Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Roster Comes Together

Mike Rizzo must have read my post yesterday because he didn’t waste any time in addressing the need at second base. The Nationals ship fan favorite Tyler Clippard to the Athletics who in turn deal Yunel Escobar back to the Nationals in a straight up trade.

Clippard is one of my personal favorite Nationals, having been a solid contributor for the bottom of the barrel Nats teams as well as the high flying teams of late. Despite his continued success, he is still a reliever and relievers offer only limited value. For a team with a big hole like the Nationals, giving up a reliever for an everyday contributor is a no brainer. 

First, let’s take a look at what the Nationals are picking up. We covered Escobar a little yesterday, but here is a quick reminder. He brings about a league average bat, posting a 95 wRC+ in 2014 after a peak at 120 with the Braves in 2009 and a low of 73 in 2012 with the Blue Jays. Steamer projects a line almost identical to his 2014 and that 95 wRC+. While those numbers won’t blow you away, remember he is replacing Danny Espinosa and his projected 75 wRC+. Yunel’s big disappointment in 2014 was his defense. After posting positive defensive ratings at short, one of the most challenging defensive positions, his 2014 ratings fell off a cliff. There are varying reports that he was playing through some injuries or that his first step and speed were dropping off due to age. He is 32 years old, so it’s not unlikely that he has a lost step. But the Nationals won’t be asking Escobar to step into shortstop. They are asking him to man second base. That should counter any physical drop offs Escobar was having at short and boost his defensive value. 

Adding Escobar also boosts the depth of the Nationals bench. Instead of having to rely on raw minor leaguers or veteran free agents on their last legs, the Nationals can turn to Espinosa in case of an injury, a needed day off, or just a defensive replacement. While Escobar won’t blow anyone away, he eliminates some negative value at the bottom of the roster and upgrades the starting lineup at the same time.

Obviously, the Nationals are giving up some value in Tyler Clippard. Since moving to the bullpen, Clippard hasn’t had much of a down year and has been downright dominate at times. His changeup is one of the best in the league and his funky delivery only adds to the deception of the pitch. Despite that, relievers are not a guaranteed entity. Take a look at the list of top relievers for any one year, and a majority of that list will have apparently fallen off a cliff the next. Given the small sample size that is a year for a reliever, you can get some major variations in performance. Clippard has been one of the most used relievers in the game, and he has only posted 70 innings at his peak, or the same number of innings as 10 starts. 

Picking up the slack for the Nationals will likely be Aaron Barrett and Mike Rizzo and Matt Williams will have to find someone to add to the back of the bullpen. That could be a young arm like Blake Treinen, whose power pitches have had some scouts pegging him for the bullpen from the get go, or a veteran reliever to be signed later. While the Nationals lose a reliable arm out of the bullpen, it’s one that teams replace all the time. The Cardinals rode a dominant bullpen to the World Series recently, a dominant bullpen that consisted of converted position players. There are a lot of ways to attack this problem, and I expect Rizzo to figure out a way to do it. 

Escobar also provides a bit of leverage or insurance in the dealings with Ian Desmond, as the signs continue to point to him playing out his 2015 season with the Nationals and moving on to greener pastures. Escobar is under contract for cheap in 2015 and 2016 and the Nationals now hold an option to bring him back for cheap in 2017 if they so desire. While he will play second base in 2015, he may shift over to short in the seasons to come while the Nationals wait out the minor league prospects.
It will be sad to see Clippard go, but chalk another win for Mike Rizzo. Long live the goggles.

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