The GM's Office: Washington Nationals

Adam Wainwright and Bryce HarperGetty ImagesAdam Wainwright and Bryce Harper hope to meet up in the 2015 NLCS.
After touring both Arizona and most recently Florida, I have come to a relatively easy conclusion that the two best teams in the National League -- at least on paper as well as from the scouting seats this spring -- are the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals. The Cardinals arrived in Jupiter, Florida, last month with a lot of questions surrounding their starting pitching mostly because of health reasons, but also because of the trade of Shelby Miller to the Braves in the offseason for right fielder Jason Heyward. Every single question has been answered positively. Adam Wainwright feels great and even clarified to me he is 100 percent. Michael Wacha looks like the Wacha of 2013 according to GM John Mozeliak. John Lackey and Lance Lynn look like the pitchers who helped the Cards win the division last year. In addition, all three starters fighting for the fifth job have pitched well enough to win the spot. Jaime Garcia has been the surprise of camp, not only completely healthy but pitching like he did when he was one of the league’s best left-handed starters. Carlos Martinez has shown that his fastball command is improving and he could start, even though he is expected to return to the eighth-inning role by Opening Day. Marco Gonzales has developed by light years this spring, adding a two-seam sinker, a cutter and a curveball, three new pitches to a repertoire that already included a solid four-seam fastball up in the zone and a plus-plus changeup he can use to get right- and left-handed hitters out. Heyward has fit in nicely in the clubhouse, has shown his elite defensive skills and the Cardinals’ brain trust is convinced it can get another level of talent out of Heyward's bat. With a completely healthy and happy clubhouse, this will be a tough team to beat, even for the ever-improving Pittsburgh Pirates. The Nationals entered spring training with MLB’s best team on paper, but unlike the Cardinals, they have not been so fortunate healthwise. Center fielder Denard Span will start the year on the disabled list with a right core muscle injury and is not expected to return until sometime in May. Anthony Rendon, their best position player, is also likely to start the year on the DL with a knee injury. They are waiting to see if left fielder Jayson Werth is ready for Opening Day and are cautiously optimistic according to GM Mike Rizzo, but I highly doubt he'll be ready to go either. Even when he is activated there is a big question of how much power he'll have because of the type of shoulder surgery he had.
Anthony Rendon
Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Rendon probably will start the year on the DL with a knee injury.
The best news is that their top six starters are relatively healthy, with Stephen Strasburg's sprained ankle tweak being the only minor injury so far. As good as this team is, they'll have to fight off strong competition from both the Marlins and Mets, who are way better than most people think and will give them a pennant race until the end. For the Nationals to live up to their potential, their two high-ceiling talents in outfielder Bryce Harper and Strasburg will have to take their games to elite status. Harper was recently dubbed the most overrated player in baseball by his peers in a recent ESPN The Magazine article. I can understand this because scouts and analysts like myself have been riding high on Harper’s 40-home run power ceiling. However, MLB players haven't seen him do it yet nor have they seen a consistent professional approach like his teammate Rendon's. However, make no doubt about it, he will reach his ceiling and when he does, those who call him overrated will start focusing on another player who hasn't done it yet. Remember, Harper is just 22 years old. He also has to deal with more off-field drama than most players and it has been overwhelming for him. However, when he finally learns how to leave it at the clubhouse door and not think about it again until he heads home after the game, watch out because he will reach that potential. At least 30 home runs are needed this year for the Nats to win it all, and I think he'll provide it. Strasburg, on the other hand, has a chance to win the Cy Young Award, despite the fact he's the Nationals’ third starter behind Max Scherzer and Jordan Zimmermann. I think Scherzer could be the key to Strasburg's success because Scherzer brings looseness, fun and happiness to the clubhouse and the tightly wound Strasburg will have to start having fun, especially with Gio Gonzalez and Matt Thornton on the same fun team as Scherzer. If the Nats can have a little more fun this year with their starting pitching, they should be facing the Cardinals in the NLCS.


Updated landing spots for Max Scherzer 

January, 15, 2015
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Max Scherzer Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesMax Scherzer will have a season-altering effect on whoever signs him. But who will that be?
Here we are in the middle of January and the industry’s No. 1 free agent, Max Scherzer, is still unsigned. So I spent this week checking with as many sources as possible, on teams and otherwise, to find out what is really going on with the elite starter.

