The Nationals and Prince Fielder, Why You Shouldn't Count Them Out Just Yet

August 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

Much has been made about this week's report that the Nationals won't have any interest in Prince Fielder this offseason in free agency. Pardon me if I don't etch that in stone just yet. What some unnamed team official says in August about a player that he can't even talk about until November is next to meaningless. Especially when we talk about probably the best free agent on the market, for the team that could be among the most aggressive. Among the reasons that are whispered are the fact that they already have control of Adam LaRoche and Mike Morse next year, they have promising prospects Tyler Moore and Chris Marrero, they are going to pursue a CF/lead-off hitter, and they need to save money for a Ryan Zimmerman extension.

Lets deal with the 'save money' issue, because it affects all the other excuses as well:

According to Cot's Baseball Contracts (and where I'm getting all my known salary info) the Nationals spent the most they ever have as a franchise with an opening day payroll of $68 million (they saved roughly $3 million by trading away players) this season. By my count that put them 22nd among the 30 franchises (though the Astros through trades cut their payroll to be below the Nationals) at the start of the year. Now I'm not saying a team should spend money just to spend money, but the Nationals definitely have room in their budget. How do you know? Well an easy comparison is to their fellow Beltway compatriot the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles spent $87 million this year on their payroll, and have outspent the Nationals by $46 million over the last four seasons combined. Now the reason why this is so significant is the Nationals and Orioles have similar revenues. They get the exact same amount from the National TV and Radio deals, and from the MLB fund (made up of the web revenue, and licensing agreements etc.). On top of that neither ball park has stadium naming rights, and they both get an equal amount from MASN to broadcast their games. You might hear complaints about the fact that the Orioles own a larger percentage of MASN, but the fact that they own a percentage at all is gravy, since the vast majority of ball teams don't own anything on the network that broadcasts their games. Especially teams that don't have the history or the victories to warrant what they get paid. While it is possible that the Orioles have a better local radio deal, that is just a small percentage of the overall revenues that it shouldn't make a huge difference. The Nationals have actually out drawn the Orioles and are on pace (estimating this year's numbers based on current per game ticket sales) have more than 630,000 extra fans over this 4 year period. In addition the Nationals have far more luxury boxes and expensive premium seating than the O's, meaning their profit margin should be far greater. On top of all of that the Lerner family is one of the wealthiest owners in the league so if they had to dip into their pockets (though they really shouldn't) it's not the end of the world.

So how much do the Nationals have to spend? Well it is a little bit hard to say as there is a new CBA being negotiated that will raise the minimum rates so I will estimate them higher than they likely will be ($500K) just because I'd rather overestimate and have more money to spend then underestimate and have less. For arbitration players I'll give a good estimate, but it is really hard to predict until the two numbers are presented (because then if you split the difference you are usually about right). Here we go:

