Projecting a Desmond Extension

Heading into this offseason, one of the main priorities for the Washington Nationals has been agreeing to extensions with two core players set to be free agents in 2015: Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond.

Zimmermann seems the less likely of the two to stay with the Nats. He and the Nationals came to a 2-year, $24M deal that simply set the salaries for his next two years of arbitration. In light of the agreement, the two sides’ failure to come to an extension is surprising. The second year of this deal pays Zimmermann $16.5M, a figure that would make him the 13th-highest paid pitcher based on average annual value in 2014. If he seeks more money than that, he is not long for Washington.

The Nationals came to a similar deal with Desmond, buying out his two remaining years of arbitration for a total of $17.5M. Again, one should not be happy that the team and player did not agree on a longer deal, but Desmond’s case is much more encouraging.

The biggest sign pointing towards a long-term deal for Desmond is his new contract. Like Zimmermann’s, his deal is backloaded, but unlike Zimm’s, it’s at a reasonable price. The second year pays him $11M, as much as the sixth-highest paid shortstop in 2014. As an aside, there are roughly five times as many starting pitchers as shortstops in baseball. If Desmond agreed to give up his last year of arbitration for $11M, his demands for a long-term deal just might be reasonable enough for something to get done.

Beyond whether a deal will happen, we need to consider what that deal might look like, based on Desmond’s value and peers. The two most pertinent examples are long-term deals for two other shortstops: Elvis Andrus of the Texas Rangers, and Troy Tulowitzki of the Colorado Rockies.

First, let’s look at Andrus’ deal. He signed an eight-year, $120 million pact with the Rangers at the beginning of the 2013 season, when he had two years of team control left. The deal actually pays him $118M over those eight years, but also includes a club option for a ninth year that has a $2M buyout, bringing the total guarantee to $120M. In the two previous years, he had posted 3.7 and 4.3 WAR, similar to Desmond’s 3.4 and 3.7 in 2012 and 2013. Andrus provides a good chunk of his value with defense, while Desmond’s is mainly derived from his bat, but both are pretty close in overall contribution. The reason Desmond doesn’t deserve the same contract as Andrus is because Desmond is four years older than Andrus was when he got his extension.

Andrus’ deal values his age 26-33 years at an average of $15M/year, with some of that expected value pushed towards the front of the deal. The Nats already control Desmond through age 29, so assuming Desmond and Andrus produce at the same level from ages 30-33, a comparable deal would be four years/$60M to control Desmond through age 33. This seems cheap, and rightfully so: we can assume that Andrus is taking a bit of an annual pay cut in exchange for getting an eight-year deal, so a more appropriate average annual value (AAV) might be $16-17M. Additionally, four years seems like too short an extension for Desmond, so a reasonable deal with Andrus as the main comp might be around 5/$85M or 6/$96M.

The second example, Tulowitzki, is not nearly as close a comparison, but is still worth examining. Tulo had three years of control when he signed his extension, and had posted 6.5 and 6.7 WAR in the two years before it – superstar numbers, especially for a player in his age 24 and 25 seasons like he was. His first contract extension had a club option for 2014, but it was overwritten when he signed a 7-year, $134M deal that paid for his ages 29-35 seasons. The deal’s AAV is a bit lower than what a player of Tulo’s pure talent might deserve, but it accounts for his health issues, which showed up in 2008 before the deal was signed and torpedoed his 2012 season. Desmond has played 150+ games in four of the past five seasons, and has had no significant injuries other than missing a few weeks with an oblique injury in 2012.

As with Andrus, let’s look at what the deal pays Tulo for Desmond’s free agent years. He will make $16M for his age-29 season, a year for which the Nats control Desmond for $5M fewer. He is owed $20M for ages 30-34, and $14M for 35 with $6M in incentives and a $4M buyout on a $14M age-36 option. It seems fair to lop off $3-4M/year from this deal based on the expected production gap between Tulowitzki and Desmond, which brings you to the same 6/$90-96M deal if you exclude options. The value of one win above replacement is over $7M, and a healthy Tulo would likely outpace Desmond by more than that per season, but the difference between the two is lessened by the greater health risk inherent in Tulowitzki.

