May 29, 2009

In Defense of Liberty

Ladies and gentlemen, I'll be brief. The issue here is not whether Nationals Manager Manny Acta is stoic and unresponsive to the point of narcolepsy - he is. But you can't hold a manger responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted umpires. For if you do, then shouldn't we blame the whole umpiring system? And if the whole umpiring system is guilty, then isn't this an indictment of Major League Baseball in general? I put it to you - isn't this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to Manny, but I for one am not going to stand here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America!

(With profuse apologies to National Lampoon's Animal House.)

Seriously though, what's the point here? Yes, the team is losing. Yes, theoretically someone ought to be held accountable. (Let's leave aside for the moment the idea that Jim Bowden was preemptively held accountable for this fiasco.) Does Manny bear some responsibility for the current mess? Absolutely. Should he be fired for it? Well, that depends on your definition of "should".

Step back from the situation. The Nats awful record is built on two faulty pillars. Lousy defense and abyssmal relief pitching. Sure the starting pitching has been bad, and the bats have picked a few inopportune times to take a night off; but by and large the starters have been good enough to keep the team in the game and the offense has held up its end. So what can Manny do about the defense and the relievers?

On defense he's been hamstrung by that perennial Nats weakness: they don't have a starting centerfielder worthy of the title. Lastings Milledge wasn't, isn't and won't be it. Elijah Dukes has the bat, but not the glove, Justin Maxwell just the opposite. Willie Harris is probably the best man for the job, but inserting him into the starting lineup exposes the other problem: too many leftfielders. Adam Dunn and even Josh Willingham are outfielders only in the sense that that's where they stand when not batting. Dukes is best suited to a corner spot as well. Austin Kearns has the glove to play anywhere, and the bat to play in AAA.

Here's Manny Acta's dilemma: max out the offense with Willingham, Dukes and Dunn and just hope nothing gets hit out of the infield, or get better defensively with Harris and Kearns in CF and RF, respectively, sacrificing offense while still trotting out a defensive liability (Dunn) in left. Behind Door #3 is a rotation of all 5 of these guys that changes the offensive and defensive profile of your team from night to night. So what's the "right" answer?

Down in the bullpen, Manny's even more constrained. He doesn't sign the relievers, he doesn't coach them, and though I'm sure he has input, he doesn't get to move guys on and off the 25-man roster on a whim. That's GM territory. So if you have an historically bad bullpen, what can you do? Throw everything you've got against the wall and see what sticks. Manny has been criticized in the past for being a "roles" guy, "Saul is my 7th inning pitcher, Beimel's my 8th inning guy, Hinckley's the LOOGY and Joel is the closer." Well, where are they now? Hanrahan, Beimel, Rivera, Julian Tavarez, Kip Wells, Garrett Mock, Jason Bergmann, Logan Kensing, Ron Villone... they've all gotten opportunities, sometimes multiple stints. There's been some improvement of late, but only after sifting through a lot of junk.

The sad truth is, this team can only expect so much improvement given the personnel on hand. Would Manny Acta barking at the umps in Citifield improve Josh Willingham's glove, or Joel Hanrahan's control? For that matter, would it have moved the officials to change either of their ultimate decisions? (If you say yes, you have to show your work.)

If not, then what is all this fuss about? There was no bait-and-switch here. Acta's always been very clear on his philosophy, arguing doesn't help. For a long time, he was lauded for that calmer, more professional, more analytic approach. Except that apparently, when all about you are losing their heads, the correct managerial posture is to lose yours too.

Maybe Manny's not the right manager for this team. But ask yourself: is that Manny's fault, or the team's?

May 27, 2009

Revenge of Teh 'Roids

Frankly, my honest reaction to this tidbit is: "I hope he sold to Jaromir Jagr."

Beyond that, we already knew that certain Nats had been implicated in PED use by the Mitchell Report and other sources. Since they weren't all buying from Radomski, it stands to reason there had to be somebody else. Probably multiple somebodies. If this stellar human being turns out to be one of those people, ok then. Wake me up if someone who is A) still a Nat, and B) not terrible, is implicated.

On the other hand, if Nook Logan, in addition to being the poster child for all-glove, no-bat comically bad baserunners, turns out to be the PED-purchasing Nat in question, well then I'm just done with him.

Speaking of enhanced performances, (Like the smooth transition?) click thru here to vote Zimm onto the All-Star team. You can safely ignore last night. Everyone knows that ¡Livan! is Ryan's kryptonite.

May 21, 2009

Magical Manny Acta

The era of transparency and accountability ushered in by the Obama administration is slowly making its way down South Capitol Street towards Nationals Park. The "Fire [Randy/Manny/Stan]!" drumbeat has been growing louder as the losses mount, and understandably so. Fingers were made for pointing, goats were meant to be scaped and, despite fervent prayers, owners just don't fire themselves.

Canning the pitching coach is okay, maybe even justified when you have the worst bullpen in recorded history, but it doesn't exactly scream "Overhaul!" Axing the Team President certainly counts as a shakeup, but it's hard to do when he's a part-owner, and would the effects really trickle down to the play on the field? No, if you want maximum bang for your pink slip, the field manager is your guy. Whether you think that Manny Acta was never the right man for the job, that he lost the team at some point, or just that there has to be somebody out there who can do better, the evidence just keeps piling up.

Unfortunately you can't fire Manny Acta, because: MANNY HAS SUPER POWERS!

Look, I know what you're thinking. One too many blown saves has finally untethered Nate's mind from its increasingly fragile moorings. That's certainly a possibility, but consider this. The 2009 Washington Nationals have the worst defense in Major League Baseball and a historically bad relief corps. You think random chance could have brought the two together? HA!

