When Casey Stengel said it, he was talking about the '62 Mets. But, with the All-Star break approaching, the question is equally relevant to the '06 Nats. Sadly, after having been swept by the Red Sox and losing consecutive 1-run games to the woeful Orioles the answer would appear to be, "No, not really."
Right now this team is a mess. Our best power hitter can only hit out of the leadoff spot. The team leader in on-base percentage hits fourth. The 7-8-9 hitters might as well just concede their outs to move the game along. Our most reliable starting pitcher is a rookie who averages 1 strikeout a game. Everybody in the bullpen seems to be expected to work every day, except for one guy who never works.
Everyone associated with the team has been careful to say that "building for the future" is not a synonym for "fire sale." The unfortunate truth is that the Nationals don't have enough premium talent to conduct a fire sale even if that was the plan. The clubs most attractive bargaining chips are Alfonso Soriano, Livan Hernandez, Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen. Let's look at each of them in turn:
- Soriano - Fonzie is the one guy likely to generate solid returns in a trade, but he seems bound and determined to test the free agent market after the season. So how much can we reasonably expect a team to give up in return for a half season of Soriano's bat?
- Livan - Coming into the season everybody had Hernandez pegged as a perfect workhorse starter. An ace by default on a bad team like the Nationals, but an ideal 3rd starter on a contending club. Then his (charitably named) fastball lost 2-3 MPH. Now he's had several bad outings in a row, games where he hasn't even been able to eat up innings. And if Livan can't give you 7+ innings every time out, what exactly is he good for?
- Jose #1 - Let's see, a singles-hitting second baseman with no speed, no range and no evidence of gap-to-gap power... just what every playoff bound club needs. Unless fond memories of former glory can convince Mets GM Omar Minaya to take Vidro and Livan in a package deal, do you see much of a market for a player with Jose's unique skill set?
- Jose #2 - A mercurial quasi-power hitter with a recent string of injuries and a well-documented distaste for authority. Oh, and a .398 slugging percentage to go with his .210 average. Not exactly the line that's going to entice a club to make him their everyday right fielder. How do you think coming off the bench would sit with Jose?
Folks, those are our premium trade prospects. Behind them are guys like Matt LeCroy (the invaluable 4th 1B/emergency "catcher"), Tony Armas, Ramon Ortiz (much sought after 6th starting pitchers), Damian Jackson (designated whiner) and Mike Stanton ("veteran" lefty reliever.) These guys should be moved just to clear their roster spots and payroll space. Any functioning ballplayers obtained in return would just be gravy.
The most tradeable player on the team (aside from untouchable "Dutch" Zimmerman?) Probably 1B Nick Johnson. Sure, he could land on the DL at any second, but when he plays you're more or less guaranteed a .300 average/.400 OBP and 15-20 homers to go along with an above-average glove at first. He's youngish, reasonably priced, and blocking one of the Nationals few remaining legitimate power prospects, Zephyrs 1B Larry Broadway, who's quietly hitting .321 with 8 HRs and an .857 OPS down in New Orleans.
Assuming we could get rid of everyone on this list, here's an idea what the 2nd half 2006 Washington Nationals might look like:
C Brian Schneider
1B Larry Broadway
2B Brendan Harris
3B Ryan Zimmerman
SS Royce Clayton
LF Mike Vento
CF Marlon Byrd
RF Ryan Church
SP John Patterson; Pedro Astacio; Mike O'Connor; Shawn Hill; Billy Traber
RP Jon Rauch; Jason Bergmann; Saul Rivera; Bill Bray; Gary Majewski; Chad Cordero
Bench: Marlon Anderson; Robert Fick; Daryle Ward; Alberto Castillo; Alex Escobar; Bernie Castro.
This is a glorified Triple-A team, don't get we wrong. But it's not terrible (or at least not much worse than what we have now) and it's younger and cheaper. Give Broadway, Harris and Church an uninterrupted half season to prove they can hack it in the big leagues. At least we'll know one way or another. See if guys like Hill, Traber, Kyle Denney or Steve Watkins might be workable 5th starters/long relievers or at least spot starters. They're all more promising than the Lawrence/Drese/Day combo that would replace them.
The Nats have a lot of options as we approach the midway point of the season. Gearing up for a stretch run isn't one of them. Retooling for 2007 doesn't look too promising either. If there really is going to be an organizational commitment to restocking the farm system, developing home grown players, and focusing on being competitive when the new stadium opens in 2009 (yes, 2009, I said it) then even a solid contributing player like Nick Johnson has to be considered expendable.