Monday, October 23, 2006

Looking Ahead: Washington Nationals

A few quick notes before we get to the Nats:
  • All the buzz in baseball today is about Kenny Rogers' alleged cheating in Game 2 of the World Series. I saw the game on TV and the TV cameras showed clearly a dark spot on Rogers' pitching hand. I'd never seen TV cameras expose cheating before, so that was odd. The umpires convened and told Rogers to go wash "it" off. Both Rogers and the umpires say it was just dirt.
    Dirt, my ass.
    At first, I was willing to give Rogers the benefit of the doubt. It looked fishy, but if Tony LaRussa and the umpires didn't make a stink, I was ready to let it slide. And then I saw the pictures showing that Rogers had the exact same discolored spot in the exact same place on his hand in previous games, including the postseason. Dirt does not behave so conveniently.
    It was pine tar.
    From what I read, pine tar probably doesn't help give the pitchers any extra break. But it does help them get a better grip on the ball, which is important given how terribly cold it was in Detroit last night.
    Many people speculated that if it weren't the postseason, the umpires would have inspected his hand and maybe thrown him out of the game. But since it was the World Series, they let it slide. This is a wonderful precedent to set in a game which prides itself on the rules and the "sanctity" of the on-field competition. Tony LaRussa didn't make a big fuss about it either. The reason for that is -- as several people mentioned online -- that no manager really makes a big deal about pine tar, because he probably has pitchers that use it too. It's pretty much winked at. And if you'll remember, Jose Guillen pointed out that an ex-teammate on the Angels used pine tar; the umpires caught him and ejected him. Angels manager Mike Scioscia was enraged -- not because his pitcher was ejected for a game from cheating -- but because Guillen broke the "unwritten rule" by pointing it out. Scioscia boasted that he would have all of the Nationals' pitchers inspected from now on.
    Gary Gillette made a very sane suggestion; go through the rulebook and just get rid of the rules that no one enforces. Then add in all of the "unwritten" ones. This is getting too silly.
  • Reports are in that Major League Baseball and the MLBPA (players' union) have reached a tentative agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. This is NOT getting the attention it deserves. The big news here is not what happened, but rather what did not happen. In the past, CBA renewal meant strife; owners versus players, ugly public fights, and ultimately ending in strikes and lockouts. In fact, every negotiation for a new CBA ended in some sort of work stoppage from the 1960s all the way through 2002. And in 2002, it literally came down to the last few minutes before the strike deadline. The fact that this got done so (apparently) easily is HUGE news. I'll talk more about this later, especially when the deal is finalized details of the new CBA come out.
  • To update yesterday's report on the Phillies, Jamie Moyer has signed a contract extension to stay with the team. It's for two years and $10.5 million. The price is reasonable enough -- but two years?! Jamie Moyer is going to be 44 years old next year. Do you really want to give a 44-year-old junkballer a 2-year deal to pitch in the bandbox in Philadelphia? This does help stabilize the rotation in Philly, and it's not expensive, as I said. But two years for Moyer is hard to swallow.
  • On to the Washington Nationals AKA The Home To Ex-Prospects Who Have "Tools" But Nothing Else

2006 Record: 71-91
2006 pW-pL Record: 70-92
Runs Scored: 746 (11th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 872 (16th in NL -- last)
Free Agents: Tony Armas, Pedro Astacio, Zach Day, Robert Fick, Jose Guillen, Brian Lawrence, Ramon Ortiz, Felix Rodriguez, Alfonso Soriano

Projected 2007 Lineup:
1B -- Nick Johnson
2B -- Jose Vidro
SS -- Felipe Lopez
3B -- Ryan Zimmerman
LF -- Ryan Church
CF -- Marlon Byrd?
RF -- Austin Kearns
C -- Brian Schneider

Projected 2007 Rotation:
John Patterson
Michael O'Connor
Billy Traber?

Projected 2007 Closer: Chad Cordero

The Good News:
Wow. This is tough. Well, the Nats have a fairly dismal lineup, but there are some good pieces there. Their infield isn't too shabby. They wisely re-signed the underrated Nick Johnson (290/428/520) to go with star rookie Ryan Zimmerman (287/351/471 and stellar defense) to form a fine combo at the infield corners. The middle infield is much thinner, but not too awful. Jose Vidro is a shell of his former self and isn't likely to change back. Felipe Lopez isn't anyone's idea of a good defender, but he hits well for the position. He's a good guy to have if you're a low-budget team looking to spend money elsewhere.
The Nats also have Austin Kearns in the outfield. Kearns really took well to Washington; he hit 250/381/429 in his 63 games there. It's not likely he'll keep that up, but if he could just approach is career hitting line (265/361/463) he'd be a great guy to have in the middle of your lineup.
Where this offense would be without Kearns and Lopez (acquired in a sweetheart deal from the Reds), I shudder to think. To be fair, though, the Nats do play in a big pitcher's park. So they're not really as bad as their 11th-place ranking would seem.

