Plunk Votto

I really detest the Unwritten Rules of Baseball. It’s beyond annoying to see players like Brian McCann try to police the fun out of baseball or enforce amorphous “codes” nobody quite agrees on (no bunting for base hits during a shift!).

I don’t ordinarily believe in policing-by-beaning. A player “showboats” after hitting a home run? Get him out next time. Hitter breaks up a no-hitter with a bunt? Too bad. Player steals a base when his team is leading by 10? Why do you care? 

But I draw the line somewhere, and that’s when another team recklessly puts your own players at the risk of physical harm. Earlier this season, the Braves’ Andrelton Simmons slid way too late into the 3rd base, with his spikes up and right into Yunel Escobar. It was a reckless and dangerous play, and Escobar left the game with an injury. Thankfully it wasn’t a serious injury, but it could have been worse. 

Was Simmons trying to hurt Escobar? Maybe, but probably not. He was probably trying to do a “hard” slide to knock the ball away from the fielder (it worked). Either way, I had no problem when the Nats retaliated later in the game, beaning Simmons his next time up. Simply put, the Nats can’t let other teams physically intimidate them. The Nats shouldn’t ever start a beanball war, but they shouldn’t be afraid to fight back if another team starts one. 

Fast forward to last night. Tony Cingrani intentionally hit Bryce Harper. Is there a chance the pitch just slipped? Sure, but it’s not likely. The Reds were leading by 2. There was a runner on second. First base was open and best hitter in the league stood in the batters box. It’s a classic intentional walk or pitch-around situation. Cingrani did neither. He hit Bryce in the back with the first pitch. Some pitchers, after hitting the batter, apologize to the hitter, to let them know it wasn’t intentional. Cingrani turned his back and walked back to the mound. 

The Nationals can’t let this become a trend. If teams are too chicken shit to pitch to Bryce Harper, that’s fine. But they can’t let teams throw at him. That’s dangerous, and frankly there’s too much as stake. 

Gio Gonzalez: put one right in the middle of Joey Votto’s back, and let’s hope both teams are content to leave at that. 


What would a Bryce Harper contract extension look like?

When does Harper become eligible for free agency?

After the 2018 season. After this current season, he has three more seasons in a Nationals uniform before he’s eligible for free agency.

When would the Nationals negotiate a contract extension with Harper?

Probably after this season. Generally, the closer a player gets to free agency, the less likely he is to sign a contract extension.

In recent history, Mike Rizzo has attempted to sign players to contract extensions two years before they’re eligible for free agency (examples: Desmond, Zimmerman, Zimmermann). If Harper finishes this season how he started, however, there will be no reason to wait. If Harper gets 2 years away of free agency, there may be no turning him back. Just a hunch.

How many years would a Bryce Harper contract extension be?

Best guess: 15 years. Harper signed a 2-year contract last offseason, so any extension would cover his last 2 years of team control in 2017-18, plus an undetermined number of free agency years. But how many?

Harper is unique in the modern era in that he’s likely to be an elite player reaching free agency at the age of 26. Compare Harper to last elite player to hit to the free agent market, Robinson Cano, who did so at age 31. Also consider the young player Harper has most been compared to lately, Kris Bryant. Bryant didn’t make his MLB debut until this season at age 23. Under baseball’s current arbitration rules, Bryant won’t hit the free agency until age 30.

Harper’s situation is doubly unique considering a hitter’s prime is usually considered to be the seasons between ages 26-32. Ordinarily, teams pay for the tail end of someone’s prime (like in the case of Cano and Bryant), and then a few decline years, depending on how great the player is. For players like Cano, teams have been willing to overpay well into the twilight years, content they’ll be getting a few years of that player’s prime. Cano was signed for 10 years until his age 40 season. If Harper were a free agent, the team signing him would be getting his entire prime. If a team was willing to pay Robinson Cano until he’s 40 just to guarantee a few years of his prime, it’s hard to imagine what a team would be willing to pay for all the seasons of Harper’s.

