December 28, 2009

Josh Whitesell Goes Back To The Future

Think back to 2007. Barbaro sired a line of champion glue bottles. The Nats were bad, but nowhere near as bad as they would become. And Josh Whitesell assumed a prestigious position within the Washington Nationals organization: the "Larry Broadway Memorial marginally-talented first baseman who's destined never to sniff the big leagues." Previous award winners included perennial "First Baseman of the Future" Larry Broadway and, well... pretty much just Larry.

Josh was all set to bridge the gap between failed prospects Broadway and Chris Marrero when things went sideways. Claimed off waivers by the Arizona Diamondbacks in early 2008 the unthinkable happened; Arizona gave Whitesell his ticket to the show. After some success with a 2008 cup of coffee Josh struggled with extended exposure in 2009. Non-tendered by the D-Backs, Whitesell is now back with the organization that drafted him, ready to resume his rightful place in the hierarchy.

December 27, 2009

Guardado Capps Off a Marquis Week

Jason Marquis, Matt Capps and Eddie Guardado aren't going to carry the Washington Nationals to the playoffs in 2010. If Mike Rizzo rounds out the year by signing Orlando Hudson and John Smoltz to multiply Pudge Rodriguez's veteran-y goodness the Nats still won't be playing baseball in mid-October. Measured purely by that criteria the last week was a waste of $11M+. But that's dumb. By that measure teams like the Nats, Pirates, Royals, Astros, Orioles and Padres should just close up shop from October to February. No one trade or free agent signing is going to put any of these teams in contention in 2010, or 2011 for that matter.

If, on the other hand, the offseason is about improving your club, the Nats have had a very good week. Jason Marquis is no ace, but he'll give you 200 innings of league average pitching, sparing Nats fans from the 2010 version of the "Daniel Cabrera Experience." Matt Capps may not be the guy who'll make us all forget Chad Cordero, but I'll be perfectly happy to forget Julian Tavarez and Kip Wells. Eddie Guardado may not be Ron Villone... or maybe he is. Either way, a minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training is exactly the right way to go about finding your next designated "veteran lefty."

That's the important thing to keep in mind about this past week. It's less about the players than it is about the process. Marquis could have been Garland, or Piniero, or Sheets. For $15M over two years it's a signing that can only help stabilize the rotation. Is one year of a 26 year old closer with a career 119 ERA+ worth $3.5M? It is when your alternatives are Brian Bruney, Garrett Mock or the next Joel Hanrahan. Even if he's nothing more than a bridge to Drew Storen, what exactly is the downside to bringing Capps on board?

Rizzo's moves are encouraging because they don't assume that you have to sacrifice short-term improvement for long-term development, or vice versa. Somewhere between Jim Bowden's obsessive focus on the next five minutes and the analytic fascination with the next five years lies an approach that allows for building a winning team and a winning organization simultaneously. It's not yet clear that Rizzo or the Lerners are committed to this dual track approach (a strong bid for Aroldis Chapman would be nice evidence, Mike.) But I'm a Nats fan, so for the moment I'm clingling like grim death to any shred of hope that we might not have to endure two more seasons like the last two before we see that "first great Nationals team."

December 20, 2009

Christmas Garland?


Ex-White Sox/Angels/D-Backs/Dodgers hurler Jon Garland is one of the ten (TEN?! - Does that include Oil Can Boyd?) free agents pitchers the Nats are eying this winter. Garland is apparently keeping company with guys like Jason Marquis, Joel Pineiro, Doug Davis and John Smoltz. (Seriously though, if they sign Smoltz don't they at least owe Dennis Boyd a tryout?)

Garland's career numbers are the very definition of unspectacular. A 104 ERA+, a K/BB ratio of 1.6; he's a lot like a right-handed John Lannan. On the plus side he's just 30 and can be predictably projected for 200 innings pitched with an ERA in the mid-fours. For the 2010 Washington Nationals those are #2 starter numbers.

Garland wants three years, the Nats are apparently offering two. I'd be okay with something in the 2 year/$15M or 3 yr/$20M dollar range. The third year doesn't bother me as much as it does other folks because honestly, beyond Strasburg and (maybe) Lannan, who are you penciling in to the 2012 Nationals rotation that's definitely going to improve on a 33-year old Jon Garland?

That said, Garland's not a marked improvement on any of the half dozen other mid-rotation innings eaters still on the maket, so if he want's $10M a year he's been hitting the egg nog a bit early. But he doesn't have to be a "steal" for the Nats to make out well. That Jon Garland would be the biggest free agent pitcher signing in the history of the Washington Nationals tells you pretty much all you need to know about the state of the pitching staff. He just has to offer some stability to the rotation beyond Lannan and (hopefully) Strasburg and he's worth any reasonable price.

December 12, 2009

An In-Speier-ed Pickup

H/T to MLB Trade Rumors for this minor AP item: The Nats signed former Rockies reliever Ryan Speier to a split minor league deal worth up to $425K. Speier is another reliever Rizzo should be familiar with from his time in the NL West. The 30 year old righty has solid career numbers, though he dealt with some injuries in 2009. He pitched better away from Coors (who doesn't?) but still has an impressive ability to keep the ball in the park. Assuming he's healthy he could probably replace Jason Bergmann as the designated right-handed reliever to face right-handed batters.

More important, Speier is a local guy, product of West Springfield High (Go Spartans!) and Radford University (Go Herpes!). Like former Nats SP "Irish Mike" O'Connor and current reliever Josh Wilkie, (George Washington University alums) Speier brings some much needed home cooking to the DC baseball scene. Major league baseball teams should have a lock on local talent. The Braves perfected the art of scouting Georgia and have reaped the rewards with players like Brian McCann and Jason Heyward.

The Nats have publicly committed to rebuilding scholastic and amateur baseball programs in Washington, DC and that's a great start, but you don't have to look any farther than franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman to appreciate that Virginia has a thriving baseball culture that has produced players like David Wright, Mark Reynolds and the Upton brothers. The Braves, Mets and Orioles, through a combination of geographic proximity and minor league affiliations already have ties to baseball in Virginia. Signing a 30 year old reliever to a minor league deal isn't going to be the key that unlocks the Commonwealth's storehouse of baseball talent for the Nationals, but it's a start.

December 7, 2009

Not All Motion Is Progress

Mike Rizzo is (allegedly) not Jim Bowden. This offseason has been marked by a refreshing lack of impolitic outbursts, leather pants and dumpster-diving for toolsy outfielders. Until today you could also have said that Rizzo displayed a distinctly un-Trader Jim knack for not overvaluing replacement level relief pitching. Until today.

Let's be clear up front: Rizzo "overpaid" by sending the top pick in the Rule 5 draft to New York for reliever Brian Bruney. Bruney has a track record, and there's some value to that. Any baseball geek worth his Bill James Abstract will tell you that relief pitching is the most unstable, readily replaceable component of a major league roster. Any Nats fan that lived through last April, May and June will reply that yes, you can cobble together a relief corps from rookies, retreads and failed prospects, but it can take a grueling half season or more to get the mix right.

What worries me is Rizzo's increasingly evident preference for the known quantity over the raw talent. Think Nyjer Morgan for Lastings Milledge. The Nats got the better player, but the Pirates got the talent. Hiring a manager like Jim Riggleman is a textbook case for valuing track record over potential. In terms of today's deal, ex-Diamondback Brian Bruney's an established, hard-throwing, middle-inning reliever with undistinguished peripheral numbers. You don't have to uncover the Rule 5 draft's next Johan Santana, or even the next Joakim Soria, to get a younger, better player who'll be under club control for longer than Bruney. The next Luis Ayala would be a fine return for that number one pick.

As hot stove kickoffs go this deal was a resounding "Meh." It's tough to get either enthused or outraged about a 28-year old middle reliever, especially when he might not be any better than the guy who was cut to make room for him. On the other hand, I share FJB's hope that we're not merely in the beginning phase of replacing Bowden's CinciNationals with Rizzo's DiamondNats.

Speaking of which, doesn't signing a well-past-his prime Pudge Rodriguez to a TWO YEAR deal seem, well... Bowdenesque?

December 1, 2009

Non-News Is Good News

On the day that legitimately competitive baseball clubs were deciding whether to offer arbitration to their talented free agents, the only news out of NatsTown is that the team will not be handing out cash to the veteran free agent dreck that clogged last year's roster. Josh Bard, Livan Hernandez, Austin Kearns, Ron Villone and Dmitri Young will all be faced with the unenviable task of latching on with a club more desperate for "baseball players" than the 2009 Washington Nationals.

As "news" goes, this is right up there with the shocking revelations, reported first here on Nats Triple Play, that Nats pitchers will not be pitching underhand next season and the corpse of Honus Wagner will not be your 2010 Opening Day shortstop. Note that the Honus Wagner "story" is still subject to confirmation.

