February 27, 2009

Houston? No Problem

Nationals 2 - Astros 0

Good pitching, great defense and just enough offense equals an uneventful win. (Box Score)

Shawn Hill didn't disintegrate in his brief first outing of the spring, and the pitching that followed was uniformly solid, highlighted by Joel Hanrahan's 1 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 2 K to garner his first save. The offense managed 7 hits, but there were no breakout performances. RBI doubles from Cristian Guzman and Jesus Flores accounted for all of the Nats' scoring.

Alberto Gonzalez continued to impress with the bat and the glove. The middle infield competition, where there are likely only two roster spots for the Attorney General, Ronnie Belliard and Anderson Hernandez, is shaping up to be one to watch. Big league quality roster depth, what a concept.

Honorary 25-man roster spots go to: GUZMANIA! and Hanrahan.

February 26, 2009

More Bad News for Detroit

Nationals 2 - Tigers 1

The Big Three automakers are on the verge of collapse, the Mayor resigned in disgrace (take a hint, JimBo), people are encasing themselves in ice, the Lions... and now this. (Box score)

The starting pitching led the way again, as Collin Balester and Jordan Zimmermann combined for 4 hitless innings. J.Z. racked up 3 Ks in two innings in his Spring Training debut, but just as impressive were his 3 groundball outs. Strike people out and keep the ball on the ground, that's a formula for success at any level.

"Irish" Mike O'Connor joined the reliever chokefest a day late, giving up a run on 2 hits and 2 walks with 2 strikeouts in one inning of work. I guess that's what you'd call a sort of Three True Outcomes pitching line. OK, not really. Rule 5 draftee Terrell Young worked two hitless relief innings with a BB and a K, which is nice if you want to see him do well enough to needlessly tie-up a roster spot all season.

Two runs on four hits means nothing much to report on the offensive front. Pete Orr went 2-3 and scored both runs, but also had the game's only error. The Snowman, Wil Nieves, smoked an RBI double to center, but otherwise, ZZZZzzzzz.

Honorary 25-man roster spots go to: J.Z. and Dead Weight.

Blame It On Rijo

Just leave Michael Caine out of it. The axe has finally, officially fallen on Nats Special Assistant to the GM Jose Rijo, Washington's man in the Dominican and the linchpin of the Smiley "Carlos Daniel Paul Reubens von Hauptmann Alvarez Lugo" Gonzalez fiasco. Also gone is Rijo's aide-de-camp Jose Baez, day-to-day manager of Rijo's Dominican Baseball Academy and Home for Overaged Boys.

Taking their place is Fernando "Un" Ravelo, current GM of the Tigres del Licey baseball club in the DR. Potential GM-in-waiting Mike Rizzo is on the island firing Rijo and scouting new homes for the Nationals' scaled-down Dominican operations. Nationals Farm Authority has a more, ummm, authoritative take on the repercussions of these moves, but if Brian's generally on board, it's all fine by me.

Was Rijo a big enough target to buy Trader Jim a little more time? I don't know, and you don't know, but what worries me is the that Stan Kasten and the Lerners may not even know yet. Indecision and in-fighting are such attractive qualities in an ownership group.

Your 2009 Washington Nationals: Desperately hoping the team improves enough to distract from the off-field donkey show already in progress!

February 25, 2009

The Nats Are Losing, It Must Be Spring

Astros 6 - Nationals 3

A 9th inning rally couldn't salvage nice performances from John Lannan, Shairon Martis and Alberto Gonzalez. (Box score)

Bullpen maybes Gary Glover, Steven Shell, Mike Hinckley and Garrett Mock engaged in an ill-timed choking competition. Nats batters not named Alberto mostly did nothing for 6 innings, highlighted by Austin Kearns's whiff-tacular 2 AB, 2 K, 5 left on base performance.

After nine innings of exceedingly meaningless B-squad action the starting pitching is in good shape, the bullpen is a shambles and the offense looks exceptionally unchanged from 2008.

Honorary 25-man roster spots go to: American Hero and the Attorney General.

