Shoot, Luke, Or Give Your Dad The Gun (trade Harper now or watch him walk in exchange for a draft pick)
by Jim Silva
Washington D.C. has a lot of attractions that all Americans should take time to see; it’s a patriotic bucket list kind of place. For baseball fans trying to see games at every major league park – they’ve got one of those too. In fact, the capitol city has had a major league club off and on since 1901 when the American League Senators began playing in what was known as American League Park 1 – I know, really creative name, eh? This team is the only D.C. team to win a World Series (1924), but they moved to Minnesota for the 1961 season. The next Senators started in 1961 immediately after the original Senators left, and lasted through the 1971 season when they moved again – this time to Texas – to become the Rangers. That team never came close to winning anything meaningful while they were in D.C.. The latest iteration of teams in our capitol is the Washington Nationals who are the reincarnated Montreal Expos, who themselves were an expansion team brought to life for the 1969 season, starring Le Grand Orange, Rusty Staub. The Nationals/Expos franchise has often been known for their outfielders, like Monsieur Staub. Other notable outfielders who have sported the barber pole hat of Les Expos are Ken Singleton, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie, Marquis Grissom, and others. Today’s Washington Nationals are still largely known for their outfield – one man in particular – and as they go, so will the Nationals go. This brings me to the reason for this article – a trade. The Nationals just made a controversial trade to acquire a starting center-fielder. Let’s look at how the Nationals plan to cover the outfield in 2017.
Let’s start with the trade before we take a look at Mr. National, Bryce Harper. There was one especially coveted arm in the Nats farm system – a tall drink of water from SoCal named Lucas Giolito. The 6’6” starter made his major league debut last season and mostly flopped. Giolito was only 21 and wasn’t exactly dominating triple-A. He is a huge physical specimen and throws hard, but after some mechanical tweaks he lost a couple MPHs off his heater. His career minor league numbers are pretty great, including a strikeouts per nine rate of 9.7. There isn’t a lot for him to prove in the minors, although he only made seven starts in triple-A (with an ERA of 2.17). As a top five prospect in all of baseball, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t want him on their team. Along with Giolito, the Nats sent Reynaldo Lopez, another hard throwing pitcher, and Dane Dunning, yet another pitcher – their 2015 first round pick – to acquire Adam Eaton (who we will get to soon).
First Lopez – the 22 year old isn’t a giant like Giolito, but he throws like one with a fastball that topped out at 99 last season. His strikeout rates indicate that he is in fact quite difficult to hit. At double-A last year (he pitched at three levels in 2016) he fanned 11.79 hitters per nine while only walking 2.95 per nine and allowing .83 long balls per game. His numbers in the majors showed streaks of dominance but his overall numbers were what you’d expect from a 22 year old in his first look at big league hitters. Lopez was much more effective as a reliever shaving 100 points off opponents batting average, 130 points off opponents slugging, and almost two runs off his ERA when he pitched from the pen instead of starting. His numbers make a point some analysts have made about him – that he is probably destined to be a high leverage reliever, but the fact that he has had success as a starter in the minors means the White Sox will likely try him in their rotation a few more times before they concede the point.
What’s with teams trading their first round picks these days? Do you think the Diamondbacks wish they had Dansby Swanson back? Dane Dunning has a classic pitcher’s body and in his debut season in Rookie ball and at short season A ball in the New York-Penn league he pitched like a first round pick. In eight starts he held opponents to an ERA of 2.08, a WHIP of 0.93, and generated three times as many ground ball outs as fly ball outs, likely due to his sinking fastball that he throws as hard as 95. He pitched out of the pen a lot at Florida but his pitch mix means that he will be stretched out to start. Dunning completes the haul for Eaton, and it is likely that one day he will end up in the major league rotation for the White Sox keeping pitching prospect aphorisms in mind.
That’s a lot of background to get to one guy – Adam Eaton – but it’s important to know what it cost the Nationals to bring him into the fold because it speaks to how much they needed a center-fielder, and how highly they valued him, while at the same time possibly pointing at their plans for the future of their outfield – more on that later. Eaton was a 19th round pick by Arizona in 2010 and was traded to the White Sox in 2013 in a three-way trade that netted the Diamondbacks Mark Trumbo. Eaton is “undersized” at 5’8, gets on base, hit 14 home runs each of the last two year, and steals a few bases. He is a good leadoff hitter – not exactly the prototype as he doesn’t walk quite enough – but should score 100 plus runs for the Nationals. He has three seasons in a row (2014, 2015, 2016) of wRC+ above 110 (118, 119, 115) so his offense is 15 to 20% better than the average major leaguer. At this point in his career, his offense is not in question, but his defense is the topic of much debate and that is what makes the trade even more interesting to talk about.
