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Carlos Pena Signs, Washington Nationals Have Other Options

The Cubs signed Carlos Pena yesterday to a one-year, $10 million deal, reducing the Nationals’ potential first base replacements by one.

Now that both Pena and Lance Berkman have signed, we have a better sense of the market for first basemen—and who the Nationals should go for.

Carlos Pena helped the Rays turn things around in their 2008 run to the World Series, but he has never been as good. He has declined every year since his breakout 2007, when he hit .282/.411/.627 with 46 HR.

Two of his core skills—drawing a walk (14.9 percent BB rate in 2010) and hitting for power (28 HR last year, even hitting below .200)—have stayed constant, but his batting average has imploded. From 2008 on, here is the trend: .247, .227, .196.

Yes, last year Pena didn’t even hit .200. Though Pena’s decline in average appears to be due to an abnormally low BABIP (.250 in 2009, .222 in 2010, versus .279 career average), it’s hard to bank on a turnaround when so many teams are starting to invest in their defenses.

Mike Rizzo was apparently interested in Pena, probably because he had a similar skill set to Adam Dunn plus good defense. In a November interview, Rizzo said “We’ve been Carlos Pena guys here. He fits what we’re doing. He’s one of a handful of guys that would give us what we’re looking for.”

Still, Pena is, right now, a lottery ticket. He could be a nice addition for the Cubs, or he could hit below .200 and be benched by June. Maybe it’s better the Nationals didn’t sign him.

Right now, the Nationals need more solid investments. We might be able to tell a story in which the Nationals are a good team next season—Jordan Zimmermann looks like the ace he can be, Danny Espinosa replicates his numbers from the minors and goes 20-20, Jayson Werth stays healthy and belts 35—but it’s not a sure bet. We’ve already got our lottery tickets.

What are our options?


(1) Adam LaRoche

Bill Ladson reported today that LaRoche is the Nationals’ next most likely target now that Pena is gone. In that piece, LaRoche commented that he would listen to offers from the Nationals.

-LaRoche is as consistent as you get, hitting exactly 25 HR each of the last three seasons and contributing between 1.7 and 2.6 wins. His career line of .271/.339/.488 would be very solid in the 5 or 6 slot.

-LaRoche will only be 31 next season, putting him in the prime of his career. This means there is little likelihood of a drop-off.

-LaRoche plays better defense than Dunn, playing at about league average over the past three seasons, with 2010 being his best defensive season.

-Last season, LaRoche signed a one-year deal for $6.5 million with the D-Backs. After having a slight down year (.261/.320/.470), he will probably be available for a similar price.


(2) Derrek Lee

-Although he has not been mentioned in talks with the Nationals, teams with similar needs—including the D-Backs, Orioles, Athletics and Padres—are all looking at him. If Lee is willing to move to Baltimore, you have to assume he’d consider DC—especially after the Werth deal demonstrates their commitment to winning.

-Lee is not as consistent as LaRoche, but he has more upside. In the past three years, he has hit 20, 35 and 19 HR. That means, at minimum, the Nationals are getting another 20-HR bat. Bill James projects him to be a little better next year: .278/.365/.475 with 23 HR.

-Derrek Lee has the best defense of anyone the Nationals are considering. He has won three Gold Gloves (2003, 2005, 2007) and has ranked as above average in fielding stats each of the last three seasons.

-Although it may sound trite, Lee does bring veteran leadership. He has been to the playoffs four times (with the Marlins, Cubs and Braves) and won the World Series with the Marlins. I’ve also heard he’s a really good guy.

-In terms of a contract, Lee will probably cost around the same as Lance Berkman—$8 million for one year. He has a similar pedigree—former All-Star who is entering his twilight—and put up similar numbers last year to Berkman (Lee: .260/.347/.428 versus Berkman: .348/.368/.413).


(3) Mike Morse

-Morse is already under team control and proved he is ready to step into a larger role after a big year last season. A former Mariners prospect, Morse will already be 29 next season but has never been given a full season of at-bats in the Show. Other late bloomers like Dave Roberts, Raul Ibanez and Phil Nevin have gone on to have several productive seasons despite not earning full seasons of playing time until they were at least 28.

-Morse already has pretty decent career numbers. Over 162 games, he has hit .291/.353/.456 with 14 HR and 23 2B. Although the HR total is a little low, that triple slash line would be comparable to both LaRoche and Lee.

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Washington Nationals Overcompensate, Shower Jayson Werth With Money

The Nats overcompensated for the recent loss of Adam Dunn to the White Sox by signing Jayson Werth to a seven-year deal for $126 million. That’s $18 million a season.