As to whether the team will be handing out cash to the slightly younger dreck that clogged last year's roster, Mike Rizzo has until December 12th to make that call. On arbitration questions NTP mostly lines up with fellow Natmospherians Brian at NFA and Steven at FJB (3-letter acronyms: It's what's hip!)

For nuanced analysis, read them. Here's my take:

Absolutely offer arbitration to: Jesus Flores (Duh) and Josh Willingham (Double Duh.)

Probably should offer arbitration to:
Sean Burnett (All my kids are learning to pitch lefty from birth, if not before.)

I'm fine either way:
Jason Bergmann (He can swing from bullpen to rotation, he won't cost too much and he's got tenure with the franchise; but he gives up too many walks and gopher balls.)

Don't offer arbitration to:
Saul Rivera (look up "fungible") and Wil Nieves (Who?)

Dear God, please don't offer arbitration to:
Mike MacDougal
(Say you find $100 at the departure terminal at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. You pocket the money and go. You do not conclude that you're on a "hot streak" and extend your trip to return to the casinos. Trust me on this one.)

Damn the torpedoes, offer arbitration to:
Scott Olsen
(This is where I part ways with Brian and Steven. I'm a little more optimistic about Olsen's rebound potential and a little less sanguine about the likelihood of replacing that potential on the open market. I'd lump Olsen in with the other second-tier starting pitchers recovering from injury and try to sign him to a comparable deal. Even an arbitration loss should (should) have a negligible impact on the 2010 payroll.)

That frees up three spots on the 40-man roster. You know who'd look good in those spots? Orlando Hudson, Rich Harden and the top pick in the Rule 5 draft. Get to work, Rizzo.

November 18, 2009

Chico Ain't The Man

Who knew that the toughest beat in DC wasn't the White House or the Pentagon, but Nationals Park? Just two years after Barry Svrluga (of sainted memory) left for the apparently more relaxing Redskins beat, WaPo Nats beat writer Aaron "Chico" Harlan is abandoning ship. Per the Post's memo obtained by FishbowlDC:

After two very long seasons doing an outstanding job covering the Washington Nationals, Chico Harlan is eager for a new challenge at the Post, and a well-deserved one. We do not fault Chico for having failed to bring winning baseball to the District. In fact, he now joins a long list of baseball writers who have come up short in that regard. What this means is that we are looking for a new reporter to cover the Nats.
Now, some would argue that the Post has been, or should have been, looking for a new reporter to cover the Nats from the day Harlan started. He certainly didn't do himself any favors with his revelation to the Washingtonian that he doesn't particularly care for sports and would rather be a food writer, but he gets a pass from me.

As bloggers we've struggled (and failed) to find something interesting and relevant to say about the Washington Nationals that wasn't just long strings of profanity off and on for five years now. We've done it without deadlines, endless travel and dealing with reluctant players, coaches and executives, all while under pressure to break "news". As much as I love watching and writing about Nats baseball, I can't imagine doing Chico Harlan's job half as well as he did.

Bon appetit Chico. Nationals Journal's loss is the Food section's gain.

November 15, 2009

More on Riggleman's Qualifications

Bill Ladson and his hefty (mail) sack chime in on Jim Riggleman's installation as manager:

What did you think about the Nationals making Jim Riggleman the permanent manager?
-- Charlie B., Washington

It was a great move [...] I loved the way Riggleman gives opponents the element of surprise -- hit and run with Ryan Zimmerman at the plate, a surprise bunt, squeeze plays and stealing bases.

Ah yes, taking the bat out of your Silver Slugger-winning third baseman's hands by making him swing at slop so you can put the guy at first in motion. Daring! Unorthodox! Dumb! And the surprise bunt, the Spanish Inquisition of baseball plays!

I don't know about you, but after this I'm psyched for the 2010 edition of The Elements of Surprise by William Ladson and James Riggleman. No one, and I mean no one is going to see that Josh Willingham suicide squeeze on Opening Day coming!

November 14, 2009

Did The Best 'man Win?

This has been a good news/bad news week on the Nats front. Ryan Zimmerman raking in the overdue hardware: good news. Jim Riggleman losing his interim tag: bad news. The Nats looking to upgrade the middle infield: good news. Moving Guz to second and calling that an upgrade: bad news.

In the warm immediate afterglow of Zimmerman's Silver & Gold tour I'm willing to overlook the fact that the Gold Glove is a fatally flawed award too often given to a well-known offensive talent from a medium-to-large market who's not a total butcher with the leather. I'd prefer a genuine acknowledgement that Zimm is a unique defensive talent, but that's the way the game is played. The Silver Slugger? Well, Soriano got one for his 40-40-40 season in 2006, so it must be some measure of offensive prowess. Good on Ryan for coupling his usual defensive brilliance with a bounce-back offensive campaign.

Now, about Riggleman. I said in the last post that I was prepared to rescind my positive commentary on the nascent Kasten-Rizzo regime if Interim Jim got the full-time gig. Upon reflection I'm not prepared to go quite that far... yet, but I'm not happy about the managerial pick. Others have spilled many bytes comparing Jim Riggleman to Bobby Valentine and ultimately coming to a "six of one/half dozen of the other" conclusion. I won't dispute that. My gripe is almost entirely with the selection process. I can't shake the feeling that the dice were loaded for Riggleman from the day he took over as Manny Acta's bench coach.

In my mind the search for a new manager should start with a clean slate. The goal should be to find the best person to manage the 2010 Washington Nationals. In-house candidates are fine, but if you want me to believe that the best man to take the helm is the guy who was second in command of the previous shipwreck you're going to need some pretty substantial supporting evidence. Jim Riggleman's key qualifications seem to be that he's managed before, he knows the personnel and he's willing to work for what the Lerners are willing to pay.

I'll grant that there's something to the prior manager experience argument, just as there is a benefit to knowing the ropes of any job. But managing before isn't synonymous with managing well, or you probably wouldn't be in the market for a new position. Just recycling the same 30 -35 guys over and over more or less guarantees you're never going to uncover new talent.

Knowing the personnel is definitely a plus; Riggleman's already had his learning curve. But again, if that's a major qualification you're pretty much limiting your applicant pool to the bench coach, the field coaches and one or two minor league skippers. Learning new players is something every manager has to do, sometimes on the fly in the heat of a late season pennant race. Don't you want some evidence that your guy has that skill too?

Finally, the $64,000 question. Is Jim Riggleman getting paid more than $64,000 to manage the Nats this year? We'll never know. Both he and his agent, the excellently monikered Burton Rocks, have been sworn to secrecy. C'mon Jim, D.C.'s a company town, everybody knows what everybody makes, so let's have it. We're you really the best man for the job, or just the most readily available?

I suppose it's possible that Steve Jobs' executive assistant is in the best position to take over Apple when he retires. I'll even allow for the slight possibility that Joe Biden is the second most qualified person in the United States to be President. But the idea that the best manager for the 2010 Washington Nationals, better than Bobby V, Eric Wedge, Bob Melvin, Tim Foli and an unknown cast of dozens, just happened to be riding shotgun for Manny Acta the whole time? Sorry, I don't buy it.

November 5, 2009

Dave & Nate Take On: The Post-Post Season

In this episode, Dave and Nate take on… Fan fatigue, the vindication of Manny Acta and why Dan Snyder is the best thing never to happen to the Nats.

Nate: If it’s November, it must be time to drag ourselves out of a blogging coma.

Dave: So I’ve been rather quiet this year. I’ve been so quiet I can’t even really remember the last time I blogged. Nate has pretty much done the bulk of the writing here, and even he couldn’t pull something out for September or October… making the blog much like the team. (rimshot) It’s been incredibly hard to work up enthusiasm this year. Thanks to MLB’s text messaging service I’ve felt the pain of 103 text messages on my phone telling me of another loss, and only 59 times did that “bing” mean there was a win. Let’s recap:

We couldn’t bring ourselves to buy season tickets this year, which turned out to be the best non-investment of the year.

Nate: Second best, to me not renewing my ‘Skins tix, but more on that later.

Dave: Fair enough. Point is, there wasn’t a game we wanted to see that we couldn’t just buy tickets for, and usually we ended up with better seats to boot. This also meant we went to a lot LESS games, because we weren’t obligated to be there two or three times a week. Frankly, I don’t see us renewing next year either - Nats season tickets are nobody’s idea of a good deal right now.

The gameday experience at Nats Park is still a great time, but now even more for the stadium than the game. I do love getting a Half Smoke All The Way, and we had a pretty great rainout night just watching the rain fall and stuffing our faces with food and beer. Funny, the best night there was a night they didn’t play….

Nate: Because just like the lottery, you can’t lose when you don’t play. But let’s put the past in the past and never speak of the 2009 season ever again. Certainly one of the key figures from that forgettable period in Nationals history is doing a good job of moving on… new Cleveland Indians manager Manny Acta. Am I crazy for eagerly anticipating Major League 4? I’m not going to harp on how Manny got a raw deal in DC, but the Indians sure snapped him up quick, didn’t they?

