Nationals Q&A: Masahiro Tanaka, Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, MASN


(Chris Gardner/Getty)

First of all, Adam and I wish you all a happy new year and best of luck in 2014. Spring training is and fast approaching at just more than a month away. Thanks for those who asked thoughtful questions and we did our best to tackle them below.

Exposneverdie: Any chance the Nats get involved in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes?

Adam Kilgore: Nope, at least not in any meaningful way. As Mike Rizzo told Boz, the Nationals prefer to save their money to work on extensions for Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann. The merits of that can be debated. One hard-to-fathom but interesting-to-consider scenario: land Tanaka and use Zimmermann as a massive trade chip. The Nats may have to trade Zimmermann next winter if they cannot sign him to an extension; why not circumvent that AND get more value for Zimmermann while he’s got two years remaining?

But I digress. That’s not happening. The Nationals have scouted Tanaka, and their baseball operations department likes him. They view him overall as pretty close in quality to Yu Darvish, but with a different style. Tanaka is not as overpowering as Darvish, they think, but his sinker is so devastating that Tanaka will get groundouts by the truckload.

1st in W.A.R.: Since the MASN dispute has been ongoing prior to the start of the 2012 season, what (if any) compensation in fees have the Nats received in that time period? Have they continued to receive the same amounts as those prior to 2012, or are the fees for those seasons withheld until an agreement is reached?

James Wagner: Firstly, the MASN front has been quiet. There is nothing new to report now. This is an incredibly complicated dispute between two teams. An unhappy team could sue, perhaps the worst of outcomes for MLB, so I can imagine the league is being even more thorough. Could you imagine the discovery period of a trial between two teams and what guarded information, such as detail financial records, could be exposed? And, remember, this is Bud Selig’s final season as commissioner. He, and MLB, take their time, especially on complex issues.

But, to answer the question: The Nationals are supposed to receive compensation during these disputed years as prescribed by the existing MASN contract and compensation formula. So, as we’ve reported before, the rights fee was $29 million in 2011, $34 million in 2012 and $37 million in 2013. There was an equity stake payment of $8 million in 2013. In 2014, those numbers should rise. The Nationals’ stake in the network rises by one percent each season, but capped at 33 percent, will be at 15 percent for 2014.

3407: Given his breathtaking rookie season followed by a disappointing 2nd season due to injury, what should legitimate expectations be for Bryce’s 3rd season?

Kilgore: Injury certainly diminished his production, but I’m not sure it’s totally fair to call Harper’s second season an outright disappointment. He hit 20 home runs with a 133 OPS+ – markedly better than his 118 OPS+ from his rookie season – at age 20.

It’s hard to peg expectations for Harper because we don’t know 1) how healthy his surgically repaired knee will be and 2) if he can stay healthy. Harper vowed he would lift weights to make himself “as big as a house,” and from what I’ve heard, he’s already put on a massive amount of muscle. Will that help sustain him over a long season? Or will the extra weight make him more susceptible to small muscle strains and such? What effect will Matt Williams have on Harper’s style?

Ultimately, Harper takes great lengths to take care of his body. Every player endures bumps and bruises, but let’s assume he stays mostly healthy and plays somewhere between 145 and 155 games. The ceiling is simple: Harper has the skill-set to be a top-5 MVP candidate. I keep going back to his amazing start to last season – before he banged into the wall in Atlanta, Harper had nine homers and a 1.200 OPS over 24 games. I don’t want to hear about small sample size, either – he was killing EVERYTHING anyone threw him, lefties or right-handers.

Are those fair expectations? Perhaps not. But I do think it’s realistic to say that if Harper plays to his potential, he could hit 30-35 homers with something like a .375 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage nearing .550.

One reason to be so bullish: Harper’s walk-rate jumped from 9.4% in 2012 to 12.3% last season. That figure tends to rise early in a hitter’s career, and if Harper improves again he’ll be among the league’s elite. With that kind of discipline, combined with his innate raw power, Harper would be a monster.

Dougmacintyre: Who will be the opening day starter? Will spring training results influence this decision at all?

Wagner:  Sure, yes, spring training can influence this decision. But, I don’t see how it won’t be Stephen Strasburg on opening day for the third straight season. (Strasburg is said to be on track to be 100 percent for spring training, but a slow return from his offseason surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow could affect this.) Jordan Zimmermann has a strong case to be the team’s No. 1 starter, given his strong 2013 season in which he went 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA. And if Zimmermann is handed the ball on opening day, Strasburg could slide into his spot as the No. 3 starter with Gio Gonzalez splitting up the two right-handers as the No. 2 starter.

Don’t let Strasburg’s 8-9 record in 2013 fool you; he had a strong season. His 3.00 ERA, 1.049 WHIP and 9.4 K/9 were all best on the staff. The Nationals and he know that he can get better, but he is excellent already. He has the best stuff on the Nationals staff and he is viewed as a No. 1 starter. It’s worth keeping him that way and the Nationals can keep his confidence high by keeping him there, too.

FairfaxDave: Realistically, how much money are the Lerners willing to spend on the Nats’ salaries over the next couple of years? It’s all well-and-good to talk about making a bid for Tanaka, but what would that do to extending Jordan Zimmermann and Desmond? With the exception of the Werth signing 3 years ago, the Lerners haven’t put out any BIG contracts, at least not by today’s standards, where that starts at $100 million. Are they going to be content with mostly home-grown talent, spending a little for the likes of Soriano and Haren, etc in the free agent market, and never go large for expensive free agents?

