Nationals Trade Analysis: Doolittle, Madson for Treinen, et al

The biggest fallacy of the 2017 Nats season–and I’ve heard this opinion from Washington Post columnists to random fans at the ballpark–is that the team needed a “closer.”  They didn’t need a closer; they needed an entirely new bullpen. The Nats’ biggest problem is so thorough, one Mark Melancon or Zach Britton wouldn’t solve it.

The Nationals have worst bullpen ERA and batting average against in baseball. The Nats have a 6.28 ERA in the 9th inning. The team’s 5.14 8th inning ERA is merely an upgrade from dreadful to bad. These raw numbers only scratch the surface. Nats starting pitchers have pitched the most innings among all teams, surely a symptom of Dusty Baker trying to squeeze extra innings from the starter every night. The leaky bullpen has lengthened games and sapped team morale. The almost-nightly ritual of bullpen incompetence has had a cumulative negative effect on an otherwise immaculate Nats season.

There’s currently one pitcher–Matt Albers–whose performance this year has consistently been above embarrassing–and I’m not sure I trust him in October.

This season’s annual bullpen upgrade (Melancon in 2016, Papelbon in 2015) will be an overhaul. They won’t be renovating the kitchen, they’ll be tearing down the house and building a new one.

The question wasn’t whether the Nats would be buying relievers in bulk, but how deep in their system they would reach to pay for it. My fear was that Nats’ backs were pressed so hard against the wall they’d have to trade their future, notably mega-prospect Victor Robles or another blue chip like Juan Soto or Erick Fedde. My assumption, though, is that Rizzo called teams until he found one that didn’t demand those names. In frequent trade partner Billy Beane, he found one.

Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson are exactly what the Nats needed. Neither of them are Andrew Miller, but they’re professional relievers with reliable stuff who won’t embarrass the franchise. They’re the type of players who should have been on this roster to begin the season. Rizzo tried to build the 2017 Nats bullpen with duct tape and chicken wire, when he should have called a licensed contractor. There are no shortcuts to building a pennant winner and Rizzo was arrogant for thinking he could do it.

As usual, the Nats paid the right price. Blake Trienen is expendable. Trienen showed promise in a prominent setup role in 2016, but he simply couldn’t make the transition to pitching in the 9th inning, where his lack of command and poise became a liability. Treinen’s devasting high-90’s sinker still gives me hope he could one day be a dominant reliever. But a pitcher who can’t be trusted to pitch this October is a luxury this team can’t afford. Maybe the A’s can salvage him. Good luck.

By trading 2016 2nd and 3rd picks Sheldon Neuse and Jesus Luzardo the Nats gave up value but avoided mortgaging a Top 100 prospect, which they rarely do. Mid-level prospects are what Rizzo will be cashing in this season. If you’re a Nats prospect just outside the Top 100, expect your name to be called. More trades are coming. Like any large renovation project, this one will be done in phases.

Drew Storen deserves nothing more than your icy indifference 


Nationals fans are notoriously polite. Struggling players don’t get booed. Opposing ones rarely get heckled. It seems like any Nats starter who makes it past the 5th inning gets a standing ovation–an absurd tradition if you ask me, but I’ll gladly err on the side of politeness and tact. Nobody wants to be Philly fans, who routinely embarrass themselves with crass behavior.

The only opposing player who routinely gets booed is Pete Kozma, but that’s almost done in a wink-wink joking kind of way. I doubt anyone actually carries real animosity towards a marginal player like Pete Kozma…which leads us to the player on the other side of Kozma’s notorious hit in the 2012 playoffs–Drew Storen.

Storen returns to town this weekend with the Cincinnati Reds and he’ll likely be cheered by Nats fans who don’t know any better. He’ll be booed by a few too. Most won’t react in any way.

Boo if you want. If you’re not a booer, that’s fine. Just don’t cheer, because no one who has ever worn the Nationals uniform deserves it less.

