The morning after is often a time for regret. Sometimes the regret is active: "I got smashed and danced on top of a what with who?!" Sometimes the regret is passive: "Man, I am sooo hungry! I should totally have eaten that slice of pizza sitting on top of the trash can at 3 am! MMmmm... pizza." Right now the Nat(m)osphere is, to make an over broad generalization, deep in the throes of passive recrimination. Federal Baseball sets out the talking points. It's a long piece, but well-reasoned and worth the read, even if Basil is occasionally trying to possess his cake and consume it simultaneously. But I digress...
Much (too much, I think) has been made of the Nationals failure to make even one measly piddling little deadline deal. "Why, they didn't even deal Rauch!" has been a common refrain. And it's true, Big Jon remains Manny's 8th inning setup guy instead of slopping out the 6th and 7th for the Dodgers or the Yankees. I'll have more to say about that a little later, but first I want to take a big picture look at the State of the NATion as of July 31, 2007.
Long about the All-Star break I was onboard with the "Trade 'em all, let God sort 'em out" school of thought. Move Young and Belliard for anything, Cordero for the moon, anyone else if the right deal came along. But as the trade market started to shape up it became increasingly obvious that there was A) No interest in 1B not named Mark and B) a definite movement to covert closers on bad teams to setup guys on good teams I began to waver. I was sold on the Belliard move, virtually a minimum contract for a versatile and effective infielder. I was and am less sanguine about Da Meat Hook's extension, but my concerns lie more with the size of the deal than with the idea that Dmitri might be a handy guy to have around in a pinch.
Nevertheless, those two deals essentially took the Nationals out of the trade market. But I question whether it was worth it to be in the market at all. Bad teams are caught in an unkind Catch-22 at the deadline. Their players are, by definition, almost always worse than the equivalent player on a good team. (Sure, there are lone superstars on lousy teams, but bear with me here.) So players on bad teams almost always have more value to the team they are traded from than they will for the team they're traded to. That's why Eric Gagne and Octavio Dotel will go from closing in Texas and KC to setting up Jonathan Papelbon and Bob Wickman. That's why Kenny Lofton will likely end up as the platoon/4th OF in Cleveland.
In that environment Ronnie Belliard is a utility infielder, Dmitri Young is a DH/1B/PH, Chad Cordero is a setup guy, and Rauch is a 6th-7th inning middle reliever. So let's not kid ourselves that the Nats could have expected 4 or 5 future major leaguers in trade. The front office didn't pass up on a talent windfall by holding on to these guys. And, not for nothing, by keeping them the team has better-than-average major league caliber players at 1B, 2B, set-up and closer for the next two seasons. Now you can quibble with whether these are players and positions that need to be locked down, but you can't deny that it's true.
So, about Jon Rauch. If it's true that relief pitchers are essentially fungible, closers only slightly less so, then setup guys ought to be one of the most replaceable pieces on a 25-man roster. But if that's true they also won't be the most valuable trading chips, because they're interchangable, right? For all the talk of teams needing to shore up their bullpen, and acquire an extra veteran arm for the stretch run, only three true "setup" guys changed teams:
- Scott Proctor from the Yankees to the Dodgers (for Wilson Betemit)
- Scott Linebrink from the Padres to the Brewers (for 3 minor league pitchers)
- Dan Wheeler from the Astros to the Devil Rays (for Ty Wiggington)
Now, I love me some Nats as much as the next guy, but Jon Rauch is not Scott Linebrink, even given Linebrink's problems this season. Add to that the general consensus that Doug Melvin got fleeced in this deal, and there's no pot of multiple minor leaguers at the end of the Rauch rainbow. Big Jon is much closer to Proctor and Wheeler, established veterans who netted utility infield types with upside. Wiggington has power, Betemit has age on his side, but neither is much help rebuilding a farm system. And those are the types of guys who were likely available. So trade Rauch now for that? Why? If the Nats want a guy like that can't they do the same deal over the offseason?
Beware the "this guy doesn't fit into the long-term Plan, so we must get rid of him post-haste" mentality. Sure, the Nats don't need a $4M closer, a $2M set-up guy, a $1.5M utility infielder or $5M worth of Nick Johnson insurance. But they can afford to have them. And there's no sense pretending the Nats were passing up the next Ryan Zimmerman or Ross Detwiler in the process. So yes, rebuilding the farm should still be priority #1. And yes, it would have been nice to see the Nats do something to reaffirm that goal. But saints preserve us from a front office that makes moves to "send messages". Down that road lies Pittsburgh.