In case you’ve been vacationing on moon Miranda for the past few months, this winter in baseball has suuuuuucked. The free agent market has moved incredibly slowly, with just one of MLB Trade Rumors’ top 10 free agents (two if you count Masahiro Tanaka, who ended up opting into the remainder of his contract with the New York Yankees rather than officially becoming a free agent this winter) signing a contract to date. There’s been a bit more action on the trade front as the Miami Marlins’ new ownership group is seemingly selling off everything that isn’t bolted down, including reigning National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton to the aforementioned Yankees, former batting champ (and PED user) Dee Gordon to the Seattle Mariners, and star outfielder Marcell Ozuna to the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Los Angeles Dodgers have once again indulged in their time-honored tradition of tossing around players with crippling contracts like a mascot giving out free merch. On the whole, though, this Hot Stove is burning so low that Keith Law appears to be succumbing to hypothermia-induced madness.
it’s driving me out of my mind pic.twitter.com/vhaliDOuaW
— keithlaw (@keithlaw) January 5, 2018
Hang in there, Keith.
Anyway, there are still a bunch of well-regarded free agents knocking around out there, and as we know from general manager Mike Rizzo’s past actions (hi, Max Scherzer!), as long as a top free agent remains unsigned, there’s a chance he will end up a Washington National.
This winter, the rumor mill has tied the Nats to a few clients of superagent and noted Lerner-whisperer Scott Boras. Let’s take a look at those guys first.
The drumbeat around Jake Arrieta has been perhaps the loudest for any free agent and the Nats this winter other than Matt Adams and Brandon Kintzler, signed and re-signed respectively last month. Even so, the Arrieta rumors seem to have cooled off since the Winter Meetings. We’ve seen reports since then that the Chicago Cubs could seek to bring Arrieta back into the fold, or that the Philadelphia Phillies (who have very few salary commitments for 2018 and 2019) could pursue the soon-to-be-32-year-old right-hander. But just as with the Nats, there have also been competing reports that the Cubs and Phillies are more interested in other options and aren’t inclined to spend big on Arrieta. As long as Arrieta remains unsigned, of course, he is a possibility for Washington.
- He’s just a couple seasons removed from one of the best campaigns, like, ever. It’s hard to overstate exactly how good Jake Arrieta was in 2015. How good was he? Max Scherzer posted a 2.79 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 8.12 K/BB and did this, and also this. He finished fifth in the Cy Young Award voting. Clayton Kershaw put up a minuscule 2.13 ERA, with an absurd 1.99 FIP and 0.88 WHIP, and finished third. Zack Greinke forced baseball statisticians to get out their electron microscopes to view his tiny 1.66 ERA and 0.84 WHIP (oh, and he and Kershaw were teammates that year). Arrieta edged Greinke for the Cy by winning 22 decisions and putting up a 1.77 ERA and 0.87 WHIP. Both Arrieta and Greinke were worth about nine wins above replacement that year, by Baseball-Reference’s reckoning. They basically broke baseball. (But don’t worry, Dallas Keuchel. Your 2.48 ERA and 1.02 WHIP were good too. *eyeroll*)
- He’s still pretty darn good. Arrieta again led baseball with the lowest hits allowed per nine innings in 2016, and he maintained his 8.7 strikeouts per nine from 2016 to 2017 while actually lowering his walk rate. Even though he wasn’t as incredibly dominant as he was in 2015, his ERA+ still rated as well above average at 123 last season. He didn’t contend for the Cy Young Award in 2017, but he was still an effective pitcher over the course of the season. We aren’t talking about a typical #4/5 starter whom the Nats would just expect to eat some innings at the back end of the rotation. We’re talking about a guy who would probably be the #2 starter or even the staff ace on a whole bunch of teams. And to that end…
- It would make the Nats much deeper. Right now, the Nats are projected to have at least one of Erick Fedde and A.J. Cole in their starting rotation on opening week. Right now, their only known competition is 1) one another and 2) a few non-roster invitees with eye-bleedy recent numbers, such as Tommy Milone and Logan Darnell. By adding someone like Arrieta, the Nats’ weakest presumptive starting pitcher becomes either Tanner Roark (himself one year removed from a season in which he received a Cy Young Award vote) or Gio Gonzalez (who received Cy votes just last year) instead of a guy who hasn’t even proven he can dominate Triple-A hitters, let alone major-leaguers. Cole would go into the bullpen or be designated for assignment, as he is out of options. Fedde would go back to chilly Syracuse and continue his development at a more appropriate level. The likes of Milone and Darnell would either hang out with Fedde at Triple-A, waiting in case the Nats need them, or move on in hopes of finding greener pastures elsewhere. In other words, depth would remain depth, and the Nats would…OK, let’s just think about this for a moment…be fielding a five-man rotation in which all five men were named on the ballot of at least one Cy Young Award voter within the past two years. So. Yeah.
