High expectations quickly gave way to disappointment for the Washington Nationals in 2013. A mediocre April set the tone for the bulk of the year, making a late-season surge a classic case of, "too little, too late."
Fortunately for the organization, the roster composition was always better than the record indicated. The assortment of young, talented players under team control provided a strong foundation for the front office to build on. And build they have, acquiring a bona fide No. 2 starter along with several interesting role players, all for deals that can be considered team friendly.
The early December trade that stole Doug Fister from Detroit for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol and Robbie Ray should have resulted in theft charges against Nats GM Mike Rizzo. He managed to turn an array of spare parts into a pitcher who conservatively should be worth no less than 3 WAR in 2014.
Fister, who turns 30 in February, features a classic four-pitch arsenal (fastball, slider, curve, change) that he mixes and locates well to retire, rather than overpower, hitters. His success is predicated on generating a lot of ground balls, which he did at the fourth best rate for starting pitchers in the majors (58 percent) in 2013, while keeping the ball in the ballpark (career 0.70 percent HR/9).
The change in home address from Comerica to Nationals Park will probably result in an slight uptick in home runs, but not enough to cost Fister any significant value. If anything, the change in infield defense alone should mitigate that effect.
Fister is under team control for two more years, giving him significant trade value to the Nationals even if he underperforms; although there is little reason to suggest changing from the AL to the NL will result in worse performance. At $4 million for 2014, a 200-plus inning starter with a sub 3.50 FIP is a steal, and the return rate for the Nationals on this deal figures to be exceptional when considering what was dealt to Detroit.
Steve Lombardozzi is a light-hitting second baseman whose only chance of adding value to a team is through his glove, which rated below average in 2013. As limited as he is with the bat, Fangraphs projections are bullish on his 2014 potential, if given a full season of play and a return to above-average defense.
Lombardozzi doesn't walk much but makes a lot of contact, which in the minors masked his inherent issues with reaching base by inflating his BABIP. Sustaining that type of success at the major league level is difficult, especially if you're not a speedster, which Lombardozzi isn't. Best-case scenario for Detroit is Lombardozzi bounces back in the field and hits just enough to be a 2 WAR player, but a lot has to go right for that to happen.
Ian Krol and Robbie Ray are two fringy left-handers whose minor league numbers don't suggest a future, in a major league bullpen. Their combined value when added to Lombardozzi's wouldn't add up to the value of Fister over the next two years, even if we assumed peak performances from all parties involved.
The Fister addition alone has made this offseason a win for the Nationals, but in acquiring outfielder Nate McLouth and left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins, the Nationals also managed to fill two areas of need without sacrificing much capital.
The two year, $10.75 million deal for McLouth comes on the heals of his best season since 2009, when his .256/.352/.436 line and his then-average defense at center made him a 3-plus WAR player. It was a precipitous fall for McLouth shortly thereafter, as his value tanked and took more than three years to again rise above league average.
What McLouth is isn't very exciting; a marginal defensive corner outfielder who can play some center and doesn't hit a ton. But he adds value through speed and good base running. Return on the deal is iffy, but at $5 million for two guaranteed years it's hardly exorbitant, especially with the potential for close-to-2013 WAR production given his skill set and league change.
Jerry Blevins fills the left-handed reliever void in the Nationals bullpen, and although he performed better against righties in 2013, his peripherals (strikeouts, walk rates) and career numbers are consistently better against fellow lefties.
Blevins mostly works sinker/slider in the upper 80s, but he gives up a lot of fly balls for a guy whose repertoire is meant to induce grounders. The move to Nationals Park from the more spacious Oakland Coliseum will probably lead to a few extra long balls, but if Blevins can bring his fly-ball rate back down to 2011-2012 levels, maintain the strikeouts and continue to hold lefties to a .218 BA, he should work out fine as a lefty specialist who can get righties out fairly well.
The player the Nationals sent to Oakland for Blevins, speedy outfielder Billy Burns, was the organizations' Minor League Player of the Year in 2013, but his success came as a 24-year-old splitting time between class A and AA. He's a project at best, and for a team that plans on contending in 2014 he was expendable, especially for a part that can be useful at the major league level now.
In the end, the Nationals can say they've successfully filled areas of need and improved their overall product without sacrificing too much in the short or long term. Their ability to improve while limiting risk makes them the clear winners thus far in 2013-14 baseball offseason.