Nationals Sign Kevin Frandsen

frandsen philsYesterday afternoon, the Washington Nationals made a series of cuts that seemingly left their bench a man short — the two most obvious candidates for the last bench job, Tyler Moore and Jamey Carroll, had been optioned to AAA and given release papers respectively.  Manager Matt Williams stated yesterday that he was considering using extra catcher Sandy Leon or utility speedster Jeff Kobernus to fill the spot, but the moves caused speculation that the Nationals could look outside the organization.

Late last night, the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore mentioned that the Nationals were “one of two or three teams who reached out” to utility infielder Kevin Frandsen, who had been cut by the Phillies just hours before.  While not yet officially confirmed by the team, it seems the Nationals and Frandsen have reached an agreement:

Frandsen, 31, is a right handed bat with experience at all four infield spots in his major league career. Used primarily as a first baseman last year with Philadelphia, Frandsen posted a triple-slash of .234/.296/.341 in 119 games, with 5 home runs and 26 runs batted in.  According to both DRS and UZR, Frandsen is around league average in the field at first, second, and third base (he hasn’t played shortstop at the big league level since 2009).

For his career, Frandsen has marked platoon splits that make him a valuable bat against left-handed pitching — he has a .778 career OPS against lefties, versus just a .626 career OPS against righties (in 2013, the split was even more pronounced; .869 to .536).  If you recall, the Nationals were said this offseason to be interested in Jeff Baker, another right-handed corner infielder with career success against lefties — Frandsen’s skill set is that of a poor man’s Baker.

Frandsen also led baseball with 14 pinch-hits last year; for his career, he has hit .265/.318/.343 in a pinch-hitting role.  For perspective, the Nationals last year pinch-hit at a .208/.250/.358 clip, making Frandsen a clear improvement.

The Nationals decided Frandsen’s positional flexibility made him an improvement over Tyler Moore, and his relative youth and prowess against left-handed pitching made him preferable to Jamey Carroll.  His arrival leaves the Nationals with a bench that will break down like this:

IF Danny Espinosa (bats switch)

IF Kevin Frandsen (bats right)

OF Scott Hairston (bats right)

OF Nate McLouth (bats left)

C Jose Lobaton (bats switch)

There seems to be limited redundancy on that bench, as the balance in handedness and position ensures every player on it is likely to have a different role.

UPDATE: One other ramification of this deal, as mentioned by CSN Washington’s Mark Zuckerman:

As Zuckerman mentions, Perez is a candidate, as is catcher Jhonatan Solano.

UPDATE 2: The deal is now official:

In order to clear space for Frandsen on the 40-man roster, the Nationals removed Ross Ohlendorf from the 40-man by placing him on the 60-day disabled list with a “right lumbar strain.”

 

Nationals Roster Cuts — Down to 27

Aaron Barrett has made the Opening Day roster

Aaron Barrett has made the Opening Day roster.

Following their last home game of Spring Training, the Nationals made a series of roster cuts that have finally given shape to parts of their Opening Day roster.  All told, the Nationals cut five players today — they  optioned RHP Ryan Mattheus, LHP Xavier Cedeno, and 1B/LF Tyler Moore to AAA Syracuse, while serving outright release papers to utility infielder Jamey Carroll and RHP Chris Young.  Additionally, they have informed righty reliever Aaron Barrett that he has made the Opening Day bullpen.

Coming into today, the Nationals had active competition for three spots on their roster — the fifth starter, the final reliever, and the final bench spot.  So how do these cuts affect the composition of the team?

Carroll and Moore were thought to be the only two players competing for that final bench spot — if one of them didn’t get it, it seemed likely that the other would.  But having either one on the roster would seemingly create redundancy on the roster.  Moore’s value is as a right-handed bat to platoon with lefty swinger Adam LaRoche, but Ryan Zimmerman’s ability to play first seemingly eliminates the need to keep a roster spot open for such a player.  Similarly, Danny Espinosa fills Carroll’s presumed role of utility infielder quite nicely, as he has displayed the ability to play excellent defense at multiple positions over his career.  So instead, the Nationals are going in a different direction:

Kobernus, who recorded 45 stolen bases last year in time at Syracuse and in DC, would provide the Nationals with a pinch runner in key situations — a position on the bench previous manager Davey Johnson eschewed in favor of “hairy-chested bench bats.”  Meanwhile, keeping Leon on the roster would allow the Nationals to use Wilson Ramos as a pinch hitter in days where he doesn’t start (and the fact that they are considering utilizing a roster spot just to have Ramos pinch hit shows how highly the Nationals rate his bat).

