One that Got Away: Jake Smolinski

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It turned out to be the last “big” trade Jim “Leatherpants” Bowden would ever make before being fired in the wake of the “Smiley” Gonzalez fiasco just prior to the beginning of the 2009 season.  The previous November, with the Washington Nationals coming off a dispiriting 100-loss season in the first year in their brand new stadium, Bowden was searching desperately for ways to bring in some “marquee” names and hopefully improve the team.  True to his seemingly random wheeler-dealer ways, he did exactly what a rebuilding franchise should not do–traded prospects for the kind of big leaguers who in the best case scenario would improve the team just enough that it wouldn’t get a future high draft pick, but not enough to get them anywhere near playoff contention.

Bowden’s biggest move that offseason was to send two prospects and first year player Emilio Bonifacio to the penny pinching Marlins in exchange for underachieving starting pitcher Scott Olsen and lumbering slugger Josh Willingham.  The trade largely turned out to be a wash for both clubs.  Olsen somehow pitched even worse for the Nats than he had for the Fish, and was out of the league following his two-year Nats’ tenure at the ripe young age of 26.  Willingham hit 40 home runs in two seasons as a Nat and became a fan favorite, but had trouble staying healthy and was dealt to Oakland a year prior to becoming eligible for free agency.  The worst part is that the swap didn’t help the Nats at all in the short run as they endured their second consecutive 100 loss season even with Olsen and Willingham on board.

On the Marlins’ side, the speedy Bonifacio had four low cost, up-and-down seasons before being part of their blockbuster, cost-cutting, November 2012 trade that sent seemingly half their roster to the Blue Jays.  As for the two prospects, pitcher P.J. Dean apparently blew out his arm almost immediately because he never logged an inning in the Marlins’ minor league system.  The other player, high school third baseman Jake Smolinski, who’d been the Nats’ second 2nd round pick the previous year (the first 2nd rounder was a pitcher by the name of Jordan Zimmermann), didn’t have the defensive skills to stick as an infielder, nor the power numbers to be successful as a corner outfielder.  At the end of 2013 season he was granted minor league free agency.

Funny thing, though, about high school draftees–when they reach that six-year minor league free agency mark, they are still only in their mid-20s and haven’t yet hit their career prime.  Smolinski, who was drafted the same class with the Nats’ Steven Souza and is the exactly same age, finally got his shot at The Show this year, mainly because he’d been lucky enough to subsequently sign with a Texas club that lost nearly every starter to injury.

Smolinski got his chance because he elevated his OPS above .800 for the first time since 2009, helped in part by hitting 10 home runs in just under 300 at bats.  Called up to the Rangers in July, Smolinski made the most of his opportunity.  Despite getting injured himself and spending time on the DL, he batted a robust .349 with a .903 OPS in 92 plate appearances.  Small sample size?  Certainly.  But also numbers guaranteed to get him a good long look next spring training as the Rangers try to rebuild from this season’s debacle.

The lesson here is one that seems so simple yet in the real world is so difficult for so many baseball General Managers: when rebuilding don’t trade prospects for veterans who won’t be around when the team becomes good again.  I realize it’s easy for me to say when I don’t have impatient fans or an uptight owner breathing down my neck demanding immediate success.  Fortunately, the Nats replaced Bowden with a GM who knows how to make good trades–and as it turned out that probably happened just in time to save the likes of Jordan Zimmermann from being shipped off elsewhere.  Thank you, Smiley Gonzalez.

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End of Season Grades: The Position Players

Yesterday, I gave out NE’s End of Season Grades to the pitchers.  Today, it is the position players’ (and manager’s) turn.  Feel free to argue with me, or agree if you will, in the comments:

Starting Lineup

Denard Span – B  As this season progressed, Span finally started to look like the complete centerfield package the Nats were looking for when they traded for him: defense, speed on the basepaths and, most importantly, table setter at the top of the order.  He even set the single season team record for hits (184) along the way.  Too bad only the first one of those elements showed up for the playoffs.