February 22, 2009

News That Isn't New

Whatever Jim Bowden's myriad shortcomings, the man must be able to sell sports magazines. Once again he's headlining an SI.com article on bonus-skimming in the Dominican Republic, even though the article itself is mostly about Jorge Oquendo, an MLB scout who worked for Bowden and David Wilder, the first MLB exec to be fired as a result of the bonus-skimming probe. According to Sports Illustrated, Oquendo is the "link" between Bowden and Wilder by virtue of having worked for both men at different times.

That's fine, as far as it goes, but it does very little to support the headline of the article. Beyond that, there's very little about Bowden that wasn't in Melissa Segura's July 2008 piece on this same topic. If SI can recycle it's reporting, I see no reason why I can't recycle my response:

This is not a defense of Jim Bowden or Jose Rijo. If they, or anyone else, skimmed so much as a dollar of this kid's money, they deserve whatever terrible deserts they get. This is a critique of sloppy journalism, which is even less forgivable when the issues involved are hardly matters of life and death. Anonymous sources and insufficient context make for bad reporting. Bad reporting forces me into the position of having to defend Jim Bowden. And I hate defending Jim Bowden.

As usual, Ryan gets to the point in the most entertaining way possible.

February 18, 2009


And it was shaping up to be such a nice spring too. Now no matter what happens, who plays well, who gets hurt, who earns a job or gets traded, THIS is the story of the spring for the Nats. It's not just Lugo/Gonzalez's reverse-Benjamin Button routine. It's Rijo and the buscones, Bowden and the Feds, Kasten and the Lerners and who knew what when. It's sordid and seedy and almost certainly criminal, but it's also more than a little sad.

This implicates the whole scouting staff from Bowden and Rijo on down. Kasten and the Lerners get dragged in if it turns out that any of this mess is the reason why the Nats have been less involved in the international market over the last few years. It casts doubt on the only tangible evidence of that international presence, the two DSL championship clubs the Nats have fielded. For a team that preaches building from within and doing things the right way, it hurts twice as bad.

Several other shoes have yet to drop, and we may never know the full extent of the corruption, complicity and incompetence. It's irrelevent to me whether JimBo or Rijo or some scout or a few folks in the MLB front office get fired. The damage to the organization has been done, and a public reputation flogging won't undo anything. Frankly, I'm not sure Jim Bowden has any reputation left to lose.

It's Spring Training and I don't want to hear about this $#!%. Is this what it feels like to be a Yankees fan at this time of year?

UPDATE: Hell hath no fury like a Stan Kasten scorned. If the team knew about these rumors by the winter of 2006-07, why bring the "kid" to the GCL? No doubt we haven't heard the last of this.

February 16, 2009

Uh-Oh, Odalis

Don't be too quick to pencil Odalis Perez into the 4th slot in the 2009 Nationals rotation. According to ESPN, Perez is having second thoughts about the $850K non-guaranteed minor legaue contract he verbally agreed to a few weeks back. It did seem like a really good deal for the Nats, but at the same time I'm not sure how much better the market for Odalis is going to get when guys like Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez are still looking for work and getting offers in the $1.5M range.

Perez wants the Nats to increase the contract amount and guarantee his money, saying: "I will not accept any minor league contracts with no safeguards." Nevermind the fact that he accepted that exact contract prior to 2008 and had in fact agreed to do it again. Lesson for all you 1Ls coming off your first semester of contracts: Verbal agreements aren't worth the paper they're written on. Get it in writing. In the meantime, it sounds like Odalis will join Pedro in using the WBC as a showcase.

Should the Nats rework Odalis's contract? I'm torn. He did yeoman work for the rotation in 2008, and his performance was clearly worth more than $850K, but like my broker said before I stuffed him in the trunk and rolled that car into the lake, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Perez would be a nice security blanket, and if he's willing to take a 1-year guaranteed deal in the $2M range, he's worth having around.