The most optimistic reactions I’ve seen say they only overpayed by $8-10 million, but it’s still a lot of money to give someone who’s only really been playing full-time for three years and is already 31. I mean, this is what I expected Carl Crawford to get, since he has been the face of a franchise for almost a decade. Werth has been the third- or fourth-best hitter on the Phils for three years (Howard, Utley, Rollins’ MVP year, Werth).

In terms of offense, this makes up almost exactly for the loss of Dunn. Dunn had more power, but Werth has more speed. The big difference is on defense. While Dunn is terrible in the field, Werth is above-average as a corner outfielder. He’s also played some center, where he’s passable.

You’d be surprised how much of a difference good defense makes. After I first wrote this, I went back and checked the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) numbers from fangraphs, and was startled to see the difference between Werth and Dunn.

Werth’s WAR last 3 years:

2008: 5.1
2009: 4.9
2010: 5.0

Dunn’s WAR, last 3 years:

2008: 1.1
2009: 1.2
2010: 3.9

Before Dunn switched to 1B, a position he is merely “not terrible” at, he was nearly giving up as many runs in the outfield as he was producing with the bat. His net value was basically the same as Ian Desmond or James Loney’s.

Once he switched to 1B, however, Dunn’s offensive contributions shined–but they still didn’t match Werth’s total package. In terms of overall value, Werth is better than Dunn. We should see a significant improvement in next year’s team.

I’m not sure that he is worth signing for three more years at $4 million more a year than Dunn was. What could make this signing worthwhile is the addition of a decent bat at first.

Over the last three years, Adam LaRoche has been about a 2-win 1B (WAR: 1.7, 2.6, 2.1).

Although 2010 was a down year, Carlos Pena has a better 3-year average, and can also probably be counted on for about 2 wins (WAR: 4.0, 2.8, 1.0).

Derrek Lee might be another good option, given that he has been worth at least 2 wins each of the last three seasons, and might experience a bounce-back (WAR: 3.2, 5.2, 2.0).

Werth plus any of these guys–Pena, LaRoche, or Lee–is a better combination than Dunn and Bernadina. If they follow up on the Werth signing, the core of their lineup could all be guys who can hit 20 home runs—Zimmerman, Werth, Pena/LaRoche/Lee, Willingham.

That’s a respectable core, though it’s certainly not going to support a poor pitching staff.It’s too bad the Nats missed out on Javy Vazquez, because a pitcher like that, who can give you 200 IP with at least a 4.00 ERA (and might even have a star season like he did in Atlanta), addresses the team’s bigger need.

What does our rotation look like for next year? Jordan Zimmerman, Yunny Maya, Jason Marquis, John Lannan, Livan Hernandez. I see a whole lot of question marks and No. 4-5 guys. And since it’s been such a tough market for finding pitching help this winter, most of the guys they might have targeted have already signed elsewhere. Signing Werth is not a terrible move, because they needed to replace Dunn, but it is a lot of money and probably limits their reaching for a No. 2-3 starter.

As a baseball analyst, I’d probably grade this move a C+.

They probably spent more money than they needed to, but they addressed a need for more offense.

As a Nationals fan, I’d probably grade this move a B-.

They gave up a lot of money, but they showed they are trying to put a good product on the field. I hated losing Dunn, because, as a fan, I’d grown attached to that Will Ferrell-y face.

But when a new stadium is half-empty at every game Strasburg didn’t pitch, you know you need another draw—and that’s what Werth can be.

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Winsome Washington: Will The Nationals Beef Up Their Roster This Summer?

Coming into 2010, the Nationals were the worst team in the league for two seasons running, and it was hard to expect much more this year. They are in last place, once again, sitting 6.5 games out in the tightly competitive NL East.

But the standings don’t show the progress. Inept GM Jim Bowden was replaced by the more-ept Mike Rizzo, and the team has started to take shape.


This Year Gives Hope

The Nationals are no longer the worst team in baseball. Until a recent sweep by the Astros, Washington was bobbing right around .500.

The middle of the lineup is solid. 3-4-5 hitters Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, and Josh Willingham all have slugging percentages over .500. Zim’s is over .600, and Willingham is second in OBP,  trailing only King Albert Pujols.

The bullpen is stupid good.

Matt Capps has 17 saves and a 2.81 ERA. Tyler Clippard has seven wins and a 1.77 ERA. Four of the top five relievers have K/9 rates above 8.0 and ERAs below 4.00.

