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A closer look at the Olsen decision

In the previous post, I mentioned the Nationals' arbitration-eligible players and the Dec. 12 deadline for offering them 2010 contracts. And I further mentioned veteran lefty Scott Olsen as perhaps the team's most difficult call. You guys have had a good debate running in the comments section, so I thought it would be useful to break down the Olsen case a little more fully.

When the Nationals first traded for Olsen last winter, I was skeptical of his ability to be a front-line starting pitcher, primarily because of one revealing statistic: his strikeout rate. When he broke into the majors in 2005, he struck out 9.3 batters per nine innings (though in a very small sample size of 20 1/3 innings), but in each of the next three seasons that rate declined precipitously, to 8.3 in 2006, then 6.8 in 2007, then finally 5.0 in 2008. This was consistent with what scouts had been reporting about Olsen's decreasing velocity, and to me was an indication Olsen had some sort of arm injury.

This was confirmed, to a degree, last summer, when Olsen was lost for the year with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, which eventually required surgery. I don't know if Olsen's shoulder had been the problem all along -- he's the type who would pitch through minor pain -- but the evidence indicated something had been wrong with him for a long while. Healthy 23- or 24-year-old pitchers simply don't decline in effectiveness the way Olsen did.

That brings us to 2010, with Olsen, coming off his labrum surgery, hopeful of being 100 percent by spring training. He made $2.8 million last year, which means he likely would be looking at a similar figure, or perhaps a slight raise, via arbitration in 2010. If you're the Nationals, do you give it to him? Or do you non-tender him, essentially severing ties? (Yes, the Nationals could always sign him back at a reduced price, but I suspect Olsen's price would go up, not down, on the open market.)

There was a great point made in the comments by "dfh21," who said, "25-yr-old lefty starters who have thrown 200 innings in MLB do not grow on trees." This is very much true. In fact, in the past five seasons, only 12 lefties who were 25 or younger at the time have thrown 200 innings in a season (including Dontrelle Willis three times and Jon Lester twice). One of them is Olsen, who threw 201 2/3 innings in 2008, when he was 24.

Obviously, the Olsen decision is largely a matter of risk/reward. It would be a risk to tender him a contract -- because in a worst-case scenario, they wind up paying him another $2.8 million or so and he never regains his form (or never makes it to back to the mound at all). And the Nationals know better than anyone else the true condition of Olsen's shoulder.

But if they determine there is a decent chance of Olsen's regaining his velocity and his strikeout-driven effectiveness, it's a risk worth taking -- because he is a lefty, because he takes the ball every fifth day and because he has a track record. (Okay, he's also a great quote, so I have an additional reason for wanting to see him return.) In the best-case scenario -- Olsen returning to his 2006 level of performance (12-10, 4.04 ERA, 107 adjusted ERA+, 8.3 K/9 IP) -- Olsen would be a huge bargain at those dollars.

If I'm the Nationals, I offer Olsen arbitration -- assuming the doctors show some confidence in the shoulder.

*On another note, I want to mention the sad news about the Washington Times, which, apparently, could result in the dissolution of its Sports section. Competition is good for all of us, especially the fans, and I'd like to send out our best wishes to the Times's Nationals beat writers, Mark Zuckerman and Ben Goessling, during this troubling time.

By Dave Sheinin  |  December 3, 2009; 8:54 AM ET
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Next: Nationals release 2010 spring training schedule


re-sign him

Posted by: jpfterps | December 3, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

A gamble of a couple million dollars isn't a big risk for the Nats. So sign him.

Posted by: Pensfans | December 3, 2009 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Dave, you make it sound like he's guaranteed $2.8 million or more, whether it's from the Nats or the open market. I don't think he'd get that in the open market at all coming off labrum surgery.

First, isn't the labrum one of the worst pitching injuries and hardest to come back from (hello Chad Cordero)? Everyone would be a little cautious spending millions on him regardless.

Second, can't they non-tender him, then give him a much lower contract that's incentive laden? I don't think he'd be so against it because he'd be a little insecure about the open market too.

Posted by: NatsNut | December 3, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Sign Zuckerman and Goessling (I mean The Post, not the Nationals).

They're solid reporters and writers who know the beat at a time when The Post is seeking a replacement for Chico Harlan on the beat.

