THE NatsGM Show #93 – Special Guest Art Fuccillo

THE NatsGM Show is LIVE from West Palm Beach, Florida and we are honored to welcome to the Podcast Executive Vice President of Lerner Enterprises, Art Fuccillo!

As the “point man” for the Ballpark at the Palm Beaches, Art shares his thoughts and insights into how the facility went from a vision into a reality.  He talks about the difficulties of the project, completing it in 15 months, and what they are still looking to improve to the complex in the future.

Thank you to Art for generously sharing his time with me and thank you for listening to our interview!

Wednesday’s Scouting Notes From West Palm Beach

Building off yesterday’s column, this afternoon I return with several additional scouting notes from the past two days in Florida.  Please let me know in the comment’s section if there are players or topics you wish for me to discuss.  Also, please ignore any typos or grammatical errors, I am writing these reports rapidly in order to turn them around in a timely fashion.

Although the stadium radar gun did not agree, I was extremely impressed with Joe Nathan’s performance Tuesday.  Nathan’s fastball was sitting 88-89mph on the stadium radar gun, touching 90mph.  In addition Nathan flashed a good slider and even showed a quality changeup to a left-handed batter in his one inning of work.  Even more impressively, each pitch Nathan threw showed natural movement, with nothing going straight and everything sinking and cutting toward left-handed hitters.  At 42-years-old he no longer has “closer” stuff, but if he can add another tick or two of velocity this spring, I can envision Nathan helping Washington (or another team) in middle relief this season.

Following Nathan on Tuesday for the Nationals was RHP Austin Adams, one of two players Washington received for Danny Espinosa this winter.  Adams immediately caught my attention, flashing a 93mph fastball with excellent life and a powerful 87mph slider/cutter with sharp movement.  Adams is listed at 6-2 225lbs and looks even bigger, with long limbs and some natural deception in his delivery.  He has plenty of effort in his motion and his mechanics are difficult to repeat, which explains his past difficulties allowing walks.  Nonetheless, with the potential for two above-average pitches if his command can improve, there is a chance the Nationals have found a possible asset in middle relief.

* Obviously it is only a few at-bats, but Ryan Zimmerman looks completely lost at the plate.  Zimmerman appears to be cheating and guessing fastball in order to catch up to reasonable velocity, which leaves him exposed to quality off-speed pitches.  Especially on Tuesday, Zimmerman’s leg kick seemed exaggerated and lengthy, hindering his ability to find a rhythm.  Also, his swing looked extremely long and slow, leaving him in a position unable to hit premium velocity or reasonable breaking pitches.  I acknowledge it is early in the spring and Zimmerman has only played a few games so far, but I am extremely concerned Zimmerman’s days of producing offensively are in the rearview mirror.

* Lost somewhat amongst the news on the field, Tuesday the Nationals announced that catcher Spencer Kieboom had cleared waivers and was re-assigned to Triple-A Syracuse.  Last week Washington designated Kieboom for assignment to clear room on their 40-man roster for Joe Blanton.

As mentioned in last week’s column, the 25-year-old Kieboom struggled through a difficult offensive season in 2016, batting only .230/.324/.314 in 309 at-bats.  A defensive stalwart, Kieboom’s offensive limitations, along with the development of other backstops in the organization, has found him in an organizational roster crunch.  Likely the best thing for Kieboom’s career would be a trade to another organization, but teams cannot ever have enough catching depth and Washington was lucky to sneak him through waivers.  While he does not have a high ceiling, his defensive aptitude could allow him to become a backup catcher in the majors, though his likely outcome is as a Triple-A player.  Nonetheless, it was a bit of good fortune Washington was able to keep Kieboom in their organization.

Eyewitness Account – Scouting The Washington Nationals vs The Boston Red Sox

This week we have taken NatsGM on the road to West Palm Beach, Florida in order to thoroughly scout the Washington Nationals, their prospects and their brand new spring training complex.  I shall write a full length piece next week discussing the new stadium, which is absolutely outstanding, but the next few days I wish to share some of my scouting notes on what I observe in Florida.

Below are my thoughts on Washington Nationals pitcher Joe Ross, new catcher Derek Norris, and the conundrum the Red Sox face defensively this season at third base.

Working as the starting pitcher for Washington Tuesday was Joe Ross, a pitcher I was particularly interested to watch, as his performance slumped down the stretch last season.  And in this viewing, Ross looked like a pitcher early in spring training, as he struggled to repeat his mechanics from the windup and was often flying open with his front side.

Ross sat (according to the stadium gun that looked 2-3mph off by my eye) 90-93mph with the fastball, touching 94mph, with little command or control of the pitch.  His fastball showed cutting action and some life, but he could not locate it in the strike zone.  His slider was inconsistent at 85-87mph, primarily because he was overthrowing it and putting it in the left handed batters’ box.  On a positive note, he threw two changeups in the 3rd inning, one with notable fading movement away from a left-handed batter.