- He has lots of postseason experience. Arrieta’s record in the playoffs is a bit mixed, as he was shelled by the New York Mets and then by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2015 and then 2016 National League Championship Series. But in the World Series, he was brilliant, winning both his starts with a stingy 2.38 ERA, and he was excellent in the 2017 playoffs, giving up just a single earned run in two starts before the Dodgers eliminated the Cubs in the NLCS. The Nats already have a team that can win more than 90 games during the regular season and should dominate another weak NL East. What they are looking for are players who can contribute to a postseason run and get them past the National League Division Series. With a 3.08 ERA for his playoff career and a track record of excellence under the brightest lights, Arrieta would represent a major upgrade over Roark and Gonzalez, who have…not done so well in October.
- He knows Matt Wieters. Arrieta started his career as a back-end rotation-filler for the Baltimore Orioles, who traded him to the Cubs in 2013 and proceeded to watch in horror as he transformed from a 5-ERA, below-replacement-level scrub into a pitching god. Let’s just take a moment to enjoy that schadenfreude. Ahh. That’s nice. Anyway, back when Arrieta wore white, orange, and black, a strapping young catcher named Matt Wieters caught 311 innings from him. That’s the most of any catcher Arrieta has worked with except Miguel Montero, who was unceremoniously jettisoned from the Cubs organization for whining to the media about his batterymate after Trea Turner and the Nats made them look silly in a game last year. So, if Arrieta became a Nat, there wouldn’t be any learning curve between him and Wieters the catcher. Scratch one item from the spring training to-do list.
- Cost, cost, cost. Here’s the thing about former Cy Young Award winners who are represented by Scott Boras: They don’t come cheap on the free agent market. The Nats actually have some firsthand knowledge of this as Boras extracted the richest (at the time) contract ever given to a right-handed free agent pitcher for Scherzer’s services three years ago. While Arrieta’s deal certainly won’t match Scherzer’s seven-year, $210 million payday, reports indicate Boras doesn’t think it should be far off that: Last month, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick said he had heard from an executive that the asking price for Arrieta was close to $200 million. For an organization that already has two long-term contracts for starting pitchers on the books with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg (extended during the 2016 season), committing another six-figure mondo deal to a pitcher who would likely rate as the club’s #3 pitcher at best seems pretty excessive. There’s also the small matter of Bryce Harper‘s upcoming free agency after this season and Anthony Rendon‘s the season after that, with their presumptive in-house replacements (Juan Soto and Carter Kieboom, respectively) still in A-ball this year. There’s no way of knowing exactly how far the Lerners are willing to open their pocketbooks, but it’s hard to see a scenario in which signing Arrieta doesn’t seriously restrict the Nats’ long-term spending flexibility. Plus, since he received a qualifying offer, he will cost the Nats their second- and fifth-round draft picks, plus $1 million in international bonus money. Ouch.
- The risk of decline. Arrieta was absolutely amazing in 2015. Then he was great in 2016. And then he was, as previously mentioned, pretty darn good in 2017. Noticing a pattern here? Arrieta turns 32 before Opening Day, and already, there are signs that he’s slipped from the heights of Mount Olympus. His rate of hits and home runs allowed both ticked sharply upward in 2017. His FIP rose above 4 for the first time since 2013. His WHIP climbed the highest it’s ever been in his time with the Cubs. And for the first season since 2013, he didn’t receive any votes for the Cy Young Award. Now, Arrieta was still an above-average pitcher last season, and he could remain an above-average pitcher perhaps for years to come. But if the trend continues or accelerates instead of tapering off, he’s going to be a league-average or below-average pitcher within two or three seasons on a contract that’s likely to pay him like an ace and give him at least five guaranteed years. Considering how much the Nats are already spending on their rotation and how much they would like to be able to spend on homegrown stars like Harper and Rendon, that’s not ideal.
