December 28, 2009

Josh Whitesell Goes Back To The Future

Think back to 2007. Barbaro sired a line of champion glue bottles. The Nats were bad, but nowhere near as bad as they would become. And Josh Whitesell assumed a prestigious position within the Washington Nationals organization: the "Larry Broadway Memorial marginally-talented first baseman who's destined never to sniff the big leagues." Previous award winners included perennial "First Baseman of the Future" Larry Broadway and, well... pretty much just Larry.

Josh was all set to bridge the gap between failed prospects Broadway and Chris Marrero when things went sideways. Claimed off waivers by the Arizona Diamondbacks in early 2008 the unthinkable happened; Arizona gave Whitesell his ticket to the show. After some success with a 2008 cup of coffee Josh struggled with extended exposure in 2009. Non-tendered by the D-Backs, Whitesell is now back with the organization that drafted him, ready to resume his rightful place in the hierarchy.

December 27, 2009

Guardado Capps Off a Marquis Week

Jason Marquis, Matt Capps and Eddie Guardado aren't going to carry the Washington Nationals to the playoffs in 2010. If Mike Rizzo rounds out the year by signing Orlando Hudson and John Smoltz to multiply Pudge Rodriguez's veteran-y goodness the Nats still won't be playing baseball in mid-October. Measured purely by that criteria the last week was a waste of $11M+. But that's dumb. By that measure teams like the Nats, Pirates, Royals, Astros, Orioles and Padres should just close up shop from October to February. No one trade or free agent signing is going to put any of these teams in contention in 2010, or 2011 for that matter.

If, on the other hand, the offseason is about improving your club, the Nats have had a very good week. Jason Marquis is no ace, but he'll give you 200 innings of league average pitching, sparing Nats fans from the 2010 version of the "Daniel Cabrera Experience." Matt Capps may not be the guy who'll make us all forget Chad Cordero, but I'll be perfectly happy to forget Julian Tavarez and Kip Wells. Eddie Guardado may not be Ron Villone... or maybe he is. Either way, a minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training is exactly the right way to go about finding your next designated "veteran lefty."

That's the important thing to keep in mind about this past week. It's less about the players than it is about the process. Marquis could have been Garland, or Piniero, or Sheets. For $15M over two years it's a signing that can only help stabilize the rotation. Is one year of a 26 year old closer with a career 119 ERA+ worth $3.5M? It is when your alternatives are Brian Bruney, Garrett Mock or the next Joel Hanrahan. Even if he's nothing more than a bridge to Drew Storen, what exactly is the downside to bringing Capps on board?

Rizzo's moves are encouraging because they don't assume that you have to sacrifice short-term improvement for long-term development, or vice versa. Somewhere between Jim Bowden's obsessive focus on the next five minutes and the analytic fascination with the next five years lies an approach that allows for building a winning team and a winning organization simultaneously. It's not yet clear that Rizzo or the Lerners are committed to this dual track approach (a strong bid for Aroldis Chapman would be nice evidence, Mike.) But I'm a Nats fan, so for the moment I'm clingling like grim death to any shred of hope that we might not have to endure two more seasons like the last two before we see that "first great Nationals team."

December 20, 2009

Christmas Garland?

Ex-White Sox/Angels/D-Backs/Dodgers hurler Jon Garland is one of the ten (TEN?! - Does that include Oil Can Boyd?) free agents pitchers the Nats are eying this winter. Garland is apparently keeping company with guys like Jason Marquis, Joel Pineiro, Doug Davis and John Smoltz. (Seriously though, if they sign Smoltz don't they at least owe Dennis Boyd a tryout?)

Garland's career numbers are the very definition of unspectacular. A 104 ERA+, a K/BB ratio of 1.6; he's a lot like a right-handed John Lannan. On the plus side he's just 30 and can be predictably projected for 200 innings pitched with an ERA in the mid-fours. For the 2010 Washington Nationals those are #2 starter numbers.

Garland wants three years, the Nats are apparently offering two. I'd be okay with something in the 2 year/$15M or 3 yr/$20M dollar range. The third year doesn't bother me as much as it does other folks because honestly, beyond Strasburg and (maybe) Lannan, who are you penciling in to the 2012 Nationals rotation that's definitely going to improve on a 33-year old Jon Garland?

That said, Garland's not a marked improvement on any of the half dozen other mid-rotation innings eaters still on the maket, so if he want's $10M a year he's been hitting the egg nog a bit early. But he doesn't have to be a "steal" for the Nats to make out well. That Jon Garland would be the biggest free agent pitcher signing in the history of the Washington Nationals tells you pretty much all you need to know about the state of the pitching staff. He just has to offer some stability to the rotation beyond Lannan and (hopefully) Strasburg and he's worth any reasonable price.

December 12, 2009

An In-Speier-ed Pickup

H/T to MLB Trade Rumors for this minor AP item: The Nats signed former Rockies reliever Ryan Speier to a split minor league deal worth up to $425K. Speier is another reliever Rizzo should be familiar with from his time in the NL West. The 30 year old righty has solid career numbers, though he dealt with some injuries in 2009. He pitched better away from Coors (who doesn't?) but still has an impressive ability to keep the ball in the park. Assuming he's healthy he could probably replace Jason Bergmann as the designated right-handed reliever to face right-handed batters.