Any more than that though, and it's time to roll the dice with Hill, Balestar, Zimmermann, Mock, Clippard, Martis and the AAA hordes. Remember, Odalis was plucked from baseball purgatory in 2008, following in the proud tradition of Esteban Loiaza and Tim Redding before him.

Plus, I just hate guys who welsh on their deals.

February 14, 2009

2009 Would Be a Good Year to Ignore the Slotting System

Of course, every year would be a good year to ignore MLB's slotting system. It's a poorly constructed quasi-salary cap arbitrarily imposed, albeit not well enforced, by the Commissioner's office. The slotting system also manages the impressive double whammy of harming both the amateur players and the clubs not smart or independent enough to just pretend the stupid thing doesn't exist. Well-run clubs negotiate with their draftees while paying little more than lip service to Bud Selig's misbegotten monstrosity. Cheap clubs use it as an excuse not to sign expensive talent (which is probably the only thing keeping it alive). However, all that may be about to change.

Per the always excellent Shysterball, a judge in Ohio has overturned an NCAA rule that prohibits collegiate athletes from retaining the services of a professional advisor to assist in negotiating contracts. (As a side note, the plaintiff in the case, OSU lefthanded pitcher Andy Oliver, is a potential selection for the Nats at pick 10 this June.) The decision is abundantly reasonable, and frankly this is one of a host of NCAA regs that probably ought to have been invalidated by a court about five minutes after they were enacted.

The decision doesn't touch directly on the MLB draft, but as The Common Man notes, you can see a path from dismantling the NCAA's amateur athletic rules to challenging the structure of the professional entry drafts for the major sports. When the cult of "amateur athletics" finally surrenders the last of its mythos, the structures that have kept young athletes subservient to the leagues and players unions of which they aren't even members will likely begin to decay in short order.

Imagine a world where talented young players negotiates with the Yankees, Dodgers, Pirates and Twins on the open market, playing off one against the other. There are obvious downsides to this free market utopia. Baseball does have a history of allowing a few teams to horde young talent while smaller market clubs acted as mere feeder systems for the big boys. But there are ways to address those imbalances among the teams without consigning amatuers to indentured servitude.

All of which is to say the Nats would be smart to take the best possible advantage of having the first and tenth overall picks, and the top second, third and fourth round picks, etc. this season. Both because no Nats fan wants them to have a high draft pick again anytime soon, and because the opportunity afforded the club in this June's draft may be on the verge of extinction sooner than any of us expected.

February 13, 2009

Every Time I'm Out, They Drag Me Back In

Toward the end of last season I basically tuned out baseball. The Nationals were horrible and I was fighting for last place in our fantasy baseball league so I just stopped paying attention. It was easier than trying to care. I did watch the World Series but it just took me ten minutes and a trip to Google to remember who won. Then again I might be blocking out the Phillies win.

I spent all winter watching football and I didn't give baseball a second thought. I knew that the Yankees had signed every free agent on the market and I heard that the Nats made an offer to Texeira but it was a blip on my sports radar. Between the ongoing steroid allegations and investigations and the Nats becoming a punchline in the MLB there didn't seem to be any reason to care. I was fully ready to embrace March Madness and the Masters. Baseball could wait.

That was until we signed Adam Dunn.

I'm not foolish enough to think that Dunn is going to be a panacea for this franchise but it's something to get excited about. We finally have a decent bat in the lineup to provide some protection for the guys at the top of the batting order. More importantly, the Lerner's went out and spent some money and it was on the guy that seemed to best fit what we needed. Washington got their man. Boswell over at the Post is even happier than I am.

With baseball being such a long season, a little chemistry and a little luck can make any team competitive. I don't know if Dunn, Willingham, and Cabrera can be the catalyst we need but as spring training rolls around I'm starting to pay attention.

February 12, 2009

Trade Nobody

Nationals fans, like mothers-in-law, are adept at quickly finding the gray cloud in any silver lining. All offseason long, the refrain has been "We need a lefty bat for the middle of the lineup!" When we get said slugging lefty, the conventional wisdom immediately becomes, "OMG! Too many outfielders! Why did they (trade for Willingham/sign Dunn)?! The Nats are soooo dysfunctional!!1!".