- He’s not that consistent. This is kind of a surprising concern for a guy the topline stats say is as dominant as he is. But when you check under the hood, you see almost immediately what took him from having one of the greatest seasons ever for a baseball pitcher in 2015 to being more of a #3/4 type on a stacked team like the Nats. In 2015, an astounding 88% of Arrieta’s outings were quality starts. In 2016, that percentage backslid to 55%. In 2017, it was 53%. That means almost half the time, Arrieta is actually a below-average pitcher. By way of comparison, Tanner Roark — who aggravated us all year with his hit-and-miss appearances — put up a quality start percentage of 57%. Patrick Corbin, the Arizona Diamondbacks starter TalkNats previously critiqued as not being a “particularly impressive or meaningful” potential addition to Washington’s pitching staff, posted a 59% quality start percentage. And Scherzer, who is truly an ace, has been at or above 70% on quality starts in each of his three seasons as a National.
- That Wieters experience might not be a plus after all. You know how Matt Wieters has caught 311 innings from Arrieta and has more experience working as his catcher than anyone except Miguel Montero? Well, familiarity is nice, but it might not be what Arrieta needs. The right-hander blossomed after getting out of Baltimore, becoming the platonic ideal of a player who seemingly just needed a change of scenery to go from bad to awesome. So consequently, you wouldn’t expect his numbers working with Wieters to be very good. OK? You ready? Here we go: 5.35 ERA, 1.82 K/BB, .261/.764 slash against. Five catchers have caught the equivalent of at least nine complete games by Arrieta. Of them, Wieters ranks as by far the worst in terms of ERA, K/BB, and batting average and somewhat worse by OPS (placing second in all categories: Willson Contreras, with a 3.65 ERA, 2.63 K/BB, and .229/.725 slash against). So, uh, that’s not great. It’s entirely possible that the improvements Arrieta made had nothing to do with who was calling his games and receiving his pitches. And it’s also possible that a reunion with Wieters is the exact opposite of what Arrieta needs.
- Perception is reality? Every time Scott Boras has a big-name client on the market, the Nats get linked to him. It’s inevitable. And there’s a reason for that. It was Boras who negotiated Jayson Werth‘s shocking seven-year pact with the Nats after the 2010 season. It was Boras who sold the Nats on Scherzer in 2015, with Washington adding one of the best pitchers on the planet to what was already touted as one of baseball’s best rotations. And it was Boras who, somehow, convinced the Nats they needed to guarantee $21 million to Wieters during spring training last year despite them having already traded for backstop Derek Norris. If the Nats can’t get through another winter without buying another used Cadillac from the Scott Boras dealership, what does that say about Boras’ degree of control over the organization? What does it say about Rizzo’s ability to freely make the kind of deals he needs to make to improve his ballclub if he ends up staying in Washington past the expiration of his current contract after the 2018 season?
In a lot of ways, this connection seems to make perfect sense. The Nats were among the teams that bid on closer Greg Holland last winter and reportedly had a deal in place that the team’s ownership refused to approve. Instead, Holland ended up signing a very player-friendly deal with the Colorado Rockies — from which he opted out to become a free agent again this winter. At the time, Holland was seen as something of a risky proposition, coming off a lost season due to Tommy John surgery and reportedly not impressing scouts at a showcase at the start of the off-season. But he established his value with an All-Star season in which he led the National League with 41 saves and 58 games finished. Could he be a bullpen upgrade for the Nats after a season in which Mike Rizzo made the mistake of heading into the season with too many question marks?
- Closing experience. Holland needs 14 more saves in 2018 to reach the double-century mark for his career. He has more than proven he can handle the ninth inning. So whether the Nats would use him as their closer or not, Holland is battle-tested. He could do the job. He could also slot in as a decidedly overqualified setup man, which isn’t so bad either.
- Crazy strikeout numbers. One of the trademark signs of an outstanding late-innings reliever is the ability to set batters down on strikes. Holland can do it. He owns a career 11.9 K/9, a number actually brought down by an 11 K/9 in 2017. When a “mere” 11 K/9 drags down your career strikeout rate, you’re really good at striking people out.
- He pitched at Coors Field last year. Being a pitcher for the Colorado Rockies is something of a bum gig, since the team plays half its games at almost exactly one mile above sea level. Generally speaking, that’s bad news for a guy whose job it is to keep baseballs from traveling an extremely long way. It might not be surprisingly, then, that Holland posted his highest ever HR/9 rate over a full season — by far. His 1.1 HR/9 rate was more than double his career rate of 0.5 HR/9. Once he’s back to spending most of his season at a more reasonable elevation, that home run rate could easily return to normal.
