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Nats must decide on Lannan, Flores

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Nats must decide on Lannan, Flores

Another of baseball's offseason deadlines arrives late Friday night, when all clubs must tender contracts to all players who aren't already signed for 2013.

For most, this is a mere formality, the acknowledgment by the organization that it intends to keep said player for another season. But for a handful of players -- typically those who have more than three years of service time and thus are arbitration-eligible -- this can be a tense time.

Arbitration-eligible players are guaranteed to make decent money, at minimum 80 percent of what they made the previous season but typically much more than that. If a player who falls into this category hasn't performed up to snuff but stands to earn a raise through the arbitration process, he becomes a candidate to be "non-tendered," which is just a fancy way of saying he's released and becomes a free agent.

Most clubs non-tender at least one or two players each winter, and the Nationals have shown a willingness to do just that over the years. They non-tendered reliever Doug Slaten last December, and the previous year non-tendered Wil Nieves, Joel Peralta and Chien-Ming Wang (they later re-signed Wang).

The Nationals have a boatload of arbitration-eligible players this winter, 10 of them to be precise. Most are key contributors and will be tendered contracts without a second thought: Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen and Roger Bernadina.

There are three players, however, who could conceivably be out of jobs come midnight Friday: John Lannan, Jesus Flores and Tom Gorzelanny.

Start with Lannan, probably the most difficult decision of the bunch. After relegating him to Class AAA Syracuse for much of last season despite his $5 million salary, the Nationals seemed to be saying they had no long-term use for the left-hander.

But Lannan did come up big when the Nationals needed him to make six late-season starts, four of them in place of the shut-down Stephen Strasburg. There remains a good amount of support for the 28-year-old within the organization, and there are some who would like to see him get the No. 5 starter's job that was snatched away from him last spring.

There are two problems, though: 1) Lannan is guaranteed to make at least $4 million, and will probably make more than that, perhaps even a raise from last year's salary, and 2) he's out of options and thus can't be sent back to Syracuse again in 2013.

It's no secret that general manager Mike Rizzo has listened to trade offers for Lannan for some time. To date, no one has offered enough in return to get Rizzo to pull the trigger. And it's unlikely anyone will up the ante now, knowing Lannan could be had for nothing next week.

Which leaves the Nationals to decide whether to simply cut ties with the lefty now or go ahead and tender him a contract, committing either to paying him the full $5 million or so to be a part of their 2013 rotation or perhaps releasing him during spring training when they would only be on the hook for about one-sixth of his salary.

(That final scenario sounds like the most plausible solution. The Nationals can tender Lannan his contract, then wait and see if he's needed in the Opening Day rotation or if a solid trade offer finally is made. If neither happens, he can be cut loose in mid-March at a fraction of the cost.)

While there are scenarios that would result in Lannan making the Nationals' Opening Day roster, there really aren't any plausible ones that would result in Flores making it. Both Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki would probably have to be injured for Flores' services to be required. And even then, the Nationals have plenty of young catching depth in Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon.

Flores, who made $850,000 last season, won't cost an arm and a leg, but there's simply no place for him in the organization anymore. It would be an unfortunate parting with the 28-year-old catcher, who was originally plucked away from the Mets in the 2006 Rule 5 draft, but it's probably time for both sides to go their separate ways.

Gorzelanny certainly was a valuable piece to the Nationals' bullpen last season, a durable left-hander who could eat up innings when a starter got knocked out early. And the club would happily take him back next year.

The only downside: Gorzelanny already made $3 million last season and will receive a raise next season. Is a long reliever and mop-up man really worth that much money? Probably not, but considering the shortage of lefties in the Nationals' bullpen at the moment -- Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez each are free agents -- there may be no choice but to tender Gorzelanny a contract and pay him a hefty sum for a role that doesn't usually command one.

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Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

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USA TODAY

Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

Welcome to Inside Baseball. Here, we're taking a quick peek at what's going on ... inside ... baseball. 

We're almost a month into the MLB season, and that sweet noise you hear is the sound of sample sizes starting to become reliable! So far, the Red Sox are very good except for the nights they're getting no-hit, Derek Jeter's Marlins and their .227 winning percentage "aren't accepting a losing culture," and Mike Trout is well on his way to another historically-great 3rd place finish in the MVP race. 

AT NATS PARK

As it stands today, the Nationals are sitting in 4th in the NL East. It's early, they haven't been healthy, etc. etc., whatever. It hasn't been great. Their pitching staff features the best rotation in baseball paired alongside one of the worst bullpens in baseball. No bullpen in baseball has a higher homerun/flyball percentage (18%) than the Nationals. Only two teams - the Rockies and the Royals - strand runners on base at a lower clip than the Nationals (64.0 LOB%). If you really want to get into the weeds, their Win Probabilty and Clutch numbers tell a grim story too. 

Don't smash that panic button yet, though (maybe just lightly rest your hand on it?). There are a few reasons to believe that maybe the bullpen isn't actually as bad as they've been the first month.  They're striking out hitters at an elite level so far - only the Brewers and the Yankees have better K/9 and K% numbers than the Nats.  If you take take a look back at which bullpens led the league in strikeout numbers over the last handful of years, you'll see a *lot* of playoff teams. In the three-true-outcome era, having a bullpen that gets swings-and-misses is inarguably valuable. The Nats have that. 

