August 20, 2009

Mike Rizzo's To-Do List

1. Attend introductory press conference. Blink F-U-E-D-E-S in morse code for the camera.

2. Purchase leather pants, Segway.

3. Relocate Dominican Baseball Academy to Montego Bay, Jamaica. Spend next two months establishing "international presence" in Barbados, Ibiza, Phuket, Tahiti.

4. Promote Moose Stubing to Special Assistant to the GM for Silly Names. Apologize for displacing Squire Galbreath.

5. Lay healing hands on Jordan Zimmermann.

August 19, 2009

Thanks For Strasburg, Now Beat It

If this report is accurate, gratitude ain't what it used to be. That said, whether Mike Rizzo has earned the Washington Nationals GM job is open to debate, and this quote is pretty silly:

“If they let Mike go now, they really will have some explaining to do,” one Rizzo loyalist said Tuesday. “He changed the face of the club, got some of the bad apples out.”

Why exactly would they have some explaining to do? Mike Rizzo signed players, executed trades, negotiated contracts... pretty much what you'd expect a GM, interim or otherwise, to do. As for changing the face of the club, Morgan and Burnett in, Johnson, Milledge, Hanrahan, Beimel and Hernandez out is less like a facelift than like buying a new shade of lipstick.

Rizzo got a middling at best return for Nick Johnson, and may have sold short on Milledge at the nadir of his value. He didn't shed the Kearns or Guzman contracts, despite having opportunities to do so. Yes the Nats signed Strasburg, but they didn't stretch to sign any talent in the lower rounds. The international scouting and player development operations are still underwhelming. Is it unfair to saddle Mike Rizzo for responsibilty for all of this? Perhaps, but it comes with the job of major league general manager.

A competent GM may look like a revelation to the Nats, but competence is a baseline, not an aspirational goal.

(h/t MLB Trade Rumors)

August 18, 2009

Let's Do This Again Next Year

Well, that was fun! Stan, you really must bring that delightful 7 Layer Dip again. Scott, those pecan turtles were simply sinful. Mike... well, I'm sure your invitation is in the mail. We'll put you down for sodas and ice. Oh and Scott, be sure to bring your little friend Bryce next year. He can play in the Playstation Zone while the grown-ups talk.

Today is a great day for the Nationals franchise, marred only slightly by the knowledge that this is exactly what competent organizations are supposed to do as a matter of course. Draft player, sign player, repeat. The club's spotty record with this relatively straightforward process added some unnecessary heartburn to an already dramatic event. Largely overlooked in the final minutes of the Strasburg Watch was the encouraging signing of 12th round pick Nathan Karns, a pitcher out of Texas Tech. Must have been an overslot deal to get done so late.

So what's next?

Having a real, fully-empowered GM would be nice. If this wasn't Mike Rizzo's dress rehearsal, then there's nothing he can do to earn the job in DC. Maybe that's for the best. Maybe not. Either way, with Strasburg safely in the fold, this issue needs resolving pronto.

And what about Slingin' Stephen? He's out of baseball shape, and has 100+ innings pitched already this season. Maybe he makes a Ross Detwiler-esque cameo in September, but look how well that worked out for Ross. More likely, the Nats newest asset will get to experience Arizona in the fall. I'm sure Brian Oliver's always wanted to see Peoria.

And finally, last and least, the remaining 44 games of the 2009 season, aka "The Bryce Harper Derby". Washington holds a shrinking lead over Kansas City, with Pittsburgh and San Diego also factoring into the chase for the worst record. With Mike Morse called up to replace the mercifully DFA'd Logan Kensing, Ian Desmond and Clint Everts are really the only September call-ups of interest. Unless of course you have some perverse interest in seeing Daryle Ward back in DC. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

August 17, 2009

The Final Countdown

Nice of MLB to schedule an off day today. It's not as though Nats fan could use a distraction in the next few hours. By 12:01 tomorrow morning Washington will have concrete evidence that the franchise has either reached a turning point or that this generation of fans is wasting its time on the club. The stakes really are that high.

Forget Strasburg, Boras, Kasten, Rizzo, MLB, the players' union, the draft, the collective bargaining agreement and the future of sports in America. These next hours are about the Nationals and their fans. Plain and simple. Either the ownership, management and front office staff will step up and commit to making the Nationals competitive, or they will tacitly admit that they are perfectly happy to settle for a publicly funded stadium, steady media and merchandising profits and exclusive membership in the baseball owners club. Winning? Nice if it should happen, but secondary to protecting baseball's status quo.

