December 19, 2010

The Digging and Filling of Holes

Zack Greinke wasn't coming to Washington, D.C. unless Boston's lineup and Philly's rotation agreed to come with him. That simple, seemingly indisputable fact renders all the digital ink spilled on the subject moot. And yet...

It's one thing to be spurned by Cliff Lee and told that the Phillies, Yankees or Rangers are closer to contention. None but the most over-eggnoged Nats fan would argue that point. It's quite another to lose the respectability derby to the Milwaukee Brewers. Taking nothing away from our beer-besotted brethren, the 2010 Brew Crew finished 77-85, 14 games behind the Reds in the NL Central and equally far removed from the Wild Card. They were one game better than Houston and two up on the Cubs. Milwaukee was a whopping 8 games better than the 2010 Washington Nationals. And yet...

The Nats are losers. This is true both from a purely statistical, technical point-of-view (412-599 since relocating before the 2005 season) and in the more intangible sense of having been a ward of the league with a grating carnival barker of a GM who presided over decisions ranging from questionable to side-show worthy. (Come see "Smiley Gonzalez", The Incredible Aging Boy!) At the same time the front office made the reasonable, but also bottom line-friendly, decision to focus on rebuilding the tattered Expo-Nats farm system at the expense of the big league club. Middling success in that effort has not come without a cost, as Harper notes here.

The side-effects of losing can be subtle. It can be getting Jason Marquis when you'd rather have had Jon Garland, or Adam Kennedy in lieu of Orlando Hudson. Sometimes losing doesn't even seem that bad, like when missing out on 7 years of Mark Teixeira forces you to "settle" for 2 years of Adam Dunn. But losing always has consequences. Every loss digs a hole, and it gets deeper year-by-year.

Filling the hole means paying superstar money to attract a merely very good outfielder, while hoping to replace a very good first baseman with an adequate, more reasonably priced fill-in. It means that even if you wanted to mortgage your farm system to bring in an ace, you can't. Zack Greinke knows as well as anyone in baseball what a rebuilding project looks like, from the inside out. When he looked at Washington, he didn't like what he saw.

Maybe the Nationals dodged a bullet. But it wasn't by choice. Unless Mike Rizzo is actually incompetent, or secretly in the employ of another NL East club, he wasn't actively trying to make the team worse by trading 4 or 5 young players to Kansas City. Clearly he thought Greinke would make the Nats better, perhaps even competitive. Clearly Zack disagreed, as had Cliff Lee, Mark Teixeira and who knows who else before him. As a Nats fan that's disappointing but not unexpected.

The fact that it's not unexpected is the problem, and it's one that the team doesn't seem to have an answer for. The Phillies get Cliff Lee, the Brewers get Zack Greinke, the Nats get Chien-Ming Wang. On the verge of the new year, that's a perfect an encapsulation of the state of the franchise. Happy Holidays, Nats fans!

December 6, 2010

On Rizzo & Responsibility

Let's get this out of the way first: I firmly believe that Jayson Werth's 7-year, $126M contract is a bad deal for the Washington Nationals. It is an overpay both in dollars and in years, and Werth would need to defy both physics and history to come close to earning his salary.

That said, there is a strain of analysis that says that this is not just a bad contract of the sort that every franchise will, at one time or another give out. Rather this is an epically, unprecedentedly bad contract, a blight on the Nationals' franchise and an affront to baseball itself. ESPN analyst Keith Law put it this way:

Giving a 32-year-old position player who has qualified for the batting title exactly twice in his major league career a guaranteed seven-year deal for over $100 million isn't just a bad move.

It's irresponsible.

The full piece is behind ESPN's Insider paywall, (Well worth the investment, just don't let them send you the magazine or you'll never be rid of it.) but it's such a sterling archetype that I'm going to excerpt a bit more in a few paragraphs. First though, I want to tackle that second sentence. Is this contract irresponsible?

Appointing the "least drunk" guy in the car designated driver is irresponsible. Spending your rent money on lotto tickets is irresponsible. Putting the half-term governor of an obscure state a heartbeat away from the presidency is irresponsible. Overpaying a 31-year old right fielder for his age 32-38 seasons may be ill-advised. It may be flat dumb. But is it irresponsible?

To answer that you'll have to decide who Rizzo and the Nationals are responsible to. The Werth contract undeniably blew up the free agent market and reset salaries. Do Rizzo and the Lerners owe it to the other 29 clubs not to make bad deals? Hell, no. Free agency is a free-for-all. So Carl Crawford gets a 7-year, $140M contract. How is that the Nationals' problem? When the Nats embarked on their quixotic bid for Mark Teixeira nobody called the contract he ultimately signed with the Yankees irresponsible. So maybe the Red Sox had to renegotiate Adrian Gonzalez's extension b00-freakin'-hoo. When another GM starts steering reasonably-priced quality players to the Nationals, then we can talk about mutual responsibility. Of course, another word for mutual responsibility is collusion.

The Nationals are undeniably responsible to their fans. (Note: responsible, not responsive, otherwise this week's big free agent signing would have been Adam Dunn.) Is the Werth contract irresponsible on that front? On behalf of the fanbase, I'm going to say no. Jayson Werth is a good player. I want good players on my team. As for the length and the amount? Heck, it ain't my money. Well, it is in some sense, but it's not like the Lerners' were going to roll back ticket prices and start handing out half smokes but for this deal. I want the Nationals to be better. Werth makes the Nationals better. As a fan, I'm sold.

Mike Rizzo does have a responsibility to the franchise. He is obligated to use the resources he is given wisely and to put his team in the best position to win. Is signing Werth for 7 years and $126M irresponsible? Ah, now here's your argument. Let's go back to Keith Law:

[I]f you as a GM or owner feel the market is forcing you to "overpay" for a free agent because your team isn't good, maybe you should improve your team first through the draft (where, I should point out, the Nationals spent money and added a lot of talent in 2010) and wait for that supposed free-agent premium to disappear. That is, if free agents don't want to come to your team because your team stinks, the first solution is to make your team better.

In this view, the Werth contract was irresponsible because that $18M a year could be better used to draft and sign young, cost-controlled players. Splashy free agent signings should be back-burnered until they are the "last piece of the puzzle", when presumably you won't have to over-pay to get them. This is a pretty standard sabermetric trope. Expensive free agents are only for teams at the top of the competitive curve. Otherwise they are a waste of resources.

However, even here the Werth signing is only irresponsible if it negatively impacts the Nationals' ability to acquire and retain good young talent. Will it? It's impossible for anyone, including Keith Law, to say. $18M certainly is a sizeable chunk of change, but in a $90-100M payroll, where key pieces like Zimmerman, Strasburg, Harper, Ramos, and Zimmermann are locked into reasonably affordable deals for the next few years, it's hardly crippling.

If the alternative is to consign Ryan Zimmerman to wasting his prime years while the team loads up on prospects that may or may not pan out, to have Ramos and Espinosa develop in a culture of intentional mediocrity, to put the full weight of the franchise of Stephen Strasburg's surgically-repaired elbow, then a splashy free agent signing or two may just be the responsible move.

There will come a day when the Washington Nationals regret Jayson Werth's contract, but today is not that day.

December 3, 2010

This is a Job for WikiLeaks

As soon as Julian Assange is done wasting his time with the military, the diplomatic corps and the financial sector, he's got serious work to do. I want to know what the hell goes on in the front offices of the Washington Nationals. I want a raft of emails from Mike Rizzo, Mark Lerner, Stan Kasten, and Uncle Teddy explaining exactly how subtracting Adam Dunn from the roster improves the team.