  • C: Wilson Ramos- $500K
  • C: Jesus Flores- $900K (3rd Arb year)
  • 1B: Adam LaRoche- $8 million (plus a $1 million buyout for 2013 left)
  • 2B: Danny Espinosa- $500K
  • SS: Ian Desmond- $500K
  • 3B: Ryan Zimmerman- $12.1 million
  • LF: Mike Morse- $3.5 million (2nd arb year, first year was low so his raise potential is somewhat constrained)
  • CF: Roger Bernadina- $1.1 million (should be his first arb year)
  • RF: Jayson Werth- $13.5 million
  • UTL: Brian Bixler- $5ooK
  • UTL: Chris Marrero- $500K (huge question mark if they'd call him up, but he is on the 40 man roster)
  • UTL: Unknown- shouldn't cost more than $1 million
  • UTL: Unkown- Shouldn't cost more than a $1 million
  • SP: Stephen Strasburg- $4.87 million
  • SP: Jordan Zimmermann-$2.2 million (1st Arb. year, his number should be held down by the injury)
  • SP: John Lannan- $4 million (2nd Arb. year, could be slightly higher)
  • SP: Tom Grozelanny- $3.1 million (3rd Arb. year, but the fact that he has struggled and gone to the pen will depress his number)
  • SP: Ross Detwiler- $500K
  • RP: Sean Burnett- $2.3 million (plus a 2013 buyout of $250K)
  • RP: Tyler Clippard- $1.2 million (1st Arb. year, lack of saves will help keep this number down)
  • RP: Doug Slaten- $900K (3rd arb. year)
  • RP: Drew Storen- $500K
  • RP: Ryan Mattheus- $500K
  • RP: Henry Rodriguez- $500K
  • RP: Colin Balester- $500K
  • Other Major League contracts:
  • RP: Yunesky Maya- $2 million (still has $2 million more in 2013 as well)
  • OF: Bryce Harper- $1.75 million
  • UTL: Anthony Rendon- unknown probably under $2 million
  • SP: Matt Purke- unknown probably under $1 million
Grand total: $71.5 million for the 25 man roster and other ML contracts
Now that seems like a lot, but remember we estimated on the high side for the minimum deals, and the bench guys. If a couple of the arbitration deals come in less a couple million could be shaved off that total. On top of about $7 million of that is earmarked for guys who won't be on the major league roster(for at least the majority of the year). The Nationals can also free up some money by dealing away players. If the Nationals were to sign Fielder, they wouldn't keep LaRoche as well. While they might have to add some money to do the deal they'd probably save $6 million right there. Given that Grozelanny has been moved to the pen, the Nationals could look at dealing him to get at least partial value of the prospects they gave up for him, as well as free up a pitching slot for one of their young guys.
Now if you are looking that the maximum the Nationals could spend would be a $100 million (which given their revenue streams seems very likely), the Nationals would have about $40 million to spend before reaching that threshold (before dealing LaRoche etc.). Now I'm not saying they have to reach that threshold, but that should be about what their limit is, unless their ticket sales go up (even if that isn't their 'limit', they have spent so much under budget of late, that they have plenty of room before they get into the red). That is plenty of money to sign an impact free agent and resign Ryan Zimmerman (mainly because Zimmerman's contract is already set to be over $12 million, even if you raise him up to $20 million, that is only an $8 million increase).

The Nationals are going to spend their money on adding a Center fielder/Lead-off hitter:

That is fantastic to hear, but I don't really understand what one thing has to do with the other. They aren't going to find their center fielder/lead-off guy on the free agent market. In fact they won't find any quality center fielders on the free agent market. The best one out there is Carlos Beltran, and he is 35 years old and more of a corner outfielder now. Outside of that you have a bunch of guys who might be platoon worthy, but really aren't going to be the boost to your lineup that you are hoping for. If the Nationals add a center fielder it will probably be via trade, and someone such as Denard Span who has a more team friendly deal. It won't be some $10 million a year type of player, and really shouldn't impact their pursuit of an impact bat.

Now the Nationals could find their lead-off hitter at another position like SS, if they get in the Jose Reyes bidding, but that is really their only legitimate option. Now if they spend on Reyes, it does make sense to not go after Fielder (though not impossible), but that doesn't seem to be the current level of thinking. Also, it brings to mind another question, if part of the reason that Fielder doesn't make sense is because of the musical chairs situations and how that impacts uber-prospect Bryce Harper (we'll get to that later), the same holds true for adding Reyes. Signing Reyes will keep Danny Espinosa at 2B, which will block uber-prospect Anthony Rendon, who is expected to move there when he becomes a pro. They could always move Harper to CF and Rendon to LF, but that isn't the best defensive alignment. It also would put them on essentially a Reyes or bust situation, here the Nationals can gauge the two markets and see what makes more sense to invest big money into, a true impact bat or a lead-off hitter.

The Nationals have promising prospects Tyler Moore and Chris Marerro:

I'm sorry but there isn't a team in this league that would choose these two prospects over Fielder. One prospects are uncertain to begin with, and we have seen far better 1B prospects such as Justin Smoak and Brett Wallace struggle in recent years (they might still come around, but it has been a rocky road. Marrero and Moore aren't even close to their ilk, and shouldn't be considered 'locks' for the future.

