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.

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