Of the five worst moments in Nationals history, Drew Storen is personally responsible for at least four of them. His 9th inning meltdown in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS is undoubtedly the worst moment in modern franchise history and it’s a direct result of Storen not doing his job. In you can stomach it, go back and watch a replay of that game. Storen blew the save because he lost confidence in his stuff. He started nibbling. Like so many of his greatest failures, it was a mental breakdown rather than a physical one.

But it’s not because of the blown save Storen deserves your enmity–it’s his attitude in the face of failure. After being replaced as closer in the 2012-13 offseason, Storen chose not to embrace his new role and instead pouted for a significant portion of the 2013 season. He was so unusable as a pitcher the team was forced to send him the minors. The Nats missed the playoffs that year, in case you forgot.

Storen temporarily rebounded and began the 2014 playoffs as the team’s closer. He blew his chance again in Game 2, ruining Jordan Zimmermann’s masterpiece.

Storen was again effective during the first half of the 2015 season, but the team still needed bullpen help to hold off the surging, then-second place Mets. After surveying all his limited available options, Mike Rizzo chose to trade for Jonathan Papelbon and move Storen to the setup role, where he could have been very valuable. Storen should have embraced his role for the good of the team. They needed him. Again, Storen chose not to embrace his new job, and instead demanded a trade the Nationals couldn’t afford to make. And again, Storen let his disappointment affect his performance on the field. In the season’s most critical series against the Mets, Storen melted down. In a save situation, he started missing the catcher’s glove by feet, not inches. It was remarkable to watch. The next night he grooved a game-winning home run to Yoenis Cespdeses, effectively ending the Nats season.

This is not a track record Nats fans should salute. Storen’s on-field failures can be forgiven; his quitting on the team in a pennant race cannot. There have been plenty of model citizens and teamplayers who’ve come and gone who deserve your respect and should be thanked and recognized when they return to town–Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmerman to name a few. Storen is not on that list. His priority was not the team’s success and, by extension, the fans, who deserve a winner after so many decades in the baseball wilderness.

If you want to remember Drew Storen, remember the last time he wore a Nats uniform–slamming his locker in frustration, breaking his thumb and prematurely ending his season. Remember his last action as a Nat–an immature, entitled, and selfish one that materially hurt the team. Stand and cheer Storen if you want, but if you do, that’s what your cheering for.

Why is the Nationals bullpen so bad?

At the dawn of the 2014 season, the Nationals made their last, best offer to re-sign shortstop cornerstone Ian Desmond.  He turned it down.  After that season–with only one year to go on Ian Desmond’s contract–Mike Rizzo went out and traded one of his best assets for a young shortstop named Trea Turner.  It’s worked out quite well, and Turner is likely to man the shortstop position for the Nats well into the next decade.

It’s an example of foresight and planning.  General Managers aren’t just responsible for the current team–they’re responsible for next year’s team too.  And the one after that.  GM’s who neglect the future will eventually be fired, and they should be.  The Nationals had a gaping hole at shortstop after Desmond let the team know he wanted to go to free agency.  Mike Rizzo went out and fixed it.  It wasn’t an accident; it was a conscious choice to build for the future.  It’s a good illustration how the Nationals have been able to maintain their contending status years after experts thought their “window” would close.

This track record of success only makes the 2017 bullpen that much more puzzling.  The foresight demonstrated in other areas simply hasn’t translated to bullpen construction.  This year’s bullpen is a Frankenstein’s Monster of futility.  It’s a collaboration of raw prospects (Koda Glover, Enny Romero), journeymen castoffs (Ollie Perez, Matt Albers), and guys who just haven’t developed (Blake Treinen).  It’s a crew you’d expect a rebuilding team to throw together, not a defending division champion expecting another playoff appearance.

Great bullpens aren’t build in a day, and they’re usually not built in one offseason.  Like the rest of the roster, it takes years to come together.  You know, foresight.  Planning.  This offseason, 2016 closer Mark Melancon signed with San Francisco after the Nats were outbid.  Letting him go was probably the right move.  Melancon is on the wrong side of 30 and the Giants gave him a ton of money (Melancon, by the way, is already on the DL).  The Nats also tried to bring in Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.  He eventually re-signed with LA for a truckload of money.  Each of those failed attempts to fix the bullpen seems logical.  You don’t want to break your payroll with an age 30+ closer.