The best comparison right now is Giancarlo Stanton, who signed a mammoth 13-year, $325 million contract last offseason. The Marlins bought out the last two years of Stanton’s arbitration years and then the first 11 of Stanton’s free agency years. Stanton would have become a free agent at age 27. He’ll now be in Miami until he’s 37.

The Nationals would likely need to pay Harper through at least age 37 and probably age 38, too. That would be 13 possible free agent years plus 2 years of arbitration totaling a 15 year contract. Other players have been signed long-term through age 40, Cano or Miguel Cabrera for example. But those players were considerably older than Harper. The above-outlined contract extends Harper 16 years into the future. Nobody has done that before, and it’s hard to imagine an MLB team going further.

How much money would it take?

This is the crazy part. The free agent years of Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million extension are actually at a discount at an average annual value of just over $27 million a year. Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Mike Trout, and Clayton Kershaw have all recently signed for an average annual value above $30 million, which appears to be the current market value of an elite player. Assuming Harper finishes this season like he started it, he’ll line up for a comparable average annual value as well. But here’s the thing. Kershaw’s, Trout’s, Scherzer’s, and Cabrera’s contracts expire in 2020, 2020, 2021, and 2023, respectively. Using the above timeline, Harper’s extension would run through 2031. Factoring in inflation, Harper’s average annual value would far exceed even what Mike Trout—the undisputed best player baseball–was guaranteed in what would have been his first year of free agency under his current contract extension ($34 million). For Harper, $40 million a year is safe benchmark, and based on the rising salaries in recent baseball history, I can’t go below it. Even using the current standard metric to determine free agent salaries, $6 million per Win Above Replacement (WAR), $40 million a year is a bargain. Harper, one third of the way into this season, has just above 4 WAR. Even if his hitting levels off (it will) and he finishes with 7-8 WAR, Harper gave the Nats $42-48 million worth of “value” this season.

What’s the total?

An average annual value of $40 million for 13 years equals $520 million. Adding in Harper’s final two years of arbitration (estimated at $15 and $25 million), my best guess for Harper’s contract extension is 15 years and $560 million.

Would Harper do it?

It has long been assumed that Scott Boras will take Harper to free agency, because Scott Boras usually takes his clients to free agency.

But look at that number again.

Boras normally takes his clients to free agency because he correctly measures the market and determines it’s the best way to get the best value. As crazy as it sounds, MLB teams’ profits are still outrunning player salaries in growth, and they have been for a long time. Boras knows this, which is why he wants 30 profitable teams bidding for his clients. Boras doesn’t want his clients to sign for market rates. He wants his clients to reset the market.

In that spirit, $560 million resets the market, does it not? Normally teams sign players to below market extensions in exchange for giving the player security and certainty. Harper is unlikely to make such a trade. He’ll need tomorrow’s prices today. If the Nats offer it, Boras isn’t above asking his client to accept it.

On the other hand, Harper would be attaching himself to the same team for his entire career. This begs the question: does he want to play his entire career in DC? Harper is a self-professed student of the game, who understands the value of wearing one uniform his entire career. The student of the game argument works both ways, however. What baseball history enthusiast wouldn’t want to wear the Yankee pinstripes or play in Fenway Park or Wrigley Field every day?

Even if the Nats offer Bryce free agent money before free agency, he’s still trading the right to choose his baseball legacy. That might be the determining factor.

One huge caveat: Boras often works opt-out clauses into his free agent contracts. Opt-out clauses allow players minimize their risk if player salaries continue to rise. The Nationals have never given an opt-out clause, but it would probably be a condition of re-signing Harper. Stanton’s contract had one, for what it’s worth.

Would the Nats do it?

A qualified yes. The Nationals don’t have the revenue streams (yet) of a big market team, but they’re not afraid to spend money. Remember that the Nationals just offered the biggest free agent pitching contract in MLB history last offseason. They also weren’t afraid to reset the free agent outfielder market by signing Jayson Werth in 2011. The Werth contract looked crazy back then, but compare it now to the Shin Soo-Choo contract last offseason (7 years/$130 million). The Nationals didn’t misread the market on Werth, they were just ahead of it. If you still think the Jayson Werth contract was a “big contract” you haven’t been paying attention the past couple of years. Once David Price and next year’s free agent pitchers begin signing next year, Max Scherzer’s contract won’t look so large either.

