- Two Nationals relievers are showing at least some signs of progress, as Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post reports (Twitter link). Sammy Solis and Joe Blanton are at least throwing the baseball at present, though it’s still not clear whether either is yet working off a mound. Solis, in particular, has been a significant question mark given his seeming lack of progress from an inflamed nerve in his elbow. The Nats will hope that both can make it back and bolster a late-inning mix that has been questionable all year long.
There’s no more fickle existence in Major League Baseball than that of a relief pitcher. Teams are generally more willing to tinker with their bullpens than their benches, and often need to make changes to account for overworked staffs.
But the tumult also brings opportunity. Relievers who are throwing well at the right moment can find themselves right back in the majors. And there are often wide-open Spring Training battles to be joined and won.
Plenty of relievers signed minor-league deals last winter. And a solid number of them ended up on MLB rosters within the first two months of the season. Despite failing to receive MLB guarantees on the free-agent market, these ten hurlers have provided quite a bit of value in the early going:
Matt Albers, Nationals: With the Nats’ pen struggling badly, Albers has been a desperately need source of reliable frames: 16 2/3 innings of 1.62 ERA ball. A strong 57.8% groundball rate and meager 1.6 BB/9 walk rate tend to support the results, though Albers isn’t getting enough whiffs (7.6 K/9) to keep up quite this level of pitching.
Craig Breslow, Twins: The lefty specialist has been everything the Minnesota front office hoped for when it bought into his new-look delivery over the winter. Like Albers, a minimal BABIP (.217 in this case) helps explain the sub-2.00 ERA, though in both cases the solid early work is enough to entrench these pitchers in their respective pens for the time being.
Jorge De La Rosa, Diamondbacks: A long-time starter, De La Rosa has averaged less than one inning per relief appearance in Arizona. But the results of that change in focus have been quite promising. It’s good enough that De La Rosa carries a 50% groundball rate with 8.8 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9, supporting a 2.35 ERA through 15 1/3 frames. But there could be more in the tank, as he’s also averaging a career-high 94.1 mph with his fastball and generating a huge 19.5% swinging-strike rate.
David Hernandez, Angels: Though he has completed just 11 innings thus far, after making his debut later than most of the names on this list, Hernandez has impressed. He’s showing the same kind of velocity and swinging-strike rates that made him a buy-low option last year for the Phillies, but the real question is whether he can continue to avoid the long balls that have plagued him in recent years.
J.J. Hoover, Diamondbacks: It was anyone’s guess whether the former Reds’ late-inning stalwart would rebound, but he’s showing well through fifteen frames in Arizona. Hoover is walking more than five batters per nine, but has also racked up 12.6 K/9 (on a career-high 12.6% swinging-strike rate) and owns a 3.00 ERA. So far, a new pitch mix (more two-seamers and sliders) seems to be working.
Jason Motte, Braves: After beating out Hernandez to become the next veteran reclamation project in Atlanta, Motte has ascended to the majors and helped stabilize the pen. His peripherals aren’t terribly inspiring — 6.4 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 53.1% groundball rate — but the results (1.59 ERA) have been there through 11 1/3 innings.
Bud Norris, Angels: The crown jewel of the Halos’ impressive slate of finds, Norris has thrived in the closer’s role that he took over out of necessity. Through 23 2/3 innings, he carries a 2.66 ERA with 11.8 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, and a 44.2% groundball rate. Norris is bringing more velocity (94.1 mph fastball) and swinging strikes (13.2%) than ever before.
Yusmeiro Petit, Angels: The veteran long man has been stellar, delivering 28 1/3 staff-preserving innings of 2.54 ERA ball through 16 appearances. Petit is carrying 9.5 K/9 against 3.2 BB/9 on the year. (As if the trio of arms on this list weren’t enough, the Halos have also benefited from the strong work of Blake Parker, who had been outrighted off the 40-man roster over the winter.)
Anthony Swarzak, White Sox: There are some very strong performers on this list, but perhaps none has been quite as impressive as Swarzak. He has given the South Siders 19 2/3 breakout innings of 1.37 ERA ball, with 10.1 K/9 and just 0.9 BB/9 in that span. At present, he’s working at a 19.8% swinging-strike rate — about double what he carried over the prior two campaigns — making him quite an interesting potential trade candidate this summer.