I want to know the thought process that leads to this statement:

The Washington Nationals wish Adam Dunn and his family the best of luck and good will in Chicago. Adam contributed much to the Nationals and to the Washington, D.C. community. He will be missed, but will remain an important figure in the early history of this franchise and will always be a part of the Nationals baseball family.

This is the perfect sentiment to mark the departure of Brad Wilkerson: great guy, commercial spokesman, important figure in the early history of the franchise. As a response to the loss of one of the top sluggers in baseball, it is sorely lacking. Mark Zuckerman does a much better job.

Mike Rizzo is under no obligation to explain himself. When he does get around to addressing the media, you can count on a rehash of the above sentiments and some old classics about the value of team defense and improving through the draft. That's where the boys from WikiLeaks come in.

Does Mike Rizzo honestly believe that improved defense at first base outweighs the decreased offensive production (and there will be a deficit) generated by Dunn's replacement? Did the Nationals offer Adam a market value 3-year contract and just balk at the 4th year, or did they low-ball him? (If it really was 3/$36M, they low-balled him.) When did Mike Rizzo decide that Carlos Pena was Albert Pujols-lite? Seeing as how Dunn ended up with the White Sox anyway, what did Kenny Williams offer at the trade deadline, and was it better than a pair of draft picks?

Make no mistake, whether you agree with the move or not, the Nationals let Adam Dunn walk away over something like one year and $14M dollars, money that probably could have been deferred. Odds are they aren't spending that money on Cliff Lee, so they better get something good for irritating the star third baseman, blowing a hole in the lineup, and pissing off an already shrinking fanbase.

September 30, 2010

Adam Dunn's Red Flag?

If Adam Dunn never plays another home game in Washington, his career at Nationals Park ended on a particularly ignominious note: 0-4, 4Ks. The golden sombrero. Of course, he didn't get cheated on any of those swings, so it's not hard to believe than Adam was pressing to give the home fans a memorable show. Dunn's 2010 has been marked by his traditional display of power - 38 homers and counting - but marred by a career low walk percentage and a career high percentage of strikeouts.

Dunn is famous for being very nearly the platonic ideal of a 3 True Outcomes hitter. When he comes up to bat you can lay good money on a home run, a walk, or a strikeout. He has seven consecutive seasons of at least 38 HRs, and averages 111 BBs and 183 Ks per season for his career. He's led the league in strikeouts three times and walks once. Yet in 2010 he has just 76 walks and is one whiff away from a career high of 196 strikeouts.

Over his career Adam has a K/BB ratio of 1.65. This season he's averaging 2.57 strikeouts per walk. His previous season high was 1.95 K/BB through 66 games in his 2001 rookie season. That was also his career low for walk percentage, when 13.3% of all his plate appearances ended in a base-on-balls. In 2010 he's walking just 11.9% of the time. Dunn is also striking out in more than 30% of his plate appearances, the highest that number has been in his 10 year career. As a result Adam's on-base percentage (.359) is the lowest it's been since 2003 (.354) and 22 points below his career average (.381).

The decline can be traced to a second-half slump. Pre-All Star break Dunn was hitting 288/372/588. He's a career 254/385/547 first-half hitter, so apart from swapping some OBP for increased power and batting average, the numbers are pretty typical. In the second half everything declined. Adam typically wears down over the course of the season, but this year it was particularly noticeable. Dunn's batting average cratered to .227, his on-base percentage dropped thirty points to .342 and he lost power to the tune of a .480 slugging percentage (vs. 247/376/493 in the second half for his career.)

At this point it's important to pause and note that there is nothing wrong with a .359 on-base percentage. Dunn's OBP is the 23rd best in the National League, nothing to sneeze at for a guy who also owns the league's 5th best slugging percentage. However, as the Nationals contemplate re-signing Adam for 3 or 4 more years they should be aware of that his 2010 numbers are moving in the wrong direction. It's impossible to draw definite conclusions from a half season's worth of stats, but that doesn't make them any less concerning.

There are mitigating factors. Josh Willingham, who hit behind Dunn in the first half and was arguably the Nats second best hitter in April and May got hurt and struggled in July and August before going on the DL. Maybe his absence made pitchers less reluctant to pitch to Dunn in the second half. Maybe Adam felt more pressure to swing and try to put the ball in play with a rotating cast of Bernadina, Rodriguez and Morse hitting behind him. Or maybe we're seeing the very early signs of Dunn's decline. Hitters with "old player skills" (i.e. power and batting eye) have a nasty track record of declining hard and fast once they hit the wall.

Adam Dunn will probably never be more than a serviceable but solidly below-average defense first baseman. His value is linked inextricably to his bat. He is without question one of the premier sluggers in baseball. But this year his declining walks and increasing strikeouts have driven him closer to being an "all or nothing" hitter. That could be a one-half season blip, or it could be a sign of things to come. I wish Mike Rizzo all the best of luck in trying to figure out which explanation is closer to the truth.

(If you want to check my math, Adam Dunn's stats are drawn from Baseball Reference - a statistical gold mine.)

September 28, 2010

Pay to Win

It doesn't get much easier to understand than this, courtesy of the NY Times:

Vertical axis: Wins. Horizontal axis: Payroll. Notice any correlation? Yes, there are exceptions to every rule (sweet, holy giraffe the Mets suck!) but the trend line is unmistakable. More dollars (in general) equals more wins.

Please print, clip and mail the graphic above to:

Nationals Park
Attn: Mr. Theodore N. Lerner
1500 South Capitol Street SE
Washington, DC 20003

H/T to Mr. Irrelevant.

September 23, 2010

It's The Lerners' Team Now.

Sell the StanSpeak translator for scrap; Kasten is headed for the door. Boswell's oddly well-timed column has some background that will provide copious fodder for the recently diminished ranks of the "Teh Lerners are Cheep!!1!" movement. Chris Needham correctly assesses the likely fallout.

This is a gut-punch for a franchise in need of a drama-free offseason. Leaving aside the Adam Dunn contract situation the Nationals' roster looks to be as stable as it has ever been. The manager (for better or worse) and GM are both expected back, providing continuity of on-field leadership. But with Kasten, the face of the front office and head cheerleader for "The Plan", jumping ship any number of things could be thrown into flux. Rizzo was a Kasten hire, and Riggleman was Rizzo's choice. That chain of command is now broken. Who's in charge?

Of greater importance, the buffer between the owners and the public is gone. The Lerner-Kasten partnership was a Bud Selig-arranged shotgun wedding that apparently never really suited either party. Kasten was a good soldier, never publicly admitting to an inch of daylight between him and Ted Lerner on decisions. His track record provided gravitas and cover for four years poor performance and declining attendance. But Boswell suggests that Stan privately chafed at having his advice ignored. The next president will be a purely Lerner hire, and will tell us a lot about what to expect for the future of the franchise.

Have Ted and Mark Lerner internalized Kasten's lessons? Will Kasten's replacement be a baseball man given room to operate semi-autonomously, or a glorified accountant? Will the Lerners front the money to improve the major league team around the Zimmermen(n), Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos even if attendance plods along in the low-20,000s per game, or will they simply be happy to turn a profit on the strength of their publicly-financed stadium?

There's no one left to deflect these questions. "The Plan" has run it's course; the future is now. It's the Lerners' team. Time to watch what they do with it.

UPDATE: Someone break out the Lerner Language Lexicon. It's a "Don't let the door hit you." statement from Uncle Teddy.

Stan Kasten will always be an important part of the history of the Washington Nationals. He was vital to ownership winning its bid from Major League Baseball and his agreement to serve as the team’s chief executive for the last five years has been critical to building the Washington Nationals franchise.

Over his tenure he has positioned the Nationals to become one of the most exciting franchises in baseball and we thank him for all that he has accomplished.

