Thursday, November 19, 2009

Chico, you mendacious, disingenuous motherfucker

Ace reporter Chico Harlan has returned from hiking the Appalachian Trail to make official what we all found out yesterday: that he's through with the Nats beat. Is he getting reassigned? No. So, what is it then? Chico quit on us. But he only made it official in the last few days. Those of us who have followed the ups and downs of Chico and the Nats beat know that he really quit on us almost from the first day he took the job.

Let's take a look at Chico's MacArthur-like promise to return, just to someplace better suited to his genteel, writerly soul than the icky sports pages.

The status of the Nats beat, going forward

Typical, that I'd get scooped on the news of my own departure.

Aren't you used to it by now? I mean, Zuckerman and Goessling over at the Times were always scooping you on Nats news. You know what's a good tool for breaking news? Twitter. Too bad you couldn't be bothered to ever use your Twitter account to enhance your coverage of the Nats. You know who does a really good job of using Twitter to give Nats fans more news about their favorite baseball team? Zuckerman and Goessling over at the Times.

According to a tweet from the Sports Bog's Dan Steinberg -- and OK, let's make it official, according to me as well -- the WaPo will soon be looking for a new Nats beat writer, and I will soon be heading for new pastures.

I don't think Chico and Steinberg will be going out for beers and veggie burgers anytime soon.

(And certainly they'll be less green in the literal sense.)

Wit!

The Post's internal e-mail went out yesterday, and it explains the basics. For the last two seasons, I've covered, or at least tried to cover, the Washington Nationals.

Wait, Chico was trying? He could have been even less enthusiastic about covering the Nats?

It's a demanding job, both rewarding and unrelenting like a marathon.

If Chico's going to scale the writerly heights, he's going to have to do better than cliche similes like this.

Some do it for years, with a grace and vigor that makes me envious.

**cough**Barry Svrluga**cough**

But sometimes for me, it felt more like a test of endurance than journalism. I started to miss the journalism.

Every sports writer who ever had to write on deadline should be lining up to kick Chico's ass. A modest person would have noted that plenty of people have been able to produce good writing on a deadline.

No doubt you've got a few questions. Such as, "What happens now to the Nats beat?"

It can't get any worse.

And, "What will you be doing next?"

Answer: Polishing my resume.

And, "Won't you regret the opportunity to cover Stephen Strasburg, and watch Ryan Zimmerman, and learn how Rizzo et al rehabilitate the organization, and be there to witness it once Nats Park is packed and the team (and maybe even Teddy) is winning?"

Translation: Buh-bye, loser Nats fans.

All good questions, and I'll take 'em in order.

First, the beat itself. For now, it's still mine. I don't yet have a new job, and the Post doesn't yet have a replacement.

Is this guy aware of the Post's money problems and the job market for journalists? Does Chico really think that, despite all the unemployed journalists out there, he'll find a job even if the Post cuts him loose? I suppose it's possible that David Remnick will see Chico's resume and say "Degree from Syracuse, some time writing about Aussie rules football, less than two years covering the worst baseball team in the big leagues, and wants to write about food -- Doris, get this Chico Harlan on the phone! We've found the next Calvin Trillin!"

So, the successor to Beat Writer Chico is Interim Beat Writer Chico. Somehow that seems fitting.

Yes, Chico, we get it. The Nats are dysfunctional.

Once I'm back from vacation,

What!? You're still on vacation? Goessling worked deeper into the postseason than you did, went on vacation to the other side of the fucking planet, and he's already back and posting Nats news.

I'll reassume the day-to-day duties, posting here, hopefully with a mix of news and insight and comedy, and covering the offseason developments.

I can't wait to see what news Shecky Harlan will post that Zuckerman and Goessling will have already posted.

I'll be at the winter meetings. Hopefully I can craft a few good feature stories, too.

You know, for the clip file.

Meantime, the Post will be looking for the next beat writer, and to borrow the Kastenian phraseology, the search will presumably be comprehensive and diligent and absolutely confidential. Unless Steinberg tweets about it.

Translation: The Post has no idea who's going to replace me. Oh, and fuck you again, Steinberg.

I'll be looking for a new job, too, somewhere inside the Post.

Maybe Katharine Weymouth has stables that need mucking.

I know it sounds weird, officially leaving an old job for something totally undetermined, and maybe it's a bit reckless, too.

It takes a real rebel like Chico Harlan to be such a brazen opportunist. Only a crazy nonconformist like Chico Harlan would use a job he openly disdained as a way to get his foot in the door of a respected newspaper like the Washington Post in the hopes that he could use the experience to get something more befitting his sensitive, writerly soul. Only someone as weird and reckless as Chico Harlan would insult his readers and employers by openly admitting that he couldn't wait to get out of sports and that he was only doing it to burnish his credentials.

It takes a real revolutionary to come right out and say "I don't like sports -- I am embarrassed that I cover them. I can't wait to stop. It is a means to an end and a paycheck."

Step aside, Malcolm X.

I simply hope the next job can provide the grounds to grow as a writer and reporter.

Right, because no one ever became a great writer and reporter writing about sports. The list of people who should be lining up to kick Chico's ass starts here.

I'm a big believer that improvement can sometimes come from a new (and even frightening) challenge, a step away from your comfort zone.

But I thought sports wasn't your comfort zone. "I don't like sports -- I am embarrassed that I cover them."

So we'll see what happens. I'm ready to learn, even if it means learning the hard way.

Oh, just cut the crap already.

