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Handicapping the National League year-end awards races

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USA TODAY Sports

Handicapping the National League year-end awards races

Award week starts next Monday. The Nationals have two representatives in contention: Juan Soto, who hit an opposite-field homer in the MLB Japan All-Star Series on Friday morning, as a Rookie of the Year candidate and Max Scherzer making his annual appearance among the Cy Young finalists.

Soto’s race is preposterously tight. Scherzer’s is more clear, as is the MVP balloting. Let’s breakdown what’s happening:

NL Rookie of the Year

Announced Monday, Nov. 12, 6 p.m., MLB Network

Ronald Acuna Jr., LF, Braves
Juan Soto, LF, Nationals
Walker Buehler, RHP, Dodgers

This race is strange.

Soto worked as the clear favorite for a large chunk of the summer. He came up unexpectedly, stunned everyone with his demeanor and power, then became the clear front-runner for the award.

Acuna began to close, then seemingly passed, Soto as the Braves pushed to the top of the National League East. By the end of the season, he was often labeled the clear favorite. The Sporting News overwhelmingly named Acuna the NL Rookie of the Year in mid-October, and he is the odds-on favorite here. Bovada lists him at 1/3 to win.

It should be closer. Acuna and Soto are neck-and-neck across a flood of categories. Soto’s OPS was .923. Acuna’s .917. Acuna’s OPS-plus 144; Soto’s 142. Baseball Reference lists Acuna with the higher WAR. Fangraphs lists Soto with the higher WAR. Baseball Prospectus also tags Soto’s WAR (WARP in their case) higher, though it’s close.

This list goes on, and we’ll cover it in detail Monday after the announcement when I explain my ballot. Anyone who took a thorough look found what is basically a toss-up.

Oh, and hi Walker Buehler. Good season.

NL Manager of the Year

Announced Tuesday, Nov. 13, 6 p.m., MLB Network

Bud Black, Rockies
Brian Snitker, Braves
Craig Counsell, Brewers

A strange sight during the All-Star Game in the District this season: Bud Black walking back toward the manager’s office in the Nationals’ clubhouse.

The corner room which has doors to the hallway and a back door to the clubhouse was almost his. Black appeared set to take over for Matt Williams before the entire process became so out of whack the person eventually hired, Dusty Baker, said at his opening press conference he thought he was out of the running before a shift brought him to town.

That mess led to Black being hired in Colorado, where he has excelled since 2017. The Rockies won 91 games this season. The hitting was standard. But, the pitching has improved since the former MLB starter took over as manager.

Black is an amusing figure. When working on a story about Black back when he was the presumptive hire in Washington, I talked to former big league pitcher Mark Gubicza. He relayed a story about how Black used to grunt when he threw a changeup in an attempt to deceive hitters. This from a man predominantly throwing 88-mph fastballs.

Snitker was in charge of the Braves’ resurgence this season. He parlayed their unlikely division title into a two-year contract extension in October. Fivethirtyeight.com gave Atlanta a 15 percent chance on Opening Day to make the postseason (the Nationals had a 73 percent chance, ahem). To win the division the Braves had an eight percent chance to win. They did both.

Counsell, a key figure in an excellent baseball/humanity book, “The Chicken Runs at Midnight”, managed the Brewers to the NL Central title with an, at times, unconventional approach. Jesus Aguilar turning into a thing helped.

Whoever wins, congratulations. This is so subjective, Bovada doesn’t even put odds out on it.

NL Cy Young

Announced Wednesday, Nov. 14, 6 p.m., MLB Network

Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets
Aaron Nola, RHP, Phillies
Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals

No one on this list needs to grunt to fool hitters. Though, Max Scherzer tends to grunt a lot.

This announcement is expected to end Scherzer’s two-year run as the reigning Cy Young winner in the National League and prevent him from becoming one of five pitchers in history with four or more Cy Young Awards. That’s all thanks to deGrom.

Scherzer had a case for much of the season. But once deGrom’s workload caught up to his, it became clear he should win after what is fair to call a modern-day chapter of Bob Gibson’s 1968 season that forced the mound to be raised.

Gibson delivered a 1.12 ERA that season. DeGrom finished at 1.70 this year, though their FIPs, 1.77 for Gibson, 1.98 for deGrom, and WHIPs, 0.853 for Gibson and 0.912 for deGrom, were similar.