Meanwhile, adding Barrett, a 26-year old reliever with a killer slider who, nonetheless, has never pitched beyond AA, to the Opening Day roster completes the Nationals bullpen.  It means the Nationals’ bullpen will initially contain five right handers (Barrett, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen, Rafael Soriano, and Tyler Clippard), and two lefties (Ross Detwiler and Jerry Blevins).  Furthermore, it means that the loser of the fifth starter battle — either Tanner Roark or Taylor Jordan — will not then make the team as a long reliever.  Instead, they will be sent back to AAA Syracuse, where they will continue to start, ready to head to Washington in case of injury or ineffectiveness.  The Nationals were said to have been only considering using Roark in long relief, not Jordan, so this move might be a slight tip of the hand that Roark has earned the fifth starter job:

Keep in mind that major league rosters are extraordinarily fluid — the 25 men who will have their names announced at Citi Field on Monday are not going to be the same as the 25 men who are announced September 28th against the Marlins.  But after a long spring, today’s cuts have made manager Matt Williams’ vision of an ideal Opening Day roster quite clear.

 

Sequestering the National Det

Coming into spring training, the Washington Nationals’ Opening Day rotation seemed all but decided.  Stephen Strasburg would start game one, to be followed in some order by Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and 28-year old southpaw Ross Detwiler.  Of the five, Detwiler was the least sure thing — he suffered from a serious back injury in 2013, making only 13 starts (none after July 3rd) and putting up a mediocre 4.04 ERA.  But before the injury, Detwiler, a first-round pick in 2007 who had struggled early in his major league career, had seemingly realized his potential to become an above-average starter for a high-quality rotation.  In 2012, Detwiler’s only full season in the big leagues, he managed an impressive 3.40 ERA in more than 164 innings, utilizing a sinking fastball that averaged 92.7 MPH to post a groundball percentage over 50%.  Furthermore, in the fabled Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS, Detwiler put together a performance that ranks among the greatest starts in Nationals’ history:

The Nationals did not anoint Detwiler as the fifth starter heading into Spring Training, but it was assumed that if Detwiler could prove he was healthy, the job was his for the taking.  This spring, Detwiler’s statistics have not looked pretty — 5 earned runs in 7 innings pitched — but spring stats are often skewed (Detwiler has been working on his breaking pitches in his starts, which could affect his performance), and most importantly, he has shown no signs of being slowed by last year’s injury.

And yet, yesterday, manager Matt Williams announced he had made a startling decision — Ross Detwiler would not start the season in the rotation.  Instead, he will move to the bullpen.  Said Williams:

We feel like it’s a good move for our team. He provides something special out of the bullpen for us. I don’t know if anybody would ever be really happy with something like that. We don’t feel like it’s a demotion of any sort. We just feel like we’re a better team with him coming out of our bullpen. He offers something that’s special — power lefty, mid-90s lefty.

The fifth starter spot will now become an open competition between two young prospects, Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark, and journeyman vet Chris Young.

After a little thought, it is easy to understand the rationale behind this move.  Detwiler has never really had the diverse repertoire of a starting pitcher.  Over the last two years, Detwiler has thrown his fastball 82.8% of the time — that’s second in the major leagues among starting pitchers (min. 200 IP), behind only Bartolo Colon.  Additionally, Detwiler’s peripheral statistics have never matched the success his ERA would denote.  For his career, Dewtiler has only struck out 5.4 batters per nine innings, which in an era dominated by strikeouts, is borderline unacceptable.  Even in 2012, his best season thus far, Detwiler fanned only 5.7 per nine as a starter, which ranked him 14th-worst (min. 150 IP).  Thanks to the low strikeout numbers, Detwiler’s fielding-independent statistics are considerably worse than his ERA; while his 3.40 ERA in 2012 is impressive, his 4.34 xFIP is considerably less so.

