February 7, 2008

On Running Out of Things to Talk About

Nine days until pitchers and catchers report to Viera, and the discussion-worthy pickins are a bit thin on the ground. Tours of the (still oddly incomplete looking) new stadium, improvidently-shaped snack treats, the signing of some guy who probably played American Legion ball with your cousin and, like the swallows returning to Orange County for a cappuccinno, hints and allegations of incipient cheaposity on the part of the ownership group. Taking these in order:

1. The Stadium: If the field and the seats are in, I can wait a few days weeks and months for every thing else to shake out. Improving on RFK is not a high bar to clear and I'm not worried. The parking situation will be atrocious, and will be a major black eye for the team and the city. But I've accepted that and resigned myself to Metro at least for the inaugural season.

2. The Concessions: No Aramark = big smile. Gifford's on-site is good, Ben's Chili Bowl would be great. Symbolism aside, the pretzels can be shaped like a lower intestine if they're plentiful, fresh and served with the correct amount of change.

3. Minor league signings: I don't care who the 5th outfielder for the Clippers is, or which 25-year old occupies the key backup utility infielder role in Harrisburg. God help me, I just don't.

4. Payroll: Now we've arrived at the elephant in the room. Making a broad generalization, I don't think anyone who has been paying attention thinks the Lerners are cheapskates in the Charley O. Finley, Carl Pohlad tradition. If there is a charge to be leveled at our ownership it might be "unnecessary thriftiness." Or then again, it might not.

It's easy to forget, but the Lerners have already spent more than half a billion dollars on this team. First came the record-breaking purchase price. Then they invested a few million in duct tape, paper clips and eagle spit to hold RFK together for one last hurrah. Roughly $50M and counting has gone into upgrades for the publicly financed stadium, though you can certainly huff and bluster that the average fan in the outfield seats won't see the results of the bulk of that money. Still, it all comes off the balance sheet the same.

Bare-bones facilities and inept contractors have aroused their fair share of ire, but the main complaint concerns the team on the field. The Lerners, this thinking goes, are shortchanging the fans (and I suppose the players) by not shelling out a few measly million more for a veteran to shore up the rotation/lineup/bullpen/bench, with most of the animus directed at the lack of veteran starting pitching.

I doubt even the most ardent fanboy would argue the Nats are anywhere close to fielding "the best team that money can buy" but the team has gotten a pretty good return on their on-field investment. For 2007, the Nats spent $1.33M per marginal win, the 5th lowest amount in baseball. By contrast, the 2007 Baltimore Orioles spent $4.17M per marginal win. (A fuller explanation of payroll, marginal wins and efficiency is available here and here.) In fairness, two of the teams with better marginal win expenditures than the Nats were the playoff-bound Indians and Rockies. It's not like the franchise is a model of payroll efficiency, but they look pretty good compared to San Francisco ($4.07M per marginal win.)

All of which is to say, the Nats strategy of staying primarily young and in-house paid off pretty well last year, relative to expectations. And I mean realistic expectations, not the "OMG! Nats are gonna be the worstest team evah!" prognostications that came from a few quarters. And there really is no reason to think that they won't continue to improve this year, given the offensive upgrades the team has made.

Could a veteran pitcher aid that progress? Sure, it's possible, though there are very few guys left on the market who look capable of producing anything near 200 innings of sub-5 ERA ball. Kyle Lohse might, as might ¡Livan! Those two are the cream of the remaining crop, and leaving cost aside entirely, both are far from sure things. I don't particularly think bringing in one "established veteran" will impair the development of the youngsters on the staff, I just doubt it would help more than letting John Lannan, Tyler Clippard or Collin Balester take their lumps in '08 to learn and grow for 2009 and beyond.

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