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.

June 1, 2009

D-[Insert Picket Fence Prop Here]

Today Mark Zuckerman encapsulated everything I've been trying to say about the fan-driven furor for Manny Acta's head. Demonstrating once again why there's still a line between sports bloggers, however knowledgeable and informed, and working journalists who cover the team every day, Zuckerman details the Nats' daily defensive drills. For every blogger, commentor or casual fan who traces the Nats ineptitude to a lack of fundamentals, it's a must read.

To sum up, the Nats can "Drill, Baby, Drill" from now 'til Labor Day, and they'll probably still be a lousy defensive squad. No centerfielder, two largely immobile leftfielders (one playing quite a bit of right) a declining shortstop and a second baseman prone to brain freezes equal errors no matter how many fungoes they field. Now, if you want to be contrarian, I suppose you could say that the lack of improvement reflects as badly on the coaches as the players. It's a fair point, but I'm not aware of a revolutionary new method for teaching outfielders to track the ball off the bat, or reminding Anderson Hernandez when to cover first.

If "Fire Manny!" makes you feel better about watching this undeniably crapbag team, then by all means carry on. Far be it from me to deny any Nats fan whatever small measure of solace they need to stomach donning the Curly W in public. Just don't expect improvement, ok? Firing Acta would be a pure public relations move. And given how bad this franchise is at PR, they'd find a way to screw that up too.

I'm no fan of activity masquerading as progress. In my experience, "change for change's sake" means somebody above you is covering their @##. If Manny, or Randy St. Claire, or any of the coaches, has demonstrated deficiencies that are impairing the ballclub, make the case. Show me somebody else out there who can manage this team better. But no black boxes, please. There are too many moving parts on a 25-man ball club to just point to the end result and say, "They're terrible. Anyone could do better!" That's a cop out.