Tag Archives: A.J. Cole

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.

The NE Top 30 Nats’ Prospects List: 10-1

Since the Washington Nationals have given us fans the blessing of an early and relatively drama free clinching of the NL East title, I thought I would use some early posts here at Nate EXPOSed by publishing my list of the Top 30 Nats organizational prospects.  On Saturday, I posted prospects number 20-11.  Today, we get down to the really big guns as it is numbers 10-1 (forgive me missing my promised posting date of yesterday.  I’m still getting used to working with WordPress).  Feel free to argue with me, or agree with me if you will, in the comments.

10.  Taylor Hill, RHP; Highest 2014 Level: Washington; How Acquired: Draft (6th Round) 2011; Age 25.

There was a time not all that long ago when a young starting pitcher who put up the kind numbers Hill did early in the season at AAA would have found himself called up to DC with a chance to immediately become a rotation mainstay for a depleted Nats team for whom good starting pitching was a rare commodity.  For Hill in 2014, however, all starting the year 9-2 and having a scorching month of May ERA of 0.95 in 38 innings got him (other than being named to the International League All Star team) was a brief cup of coffee in the Nats’ bullpen that amounted to 2 appearances and 4.1 innings pitched.  Hill didn’t even get a September call up to the big club, likely because the Nats wanted to protect his arm.  With the Nats’ rotation already five deep going into next year, and with Blake Treinen, A.J. Cole and possibly still Taylor Jordan ahead of Hill on the starting pitching depth chart, don’t be surprised if this young pitcher ends up being part of a trade this coming offseason.

9.  Sammy Solis, LHP; Highest 2014 Level: Harrisburg (AA); How Acquired: Draft (2nd Round) 2010; Age 26.

Solis’s Nats’ career has been one of extreme frustration, as injuries, including the dreaded Tommy John surgery in 2012, have significantly held him back.  During this past offseason, however, things were looking up as despite being a career starter Solis was being mentioned as a potential lefty bullpen arm for the big club in 2014.  Another injury delayed the start to his season, and he was just getting going when he was shut down yet again in early June with what was described as elbow discomfort.  Solis would not again return to the mound.  Though his career minor league ERA is excellent at 3.32, it unfortunately reflects only 178.2 innings pitched in five seasons as a starting pitcher.  Solis will be 27 next year, and he must finally get healthy if he is ever going to be a contributor at the MLB level.

8.  Brian Goodwin, CF; Highest 2014 Level: Syracuse (AAA); How Acquired: Draft (1st Round) 2011; Age 23.

Among the Nats’ elite prospects going into the 2014 season, no player saw his stock sink faster than Goodwin.  Part of that amazing 2011 draft haul that also brought Anthony Rendon, pitcher Alex Meyer (traded for Denard Span) and Matt Purke to the organization, Goodwin was tagged from day one as the team’s centerfielder of the future.  Goodwin started off very well in 2012, showing both speed and power while getting bumped up from Low A Hagerstown to AA Harrisburg at the tender young age of 21.  Though he regressed some last year playing a full season at AA, he retained his top prospect status.  This season, however, the bottom fell out as Goodwin slashed only .212/.342/.328 at AAA Syracuse.  Even worse, he managed only 4 home runs and 6 stolen bases in 81 games before being shut down with a mysterious injury in early July.  In the meantime, Michael Taylor leapfrogged past Goodwin on the CF depth chart, and is now considered the heir apparent to Denard Span, likely in 2016.  Where this leaves Goodwin will depend on his production (or lack thereof) next season.

7.  Erick Fedde, RHP; Highest 2014 Level: Injured; How Acquired: Draft (1st Round) 2014; Age 21.

GM Mike Rizzo’s latest injury gambit was using the Nats’ top 2014 draft pick on Fedde the very same week the pitcher went under the knife for Tommy John surgery.  Once again, as with Anthony Rendon, Luke Giolito and Matt Purke, it was a matter of getting a player lower in the draft than he would have otherwise been picked and hoping he can overcome his injury.  Fedde will likely return to action in the middle of next season and be brought along slowly for his first couple of years.  Assuming all goes well, that would put him on track to join the big club’s rotation circa 2018 or so.

6.  Wilmer Difo; IF; Highest 2014 Level: Hagerstown (Low A); How Acquired: IFA 2010; Age 22.

Difo was without a doubt the biggest surprise in the organization in 2014.  A former graduate of the DSL, prior to this year Difo looked like a typical light-hitting, slick-fielding middle infielder.  His HIGHEST previous annual home run and RBI totals had been 4 and 21 respectively.  So how did it go for Difo in 2014?  Well, all he managed to do was win the South Atlantic League MVP award while hitting 14 home runs, driving in 90, scoring 91 runs and stealing 49 bases.  Additionally, his OPS of .831 was nearly 130 points higher than his previous career high.  Splitting his time nearly equally between shortstop and second base, Difo instantly vaulted to the top of the heap of Nats middle infield prospects.  Now all he has to do is go out next year and prove this season wasn’t a fluke.