Kilgore: This demands a more complicated, layered answer. In short, based on every sign the Lerners have sent, the payroll will never rise much higher than about $140 million. They don’t have a set number, it seems, but they’re not going much above that. They will spend in the top half, maybe the top 10, on players, but never with the very highest teams. Since Werth, getting to that number has meant a big extension for Ryan Zimmerman, one-year free agents and lots and lots of small-to-moderate raises through arbitration. So much for “Phase Two.”

Everything the Lerners have done suggests they will run the Nationals to make some kind of profit. That doesn’t make them callous or penny-pinchers. But you should still hold their feet to the fire. They are in a market with as much disposable income as any in the majors. Ted Lerner is worth $4 billion. What they should do is a fair debate. What they COULD do is not: If they wanted to blow past the luxury tax, no one in ownership would be going hungry anytime soon. Maybe they’ll one day decide that’s the best model, that extreme spending will lead to higher revenues. It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off – the Phillies are finding out about the dangers of that model now – and at the moment the Lerners have not shown willingness to try it.

NYG_ODU: How much of a leash does LaRoach have if he comes into the season hitting like he did last year? I know a lot of fans couldn’t believe how long it took for management to do something about espinosa last season.

Wagner: First of all, his last name is LaRoche. (I’ve seen it spelled that other way several times before.) But, to answer the question: I could see Adam LaRoche’s leash being shorter than last season. He will be 34 next season, already in the midst of the traditional decline years. If he produces anywhere close to his career averages of .811 OPS, 22 home runs and 75 RBI, the Nationals should be thrilled. Rizzo has said he believes LaRoche will rebound next season, but banking on that much production from a player his age isn’t a sure thing.

This is why I found Ryan Zimmerman’s upcoming limited action at first base in 2014 so interesting. I think this move has less to do with the Nationals’ belief in Zimmerman’s ability to play third base but more to do with the team protecting itself against another bad season from LaRoche. Based on the plan, Zimmerman will spell LaRoche in the starting lineup against tough, left-handed starting pitchers roughly 10-15 games.

But imagine if LaRoche struggles like he did last year and it’s easy to see Zimmerman playing first more often than that. Factor in Tyler Moore — if he rebounds — and other players juggled around — maybe even Scott Hairston or Danny Espinosa at first — and the Nationals have a few options to cover first base. But, of course, none of them would be full-time and sure things.

rb-freedom-for-all: Isn’t it obvious Detwiler should be a long reliever? Even when he had a good season as a starter 2 years ago, he rarely went more than 5 innings. He has troubled getting through the order the 2nd time. Roark should be the fifth starter heading into training camp, shouldn’t he?

Kilgore: Detwiler’s destiny may well be the bullpen. You could see him becoming a weapon similar to Justin Wilson of the Pirates, a lefty who can one out if you want or seven outs if you need it. In his brief tenures out of the bullpen, Detwiler has been dominant. And Detwiler has certainly had a tough time getting deep into starts. Part of that, in Detwiler’s defense, was Davey Johnson’s unwillingness to leave him in. But batters facing him for the third time in a game have hit .314/.366/.493 over the course of his career. To address that, Detwiler needs more consistency from his off-speed pitchers.

All of that being said, I think you need to give Detwiler every chance to stay a starter as long as possible. He will inherently provide more value as a starter than as a reliever. And for the most part, he’s been quite good as a starter. Who can forget his clutch six innings in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS? He’s still young, and he has the credentials of a lefty picked sixth overall. If Tanner Roark or Taylor Jordan flat-out beat him out in spring training, fine. But I would keep Detwiler in the rotation until that happens.

prestoj: Danny Espinosa’s bat has made him a bench player going into 2014 spring training. What if his hitting woes were mostly due to injury and he comes into camp healthy and starts hitting around .250 with some pop? What would the domino effect on the opening day lineup then be?

Wagner: Espinosa first has to earn a spot on the team, even as a backup. Rizzo has reiterated that. And it is logical. Espinosa has much to prove at the plate following his hitting woes, worsened by injury last season. Espinosa’s swing looked improved last spring and then he struggled during the season, so I’ll be more conservative this time around. Even if he looks good this spring and makes the team, Espinosa may have to show that his swing and hitting approach can work in the majors again. The best case scenario is that Espinosa hits well in spring, the Nationals are pleased with his improvements, he makes the team, pushes Anthony Rendon and sees more playing time than expected, maybe even unseating Rendon with torrid hitting. But, right now, Rendon is more of a sure thing — even with only one season under his belt — and there are so many hurdles and factors for Espinosa.

Sancho: What’s the over/under on the number of games until Matt Williams “puts someone in a locker?”

Wagner: Two? Does someone else want to set that line?

In what I’ve heard about him and read about him, Williams strikes me as the type of person who will be tough when needed (see: Barry Bonds) but kind when needed. So much of being a manager is managing players’ personalities, styles and concerns. In my limited dealings with Williams so far, he has been polite, self-aware and sharp. On the field, and when he sees something he doesn’t like, I could see Williams’ well-known fire coming through.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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Adam Kilgore · December 30, 2013

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