The question, though, isn’t whether they should have signed one of those guys, it’s why this team is in the position where one or two lost bidding wars puts the bullpen on a path to failure?  This isn’t a matter of the Lerners not spending enough on the bullpen.  It’s more complicated than that.  This bullpen is the result of a series of miscalculations, mistakes, and misplaced priorities over time.

Adam Eaton is a great player and his trade will continue to benefit the Nationals well into the future.  But he didn’t come cheap; the Nationals gave up some of their best minor league assets to acquire him.  This was a choice.  They could have devoted those prospects to get bullpen help.  Andrew Miller–quite possibly the best relief pitcher alive right now–could have been traded for last season at that price.  Instead the Nats targeted Melancon at a cheaper price–and he is now gone.  Last offseason, the Nats traded Drew Storen, a relief pitcher himself.  I was ok with this–Storen and his bad attitude needed to go–but there was no corresponding move to replace him.  The closest thing was sending Yunel Escobar to LA for reliever Trevor Gott, who is currently somewhere in minor league purgatory.  Perhaps the Nats felt they didn’t need to replace Storen because they had Jonathan Papelbon.  Papelbon, acquired in lieu of other more effective closers in 2015 because he was cheaper, wore down last year, causing the Nats to chase Melancon in the first place, giving up a young reliever Felipe Rivero who is pitching very, very well in the Pirates bullpen right now.

There’s no one decision that led to this debacle.  The above track record is only the tip of the iceberg–unmentioned are the dozens of lower and mid-level transactions where serviceable relievers possibly slip through the Nats fingers.  Every signing or trade the Nats make for a position player is another missed opportunity to address the relief pitching.  It’s a matter of priorities.

This leads to the biggest problem.  The Nats system simply isn’t producing the relievers needed to staff a bullpen.  A pitching staff isn’t built through free agency; the bulk of the players come from down below.  A few weeks ago, I wrote how the team needs to change the way they think about pitchers and their development.  In it, I suggested then-AAA starter Jacob Turner could be an option in the bullpen.  The other night he pitched 4 innings of scoreless relief.  Whether he becomes a valuable reliever this season is unknown, but it’s a step in the right direction.  My recommendation still holds: the Nats need to be more creative.  They also need to take bullpen construction more seriously because their current ad-hoc approach isn’t working.

One way to fix replay: eject managers for lost challenges

It’s not a secret that I hate replay.  I am by no means a baseball traditionalist entirely opposed to change.  I simply think the existence of replay makes the game worse by adding delay while providing little tangible benefit.  Replay exist to “get the calls right,” but more often than not, managers challenge calls they know to be right or plays that are too close to know for sure.  There’s no downside to a lost challenge, and huge upside to a won challenge.

It’s all infuriating to watch.  Managers often challenge calls in the 7th, 8th, or 9th inning because they have a challenge left to burn.  A call the manager would ordinarily let stand in the 1st inning suddenly becomes something worth sending to the replay booth in New York because the game is almost over.  Fans have to sit there and watch umpires stand around wearing headsets at the point in the game where it already begins to drag due to frequent pitching changes.  Late-game “Hail Mary” replays also illustrate the biggest paradox of the system.  It exits to ensure an obviously wrong call doesn’t stand (think Armando Galarraga’s non-perfect game).  Yet, the close call that could go either way–thus a play less worthy of a challenge–take the longest to review as replay officials parse every possible camera angle.

Aside from acting as a safety net to prevent a Galarraga perfect game mishap, replay has achieved one other positive result.  Managers rarely argue with umpires anymore since they now have a more productive outlet for their disagreements.  Some traditionalists may lament this, but I don’t.  It, too, was a waste of time, since managers hardly ever succeeded in changing the umpire’s mind.  Managers argued for catharsis or to “fire their team up.”  Earl Weaver made arguing with umpires part of his brand, and his ejection record reflected that.