These comparisons give an expected deal: five or six years at $16-17M, perhaps with a team option at the end. Extensions aren’t our only tool to help value Desmond, though. We can also look at recent free-agent deals signed by shortstops, the two most relevant of which were inked by Jhonny Peralta this offseason and Jose Reyes two years ago. Owing to its auction-style format, free agency tends to inflate players’ contracts, so an extension based on these will likely be cheaper than these contracts would suggest.

Reyes signed a 6-year, $106M deal with the Marlins after putting up seasons of 2.3 and 4.7 WAR in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The deal includes a $22M team option at the end with a $4M buyout. His injury issues were well documented before the deal, so the $17M AAV accounts for some of that risk, but also rewards him for the potential that he flashed when posting 5.8 WAR as a 23-year-old in 2006.

Peralta, like Reyes and Tulo, has some risk, due to both inconsistent play and the fear that his play might drop off after he was busted for PEDs in the Biogenesis scandal last season. He put up 1.2 and 3.3 wins in his last two seasons in Detroit, and is also older than Desmond, about to enter his age-31 season. He signed a 4-year, $53M deal with the Cardinals, a shorter and cheaper deal than Desmond is likely to get due to his riskiness and age.

There are a lot of ways to determine what a fair extension for Desmond might be. One could project the rest of his career, figure out what value he can be expected to contribute, and use the market value of a win to see what he brings. But looking simply at contracts signed by comparable players, one can get a pretty good idea of what a deal might look like.

I don’t know whether Desmond will sign an extension, no more than anyone else does, but if he does, I think it’ll be something like this: 5 years, $85 million, with a $16M team option for 2021 with a $2M buyout.

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Nats Acquire LHP Jerry Blevins from Athletics

The Nationals have satisfied one of their biggest needs of the offseason today with the acquisition of Jerry Blevins from the Oakland Athletics. Blevins is a left-handed reliever, which is among the biggest needs for the Nats heading into the offseason. The A's will get the Nats 2013 Minor League Player of the Year OF Billy Burns.

This is just one of many trades between Nats GM Mike Rizzo and A's GM Billy Beane in recent years, and Blevins has been tied to the Nats for a few days now. Rizzo has clearly gotten his guy in this lefty. He's under club control for two more seasons, which is crucial in any deal Rizzo makes in recent memory, and the Nats had a gaping hole in the bullpen without a left-handed specialist. Luckily for the Nats, Blevins can also retire right-handed hitters with some success. Righty opponents reach base a bit too much via too many walks, but the .240 average by those batters is about average.

Burns is an extremely speedy outfielder, and he certainly fits the Beane model based on his minor league numbers (see: on-base percentage.) He posted a .315/.423/.383 slash line in 2013 between Single-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg. While he won the organizational POTY award, there has always been a concern about whether Burns could hit enough to make his excellent speed relevant. His career .379 slugging percentage is just one look at why that concern exists, but a career .421 OBP means that maybe the 5'9" outfielder could get on base enough to do some damage.

Once again, Rizzo has gotten his man and satisfied a need for the Nationals without giving up a major piece from the organization. We're pretty close to what the final 25-man roster will look like on March 31st already, but we will probably see one or two more moves between now and then.

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Breaking: Nats Acquire Doug Fister From Tigers

The hot stove for the Nationals went from ice cold to scalding hot with one report on Monday evening. The Nats officially announced that they acquired starting right-handed pitcher Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers. In return, they sent INF Steve Lombardozzi, LHP Ian Krol, and LHP Robbie Ray to Detroit.

The deal seems like a remarkable one for the Nats. They will have Doug Fister, presumably as their number four starter, through 2015. In the last three seasons as a starter, Fister put up a 3.30 ERA and a 1.186 WHIP, and he has a career 3.50 FIP. The Nats will send Steve Lombardozzi, an average-caliber bench player and a fan favorite, Ian Krol, a middle reliever, and Robbie Ray, the Nats number five prospect. 

Time will tell, but it seems like Mike Rizzo once again made a remarkable trade to improve the Nats immediately and in the medium term without giving up much in return.