5.  Austin Voth, RHP; Highest 2014 Level: Harrisburg (AA); How Acquired: Draft (5th Round) 2013; Age 22.

Voth (rhymes with “both”) was the fastest riser among Nats’ prospects in 2014, leaping from Low A Hagerstown (where he was a mid-season All Star) to AA Harrisburg with just 6 starts at High A Potomac in between.  In his first five Potomac starts, Voth allowed an incredible 1 single run in 33 innings while striking out 36 batters and walking only 5.  I was lucky enough to catch one of those starts live, and I must say he was really popping the ol’ catcher’s mitt with his pitches.  Unfortunately, Voth was overmatched once he reached Harrisburg–or maybe it was the bad atmosphere on a club in the middle of a truly wretched season that did him in–and his ERA ballooned to over 6.00 in his last five starts of the season.  Still, his dominance at both Low and High A ball at a relatively young age combined with his high strikeout rates are reasons to be optimistic that Voth could be a future piece of the big club’s rotation.

4.  Steve Souza, OF; Highest 2014 Level: Washington; How Acquired: Draft (3rd Round) 2007; Age 25.

It’s been a long, hard road to the majors for Souza, one that included a PED suspension and once leaving his minor league team after an argument with the manager.  There was also a lot of underachievement for the former 3rd round pick until things finally started to come together in 2013.  Then in 2014 came the explosion–an amazing 1.022 OPS at AAA Syracuse (more than 100 points higher than the next highest International League batting title qualifier) coupled with 18 home runs and 26 stolen bases that made him the overwhelming choice for league MVP.  Souza’s stat totals might have been even more impressive, but he got called up twice to Washington as an injury replacement, and the second time he injured himself running into the outfield wall while trying to make a catch.  Unfortunately for Souza, the Nats’ outfield will likely have no open slots next year, and at age 26 to start the new season he deserves a shot at being a starter.  That chance may come if GM Mike Rizzo decides to trade him for the right deal in the offseason.  Otherwise, a spot as the Nats’ fourth outfielder next year seems virtually assured.

3.  Michael Taylor, CF; Highest 2014 Level: Washington; How Acquired: Draft (6th Round) 2009; Age 23.

For several years, the Nats have been waiting for Taylor’s production to catch up with his outstanding raw ability.  As it turned out, 2014 was the year he would put it all together.  Already known for being a top notch defender, Taylor went 20+ (home runs)-30+ (stolen bases) playing mostly at Harrisburg before getting his first taste of the big leagues and hitting his first big league homer in August.  One of two Nats selected for the MLB All Star Future’s Game in 2014, Taylor’s overall minor league slash line was a robust .304/.390/.526.  If there is any knock on his game, it’s his high strikeout rate (144 in 493 PAs), but if he can keep hitting home runs and stealing bases at the major league level, he could eventually be the CF version of Ian Desmond.  Expect Denard Span’s contract option to be picked up in 2015, but expect the Nats to be looking at Taylor as Span’s potential successor beyond next season.

2.  A.J. Cole, RHP; Highest 2014 Level: Syracuse (AAA); How Acquired: Draft (4th Round) 2010/Trade 2012; Age 22.

Oakland’s Billy Beane is generally considered one of the best GM’s in baseball, but Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo might just have gotten the better of Mr. Moneyball in two trades involving A.J. Cole.  Cole was initially shipped off to Oakland as part of the deal that brought Gio Gonzalez to DC.  But then, after Cole had a disappointing 2012 minor league season, Beane sent Cole back to the Nats along with fireballer Blake Treinen and lefty Ian Krol (later part of the Doug Fister trade) in a three way deal that cost the Nats exactly one year of popular slugger Mike Morse’s services.  At any rate, since returning to the Nats’ organization, Cole has steadily marched up the minor league chain and with his excellent combined numbers at Harrisburg and Syracuse this year (13-3, 3.16 ERA, 111 Ks in 134 IPs), is knocking on the door asking for admission to the big club’s rotation.  With that rotation apparently set again in 2015, Cole will likely have to bide his time at Syracuse, likely to be used as the team’s 6th starter in anticipation of getting his big chance in 2016.

1. Luke Giolito, RHP; Highest 2014 Level: Hagerstown (Low A); How Acquired: Draft (1st Round) 2012; Age 20.

No Nats’ rookie pitcher will ever come close to having the kind of hype Stephen Strasburg had before ever throwing a big league pitch, but by the time he is ready for The Show a couple of years from now Luke Giolito may just come close.  The triple-digit throwing Giolito was, like Strasburg, set to be a near consensus overall number one draft choice when he injured his elbow his senior year of high school.  Tumbling all the way down to the Nats with the 16th pick, GM Mike Rizzo took a risk that Giolito wouldn’t opt to go to college and that his elbow was salvageable.  Though he ended up needing Tommy John surgery after throwing only two professional innings, Giolito has bounced back strong.  Despite being held to an innings limit of just 98 this year, he still won the South Atlantic League’s Most Outstanding Pitcher award courtesy of a stellar 10-2 record, a 2.20 ERA and racking up 110 strikeouts.  With his surgery now more than two years behind him, expect Giolito to move quickly up the Nats’ chain, and possibly join Strasburg in the rotation by 2016 where if he continues to dominate, he’ll give the Nats one heck of a one-two punch.