- He’s a postseason demon. Holland saved seven games in the Kansas City Royals’ 2014 fairy-tale run to the World Series and gave up just a single run in 11 innings. He’s a known quantity under the lights whom manager Dave Martinez could feel good about giving the ball in a crucial spot.
- The Nats don’t really need closing experience. Holland’s former teammate Ryan Madson leads the club in career saves with 87, followed by Sean Doolittle with 57 and Brandon Kintzler with 46. This isn’t like last year’s situation, when Shawn Kelley was the leader on the club with 11 career saves. The Nats needed a closer last winter. They don’t need a closer right now. That makes Holland a luxury, rather than an express need.
- He’s going to cost a whole lot for a reliever. If the Nats don’t want to use Holland as a closer, there’s really not much point in signing him, because Boras is going to demand closer prices. Plus, Holland rejected a qualifying offer from the Rockies, which both suggests he believes he can get a better value than $17.4 million over one year and means the Nats would lose second- and fifth-round picks in the 2018 amateur draft plus $1 million of international bonus money for signing him. He did that after declining a $15 million player option with Colorado. Maybe he was just that desperate to get out of Denver. But Wade Davis just set the market for closers with a $52 million pact over three years with…Colorado. So the Rockies decided, having weighed both players, that Davis offered a better value to them on that enormous contract than Holland would have signed for.
- He really wasn’t that great last year. Holland got off to an amazingly hot start. He delivered to the tune of a 1.62 ERA in the first half and didn’t blow a save until June 15. But in the second half, Holland free-fell, posting a disastrous 6.38 ERA. Although he pulled out of an August death spiral with a 1.86 ERA over the final month of the season, he struggled badly in the Wild Card Game, allowing an inherited runner plus two runners of his own to cross the plate as the Diamondbacks pulled out of range late in the game. Overall, he put up a 3.61 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 2.69 K/BB (that high strikeout rate being counterbalanced by a high walk rate). For a middle reliever, those numbers aren’t bad. For a closer, they aren’t good.
- Coors Field might not be a great excuse. This isn’t to say the home field had nothing to do with Holland’s struggles last year — pitchers can have difficulty adjusting from high elevation to lower elevation and vice versa — but Holland’s road splits were actually slightly worse than his home numbers. It might be meaningless, but it also might suggest that Holland isn’t due for as much Coors-related reversion to the mean as you might expect.
The rumors tying slugging right fielder J.D. Martinez to the Nats never seemed all that credible (and Mike Rizzo flatly denied they were true at WinterFest). But Martinez’s offensive output would look good on most teams, except for his hometown Miami Marlins, where it would just be confusing. The question is whether it really makes sense for the Nats to try to squeeze him into their outfield and lineup. We’ve heard the Nats had interest in Ozuna and also covet Christian Yelich. If they believe they can improve their chances in 2018 by adding a big bat into the outfield, there’s no reason it couldn’t be Martinez…right?
- The guy can really, really slug. Martinez led baseball with a .690 slugging percentage last year and thumped 45 home runs. Liked Bryce Harper and his 1.008 OPS last year? Yeah, well, Martinez had a 1.066 OPS. He was really good. And it’s not like he was bad before, with an .898 OPS from 2014-16. His batting average has been above .300 in all but one of the last four years. Whichever team signs Martinez will be adding a guy who is legitimately one of the best hitters in baseball to the heart of their batting order. Imagine for a moment a lineup that stacks Adam Eaton, Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, and also J.D. Martinez in some order — any order — and then imagine how much damage it could do.
- The Nats could use more right-handed heft. While the Nats enjoyed a rebound season from Zimmerman in 2017, he hasn’t been the model of consistency or the picture of good health in recent years. Turner has emerged as a surprising power threat, but he has also demonstrated pronounced reverse platoon splits, making him a poor option against left-handed pitching. Signing Martinez would instantly serve notice to teams like the Dodgers and Cubs with their lefty aces that Washington will not be easy at all to carve through. And it would give the Nats at least one season with one of the best left-handed sluggers and one of the best right-handed sluggers on the planet in the same lineup.
