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Nationals Take a Smart Risk With Dan Haren

December 5, 2012 in Nationals Offseason

The Washington Nationals today signed SP Dan Haren to a 1-year $13 million contract to roundout their pitching rotation for next season. Though it wasn't the mega-deal either via trade or free agency that some were hoping for, Haren represents an upgrade to the Nationals rotation as well as a tremendous value.

Haren is coming off his worst season since becoming a full-time starter in 2005. Haren was limited to just 30 starts and 176.2 innings pitched. Going 12-13, with a 4.33 ERA. Prior to last season though, Haren had never pitched fewer than 216 innings or won fewer games than he lost. It's that prior consistency, that the Nationals are betting on him returning to with this contract.

From 2005=2011 Haren had a WAR (wins above replacement) In terms of value of at least 4.0, and three years was over 6.0 (according to Fangraphs). To put those numbers in perspective, in the last 8 seasons, typically between 4-6 pitchers have a WAR of 6.0 or higher (and it never was higher than 10), and between 24-27 pitchers have a WAR as high as 4.0. With the exception of Zack Greinke (5 times), no other top free agent starter (Hideki Kuroda, Edwin Jackson, Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Loshe, Ryan Dempster), had broken that 4.0 barrier more than once (most though had multiple seasons in the high 3.0's), and none had come close to 6.0.

Now is WAR the be all end all? Of course not, but it's a pretty good baseline stat (whether you use Baseball reference or Fangraphs). While there is always a lot of debate about the stat, it ends up being pretty accurate when you think of the players or pitchers who are Top 10, Top 25, Top 50, with maybe slight adjustments with the order. Which means that based on those WAR numbers, Haren has been a Top 25 pitcher for his first 7 years as a full time starter, and for three of those years he was Top 10. That is a very impressive resume, and could be a nice boost over Edwin Jackson who has typically been more of a Top 30-50 starter.

The big question of course is will Haren go back to that level of value, given both some concerns with his hip and back. It's tough to say until the season gets under way, but there is some reason for hope. In addition to the fact that he was so highly durable for nearly all of his career, Haren is just 32 (turns 33 in Sept.), meaning that he's still near his peak. Haren also pitched better after returning from the D.L. in late July. In his first 17 starts last season (prior to going on the D.L.), Haren allowed 3 or more earned runs in 11 starts, including 5 or more in six of those starts. After the D.L. stint, he allowed 3 or more earned runs in just four out of 13 starts, and only twice did he allow 5 earned runs or more. In fact Haren gave up just 29 earned runs in the those final 13 starts which breaks down for an average of 2.23 runs per game. That is below Haren's 2005-2011 average of 2.59 earned runs allowed per start. Now it is a small sample size and probably not sustainable, but does show that he can limit runs, like he had in the past.

With a fair expectation that he can return to form, the Nationals should get excellent value with this deal. Had Haren not fallen off last season, the Angels would have never let him hit free agency exercising their $15.5 million option on him. If he had just been on the market and healthy, he reasonably could have expected a 4-5 year deal at $20 million a season. So getting him at $13 million is a steal for just one season, even with the added risk. Yes if he pitches like last year or is significantly injured, the Nationals aren't getting their money's worth, but any pitcher regardless of their track record can get injured. If Haren is healthy though he's likely to outshine every free agent pitcher not named Zach Greinke, and for less money and less years.

In addition to the injury risk, the Nationals do have a slight long term concern with signing Haren for just one year. Washington doesn't have much in the way of starting pitching depth in the high minors, especially top end quality guys. That means the Nationals will have to either trade for or sign a starter next season as well, and it's possible (and somewhat likely) that the Nationals won't get as much value next season (even if they re-sign a healthy Haren next year, it will be for a significant amount). The Nationals are passing on the chance of adding Zack Greinke, who while more expensive, would have locked up a position and a top of the rotation for the Nationals of Stephen Strasburg, Zack Greinke, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann for at least the next three years. Greinke is also a safer bet for this season, though Haren is very capable of matching him. Whether or not this was the better choice is really unknown until Greinke's price is known and Haren's health and production are determined. For 2013 this is a very good deal, but leaves open some future questions.

