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Free agency primer: Lefty relievers

Nov 7, 2013, 11:00 AM EDT

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With MLB free agency officially underway — don’t get too excited yet, because players typically don’t start signing for several more weeks — we’re taking a broad look at players the Nationals could pursue, based on positions of possible need. We continue today with left-handed relievers…

Throughout spring training, the Nationals insisted they didn’t need to carry a traditional left-hander in their bullpen, that a good right-handed reliever was better than a below-average left-hander. They felt like Tyler Clippard, Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen would be perfectly capable of getting big-league, left-handed hitters out.

They were wrong. The lack of a quality lefty in their bullpen was among the Nationals’ biggest problems this season. They tried to adjust on the fly, using youngsters Ian Krol, Fernando Abad and Xavier Cedeno during various points in the year. All enjoyed some success, but none firmly established himself as a reliable answer moving forward.

So one of the Nationals’ most-important moves this winter will be to add an established lefty to their bullpen. Fortunately, there are plenty of candidates on the free-agent market, including these five…

JAVIER LOPEZ
The quintessential lefty specialist. Over the last eight years, he has posted a sub-3.10 ERA seven times. He averages 2/3 of an inning per appearance. For his career, he has held left-handed batters to a .212 batting average and .596 OPS. And he’s a local kid, having pitched at Robinson High School in Fairfax and at the University of Virginia. A three-time World Series champion with the Red Sox (2007) and Giants (2010, 2012), he probably won’t come cheap. But he’s 36 and left-handed, so he could pitch forever, and that shouldn’t scare the Nationals away from offering him a multi-year contract.

J.P. HOWELL
The Nationals were interested in Howell last winter but not interested enough to match the Dodgers’ $2.85 million contract. They should’ve been, because he’s one of the better lefty specialists out there. Howell posted a 2.03 ERA this season in L.A., barely allowed more than one baserunner per inning pitched and held left-handed hitters to a .164 batting average and .452 OPS. He’s not a flamethrower by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s good at what he does, and he would be a very good fit for the Nationals.

ERIC O’FLAHERTY
This would be a bit of a gamble and a bit of an unconventional move, because O’Flaherty had Tommy John surgery in July and won’t be ready to return until mid-season, at best. But we’ve seen how successful that elbow procedure has become, and we’ve seen how effective O’Flaherty can be (1.99 ERA, .200 batting average by opposing lefties over the last five years). Mike Rizzo hasn’t been afraid in the past to spend money on a guy recovering from surgery, willing to wait until he’s healthy. Perhaps he’d be willing to sign O’Flaherty to a contract that includes an option for 2015, then hope he could be a key piece down the stretch in 2014.

MANNY PARRA
A struggling starter with Milwaukee, Parra became an effective reliever with Cincinnati this year. He struck out 56 batters in only 46 innings and held lefties to a .167 batting average. He doesn’t have quite as much track record as the other guys, but he appears to have a bright future.

BOONE LOGAN
A workhorse for the Yankees, Logan has 118 strikeouts in his last 94 1/3 innings pitched. Joe Girardi really used him as a pure matchup lefty — he faced an average of fewer than three batters per inning over the last four seasons in New York — but he’s effective in that role. Lefties hit just .221 against him this year.

  1. tcostant - Nov 7, 2013 at 11:44 AM

    Rizzo’s biggest mistake last year was Rizzo thinking he was smarter than anyone else on this issue. His manager didn’t believe it and he came around later in the year. It was a painful lessen to learn.

  2. Faraz Shaikh - Nov 7, 2013 at 12:43 PM

    nice options again this off-season. hopefully we get a couple of these guys.

  3. sjm308 - Nov 7, 2013 at 12:51 PM

    We take the gamble on O’Flaherty, move Detwiler to the pen and as Ross continues to get better (as I hope he does) you can then move him into a part-time starting role by the time Eric is healed. This of course also means we sign another starter or two this off season. Love this faux GM stuff, and remember, I have no budget in my faux world so don’t tell me how much people cost. Its not my money.

    I am also signing Ellsbury and if I can’t make a deal, I teach him to play firstbase, lead him off and use LaRoche as a lefthanded specialist and defensive replacement, or I move Werth to first and have one of the fastest outfields in the majors.

    Ellsbury
    Harper
    Zimmerman
    Werth
    Desmond
    Ramos
    Rendon
    Span
    Pitcher

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 7, 2013 at 4:59 PM

      I think I was the original author on the Werth to 1st base but Ellsbury is 6’1″ in high heels and a small target. I don’t see that as a fit.

