Nationals sign Dan Uggla to a minor league deal with invitation to spring training
The Nationals signed veteran second baseman Dan Uggla to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training, the team announced Friday. In so doing, Washington tossed Uggla — formerly formidable but recently ineffective — into a still-muddy mix for the second base job, which is currently the most unsettled position in an otherwise well-settled starting lineup.
Uggla, 34, is a cost-effective option that could bolster infield depth or compete for the starting job should he prove able to overcome the struggles with contact and defensive consistency that have plagued him since leaving the Marlins in 2010. Uggla is a three-time all-star with proven power, but his numbers dropped precipitously when he left Miami: In his last year with the Marlins, Uggla hit .287 with a .508 slugging percentage and even scored 100 runs. He’s never hit more than .233 since, though his power numbers stayed strong in 2011 (36 homers) and he earned his most recent all-star appearance with the Braves in 2012.
But last year, Uggla’s struggles became so pronounced that the Braves released him. He went hitless in four games with San Francisco before being designated for assignment there.
Uggla’s defense is notoriously suspect. His 18 errors in 2010 and 15 in 2011 led Major League second basemen, and he has occasionally shown a propensity to boot ground balls generally considered automatic outs. But Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo knows the offensive potential Uggla brings to the right-handed batter’s box: Rizzo, then the director of scouting for the Diamondbacks, drafted Uggla in the 11th round of the 2001 draft. He’s also seen him in the opposing dugout rather frequently, as Uggla played all but four games of his major league career with National League East teams.
Should Uggla steady himself offensively and show no drop in power, his veteran presence and uncommon middle-infield pop make him a legitimate contender for time at second base. But given his recent struggles and the downward trend he’s shown offensively for the past four seasons, Uggla will likely need to show he’s taken marked steps back toward his Marlins days if he is to make the major league team, let alone become Washington’s starting second baseman. Still, he is a low-risk, low-cost option that could pay massive dividends should he rediscover the Dan Uggla of old.
The Nationals also formally announced Friday the following minor league deals with invites to major league camp: right-handers Heath Bell, Mitch Lively and Scott McGregor; first baseman Clint Robinson and third baseman Ian Stewart.
Nationals announce front office changes: Doug Harris, Steve Arnieri, Bill Singer promoted
With an ice rink taking shape in the middle of the Nationals Park diamond and last year’s playoff roster as yet undisturbed, the Nationals found a moment to announce a few front office promotions and a new scouting hire Tuesday.
Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Baseball Operations Doug Harris added even more to his already lengthy title, earning the additional title of Vice President of Pro Scouting. Steve Arnieri, formerly the Nationals’ Midwest Scouting Supervisor, becomes the Special Assistant to the President of Baseball Operations and General Manager. Washington promoted Bill Singer, formerly the Director of Pro Scouting, to Director of International Scouting and Special Assistant to the President of Baseball Operations and General Manager.
In a less verbose move, the Nationals hired Brian Cleary as an area supervisor in the scouting department.
Harris’s promotion furthers the assistant GM’s upward trajectory within the organization, one that began when he was hired as the Director of Player Development prior to the 2010 season and oversaw the Nationals’ farm system for four seasons in that role. Since then, he’s gained more responsibility within the organization and with the major league team, adding the assistant general manager title prior to last season.
Arnieri, whose most prominent claim to Nationals fame is as the scout who found Jordan Zimmermann, adds special assistant duties to his supervisory scouting responsibilities. The longtime scout joined Washington in that capacity in 2007 after scouting for the White Sox, Red Sox, and Giants earlier in his career. Singer has been a scout for the Nationals since 2006, and played a large role in Washington’s international scouting, particularly in Asia. The former major league starter officially adds a more international focus to his duties.
Nationals sign 3B Ian Stewart to Minor League deal
In other news, the Nationals have signed third baseman Ian Stewart to a minor league deal, according to Baseball America. Stewart was the Rockies’ 10th overall pick in the 2003 draft, and played for Colorado in part or all of five seasons before joining the Cubs last year. He started for the Rockies at the hot corner in 2009 and 2010, smacking 43 homers over those two seasons, but striking out 248 times in that span.
Stewart, 29, is a career .229 hitter — a less-contact, more-power bat from the left side. That lefty bat, which clocked 25 homers in Stewart’s best season in 2009, carries intrigue given Washington’s infield is decidedly right-handed, pending the choice of an everyday second baseman.
Out of options, Tyler Moore readies for make-or-break season
For an aspiring professional ballplayer, the words “out of options” are clear in meaning: make the big-league club or be left to the unpredictable mercy of the waiver wire with the potential of another minor league season looming. Nationals first baseman Tyler Moore is out of options.
“This year’s kind of a crucial year for me,” the 27-year-0ld said. “I’m out of options and obviously they have to make a decision and I feel like I can play for this team and I just want to help us win and like we did last year get back to the playoffs.”