- He’s not an unreasonable fit. The Nats are already reported to be looking at Yelich as a possible upgrade over Michael A. Taylor in center field. A Martinez signing would presumably push Eaton back to center, with Harper and Martinez manning the corners and Taylor on the bench. Victor Robles would have to wait longer, barring an injury to an outfielder, but the 2019 lineup would then look like: Eaton-Robles-Martinez. Once Zimmerman reaches free agency, Martinez could switch to first base, clearing space for top prospect Juan Soto, or vice versa.
- He’s not that old. Martinez doesn’t even turn 31 until August. Even a six-year deal wouldn’t take him up to the same age Jayson Werth was in his final season with the Nats. Werth was an above-average contributor through his age-35 season. Martinez is a better hitter than Werth. You might be buying a bad year or two toward the end, but using Werth as a comparison point, Martinez could certainly add a lot to the team before reaching his decline.
- He doesn’t have a qualifying offer attached. Hooray! The Arizona Diamondbacks couldn’t actually give Martinez a qualifying offer because they acquired him midseason, so whichever team signs Martinez won’t be subject to the loss of draft picks or international bonus money. As the Nats work to restock a farm system that has fallen in stature due in part to trades that sent well-regarded prospects like Max Schrock, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Sheldon Neuse, and Jesus Luzardo elsewhere, that’s an important consideration. Washington can use all of the quality amateurs it can sign.
- He’s really not great on defense. Martinez is defensively limited, and while he didn’t rate as badly in 2017 as he did in 2016, he was still below average in right field. Fangraphs gives him a -7.7 UZR in right field for his most recent season. The year before, it was a nightmarish -17.2 UZR. The Detroit Tigers hadn’t played Martinez anywhere but right field since 2014; the Diamondbacks kept him in right field too. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think he could be converted to first base later in his career, but he hasn’t played there as a professional since two games in the low minors back in 2009. It’s unfair to say he’s a designated hitter in a non-DH league, but it’s not that unfair.
- Signing him basically means no Harper. The ever-colorful Scott Boras described Martinez last fall as “the King Kong of slug” and has reportedly targeted a seven-year, $210 million deal for his client. That’s basically the deal the Nats gave Max Scherzer in 2015. While trading for Yelich would add five years of a star player at a fairly reasonable salary to the Nats’ long-range payroll, Martinez would explode it for at least that long. It’s like the difference between paying about $11.65 million per year and paying about $30 million per year. Actually, it’s not like that, it is that. Martinez also plays right field, which is Harper’s position. It couldn’t be clearer if the Nats go out and sign Martinez: Harper is gone after the 2018 season. They’ll share a lineup for one year and then Harper will go put on blue or black or burgundy pinstripes and we’ll spend the next 10 years booing him every time he comes to Nationals Park. Granted, that might happen anyway, but this would basically be akin to filing the divorce papers before your spouse has even moved out of the house.
- He strikes out, like, a lot. Martinez is one of the best offensive players in baseball. He also makes a ton of outs without ever putting the ball in play. For his career, Martinez has struck out in a little more than a quarter of his plate appearances. That’s not quite as bad as Taylor, who is above 30%, but it’s definitely not ideal. Couple that with a career 8% walk rate and you begin to see how important BABIP and isolated power are to Martinez’s game. Speaking of which…
- Can he sustain his offensive output? Martinez surged from being a merely great hitter to being an outstanding one last year. Check under the hood to find out why. Martinez saw his ISO, a stat measuring isolated power, jump from .228 in 2016 to .387 in 2017. That’s extremely high. By way of comparison, Giancarlo Stanton’s was .350. Aaron Judge‘s was .343. Bryce Harper’s was .276. ISO tends to be a volatile stat from year to year. But Stanton’s had crested the .300 mark twice before; Harper’s career high was .319 in his National League MVP season back in 2015. Martinez’s massive ISO number stands out as anomalous. It had only gone above .250 once in a season before. What happens if it falls back down to Earth? Martinez could end up being a great hitter (and poor defender) being paid like a perennial MVP candidate.
- The Boras thing, again. As with Arrieta, Martinez represents a luxury item who would take up a huge chunk of the Nats’ payroll for years to come without actually being precisely the kind of player the Nats need to sign. The entire basis of the rumoring around Martinez and the Nats early this off-season was “he’s a Boras client and the Nats sign a lot of those”. The Nats are rarely even mentioned among the teams that would really benefit from adding Martinez; it’s assumed, of course, that just about every team would like to add a .900+ OPS hitter to the middle of their order, but baseball people don’t seem to see a strong fit. Martinez would fit, but signing yet another high-priced Boras client who doesn’t address a dire need sends the message that Boras has the Nats’ ownership group in the palm of his hand and the organization’s whole payroll space is basically set aside for him. You can say to hell with perceptions and what people think, but the other side of the coin is what Mike Rizzo thinks, and what other potential GM candidates think if Rizzo departs the organization.