Dave: They did. My back of the napkin analysis was that Manny got a bum deal. Trader Jim left Manny with a collection of pieces that weren’t designed to fit, and it shouldn’t be a surprise they didn’t work well together. (I’ll leave the comparisons to Jim Zorn to Nate.) Removing Manny didn’t make the team noticeably better. I’m a fan of Manny’s, and will do a little of the harping for Nate. As for Major League 4, I didn’t even know there was a version three.

Speaking of Zorn, I think the Lerner family is clearly benefiting from the fact that Dan Snyder is taking all the heat for being the worst owner in Washington, much less in all of sports. Being cheap isn’t half the crime that being evil is. Watching the Skins implode has taken the pressure off the Nats for being the worst team around. Both stink, but the Redskins have managed to take the smell to the national stage and come off looking absolutely ridiculous. At least the Lerners aren’t using security to take down fans with signs or suing their ticket holders. But maybe it was smart to drop those Nats tickets before they got any ideas.

Nate: Uncle Ted and the boys may be indifferent to the product on the field, but at least they aren’t actively undermining the coaches and antagonizing the fans on a daily basis, all while wringing every last nickel out of 40 years of accumulated goodwill. One thing the Lerners seem to have figured out, albeit belatedly, is that the business of sports is different from the business of business. Stan Kasten and Mike Rizzo appear to have been given more latitude to run the baseball side of the franchise. It’s the Kasten & Rizzo Show now, and from here on the results will speak for themselves. Contrast the Redskins, where accountability seems entirely absent, and the Nationals almost look like a competent organization. Dan Snyder, the gift that keeps on giving.

(I reserve the right to take everything I just wrote back if Jim Riggleman gets the permanent managerial gig for 2010.)

August 20, 2009

Mike Rizzo's To-Do List

1. Attend introductory press conference. Blink F-U-E-D-E-S in morse code for the camera.

2. Purchase leather pants, Segway.

3. Relocate Dominican Baseball Academy to Montego Bay, Jamaica. Spend next two months establishing "international presence" in Barbados, Ibiza, Phuket, Tahiti.

4. Promote Moose Stubing to Special Assistant to the GM for Silly Names. Apologize for displacing Squire Galbreath.

5. Lay healing hands on Jordan Zimmermann.

August 19, 2009

Thanks For Strasburg, Now Beat It

If this report is accurate, gratitude ain't what it used to be. That said, whether Mike Rizzo has earned the Washington Nationals GM job is open to debate, and this quote is pretty silly:

“If they let Mike go now, they really will have some explaining to do,” one Rizzo loyalist said Tuesday. “He changed the face of the club, got some of the bad apples out.”

Why exactly would they have some explaining to do? Mike Rizzo signed players, executed trades, negotiated contracts... pretty much what you'd expect a GM, interim or otherwise, to do. As for changing the face of the club, Morgan and Burnett in, Johnson, Milledge, Hanrahan, Beimel and Hernandez out is less like a facelift than like buying a new shade of lipstick.

Rizzo got a middling at best return for Nick Johnson, and may have sold short on Milledge at the nadir of his value. He didn't shed the Kearns or Guzman contracts, despite having opportunities to do so. Yes the Nats signed Strasburg, but they didn't stretch to sign any talent in the lower rounds. The international scouting and player development operations are still underwhelming. Is it unfair to saddle Mike Rizzo for responsibilty for all of this? Perhaps, but it comes with the job of major league general manager.

A competent GM may look like a revelation to the Nats, but competence is a baseline, not an aspirational goal.

(h/t MLB Trade Rumors)

August 18, 2009

Let's Do This Again Next Year

Well, that was fun! Stan, you really must bring that delightful 7 Layer Dip again. Scott, those pecan turtles were simply sinful. Mike... well, I'm sure your invitation is in the mail. We'll put you down for sodas and ice. Oh and Scott, be sure to bring your little friend Bryce next year. He can play in the Playstation Zone while the grown-ups talk.

Today is a great day for the Nationals franchise, marred only slightly by the knowledge that this is exactly what competent organizations are supposed to do as a matter of course. Draft player, sign player, repeat. The club's spotty record with this relatively straightforward process added some unnecessary heartburn to an already dramatic event. Largely overlooked in the final minutes of the Strasburg Watch was the encouraging signing of 12th round pick Nathan Karns, a pitcher out of Texas Tech. Must have been an overslot deal to get done so late.

So what's next?

Having a real, fully-empowered GM would be nice. If this wasn't Mike Rizzo's dress rehearsal, then there's nothing he can do to earn the job in DC. Maybe that's for the best. Maybe not. Either way, with Strasburg safely in the fold, this issue needs resolving pronto.

And what about Slingin' Stephen? He's out of baseball shape, and has 100+ innings pitched already this season. Maybe he makes a Ross Detwiler-esque cameo in September, but look how well that worked out for Ross. More likely, the Nats newest asset will get to experience Arizona in the fall. I'm sure Brian Oliver's always wanted to see Peoria.

And finally, last and least, the remaining 44 games of the 2009 season, aka "The Bryce Harper Derby". Washington holds a shrinking lead over Kansas City, with Pittsburgh and San Diego also factoring into the chase for the worst record. With Mike Morse called up to replace the mercifully DFA'd Logan Kensing, Ian Desmond and Clint Everts are really the only September call-ups of interest. Unless of course you have some perverse interest in seeing Daryle Ward back in DC. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

August 17, 2009

The Final Countdown

Nice of MLB to schedule an off day today. It's not as though Nats fan could use a distraction in the next few hours. By 12:01 tomorrow morning Washington will have concrete evidence that the franchise has either reached a turning point or that this generation of fans is wasting its time on the club. The stakes really are that high.

Forget Strasburg, Boras, Kasten, Rizzo, MLB, the players' union, the draft, the collective bargaining agreement and the future of sports in America. These next hours are about the Nationals and their fans. Plain and simple. Either the ownership, management and front office staff will step up and commit to making the Nationals competitive, or they will tacitly admit that they are perfectly happy to settle for a publicly funded stadium, steady media and merchandising profits and exclusive membership in the baseball owners club. Winning? Nice if it should happen, but secondary to protecting baseball's status quo.

Who the hell appointed the Nationals guardians of the best interests of baseball? Giving Strasburg $12M, $20M or $50M is "bad for baseball"? Says who? It might be bad for the owners, the commissioner, the league. Hell it might even be bad for the players and future draft picks if MLB institutes a salary cap and a hard slotting system. But bad for baseball? Baseball survived the Black Sox, the Negro Leagues, World War II, franchise relocation, Pete Rose, Barry Bonds and a tied All-Star Game. Baseball thrives everyday in dirt lots, American Legion fields and high schools and colleges all over the world. Stephen Strasburg could blow out his arm the day after signing or win 300 MLB games and baseball wouldn't change one iota.

I don't root for MLB, Bud Selig or the Lerners' financial portfolio. Signing Stephen Strasburg would be good for the Nationals. Having the best young pitcher in the game pitching in DC, NY and LA rather than Ft. Worth would be good for Major League Baseball. Having kids in Oakton, Anacostia or Silver Spring dream of growing up to be the next Stephen Strasburg would be good for baseball. Everyone agrees that Strasburg is a special talent. Why should I care whether the price of that talent is "record-breaking", "astronomical" or "outrageous"?

The Nationals have done nothing to earn the benefit of the doubt. Sure, they were "in" on Mark Teixeira, but at the end of the day they didn't get it done. Likewise with Aaron Crow. They negotiated, but when the clock struck midnight they were left holding a pumpkin. This year, the team has gone overslot to sign not one of their draft picks. Stephen Strasburg is not only all the eggs, he's the basket too.

In conclusion, a special word to Rob Dibble: "You sir, are an asshat." Quoth the Nasty Boy:

"And by the way, if you're the Lerners and Stan Kasten, you can't worry about what the bloggers and the media think of you. You can't bankrupt yourself and the system for one player."

News flash Dibbs. Bloggers are fans. I know for a fact that most Nats bloggers are also ticketholders. Which makes them paying customers. And if the Lerners and Stan Kasten are in the business of ignoring their customers now, DC residents probably have a right to be slightly put out at the $600M life-size chess board they built for King Teddy and the royal court. And, as an aside, if signing Strasburg is going to bankrupt the franchise or the "system" then wasn't the whole Teixeira negotiation (involving tens of millions more dollars over many more years) just a sham? What do you know that we don't, Rob?

For the next 12 hours, the clock is ticking on much more than just the Strasburg negotiations.

August 11, 2009

Cui bono?

There's no upside for the Nats in Jordan Zimmermann's impending Tommy John surgery. It's all well and good for Mike Rizzo to talk about success rates and pitchers coming back stronger, but the bottom line is: The Nats just lost a key piece of their developmental puzzle for at least one year.

This is why baseball fans should have TINSTAAPP tattooed on their foreheads (preferably backwards, so as to be easily readable in the mirror.) This is why you trade Nick Johnson for Aaron Thompson and draft two pitchers for every position player. Baseball is a numbers game, in every sense of the word. From the statistics that measure accomplishment to the attrition that occurs at every level from little league to the majors.

