How the East Was Won: Mike Rizzo’s Top 8 Trades

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Every MLB general manager has their strengths and weaknesses.  While Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo’s track record on free agent signings has been something of a mixed bag, the overall quality of his trades have been outstanding in his five years in the top job, and his ability to “win” at the trading game that has been a big factor in the team’s recent success.

Even before ownership removed the “interim” from his title back in 2009, he had hijacked slugger Mike Morse from Seattle for the piddling price of light hitting 4th outfielder Ryan Langerhans.  That’s not to say every trade he’s made has been completely one-sided–they don’t necessarily have to be in order to be considered a success–but often the results have reflected the efforts of a general manager and his staff who clearly are doing their homework ahead of time.

And so as the Nats prepare for their triumphant return home and their last set of tuneup games before the playoffs, here are NE’s list of the Top 8 Mike Rizzo trades:

8.  Joe Beimel (LHP) traded to Colorado for Ryan Mattheus (RHP), 2009.  

Veteran reliever Beimel was signed to a one-year contract during spring training in 2009 as newly elevated GM Mike Rizzo desperately attempted to head off what was going to be an absolute bullpen trash fire left behind for him by just-fired predecessor Jim “Leatherpants” Bowden.  Beimel pitched decently for the Nats, but he alone wasn’t enough to dampen the relief corps explosion that sunk the Nats’ ship of state all the way to the bottom of the standings by the July trading deadline.

Taking his first ever gamble on an injured player, Rizzo flipped Beimel to the Colorado Rockies for a minor league reliever who was just about to undergo Tommy John surgery.  Ryan Mattheus recovered fully and pitched well enough to be recalled to the big club in 2011.  During the 2012 playoff run Mattheus became a bullpen mainstay, putting up 1.3 Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) and elevating his two-year Nats’ bWAR at that time to a total of 1.8.  Beimel, meanwhile put up a bWAR of only 0.2 for Colorado before the remainder of his one year, Nats-originated contract expired at the end of the 2009 season.

7.  Alex Meyer (RHP) traded to Minnesota for Denard Span (CF), 2012.

Prior to this season, the trade that brought Denard Span to Washington looked like it might be a bust (and I will admit that I was a Span hater last year).  Centerfield and leadoff hitter were two areas in which the Nats had been sorely deficient during their first eight seasons in DC.  Rizzo tried to rectify both issues by trading prospect Alex Meyer, part of the huge talent haul the Nats drafted in 2011, for Span, who was then the Twins’ starting centerfielder.

Span looked lost for much of his first season wearing the Curly W.  Despite a late season 29-game hitting streak that greatly elevated his overall season numbers, Span still only managed to slash .279/.320/.380, score only 75 runs and steal just 20 bases–fairly paltry numbers a for a leadoff hitter on a supposed pennant contender.  In 2014, however, Span has blossomed, becoming a key contributor to the offense.  Not only does he currently lead the NL in hits, but his OPS of .765 is nearly 60 points higher than it was last year.  The Nats also hold Span’s relatively inexpensive $9 million option to bring him back next season if they so wish, and based on his recent level of performance and the need to give CF heir apparent Michael Taylor a bit more seasoning as a hitter, they almost certainly will.

Meyer, on the other hand, while he remains a top pitching prospect for the Twins has yet to appear in a major league game.  He may eventually prove to be a top starting pitcher, but a team with its playoff “window” wide open needs to fine tune for the immediate future without worrying so much about three years down the road, and by that measure the Span trade has been a big success.

6.  Ryan Langerhans (OF) traded to Seattle for Mike Morse (OF), 2009.

Though he had spent parts of 2007 & 2008 with the big club, by 2009 Ryan Langerhans had become excess baggage–banished to AAA all season despite the Nats being mired in their second consecutive 100-loss campaign.  On June 28th, Rizzo pulled off a little-noticed trade, sending Langerhans to Seattle for Mike Morse, who was already 27 and similarly languishing in the Mariners’ minor league system.

Given a September call up that year, Morse bashed 3 home runs and hit 3 doubles in just 52 at bats, setting himself up to make the team out of spring training in 2010.  Given a chance as a 4th outfielder, Morse then hit 15 home runs in a half season’s worth of at bats.  When Josh Willingham was then traded that offseason, Morse finally got his chance to be a starter at age 29, and he rewarded the Nats by slugging 31 dingers, driving in 95 runs and putting up a .910 OPS that led the entire team by more than 100 points.  He also became a fan favorite, and his combined bWAR in four seasons as a Nat was 5.8.

