It’s Hot Stove season, and when it’s Hot Stove season, we tend to spend a lot of time talking about the business side of baseball. The Washington Nationals will surely seek to add pieces through trades or free agent signings this winter; last year, big Nats news broke during and just after the Winter Meetings as general manager Mike Rizzo shipped three top pitching prospects to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Adam Eaton before flipping infielder Danny Espinosa to the Los Angeles Angels for two minor league pitchers.
It’s much too early to tell what course Rizzo will chart this off-season. The Nats have a relatively short list of needs to address, but like every team, they will be active in searching for upgrades this winter, and we know Rizzo likes to make some surprise moves to “strengthen strengths” when he can.
But Rizzo’s not the only one who can make moves to improve the Nats. Now let’s think beyond the off-season to the preseason. Let’s think ahead to when Nats baseball will return!
Dave (or Davey) Martinez joins the Nats as its skipper after serving for 10 years as championship-winning Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon‘s bench coach. He has been forthright in saying he expects to bring some of the winning tactics he and Maddon implemented to his new team. Boom or bust or somewhere in between, Martinez promises to represent a big change from the management style of Dusty Baker, the second-longest-tenured manager in the major leagues and someone considered to be “old-school” in his approach to lineups, positioning, and pitching changes.
So what could Martinez do that Baker didn’t do with his players?
This is a calling card of Maddon/Martinez teams. Kris Bryant is considered one of the best third basemen in baseball, but the Cubs have also used him in left, right, and center fields and even at first base, usually as a late-game change to get another hitter into the lineup. Ben Zobrist developed his skillset as a super-utility player under Maddon/Martinez with the Tampa Bay Rays. Cubs rookie Ian Happ saw time at second and third base as well as all three outfield positions this year. Javier Baez, one of the game’s premier second basemen, actually logged the largest share of his innings this year at shortstop, also seeing time at third base and even appearing at first base and in right field.
When Rizzo addressed the media after his big trade for Eaton last December, he talked about the importance of positional flexibility, noting that Eaton, Trea Turner, and Bryce Harper were all capable of playing center field as well as other positions. Baker proceeded to play Harper exclusively in right field and Turner exclusively at shortstop for the entire season, infamously snapping at a reporter who asked him whether one could take over for Eaton in center field, “No. Leave my team alone.” Based on Dave Martinez‘s history, though, if this is something Rizzo is serious about, the GM may find his new skipper to be more open to this idea than his predecessor was.
Where might this be useful? Let’s start with some spring training suggestions.
Give Brian Goodwin a first baseman’s glove
The Nats surprised the baseball world when it was announced they had declined their end of a $5 million mutual option to bring back Adam Lind for 2018, after Lind — a left-handed first baseman who ended up playing his fair share of passable left field this season — turned in an impressive .303/.875 offensive season as a part-time player. (This was likely a moot issue, as Lind also declined the option and mutual options are very seldom exercised.)
Now, the question is who takes Lind’s place on the team? The Nats likely felt last winter like they had little choice but to upgrade from the since-retired Clint Robinson, after Robinson and Ryan Zimmerman both endured dreadful seasons in 2016. This winter, with Zimmerman coming off an All-Star season in which he finished 20th in Most Valuable Player voting, a left-handed backup at first base seems like a less urgent priority.
The Nats’ preeminent internal option appears to be Jose Marmolejos, who was added to the 40-man roster last winter and is coming off a strong .288/.819 offensive season for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators. But is the soon-to-be-25-year-old first baseman and corner outfielder the only internal option the Nats have?
Washington has one of those problems that’s “nice to have”, as it has more than a full slate of MLB-ready outfielders in Harper, Eaton, Michael A. Taylor, Brian Goodwin, and top prospect Victor Robles, with Marmolejos and fellow prospects Andrew Stevenson, Rafael Bautista, and Daniel Johnson, along with veteran Ryan Raburn and Cuban expatriate Yadiel Hernandez, representing its existing minor league depth. So what about giving Goodwin, a former organizational top prospect who has emerged in the past two seasons as a legitimate fourth outfielder, a chance to play a little infield?
Goodwin is a left-handed swinger but throws right-handed, so conceivably, he could be tried out at any position on the diamond. But with Wilmer Difo (and, representing likely minors depth next year, Adrian Sanchez) able to back up Daniel Murphy at second base, Anthony Rendon at third base, and Turner at shortstop, first base is the obvious need. It’s also probably the simplest new position for an outfielder to learn.
At six feet tall, Goodwin doesn’t have the prototypical physical profile to play first base, but Marmolejos is only an inch taller, and star free agent first baseman Carlos Santana is actually an inch shorter. If the power Goodwin showed this season before his injury can be sustained going forward, it would certainly be enough for a backup first baseman. The Nats could replace Lind without paying a penny more or even tapping into their minor league depth with Marmolejos.