Anthony Rendon – A  Rendon did it all this year: hit for average, hit for power, stole bases, provided spectacular defense at third base–and proved to be about as model a citizen as you could want on your team.  His 111 runs scored led the league and his 6.5 bWAR led the Nats.  Were you paying attention, Bryce Harper?

Jayson Werth – B-  Werth had a solid (and healthy) season but was spectacularly awful in the playoffs.  Based on that alone, his position at third in the lineup should NOT be inviolable next year.

Adam LaRoche – B  Despite being a streaky hitter and missing a couple of weeks due to injury, LaRoche led the team in home runs and RBIs.  His playoff performance, however, was stone cold.

Ian Desmond – C+   Desmond’s third consecutive 20-20 year was an odd one.  Despite setting personal bests for RBIs and stolen bases, his error and strikeout rates increased and his OPS dropped for the second consecutive season, finishing .102 below his career high set two years ago.

Bryce Harper – B-  Harper missed about two months due to injuries and then looked lost at the plate for weeks after coming off the DL.  Even worse, his defensive bWAR was down in negative figures despite him playing in a corner outfield position and he stole only 2 bases all season.  Then came his lonely heroics in the NLDS–sigh.

Wilson Ramos – C+  Ramos also missed a couple of months due to injury, but looked like he was fully back as the Nats began their surge to the division title.  He faded badly down the stretch, however, with only three extra base hits and his OPS falling to .474 after August 29th.  And in the playoffs, he was even worse.

Asdrubal Cabrera – C  Odd that you would say that the acquisition of a rental player who spent only two months with the team and batted only .229 represented a “good” trade.  But Cabrera’s OPS was a solid .700, and unlike most of his offensive teammates he held his own in the playoffs, oh and the alternative at second base was Danny Espinosa.

Ryan Zimmerman – I  When he was able to play, there was nothing wrong with Ryan’s bat, as he put up a solid .790 OPS despite twice battling back from the DL.  Hopefully, the switch across the diamond will keep him in the lineup all season next year as the the team’s horrendous offensive performance in the NLDS showed just how much they miss him being there every day.

The Reserves:

Kevin Frandsen – D  Picked up off the waiver wire at the start of the season, Frandsen actually showed why the talent-strapped Phillies were willing to dump him as he put up a bWAR of -0.5 for the season.

Jose Lobaton – C+  On the other hand, after being acquired from the Rays in an offseason trade Lobaton was a perfectly adequate backup backstop, sporting a positive season bWAR of 0.5.  He was particularly strong defensively, scoring a 0.8 d/bWAR for the year.

Danny Espinosa – D+  As long as we’re talking bWAR, Espinosa was perfectly replaceable at 0.0.

Nate McLouth – F  You hate to see any player get injured, but McLouth being knocked out for the year in early August had the benefit of opening up opportunities for rookies Michael Taylor and Steven Souza.  The Nats paid McLouth $5 million to put up a -0.7 bWAR, and with one year remaining his signing is easily turning out to be GM Mike Rizzo’s worst free agency move to date.

Scott Hairston – F  He can’t hit anymore (1 lousy home run) and he doesn’t play good defense.  Remind me again why Hairston remained on the team for the entire season despite putting up a putrid bWAR of -0.6.  I would really like to know.

Tyler Moore – D+  Ironically, the Nats gave Moore his fewest number of at bats in a season the very year his bWAR turned positive for the first time in his career (0.4).

Sandy Leon – D  Because of Ramos’s injuries, Leon got way too many at bats with his unsightly .156/.229/.219 slash line.  He did put up a defensive bWAR of 0.3, however.

