March 31, 2009

If the Price is Right

Ken Rosenthal has a throw away line in his latest column on the Tampa Bay Rays enviable pitching depth. In a development utterly foreign to the Nationals, the Rays have six starting pitchers vying for five rotation spots. The sixth man out, Jason Hammel or Jeff Niemann, could be trade bait. Robothal sez:

"A number of clubs have shown interest in Hammel and/or Niemann, including the Rangers, Nationals and Indians; published reports indicate that the Padres, Pirates and Rockies also are in the mix, and the Brewers are yet another possibility."

For those of you keeping score at home that's a trade rumor linked to roughly 25% of the league. Frankly I'm surprised more teams aren't listed, "shown interest" is a pretty low threshold to clear. Both 26 year olds are out of options, and neither would clear waivers, so wherever they end up, they'll have to stick there for the season.

Their stats aren't eye-popping (they are competing for Tampa Bay's 5th rotation spot, after all), but either would be a nice pickup for the Nats, likely instantly assuming the 3/4 rotation slot along with Daniel Cabrera. Adding another young starter would give the team flexibility to rotate Shairon Martis, Jordan Zimmermann and Collin Balester through the 5th starter spot, controlling innings, service time, injuries, etc.

This might be a good test of Mike Rizzo's creativity. Hammel and Niemann are decent pitchers with upside, not game-changers. Breaking the farm to upgrade the middle of the 2009 rotation doesn't make sense. The Nats minor leagues aren't deep enough to trade from a surplus at any position, and we're not gonna make another Elijah Dukes for Glenn Gibson deal. In fact, this will most likely go nowhere, at least for the Nats. But if there's a deal to be made... go get 'em Rizzo!

March 28, 2009

New Look Nats Take Shape

The roster cuts are getting a little deeper now. This morning the team firmed up its starting 5, and made the obvious move to cut down a crowded outfield. With a tip 'o the cap to Nationals Journal:

1. The Wowin' Curacoan and J.Z. round out the rotation. Martis breaks with the big club, Zimmermann gets a taste of early spring in Syracuse.

Analysis: For better or worse Lannan, Olsen, Cabrera, Martis and Zimmermann were clearly the best five SPs this spring, so in that sense they all deserve their spots. Will we regret this when Shairon and Jordan hit free agency a year early? Maybe, but hell, in three years we could all be living underground riding out the fallout of international economic collapse and global thermonuclear war. Carpe diem!

2. WMP hits the waiver wire, destined for AAA or free agency. Either way, $2M is a lovely parting gift.

Analysis: Wily Mo's ticket was likely punched the day Josh Willingham arrived in D.C. Victimized by injuries that sapped his power and an almost comic inability to hit breaking pitches, we'll fondly remember WMP as a bright spot in the 2nd half of 2007. I hope he goes to AAA in an attempt to rebuild some value for next season.

3. Javier Valentin declined a bus ticket to scenic Syracuse, opting for free agency. It's the Snowman vs. the Bard for the chance to back up the fairly injury-prone Jesus Flores.

Analysis: Eh, whatever. It's the backup catcher. Wil's better with the glove, Josh Bard's better with the bat. Either one would be a better choice than Javier.

4. Collin Balester was not born in Syracuse, did not choose Syracuse, but rather had Syracuse thrust upon him.

Analysis: Collin is pretty much the sum total of the Nationals pitching depth. (I do not count Kip Wells, and neither should you.) We'll be seeing him again, either as a replacement for one of his fellow struggling youngsters or as the annual "Good grief, Daniel Cabrera sucks!" replacement starter.

5. Jose Castillo and Corey Patterson got booted to minor league camp.

Analysis: In Corey's case at least it was long overdue. With Bernadina, Maxwell and Langerhans at AAA, I'm not sure there's a place for Patterson even in the minors. Jose, as far as I can tell, has just never been any good.

March 27, 2009

You Be The Mannyger

Calling all Nats fans, or at least the 3 of you who still read us. Tom Tango Wants You... to forecast the team's playing time for next season. Click here to play Mannyger for a day.

Want to see Zimmerman play all 162 plus two exhibition games and the ASG? (Answer: No, No, Yes.) Think 2B will end up being a nightmarish Bellzaldez triumverate? (Yup.) Is Tyler Clippard an overlooked contender for that 5th rotation spot? (Ummm, No.) Will Guzman's Achilles Toe be the only think preventing an MVP campaign? (Just you watch.)