The Bad News:
Remember what I said about RFK Stadium being a pitcher's park? That means that not only did the Nats have the worst pitching staff in the National League (which is saying something) -- they're actually even worse than that.
And as if the news couldn't get any worse, they're actually losing some of their better pitchers to free agency. Now, I certainly wouldn't clamor to keep Tony Armas around, and I can understand the Livan Hernandez deal if you're looking to shed payroll. But the Nationals' starting rotation is the worst in baseball right now -- yes, even worse than the Royals' and Devil Rays'. The Nats have no one left to start ballgames. John Patterson had a strong showing in 2005 (3.13 ERA, 185 K in 198.1 IP) but he threw just 40.2 innings this year due to injuries. That's never a good sign. And don't expect Patterson to bounce back easily; 2005 was the only time in his career he's thrown 100 innings in a season.
And Patterson is their ace. After him, they have very little. Michael O'Connor is just 26, but he's coming off a season with a 4.80 ERA and a 45:59 BB:K ratio in 105 innings. He's not a bad prospect -- that's why he's in the majors -- but when he was promoted to Washington, he'd only pitched 6 innings above Class A in his career. He could contribute in the future, but his 2006 performance seems to indicate that the future won't be in 2007.
Behind them, the Nationals have nothing. There are three spots in the Washington rotation that are currently manned by replacement-level pitchers like Billy Traber, who make a living of shuttling back and forth from Triple-A. It's not bad to have a few of these guys fighting for the #5 spot in the rotation. But if these are the guys going for #3 -- who's #5? Who's going to pitch the 100 or so games not started by Patterson and O'Connor? And that's given the generous assumption of at least 30 starts for each man!
The National bullpen isn't that bad, and Chad Cordero is a good, if homer-prone closer. But their pitching staff is a wasteland, and I don't think it's going to get much better anytime soon.

Offseason Game Plan
The Nationals must --repeat must -- resist the urge to go for the quick fix. When you are, at best, a 90-loss team, there is no sense in spending a lot of money on one or two free agents under the misguided impression that they can add 30 wins. You need to focus on rebuilding from within. They have a core of guys who can carry them above 100 losses for now. They've also got a fanbase still excited about baseball and a new stadium on the horizon. If they plant the seeds for success now, they should be able to reap a plentiful harvest by the time they move into their new stadium. Until then, there's really no realistic way for the Nationals to be contenders. You could certainly blow a lot of money trying, and there's always a chance that you could succeed. But it's more important for this franchise to wait; there's no need to take unnecessary risks. The NL East is a pretty competitive division; the Mets are in their prime, and teams like the Marlins, and Braves will soon be regaining their stride. It's a tall order to pass two of these teams, not even considering the still-potent Phillies. No, the best thing to do is to establish stability for the short term and invest your resources in the long term.
But I don't think GM Jim Bowden is the man to do it.
As the subtitle implies, Bowden will take any player who has speed and one or two other tools. These are usually cast-offs from other organizations (Nook Logan, Marlon Byrd, Carlos Baerga) who were let go for the simple reason that they were not good baseball players. He had a similar M.O. in Cincinnati; get as many toolsy players as you can and wait for them to win. If you pick the right toolsy players -- the ones who are good at baseball -- you will be rewarded. Otherwise you're left picking up players like Logan and actually believing that they're worthwhile, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. It's funny that the two best players to come out of Cincinnati under Bowden's watch were Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns; neither of them could be described as a 5-tool threat. Bowden's record on pitching in Cincinnati was woeful. While it was hard to determine how much of it was his fault, his performance in Washington so far would suggest a good deal.
Bowden is not the man to re-build. You could argue that he's not even the man to build. He's the sort of man who will compensate for a last-place team by overspending on bottom-level free agents like Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman. While he will sometimes make good deals (e.g. the Kearns-Lopez one), they rarely outweigh the bad in either quality or economy.
My words on the best path for the Washingt0n Nationals are important, but no one in Washington is listening to me. Hopefully someone will stop Bowden from re-signing Alfonso Soriano; in doing so he would commit $40 million or so to a guy who will take you from 70 wins to 73. 73 wins is not worth wrecking your payroll and long-term plan.
Keep that in mind, Jimbo.

No comments: