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.