All posts by Ryan Sullivan

NatsGM Interview – University of Maryland Head Coach John Szefc

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For this in-person interview Live from the Bethesda Big Train Holiday Auction, I was fortunate enough to interview University of Maryland Head Baseball Coach John Szefc.   We discussed Maryland’s magical 2014 season, their move to the Big 10 conference,  pitcher Jake Stinnett, the value of summer collegiate baseball, and previewed Maryland’s team in 2015.  Coach was extremely generous with his time and forthcoming with his answers, so I hope you enjoy this interview.

THE Official 2015 NatsGM Washington Nationals Offseason Manifesto – The Offense

Nationals Park

Fortunately for the Washington Nationals, general manager Mike Rizzo enters this offseason with a relatively small shopping list to fill offensively, seeking help at the keystone position along with some quality depth to round out the bench. In addition, most including myself expect the team to attempt to negotiate a long-term contract extension with shortstop Ian Desmond and youngsters Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon.

The Nationals overcame lengthy injuries to lineup stalwarts Harper, Wilson Ramos, and Ryan Zimmermann to post a solid offensive season in 2014, finishing 12th in team batting average (.253), 8th in team on-base percentage (.321), 9th in runs scored (686), 10th in home runs (152), and 10th in slugging percentage (.393). These numbers compare favorably to 2013, when the team finished 17th in team batting average (.251), 18th in team on-base percentage (.313), 15th in runs scored (656), 13th in home runs (161), and 13th in slugging percentage (.398). The ability for the offensive to collectively produce above-average numbers in spite of the numerous injuries, combined with the dominance of the pitching staff led them to 96 victories and the NL East title.

Yesterday in Part-1 I spent a hypothetical $62.750 million on the pitching staff, leaving approximately $82.250 million remaining within the stated $145mm budget. During my examination of the offense, I attempted to find a permanent solution at second base and improve the versatility of the bench while not parting with prospect depth and staying below payroll.

Total Projected 2015 Payroll: $145 million (136.85mm in 2014)

Current 40-Man Roster (17): Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Pedro Florimon, Kevin Frandsen, Bryce Harper, Jeff Kobernus, Sandy Leon, Jose Lobaton, Nate McLouth, Tyler Moore, Wilson Ramos, Anthony Rendon, Steven Souza Jr., Denard Span, Michael Taylor, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman

Transactions
#1 Re-Signed INF/OF Kevin Frandsen – 1-yr $1mm + $300k incentives
#2 Sign SS/2B Stephen Drew – 1-yr $6.5mm + Incentives
#3 Trade LHP Ross Detwiler to Toronto for 1B/3B Juan Francisco (Edit: Detwiler to Boston for Francisco)
#4 Trade OF Steven Souza and (Another Prospect) to San Diego for RHP Kevin Quackenbush
#5 Outrighted Catcher Jhonatan Solano and INF Pedro Florimon

Lineup
Catcher   Wilson Ramos   $ 3,200,000
1B Ryan Zimmerman      $ 14,000,000
2B (Stephen Drew)              $ 6,500,000
SS Ian Desmond                  $ 11,000,000
3B Anthony Rendon            $ 2,000,000
LF Jayson Werth                 $ 21,571,000
CF Denard Span                     $ 9,000,000
RF Bryce Harper                    $ 2,500,000
Total                                            $ 69,771,000

Wilson Ramos
Wilson Ramos

Behind the dish again in 2015 for the Nationals will be Wilson Ramos, who struggled through two separate DL stints to post a .267/.299/.399 batting line with 11 homers over 88 games played. Ramos rates as an average or slightly better defensive catcher and possesses home run power to all fields. Only 27, Ramos has struggled with various injuries throughout his career, but if he could ever stay on the field for 110+ games, he has all-star level talent. Ramos will receive a nifty raise in his second stab at arbitration and should pair with Jose Lobaton to make one of the best catching tandems in the National League.

Similarly Ryan Zimmerman suffered through an injury-plagued 2014 season to post the worst season of his career, with a .280/.342/.449 and 5 home runs over 214 at-bats. The long-time fixture at the hot corner and the Face of the Franchise, age and injuries should force a permanent switch to first base for Zimmerman next year. Still only 30-years-old, the shift to the easier defensive position could help Zimmerman unleash his immense offensive talent as a career .286/.352/.476 hitter. If Zimmerman can stay healthy, he is one of the favorites to win the Silver Slugger award for first baseman next year.