  4. David Proctor - Nov 7, 2013 at 1:34 PM

    Someone in the other thread said that not everybody wants to be extended. That’s true. And I think that’s the case for Jordan Zimmermann who will test free agency and probably get more than we can offer. I don’t think that’s the case with Desmond. I could be wrong, of course, but he seems like he would really like to stay. I also think he lives in DC year-round now (although again, I could be wrong). If we give him a fair offer, he will take it.

    Of course, people don’t like to hear what a fair offer really is. Desmond is probably a 6 years / 90 mil guy or something close, just looking off what other shortstops with similar production have gotten. If he takes a hometown discount, which I don’t think he’s inclined to do, then maybe you get a little bit lower. But not a lot.

    • David Proctor - Nov 7, 2013 at 1:42 PM

      Of course, there are a few big incentives to get a deal done now instead of waiting–despite the already high price tag. 1. you avoid any potential bidding war in free agency 2. his price will continue to rise if he maintains the production and 3. by buying out two arbitration years, you are likely getting him for a little bit less than you would if you were solely buying out free agent years.

  5. Faraz Shaikh - Nov 7, 2013 at 1:48 PM

    lopez seems too expensive. he earned $4.25 MM last two seasons and seeking multi-year deal that will likely play about the same or more per year. for 40 innings a season, I think that is overpay on our part. I would go with howell and eric (try a minor league deal with incentives for appearances).

    • David Proctor - Nov 7, 2013 at 1:58 PM

      Howell got $2.85M last year and is likely to get a significant raise. At this point, he’s probably going to get around $4M or more. Boone Logan is an interesting option, I think, but he should really only be facing lefties. However, he could also get something approaching 4 million. He got $3.25M last year.

      • Faraz Shaikh - Nov 7, 2013 at 2:06 PM

        Howell also contributed 60+ innings, easily more than others on this list. Others have pitched 40 or less. parra has more than 40 innings but his numbers against RHB are awful.

  6. David Proctor - Nov 7, 2013 at 2:13 PM

    Yeah Faraz, Howell can get righthanders out too. Not as well as left handers, but he won’t embarrass himself by any stretch if you ask him to go a full inning or something. Howell would be my #1 choice.

  7. trochlis318 - Nov 7, 2013 at 2:16 PM

    Desmond is a 100 mil guy at this point, i would love for the nats to get him for 8/100 but i just don’t see that happening (an elvis andrus type contract) so i think the deal will be closer to 7/110 ish or even 6/95, not many 5WAR SS out there, personally i think rizzo being that he is a GM who wants the team to be good for many years (thank god) won’t make any huge splashes in FA sorry no cano, ellsbury, choo, i think what he might do, is either go after Tanaka, or just move some minor peices. I also think JZim is gone in 2 years, and Desi will stay.

    • David Proctor - Nov 7, 2013 at 2:30 PM

      8 years is way too much for a 28 year old shortstop. He’d be 36 at the end of it.

      • trochlis318 - Nov 7, 2013 at 2:35 PM

        whats wrong with a 36 year old desmond? remember while defense peaks early the bat usually stays until the mid to late 30s, thats why all the all time greats were bat first guys their entire career. I’m sure the nats front office woudl be thrilled to have desmond signed to an 8 year 12.5 mil AAV. over an 8 year period he would have to be worth 17ish WAR he might be worth that in the next 4 seasons so that would be a great deal for the nats, but again its probably 6/90 making him need to produce 16 WAR in 6 seasons compared to about 17 in 8 seasons. for the nats the 8/100 is much better, question is does he go for it, probably not.

  8. Faraz Shaikh - Nov 7, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    I would do 5-6 year deal for around $70 million, sounds cheap but I hope that’s what home discount from Desi looks like.

    • Faraz Shaikh - Nov 7, 2013 at 2:37 PM

      even 6 sounds a lot, now that David reminds us that he is 28 years old.

    • tcostant - Nov 7, 2013 at 3:32 PM

      Not enough – think $100M

  9. Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 7, 2013 at 3:25 PM

    Very painful especially considering HenRod made the OD roster.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 7, 2013 at 3:28 PM

      This comment was in response to Tcosant up above at 11:44.

  10. Section 222 - Nov 7, 2013 at 3:48 PM

    It truly is painful to remember how awful Duke was, what a fiasco the H-Rod experiment was, and how much we missed having a lefty a’ la Burnett in the first part of last year. If you feel like wallowing a bit more, here’s Mark’s post from last March where Rizzo’s master plan of not having a lefty in the pen (other than Duke) was kicked around.
    http://natsinsider.com/2013/03/12/video-do-they-need-a-lefty-specialist/

    I think Rizzo learned a lesson and won’t repeat the mistake.

