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.


Harper said...

Don't you hate that we can never know the trades that didn't happen? They are as equally as important as the moves made in judging a GM, but that information is just lost to us.

Your last point I think is the best one - this may not be a great team, but I can't see when they'd have a better one anytime soon. And if they lose Zimmerman after 2013...

Anonymous said...

A few good points.
The main problem, however, is that you argue as if Dunn was under team control for one or two more years. He might very well be gone this fall anyway, trade or no trade.

Nate said...

My baseline assumption is that if they don't trade Adam at the deadline they will try to extend him. If a deal doesn't get done, I assume the Nats will offer arbitration. So they'll either get him back on a 1 yr/$14M-ish deal or be in line for a 1st round pick and a supplemental 1st if he declines.

Anonymous said...

Besides having 3 years left of team control, Zimmerman is also ranked in the top 6-10 in trade value by Dave Cameron. The high end A->B+ prospects returned from that trade might be enough to push the Nats into contention while keeping Willingham and Dunn. Particularly if they turn out to be top of the rotation starting pitching. A key free agent like Cliff Lee perhaps?

Before everyone brings the flamethrowers out, I am not advocating this, but surely this must come into the GM and braintrust's thought processes?