At the same time, the Nats have been positioning themselves financially. They walked away from negotiations with Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann when both demanded more money the Nationals were comfortable paying. They haven’t even attempted negotiations with Stephen Strasburg or Doug Fister, to my knowledge. They traded Tyler Clippard instead of trying to re-sign him. The lesson isn’t that the Nats are cheap (Scherzer disproved that). The lesson is they’re only comfortable throwing money at places where money should be thrown.

If you’re going to spend money, Bryce Harper is the player you pay. The primary reason: age. It’s rare to see a free agent hit the market so young. The same reason he’ll be so expensive is the same reason he’ll probably be worth it. By signing Harper, even for the insane amount of money listed above, you’re guaranteeing the prime of a likely Hall of Famer. Something like that is priceless. Almost.

Here’s the best guess what happened between Harper and Hudson

I tried to fit this inside a tweet, but it requires way more than 140 characters. We’ll know later tonight what happened to get Bryce Harper ejected, but here’s my best guess based on the video replay. 

1. Hudson calls a low pitch a strike. Matt Williams or someone else shouted something from the dugout. Harper steps back and keeps one foot in the box, which is allowed. 

2. Hudson starts shouting back at Williams and they exchange words. Hudson starts walking towards the Nats dugout. During the exchange, Harper steps out of the box. 

3. After he’s done arguing with Williams, Hudson turns and shouts at Harper. We don’t know what he said, but he pointed at the batters box. He probably said something like “you’re not supposed to step out of the box” or “get back in the box.”

4. Harper, who only stepped out because the umpire wanted to argue with Matt Williams, argues back and points to where he was standing immediately after the pitch. 

5. Harper is ejected. 

I’ll have more thoughts on this later, but the bottom line is Hudson picked a fight with Harper. He was angry about the dugout exchange and decided to yell at Harper about something pretty inconsequential. And worse, he was way too quick with the trigger finger, hurting the Nats and anyone who paid to see Bryce Harper play tonight. 

Yunel Escobar’s role in the Nationals win against the Yankees

I wanted to write something about Ryan Zimmerman today because, you know, he hit the game-winning HR last night. Instead, I’m going to write something about a player whose role in last night’s win probably went unnoticed: Yunel Escobar.

When Yankees reliever Andrew Miller came in the game last night in the bottom of the 10th, I assumed we would all see an 11th inning. Miller is that good. Even though the top of the order was batting, I didn’t expect the Nats to score since Bryce Harper–ordinarily the Nats best chance to end the game with one swing–is a matchup nightmare against Miller. I expected a quick 1-2-3 inning.

Instead, Yunel Escobar worked a hard-fought walk against Miller, allowing Zimmerman to bat with 2 outs. The Nats won 8-6, meaning Escobar’s run didn’t matter since it was Zim’s home run, not the walk before it that was deciding factor. But without Escobar’s on base skills, Zim never gets a chance to hit that inning.

On base percentage and slugging percentage are the most important stats to measure a hitter. On base percentage is the most important statistic of the two, however, because it measures a player’s ability to not make outs. Not making outs not only puts runners on base, it extends innings and gives the other hitters in the lineup more opportunities to create runs.

If every hitter in the Nationals lineup were of equal hitting skill, that latter point wouldn’t matter. That’s not the case, however. Bryce Harper is a measurably better power hitter than the rest of the lineup. The more often the other eight hitters in the lineup get on base—and more importantly don’t make outs—the more plate appearances Harper will see. This same principle applied in the 10th inning last night. Zimmerman, probably the Nats second best power hitter, homered on his fifth plate appearance of the night. He doesn’t get his fifth plate appearance until the 11th inning, though, if Yunel Escobar makes an out against Miller. If Zimmerman never bats in the 10th, who knows what the Yankees do against the Nats bullpen in the top of the next inning?

