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+

THE NatsGM Show #91 – Special Guest Nick J. Faleris

THE NatsGM Show returns with Episode #91 and we are proud to welcome back one of our favorite guests, Nick J. Faleris from 2080Baseball.com.

This week Nick and I heavily dissect the Washington Nationals farm system.  Our conversation begins by discussing the Adam Eaton trade and specifically the prospects lost to the White Sox.  Next Nick shares his thoughts on the top picks from the 2016 Draft, namely Carter Kieboom, Sheldon Neuse, Jesus Luzardo and Nick Banks.  Then we change course and discuss Washington’s top prospects Victor Robles, Juan Soto, Wilmer Difo and Erick Fedde.  Finally, I completely change course to ask Nick his “elevator pitch” of the top prospects in this upcoming June draft.

I want to thank Nick for graciously joining us and providing his evaluations on the Nationals’ system.  Thanks for listening!

THE 2017 Washington Nationals Sleepers

Last week while analyzing the Washington Nationals’ farm system, it particularly caught my attention the depth the organization has outside their top-10 prospects.  This is quite a feat, considering they traded away four top prospects this winter and have qualified for smaller draft bonus pools the past few years due to their success at the big league level.  Washington’s front office should be commended for their collection of prospects outside the top-15, especially up-the-middle hitters.

While the term “sleeper” is rather nebulous, for the purposes of this article it will describe someone ranked outside my top-30 prospects that deserve more hype.  These are my three current favorite sleepers in Washington’s farm system.

Daniel Johnson OF

Johnson was Washington’s 5th round pick last summer, agreeing to an above-slot $325,000 bonus after hitting .382 with 12 home runs and 29 stolen bases for New Mexico State.  Johnson owns an intriguing collection of tools, possessing plus-plus speed and a strong throwing arm, allowing him to project well in center field.

Despite his impressive offensive output in college, his offensive skills lag significantly behind his defensive prowess.  Johnson is raw offensively and has not played against high-level competition, leading scouts to question if he will hit professional pitching.  He has shown some barrel skills and raw pull power from his left-handed swing, but the 21-year-old will need significant time in the minor leagues in order to refine his swing mechanics.  He should begin 2017 at Low-A Hagerstown and his package of tools could have scouts buzzing later this year.

Andrew Lee RHP

Chosen in the 11th round in 2015 from the University of Tennessee, Lee was a solid two-way player for the Volunteers before exclusively dedicating himself to pitching as a professional.  Lee is a large man, standing 6-5 225lbs, along with owning an exciting 3-pitch arsenal featuring a low-90s fastball, an above-average curveball with swing-and-miss potential and a reasonable changeup.  There is effort in his delivery, but he does repeat his mechanics fairly well and has command of the strike zone.

Unfortunately the biggest present knock on Lee is his health, as he underwent Tommy John surgery in the past and missed the second half of 2016 with an injury.  The 23-year-old only threw 84.2 innings in college and another 89.2 professional innings the past two seasons, leading to obvious durability questions going forward.  If he can successfully return to the mound, he could generate buzz as a back-end workhorse type starting pitcher.

Jose Sanchez SS

Signed last summer by the Nationals for a $950,000, Sanchez has been overshadowed by fellow international acquisitions Yasel Antuna and Luis Garcia.  But as his signing bonus indicates, Sanchez is a fascinating middle infield prospect in his own right, possessing an above-average arm, average to solid-average speed and outstanding instincts.  Scouts consistently mention his baseball instincts and IQ, as the 16-year-old shows an uncanny ability to maximize his skills on the field.

Offensively his underwhelming size (6-0 165lbs.) has him lacking the present strength to hit for power, but he has loose wrists and shows a compact swing with impressive barrel skills.  He has a good eye and approach at the plate, which helps him pepper line drives across the outfield.  Scouts expect him to hit for average in the future, but the natural question of how much strength he develops holds the key to his power output and thus, overall offensive profile.  He should spend 2017 in the Dominican Summer League and could gain prospect helium if he hits well this season.

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