As stated earlier in the piece, the biggest offensive question mark entering this winter is at second base. Danny Espinosa has struggled mightily batted left-handed and is strongly rumored to be giving up switch-hitting this offseason. The free agent market is rather shallow, with the best options including Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Drew and Jed Lowrie. In addition, the trade market does not appear robust either, with few teams aside from the Cubs and Diamondbacks seemingly have some depth to deal. The Nationals will spend this winter seeking their permanent solution at second base, but eventually expect them to pass on the 3-year contract demands for Cabrera and Lowrie or the cost in prospects involved in acquiring someone via trade. This leads me to believe the team will work out a 1-year pact with Scott Boras’ client Stephen Drew.

Drew suffered through a nightmarish 2014 campaign, in which he failed to sign as a free agent last winter primarily due to the draft pick compensation attached to signing him. This caused him to wait to sign until nearly June to re-sign with the Red Sox, thus giving the 31-year-old no spring training to prepare for the season. Drew played in only 85 games last season, batting a miserable .162/.237/.299 and now finds himself likely seeking a 1-year contract in free agency this winter to rebuild his value before signing a multi-year contract next offseason. The left-handed hitting Drew is a career .267/.336/.443 hitter against righties and is known as a quality defender at shortstop. Certainly second base would be an adjustment for him, but Drew would make an excellent platoon partner with Espinosa and could be properly motivated playing under a 1-year “make good” type contract.

Although the numbers felt subpar for him, Ian Desmond captured his 3rd consecutive Silver Slugger award, batting .255/.313/.430 with 24 home runs and 91 runs batted in. Desmond finds himself entering 2015 as his last year under contract before reaching free agency, thus expect the Nationals to have extension talks with him this winter. Count on Desmond playing shortstop for the Nationals on Opening Day 2015.

Only the English vocabulary can limit the superlatives to describe Anthony Rendon’s outstanding 2014 season, batting .287/.351/.473 with 21 home runs, 83 runs batted in, and 17 stolen bases. These terrific numbers also allowed him to capture 5th place in the NL MVP voting and the Silver Slugger at third base. Only 24-years-old Rendon has established himself as one of the brightest young stars in baseball, and should man the hot corner in Washington for the next 5 years.

Returning to form one of the best outfields in baseball, Washington should start Jayson Werth in left field, Denard Span in center field, and Bryce Harper in right field. Yes, I said Werth in left, as his age and range to his left have reached the point where he needs to move to left field and the Nationals should capitalize on Harper’s cannon-like throwing arm and excellent speed. Nonetheless, Werth had another strong season in 2014, hitting .292/.394/.455 with 16 home runs in 147 games played. Signed for another three seasons, the Nationals would be wise to shift Werth higher in the order to capitalize on his excellent on-base skills and his diminishing power; in addition, moving Werth to left field could shield his decreasing athleticism and highlight his present skills and baseball IQ.

In the easiest decision since a bartender asked me “Want another”, the Nationals quickly picked up Span’s $9 million option a few weeks ago, as he is coming off a strong season hitting .302/.355/.416 with 5 home runs and 31 stolen bases in 2014. Only under contract for one additional season, Span’s name will be continually in trade rumors this winter. That said I expect Span to spend 2015 in Washington, hitting atop the lineup, playing a dynamic center field, and allowing uber-prospect Michael Taylor additional development time at Triple-A.

Finally, Bryce Harper failed to have his breakout season in 2014 come to fruition due to a midseason thumb injury. Harper only appeared in 100 games for the Nationals last season, hitting a substandard .273/.344/.423 and 13 home runs. However Bryce was a standout for the Nationals in the postseason, and a full offseason to rest and recover should have him poised for a monster season in 2015. Matt Williams will likely move Harper up in the order next year and would be wise to improve the outfield defensively by moving him to right field.

Bench
#1 Jose Lobaton         $ 1,200,000
#2 Nate McLouth      $ 5,000,000
#3 Kevin Frandsen    $ 1,000,000
#4 (Juan Francisco)   $ 2,100,000
#5 Danny Espinosa   $ 2,200,000
Bench Total                 $ 11,500,000

Offense Total                      $ 81,271,000
Pitching Total                   $ 62,750,000
2015 Overall Payroll    $ 144,021,000

Although his offensive numbers suffered in his switch to the National League, backup catcher Jose Lobaton had a strong defensive season for Washington in 2014. His effect on starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez was particularly noticeable. The 30-year-old switch-hitting catcher should see a small salary increase this winter in his second trip through arbitration and does not reach free agency until 2018. Lobaton should see his numbers rebound in 2015 and is a quality backup catcher.