We certainly respect his decision to pursue other interests at the end of the regular season, but will continue to call upon him for his vast knowledge of the game, the league and the franchise. He will remain a friend and valued partner of the team and ownership group.

Theodore N. Lerner
Managing Principal Owner


UPDATE II: In what I can only assume is a brilliant protest move, Jim Riggleman is fielding the worst Washington Nationals lineup I believe I have ever seen for today's 4:35 pm tilt with the Astros.

Espinosa – 2B
Kennedy – 1B
Desmond – SS
Morse – RF
Bernadina – LF
Ramos – C
Maxwell – CF
Gonzalez – 3B
Detwiler – P

Undoubtedly they'll win by 14.

September 20, 2010

Nats 2011 Slogan Suggestion: It Could Always Be Worse

Now this is how a mature fanbase handles an extended period of failure and incompetence:



Somebody get Bob Boone on the phone. He's got work to do.

September 14, 2010

The Time Has Come

I'm a fairly lazy custodian of our "Nat(m)osphere" sidebar. I tend to stick with what I know and what I like. Hey, it's our sidebar. And, as previously noted, I'm a lousy housekeeper. What that means in practice is that I'm slow to update when new bloggers join the party and even slower to delete those who may have signed off or gone off the rails.

Every so often though, something gets my attention and reminds me to clean house. In this instance, it was this piece of whiny, self-important BS from Nats320. SBF's place on our blogroll is a function of longevity, not quality. As of now, that's no longer good enough. The team is in a downward spiral, our best pitcher is laid up for the next year, our best slugger is about to take his show on the road, and Jeff is incensed by the inequitable distribution of swag?

To make matters worse, this is the stuff that gets picked up and rebroadcast to the wider web. DC baseball fans have a fairweather, frontrunning image problem that Nats320 is feeding directly into. The Nationals Enquirer has nailed the only possible response to the substance of the post, but I'm using it as an opportunity to tidy up the ol' blogroll. I'm confident that SBF neither wants nor needs my link; I doubt there's much overlap in our audiences.

In place of Nats320 I'll be adding long overdue links to Nationals Fangirls and Nats Inquisition, and removing a few of the older, comatose if not dead links. The link to Nationals Farm Authority will stay until I've completed all five stages of the grieving process. I'm still bargaining. If I'm still missing anybody, feel free to leave your info in the comments, though it may be another 6 months until I get around to doing this again.

And finally, in case you were wondering, Ryan Zimmerman can't hear you.

video

September 12, 2010

Batting Practice Video

And now, for something completely different, Nationals players hitting baseballs with bats. Could have used some of that Friday and Saturday.


video

Also, MissChatter is now up with her typical incomperable photojournalism. (Warning: Do not look directly at the NTP photo.)

Nationals "Blogger Day" Take Two


Saturday afternoon was the Nationals second Blogger Day of the 2010 season. This time Dave and I were set loose on Nationals Park with video camera in hand. Chad Kurz, Manager of New Media and the Nationals public relations staff provided us with access to GM Mike Rizzo, Manager Jim Riggleman and many others.

Over the next few days we'll be posting still photos, video clips and thoughts on the day's activities. For now please enjoy this photo of the view from the press box.

Additional bloggy coverage of Saturday's events can be found over at Nationals Fangirls and Nationals Inquisition.

September 10, 2010

Off-Day Movie Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

The NTP crew can’t watch baseball every night, even with MLB Network and three channels of ESPN. Sometimes we need a break. Some of those times we catch a movie. One of those times, the movie was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Matt:

Given the rise in popularity of video games and comic books over the last thirty years, the cross-pollination of the two was inevitable. Add in Hollywood insatiable quest for the movie rights to the new hybrid and you get “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”. We’ve seen movies based on comic books and story ideas lifted from video games before, but this is the first movie that *is* a video game. Director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) takes Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-part graphic novel and creates a cultural testament to the 8-bit generation, complete with music from The Legend of Zelda, end-of-scene Boss fights, Pac-man history, and a healthy dose of PG-13 punk rock. How much you enjoy this film is directly proportional to how many hours you spent sitting in front of a TV with an Atari or an NES or a Sega Genesis. Frankly, we found it entertaining as hell.

Dave:

I’ll admit I was the one pushing to see this movie. It had me from the opening credits – which I can’t even describe without giving away the gag. As Matt said, we spent a whole lot of time in front of 8-bit consoles, and watching villains explode into coins is enormously satisfying. Several times the movie hit exactly the right, “This is what life would be like as a video game” note. You’d go on an adventure, you’d finish a challenge, and you’d have a boss battle. That’s the way it works. This motif recurs throughout the film. Either you buy in or you don’t. I bought in to it in a big way.

Matt:

The basic plot of the film centers on Scott Pilgrim, your average 22-year-old Canadian slacker drifting through life. He’s nominally dating a cute high school student, doesn’t seem to have a job and plays bass in a fledgling punk rock trio, Sex Bob-omb. (The name is a tribute to a minor baddie from the Super Mario Bros. series, and gives you a good idea of the universe this film inhabits.) Then he sets eyes on Ramona Flowers, the alterna-girl of his dreams. Literally. Of course, there’s a catch. In order to be with Ramona he has to defeat her seven evil exes, who’ve joined forces to stop Scott. Cue the boss fight music; it’s on like Donkey Kong. Say what you will about the film’s blissful ignorance of reality, but at least it’s an original premise. We haven’t seen this story told a hundred times before.

Dave:

I knew going in that it was going to be different. I haven’t read the graphic novels, but the trailers gave enough away that you could tell this was an original treatment. The plot is slightly incoherent, and occasionally even a little beside the point, but having played many video games that move you from level to level, the progression is instantly recognizable. The “cut scenes” move the story forward, but the action is the main focus. The use of comic book and video game style graphics in just the right places make this easy to accept. If you’re not willing to embrace the quasi-reality style, this movie won’t work for you.

Matt:

There is a very large leap of faith required by the viewer to accept “Scott Pilgrim”. As Dave mentioned, the opening credits set the tone but if you can’t sit back and accept what’s coming, you’re not going to enjoy the movie. Over the last 20 years advances in CGI technology have really allowed directors to experiment with how to tell a story. Graphic novel adaptations Sin City and 300 would not have been as compelling without their amazing visuals. “Scott Pilgrim” falls very much into this category. It’s a stylized, 8-bit treat for those of us who remember staying up late to play Super Mario Bros. for hours on end. With all sequels and re-treads being pumped out by Hollywood, original and well made movies should be applauded and encouraged, especially if they’re as fun and well done as “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”.

On a completely arbitrary scale from 3 strikes (This movie is headed OUT! of theatres) to 4 balls (Run, don’t walk to your multiplex), this film earns: 3 Balls!

September 1, 2010

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

Seafood just does not agree with the Nationals. Pick your poison. Last night, a 1-0 10-inning loss capping a pitching duel. Tonight, a 16-10 slugfest featuring only slightly more hits than hit batters. Either way, the Marlins remain the team the Nats just can't find a way to beat.

Speaking of beatings, I can't understand why Nyjer Morgan seems determined to beat a path out of DC. Maybe the relationship was irrevocably damaged when the team put Morgan on the DL against his will. Maybe he can sense that he's not part of the team's long-term plans. Maybe all the losing is getting to him. We may never know for sure. What we do know is that for all the reasons FJB lays out, the time has come for Morgan to go.

Steven's also right that this reflects badly on all involved. GM Mike Rizzo brought Morgan in and shipped Lastings Milledge out to "change the tone" of the clubhouse. I sincerely doubt that this is what he had in mind. Time to get that aura reader recalibrated, Mike. I initially assumed that the incident in Philly was just an overreaction to a misunderstanding, but everything that has happened since has inclined me to believe that Nyjer Morgan probably did chuck a ball at a fan.