Life as a baseball writer is a strange gig, balanced by obvious downsides (I've spent 185 nights in Marriotts this year)

But think of all the Marriott points you have.

and perverse pleasures.

Ballboy porn.

(I can rent a car in any NL city and tell the Avis rep, "No map necessary; I know where I'm going.")

I'll miss plenty about this job

Chico's Inner Monologue: Not really.

and at some later point, in the Svrluga tradition, I can compile a longer list.

Chico, nothing you did was in the Svrluga tradition.

Mostly, I'll miss the daily fix of adrenaline and results -- extra innings, a crazy twist, some breaking news, a firing, a story to write, three stories to write.

I'm going to need a bigger shovel for this bullshit after you've already described the Nats beat as "unrelenting like a marathon."

I'll miss the passion on the Journal, because not many reporters get such personal, or intelligent, interaction.

That's right, people care about this team. And you let them all down with the cynicism and open dislike with which you approached this job. I'm no dummy. I understand that being a sports beat writer is all too often a shitty proposition. But you're no grizzled middle-aged burnout with a wife and kids you never get to see. You came to this job at 25 and did it for less than two years while bitching the whole time.

I'll also miss many of the good people at Nats Park, those with whom I've spent the last two seasons.

Clint? Screech? Name names!

It'll be tough to watch from the distance, no matter what happens next.

Chico's Inner Monologue: It won't be tough at all.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Webb?

We know that Rizzo seems determined to add some free agent starters for 2010. We also know that most of those free agent starters aren't exactly the kind of pitchers you want to commit to for a few seasons or build a rotation around if you're trying to be competitive.

The worthwhile starters are going to be overpriced (John Lackey), have options for 2010 (Tim Hudson), or are little more than blogger pipe dreams (Aroldis Chapman). The Nats appear to be looking for back of the rotation types, of which Jon Garland or Randy Wolf are probably the best options (and Livan is probably the worst).

While there's a great deal of value in the league-average starter or the innings eater, I'd rather see the Nats' primary focus on someone else this offseason.


Rizzo and Webb have a history together, and Webb is pretty much Rizzo's ideal pitcher. Even if Webb looks healthy enough that an incentive-laden contract isn't an option, signing Webb is the kind of risk the Nats need to take. Let's say Detwiler and one of Martin/Stammen/Mock work out -- the Nats would still be starved for quality pitching. Coming off an injury, Webb probably won't command AJ Burnett money, but considering how valuable he's been in the past, it's safe to say Webb won't come cheap.

But Rizzo shouldn't stop at Webb -- he should also pursue Ben Sheets. The rehabbing Sheets has been completely off the radar this season, but early indications are that he will be able to pitch in 2010. This is where Rizzo should drive a hard bargain in offering the effective-when-healthy Sheets a contract loaded up with incentives.

Where would signing Webb and Sheets leave the rotation? The best-case scenario would be a 2010 mid-season rotation of Webb, Strasburg, Sheets, Lannan, #5. That fifth starter could be Detwiler or it could be someone like Wolf or Garland. Assuming Zimmermann comes back healthy in 2011, you might be looking at the best rotation in the NL East. Although I doubt Rizzo will go after Sheets, a potential 2011 rotation of Webb, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Lannan, #5 would still be formidable.

If Webb is indeed available, it would be irresponsible of Rizzo not to kick the tires on putting him in a Nationals jersey.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Dibble accentuates the positive

Dibble: Plenty of progress is possible in only a short time

As the season winds down, try and stay positive and build for tomorrow.


Sounds like we're in for another lesson in how to be a fan from a newly-arrived carpetbagger who acts like the team didn't even exist before his tattooed ass rolled into the Shirley Povich Media Center.

I know it sounds cliche, and maybe it is; but it's how we deal with failure and stay grounded in this game.


As Debbie Taylor likes to remind us, Nats fans need to have "Paaaaaaatience."

No matter how the season ends in DC, there will be some who wish to break down the season into numbers and how the team finished.

In fact, I'm going to do the very thing I said not to do when I compare the Nats to other teams.

Once again, I will remind people that it only takes a year to turn a negative into a positive.

Sales agents are standing by to take your 2010 season ticket deposits.

Let's take Tampa in 2007. They finished the year with 66 wins and 96 losses and finished 30 games back in last place. But they didn't let 2007 stand in the way of 2008, and they went out, stuck together, improved 31 games and won 97 en route to winning the toughest division in Baseball, the AL East.

Yes, let's take Tampa Bay. After having the first overall pick in the amateur draft 10 years in a row, getting new ownership, firing Chuck LaMar, bringing in Andrew Friedman and an entirely new management team, making some good trades, and changing the team name, logo, and uniforms, the Rays finally realized their potential. So, no, technically speaking, they didn't "stick together." And while it's true that the Rays didn't let 2007 stand in their way, that was mostly due to the team's inability to stop time.

This year's great story has to be the Texas Rangers: 79-83 in 2008 and they finished in second place in the AL West, 21 games back of the AL West winning Los Angeles Angels. They had the best offense in 2008 and the worst pitching staff in the American League.

79-83 isn't really that bad, not competitive but not as bad as the 2007 Rays or the 2008-9 Nats, but OK . . .

They hired pitching coach Mike Maddux from Milwaukee and now they are ranked fourth in the AL in pitching. They have one veteran starter, Kevin Millwood (371 starts), and four young starters with around 140 starts combined. One of the best of the Young Bucks, Scott Feldman is 16-4 and has 51 career starts.