March 26, 2009

P.T. Bowden's Parting Gift

Gone, but not forgotten, Trader Jim manages to roger the Nats one last time on his way out the door. From Nationals Journal:

The Nationals intend to add Dmitri Young to the 40-man roster before Opening Day because of a handshake agreement that was made this winter between Young and then-General Manager Jim Bowden. Though Bowden resigned in February and Young, because of back problems, has not participated in an exhibition game since March 1, the Nationals will honor the deal, two sources said.
D'oh! You can call JimBo lots of things (and folks haven't been shy about doing so), but he's clearly loyal to a fault. What exactly DaMeat Hook has done to warrant such devotion is an open question. Nevertheless, I'm not as ticked off by this as I probably should be for two reasons:

1. Organizations need to honor their commitments, ill-conceived though they may be. One of the main knocks on Bowden was that he could be duplicitous with players, agents and fellow GMs. If the Nats want to shake that label, this probably had to happen.

2. Young's contract virtually guarantees that he could be dropped from the 40-man and pass through waivers at any time should the need arise. ::coughZimmermanncough::

That said, WTF was Jim Bowden thinking?! This is the first time in 5 years when the Nats (arguably) won't be carrying worthless dreck on the 40-man. Giving Dmitri a spot won't cost us Zimmerman, Dukes, Johnson, Lannan, Martis or Hanrahan, but it could well mean the axe for Kory Casto, Steven Shell or Irish Mike O'Connor. Not a fatal blow, certainly, but you don't want to cast off younger guys with even a little bit of promise to provide a spot for a 35 year old DH with a spotty health record.

Maybe Dmitri is just keeping a 40-man spot warm for Jordan Zimmermann's June debut. In that case I suppose it's a wash, allowing the team to keep its "promise" to Young without causing long-term damage to the club. In any other scenario, this can only be viewed as P.T. Bowden's revenge. Any chance they can make JimBo's resignation retroactive to last November?

March 18, 2009

How Do We Blame This on JimBo?

Pulling a Patterson, the Nats today abruptly cut ties with SP Shawn Hill. Given that the team isn't exactly overburdened with starting pitching candidates, the timing of this move is surprising. Hill was working through his usual array of arm troubles this Spring, but got a clean bill of health (of sorts) from Dr. James Andrews and pitched a scoreless inning against the Marlins.

As with the Spring Training release of John Patterson almost a year ago today, the ultimate outcome is no shock to Nats fans, but it is another disappointment for a talented young pitcher who seems unlikely to ever fulfill his promise. Best of luck, Shawn. You and your sinking fastball will be sorely missed.

In a parallel move, the Nats signed veteran lefty reliever Joe Beimel to a 1-year, $2M deal. Couple the acquisition of Beimel and Julian Tavarez with Hill's departure, and I think it's fair to say that the rotation has leap-frogged the bullpen as the big question area for the team. Joe's already been annointed Manny's 8th inning guy, responsible for bridging the deadly Rivera - Hanrahan bullpen gap. So bullpen, settled; rotation, unsettled.

With Hill out of the picture, the competition for the two rotation spots behind Opening Day starter John Lannan, lefty Scott Olsen and enigma Daniel Cabrera just got a lot more urgent. Assistant/Acting GM Mike Rizzo seemed to suggest that Jordan Zimmermann was less than a lock to make the rotation out of camp, but unless new candidates join Collin Balester and Shairon Martis, it's looking hard to justify keeping Young Hov in Syracuse for two months.

Could Tavarez be a potential 5th starter candidate? Kip Wells? Jason Bergmann? A bionic Matt Chico? More importantly, why do the Nats seem to end up in this position season after season? You're telling me that it wouldn't have been worth it to overpay for Jon Garland just to pencil in 200 league-average innings between Olsen and Cabrera? Maybe a healthy Shawn Hill was always a pipe dream, but by my count, the team's starting pitching depth just went from marginal to non-existent.

What's the statute of limitations for blaming Jim Bowden for things?

March 16, 2009

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Bullpen?

Nationals 3 - Marlins 1

Did you know there is no particularly good Latin transliteration for bullpen or relief pitcher? No wonder it's a dead language. Yes, NTP Dave and I saw Watchmen last week. Like most things it was neither as bad as I'd feared nor as good as I'd hoped. Taking visuals directly from a graphic novel works pretty well in most cases; directly importing dialogue... not so much.

Shawn Hill actually pitched a (reportedly pain-free) inning, J.Z. followed with a 4-inning Encore performance, and the much-maligned bullpen managed to hold it together the rest of the way. (Box Score)

Lastings Milledge went 3-4 and paced a cobbled together offensive attack that managed to turn 12 hits into just 3 runs. Anderson Hernandez had a pair of hits, as did Corey "Why is this guy taking ABs away from J-Max, Bernadina and Langerhans?" Patterson. The scare of the day came when Cristian Guzman left the game early with "a cut on his left little toe." So now you know about Guzmania's Achilles Toe.