And both Roark and Jordan have looked impressive, both in the spring and in their major league call-ups in 2013.  Jordan, age 25, has the more impressive stuff — he has struck out 13 batters in 10 spring innings, including this one on a wipeout slider:Jordan Flores

Roark, meanwhile, had an eye-opening 2013 season that elevated him from organization depth to a possible key cog in the Nationals’ future.  After going 9-3 with a 3.15 ERA in 105.2 minor-league innings, the 27-year old Roark looked near-unhittable in 53.2 innings in the majors.  His 1.51 ERA is obviously unsustainable (Roark’s strikeout numbers were solid but unspectacular, and he benefitted from a 2.6% home run to fly ball ratio, lower than any qualified starter), but some of his numbers, especially his low walk rate, were very encouraging.  Roark has also looked strong in Spring Training, striking out six and allowing four runs in eight innings.

So what is Detwiler’s role in the bullpen?  More from Williams:

I see him as a power lefty out of the bullpen. If we get in a matchup where if we’ve got two out of three guys facing that inning are lefties, we can certainly use him for a full inning in that regard. We could also use him for multiple innings. I wouldn’t limit him to a lefty specialist role. I just think it’s a luxury for our team to have a guy in our bullpen who can do those types of things.

Detwiler profiles well as a lefty long reliever, with his endurance and experience as a starter likely enabling him to pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen.  One thing to watch out for: Detwiler has a pronounced platoon split (he has held left-handed batters to a .234/.314/.313 triple-slash, versus a .280/.336/.431 triple-slash against righties) which may make him more effective as a lefty specialist than as a long reliever.

Of course, this decision, while strong on paper, may not work out in practice.  Roark and Jordan may struggle at the major league level, and having an unreliable fifth starter is untenable for a team looking to make it to the postseason.  But the beauty of this decision is that it is easily reversible — if the chosen fifth starter struggles, Detwiler could easily slide back into the rotation.  As Williams said, “[this decision] doesn’t mean [Detwiler] won’t start at some point in the future.”

Stephen Strasburg’s Slider (GIFs)

The addition of a new pitch is one of the most well-worn tropes of Spring Training — a pitcher adds something to his repertoire that purports to solve all the problems that pitcher had the previous year.  Most of the time, this isn’t news, because it happens all the time, and quite often, the new pitch never sees the light of Opening Day.  But any small piece of trivial information surrounding Nationals’ fireballing ace Stephen Strasburg is liable to create buzz in and around the Natsmosphere.  So here at Serious Jammage, we have decided to chronicle the development of Strasburg’s new pitch, the slider.

From Strasburg himself:

“It’s just a work in progress. It’s something that I’ve been messing with. I’m just trying to get a feel for it. I’m not going to dump any of my other pitches. But I’ll just have something in the back pocket.”

So why add to what is already one of the most impressive repertoires in the major leagues?  Pitching coach Steve McCatty has the answer.

“It’s going to be something [Strasburg] can use to run the ball in on left-handers,” McCatty said. “And, in my mind, it’s a work in progress, obviously. It’s not going to be something that he uses a lot. We don’t know. We’ll see how it plays out. It looks pretty good, though.”

Strasburg debuted the slider in his first spring appearance on Tuesday, but that game was not televised.  The slider made its television debut today on MASN, and we’ve compiled GIFs of all the sliders Strasburg threw in this three-inning appearance.

SLIDER 1: 1st inning, no on, no out, 1-2 count on Peter Bourjos

strasburg slider 1The pitch missed outside, and Strasburg lost Bourjos, walking him on six pitches.

SLIDER 2: 2nd inning, no on, one out, 0-1 count on Keith Butler

strasburg slider 2This was the first slider Strasburg threw for a strike; it was a little higher than he would’ve liked, but it darted to the outside corner.

SLIDER 3: 2nd inning, no on, one out, 1-2 count on Keith Butler

strasburg slider 3Strasburg threw two sliders to Butler in three pitches, with this one showing little depth and break. The at-bat would eventually result in a single.

SLIDER 4: 3rd inning, no on, one out, 0-0 count on Peter Bourjos

strasburg slider 4This pitch had little break, acting more like a get-me-over pitch than a put-away pitch.  Strasburg again got ahead on Bourjos in this at-bat, but this time, got him on a flyout to right.

So four sliders in, and there’s still (obviously) a lot we don’t know about this pitch.  Strasburg threw it against only two hitters, and never got a chance to use it as a weapon against a left-handed hitter (which according to McCatty, is the reason the pitch exists).  We saw signs that the slider could make Strasburg more effective, but the pitch is still very much a work in progress.