In 2014 Eaton received votes for the Gold Glove as a center-fielder, although the leading defensive metrics (a DRS of 11 and a UZR of -3.3) disagreed as to his ability with the glove. In 2016 he played mostly right field and the metrics agreed that he did a really good job (a DRS of 22 and a UZR of 23.1). So is he an excellent right fielder, but a mediocre center fielder or is he an excellent outfielder who had a tough season that happened to be the year he played center field? To determine which set of numbers is more likely to be the aberration let’s look at Eaton’s history. He has garnered outfield playing time in the majors since 2012; His first experience came with Arizona and was almost exclusively in center. In just a bit more than 185 innings, DRS and UZR mostly agree that he was value-neutral (DRS of 1, UZR of 0.0). 2013 was split amongst all three outfield spot with 266 innings in left, 232.1 in center, and an additional 28.1 in right. All together his outfield DRS was -2 and his UZR was -10.0, and if you break it down by outfield spots his best numbers were in right where he posted a DRS of 2 and a UZR of 1.7 in limited time. His numbers in the other two outfield spots were decidedly negative with both measures agreeing on his abilities. As I mentioned earlier, 2014 was split with a positive DRS and a negative UZR and all of his innings coming in center – so nothing about his play in left or right. 2015 was unanimous in condemning Eaton’s glove work as he put up a DRS of -14 and a UZR of -10.2, again, all in center field. And we are back to 2016. If you believe in history, Eaton is not a good center-fielder, but is a better right fielder. If you believe that people can change – that your college roommate can actually start doing his dishes instead of leaving them in the sink – then you are likely to believe Eaton has become a good right-fielder who is probably not a good center-fielder. Most importantly Adam Eaton and the Washington Nationals both believe that he can play center well enough at least for now. At least for now? But the guy is signed for up to another 5 seasons? Yeah, well that’s where the Nationals might be showing their cards or at least covering their “aces”.
The Nationals have a huge decision coming – well, perhaps not a decision because they might not have a say – as their superstar right-fielder, Bryce Harper can become a free agent after the 2018 season. He debuted as a 19 year old and looked like a sure-fire five tool superstar in the making. It seemed like it took him forever to fulfill his promise since he started so young, finally winning the National League MVP Award as a 22 year-old in 2015 with a monstrous breakout season (.330/.460/.649 slash line with 42 home runs and 81 extra-base hits). Harper’s glove is neutral to marginally positive with DRS and UZR disagreeing every year, but on average placing him at neutral or slightly above in right (career totals for DRS of 5 and UZR of 6.2). Of course the fans don’t care much about his glove or arm – they want him to mash the ball and hit for average. I also think it is safe to say that most fans expected more of 2015 in 2016, but injuries likely contributed to diminished output in some of Harper’s counting stats and rate stats. Notably, he only hit 24 home runs with 50 extra-base hits and his slash dipped to .243/.373/.441. It was widely discussed that his increased plate discipline was responsible for his breakout 2015, but then the narrative shifted to blaming his “passive” approach for the drop-off in his numbers in 2016.
Harper’s 2015 walk rate, as well as his walks per strikeout remained consistent in 2016 and was radically different from what he achieved in his first two seasons in the majors, so just glancing at those peripherals make it seems like he must have been battling injuries, even though he managed 627 plate appearances and 147 games. If that is the narrative you choose to believe, then all should be right in the world for Nats fans in 2017 with Harper having an off-season to recover. But if you think his approach has become too passive and pitchers have learned to take advantage of him, then 2015 Harper might be the new normal. So is he a 9-10 WAR guy or a 3-4 WAR guy? You know – Mike Trout or Yoenis Cespedes.
A couple of things to remember before we look at some revealing stats about Harper’s 2015. First, the guy is only 22 and has one Hall of Fame type season under his belt. Second, Harper hasn’t experienced the type of injury that is likely to diminish his abilities, like a torn rotator cuff, a major eye injury, or catastrophic ankle or knee injury. At 22 he should be able to recover and be his healthy self to start 2017. Also, even last year in an off year for him, his walk numbers were excellent showing that he held onto some of that 2015 maturity. That said, when looking through stats that show what happened to balls hit by Harper, three stats stand out that make 2016 a little scary for Nats’ fans. First of all, he just didn’t hit the ball that hard – certainly not as hard as he had in previous seasons. To be more accurate, Harper hit the ball softly more often than in any of his previous Major League campaigns. His career rate of softly hit balls is 15.2 and in 2016 it was 19.8 after a 2015 where only 11.9% of his batted balls were hit softly. Could that have been caused by a nagging injury? Sure, it’s possible. Along with that stat, Harper’s line drive rate dropped to a career low 17.2 % down 22.2% in 2015 and dropping his career rate to 20.7%. One more stat to keep in mind before you decide whether or not you should mail the Nats a crisp twenty to help them sign Bryce to a mega-contract. Your star right-fielder popped up to infielders 8.9% of the time – a career high that dragged his career rate up to 7.5%.