DeGrom allowed more than three earned runs once in 32 starts. That was April 10. If Scherzer wants to pinpoint one day that may have taken him out of the race, he can look at Sept. 14 in Atlanta. His ERA jumped .22 following a four-inning outing in which he allowed six earned runs. It was his worst start of the year.

Would a good start there have changed the outcome of this race? Probably not. But, it would have made it much tighter. Instead, this is deGrom’s hardware. Bovada has deGrom as the 1/5 favorite here.

NL MVP

Announced Thursday, Nov. 14, 6 p.m., MLB Network

Christian Yelich, OF, Brewers
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies
Javier Baez, IF, Cubs

Yelich did voters a favor in September when he delivered a 1.307 OPS in the midst of the NL Central playoff race. He walked 24 times and struck out 15 that month. He even stole six bases in seven attempts.

Pulled together with the rest of his season, Yelich’s .326/.402/.598 line and quality defense should deliver the MVP award to him.

Yelich was a solid player before the All-Star break. He, Lorenzo Cain, Jeremy Jeffress, Aguilar and Josh Hader were all in D.C. to play in the All-Star Game. Yelich’s .823 OPS at the time did not have him in demand during the week. He was more just a part of stories, mainly the ones that circled back to chastise Derek Jeter for strip-mining the talent in Miami.

But, his second half was potent. Yelich carried a 1.219 OPS after the All-Star break. The Brewers went from 2.5 games out of first at the break, to six games back in late August, to winning the division in game 163 on Oct. 1.

Baez played with his usual flash and style (more of this, please) while upping his power numbers to jump into the list of finalists. He also struck out with impunity, which is standard in this era, beating his OBP down to just .326.

Arenado continued to be Anthony Rendon’s foil. His offensive numbers received the typical Coors Field boost (1.105 OPS at home, .772 on the road), his glove and arm again did amazing work in the field. Arenado has won six consecutive Gold Gloves and gone to four consecutive All-Star Games. Rendon — who had a higher OPS-plus, which adjusts for a player’s ballpark, this season — is yet to receive either accolade.

Bovada has this as yet another layup. Yelich is a 4/9 favorite.

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Familiarity makes Matt Adams’ return to the Nationals an easy call

Familiarity makes Matt Adams’ return to the Nationals an easy call

Comfort carries allure for most. That includes Matt Adams.

He knew when traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in August a chance for a return to Washington existed. Adams got along with all levels of staff while operating quietly at his locker and pulverizing right-handed pitching on the field. The hole he filled in 2018 would exist again in 2019, so why couldn’t he return?

It all seems so simple, and it turned out to be. Adams’ one-year deal for $4 million, which includes a mutual option for 2020, was announced Tuesday by the Nationals after first being reported during the weekend. The left-handed bench piece Washington needed is in place for this season. It could well be back in 2020 when the team’s first base personnel could undergo a large change if Ryan Zimmerman’s option is not picked up.

“I don’t follow too much of the media stuff in the offseason,” Adams said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

“But the way that everything was left when I was traded, we were on good communication, up until that point. Everything that was said leading up to that trade, if the opportunity presented itself [to return] I would be on their list. I’m kind of lost for words, because I’m excited for this opportunity. But I think the team is definitely going to be better than it was last year, with the acquisitions that [Mike Rizzo] has made so far this offseason.”

Adams is pleased he’s not hunting a job until late into February. More frequently role players are without homes for most of, if not all of, the pre-spring training portion of the offseason. Adams is settled a week before Christmas.

“For me, the way my brain and myself works, the later I sign, the more freaked out I'm going to be,” Adams said. “Because it's the unknown that's out there. Not knowing where you're going to go, how many people you're going to know on that team you're going to sign with...For me, I was lucky and blessed to have the opportunity to sign back with the Nats where I know everybody and I get along with absolutely everybody from front office to coaches and all the players. For me, it felt like the right opportunity and I was just fortunate to get the deal done when we got it done.”

Adams’ value lays in his potency against right-handed pitching. He hit 20 of his 21 home runs last season against right-handers. This is in line with his career arc that includes 83 of his 96 home runs against right-handed throwers. Adams also slugged .538 against right-handed pitchers while with the Nationals last season. 

He’s again positioned to platoon at first base and be summoned to hit late in games. Adams played much more often than anticipated last season following Zimmerman’s languishing oblique injury. 

