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January 22, 2013

Rumor Roundup

Tuesday, January 22

by Daniel Rathman

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Before we move on to the latest rumblings, a big thanks to Will Woods for filling in on yesterday’s Roundup. Now, here are two stories that made the rounds on Monday…

Nationals open to long-term extensions for Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann
After retaining Adam LaRoche and adding Dan Haren, Denard Span, and Rafael Soriano to an already loaded Washington roster, it would be hard to blame general manager Mike Rizzo if he chose to take the rest of the winter off. But Rizzo, who is entering his fourth full year at the helm of the Nationals, reportedly could instead turn his attention to locking up two of the key contributors to his franchise’s first division title in 21 seasons.

As The Washington Post’s James Wagner wrote, the Nationals settled six of their seven arbitration cases on Friday and have previously entertained the idea of a long-term extension with the seventh eligible player. That lone exception is the 26-year-old Zimmermann, who—after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2009—was finally liberated from the organization’s now-infamous kid gloves and crossed the 30-start threshold for the first time in his young career. Both Zimmermann and Desmond, who agreed to a $3.8 million paycheck to forgo his hearing, are under Washington’s control through the 2015 season, but Rizzo told Wagner that he is “definitely open-minded about” making a longer-term commitment to each of them.

Zimmermann seems a particularly logical candidate for an extension, because of the clear risk-reward tradeoff for both parties. The right-hander emerged as one of the league’s best starters in 2012, amassing 3.5 WARP over 32 trips to the mound, and he was one of only six pitchers who were worth three wins to their clubs despite logging fewer than 200 innings. The other five—Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, and Zimmermann’s teammates, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez—were all either making their major-league debut, coming off of an injury, or, like Zimmermann, enjoying a breakout year.

Armed with one of the hardest fastballs (94.6 mph) among starting pitchers, Zimmermann basically uses a three-pitch mix, with an even count of sliders and curveballs to left-handed batters and a heavy dose of sliders to his fellow righties. Few starters are able to get by without a changeup because of resulting woes versus opposite-handed hitters, but Zimmermann’s breaking stuff is effective enough for him to buck that rule: He threw 501 curves and sliders to lefties last year, and only one of them left the yard.

The only lingering question is whether Zimmermann, now more than three years removed from surgery, can maintain his 2012 performance level over an expanded workload. Zimmermann’s greatest asset, to go with his arsenal, is excellent control; he walked only 5.3 percent of the batters that he faced last season, while striking out 19.0 percent. Here’s the list of starters who matched or exceeded those rates and pitched at least 210 innings in 2012: Cliff Lee, Johnny Cueto, Jake Peavy, Matt Cain, R.A. Dickey, Felix Hernandez, and Cole Hamels (Madison Bumgarner, Homer Bailey, and CC Sabathia narrowly missed the innings minimum). A modest increase in durability would put Zimmermann squarely in the elite class of starters, and a few more missed bats could put a Cy Young award in his future.

The arbitration figures filed by Rizzo and Zimmermann’s representatives at SFX were not terribly disparate, with the team coming in at $4.6 million and the player requesting $5.8 million, though they also were not close enough for the sides to immediately bridge the gap. Rizzo stated in Wagner’s article that he would prefer to avoid a hearing with Zimmermann, whether the sides ultimately settle on a one-year or long-term pact, and the former version could provide a useful starting point. With some injury concerns surrounding the player and significant upside and cost-certainty implications for the team, the foundation for a deal is in place. SFX also has a recent track record of securing extensions for its pitchers, most notably Bumgarner, although the Giants’ southpaw was two years away from arbitration at the time.

Desmond’s situation, meanwhile, is more complex. The shortstop also is coming off of a breakout campaign, having led all players at his position with 25 home runs despite appearing in only 130 games, and his combination of power and speed is seldom seen in middle infielders. Only one shortstop (J.J. Hardy) has hit at least 20 homers in each of the past two seasons, and even with some level of regression, Desmond is poised to follow in his footsteps, after showing 400-plus-foot power to all fields in 2012.

On the other hand, Desmond’s other skills are considerably less refined. He is an extremely aggressive hitter, having averaged only 3.37 pitches per plate appearance last year, the second-lowest mark in the majors (Erick Aybar, 3.28). Desmond also thrives primarily on fastballs and mistakes—with the former preference likely contributing to his hack-happy approach—and he is vulnerable to down-and-away breaking pitches and changeups below the zone. Defensively, Desmond’s ratings have never matched his raw tools; he has cut down on his errors, but despite a strong arm and solid athleticism, he has yet to post a positive FRAA total (though the -14.5 figure from 2012 was likely an inadequate-sample-size outlier).

The question with Desmond is less about health—though he does have a history of nicks and muscle strains—and more about the Nationals’ evaluation of his potential relative to agent Doug Rogalski’s price tag. Washington does not have an obvious heir in its farm system, but Desmond is under its control for three more years anyway. Desmond’s unique profile is sure to impress arbiters in 2014 and 2015, but by going year-to-year, Rizzo can dodge the risk of a backslide that might render Desmond, power and speed notwithstanding, a relatively replaceable, one- to two-win player.

To put it differently, whereas an extension for Zimmermann would represent an investment on his continued development, a long-term contract for Desmond would likely require the Nationals to pay a rate close to his peak value. The paucity of dynamic offensive shortstops could nonetheless make the commitment worthwhile, but barring a generous discount, team-friendly terms won’t be easy to come by.

Got a sinker? Looking for work? Call the Rockies
General manager Dan O’Dowd brought one ground-ball pitcher into his rotation mix over the weekend, when he signed Chris Volstad to a minor-league hitch, and according to Denver Post beat writer Troy Renck, he’s seeking at least one more. Renck mentioned right-handers Carl Pavano and Derek Lowe as candidates to enter the fold hoping for a back-end spot in a rotation fronted by Jorge De La Rosa

Though the Rockies are unlikely to contend in 2013, Renck believes that Denver could be an attractive landing spot for either Pavano or Lowe, because either would have a strong chance of outgunning his youthful rivals in spring training. Jorge De La Rosa, Jeff Francis, and Jhoulys Chacin are virtually guaranteed rotation gigs to begin the season, but the remaining slots are up for grabs. While first-year manager Walt Weiss has a plethora of mouths to feed, the Rockies’ fluid rotation offers a better playing-time opportunity for Pavano and Lowe than any contender could present.

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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