Manager

Matt Williams – B  Many have been excoriating Williams for the Nats’ playoff collapse and some of the shaky moves he made in the series.  My take is that no move he could have made would have made any difference save having a crystal ball tell him before the NLDS that after scuffling at the plate for much of the past two seasons Harper was suddenly going to explode and needed to be moved up to third in the lineup behind Rendon in order to offset the complete collapse by every one of the older veterans in his lineup.  What Williams DID do was take a very talented team that greatly underachieved in 2013 and guide it to the NL’s best record despite another major rash of injuries.

End of Season Grades: The Pitchers

Everyone who writes about the Washington Nationals is likely to do some variation of this post, so I thought I should get mine in early.  I try to base my grades upon performance, NOT expectations (ergo, no downgrading Strasburg for NOT being Clayton Kershaw).  Anyway, feel free to argue with my grades, or agree if you will, in the comments.

Starting Pitchers:

Stephen Strasburg – B  Heading into the stretch run, Strasburg’s year was looking a bit shaky, but he dominated in season’s last month and ended up leading the Nats in innings pitched (by a margin of 15) and leading the NL in strikeouts.  On the other hand, he was 4th on the staff in ERA and had no complete games (and has only 1 in his entire career), which is a real deficiency in a guy who is supposed to be the staff ace and the “stopper.”

Jordan Zimmermann – A  Only a bad month of May, in which he sported an ugly ERA of 5.06, kept Zimmermann out of discussions for the Cy Young Award.  His season-ending no hitter and almost as strong a performance in Game 2 of the NLDS show him to be a pitcher who has reached the absolute the top of his game.

Doug Fister – A  It kind of got obscured by Zimmermann’s no-no, but Fister was almost as dominant in the 3-hit complete game shutout he threw just two days prior.  Had the Marlins decided to rest Donovan Solano in the first game of that Friday doubleheader, the Nats might have pulled off the unprecedented feat of having pitched two no hitters in the same weekend.

Gio Gonzalez – C+  Like Strasburg, Gio pitched well down the stretch, which in his case salvaged his season from true mediocrity.  Unfortunately, he then got the nod for the playoff rotation over Tanner Roark and once again proved that he just isn’t a good postseason pitcher.

Tanner Roark – A-  Fantastic as Roark was, his peripheral stats suggest merely an above average pitcher who had a little luck on his side rather than another staff ace.  Still, that’s a great thing for a team’s number 5 starter to be.

Blake Treinen – C+  Treinen pitched both as a starter and a reliever this year, but had far more innings as the former than the latter.  Weirdly, Treinen had a much better ERA and K/9 ratio as a reliever, but as a starter had a much lower WHIP and held opposing hitters to an OPS that was over .100 points lower.  Still, it would seem that unless he’s traded, Treinen’s future lies in the bullpen.

Taylor Jordan – F  Winning a rotation spot out of spring training, last year’s pleasant rookie surprise turned out to be a dud in his sophomore season.  Jordan pitched well in his first start, but then imploded and was demoted to AAA when Doug Fister came off the DL at the end of April.  Jordan wasn’t much better at Syracuse, and then spent the season’s second half on the DL himself.

Relief Pitchers

Drew Storen – C  In giving out postseason awards, MLB only considers a player’s regular season performance.  Since I don’t have to do that, Storen gets docked two letter grades for his awful NLDS performance after what had been an outstanding season.

Rafael Soriano – B-  It particularly grates that Soriano pitched very effectively in the playoffs, for it was his August implosion as the closer that caused Storen to be returned to the role.  I’ll bet I speak for most Nats fans when I say I’ll be glad to see the back of Mr. Shirt Untuck this offseason.

Tyler Clippard – A  I’ll be the first to say it.  Since (assuming he isn’t traded) next year is Clippard’s last with the Nats before he hits free agency and he will likely be their highest paid reliever, they should FINALLY give him the closer’s job that perhaps he should have had all along.