Who the hell appointed the Nationals guardians of the best interests of baseball? Giving Strasburg $12M, $20M or $50M is "bad for baseball"? Says who? It might be bad for the owners, the commissioner, the league. Hell it might even be bad for the players and future draft picks if MLB institutes a salary cap and a hard slotting system. But bad for baseball? Baseball survived the Black Sox, the Negro Leagues, World War II, franchise relocation, Pete Rose, Barry Bonds and a tied All-Star Game. Baseball thrives everyday in dirt lots, American Legion fields and high schools and colleges all over the world. Stephen Strasburg could blow out his arm the day after signing or win 300 MLB games and baseball wouldn't change one iota.

I don't root for MLB, Bud Selig or the Lerners' financial portfolio. Signing Stephen Strasburg would be good for the Nationals. Having the best young pitcher in the game pitching in DC, NY and LA rather than Ft. Worth would be good for Major League Baseball. Having kids in Oakton, Anacostia or Silver Spring dream of growing up to be the next Stephen Strasburg would be good for baseball. Everyone agrees that Strasburg is a special talent. Why should I care whether the price of that talent is "record-breaking", "astronomical" or "outrageous"?

The Nationals have done nothing to earn the benefit of the doubt. Sure, they were "in" on Mark Teixeira, but at the end of the day they didn't get it done. Likewise with Aaron Crow. They negotiated, but when the clock struck midnight they were left holding a pumpkin. This year, the team has gone overslot to sign not one of their draft picks. Stephen Strasburg is not only all the eggs, he's the basket too.

In conclusion, a special word to Rob Dibble: "You sir, are an asshat." Quoth the Nasty Boy:

"And by the way, if you're the Lerners and Stan Kasten, you can't worry about what the bloggers and the media think of you. You can't bankrupt yourself and the system for one player."

News flash Dibbs. Bloggers are fans. I know for a fact that most Nats bloggers are also ticketholders. Which makes them paying customers. And if the Lerners and Stan Kasten are in the business of ignoring their customers now, DC residents probably have a right to be slightly put out at the $600M life-size chess board they built for King Teddy and the royal court. And, as an aside, if signing Strasburg is going to bankrupt the franchise or the "system" then wasn't the whole Teixeira negotiation (involving tens of millions more dollars over many more years) just a sham? What do you know that we don't, Rob?

For the next 12 hours, the clock is ticking on much more than just the Strasburg negotiations.

August 11, 2009

Cui bono?

There's no upside for the Nats in Jordan Zimmermann's impending Tommy John surgery. It's all well and good for Mike Rizzo to talk about success rates and pitchers coming back stronger, but the bottom line is: The Nats just lost a key piece of their developmental puzzle for at least one year.

This is why baseball fans should have TINSTAAPP tattooed on their foreheads (preferably backwards, so as to be easily readable in the mirror.) This is why you trade Nick Johnson for Aaron Thompson and draft two pitchers for every position player. Baseball is a numbers game, in every sense of the word. From the statistics that measure accomplishment to the attrition that occurs at every level from little league to the majors.

The Nats did everything with Zimmermann that you're supposed to do with a young pitcher. They brought him along slowly, limited his innings, monitored his pitch counts and shut him down at the first sign of trouble. And his elbow exploded like a cheap firework anyway. It's a funny old world, innit?

The Nats don't benefit, and J-Z certainly doesn't, but this turn of events provides leverage to at least two pitchers in the Nats orbit. The first, obviously, is Stephen Strasburg. A failure to sign Strasburg, coming within a week of losing Zimmermann, would be a body blow to a franchise desperately seeking to claw its way out of national joke status. The second, less obvious beneficiary is FJB-nemesis Scott Olsen.

The much-maligned Olsen is likewise recovering from surgery, and there has been some suggestion that he will be non-tendered this offseason to avoid arbitration. Now that our pitching depth just got considerably shallower, Olsen's odds of securing a return engagement have improved dramatically. Hard as it may be to believe, when your alternatives are Stammen, Mock, Martin, Balester, Martis and an unknown cast of dozens, Olsen's not a bad bulwark.

Folks, that's a sad commentary on the state of the franchise's pitching 5 years in. Cui Bono? Nobody.

August 10, 2009

Shipping Up to Boston

I'm shortstop Gooz
And I've paid my dues

My declining range

Is but a clever ruse

I might be shipping up to Boston

Could be shipping off to Boston

Possibly shipping out to Boston

To mostly rave reviews.