The Nats did everything with Zimmermann that you're supposed to do with a young pitcher. They brought him along slowly, limited his innings, monitored his pitch counts and shut him down at the first sign of trouble. And his elbow exploded like a cheap firework anyway. It's a funny old world, innit?

The Nats don't benefit, and J-Z certainly doesn't, but this turn of events provides leverage to at least two pitchers in the Nats orbit. The first, obviously, is Stephen Strasburg. A failure to sign Strasburg, coming within a week of losing Zimmermann, would be a body blow to a franchise desperately seeking to claw its way out of national joke status. The second, less obvious beneficiary is FJB-nemesis Scott Olsen.

The much-maligned Olsen is likewise recovering from surgery, and there has been some suggestion that he will be non-tendered this offseason to avoid arbitration. Now that our pitching depth just got considerably shallower, Olsen's odds of securing a return engagement have improved dramatically. Hard as it may be to believe, when your alternatives are Stammen, Mock, Martin, Balester, Martis and an unknown cast of dozens, Olsen's not a bad bulwark.

Folks, that's a sad commentary on the state of the franchise's pitching 5 years in. Cui Bono? Nobody.

August 10, 2009

Shipping Up to Boston

I'm shortstop Gooz
And I've paid my dues

My declining range

Is but a clever ruse


I might be shipping up to Boston

Could be shipping off to Boston

Possibly shipping out to Boston

To mostly rave reviews.


- with profuse apologies to Woody Guthrie


To waive or not to waive, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the infield to suffer the boots and bleeders of uncertain defense; or to take action against a bloated contract, and trade your starting shortstop to the Red Sox. Nationals Journal briefly lays out the options:

  1. Let Boston take him, and consider the $8M in salary relief a gift.
  2. Try to work out a trade and at least get something for Guzman
  3. Pull him back from waivers and keep him at least through the end of the season.
Reaction to the possibility of losing the Guz has ranged from unbridled enthusiasm to unadulterated glee. In this reading, Guzman's $8M contract next season is an albatross that will drag down the franchise and preclude everything from the Strasburg signing to the pursuit of a second baseman and/or closer in the offseason.

It's true that Guzman has the second largest contract on the team, behind Adam Dunn. But the Nationals' 2009 Opening Day payroll was $60M, hardly an onnerous burden, and more that $20M will be coming off that total with the subtraction of Johnson, Young, Kearns, Cabrera, Biemel, Belliard and several others. Some of that money will get eaten up in arbitration raises, particularly for Josh Willingham, but the suggestion that Guzman's salary could prevent the team from doing anything it needed to do is laughable.

Cristian Guzman is a slightly below average shortstop and a streaky hitter who doesn't walk and needs a .300 batting average to maintain his offensive value. It's also true that he's had that .300+ average for two and a half seasons now. Complicating the issue is the question of who replaces Guzie at short. Presumably the first choice would be the Attorney General, with Belliard getting the bulk of the time at 2B and Mike Morse or Ian Desmond called up for infield depth. If Belliard goes to second full time the team will also need a defensive replacement for Dunn at first base.

If there's a deal to be made for Guzman that returns something of value to DC, Rizzo should jump on it. Joe Posnanski has a theory that when dealing with a team like the Yankees or the Red Sox using their "must win now" mentality against them can be a valuable bargaining chip. That said, letting Cristian go for mere "salary relief" isn't the best interest of the Nationals in the short or long-term.

August 9, 2009

Zimmermann to Andrews to Strasburg

You may not know this, but the NTP gang has been inconspicuously absent from Nationals Park since the Randy Johnson rainout of June 3, 2009. Two plus months of not subjecting ourselves to live Nats baseball. Well, that all ended this weekend. On Friday NTP Dave was in attendance to see the fellers take their sixth straight game (with an able assist from the first base ump.)

Last night I journeyed down SoCap in search of bobbleheads and managed to snag a win in the bargain. Seven in a row is seven in a row, but all is not sunshine and lollipops for the Nationals. Garrett Mock was effective, but he pitched worse than his final line and there's no starting pitching relief on the horizon. John Smoltz, anyone?

The latest news on Jordan Zimmermann only compounds the problem. In case you've somehow missed the wailing and gnashing of teeth emanating from across the Natmosphere, J-Z's most recent MRI "caused concern" with the Nats crack (cracked? quack?) medical team. This sparked a referral to Dr. James Andrews, which "caused concern" among Nats fans. Now, no visit with Dr. Andrews is ever just a pleasant social call, but there's no sense organizing the mass suicides until Zim'nn's surgery is actually a "complete success and he should be ready for Spring Training." In the meantime I'm more interested in the impact of this news on the Strasburg negotiations.

Buster Olney, based on what appears to be nothing at all, is reporting that "real doubts are beginning to emerge that the Nats will be able to sign Stephen Strasburg." First of all, this is just lousy sentence construction, either by B.O. or MLB Trade Rumors. I can't believe anyone doubts that the Nats are able to sign Strasburg, the only question is whether they're willing to meet his price. "Nats unwilling to sign Strasburg" would be a better encapsulation. But I digress..

There are two potential lessons to be drawn from Jordan Zimmermann's current predicament that could impact the Strasburg signing in very different ways.

Lesson #1: Talented young team-controlled starting pitching is a commodity of unparalleled value, and the more of it you have the better off you are.

Lesson #2: Even the best pitchers are one elbow twinge away from a potentially career-altering visit with James Andrews.

Taking lesson one to heart would suggest that the Nats should pay the freight for the most talented amateur pitcher of the decade and hope for the best. Heeding lesson two would cause the team to avoid committing record setting sums of money a twenty one-year old right arm, no matter what its pedigree. The next eight days just got a little more interesting.

August 6, 2009

Trade Veloz-ity

The 2009 Mike Rizzo Low-Budget Housecleaning Tour rolls on. The Nats traded 2B Anderson Hernandez back to the Mets for A-ball 2B Greg Veloz. John Sickels ranked the 21 year-old Veloz the 17th-best Mets prospect coming into 2009, and Baseball America placed him in the organization's top 25. A rough year has probably dimmed Veloz's prospect luster somewhat, but he's a solid return for two months of Anderson Hernandez on a going-nowhere Mets team.

Hernandez, you'll recall, was originally acquired from the Mets for Luis Ayala (of sainted memory.) While it would have been nice to persuade Omar Minaya of the absolute necessity of acquiring Ronnie Belliard, shipping out the playing time deficient Hernandez is an acceptable Plan B. Frankly, anything the Nats can do to ensure Omar Minaya's continued employment in the Mets front office, they should do.

On the Nats end, this is exactly the type of deal Rizzo should be making in bulk. Hernandez lost out to the Attorney General in the battle of underwhelming utility infielders, Belly-yard is being showcased for a post-deadline trade and Mike Morse is tearing up Triple-A. The Nationals, meanwhile, are back in the market for a full-time second sacker (along with a closer, veteran starter, and everything else they were looking for last season.)

Veloz may never amount to anything (the odds are much worse than 50/50) but for the Nats, neither would Hernandez. The Johnson and Beimel trades were "must" deals. Today was a "should" deal. Hopefully the first of many.

UPDATE: This is not the deal I had in mind. Per Nationals Farm Authority (via teh Tweeter) Nats acquire Norris Hopper and Daryle Ward from the White Sox for cash. First reaction: Hopper makes sense as AAA outfield depth, Ward makes sense only if Belliard is getting traded/DFA'd in the next 20 minutes. Second reaction: "Holy $#&%, the Lerners are handing out cash! Get thee to the ballpark, pronto."

August 5, 2009

Two Debuts

In the wake of the Misson: Improbable-style comeback over the Fish last night the Natmosphere is buzzing over the disabling of Austin Kearns, which you can plausibly argue actually occurred sometime in mid-2008, and the resulting promotion of 29-year old rookie outfielder Jorge Padilla. I'd expect the Rick Short name-checking to come fast and furious, but only Charlie Slowes has been with the franchise long enough to make the reference authentic. Nationals Journal has the background on Padilla.

Jorge, while certainly no Rick Short, is a true baseball feel-good story, and it's always nice to see an outstanding AAA season rewarded. But Padilla won't be anything more than a bench bat for the Nats. He doesn't really have the power to hold down a major league corner outfield slot or the speed to spell Morgan in center. He's old friend (and current Syracuse farmhand) Mike Vento with a better batting eye.

The debut to watch, or listen to, tonight will be 120 miles north of Nationals Park, where new Harrisburg Senator Aaron Thompson takes on Binghamton in his Nationals organization debut. Thompson was the Nats return on the last second deadline deal that sent Nick Johnson to Florida. The Marlins first round selection in the 2005 draft, the 22 year-old put up a 4.11 ERA for AA Jacksonville, with uninspiring peripherals. John Sickels had this to say about the man he ranked Florida's 15th best prospect in 2009:

"I don’t like the way his Double-A numbers slipped and I worry about health."