If the sports editors of this paper are serious (a phrase also definable as "telling us the truth") in their recent chat about the importance they place on their coverage of baseball and of D.C.'s baseball club, having two good reporters on the Nationals beat is a good start to living up to that promise they've made.

Posted by: greggwiggins | December 3, 2009 9:54 AM | Report abuse

NatsNut, I think Dave Sheinin is correct about what would happen if the Nationals non-tendered Olsen.

Looking around at the market and the buyers, I think there will be a lot of clubs quite willing to risk three megabucks or so on Olsen's potential, so it's very unlikely he'd still be unsigned to "give him a much lower contract that's incentive laden".

The question isn't whether Olsen's going to get that kind of money, it's who's going to be the one to give him that kind of money.

Posted by: greggwiggins | December 3, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Re-signing Olsen could help fill the "veteran starter" void that exists on the pitching staff. The advantages are that the Nats have a good idea of his abilities having pitched in the division and coming off an injury-plagues season Olsen probably won't cost as much as some of the other "B" level starters on the market.

Posted by: leetee1955 | December 3, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

I think if the arm proves to be at the proper stage of rehab you sign him; after all, you look at the money this team has wasted and you realize 3M isn't absurd for this risk/reward, again if he proves healthy. If not, the fans tore the team apart for not signing Cordero, Hill and Patterson so I give the team and its Doctors the benefit of the doubt as they were right on all three while most of us were calling for managements head for letting them go.

Posted by: SCNatsFan | December 3, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

If his shoulder is making progress you resign him. It's not like they have a huge payroll to worry about. They are turning a huge profit every year, they can afford to increase the payroll.

Posted by: Section505203 | December 3, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

I read from NatsNut that they should strongly consider non-tendering him and then sign him for an incentive laden contract. I agree but who is to say that another team won't offer him a guaranteed $2.8M. For a number of teams, that offer is not a huge investment especially if they didn't get the top pitchers they wanted. Olsen is likely a real great fall-back candidate for a number of teams. The question for the Nats is, "will the arbitration determined amount be worth the risk?"

I say it is because he could possibly be a piece in a long term puzzle. After Zimmermann, Strasburg and Lanham, Olsen is probably the next in line as a future starter. Others may turn out better, but I'm not sure anyone else in the Nats organization has his potential.

Posted by: mikeladd123 | December 3, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Re-signing Olsen could help fill the "veteran starter" void that exists on the pitching staff.

Posted by: leetee1955 | December 3, 2009 9:59 AM

leetee, even if we do sign him, I still don't think he fills that void. Wolf, Lackey or even Derek Lowe (who I think we'll trade for) does, but not Olsen.

Posted by: NatsNut | December 3, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Let's see, the Lerners make a huge profit every season and rank 27th in salaries paid... just sign him. And sign someone else to pitch competently if and when Olsen can't go. And then sign someone else too.

Posted by: Kev29 | December 3, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

It is just amazing the cost of a pitcher just over .500 in 2006 with a 4.0 era. Simply amazing. If you can tie your shoes you get millions.

Posted by: Pete433 | December 3, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

::: 'd like to send out our best wishes to the Times's Nationals beat writers, Mark Zuckerman and Ben Goessling, during this troubling time. :::

I second this.

I thought they might move to the bullpen; they couldn't do worse than the '09 guys ['til Aug.]

Posted by: mistermuleboy | December 3, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Pete433, I quote the wisdom of Bill Veeck: "It isn't the high price of stars that is expensive, it's the high price of mediocrity."

Posted by: greggwiggins | December 3, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

I like his attitude, but hope he has learned not to hide his hurts. Sign him.

Posted by: cokedispatch | December 3, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse

On another note, replace Chico when he leaves with Zuckerman from the Times.

Posted by: cokedispatch | December 3, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Shiner, You write that like the Nats have to make this decision in a vacuum. Rizzo will put in a call to Olsen and his representation and feel him out for his numbers - technically, they can sign Olsen today if both parties agree on a number.

So, feel out Olsen, if he is copacetic with an incentive laden contract that has say a $2M base and another $1.5-2M in incentives, offer it. If not, non-tender him and follow his offer in free agency. Remember, this is the same club that spent $2.2M on Danny Cabrera. Olsen's worth $2.5M to me.

Personally, I'd like to see him bakc as a Nats. He's a veteran starter that isn't over the hill - I think that he can put it together.