Last night’s win was a team win. Span’s catch. Difo’s pinch hit single. Ramos’ game-tying homer. But Esobar’s walk last night, while seemingly insignificant, statistically increased the Nats chances of winning the game. Credit Zimmerman for the home run, but don’t forget Yunel Escobar’s role in making it happen.

Do the Nationals have room for Troy Tulowitzki?

The Troy Tulowitzki drama continues in Colorado. While it’s far from certain he’ll be traded, many objective observers believe one is the best interests of both parties. The Rockies are bad and need to rebuild, while Tulo is expensive. More importantly, at age 30, he’ll be past his prime when the Rockies are ready to compete again.

This begs the question: does he fit on the Nationals?

Tulo’s biggest question has always been his health, but operating under the assumption he’s healthy, he’s an immediate upgrade in the Nationals lineup (he’d be an upgrade in anyone’s lineup). In 91 games last season, he had a slash line .340/.432/.603. At the premium position of shortstop, he put up a WAR of 5.3 (Fangraphs) in just over half a season. In 2013, in 126 games, he slashed .312/.391/.540, good for a Fangraphs WAR of 5.3.

Ok, that’s the easy part. A healthy Tulo would upgrade anyone’s lineup, Nats included. Now for hard parts: money, contracts, age, the cost of acquiring him, and the side effects of his presence on the Nats lineup.

Contracts and Money. Tulo is entering the back end of his 10-year contract extension signed in 2010. Ordinarily, taking on the back end of a contract extension is a big mistake because most teams gain value on the front end of a contract when a player is younger and more productive. However, free agent contract costs have soared since Tulowitzki signed his $157 million deal in 2010. Teams routinely hand out nine-figure deals to lesser players like Shin Soo-Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury. Tulo’s deal, “crazy” at the time, looks a lot more modest in 2015.

Tulo is scheduled to make $20 million for four seasons from 2016-19. In 2020, he’ll make $14 with a club option of $15 for 2021 ($4 million buyout). That’s $98 million guaranteed for a minimum of 5 seasons. By comparison, Ian Desmond turned down an offer of about $90 million over 5 years. You’d have to assume if the Nats had $90 million for Desi, they’d have $98 million for Tulo, who’s a superior player when healthy. Of course, those final two words “when healthy” are more than a footnote, as Desmond’s durability is a large part of his value. As for Tulo, middle infielders generally don’t become injured less often as they age. We’ll discuss that more below.

Age. Tulo is 30. The number of elite shortstops above the age of 30 is a small list. As a shortstop’s range begins to narrow, it can have a cascading effect on his defense, where Tulo delivers great value. Still, Tulo is an elite athlete and he’s 30, not 35. His defensive decline wouldn’t likely become large enough until the final few years of his contract, where he can be shifted to 3B or 2B (and probably continue to provide plus defense). The Nationals were prepared to pay Desmond to play SS until age 35. It’s hard to believe the Nats wouldn’t pay Tulo to play SS until 36. Despite the age factor, the primary risk remains injury.

The cost of acquiring him. Once paid to be the face of their franchise, the Rockies wouldn’t part with Tulo unless they received a significant future investment in prospects. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Rockies offer to eat a significant portion of Tulo’s remaining money to net a greater return in prospects. Lucas Giolito is probably the first player the Rockies ask for, and he’s likely the only player Rizzo deems untradeable (that alone might kill the deal). Trea Turner would almost certainly be a part of the trade, giving the Rockies the future shortstop the Nats would no longer need. A.J. Cole and Joe Ross are top 100 pitching prospects likely to be included.

This is the point where it’s no longer productive to continue listing Nats prospects that might be included a trade since we have no idea who the Rockies value. The better question is the larger one: would Rizzo flip his prized prospects for a veteran like Tulowitzki? My answer is a qualified yes. Rizzo’s track record shows he’s not afraid to flip prospects for veteran able to be controlled long term (like Gio Gonzalez). When Rizzo trades for prospects, he’s normally giving up on a player with only one more year of team control (like Tyler Clippard). In this case, Rizzo would be trading long term assets (prospects) for an elite long term asset (Tulo—signed through 2020). I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility.