Jacob Turner, Nationals: Though he isn’t carrying sparkly numbers, Turner has been an important contributor in D.C. He’s functioning in the swingman role that Petit occupied last year, providing 21 2/3 innings (over two starts and six relief appearances) of 3.74 ERA pitching thus far. While Turner is averaging only 5.8 strikeouts and 3.3 walks per nine, he is continuing to carry the velocity boost he showed last year. Interestingly, he is now working in the zone far more than ever before (50.2% versus 42.1% career average) — though it’s also important to note that his swings and misses are way down (4.8%).
Recently, I took a quick look at all of the players with vesting options for the 2018 season, noting that many of the outcomes within will have significant ramifications for both the upcoming free-agent market and the future of those players’ respective teams. The implications are even greater for the eight players that have opt-out provisions of some type at the end of the current season. In some cases, the opt-out in question could either liberate that player’s team from more than $80MM in future commitments or saddle them with that same burdensome amount. (And, in most cases, if the player isn’t opting out, the remaining salary is indeed a burden, as the player either performed too poorly to opt out and/or got hurt.)
Here’s a look at the opt-out decisions that are looming at season’s end…
- Justin Upton, Tigers: The disastrous start to Upton’s six-year, $132.5MM contract now looks like a distant memory. After struggling to a .228/.286/.369 batting line through his first three months in the Motor City, Upton has surged with a .255/.342/.535 slash and 31 home runs over his past 471 big league plate appearances. Strikeouts are still an issue for Upton, but he’s also walking more than ever (15 percent in 2017). He’s on pace to finish the season right around the 30-homer mark, and if he can do so with an OBP in the mid-.300s and respectable marks in left field — he’s currently at +4 DRS and +3.4 UZR — then the remaining four years and $88.5MM on his contract will pose an interesting decision for Upton, who is currently playing out his age-29 season.
- Johnny Cueto, Giants: Cueto looked like an ace in his first year with San Francisco but has stumbled to a 4.50 ERA through his first 58 innings with the Giants in 2017. He’s still averaging better than eight punchouts per nine innings to go along with solid (but diminished) control. However, he’s seen his ground-ball rate plummet from 50 percent to 39 percent, and paired with the increase in walk rate (1.8 BB/9 to 2.5 BB/9), that has led to some issues. There’s still plenty of time for Cueto to get back on track, but the remaining four years and $84MM on his contract doesn’t look quite as easy to walk away from as it did just seven weeks ago. He’ll be 32 next season.
- Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees: Cueto’s slow start looks Cy Young-worthy when juxtaposed with Tanaka, who has logged a ghastly 6.56 ERA through 48 innings in 2017. Like Cueto, Tanaka has seen his control take a step back, though his strikeout and ground-ball rates are consistent, and his velocity is fine. Tanaka’s average on balls in play is up, however, and his homer-to-flyball rate has skyrocketed from 12 percent to 24.5 percent. Given his age (29 in November), Tanaka would be a virtual lock to opt out of the remaining three years and $67MM on his contract with a good season. If he can’t overcome his home-run woes, however, he may instead opt for the substantial amount of guaranteed cash remaining on his deal.
- Wei-Yin Chen, Marlins: Chen’s opt-out is perhaps the easiest to determine of any player on this list. Unfortunately for the Marlins, that’s due to the fact that he’s currently sidelined indefinitely due to arm troubles. Chen is on the disabled list with arm fatigue, though it’s been reported previously that he’d been pitching through a slight tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, which was sustained in 2016. Chen hasn’t pitched well as a Marlin even when healthy, and at this point it would take a quick recovery and a dominant finish for him to even consider opting out of the remaining three years and $52MM on his contract.
- Ian Kennedy, Royals: Kennedy has logged a solid 3.74 ERA in 233 1/3 innings since signing a five-year deal with Kansas City, but he’s already in his age-32 season. His strikeout rate and control have taken a step back in 2017 as well, and he’s remained homer-prone despite pitching half his games at the spacious Kauffman Stadium. Kennedy turned in a very strong final four months in his last contract season — which helped him land this surprising contract in the first place — but it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll opt out of the remaining three years and $49MM on his current contract.