 

Nationals Win Big in Denard Span Trade

November 29, 2012 in Nationals Trades

The Deal: Minnesota Twins trade CF Denard Span to the Washington Nationals for High-A SP Alex Meyer

Denard Span:

Span is the center fielder/lead-off hitter the Nationals have been looking for the last couple of years. He's got very good speed and for his career is a 76% base stealer (74% last year). He doesn't hit for power, but did have 38 doubles last season in just over 500 AB's. He hit .283 last year with an on base percentage of .342 and a slugging percentage of .395, which was slightly below his career average. He hits lefties and righties equally well, with an OPS last year vs southpaws at .737 and against RHP's hit .739. One shocking split from last year for Span was his home vs road split. At home Span had an .881 OPS, on the road it fell to .593. Hopefully Span finds the confines of Nationals park as friendly as Target Field in Minnesota.

Span's greatest value though may come from his contract. Span is signed through 2014, with an option for 2015. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts Span is due to make $4.75 million in 2013, $6.5 million in 2014, and $9 million if his option is exercised in 2015. That is just $21.25 million for three years for a lower end top 10 centerfielder. Compare that to B.J. Upton who just signed a 5 year $75 million deal, and it is easy to see how much of a value Span is. Other CF's like Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan and Shane Victorino would all be looking at commitments north of $12 million a year, with Bourn's deal potentially costing $17 million over 5 years. Yes those players may be better than Span (though not consistently), but not when contracts are factored in.

Alex Meyer:

The Nationals did have to give up a very promising prospect in pitcher Alex Meyer. Meyer was the Nationals first round pick, and compensation for losing Adam Dunn in the 2011 draft. He excelled in Low and High- A last year, and has the potential to be either a number 2 or 3 pitcher, with a worst case scenario of him being an effective back of the bullpen arm, given his power fastball.

Though a significant prospect, he was at least two years away from being major league ready, and like any prospect is not a guarantee. With the Nationals having control of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Ross Detwiler for at least the next three years, the Nationals could comfortably make this deal.

What this means for the Nationals:

This deal gives the Nationals a big upgrade in the outfield as Michael Morse will no longer be counted on out there. It also gives them a lead-off hitter  who has good speed and on base abilities. Teaming him with Werth, Harper and Zimmerman at the top of the line-up gives the Nationals a very effective top of the order. Also by getting Span under a very affordable contract the Nationals have plenty of money to re-sign Adam LaRoche, and address their pitching needs.Span was also more preferable to a Bourn or Upton, 5 year deal because the Nationals have a good young centerfielder prospect in Brian Goodwin, who can be ready in 2-3 years.

Conclusion:

This was a very smart play that helps the Nationals in both the short term with production and long term financially. Meyer is a good prospect, but he's a bit of a wild card. It was going to be a couple years before he was major league ready, even if everything went perfectly and it is conceivable that he could take a couple years to figure it out and be an effective starter. The Nationals now have great financial flexibility, and if they can re-sign LaRoche can move Morse to an AL team in need of a DH.

Washington Nationals Offseason Series: Why Standing Pat Doesn't Work

November 29, 2012 in Nationals Offseason

There seem to be two essential schools of thought when it comes to Washington Nationals fans on how they approach this offseason. The first school of thought recommends maintaining the status quo, and not making any significant changes to the roster with the possible exception of re-signing free agents like Adam LaRoche or Sean Burnett.The other camp, favors a more aggressive approach of being major players in the free agent/trade markets, getting the team over the next hump onto the World Series. Both schools have a fair amount of validity behind them, but the question remains which one (or more precisely, which camp the Washington Nationals offseason should follow.

Read Also: Nationals Win Big In Denard Span Trade

On paper the "standing pat" crowd has a very strong case. The Nationals led the majors in wins last season despite these situations with the following players:

Bryce Harper- Harper played the first month of the season in the minors and dealt with some growing pains throughout the year. He should be both more developed and play in more games this season.

Ian Desmond- Desmond had a breakout year with 25 HR's and 21 SB's despite missing 32 games throughout the year. You could easily expect to see Desmond for an additional 25 games.

Jayson Werth- Werth might not have been the 'impact' bat the Nationals were hoping for, but he had a .387 OBP and .827 OPS. He only played in 81 games though and should be counted on for 150+ games this season.