Nope, the improvement has nothing to do with going from dead last in the AL in team UZR in 2008 (-51.7) to a very respectable 3rd in the AL in 2009 (41.1). Pssst, hey Rob, the same thing happened to the Rays from 2007 (-57.7, dead last) to 2008 (74.2, first).

The offense is fifth this year. The Texas Rangers of 2009 and the Tampa Bay Rays of 2008 learned a lot from failure and chose to be positive and focused the following year.

As the saying goes, nothing breeds success like failure.

It's not just adding talent to rosters that helps winning (although it can't hurt); it's learning every day, being prepared for every obstacle, applying tough lessons to future games and not letting a few rough patches get in the way.

Bad attitudes like Felipe Lopez and the 1992 Mets aside, it's still mostly about adding talent. All the positivity and preparation in the world won't take the suck out of Pete Orr, Wil Nieves, and Logan Kensing.

I like a lot of what I've seen this year, but it's not up to me.

Thank God for that.

It's up to everyone involved with the team - the coaches, the media, the organization, and most of all the fans. If everyone stays positive, it can be done.


Lemme guess, the best way to stay positive is to make a 2010 season ticket deposit, right?

Other than the superficial similarity of a lousy record, the Nats have very little in common with the 2007-8 Rays or the 2008-9 Rangers. The 2003/6 Tigers, who used some pricey free agents to complement homegrown position players and pitchers, is a more relevant example.

All the broadcasters do when they make these comparisons is create false expectations. The turnaround in the fortune of the Rays, and maybe the Rangers, has as much to do with changes in the front office as it does with changes on the field. This is where the fans really need to struggle to stay positive. The fans need to try to stay positive and hope that the recent change in management means there will be a change in process and a corresponding change in results.

Rob Dibble shows off his new car.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Mining the Bozchat 9/10/2009

I know my 3-5 readers are busy and don't have time to read online chats. Especially Tom Boswell's. Sometimes, though, in between the football and the golf and the misspellings and the attempts at statistical analysis, Boz has some actual Nats content. Highlights from this week's chat:
  • Will Scott Olsen be back in 2010? "I doubt that he'll be back. Probably be non-tendered. But it hasn't been decided. And this is just my speculation." Authoritative. So if not Olsen, then what? "The Nats have a ton of room on their payroll to add pitching. So I think they'll look at higher-priced free agents who have less history of arm problems. You'll certainly see two new starters next year." Interesting. "One may be Livan." Less interesting.
  • Boz sat down with Rizzo and they went over a short list of the top 2010 free agent starters. Boz lists who he thinks the top free agents are. Padilla, Penny, Washburn, and Pavano are on his list. Pass, pass, pass, pass.
  • Is Boz getting ideas from Dibble? "One of the Nats biggest problems in recent years is that their pitchers, partly because so many of them are young, will not protect their own hitters and, just as important, will not defend their 'right' to the outside corner." Boz quotes an unnamed "Nats insider" who lamented the fact that Nats starters have only deliberately hit a batter once in the last three seasons. Boz says it's great that the Nats don't headhunt, but "it's not so great that they give up five homers to the Phils on Tuesday, then two more on Weds and eight for the year so far to Ibanez and nobody goes down, nobody spins off the plate." So, the Nats pitchers, who are pretty crappy, as evidenced by all those home runs they gave up to the Phillies, should retaliate for their own systemic incompetence by deliberately throwing at the Phillies? Later in the chat, Boz tries to walk it back a little bit by saying that he was only referring to a batter who is "'diving' into the plate, taking away both halves, then pitch him hard inside."
  • Boz is on the fence about Riggleman, but one thing is clear: don't trust the national media. "As soon as you hear the names Valentine, Showalter or Davey Johnson, you know the writer/broadcaster has no idea what's going on." Boz knows the Nats don't want Bobby V. because he's a "Bowden guy."
  • "The Nats have money for anything they want to do. And they have no excuse not to do it . . . The Nats can/will/should get to $65M at least in '10 payroll." Their "internal plan/hope" is "to sign at least $20M/yr in free agents this winter," which Boz assumes will go to pitchers. Then $80m payroll for 2011-2014, and "eventually, they hope that their young players become good players who must be paid more to keep 'em. That pushes you toward $100M."
  • "I don't think there is any doubt that the Nats will be more active this winter than they were last winter."
  • On Desmond, Boz says he'd "give Ian some time," but the Nats still have to try to win.
  • "One of the Nats biggest mistakes __the front office wanted to sign Dunn for four years X $10M in feb. Dunn has said that he prefered more than 2 X $10M. The owners wouldn't go for it. They're afraid of what they think of as long-term commitments. They don't (yet) understand that 4 X $10M for a 29-year-old who has hit 40 homers the last five straight years is not a commitment. It is a steal." My initial reaction was "Lerners are teh CHEEP!" Then I thought, well, you never know when those three true outcomes guys are going to fall off a cliff, and a shorter contract might make it easier to trade Dunn, but then I remembered that those are all baseball questions, and the real obstacle was the Lerners' fear of committing so much money to one player, so -- Lerners are teh CHEEP!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Are you fucking kidding me?

Interim Jim had his weekly interview with MASNsports.com, and it's a doozy. I'm surprised I didn't pass out from the repeated facepalming.

The interview discusses the September call-ups, but it's Riggleman's answers regarding Cristian Guzman and Ian Desmond that have me looking for a local anger management class.

Here's what Riggleman had to say:

Ian Desmond has probably been our best position player down there this year. He's really done a great job and he may have a future here in the very near future as one of our middle infielders, so we want to get a look at him.