Now, I would have thought the answer to the question above was obvious. Willingham and Dunn are both good (not great, but good) professional baseball players, something a professional baseball team needs to be successful. Last season is not nearly far enough in the past for Nats fans to be forgetting that their beloved team played Felipe Lopez in LF and Kory Casto at 1B last season. Not as some sort of existentialist commentary on the folly of roster construction, but because those were the best available options at the time. So the sudden angst at having too many good (not great, good) players for too few starting spots strikes me as odd to say the least.

First things first, let's address the wierd, "Why trade for Josh Willingham if you're going to sign Adam Dunn?" complaint that has arisen in some corners of the Natmosphere. Seems to me that the answer is, "We weren't going to sign Adam Dunn, we were going to sign Mark Teixeira. And when we made the trade for Willingham we hadn't signed either." The Nats aren't the Yankees. They can't plan to go out and sign anybody and feel anything close to 100% certain that the deal will get done. The Teixeira saga, and Dunn's reported initial reluctance to come to DC, should make that abundantly clear. To suggest that the Nats should have avoided making any moves to improve the club while they waited for the Teixeira market to shake out is just, well, wierd. (How'd that work out for the Angels? Kendry Morales and Bobby Abreu?)

Next is the question of where everybody plays. It's true, the Nats have too many outfielders on the 40-man roster. Nine (Bernadina, Davis, Dukes, Harris, Kearns, Maxwell, Milledge, Pena, Willingham) even before accounting for Dunn. But if you look closely those numbers decline fast. Three are likely headed back to the farm. Bernadina so that he can play everyday, Davis to get a little more seasoning in the outfield, and Maxwell because, God love 'im, he makes NJ look like Cal Ripken, Jr. It's clear that Willie Harris is Manny Acta's super-utility safety blanket and he probably has as good a shot at starting at 2B as in the outfield.

Just like that we're down to five (Dukes, Kearns, Milledge, Pena, Willingham) plus Dunn for three spots. I don't think it's a stretch to say that Pena is the odd man out of this group. I love me some Wily Mo, but he's a trade low/waiver claim waiting to happen, unless he's still reovering and can potentially be stashed on the DL. That gives you four outfielders rotating through three spots, which isn't a problem given normal days off, injuries, platoon splits, etc. Except now there's Dunn. Disaster? Catastrophe? Disastrophe? Hardly. This is where Dunn and Willingham's overlapping skill sets (good eye, good power, suspect LF/1B defense) can become an asset.

First baseman Nick Johnson is an exceptional talent with an incredible knack for freak injuries (broken cheek, bruised heel, broken leg, torn forearm tendon). Getting 120 healthy games out of Nick is a blessing. Counting on him for 120 games is pure folly. Both Dunn and Willingham can "play" 1B in a pinch, and while neither is Albert Pujols, both are likely to be an upgrade on the Dmitri Young/Ronnie Belliard/Kory Casto alternative. When Nick plays, Dunn is in left and Willingham spells both of them off the bench. When Nick sits Dunn and Willingham share LF/1B duty, with Milledge, Dukes and Kearns rotating through the other 2 outfield spots. If (when) Nick breaks down, the Nats' roster "problem" becomes a necessity.

To suggest that the Nats have to, or even should, trade one of these guys is short-sighted. With Willingham and Dunn on board the club has the flexibility to listen to offers, but is not, as some have said, forced to move anyone. Yes, the club could still stand to improve second base or the starting staff. Now they have the pieces to do that without exposing themselves to a potentially season-altering injury.

FWIW, this seems to be the team's position as well. (But I swear I started writing this first!)

February 11, 2009

Is It...? Could It Be...?!

UPDATE: It's true! Two sources. Dunn deal.

And Trader Jim finally gets the right former Reds outfielder. Seventh time's the charm, JimBo!

Kearnsy and Dunner, together again. Wily Mo too! What could possibly go wrong? Let the jokes about the Reds outfield of the future begin!

