Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Pouring Cold Water on Hot Takes

Seems like there have been a lot of hot takes regarding the Nationals following the decision of Yoenis Cespedes to sign with the Mets. This article from Eddie Matz at ESPN is one of the most recent, but it’s certainly not alone in declaring that Washington has now become a place free agents are avoiding. It’s an exciting narrative. It probably drives a lot traffic and conversation. And on the surface, it sounds like a reasonable conclusion. I just don’t think it stands up to analysis.

Let’s break down the ESPN piece player by player, starting with Darren O’Day. The Nationals went after O’Day early and hard in the off season as a potential building block for their revamped bullpen. There were even rumors floating around that O’Day had decided on the Nationals due to their superior monetary offer and his connections to the area (his wife is a news reporter in DC). However, the Orioles swooped in at the last minute and offered a 4th guaranteed year, one extra year than the Nationals were comfortable offering to a 33 year old reliever with a funky and possibly physically taxing delivery. Did O’Day spurn the Nationals? Sure, but in spurning DC he got more money for longer years and stuck with the team that gave him his big break. I see no anti-DC bias here.

Next up, Ben Zobrist, the Swiss army knife that nearly every MLB team chased after. The Mets classified Zobrist as their top free agent target this off season, in fact, and fellow NL rival Giants were hard after him as well. He ended up selecting Chicago and his former manager Joe Maddon on a four year deal worth $56 million. It’s unclear exactly who offered the most money, but the Cubs and Mets seemed to be the most aggressive in chasing Zobrist when it came down to it, and he opted for the team where he had a comfort level with the manager, possibly taking a little less money to do so. If anything, this looks worse for the Mets than for the Nationals.

After falling out of the Zobrist sweepstakes, it did sound like the Nationals had a deal in place with the Reds to acquire Brandon Phillips. However, Phillips has a full no trade clause in his contract. Reports are unclear on exactly the demands made by Phillips; he either wanted some additional compensation to waive his no trade clause or demanded that the team acquiring him extend his contract even further than the age 35 season he is already under contract for. To me, this sounds less like Phillips didn’t want to join the Nationals and more like he just wanted to stay in Cincinnati. The rebuilding Reds haven't been able to deal Phillips, one of the few assets left on their roster after trading away Todd Frazier earlier this off season, to any team since, indicating that Phillips' desire to say in Cincinnati is too strong to get him to waive the no trade clause to any team.

Jason Heyward was probably the most sought after outfield free agent. Heyward, like Zobrist before him, opted to take less money to go join the Cubs. He spurned a higher dollar offer from the Cardinals and ignited a fire storm among the “best fans in baseball” who certainly didn’t behave like that in berating Heyward for his decision. Living in Chicago, I can’t blame anyone for taking less money to join the Cubs team that might break the World Series drought. The city will explode if that ever happens and that team will go down in history, much like the Red Sox team that finally won it all. For our purposes, though, the Nationals were never serious contenders and St. Louis was really the city that got rejected here.

Aroldis Chapman was certainly of interest to the Nationals, but the Reds were demanding a boat load in return for Chapman. Those demands faded quickly when news of Chapman's possible domestic abuse charges came to light. I actually applaud Rizzo for dropping interest in him after the news broke. Ignoring those facts and circumstances around Chapman, he didn’t have a choice in coming to DC as the Nationals would have acquired him via trade, not needing Chapman's consent to get a deal done. I don’t even know why Chapman gets lumped into this argument. As Michael Scott would say, Boom! Roasted.

Mike Leake was linked to the Nationals, sure, but he ended in St. Louis because the Cardinals were getting desperate. The list of players spurning St. Louis for greener pastures is probably much longer than those opting out of DC. After losing John Lackey out of their rotation (to the Cubbies again) and starter Lance Lynn to TJ surgery, the Cardinals were sorely in need of pitching help and lumped a five year deal worth $80 million and a full no trade clause on the decidedly average Leake. Would the Nationals have taken Leake on a cheap deal? Of course, but the current Nationals rotation is strong enough to not need to break the bank for someone of Leake’s caliber.

The Dusty Baker comparison? Well, ok, that’s fair. The front office botched the Bud Black negotiations and came out of that with egg on their face. Point, Matz.

Finally, we come to Cespedes. The Nationals reportedly threw out a big dollar offer to try and entice Cespedes to DC, but the numbers being reported are inflated. The $110 million dollar offer from the Nats was actually spread out over15 years, reportedly, putting the fair value of the deal closer to the $75 million Cespedes ended up getting from the Mets. On top of that, he gets an opt out after year one of his Mets contract, something DC didn't offer. That opt out that would put Cespedes back on the market for 2017 during a rather weak outfield class, by the way, setting him up for another big pay day. Plus, it wasn’t even clear where Cespedes would have fit on this Nationals team. Would he have supplanted Werth? Or bumped Harper to centerfield, benching Michael A Taylor and Ben Revere? Instead of dealing with that, Cespedes gets to be the focal point of the Mets offense in the biggest media market in the world. Doesn’t sound like much of decision at all to me.

I actually take some solace in the fact that this narrative is out there. It means that Mike Rizzo was aggressive this off season in looking for a deal and at least did his due diligence on the top free agents. In the end, though, it really looks like the Nationals were never serious contenders for most of these free agents outside of Zobrist and O’Day, and those two had some mitigating circumstances around their final decisions unrelated to the Nationals. The Nationals didn’t need a huge free agent splash to be a good team in 2016 and the fact that they didn’t make one doesn’t keep me up at night. It's a lazy narrative to claim that the Nationals have scared off potential free agents. Sure there is some drama around Papelbon from last season, but every team has some drama around it. That doesn't worry me. I'm more concerned about the restrictions the extended MASN lawsuit could place on the team.

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