For his part, Manager Jim Riggleman seems to have no relationship with Nyjer, and no control over his activities on the field. Leaving aside the question of whether Riggleman hung Morgan out to dry in the press, (he did) if you can't convince your 170-lb centerfielder to stop impersonating a blocking fullback, major league baseball manager may not be your optimal gig. Even worse, the teammates who are forced to back Nyjer after these stunts come off looking like dopes.

And speaking of dopes... so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen and goodbye to Rob Dibble. Honestly, I could have forgiven the Strasburg he-man idiocy if Dibble wasn't just plain bad at his job. Being a shameless homer because you have a deep, visceral, almost disturbing connection to the team is one thing. (Hi, SBF!) Being a homer because the team signs you paycheck is just embarrassing. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said the everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Too often Dibble's version of reality was at odds with what was happening on the field (and in the strike zone.) I know there are fans who thought that Dibble's antics were the only thing keeping the Nats watchable. To them I say, you are bad fans.

To sum up: subtract Morgan and Dibble; add Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa? Who knows, maybe morale will improve in spite of the beatings

August 27, 2010

It Is Finished

Photo by AP

August 24, 2010

And on the Eighth Day, God Created the Mute Button

I make a concerted effort to ignore everything Rob Dibble says, so I'm reluctant to make an exception for his latest gaffes, but:

1. If you listen to Rob Dibble for any length of time you have no reason to be surprised when idiotic things come out of his mouth on a fairly regular basis; and

2. If, armed with that knowledge, you continue to listen to Rob Dibble you have no one to blame but yourself.

One of the beauties of baseball is that it conveys equally well on a muted television or on a radio. In this respect it is superior to many other sports. (Being a Redskins fan of the Frank Herzog-era I am compelled to say that football can also be surprisingly listenable, if done well, moving left-to-right across your radio dial.)

A soundless TV broadcast conveys 95% of the information you need to follow the action. An accomplished radio play-by-play man renders a television entirely redundant. Nats fans are cursed with substandard media in many other aspects, but Charlie Slowes and Dave Jageler are as solid a professional pairing as any in baseball.

In conclusion, if Dibble offends thee, turn him off. Good night, and good luck.

August 21, 2010

Win the Battle, Lose the War?

Just keep repeating "It was only precautionary. It was only precautionary."

Ummm... it was only precautionary, right? Fellas?

Is this thing on...?

August 18, 2010

Hawpe to It

The Colorado Rockies are on the verge of releasing OF Brad Hawpe. Coincidentally, the Nationals are in the market for an outfielder to replace Josh Willingham as he makes his long overdue trip to the DL. Hawpe should be that replacement.

There's no question that there will be a reshuffling of the Nats outfield. All three outfield spots are legitimately up for grabs over the season's final month and a half. There are currently 5 players in the mix for those 3 spots: Nyjer Morgan, Roger Bernadina, Michael Morse, Willie Harris, and Justin Maxwell. (OF Kevin Mench is also on the big league bench, but he shouldn't be, and he certainly isn't a serious contender for regular playing time.)

As much as we love Willie Harris's webgems and improbable home runs he, like Mench, is not a part of this team's future. Leaving aside Jim Riggleman's inexplicable love for using Willie as the first pinch hitter off the bench he should not be getting anything more than spot starts and defensive replacement innings at this point.

For better or worse Nyjer Morgan is likely to return to his regular centerfield duties. There is some speculation that Roger Bernadina could move to center and push Nyjer to left, but that seems pointless, exchanging one below average corner outfield bat for another. On the plus side, Nyjer was hitting 308/361/354 in 18 second half games before his injury. That leaves Bernadina, Michael Morse and Justin Maxwell to split up at-bats at the corners. If you think that makes for an uninspiring choice, you'd be correct.

Roger Bernadina's been slowly playing himself out of the starting lineup all season. A 268/325/411 line might play in center field, but at the corners it's an offensive drag. It's not at all clear from his major or minor league stats that Roger has the glove to stick in center. He'll also be 27 next season, pretty well past the prospect stage. It may be time to admit that he is what he is, a very good 4th OF in the making.

Michael "Mike" Morse made a name for himself mashing left-handed pitching. A 306/342/556 split against lefties has earned him an everyday audition. A 257/304/419 line against righties is threatening to send him back to the bench. Morse deserves the chance to play out the season, but he's a below average outfielder, so if he's not getting it done with the lumber, he's not getting it done.

Like Morse, Justin Maxwell hits lefty pitching pretty well. But the guy simply cannot hit right handers. Not in the majors, not in the minors, not in a train, not on a plane. Not here nor there, he cannot hit them anywhere. As you might imagine, that limits his value. Justin gets a lot of slack because he's a local guy, and by all accounts a great guy, but his time is undeniably running out.

All of which brings us to Mr. Hawpe. He's having a down year, hitting just 252/340/430 and playing typically bad defense in right field. Note that Hawpe's slump constitutes an improvement over every healthy OF on the Nationals' 25-man roster. Check out this side-by-side career batting line comparison.

  • Hawpe: 280/374/492 (274/369/470 away from Coors Field)
  • Willingham: 265/367/475
Hard as it may be to believe, The Hammer probably gets a slight edge on defense, just because Hawpe is almost Adam Dunn bad in the outfield. That's the reason the Rockies put him on the Adam Dunn plan, and had him start taking some innings at first base. We're not necessarily talking about a long-term solution here. Hawpe is a clear upgrade over the current crop of corner outfielders, and might provide some insurance if Josh Willingham's knee surgery doesn't go as well as hoped.

Hawpe also projects as a Type-A free agent, and while offering him arbitration would be risky, the Nats might be one of the few teams in a position to take that risk and reap the draft picks should he decline. Of course, with the Rockies paying his salary, Hawpe would probably be an attractive left-handed bench bat for a number of contending teams. None could offer him the chance to play every day though, while the Nationals just happen to have an opening in the outfield.

The post-Harper breather is over. Hawpe to it, Mr. Rizzo

August 14, 2010

Beyond Bryce

UPDATE: Anyone care to translate this sentence into English for me?

Mike Rizzo: "I seem confident that we should sign the guys that we want to sign out of the draft."

At this rate we're going to need a Rosetta Stone to decipher all the Stan and Rizzo-speak coming out of Nationals Park in the next 48 hours. However, two questions come immediately to mind:

1. Doesn't telling people you seem confident suggest that you are not confident?

2. Who are the guys that they drafted that they don't want to sign?

*****

It's deja vu all over again. With less than 60 hours to go, the Nationals are still on the clock to sign the number 1 overall pick in the June amateur draft. And just like last year, despite having more than two months to negotiate, the deal won't get done until T-minus 30 seconds before the deadline. That's the nature of the process, and unlike Stan Kasten, I'm disinclined to get all angsty about it.

I'm guessing Bryce Harper ends up as the highest paid amateur position player in draft history, raking in a few dollars more than Mark Teixeira got just on principle and to salve Scott Boras's ego. Harper will sign because between a deep 2011 draft class, a new collective bargaining agreement that could completely revamp the draft, and the ever-present risk of injury if he returns to play junior college ball, there's too much risk in waiting another year. But signing Harper won't be enough to consider the Nationals' 2010 draft a success.

Beyond Harper are three pitchers. San Diego State left-hander Sammy Solis (2nd round pick) and high schoolers A.J. Cole (4th round) and Robbie Ray (12th round). These three are the real keys to victory. Harper + Solis = a good draft. Harper, Solis and Cole; a great draft. All four? It's hard to call that anything other than the best draft of 2010.