Nate McLouth struggled through a nightmarish season in 2014, posting a .173/.280/.237 batting line before being shut down with a right shoulder injury. This is far from the production the Nationals were counting on when they signed him last winter to a 2-year $10mm contract with a 3rd year option. Unfortunately the Nationals have little choice but to optimistically hope his offensive struggles were directly attributable to his injury. If so, McLouth could be an invaluable piece for Washington’s bench in 2014, as his defensive versatility, left-handed bat, and stolen base proficiency make him an ideal 4th outfielder.

Last Friday Washington re-signed Kevin Frandsen to a 1-year contract worth $1 million plus $300,000 in possible incentives. The 32-year-old Frandsen slugged .259/.299/.309 with 1 home run in 220 at-bats last season while seeing action at first, second, and third base along with left field for the Nationals. A career .259/.313/.350 hitter, Frandsen has played each position except pitcher, center field and catcher during his major league career, and is so versatile he served as the team’s emergency catcher in 2014. In addition Frandsen showed a knack for pinch-hitting last season, producing 11 hits, tied for 10th in the NL. A valuable clubhouse leader, much of Frandsen’s value lies in his defensive versatility and locker room contributions.

The Nationals bench lacks a left-handed hitting bat with some thump, and as mentioned in yesterday’s article, I believe the team should target Juan Francisco from Toronto to resolve this issue. Francisco is a flawed player but pounds right-handed pitching (career .786 OPS) and can play both corner infield positions. Due to the roster surplus of corner infielders in Toronto, perhaps a deal surrounding Ross Detwiler for Francisco could appeal to both teams.

This leaves the last remaining spot on the bench for veteran Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa. Most expect him to be with another organization next spring, but I would hold off on selling low on his talents and see if his switch to hitting only right-handed rejuvenates his offensive numbers. Scheduled to earn around $2 million in his first year of arbitration, he should serve as a cheap platoon partner with Stephen Drew and provides the Nationals a possible solution at shortstop if Ian Desmond departs next winter.

This hypothetical bench construction would leave the Nationals with a roster conundrum concerning Tyler Moore, a hitter with notable right-handed power but who is out of minor league options. In addition, recent waiver claim versatile utility infielder Pedro Florimon, along with depth catchers Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano are also out of minor league options.

Providing further depth at the Triple-A level would be the versatile Jeff Kobernus and top outfield prospect Michael Taylor. Kobernus offers a quality combination of speed and position flexibility, as he can play virtually anywhere on the field defensively. Michael Taylor projects as the centerfielder of the future in Washington, but a return to AAA would be ideal to allow him to further polish his overall game before a likely permanent midseason promotion.

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Although the easy thing to do in one of these articles is propose signing Max Scherzer and Pablo Sandoval and trading for Mike Trout, considering where the Nationals are both with their roster and payroll, expect a quiet winter in NatsTown. Obviously there will be trade rumors concerning Jordan Zimmermann and the other players nearing free agency, but I hope and think the Nationals will hesitate to tinker too heavily with the core of this team. Remember, the Nationals had the best record in the National League last year and lost a close playoff series to the eventual world champions, they are not far from capturing a title themselves.

Therefore with that in mind, offensively I would look to find a player to pair with Danny Espinosa at second base and tweak the bench. If I could convince either Cabrera or Lowrie to sign for only two years, I would quickly make that happen. However, with many more teams having middle infield needs than players available, I expect both to sign 3+ year deals in the coming weeks. Therefore I project and pronounce that Stephen Drew will likely be the best fit for the Nationals second base need considering contract terms and player talent.

The bench in 2015 should consist of a core of Lobaton, Frandsen, and McLouth, along with Espinosa unless he is traded this winter. The only major need I see is finding a left-handed bat with some power, which the team should attempt to fill cheaply either via free agency or by using superfluous part like Ross Detwiler in trade.

