July 31, 2009

Dealing at Gunpoint

If the Nats don't deal Nick Johnson and Josh Willingham by 4 pm today they'll never be good in our lifetimes.

That my be the dumbest thing I've written in 4 years of blogging the Nats (feel free to slog through the archives to confirm) but it's also the prevailing sentiment across the Natmosphere. If that feels familiar, it's because that's been the prevailing sentiment every July 31st since Bowden didn't move Alfonso Soriano to Minnesota for P Kevin Slowey and OF/DH Jason Kubel. (I assume FJB would have approved that deal because it obviated the need for the Olsen/Willingham trade two years later.) Nats fans have gotten pretty good at seeing doom in the failure to move every marginally tradeable player.

Now, because other teams have gotten good hauls for Cliff Lee, Matt Holliday, Freddy Sanchez and George Sherrill, it stands to reason that the Nats are once again suckers for "sitting out" the trading action. Nevermind that the Nats don't have a Lee, Holliday, Sanchez or Sherrill (or for that matter an Adam LaRoche, Ryan Garko, Jack Wilson or Tony Pena.) The Nats should be out there giving away players for something, anything, because gosh darnit they're just terrible and the only way to get better is the Twins/Marlins/A's approach of churning veterans for prospects.

I've been accused of making excuses for the front office because I honestly believe that the trade deadline, for all the rumors, innuendo and supposition, is a black box and you can only evaluate the deals that were made, not the deals that never came together. That's not to say that GMs can't screw up. Dmitri Young should have been traded at the deadline in '07. If Mike Rizzo is running around telling people that Josh Willingham is untouchable, that's just, to quote our President "stupid." If, on the other hand, Rizzo is asking for a "Matt Holliday-lite" package and just not getting it, that's just good GMing. Players are happy to take advantage of career years, GMs should too.

Nick Johnson is an entirely different case. A potential free agent with a medical history longer than his stat sheet, Nick has seen both his power and his defense decline this summer. Yes he still gets on base and hits for average, but he's looking more and more like Sean Casey every day. Nats fans like to remember Nick as he was in 2005/06, but opposing GMs are looking at a two-month rental of OBP and a left-handed bench bat. Still, there comes a point when the best offer out there simply ain't good enough. Ryan Tucker? Aaron Thompson? They may have nice pedigrees, but the numbers are less than impressive. With no heir apparent at 1B (Adam Dunn is not an option on a serious team) I'd rather give Nick the two year deal he wants and hope that one of the kids comes through in time for 2011.

Deal Joe Beimel and Willie Harris. This team has a solid history of turning relievers (Stanton, Rauch, Ayala) and bench bats (Daryle Ward, Marlon Anderson) into interesting, marginally useful prospects. But spare me the hysterics if Johnson, Willingham and Dunn are all still here tomorrow morning.

July 30, 2009

Whose Deadline Is It?

Maintaining the status quo would be "an epic fail." There's no reason for Nick Johnson to be on this team come August 1st. The team cannot take this lineup into 2010. The Pirates have liquidated half their roster and prospects are falling from the skies. Even with all that, Mike Rizzo doesn't anticipate any big moves. Which makes sense when you consider that only Joe Beimel really needs to be shown the door.

L.A. Joe is a lefty reliever on a cheap one-year deal. He is archtypical deadline trade bait, and the third left-hander in a bad team's bullpen. Come October 5, 2009 he's gone one way or another. Joe Beimel is a less accomplished Mike Stanton, who became Shairon Martis in July 2006. The odds of turning a lefty reliever into a young starter aren't good, but it's a gamble you take every time.

Beyond that, it's not fair to say that the continued presence of Willingham, Dunn and Guzman on the roster next week is an unmitigated front office failure. A disappointment, maybe. Josh, Adam and Cristian are all under team control through 2010. Dave Nichols may be right to say that the Nats cannot "come into spring training with Johnson at first base, Willingham in right, Dunn in left and Guzman at short." That doesn't mean that everyone has to be dealt by Friday afternoon. Offseason trades work too.

As for Nick, he's a potential free agent, apparently seeking a lucrative two-year deal. Unfortunately there's no 1B-of-the-future waiting in the wings. The idea of moving Adam Dunn to first is superficially attractive, but if you think watching Dunn butcher 2 or 3 balls a game in left field is painful, imagine him trying to make every catch at first base. As for Josh Willingham, well you don't want someone with chronic back issues crouching on the infield every day.

So trade Joe Biemel. For anything. Do it today. As for the rest, if you can get a Matt Holliday/Jack Wilson/Cliff Lee-type package (quality and quantity) do it. Otherwise remember, the winter meetings are practically right around the corner.

