Thoughts on the First Day of the Off-Season

Posted by Dave Nichols | Monday, October 04, 2010 | , | 10 comments »

First, all apologies for not writing game stories over the weekend.  I didn't plan on taking the last two days of the season off, but we had a lot on our plate this weekend and couldn't catch up.

I'm sure you know by now, the Nats lost two of three to the Mets, a team that knew their manager and general manager would be fired after the last out of the season was recorded.  Maybe that was the reason for the 14 innings yesterday.

You also know by now the Nats ended with a 69-93 record.  Pythagoras had the Nats for 72 wins based on runs scored and allowed, so the team overall "underachieved" by three games.  I predicted 68 wins at the start of the season.  I'm not happy that I was pretty darn close to be right.

The 11-game improvement from last season is all bullpen.  Last season, the pen was filled with players over their heads or past their prime and Joel Hanrahan, who was the unluckiest pitcher in baseball the first-half of last season (.431 BABiP).  This season it has been a strength, finishing fourth in the N.L. in bullpen ERA and fifth in bullpen runs per game overall. 

Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Doug Slaten, Drew Storen and Joel Peralta all exceeded optimistic expectations.  Will they continue to dominate in 2011?  Will the Nats appoint a closer out of the group?  Questions to ponder.

We knew at the beginning of the year that starting pitching was going to be a sore point for this team, and it certainly lived down to the fears.  The Nats allowed the fifth most runs per games from their starters.  John Lannan, Jason Marquis and Scott Olsen all faced injury and pitched poorly in the first half.  Their absence exposed the lack of depth of Major League-ready arms in the Nats system.

Of all the pitchers to start more than one game for the Nats -- eleven total -- only three had ERAs lower than 4.25:  Livan Hernandez (3.66), Stephen Strasburg (2.91)... and J.D. Martin (1-5, 4.13 in nine starts).

Martin's record with decent ERA leads the discussion to the Nats' biggest failure this season:  the hitting.

Washington scored the third fewest runs per game (4.04), more than just Houston and Pittsburgh.  What should have been a strength was their biggest liability.  And it all started at the top of the order.

Anyone thinking that Nyjer Morgan would duplicate his six week stint from 2009 was kidding themselves.  But what Morgan did this season also was worse than any doomsday prediction for him.  Morgan hit .253/.319/.314 out of the leadoff spot.  That's abominable.  The only thing worse than the production was not correcting the course, something the Nationals had several opportunities to do, but decided against each time.

You can't drive runs in if no one is on base, and that's reflected in the numbers.  The Nats had 15 batters gather more than 100 plate appearances.  Of those, just four had OBPs higher than .327: Josh Willingham (.389), Ryan Zimmerman (.388), Adam Dunn (.356) and Michael Morse (.352).  That's right, Cristian Guzman's .327 OBP was fifth best on the Nats this year.  Ugh.

The defense, in a word, stunk.  The Nats tied for last in the N.L. with Pittsburgh in team errors (127), and that only begins to describe the fielding woes.  But the Nats did make 19 fewer errors than in 2009, so I guess it's a start.

General Manager Mike Rizzo has already gone on record as desiring a No. 1-type starter this off-season.  It's a nice proposition, but there's only one of those in the free agent class, Cliff Lee.  And he's sure to garner attention from all the big players.  But this team has a lot of places on the roster it can upgrade.

I've seen already that some season reviews have said the Nats don't really have too many "glaring holes" on the roster and that Rizzo thinks the team is at a point where it's very competitive.  Over the next couple of weeks I'll take a more in-depth look at the roster and offer critique, but in a nut shell here are my biggest "glaring holes" as we move into the off-season.

1.  First base.  Dunn's as good as gone.  If they were going to get a contract done, it would have been right after the trade deadline, but at that point Dunn's camp probably already decided to go to free agency.  Believe whatever report you want to, but the Nats simply are not going to offer Dunn four years. 

The team has been putting Dunn's defensive liabilities out in the mainstream media to deflect criticism when they don't offer the player the years and dollars he'll get on the open market.  I still think Kenny Williams (White Sox) will gives Dunn what he wants, Dunn just has to decide to put his glove away.

My personal preference to replace Dunn is to find a trade partner that has a Major League ready 1B at the minor league level, and there are several candidates, rather than go the free agent market.  All the FAs are older and less accomplished that what here already.  If that's the route they're taking, they should just stick with Dunn.

2.  Leadoff hitter.  Morgan isn't really equipped for it, despite his overall career OBP of .344.  Worse, he hits left-handers at a .200/.292/.269 clip for his career.  That's just not acceptable.  Simply put, Morgan cannot be allowed to hit against left-handers anymore.  Period.  The 151 plate appearances the team allowed Morgan to have against lefties this year (.200/.280/.252) -- especially hitting ahead of Zimmerman and Dunn -- was irresponsible and damaging.

On top of his low OBP stats, and despite all the wondrous speed he has, Morgan's not an elite base stealer (has led the league in caught stealing two years in a row now), nor is he an elite fielder.

His lifetime .308/.361/.387 against righties is acceptable.  If the Nats want to find a true platoon partner for Morgan, and coach him up on hitting the cut-off man and preaching defensive responsibility instead of concentrating on the spectacular, he can be rehabilitated to at least be a useful Major League player.  But he's simply not a "cornerstone".