We'll have more on The Nats Blog in the coming days, including an impromptu episode of Nats Talk On The Go this evening to talk about the trade.

Nats Talk On The Go: Episode 69

We've got a fun show planned for you today, and for you Aaron Sorkin fans, you won't want to miss the intro. There are plenty of hot stove topics to discuss, including Ian Desmond, Trent Jewett, pitching, and more.

We'll be live at 7:30 pm EST, and as always, the podcast will be available via iTunes after the broadcast ends. If you'd like to participate during the show, please reach out to us on Twitter: @TheNatsBlogJoe and @CraigMac.

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Baseball America’s Top Ten Nationals Prospects for 2014 – Part Two

On November 6th, Baseball America released their rankings of the top ten prospects in the Nationals’ system for the 2014 season. BA is one of the most respected prospect publications in all of baseball, and their rankings are among the most highly anticipated every year. Today, we'll look at the top five prospects. (We covered numbers six through ten yesterday.)

1. Lucas Giolito, RHP

Total no-brainer here. Recovered from the Tommy John surgery that dropped him to the Nats in the middle of the first round in the 2012 draft, he dominated in the Gulf Coast League and the short-season Low A New York-Penn League. He looks the part of a future ace, with a high-90s fastball, devastating curve, and not too shabby changeup.

He is very highly regarded by all prospect evaluators, to say the least. Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks recently spoke very highly of him in a few tweets. The compiler of this list, Aaron Fitt, said in his chat about the Nats’ system (subscribers only) that he was “comfortable” predicting that Giolito would be the number one overall prospect in baseball by the end of next season. He’s the real deal, folks, and nobody in the Nats’ system comes close.

He’ll be moving up to full-season Low A at Hagerstown next year, but as we saw with Taylor Jordan last year, the Nats have no problem with moving up pitchers who destroy their leagues. Expect to see him in the bigs at the end of 2015 or 2016.

2. A.J. Cole, RHP

Now, as much as we all loved Michael Morse, aren’t you glad we traded him this past offseason? Cole was originally drafted by the Nats out of high school in the 4th round of the 2010 draft, but traded him after a season to Oakland, along with a few other prospects, for Gio Gonzalez. He struggled in High A and the Nats reacquired him in the three-team deal that sent Morse to Seattle. Morse hit just .226, albeit with 13 homers, in 76 games before being traded to Baltimore, where he hit just .103 in 12 games. I’d call that deal a win.

Cole was mediocre in repeating High A last year, posting a 4.25 ERA, but was promoted to AA Harrisburg anyway and took off, with a 2.18 ERA, 49:10 K:BB ratio, and .188 opponent average in seven starts. Despite the bumps in his career road, he seems to be back on track and will only be 22 this upcoming season. He still has a healthy amount of potential, though there are questions.

His best pitch is his 93-95 MPH fastball, but his offerings drop off from there. Fitt describes Cole’s changeup as “fringe average” and his breaking ball as “inconsistent,” not even knowing whether to call it a curveball or a slider. Perhaps finally being in the same organization for two straight seasons will help Cole improve his secondary pitches, but he’ll have trouble succeeding without bringing those up to par. To conclude, Fitt says Cole will end up as a “mid-rotation starter.”

Here’s my big question: Why is a future decent starter with one plus pitch and no average pitches the number two prospect in the system? The term “mid-rotation starter” has some wiggle room, so maybe Fitt is optimistic that Cole will refine his pitches and be a great #3 starter. I hope he’s right, but it doesn’t seem extremely likely. Even if he does meet that potential, how does that put him above the next guy on the list?

3. Brian Goodwin, CF

If you had to use one word to describe Goodwin, it would be “toolsy.” He has the potential to be above MLB-average in each of the five tools: hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, defense, and arm strength. However, he has struggled to put them all together. He tore up Low A in his first season after being drafted, but did not adjust well to a midseason promotion to AA and hit just .223 there in the second half of 2012.