Since replay started to poison Major League Baseball, I’ve brainstormed ways to discourage unnecessary challenges.  Recently, MLB imposed a 30-second time limit for managers to challenge.  This doesn’t solve the problem; in fact it might make the problem worse since managers now have less time to know whether their challenge is a worthwhile one.  Here’s my solution.  If a manager loses a challenge, he’s ejected from the game.  If you waste our time with a pointless challenge, go to the showers.  This might sound harsh, or even unfair since replay often returns unexpected results.  But that is entirely the point.  Replay is there to fix obvious mistakes.  It’s not a late-game dice roll when things aren’t going your way.  I’m more convinced now more than ever MLB needs to dis-incentivize a bad replay challenge.  Publicly humiliating a manager who wastes our time is a good start.

Nationals need to be creative to solve their bullpen problems

In 2009, the Nationals drafted a guy named Stephen Strasburg with the first overall pick. Nine picks later, they selected a guy named Drew Storen, a relief pitcher from Stanford* with the idea he could make the major leagues quickly and become a closer.

I always hated that pick, and not because I expected Storen to blow two playoff series and otherwise be a head case and malcontent. I simply think 1st round picks should be “high ceiling” selections and relievers are inherently volitile and unpredictable who live very short MLB shelf lives. A good rule of thumb: if you can’t imagine the guy winning multiple Cy Young or MVP awards, don’t pick him. 

At the same time the Nationals were drafting Strasburg and Storen, another young pitcher started 24 games just up the road in Frederick, VA. His name was Zach Britton and he was the best reliever in baseball last season. Britton was drafted as a starter and worked his way through the Orioles farm system. He even started 46 games in MLB as such. In 2014, the Orioles permenantly gave up on him as a starting pitcher and a bullpen star was accidentally born. 

Twenty-five picks after Storen, the Orioles selected a young shortstop named Mychal Givens, who was converted to a relief pitcher in 2013 after a few offensively challenged seasons as a position player. Givens is now a very effective reliever in the Orioles bullpen right along side Britton. 

The two teams’ approaches to relief pitcher development couldn’t be more different. The Nats tend to pigeonhole their pitchers into two categories of relievers and starters. Aaron Barrett started zero games above the New York-Pennsylvania league (low A). Koda Glover didn’t start any. Same with Storen. Treinen and Solis both started games in the minors, but were converted to the bullpen relatively quickly in the majors. Meanwhile, starting pitching prospects often come and go without a stop in the bullpen. Some are “blocked” in AAA because there’s no “room” on the major league roster (AJ Cole, Taylor Hill, Austin Voth, and ironically Jacob Turner who was drafted the pick before Drew Storen in 2009). Some are traded away because the Nats can afford to trade their starting pitching “depth” (Reynoldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito, Nate Karns).  

The Nationals have struggled this season to find enough reliable arms to fill their bullpen. Last offseason, they were priced out of (or priced themelves out of) free agent options that might have helped like Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen. This requires the team to be more creative. Perhaps continuing to pigeonhole pitchers as “starters” and “relievers” is part of the problem. Zach Britton didn’t become Zach Britton until the Orioles threw up their hands and gave him a shot in the bullpen. Same with Andrew Miller, a former starter who the Red Sox converted to a reliever in 2012. The Nats may be tempted to look far and wide for bullpen solutions, but the answer might be right in front of them. 

* the original version of this post said that Drew Storen went to LSU, not Stanford. I am an idiot. Carry on. 

You may not like him, but the Nationals were right to invite Donald Trump to Opening Day

img_7425Listen, I don’t like Donald Trump either. Setting aside the fact that he’s a deplorable human being who brags about committing sexual assault, he’s a willfully ignorant narcissist who’s largely made a joke out of our electoral process. He won the nomination of his party by slinging school yard taunts and playing on the worst xenophobic and racist impulses among the least educated and refined of our populace. He’s neither prepared the job he holds, nor does he respect the basic civic institutions of our democracy. His grasp on reality is so tenuous I question his ability to be employed whatsoever, let alone his qualifications for the most important public office in the most consequential and powerful country in the world.

