Thursday, June 18, 2015

Assessing the Trade Market



The Nationals are scuffling. There is no doubting that. Many fans are starting to see holes in the Nationals team and are clamoring for replacements. Ian Desmond has been a mess at the plate. The dynamic duo of Clint Robinson and Tyler Moore is getting regular at bats. Danny Espinosa is playing first base for goodness sake! This is not ideal. Granted, the Nationals will get some help when Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth return from the DL, but those two won’t be 100% when they do return (Zimmerman’s plantar fasciitis is likely to still nag him and Werth’s power will take a while to come back after yet another wrist injury). Maybe that means it time to for Rizzo to pull the trigger on a trade or three.

The thing is, Kansas City Royals notwithstanding, no MLB team is stocked with a full lineup of All Stars, so the Nationals aren’t alone in trotting out a lineup with a couple of weaknesses. To get the clearest picture of where the Nationals could really use an upgrade, I will be using the FanGraphsDepth Charts projections. I’ve gone with this as our basis for several reasons. One, the numbers are projections, which won’t be perfect but are better than projecting current performance out the rest of the year. Secondly, FanGraphs takes into account playing time. The projections know that Zimmerman has been hurt and that Espniosa is playing close to every day and that even Bryce Harper will need a day off here and there. That means Jose Lobaton is being allocated some playing time and Drew Storen will get the important ninth inning situations while guys like Taylor Hill will get mostly mop up duty. Finally, FanGraphs runs these projections for every team, so we have a baseline to compare the Nationals' projections to.

The first test I ran was to compare the Nationals projected WAR to the average projected WAR for the rest of the league. This will tell us which positions the Nationals figure to be below average in going forward; ideal spots for an upgrade via trade. The results may surprise you. The only spots where the Nationals come up as being below average are first base, left field, and center field. Even then, the center field results are rather skewed, as Mike Trout’s projected 5.3 WAR ROS (rest of season) really throws off the numbers. Remove Trout, and the Nationals come in at about average. You were expecting shortstop and relief pitcher weren’t you? Compared to the league, those positions haven’t been as bad as you might think. Isn’t confirmation bias fun?! Unsurprisingly, the Nationals rank in the top 2 projected WAR in right field and starting pitchers, so we know where the team’s strengths lie.

This is cheating a little bit, but let’s try removing some of the teams we can feel comfortable excluding from playoff contention down the stretch. You can argue with the selections, but getting rid of the Diamondbacks, White Sox, Reds, Braves, Red Sox, Brewers, A’s, Mariners, Phillies and Marlins adds catcher and third base to the list of positions where the Nationals are below average. Sorry Desmond haters, you are still out in the cold. As we have said before, Desmond has been struggling mightily at the dish, with the occasional hiccup in the field, but we have years of data to fall back on that says he should pick it up with the bat and the glove down the stretch. And that data, with a discount obviously taken for his recent struggles, paints a picture of a better player than most teams trot out at shortstop on a daily basis.

So, if we combine both sets of results, the Nationals should be targeting trade acquisitions who can play first base, outfield, catcher, or third base. Subjectively, I’m going to remove catcher and third base, and I’ll tell you why. Yunel Escobar’s start to the 2015 season, and the duo of Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton. Yunel has been hot to start the season. FanGraphs’ projections don’t think he can keep it up and expect him to regress to career norms. Whether or not you agree with that projection (I would be willing to put my guess somewhere just above what FG shows), Escobar’s job isn’t in doubt. Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton are a solid set of catchers who figure to be with the Nationals for multiple seasons. Like it or not, you won’t be able to find a catcher on the trade market who is an instant upgrade over either of these guys. Those type of players don’t end up in trades very often.

It wouldn’t be out of the question for the Nationals to look for a short term upgrade at first base. While the Nationals (and I) have faith in Zimmerman long term, you can’t count on his foot being healthy this season. You could also consider this player as a bench upgrade over the likes of Tyler Moore and the ability to play the outfield would be an added bonus. You can certainly count the Nats out of Ryan Howard discussions, and although Adam Laroche would be an interesting trade target given the White Sox struggles to start the season, his multi-year contract means this trade won’t materialize. You are going to see one team bandied about plenty during hot stove season, and this team will line up well with the Nationals in a couple of positions: the Red Sox. Mike Napoli has struggled so far in 2015 so the Nationals would have the benefit of buying low, but he’s a veteran major league bat playing out the final year of his contract and might be just the type of bench bat the Nationals are willing to give up some prospects for.

Moving to the outfield, the Nationals wish list probably looks a lot like the first base wish list: short term stop gap to take the place of injured Jayson Werth and the ability to be a big bopper off the bench. Again, the Red Sox would be a potential trade partner. They have several outfielders clogging their roster (Matt Adams, Alejandro De Aza, Shane Victorino, Jackie Bradley Jr) who might be available. If I’m Rizzo, I’m at least calling up the Sox and dangling AJ Cole as reinforcement for the Sox much ridiculed starting rotation and seeing what he could bring back. Another name that gets thrown around a lot, and directly linked to the Nationals on several occasions recently, is Ben Zobrist of the A’s. He’s battling injuries this year and he hasn’t been as solid offensively the last year or so, but he can still play nearly every position on the diamond and offers some pop that someone like Matt den Dekker simply does not. Zobrist won’t come cheap, though, as he is going to be one of the most sought after players on the trade market.

Although the bullpen projects to be about average going forward, let’s give them a little attention. Projections for relievers are notoriously difficult to make, given their short sample size seasons. It is especially difficult to project the Nationals’ bullpen given the number of young guys in the pen who have little major league level history for the projections to fall back on. The good news is that upgrades in the bullpen are some of the easiest moves to make, once teams decide to turn into sellers and the hot stove heats up. Everyone has their sights set on Aroldis Chapman, the hard throwing left handed Reds closer, but he has multiple years left on his contract and will be the top reliever on the market, which means he won’t come cheap. And the Nationals don’t have a whole lot of highly touted prospects left in the minors to throw the Reds way. At this point in the season, no one is ready to sell yet, so we will have to wait for this market to develop.

Now, I don’t offer this up as a prediction of a Red Sox – Nationals trade in the works. It’s simply a thought experiment see where the Nationals will be focusing their efforts come trade season. If the Nationals do make a move, expect it to be for a bench bat who can play first and/or outfield or a bullpen arm. The Nationals don’t have a lot in the minor leaguers to dangle in front of trade partners. AJ Cole will be the biggest name, but Taylor Jordan, Reynaldo Lopez and Brian Goodwin could be pieces too. Mike Rizzo has rarely watched the trade market from the sidelines, and I wouldn’t expect him to sit it out this summer. When it does happen, though, I don’t expect to see the Nationals bringing in any big names. This Nationals team is good enough that a small move might be enough to make the difference.

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