In conclusion this plan leaves the Nationals with a strong, well-balance starting lineup with above-average defensive skills at each position and seven players capable of 15+ home runs. Furthermore the bench now has two LHBs, two RHBs, and a switch-hitter all with home run power and Lobaton, McLouth, and Espinosa are tremendous defensive players. Also, in this exercise I only parted with 1 top prospect, Steven Souza, and stayed under budget, leaving the team poised to make midseason improvements if the need arises.

The biggest weakness involving the currently constructed offense is the propensity toward injury involving nearly every player in the starting lineup, minus perhaps Ian Desmond. As seen in recent years, the lineup can withstand one injury while still performing well, but multiple injuries often caused the offense to stagnate. I think the bench I assemble in this piece is particularly solid, but age and injuries will be the team’s Achilles heel.

Overall I am confident in the roster that has been constructed above, as I expect rebound seasons from Wilson Ramos, Ryan Zimmerman, and newcomer Stephen Drew, continued performance from Denard Span, Anthony Rendon, and Jayson Werth, and a true superstar level season for Bryce Harper. Assuming the team can withstand the injury bug and manufacture a few runs during the year, it should be another enjoyable season in NatsTown in 2015.

The 2015 NatsGM Washington Nationals Offseason Manifesto

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Although the playoffs cast a discouraging shadow on the season, the 2014 Washington Nationals season must be remembered as an overall success. The Nationals finished the year with a 96-66 record and seized their second NL East division title in three years. Unfortunately the lineup collectively slumped against the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS, leading to a swift 4-game exist against the eventual world champions.

Now that the team and the fan base has had time to decompress from the disappointing playoff results, consider today the first day of the 2015 season. With rumors circulating about Jordan Zimmermann’s future and possible contract extensions for Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, and Denard Span, general manager Mike Rizzo must reshape the roster for a World Series run in 2015 while extending the window of contention for future seasons. The Nationals enter the offseason with a seemingly short shopping list, seeking help at second base, depth off the bench, and perhaps another reliever for the bullpen.

Last season the Nationals pitching staff was simply awesome, finishing 1st in ERA (3.03), 11th in Strikeouts (1,288), 1st in fewest Walks Allowed (352), and 11th in Batting Average Allowed (.244). These numbers compare favorably to the team’s 2013 numbers, 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).

Today in Part-1 of my 2014 Offseason Master Plan I focus on refining the Nationals’ pitching staff in their effort to return to the playoffs in 2015 and capture the World Series. In this endeavor I attempted to keep last season’s starting rotation intact, in spite of their rapidly rising salaries, and looked to shed some payroll in the bullpen without depleting the quality of the relief corps. In addition, I needed to keep the pitching staff total payroll under $64 million.

Total Projected 2015 Payroll: $145 million ($136.85mm in 2014)

Pitchers Presently on 40-Man Roster (21): Aaron Barrett, Jerry Blevins, Xavier Cedeno, Tyler Clippard, Erik Davis, Ross Detwiler, Doug Fister, Erik Fomataro, Gio Gonzalez, Taylor Hill, Taylor Jordan, Ryan Mattheus, Felipe Rivero, Tanner Roark, Sammy Solis, Craig Stammen, Drew Storen, Stephen Strasburg, Matt Thornton, Blake Treinen, and Jordan Zimmermann

Pitching Transactions:
#1 Traded Tyler Clippard to Oakland for a Low-Level Prospect
#2 Traded Ross Detwiler to Toronto for Juan Francisco (Edit: Detwiler to Boston for Francisco)
#3 Released Xavier Cedeno and Ryan Mattheus, Outrighted Erik Davis and Erik Fomataro
#4 Traded Steven Souza and Tony Renda to the San Diego Padres for RHRP Kevin Quackenbush,

Starting Rotation
SP #1 Stephen Strasburg              $ 8,100,000
SP #2 Jordan Zimmermann      $ 16,500,000
SP #3 Doug Fister                           $ 11,400,000
SP #4 Gio Gonzalez                       $ 11,100,000
SP #5 Tanner Roark                              $ 525,000
Total                                                        $ 47,625,000

Stephen Strasburg
Stephen Strasburg

Leading the rotation once again will be Stephen Strasburg, who is coming off his third consecutive strong major league season and first throwing more than 200 innings. Strasburg was 14-11 with a 3.14 ERA, 1.121 WHIP and 242 strikeouts over 34 starts and 215 innings pitched in 2014 – legitimate #1 numbers. Strasburg should see a healthy increase in his salary next year in his 2nd experience with arbitration and does not reach free agency until 2017. The 26-year-old is growing into an “Ace” before our eyes.

