General Manager Mike Rizzo always says he enters the offseason with Plan A to improve or fix the Nationals but with Plans B and C already mapped out in case his best hopes don’t materialize. Trading stellar setup man Tyler Clippard for Yunel Escobar, a 32-year-old shortstop showing signs of deterioration, in order to turn him into Washington’s next second baseman feels like Plan C.
Just so it doesn’t turn out to be Plan F. This is the move you make because the winter’s complex shenanigans have you cornered and you think Escobar is better than Danny Espinosa and Dan Uggla. Five weeks before pitchers and catchers report is traditionally a time when every team and fan has the inalienable right to think rosy thoughts. But with Jayson Werth sidelined until roughly opening day after having shoulder surgery last week and this week’s trade, the offseason’s getting chilly in D.C.
Maybe the Nationals and Rizzo were so traumatized by their first-round exit in the playoffs that they just couldn’t bear to watch the World Series. If they had, they would have noticed that the Giants and Royals were defined by extremely deep, almost overwhelming bullpens, spectacularly rangy defenses and internal team chemistry.
Having witnessed that bullpen demonstration and having subtracted Rafael Soriano (32 saves) and Ross Detwiler from your bullpen and seen Aaron Barrett lose his composure in the playoffs, would you have traded Clippard, a high-character setup man? Soriano gave headaches, Detwiler was unhappy as a reliever and Barrett might prove to be resilient. But can you really spare the fourth hardest to hit pitcher in Major League Baseball over the past four years?
And if you did trade Clippard, would you deal him for the much-traveled Escobar, whose hitting has been mediocre the past three seasons, who had the worst defensive metrics of any shortstop last year and who was suspended by the Blue Jays in 2012 for writing a homophobic slur on his eye black? Even if he rediscovers his once-excellent defense, will this guy help your clubhouse?
Finally, you just made a trade that comes painfully close to telling Ian Desmond, “Goodbye after this season and good luck in your future endeavors.” With Escobar under team control for three years (for a maximum of just $18 million), plus hot prospect Trea Turner (acquired at the substantial price of MLB-ready hitter Steven Souza Jr.) now fully in the picture, where does that leave Desmond? In recent days, it has put him at the center of trade talks with the Mets.
The Nats might think they’re gaining flexibility at shortstop and leverage with Desmond. Put yourself in his spikes. If you’d been the most valuable shortstop in the game over the past three years (by wins above replacement) and also one of the team’s two or three central leaders, what would you tell your agent? I’d say, “Gonna try to win the Series this year in D.C. But don’t take any more phone calls from the Nats.”
The Nats consider their $107 million offer to Desmond a market-value deal or close enough to reach an agreement. And they’re not just giving off take-it-or-leave-it vibes; they’re making actual take-it-or-leave-it trades. But in the baseball-as-business world, it’s not market value. Last year, the Nats consciously sought a hometown discount for Desmond. The strategy failed. He had another 20-homer, 20-steal season. Salaries exploded as they almost always do.
How much are the Nats’ financial decisions being impacted by the Lerners’ well-known practice of never taking on obligations until they are absolutely certain the revenues to fund them are locked in place? Despite the Lerners’ enormous wealth, are they acting paralyzed because Orioles and MASN owner Peter Angelos has, legally, dragged out the process of reaching a decision on the reset of the Nats’ rights fees for years?
Two people — one a high-ranking baseball official, the other with extensive first-hand experience of the Lerners’ budget decisions — consider the family almost phobic about knowing their future revenues before spending. They’re billionaires, and they’ve been told the MASN mess eventually will be resolved so don’t let star players escape in the meantime.
But what have they decided?
The Clippard-Escobar trade has a cogent rationale. The Nats have lots of strong young arms, such as Blake Treinen with his 95-98-mph sinker, to fill out the bullpen. Also, free agents are still roaming the veld, including Francisco Rodriguez (44 saves, 3.04 ERA), a Scott Boras client who undoubtedly will come at a high price. Two years ago, Boras convinced Ted Lerner of the wonders of his client Soriano. Something similar is conceivable, though the cheaper Casey Janssen is also available.
In contrast, the second base cabinet is now bare, especially because baseball’s only utility man semi-superstar, Ben Zobrist, who would have looked fabulous in several uniforms, including the Nats, was grabbed by the A’s. With no everyday second baseman once Asdrubal Cabrera left town for a free agent deal, the Nats were hurting. Signing Uggla to a minor league deal is Plan Z insurance.
With Escobar at second, the Nats get less bad at the only position where they are not average to exceptional. Rizzo points at Escobar’s excellent .291 average, .368 on-base percentage and .403 slugging percentage in four years in Atlanta. But his modest .256/.318/.350 the past three years is much more realistic. The Nats hope that shoulder and quad problems were responsible for his ugly minus-24 defensive rating and a 24 percent decrease in range factor from his stellar career levels. Unlike Espinosa, he walks almost as much as he strikes out and has “contact skills” that Rizzo values.
“If he’s healthy . . . not playing on [injury-inducing] turf and surrounded by a really good clubhouse, he can be a fine all-around player,” Rizzo said.
Rizzo’s record has been so exceptional that he deserves as much benefit of the doubt as any evaluator in the game. The Turner-for-Souza deal has been hailed as a steal by the industry; that has set in motion the life-without-Ian planning of which Escobar is a central part, as insurance policy and hedge against the pace of Turner’s development. Also, Clippard was in his walk year, so the Nats get three reasonably priced years of Escobar instead of one about $9 million year of Clippard. That cold calculus is a big part of modern baseball, no matter how much you like Clip’s goggles and love the “invisible fastball.”
Maybe Rizzo is right when he says, “We had to give up a very good pitcher [so] we could get better for ’15 and create [options] for ’16 and ’17. We saw this as great trade value.”
Pessimism in January is baseball anathema, especially for a team that won 96 games, faces a weakened NL East and is now pat-hand solid everywhere except that relief-pitcher perch in right field.
Nevertheless, the prevailing wind this winter still feels a little chilly to me.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.