Wow, sounds great. You know, Guzman has been kind of crappy at SS this season. He's been streaky, and when does hit, it's all empty batting average anyway. Dude never takes a walk. And Guzman's stumbling in the field is getting pretty embarrassing. I, too, would like to see what late bloomer Ian Desmond, formerly touted as "Nats Shortstop of the Future" can do when given regular playing time and at bats. So the Nats management and I are in total agreement, right?

Q: Speaking of Desmond, will he get the majority of playing time at shortstop?

I've talked to GM Mike Rizzo about this and he's in agreement, when you have these situations you don't want to ruffle feathers on your guys who have given you a great effort all season.

Whaaaaaaaat!? Fuck ruffling feathers. This kind of "veterans first" mentality is detrimental to the team. As FJB's Steve Biel noted in the most recent episode of Natmosphere in Your Ear, this is Frank Robinson playing Vinnie Castilla over September 2005 call-up Ryan Zimmerman all over again. Castilla, who still had another year on his contract, wasn't part of the future. Similarly, Guzman, who still has another year on his contract, isn't part of the future. Guzman's contract is a sunk cost and should have no bearing on whether he plays or not. Rizzo doesn't agree with my opinion that he fucked up by looking at Guzman as a piece of the future instead of trading him to Boston, but that arguably only hurt the 2009 roster. Playing Guzman in favor of Desmond potentially damages the 2010 roster.

This isn't like 2005, where Bowden couldn't stand up to Frank and make him play Zimmerman over Castilla. Rizzo and Riggleman are in agreement, so it looks like Rizzo is going all in on Guzman.

We've got guys like Cristian Guzman, Ryan Zimmerman, Josh Willingham and Adam Dunn; if somebody comes up from the Minor Leagues in September, you don't want to take the at bats away from guys who have played hard for you all year and just shove them aside.

One of these things is not like the other things. Nice try though. Maybe your straw man made a few readers slightly indignant.

We'll get Ian at bats but probably not to the extent of what maybe some people would like to see.

Loose translation: "Suck it, bloggers."

Riggleman will give Desmond just enough playing time to allow you to wonder what Desmond might have done if he had been given more playing time.

He's a guy that we're going to say "he's done a nice job at Triple-A, he's got all the tools to be a big league player." We'll get him some games in the big leagues, but at the same time not sit anybody who has been going out there and given us a great effort all year.

Would this be the same "great effort" that has the Nats charging towards a second 100-loss season in a row and running away with the Bryce Harper Derby? Instead of a "great effort," some might call that a "colossal failure."

Q: Do you look at this as an audition for Desmond? Is he the shortstop of the future?

I don't look at it as an audition because if that were the case, we'd just stick him out there and play him every day. I think the future of our ballclub, the determination is going to have to be made as to where we can best help ourselves in the middle of the infield.

Riggleman is right; it's not an audition when you've already decided the player isn't going to get the part.

Is Guzman our shortstop down the road or does the club acquire a second baseman to go along with Guzman or do you acquire a shortstop and talk to Guzzie about going to second? These are all questions that have to be answered, but they have to be at the same time.

Anything can happen!

Guzzie has been pretty much a .300 hitter all season, played through pain and to take time away from him, I can't audition Desmond extensively because that would be taking away too many at bats.

But none of those questions really matter because Guzman is going to get all the playing time. That philosophical bullshit before, yeah, I was just trying to confuse you.

Q: You mentioned Guzman possibly moving to second. Have you spoken to him about that and is he okay with the move?

We haven't spoken about it. It's been brought up to me by some writers during our press conferences before or after games, so it's kind of out there that that's on people's minds.

You know, the gotcha media, always makin' things up.

I can't say that we haven't given it some thought because we think about anything that will help our ball club, but Guzzie is a pretty good shortstop.

Five-man infield? We'd do it if we were convinced it would help. Four-man rotation? We'd give it a shot if we had four good starting pitchers. Hell, if you told me that we would win more games if I slathered my face with mayonnaise and rubbed two chicken bones together every time Willie Harris came up to bat, I'd do it. We would do anything, anything, if we thought it would make the team better.

Except for moving Guzman to second. No fucking way is that ever going to happen. That and playing Desmond over Guzman. That's not gonna happen either. So, anything but those two things.

He's an offensive shortstop.

Truer words were never spoken.

I'm not sure we want to do that. If we knew that what we wanted to do, maybe we would talk to him about it, but again, it's going to be determined by who is out there this winter that maybe fits for the Nationals and come in and play a middle infield position. If its second, Guzzie is our shortstop. If the only acquisition made was a shortstop, then we'd have to talk to Guzzie about moving to second.

If they con Orlando Hudson or Chone Figgins into coming to DC, then Guzman stays at shortstop. If they sign the zombified corpse of someone like Orlando Cabrera or Khalil Greene, or an overpriced Jack Wilson or Marco Scutaro, then they'll have an awkward conversation with Guzman.

Either way, Guzmania 2010!

Update: Jim Riggleman's sense of honor prevents him from playing September call-ups against contending teams because the Nats are supposed to be a spoiler. Maybe he should take a closer look at the Wild Card standings.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Is It a Trap?

In his April 14 column, Tom Boswell suggested that the Nats were considering demoting Lastings Milledge to AAA. Boz was prescient, as Milledge was demoted that same afternoon.

Are the Nats using the press again, this time to ready the fans for an offseason non-tender of Elijah Dukes?

On June 30, Ladson noted that the Nats were "looking to trade Dukes, and that may be hard to do because he comes with a lot of off-the-field baggage."