I found mostly denials of involvement from teams we believe to be in the Scherzer sweepstakes, and then it dawned on me: Most of my sources are MLB team presidents, general managers, assistant general managers, managers, players and agents. Under Scott Boras, Scherzer's agent, modus operandi for players of this stature (in the $140 million to $200 million range) is to go directly to the owners. He knows that every GM would love to have Scherzer in their rotation; it just comes down to money, years and risk. It’s really an owner decision, not one made by the executives under them.

For most clubs, the GMs are in the loop at all times, but that's not always the case. Boras has always had carte blanche, access to meet with most owners directly in person or on the phone. Owners also know that GMs might recommend not signing Scherzer for economic reasons because of dollars or contract length, but owners want to win at the end of the day, too. They also know that Scherzer could be the difference in reaching the postseason. Therefore, as I went digging, although I couldn’t find a raging fire, I did find smoke, some smoldering and an occasional small fire.

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Players who benefit from 'non-moves' 

January, 12, 2015
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Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada Getty ImagesShortstops Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada had a combined OPS of just .655 for the Mets in 2014.
General managers use the offseason to improve their teams at various positions via free agency, trades, waiver claims and international signings. This offseason, we've witnessed more player movement than we've seen in more than a decade, and aggressive GMs throughout the industry have addressed most of their teams' perceived weaknesses and offseason goals.

However, some GMs simply haven't been able to improve certain positions because they didn't match up well with trade partners, they lacked the financial resources in their budget to persuade free agents to sign with them or they just weren't willing to pay the price, in terms of player talent or dollars, to get the deals done.

When this happens, players get opportunities to win a job in spring training that we otherwise didn't think they'd have a shot for. Or in some cases, players simply get a second chance to prove they belong. Unfortunately, it might their last or only chance.

Here are several pairs of players who, at the moment, look like they will get an opportunity to compete for an everyday job because their teams weren't able to address that position this offseason:

1. Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada, SS, New York Mets

The Mets were very thorough this offseason, checking in on practically every available and unavailable shortstop in baseball.

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Three best and three worst moves so far 

December, 19, 2014
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Jeff Samardzija and Alex RiosGetty ImagesJim liked the White Sox's acquisition of Jeff Samardzija ... but not the Royals' signing of Alex Rios.
To me, the obvious best moves this offseason are the Cubs' hiring of Joe Maddon as manager and signing of free agent Jon Lester, the Mariners' signing of Nelson Cruz, and the Red Sox inking Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. However, most of those moves had more to do with the size of a team's checkbook, being a contending club or simply being the ideal market for the player. Therefore, I decided to pick the best and worst moves based on pure baseball decisions, eliminating the cost/location factors:

Three best moves

1. White Sox's trade for Jeff Samardzija

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This was the best trade for a major leaguer so far this offseason.

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Most likely landing spots for Max Scherzer 

December, 17, 2014
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Max ScherzerBrad Penner/USA TODAY SportsMax Scherzer went 18-5 with 252 strikeouts and a 3.15 ERA with the Tigers in 2014.
Max Scherzer is considered the No. 1 free agent in this year's class and is expected to get the largest contract of the offseason. In fact, I predicted he will get a seven-year, $189 million deal, a prediction I stand behind despite the fact that he is asking for at least $200 million.

The 30-year-old Scherzer is 91-50 in his career with a 3.58 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. However, it's his performance over the past three years that has separated him from his colleagues. He has become a true ace, with an average wins above replacement of 5.6, which essentially means he alone turns an 88-win team into a 94-win team and a 94-win team into a true championship contender. Scherzer has won 39 games over the past two years, the most of any American League pitcher, with a 3.02 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 10.2 K's per nine innings.

His fastball remains in the 92-95 mph range, and he has a hard, nasty slider, a deceptive changeup and an impressive curveball. He can throw all of his pitches in any count for strikes and has learned how to keep hitters off-balance, with the ability to punch them out with any pitch in his repertoire. He has struck out a staggering 723 hitters over the past three seasons.