Jerry Blevins – C-  Acquired from Oakland via trade last offseason to be the bullpen’s lefty specialist not long after the Nats had oddly enough let lefty reliever Fernando Abad go to Oakland, Blevins had a “meh” season.  He turned in a lot of bad outings and had the worst ERA of any Nats reliever who spent the whole season on the big club roster, but righted the ship down the stretch and into the playoffs, not allowing a run after September 10th.

Matt Thorton – A-  Until Game 4 of the NLDS, Thorton hadn’t given up a run in a Nats’ uniform.  Though he was not on the mound when the runner he put on base scored what turned out to be the series clinching run, it was a heck of a time for him to allow his first one.

Aaron Barrett – C  Like Storen, the rookie pitched well in the regular season (but for a rough midsummer patch that led to a brief demotion to AAA), but then totally screwed the pooch in the playoffs.

Craig Stammen – B-  Stammen had his worst year as Nats reliever, a fact emphasized when he allowed 5 runs on 6 hits without retiring a batter in his last regular season game.  Nevertheless, he was outstanding in the playoffs, which gives him a bit of a bump up grade-wise.

Ross Detwiler – D  Former starter Detwiler did nothing after his demotion to the bullpen to prove the Nats were wrong for making the move.  Left off of the NLDS roster, Detwiler has likely pitched his last inning in a Nats uniform.

Tomorrow, we’ll do the position players.

NLDS Post-Mortem: Heros and Goats

I take back what I said before about the Nats lineup lacking clutch hitters who can produce in the playoffs.  They do have one–his name is Bryce Harper, but he sure can’t do it alone.  That was the story of the 2014 NLDS, about five Nats players looked like they came to play.  Most of the rest looked like they had already booked their late October tee times.

Without further ado, here is the Nats’ EXPOSed list of heroes and goats of the 2014 NLDS.

Heroes:

1.  Bryce Harper – young Mr. Harper was literally a one man offense, hitting 3 of the Nats’ 4 home runs in the series and, more incredibly, collecting 4 of the measly 7 RBIs and 4 of the 7 extra base hits the team managed to in the equivalent of five games played.  He also flashed the leather on defense, and overall looked every bit as much the superstar that he hasn’t resembled for a large portion of the last two seasons.  If, on Opening Day 2015, Harper is not in the lineup batting third or cleanup, Matt Williams should be fired on the spot.

2.  Jordan Zimmermann – what else could a pitcher do to win a game for his team?  Eight and 2/3rd innings, 4 baserunnners, none of whom made it past second base while he was on the mound.  It makes me sick just thinking about Zimmermann not getting the Game 2 win.

3.  Doug Fister – Do you think maybe Fister is quite happy right now that he turned down the Nats’ contract extension offer right after he was traded from Detroit?  If he can even come close to repeating his 2014 performance next year, he’s going to be a VERY rich man come the free agency period next offseason.

4.  Anthony Rendon – The Nats’ other young star hitter did what he was supposed to do near the top of the order–set the table by collecting 7 hits and a walk in the series.  Too bad there was nobody behind him to drive him in.  Rendon also almost had the hit that would have won the marathon Game 2 in the 15th inning.  A “what if” in an excruciatingly frustrating series that was full of them.

Goats:

1.  Jayson Werth/Adam LaRoche/Denard Span – The top of the order, save Rendon, absolutely KILLED the Nats in this series, collecting a total of 4 hits, all singles, in the equivalent of 5 games.  These over-30 guys were supposed to be the veteran team leaders–yet they failed time after time after time.  If anyone out there was pining for LaRoche to return next year, I hope this horrid series has disabused you of such notions.

2. Drew Storen – I was in the camp who blamed Davey Johnson for misusing Storen in the 2012 NLDS by pitching his closer in the 8-0 Game 3 blowout to keep him “fresh,” despite knowing there was every chance Storen might then need to pitch three games in a row.  But this time?  There is no excuse for Storen blowing Zimmermann’s gem.  All he needed was one lousy out and he couldn’t get it (at all–only a close play at the plate allowed the game to move into extra innings).  My hope is that young Mr. Storen gets a change of scenery via trade–because the Nats going into a third playoff run next year (assuming they get there) with him as the closer would be quite insane at this point.