Langerhans, on the other hand, was called up immediately by Seattle and had a completely forgettable two and a half seasons with the Mariners.  During that time, he TOTALED a mere 9 home runs and 20 RBIs and had a paltry 0.8 bWAR.  In exchange for a light-hitting defensive fourth outfielder the Nats were not even using at the time, Rizzo obtained a middle of the order slugger who would loom large both literally and figuratively during the team’s first playoff run.  Not to mention that Morse was also a big part of another shrewd Rizzo trade:

5.  Mike Morse (OF) traded to Seattle for Blake Treinen (RHP), Ian Krol (LHP) and A.J. Cole (RHP), 2013.

Perhaps miffed that he’d let Morse get away only to see the slugger blossom in DC, four years later Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik apparently decided he needed to have him back.  Meanwhile, Morse only had a year remaining with the Nats before he became eligible for free agency, and with his terrible defense he had never really been Mike Rizzo’s type of player.  So right after the New Year in 2013, the two executives engineered a three-way deal with the A’s Billy Beane in which the Mariners got Morse for a second go-around while the Nats received a haul of pitching prospects from the A’s in return.

Key to the deal on the Nats’ end was prospect A.J. Cole, who Rizzo had sent to the A’s the year before as part of the Gio Gonzalez trade.  Cole disappointed during his one season in the Oakland farm system, but righted the ship upon returning and is now listed by MLB.com as the Nats’ overall Number 2 prospect.  Ian Krol was promoted to the Nats in 2013 as a lefty reliever, and acquitted himself well as a rookie before being sent to the Tigers as part of the Doug Fister trade.  And lastly, Blake Treinen made his MLB debut in 2014 and has looked good as both a reliever and a starter, posting a sub-2.00 ERA in his first 46 MLB innings.

Meanwhile, Morse started off hot his first month in Seattle before tailing off and then getting hurt (again).  He ended the season with only 13 home runs and 27 RBIs while posting a career low OPS of just .651.  Particularly ghastly was his performance after a late August trade to Baltimore.  Morse put up a stretch run slash line of .103/.133/.103 with just 3 hits (none for extra bases) and no RBIs in 29 ABs.  And though he has rebounded a bit with the Giants this season, it comes after he would likely been allowed to leave the Nats via free agency anyway.

4.  Derek Norris (C), A.J. Cole (RHP), Tommy Milone (LHP) and Brad Peacock (RHP) traded to Oakland for Gio Gonzalez (LHP), 2011.

Now here is a trade that worked out great for both teams.  After a long process of rebuilding the worst farm system in baseball that was the legacy of when MLB own the franchise, GM Mike Rizzo traded a large part of his first bounty of MLB-ready prospects to Oakland for young All Star pitcher Gio Gonzalez.  In the process, he convinced Gonzalez to sign a very team friendly contract extension that will keep him wearing the Curly W through 2018 if the Nats elect to pick up the last two option years.  Gio has been excellent for the Nats from the start, in 2012 becoming the first-ever Nats’ pitcher to win 20 games and strike out over 200 batters while finishing second in the NL Cy Young award balloting.  His second and third seasons with the club haven’t been as strong, but he remains a rotation mainstay at a relatively cheap cost and was a big factor in the Nats’ surprising playoff run of two years ago.

Meanwhile the biggest benefit the A’s received was catcher Derek Norris, a former Nationals’ minor league player of the year who has blossomed into an All Star himself.  Tommy Milone gave the A’s a couple of solid years in their rotation before being traded to Minnesota this summer.  Brad Peacock was dumped off on Houston, where he is still trying to put things together, and youngster A.J. Cole, as I’ve already written above, was traded back to the Nats in the second Mike Morse deal.

3.  Robby Ray (RHP), Ian Krol (LHP) and Steve Lombardozzi (UT) traded to Detroit for Doug Fister (RHP), 2013.

So what exactly was Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski thinking when he shipped pitcher Doug Fister to the Nats for Mike Rizzo’s pocket change?  We may never know, but there is no doubt that this was the trade that made the Nats’ 2014 season.  Despite missing the first month, Fister has already matched his career high in bWAR (4.1) while leading an outstanding Nats’ rotation in wins (15, a career high) and ERA (2.55, a career low).

Meanwhile Robbie Ray, who was never listed as being higher than the Nats’ 3rd or 4th best pitching prospect, failed in his first call up to the Tigers, sporting a ghastly 7.16 ERA in only 26 innings over 8 appearances (6 starts).  Even at AAA this year, Ray’s ERA was a pedestrian 4.22 in 100.1 innings.  Ian Krol regressed in the Tigers’ bullpen, as his ERA ballooned to 4.96 in 45 appearances, and they thought so little of Steve Lombardozzi that they flipped him over to the Orioles, where he spent much of the season in the minors.