You probably either wholehearedly agree with that characterization or wildly disagree with it. I don’t particularly care which. This is America. You’re entitled to your opinion.

But since this is America, let me state one principle that should be sacred: the President of the United States should throw out the first pitch in Washington DC on Opening Day. I don’t care about the party and I don’t care about the policies. Some things should transcend politics.

Washington DC doesn’t have a lot of baseball traditions. There are no retired numbers on the façade of the upper deck (other than 42), and the pennants flying above the scoreboard are very lonely. Most of DC baseball history is littered with losing and misery. When Broadway wanted produce a musical about a terrible professional baseball team, they chose the Washington Senators.

DC baseball may not have a tradition of winning, but we have an unseverable connection between the Presidency and baseball. The first President to attend a professional baseball game, Benjamin Harrison, saw the Senators lose to the Reds (of course) in 1892. It was at a Senators game in 1910 the tradition of the first pitch was born. William Howard Taft became the first President to throw out the “first ball” on Opening Day. He did it again the next year. President Woodrow Wilson continued the tradition, throwing out the first ball on Senators Opening Day three times. The next nine Presidents all threw out the first ball on Opening Day in Washington DC, combining to do it 40 times. When professional baseball came back to DC in 2005, President George W. Bush was on the mound. He was there again when the Nationals opened their new stadium in 2008. President Obama threw out the first pitch in 2010 (albeit wearing the wrong hat).

When it was leaked Tuesday morning that the Lerners intended to invite President Trump to throw out the first pitch next Monday, the reaction on social media was predictably negative, ranging from mild disapproval to outright anger. I get it. Lest you think I’m a fan of Trump, I direct your attention to the first paragraph above.

The problem is there is no credible argument not to invite him, unless you intend to kill this DC baseball tradition altogether. Some argued that Opening Day is meant to be a happy occasion that shouldn’t be interrupted by such unpleasantries like protests and political animosity. This is a paper thin argument, likely covering a dislike of the personality involved.  Most people making this argument probably wouldn’t be doing so had the election swung the other way, and they probably didn’t make it 7 years ago when President Obama was invited to Nats Park.  It’s fine, I suppose, to argue politicians should stay away from ceremonial sporting events altogether. But I won’t entertain that argument if it was only discovered this morning.

Others argued that the Lerners should respect the values of their fans, who voted overwhelmingly against then-candidate Trump. Washington DC as a city voted 96% for Hillary Clinton and every neighboring county voted the same way, although not to those numbers. The problem here: Washington DC always votes Democrat, and always overwhelming so. Applying a popularlity test before a President is invited to Opening Day elminates 50% of our Presidents.

The most common objection, though, were those who said they weren’t opposed to a President, even a Republican, from throwing out a first pitch, just this President. There’s something–indeed many things–that are so uniquely distasteful about him. He’s an outlier. I am sympathetic to this argument. See above. However, this line of thought can be applied to any President (think Nixon or the anger toward Bush 43 after the Iraq War). As politics coarsen and the lines of political division harden, this problem will only get worse. You don’t like this guy? You probably won’t like the next guy either.

The biggest problem, however, is taking a purely ceremonial, non-partisan job, and disqualifying the applicant for purely partisan reasons. Throwing out a first pitch is the least political thing a President can do. It’s one of the few places he can be a fan and we can forget about the policies he may or not be pursuing. Objecting to the President because you don’t like him takes a non-political activity and makes it political.

It’s hard to escape the unprecedented unpleasantness of our current national political dynamic. The sitting President, especially a locally unpopular one, throwing out the first pitch would have–for only a minute–been a symbol that some things are not as abnormal as they might seem. Baseball survived through World War I, World War II, and Watergate. Presidents of both parties were there to throw out first pitches both before and after.

You may think locking Donald Trump out of Opening Day keeps baseball’s sacred day from becoming political. But locking him out because of his politics does the opposite. You may not like him, but the Lerners were right to invite him. This is Washington DC’s greatest baseball tradition and it should be kept alive at all costs.

DC may be a swamp. But turning Opening Day into a political litmus test would only make it swampier.

