August 23, 2007

The Future is... When Exactly?

Harper over at OMG, a dedicated blogger and a true glutton for punishment, has complained that for all the full-season audition that is 2007, the Nats are still a mostly unsettled club. I think he overstates the case a bit. There are questions, to be sure. But there ought to be questions about how a bad team plans to improve. Honestly, would you feel better if Manny Acta looked at what he had on September 1st and settled on his rotation and lineup for next season? Sure, there are decisions and changes to be made in the months between now and Opening Day 2008, but maybe not as many as you'd think. If you break down the results of the Nationals 2007 tryouts, you start to see some answers on both sides of the ball.

In retrospect, maybe holding open tryouts for 30-odd pitchers isn't the worst way to assemble a major league staff. Sure, you get your share of goats (Jason Simontacchi, Southeast Jerome Williams) and guys that just never pan out (Whither Brandon Claussen?) but you also get guys like Jason Bergmann and Matt Chico. Bergmann and Chico would probably have never gotten a real starting shot on any other team. At best they'd have been spot starters, sent back to the minors after their first bad outing.

How about Tim Redding and Joel Hanrahan? On a good team the Spring Training that those two had would have earned them a quick demotion to minor league camp, followed by their walking papers. With the Nats they had time to work out their issues at Triple A and have been solid (sometimes spectacular) second half starters. And that's to say nothing of Shawn Hill and John Patterson, whose abilities have never been questioned, even if their durability is a major concern. Still, you can mix and match these guys (along with rookie John Lannan and prospect Collin Balester) into a pretty solid 2008 rotation. Here's how:

#1 SP:
Shawn Hill/John Patterson - whoever is healthy gets the nod. If they both are, great, your top 2 rotation spots are accounted for. If neither is, well we're screwed, but still no worse off than the Cardinals when they lost Chris Carpenter for the season.

#2 SP:
Hill/Patterson or free agent PTBNL (pitcher to be named later) - if the Nats are going to increase offseason payroll here's one place to do it. Barry Zito money is (and ought to be) out of the question, but that Gil Meche contract isn't looking terrible these days, is it?

#3 SP:
Tim Redding or veteran free agent retread - hey look, it's the veteran innings eater everyone said we needed. These guys are almost literally a dime a dozen. The key here is finding a guy who can go 6-7 innings and keep you in the game every time out. Otherwise you're just wasting money.

#4 SP:
Matt Chico/John Lannan/Mike Bacsik - every rotation ought to have a lefty, just as a change of pace. Since all these guys are essentially soft-tossers the edge should go to youth, if at all possible.

#5 SP:
Jason Bergmann/Joel Hanrahan/Collin Balester - If Bergmann can stay healthy, if Hanrahan can get a handle on his control, if Balester can make the leap to the bigs. The five spot is the place for this many ifs, but all these guys have the talent.

The point here is not that this is the Nats first pennant-winning rotation. But there are nine pitchers there (or eight plus Balester) with credentials as a serviceable or better major league starter. And that's before the Nats dip a toe in free agency. Sure there will be competition for rotation spots. But in 2008 you can expect the competition to be about options and opportunity rather than necessity.

In a separate posting I'll take a stab at the more complicated process of assembling the 2008 Nationals offense, along similar lines. I'd be interested to hear what people think of this exercise and the next one. Of the players on the roster today, who's a piece of the future, who's a bridge to the future, and who's just plain dead weight (I'm looking at you, Fick.)


Anonymous said...

Is Livan a FA after this season? Or is does Arizona have an option?

Nate said...

Anon - to the best of my knowledge, ¡Livan! is a free agent after this season. But he'll be 33 before Opening Day and coming off a season where his ERA hovers right around 5.00. The workhorse is also averaging just 6.1 innings per start.

Unless he'd take a steep "hometown" discount to play for the Nats, I don't see him being worth the raise over his current $7M/yr deal that he's likely to want. Which is sad, because I wouldn't mind having the pitcher who returned baseball to RFK pitch in the opening series at the new stadium.

Anonymous said...

I guess he wouldnt be our opening day starter, and that probably would make him sad. Also, he'd be a B type right?

Nate said...

For nostalgia purposes it would be nice to have him start the home opener, but I wouldn't do it based on his skill level right now.

I expect he would be at least a Type B free agent, and I suppose there's an outside shot he'd be a Type A. More importantly, I don't see him signing for anything less than a multi-year deal, and I'm just not sure that's a value for the Nats.

Harper said...

The Nats are a little better set, but let's say one of Hill or Redding gets injured or pitches mediocrely (that's not a word is it) the rest of the year. Feels to me we'd still have 4 strong "?"s still in the rotation.

But I see your point. The Nats may end up with 4 slots to fill but rather than 25+ guys vying for those spots it'll be like 10-12 guys. A much more reasonable number. If anything else this season allows the Nats to go from "Come one, come all" to "invitation only"

Basil said...

I see your point, but I also think you're overstating the case somewhat too.

To go from "complete muddlement" to "some decent options, with some uncertainty" isn't so much a notable achievement as a baseline expectation.

Nate said...

Harper - yeah, if we get injuries to our "frontline" guys, we're screwed, but show me a team that isn't. What did losing Carpenter, Burnett and Sheets do to the Cards, Jays and Brewers? Our guys may be slightly more injury-prone, but that aside, I don't see us being in such a different situation than any other club.

Basil - sure, it's a baseline expectation, but it's one we haven't had before. 2007 was "All Hands on Deck", 2006 was "Year of the Veteran Free Agent". 2005 was "Who the Hell Are These Guys?" So it may not be an accomplishment of note, but it's still progress as I see it.

I guess the central point, which I haven't really spelled out, is that I'm not looking for this team to be competitive in 2008, just respectable. I'd be thrilled with 82 wins next season. I don't think we're two bats and a pitcher away from the wild card, I think we're 1 bat and .5 pitchers away from not being a perennial cellar dweller.

Harper said...

Nate - It's not a "frontline" thing - just that last year the Nats were "Patterson and everyone else" I think Redding and Hill can cement spots in the rotation for next year, but one bad slide or injury and the Nats are back to one sure thing and 4 big question marks, albiet the question marks have a lot fewer potential answers.