Moore has been a nice find since drafting him in the 16th round of the 2008 draft. Much of the hype surrounding him stems from the fact that he has 59 HR's over the past two seasons. During that time his power has been prodigious as in 1072 plate appearances he has 72 doubles and 7 triples to go along with those 59 HR's. The problem is that in those 1072 PA's he has just 64 walks and 254 strikeouts. That mean he is striking out nearly 25% of the time and walking under 6% of the time. Now that would be awful regardless, but the fact that he isn't a high contract guy, makes his value pretty non-existent. If he is chasing pitches pitches that are probably 6 to 8 inches off the plate now, what is he going to do in the majors when they are 1-2 inches outside the zone? Sure there is still time for him to grow, but it better happen fast. He'll be 25 next season and he is a bat only type of player. At best he profiles as a backup right now and should have no bearing towards signing a long term first baseman.

Marrero is without a doubt a better prospect, but he is still a limited player. Marrero never developed into the 35-40 HR hitter that he was projected to be, but has turned out to be a solid bat. He has hit .290 plus each of these last two years and has an OPS over of .800 or more, which is solid. The problem is it just isn't enough any way you cut it first base is a production position (usually predicated on power), and Marrero's production just isn't there. Over these last two seasons (at AA and AAA) he has in over 1,100 plate appearances hit just 32 HR's, and 58 doubles (zero triples aren't really a shock). That is just 90 extra base hits and nearly a 2-1 double to home run ratio. If Marrero was an up the middle defender that wouldn't be an issue, but at a corner position (particularly first base) it is. He could see his power numbers go up a bit in the majors and develop into a 25 HR, Adam LaRoche type of 1B, but he's not an impact guy. And unlike LaRoche he's not a particularly good defender at the position (he could develop, but it isn't promising). He'd be a cheap option, but that is about all that he has going for him as his numbers will probably put him in the bottom half of the league (and his defense will sink him further). In the end his best role is probably as trade bait to an American league team where he can be a cheap young DH option. Which doesn't have near the barometer of offensive success, and obviously eliminates his defensive liabilities.

The Nationals already have Adam LaRoche and Mike Morse under team control:

While that is true, it should be important to remember that LaRoche only has an $8 million season next year and a $1 million option remaining on his guaranteed money. And as stated above the Nationals should be able to shed the majority of that commitment via trade. As for Morse it is true that he has two more arbitration years left which will depress his value (Maybe a combined $10-12 million over those two years), but after that the Nationals will have to open up their check book if he's still producing. And since Morse is two years older than Fielder, you'd be writing out a pretty big check to a 32 year old. Since LaRoche shouldn't really factor too much into this situation this really comes down to a decision between Fielder and Morse.

Now the main focus will be hitting, because honestly Morse has struggled (though understandably so) in the field at first base, and since he's not exactly a great defender in the outfield they are both bat guys. Now obviously Fielder's counting stats will be greater because Morse essentially has a year and a half worth of data (actually slightly less), but we can use percentages to get a more accurate comparison. Morse is having his best year this season good for a .316/.372/.547 batting line, which comes out to an impressive .392 wOBA. Fielder though has a .298/.412/.549 line this year for a .402 wOBA. While that .010 difference in wOBA (which is the best offensive stat) doesn't seem like much, taking a deeper look inside shows a different tale.

Despite an .018 disadvantage in batting average, Fielder has a .040 lead in on-base percentage. This is due to a strong 15.3% walk rate, which has been consistent for him. Since his 2nd year, his walk rate has never dipped below 12.1% and has been above 15% for each of the last three years. Fielder has also cut back on the stikeouts this year which have usually hovered around 19%, are now down to under 15% (14.7%) this season. Fielder also impresses in the fact that he doesn't seem to be having any sort of fluke season. Fielder's BABIP (batting average of balls in play) is just .307 this season (the norm is .300), and for his career he is exactly at the .300 mark. This shows that Fielder hasn't been just extra lucky this year. Given that he has been consistent from year to year it is safe to assume that his numbers will continue to stay on this level.