Boz had plenty of negative things to say about Dukes in his August 27 and September 3 chats, and he had some advice for Nats fans: "don't be amazed if the Nats 'non-tender' him if he finishes weakly."

In his most recent mailbag, Ladson floated one possibility for Roger Bernadina's future: "Then again, if the Nationals are not happy with Elijah Dukes, I could see Bernadina getting at chance in right field."

Speculating on the 2010 Opening Day roster, Phil Wood remarked that "it wouldn't surprise me to see the club non-tender a couple of guys, perhaps even Elijah Dukes."

While Dukes may have had some trouble showing up on time and making his child support payments, and while he may not be well-liked in the clubhouse or the front office, he appears to have become a relative model citizen compared to his "You dead, dawg" days.

Dukes is having a terrible year with both the bat and the glove, but he still bears the mark of "potential." His 2008 was as good as his 2009 is bad. For the sake of argument, let's also assume he's a giant prick who parks in the handicapped spot, always takes a penny but never leaves one, and everyone hates him. Non-tendering Elijah Dukes would be a huge mistake.

Dukes turned 25 this past June. Cot's Baseball Contracts says he had just over a year of service time at the start of the 2009 season, so Dukes won't even be eligible for arbitration for a couple of years. It seems like he's been around for a while, but to put Dukes' service time (1.083) in context, consider that Jesus Flores (1.158) and Matt Chico (2.000) both had more major league service time than Dukes coming into this season.

Non-tendering Dukes would be trading Milledge all over again, except the Nats would get nothing in return. If Bowden handed out too many second chances, Rizzo has gone too far in the opposite direction, showing no affinity for reclamation projects whatsoever, even when a longer look might be beneficial for both the player and the team in the long term. Instead of trying to figure out what's wrong with the player or the organization and trying to fix it, Rizzo prefers to move on to someone easier, even if he's older or less talented. So out goes Milledge, and maybe out goes Dukes, all because of impatience and a slavish devotion to makeup.

Dumping Milledge might have been a win-now move made by a guy looking to keep his job, but there were valid baseball reasons for bringing in a competent glove to anchor the outfield defense. The Nats would have no comparable excuse for cutting ties with Dukes. The team might point to Dukes' 2009 numbers and claim it was a baseball decision, but it would really be just another case of Rizzo playing with his chemistry set.

Update: Dukes is going to play for the Licey Tigers in the Dominican winter league. We'll see if this represents some kind of commitment to Dukes. He could play winter ball and get non-tendered anyway.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ladson's Bulging Sack: 9/3/2009

What bounty, a Bozchat and a Ladson mailbag on the same day. Where's my percocet? Some highlights:
  • Should Riggleman be the permanent manager? Yes. Why? "Because of Riggleman, I see fire in this team. I haven't seen that in a long time." Ladson is so obsessed with fire that it's a wonder he isn't a suspect in the Station Fire. But don't get too excited. Riggleman may be awesome, but the players still suck. "I think it's pretty clear that the team needs to bolster the bullpen as well as acquire starting pitching, position players who can catch the ball and more speed." Yup, should be pretty simple.
  • Some Ontarian jackass (I still think Ladson makes these questions up, kind of like Penthouse Forum) suggests bringing back Jose Vidro.
  • What's in Bernadina's future? He'll either compete for a bench spot, get traded (because a guy who can't make it as a reserve is very desirable to other teams), or -- wild card -- "if the Nationals are not happy with Elijah Dukes, I could see Bernadina getting at chance in right field." Why does Bill like Rog so much? "I would like to see Bernadina get a chance to play every day because he can catch the ball." If only baseball had a designated fielder.
  • Ladson thinks Billy Wagner would be "a great fit" for the Nats. True, now that Milledge is gone there's one less person in the clubhouse who would be interested in shanking Wagner, but does a rebuilding . . . pardon me . . . building team really need an injury-prone "closer" with a big mouth, attitude problems, and rapidly approaching AARP eligibility? If you said yes, then you might want to apply to MLB.com for a job as a reporter.

Mining the Bozchat: 9/3/2009

I know my 3-5 readers are busy and don't have time to read online chats. Especially Tom Boswell's. Sometimes, though, in between the football and the golf and the misspellings and the attempts at statistical analysis, Boz has some actual Nats content. Highlights from this week's chat:
  • Boz pooh-poohs the hubbub over Strasburg's reaction to people wanting to watching his first professional game of catch, but then reverses by saying that if Strasburg didn't "want the kleig lights, then don't sign with the Yankees or don't have Boras battling for you."
  • Boz dismisses concerns about the streaky natures of Dunn and Willingham. "Sluggers are often streaks. I might even say "usually." That's why they play 162 games . . . The Nats stole two sluggers last off-season __a near-great one in Dunn and a very good (and previously underrated one) in Willingham. A lot of thing have gone wrong this season. But that went very right."
  • Should the Nats try Zimmerman at SS? "You don't move genius." Offhanded mention of Zimmerman's throwing problems, which I hope is intended to rile Dibble.
  • Boz knocks the between-innings entertainment and suggests that this is one case where Kasten's "something for everyone" philosophy has gone too far.
  • Superficial discussion of available free agents for 2010. Really just a list of available players at each position.
  • It's too soon to tell what kind of park Nationals Park really is, but it looks like they "avoided their main fear: a cheap homer park that would damage the development of their young pitchers in future."
  • "Right now, Riggleman . . . look[s] secure in [his job] for next year," but if the Nats "truly collapse," then Riggleman " won't be back, imo." Boz's guess: " It's going to get early-season ugly for the Nats." Upside: Harper time.
  • Questioner wonders whether Boz worries that he might "lose it" as a writer. Boz tries to make the case that writers get better over time. I'm currently reading How Life Imitates the World Series. It's a collection of late 1970s-early 1980s long-form pieces and some shorter columns. Aside from a few digressions, Boz hits pretty much what you'd expect from that time period -- 1978 Yankees-Red Sox playoff, Reggie Jackson, Earl Weaver, "where are they now" for the 1971 Senators, Frank Howard, Pete Rose and the 1980 World Series, etc. The merits of the book aside (it's pretty good, even if Boz is trying a little too hard to be Roger Angell or Roger Kahn), to compare it to Boz's recent work and say that he's getting better . . . I'd rather he took the time to do a long-form magazine piece than keep churning out logic-challenged "same topic, different year" columns (golf majors; Redskins; Tiger; we have baseball now; whaddya know, the Caps are good).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sweeping Observations