Impact on the Nats: Obviously, Tulo’s bat would instantly upgrade the Nats lineup, but his presence alone would have other consequences. Assuming Desmond isn’t part of the trade (or traded elsewhere in a separate deal), either Desmond or Tulo would be moved off SS until the end of the season. The most logical candidate for the move is Desmond, since Tulo is here long term, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to move him and then move him back next season. If so, Desmond will be moved to a position he hasn’t played in a very long time—2B, 3B or OF. Desmond is capable of this, of course, but awkward defensive transitions aren’t ideal in a pennant race. More importantly, Desmond’s offensive value is as a shortstop. His WAR is so high at SS because so few of them hit 20 HRs. If you move Desmond away from a light-hitting position, he looks a lot more like an average player. Moving Desmond away from SS cuts into the value you’re gaining from acquiring Tulo.

As for the rest of the lineup, things would fall into place, as the remaining Nats infielders have versatility. Rendon and Escobar can both play 2B and 3B. A fully healthy lineup does have too many starting quality infielders (Escobar, Tulo, Rendon, and Desmond for 3 spots), but I just consider that to be insurance (you can even move Rendon to 1B if Zim gets hurt). This is only a temporary problem anyway since Desmond is leaving via free agency next season. In any event, if your problem is “too many good infielders” you should probably stop taking the test and turn it in—it’s ready for grading.

Conclusion: trading for Tulo is aggressive, and I love it. Rizzo isn’t afraid to go bold and grab an elite player most observers don’t even believe they need (like Max Scherzer). The equities break in the Nats favor on this one. Yes, Tulo is already 30, but he’s still in his prime and actually fits the Nats contention “window.” From 2016-18, the Nats have a peak Tulo and Ryan Zimmerman (still only 30), and Max Scherzer, while Bryce Harper and Antony Rendon are just entering their primes. Mike Rizzo often speaks of 1-year, 3-year, and 5-year plans. Acquiring Tulo locks down the Nats 3-year plan and makes them World Series contenders for the entirety of it.

The unknown variables are the cost in prospects and, of course, injury. We can trust Rizzo to work his voodoo magic on the former, but the latter is impossible to predict. Tulo’s injury risk is truly terrifying. He hasn’t played a full season since 2011. But here’s the crazy thing: half a season of Tulo is better than a full season of almost anyone else. He put up a 5.3 over 91 games last year! Assuming the Nats have a capable replacement (they do), Tulo’s absence isn’t a lineup killer, and a full season of the guy, folks, is an MVP season. You can’t run a baseball team without taking risks. This might be a risk worth taking.

UPDATE: I just want to note (based on Twitter feedback) that it’s highly unlikely the Nats trade Desmond to the Rockies in a trade for Tulowitzki. The Rox have no use for Desmond, who would be leaving via free agency after the season. Colorado couldn’t even receive draft pick compensation since Desmond would be a mid-season acquisition. If Desmond’s traded away, it’ll be a 3-team deal or a completely separate transaction. The most likely scenario: he sticks around and the Nats get a draft pick for him when he signs with another team.

The Nats wRC+ 6 July:

Updated 7/6

Player Now Last Week Change
Bryce Harper 223 218 5
Denard Span 124 123 1
Yunel Escobar 116 123 -7
Clint Robinson 114 106 8
Anthony Rendon 110 110 0
Danny Espinosa 109 105 4
Jose Lobaton 100 102 -2
Wilson Ramos 92 90 2
Dan Uggla 85 98 -13
Michael Taylor 83 85 -2
Tyler Moore 79 72 7
Ryan Zimmerman 66 66 0
Jayson Werth 64 64 0
Ian Desmond 61 72 -11

I keep track of wRC+ or (weighted runs created) on a week to week basis. This is a stat that measures a players offensive contribution compared to the league average (100 = average.