If one considers Strasburg the “Ace” of the staff, then Jordan Zimmermann is no less than 1A, as he just completed the best season of his career with a 14-5 record, 2.66 ERA, 2.68 FIP, 1.072 WHIP and 182 strikeouts against only 29 walks. He also threw the 1st No-Hitter in Nationals team history on the final day of the season and finished 5th in the Cy Young voting. He enters his final season of arbitration expecting to earn about $16mm and should enter free agency next year as one of the best 15 pitchers in baseball. Recent rumors have had the Nationals shopping Zimmermann’s services, understandable due to his contract status, but expect him to remain in Washington for 2015.

Gio Gonzalez overcame some issues early in the season with his pitching shoulder, including his first career trip to the disabled list, to post his third consecutive quality season in Washington. Gio made 27 starts in 2014, throwing 158.2 innings with a 3.57 ERA, 3.02 FIP, 1.197 WHIP and 162 strikeouts. Gio never seemed to find his rhythm last season, likely directly attributable to the arm issues. With an offseason to rest and recover, expect Gio to have another strong season for the Nats in 2015.

Obtained in one of the most scrutinized and lopsided trades in years, Doug Fister overcame an early season injury to provide Washington with 16 wins, a 2.41 ERA, and a 1.079 WHIP, along with an 8th place finish in the NL Cy Young voting. Fister is scheduled to earn approximately $11mm in 2015, his final season under salary arbitration before reaching free agency next winter. It will be interesting to see if the Nationals are able to (or attempt to) sign the 30-year-old pitcher to a contract extension this offseason. Either way Fister should serve as the #4 starter in 2015.

Rounding out what could be the best starting rotation in baseball, Tanner Roark will act as the team’s 5th starter and continue to attempt to silence his critics skeptical of his outstanding major league numbers. Roark has quickly emerged from an unknown prospect to one of the better young starters in the National League, posting a 15-10 record with a 2.85 ERA in 31 starts and 198.2 innings pitched. In the event the Nationals trade one of their other starting pitchers this winter, Roark would easily slot in as a #4 starter. Fortunately in this exercise, Roark continues to act as the team’s 5th starter.

Behind these five starters, the Nationals could carry Blake Treinen as their 6th starter in their bullpen and Taylor Jordan, A.J. Cole, and Taylor Hill will provide depth at Triple-A Syracuse. In addition the Nationals will likely sign a minor league free agent or two to provide further depth.

Bullpen
Closer Drew Storen                        $ 5,750,000
Stopper Kevin Quackenbush         $ 525,000
RH Set-Up Aaron Barrett                $ 525,000
RH Set-Up Craig Stammen         $ 2,100,000
LH Set-Up Matt Thornton           $ 3,500,000
LH Set-Up Jerry Blevins               $ 2,200,000
Long Relief Blake Treinen                $ 525,000
Total                                                       $ 15,125,000
Total Pitching                                   $ 62,750,000

Although his performance in the playoffs was not ideal, Drew Storen bounced back from a subpar 2013 season to post his best statistical major league season in 2014 – Storen provided the Nationals with a 1.12 ERA, 0.976 WHIP, a 7.3 K/9 rate, 1.8 BB/9, 0.3 HR/9 and 11 saves over 56.1 innings pitched. This breakout season has Storen projected to make approximately $5.75mm next season in arbitration.

In this exercise I had to make the difficult decision to part with outstanding reliever (and fan favorite) Tyler Clippard, who was due to make more than $9mm in his final year of arbitration before reaching free agency next winter. Due to the rising payroll, I expect the Nationals to trade Clippard for a modest return and attempt to identify “Clippard 2.0”, a stellar 8th inning setup man under salary arbitration – let me introduce Kevin Quackenbush.