Some crap I thought up after the St. Louis series:

1. Rizzo's pitch-to-contact ground ball philosophy works, sometimes. The pitchers are indeed pitching to contact, but please ignore the poor middle infield defense and the inconvenient fact that some of that contact lands over the outfield walls. The Nats don't so much have a pitch-to-contact rotation as they have a rotation that gives up hits. While the Nats' starters have a GB/FB ratio of 1.24 (T7th best in the NL), those starters also have an even 5.00 ERA (3rd worst in the NL). Add in peripheral stats like a .304 BABIP, a 4.88 FIP, a K/9 of 5.20 (worst in the NL), a K/BB of 1.56, and a HR/9 ratio of 1.20, and there's only so much that can be blamed on bad defense.

Groundball pitchers with a low K/9 are iffy propositions. The historical data tends to show that if a pitcher ends up with a lot of ground balls, it's best to have a lot of strikeouts, too.

Luckily, the low strikeout rate should be worked out in next season's rotation. A very rough draft of the rotation in the middle of 2010 would have Strasburg, Olsen, Mock, Lannan, and a free agent. You've got a classic power pitcher, a two guys with decent strikeout rates, a soft-tosser who may or may not be sinking to his level, and a wild card (worst-case scenario: Livan). Add Zimmermann back in 2011 and you've got a staff that's going to either get batters to strike out or beat it into the ground (when Olsen and Zimmermann aren't giving up home runs).

2. Dukes looked pretty good in RF, maybe the best he's looked all year. Has he been reading the Bozchat?

3. Jorge Sosa is the king of suck and I don't understand why he's still on the team. Every time someone says something about how Riggleman's doing a great job and he deserves to be the permanent manager, I'm going to obnoxiously remind them that Riggleman keeps putting Jorge Sosa into ballgames.

Bergmann has also shown he doesn't deserve a roster spot. Clippard is surprising me.

4. After a truly crappy April-July, Garrett Mock went on a tear in August. Is it real? Mock's August numbers aren't that far out of line with what he did in AAA in 2008-9, and I penciled him into the 2010 rotation, but I need to see consistency. Right now, all Mock's August means is that I no longer moan in agony when I see him on the mound.

5. How is it that Khalil Greene is so shitty yet he still manages to hammer the Nats? Maybe the Nats need to sign Greene just to keep him from hitting against them.

6. Ray Knight knows things about baseball and is able to communicate them in a fairly effective manner despite not being the most articulate person ever to sit behind a microphone. Rob Dibble makes my ears and brain bleed.

Last season, when Knight would fill in for Sutton, I would do nothing but bitch until Sutton returned. Ha! Little did I know that Dibble would make Knight sound like a Rhodes Scholar.

What's the difference between Knight and Dibble? Perspective. Dibble is a real-life Kenny Powers, viewing every baseball interaction through the tiny pinhole of his years as a late-innings reliever with a fastball in the high 90s and a penchant for throwing at people. What do the viewers get? Meaningless cliches like "Let them beat you with your best stuff," endless whining about hitters standing too close to the plate, and suggestions that the pitcher's best move might just be to throw at the batter.

As a former position player and manger, Knight has a broader perspective on the game. Unlike Dibble's commentary, which it would be charity to call analysis, Knight's observations actually add to the game. Dibble knows nothing about hitting. Sure, he can give you a rudimentary breakdown of a batter's swing, but more often than not he does nothing more than coo over the super-neat qualities of MASN's X-Mo camera. He's basically a lousy sports talk radio host masquerading as a color commentator.

And it's not just because Dibble was a pitcher. Sutton made real contributions to the broadcast. SNY's Ron Darling and ESPN's Orel Hershiser add to their broadcasts. But they were all starters. Maybe the relief pitcher's role is too one-dimensional to lend itself to the ability to analyze all aspects of the game. Jeff Brantley is pretty terrible. And so is Dibble.

(For example, here's what Dibble said about Livan last night as part of the "PNC Bank Scouting Report" segment. "'I Shall Return.' Like MacArthur said, and Livan Hernandez is back. He was the student years ago, here maybe, in Washington. Now he's a teacher of these young pitchers." That's right, please pay no attention to Livan's Cuban seasons or the six seasons he played in MLB before being traded to Montreal or the 19 1/3 World Series innings he pitched for Florida and San Francisco. I'm sure it didn't really click for Livan until he walked onto the patchy brown grass of RFK in 2005. And this was something Dibble wrote in advance.)


The role of baseball will be played this evening by Marshall McLuhan. You can figure out who Dibble is.


Too Loose?