Three years ago the Nationals were in a similar situation. August 2007 saw the Nats come to terms with three talented left-handed pitchers. First rounders Ross Detwiler and Josh Smoker and 6th rounder Jack McGeary. Here's what we wrote at the time:
Pitchers in particular are a tricky bunch. If 3 years we'll probably be lucky if one of our top 3 lefties profiles as a front-of-the-rotation starter. Maybe Detwiler will never be better than a lefty set-up guy. Maybe Smoker's arm will fall off. Maybe two years at Stanford will kindle an unrealized passion for Buddhism and McGeary will move to Tibet and moonlight as a sherpa with a 92 MPH fastball. It's much, much too soon to say. But that's why you need so many talented youngsters, and why you need to take them whenever you find them.
Still sounds about right. And the same is true of Solis, Cole and Ray. That's why the Nats need to do what it takes to bring them into the fold on Monday night. Solis is probably the surest bet to sign. We also know that Ray was in town for a meeting with the coaches and front office. If the team is serious about continuing to rebuild the farm system, none of these guys will be packing for college on Tuesday morning.

August 9, 2010

Return of the Stras

Per Nats' Director of Baseball Media Relations Mike Gazda:

[T]here are plenty of good seats available for Stephen Strasburg's start tomorrow vs. FLA... [T]here are a lot of fans who have been shutout from seeing Strasburg pitch (because of sellouts), but they have a chance to get tix tomorrow since he is coming off the DL and word has been slow to spread.
If they're pushing this hard, they're probably 99.44% sure that Stephen won't be scratched in warm-ups in favor of Miguel Batista this time. Mister Irrelevant, who's also hawking tickets to the game, notes that Strasmas ticket prices are slowly returning to normal. So this would be a good time to see the phenom in action. Consider the word spread.

In other news...

These Things Have a Way of Working Themselves Out: Detwiler to the DL, Stammen to the 'pen, and all of a sudden the Nats' glut of starting pitching has thinned considerably. Note that thinned is not a synonym for improved.

Five Fighting For Future: The Zucker Man has his list of 5 Nats to watch in the season's waning months. For my money, the only truly interesting name of the list is Michael Morse, who has about 8 weeks to play himself out of a career as a platoon outfielder/bench bat. I'm working on a little piece for later this week about the great Morse/Bernadina/Maxwell cage match shaping up in August and September.

The Spirit is Willing, But the Ham is Weak
: Speaking of the outfield, Josh Willingham's 2nd half slump (and it's potential impact on the lineup) has become a topic of muted concern. In truth though, the Hammer's "slump" from his hot start dates to the beginning of June, and shows no sign of letting up. If Adam Dunn is playing himself into a multi-year contract, Josh could be playing himself out of one, and putting LF back in play for the Nats in 2011 and beyond. Hmmm... do we know any free agent left fielders?

Dear National Media, Please Go Away: There was a time when I would have welcomed any mention made of the Nats from beyond the boundaries of the DMV. But we have Strasburg now, so I'm over the desperate need for attention phase. Now I'm firmly with Harper in the "stop plugging my team into your generic story generator" camp. Mike Rizzo turns Matt Capps into Wilson Ramos and change and unloads the Guz, but "loses" the trade deadline because he didn't jettison Adam Dunn for Daniel Hudson and a handful of magic beans? Spare me. Exactly who are all these people that have it on good authority that the Nats won't offer Dunn arbitration and "risk" paying him $15-16M next season? Go bother some other mid-market team. Isn't there a Prince Fielder to the Red Sox non-rumor you people should be busy inflating?

August 1, 2010

Maya Signs: World Series in 2012?

It's official. 28-year-old Cuban ace Yunesky Maya is the first major international signing of the Mike Rizzo era. The agreement, first reported in mid-July, was completed this weekend. Maya's major league contract will be worth between $6-8M over the next four years, and he could pitch for the Nationals before the season is out.

Maya doesn't have the raw talent of his countryman Aroldis Chapman, but he is by all accounts a polished veteran with a low-90s fastball and developed secondary pitches. With a career 2.51 ERA in Cuba (and a 1.73 ERA in the World Baseball Classic) there's reason to think that Maya could be a middle-of-the-rotation MLB starter right away. Given the parade of forgettables that have occupied that spot for the Nationals over the last five seasons, this signing is cause for legitimate optimism.

There's a great deal of assumption, wishful thinking, and finger-crossing that goes into projecting any roster into the future, but if Maya and Jordan Zimmermann have successful cups of coffee to close out 2010, and Stephen Strasburg's $15M shoulder gets a clean bill of health, the three of them could headline a formidable 2011 rotation. Mike Rizzo and Jim Riggleman would have the luxury of choosing between established veterans Jason Marquis and Livan Hernandez, comeback players like Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan and Scott Olsen, or a talented youngster like Ross Detwiler to round out the starting five.

Depth would then come from some combination of those guys and AAAA veterans like Craig Stammen, Luis Atilano, J.D. Martin and Matt Chico. All of the aforementioned have had at least some measure of big league success and could presumably be counted on to fill in for a start or two without melting down in the spotlight.

Of course, an injury to one or more of the potential "Big 3" would be a serious setback (and with Zimmermann only a year removed from Tommy John surgery, not all that unlikely.) Any major league team needs at least seven starting pitchers to get through a 162-game season. But you also need luck to have the replacements fill in for your 4 and 5 guys, not your ace and No. 2. Still, if Strasburg, Zimmermann and Maya can put together 30 starts each in 2011, the Washington Nationals could be well on their way to contention and beyond.

July 30, 2010

The Guzman Error Era

For a certain segment of the Washington Nationals' fan base Cristian Guzman will never be anything more than Jim Bowden's original sin. Bowden forfeited a 3rd round draft pick to the Twins in his haste to sign the free agent All-Star shortstop to a 4 yr/$16M dollar deal in November 2004.

No one who was paying attention to the Nats in 2005 can forget the initial return on that investment. Guzman's inaugural season in DC was his worst since his rookie campaign and one of the worst in baseball. He posted a terrible .219/.260/.314 line (53 OPS+), but still appeared in all but 20 of the team's games and amassed nearly 500 plate appearances. (He did hit .325/.367/.470 in September though!)

Of course, we only found out in the offseason that Cristian had been playing almost all of 2005 with a bad shoulder. Surgery and rehab cost him all of 2006, aka Year 2 of his much derided 4-year contract. In Guz's absence Royce Clayton and Felipe Lopez split time forgettably at shortstop.

2007 brought a renewed Guzman with bionic shoulder and Lasik eyes. The surgical enhancements worked to the tune of a 328/380/466 line in 46 games to start the season. Then disaster struck, courtesy of Josh Barfield's stupid over-sized head. Another season down the drain, but Guzie was nothing if not a master of timing.

In the walk year of his initial 4-year deal with the Nationals, Cristian built on his 2007 sample to post the second best full offensive season of his career. His .316/.345/.440 line in over 600 plate appearances earned him a return trip to the All-Star game. More important, Guzman was able to parlay a solid season and a quarter into a 2-year, $16M contract extension, courtesy of Jim Bowden. (See if you can spot the recurring theme here.) It's hard to believe now, but this was basically a market-value deal at the time. Of course. the market tanked about three months later, but I digress.

2009 was a typical Cristian Guzman season. Empty .284 batting average, few walks, little power. His range at shortstop, always suspect, certainly didn't improve after his 31st birthday. Still, he managed to make the All-Star ballot once again, and even threw a brief thrill into the fan base when he was rumored to be shipping up to Boston.