July 27, 2009

This is How They Get You

Win a couple of series, manufacture a redeeming moment for the guy riding the end of the bench, generate a little buzz with trade deadline talk, draft signing panic and typical ownership ineptitude. All of a sudden, against their better judgment, a few more people are paying attention to the Nats than were at this time last week.

Do not be fooled! The pitching is still a patchwork mess. Defense is a crapshoot at best, and somebody forgot to tell the hitters that you can't bank runs from game to game.

There's no sign that the team is committed to moving its tradeable commodities and no evidence that they could get value in return if they did. Forget the talk about August 31st being the real trade deadline. For the Nats it's July 31st or bust. Washington's hottest properties (Johnson, Willingham, Dunn, Beimel) wouldn't make it through waivers unless they were physically anchored to Austin Kearns and Cristian Guzman.

Maybe the club is showing some improvement, or maybe they just ran into two of the other awful teams in the NL. Either way, the front office has 5 days to demonstrate that their commitment to improving the Nationals is more than just hollow happy talk.

July 19, 2009

Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape

In the wake of the "harsh interrogation" controversies of the past few months, reference has been made to the SERE training commonly given to U.S special forces, Air Force pilots and others with a higher than normal risk of capture. SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (or Survive, Evade, Resist, Extract for the Brits.) Now I'm not suggesting that being a Nats fan is in any way as hazardous as serving in the armed forces, I'm just saying that no one should be forced to watch this team without a well-rehearsed survival plan. With that in mind:

The typical Major League Baseball Season lasts from early April to early October, not counting Spring Training and the abomination of the World Series dragging on into November. Six months, more or less. That's what you as a Nats fan have to plan to endure. Sure there are other baseball-related activities sprinkled throughout the offseason, but those are easy enough to ignore. Survive the regular season and you're home free. Nats playoff games pose no more threat than unicorns. Spring and summer in DC provide a wealth of alternative activities like the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Independence Day, Screen on the Green, and many more. Plan now to fill up your evenings and weekends, leaving less time for a spontaneous baseball encounter.

Evasion: Thankfully it's pretty easy to avoid the Nationals. Delete MASN from your channel guide and WFED from your radio presets and your odds of randomly stumbling across a Nats game are virtually nil. With no marketing to speak of, accidently exposure to the Nats is almost impossible. You certainly won't be seeing them on ESPN or the MLB Network. In fact you could easily watch a week's worth of Baseball Tonight and risk only passing exposure to Washington's baseball club. Unless of course they're playing the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Dodgers or Cubs, which you won't know because you're actively not paying attention. Probably safer just to avoid ESPN altogether. You won't miss it.

Resistance: This is the tough part. Even with no advertising, a pathetic excuse for a television and radio presence and an almost palpable antipathy to fan cultivation, you're bound to hear, see or read something about the Nationals. Maybe they have a promising young pitcher, or a veteran reclamation project is having a career year. Do not get sucked in. Nationals Park is very nice, but it is not now and never has been a fun place to spend a summer afternoon or evening. It is an attractive vessel for a bottomless well of suffering. It's the baseball equivalent of being waterboarded in a Barcalounger. Maybe you're comfortable, but it's still torture.

Escape: If you find yourself, despite all your best efforts, actually attending a Nats game, do not give up hope. Given the frequent invasions by visiting fans, it is possible to convince yourself you are not at a Nats game at all. In addition, there are several areas of Nationals Park which seem almost intentionally designed to divert attention from the product on the field. From the Playstation fun zone and batting cages to the Build-a-Bear workshop and concession lines it's entirely possible to spend hours in the stadium and not watch any baseball at all. You should also note that the Red Porch restaurant and Red Loft bar frequently have televisions tuned to other sporting events if you prefer active rather than passive avoidance. Because crowds are generally sparse, the physical escape from Nationals Park is usually effortless.

There you have it. A basic, 4-step plan to survive the baseball season in Washington, DC. With practice and a little luck you can enjoy the hallmarks of spring and summer in our nation's capital with never so much as a hint of the atrocities being committed on a daily basis just down South Capitol Street.

July 13, 2009

Hey Buddy, Wanna Buy a Bridge?

The open letter sent out this morning by the Washington Nationals is reprinted below in its entirety (and also available via D.C. Sports Bog). This opus would choke the StanSpeak Translator, but we here at Nats Triple Play feel ourselves equal to the task.

To Fans of the Washington Nationals, (Fans... plural. Love the optimism.)

No one is more dissatisfied in the first half of the 2009 Washington Nationals season than we are. (Thank God we get paid to be here.) Like you, we had hoped that some of our younger players would have matured faster (once we dumped them in AAA after 7 games,) and that the addition of some of our new veterans would have significantly improved our record from a season ago (without improving our pitching or defense). Our hope was that a solid club leadership would emerge on and off the field (we blame Dmitri for the lack of leadership) and that some intangible combinations (magic beans) would begin to click resulting in many winning streaks (two games is a streak, right?).

