December 28, 2015
Signed DH/OF/1B?-L John Jaso to a two-year contract worth $8 million. [12/26]
There’s a cliché that some MLB front offices are playing checkers (the White Sox, Angels, or any other team focused on making a quick, impactful move) while others are playing chess (the Astros, Athletics, or your sabermetric team du jour). The Pirates are playing Tetris. They are gathering the crazy-shaped blocks and making everything fit seamlessly, while the pressures of space and time and the game’s most devastating division threaten to break them.
Jaso is the L-shaped block, something that doesn’t fit every time, team, or scenario. But on the Pirates, he slots in flawlessly: a cheap, effective, part-time player who fills the team’s most pressing need at the cold corner. What Jaso does is simple: he reaches base with alacrity, doing nearly all of his damage against right-handed pitching. His batting line against northpaws over the last five years includes a .367 on-base percentage and .441 slugging percentage—that puts him at the fringes of the top-30 hitters in baseball in that time period, for that split.
Of course, Jaso also comes pre-loaded with multiple serious flaws, which is why he’s playing for $4 million: he’s a terrible hitter against lefties, he’s a pretty poor defensive player, and it’s unlikely he’ll make more than 400 plate appearances. His injury woes are well-documented–a series of concussions have robbed him of the ability to play catcher, and his defense in the outfield made it eminently clear that first base was his best home. And with a career slugging percentage of .232 against left-handed pitchers, even the worst of platoon caddies would be a significant upgrade.
Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates’ incumbent first baseman, was god-awful defensively. He was to first base defense what Hanley Ramirez was to left field defense: bad range paired with awful hands and only the faintest idea of how to act. It’s hard to predict how Jaso will perform, since none of his previous teams have tested him out at first base–a weird occurrence considering how bad James Loney and the Rays were at the cold corner last season. (The Rays seem to have a funny idea how to gauge first base talent, though. They love to try everyone and their brother, except John Jaso and Triple-A star Richie Shaffer. Even the shruggie guy emoticon is mystified by the Rays’ approach to first base.)
Opposite Michael Morse, Jaso should be half to two-thirds of a pretty effective solution at first base for the Pirates. He’s one of baseball’s ultimate tactical weapons, the lineup equivalent to a lights-out setup man. It is damn hard to compete in a division boasting the newly-minted Cubs juggernaut and the Cardinals’ player development factory, so the Pirates appear to be using the Moneyball model to survive. And now the Pirates have picked up their own Scott Hatteberg. Learning to play first base from catcher is hard (tell ‘em, Wash!), but there’s no reason to think Jaso will struggle there, especially compared to Alvarez. By placing a flawed but talented player in just the right position, the Pirates appear to have engineered a very solid first baseman out of spare parts. Sometimes, everything just fits. —Bryan Grosnick
One day Jaso will play in a hitter's park, possibly. Best left for deep mixed leagues and slightly shallower ones that use OBP rather than batting average, he should have a clear shot at playing time for as long as he can stay healthy—and with a league full of pitchers who haven't seen him much yet, Jaso could be sneakily useful compared to his draft/auction value. In fact, in 232 inter-league plate appearances, Jaso has hit .288/.384/.455 with four homers and five steals. Extra credit to anyone who can figure out why Jaso has racked up 33 percent of his career steals against National League opponents.
Well, that was a fun two weeks in the life of Rogers, who is now looking at competition for the first base job (at best) and a ticket to Indianapolis (at worst). —Bret Sayre
Signed 2B-L Daniel Murphy to a three-year deal worth $37.5 million. [12/26]
There are players with broad skill sets, and then there are players who are good (often very good) at one or two things. Murphy is the latter.
By every measure, Murphy is an elite contact hitter. He's batted .280 or better in each of his full big-league seasons except for the first, and in 2015 he whiffed on a career-low nine percent of his swings. The catch, as previously mentioned, is that he doesn't do much else well. In spite of a decent eye, his career walk rate is six percent; his willingness to steal bases (though not his proneness for running into outs) has fluctuated throughout his career; and his fielding is, well, substandard. The one hope Murphy has for becoming a more well-rounded player rests on his power, since last season he set new career-bests in homers and ISO after making mechanical tweaks and becoming pull-happy. Alas, even then, he was closer to average power production than not.
So here's what this deal boils down to, really: can Murphy hit .280 in each of the next three seasons? Because he's going to be a league-average player (or thereabout) for as long as he can do that. And how long will that be? We don't know. We do know that Murphy has the bat-to-ball skills, the feel for the barrel, and so on that a player must have in order to post high averages over a sustained stretch. What we don't know is how others with similar hit tools have aged, and where Murphy will fall on the curve.
