The Nationals Need a Pitcher More Than a (Prince) Fielder

Any team can use a bat that will hit 30-40 homers and get on base 40% of the time, but when that bat is attached to a body of jiggly flesh that’s going to grow larger and more jiggly as time passes; when the team doesn’t have the DH available to stash said player to account for his defensive deficiencies that are going to grow worse as he grows older (and larger); when the player is represented by an agent whose demands are starting at 10-years; and when the team has holes on the mound bigger than in their lineup, it makes little sense to spend the vast amount of money it’s going to cost to sign that player.

The Nationals have the money to sign Prince Fielder; they can certainly use his power; their ownership is very wealthy; and the team is on the cusp of legitimate contention, if not already there. But do they need him?

Their offense finished 12th in the National League in runs scored, but that’s misleading. Jayson Werth was awful in 2011 and will absolutely be better in 2012—in fact, I think he’ll have a very good year. Ryan Zimmerman missed a chunk of the season with an abdominal injury. They’re replacing offensive hindrances with occasional power, Rick Ankiel and Laynce Nix, in the regular lineup.

If Adam LaRoche returns and hits his 20 homers, they’ll score enough to win if their pitching performs; the rotation as currently constructed is good enough to loiter around contention; the bullpen is shutdown with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen shortening the game. But they need another starting pitcher who can be trusted to take the ball every fifth day and give them a designated number of innings. Mark Buehrle would’ve been perfect, but he signed with the Marlins.

The Nationals will eventually start to win as a matter of circumstance even as the front office does baffling things like trading a package for Gio Gonzalez that would’ve been suitable for a far better pitcher like Matt Garza; signing a good background player like Werth to a contract befitting a star; or seriously considering meeting agent Scott Boras’s* demands for Fielder.

*Do people realize that Boras was a minor league player before becoming an agent of evil? Click on his name above; he was actually a good hitter.

As much as the Nationals are playing up their starting rotation with the addition of Gonzalez, they don’t have a horse at the front. Stephen Strasburg is an ace talent, but your number one starter cannot be on an innings/pitch count—he’s not going to give them 200 innings next season. John Lannan is a good pitcher, but he’s not an every fifth day, “put the team on his back” guy either. No one can predict what Chien-Ming Wang is going to do. Jordan Zimmerman is in the same position as Strasburg.

The Nationals have talked about moving Werth to center field until next winter when B.J. Upton—in whom they’ve long had interest—will be available; Werth can play center field serviceably enough, but the smart thing for them to do would be to steer clear of Fielder; sign a pitcher who will give them 200 innings like Edwin Jackson; sign Cody Ross as a left field stopgap; and install Michael Morse in right.

Also, Bryce Harper is going to get a legitimate shot to make the team out of spring training. The Nats have to be careful with Harper and manager Davey Johnson must learn from the mistakes he made with a similarly hyped prospect and immature personality, Gregg Jefferies. Johnson coddled Jefferies and enabled the diva-like behaviors exhibited by the then 19-year-old; when he stopped hitting and his self-centeredness drew the ire of the Mets veterans, Johnson continued writing his name in the lineup creating a fissure between himself and the players with whom he’d cultivated a relationship from their formative years.

He cannot do that again.

If Harper is in the big leagues and Werth or Zimmerman feel the need to dispense old-school clubhouse discipline on the mouthy youngster, Johnson has to stay out of it; and if Harper isn’t hitting, he shouldn’t play simply because his name is Bryce Harper.

The one free agent bat at a key position they could’ve used was Jose Reyes; like Buehrle, he signed with the Marlins. Now the big offensive name remaining on the market is Fielder. But having a lineup inhabited by two players who are going to be contractually locked in for the next eight years limits flexibility and will result in diminishing returns quickly. If the Nationals have a budget, it will hamstring them financially as well.

They don’t need Fielder.

Signing him would be spending just for the sake of it and not help them achieve their goals any faster than they are now.

They’d be allowing Boras to play them just as they did last winter with Werth and it’s a mistake.

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  1. #1 by Todd Boss on January 3, 2012 - 3:59 pm

    Sorry, disagree with your premise.