Moore’s three option years were spent jumping between the Syracuse and the Nationals, though his first big-league stint in 2012 was his most substantial. He played 75 games with the Nationals that season, 63 in 2013, and 42 last year, his productivity diminishing in correlation to his time spent in the big leagues. He hit .231 with four homers and 29 strikeouts in 93 at-bats with Washington last season.
He’s proven himself a capable big-league contributor: Moore made the playoff roster for Washington’s 2012 run. Since then, he has bounced back and forth without any significant hot streaks with the Major League team.
When you’re out of options, you explore all your options, so this fall Moore headed to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball, and hit .299 with six home runs and 17 RBI in 22 games. He had a .429 on-base percentage and slugged a organization-leading .584.
Moore said he worked on “being a more complete hitter,” in those six weeks: “A lot of those guys down there are throwing 95-100 every game. It was good to see it. I got familiar with pitchers I didn’t know, and also it just gave me more at-bats and made me more disciplined at the plate, so it was fun.”
” I really do [think I'll be more ready for spring training] because I really hadn’t put the bat down since I got done playing. Usually I put the bat down for three months and then pick it back up, but I just hit the other day. I feel good. Hopefully it continues on to the season.”
Presumably, there is space for Moore with the Nationals if he proves himself ready to seize it. Adam LaRoche is gone, meaning Ryan Zimmerman — momentarily healthy but recently unable to remain so — likely will take the bulk of the games at first. Moore would be a natural fit to slide in when Zimmerman needs a break, and also to fill in as a right-handed bat off the bench with power potential or make a spot start in the outfield as necessary. Most likely, his at-bats will be sporadic, something he says can’t be an excuse at this point.
“You’ve got to hit off the bench if you’re going to be a bench player obviously,” Moore said. “I feel great when I start games, and I felt last year like I got better pinch-hitting a little bit. I had only one or two, didn’t have a lot of opportunities, but had a lot better at-bats. I felt like I was more into the at-bat. I think that comes with experience and hopefully this year I get a shot at it again.”
Veteran reliever Heath Bell says he’s signed with the Nationals
However you define normal, right-handed reliever Heath Bell likely doesn’t fit the definition. From crazy-eyed headshots to unexpectedly comical entrances (see video below), the veteran right-hander is known as much for his eccentricities as his late-inning stature. In typical Bell fashion — therefore atypical for just about anyone else — the 37-year-old free agent took to Derek Jeter’s new Web site The Players Tribune today to announce he has signed a deal with the Nationals.
Bell didn’t specify the type of deal in his essay, but given his recent struggles in the majors and even in Triple-A, it’s likely a minor-league deal. Whatever the specifics, the deal gives Bell another chance to rediscover the form that made him an All-Star from 2009 to 2011. Bell was the man who succeeded Trevor Hoffman as closer before the 2009 season, and he made sure San Diego hardly noticed the difference, averaging 44 saves a year for the next three seasons: his 132 saves in that span were the most in Major League Baseball.
But after departing San Diego for Miami as a free agent prior to the 2012 season, Bell never regained that form. After signing a three-year, $27 million-dollar deal with the Marlins, ERA jumped three full points and never fell back. He blew four saves in the first month of the season, and never really found his groove again. He bounced from the Marlins to the Diamondbacks in 2013, and spent time in the minors with Baltimore and the Yankees last season before wrapping up with the Rays. In 13 major-league games with Tampa Bay last year, he pitched to a 7.27 ERA.
Bell addressed those struggles in the essay in which he announced his signing:
“But resilience is what a relief pitcher must have. I wouldn’t want to do anything else: you live and die by your last outing, by your last at-bat, by your last pitch. It’s what it means to be a closer. There’s nothing like it. Sure, you’re going to have hot streaks and cold streaks. But what I’ve learned from years of pitching on the biggest and not-so-biggest stages is that maybe more than any other position, the reliever’s challenge is mental. The reliever’s challenge is to come in the game when it really matters, when all the chips are down, when the game seems to slow way down. Sometimes you only need to get three outs. Three little outs — that’s going to be the title of my autobiography if I ever write one. You might only have to throw eight pitches. But those eight pitches take on the weight of the world.”
When he’s in top form, Bell has a mid-90s fastball that he uses confidently within the zone. His unorthodox motion adds to the deception he augments with a curveball and a change-up. Control with those off-speed pitches — something Bell has struggled with in recent years — has proven a key to his success: the less likely he is to throw one of them for a strike, the more hitters can sit on a fastball that boasts good velocity, but often little movement.
Bell is one of several players the Nationals signed to minor-league deals in the past week. The others:
— OF Delta Cleary Jr., 25: Rockies’ 37th-round pick in 2008 draft. Listed on Harrisburg’s roster.