The First Draft of History

We've given WaPo "beat writer" Chico Harlan good-natured grief from time to time since he inherited the Nats racket from St. Barry of Svrluga, mostly for his habit of writing mini-featurettes in lieu of gamers and pawning the Nats beat off on an intern for stretches last season. But Aaron's redeemed himself with a headfirst dive into the archives, to produce this gem of a post on Washington Spring Training history.

From early success in Phoebus, VA (undiscovered gem of Hampton Roads) through flirtations with cities from Charlottesville to Biloxi to Orlando, and right up to present day Viera, FL (which should be Panera world headquarters, for all the free publicity they've gotten) the Nats Spring Training travails have often been more interesting than the seasons that followed. So read up, and feel free to get a little tingly. Pitchers and catchers report in 3 days!

February 10, 2009

Room for Improvement?

With free agency winding down the Nats are still linked to the reluctant Adam Dunn, while Orlando Hudson plays the waiting game and, per MLB Trade Rumors, Ray Durham is not interested in the Ronnie Belliard special. Additions, should any be forthcoming at this point, will more likely be via trade. Frankly, the Nats don't have space on the roster for another starter-caliber acquisition unless they make a trade or two.

We covered this ground prior to the Winter Meetings, and except for the addition of a few minor league free agents, not much has changed. Fans tend to approach free agent acquisitions in a vacuum, ("Get X! He'll make the team better!), but thermodynamics and the Law of Conservation of Roster Spots dictate that every signing requires an equal and opposite unsigning. So here's what we have to work with:

  • Catcher: It'll be Jesus Flores, backed up by Will Nieves or Javier Valentin. Yawn.

  • First Base: A healthy Nick Johnson has this on lock down. A gimpy Nick and and my money's on Josh Willingham discovering a burning desire to play 1B. Plan C? Heeelloooo, Dmitri!

  • Second Base: Talented youngster vs. Crafty vet. Unless O-Dawg comes on board late, expect Anderson Hernandez to get every opportunity to beat out safety blanket Ronnie Belliard.

  • Shortstop: The Man, The Myth, The Internet Movement. The Guz Cycle (new contract, terrible year, injury, injury, good year, new contract) predicts a terrible year. Who cares? He's paid!

  • Third Base: Did anyone ever actually ask Ryan Zimmerman if he wanted to be the face of an awful franchise? Just a thought.

  • Outfield: Some combination of Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Austin Kearns and Josh Willingham for three spots. Willie Harris gets the utility nod. Wily Mo? Who knows.

The point is, there's no room at the Inn(field), or the outfield, without moving a few people. So who would you bump to make room for Dunn, or Hudson, are anyone else from the free agent scrap heap?

February 8, 2009

2009 Draft: First Things First

WaPo beat writer Chico Harlan has provided the first of what is sure to be a deluge of 2009 profiles of San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg, the only collegiate member of the USA's 2008 Olympic Team in Beijing and owner of a 23 K game against Utah, is expected to be the top pick in June's MLB amateur draft. And that top pick, of course, is held by our very own Washington Nationals, the consolation prize for being baseball's most inept franchise in 2008.

If Strasburg were to be selected first overall in June, he would join a less than distinguished club. Being taken with the first pick may not be the kiss of death for a pitcher's career, but it's no guarantee of future competence, let alone success. As the Post notes, eight pitchers have been selected with the top pick in the last 20 years. One, Tampa Bay's David Price, had a nice debut in late 2008 and performed pretty well in the Rays' run to the World Series. Another, former Oriole Big Ben McDonald had a very good career cut short by recurring injuries. The other six (with apologies to Luke Hochevar, who's certainly young enough to improve) are a collection of injury-plagued mediocrities.

Nevertheless, the Nationals are yolked to Strasburg at least as long as he remains the consensus best player in the country. He has another season of SDSU baseball ahead of him, but barring an injury, the consensus seems unlikely to change. This team simply cannot afford to pass on the best talent available, a player Jim Bowden, with his usual measured restraint, called "as good a pitcher as we've seen in the draft in 10 or 15 years."