As 2010 dawned, big changes were in store for Cristian. No longer the default option at shortstop, he was expected to be an $8M utility infielder, backing up rookie SS Ian Desmond and free agent 2B Adam Kennedy. Cristian's bat had other ideas. A hot month of May (.381/.411/.452) garnered him 19 starts, and most-favored status with manager Jim Riggleman. He was in the lineup almost every day from then on, delivering a typically Guzmanic .282/.327/.361 on the eve of his trade to Texas.

Almost all of Cristian Guzman's problems in DC stemmed from the fact that Jim Bowden paid him to be something he had never been and never would be. (The remainder stemmed from injuries.) Was Guzman worth what he was paid? No, but that hardly makes him unique, and it's not even really his fault. For five and a half seasons Cristian Guzman took the field for the Washington Nationals every day that he was physically able. He played through injuries, three managers, two GMs, and a revolving cast of mediocre-or-worse teammates. (Where have you gone, Bernie Castro?) Through it all he smiled, stretched for those grounders just past his glove, and waggled his fingers after every slappy single.

He may have been a symbol of everything that was wrong with the current incarnation of DC baseball, but he wasn't part of the problem. Farewell and good luck Cristian. Where ever the road takes you, you'll always have a home here in Washington, DC.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

Well, okay, as long as it's Texas. Twins-Nats-Rangers. In one sense Cristian Guzman has spent his entire career playing baseball for Washington. You have to admire the symmetry.

Farewell to GUZMANIA!, the longest tenured player in Washington Nationals history, and the only member of the 2005 club to have remained in DC for the full five and a half seasons.

Over an even 550 games with the Nationals, Cristian put up a .282/.317/.389 line, good for an 87 OPS+. Coincidentally, that's better than his career line, so the Nats really did get Guzman's best years, no matter how much Jim Bowden over paid for them.

Later this evening I'm planning a full retrospective and appreciation of the Guzman Era, coupled with some drinking. So for one day at least, kindly keep your oh-so-clever snark to yourself.

July 29, 2010

Shows What I Know

"[W]e ain't getting Wilson Ramos for Capps..." - July 28, 2010

Yeah, about that... I'm a dumbass. The formal announcement is still pending, but Woo Hoo!

Here's a little background on Wilson Ramos, courtesy of Baseball America. Aaron Gleeman, who knows Twins baseball just about as well as anyone, has this take on Ramos:

Wilson Ramos has been totally overmatched by Triple-A pitching, posting a hideous 41-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio while hitting just .208/.244/.319 in 52 games. Ramos showed reasonable enough plate discipline in the low minors, but since advancing to Double-A last year he has 14 walks and 64 strikeouts in 106 games. He's making contact at a palatable rate, but the total lack of patience is disturbing along with a .427 career slugging percentage.

Ramos remains a very solid prospect largely due to projecting as a good defensive catcher, but it was always wishful thinking to assume he was even close to an MLB-ready impact bat and that notion now looks silly. With that said, he's still just 22 years old and has fewer than 450 plate appearances above Single-A, so there's no need to sour on Ramos too much.
Wilson Ramos is far from a sure thing, but he's a legitimate catching prospect and easily enters the Nationals' Top 10 prospects list. Considering that Ramos was rumored to be part of the Twins' offer to the Mariners for Cliff Lee, getting him for a reliever like Capps is a coup.

The Nats' bullpen will have to be reshuffled, but that's an insignificant price to pay. Whether this is the dawn of the Drew Storen Era or the beginning of two and a half months of closer-by-committee, you make this trade 100 times out of 100. Nicely done, Mr. Rizzo.

July 28, 2010

Strasburgeddon and Other Catchy Headlines

I'm not a doctor, and I don't play one on TV, but it seems to me that a precautionary MRI is not something a pitcher gets because he has "trouble getting loose in the bullpen". It might, however, be the kind of thing a pitcher gets when he "may be favoring his four-seam fastball over his two-seamer." "There's no pain" should be words of comfort, except that a brief history of DC pitchers who have felt no pain includes John Patterson, Brian Lawrence, Chad Cordero, Matt Chico, Jordan Zimmermann, Scott Olsen and Jason Marquis. In other words, it was fun while it lasted, Nats fan.

Capps & Trade


As the trade deadline draws nearer the Nationals are the subject of an unusual amount of speculation. Beyond the usual suspects (Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham) opposing teams are rumored to have varying levels of interest in Cristian Guzman, Adam Kennedy, Willie Harris and Matt Capps. Nationals Journal and Nationals Review both took in-depth looks at the pros and cons of trading the Nats' closer. Here's the bottom line: closers are made, not born. And even good relief pitchers are notoriously volatile commodities. DC fans need look no farther than Chad Cordero, Joel Hanrahan and Mike MacDougal to find recent examples of the boom-and-bust closer phenomenon.

Even without Capps the Nats have at least three relievers who are arguably capable of holding a lead in the 9th inning. Tyler Clippard has been the consummate set-up man. You might not want to bring him in with men on, but if you need three outs and the bases are empty there's no reason to think he can't do the job. Joel Peralta saved 2o games for AAA Syracuse this season and has pitched well since his promotion, with basically the same arsenal that Capps employs. Then there's Drew Storen, consensus "closer of the future". He's done everything asked of him so far, so unless he's on an inning count, why not see if he can handle the 9th inning?

If Mike Rizzo can trade Matt Capps for anything of value he should do it now and not think twice. That said, we ain't getting Wilson Ramos for Capps or Matt Garza for Adam Dunn. Who let Jim Bowden back in here?

Dunn Roaming

I have no problem with Adam Dunn's impromptu visit to the Miller Park broadcast booth on Saturday night. I do have a problem with him not clearing it by Jim Riggleman or bench coach John McLaren. The talking to he got was justified. However well-intentioned, Adam's decision to duck out of the clubhouse without telling anyone projects a devil-may-care indifference that the worst defensive team in baseball should probably try to avoid. On the plus side, at least he wasn't taking a nap.

July 18, 2010

Irreplaceable: The Perpetual Rebuild

The Nationals aren't going to compete for anything in 2010. After outscoring the Marlins and still dropping the series, there's enough accumulated evidence to assess this team's talent level. The offense is mediocre and erratic, the bullpen is a relative strength and the starting pitching not named Strasburg, while capable of ocassional competence, is a definite weakness.

In the midst of all this Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham are having outstanding seasons. Dunn, hitting 288/373/579 with an NL-leading 22 homers, is in the last months of his two-year contract and would be an asset to any team looking for a 1B/DH bat in the second half. Willingham, batting 276/403/491 is perhaps even more attractive because he's under team control for all of 2011 and can play a respectable left field. On one level it makes sense to say that if the Nats can't score runs even with these guys, they should ship them out for prospects and reset the clock on that "first great Nationals team".

The Nationals Review does a nice job of breaking down the endlessly frustrating offense. Basically, if you think the Nats are struggling now, just wait 'til you see what they look like with the heart of the order gutted. But there's a larger issue at work here. Ever since fans became attuned to the dynamics of player development and teams with financial limitations started trumpeting the "build from within" approach, there has been a school of thought that says there's no use in being anywhere on the spectrum other than "rebuilding" or "contending". If you aren't in it to win it at the major league level you should be focused on turning veterans into young, cost-controlled prospects who will ideally form the nucleus of your next (or first) contending club.

In the abstract that approach makes sense. The devil, as always, is in the details. First, it's important to correctly evaluate your odds. The 2010 Nats are not contending, but the 2011 team could, if your rose-colored glasses are tinted just right. Needless to say, subtracting Dunn and/or Willingham would hobble the big club in the short-term, regardless of the return. Meanwhile, Ryan Zimmerman's contract is ticking along toward free agency and 3 more years doesn't seem like that much time for a club that has already squandered 5 post-relocation seasons.