A long-time favorite of mine since watching him at South Florida, Quackenbush would be a perfect addition to the Nationals relief corps, as his low-90s fastball, slider and curveball allow him to post strong strikeout numbers while limiting walks and home runs. Almost 26-years-old, Quackenbush baffled hitters in 2014 with a 2.48 ERA, 2.65 FIP, 9.28 K/9, 2.98 BB/9, and .33 HR/9 for the Padres last season as a rookie. San Diego is expected to entertain offers for their relievers this winter in an effort to add some offense; perhaps an offer involving Steven Souza could entice the Friars to send Quackenbush to Washington. If so, the Nats would be wise to acquire the next “Tyler Clippard

Helping bridge the gap between Storen and Quackenbush will be right-handed set-up men Aaron Barrett and Craig Stammen. Barrett enjoyed an outstanding rookie season in 2014, posting a 2.66 ERA, 2.59 FIP, 1.303 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, and 0.2 HR/9 ratios in 40.2 innings pitched. Unfortunately many pessimists will define Barrett’s season by his poor performance in Game 4 of the NLDS. However the 26-year-old has an above-average fastball, a plus (or better) slider, and if he can harness his walks allowed, should be a quality late-inning reliever for many seasons.

Stammen provided the Nationals with a third consecutive yeoman effort in the bullpen, with a 3.84 ERA and a 1.266 WHIP over 72.2 innings pitched. It is slightly concerning to see Stammen’s H/9 increase for the third consecutive year and his K/9 rate drop nearly 2 from 2013, but he counteracted this by cutting his BB/9 rate nearly in half (3.0 to 1.7) from the previous year. His ability to limit walks, induce ground balls, and pitch multiple innings is an ideal complement to Barrett in middle relief.

On the other hand, literally, Jerry Blevins and Matt Thornton will handle the left-handed relief duties for the Nationals’ relief corps in 2015. Blevins surface numbers were underwhelming last year, specifically his 4.87 ERA, but dig deeper and one notices Blevins posted a strong 10.36 K/9, 0.47 HR/9, 3.61 BB/9, and 2.77 FIP for the season. In addition, Blevins held LHBs to a .153/.202/.217 batting line in 2014. Unfortunately Blevins’ numbers against RHBs .295/.398/.423, and the fact he faced more righties than lefties for the season, tainted his overall statistics. If manager Matt Williams can use him in more of a lefty specialist role in 2015, Blevins should rebound with another solid season.

Williams should be able to deploy Blevins as more of a LOOGY in 2015 due to the presence of Matt Thornton, a waiver claim from the Yankees late last season. The 38-year-old veteran lefty had another strong season in 2014, with a 1.75 ERA, 2.66 FIP, 1.139 WHIP, and a 3.50 K/BB ratio in 36 innings pitched. His ability to get both LHBs (.250/.307/.263) and RHBs (.236/.306/.327) out successfully makes him a unique weapon to deploy at various stages of the game and should allow Blevins to flourish as a lefty specialist next season.

One of the best stories of the Nationals the past few seasons has been Blake Treinen, a player who has gone from a relatively unknown prospect included in the Cristian Guzman trade to a pivotal piece of the Nationals future relief corps. Treinen blossomed in 2014, watching his heavy sinker add velocity into the mid-90s and sharpening the tilt on his slider. These improvements forced his way to the major leagues, where he successfully pitched 50.2 innings in 2014 with a 2.49 ERA, 1.382 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, and 2.3 BB/9 numbers. Treinen’s history as a starting pitcher will likely start him as the team’s long reliever/spot starter next year, but if he learns to miss bats with his slider, he could see high-leverage innings late next season.

The Nationals currently lack sufficient depth behind these seven relievers, as the Nationals will need to make roster decisions on Xavier Cedeno and Ryan Mattheus, who are both out of minor league options and Erik Davis, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals acted quickly to re-sign Manny Delcarmen as a minor league free agent and will certainly look to add a few others veterans as depth to stash at Triple-A.

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Certainly every fan would like to see the Nationals sign one of the top free agent pitchers available, namely Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields, but unless the team significantly increases its payroll this forthcoming season, it is difficult to see the team spending on pitching in free agency. Most likely, Mike Rizzo will spend the winter trying to sign Doug Fister and/or Jordan Zimmermann to contract extensions, and possibly tinkering with the bullpen.

Therefore I decided to prioritize keeping the five starters in the rotation from last season in Washington, as starting pitching quality and depth is vital to reaching the postseason. Due to that decision and the rising salary obligations to Strasburg, Fister, and Zimmermann, I needed to cut some payroll from the bullpen. Considering Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen are scheduled to make $15+ million in 2015, one of them needed to depart, and since Clippard makes more money and is a free agent next year, he is easier to part with. The Nationals will be lucky to receive a cost controlled reliever or low-level prospect in return for Clippard.