Ian Desmond, the talented young shortstop, is ably adjusting to his starting role.

Livan Hernandez, the old fan favorite, is mowing down opponents like a landscaper on rocket fuel—his 2.15 ERA ranks sixth in the league.

Relief ace and 2009 first round pick Drew Storen quickly bushwhacked through the minors, and has started chopping through the majors.

And then there’s The One. The Fireball King, the Habanera Hurler, the Shoulder-bullet Sharpshooter, the Strikeout Service Station.

Stephen Strasburg.

In 55.1 minor league innings, over two different stops this season, Strasburg has a 1.30 ERA, seven wins in 11 starts, a 65:13 K:BB ratio, and has allowed a .158 opponents batting average.

And he throws 102 MPH, with good command of his secondary pitches.

And let’s not forget the Nationals have the first overall pick in this month’s draft, where they will take Bryce Harper—whom Sports Illustrated calls baseball’s LeBron.

There are enough pieces in place now. The Nationals can start thinking about contention.

When you ask what the Nationals still need, the answer is no longer “everything.”


So what do the Nationals need?

A better rotation.

Strasburg will be an ace. John Lannan is a solid 4-5 starter, filling a role. Marquis, when he gets back, could provide a quality arm.

But Washington still needs two good starters to fill out their rotation.

Maybe Jordan Zimmermann, who was punching out batters like an office supply store before Tommy John surgery last season, can be part of that bridge. But recovery from that surgery takes 12 to 18 months.

The Nationals likely won’t know whether he’s fully recovered until 2011.

Familiar prospects like Ross Detwiler, Colin Balester, and Shairon Martis are like lottery tickets—it would be great if one turned out to be a winner, but don’t hold your breath.

The quickest way to pitching help is through trading.


Who’s available?

Roy Oswalt

Oswalt is a proven veteran—unlike any other pitcher in the Nationals’ organization. He’s still putting up great numbers—a 2.78 ERA and 9.08 K/9 this season. And Oswalt said he would accept a trade to the Nationals.

But he is owed a lot of money.

For a team that needs to rebuild, like the Astros, this is exactly what midseason trades are for—clearing money off the books and getting new prospects in return.

The biggest obstacles to an Oswalt trade is Houston’s stubborn refusal to go into rebuilding mode, even as it has become increasingly obvious that the Astros are not quite market ready, and their R&D department lacks impact prospects.

To counteract this, the Nationals will likely have to give up decent prospects and take on most or all of Oswalt’s $16 million salary next year. Washington will also be on the hook for whatever portion of the $15 million Oswalt is still due this year.

Who might the Nationals offer for Oswalt?

Chris Marrero, former first round pick and slugging first baseman, has been mentioned. So have pitching prospects Shairon Martis, Brad Meyers, and Drew Storen. With both Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy under control, the Nationals could even move Ian Desmond.

Ideally, their payroll flexibility would mitigate against having to give up too many prospects. But moving Marrero, Martis, or Desmond—or even two of the three—to acquire Oswalt would still be a net gain.


Tom Gorzelanny

Recently bumped from the rotation, the Cubs don’t seem to have much faith in Gorzelanny’s 3.66 ERA, or his 9.23 K/9. Gorzo had one quality, 14-win season with the Pirates in 2007. But then he became injury prone and was written off.

But in roughly 100 total innings over the last two seasons, he’s looked better than ever.

Gorzo is in the first of his three arbitration years, which means the Nationals would have control of him until 2012. Salaries usually increase in arbitration, but still represent a discount from the free agent market. The Nationals need arms, so asking about him—as long as they’re not giving up more than a Shairon Martis-type—makes sense.

Mark Buerhle

This is a long shot, but there have been some articles considering a possible Mark Buerhle trade.

Like Oswalt, Buerhle is owed a lot—$14 million in both 2010 and 2011—but would bring proven success to the Nationals. The White Sox are far out of contention, and if they consider 2011 a rebuilding year, Chicago might be willing to move Buerhle.

The package for Buehrle would look similar to the Oswalt deal. The Nationals’ ability to take on salary would be crucial, as their prospects are not quite grade A.

Marrero or Desmond might need to be packaged with a couple prospects in the low minors, like low-A outfielder Destin Hood. A deal like this would make the most sense if Buerhle agreed to extend his contact with the Nationals.

Other pitchers, like Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook, might be available in July. But, given the Nationals’ Hail-Mary chances, it makes the more sense not to break the bank for a one-year rental.

There’s hope for the Nationals yet.

Wouldn’t it be uplifting if they were finally in a position to add talent this summer?

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