The Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series, and that strangest of victories sent us into this strangest of offseasons. The weakest free agent class in memory means teams will have to battle for very few players or get creative in trades and with internal options.
Trea Turner notched his third consecutive multi-hit game Sunday, knocking a single and a double in five at-bats. A pair of hits is practically mundane for him, as he has shredded expectations with a .319/.347/.540 line this season. Though he was a highly touted prospect, his 133 wRC+ while learning center field on the fly is jaw-dropping. How has the young shortstop-turned-second-baseman-turned-outfielder become so good, so fast?
Twitter was briefly set afire today by ex-Nat Mark DeRosa’s suggestion on Twitter that the Nationals give up a king’s ransom in young talent for a pair of controllable and talented White Sox in their prime.
Much speculation has swirled around the Nationals potentially acquiring a reliever to beef up the back end of their bullpen. They are frequently named as a suitor for the Yankees’ pair of fireballing lefties: Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller. The list doesn’t end there, with Sean Doolittle, Fernando Abad, Jeremy Jeffress, and Alex Colome as members of a very deep group. Suffice it to say, there are quite a few ways the trade deadline could go.
Entering this season, it was seen as a fait accompli that the Nationals would call up Trea Turner to start at shortstop on May 31, when it would be assured that the team would have an extra year of contractual control on the young shortstop. Danny Espinosa “won” the job in the spring, but he was simply a placeholder, intended to keep the six spot warm until the rookie arrived.
The Washington Nationals announced Sunday that Stephen Strasburg would be placed on the 15-day disabled list after being scratched from his start in Milwaukee the day before. After the team’s 3-2 win, manager Dusty Baker announced that Joe Ross would start Monday, and a minor-league call-up would start Tuesday. But Dusty left out one key piece of information: Who is that going to be?
Two weeks ago, our very own Zach Spedden wrote about some internal options the Nationals might have if they wanted to replace Jonathan Papelbon in the closer’s role. Many Nats fans got their wish in a perverse way when Papelbon went on the DL on June 14th, pushing every other reliever into a slightly more demanding role to compensate. Since then, the relief corps has proven alarmingly thin. Regardless of whether or not the Nationals choose to replace Papelbon in the ninth inning, acquiring a reliever for any role seems like it could be the team’s top priority by the August 1 trade deadline.
The first complication with this exercise is considering which teams are going to sell. The standings can change quite a bit in a month and a half, and quite a few teams are close enough to a Wild Card berth to keep hope alive for now. So instead of speculating on losing streaks, I will focus on two pitchers to whom the Nationals have been connected frequently: Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman.
Both Chapman and Miller are unusual cases, though for very different reasons. Miller only recently became a reliever, but is now 31 and has a 1.87 ERA since the start of 2014, along with a stupefying 15.1 K/9 and stingy 2.3 BB/9. He is under contract for two more years at $9M each after 2016, so he could be the long-term answer at closer the Nationals have sought since the franchise moved from Montreal. But given his ability and contract, he will fetch a hefty price in any deal.
The New York Post’s Joel Sherman notes that the Nats are not likely to move über-prospects Lucas Giolito, Trea Turner, and Victor Robles, though he wonders if Miller is attractive enough to land one, perhaps when paired with speedy center fielder Brett Gardner. But the Nationals reportedly considered the trio untouchable at last year’s trade deadline, and Robles has since raised his stock even higher, while Turner and Giolito have held steady as two of baseball’s best prospects who figure into major league plans very soon. It’s quite hard to see any of the three going anywhere. That would leave flamethrowing righty Reynaldo Lopez, who has struck out 45 and walked three over 23 2/3 innings in his last four full starts, and 2014 first rounder Erick Fedde, who has 48 strikeouts and 12 walks in 49 innings at High A this season, as the top trade chips. They may not be enough to nab Miller, but they could intrigue the Yankees for Chapman.
Though Chapman, famed for touching 103 miles per hour, has been just as successful as Miller recently, he will come at a much lower price for two reasons: he is a free agent at the end of the season, and — much more importantly — he was questioned in a domestic violence incident in the offseason after allegedly choking his girlfriend and shooting a gun in his garage, which resulted in a 30-game suspension. General manager Mike Rizzo has long sought after Chapman, and Dusty Baker, who managed him in Cincinnati, publicly defended him this offseason.
Discussing what it means to acquire a player punished for domestic violence requires an article much longer and more thoughtful than this one. I could not possibly do it justice without dedicating an entire post to it, so I will minimize the role of my opinion and hew towards what I think the Nationals might do.