Ranking 30 MLB Stadiums in 30 Days: #24 Guaranteed Rate Field

1024px-thumbnailLast year, I achieved a life goal: seeing all 30 active MLB stadiums.  It’s a fleeting achievement though, which will become obsolete the moment the Atlanta Braves open their brand new stadium this April.  So now is the perfect time to rank the stadiums, since I’ll need a new ranking in only a few weeks.

Over the next 30 days, I’ll countdown the best stadiums in MLB–Turner Field included, since this is the last time I’ll ever get to rank it.

Rankings like this are inherently subjective.  I won’t try to give them a faux-objectivity by creating a point system like you’ll see in other rankings on other websites.  I also don’t rank peripheral factors like food, beer, and fan support.  I only care about the building and the location.  I’m ranking stadiums, not stadium experiences.

30. Tropicana Field (Tampa Bay Rays)

29. Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum  (Oakland Athletics)

28. Chase Field (Arizona Diamondbacks)

27. Rogers Centre (Toronto Blue Jays)

26. Miller Park (Milwaukee Brewers)

25. Turner Field (Atlanta Braves)

24. Guaranteed Rate Field (Chicago White Sox)

In 1988, then-Baltimore Orioles President Larry Lucchino met with representatives of the architectural firm HOK (now Populous) to discuss designs for the team’s new stadium.  The HOK reps brought with them a replica of the Chicago White Sox’s replacement for Comiskey Park, slated to open in 1991.  Baseball had just emerged from a period of multi-use cookie stadiums like Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, which were drab and lifeless.  HOK tried to update the prototype by designing a cookie cutter baseball-only venue with modern amenities and, most importantly to the owners, revenue generating suites.  The result was the design for the new stadium in Chicago.  HOK hoped to replicate it throughout baseball.  With luck, the league would be filled with identical new Comiskey Parks–fully functional, modern venues that were in no way distinctive or unique.

Lucchino, of course, told them to get out and come back with something better.  It was too late for the White Sox, however, who got saddled with new stadium that was obsolete before its first birthday.  Guaranteed Rate Field (renamed last year) looks different now than it did when it opened in 1991.  The team quickly realized how badly they missed out on the 1990’s retro-ballpark craze, and they decided to renovate and make their home less antiseptic, since a new stadium wasn’t an option.  Starting in 2000, the White Sox began tinkering with what was then known as Comiskey Park and later became U.S. Cellular Field.   Arguably no baseball stadium has changed so quickly in such a short amount of time.  The blue seats became green.  A multi-layered concourse was added in the outfield.  The team added seats closer to the field and removed ones furthest away.  Outfield dimensions were changed to make them less symmetrical and to make room for new bullpens, party decks, and restaurants with a field view.  Guaranteed Rate Field is far more fan friendly now than it was in 1991, and it’s no longer the snaggletooth of new MLB stadiums.  It’s a pleasant place to watch a game, and it has almost everything a fan wants.

The White Sox play on the South Side of Chicago, amid highways, parking lots, and housing projects.  The site was chosen because it was adjacent to the old Comiskey Park, one of baseball’s old great stadiums, built in 1911 (the old home plate is still preserved on the site).  The atmosphere surrounding Guaranteed Rate Field is the inverse of Wrigleyville on Chicago’s North Side, with its walkable streets filled with neighborhood bars and overpriced townhomes.  The contrast further validates the stereotype of the White Sox as Chicago’s blue collar team.

In the run up to the Cubs’ first World Series win since 1908 last October, ESPN’s SportsCenter flashed a graphic of “Chicago’s Championships” since the last time the Cubs won.  It listed titles won by the Bulls, Bears, and Blackhawks, while completely omitting the White Sox, who ended their own multi-generational World Series drought in 2005.  It was like ESPN forgot Chicago had a second baseball team.  Symbolic and not surprising.

We are counting down the top MLB stadiums from worst to best.  It’ll be a while until we get to Wrigley Field.  The White Sox may or may not be Chicago’s forgotten baseball team, but they definitely play in Chicago’s forgotten stadium.