Acta had a few strict rules, rules that he seemingly took right out of his dog-eared copy of Mind Game: no stealing and no bunting by position players. Hell, no bunting for base hits, either (I'm looking at you, Zimmerman).

Riggleman, however, seems to be taking a looser approach to things. Morgan generally had the green light to steal, despite admitting that he was still learning to read the pitcher instead of simply trying to outrun the ball. Nyjer's overaggressive baserunning was a problem in Pittsburgh, too. And Morgan's reluctance to stop sliding head-first into bases directly contributed to his broken hand.

Last night, Livan decided to try a squeeze play with the bases loaded and one out. Result? 1-2-3 double play to end the inning.

Riggleman is all about the accountability, which is great, but is he letting his players have too much freedom of thought at the plate and on the basepaths? Maybe his attempts to manufacture runs are giving the players ideas?

(Yeah, I know it's just two unrelated anecdotes.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mining the Bozchat: 8/27/2009

I know my 3-5 readers are busy and don't have time to read online chats. Especially Tom Boswell's. Sometimes, though, in between the football and the golf and the misspellings and the attempts at statistical analysis, Boz has some actual Nats content.
  • Boz begins with a statistical paean to ¡Livan! Boz says Livo is basically the same crappy pitcher he was when the Nats traded him in 2006, but he's still "very useful." Boz predicts that Livo has 2-3 more "good Livan-type years in him," defined as "31/33 starts, 185/200 innings, and 11-11 record with a 4.90/5.30 ERA." Boz argues that since crappy Livan is better than any of the other non-Lannan crap the Nats have put in the rotation this season, the Nats "should be patient with him and consider him very seriously for next season . . . unless, with Zimmermann hurt and Strasburg unproven, they think they have five starters who are better than 11-11, never miss a start, have 17 QS in 33 games and 11 games with 7IP or more." Junkballer Livo can also teach junkballers Martis, Stammen, and Martin how to be successful. Bonus: Livan wants to come back next season.
  • "By adding Livan [Rizzo] cerainly increases Rig's chances of having a credible finish. And 18-20 so far is very strong."
  • Which free agents should the Nats pursue in the offseason? Rafael Soriano and Livan. Boz thinks Lackey will be too pricey and that they missed their window last offseason for pursuing Wolf, Garland, and Looper.
  • "Despite his recent RBI run, Dukes looks like he isn't even a consistently good RF. Dropped a ball carelessly last night and misplayed another over his head. Poor base runner. Elijah needs a good September. verybody wants him to succeed, but don't be amazed if the Nats 'non-tender' him if he finishes weakly. The Nats need all the defense they can get with Dunn and Willingham both on the D. Look at Dukes 'hit distribution' on MLB.com. It's awful. he has only two hits all season to the right of the 370-foot sign in right. He tries to pull everything. Never goes to RF. Doesn't even hit grounders to the right side. All his fly balls to RF are when he's late on fastballs. As I've said, he has Dan Uggla-like potential as a slugger, but he has to become a better student of the game and pretty quickly."
  • Boz states that Bobby V. "is NOT a candidate in the Nats eyes" because he's a "Bowden guy." So, ignore what this guy says about the Nats contacting Valentine. Boz's personal choice is Don Mattingly. Why does Boz love Mattingly so much? He saw the first baseman take infield at shortstop once.
  • Boz again trumpets the idea that the Nats will move Guzman to second base and bring in a shortstop with plus defense. Orlando Hudson is too expensive and besides, "you can create a Hudson by moving Guzman . . . good-field-no-hit SS's fall out of trees and are cheap."
  • "I think the Nats can afford a $70-$80M payroll now. But they have to see some evidence of stronger attendance before they can go higher . . . they need 75 wins and an obvious 'future' before they'll get people back in larger numbers."
  • "I wouldn't touch a high school player with a No. 1 overall pick if there were any remotely-comparable college player . . .In any Harper-or-somebody-else choice next year, I'd take somebody else." So, don't take Strasburg because pitchers picked #1 overall have a poor track record, and don't take a high school player #1 overall if there's a better college player. What other draft rules does Boz have? I guess "take the best available player on the board" isn't one of them.
  • Burnett is the only reliever guaranteed to be on the 2010 roster. Clippard, MacDougal, and Bergmann are all auditioning.
  • "Because Wright got hurt early, and because Zimmerman is as good, and maybe more spectacular (and starts more DPs), I'd go with Zummerman" for the Gold Glove.
  • Ted Lerner shook hands with Boz at the Strasburg intro presser.
Ask Boswell: Nats, Orioles, Redskins and More

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

If the Nationals' PR people and CAA don't get off their asses Ryan Zimmerman is going to be denied the Gold Glove yet again

Kevin Kouzmanoff leads NL third basemen in fielding percentage and has committed the fewest errors. Some San Diego media outlets are starting to make the case that Kouzmanoff should get the Gold Glove. Buster Olney picked up the thread this morning in his blog, trying to make the case that Kouzmanoff is having some sort of historic season:
But in this, his third full year as a major league third baseman, Kouzmanoff has a chance to set a record for fielding percentage. As the Padres begin a series in Atlanta tonight, Kouzmanoff has just three errors for the season, for a .989 fielding percentage in 274 chances. Check out the list of the top NL fielding percentages of all time for a third baseman:
  1. Kevin Kouzmanoff (.989 in 2009)
  2. Vinny Castilla (.987 in 2004)
  3. Gary Gaetti (.983 in 1998)
  4. Mike Lowell (.983 in 2005)

No National League third baseman has committed fewer than six errors in a season in which they had at least 300 total chances.