As for the bullpen, apart from today's rousing success they've been, shall we say, less than competent. In the abstract that's worrisome, but my concern is tempered by two factors:

First, if we've actually reached the point where the bullpen is a bigger issue than the rotation, the lineup, the bench, the coaches, the front office and the owners, that represents major progress for this franchise; and

Second, I just have to believe they'll be able to assemble Hanrahan, Rivera, Colome, Bergmann, Young, Mock, Julian "J-Lo" Tavarez and one or two anonymous lefties into a servicable 6 0r 7-man bullpen. I mean, we're talking relief pitchers here, not the staff of the Manhattan Project.

Speaking of rocket scientists, Tavarez's comments were undoubtedly offensive to club-goers, BBW, Jennifer Lopez, alcoholics and a wide range of other interest groups, but as I can't disagree with him on the merits, I have nothing else to add.

Honorary 25-man roster spots go to: Blastings Thrilledge and Zimmermann (again).

March 5, 2009

A Hill Too Steep

The odds have been against Shawn Hill for a while now. Recurring arm injuries aren't the sort of thing that just up and go away one day. Ask John Patterson. With Hill's latest setback necessitating a visit to Dr. Andrews his road to full recovery just got that much longer. It was almost a year ago today that I posted the following:

As far as I can tell, Shawn has everthing you need to be a first-rate major league pitcher except the ability to pitch for an extended period of time. Let me be clear. I'm not ragging on Shawn Hill. I don't think he's dogging it, or faking, or exaggerating his pain. I've just reached the point where I believe the guy will never pitch 100 big league innings in a season, much less 200. Through no fault of his own, his arm simply won't let him do that.
Unfortunately, that appears to be every bit as true today as it was then. Hope dies hardest, and maybe Shawn's forearm pain is just a natural part of his getting back into a pitching program. But I doubt it. First Patterson, now Hill. Everyone please pray that Stephen Strasburg isn't next in the line of Nats' aces that never were.

It's fine for Manny Acta to say that Hill was never really in the Nats rotation plans, and it's probably even true. That doesn't change the fact that if he can't go the pitching staff looks perilously thin. Lannan, Olsen, Cabrera, Balester and Zimmermann is okay to get through a season, but of course all five won't, and the depth behind them is not pretty.

Shairon Martis has looked good so far this spring, but he needs more seasoning. The other starter "candidates" have looked awful. If Hill can't go, the team may have to pull Jason Bergmann or Garrett Mock out of the bullpen again. Which makes the already suspect bullpen that much more fragile.

I'm a firm believer that relief pitchers are the most fungible players in baseball, but you still have to have the bodies. Maybe the Nats can cobble together a bullpen from Joel Hanrahan, Saul Rivera (assuming they survive the WBC) Jesus Colome, Steven Shell, Terrell Young and two lefties yet to be identified. But somebody from the front office should probably start sending love letters to The Chief, just in case.

To add insult to injury (quite literally), Washington got blitzed 10-2 by Detroit. (Box Score) Honorary 25-man roster spots go to: nobody, they stank up the joint.

March 4, 2009

What More Can I Say

Nationals 6 - Mets 4

If the Nats have 99 Problems, Jordan Zimmermann ain't one. (Box Score)

If there really is only one spot open in the 2009 rotation, (which would require guaranteeing jobs for Hill and Cabrera) then J.Z. appears to have taken an early lead over Collin Balester for the fifth and final slot. Zimmermann pitched 3 perfect innings, striking out 3 and throwing just 34 pitches. Big Pimpin' indeed.

It was a performance BallyStar couldn't match. He imploded in the 5th inning, allowing 4 runs on 5 hits and surrendering dingers to noted sluggers Fernando Tatis and Ramon Castro. Collin recovered to pitch a scoreless sixth, and today's relief corps of Jason Bergmann, Garrett Mock and Jesus Colome was uncharacteristically solid.

The offense came in bunches, as Nick Johnson recovered from his brush with the DL to lauch his second homer of the spring. Another day, another two hit game for Ryan Zimmerman. Ronnie Belliard was 2-3 (with a SB!) and the Attorney General continued to impress off the bench.

Honorary 25-man roster spots go to: Nick the Stick and Everyday Colome.