Now, let’s look at a couple of non-Boras possibilities.
A report from Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic this weekend linked the Nats to Lance Lynn, another free agent starting pitcher who is, shock of shocks, not a client of Scott Boras. Lynn is coming off a strong season with the St. Louis Cardinals after missing 2016 due to Tommy John surgery. In a weak free agent class this winter, he rates as one of the top prizes. Of course, Lynn comes with his own set of question marks, and it remains unclear how strong Washington’s interest is.
- He’s always been really effective at limiting runs. Lynn has a career 3.38 ERA that he nearly matched with a 3.43 ERA in 2017. He accomplished that coming off Tommy John rehab while pitching 186⅓ innings. His ERA has been as low as 2.74 (in 2014) and has never topped 4.00 in a season. Considering the Nats are looking for someone to fill a rotation spot who can be an upgrade over A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde, Lynn is pretty much overqualified, going off that ERA stat. He really keeps runs off the board.
- He’s worked with Derek Lilliquist. The Nats’ new pitching coach knows Lynn well, and in fact, Lilliquist and Lynn arrived in the major leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals in the same season, 2011. This might be one of those situations where you just want to trust what works. Lynn owns a solid ERA and the only pitching coach he’s ever known at the major league level is Derek Lilliquist. If the Nats and Lynn elect to keep the partnership going, why shouldn’t they expect continued good results going forward?
- He’s not going to cost as much as, say, Arrieta. Way back at the start of this long, boring off-season, MLB Trade Rumors projected Lynn would ultimately sign a four-year deal for $56 million, or $14 million per year. For Arrieta, they guessed four years at $100 million, or $25 million per year. That’s already a big difference, and we now know Scott Boras has asked for roughly twice that guarantee for his client. While the Nats are already over the luxury tax threshold, likely for the second consecutive year, adding $14 million per annum onto the books would certainly be less restrictive than something closer to $25-30 million. Put another way, it’s a lot easier to imagine Harper and Lynn wearing the same jersey in 2019 than it is to imagine Harper and Arrieta.
- He’s really good at defending against the steal. This is an interesting stat. While Miguel Montero got fired from the Cubs for complaining about all the bases that got stolen on his pitchers (including Arrieta), there’s not much room to complain about Lynn. Sixty-four percent of runners who attempted to steal a base with Lynn on the mound ended up trudging back to the dugout this season. And aside from a down 2015 season in terms of controlling the running game, that’s been about par for the course with Lynn. Now, part of that is undoubtedly down to Yadier Molina, long one of the best catchers and field captains in baseball. But Lynn has also regularly outperformed ex-teammates Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Mike Leake in his ability to keep runners from taking the extra base. If you want to run on Lynn, you better be good at it.
- His peripherals are…yeesh. No way around this, really: Lynn’s ratio of strikeouts to walks stinks. Never a strong point for him, Lynn’s K/BB plunged below 2 in 2017 as his walk rate rose and his strikeout rate fell. In the stats biz, we call that a “double whammy.” Lynn’s HR/9 rate also just about doubled to 1.3, contributing to a 4.82 FIP. Now, Lynn outperformed his FIP in 2014 and 2015 as well, but not to the tune of 1.39 runs per nine innings. And so you won’t be surprised to learn that Lynn benefited from a below-average BABIP against of .248 last season. His career BABIP against is .301. Plainly speaking, there is really no reason to expect that Lynn can possibly remain an above-average pitcher in 2018 — except that he has so far.
- That qualifying offer again. Not much more to say about this one. Lynn got one and he rejected it. That means signing him will require sacrificing draft picks in the second and fifth rounds plus $1 million in international bonus money. Yecch.
- He has not been very good in the playoffs. Everyone knows the Nats really, really want to make it past the NLDS this year. In past years, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez have fallen down when called upon to carry them to the promised land. Lynn might not be a real upgrade, though. He’s appeared in five postseasons, every year from 2011 to 2015, including when he won the 2011 World Series with the Cardinals. He has a 4.50 ERA in the postseason to show for all that experience, with five winning decisions and four losses. In other words, flip a coin. Over six or more innings, a 4.50 ERA is a quality start, so at least that’s something. On the other hand, several of those playoff appearances came in relief.