3.  Gio Gonzalez – Despite his marvelous 2012 regular season, Gio’s underwhelming performance was a big factor in the Nats losing the Game 5 of the NLDS after he had narrowly escaped not completely blowing it in Game 1.  It was thought going into this playoff run that not being expected to be the ace this time would calm him down a bit.  Instead, it was his horrible error that gave the Giants the margin of victory in Game 4 and thus the series.  Would the Nats have been better off had Tanner Roark started the game?  We’ll never know.

4. Aaron Barrett – Though it wasn’t quite as dramatic as Storen’s Game 2 failure, Barrett was the pitcher who literally threw the series away.  His final stats: 4 batters faced, 2 BBs, 1 Hit, 1 Wild Pitch, one October ruined for the Washington Nationals.

I was also tempted to put manager Matt Williams on the “Goat” list for putting Barrett in the deciding game and not using Clippard or Stammen, or heck, just about anybody else.  After all, there WAS no tomorrow to save anyone for.  On the other hand, Game 4 probably could have gone another 9 innings without the Nats scoring another run, so really any move he made at that point was likely to be futile.

I’ll be back over the next few days with some season-in-review posts.

Want to Blame Someone? Blame the Offense, Not Williams

It’s the 9th inning, one run lead–the starting pitcher has been dominating the opposition lineup all day–the manager would like to see him get that complete game.  The starter gets the first out, but then the next hitter manages to get to first base.  The manager decides to leave his starter in the game despite the fact that the next batter up is the opposition’s best hitter.  Next thing you know–BANG, ZOOM GO THE FIREWORKS–Ryan Zimmerman has just hit a 2-run walk off homer against Chein-Ming Wang and the Yankees on Father’s Day 2006.

Referring back to my post about Game 1, my worst fears about the Nats going into this series has proven to be correct–their offense has retreated back into its shell and can’t score when they don’t hit home runs.  And in October, when the air is heavy especially at Nats’ Stadium, home runs are hard to come by.  As insinuated by that first paragraph, I don’t blame Matt Williams for pulling Jordan Zimmermann in the 9th inning with a runner on first–that’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

It seems that the Nats’ offense, which was said by the analysts to have “no holes” going into this series, actually has one gigantic hole–no clutch hitters.  I realize there is a debate about whether there really is any such thing as a truly “clutch” hitter, that such quantifiable stats as hitting with runners in scoring position tend to rise and fall quite precipitously for any player from year to year.  Nevertheless, some players often seem to come though in the big moments–especially in the playoffs–while many others don’t.

The Nats do have one of those guys, but unfortunately Ryan Zimmerman is relegated to bench duty these days.  Given a chance to pinch hit last night, Ryan collected one of the merely 9 hits the Nats managed during 18 excruciating innings.  Now we see why this team was so desperate to get Ryan back into the lineup, even in his hobbled state.  There’s a big difference between racking up wins for a month at the end of the season against the putrid NL East and coming up big when it counts against the other contenders in the postseason.  And unfortunately, the one guy who has been known as “Mr. Walkoff” ever since his memorable Father’s Day blast against future teammate Chien-Ming Wang (not not mention all the other walk off hits he’s had during his career) can’t play enough right now to be able to  make a difference.

Offense Reverts to Old Bad Habits…Nats Lose Game 1

Being your typical superstitious baseball fan I didn’t want to vocalize it by writing it here, but my greatest fear going into the 2014 playoffs was that the Nats’ offense would revert to its previous frustrating ways, namely failing to get hits in the clutch and mostly scoring via (usually solo) home runs.  It was formula that we saw all too often from this team during the first two-thirds of last season and much of the first half of this one.