Damning with faint criticism. I'll be rooting for Padilla over the next two months, but for this organization to make real progress, I'll be praying for Aaron Thompson.

August 2, 2009

Something Fishy Here

In his article recapping the Nats deadline deals WaPo's Chico Harlan says that Nick Johnson was overcome by emotion when notified of his trade to Florida.

Johnson, at first, was so emotional that he knew only one response: He stayed in the cages with Eckstein and kept taking swings. But eventually, he reemerged in the clubhouse, as team employees helped him with a travel itinerary. Johnson choked back tears. He hugged teammates. In previous weeks, the Nationals had discussed a contract extension with their starting first baseman but couldn't get anything done.
MLB.com's Bill Ladson, somewhat to the contrary, says that:

"Interim general manager Mike Rizzo didn't have a choice but to trade Nick Johnson because the latter did not want to negotiate an extension with the Nationals."

To my mind, there is a great difference between being unable to get a contract extension done and being unwilling to do so. If Nick was truly uninterested in extending his time in DC, I can't blame him, but that makes it harder to believe the trade came as such a terrible shock. I suppose it's possible that Johnson anticipated the trade and was nonetheless overcome by emotion in the moment. Whether his tears were of regret or relief we may never know.

July 31, 2009

Dealing at Gunpoint

If the Nats don't deal Nick Johnson and Josh Willingham by 4 pm today they'll never be good in our lifetimes.

That my be the dumbest thing I've written in 4 years of blogging the Nats (feel free to slog through the archives to confirm) but it's also the prevailing sentiment across the Natmosphere. If that feels familiar, it's because that's been the prevailing sentiment every July 31st since Bowden didn't move Alfonso Soriano to Minnesota for P Kevin Slowey and OF/DH Jason Kubel. (I assume FJB would have approved that deal because it obviated the need for the Olsen/Willingham trade two years later.) Nats fans have gotten pretty good at seeing doom in the failure to move every marginally tradeable player.

Now, because other teams have gotten good hauls for Cliff Lee, Matt Holliday, Freddy Sanchez and George Sherrill, it stands to reason that the Nats are once again suckers for "sitting out" the trading action. Nevermind that the Nats don't have a Lee, Holliday, Sanchez or Sherrill (or for that matter an Adam LaRoche, Ryan Garko, Jack Wilson or Tony Pena.) The Nats should be out there giving away players for something, anything, because gosh darnit they're just terrible and the only way to get better is the Twins/Marlins/A's approach of churning veterans for prospects.

I've been accused of making excuses for the front office because I honestly believe that the trade deadline, for all the rumors, innuendo and supposition, is a black box and you can only evaluate the deals that were made, not the deals that never came together. That's not to say that GMs can't screw up. Dmitri Young should have been traded at the deadline in '07. If Mike Rizzo is running around telling people that Josh Willingham is untouchable, that's just, to quote our President "stupid." If, on the other hand, Rizzo is asking for a "Matt Holliday-lite" package and just not getting it, that's just good GMing. Players are happy to take advantage of career years, GMs should too.

Nick Johnson is an entirely different case. A potential free agent with a medical history longer than his stat sheet, Nick has seen both his power and his defense decline this summer. Yes he still gets on base and hits for average, but he's looking more and more like Sean Casey every day. Nats fans like to remember Nick as he was in 2005/06, but opposing GMs are looking at a two-month rental of OBP and a left-handed bench bat. Still, there comes a point when the best offer out there simply ain't good enough. Ryan Tucker? Aaron Thompson? They may have nice pedigrees, but the numbers are less than impressive. With no heir apparent at 1B (Adam Dunn is not an option on a serious team) I'd rather give Nick the two year deal he wants and hope that one of the kids comes through in time for 2011.

Deal Joe Beimel and Willie Harris. This team has a solid history of turning relievers (Stanton, Rauch, Ayala) and bench bats (Daryle Ward, Marlon Anderson) into interesting, marginally useful prospects. But spare me the hysterics if Johnson, Willingham and Dunn are all still here tomorrow morning.

July 30, 2009

Whose Deadline Is It?

Maintaining the status quo would be "an epic fail." There's no reason for Nick Johnson to be on this team come August 1st. The team cannot take this lineup into 2010. The Pirates have liquidated half their roster and prospects are falling from the skies. Even with all that, Mike Rizzo doesn't anticipate any big moves. Which makes sense when you consider that only Joe Beimel really needs to be shown the door.

L.A. Joe is a lefty reliever on a cheap one-year deal. He is archtypical deadline trade bait, and the third left-hander in a bad team's bullpen. Come October 5, 2009 he's gone one way or another. Joe Beimel is a less accomplished Mike Stanton, who became Shairon Martis in July 2006. The odds of turning a lefty reliever into a young starter aren't good, but it's a gamble you take every time.

Beyond that, it's not fair to say that the continued presence of Willingham, Dunn and Guzman on the roster next week is an unmitigated front office failure. A disappointment, maybe. Josh, Adam and Cristian are all under team control through 2010. Dave Nichols may be right to say that the Nats cannot "come into spring training with Johnson at first base, Willingham in right, Dunn in left and Guzman at short." That doesn't mean that everyone has to be dealt by Friday afternoon. Offseason trades work too.

As for Nick, he's a potential free agent, apparently seeking a lucrative two-year deal. Unfortunately there's no 1B-of-the-future waiting in the wings. The idea of moving Adam Dunn to first is superficially attractive, but if you think watching Dunn butcher 2 or 3 balls a game in left field is painful, imagine him trying to make every catch at first base. As for Josh Willingham, well you don't want someone with chronic back issues crouching on the infield every day.

So trade Joe Biemel. For anything. Do it today. As for the rest, if you can get a Matt Holliday/Jack Wilson/Cliff Lee-type package (quality and quantity) do it. Otherwise remember, the winter meetings are practically right around the corner.

July 27, 2009

This is How They Get You

Win a couple of series, manufacture a redeeming moment for the guy riding the end of the bench, generate a little buzz with trade deadline talk, draft signing panic and typical ownership ineptitude. All of a sudden, against their better judgment, a few more people are paying attention to the Nats than were at this time last week.

Do not be fooled! The pitching is still a patchwork mess. Defense is a crapshoot at best, and somebody forgot to tell the hitters that you can't bank runs from game to game.

There's no sign that the team is committed to moving its tradeable commodities and no evidence that they could get value in return if they did. Forget the talk about August 31st being the real trade deadline. For the Nats it's July 31st or bust. Washington's hottest properties (Johnson, Willingham, Dunn, Beimel) wouldn't make it through waivers unless they were physically anchored to Austin Kearns and Cristian Guzman.

Maybe the club is showing some improvement, or maybe they just ran into two of the other awful teams in the NL. Either way, the front office has 5 days to demonstrate that their commitment to improving the Nationals is more than just hollow happy talk.

July 19, 2009

Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape

In the wake of the "harsh interrogation" controversies of the past few months, reference has been made to the SERE training commonly given to U.S special forces, Air Force pilots and others with a higher than normal risk of capture. SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (or Survive, Evade, Resist, Extract for the Brits.) Now I'm not suggesting that being a Nats fan is in any way as hazardous as serving in the armed forces, I'm just saying that no one should be forced to watch this team without a well-rehearsed survival plan. With that in mind:

Survival:
The typical Major League Baseball Season lasts from early April to early October, not counting Spring Training and the abomination of the World Series dragging on into November. Six months, more or less. That's what you as a Nats fan have to plan to endure. Sure there are other baseball-related activities sprinkled throughout the offseason, but those are easy enough to ignore. Survive the regular season and you're home free. Nats playoff games pose no more threat than unicorns. Spring and summer in DC provide a wealth of alternative activities like the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Independence Day, Screen on the Green, and many more. Plan now to fill up your evenings and weekends, leaving less time for a spontaneous baseball encounter.

Evasion: Thankfully it's pretty easy to avoid the Nationals. Delete MASN from your channel guide and WFED from your radio presets and your odds of randomly stumbling across a Nats game are virtually nil. With no marketing to speak of, accidently exposure to the Nats is almost impossible. You certainly won't be seeing them on ESPN or the MLB Network. In fact you could easily watch a week's worth of Baseball Tonight and risk only passing exposure to Washington's baseball club. Unless of course they're playing the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Dodgers or Cubs, which you won't know because you're actively not paying attention. Probably safer just to avoid ESPN altogether. You won't miss it.

Resistance: This is the tough part. Even with no advertising, a pathetic excuse for a television and radio presence and an almost palpable antipathy to fan cultivation, you're bound to hear, see or read something about the Nationals. Maybe they have a promising young pitcher, or a veteran reclamation project is having a career year. Do not get sucked in. Nationals Park is very nice, but it is not now and never has been a fun place to spend a summer afternoon or evening. It is an attractive vessel for a bottomless well of suffering. It's the baseball equivalent of being waterboarded in a Barcalounger. Maybe you're comfortable, but it's still torture.