We definitely do see significant pieces materializing for the future (once Scotty gets the transporter working), and there have been many close, exciting games and optimistic bright spots (predictably ruined by the bullpen): Strong outings by John Lannan, the home run and RBI production of Adam Dunn, the All-Star selection and 30 game hitting streak of Ryan Zimmerman, and the recent addition of speedster Nyjer Morgan. (Yes folks, Nyjer Morgan is 4th on your list of season highlights.) Much (All) of the season, however, has been defined by weak relief pitching, poor defense, and youthful inconsistency (from 10-year veterans). We have tried to work through this period with patience and focus but now we are faced with mounting losses which (could actually threaten our jobs, and) are beginning to take a toll on our entire roster. Clearly, some changes are required as we prepare for the second half of the 2009 season and, more importantly, build for a competitive future (but rest assured those changes won't happen anytime soon).

Today, we announced that manager Manny Acta is being replaced on an interim basis by Jim Riggleman, (bad) veteran manager, (sacrificial goat) and currently the Nats bench coach. Both the Ownership and the entire Washington Nationals organization have the highest respect for Manny Acta and the role he has played in the short history of the Nationals. However, it is our belief that a fresh attitude and approach (more screaming) is necessary as we set out to improve our performance for the remainder of the year. We want to send a strong message to our clubhouse and our fans that the status quo is unacceptable (all of a sudden). We believe (all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) that more is expected of everyone in the organization.

Baseball operations will be reevaluating all our players and our options for improvement over the next several months (and we have begun the process of legally changing Austin Kearns's name to Jason Bay). We hope to sign our 2009 draft choices by the August deadline (without actually spending any money, so don't hold your breath). We hope these new additions will join an already exciting Nationals youth movement headed by the likes of Lannan, Jesus Flores (may he rest in peace), Alberto Gonzalez (author of the memo conclusively demonstrating that Nationals baseball is not torture), Jordan Zimmermann and Craig Stammen on our current roster, and the likes of promising minor league stars like Chris Marrero, Michael Burgess, Danny (0-3, 2K) Espinosa, Derek Norris and Drew Storen, among many others. But, we also will be determining the viability of trades or roster upgrades that can be made without doing damage to the farm system (now DDT-free!) or the developing talent we expect to blossom within the next two years.

When we bought the Washington Nationals in the middle of the 2006 season - just under three years ago - we committed to a patient, long term approach (marked by indifference to the major league squad), building a strong farm system (compared to the dirt farm bequeathed us by Omar Minaya) and core foundation that would deliver a perennial and consistent contender (to Potomac); to provide a second-to-none family entertainment value at Nationals Park; and to investment and involvement in the metropolitan Washington DC community. Today we remain steadfastly committed to each component of that mission. We are proud to represent the National Pastime in the Nation's Capital, and we are proud to call the Capital area home (except for those of us with no ties to the area who live elsewhere).

We know we have a way to go, but the end result will be all the richer (f0r us) for the early days we've spent together at Nationals Park (siphoning your cash while fielding a AAAA team). We are getting better (at lying to you). We want you to be with us as the pieces of the puzzle come together. Your support is powerful to the Nationals and baseball in Washington (not as powerful as the support of Phillies, Mets, Red Sox, Cubs, Yankees, Braves and Cardinals fans, but still, you guys are swell). Thank you for your continuing patience and your commitment to a shared dream.


Washington Nationals Baseball Club (What, you expected someone to actually sign their name to this horse pucky? Such a kidder, you are.)

Final Acta

The Nationals did something pointless. Dog bites man.

Did Manny Acta "deserve" to get fired? Being 26-61 in the midst of a third consecutive losing season is a strong argument in favor of making changes. But does anyone honestly expect a significant improvement from the Nats in the 2nd half?

I've spilled far too many bytes on the Acta situation already. The manager doesn't pitch, he doesn't hit, he doesn't field. He can't go out there and close out games himself. He can't make Adam Dunn anything more than an indifferent fielder. (Sure, he could bench Dunn to send a "message" to the club, but what would that message be, exactly?)

More worrisome than the firing itself is the atmosphere surrounding the team. Remember that Acta was allegedly supposed to fired a month ago, only to be left hanging when Ken Rosenthal and others "broke the story." So did Stan Kasten stay the execution for 30 days in a fit of pique at the media? If not, what happened between then and now that cost Manny his job?