Still not impressed? Maybe you need to hear the spiel being laid out by his agent, Scott Boras, who compares him to Peyton Manning. While that's an absurd comparison, Boras certainly makes a strong case as to why the two compare favorably. The bottom line is that Scherzer is an ace and a difference-maker for any team that signs him.

Teams should be lined up for his services. But they're not. One prominent GM told me this week it's due to his asking price and contract length.

"He’s looking for too many years and too much money for the injury risk of any pitcher," said the GM, "let alone a right-hander with a power arm and that type of delivery.”

Only a few teams can afford him, but many of them are passing either because of price, risk or budget constraints.

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What's next for the Washington Nationals? 

October, 14, 2014
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Ryan ZimmermanChuck Myers/MCT/Getty ImagesShould the Nationals trade Ryan Zimmerman or move him to first base or the outfield?
Regardless of what happens in the National League East this offseason, the Washington Nationals will be heavy favorites to repeat as NL East champions again in 2015. But that doesn't mean they'll have a quiet offseason.

The Nats have decisions to make on three significant free agents: first baseman Adam LaRoche, second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera and reliever Rafael Soriano. They also must address their next free-agent class (following the 2015 season), which includes Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Tyler Clippard, Doug Fister, Denard Span and Matt Thornton. Do they extend them? Do they trade them now while they have strong value? Or do they just prepare to let them depart via free agency next offseason, in which they may or may not get draft pick compensation for them?

Other areas the Nats will need to tend to include what to do with Ryan Zimmerman and how to improve the team's bench and bullpen depth.

Here is a look at each area heading into the offseason:

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Ranking the MLB playoff lineups 

October, 1, 2014
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Los Angeles DodgersRobert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsThe Dodgers scored 21 more runs than any other team in baseball during the month of September.
We ranked the playoff rotations and starting pitchers Monday and the playoff bullpens Tuesday; today we rank -- and discuss -- the lineups of the nine remaining playoff teams.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers
MLB ranks (regular season):
Runs: 6th | OPS: 3rd | HR: 16th | SB: 2nd

Projected lineup
Dee Gordon, 2B
Yasiel Puig, CF
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
Matt Kemp, RF
Hanley Ramirez, SS
Carl Crawford, LF
Juan Uribe, 3B
A.J. Ellis, C

The Dodgers enter this postseason with a much better lineup than last year's team, which reached the National League Championship Series before falling to the St. Louis Cardinals.

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Playoff starting pitcher, rotation rankings 

September, 29, 2014
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Kershaw/GreinkeUSA TODAY SportsZack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw anchor a formidable Dodgers rotation.
The most important element of every major league team in the playoffs is its starting rotation; it's the closest equivalent to a quarterback on an NFL team or the top three players on an NBA team. History has shown us that elite starting pitching has played a greater role in winning championships than any other aspect of a team's infrastructure.

Evaluating starting rotations for the postseason is much different than doing so for the regular season. During the regular season, you concentrate on the team's depth, even the Nos. 6 and 7 spots on the depth chart. In the postseason, you emphasize the top three starters on each team, with little weight given to the fourth starter and no weight to the fifth starter, who's normally in the bullpen. You especially focus on the team's No. 1 starter, who often pitches twice in a five-game series and as many as three times in a seven-game series. You also must factor in how much workload a pitcher has had in the regular season, how they've pitched at the end of the season and any signs of fatigue, something that's not controllable outside of a cortisone shot to lessen the inflammation in a shoulder or elbow.

History shows that pitchers who can miss bats and post higher strikeout rates often perform better in the postseason than contact pitchers. Why is this? Well, these hurlers are facing the game's best lineups, and they need to have the stuff and command to win those battles. Having impeccable command of all pitches in and out of the strike zone is a necessity, because many hitters on playoff teams don't have many weaknesses to exploit.

With that as a preface, here are my rankings of this year's postseason rotations based on scouting, statistical and sabermetric analysis, with specific matchups, workloads, trends and intangibles all factored in:

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Mike Rizzo and Frank WrenAP PhotoWashington GM Mike Rizzo and Atlanta GM Frank Wren don't need to pull off a blockbuster this season.
Deadline objectives: NL East | NL Central | NL West | AL East | AL Central | AL West

The National League East has become a two-team race between the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves, with the second-place team still having a good chance to reel in one of the two wild-card berths. Neither team is expected to make a blockbuster deal by the trade deadline, but both are looking for the same thing: left-handed relief help and bench upgrades. Sometimes improving a team by inches rather than feet or yards can be the difference between making the postseason or going home.