Escape: If you find yourself, despite all your best efforts, actually attending a Nats game, do not give up hope. Given the frequent invasions by visiting fans, it is possible to convince yourself you are not at a Nats game at all. In addition, there are several areas of Nationals Park which seem almost intentionally designed to divert attention from the product on the field. From the Playstation fun zone and batting cages to the Build-a-Bear workshop and concession lines it's entirely possible to spend hours in the stadium and not watch any baseball at all. You should also note that the Red Porch restaurant and Red Loft bar frequently have televisions tuned to other sporting events if you prefer active rather than passive avoidance. Because crowds are generally sparse, the physical escape from Nationals Park is usually effortless.

There you have it. A basic, 4-step plan to survive the baseball season in Washington, DC. With practice and a little luck you can enjoy the hallmarks of spring and summer in our nation's capital with never so much as a hint of the atrocities being committed on a daily basis just down South Capitol Street.

July 13, 2009

Hey Buddy, Wanna Buy a Bridge?

The open letter sent out this morning by the Washington Nationals is reprinted below in its entirety (and also available via D.C. Sports Bog). This opus would choke the StanSpeak Translator, but we here at Nats Triple Play feel ourselves equal to the task.

To Fans of the Washington Nationals, (Fans... plural. Love the optimism.)

No one is more dissatisfied in the first half of the 2009 Washington Nationals season than we are. (Thank God we get paid to be here.) Like you, we had hoped that some of our younger players would have matured faster (once we dumped them in AAA after 7 games,) and that the addition of some of our new veterans would have significantly improved our record from a season ago (without improving our pitching or defense). Our hope was that a solid club leadership would emerge on and off the field (we blame Dmitri for the lack of leadership) and that some intangible combinations (magic beans) would begin to click resulting in many winning streaks (two games is a streak, right?).

We definitely do see significant pieces materializing for the future (once Scotty gets the transporter working), and there have been many close, exciting games and optimistic bright spots (predictably ruined by the bullpen): Strong outings by John Lannan, the home run and RBI production of Adam Dunn, the All-Star selection and 30 game hitting streak of Ryan Zimmerman, and the recent addition of speedster Nyjer Morgan. (Yes folks, Nyjer Morgan is 4th on your list of season highlights.) Much (All) of the season, however, has been defined by weak relief pitching, poor defense, and youthful inconsistency (from 10-year veterans). We have tried to work through this period with patience and focus but now we are faced with mounting losses which (could actually threaten our jobs, and) are beginning to take a toll on our entire roster. Clearly, some changes are required as we prepare for the second half of the 2009 season and, more importantly, build for a competitive future (but rest assured those changes won't happen anytime soon).

Today, we announced that manager Manny Acta is being replaced on an interim basis by Jim Riggleman, (bad) veteran manager, (sacrificial goat) and currently the Nats bench coach. Both the Ownership and the entire Washington Nationals organization have the highest respect for Manny Acta and the role he has played in the short history of the Nationals. However, it is our belief that a fresh attitude and approach (more screaming) is necessary as we set out to improve our performance for the remainder of the year. We want to send a strong message to our clubhouse and our fans that the status quo is unacceptable (all of a sudden). We believe (all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) that more is expected of everyone in the organization.

Baseball operations will be reevaluating all our players and our options for improvement over the next several months (and we have begun the process of legally changing Austin Kearns's name to Jason Bay). We hope to sign our 2009 draft choices by the August deadline (without actually spending any money, so don't hold your breath). We hope these new additions will join an already exciting Nationals youth movement headed by the likes of Lannan, Jesus Flores (may he rest in peace), Alberto Gonzalez (author of the memo conclusively demonstrating that Nationals baseball is not torture), Jordan Zimmermann and Craig Stammen on our current roster, and the likes of promising minor league stars like Chris Marrero, Michael Burgess, Danny (0-3, 2K) Espinosa, Derek Norris and Drew Storen, among many others. But, we also will be determining the viability of trades or roster upgrades that can be made without doing damage to the farm system (now DDT-free!) or the developing talent we expect to blossom within the next two years.

When we bought the Washington Nationals in the middle of the 2006 season - just under three years ago - we committed to a patient, long term approach (marked by indifference to the major league squad), building a strong farm system (compared to the dirt farm bequeathed us by Omar Minaya) and core foundation that would deliver a perennial and consistent contender (to Potomac); to provide a second-to-none family entertainment value at Nationals Park; and to investment and involvement in the metropolitan Washington DC community. Today we remain steadfastly committed to each component of that mission. We are proud to represent the National Pastime in the Nation's Capital, and we are proud to call the Capital area home (except for those of us with no ties to the area who live elsewhere).

We know we have a way to go, but the end result will be all the richer (f0r us) for the early days we've spent together at Nationals Park (siphoning your cash while fielding a AAAA team). We are getting better (at lying to you). We want you to be with us as the pieces of the puzzle come together. Your support is powerful to the Nationals and baseball in Washington (not as powerful as the support of Phillies, Mets, Red Sox, Cubs, Yankees, Braves and Cardinals fans, but still, you guys are swell). Thank you for your continuing patience and your commitment to a shared dream.

Sincerely,

Washington Nationals Baseball Club (What, you expected someone to actually sign their name to this horse pucky? Such a kidder, you are.)

Final Acta

The Nationals did something pointless. Dog bites man.

Did Manny Acta "deserve" to get fired? Being 26-61 in the midst of a third consecutive losing season is a strong argument in favor of making changes. But does anyone honestly expect a significant improvement from the Nats in the 2nd half?

I've spilled far too many bytes on the Acta situation already. The manager doesn't pitch, he doesn't hit, he doesn't field. He can't go out there and close out games himself. He can't make Adam Dunn anything more than an indifferent fielder. (Sure, he could bench Dunn to send a "message" to the club, but what would that message be, exactly?)

More worrisome than the firing itself is the atmosphere surrounding the team. Remember that Acta was allegedly supposed to fired a month ago, only to be left hanging when Ken Rosenthal and others "broke the story." So did Stan Kasten stay the execution for 30 days in a fit of pique at the media? If not, what happened between then and now that cost Manny his job?

With Manny out, the last barrier between Stan Kasten and accountability is gone. Kasten talks a good game about being responsible for everything that has gone wrong over the past 3 years, but I missed the part where he offered his resignation after showing Jim Bowden, Randy St. Claire and Acta the door in the space of a few months. Mike Rizzo is an interim GM. Jim Riggleman is a stop-gap manager. This is Stan Kasten's team now, for worse or worse.

Reaction from the Natosphere has been measured and mixed. General consensus: Manny was dealt a lousy hand, but still didn't play it all that well. Brian Oliver makes a good case for giving a new manager a three month audition rather than recycling a retread like Riggleman. But that would require the Nats doing something smart, now wouldn't it?

I'm awfully close to the point of hoping the team screws up the Strasburg negotiations so I can finally write this organization off and go back to enjoying my summers.

July 11, 2009

Object Lesson for the Day

When you do something just for the sake of doing something, you end up with Jeff Francoeur or Yuniesky Betancourt. Change does not equal Progress.

(For an example that hits a little closer to home for Nats fans, see Preston Wilson.)

July 8, 2009

From Whence Comes Our Help?

Lord knows that watching the Nats as they are is too heavy a burden to borne by man. Now is the time for all epically bad teams to begin reimagining their club as it might be. Boswell is already underway. Granted, as profound thinking goes, "The Nationals Need a Roster Overhaul" fits nicely right alongside "The U.S. needs to rein in entitlement spending." Propositions that command near-universal assent generally make for poor blueprints. It's easy to say "Blow up the roster and trade everything that's not nailed down!" Finding people to take the players the worst team in baseball doesn't want is a taller order, and getting something of value for them will be the real test of our interim GM.

For purposes of the current exercise I'm discounting the return on any trades, assuming they'll be either A) prospects too young to contribute immediately or B) 18-24 month stopgaps like Morgan and Burnett, guys who are complimentary players, not building blocks. The question then becomes, "What do the Nats have in-house that provides even a scintilla of hope for 2010 and beyond?" The answer, unsurprisingly, is not a hell of a lot. But that's no reason to hold off on the necessary roster decimation. The farm system is still a long way from producing a pipeline of big league caliber talent. The 2009 Washington Nationals are (at least on the position player side) a veteran bad team. If the 2010 squad is a younger bad team, that by itself would be an improvement of sorts.

The NJ Conundrum: Nick the (Walking) Stick is still getting on base, but his bat has quieted considerably. Even less than the homeruns, he's not nearly the doubles machine he once was. His usually slick glove has also shown uncharacteristic holes this season. Would being a full season removed from injury help? Possibly, but he's still the Nats best trade chip and a constant injury risk. Deal him, and move Dunn to first. The defense will be bad, but it was already bad.