Chapman got off light for a terrible act, though even a heavy punishment from MLB would not have redeemed him in the eyes of many. Adding Chapman would alienate and rightfully anger many fans, but the same was true of keeping Papelbon last offseason. Rizzo backed off his pursuit of Chapman last offseason after the allegations against the closer became public but said their interest was on hold only “until we find out how things happened,” which does not sound like a categorical condemnation of his actions. Rizzo has shown that he is unafraid to make a move that will upset fans, but Papelbon’s actions are child’s play compared to Chapman’s. The Nationals’ interest in Chapman will depend almost entirely on how Rizzo weighs his crime, and that is a question only the GM can answer.
After the MLB Draft ended Saturday, the team and fans alike could begin getting excited about the Nationals’ selections and dreaming on their status as prospects. But the MLB draft is distinct from its NBA and NFL counterparts in that players don’t always sign. High schoolers have the leverage of going to college, and college juniors can go back for their senior year, so players only go pro if they get enough money. Bonus demands are why popular Nats target and potential first-round prospect Drew Mendoza got drafted in the 36th round, and why a number of the players the Nationals chose won’t be joining the organization this season.
So which of these players will or won’t wear a Curly W (or an Auburn Doubledays jersey) by the July 15th deadline? Who they are and where they were drafted can give us a pretty good idea.
The MLB Draft is just two days away, but with the 28th and 29th picks in the first round, there is still a very wide range of players the Nationals could take. I’m not a scout, and I don’t have any sources, but there’s another way to get a glimpse into what the Nationals’ front office might be thinking. I looked at mock drafts and some past draft trends to highlight some players the Nats might consider.
First, the mocks. In the interest of a large sample size, I drew from 24 different mock drafts, on a scale from very reputable (multiple from Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law, MLB.com’s Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo) to the sketchy (the rest of them). I didn’t include any that were obviously from people who knew nothing, so all of them include some scouting knowledge or semblance of inside information. While mocks do get more accurate as we near the day of the event, a broad range of views should paint a good picture. And the results turned out quite conclusive.
Appearing in nearly half of the drafts at 11, and six more time than any other player, was high school shortstop Drew Mendoza. The Florida native is perhaps the draft’s most polarizing player, rating 14th on ESPN’s Jim Bowden’s top draft prospects, 43rd on Baseball America’s list, and 90th on Law’s Big Board. At 6’4” and 200 pounds, he is likely to move from shortstop. With a sweet lefty swing and an arm that ESPN’s Eric Longenhagen called “plus-plus”, or borderline elite, Mendoza could be excellent at third if he gains power as he matures. But Longenhagen says Mendoza is inconsistent at the plate, and his defense could force a move to the outfield. In sum, the report reads, Mendoza is “as high-risk, high-reward as it gets in this draft.”
The connection to Mendoza makes sense beyond his profile on the field. He is represented by Scott Boras, with whom the Nationals have a well-established relationship. He is also likely to be a challenging sign due to bonus demands. But many mock drafters highlighted the Nats’ proclivity to draft and sign the best player regardless of why they fell, as evidenced by players like Lucas Giolito. Mendoza is rumored to want $3 million, and the Nats’ two first-round picks combine for a slot value of just over $4 million. It’s hard to ignore the factors at work here, but no pick is ever a sure thing.
In a distant second in the mock draft tally was Georgia righty Robert Tyler, who appeared five times. Tyler has struggled with inconsistency and injury, but at his best he wields a fastball touching 99 MPH and an excellent changeup. But without a good breaking ball and with command that comes and goes, Tyler would be another high-risk selection for the Nats.
The only other players to appear more than twice were Louisville closer Zack Burdi and Stanford righty Cal Quantrill, who were both mentioned three times. Burdi touches 100 with his fastball and has the makings of two good offspeed pitches, leading some to believe he can start, but his command leaves something to be desired. Quantrill missed this past season recovering from Tommy John surgery, seemingly making him a prime Nationals target. But he seems likely to be gone before the Nats pick, perhaps to the Padres at 24th overall.
The other players to appear more than once were UVA catcher Matt Thaiss, high school lefty Kyle Muller, high school shortstop Carter Kieboom (brother of the Nats’ Spencer), Florida outfielder Buddy Reed, Vanderbilt outfielder Bryan Reynolds, and high school lefty (and recent Tommy John recipient) Jesus Luzardo.