The rest of the division should be sellers. The Marlins are hoping for enough wins between now and the deadline to become buyers, but realistically, they should be in sell mode. The Mets have Bartolo Colon and Daniel Murphy to offer in deals, while the Phillies should be open to trading every veteran on their roster.

In fact, the Phillies should be the center of attention between now and July 31 because there is not a "seller" in baseball with more talented difference-makers to trade. The difficult part for teams getting deals done with them will be dealing with all of the bad contracts, no-trade provisions and high return the Phillies are asking for in return.

With that in mind, let's take a look at where each team stands and who they should be looking to either acquire or trade away:


1. Washington Nationals: Buyers

Needs: Left-handed reliever and a bat off the bench.

Lefty reliever targets: Antonio Bastardo, Phillies; Neal Cotts, Rangers; Andrew Miller, Red Sox; James Russell, Cubs; Oliver Perez, Diamondbacks; Tony Sipp, Astros; Mike Dunn, Marlins.

Bench targets: Chris Carter, Astros; Chris Denorfia, Padres; Alejandro De Aza, White Sox; Jonny Gomes, Red Sox; Dayan Viciedo, White Sox; Jake Smolinski, Rangers; Mike Olt, Cubs; Drew Stubbs, Rockies.

What to expect: The Nationals don't need to make a move; they are the team to beat in the NL East and should be considered a legitimate World Series contender. They could stand to improve the two areas above, and I expect GM Mike Rizzo to upgrade one or the other by the trade deadline.

Trade I'd like to see happen: Right-handed pitching prospect Austin Voth to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for lefty reliever James Russell.

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Three heated draft debates 

June, 4, 2014
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There are spirited debates going on within the walls of big league clubs, as the 2014 draft is just a day away. In my 25 years of draft experience, I’ve seen my share of drama and water bottles flung across the room. Quite frankly, it was one of my favorite times of the year. The baseball discussions among some of the game’s best evaluators are priceless. If a team would ever consent to a camera crew, it would make for great television.

The disagreements in the rooms from scouts, national crosscheckers and front office executives can get heated because one wrong placement of a player on the list can change the future of the franchise. And this year’s draft offers as much debate as there has been in years.

Let’s look at three of the most debated topics teams are dealing with right now.

Debate 1: Who’s the best position player on the board?

A majority of teams have two high school players –-- catcher/outfielder Alex Jackson from Rancho Bernardo HS (San Diego), and shortstop Nick Gordon from Olympia HS (Orlando, Fla.) -- as the top position players in this year’s draft.

Clubs normally don’t draft for positional need, especially with high school players because they change so much over the three to five years it takes to reach the major leagues. So they take the best player on the board.

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Young stars I'd lock up long term now 

April, 5, 2014
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Manny MachadoBrad Penner/USA TODAY SportsManny Machado is one of several young stars Jim Bowden would lock up long term now.
As baseball’s revenues continue to break records year over year, clubs are well aware that, based on baseball history, those revenues normally get passed right down to the players.

Indeed, we’ve recently seen a flurry of six-year contract extensions by clubs for non-arbitration-eligible players in the past few months, including:

Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels, $144.5 million
Yan Gomes, Cleveland Indians, $23 million
Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves, $32.4 million
Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays, $25.5 million
Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians, $52.5 million

In addition to those six-year deals, there was also Freddie Freeman's eight-year, $135 million extension, which is the longest contract in Braves history.

This proactive method benefits the team and the player. For the teams, they get to pre-emptively buy out some of the player's free-agent years, which should save them millions of dollars considering the ridiculous pace at which free-agent salaries are escalating. In exchange, the players receive lifetime security yet are still able to test the free-agent market again at a reasonably young age.

The Trout deal broke records at almost every aspect, and the Teheran and Archer deals were riskier because of pitchers’ greater chance of landing on the disabled list at some point in their six-year contract.

Gomes was the biggest gamble because he hasn’t established the track record the others did to justify committing those types of dollars. Regardless of the risk, clubs cannot ignore the opportunity to save so much money, making contracts such as these no-brainers.