With Manny out, the last barrier between Stan Kasten and accountability is gone. Kasten talks a good game about being responsible for everything that has gone wrong over the past 3 years, but I missed the part where he offered his resignation after showing Jim Bowden, Randy St. Claire and Acta the door in the space of a few months. Mike Rizzo is an interim GM. Jim Riggleman is a stop-gap manager. This is Stan Kasten's team now, for worse or worse.

Reaction from the Natosphere has been measured and mixed. General consensus: Manny was dealt a lousy hand, but still didn't play it all that well. Brian Oliver makes a good case for giving a new manager a three month audition rather than recycling a retread like Riggleman. But that would require the Nats doing something smart, now wouldn't it?

I'm awfully close to the point of hoping the team screws up the Strasburg negotiations so I can finally write this organization off and go back to enjoying my summers.

July 11, 2009

Object Lesson for the Day

When you do something just for the sake of doing something, you end up with Jeff Francoeur or Yuniesky Betancourt. Change does not equal Progress.

(For an example that hits a little closer to home for Nats fans, see Preston Wilson.)

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.

July 6, 2009

See Guzie in St. Louie!

Most of the time GUZMANIA! is it's own reward. Cristian is the Washington Nationals' elder statesman, after all, one of the last links to that magical 2005 team that hooked so many of us on baseball's return to DC. He's been by turns terrible on decent teams and slightly above average on awful squads, but through it all, the Guz abides. He asks for little in return; the ocassional mudball, the boo-sounding "Gooooooooz!" cheer when he strokes a first-pitch single up the middle. His needs are few and simple.

Yet every once in a while, the Guzmaniac finds him or herself in a position to give back to the walking Lasik advertisement that is our starting shortstop. For sometimes Cristian Guzman, the near 2008-NL batting champ, finds himself in position to make a 2nd consecutive All-Star team. Sure, Ryan Zimmerman is a deserving All-Star rep. You can make a good case for Adam Dunn too. But Guzie's the guy on the ballot.

Surely he's more deserving than Mark "5th best 3B in the NL" Reynolds. Shane Victorino just won a World Series, he doesn't need this. Pablo Sandoval is young, he's got plenty of chances to be the last guy voted on to the NL All-Star team. As for Matt Kemp, well... he played half a season with Manny Ramirez. Maybe that's not disqualifying in your book, but on this here blog, it'll do. There you have it. Cristian Guzman, the clean, sober, deserving choice for the 2009 NL All-Star team.

Go here. Click through. Vote now, vote often. GUZMANIA! 2009: Back to Back or Bust!

July 1, 2009

Put Down Your Dukes

Didn't see that coming. To clear a spot for Nyjer Morgan the Nats demote Elijah Dukes to AAA Syracuse. The demotion was termed a "pure baseball decision" because Dukes is not a "finished product" and needs to play every day, which he certainly wasn't doing in DC. But wasn't that what they said about Lastings Milledge back in April? All I'm saying is I hope Elijah's lease is month-to-month.

Look, nobody who's watched Dukes play this season can argue with the assertion that he's regressed, both at the plate and in the field. After a hot start that saw him hitting 277/347/473 in mid-May Elijah got banged up, and his bat has yet to recover. A switch to CF didn't do him any favors either. Again, shades of Milledge? So yes, Dukes probably could, in theory benefit from a AAA stint to play every day and rediscover his swing. The $64,000 question is, will he?

He's been a solid citizen during his time in DC (even in the absence of Dmitri Young's "mentoring") and all we can do is hope that he takes the same approach to what is hopefully a brief reorganizational stint in the minors. Because let's face it, a team that demotes Elijah Dukes to put Josh Willingham in RF and keeps Austin Kearns on the bench still has quite a bit of dysfunction to work out. And Elijah Dukes does not need added dysfunction.

Assuming he takes it in stride, this may be the best baseball move for Dukes, but is it actually good the Nats? Even a struggling Elijah was a bat to be feared, and I doubt that seeing Kearns or Willie Harris stride to the on-deck circle imparts quite the same trepidation. So the bench is weakened. Dukes was also a more-than-capable right fielder with an imposing arm, something that cannot be said of Willingham. Nyjer Morgan was acquired to improve the Nats pitiful defense, but does sandwiching him between Dunn and Willingham negate that improvement?

Of course, Mike Rizzo has to play the cards he was given, and in Dunn and J-Will he was dealt two LF/1B/DH types, who also happen to be two of the better offensive performers on a very bad team. Getting their bats in the lineup alongside Nick Johnson was always going to be problematic. Let's hope Rizzo isn't finished dealing or reshaping the roster. This team is hard enough to root for when it's giving roster spots and ABs to the likes of Kearns and Ronnie Belliard. To paraphrase a great baseball man, "Sell low once, shame on me. Sell low twice, I won't get fooled again."

Chin up, Elijah, and come back soon.