Another way to figure out whom the Nationals might draft includes a look into the past. By examining their past selections, we can attempt to identify traits the team likes in its players.
On the surface, there are few obvious trends. Of the 12 players the Nats have chosen in the top two rounds from 2010 through 2015, which are the six drafts Mike Rizzo has overseen as General Manager, six are hitters and six are pitchers. Eight have been from college, perhaps indicating a slight lean. But a closer look reveals some far more predictive patterns.
The most famous Nats trend, of course, is choosing pitchers who may need or are recovering from Tommy John surgery. Giolito and Erick Fedde are the two prime examples. In this year’s draft, Quantrill and Luzardo are the two main candidates, though Quantrill is expected to go earlier and Luzardo later. Later-round players include Tennessee’s Kyle Serrano and WVU’s Chad Donato.
If that preference extends to pitchers who have had Tommy John and since returned to action, the Nationals could look at Vanderbilt’s Jordan Sheffield, Oregon’s Cole Irvin and Matt Krook, and South Carolina’s Braden Webb.
As mentioned with Mendoza, the Nationals love Boras clients. It’s harder to find agent information before the draft, but Boras represents high school righty Reggie Lawson and college starter Kyle Funkhouser, whose stock has fallen since he chose not to sign with the Dodgers last year. Law recently said that the Nationals could select Funkhouser in the third round.
Studies have suggested that players who are young relative to their peers do much better after being selected, and it seems the Nationals adhere to that idea. They chose Max Schrock and Rhett Wiseman, who were the second- and 14th-youngest college position players last year, respectively, according to Baseball America. Second-round pick Andrew Stevenson was just a week older than the last player (17th-ranked) on that list. Baseball America has not released the youngest players for this year’s draft, and I don’t know where to find that information, but rest assured that I will tweet it when it is released. You’ll likely see one of those players chosen by the Nats.
The Nationals, like many teams, also have a history of choosing players they’ve drafted before. An incomplete list of past examples includes David Kerian, Brett Mooneyham, Jake Jefferies, Nick Lee, John Simms, and Tyler Moore, who the Nats famously chose three times. So for this year’s draft, look out for high schoolers the Nats chose in 2013 who didn’t sign. Of those players, a few have found college success: Long Beach State SS Garrett Hampson (22nd round in 2013, No. 156 on Baseball America’s rankings this year), Mississippi State OF/RHP Reid Humphreys (36th round, No. 206), and Florida RHP Shaun Anderson (40th round, No. 151). The Nationals could also attempt to draft some of the college players they failed to sign last year, like WVU reliever Blake Smith and Rice catcher J.C. Reeves.
A common maxim in drafts in that it is ideal to draft the best player available, as opposed to choosing one that meets a team’s needs. That is especially true in the MLB draft, when players very rarely reach the majors within two years of being drafted. But what may be more of a consideration for teams is drafting to address organizational need. For example, the Nationals’ system has a dearth of left-handed pitchers, the best of whom could well be Low-A starter Taylor Hearn, who has not pitched since breaking his foot in April. The pipeline also lacks corner infielders and power hitters, as Drew Ward may be the only notable example of both, though Kelvin Gutierrez and Anderson Franco are both up-and-coming.
The Nats could also have to consider what positions are logjammed in the organization. Ward, Gutierrez, and Franco occupy third base at High-A, Low-A, and short-season A respectively. If the Nationals were to choose a college third baseman, where would he play?
These lists may seem scattered, but these factors are some of many that the Nationals consider when deciding who to choose. Individually, they don’t tell you a ton. But put them all together, and the puzzle of what the Nats’ draft will look like starts to come together.
Today is May 28th. Estimates vary, but the date that Trea Turner can be called up and be under team control through the 2022 season instead of 2021 is somewhere in the range from May 29th to June 1st (the Washington Post says May 30th), so it’s possible the sun will rise tomorrow on a Nats roster with Turner as starting shortstop. It’s no sure thing that Mike Rizzo and Co. will call up Turner the moment they can, but with Turner shredding Triple A and Danny Espinosa struggling somewhat in the majors (despite another home run last night), it’s hard to think of a more opportune time.
Obviously, much ink has been spilled about the relative merits of Turner and Espinosa, including an excellent post by our own Frank Lattuca, so I won’t totally dive into that. In this post, I will attempt to take a thorough accounting of what kind of defender Espinosa is — a topic that has been surprisingly controversial — and take a look at how good (or bad) Turner’s defense might be.