- Greg Holland, Rockies: To be clear, Holland cannot technically opt out of his contract just yet. The one-year, $7MM contract that he signed with the Rox contained a $10MM mutual option that can vest as a $15MM player option if Holland finishes 30 games. At this juncture, though, it seems as if an injury is all that can stop Holland’s player option from vesting. He’s already finished 20 of the 30 games he needs, and he’s currently boasting a preposterous 0.96 ERA with a 26-to-6 K/BB ratio through 18 2/3 innings. Apparently, pitching at Coors Field suits Holland just fine, though if he keeps this up, it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll turn down the one year and $15MM he’d receive for a second season at Coors and hit the market in search of a lucrative three- or four-year contract.
- Matt Wieters, Nationals: The stagnant offseason market for Wieters’ services culminated in a two-year, $21MM contract with the Nats that offers Wieters the opportunity to test free agency once again next winter, if he wishes. To this point, it’s looking likely that Wieters will pass on that player option. His walks, hard-hit rate and BABIP are up, none of which has come at the expense of his strikeout rate. Wieters is hitting a solid .283/.358/.442 with four homers on the year. His caught-stealing rate is down (23 percent), and his framing remains questionable, but the improved offense makes it seem likely that, even if Wieters again struggles to find the strong multi-year deal he craves, a contract comparable to the one year and $10.5MM he can opt out of will once again be available on the open market.
- Welington Castillo, Orioles: Castillo’s two-year, $13MM contract with the Orioles was a pleasant surprise for a player who had previously been locked into arbitration in Arizona before surprisingly being non-tendered. He’s off to a torrid .348/.375/.543 start to the season with four homers and six doubles through 96 plate appearances. There’s a fair bit of luck involved in that production, as evidenced by the 30-year-old’s .418 BABIP. But his strikeouts are down this season, and he’s thrown out a career-best 41 percent of attempted base thieves. His framing marks, while still below average, have improved on a per-pitch basis as well. His glove may prevent him from fully cashing in, but Castillo’s bat could make the remaining one year and $7MM on his contract easy enough to walk away from, assuming he’s healthy.
Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post shares an excellent look at Doug Harris’ road back to the Nationals following a diagnosis of chronic myeloid leukemia. Harris, the Nationals’ assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel, was away from the team for much of the 2016 season and underwent a bone marrow transplant early last October when the Nats were embarking on their playoff run. Harris discusses all of the elements of his job that were sorely missed with Svrluga, who also spoke to multiple members of Harris’ staff about his influence not only on the team but on their personal careers. Harris would eventually return to the Nationals on March 26 during Spring Training by surprising his staff with an appearance at a morning meeting and drawing a standing ovation from the roughly 45 executives who were assembled. “It was a moment I’ll never forget for the rest of my life,” Harris tells Svrluga. The entire column is wonderfully written and provides a terrific look at Harris’ personality and his importance to the Nationals organization.
A few more notes on the Nationals…
- There’s been plenty of talk about the near-trade of David Robertson from the White Sox to the Nationals this offseason, but USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reports the most definitive account of the talks in his latest column. According to Nightengale, the Nats were set to send young lefty Jesus Luzardo (last year’s third-round pick that has yet to pitch professionally due to the fact that he underwent Tommy John surgery prior to the draft) and minor league third baseman Drew Ward to the Sox in exchange for Robertson. Chicago was to absorb about half of the remaining money on Robertson’s deal, but the two sides were never fully able to agree on the financial component of the trade. It’s now reportedly been months since the two sides discussed a Robertson deal, and one has to imagine that the right-hander’s dominant start to the season has only helped Chicago’s leverage in talks with any interested parties. Robertson, 32, owns a 2.81 ERA with 22 strikeouts against five unintentional walks in 16 innings.