- with profuse apologies to Woody Guthrie

To waive or not to waive, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the infield to suffer the boots and bleeders of uncertain defense; or to take action against a bloated contract, and trade your starting shortstop to the Red Sox. Nationals Journal briefly lays out the options:

  1. Let Boston take him, and consider the $8M in salary relief a gift.
  2. Try to work out a trade and at least get something for Guzman
  3. Pull him back from waivers and keep him at least through the end of the season.
Reaction to the possibility of losing the Guz has ranged from unbridled enthusiasm to unadulterated glee. In this reading, Guzman's $8M contract next season is an albatross that will drag down the franchise and preclude everything from the Strasburg signing to the pursuit of a second baseman and/or closer in the offseason.

It's true that Guzman has the second largest contract on the team, behind Adam Dunn. But the Nationals' 2009 Opening Day payroll was $60M, hardly an onnerous burden, and more that $20M will be coming off that total with the subtraction of Johnson, Young, Kearns, Cabrera, Biemel, Belliard and several others. Some of that money will get eaten up in arbitration raises, particularly for Josh Willingham, but the suggestion that Guzman's salary could prevent the team from doing anything it needed to do is laughable.

Cristian Guzman is a slightly below average shortstop and a streaky hitter who doesn't walk and needs a .300 batting average to maintain his offensive value. It's also true that he's had that .300+ average for two and a half seasons now. Complicating the issue is the question of who replaces Guzie at short. Presumably the first choice would be the Attorney General, with Belliard getting the bulk of the time at 2B and Mike Morse or Ian Desmond called up for infield depth. If Belliard goes to second full time the team will also need a defensive replacement for Dunn at first base.

If there's a deal to be made for Guzman that returns something of value to DC, Rizzo should jump on it. Joe Posnanski has a theory that when dealing with a team like the Yankees or the Red Sox using their "must win now" mentality against them can be a valuable bargaining chip. That said, letting Cristian go for mere "salary relief" isn't the best interest of the Nationals in the short or long-term.

August 9, 2009

Zimmermann to Andrews to Strasburg

You may not know this, but the NTP gang has been inconspicuously absent from Nationals Park since the Randy Johnson rainout of June 3, 2009. Two plus months of not subjecting ourselves to live Nats baseball. Well, that all ended this weekend. On Friday NTP Dave was in attendance to see the fellers take their sixth straight game (with an able assist from the first base ump.)

Last night I journeyed down SoCap in search of bobbleheads and managed to snag a win in the bargain. Seven in a row is seven in a row, but all is not sunshine and lollipops for the Nationals. Garrett Mock was effective, but he pitched worse than his final line and there's no starting pitching relief on the horizon. John Smoltz, anyone?

The latest news on Jordan Zimmermann only compounds the problem. In case you've somehow missed the wailing and gnashing of teeth emanating from across the Natmosphere, J-Z's most recent MRI "caused concern" with the Nats crack (cracked? quack?) medical team. This sparked a referral to Dr. James Andrews, which "caused concern" among Nats fans. Now, no visit with Dr. Andrews is ever just a pleasant social call, but there's no sense organizing the mass suicides until Zim'nn's surgery is actually a "complete success and he should be ready for Spring Training." In the meantime I'm more interested in the impact of this news on the Strasburg negotiations.

Buster Olney, based on what appears to be nothing at all, is reporting that "real doubts are beginning to emerge that the Nats will be able to sign Stephen Strasburg." First of all, this is just lousy sentence construction, either by B.O. or MLB Trade Rumors. I can't believe anyone doubts that the Nats are able to sign Strasburg, the only question is whether they're willing to meet his price. "Nats unwilling to sign Strasburg" would be a better encapsulation. But I digress..

There are two potential lessons to be drawn from Jordan Zimmermann's current predicament that could impact the Strasburg signing in very different ways.

Lesson #1: Talented young team-controlled starting pitching is a commodity of unparalleled value, and the more of it you have the better off you are.

Lesson #2: Even the best pitchers are one elbow twinge away from a potentially career-altering visit with James Andrews.

Taking lesson one to heart would suggest that the Nats should pay the freight for the most talented amateur pitcher of the decade and hope for the best. Heeding lesson two would cause the team to avoid committing record setting sums of money a twenty one-year old right arm, no matter what its pedigree. The next eight days just got a little more interesting.

