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+

Wieters To Victory – Washington Signs Catcher Matt Wieters

Rumors began swirling early Tuesday morning and became official Friday as the Washington Nationals and free agent catcher Matt Wieters agreed to terms on a 2-year deal worth $21 million.  Wieters will earn $10.5 million each year and the pact includes an opt-out for Wieters after this season.  In addition, reportedly Washington can defer $5 million until 2021.  In a related move to create room on the 40-man roster, Washington placed minor league 1B Jose Marmolejos-Diaz on the 60-Day disabled list with a forearm strain.

The almost 31-year-old Wieters made his 4th all-star appearance last season for Baltimore, hitting .243/.302/.409 with 17 home runs and 66 runs batted in over 124 games played.  For his 8-year major league career, Wieters has hit .256/.318/.421 with 117 home runs.  A switch-hitter Wieters has been better during his career against lefties with a .801 OPS verses a .716 against righties.  He has never been able to live up to his early hype as the #5 overall pick and someone compared to “Joe Mauer with power”.  Nonetheless, this collective disappointment aside, Wieters is an above-average hitting catcher with legitimate 15-20 home run power.

Defensively Wieters earns mixed reviews, as he possesses a plus arm and has earned the reputation of “slowing down the running game”, throwing out 33% of career base stealers.  He also gets solid grades for his ability to block pitches in the dirt and pitchers have long commented on his skill at calling games.  Negatively, Wieters has poor marks as a pitch framer and his 6-5 height often works against him getting strikes called low in the zone.  Depending on how strongly you believe in the value of pitch framing and the metrics attempting to value this skill, Wieters is somewhere between a below-average and a solid-average defensive catcher.

This signing is extremely difficult to evaluate in a vacuum, as there is a near certainty Wieters arrival will force the departure of either Derek Norris or Jose Lobaton later this spring.  Lobaton is superior defensively, has experience with the pitching staff and makes less money ($1.575mm), making him the probable option to stay.  However, Norris’s pitch framing skills, ability to punish left-handed pitching and age make him an intriguing bounce-back candidate and platoon-mate for Wieters.  Norris does have minor league options, but it is highly unlikely Washington would option someone earning $4.2 million for any length of time, besides John Lannan.

Nonetheless what is clear is that Wieters is a significantly better player than Lobaton, and is a safer option than Norris.  If Washington goes with the combination of Wieters and Norris, the upgrade from Lobaton cost them approximately $8 million and makes them perhaps 1 win better this season.  This has been the going rate for wins in free agency, but falls well short of what might be considered a bargain.  With Wieters and Lobaton, Washington is spending about $6 million more this season to upgrade less than a win, but gives the Nationals some security if Norris’s bat fails to rebound from 2016.  This is the essential thesis of this deal – Washington increased their payroll $6-$8 million in 2017 to marginally upgrade their catching position with a more consistent and reliable player.

Overall I am not surprised Wieters eventually signed with Washington, as his agent Scott Boras’ relationship with ownership, plus the departure of Wilson Ramos, made this a natural fit.  However, this still strikes me as odd, as Washington has bigger needs on the roster, namely bullpen and backup outfield, yet has acted stingy with adding payroll all winter.  On the surface, signing a league-average catcher for two years and $21 million like Wieters feels like a reasonable signing, as he should play about 110 games each season and post a 1.5-2.0 WAR.  There is a low chance he significantly outperforms his paycheck, but there is also a slim chance he grossly underperforms the terms as well.  This late in the offseason, or technically now during spring training, one expects free agent contracts to be bargains for the team, and this is definitely not a bargain.

And this is my major dilemma with this signing – Washington adds insurance to their lineup and the benefits of helping Boras while sticking it to Baltimore, but the team did not drastically improve compared to the cost.  $10.5 million, minus Norris or Lobaton’s salary, could add another reliever or two, plus a veteran outfielder, improving three positions rather than one.  While the team improves by signing Wieters, I believe it is a poor allocation of resources by the front office.  If Washington decides to go with Wieters & Norris rather than Wieters & Lobaton, I like it much more, but in general, I would have passed on this signing.

NatsGM Overall Grade ->             D

Lind A Hand – Washington Signs Adam Lind

In an obvious attempt to bolster their bench, reports surfaced Monday the Washington Nationals had signed veteran 1B Adam Lind to a 1-year deal worth $1 million plus a club option for 2018 with a $500,000 buyout.  Aside from the closer spot, Washington’s biggest need was additional bench depth and this signing directly addresses this concern.