Truth is, immediately after the opposing team strikes the ball Manny erupts from the dugout at speeds which render him invisible to MASN's X-MO camera, much less the puny human eye. In less time than it takes a hummingbird to flap its wings he subtly repositions the fielders so that Cristian Guzman doesn't get the glove down on a grounder, Willie Harris is forced to take circuitous routes to routine fly balls and Anderson Hernandez flinches away from relay throws at the last second. But super speed is just the beginning.

When a reliever's pitch randomly goes sailing to the backstop, or skidding into the dirt in front of home plate, that's Manny's telekenesis at work. Such is the power of Manny's mind that he can convince Charlie Slowes that a game ending fly out is actually a home run! And there's more.

Invisi-Manny creeps through the clubhouse just before game time loading down Adam Dunn's cleats with lead. The additional weight means that he's slow to balls in the gap and spikes throws into the outfield grass. Sometimes, when a Nats runner gets a good lead off first, Invisi-Manny will trip him just for spite.

"But that's ridiculous!", you say. "Manny Acta isn't out there sabotaging the players, causing the relievers to throw junk down the middle and the outfielders to miss cut-off men. He's the manager, sure, but he can't make Garrett Mock throw strikes or Adam Dunn play a ball off the wall properly."

To which my response is: "Fine. But if that's true, who do we fire?"

May 20, 2009

OK, Where's the Camera?

I admit, this is a really good gag. In fact, the 2009 Washington Nationals season may be the most elaborately conceived and exquisitely executed prank in the 50+ year history of Candid Camera and its progeny. Imagine orchestrating the opening 40 games of a major league baseball season just to capture the incredulous reactions of the fans as their team invents new and ever more gut-wrenching ways to lose. It's pure genius. Somewhere Alan Funt is smiling.

But even a great joke must come to an end. So bring out Ashton Kutcher, or Howie Mandel, or whoever is orchestrating this masterpiece. (Is it Clint? Is that what he's been doing this whole time?) Raise the curtain, reveal the hidden cameras and we can all have a good chuckle. Look, I understand, it's a global recession, times are tough, everybody needs something to raise their spirits. Really, I'm not even mad.

Just send the actors you hired to play our bullpen home, give us back a half-dozen league average relievers, and we'll call it even. I must say, that whole sub-plot about Owen Wilson signing on to play a Washington relief pitcher was brilliant. Misinformation at its finest. After all, when you're looking for a big star, who would even notice seven or eight character actors? It's not like anyone knows what relievers look like anyway.

Should we have been a little suspicious when "Joe Beimel" showed up from Hollywood just before the season started to "stabilize the bullpen"? Maybe, but Rizzo was really convincing. And was it a little too convenient that "Julian Tavarez" and "Kip Wells" happened to be available as last minute free agent additions? Perhaps. But the real masterstroke was keeping Joel Hanrahan around to make it all look official. While you're packing up your gear, be sure to have someone tell him that he can stop acting like a terrible closer now. The joke has run its course.

In conclusion, I'd like to say "Bravo!" Job well done. If you have any plans for a Season Two, I highly recommend Philadelphia. Those guys love "gotcha" humor. So thanks again for the laughs, but it's time to let us get back to traditional mediocre Washington Nationals baseball now, ok?


May 13, 2009

Scenes From A Bullpen

Hey, Nats fans! Ever wondered what goes on down in the 'pen as the late innings approach? Wonder no more.

Your pals at NTP have obtained this exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of Nats relievers going through their warm-up routine. Frankly, it explains everything:

Let's see Screech recreate this Chris Walken performance on the JumboTron. Bang! Zoom! indeed.

May 7, 2009

Lots to Talk About, Nothing to Say

I don't write about the Nats much anymore because I don't watch the games anymore. I don't watch the games anymore because I don't need to watch to know what's going to happen. Just over a month in, the patterns are pretty well established.

  • The hitting will fall somewhere on this spectrum: mediocre<------------>not quite good enough
  • The defense will turn in a few gems, which only serve to highlight the more frequent Keystone Kops moments.
  • The starting pitching will vary wildly from night to night; Zimmermann and Martis are most likely to impress, Cabrera is almost guaranteed to fail spectacularly and Lannan gets points for going on TV with those eyebrows.
  • The bullpen, as a unit, will be an unmitigated disaster regardless of its individual components. This is beginning to take on the quality of Natural Law. Pitching in relief for the Nationals leads quickly and inexorably to career death. See, e.g. Cordero, Rauch, Ayala, Majewski, Rivera, etc.
Meanwhile, Lastings Milledge has done nothing to suggest his quick demotion to Syracuse was ill-conceived, but might still be the Nats All-Star thanks to Red Sox Nation and justified antipathy of the Nats dwindling fanbase. Ryan Zimmerman anyone?

Milledge is in AAA, but Adam Dunn plays rightfield on a semi-regular basis and the Nats still seem have too few ABs for all their outfielders. How does this happen?

Owen Wilson has apparently signed on to play a Nats relief pitcher in a not-yet-filmed but sure to be terrible romantic comedy. It seems more than a little unfair that he didn't have to compete with the other half dozen guys pretending to be Nats relief pitchers.

Finally, come June the Nats must draft pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg, sign him to the richest amateur contract in history and resign themselves to the fact that he will be a colossal disappointment. Of course, should they opt not to do this, it will be another sign of the organization's comical incompetence. If that doesn't just sum up life as a Nats fan...