Michael Morse- Morse didn't have as strong as a year as was expected, but still showed some nice power numbers. He missed 60 games on the year, and could see his numbers rise being fully healthy.

Kurt Suzuki- Suzuki played in just 46 games for the Nationals, and was a big improvement offensively and defensively over what they were starting. He's not a great catcher, but having him for the full course of the season helps.

Wilson Ramos- Ramos is kinda forgotten, but he only played in 25 games for the Nationals. It's unclear how he'll split time with Suzuki, but what is clear is that a year of him and Suzuki is a vast improvement than what the Nationals had last year.

Tyler Moore and Steven Lombardozzi- Both of these rookies were key utility players and injury replacements for the Nationals last year. While ideally they won't get as many overall at bats if some of these other guys are healthy, both should see their performance improve.

Stephen Strasburg- Strasburg has the best stuff on the staff and was limited to 28 starts and under 160 innings. He should be capable of 32+ starts and at least 200 innings next year. Add in the fact that pitchers are typically stronger after their first year back from TJ surgery and it is even more promising.

Drew Storen- Storen missed the first half of the season due to injury and was only able to pitch 30 innings last year. He also took a while to get back to form, so his performance over at least twice as many innings should be improved.

In addition to improvement in health and or performance of a number of players, the Nationals face a division where they appear to be the clear favorites:

Miami Marlins- The Marlins have sold off nearly all their moderate to high impact talent players and are very much in a rebuild mode for next season. Not only does this mean they aren't a threat for the division, but the Nationals should be able to win more games in their head-to-head series. Last year the Nats were 9-9 against the Marlins. With Miami selling their assets the Nats should be able to pick up a couple of games here.

New York Mets- The Mets are building for the future, and really don't look like a threat in the division. It's also possible that the Mets trade away their two biggest stars, David Wright and R.A. Dickey, as they look to build for the future. Regardless of what the Mets do, the Nationals should be favored to win their season series.

Philadelphia Phillies- The Phillies finished 81-81 last year and a full 17 games behind the Nationals for the division. They still have their three aces at the top of their rotation, but as a whole their performance dipped considerably. Add in the loss of some good secondary players and key contributors and Philly's outlook is up in the air. If they make some big free agent splashes they could be a threat, but they need a lot to go right for them.

Atlanta Braves- The Braves are still the Nationals biggest threat, but they are facing the loss of a couple key players in Michael Bourn and Chipper Jones. Though they have signed B.J. Upton over Bourn, and though he's probably the better long term investment, for next season the Braves overall CF production (offense and defense) will be down a bit. Martin Prado may end up taking over at 3B for Chipper Jones, but it's unclear who will take over for Prado in LF. Likely whomever it is will be a slight downgrade at best as well.

So with improved player production and a favorable outlook in the division the Nationals shouldn't do a thing right? Wrong, now is exactly the time to strike. The Nationals could probably stand pat and be a contender, but they'd be missing an opportunity to improve their chances. Sure their bullpen figures to be pretty solid, but why not try to add an arm to see if you can improve it? Michael Morse and Tyler Moore could handle first base, but they'd probably be a downgrade still to Adam LaRoche (particularly defensively). Adding a LF or CF to improve the outfield's defense would be ideal as well. And though the Nationals appear to have four good starters even without Edwin Jackson, why weaken the rotation and take a risk on an unproven 5th starter?

The Nationals can't get complacent, because if they do it will cost them more later than it will now. Look at the San Francisco Giants, who last year after trading a top prospect for Carlos Beltran let him walk in free agency, only to then see the need later to trade multiple prospects for Hunter Pence at the trade deadline. Instead of addressing a hole in their team, they tried to go a cheaper route and it cost them more in the long run. The Braves are a great example of thinking that you have too much pitching. I doubt anyone thought the Braves needed to add to their rotation at the beginning of the year, as they looked strong 1-5, with top prospect depth in the minors. Yet this team needed sign Ben Sheets off the street, trade a high prospect for Paul Maholm, and pull Kris Medlen out of the bullpen to get through the season.

Washington doesn't have many needs, but they should be aggressive filling them. The Nationals have a strong farm system and good depth so they can both make some trades, as well as use their financial status to sign some big name players. Any myths about not having the money will be dispelled in Part II, while I'll outline some bold proposals in the rest of the Series.    .