    I also think we paid a big price for not having a solid bullpen last year and I think spending money on it (particularly since it’s not my money, h/t 308) would be a very good idea. Howell would have been a good pickup last year and he remains that this year. Maybe Parra can be had for less, but the important thing here is having a guy who is more than a lefty specialist. You want someone capable of pitching the 6th, 7th, or 8th when the other team’s big gun lefty is expected to bat, or to come in and face that guy with men on base, and then finish off the inning against RH batter(s).

    • nats128 - Nov 7, 2013 at 4:08 PM

      The experiment had some merit if he had good RHPs who can dominate LHHs. Davey played with a 5 man bullpen becuz he didnt trust HROd or Duke. Stammen got over used as did Clip. Storen was very inconsistent and it just didnt work.

      • Section 222 - Nov 7, 2013 at 4:23 PM

        Kind of amazing that you’d say it had some merit, even in hindsight. The point is they thought they had the horses to get away with it and it didn’t work.

      • nats128 - Nov 7, 2013 at 7:10 PM

        Is it a coincidence that all the teams that made the playoffs ranked in the tops of bullpens?

  11. Section 222 - Nov 7, 2013 at 3:52 PM

    I’ll be surprised if either Desi or JZnn signs an extension this winter. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless. Both guys had great 2013 seasons, and have every reason to expect similar results this year. It’s not like their 2014 salaries are going to be slave wages, and by waiting to sign the maximize their long term value. If Rizzo and the Lerners want to lock them up now they are going to have make jaw dropping offers.

    • nats128 - Nov 7, 2013 at 4:12 PM

      I think 2 years ago someone wrote Rizzo casually looked at extending JZ. The lucky recipient of not doing a extension is JZ not the Nats and ownership.

      You cant run scared of extending your own players becuz RZ’s deal looks like an overpay. Get over it. The Angelos team used Albert Belle’s longterm deal as an excuse for a decade. Either you step up or you dont. Desi and JZ both need to be extended and Im disappointed it hasnt been done already.

  12. Section 222 - Nov 7, 2013 at 4:27 PM

    We’ll never know, but I’d be shocked if Rizzo hasn’t been trying to extend JZnn for awhile. Maybe not Desi last year, but there’s no doubt he’ll try this year. But it takes two to tango. So again, unless they make very generous, maybe even overly generous, offers, both guys have every financial incentive to wait.

  13. nats128 - Nov 7, 2013 at 4:30 PM

    Ghost, this should interest you on Chase Headley. I remember mid-season you were suggesting Headley to play 3rd and shift RZ to 1st.

    I have to think Matt Williams will address RZ’s issues IF they still exist in Spring Training. Its not just the arm its the range issue and reaction time. If RZ cant make the plays like he used to, hes a big issue for Williams and Williams better than any other manager in the league knows the 3rd base position.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 7, 2013 at 4:52 PM

      IF IF IF. I think making decisions that use more wishing for the best than dealing in reality gets teams in trouble.

      1st base, the bench and the front of the bullpen and the 5th starter and inability to make swifter GM decisions were a problem. Some or all these need to be fixed still and you can hope LaRoche is going to be a .860 OPS player again because early projections have him at .775 and that’s just not good enough for that position unless his defense can improve to a Top 5 UZR otherwise their are other places the Nats can upgrade.

      • nats128 - Nov 7, 2013 at 5:02 PM

        Laroche has to get a bounce from that .735 OPS from last year, right? I am also concerned about his defensive range. Ranking at the bottom of the NL in range is not a good sign as defense doesnt get better in a age 34 1/2 season.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 7, 2013 at 5:06 PM

        LaRoche went from a +6.2 UZR in ’12 to a -2.3 this year. It’s not the worst of LaRoche’s career so possibly he can rebound but he’s not 28 anymore.

      • therealjohnc - Nov 7, 2013 at 7:31 PM

        Defensive metrics are very unstable/unreliable. Even sabermetric types will tell you that no one season really tells you much about a player’s defensive ability.

        Also, LaRoche isn’t 28, but he isn’t 40 either. He just turned 34 yesterday (Happy Birthday, Adam!). He’s at an age where signing him to a multi-year deal is probably not a good idea. But 34 is not an age where you assume a player is done, either.