What made this trade even worse for the Tigers is that losing Fister ultimately necessitated their costly midseason trade with Tampa Bay for David Price.  And even if Ray, the centerpiece of the deal for the Tigers, rebounds and eventually becomes a decent starter this trade will still be a huge win for how much it has helped the Nats in this pivotal second playoff season.

2.  Matt Capps (RHP) traded to Minnesota for Wilson Ramos (C) and Joe Testa (LHP), 2010.

Closer Matt Capps was one of several low cost free agents brought in by Mike Rizzo before the 2010 season in an effort to end the team’s string of two consecutive 100 loss campaigns.  Capps helped the Nats that year by solidifying their wretched bullpen and saving 26 games, which got him his first (and only) All Star nod.  He then helped the Nats even more in future seasons by being the commodity Rizzo was able to flip over to the Twins at the trading deadline for rookie catcher Wilson Ramos (and Joe Testa, who pitched only 5 games above A ball before being released in 2012).

Though he’s had his injury issues, when healthy Ramos has been a top notch catcher both defensively and offensively and his presence on the roster gave Rizzo the flexibility to use top catching prospect Derek Norris to help land Gio Gonzalez.  Ramos has banged out 46 home runs and driven in 171 runs in 314 games played for the Nats.  Best of all, Ramos is still only 26 and health permitting could remain the Nats’ starting backstop for many years to come.

Capps meanwhile, finished the 2010 campaign well and then stuck around Minnesota for two more seasons, pitching progressively worse until injuries derailed his career in 2012.  Getting an above average starting catcher (even if he was blocked from starting in Minnesota by the presence of All Star Joe Mauer) for a middling relief pitcher was a true Rizzo heist.  But it was not even his best one.  For that, I humbly present:

1.  Cristian Guzman (IF) traded to Texas for Tanner Roark (RHP) and Ryan Tatusko (RHP), 2010.

When not injured, Cristian Guzman was for better or worse the Nats’ starting shortstop for their first five seasons in DC (not counting his lost 2006 season).  By year six, however, he was clearly on the decline and had been bumped over to second base in favor of rookie Ian Desmond.  By the time the 2010 trading deadline was rolling around, Mike Rizzo was likely hoping he could just get a little more than the proverbial “bag of baseballs” for Guzman.  He found a taker in the Rangers, who agreed to accept the quickly aging Guzman in exchange for two unheralded righty minor league starting pitchers who had originally been drafted in the 18th and 25th rounds respectively.

For Texas, Guzman did literally nothing, collecting only 7 hits (1 double) and 1 measly RBI in 15 games before disappearing from the majors for good.  No doubt Texas chalked the whole trade up to “very little ventured, very little gained,” but little did they know that Rizzo had actually gotten a least a little bit of revenge for former Rangers owner Bob Short’s decision to steal away the old Washington Senators in 1971.

For a couple of seasons after the move, Nats fans might be forgiven for having forgotten all about it.  Roark and Tatusko bounced around the higher levels of the Nats’ farm system while putting up the kind of numbers that tagged them as “organizational guys”–in other words roster filler never destined to make it to the majors.  Roark was particularly bad in 2012, going 6-17 for AAA Syracuse while sporting a 4.39 ERA.  Tatusko was released this season so he could go pitch in Japan, and Roark might have suffered a similar fate had the “light” not suddenly gone on for him.

In 2013, Roark lowered his Syracuse ERA to 3.13 while upping his record to 9-3.  He also became a “swingman,” pitching as both a starter and a reliever, which had the effect of maximizing his chances of getting a big league call up.  As it turned out, the call for a bullpen arm finally came on August 7, 2013, and Roark has never looked back.  As a reliever, Roark made 9 appearances with a nifty 1.19 ERA before being asked to step into the rotation as an injury replacement.  There he had nearly equal success, finishing up 2013 by pitching 31 innings in 5 starts and an ERA of 1.74.

Still, fans and even Nats management had a hard time believing that a former 25th round draft pick who had never been anything special in the minors could suddenly be so good.  Roark entered spring training this year behind fellow 2013 rookie but actual prospect Taylor Jordan on the rotation depth chart.  Only an early injury to Doug Fister allowed both to make the Opening Day rotation, and when one of the two flamed out, to nearly everyone’s surprise it wasn’t Roark, who fired a complete game 3-hit shutout at the Padres in late April just as Fister was getting ready to return to the rotation and Jordan was about to be shipped back to AAA.