Goodwin could also continue being deployed in all three outfield positions when needed there, and with his strong right fielder’s arm, he could even be tried at the hot corner, although that would be a more challenging move.
In the outfield, follow the metrics
Eaton and Harper have both played all three outfield positions and done a competent job. With Taylor likely to remain in center field next year, Eaton and Harper are expected to man the corners. The assumption is that Eaton will shift to left field and Harper will remain in right. But is that really the right approach?
While often touted as a “five-tool player”, Harper is far from a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder. His range factor (RF) has declined precipitously over the past two seasons and is now considered well below average. For those who prefer ultimate zone rating (UZR), the news is better, although his 2.6 UZR in right field this year is far from phenomenal. He was worth -1.0 dWAR last year and 0.0 dWAR this year, according to Baseball-Reference, and had a defensive value of 2.3 and -2.3 respectively by Fangraphs’ reckoning.
Eaton, on the other hand, is a truly exceptional right fielder. Taking over in right for the White Sox in 2016, Eaton posted an amazing 2.86 RF/9 and an otherworldly 23.1 UZR. He was a Gold Glove finalist that year, narrowly losing to Boston Red Sox defensive wizard Mookie Betts in the voting. He seems unlikely to return to center field, having turned in mediocre numbers there for the White Sox in 2015 and not really impressing with the glove in 2017 before Taylor took over and proceeded to finish in the top three for Gold Glove himself.
The conclusion here is clear: An outfield featuring 2017 Gold Glove center fielder finalist Michael A. Taylor in center field and 2016 Gold Glove right fielder finalist Adam Eaton in right field, along with Bryce Harper and his cannon arm in left field, would be really, really good. While Eaton certainly isn’t going to embarrass himself in left and Harper will occasionally make a really great play in right, it’s very hard to deny Eaton is a better right fielder than Harper, and right field is a more premium defensive position.
Harper hasn’t actually played a game in left field since 2014, so spring training might be something of a readjustment process for him if Martinez decides to put Eaton in right. But it seems unlikely he would be alone on the team in getting used to a different role next year.
Infielders in the outfield
This is an idea that Baker actually did toy with a bit, and it’s one that would be less permanent and have a smaller impact than the previous two. But it’s something Martinez saw frequently with the Rays and Cubs.
Difo was deployed very occasionally in the outfield this year, where (aside from an ill-advised assignment in center field) he wasn’t unduly dreadful. Martinez could seek to cultivate him as a Zobrist-type super-utility player. The two share some commonalities: Zobrist broke into the majors as a shortstop, which is also Difo’s natural position, before Maddon/Martinez began using him all over the diamond. This conversion happened when Zobrist was 27, after two partial seasons in the major leagues. Difo will turn 26 in April and just completed his third season of major league action. Also, both are switch-hitters, and just like Difo, Zobrist was considered a major stolen base threat in his prime.
Another candidate for some outfield action is Rendon. Robbed of his first career Gold Glove this year by voters eager to give yet another piece of hardware to Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado (who is, admittedly, excellent), Rendon has quick reflexes and a howitzer of an arm, and there is no doubt he has the athleticism to play anywhere on the field; he was a shortstop in high school and logged a few innings there in his rookie season. While there is zero chance Rendon will lose his place as the Nats’ regular third baseman next year, barring some sort of injury, Martinez could try using him the way Bryant is used in Chicago, rotating onto the grass as needed. The reason for doing this isn’t especially apparent without a natural third baseman on the Nats’ bench, though, so even if it’s something Martinez wants to experiment with in spring training, it might take some roster moves before we would ever see Rendon in the outfield in a regular-season game.
Murphy has played some corner outfield, too, but it’s been several years and the reviews there were not very good. Of course, Murphy also looks likely to miss at least part of next year’s Grapefruit League action as he recovers from off-season knee surgery, so Martinez might not have as much time as he would like to tinker with the Nats’ star second baseman.
As for Turner, he of course broke into the majors as a center fielder, but he has never played professionally as a left or right fielder, despite having the speed and arm strength to hold down either position. While Turner is likely too valuable as a shortstop to move, it’s not inconceivable that Martinez could give him some outfield reps in spring training, if only to keep him fresh as an emergency outfielder — although if Difo is successfully converted into a super-utility player, it seems likely that in game action, Martinez would simply send Difo into the outfield if he wanted to get him into the lineup late in a game, instead of moving Turner and installing Difo at shortstop.
Rest, rest, rest
One thing Baker was known for as a manager was getting his position players regular time off. This actually led to criticism of Baker in some quarters for “coddling” players or appearing to concede games, usually on getaway day, by fielding a poor lineup. And Baker certainly didn’t please everyone with how much of a workload he thought was acceptable for starters, certain relievers, and frontline catchers.