Because Soriano will find employment with another team this winter and Clippard is traded in this scenario, I focused on acquiring “the next Tyler Clippard” whom I identified as San Diego’s Kevin Quackenbush. This deal gives Washington three cheap relievers in Barrett, Treinen, and Quackenbush to push Storen for the closer role and solidify the relief corps for the next few seasons.

Overall my plan allows the Nationals to keep their outstanding starting rotation without tampering with the depth in the minor leagues along with a versatile, youthful bullpen. Furthermore I only traded one top prospect, Steven Souza, while staying below budget, giving the front office flexibility to make trades midseason if injuries or poor performance arise. If the Nationals can avoid the injury bug, there is no reason they cannot repeat as a Top-3 pitching staff in baseball next season.

Only 20 weeks until Opening Day 2015…

* Please return Tomorrow for Part-2 in which I piece together the Nationals 2015 Offense *

Nationals Roster Cleanup – Signed Kevin Frandsen and Released Matt Purke

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Friday morning the Washington Nationals agreed to contract terms with veteran Kevin Frandsen on a 1-year contract worth $1 million plus $300,000 in possible incentives. This agreement allows them to avoid contract arbitration, as Frandsen was entering his final year of arbitration eligibility, and gives him a nifty $100,000 raise from his $900,000 salary in 2014. Frandsen signed with Washington late in spring training last year after asking for, and receiving, his release from the Philadelphia Phillies.

The 32-year-old Frandsen slugged .259/.299/.309 with 1 home run in 220 at-bats last season while seeing action at first, second, and third base along with left field for the Nationals. A career .259/.313/.350 hitter, Frandsen has played each position except pitcher, center field and catcher during his major league career, and is so versatile he served as the team’s emergency catcher in 2014. In addition Frandsen showed a knack for pinch-hitting last season, producing 11 hits, tied for 10th in the NL. A valuable clubhouse leader, much of Frandsen’s value lies in his defensive versatility and locker room contributions.

Much like free beer, it is difficult to complain about a 1-year $1mm contract for a major league veteran. That said I might have preferred to see a younger player like Jeff Kobernus or Tyler Moore in this reserve capacity at half the salary next season: their skills are more apparent on the diamond than Frandsen’s veteran presence in the clubhouse. Nevertheless with this signing and the return of Jose Lobaton and Nate McLouth, the Nationals should possess the core of a strong, versatile bench which is a terrific asset to assist the veteran starting lineup. Though far from a blockbuster deal, Washington did well to re-sign Frandsen quickly and avoid an expensive, time consuming arbitration hearing next spring.

Overall NatsGM Grade -> B-/C+

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In another unrelated move also on Friday, the Nationals released former 2011 3rd round selection LHP Matt Purke, clearing a spot on the 40-man roster. The 24-year-old pitcher was a prized over-slot draft pick three years ago, receiving a $2.75mm signing bonus and a Major League contract worth $4.15mm at the time.  Purke possessed one more season of minor league options due to signing a professional contract as an amateur, before being exposed to waivers.  Therefore, rather than carry him on the roster all winter, the Nationals decided to cut their losses and release him early in the offseason.

Purke was selected in the 1st round out of high school in 2009, but after some unusual circumstances in negotiations with the Texas Rangers, eventually enrolled at Texas Christian University. Armed with a powerful mid-90s fastball and a hammer mid-80s slider, Purke dominated college baseball as a freshman in 2010 and had scouts projecting a future #2 starter in the big leagues. Ever since then, Purke has struggled to stay on the mound, battling arm tendonitis along with undergoing left shoulder and Tommy John surgeries. These setbacks have allowed him to pitch only 136.2 professional innings since being drafted, only 31.1 above A-ball, with a career 5.00 ERA, 7.8 K/9, and 3.6 BB/9.

Due to his age and former excellence, Purke will certainly find another organization willing to gamble on him this winter, perhaps even the Nationals, as a minor league free agent. However, the days of a possible mid-rotation starter pitcher are over, as Purke will now attempt to rebuild himself as a left-handed reliever. Purke was a shrewd risk/reward draft pick three years ago, but a terrific reminder that prospects, especially pitchers, do not always work out. While teams must continue to stockpile elite talent, for every success like Jordan Zimmermann there will be far more that fail to pan out like Mike Hinckley, Josh Smoker and Matt Purke.