- Within his column, Nightengale also notes that the Nats made a strong run at Greg Holland this offseason and offered a whopping $85MM over five years to Kenley Jansen (with just $5MM of that sum deferred). GM Mike Rizzo acknowledged to Nightengale that it’s “demoralizing” to lose games in the ninth inning and that it has become tired to continually hear about his bullpen needs when the rest of the team is performing so well. “We’re not afraid to make a trade, but the supply and demand of these elite relievers are far and between,” Rizzo tells Nightengale. “They’re so hard to get.”
- Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerman of MASNsports.com observes that the Nationals’ shaky bullpen has significantly taxed the rotation. As Zuckerman points out, there have been 26 instances of a starting pitcher throwing 115 or more pitches in a game throughout all of Major League Baseball this season, and the Nationals are responsible for five of those outings. The Nats also have 11 instances of a starter clearing the 110-pitch threshold in 2017, while MLB as a whole is at 80 such performances. And, furthermore, as ESPN’s Eddie Matz notes (Twitter link), the National League’s top five starting pitchers in terms of pitches per outing are: Tanner Roark, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg. While Washington’s top four starters have held up fairly well thus far, both of those obviously represent fairly ominous trends and only serve to underline the Nationals’ need not just for a closer but to deepen the relief corps overall.
Jon Heyman of Fan Rag takes a look around the league in his latest notes columns. In addition to providing updates on every National League and American League team, he takes a particularly close look at the Nationals in separate posts. Let’s take a look at some of the items of particular relevance to the transactional landscape:
- The Nationals are beginning to put in phone calls to rivals as they start the search for a new closer in earnest, Heyman writes. Among the players under consideration by the team, at present, are a variety of names with differing contract situations. David Robertson of the White Sox, Kelvin Herrera of the Royals, and A.J. Ramos of the Marlins all have two years remaining at less-than-bargain rates (the latter two via arbitration). Alex Colome of the Rays and Roberto Osuna of the Blue Jays, meanwhile, bring more years of cheap control — and, in all likelihood, astronomical asking prices. Then there’s old friend Mark Melancon, who is in the first year of the four-year pact he signed with the Giants — who evidently beat the Nats’ offer over the winter. Needless to say, there’s quite a lot that could change that picture over the coming months.
- Looking back a bit, the Nationals came closer than any other team to landing Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates over the winter, Heyman adds.Per the report, the sides held talks that “revolved around three players, including Lucas Giolito and veteran Gio Gonzalez.” It’s not immediately clear what else might have been involved, and where things went south, but it’s interesting to hear those parameters. The Nats ultimately pivoted to Adam Eaton, of course, but he’s now out for the year. Perhaps it’s conceivable that the team could take another look at McCutchen, though no doubt the teams would need to start discussions anew with Giolito in Chicago, Gonzalez a key member of the Nats staff and McCutchen struggling.
- The Marlins sale talks had seemingly been building, but Heyman writes that there’s no deal ready to be made at present. For one thing, there are whispers that the purchase price will continue to drop as the organization’s financial health comes under greater scrutiny. For another, there are still questions about where the money will come from on the buyer’s side. “[A]t least the Bush-Jeter group and maybe the Romney-Glavine group, too, [are] still seeking investors,” per Heyman.
- Two significant recent investments made by the Marlins aren’t delivering value at present. Per Heyman, lefty Wei-Yin Chen is headed for a second opinion with his elbow issue still failing to progress. It seems the team could be bracing for a relatively lengthy absence. And Heyman notes that some in the baseball operations department weren’t thrilled at the idea of extending Martin Prado last year at $40MM over three years. He has been playing well enough, but is back on the DL with a recurring hamstring injury.
- Pirates righty Gerrit Cole has looked strong in the early going, but Heyman says the team may not be interested in dealing him even if they continue to lag in the standings. “We’re not in any rush,” a club source tells him. “I don’t think we’re there yet.” The 26-year-old owns a 2.84 ERA with 7.9 K/9 and 1.0 BB/9; while the peripherals are largely in line with his 2016 work, the improved results are supported by jumps in swinging-strike rate (9.9%) and average fastball velocity (a career-high 96.1 mph). With two more years of arb eligibility to go, Cole would likely command a big price at the deadline.