Unfortunately this viewing left me deeply concerned about his 2017, as the stuff has not returned from last summer and he seems to be fighting his delivery.  In addition, I am a big believer that hitters will tell you how “good” a pitcher’s stuff is – Boston absolutely pounded Ross today worse than they did their batting practice pitcher prior to the game.  I hope these criticisms look silly in a few months, but I am worried about Joe Ross getting major league hitters out a month from now.

* Defensively new Nationals’ catcher Derek Norris specifically caught my eye, as he was extremely quiet behind the dish and, in particular, framed two pitches perfectly for strikes on the outside corner.  Ross was struggling with his location, but Norris made a real effort to help his pitcher.  In addition, Norris threw out the speedy Mookie Betts trying to steal in the 3rd inning, posting a 1.71 second pop time from his knees to gun down the runner.  Certainly it is a first impression after several years of casually watching him, but Norris is a better defender than I originally thought when the trade was conceived.

* After watching three ground balls pass by third baseman Pablo Sandoval today, it has me wondering how his defensive deficiencies will affect and hinder Boston’s pitching staff this season.  This concern is exacerbated considering they have 4 projected left-handed starters in their rotation, meaning right-handed batters will be pulling the ball with force toward the left side of the infield.  Furthermore, Xander Bogaerts does not have great range at shortstop, so their infield defense on the left side could allow more singles and doubles this season than perhaps projections systems will forecast.

Blanton To The Rescue – Washington Signs Joe Blanton

After months of speculation, Thursday the Washington Nationals addressed a big weakness, officially signing reliever Joe Blanton to a 1-year pact worth $4 million.  The deal comes with another $1 million in incentives and allows Washington to defer $3 million into the future.  His addition will bolster the right-handed pitching depth in Washington’s bullpen in addition to Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Koda Glover.  In a corresponding move, Spencer Kieboom was designated for assignment to clear a space on the 40-man roster for Blanton.

Blanton, 36, was surprisingly still available after a strong 2016 for the Dodgers, posting a 2.48 ERA and 80 strikeouts against only 55 hits and 26 walks allowed over 80 innings pitched.   After nearly 10 years working as a starter, Blanton has had a career transformation since moving to the bullpen.  Blanton has abandoned his sinker, which he used quite often as a starter, and now relies on his upper-80 slider and 91-92mph fastball, with the occasional curveball and changeup to get hitters out.  As a reliever Blanton does three things well, namely he strikes out nearly a batter per inning, while limiting his walks and home runs allowed.

The advanced metrics believe Blanton is a quality reliever that outpitched his numbers in 2016, as his .240 BABIP and 82% left on-base percentage last season are extremely difficult to achieve and replicate.  Blanton’s 2.92 and 3.33 FIP and 3.20 and 3.43 DRA the past two years say he is a strong option working as a setup man, exactly how he will be used in Washington.  Assuming he stays healthy, Blanton should serve as a key piece in the back of Washington’s bullpen in the 7th and 8th innings this season.

Unfortunately the team was forced to designate the 25-year-old Kieboom, Washington’s 5th round selection from Clemson University in 2012.  Drafted with the reputation as an outstanding defender, Kieboom has soft hands, excellent blocking skills and has thrown out 34% of attempted base stealers in his pro career.  Unfortunately his offense has not caught up to his defense, as Kieboom hit only .230/.324/.314 last season in 309 at-bats.  A right-handed hitter, Kieboom has a knack from drawing walks and pull side power, but his mediocre results at Double-A has most people questioning his hitting ability.

In addition, Kieboom found himself in an organizational roster crunch, as Washington has three major league capable catchers in Matt Wieters, Derek Norris and Jose Lobaton.  In the minors, Triple-A Syracuse projects to have Pedro Severino and Jhonatan Solano behind the plate, while Double-A should see Raudy Read as their starting catcher.  This left Kieboom as the projected backup at Double-A and without enough playing time to improve his offensive skills.  He has the potential to be a major league backup due to his defensive prowess, but the bat makes him a probable career Triple-A up-and-down type player.

Overall it is difficult to quibble with this move, as Washington outwaited an unusual free agent market and capitalized on an opportunity to acquire an overlooked reliever at a quality price.  Certainly Blanton does not resolve the question of who will close, but he gives the team another veteran pitcher and one who has proven to be an asset as a setup man.  Prior to this move, Washington was counting on Treinen and Glover to fill the 7th and 8th inning roles: no question both have the ability, but Blanton solidifies this spot and lengthens the bullpen’s depth.

The upgrade to Blanton from a less reliable option like Trevor Gott or Joe Nathan has to be worth 0.5-1.0 wins this season and should allow manager Dusty Baker to sleep easier at night.  In addition I would expect Washington to trade Kieboom in the next several days for something of value, making this acquisition even more valuable to the organization.  While not sexy, these are the exact type of underrated moves winning teams make each offseason that bolster the depth and talent of their roster.  Blanton is an ideal fit for Washington’s bullpen and came at a discount price, which makes this one of my favorite Hot Stove moves this offseason.

NatsGM Overall Grade   ->           A- / B+