- Team spirit. After the Cardinals fenced Leake to the Seattle Mariners last season, Lynn sounded more than a little bitter in talking to the media. When asked if he had talked to the Cardinals’ front office about re-upping in St. Louis, Lynn said no. As to the idea the Cardinals could work out a new deal with him during their exclusive negotiating window with free agents after the World Series, Lynn complained, “They’ve had a whole season. Five days isn’t going to matter. But I just work here.” Now, players have said far worse about their organizations. But for a ballclub like the Nats, just a couple months removed from making a painful and controversial decision in choosing not to extend manager Dusty Baker and his coaching staff, and just a couple years removed from a nightmare season that ended with Jonathan Papelbon choking out Bryce Harper and a Washington Post baseball writer quoting Jayson Werth yelling at the manager in front of the entire clubhouse, it might be prudent to steer clear of any player who could be perceived as a destabilizing (or disloyal) element.
Sort of sharing the next-to-top tier of pitchers available this winter with Lynn, Alex Cobb is coming off a 3.66 ERA campaign in which he reestablished his value after missing 2015 and most of 2016 due to — say it with me now — Tommy John surgery. Although he was effective, Cobb’s contributions were mostly wasted on a Tampa Bay Rays squad that is nowhere near ready to contend. He is alone among these five players in that he hasn’t been clearly linked to the Nats in Hot Stove rumors. Even so, it seems reasonable to expect that if the Nats have interest in Lynn, they will likely have interest in Cobb.
- He was really good before Tommy John surgery. Cobb pitched to a 3.19 ERA with a 1.18 WHIP over 446 innings from 2012-14. He never garnered any votes for the Cy Young Award, but he was in a top class of young hurlers, posting a sub-3 ERA in two consecutive seasons before going under the knife. And while his results last year didn’t quite equal that output, they were close enough for comfort. If Cobb rounds back into form, he could end up being a seriously good value.
- Like Lynn, lower cost. Cobb will still get paid this winter — MLB Trade Rumors thinks he gets $48 million over four years — but he’s unlikely to earn what Arrieta or Yu Darvish will. A $12 million average annual value is roughly what Gio Gonzalez makes right now. That’s not an unreasonable outlay for an experienced and proven mid-rotation arm. Reports indicate Cobb has already declined a three-year offer at $42 million from the Cubs. It seems reasonable to think he wants that additional year.
- The Dave Martinez connection. Remember how Derek Lilliquist and Lance Lynn have history back to their Cardinals days? Well, Cobb can one-up him with experience serving under former Rays bench coach Dave Martinez. Martinez and Cobb overlapped in St. Petersburg until 2014, when Martinez followed skipper Joe Maddon to the Chicago Cubs; Cobb underwent Tommy John surgery the following spring. But can we find evidence that Cobb really enjoyed working with Martinez? Yes! We can! Following Maddon’s departure from the Rays after the 2014 season, the Tampa Bay Times quoted Cobb as saying that Martinez “would be a great manager. He has a great relationship with all the players. Can relate to us and knows how the culture has been here.” Reuniting with his former bench coach could be an attractive proposition for Cobb in free agency as he considers the offers in front of him.
- He’s a groundball pitcher with a great curveball. Take a gander at this Fangraphs piece about how Cobb has found success with his stuff. Smart baseball people regard Lilliquist as one of the better pitching coaches in the game at working with groundball pitchers. Cobb offers a look more akin to soft-contact specialist Tanner Roark than smoke-throwing strikeout monsters Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Fangraphs suggests a good coaching regimen could tease out some of Cobb’s tantalizing potential and get him to the next level. That might just be the perfect job for Lilliquist.
- I mean…he was pretty much just OK in 2017. Not to sound too harsh, but Cobb was just OK last year. A 3.66 ERA, 4.16 FIP, and 1.22 WHIP is just OK. The baseball universe would probably dub Arrieta and maybe even Lynn as a “third ace” for the Nats if they were to come to Washington. Cobb flies under the radar a bit more, and the recent numbers suggest there is a reason for that. He’s just fine. It’s just a bit over two-tenths of a run per nine innings more than what Lynn gave up, but it’s on the other side of that 3.50 ERA line, and that takes him from #2/3 territory to #3/4 territory. In short, no one would get all that excited about Cobb. And that might include the Lerners, who have been known to veto signings of rather expensive free agents they’re simply not that jazzed about (see “Holland, Greg”).