Again, all three of these negative indicators could have resulted from a nagging injury that Harper played through, but it is also possible that 2015 and 2016 were both aberrant and the real Harper lies somewhere in between the two levels. Since he is represented by Scott Boras it is highly unlikely that the Nationals will be able to sign him to a long-term contract before he becomes a free agent so they get two more chances to decide what he really is before they have to push all their chips in or figure out what life will be like without him. And here is where Adam Eaton comes in. Eaton, and his club friendly long-term contract, could move to right to take Harper’s place if the Nationals fall out of contention and they decide to trade him for a cruise ship full of prospects. They would still need to find a center fielder of course, but at least they would have Eaton in a position where he has shown more ability than centerfield. So if you had to put your chips down on a particular outcome, you might watch the standings closely. If the Nationals are not clearly in the race as the trade deadline approaches, look for them to move on from their superstar into the post-Harper years starting as soon as this July. After all, if they are not going to sign him to a longterm contract, then they should get as much as they can for him, and the sooner they move him, the better the haul will be. Keep in mind that if they are in a pennant race they would be foolish to move him unless they got multiple parts that would be controllable and would help them now, as well as some prospects that would make their fans’ socks roll up and down. It would be a different scenario if the Mets jump out to a 12 game lead or something crazy like that.
The Nationals, like all teams in baseball, need a left fielder too, of course. 37 year old Jayson Werth will return for what is likely his last season with the Nationals (he is signed through 2017). Worth can still hit for some power although he is no longer good for a .500 slugging percentage. The last two seasons have seen his batting average and on-base percentages drop dramatically as well, so that now his batting average/on-base percentage is in the .240/.330 range instead of his previous .280/.370 level. Worth has been an obvious defensive liability for a couple of seasons, even though he shifted from right field to left. His DRS/UZR numbers for 2015 and 2016 were -10/-7.3 and -8/-6.1 respectively mainly due to diminished range numbers. Last year was a bit of an improvement from his awful 2015, but he still only contributed about league average production. There isn’t a lot to say about Werth that would surprise anyone since he is 37 and following a somewhat predictable career arc at this point, and the Nationals will move on from him after 2017. He definitely put up star level numbers through 2014 and he will likely remain a fan favorite after he leaves. Keeping him healthy by resting him would make him more productive so that his last year in D.C. won’t be ugly. It is unclear at this point in the off-season who the Nats will use to spell Werth, but I would be shocked if they didn’t make some kind of minor move to get someone.
After Werth leaves, the Nats will face some difficult questions, the foremost of which is who will play the outfield. Their one top prospect who plays the outfield is Victor Robles who at age 19 was ranked as the 49th best prospect in baseball. He is now the Nats’ top prospect since the Eaton trade and he looks like he could eventually be a star. But the fact that he is 19 should make the point that he is not ready for the majors having finished last season at high-A. Most of the Nationals other hitting prospects are a couple years away so the organization will have to find answers to their outfield depth issues through trades or free agency. Andrew Stevenson and Juan Soto are coming. Stevenson is 22 and finished 2016 at double-A while Soto is only 18 and just finished his first season in pro ball by dominating rookie ball and short season class A. So while they wait for the wave of young outfielders to arrive, the Nationals have other questions to answer that could impact the outfield picture, such as, is Trea Turner the answer at shortstop? If he isn’t and the Nats can find another answer (like Wilmer Difo) at short, then Turner might end up back in the outfield. Turner is an offensive star already so he will play. The only question is where – the Nats say that Turner will be shortstop in 2017 after having let Danny Espinosa leave this off-season.
It is a scary time for the Nationals. They have a lot of stars on their roster and the expectation has been that they should be winning now – and by winning, I mean going deep into the playoffs and possibly the World Series. Their post-season work hasn’t been up to snuff so far – they’ve won the NL East three out of the last five seasons only to fall in the first round of the playoffs. Since they aren’t the Cubs, the Dodgers, or the Yankees, their window to compete might be close to closing. They may be able to extend it by trading Harper, or that kind of move might be the start of a rebuild. The stars are once again aligned for them to win this season and they have a set outfield, so perhaps Harper will play in a World Series in the Nationals uniform before the seemingly inevitable move to a big market team. The franchise’s future hangs on how the team handles Harper as the building block of their future (with a hugely increased payroll) or as a chip to build for their next great five year run.