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Posted at 02:35 PM ET, 01/09/2012

The case for a modest extension for John Lannan


(Matt Slocum - AP)
Prince Fielder may be the sole focus surrounding the Nationals’ universe at the moment, but the usual matters of baseball’s offseason calendar are creeping up. Most notably, the Nationals should soon begin reaching agreements with the six players they offered arbitration.

Of those six, Jordan Zimmermann, Michael Morse and Tyler Clippard have received the most buzz as candidates for multi-year extensions. There’s another player that makes sense for a multi-year deal, too, one who’s often goes overlooked. That’s John Lannan.

With the acquisition of Gio Gonzalez and the re-signing of Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler and Lannan figure to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation in 2012. Lannan’s track record gives him the edge, but Detwiler needs a place on the team because he’s out of minor league options.

The Nationals could seemingly trade one of them, but several factors make that unlikely. The Nationals need a solid sixth starter as insurance. Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit, which is likely to be roughly 160 innings, will require an additional starter at some point. Also, Wang’s injury history makes him a risk. All teams experience attrition with their rotation, and the Nationals seem especially in need of reinforcements.

So the Nationals probably will not trade Lannan and hold on to him instead. And if that’s the case, it makes sense to discuss a deal for 2012 and beyond. By signing Lannan to even a modest multi-year extension, the Nationals could secure a reliable starter while turning Lannan into a more valuable asset if they wish to trade him down the line.

First, consider Lannan’s credentials. He’s not in the discussion of baseball’s best young starters, but he’s accomplished a lot for his age in his first four-plus seasons. Of all the pitchers who will pitch in the majors at 27 in 2012, Lannan ranks among the top eight in career games started, innings pitched and quality starts. The other seven are Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Chad Billingsley, John Danks, Clayton Kershaw and Yovani Gallardo.

Those stats measure durability more than talent, but, hey, Lannan gets credit for that. There are only 26 pitchers in baseball who have thrown at least 710 innings with a 4.00 ERA or better over the past four seasons. Now, that’s a list whose arbitrary qualifications are made for Lannan – he’s thrown 716 1/3 innings with precisely a 4.00 ERA over that span. But it shows that while he may not be elite, it’s not easy to do what Lannan has done.

One other Lannan note along these lines: He’s not quite the soft-tosser his reputation makes him out to be. His fastball velocity has risen steadily since 2007, his first year in the majors, from 86.7 miles per hour on average to 89.8 last year. Among the 32 left-handed starting pitchers who threw at least 130 innings last year, Lannan ranked 20th out of 32 in fastball velocity. He doesn’t throw hard, but it’s not like he’s Jamie Moyer out there, either.

So that was a lot of words to prove what you already know about Lannan: He’s a solid, back-of-the-rotation starter. Looking around the league shows why the Nationals might consider a modest extension.

For one example, the White Sox this winter signed Danks to a five-year, $65 million extension coming off what was, inarguably, his worst season. Now, Danks is on a different level than Lannan – he’s compiled 10.3 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs.com over the past three seasons compared to 3.8 for Lannan. But Lannan also had a better 2011 season than Danks, throwing more innings (184 2/3 to 170 1/3) with a lower ERA (3.70 to 4.33).

The White Sox waited until Danks’s final year of arbitration to extend him. Lannan still has two years left before he’s eligible for free agency. Again, the point isn’t that Lannan will make anywhere near what Danks made; he won’t. But the way the market for pitching is escalating, the Nationals could save themselves by not waiting until Lannan’s last year of arbitration.

An even better example may be Joe Saunders. From 2009 through 2011, both Lannan and Saunders pitchers compiled 3.8 WAR. According to an Arizona Republic story, the Diamondbacks offered Saunders a two-year deal worth $12 million, and Saunders’s side countered with a three-year, $27 million proposal. The Diamondbacks said no, and Saunders is now looking for his next team while Arizona seeks a fifth starter.

The White Sox paid a premium price for Danks and the Diamondbacks lost someone who could have been a quality fifth starter – and a possible trade piece – because they waited until each pitcher got to the final year of arbitration.

The Nationals could lock up Lannan for a modest price now. Let’s say Lannan continues at about his current pace. He would receive a bump in arbitration to roughly $5 million this year and then to perhaps $8 million next offseason in his final arbitration-eligible year. Then he’d be eligible for free agency.

If the Nationals offered Lannan somewhere around $20 million over those three seasons, it would gives Lannan security in exchange for buying out his final arbitration-eligible season and the first of his free agent years. The Nationals would have a reliable, back-end starter for the foreseeable future at a reasonable price. There’s of course some risk in Lannan regressing, but at his age and with his track record, it seems unlikely.

More importantly, they would also hold a valuable trade chip. More and more, front offices value team control in trades. If the Nationals went year-to-year with Lannan, he would have very little value in a midseason deal. If he had his salary for one or two coming seasons set, it would increase the Nationals’ return if they did trade him.

Well, I ended up writing about four times as many words on this topic as I intended. But Lannan has been a key piece of the Nationals for years – he, Ryan Zimmerman and Jesus Flores are the only three players on the 25-man roster Mike Rizzo inherited in 2009 who remain in the organization. It’ll be interesting to see how and if Rizzo intends to keep Lannan around for the future.

For a Fielder fix, Boz dropped some analysis in his chat this afternoon. He still argues for the Nats to not sign him, or at least to stay patient and sign him only at their price.

MORE

Transcript: Boswell Q&A

Reid: The time isnow for Fielder

Why the wait for Prince Fielder?

By  |  02:35 PM ET, 01/09/2012

 
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