He went back to AA for 2013 and improved, but not as much as was hoped. He hit just .252 with 10 home runs and far too many strikeouts, though he walked at a decent clip. His defense is good, but still needs refinement, and he was successful on just 19 of his 30 stolen base attempts last season – a surprisingly low rate for someone as fast as he is. He might start 2014 in AA again, but will certainly be in AAA at some point in the year.

This is where I disagree with Fitt. Goodwin is riskier than Cole, of course: there’s a chance he never puts in together enough to stick in the majors, but he has “all-star potential” according to Fitt. Goodwin has more to change, but his ceiling has to put him above Cole as a prospect. Cole’s relative safe-ness would only put him above Goodwin if he weren’t quite risky himself.

4. Matt Skole, 1B/3B

After a promising 2012 season vaulted Skole into prospect status, he followed an unfortunate Nationals tradition in the second game of this season. He tore his UCL in his second game at AA Harrisburg in a collision at first base, requiring Tommy John surgery that cost him the year. He won’t be on an innings limit in 2014, but will still be at AA and suffering for a lost year of development. That’s no small issue either, given that he will turn 25 during the 2014 season.

He played third base until 2013, given that he’s not a good enough fielder to unseat Ryan Zimmerman or Anthony Rendon. He is, in many ways, a typical first baseman: a lefty with great power who walks a lot. He hit .291 with 27 home runs between Low A and High A in 2012. If he had dominated AA to a similar tune last season, I suspect he might be above Cole and Goodwin on this list. But now he gets a healthy go at Harrisburg, even though it means that he will likely not be MLB-ready when Adam LaRoche’s contract expires after the 2014 season.

5. Robbie Ray, LHP

The former 12th-rounder’s prospect stock had fallen greatly entering the 2013 season, as he had just posted a 6.56 ERA over a full season at High A. He rebounded nicely, however, with a 3.11 ERA before earning a promotion to AA midseason. He held his own there, with a 3.72 ERA. At only 21, he will likely start 2014 in Harrisburg with a shot to move to AAA if he pitches well.

Ray is like a poor man’s lefty Cole, with a strong fastball, mediocre curve, and bad breaking pitch. He too can be a mid-rotation starter, but only if he gets his secondary stuff together, and he has much further to go there than Cole does.

Just Missed: Billy Burns, OF; Tony Renda, 2B; Zach Walters, SS; Matt Purke, LHP; Pedro Severino, C

Fitt mentions in his chat that all of these players were considered for the #10 spot on the list, a testament to the depth of the Nats’ system. Burns is a high-average, no-power speedy CF, who stole one fewer base than Reds speedster Billy Hamilton last season. Renda is another high-average, no-power guy who hit .294 as a 22-year-old in Low A last season. Walters had an OBP of just .286 last season, but mashed 29 home runs as a middle infielder in AAA. Purke has dealt with injuries since being a highly regarded draft prospect, but rebounded nicely this year with a 3.80 ERA between Low A and High A. Severino hit only .241 at Low A Hagerstown last year, but is just 19 and quite advanced for his age.

A few other names to keep an eye on include 2013 draftees 3B Drew Ward, whose ceiling Fitt says is that of “maybe even a star,” RHP Austin Voth, and RHP Nic Pivetta, along with RHP Jefry Rodriguez and RHP Wander Suero.

Additionally, both RHP Taylor Jordan and RHP Tanner Roark made their MLB debuts this season but pitched over 50 innings and thus exhausted their prospect eligibility. However, Fitt put Jordan above Goodwin and below Cole on the Nats’ “Top 15 Players 25 and Under,” confirming in the chat that he would have put an eligible Jordan as the #3 Nats prospect. He was less sure about the 27-year-old Roark, but did say that if eligible, he “would have been a real factor on this list.”
 

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Baseball America’s Top Ten Nationals Prospects for 2014 – Part One

On November 6th, Baseball America released their rankings of the top ten prospects in the Nationals’ system for the 2014 season. BA is one of the most respected prospect publications in all of baseball, and their rankings are among the most highly anticipated every year. Here’s how they've assessed the future Nationals stars. Today, we'll look at numbers six through ten.