The table below attempts to answer the first part of that—to an extent, anyway. In that table you'll see how 190 hitters fared in three ensuing seasons after a) hitting .280-plus and b) notching 400 or more plate appearances in three consecutive post-1990 seasons. The bottom row keeps track of how many of those 190 were able to hit .280 while meeting the playing-time thresholds (lowered to 150 since we aren't interested in injuries so much as production):
Obviously there's survivor bias baked in, and this isn't as comprehensive as you'd like—there aren't any age-, ballpark-, or league-related adjustments factored in—but it gives you a rough idea of Murphy's chances heading forward. He's seemingly a fairly safe bet to do his thing in 2016; the following two seasons each boil down to a coin flip. You can probably talk yourself into a bullish stance on his 2017, but who knows about 2018. We don't; the Nationals certainly don't.
Yet Mike Rizzo should be happy with landing Murphy—even if he was their fourth target, behind Ben Zobrist, Howie Kendrick, and Brandon Phillips. Phillips is the comparison to make here, since the Nationals reportedly had a trade worked out that later fell to the ground. Murphy costs a draft pick that Phillips wouldn't have, and doesn't come equipped with Phillips' glove or relationship with Dusty Baker. Still, he has some positives to him, too. Murphy will be younger at the deal's conclusion than Phillips is now, and he comes with an additional year of control at the cost of just $10 million more. Oh, and Murphy is arguably a better fit for the roster.
Part of Murphy's marketability is that he has some positional versatility—albeit not necessarily because he's good at multiple spots. His flexibility has the chance to be a major plus for the Nationals, who badly needed more depth. Prior to this signing, Washington was going to enter the season with Bryce Harper and a series of question marks: Anthony Rendon, Wilson Ramos, and Ryan Zimmerman are health-related risks; Jayson Werth and Michael Taylor are performance-related risks; and Danny Espinosa seemingly has a better chance of ending 2016 in a platoon with Murphy than he does repeating his 2015 over a full slate of playing time.
Murphy's protean nature gifts the Nationals options if and when Rendon or Zimmerman hit the DL. Before, they'd have to call upon Clint Robinson or Dan Uggla or whoever; now, they can slot in Murphy and bring up Trea Turner or Wilmer Difo.
You might wonder about what happens when Turner and Difo are both ready, but by then, the Nationals will likely have a hole in left field with Murphy's name on it. Until then, adding a vet middle infielder makes a good deal of sense for developmental purposes. Turner hasn't played a full season within the Nats system, and could use at least a few more weeks in the minors before he's asked to handle the everyday load. Difo, meanwhile, hasn't played in Triple-A and in 2015 hit .286/.325/.412 across two levels—a line that doubles as a pretty good guess at Murphy's career marks (.288/.331/.424). Maybe one forces their way into the majors earlier than expected, but that's a good problem to have if it arises.
Besides, the Nationals' focus should be on the present, not on what might happen in five or six months.
While it feels as though it was just yesterday that the Nationals were this close to the NLCS, it was actually three whole seasons ago. As such, the core that once seemed to have a bright future in D.C. is nearing the end of its time together: Jordan Zimmermann, Denard Span, and Ian Desmond are going or gone; Stephen Strasburg, Wilson Ramos, and Drew Storen could bolt after this season; Harper and Gio Gonzalez might be through after 2018; and so on. It wouldn't be fair to say the window is closing—the Nationals have the resources, in prospects and cash, to replace many of those players internally or externally—but it would be fair to say that 2016 is this group's last chance at finishing the job.
Murphy, then, ought to help make the most of the opportunity—provided, of course, he hits .280. —R.J. Anderson
There's really very little to say here from a fantasy sense, mostly because very little changes with Murphy—though what does change is the potential of a high-impact lineup around him (even though as we saw in 2015, there's no guarantee for that to happen). Hitting around or between players like Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman should bump up the counting stats a little more than hitting around or between players like Lucas Duda, David Wright, Curtis Granderson and Travis d'Arnaud. Aside from that, the other potentially exciting factor here is Dusty Baker's need for speed. He's publicly stated his desire to steal more bases, and while it's nothing but lip service at the moment, that's really all we need to get a little too excited in roto. Murphy continues to be a solid back of the top-10 second baseman in mixed leagues and this changes none of that—all it does is make him slightly more likely to return to borderline top-five status.
Danny Espinosa, Trea Turner, Wilmer Difo
The likely depth chart at the start of the season will have Espinosa as the starting shortstop, at least as of right now, but with second base now occupied, he will need to play for his job as he gets pushed by both Turner and Difo, who are both hot on his heels. Both prospects will also need to force the Nationals' hand a little harder than previously anticipated. Espinosa is still a viable MI in deeper mixed leagues, but those who were concerned about his job security before are only more anchored to that fear now—and rightfully so. —Bret Sayre
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @r_j_anderson