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.


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.