It's Gonna Stay Lonely at the Top

Bill Ladson, who should be getting his own GEICO commercial any day now, is reporting that the General Manager position vacated by Jim Bowden over the weekend will remain open "for the forseeable future." Mike Rizzo will apparently be interim GM in all but name, as Stan Kasten retains the final say on all baseball operations. Bob Boone, Dana Brown and the other key players will also remain at their posts for the time being. The increasingly indispensible Nationals Journal has more details.

Over at OMG, Harper wonders if the latest developments, coming so close on the heels of Kasten's Al Haig moment, mean that an early pick to be the Nats next GM summarily passed on the job, leaving the front office scrambling. That's certainly a possibility. Even with only 30 GM jobs in Major League Baseball, I harbor no illusions that Washington is regarded as a plum assignment. It seems to me that there's likely a more pedestrian answer though. This club is operating the same way it's always operated over the last few years.

After all, the team had multiple opportunities to name Rizzo the interim GM. Sunday following Bowden's resignation would have been a natural point. Really, naming an interim GM at any point up to Stan's assumption of authority would have been unremarkable. The only newsworthy thing about the current situation is that Rizzo appears to have been given everything but the title.

It can't be a question of unfairly raising expectations. Interim GM's are, by definition, temporary. It's customary to name someone to the interim position, with the tacit if not explicit understanding that a full blown search will follow, and the interim GM may or may not be part of that search. More likely this is just how the Lerner-Kasten ownership makes personnel moves.

After all, this bunch gave Jose Rijo a "leave of absence" to deal with a family illness less than a week before firing him. They let Jim Bowden twist in the wind untenably until he resigned because they were too (loyal/cheap/over-cautious) to fire him outright. Tracking farther back, Frank Robinson's exit was likewise somewhat unceremonious. Quick, clean and decisive action has not been a hallmark of the current ownership group.

In time we may learn that some of the impersonal, shortsighted or downright head-scratching moves made by the club over the last two years cannot be laid solely at the feet of our huckster ex-GM. The front office may have lost its biggest headache, but it lost a lot of cover at the same time. The post-Bowden spotlight has been brief, but it hasn't shown the front office to its best advantage.

(On an unrelated note, NTP joins the rest of the Nat(m)osphere in offering Stan Kasten our condolences on the passing of his mother.)

March 3, 2009

Wil Ledezma Sleeps With the Fishes

Nationals 9 - Team Italy 6

I guess those hitting tips from Elijah Dukes paid off. A 2-out 9th inning homerun by Roger Bernadina rescued the Nats flailing bullpen as Washington escaped with a win over the Italians in a WBC warm-up. (Box Score)

Nats' bats feasted early, led by Elijah Dukes's triple and solo homer. Ryan Zimmerman also contributed a triple as part of a 2-hit day. Perennial SS-of-the-future Ian Desmond had a pair of hits (and an error), but Bernadina was the star of the show, going 3-5 with 3 RBI.

Once again the starting pitching shone, once again the bullpen tanked. John Lannan and Shairon Martis again combined on a scoreless outing, only to see their good work undone by Marco Estrada and Wil Ledezma. Gary Glover almost managed to slam the door on the Azzurri, but instead became the beneficiary of Bernadina's blast.

Honorary 25-man roster spots go to: the Wowin' Curacaoans, Bernadina and Martis.

Oh yeah, Nick the Stick got whacked.

March 2, 2009

The New Coke of Mascots

Full disclosure: I did not hate Screech v. 1.0. Either of them. Yes, he (or, I suppose, she) did look quite a bit more like a big chicken than a bird of prey. Yes, the signature pelvic thrust move was a little odd for a kid-magnet. But all-in-all, Screech was friendly, non-threatening and mildly entertaining. Very much like the 2005-2008 Washington Nationals.

I'll stipulate that I don't know much about mascot design and construction. But I know what I don't like, and I don't like this:

The team has replaced our dingy, roly-poly, hip thrusting, creepy-cute chicken with this vacant, gangly refugee from eagle fat camp.

Suffice it to say, this foolishness would not have been allowed on a Jim Bowden team. (Be forewarned, I plan on running that "joke" into the ground.) I have vague recollections that Screech was meant to grow up over the course of his time with the team. If that's true, and the original model was "Lil' Screech", this must be "Teenage Eating Disorder Screech."

In case I look forward to "Post-College Back in His Parents' Nest Screech", "Mid-Life Crisis Screech (w/ new chick)", and "Grandpa Screech" feebly flapping around trying to keep those dang kids off his lawn, by cracky.

Photo of New Screech courtesy of WaPo's DC Sports Bog and Dan Steinberg, who but for the vegetarianism and baldness, is the guy all DC sports bloggers secretly aspire to be.