April 5, 2010

NTP Season Preview: WTF Happened Here?

2010 is supposed to be the season that the Washington Nationals climb back into contention, competition, the conversation in the National League. Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham anchor the middle of a lineup sparked by Nyjer Morgan. John Lannan leads a staff that just has to hold it together long enough for the second coming (of Stephen Strasburg) to arrive. Matt Capps and Brian Bruney were brought on board to round out a bullpen that almost literally couldn't be any worse. So why does it feel like the summer of 2010 will be another wasted season on the banks of the Anacostia?

1. The Future is Now... Early June

There are good and sensible reasons to let Stephen Strasburg cut his teeth in Harrisburg for two months, but there's no denying it makes the 2010 squad both worse, and more importantly less interesting. It's probably the right thing to do, but it's a tough pill to swallow for a franchise that hasn't had a really compelling storyline to sell since June of 2005.

2. This Wasn't Part of "The Plan", Man!

On the eve of the 2009 season Nats fans were hoping that the addition of Adam Dunn would help Ryan Zimmerman rebound from a sub-par 2008. But three players were expected to build on promising 2008 campaigns: C Jesus Flores, CF Lastings Milledge and RF Elijah Dukes (all 24 on Opening Day). Flash forward one year. Flores has played just 23 games, Milledge lasted all of 7 games before being shipped to Pittsburgh by way of the minor leagues and Dukes' departure was even more abrupt. More on that later, but the lesson here is twofold: 1) Even the best prospects are still just "prospects", and 2) two out of the three have been replaced by older, less talented players for 2010. That's an unorthodox take on rebuilding.

3. A Little Less Talk, A Lot More Action

The Nats were "in" on Aroldis Chapman but balked at the ultimate price. Sure, Chapman isn't the Cuban Strasburg, but he got uniformly rave reviews this Spring. The Nats "talked" to a number of other veteran starters after inking Jason Marquis, but ended up "solidifying" the rotation with (old friend and fan favorite, but c'mon... really) Livan Hernandez. Orlando Hudson apparently actually wanted to play in DC, just not at the price the Nats were offering, leaving the team with Adam "Plan B" Kennedy. But really, what's worse than any of those things in isolation is the creeping suspicion that either this team's owners are stupid, or they think the fans are.

4. Passing Over Elijah

Now that some time has passed, this deserves much more comment. I don't care if Mike Rizzo doesn't like Elijah Dukes, doesn't trust him, doesn't think he'll ever learn to stop swinging at that breaking ball low and away and will never be healthy enough to play 150 games in the field. You don't cut your 25 year-old de facto starting right fielder without having a plan in place to replace him. Clubhouse chemistry does not win ball games, guys that can take a pitch 400 feet the other way do. It seems to me that the last Nats team that was lauded for its clubhouse chemistry was the 2005 squad, and their right fielder was a certified lunatic.

To be any kind of competitive in 2010, the Nats need to make up for Elijah's offense. Harper pretty much had Dukes pegged as the Offensive Key to the season, so you can see this is more than just a passing concern. Maybe Ian Desmond can take up some of that slack, but don't hold your breath hoping for a renaissance from Pudge Rodriguez or Adam Kennedy. Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham just don't have much room for improvement, and Nyjer Morgan was already playing over his head. In the post-steroid era we probably shouldn't expect to see new RF Willie Harris pull a Brady Anderson either.

Speaking of new right fielders, I need to address this headline briefly. Willy Taveras did not "earn" a job with the Nats. Willy Taveras cannot earn a job in major league baseball, he can only be given one. If you'd like this rant with a side of number, go here or here. As for how anybody could hand Willy Taveras a job in 2010, maybe it's...

5. The Ghost of Jim Bowden

Toolsy former Reds outfielder on the roster (and in the lineup) for no apparent reason? Check.
Multi-year, multi-million dollar contract for a washed up catcher? Check.
Overvaluing veteran relievers off the scrapheap? Check.
Roster constructed to leave a surplus at one position and a deficiency at others? Check.
No discernible progress on the international scouting front? Check.
Ian "Jeter" Desmond at shortstop? Check.

So tell me again how everything's going to be different once Mike Rizzo's in charge? Yes, I know, it's still too soon to judge Rizzo. But that time is coming, and it's coming in months, not years.

And finally...

The End of GUZMANIA!

You'd think I'd be upset about this. But here's what you don't understand. Cristian Guzman was trapped at shortstop like Napoleon on Elba. Mike Rizzo and Jim Riggleman have freed him to rampage across the diamond. Before you could be pretty sure where Guzman would be. Now he's gained the element of surprise. That, along with a fanatical devotion to never drawing a walk, will be his greatest weapon! (In other words, Nationals fans are so deeply screwed in 2010 that Cristian Guzman's problems don't amount to a hill of beans.)

Oh well, at least the Redskins are finally showing some signs of returning to the land of competent, professionally managed organiz... WHAT THE F@&%?!

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