Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What's Left to Say About 2015?

While the season still drags on for another couple of weeks, the Nationals have essentially (while not mathematically) been eliminated. Even the Racing Presidents have given up on the season and set up shop in the middle of Nationals Park to watch the playoffs at home. The offseason isn’t upon us yet, so the time for a full blown review of the disappointing season is still a little ways off. But, there are plenty of big questions that need to be resolved as the page gets turned to the 2016 season, and the next few weeks will still play a part in answering those questions.

The first big decision for the Nationals has to do with the departing fee agents. Obviously, the Nationals could still theoretically resign any of Denard Span, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, or Ian Desmond. However, that seems unlikely for several reasons. First and foremost, the Nationals engaged all of these players in contract talks at some point during their tenure with the club and were unable to agree on a contract extension. Secondly, each player has a ready or close to ready replacement waiting in the wings. Michael A Taylor got more playing time in 2015 than anticipated, and he clearly has some holes in his game to work on, but he more than held his own playing in place of Denard Span. After talks stalled with Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Rizzo (read the Lerners) went out and signed Max Scherzer instead. The emergence of Joe Ross just adds to the pitching depth, meaning there are obvious replacements for Zimmermann as well as Fister. Finally, the top non-pitcher prospect in the Nationals’ farm system, Trea Turner, means Desmond’s short stop hole has an heir apparent. Danny Espinosa turned his career around in 2015, leaving the team with some depth in the middle infield if Turner isn’t ready to be an everyday major league player.

While the team likely won’t resign any of these players, they may still provide some value to the Nationals in 2016 because the Nationals will have the option of offering a Qualifying Offer (“QO”). The concept of a QO came about as a result of the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement. In a nutshell, a team may offer the QO to any departing free agent. The QO is a one year contract valued at the average of the top 125 player salaries from the previous season (this means it changes every year but 2014’s QO value was just over $15 million). If the player accepts, he plays that one year contract for his original team and cannot be offered the QO for the subsequent year. If the player declines the offer, he hits the free agent market. However, any opposing team who signs this player must forfeit their first draft pick (top 10 draft picks are protected) and the team who originally offered the QO receives a pick at the end of the first round. If a team signs multiple QO players, they forfeit their second draft pick, third draft pick, etc. The Nationals will have to decide before free agency kicks in after the World Series if any or all of the four players hitting the market are worth a QO. It won’t be cheap to keep a player on the QO, but if the Nationals expect the players to decline the offer, the QO means the Nats can recoup some value in the form of a draft pick.

Regardless of the QO decision on Ian Desmond, the Nationals will have to project the performance of Trea Turner. Turner, who came over in the Stephen Souza deal from the Padres last offseason, has all the hype in the world. He’s the Nationals top non-pitching prospect and one of the top prospects in all of baseball. However, 2015 is only his second professional season. And while he has hit well at every minor league stop along his way to the show, he has not looked impressive in his sparse big league chances with the Nationals. Granted, he has only 12 plate appearances spread out over 14 games, but his only hit was an infield squibber and has struck out in 25% of his plate appearances. The defense and speed that Turner is known for will play at the major league level, but it’s not obvious he’s ready to hit major league pitching. Danny Espinosa could be a stop gap at shortstop for 2016, filling out an infield next to Anthony Rendon and Yunel Escobar, giving Turner some time to find his footing. But Mike Rizzo will still need to come up with a timetable for his big prospect this offseason.

Although he hasn’t and won’t say anything publicly, Rizzo also has a decision to make regarding Matt Williams’ future with the Nationals. Williams’ failures with the bullpen are widely know. When Deadspin.com is bashing Williams’ bullpen decisions, something is clearly broken. The bullpen fiasco has hidden some of the other areas of the game Williams has impacted, some for the better and some not. Unlike last year with the Bryce Harper benching frenzy, Williams seems to have a good rapport with the team and from most reports it sounds like a positive clubhouse. Williams also had the courage or foresight to get Danny Espinosa in the starting lineup for most of the first half of the season. Of course, he kept Espinosa out of the lineup amidst the Nationals late season swoon. The defense has also clearly regressed from last year. Blame Williams all you want, but a lot of the issues Williams has struggled with could have and should have been expected. It’s part of the process of hiring a rookie manager. Rizzo needs to take some of the blame. If Williams does get the boot, the Nationals job will certainly be an enticing position. Rizzo will have to decide if he wants to go after another inexperienced manager (looking at you Cal Ripken) who will have to learn on the job or find someone who has been in the manager’s position before.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The end of the season also means award season and Bryce Harper should be taking home the NL MVP honors. Although Mets fans would you believe Yoenis Cespedes should win the MVP award, it’s not really much of a contest. While the playoff position of a player’s team could be considered in the voting, it has to rank closer to the bottom for me. Pick any stat you want, and Harper ranks atop the list. Not just for 2015, but historically. The wRC+ stat captures a player’s overall offensive contribution and adjusts for the time period in which he played. Since 1990, there have been only 7 seasons the resulted in a higher wRC+ than Harper’s 2015 season, and four of those are Barry Bonds during his power hitting prime. For the year, he leads the NL in WAR, batting average, on base percentage, and slugging. He’s second in homeruns to Nolan Arenado, who has the added benefit of playing half of his games at altitude in Denver. Several players in the NL have had good seasons in 2015, and Cespedes has a fun narrative attached to his season with the success of the Mets, but Harper’s having a season for the record books. He’s taking down the MVP award.

1 comment:

  1. Love your blog and learn a lot but I am holding fast to "it ain't over til its over"