6. Sammy Solis, LHP

Much like every other Nats pitcher, Solis missed a season with Tommy John surgery, his being 2012. He was relatively highly regarded before the injury, having been drafted in the second round in 2010 and putting up a 3.26 ERA between Low A and High A in 2011. He looked back to his old self when he finally returned to action this May, with a 3.43 ERA in High A.

However, a consequence of his injury is that his timetable has been delayed. Next season, he will start at AA as a 25-year-old. He has a solid fastball that sits in the low 90s, complemented by a decent changeup and breaking ball. Fitt says he “has a chance to be a No. 4 starter in the majors,” but has reservations about his health, which has been a problem for him all the way back to his college days.

7. Michael Taylor, CF

As risky as Brian Goodwin is, Taylor may be him but riskier in every way. His defense is spectacular, but his bat leaves much to be desired. He spent 2013 repeating High A, but still only posted a .766 OPS. He will start 2013 as a 23-year-old in AA, so not far behind a normal advancement curve, but he needs to improve at the plate to have a chance to make the majors.

Fitt raves about his defense, saying he “can be an all-star” if he becomes a simply average hitter. Coaching might be able to help his struggles with hitting, so an offseason jump in his skills is not out of the question. 2014 will be his reckoning: his status as a prospect will live or die with his bat.

8. Jake Johansen, RHP

The first Nats pick in the 2013 MLB Draft at 68th overall is the ultimate hit-or-miss prospect. He never posted good numbers in college, but threw a 99 MPH fastball and had a perfect frame at 6’6”, 235. The Nationals seemed to get an immediate return on their investment when Johansen made his pro debut, as he had a 1.06 ERA in 10 starts at short-season Low A despite high walk numbers. However, he struggled upon his promotion to Low A Hagerstown, getting lit up to the tune of a 5.79 ERA, albeit in just two starts.

Johansen has the physical tools, but needs a lot of coaching. He has a similar ceiling to Cole and Ray if he keeps improving, but could just as easily flame out as a starter and end up in the bullpen.

9. Nate Karns, RHP

Two things jump out at you when you look at Karns’ résumé: his health and his age. He pitched well in AA last season, with a 3.26 ERA, and so will certainly be in AAA Syracuse to start 2014, but injuries have slowed his progress significantly. He was drafted in 2009, but a torn labrum kept him from debuting until 2011. He’ll be 26 next season, quite old even for his proximity to the bigs. He showed he wasn’t ready last year, despite his success in the lower levels, as he had an ERA over 7 in three major league spot starts.

He has a low-mid 90s fastball and a plus curveball, but his changeup and command aren’t good enough to keep him in a major league rotation. If his health permits, he could be a strong reliever for the Nats in 2015.

10. Steven Souza Jr., OF

Souza was the name you heard every year when talking about potential sleeper prospects in the Nats’ system. He had a semi-breakout year in 2012, hitting .297 between Low A and High A, and he vaulted himself into legitimate prospect status by hitting .300 last season at AA, in addition to seeing his OBP jump 30 points to .396. He only hit 15 homers, but played in only 77 games.

He will be 25 and in AAA next season, so there is certainly cause to doubt him, but he has the power and hit tools to be a major league regular. He is also more prone to injury than one might like, but Fitt points out a comp between him and Morse, who didn’t break out with the Nats until he was 28. Nats fans can only hope that will come true.

 

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Should Ian Desmond’s Extension Be Comparable To Ryan Zimmerman’s?

When you think of “franchise” players for the Washington Nationals, Ryan Zimmerman is the one that comes to mind. Last offseason, Zimmerman signed a well-deserved six-year, $100 million contract extension, which showed how the Nats front office feels about the All-Star third baseman. With that, it stands to reason that the Nats would consider offering an extension to All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond next. So, after what Desmond has done over the last few seasons, is it possible that Desmond’s extension could be comparable to, or even more than, Zimmerman’s?

On the surface, many may consider this question preposterous. After all, Zimmerman is the Face of the Franchise, and he has posted the numbers to back up his expectations after he was drafted. But if you look at Desmond’s resume from the last couple seasons, this might not be as crazy as it sounds.