— IF Mario Lisson, 30: career minor-leaguer originally signed as undrafted free agent by the Royals in 2002
— 1B Clint Robinson, 29: Royals’ 25th-round pick in 2007 draft. Has three hits in 14 Major League plate appearances with Royals (2012) and Dodgers (2014)
— RHP Mitch Lively, 29: Rockies’ 16th-round pick in 2007 draft. Finished last season in AAA.
— RHP Paul Demny, 25: Nationals’ 6th-round pick in 2008 draft. Had 2.88 ERA in 22 games with Harrisburg last season.
And now ladies and gentlemen, Heath Bell:
With Souza gone, Michael A. Taylor’s development assumes more importance
Sometime last Wednesday afternoon, as the Nationals inserted themselves and their International League MVP Steven Souza Jr. into trade negotiations with the Padres and Rays, Michael A. Taylor’s role in the organization changed. Whatever the difference is between “a” top outfield prospect or “the” top outfield prospect — and perhaps it’s minimal given Taylor was rated above Souza by Baseball America — that’s the leap Taylor made when Souza became a Tampa Bay Ray. The Nationals dealt away their most big-league ready outfielder and banked on others, such as Taylor, being ready soon.
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said he felt he could absorb the loss of Souza because of the depth of outfield talent behind him in the Washington system. Taylor, who Rizzo believes is “a half a year” behind Souza development-wise, tops that list.
The 23-year-old was drafted in the sixth round of the 2009 draft, and played everywhere from Class AA Harrisburg to Class AAA Syracuse to Washington last season. In 110 minor league games, he hit .304 with 64 RBI, 23 home runs and 37 stolen bases. His numbers dropped in 12 games with Syracuse, then again with the Nationals: playing sporadically, he hit .205 with one home run and struck out 17 times in 39 big-league at-bats.
That last statistic is the biggest concern for a player that boasts speed, go-get-it ability in the outfield, and a bat Washington hopes will yield consistent power: in 428 minor-league at-bats last year, Taylor struck out 144 times — or more than three times every 10 at-bats. Mark Scialabba, the Nationals’ director of player development, said the team was “happy with the progress he made last year” overall, but acknowledged that he’s got a tendency to chase pitches.
“He’s learning to command the strike zone, who he is as a hitter, and what he needs to do to succeed against better pitching,” Scialabba said. “That’s going to be his biggest hurdle I think, putting in a full day of consecutive at-bats where he’s grinding and taking pitches on the outer edges, learning how to be more disciplined as a hitter.”
Scialabba calls plate discipline an “evolution,” something more natural to some players than others, that develops in each differently. He explained the correlation between plate discipline and ascent through the minors is often intuitive: at higher levels, players’ strikeout rates often increase and walk rates often decrease. As the quality of pitching goes up, so does the tendency to reach.
“Certain players, because it’s natural to them, they’re going to continue to have it at higher levels,” Scialabba said. “…some guys have that. They have the understanding, they’re very calm in the box, very confident in the strike zone. Some guys, they’re going to develop that skill over time.”
In Taylor’s case, Scialabba said the Nationals believe another year of minor league at-bats can help — but clarified that “he certainly can help us in the Major Leagues if needed.”
“Is it difficult to develop (plate discipline) at the higher levels? Certainly,” Scialabba said. “It’s not like you’re going to see someone who’s going to strike out at a 22 percent rate go to 10 percent, it’s going to improve over time. The good hitters are the ones who can continue to make adjustments, make strides slowly but surely, and Michael showed this year a step in the right direction.”
Taylor said he’s taking things slower this off-season, working to get stronger as he recovers from the grind of a year of bouncing around different levels that came right after a season of Winter Ball in Puerto Rico. The big-league experience didn’t change his mindset, or so he said — “I’ve always worked hard” — but did give Taylor an idea of what’s needed to stick there.
“I think it’s all about being consistent,” Taylor said. “At this level, everybody can play. It’s just how often you can hit that spot or how often you can barrel up the ball.”
“I’m still working a lot at the plate. Cutting down on strikeouts. Putting the bat on the ball I think is the thing I can do to make the biggest impact with my game.”
In his limited time in the majors last year, he struck out in nearly 40 percent of plate appearances. Taylor is aware of the issue, and says diminishing that ratio requires a mind-set adjustment.
“I have a two-strike approach, but just having a plan doesn’t always work out. Executing it is part of it,” Taylor said. “But the more at-bats I get and the more comfortable I get with two strikes, I should feel the same as with one strike or no strikes.”
Taylor will likely spend significant time this season at Class AAA Syracuse, which should give him time to both cut down on strikeouts and build on the power he showed off last season. Though power and contact are sometimes mistaken for a zero-sum game, Taylor said his power will come when he keeps his swing compact, stays within himself, and uses the middle of the field. Approaches like that, when executed, tend to yield consistent contact, too.