As the season draws to a close, Roark has been nothing short of amazing, making every start while putting up a 14-10 record and sporting a nifty 2.85 ERA.  Meanwhile, the last place Rangers, who lost nearly every starting pitcher save Yu Darvish to injury this year, can only shake their heads and wonder how they could have let such a valuable commodity get away for practically nothing.

4 thoughts on “How the East Was Won: Mike Rizzo’s Top 8 Trades

  1. Todd Boss

    A while ago, when posting my own trade analysis, I had these as Rizzo’s 3 best/worst trades:
    – 3 best: Getting Fister, Return for Morse, Getting Ramos. (Your ranked 3,5,2)
    – 3 worst: Bruney acquisition, Gomes acquisition, Span acquisition

    This was prior to 2014, so no analysis of Lobaton or Cabrera acquisitions, though I think I like both of them in the immediate.

    Personally I hated the Span acquisition, still do. Felt like Rizzo was too obsessed with a guy to fit into his “leadoff/centerfielder” role. I would have much rather forced the speedy strong armed Harper into center, kept my #1 minor league arm, and opened up left field for a slugger. But hey, that’s just me. I know there’s plenty of people who rave about Span’s defense … and begrudingly I have to admit he’s really stepped it up after a down 2013 and a poor first half.

    Roark acquisition as #1; quibbling of course, but that trade just smacks me as being “too lucky” to really give Rizzo a ton of credit there. I mean, lets be honest; Roark was probably 2 months from being declared a MLFA at the end of 2013. Nobody honestly would tell themselves in 2010 that they were getting a future #3 starter. Roark to me exemplifies something that should trouble most of us prospect watchers; Roark screamed “org arm” for years … now suddenly he’s got a sub 3.00 ERA in the majors. How many other guys are like that out there, guys who aren’t getting a shot for some fool reason or another?

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    1. Karl Kolchak Post author

      Todd: Can’t really argue with your assessment. I wasn’t big on the Span trade, either, but have come to grudgingly admit that the Span/Rendon one-two punch at the top of the order has been the most consistent prime mover in the offense this year. I’m also taking into consideration how relatively inexpensive Span is even through his option year next year, and how Meyer is so far setting up to be a good but not great pitching prospect. Say he becomes a decent number 3 starter for four or five years. Was that worth 3 fairly cheap years of Span, and at least one very good one that helped the team win a title? I have to say yes.

      As for Roark, fair enough, but also we have to give credit to Rizzo for not LOSING any potential vital pieces for practically nothing–at least thus far. I’m not completely in the tank for the guy. While the totality of his trades have been a big win for the Nats, the summation of his free agent moves (and his one big contract extension) have so far been a wash at best.

      And it is a bit too early to really make a judgement on the Lobaton and Cabrera trades, but so far those are tilting the Nats’ way as well.

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  2. Wally

    Well, what’s funny is that I agree with Todd on his specific points (I am not crazy about Span either (although not as comfortable with Harper in CF as Todd) and the Roark trade was clearly flukey), yet think Karl’s conclusions are spot on for both trades. Span has already put up 7 fWAR for $11m in salary, a surplus of ~$40m in value. Meyer hasn’t even thrown a pitch yet, so he has to (a) stick as a starter and (b) be a fairly productive one just to reach that amount of excess value during his years of control, and that is before taking into account what happens next year and the time value of all that WAR. So the trade pretty much has to be considered a success. And so what if the Roark trade exceeded what anyone thought would happen. Wouldn’t Rizzo get tagged with the blame for a bad luck trade? I think it’s only fair to credit him when it works out, and his record shows an astute eye for talent.

    I even think the Cabrera trade is already a win. He picked up .5 WAR for two months play when the race was very much in doubt while giving up someone I thought won’t be any more than a utility guy. And he avoided playing Frandsen or Espy, which might have been – WAR, so the swing may be even bigger.

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    1. Karl Kolchak Post author

      Wally – you’ve almost convinced me to move the Cabrera trade onto the list at No. 8 or maybe even No. 7. No doubt it is already a good trade in how it has helped the Nats–the only way it would fail to make the list is if Walters turns into the second coming of (a young) Dan Uggla, which I think is unlikely.

      One last thought on Roark. ALL trades do have an element of luck to them. A GM and his staff can do all their homework, but if that veteran they traded for the stretch run blows out his ACL two weeks later and the team fails to make the playoffs while the expended mid-level prospect unexpectedly blossoms into a perennial All Star it’s a “bad” Trade and the GM will take heat for it.

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