The Ascension of Elijah: Dunn to first moves Willingham to leftfield, opening up right for the return of Elijah Dukes. Clubhouse cancer or not, Dukes has a big league bat and a big league arm. Burying him at AAA in favor of Austin Kearns would be insulting the intelligence of all 20 people still following this team. Keep Kearns around as a 5th OF if you must, unless Roger Bernadina's ankle heals up ahead of schedule. If Uncle Teddy can be convinced to eat Austin's salary, so much the better.

Belly Flop: Look, I like Ronnie Belliard. I thought he was a good low-risk pick-up in 2007, and I even liked the relatively cheap 2-year extension. He was valuable enough with the bat last season to earn his money. That was then, but now he's done. Maybe he'd be rejuvenated coming off the bench for a contender, and he showed last year that he can play the corners in a pinch, but nobody's going to give us anything to find out. Cut him loose on August 1st.

The GUZMANIA! World Tour: Personally I think the days are over when you can convince a major league GM that Cristian's .314 batting average means anything. (Sabean maybe, but he's got his own disaster at shortstop.) Still, a contender in need could do worse, and while the Nats would miss his bat, they probably wouldn't miss his (decreasing) range and $8M salary next season. I can't actually advocate trading Guzman, not with Alberto Gonzalez and Mike Morse as Plans B & C, but I'm willing to turn a blind eye if Rizzo can make it happen.

Say Hey and Farewell: Now that the Nats finally have a competent major league centerfielder, Willie Harris is a luxury. A speedy, left-handed, affordable utility luxury, to be exact. Granted it would take two AAAA guys (Morse and Maxwell, maybe?) to replace Willie's contributions and it would be nice to have Harris, Morgan and Dukes playing OF defense in the late innings, but historically awful beggars can't be choosers.

A Willing Trade Chip: You can't blow up the outfield without mentioning Josh. Next to (perhaps ahead of) NJ, Willingham is the most tradeable Nat. He's swinging a hot bat, which is always nice, and he's team controlled for a few more years, which is even better. Jettisoning both Johnson and Willingham would take out a huge chunk of the offense, but the outfield defense might improve by default. Unless Dunn moves back to left and Brad Eldred gets promoted from AAA, of course.

A Bard's Tale: Josh Bard has quietly worked his way up to a 280/350/400 line on the season. Not bad for a backup catcher moonlighting as a starter. Also not bad for a team looking to add a veteran backstop for the stretch run. I shudder to think what a trade here would do to our offense, and minor league help is almost literally nonexistent, but if Bard's tradeable he should be traded.

The Bull$&!# Pen: We come into this world with nothing, we leave with nothing and in between we pitch relief for the Washington Nationals. Every man in the 'pen is expendable. The Nationals Review makes an excellent case for turning competent relievers into prospects whenever possible. Nats fans need look no farther than the Mike Stanton-for-Martis or Luis Ayala-for-Hernandez deals to confirm the wisdom of this approach. Hell, even Rauch-for-Bonifacio ultimately netted Willingham and Olsen down the road. Granted, competence is a high bar for our 2009 relief corps to clear, but Beimel, a rehabilitated MacDougal, Villone, even newbie Sean Burnett, one or two of these guys ought to be able to fetch something of value. Rebuild the 2009 'pen around Bergmann, Clippard, two innings-limited young starters and whoever's left over from the yard sale. In 2010, start fresh.

And For Starters: There's John Lannan. There's Jordan Zimmerman. And then...? If Scott Olsen's return from the dead is legit he makes three. Signing Stephen Strasburg is not even open to discussion, but it's a mistake to slot him in as a 2010 savior-of-the-rotation. You'll be lucky to get one back-end starter out of the Martis/Stammen/Detwiler trio. Maybe J.D. Martin, Balester or Mock impresses in a late season audition. Maybe Matt Chico returns from the dead. More likely the rotation remains a promising but jumbled mess for the forseeable future.

July 6, 2009

See Guzie in St. Louie!

Most of the time GUZMANIA! is it's own reward. Cristian is the Washington Nationals' elder statesman, after all, one of the last links to that magical 2005 team that hooked so many of us on baseball's return to DC. He's been by turns terrible on decent teams and slightly above average on awful squads, but through it all, the Guz abides. He asks for little in return; the ocassional mudball, the boo-sounding "Gooooooooz!" cheer when he strokes a first-pitch single up the middle. His needs are few and simple.

Yet every once in a while, the Guzmaniac finds him or herself in a position to give back to the walking Lasik advertisement that is our starting shortstop. For sometimes Cristian Guzman, the near 2008-NL batting champ, finds himself in position to make a 2nd consecutive All-Star team. Sure, Ryan Zimmerman is a deserving All-Star rep. You can make a good case for Adam Dunn too. But Guzie's the guy on the ballot.

Surely he's more deserving than Mark "5th best 3B in the NL" Reynolds. Shane Victorino just won a World Series, he doesn't need this. Pablo Sandoval is young, he's got plenty of chances to be the last guy voted on to the NL All-Star team. As for Matt Kemp, well... he played half a season with Manny Ramirez. Maybe that's not disqualifying in your book, but on this here blog, it'll do. There you have it. Cristian Guzman, the clean, sober, deserving choice for the 2009 NL All-Star team.

Go here. Click through. Vote now, vote often. GUZMANIA! 2009: Back to Back or Bust!

July 1, 2009

Put Down Your Dukes

Didn't see that coming. To clear a spot for Nyjer Morgan the Nats demote Elijah Dukes to AAA Syracuse. The demotion was termed a "pure baseball decision" because Dukes is not a "finished product" and needs to play every day, which he certainly wasn't doing in DC. But wasn't that what they said about Lastings Milledge back in April? All I'm saying is I hope Elijah's lease is month-to-month.

Look, nobody who's watched Dukes play this season can argue with the assertion that he's regressed, both at the plate and in the field. After a hot start that saw him hitting 277/347/473 in mid-May Elijah got banged up, and his bat has yet to recover. A switch to CF didn't do him any favors either. Again, shades of Milledge? So yes, Dukes probably could, in theory benefit from a AAA stint to play every day and rediscover his swing. The $64,000 question is, will he?

He's been a solid citizen during his time in DC (even in the absence of Dmitri Young's "mentoring") and all we can do is hope that he takes the same approach to what is hopefully a brief reorganizational stint in the minors. Because let's face it, a team that demotes Elijah Dukes to put Josh Willingham in RF and keeps Austin Kearns on the bench still has quite a bit of dysfunction to work out. And Elijah Dukes does not need added dysfunction.

Assuming he takes it in stride, this may be the best baseball move for Dukes, but is it actually good the Nats? Even a struggling Elijah was a bat to be feared, and I doubt that seeing Kearns or Willie Harris stride to the on-deck circle imparts quite the same trepidation. So the bench is weakened. Dukes was also a more-than-capable right fielder with an imposing arm, something that cannot be said of Willingham. Nyjer Morgan was acquired to improve the Nats pitiful defense, but does sandwiching him between Dunn and Willingham negate that improvement?

Of course, Mike Rizzo has to play the cards he was given, and in Dunn and J-Will he was dealt two LF/1B/DH types, who also happen to be two of the better offensive performers on a very bad team. Getting their bats in the lineup alongside Nick Johnson was always going to be problematic. Let's hope Rizzo isn't finished dealing or reshaping the roster. This team is hard enough to root for when it's giving roster spots and ABs to the likes of Kearns and Ronnie Belliard. To paraphrase a great baseball man, "Sell low once, shame on me. Sell low twice, I won't get fooled again."

Chin up, Elijah, and come back soon.

June 30, 2009

Bustings Milledge

Whatever the immediate merits of the great Morgan-Burnett for Milledge-Hanrahan swap of '09 (the P-Rats clearly won the letter sweepstakes) it's hard to see this as anything but a loss for the Nationals. Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett may be competent major leaguers, an honest-to-goodness upgrade from the routine incompetence of the 2009 Washington baseballclub, but it's hard to see either of them being part of the "first great Nationals team," as much as I abhor the phrase. Weren't the Nats supposed to be in the business of stockpiling talented youngsters and building for the future? Unless "the future" has been radically redefined as 2010, I'm missing something here.

Sure, Lastings Milledge was a self-aggrandizing headcase with a gift for turning routine defensive plays into highlight reel-worthy miscues. That said, he was still just 24, an age when many good-if-not-great players are still figuring out their game in the high minors. Despite his well-documented struggles, he was one of the franchises most talented offensive prospects. Read into that what you will. Maybe this move is Milledge-specific, in which case there's not much more to say. It's hard to leverage a guy who was demoted to AAA a week into the season only to break his finger. Still, selling low on him for a guy who looks for all the world like Brandon Watson fulfilling his potential is a failure, regardless of spin.