But there’s a reason you give your players time off, as long as they’re not named Cal Ripken Jr. It’s the same reason we have weekends and sick leave in the professional world. It’s done because there are limits to human endurance, even in young, healthy humans conditioned to a level of physical fitness most of us could never hope to attain. In a 162-game season, bookended by six weeks of spring training and up to four weeks of playoffs, everyone needs some time off to recharge their batteries here and there. And some need more time off than others.
Let’s take a quick look at which Nats can benefit from a rest strategy during the season.
Matt Wieters should not play every day
There was probably a fair bit of cursing in the Nats’ front office when, after agent Scott Boras tantalizingly suggested he thought Matt Wieters‘ skillset would be in high demand this winter if he elected free agency, Wieters instead, and predictably, decided to exercise his player option and remain a Nat to the tune of $10.5 million next year. The Nats are locked in with Wieters, whose dreadful 2017 campaign and bloated salary makes him virtually immovable as a trade piece. But they can still try to get better results from him in 2018.
The easy solution — for us fans, who have no monetary “skin in the game” and a boundless imagination when it comes to Hot Stove action — is for the Nats to go out and trade for an elite catcher like J.T. Realmuto and relegate Wieters to a backup role, or sign a starting-capable catcher like Alex Avila to play against right-handed pitchers and leave Wieters on the short side of the platoon. But the realistic outcome will be that the Nats either roll with one of their two catching prospects on the roster as Wieters’ backup or sign a low-ceiling backup catcher as (hopefully) an upgrade over the departed Jose Lobaton, and Wieters will again start the year as the team’s everyday catcher.
But while Wieters avoided the disabled list this year, there were persistent nagging rumors that he wasn’t fully healthy, and indeed, the tall backstop has a significant injury history. What’s more, he played almost exactly as much as he did in 2016 with the Baltimore Orioles (regular season: 124 vs. 123 games, 464 vs. 465 plate appearances, 423 vs. 422 official at-bats), and while the Nats had hoped he would rebound from his down year in 2016, he actually cratered nearly 80 points lower by OPS and his vaunted ability to control the running game badly deteriorated.
Whether Wieters was playing hurt or simply exhausted from the workload, it is clear that the Nats can’t count on him to play as much in 2018 as he did in 2017. In fact, The Washington Post has already reported that the Nats plan to give him more time off next season. It’s the right call. What remains to be seen is who will get the rest of the playing time, and how well will they do?
One final thought on this: The Cubs carried an unusual bench mix at several points in 2017, with more than one bench player (and as many as three at a time) capable of catching; to wit, after starting the year with Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero as their catching tandem, with left fielder and part-time catcher Kyle Schwarber available behind the plate as needed, they added both Avila and Rene Rivera during the year after jettisoning Montero; prospect Victor Caratini also logged a little time with the Cubs after Montero’s DFA and release. Could Martinez seek to do something similar, keeping one or more players on the bench who are able to don the gear when needed?
Pressure’s off for Zimmerman
This was true in 2017, and it will be true in a different way in 2018, as Zimmerman spent this year proving he still belongs in a major league uniform. But in 2017, Zimmerman wasn’t under as much pressure as he was to play all the time the year before, because Lind was a much more capable reserve than Robinson had been in 2016. Although healthy all year, Zimmerman came in well shy of a career high in plate appearances with 576, appearing in 144 games, during the regular season.
Like Wieters, Zimmerman has struggled for much of his career with injuries. That list of ailments includes a nasty bout of plantar fasciitis that affected his entire 2015 season and knocked him out of action for several weeks that year; although it is treatable, the condition can recur, and rest is really the only curative for it. It also includes a litany of shoulder problems, which have limited Zimmerman’s range of motion in throwing the ball and forced him to move off third base after the 2014 season, since which time he has almost exclusively appeared at first base.
Zimmerman had a truly excellent 2017 that virtually no one saw coming. He should be a very important cog for the Nats again in 2018. But the Nats must take care to preserve the gains Zimmerman made after three decline years: They have to do whatever they can to keep him fit and healthy. This likely means giving him more time off than a typical super slugger in a less physically demanding position than most would receive.
Even with Lind’s departure, Martinez has some options in spelling Zimmerman, including using a dedicated 1B/OF-type bench player like Robinson and Lind were, shifting Murphy over on occasion as Baker did with him in 2016, and even occasionally moving an infield-capable catcher to first base, as some teams (including the Baltimore Orioles) do from time to time. Any or all of these options could be utilized to get Zimmerman off his feet every now and again.
A six-man rotation
No team seems to stick with a sextet of starters for long, but temporarily moving to a six-man rotation has gradually become a more popular way for some organizations to limit their starting pitchers’ workloads and audition a minor league player or long reliever for a larger role. Considering the Nats led the major leagues in the number of innings their top three starters (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez) pitched this season, it could be a tactic Martinez considers employing in 2018.