- Durability and stamina concerns. Cobb pitched the most innings last year that he has ever pitched in a season. How many innings? Less than 180 (to be exact, 179⅓). Cobb has had problems staying healthy (ranging from freak-accident stuff, like being concussed by a comebacker in 2013, to ordinary injuries, like an oblique strain in 2014), which has limited his output even in the seasons he hasn’t missed due to Tommy John surgery. Cobb also missed time in the second half last year, albeit with a classic Tropicana Field injury: turf toe. Can the Nats count on Cobb for a full season’s worth of production, followed by a (hopefully deep) postseason run? The answer is maybe. And it’s tough to give up a lot for maybe.
- His strikeout rate hasn’t recovered from Tommy John surgery. Cobb is back, but the strikeouts aren’t. A career 7.7 K/9 before Tommy John has become a rather pedestrian 6.4 K/9 since Tommy John. That’s not the end of the world; Cobb has done a good job keeping his walk rate low, and because of the number of groundballs he generates, he can live without racking up the Ks. But it’s another indicator that he’s not a big game-changing free agent pitcher. He is what he is. Which is why…
- It really sucks that he received a qualifying offer. Come on, Tampa Bay! Why can’t we have nice things? At $12 million per year over four years, at age 30, Cobb seems like a pretty sensible signing as long as you aren’t expecting him to be an ace and you’re aware you might need to manage his innings to keep him from running out of steam down the stretch. Except it’s not just $12 million per year over four years. It’s also surrendering whatever value you could get from second- and fifth-round draft picks and $1 million worth of teenage phenoms from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Curaçao, or wherever. It means suffering the same penalties to add a nice #3/4 starter that you would pay to sign a “third ace”-type like Arrieta. That’s a little bit harder to stomach.
Show me the money!
And so now, let’s take a quick look at Spotrac’s overview of the Nationals’ financial commitments. Right now, Spotrac lists $148.65 million in guaranteed salaries for the Nats in 2018, but that number does not include either arbitration salaries for Anthony Rendon, Tanner Roark, and Michael A. Taylor (Bryce Harper’s 2018 salary is included because he and the Nats agreed to a one-year deal last May) or incentives and bonuses likely to be paid out.
Spotrac’s calculus also doesn’t match up nicely with the way Major League Baseball calculates annual commitments. The Nats have used some creative accounting to afford top talent like current Nats Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Matt Wieters and former Nats Rafael Soriano, Jayson Werth, and Joe Blanton (whom, yes, the Nats are paying this year too…and they’ll be paying Soriano $2 million per annum for several years to come, making him sort of Washington’s own Bobby Bonilla). It turns out, though, that MLB calculates payroll in terms of the average annual value on each player’s contract, so it’s not fooled by deals like paying Soriano $14 million for two years plus $14 million more in installments for years after he’s retired to a bucolic Caribbean beach.
The Nats are already reportedly paying $1.4 million due to exceeding the $197 million luxury tax “soft cap” in 2017. The Washington Post reported last month that the team’s projected payroll, as MLB calculates it, looks to be around $210 million in 2018. That’s over the luxury tax threshold before you even add in more player salaries — be them modest additions like trading for first-year arbitration-eligible Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto or inking a buy-cheap deal with someone for whom the market has been quiet like veteran pitchers Jaime Garcia or Jason Vargas, or be them big contracts like signing one of these top free agents or trading for a well-paid star like Arizona ace Zack Greinke or Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal.
The luxury tax system in MLB works by imposing escalating penalties on teams that are above the soft cap. TalkNats previously documented this structure last month, but to recap: Teams pay 20% extra on the amount by which they exceeded the cap in their first year over it, then 30% the second year (which the Nats will likely have to do after the 2018 season), then a whopping 50% the third year and beyond. There’s also a 12% surtax for exceeding the soft cap by $20 million, which the Nats would undoubtedly do if they signed someone like Arrieta or Martinez without clearing some payroll space, plus a bigger surtax and some draft penalty stuff for exceeding it by $40 million. Basically, add at least 30% to the average annual value for any new Nats contract in 2018.
The long-and-short of it is that the Nats will need to spend big to add a top free agent this winter, and they’ll actually have to spend bigger than most precisely because they are already spending big. Will Mike Rizzo say “damn the torpedoes” and sign a top free agent anyway?