On the other hand, maybe we really are seeing the first fruits of a Bowden-free organization. Couple the Milledge trade with a June draft low on toolsy, projectable high schoolers and heavy with more developed college and JuCo players. Perhaps the front office is developing a healthy scepticism of unfulfilled "potential". After all, who is really more valuable to the franchise, Lastings Milledge in Syracuse or Willie Harris in DC? Of course, the answer is the most value comes from developing Milledge to the point where he can supplant Harris. But these are the Nationals we're talking about.

Joel "Gas can"rahan is another story. He seems to have lost whatever fairy magic allowed him to get through the 2nd half of 2008 as a semi-reliable closer. If he can get his groove back in the Steel City, more power to him. Getting anything for his 7+ ERA at this point is a bonus. Sean Burnett is a lot like Hanrahan, a talented guy who seemed cursed to never figure it out. This season he has, so far. Is it an illusion? Who knows, who cares.

If this is the opening round of the purge, let me be the first (or the 1,000,001) to suggest that Ronnie Belliard, Dmitri Young, Austin Kearns and Jesus Colome can be liquidated without posing much threat to that aforementioned first great Nationals team. Sell, Rizzo, sell!

June 22, 2009

Nats at Random

A sequence of disjointed bits for your off day evening:

Dan Steinberg finally gets Manny Acta. Good News Week is off to a roaring start on the DC Sports Bog. Read the whole post and then tell me that firing Manny would be anything other than management CYA and scapegoating by the Lerners, Kasten and Rizzo. When the ship is sinking you don't can the guy calmly organizing the bucket brigade.

Speaking of getting the axe, remember Luis Ayala? The erstwhile Nats set-up man, late of that proto-Washington franchise, the Minnesota Twins, is getting DFA'd. Is it time to think about putting the band back together? Ayala would be a cheap pickup, Jon Rauch is on the outs in Arizona, Gary Majewski is in AAA and Chad Cordero has yet to make so much as a rehab appearance for the Mariners. You could probably grab the whole lot of them for next to nothing. If you're going to have a bad bullpen, may as well have a bad bullpen with nostalgia value, right?

If we're going to reacquire Cordero, it would probably help to have something the Mariners want. Something like, say, Ryan Langerhans? Dave and Derek at U.S.S. Mariner do some of the most interesting baseball writing going, and it would be easier on the eyes if they didn't treat the Nats like their own personal dollar store. Some of us are quite fond of Ryan. Note to Mike Rizzo: If there is a fair deal to be made for Langerhans, make sure The Chief is a throw-in.

June 13, 2009

Acta Out?

Is the curtain coming down on Manny's act? According to Ken Rosenthal, Acta could be axed following this weekend's series at Tampa Bay. The info comes from Ladson-esque "major-league sources" but it's hardly a far-fetched rumor. (As an aside, are "major-league sources" sources in the big leagues or sources who are a really big deal? Is Rahm Emanuel a major-league source? But I digress...)

Robothal's "sources" indicate that the unenviable task of managing the rest of this season in DC will fall to bench coach Jim Riggleman. Riggleman took over as interim manger of the almost equally terrible 2008 Seattle Mariners before coming to DC to backstop (backstab?) Manny. There's no word yet on who will be promoted to bench coach to play MacDuff to Riggleman's MacBeth. Where have you gone, Pat Corrales?

It's my view that canning Manny is unjustified and will be at least unproductive if not actively counter-productive. I've said so repeatedly. But the numbers don't lie. 15-42 does not portend job security. Likewise, Acta's career record of 147-231 is hardly confidence inspiring. If your solution is to replace him with someone with a track record just as bad, over a much larger sample size, well that's where you lose me. Maybe Manny "deserves" to be fired in some sense. But if the goal is to improve the team, shouldn't you shoot for somebody who would be an improvement? And if Riggleman's just a stop-gap, what's the point?

In one sense though, this is a good thing. The lines of authority are as clear as they've ever been on South Capitol Street. If things don't improve there are no more buffers between the President and the people. June 13, 2009 is Inauguration Day for the Kasten Administration.

June 10, 2009

Cordero, Bray, Storen

Let's pay a visit to the Wayback Machine, shall we?

The year is 2003, and the Montreal Expos have just drafted a highly regarded closer out of a California college with the 20th pick in the first round of the MLB draft. Chad Cordero signs on June 27, 2003 and makes a brief, tantalizing 11-inning appearance for the big club. Over the next 4 seasons he averages 76 innings and 32 saves, including a league leading 47 saves for the 2005 Washington Nationals.

Unfortunately the workload takes a toll on The Chief who pitches just 4 major league innings in 2008 and undergoes surgery to repair a torn labrum. Having lost velocity on his already average fastball he's unceremoniously dumped at the end of the season. In 2009 he hooked up with the Mariners organization but has yet to make so much as a rehab appearance.

Jump back into the machine, and fast-forward one year.

It's 2004 and the basically rudderless Expos organization selects a relief pitcher from the College of William & Mary with the 13th pick in Round One. Bill Bray signs on July 30, 2004 and begins his professional career with 5 unremarkable innings in the Florida State League. His major league debut comes almost 2 years later. Over 3 seasons (112 innings) he compiles an 8-7 record with a 3.86 ERA and 3 saves out of the bullpen.

In 2009, coming off his best season, Bray injures his elbow and opts for Tommy John surgery, putting him out 6 months to a year or more.

Time to bring the Wayback Machine back home.

It's 2009 and the Washington Nationals, the only team in baseball history to have two Top 10 picks in the same year, use their 10th overall selection in the 2009 amatuer draft to select Stanford University closer Drew Storen. Storen signs on June 10, 2009 for $1.6 million, significantly less than players taken with the 10th pick in years past.

June 8, 2009

No Pressure Steve

Roughly 24 hours from now, San Diego State RHP Stephen Strasburg (aka "The Messiah") will be selected by your Washington Nationals as the first overall pick in the 2009 MLB amateur draft. By virtue of being the greatest collegiate pitcher since Mark Prior/Ben McDonald/Christy Mathewson, Strasburg will be in line to recieve a guaranteed contract totaling somewhere between $15M and the last Chrysler bailout. But that's no reason to think you'll see him take the field for the Nats in '09. Why should he?

Draftees have until August 15th to sign their contracts, and Stephen (via Scott Boras) figures to use every second of that leverage against the team. Again, why not? He's not going to blow out his arm between June 9th and August 15th, and there's really no advantage to him signing early unless the Nats lock Stan Kasten in a closet and throw out an opening bid of $35M, reduced by $500,000 every day Strasburg remains unsigned. (Don't hold your breath for that one.) By August he'll be at least two months removed from organized baseball after having pitched a pretty heavy load for SDSU. The odds of him adding a couple dozen MLB innings to his resume are not good.

But more than that, why should Stephen Strasburg be in a rush to join this organization? The big league team is slouching toward historic awfulness. Double-A Harrisburg (where he'd likely start his career) is just as bad. It's a continent away from his home and family, and the second he sets pen to paper all those ridiculous expectations floating around in the ether, "Frontline starter," "All-Star," "Cy Young winner," "Hall of Famer" will begin to crystalize.

If Strasburg doesn't immediately pitch a perfect game, reverse global warming and successfully implement a two-state solution in the Middle East, there will be no shortage of former boosters ready to label him a bust, the next in a long line of failed No. 1 picks. Who needs that? For comparison, look just up the road in Bal'mer. Orioles catcher Matt Weiters was a top 5 pick, the consensus best position player prospect in baseball. He dominated the minor leagues, and debuted to more fanfare than anyone since Ichiro crossed the Pacific. Now he's hitting .140ish. And he'll get a much longer leash than Strasburg.

2009 is a lost season for the Nationals, and not "Lost" in a good, mysterious tropical island kind of way. Think Sleestaks. Do you really want your memories of this baseball wasteland to include an overworked struggling Stephen Strasburg? Odds are neither does he. Welcome to Washington, Stephen. We'll see you next year.

June 2, 2009

They Killed Jesus!

Figuratively speaking. First the Saint, now this? Good thing God Shammgod is in Oregon.

Seriously though, Opening Night 2005, Diamondback (D-Back? d-bag?) reliever Lance Cormier plunks Vinny Castilla, denying him a shot at the cycle. Four years later, they take out our backstop and savior? I'd don't care what Barry White says. Next time you see a snake, you whack 'em good!

Every Saint Has a Past

Randy St. Claire's past now includes the Washington Nationals. Per Nationals Journal, the long-tenured pitching coach got the axe today, replaced by AAA Syracuse pitching coach Steve McCatty. A 5.69 staff ERA will do that to a guy. So now we'll get to do an experiment of sorts: Was it the pitching that was deficient, or the pitchers?

Second question, does this buy Manny some time, or signal the beginning of the blood-letting? Of course, there's very little blood left to be let. All of the other coaches and the interim/acting/quasi-GM are new this season. And in the absence of the miracle that would be Stan or the Lerners firing themselves, only Manny's shoe is left to drop.

Replacing the Saint on the firing line is former Oakland A's pitcher McCatty, who has been with the organization for 5 years. Good luck, Steve! You'll need it.