Of course, right now, the Nats don’t even have a firm #5 starter, with Erick Fedde and A.J. Cole appearing to be the leading internal options. Rizzo has indicated he would like to have eight to ten legitimate starting options instead of his current six or seven, so expectations are that the Nats will be active on the market for starting pitchers this winter. Setting aside the specifics of how that search will play out, if Martinez has the kind of depth Rizzo says he wants for the organization next year, it would make sense to take advantage of it.
Scherzer is a workhorse, but he was limited by injury in the second half for the first time in years, a troubling development for the 33-year-old after he rehabbed a stress fracture in one of the knuckles on his throwing hand over the previous off-season. Strasburg avoided serious injury but still made his annual trip to the disabled list with an elbow issue. Gonzalez once again pitched a full season and once again faded dramatically down the stretch, failing to get deep into either of his two postseason starts. If Joe Ross returns next year, it will be late in the season as he comes off “Tommy John” surgery rehab to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, the kind of injury that merits caution even after it has fully healed.
Despite his stubbornly traditionalist ways, Baker did flirt with a six-man rotation at times this season without explicitly describing it that way, as he used a combination of Fedde, Cole, and Edwin Jackson at various times in the second half of the season to shore up holes in the rotation caused by injuries to Ross, Scherzer, and Strasburg. Martinez could do something like that if he has the depth to do it.
Shorter outings for starters!
Maybe the loudest complaint directed at Baker as a manager was his perceived overuse of his ace pitchers. The Nats averaged nearly 100 pitches per start (99.4, to be exact) this year, with 110- and even 120-plus outings far from unheard of. By contrast, the world champion Houston Astros averaged just 92.1 pitches per start, and the runner-up Los Angeles Dodgers averaged a remarkably low 86.5.
It’s impossible to prove a direct link between heavy workloads for starters and injuries. However, repetitive stress injuries are called that because they are caused by repetitive stress, and it does appear as though asking less of starters than Baker did this year worked out well for the Astros and Dodgers.
As it turns out, the Cubs were on the low side for pitches per games started as well, coming it at a modest 90.9. That could be an organizational philosophy that Martinez brings to Washington. If so, it could radically reshape the team’s game-by-game strategy, and it could have some interesting effects if it improves the late-season and postseason performance of pitchers like Gonzalez and Scherzer.
Surely Martinez has more up his sleeves than any of us know, and baseball has a way of always surprising us. Who knows what 2018 has in store for us?
Some other miscellaneous ideas…
This is something that’s worked out well for the Cleveland Indians, among other teams: relievers who are able to pitch two or three innings without being the worst pitcher in the bullpen, i.e. the “long reliever”. Guys like Andrew Miller, Raisel Iglesias, and Archie Bradley don’t grow on trees, but sometimes, teams will strike gold and find a pitcher who is nails for more than three outs at a time.
A lot of this is down to how a manager is willing to use the guys on his staff, and the rest is down to how the guys on his staff are able to perform. What will be interesting to watch is whether Martinez prefers to mix and match his relievers, using them conventionally for one inning or less at a time, or whether he will try to get more out of them.
Switching off corner outfielders
This is an idea that came up in that Chicago Tribune piece linked earlier. The author recalled a conversation with Martinez in which the former outfielder, as a member of the White Sox, defended the intuition of manager Terry Bevington in switching him mid-game across the outfield with Tim Raines, putting Martinez and his stronger arm in left against a batter with a tendency to hit the ball to left. “To me,” Martinez said afterward, “that’s called winning baseball. He wants to do the best he can to win the game. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
Previously mentioned was Eaton’s tremendous success as a right fielder for those self-same White Sox in 2016 and Harper’s mass driver of an arm. Could this be an idea Martinez revisits, moving Harper to left field when he wants someone out there capable of throwing out a runner at the plate against a right-handed batter with a pull tendency? This is a level of baseball most of us, and even most baseball people, don’t even think about. Maybe in some ways, Bevington — his 222–214 career managerial record and all — was ahead of his time.
Pitchers in the outfield
One of the most famous Maddon/Martinez “stunts” was the successful deployment of no fewer than three pitchers in left field in one late-June game in 2016. With a depleted bullpen well into extra innings, the Cubs were determined not to squander any possible advantage they had, so they rotated left-hander Travis Wood with right-handers Spencer Patton and Pedro Strop between the mound and the outfield to secure a platoon advantage and ultimately win the game.
The Nats are lucky to have a few guys in Scherzer, Tanner Roark, and Sean Doolittle (to name a few) who would probably eat ground glass if that’s what it took to bring home a curly W. Fortunately, playing left field is a lot less dangerous than that. If Martinez brings some of that outside-the-box thinking to the Nats, we could see some interesting things in extra innings.