  14. Section 222 - Nov 7, 2013 at 5:05 PM

    That’s pretty cold Ghost, but I agree with you. And I’m glad you included “inability to make swifter
    GM decisions” in your list.. (See H-Rod, and Espi, and let us not forget Chad “at or under the Mendoza line from April 7 to Sept 28″ Tracy.)
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.cgi?id=tracych01&t=b&year=

    I saw somewhere recently a pretty convincing analysis that the “ALR always starts slow” excuse is baloney. I don’t have a problem with giving him a shot at being our play everyday 1B, but Rizzo needs to have a plan B if he doesn’t show a likely return to 2012 form. in the first month of the season. And I do think that as embarrassing as it might be to all involved, people like Zim and Werth should get some work at 1B during spring training, just in case.

    If last year taught us anything, it’s that “It’s early,” ought to be banished from the team’s lexicon. We cannot afford another slow start., nor can we afford to dawdle when weaknesses appear and persist.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 7, 2013 at 5:17 PM

      Thanks 222. Davey took his share of heat but I believe Davey will speak out of school on his disconnect with Rizzo and shed some light on what wrong.

      I’m saying a lot of what I said last off-season. I wanted Lohse and a new 2nd baseman and no HenRod and a new closer. I only got the new closer. I wanted to retain Morse and let LaRoche go—hard to say if Morse would’ve stayed healthy in DC.

      I was shocked RZim wasn’t close to healthy OD and how messed up Espinosa was and the wild inconsistencies of Haren.

      • nats128 - Nov 7, 2013 at 5:20 PM

        Maybe Rizzo didnt want Laroche and it was Davey that convinced him. They certainly had a disconnect however I wouldnt assume Davey isnt responsible for some of the personnel decision that went real wrong.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 7, 2013 at 5:31 PM

        True, the problems between them can go in many directions with multiple factors.

  15. Faraz Shaikh - Nov 7, 2013 at 5:18 PM

    Martin Perez signed a four year extension with Rangers. Contract includes 3 club options after four years. If we can get Strasburg and Harper to sign this kind of deal.

    • Section 222 - Nov 7, 2013 at 5:42 PM

      Good luck with that!

  16. Section 222 - Nov 7, 2013 at 5:40 PM

    I don’t want to beat the dead Tracy horse too much, but at least Rizzo got rid of Stairs mid-season in 2011. Did he really think Tracy was going to hit his stride in August and September? Well, I guess he was improving. He got his BA up to .202 on the last day of the season. That was the first time all season that it was over .200.

    • nats128 - Nov 7, 2013 at 5:48 PM

      Speaking of the “dead” horse, I see nothing wrong with doing the post-mortem.

      You have to learn, evolve, and learn some more to get better. Change is good when you do it towards the goal of winning—GoSM

  17. Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 7, 2013 at 7:32 PM

    If Rizzo wants to get proactive, he may want a bench infielder who is a + defender at 3rd to insert late in games like Matheny did with David Freese. You would hate to do it but it may be necessary if Zimmerman can’t effectively defend the line late in games.

    • David Proctor - Nov 7, 2013 at 8:12 PM

      Eric Chavez is a guy who I’ve said the Nats should target, but not necessarily for his defense. His defense isn’t what it once was, but Chavez is a guy who can still hit. Left-handed bat, can play 3rd and 1st and he hit .281/.332/.478 with 9 homers in only 80 games last year. He posted a similar line with 16 homers in 113 games in 2012. He basically fills the Chad Tracy role. He can hit for average, hit for power, be a pinch hitter and play defense acceptably if Zimmerman or LaRoche go down or need a day off.

      He’s also not terribly expensive. He signed a 1 year / $3 million deal with the D’Backs last year. Which also has the added benefit of him already being familiar with Matt Williams. It just makes so much sense, I think.

      • nats128 - Nov 8, 2013 at 7:10 AM

        That has merit. Good idea.

  18. therealjohnc - Nov 7, 2013 at 7:36 PM

    “Slow decision making” is terrible when it means you stick with a Tracy or Stairs too long (I don’t blame the Nats for stickign with Espinosa too long last year – they tried to replace him with Lombo, who flopped, and then hurried Rendon as fast as they could). But having “courage of your convictions” is wise when it means you stick with Ian Desmond when fans left and right are calling for him to be dumped.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 7, 2013 at 7:57 PM

      I was in the minority on Desi and I was joined by NatsJack and a few others. I’m glad I hung in there for him as he made us look good. I liked what he did under Davey in 2011 and it was an amazing transformation to what we saw the last 2 years.

      Still laugh at those who wanted Espi as the shortstop and Desi shipped off in package for BJ Upton.

  19. Theophilus T.S. - Nov 7, 2013 at 9:02 PM

    Rizzo got skunked last year because he didn’t like the way the market for LH relievers developed. He wasn’t going to pay those kind of prices. These guys are going to command more money and even O’Flaherty might get a multi-year deal (if he’s healthy the market will deem him worthy of one).

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