    Nats offense has declined (in terms of runs scored) for three years running. Offense gone from 710 to 655 to 624 runs last season. Meanwhile the pitching staff has improved dramatically, going (in the same time period) from 874-742-643 runs allowed. And all of that was without Strasburg, missing a full year of Zimmermann. Most of the run-prevention was in the bullpen, now one of the best in the league. Now for 2012 the team will replace 30-some mediocre-to-god awful starts from Livan Hernandez with a 5+ war pitcher in Gio Gonzalez, and will replace a ton of replacement level starts from Jason Marquis with a 1.2 war in 15 starts in 2010 Strasburg. They’re set pitching wise.

    I know the team “wanted” Buehrle but I didn’t; we got a better, younger lefty arm in Gonzalez who isn’t on the wrong side of 30 instead of a #3 starter. Sometimes you get lucky by being unlucky.

    Adding Prince fielder turns this team in to a 95-game winner, simple as that. Zimmerman hasn’t hit well since Dunn left; its no coincidence that Dunn’s protection in the lineup led to better at-bats for our franchise player. Inserting fielder into this lineup immediately adds a TON of runs (he had 136 RC last year) and should help give us a positive runs delta for the first time since coming to Washington. I’m not sure I want him for 8 years … just like you can’t make a legitimate argument that ANY player is worth such a long contract (name me one contract of such length that actually worked out for the team? A-rod’s contract is going to make Hampton and Santana contracts look cheap by comparison). But .. if the rumors are right and Fielder will take a 3-4 year deal at $25M AAV ? Sign that contract today.

    Btw; havn’t you been following the off-season? Starting pitching prices are sky high. If you think the prospects we gave up to get Gonzalez are enough for Garza, well then we disagree. Garza will get more, guaranteed. Latos got more than what we gave up, to say nothing of the ridiculous amount that will be paid for the unproven (but obviously promising) Darvish.

    I’ll guarantee Harper doesn’t make the team out of spring training. The difference now versus when Johnson had Jeffries and Gooden as 19yr olds is simple: Arbitration. There’s simple studies available showing that bringing up Lincecum too early will cost the Giants something in the range of $20M. The Nats front office knows this, kept Strasburg in the minors til he missed the super2 deadline as well, and will certainly do the same with Harper. You can’t just ignore $20M, even if your manager wants the guy. Look for the team to either make do with Mike Cameron in CF or possibly sign a one-year RF (JD drew?) to hold the position til Harper comes up.

    Also disagree on Reyes; bad clubhouse demeanor, contract year spike in production and an aging player. Yeah he’s better than Desmond … but the Nats have internal options that I’d rather see them do than spend $15M a year on Reyes. Sometimes you stand by your pre-arb guys and accept slightly less production because its worth doing so.