Fittingly it was Ian Desmond, the Nats hitter who most epitomizes an all-or-nothing approach at the plate, who was this big goat in their 3-2 game one loss.  Up twice in the the later innings with a total of five runners on base, Desmond struck out meekly each time, doing so in the second at bat by waving at two pitches so far outside they practically crossed into the left-handed batter’s box.

Given his first chance on the big stage, Stephen Strasburg also reverted to his subpar form of earlier this season, but he was able to limit the damage and overall the pitching staff did its job by holding the Giants to just three runs (only two earned).  All it would have taken to win this game was one timely hit.  But the Nats, especially Desmond, just didn’t have it in them.

This is also why I hate the short five-game NLDS format.  We’re only one game in and already the Nats’ backs are up against the wall.  Hopefully, things will go better offensively tomorrow with me in the stadium for my one ticketed game of this series.  They have to, or the Nats will be unlikely to return from the West Coast with any more games remaining to be played this season.

The Key to the Nats’ Recent Pitching Success? It’s the Strikeouts, Stupid

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On April 11, 2010, Jason Bergmann came in as a relief pitcher in the 8th inning of the Nats’ 6th game of the season.  He struck out the only batter he faced on three pitches, giving him 299 career Ks, all with the Nats.  Three days later Bergmann gave up a two-run homer in one inning of work, lifting his season ERA to a gaudy 15.43 in just 4 appearances.  The very next day he was sent down to AAA Syracuse and never pitched in the majors again despite being only 28-years old and, get this, also being at that time the Nats’ all time career strikeouts leader.

Despite being mostly lousy during his Nationals tenure, Bergmann had been just good enough to be a mainstay of their pitching staff for their first five seasons in DC, going from reliever to starter and then back to reliever again.  To say those Nats pitching staffs didn’t miss a lot of bats is a huge understatement.  At the time of Bergmann’s demotion, John Patterson held the team’s single season strikeout record, recording 185 in their 2005 inaugural season.  One-year hired gun Esteban Loaiza checked in at number 2 from that same season with 173.  Beyond those two, however, no Nats pitcher had struck out even 150 batters during one campaign.   In 2009, for example, John Lannan somehow pitched a team leading 206.1 innings while recording only 89 Ks.  That same year nobody on the Nats’ staff managed to even hit triple digits, though rookie Jordan Zimmermann certainly would have had he not blown out his elbow that year.

There have been lots of articles recently about the ever-increasing number of strikeouts in MLB and how it has negatively affected the offensive side of the game.  And in recent times, no team has more dramatically altered the strikeout effectiveness of their pitching staff than the Nats.  By 2012, just two years after former team strikeout king Bergmann was so unceremoniously cut loose, all five Nats’ starters would record more than 100 Ks, and for the first time one of them would top the 200 K mark (Gio Gonzalez with 207).  By 2014, a fully healthy Stephen Strasburg would claim the NL strikeout crown with 242–or just 57 fewer than Bergmann recorded during his entire five-year career.

During the second half of the Nats’ first decade in Washington, GM Mike Rizzo’s philosophy of preferring hard throwers who do miss a lot of bats has completely rewritten the team record book in the strikeout category.  Eight of the team’s top 10 single season strikeout marks have been set in just the past three years.  Meanwhile, Strasburg (746), Zimmermann (739) and Gonzalez (561) have all blown way past Bergmann’s former club record of 299, and even a reliever, Tyler Clippard, has joined the Nats’ 500 K club by racking up a nifty 530.  Only ground ball specialist Doug Fister has bucked the overall recent trend.

And it doesn’t stop with the big club.  As of now, the Nats’ two top prospects, Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole, have been putting up strikeout numbers in the minors that eerily resemble Strasburg and Zimmermann, respectively.

So is the league-wide emphasis on strikeouts hurting baseball by driving down offense?  Perhaps, but in recent years it has also been a boon for the Nats and a big reason for their current run of success.