Awards – On Wednesday evening, Desmond won his second consecutive Silver Slugger award, proving that he continues to lead NL shortstops with his offensive prowess. He was also a finalist for Gold Glove in those same two years, but it seems unlikely that he would ever win that award as long as Andrelton Simmons is playing shorstop in the NL. Simmons is statistcally one of the best defensive shortstops to ever play the game. Meanwhile, Zimmerman has also won the Silver Slugger in back-to-back seasons (2009, 2010), and he has a Gold Glove to his name from the 2009 campaign.

Both Desmond and Zimmerman are one-time All-Stars, and there’s a real argument to be made that Desmond was snubbed in 2013.

Stats – Over the last two seasons, both players have put up nearly identical numbers, with Desmond leading in average and slugging and Zimmerman taking the edge in on-base percentage.

Over those two seasons, their slash lines and home run numbers are:

Desmond: .286/.333/.480, 45 HR
Zimmerman: .278/.345/.471, 51 HR

Obviously, with career numbers, Zimmerman walks away in many of these categories, but it’s not fair to compare Desmond from 2009-2011 to the player he was in 2012 and 2013. Desmond certainly wasn’t bad in those earlier seasons, but he’s a whole different player now. He’s one who deserves to have his financial future based his recent success.

Position – If you ask major league players what the most difficult position is on a baseball field, many, if not most, will tell you it’s shortstop. Desmond is among the best in baseball, both offensively and defensively, at one of the most difficult positions on the field. Third base is no picnic either, and Zimmerman is a leader at his position year in and year out. In my book, I’ll take a strong shortstop over a strong third baseman any day, but the Nats are lucky enough to have both.

Durability – Ryan Zimmerman’s health issues have been well-documented recently, and the fact of the matter is, he hasn’t reached the 150 game mark since the 2009 season. Yet, he still received a sizable contract. In contrast, in the last four years, which constitutes his entire MLB career minus his 2009 call up, Desmond’s played in fewer than 154 games just once, in 2012, when he still appeared in 130 games.

Desmond’s sample size is smaller, but he’s also had a better average of success recently, which is relevant when considering an early extension, and they’re comparatively aged. Desmond is 28, while Zimmerman is 29.

Leader – Now, onto the intangible quality: leadership. Ryan Zimmerman is a lead-by-example type of player. He isn’t a guy who will make noise in the clubhouse, but players watch him as someone to model themselves after on the field.

Desmond, however, has the whole package. He’s animated on the field, he has that clubhouse presence, and by virtue of his position, he becomes the on-field captain on defense. You’ll regularly see Desmond himself make mound visits with a struggling pitcher, for example.

Some of these aren't things that I normally put a whole lot of thought into when evaluating a player, but the fact of the matter is, these are the categories that teams look at when determining value. It’s also how arbitration panels evaluate players.

So, the question is, should Ryan Zimmerman’s six year, $100 million extension, which begins this season, be a baseline for the Lerner family and Mike Rizzo when deciding what to do with Ian Desmond? I think so.

The average annual value of Zimmerman’s contract is $16.7 million, and I think Desmond, at 28, Zimmerman’s age was when he signed his extension, should look for something similar, and I think the Nats would be foolish to not give it to him. Good shortstops are among the most difficult players to replace, and the Nationals have one who has proven himself to be among the best players in baseball at that position.

When we look back at the most important moves the Nationals make this offseason, I don’t believe it will be a trade or free agent signing. I think it will be the Nationals locking up Ian Desmond to a long-term contract extension to benefit the Nats for years to come.

Nats Talk On The Go: Episode 68

Welcome to our first ever live episode of Nats Talk On The Go! Craig and I wanted to try this so you can all see how we do these podcasts, in living color. And you should also be able to participate. 

We'll try to keep up with Twitter (@TheNatsBlogJoe and @CraigMac) in case you want to ask us questions as we go along. Please bear with us in case of any technical difficulties in our pilot episode, and thanks for tuning in.

If you missed the live broadcast, you should be able to watch the rerun below, and it will be available via iTunes, as usual. We'd love to hear your feedback on our first go at this, so let us know!