Posted by: comish4lif | December 3, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

I'll add my voice to those suggesting that the Post hire an experienced beat writer from among the Times staffers who will be leaving that organization. (And that was a classy post from Dave in that regard, IMO.)

I don't tend to play armchair GM, but I'm fine with Olsen's return, if he's healthy. One question for those who are more learned on such matters, might there be a correlation as far as his being a (relatively) young starter who has thrown 200 innings in MLB and his injury?

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | December 3, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Move on.

It's time for the team in the nation's seventh or eighth largest media market to stop dumpster diving with players that have injury problems or are on the comeback trail.

That's ALL we had under Bowden. Reclamation projects.


Let's investigate trades and free agent moves for HEALTHY players.

You can't guarantee a guy's future health, but you don't have to continue paying a guy whose health is already a major question mark either.

It's time for this team to start moving forward instead of the one step forward - one step back that has happened as the team has waited on injured pitchers such as Shawn Hill, John Patterson and now Olsen.

Posted by: leopard09 | December 3, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

No Sheinin love for Loverro? Hmmm.

Posted by: nunof1 | December 3, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

I understand that this is the season when we get bored and snark and each other and rail against the team but, even Bowden was judged on the moves he made, and the team he fielded. Olson is useful. If Rizzo can get Lackey or Wolf or whoever signed, Olson will not pitch but, for right now he is useful to have.

Posted by: soundbloke | December 3, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I think you overestimate the difficulty of tying one's shoes.

It is just amazing the cost of a pitcher just over .500 in 2006 with a 4.0 era. Simply amazing. If you can tie your shoes you get millions.

Posted by: Pete433 | December 3, 2009 10:20 AM

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | December 3, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

The Post needs a capable beat writer. The Times' beat writers need jobs. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Posted by: SilverSpring8 | December 3, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

New post, with Spring Training info. (woohoo!)

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | December 3, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Great post.

And, great sentiment. Good Luck Mark and Ben.

Posted by: natbiscuits | December 3, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

I just don't see the downside of exercising club control here. Even if he's a bust, he's a less expensive bust than an FA pitcher could be.

Was it Boz who said a successful team needs 7-8 starters? Much like journalism, a rotation benefits from competition. And a team benefits from having more than five viable options in the starting rotation.

A comparable pitcher would cost more on the open market. Club control is one of the reasons we traded for Olsen. It's not a long-term contract; if he's a bust, they're done with him next year. But this team isn't in a position to let this type of player walk.

Posted by: JohninMpls | December 3, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I'll stipulate that Dave knows the market much better than I do; that said, I wonder how it affects a free agent's value to GMs when "even the NATIONALS don't want this guy!" If Rizzo's judgement is as universally respected as we're led to believe (and I have no reason to doubt it), mightn't that depress his bargaining power?

They can offer arbitration and still try to sign him before it goes to the table, but if they can't agree, it will be because they are far enough apart for that to be a problem for Rizzo, and maybe Olsen, too.

If they offer him, say, $2.95MM, and he puts in something that starts with a 4, now they're pooched if he gets it because there is NO WAY he's worth $4+MM, but he gets either their number or his, that's how arb works. Then, if he begins ST anything but incandescent, they probably cut him before the arb number kicks in (I think they can do that, CMIIW), and now he's probably not going to get even half that on the market, lefty or no lefty.

But maybe he doesn't want to burn bridges, is happy to make a deal, and it never goes to the arbitrator.

That said, until the Lefty Tree starts producing, you gotta be willing to go over $3MM here, even tho it's against the odds that he'll have a satisfactory year.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | December 3, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Regarding arbitration salaries, I'm pretty certain that offering arbitration to a player guarantees that player 1 paycheck - which (I think) amounts to 1/6 of the total annual salary. So, if Olsen wins a $4.2M arbitration award, the Nats could cut him at any time, but they'd owe him $700K at the minimum.

Posted by: comish4lif | December 3, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

This is a good problem to have. Olsen has a track record, and the team should be able to figure out how well he has recovered.

This is not dumpster diving. Remember when Bowden picked up Cabrera from the scrapheap.

Posted by: nattydread1 | December 3, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

and did I mention there's a new post with spring training schedules?

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | December 3, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

No, but I did. hehe.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | December 3, 2009 3:02 PM | Report abuse

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