Combine that whiff of desperation with the fact that Stasburg is represented by Scott Boras, and there are already hints of blood in the water. Chico Harlan suggests a signing bonus north of $6M, but you can expect Boras to use that number as a starting point for negotiations. The Nationals, having been burned by MLB's slotting system and roundly condemned for last year's Aaron Crow fiasco, may as well pick out a nice barrel now, because they're going to be over it this summer.

For more on Strasburg and the Nats, here's the Director's Cut of Chico's article and Dave Shenin's excellent Olympic-centric piece.

February 6, 2009

NatsTown, USA. Population: ?

Because Natopia was too on the nose?

I hate cutesy, theme-driven ad campaigns. Marketing is all about inducing people to buy things that they would otherwise be indifferent to owning. Really good products/companies/sports teams don't market themselves. They don't have to, because the product speaks for itself. Sure, they advertise: "This is where we are; this is what you have to do to get us." but they're selling a thing, not a feeling or state of mind.

Bad teams dream up elaborate campaigns to distract from the product on the field. The Nationals can't just say: "Come see winning baseball at Nationals Park this summer!" because odds are on any given day, you won't. They can't say "Come marvel at the play of [established superstar]!" because apart from Zimm's slick fielding and flair for one dramatic game-ending homer per season, there hasn't been much to "Ooh" and "Ahh" over since Soriano left NatsTown.

In the absence of a tangible result, the Nats have to market the "experience" and the "community." That's fine, but it doesn't make a virtue out of the necessity to advertise around the team instead of advertising the team.

P.S. Whether it's a lousy catchphrase or not, sorry Caps fans, we've had dibs on "Get Your Red On" since the Nats-Cubs series of 2006.

February 3, 2009

Over Dunn?

SI.com "journalist" and Boras-mouthpiece Jon Heyman notes that the Nationals contract offer to free agent slugger Adam Dunn has been outstanding for quite some time now and says: "Dunn could still wind up in Washington, but the Nationals' offer has sat there so long he's sent a clear message he'd prefer to go elsewhere." Elsewhere seems to be La-La Land, where Dunn is the perpetual Plan B in the Dodgers pursuit of Manny Ramirez.* Earlier this winter Chicago was rumored to be Dunn's first choice, with "Anywhere but DC" running a close second. As Spring Training approaches and the remaining free agents drop their prices like a pack of Black Friday retailers, I'm wondering if Mr. Dunn would even be welcome in Washington anymore.

When a player comes to a new team via trade or free agency there's usually a honeymoon period. The team waxes rhapsodic about the qualities of their shiny new toy; and the player expresses appreciation for the front office that understood his value, the manager that will put him in a position to succeed, and his new teammates, the greatest group of guys you could ever hope to meet now that "Up With People" has stopped touring. Heck, even Preston Wilson got some positive press in his Washington debut. Dunn's extended free agent tour has thrown a severe crimp in that dynamic.

If Adam says, "I'm excited to come to the Nation's Capital", I hear "Now that all the other teams have taken a pass." If Adam says, "The Nationals are putting together a great squad this year", I hear "Compared to the Long Island Ducks." Because the truth is, if Adam Dunn wanted to be here, and thought he had a good chance of joining a winning team, he'd be here already. If Adam Dunn does end up in DC the standard platitudes are going to ring hollower than usual.

Ideally, you'd like the objects of your ardent pursuit to be equally enamored of you. But as any high school boy can tell you, if you can't be with the one you love, odds are your second choice will turn you down cold too. Even if he's no Mark Teixeira, Nats fans will forgive an awful lot for Dunn's .370 OBP, 40 HRs and 100 RBI. Whether that forebearance extends to being the "safety date" for a defensively challenged strikeout machine with a questionable work ethic remains to be seen.

*NTP takes no official position on the pursuit and/or acquisition of Manny, as we're torn between knowing it would be a complete waste of resources and knowing that we'd go to the park way more often next summer to watch Manny be Manny.