Taking a look at their individual numbers, it's clear there's an excellent backend hidden somewhere in the bullpen right now. Sammy Solis' ERA is almost four runs higher than his FIP (fielding-independent pitching), a clear sign that Solis has pitched well but been a victim of the Nats' shoddy defense. The same goes for Ryan Madson, whose ERA sits at almost seven despite an FIP under three. Assuming that bullpen roles become more established once the data catches up, the Nats' bullpen could look a lot better in a month or two. 

AROUND BASEBALL

What you should know: Manny Machado's half-season showcase is going swimmingly. He's slashing .360/.447/.708 with eight homers through the first month or so of games. He's posted a 208 wRC+, which is a fancy way of saying he's been 108 percent better than league average at the plate so far. He's been the most valuable hitter this season and the second-most valuable player overall. Meanwhile, the Orioles are 6-17 and already 12 games out of first place in the AL East. It hasn't even been a month yet. Is this the year the the MLB trade deadline is exciting?!

What you should watch: Angels @ Astros (4/24-4/25)

Shohei Ohtani is pitching on Tuesday night, so that's reason enough. But, if you need more, there's also Mike Trout, the defending World Series champs, and Justin Verlander pitching on Wednesday. It also happens to be a battle between the best two teams in the AL West, separated by half a game for first place. If there's such a thing as exciting April baseball, it looks like this. 

Player of the week: I know we already talked about him, but no one's been better than Manny Machado over the last seven days. He's hitting .500/.586/1.208 with five homers during that span. After being bit by historically bad luck during the first half of last season, Machado has been putting up monster numbers ever since:

Random baseball gif: 

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Nats give up monster HR, drop series-opener with Giants

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USA TODAY Sports

Nats give up monster HR, drop series-opener with Giants

SAN FRANCISCO  -- Mac Williamson hit a two-run homer in the sixth to lead the Giants past the Washington Nationals 4-2 on Monday night.

Chris Stratton (2-1) struck out five over 6 2/3 innings, allowing two runs and four hits.

Williamson, playing his first home game at AT&T Park this season after being called up during the recent road trip, connected with a deep drive to right-center off Shawn Kelley after he relieved starter Gio Gonzalez (2-2). Gonzalez walked Brandon Belt to end his day before Williamson crushed the first pitch he saw from Kelley.

The 464-foot shot by Williamson is the furthest homer by the Giants this year, topping his previous 434-foot homer Friday after he was promoted to face the Angels in Anaheim. Earlier Monday, Williamson drove in his team's initial run on a fielder's choice in the fourth.

Only three home runs have travelled further in 2018, according to MLB StatCast: Franchy Cordero (489), Avisail Garcia (481) and Marcell Ozuna (479)

San Francisco kicked off a 10-game homestand by winning back-to-back games for only the second time this season and first since April 4-7. The Giants were coming off their first series victory of the season against the Angels.

The Nationals' runs came on a pair of sacrifice flies, by Howie Kendrick in the third and pinch-hitter Andrew Stevenson in the seventh.

Gonzalez allowed three runs and four hits, struck out four and walked three in five innings.

In his only other start against Washington, Stratton threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts last Aug. 13.

Hunter Strickland, who brawled with Bryce Harper during Washington's last visit to AT&T Park in late May 2017, finished for his fourth save in six chances. Harper didn't bat in the ninth.

NATS TRADE COLE

Washington traded right-hander A.J. Cole to the New York Yankees for cash. The 26-year-old Cole was 1-1 with a 13.06 ERA in four games for the Nationals and was designated for assignment last week.

BAKER REUNION

Ex-Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who guided Washington to back-to-back NL East titles before his firing after last season, visited the ballpark to see his former club.

Did he plan the visit in advance?

"Maybe," Baker said, grinning.

Nats pitcher Stephen Strasburg hustled out to give Baker a big hug behind the batting cage.

"What's up Dusty, how you doing?" Strasburg said.

Baker also visited with third base coach Bob Henley, the loan holdover from his coaching staff.

Baker is now working in an advisory role to Giants CEO Larry Baer while getting to watch son, Darren, play his freshman college season at California in Berkeley.

"I am good," Baker said. "How bad can it be between Cal, San Francisco and Sacramento?"

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: OF Adam Eaton, on the disabled list retroactive to April 9 with a bone bruise in his left ankle, won't be rushed back until he is completely pain-free. "When you see him in the lineup he'll be ready," manager Dave Martinez said. "He's coming along. When we get him back this time we don't want any issues." ... OF Brian Goodwin remains in Florida with pain in his bruised left wrist.

Giants: LHP Will Smith is eagerly anticipating his return from Tommy John surgery that cost him all of last season, and he could come off the DL as soon as Tuesday. He pitched twice for Class-A San Jose and three times so far for Triple-A Sacramento. He is scheduled to throw consecutive days for Sacramento on Wednesday and Thursday then another short outing Sunday. "We're close. We're getting there," Smith said, noting it will be "awesome. I'm ready to go." ... RHP closer Mark Melancon (flexor strain in pitching elbow) is scheduled to play catch during Thursday's off day. There is no timetable for his return, manager Bruce Bochy said. ... LF Hunter Pence (sprained right thumb) did some hitting and is scheduled for early batting practice Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Giants lefty Ty Blach (1-3, 4.10 ERA) will face the Nationals for the first time in his career when he pitches the middle game of the series opposite right-hander Tanner Roark (1-1, 3.24).