- While the Rays entered play today just one game under .500, that doesn’t mean they aren’t readying for the possibility of selling. Of course, given the team’s pitching depth, it’s imaginable that the team could send out a veteran while still maintaining hopes of cracking the postseason. Per Heyman, Tampa Bay has “already begun calling to get a gauge on the value of Alex Cobb.” Rivals also think the club will be amenable to discussing both Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer, he adds. Cobb, though, is the most obvious possible trade chip. The 29-year-old was homer-prone in his return from Tommy John surgery last year, but has looked solid through 56 1/3 innings this year — his last before reaching free agency. He carries a 3.67 ERA with 6.1 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 to go with a 47.5% groundball rate. Cobb still isn’t getting swings and misses like he used to, but his velocity is better than ever and he has tamped down on the long balls thus far.
Last December’s Andrew McCutchen trade talks between the Nationals and Pirates included top prospect Lucas Giolito and left-hander Gio Gonzalez, reports Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports. Heyman notes that talks between Pittsburgh and Washington centered around three players, and he reported back in December that Giolito and minor league righty Dane Dunning were a part of McCutchen talks. Some combination of Giolito, Dunning and Gonzalez (whose salary is roughly similar to that of McCutchen) certainly seems like a nice haul for the Pirates, though to be fair, Heyman hasn’t specifically listed that trio in a singular report, nor is it clear that said trio was ever actually offered. Furthermore, it’s not known whether the Nationals or the Pirates are the team that backed out of talks before Washington sent Giolito, Dunning and Reynaldo Lopez to the White Sox in exchange for Adam Eaton. McCutchen is off to an ugly .214/.286/.393 start at the plate, though Giolito hasn’t fared much better in the minors. Through 34 1/3 Triple-A innings, he’s posted a 6.55 ERA with 9.4 K/9, 5.0 BB/9 and a 43.3 percent ground-ball rate.
More notes on the Nats…
- Asked about what type of money Bryce Harper will command in free agency, the GM of another club tells Heyman that he believes Harper will command closer to $500MM than $400MM on the open market. Furthermore, he stated a belief that $400MM is the “baseline” for a Harper contract in free agency. There’s been plenty of consternation among fans about whether Harper has truly lived up to the hype surrounding him in his career, though his 2015 NL MVP and .376/.491/.744 start to the 2017 campaign are undeniably strong points in his favor. Harper won’t turn 25 until the season comes to a close, and he’s already been worth 24-26 wins above replacement (depending on one’s preferred version of the metric). Whether that makes him worth an investment approaching half a billion dollars is, of course, another debate, but he certainly looks to have rounded back into form after reports of a shoulder injury that plagued him throughout a “down” season (by his standards) in 2016.
- Nats general manager Mike Rizzo explained the team’s decision to move top prospect Erick Fedde to a bullpen role this season to Mark Zuckerman of MASNsports.com. Washington felt it would have to limit Fedde’s innings this year one way or another, and keeping him in a rotation role would’ve meant shutting him down in the minors at some point. However, by moving him to the ’pen, the Nats can not only manage his innings but also take a look at the former first-rounder on the Major League roster at some point. “If he was farther away from the big leagues in our mind, we probably would just shut his innings down when they were over, and utilize that,” said Rizzo. “…We thought all along that if we were to see Fedde in the big leagues this year, it would probably be in a relief role … as the bullpen struggled and we had three guys on the disabled list at one time, we thought this was a good time to use the transformation to get him into the bullpen.”
- Rizzo also explained to Zuckerman that the Nats consider right-hander Joe Ross “too valuable” as a starting pitcher to consider a similar shift to the bullpen. Rizzo stated that Ross’ stuff is “too good” and referred to him as a “proven starter,” though the Nationals do currently have Ross in Triple-A in an effort to improve his effectiveness against left-handed opponents. Rizzo notes that Ross is “100 percent” healthy but may have been losing his release point as he worked deeper into starts.
Though a potential ownership change has many Marlins fans hoping for an increased payroll, FOX’s Ken Rosenthal argues that any new owners should operate in familiar fashion and tear down the organization with an aggressive rebuild. Miami’s farm system is barren, and the team already has as much as $95MM committed to players in 2018. Rosenthal suggests that the Marlins should prepare to deal some relief pitching and market breakout outfielder Marcell Ozuna — while perhaps also beginning to think about what to do with the massive contract of Giancarlo Stanton.