More important, Speier is a local guy, product of West Springfield High (Go Spartans!) and Radford University (Go Herpes!). Like former Nats SP "Irish Mike" O'Connor and current reliever Josh Wilkie, (George Washington University alums) Speier brings some much needed home cooking to the DC baseball scene. Major league baseball teams should have a lock on local talent. The Braves perfected the art of scouting Georgia and have reaped the rewards with players like Brian McCann and Jason Heyward.

The Nats have publicly committed to rebuilding scholastic and amateur baseball programs in Washington, DC and that's a great start, but you don't have to look any farther than franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman to appreciate that Virginia has a thriving baseball culture that has produced players like David Wright, Mark Reynolds and the Upton brothers. The Braves, Mets and Orioles, through a combination of geographic proximity and minor league affiliations already have ties to baseball in Virginia. Signing a 30 year old reliever to a minor league deal isn't going to be the key that unlocks the Commonwealth's storehouse of baseball talent for the Nationals, but it's a start.

December 7, 2009

Not All Motion Is Progress

Mike Rizzo is (allegedly) not Jim Bowden. This offseason has been marked by a refreshing lack of impolitic outbursts, leather pants and dumpster-diving for toolsy outfielders. Until today you could also have said that Rizzo displayed a distinctly un-Trader Jim knack for not overvaluing replacement level relief pitching. Until today.

Let's be clear up front: Rizzo "overpaid" by sending the top pick in the Rule 5 draft to New York for reliever Brian Bruney. Bruney has a track record, and there's some value to that. Any baseball geek worth his Bill James Abstract will tell you that relief pitching is the most unstable, readily replaceable component of a major league roster. Any Nats fan that lived through last April, May and June will reply that yes, you can cobble together a relief corps from rookies, retreads and failed prospects, but it can take a grueling half season or more to get the mix right.

What worries me is Rizzo's increasingly evident preference for the known quantity over the raw talent. Think Nyjer Morgan for Lastings Milledge. The Nats got the better player, but the Pirates got the talent. Hiring a manager like Jim Riggleman is a textbook case for valuing track record over potential. In terms of today's deal, ex-Diamondback Brian Bruney's an established, hard-throwing, middle-inning reliever with undistinguished peripheral numbers. You don't have to uncover the Rule 5 draft's next Johan Santana, or even the next Joakim Soria, to get a younger, better player who'll be under club control for longer than Bruney. The next Luis Ayala would be a fine return for that number one pick.

As hot stove kickoffs go this deal was a resounding "Meh." It's tough to get either enthused or outraged about a 28-year old middle reliever, especially when he might not be any better than the guy who was cut to make room for him. On the other hand, I share FJB's hope that we're not merely in the beginning phase of replacing Bowden's CinciNationals with Rizzo's DiamondNats.

Speaking of which, doesn't signing a well-past-his prime Pudge Rodriguez to a TWO YEAR deal seem, well... Bowdenesque?

December 1, 2009

Non-News Is Good News

On the day that legitimately competitive baseball clubs were deciding whether to offer arbitration to their talented free agents, the only news out of NatsTown is that the team will not be handing out cash to the veteran free agent dreck that clogged last year's roster. Josh Bard, Livan Hernandez, Austin Kearns, Ron Villone and Dmitri Young will all be faced with the unenviable task of latching on with a club more desperate for "baseball players" than the 2009 Washington Nationals.

As "news" goes, this is right up there with the shocking revelations, reported first here on Nats Triple Play, that Nats pitchers will not be pitching underhand next season and the corpse of Honus Wagner will not be your 2010 Opening Day shortstop. Note that the Honus Wagner "story" is still subject to confirmation.

As to whether the team will be handing out cash to the slightly younger dreck that clogged last year's roster, Mike Rizzo has until December 12th to make that call. On arbitration questions NTP mostly lines up with fellow Natmospherians Brian at NFA and Steven at FJB (3-letter acronyms: It's what's hip!)

For nuanced analysis, read them. Here's my take:

Absolutely offer arbitration to: Jesus Flores (Duh) and Josh Willingham (Double Duh.)

Probably should offer arbitration to:
Sean Burnett (All my kids are learning to pitch lefty from birth, if not before.)

I'm fine either way:
Jason Bergmann (He can swing from bullpen to rotation, he won't cost too much and he's got tenure with the franchise; but he gives up too many walks and gopher balls.)

Don't offer arbitration to:
Saul Rivera (look up "fungible") and Wil Nieves (Who?)

Dear God, please don't offer arbitration to:
Mike MacDougal
(Say you find $100 at the departure terminal at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. You pocket the money and go. You do not conclude that you're on a "hot streak" and extend your trip to return to the casinos. Trust me on this one.)

Damn the torpedoes, offer arbitration to:
Scott Olsen
(This is where I part ways with Brian and Steven. I'm a little more optimistic about Olsen's rebound potential and a little less sanguine about the likelihood of replacing that potential on the open market. I'd lump Olsen in with the other second-tier starting pitchers recovering from injury and try to sign him to a comparable deal. Even an arbitration loss should (should) have a negligible impact on the 2010 payroll.)

That frees up three spots on the 40-man roster. You know who'd look good in those spots? Orlando Hudson, Rich Harden and the top pick in the Rule 5 draft. Get to work, Rizzo.