August 6, 2009

Trade Veloz-ity

The 2009 Mike Rizzo Low-Budget Housecleaning Tour rolls on. The Nats traded 2B Anderson Hernandez back to the Mets for A-ball 2B Greg Veloz. John Sickels ranked the 21 year-old Veloz the 17th-best Mets prospect coming into 2009, and Baseball America placed him in the organization's top 25. A rough year has probably dimmed Veloz's prospect luster somewhat, but he's a solid return for two months of Anderson Hernandez on a going-nowhere Mets team.

Hernandez, you'll recall, was originally acquired from the Mets for Luis Ayala (of sainted memory.) While it would have been nice to persuade Omar Minaya of the absolute necessity of acquiring Ronnie Belliard, shipping out the playing time deficient Hernandez is an acceptable Plan B. Frankly, anything the Nats can do to ensure Omar Minaya's continued employment in the Mets front office, they should do.

On the Nats end, this is exactly the type of deal Rizzo should be making in bulk. Hernandez lost out to the Attorney General in the battle of underwhelming utility infielders, Belly-yard is being showcased for a post-deadline trade and Mike Morse is tearing up Triple-A. The Nationals, meanwhile, are back in the market for a full-time second sacker (along with a closer, veteran starter, and everything else they were looking for last season.)

Veloz may never amount to anything (the odds are much worse than 50/50) but for the Nats, neither would Hernandez. The Johnson and Beimel trades were "must" deals. Today was a "should" deal. Hopefully the first of many.

UPDATE: This is not the deal I had in mind. Per Nationals Farm Authority (via teh Tweeter) Nats acquire Norris Hopper and Daryle Ward from the White Sox for cash. First reaction: Hopper makes sense as AAA outfield depth, Ward makes sense only if Belliard is getting traded/DFA'd in the next 20 minutes. Second reaction: "Holy $#&%, the Lerners are handing out cash! Get thee to the ballpark, pronto."

August 5, 2009

Two Debuts

In the wake of the Misson: Improbable-style comeback over the Fish last night the Natmosphere is buzzing over the disabling of Austin Kearns, which you can plausibly argue actually occurred sometime in mid-2008, and the resulting promotion of 29-year old rookie outfielder Jorge Padilla. I'd expect the Rick Short name-checking to come fast and furious, but only Charlie Slowes has been with the franchise long enough to make the reference authentic. Nationals Journal has the background on Padilla.

Jorge, while certainly no Rick Short, is a true baseball feel-good story, and it's always nice to see an outstanding AAA season rewarded. But Padilla won't be anything more than a bench bat for the Nats. He doesn't really have the power to hold down a major league corner outfield slot or the speed to spell Morgan in center. He's old friend (and current Syracuse farmhand) Mike Vento with a better batting eye.

The debut to watch, or listen to, tonight will be 120 miles north of Nationals Park, where new Harrisburg Senator Aaron Thompson takes on Binghamton in his Nationals organization debut. Thompson was the Nats return on the last second deadline deal that sent Nick Johnson to Florida. The Marlins first round selection in the 2005 draft, the 22 year-old put up a 4.11 ERA for AA Jacksonville, with uninspiring peripherals. John Sickels had this to say about the man he ranked Florida's 15th best prospect in 2009:

"I don’t like the way his Double-A numbers slipped and I worry about health."

Damning with faint criticism. I'll be rooting for Padilla over the next two months, but for this organization to make real progress, I'll be praying for Aaron Thompson.

August 2, 2009

Something Fishy Here

In his article recapping the Nats deadline deals WaPo's Chico Harlan says that Nick Johnson was overcome by emotion when notified of his trade to Florida.

Johnson, at first, was so emotional that he knew only one response: He stayed in the cages with Eckstein and kept taking swings. But eventually, he reemerged in the clubhouse, as team employees helped him with a travel itinerary. Johnson choked back tears. He hugged teammates. In previous weeks, the Nationals had discussed a contract extension with their starting first baseman but couldn't get anything done.'s Bill Ladson, somewhat to the contrary, says that:

"Interim general manager Mike Rizzo didn't have a choice but to trade Nick Johnson because the latter did not want to negotiate an extension with the Nationals."

To my mind, there is a great difference between being unable to get a contract extension done and being unwilling to do so. If Nick was truly uninterested in extending his time in DC, I can't blame him, but that makes it harder to believe the trade came as such a terrible shock. I suppose it's possible that Johnson anticipated the trade and was nonetheless overcome by emotion in the moment. Whether his tears were of regret or relief we may never know.