“I think it’s just coming up with that mindset of being ready whether your name’s called or not,” Adams said. “Whether it’s on an everyday basis or, like you said, sporadic, here and there, pinch-hitting off the bench, filling in and giving Zim a blow when he needs it. But I think going into spring training in the best shape I can possibly be in, going in ready to get better, ready to work. And wherever the season takes me playing-time wise, I’m just excited to be on a winning club with a good chance to get back to the postseason.”

Bringing Adams back reduces the Nationals’ offseason list. They need a fourth starter. They are considering a full-time second baseman. Another bench option is also part of the hunt, though it’s reliant on what happens at second base (Wilmer Difo/Howie Kendrick could fill that spot if an every day second baseman is signed). Left-handed bench bat is spoken for.

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Without Tanner Roark, where do the Nationals go from here?

Without Tanner Roark, where do the Nationals go from here?

Strange thing about the Winter Meetings. They were held in Las Vegas, that vibrant, salacious desert city, and delivered the fervor of a yawn.

The Red Sox held a press conference for a pitcher they already signed. The Hall of Fame announcement led to more grumbling than celebration, with poor Harold Baines caught in the middle just trying to enjoy his moment. Scott Boras’ day in front of the Christmas tree stirred everyone until they read through what he said. Lots of words, little substance, next to no news.

One Nationals executive lamented spending 14 hours in a suite without accomplishing anything. That about sums it up.

So, where to now? The Nationals created a gap by sending out Tanner Roark on the final day of the meetings. The move was, and remains, strange. A key decision-maker for the Nationals noted acquired Triple-A reliever Tanner Rainey throws 100 mph. What he doesn’t do is make up 180 major-league innings next season. That person, or persons, remains out there somewhere.

And the replacement is going to cost more than the Nationals should pay based on what the market has already delivered. In particular, the three-year, $30 million deal Texas gave Lance Lynn is problematic for the Nationals. Lynn was bad last season. Very bad. A 4.77 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 156 ⅔ innings. That earned him $30 million. He was better in 2017 following a return from Tommy John surgery. Combine the seasons for a 4.04 ERA. That’s superior to Roark during the span (4.50) but also requires a three-year commitment to an aging and declining pitcher.

Other aging and declining pitchers are going to want similar contracts. No quality organization wants to give them.

Which, again, makes jettisoning Roark odd. Maybe the Nationals find another starter on a two-year, $15 million deal. That would be optimum. A slight savings, modest commitment, a chance for improvement over Roark’s 97 ERA-plus the last two seasons. This has to be the premise inside their room: We can do slightly better for slightly less while also acquiring a future reliever. It’s a swing to have it all in this spot.

Meanwhile, the Nationals are sifting through the second base market. Several everyday players remain. That’s the good news. The challenge here is Washington will not want to sign one for longer than two years. Carter Kieboom is creeping toward the major leagues. No reason to pay an exorbitant price for the position he’s likely to grab when starting out at the highest level.

Two interesting points on the market have already hit: Ian Kinsler’s two-year, $8 million deal with the adrift San Diego Padres, and Jonathan Schoop’s one-year, $7.5 million contract with the Minnesota Twins. Schoop has power and is an above average defender. He’s also the kind of emphatic swinger the Nationals are trying to move away from. Kinsler is going into his age-37 season. His 2.4 WAR from last year — largely based on his quality defense — is solid. His 87 OPS-plus, not so much. And two years is one too many.

But, they give a sense of where price points for second baseman exist. If Kinsler is going to receive two years, DJ LeMahieu probably wants four. If Schoop receives $7.5 million, LeMahieu can expect $10 million per season. Those numbers push him out of the Nationals’ preferred range.

Jed Lowrie turns 35 next April. He’s a top-5 defender, according to Fangraphs, and walks often.  Would his back-to-back seasons of above-.800 OPS be enough for the Nationals to give him two years and $20 million? Do they need to wait for the rotation piece in order to see what spending wiggle room remains? Roark was expected to make around $10 million following arbitration. If that cost is pushed down to $7 million, is the difference available for a second baseman?

Otherwise, the Nationals may as well stick with the proposed Wilmer Difo-Howie Kendrick platoon at second. The external options are too thin. Kieboom, a deadline trade or a waiver claim could help fix things midseason, if necessary.

So, think of the Nationals’ remaining list as filled with a must, a maybe and a look. The must is finding another starter. The maybe is a second baseman. The look is into the left-handed reliever market. Not much was done in Vegas. Certain things have to be done before West Palm Beach.

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