Second, you have to trust your GM to make not just a deal, but the right deal. From a fan's perspective, this part is all but unknowable. Blood was demanded when the Nats failed to either move or resign Alfonso Soriano at the trade deadline in 2006. Fonzie's compensatory draft picks became Jordan Zimmermann (and Josh Smoker), but it's impossible to tell from the outside if that constitutes a better return than any of the potential trades that were declined.

Finally, there's the lure of the perpetual rebuild. Even the best teams need to get lucky to make the playoffs. They need to stay healthy, not have any veterans fall off a cliff and get unexpected contributions from one or two unheralded quarters. Teams without the Phillies' payroll or the Rays' farm system have even less margin for error. One or two bad breaks and a promising spring becomes a lost season pretty quickly. At which point you're supposed to jettison everyone who might (A) get more expensive, (B) be on the downside of his career, or (C) return a premium prospect. Sure this season it's Dunn and Willingham, but you don't have to look too far into the future to see a time when the veteran in his prime who's wasting time with the perpertually scuffling Nats is named Zimmerman, or even Strasburg.

At some point you have to build, not just rebuild. Without straining my imagination I can see a 2011 Nationals club with a rotation headed by Strasburg and Zimmermann, with 3 of Wang, Detwiler, Olsen, Marquis, Lannan and free-agent-to-be-named rounding out the back. Behind them a bullpen anchored by Burnett, Clippard, Storen and Capps. Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham in the heart of the order, supplemented by Ian Desmond and a Roger Bernadina/Mike Morse platoon, with Pudge Rodriguez and Jesus Flores splitting the catching duties. (Is this is a little fanciful? Yes, but no more so than projecting Derek Norris, Chris Marrero and Danny Espinosa to be offensive stalwarts in two years.)

Is the team outlined above good enough to compete for a World Series? Maybe, maybe not. One thing's for sure, if Dunn or Willingham is dealt at the deadline it will be well past 2011 before we see another Nats team with equivalent talent.

June 20, 2010

Offensive

"I WANT to believe the problem is with the pitching, not the hitting. But by league rank, it's the opposite." - Chris Needham, Capitol Punishment, 6/15/10

The Washington Nationals offense is like a good-for-nothing ex-spouse, or a cheap bra. It offers no support. The boys have scored 0, 1, 3, 3 and 4 runs in the last five games (all loses), and averaged just 3.4 runs/game over the last ten. The middle of the lineup - Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham - has been great, All-Star caliber. Ivan Rodriguez and Roger Bernadina have been fine complementary pieces. The rest of the lineup? Ah, therein lies the problem.

Well, sort of. The truth is, the Nats are underperforming even their own modest projections. Baseball Musings' Lineup Analysis tool is a blunt instrument, but it credits the Nats standard lineup (Morgan, Guzman, Zimmerman, etc...) with creating 4.79 runs/game. FJB suggests batting Zimmerman second, and that probably wouldn't hurt, but fiddling with the lineup is rearranging deck chairs. The difference between the Nats best and worst possible lineup is measured in fractions of runs per game.

Jim Riggleman's lineup may not be helping, but it isn't the main problem. The Nats are carrying four well below average hitters into every game, every day. Now, being a National League team, they're more or less stuck with a pitcher. But that still leaves the shortstop, second baseman and center fielder not pulling their weight. (Bernadina may be a below-average hitter for a right fielder, but he's above average overall.)

If you're so inclined you can write Ian Desmond's (.299 OBP, .400 SLG) bat off as the price of doing business with his spectacular glove. The same cannot be said of Cristian Guzman or, in 2010 at least, of Nyjer Morgan. Maybe the Nationals can carry one defense-first starter, but not three, particularly when two aren't really all that defensively gifted these days.

June 19, 2010

Now He's a National

Welcome to Washington, Stephen. Is it time to start the "Countdown to Free Agency"?

June 18, 2010

Hey Now, You're An All Star... Voter

Nationals fans can be forgiven for thinking that MLB All-Stars are token players chosen to round out the roster and ensure that every team has representation. That's the kind of mindset that comes from having luminaries like Dmitri Young (2007) and Cristian Guzman (2008) represent Washington, DC in the mid-summer classic. Last year, Ryan Zimmerman (winner of the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, perhaps you've heard of him?) only made it on as a reserve. So yeah, voting for the MLB All-Star Game is not especially merit-based.

In any other town this might be a problem, but this is Washington, DC. No city in the world boasts more collective knowledge about voter manipulation, log-rolling and bloc voting. The 2010 Nationals have at least two guys who are legitimately worthy of starting for the National League All-Star team, but there's just no way Zimmerman and Josh Willingham both make the cut. It's time to unite behind Ryan and start cutting some deals. If you need some number to back that up, they're all here.

Here's the current breakdown of NL All-Star candidates, by position. The first thing you'll notice is that the RZA isn't even in the Top 5 at third base. This is frankly embarrassing and an indictment of Nationals fans. So before you finishing reading this post, before you do anything else:

GO VOTE. Vote 25 times. Don't worry, it's kosher. The All-Star Game is a Chicago-style election campaign. Vote early, vote often vote Nats.

Once that's done it should put Ryan in the Top 5. If we can't find 23,000 people in DC who think that Zimmerman is the best third baseman in the National League, it's time to pack up the tent and go home. After that it's time to start horse-trading.

First, the low-hanging fruit; fans of American League teams. They get 25 votes for the NL All-Stars just like you get 25 votes for the AL team. Promise them anything. The Yankees fan on your softball team wants to see an all-New Yawk lineup? In exchange for 25 votes for Zimm you'll hold your nose and pull the lever for Posada over Mauer. The Angels fan who's trying to mount a Kendry Morales sympathy vote? Hey, nobody backs lost causes like a Nats fan. Don't be greedy. It's tempting to try to score some votes for Willingham, Adam Dunn, maybe even Pudge Rodriguez, but stay focused. Also, trust but verify. You're going to want to see those votes.

The next step is trickier. We're talking vote-swapping with our National League rivals. The key here is swapping votes wisely. For example, I love Ian Desmond, but he's no All-Star. So here's an open offer to all the Marlins fans out there. You vote Zimmerman, I vote Hanley Ramirez and keep Jimmy Rollins out of the top spot. It's a win-win. Likewise, Dodgers fans, I can totally get behind Andre Ethier, especially if it keeps Jayson Werth out of the top three.

I think you see how the game is played. Now go forth and barter. Zimmerman 2010!

Remember to do your part: VOTE NOW.

June 15, 2010

POWer Pitching

12.1 innings, 3 earned runs, 5 walks, 22 strikeouts, 2 wins. Apparently, those numbers get you noticed. National League Player of the Week. Sports Illustrated cover boy. Topic of discussion from FanHouse to San Fran.

Oh sure, now folks want to have an opinion about the Nationals. Where were you when that batting tee attacked Junior Spivey?!

The Nationals haven't had a true power pitcher since John Patterson struck out 185 in 198 innings in 2005. (He also struck out 42 in 40.2 innings of work in an injury-shortened 2006, walking just 10. John Patterson was good. Snakebit, but good.) Not coincidentally, that's also the last season the Nats posted a non-losing record.

What Strasburg does, apart from collect buckets of Ks and make major league hitters look silly with his curveball, is give the entire pitching staff a different look. For four years hitters pretty well knew what they were getting in a 3-game series vs Washington. Three pitchers throwing between 88 and 91 and hoping to keep to ball on the ground and in the park. Sure there were minor differences between guys, maybe one was a lefty, but there was nothing to make opposing batters re-tool their entire approach to hitting. Now there is.

Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn said, "Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing." In a three game set, the other team might see Strasburg's 100 MPH fastball one night, Lannan's 88 MPH slider at the knees the next, and Livan's 62 MPH Bugs Bunny curve the next afternoon. That has to mess with your timing, doesn't it?