3.  Starting Pitching.  Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Marquis, Yunesky Maya.  There's your rotation for next year.  Rizzo has said "A No. 1 starter is our top priority" but realistically, Cliff Lee will cost a fortune in money and years, and where is Rizzo going to find a team that a) is willing to part with an ace, and b) is willing to take what realistically little Rizzo has to offer?  Zack Greinke? 

The Nats just don't have enough prospects built up yet to be able to package two or three of them to acquire that type of player.

If they re-sign Dunn, and get a full year of the "real" John Lannan and Jason Marquis, and Desmond/Espinosa get another year under their belts, and they get a platoon for Morgan, and the Bernie/Morse RF combo performs as they did most of this year, and the bullpen doesn't implode, AND they don't have a catastrophic injury, the Nats can pick up another 8-10 games in the standings and be set for 2012 and the return of their homegrown ace and possibly the debut of their second "once in a generation" player.

Any of that falls through, and we'll have to adjust our projections on the fly.

10 comments

  1. Anonymous // October 4, 2010 at 6:21 PM  

    Morse or Willingham can play first. They don't strike out every other time at bat.

  2. cadeck13 // October 4, 2010 at 6:35 PM  

    Hi Dave,
    First, I'd like to thank you for a stellar year of blogging. It has really been enjoyable.
    Second, I'd like to ask your opinion about our hitting approach and why our guys don't adjust to pitchers, especially the soft tossers? I've listened to both Ray Knight, Rob Dibble and others comment that our guys don't move up in the box like the players of yester-year were taught. Ray especially harped on it Saturday against the Mets and it's not the first time I've heard him lament on it. So many times this year we made the other pitcher look like Cy Young. Really frustrating!

    Thanks,
    cadeck13

  3. bdrube // October 4, 2010 at 7:12 PM  

    Here's the last five years summed up in one ugly stat:

    Number of Nats pitchers with over 120 strikeouts in 2005 = 3 (Livan Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza and John Patterson).

    Number of Nats pitchers with over 120 strikeouts in one season, 2006-2010 = 0.

    Happy offseason, everybody.

  4. Dave Nichols // October 4, 2010 at 7:13 PM  

    @cadeck13: i don't think it's an epidemic of just the Nats. nobody cuts their swing down anymore, even with two strikes. it's just not preached like in the "old days".

  5. Dave Nichols // October 4, 2010 at 7:18 PM  

    @bdrube: thanks. that really drives the point home, doesn't it?

  6. dmichalopoulos // October 4, 2010 at 7:26 PM  

    Do you think the leadoff hitter is currently on the roster? Espinosa has potential if he can cut down on his strikeouts, but if not seems better suited in the 6 or 7 spot.

  7. Dave Nichols // October 4, 2010 at 8:41 PM  

    @dmichalopoulous: i'm skeptical that Espinosa can be the leadoff hitter next season..maybe with time. in his short stint here at the end of the season, he really wasn't very patient. part of that maybe trying to impress, but he needs to be much more selective if he's going to leadoff.

    i maintain that against righties, Morgan's a viable candidate (lifetime .360 OBP v RHP). but they need to work on his defense, base running skills, and frankly, his demeanor for him to regain his status.

  8. Anonymous // October 5, 2010 at 9:14 AM  

    "His overall career OBP is .344. That's just not acceptable."

    You are wrong. That OBP would be good for 4th in the NL in OBP for leadoff hitters. .344 is adequate. .320 is not.

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/play-index/split_stats_lg.cgi?full=1&params=lineu|Batting%201st|NL|2010|bat|AB|

  9. Dave Nichols // October 5, 2010 at 10:03 AM  

    @anon: thanks for the comment. the "not accpetable" comment was supposed to be after the part about his numbers against left-handers. it just got out of order. thanks for pointing it out.

  10. Aeoliano // October 5, 2010 at 2:56 PM  

    AND ...

    Stephen Strasburg, Sanny Solis, AJ Morris, Tom Milone, and more trickle in starting in June.

    That actually could bring dramatic improvement with a trade for a #1 starting ace like Zack Grienke.

    If Dunn leaves they could just put Morse at first base. He should excel fielding wise ... his stats project to a 100 RBI, close to .300 and close to 40 homers with enough at bats. Marerro should be ready to come up next year. Not much fielding wise but enough should Morse get injured?

    They could sign Jayson Werth for right field.

    They still need a consistent #1, #2 hitter. My suggestion would be Willingham batting second. Espinosa batting first. Once Espinosa adjusts to the league he should be okay there and he is a switch hitter.

    Lombardozzi should make his appearance to help solidify the middle infield adding another potential #1,#2 hitter.

    BUT for any improvement to occur they must improve the starting pitching. They must come up with at least 2 top of the rotation starting pitchers with names other than Strasburg. One should come outside ... the other ... Zimmermann? Detwiler? Solis as a dark horse? In the end whether Dunn stays or goes does not matter as much as this ... this is the critical piece ...

    That and #2, finally improving the defense for the rest of the pitch-to-contact starting staff.