- Plenty of other National League East competitors are struggling as well, with the Mets in particular playing well shy of expectations. As John Harper of the New York Daily News writes, there’s no easy solution for an organization that has been beset with injuries. The club’s short-term veteran assets are all fairly expensive, and all but Jay Bruce have had their own issues with injury and/or performance downturns. Having dealt from the farm in recent years, the upper ranks are somewhat depleted; and with needs set to arise in the near future, dealing from what’s left (particularly given the poor start) may not be advisable.
- New Mets reliever Neil Ramirez discussed his recent signing with reporters including MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo, who tweets a video of the righty’s comments. Ramirez says he feels he was throwing well with the Giants despite some poor earned-run results. When the Blue Jays claimed and then outrighted him, he elected to test the market in search of “an opportunity to stick” with another team. His deal with the Mets came together in very short order.
- With the Nationals still struggling to find reliable relief arms, the team has moved top pitching prospect Erick Fedde into a bullpen role, Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post tweets. While it seems likely that the organization still views Fedde as a starter in the long run, the consensus top-100 prospect may be of greater use in the near term out of the pen. He has impressed thus far at Double-A, throwing 42 2/3 innings of 3.16 ERA ball with 7.4 K/9 against 3.0 BB/9, and could conceivably function as a multi-inning option in the majors. While a deadline deal or two remains all but inevitable for the division-leading Nats, utilizing Fedde in that manner might provide a boost while limiting the need to part with young talent later this summer. Of course, the team tried something similar last year with Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez with less-than-ideal results, though both were still able to return a big piece in Adam Eaton over the winter.
- The Nationals have parted ways with 2013 second-rounder Jake Johansen, according to Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post (via Twitter). Johansen, 26, had reached Double-A for this first time this year. Through 11 2/3 innings, he had permitted eight earned runs on 11 hits and eight walks while recording 13 strikeouts.
While the Nationals still hold the best record in the National League, the team’s bullpen struggles remain a real concern, as Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post writes. Boswell acknowledges the benefit of hindsight but points out that the very trade that brought the Nats a closer last summer (Mark Melancon) cost them a much-needed future piece, as left-hander Felipe Rivero went to the Pirates in that deal. Rivero, 25, has a 0.87 ERA in 20 games for the Bucs this season, while the Washington relief corps has one of baseball’s worst bullpens, in terms of ERA. Manager Dusty Baker acknowledged to Boswell that the bullpen is a problem but suggested that there’s no quick fix at this time. “You’re always pushing for a trade, but ain’t nobody trading right now,” said Baker. “Sometimes you have no choice but to have patience. Nobody is going to drop you down a knockdown closer out of the sky until there’s some teams out of it. We have to look from within right now.”
- While Boswell focuses heavily on the need for a closer, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs observes that for the Nationals, it’s not just a matter of finding a closer. A league-average bullpen could get the Nats to the postseason, but that won’t cut it in the playoffs, Cameron notes. Washington is likely in need of at least two quality relief arms this summer, and Cameron posits that the team could look to add multiple pitchers in a single trade. He speculates that the pairing of Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle from the A’s (assuming Doolittle is healthy) or Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson from the White Sox could be plausible fits.
- The Nationals and Red Sox have had evaluators watching White Sox players, CBS Chicago’s Bruce Levine reports. Both clubs have been scouting Jose Quintana, while the Nationals continue to have interest in closer David Robertson, and Levine figures the Sox could also be looking at Todd Frazier to address their need at third base. Chicago already completed major trades with both teams this past winter, of course, in deals that sent Adam Eaton to Washington and Chris Sale to Boston, so there is already a great deal of familiarity between these organizations. Quintana would fill the Nats’ revolving door in the fifth starter’s spot, though obtaining Robertson to help their struggling bullpen seems like the more pressing fit. The Red Sox could use Quintana and Frazier, though they seem likely to wait to see how David Price and their internal third base options return before deciding if upgrades are necessary.