Of course it wouldn't be DC if fans didn't look for the dark cloud in every silver lining. Post columnist Thomas Boswell, who really wanted Dustin Ackley anyway, is worried that too many strikeouts will put an unnecessary strain on Strasburg's arm. Or, in the alternative:

June 9, 2010

This Time Was Different

Years ago when I visited Yankee Stadium for the first time, I quickly realized that there was something different about that crowd. We exited the train onto the street and there was a hum and excitement that you could actually feel. It brought to mind the tension in the air just before a massive thunderstorm rolls in. At the time I chalked it up to just being at Yankee Stadium but after Steven Strasburg's debut last night I know different.

As I was walking to Rosslyn to meet Dave last night I had complete strangers walk up to me and ask if I was going to the game. People were plainly envious that I was heading to the ballpark. Then we got to the stadium and I started to feel that hum again. It wasn't quite as strong as that Yankee Stadium feeling but it was there. Then the capacity crowd gave Strasburg a standing ovation when he walked in from the bullpen and the feeling exploded like thunder. That was when it dawned on me why this was different. This game mattered.

Last night wasn't about opening a new ballpark, it wasn't about a family taking in the national pastime, and it wasn't about the guys going out for the night. Last night was about baseball. The product on the field was what mattered.

Something happened right off the bat that made it feel like something special could happen. The crowd chuckled when "Jaared" the saxophone player was introduced to play the national anthem but once he started we all stood up a little straighter. Nobody expected the soulful instrumental that followed. He got two different spontaneous cheers during his solo and that's saying something.

Then it was time to get underway. McCutcheon's liner to short made us all hold our breath but then we settled in to witness greatness. 7 strong innings, 94 pitches and 14 strikeouts. The homerun Strasburg gave up to Delwyn Young stung a little bit but in hindsight it served as a reminder that after all he is just a rookie.

And it wasn't just Strasburg that dazzled last night, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, and Josh Willingham provided their own fireworks. This was Strasburg's night but it was a team win. It was a win on a night when, for at least one game, the team had something concrete to play for. It mattered to the 40,000 plus fans, it mattered to the people watching at home, and it mattered to the Nationals. This time it was different.

June 8, 2010

What If...

What if Stephen Strasburg doesn't take the mound, strike out the side in order on 9 pitches and ascend directly to heaven? What if he gives up a handful of hits, or (Strasburg forbid) a handful of runs in only six innings of work before sitting down for the night? What if suspect defense or spotty relief work cost him a Strasmas Day victory?

What if the stadium runs out of food and drink in the 2nd inning? You think I'm kidding, but Opening Day was a logistical nightmare, and the June 4th pre-Strasmas crowd pretty much emptied the concession stands out by the fifth inning.

What if the view of the field is obscured by people constantly coming and going from their seats while the ushers stand idly by? What if standing room only fights break out as people jockey for position to watch the first pitch?

I guess what I'm saying is, the eyes of the baseball world are on Nationals Park tonight, and if things don't go smoothly it could easily cast a long shadow over what should be one of the brightest days in DC baseball history.

I'm sure Mark Lerner and Stan Kasten are aware of the stakes, but given their history I'm much less confident that they've looked beyond the rosy glow of ticket sales. The challenges that come with accomodating what figures to be the largest crowd in Nationals Park history, many of whom may be experiencing Nationals baseball for the first time, are enormous. I believe Stephen Strasburg is up to the task. I can only hope the same is true for the rest of the organization.

June 7, 2010

Kasten: Harper in DC by 2013

Stan speaks, sans translator

On Saturday Nationals' President Stan Kasten spoke to fans (and 20-odd bloggers) before the Nats-Reds game. He covered a range of topics from the Philly Phan Invasion to Strasburg-mania. He also touched briefly on Bryce Harper.

Speaking in the abstract, because this was 24 hours before Mike Rizzo confirmed what everyone has known for months, Stan noted that Harper's path to the majors would be greatly accelerated by moving out from behind the plate. Based on his "conversations with baseball men" Kasten observed that a young catcher could take 4 or 5 years to develop.

On the other hand, an outfielder with Harper's bat and physical tools could conceivably be major league-ready in two years. So there you have it. The plan all along was to draft Harper, move him to right field and have him playing behind Strasburg and Zimmerman by 2013. Dave Cameron has some thoughts on the pros and cons of this approach here.

Stan also repeatedly mentioned that "signing quickly" would be key to Bryce Harper's development. Way to play it cool, Stan.

June 5, 2010

Matt & Nate: Coming Out of the Booth


That's right, we're sellouts. The Nats reeled us in with a "Blogger Day" and cushy seats in the mile-high press box. Also, Q&As with Drew Storen, Josh Willingham, Jim Riggleman and Stan Kasten. We'll chime in if anything interesting happens here, otherwise expect a write-up of thoughts later tonight.

8:20 pm: Mike Leake is clearly a better pitcher than Stephen Strasburg.

8:30: I feel that Luis Atilano learned the wrong lesson re: pitch counts from Livan's start last night. 80 pitches through 5 innings is not a goal.

8:45: Clippard, Storen and Capps pitched last night. Slaten, Walker, Burnett tonight? Do not want.

8:50: I'm sure it would be tremendously difficult, but can someone please teach Adam Dunn to push a bunt down the 3rd base line?

8:55: Joey Votto needs more stick'um.

9:05: Apparently the goal for the evening was to get Atilano's ERA under 4.25. Mission accomplished.

9:10: What is it about Willie Harris's slash line that makes him the automatic first pinch hitter off the bench?

9:20: If you're not part of the solution, you're Tyler Walker.

9:24: It's the Joe West show, folks.

9:28: Cheer up, Wil. Some days you're the pigeon, some years you're the statue.

9:34: Why Miguel Batista? Why not?

9:45: Zimmerman walking - Good. Dunn hitting w/ men on base? Bad. (See above re: bunting down the 3rd base line.)

9:54: No warning to Batista? Joe West is a jackass.

10:02: I have absolute confidence in the Nats' ability to come back from this. ::weeps::

June 2, 2010

A Trip Down Memory Lane

In preparation for the second coming, Barry Svrluga has a great piece about the 2005 team that rattled off a ten game win streak and eventually led the NL East at the All-Star break.

Ahhhh, memories.

May 26, 2010

Hook, Line, Sinker

What has six thumbs and three tickets to the June 4th game against the Reds? These guys!

I don't blame the Nats. Like Needham says, they bent over backwards not to say anything about when Jeezus will be incarnating in DC. (Contrarywise, seems like they could have said something about when he wouldn't be appearing.) Nor do I particularly blame Zuckerman, Goessling, et al. though this piece is a masterwork of backtracking. Educated guesswork is the lifeblood of journalism, but sometimes you're going to be wrong. In sportswriting this will get you mercilessly mocked on the interweb. In politics it will get you an Op-Ed column at the Washington Post.

One of the criticisms leveled at the Nats for manipulating Stephen Strasburg's service clock was that while they were saving money on his future contracts they were losing revenue in 2010 by not maximizing his major league starts. Clearly Stan Kasten devised a way around that problem. He's managed a near sellout of an otherwise unremarkable Friday night game in early June. Have cake? Check. Eat cake? Check.

Again, I don't blame the Nats. It was in their interest not to quash the June 4th speculation. We ought to understand by now that Stan, Mark and Uncle Teddy consider tickets sold the only appropriate barometer of success. Butts in the seats, or who those butts happen to be rooting for, is a secondary concern. I have no doubt that June 8th, or any other date will sell out just as quickly once Strasburg's promotion is confirmed. Hell, I might very well roll the dice again myself.