The 33-year-old Lind has spent 11 seasons in the major leagues, playing for Toronto, Milwaukee and Seattle.  Last season with the Mariners, Lind hit .239/.286/.431 with 20 home runs and 58 runs driven in over 126 games played.  A left-handed hitter, Lind owns a career .271/.328/.462 batting line with 186 home runs.  In particular, Lind has punished right-handed pitching during his career, posting a .287/.347/.502 (.849 OPS) verses a .215/.260/.329 line against lefties.  Finally, Lind has shown an unusual knack for pinch hitting, producing a .309/.389/.532 and 5 home runs in 94 career at-bats.

Defensively Lind has been exclusively a first baseman since 2010, when previously he dabbled playing some left field.  The defensive metrics do not care for him at the cold corner, although there are often flaws in the data judging first base defense.  Lind appears to be a natural fit to backup Ryan Zimmerman at first base, spelling him against difficult right-handed pitchers and acting as a dangerous pinch hitter late in games.

At first glance this appears to be one of the bigger steals in free agency this winter, as Lind has hit 20+ home runs in six of the past eight years.  Certainly he is coming off a subpar season, but his powerful left-handed bat provides outstanding depth behind the oft-injured Zimmerman and gives manager Dusty Baker a valuable weapon in the late innings.

Lind represents a substantial upgrade from holdover Clint Robinson, who failed to notch an extra base hit after the all-star break last year and holds a career .710 OPS against right-handed pitching.  For an additional $400,000-$500,000 in salary from Robinson to Lind, Washington improves 70 points in career OPS points and nearly 140 points in career OPS against righties.  This is a massive upgrade.

For the cost of a rounding error in their overall budget, Washington addressed their second largest team weakness and dramatically enhanced the quality of their bench.  Lind is not a star, but he represents a large upgrade at cheap price at an area of need, making this a terrific signing by the Nationals.

NatsGM Grade ->             A / A-

Review The Drew – Stephen Drew Returns To Washington

Thursday the Washington Nationals announced they had agreed to terms with veteran infielder Stephen Drew on a 1-year contract worth $3.5 million, along with another $1.2 million in potential incentives.  Drew was a pleasant surprise for the Nationals in 2016, batting .266/.339/.524 with 8 home runs in 143 at-bats, while seeing time defensively at second base, shortstop and the hot corner.  An unfortunate bout with vertigo caused him to miss nearly two months of the season, but that issue seems resolved as he returned to the roster in September.

The 33-year-old Drew has spent 11 seasons in the major leagues, with a career batting line of .252/.318/.424 with 122 home runs.  A left-handed hitter, Drew possesses impressive power for a middle infielder, along with a strong .771 career OPS against right-handed pitching.  Of note, Drew showed a knack for pinch hitting last season, hitting .231 with 3 home runs in 26 at-bats.  The metrics also rate him as both a decent defender and baserunner.  At this point in his career, Drew would be overextended as a starter, but profiles well in a utility infielder role.

This signing provides Washington with a solid left-handed hitter off the bench and valuable insurance behind Daniel Murphy at second base, Trea Turner at shortstop and Anthony Rendon at third base.  Also, this gives the Nationals the flexibility to move Murphy to first base if Ryan Zimmerman hits the disabled list or struggles offensively.  Effectively Stephen Drew will serve as the top backup at all four infield positions for Washington in 2017.  Finally, this also allows Washington the option to send Wilmer Difo to the minor leagues for additional seasoning and delay his major league service.

In conclusion this was a smart signing for the Nationals and immediately improves their 25-man roster.  Drew provides Washington a proven major league hitter, a popular figure in the clubhouse and a dramatic upgrade to the bench.  My only minor quibble is considering the number of free agents still available, I thought Washington could sign Drew (or another player) at a lower financial guarantee.  The money is reasonable, but I worry this could hinder the front office from acquiring a much-needed late-inning relief pitcher or upgrading from Clint Robinson.  Nonetheless, this is a relatively low-risk deal and the Nationals have a much deeper, versatile roster with Stephen Drew, making this a quality move for Washington.

NatsGM Grade ->             B