When I look around the league, I see a number of other candidates for these kind of long-term deals. Here are nine pre-arbitration players I think teams would have a chance to lock up, plus four Boras Corp. clients who probably have very little chance to sign now -- Scott Boras almost always recommends his players hold out for free agency ASAP -- but should try anyway.

As always, agents will use recent deals as a framework when negotiating, and I've noted some recent deals that would provide a guideline for each player in question.

Non-arbitration-eligible players clubs should extend now

1. Manny Machado | 3B | Service time: 1+056 | Agent: MVP Sports

Note: Service time is as of Opening Day, and "1+056" means one year, 56 days.

Machado had offseason knee surgery and started the year on the disabled list, so of course the Orioles will need to make sure he is 100 percent upon his return before doing a deal. However, once he is back to full strength, they should be aggressive in getting him locked up. The time will never be better, the price and value never lower.

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Five takeaways from Opening Day 

April, 1, 2014
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A large slate of games Monday offered glimpses of what could be an exciting 2014 season. There were unexpected performances (Alejandro De Aza's two home runs) and disappointing ones (Cliff Lee’s eight earned runs in five innings), too, as well as a walk-off win in Pittsburgh.

There’s still a long way to go for any of my bold predictions to play out, but here are my five best takeaways from Opening Day 2014.

1. So far, so good for Sizemore and Sox

Grady Sizemore was the best and biggest story of spring training, and he kept it going Opening Day with a single in his first at-bat and a long home run in his second.

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When will Trout's reign end? 

March, 27, 2014
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Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout clearly has established himself as the best player in Major League Baseball. He is ranked No. 1 in the "Baseball Tonight" 100, and he will be the favorite to remain on the top of this list for the next five years.

The rest of the top five will turn over, as there are a number of players who will move in and out over the next half-decade. Let’s have some fun and take a look at the guys who I think will populate the list of top-five players each year through the 2019 season.

Understand these lists are purely what I think could happen, and I'm assuming some amount of good health and luck during these five years, while hypothesizing some outcomes based on current performance and trajectory. I added some statistical projections courtesy of Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections system, just to give you a sense of what the stats say about these guys. In some case, I'm a bit more optimistic than the computer models.

Top 5 players in 2015 (projected via ZiPS)

1. Mike Trout, CF, Los Angeles Angels (.289/.384/.505, 42 SB, 8.9 WAR)
2.

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10 guys scouts are raving about 

March, 10, 2014
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Ryan ZimmermanGreg Fiume/Getty ImagesRyan Zimmerman's shoulder is finally healthy, which should help him at third and at the plate.

While you never like to put too much stock in spring training performance, there is no question that scouts, coaches and execs take notice when a player looks particularly good during camp. I'm not talking about the stat sheet, but rather their actions on the field, which could be anything from their swing, to their fastball, to the way they move.

Here are 10 players who have evaluators excited this year.

1. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Washington Nationals

Zimmerman is taking some grounders at first base this spring, but that is only to give the Nationals more lineup flexibility when a left-hander is on the mound. He looks great at third this spring and his arm strength has returned. This will allow him to once again play a deeper third base and restore his inclusion within any Gold Glove conversation. More important for fantasy players, with a healthy right shoulder for the first time in years, they should anticipate a return to his 2009 numbers.

2. Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco Giants

Around the trade deadline last July, Belt made some significant changes at the plate.

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GM awards for best trades, signings 

February, 7, 2014
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Billy Beane and Brian CashmanGetty Images, AP PhotoBilly Beane and Brian Cashman enjoyed very fruitful offseasons.
I'm all packed with spring training just days away. So before I depart I thought it was time to give my offseason awards and hand out some hardware to the general managers for their offseason work.

BEST OFFSEASON -- BIG-MARKET GM: Brian Cashman | New York Yankees

It was the most expensive free-agent spending spree in baseball history when the Yankees committed a combined $438 million for 22 years of contracts to Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. The Yankees quickly rebuilt their outfield, catching and starting pitching with All-Star caliber players and imported the best overall talent of any team in baseball this offseason. They also get credit for walking away from Robinson Cano by refusing to acquiesce to 10 years and approximately $240 million for a player in his 30s.

Runners-up:
Jon Daniels, Texas Rangers:

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