    • #2 by admin on January 3, 2012 - 5:09 pm

      I can’t tell if you’re a stat guy or not. Sometimes you adhere to numbers and other times you don’t. Mostly, they’re out of context. How are you comparing their runs scored from three years ago when the entire composition of the lineup and manager are different? What does one thing have to do with the other? The only everyday player remaining from that 2009 team is Zimmerman.
      Then you reference WAR when discussing Gonzalez while saying Garza and Latos are better, but Latos’s WAR was 2.6; Garza’s 2.9.
      Which is it?
      Latos and Garza are far better than Gonzalez and the WAR argument in bolstering Gonzalez as a top-of-the-rotation starter doesn’t make it with me—you don’t know which Gonzalez you’re getting. Is he going to throw strikes or not? He’s in a category with Jonathan Sanchez and Oliver Perez from five years ago, capable of pitching a no-hitter or walking the ballpark and never being able to throw a strike again.
      95 wins with Fielder? Even if you use WAR as a reference point for that (Fielder was 5.2 last year), you’re not getting to 95 wins unless significant alterations are made to the way the young starting pitchers are used; the Brewers won 96 in an easier division and two Cy Young caliber pitchers in their starting rotation, plus two other good starters and Ryan Braun in the lineup; Fielder’s heading to a less-forgiving home run park, is a statue at first base and is going to get worse.
      Boras has shown no indication that he or Fielder are willing to take a 3-4 year, $25 million per deal—it’s not happening. But hypothetically, let’s say it does: he’s not signing with the Nats, he’d probably sign with the Blue Jays. If he was willing to do that, he might’ve stayed in Milwaukee.
      You think Fielder is going to get them to 95 wins in that division?
      The only way that would happen indirectly proves my point that they need a pitcher because it would happen if they take the reins off Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman and let them pitch. But they’re not doing that. Strasburg especially has the ability to do for the Nats what Roger Clemens did for the Red Sox in 1986 and carry them to the division title, but in that year, Clemens threw 254 innings at age 23. Is that going to happen with Strasburg? If he gets to 190, I’ll be amazed. You cannot have an ace of the rotation who has random limits placed on him for protection and still refer to him as the ace. Teams are going to consciously try to get his pitch count up to get him out of the game.
      Ryan Zimmerman was hurt last season; I don’t know how you can calculate Dunn’s absence hindering him if he only played in 100 games. If he’d played in those extra 60 games, his production would’ve been in line with what it’s been his whole career.
      I believe lineup protection matters, but stat guys don’t.
      You’re taking the personality of your team by vacillating; there’s no cohesive decision being made to go for it now or build from within. They’re trying to do both and that’s not going to work.
      No one has ever—ever—complained about Jose Reyes in the clubhouse. Ever. His issue has been injuries; he’s never been a problem for any of his managers; his teammates and the media loved him. I have no idea where you came up with that one. The point with Reyes is that he fills a need. They don’t need a first baseman.
      Arbitration has nothing to do with what happened with Jefferies nor will it affect anything with Harper. The Nats are confused as to what they are and it shows in their strange signings and pursuits while trying to maintain some cost-sanity and keep their young players from reaching the arbitration years sooner. If they think Harper can help them at mid-season, he’s going to be in the big leagues; this is especially true if they’re not drawing fans on days other than the ones Strasburg pitches.
      If you think that team is set with the starting rotation based on these questionable factors, you’re in for a rude awakening.

  2. #3 by Todd Boss on January 4, 2012 - 4:46 pm

    Stats versus non-stats: you have to look at stats and understand their context. I think people who (for example) just look at stats to determine a HoFame vote are missing the context of a player while he played.

    My point on runs scored versus runs allowed was meant as follows: Your article’s premise was that the nats don’t “need” Fielder. Well, I think they do, and the reason is because the team’s offense has declined 3 years running. If you look at the Nats’ strengths and weaknesses, its pretty clear that they’re strong on the pitching side (generally ranked 5th-7th in 2011 in team pitching stats, 6th overall in ERA, 7th in runs allowed) but weak batting wise (generally 12th-13th in the NL in team categories, 12th specifically in OPS). So, how do you improve the team? Clearly to me, you need more offense.

    here’s Peter Gammon’s tweet saying that Fielder may be considering 3 year deals. https://twitter.com/#!/pgammo/status/151796905284878336

    Zimmermann was on an innings limit last year. Not for 2012. Strasburg will be on innings limit yes, but the team has both Detwiler and Gorzelanny to pick up spot starts. The point is that the rotation is improved. If the team went 80-81 last year, improves the rotation and improves the offense … how can anyone say they’re not going to have a better record?

    • #4 by admin on January 4, 2012 - 11:58 pm

      You’re actually in my realm of thinking when you lose the blind spot to the Nats.
      But you’re still missing the point: because the offense has declined over the last three years and the pitching has improved doesn’t mean you overpay for the biggest bat on the market. If you look at your current circumstances—objectively—you’ll say that LaRoche will hit 16-20 homers if he’s healthy; you’re getting a full year from Ryan Zimmerman; better years from Werth, Espinosa, Ramos; and you’re improving the lineup by replacing Ankiel and Nix. The offense will be better because it will be better with the players you have.
      I don’t put much stock in overall pitching stats; their bullpen was abused by Riggleman. In a sense, you’re right; if Gonzalez is good; if Zimmerman and Strasburg take the next step; if Lannan pitches as well as he did two years ago (he should’ve won 20); if Wang gives anything, they’ll be fine—if, if, if. Don’t you want that one pitcher who you can say, “this is a day I can rest the bullpen”? Every team needs that and the Nats don’t really have it.
      I’m really not all that interested in Gammons anymore; he’s becoming increasingly detached as he ages. I cannot see Fielder taking anything less than 5 years and that’s in a worst case, desperation setting.
      I did not say they’re not going to have a better record; in fact, I think they’re a darkhorse playoff contender; but 95 wins with or without Fielder plus that current starting rotation and their realistically expected production is a dream.

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