolves the Nationals problem of needing a left-handed reliever to face the many quality left-handed hitters in the NL East.
Overall, this plan gives the Nationals five above-average starting pitchers, with the depth to combat injuries, along with a high quality, versatile bullpen. In addition, I did not part with any top prospects and stayed below budget, giving the front office flexibility to make midseason trades if the need arises. With these additions and a little luck with injuries, the Nationals pitching staff should be one of the five best in baseball in 2014.
Is it April yet?
* Reminder return on Wednesday (11/13) for Part 2, in which we analyze the Nationals hitters, and please continue to spread the word about NatsGM *