Morse on the other hand has not fared so well looking at his number from these last two years. Morse's on-base percentage is lower, because his walk rate is in the danger zone. Last year he had a scary looking 7.5% which is below what you'd want, but this year it is even worse at 5.9%. While it is true that part of the reason Fielder and other power hitters have a higher walk rate is because of intentional walks, that doesn't come close to making the % difference. Fielder would still have an 11.5% walk rate, and Morse's would be at 5% even. What makes it even worse is that Morse has a higher strikeout rate at 20.9%. As for the argument about the higher batting average, there looks to be a significant luck/park factor there. Morse has an incredible .363 BABIP this season, following up on a .330 BABIP from last year. While it is possible for a hitter to consistently hit above that .300 average, it isn't a large group that can do so. That is a pretty big assumption that Morse can be part of that group, and constantly hit well enough to overcome his walk rate.

Now this isn't to say that Morse can't still be a highly productive hitter, just that given the small sample size Morse's numbers are far more likely to be skewed. And if the Nationals pass on Fielder, solely because they 'have Morse' they could be disappointed.


Well where does that leave us? The Nationals have without a doubt more than enough money to go after an impact player, but with a small free agent market it will come down to essentially Jose Reyes or Prince Fielder (unless they go for Albert Pujols), as there really aren't any other impact names out there. With no top prospect in the minors at the position and Morse's ability to play left field, it really leaves open the possibility for the Nationals to enter the Prince Fielder sweepstakes. Yes the question will be raised as to what to do with Morse once Bryce Harper is ready in the minors, that is a bridge that can be crossed at a later date. If Morse keeps producing and Harper is ready by next June/July, the Nationals could get a huge bounty in a trade. Other options could be hoping that Espinosa gets on base well enough to be a leadoff guy, and move Harper to CF. Regardless, have too many quality players is hardly a 'problem' and one the Nationals have never faced.

If the Nationals go in the Reyes direction I can understand it, but the fact of the matter is they need to add to this lineup if they want to compete, and Fielder is without a doubt an impact player. Morse has been right there as well this year, but he's older and with far less of a proven track record, and given the trade potential etc. his presence shouldn't make the Nationals miss out on Fielder.


4 responses to The Nationals and Prince Fielder, Why You Shouldn't Count Them Out Just Yet

  1. How about risk? If he declines, all the young talent will be wasted with Werth and Fielder accounting for 40% of payroll. If Strasburg and Harper is really that good – the team can't afford everyone 3-4 yrs down the line. Also, Lerners are rich b/c they make money. What do you think their profit margins are in their buildings? 0%? -10%? Too one-sided analysis. Until the team wins w/their young talent – you do not add and waste resources. i.e. Jason Werth – his WAR is not worth the pay. You can get away with one but not two (especially w/2nd being larger contract).

    • @JW, you are going to have to spend money to win. It won't just be from the minors unless their health is perfect.

  2. Steve, I agree and think Fielder would be great. With Morse, the upgrade isn't that great with Fielder. Maybe 1-2 wins. This reminds me of the Cubs with Prior and a young team. Like the cubs, they extended their players and signed big free agents. Their young talent never panned out and they are stuck in a 7-10 year Span of .500 ball. patience will win out. What the nationals need is strasburg, Harper Burke, white and others to be in the majors then add. I rather be the Rays with money then the cubs maxed out at .500

  3. Steve – I agree that they COULD afford Prince, but that they won't or even shouldn't go for him. One is the price, as JW mentions, that has the potential to hamstring the team later on. But the other is marginal improvement. Prince clearly is better than Laroche, and more likely to keep hitting like this than Mighty Morse. But HOW much better? I would argue he is much less of an improvement than Reyes over Desmond, or even Brandon Phillips over Desmond. Reyes will likely be expensive but as much as Prince, but Phillips will not be in either league.

    But even that difference pales to the difference a new Cf or #3 starter has. You have talked about the CF options, and while there aren't great starters on the FA market, they may be able to make a trade for someone and have to fit their salary into payroll. I am just guessing, but maybe a Billingsley, Danks, or Dempster type.