This is where I would normally rant that fielding percentage is a dinosaur stat and that Zimmerman tops the NL third base leaderboards for whizbang stats like UZR and plus/minus by a mile.

But none of that matters. The only thing that matters is the opinions of the managers and coaches who vote for the awards. The Gold Glove is a reputation game. The fielder with the best chance of winning at a given position is the same guy who won it the year before. If not him, then just look for a player on one of the coasts who hits and doesn't embarrass himself in the field.

I'm guessing David Wright isn't going to win the Gold Glove this year. But that doesn't mean it's going to fall into Zimmerman's lap. He may have a reputation as a good fielder and he may be hitting this year, but Zimmerman still plays on a backwater last-place team.

The Nationals' media relations staff needs to work the press and the voters to create buzz that Ryan Zimmerman winning the Gold Glove is almost a fait accompli. One of those pro-Kouzmanoff articles provides a pretty good template for how it's done: push your story on local media, ESPN, MLB Network, national baseball writers, and the voters. Maybe even send out a "For Your Consideration" DVD like movie studios do for Oscar voters.

Not all the responsibility for making Zimmerman's case lies with the team. His agent, Brodie Van Wagenen at CAA, also needs to get out there and sell his client. And of course, Zimmerman needs to keep making highlight-reel plays.

As things stand today, Zimmerman should be the consensus Gold Glover and Kouzmanoff shouldn't even be in the conversation. And if you think I'm a just a biased Nats fan, take it from these guys.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Ladson's Bulging Sack: 8/23/2009

Surprisingly, this week's Ask a Professional "Reporter" wasn't as bulging-vein-inducing as usual. The only interesting bit was a resident of the Nutmeg State asking R.B. whether Milledge/Hanrahan for Morgan/Plush/Burnett was the best trade of the season. Ladson:
I'll take it further than that. It's the best trade since I've covered this organization. Morgan will solidify the center-field spot for years to come. And let's not forget left-hander Sean Burnett. I'll take him any day over the relievers general manager Mike Rizzo got rid of this season.
Harper at Oleanders and Morning Glories looks at this recent deal in the context of most of the Nats' other major trades, but it's curious that he neglects to even mention two obvious candidates for best Nats trade -- the July 2006 deal that sent Royce Clayton, Gary Majewski, Bill Bray, Brendan Harris, and Daryl Thompson to Cincinnati for Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez, and Ryan Wagner and the December 2006 deal that sent Jose Vidro and $4m to Seattle for Chris Snelling and Emilano Fruto.

Let's take the easy one first. By the time of the trade, Vidro was in serious offensive and defensive decline. The scene pictured at the top of this blog was a regular occurrence, and the phrase "past a diving Vidro" was the unofficial catchphrase for the Nats' 2006 season. With Vidro due another $16m for the 2007-8 season, the Nats had a serious problem on their hands.

Give Jim Bowden props for this one; he fleeced Bill Bavasi. Getting out from under that contract would have been victory enough, but Bavasi actually sent something substantial in return. While oft-injured, Chris Snelling was a legitimate hitting prospect and a stathead's wet dream. Fruto was a chunky reliever with a fastball in the low- to mid-90s and a plus change.

Fruto never pitched an inning in DC. Snelling was traded to Oakland in May 2007 for Ryan Langerhans (who was traded earlier this year to Seattle for Mike Morse, thus completing the circle). Those facts are almost irrelevant in judging this trade. Bowden took a black hole and turned it into payroll and roster flexibility. He was lucky there was a Bill Bavasi out there to be fleeced.

Bowden was also lucky there was a Wayne Krivsky out there to be fleeced.

The trade that brought Kearns and Lopez to DC remains controversial. What looked at the time like a clear win for the Nats is a little more obscure three years later. Kearns' contract extension was the trigger for him to turn into a pumpkin. FLop's bad offense and defense, and even worse attitude, experienced a dramatic turnaround seemingly the instant he crossed the DC border. Wagner retired after surgery and a brief rehab attempt.

The trade doesn't look much better from the perspective of the Reds, who missed the playoffs despite acquiring Royce Clayton. Majewski is an Iron Pig. Clayton is out of baseball. Bray's in Louisville. Harris bounced from the Reds to the Rays to the Twins, where he is inexplicably taking up a spot on the 25-man. Thompson had an unsuccessful cup of coffee in 2008 and is now in the GCL.

While Kearns and Lopez put up respectable numbers for the remainder of 2006, it's remarkable how quickly they both fell off the table. Still, this deal remains a win for the Nats.

At the time of the trade, the 26-year-old Kearns was in having his best offensive season and playing a stellar right field. Lopez, also 26, was coming off a 2005 season that saw his power surge rewarded with an All-Star selection, although signs of trouble were already present in 2006. This wasn't a trade for projectable prospects where you have to wait around and hope they develop. Kearns and Lopez were known quantities. They were expected to be Cincinnati mainstays until Krivsky traded them. Bowden expected them to be DC mainstays, too.

Kearns and Lopez both flamed out, the Reds missed the playoffs and Krivsky got canned, so the trade is at best a push, right? No, the Nats won the trade even though Kearns and Lopez ended up being zeroes.

When you factor in the woeful DC tenures of Kearns and Lopez, the trade looks pretty similar to the Vidro deal, with Clayton/Majewski playing the role of Vidro. (The Kearns contract extension was a separate transaction and shouldn't be considered when evaluating this trade.)

Bowden took crap (Clayton), easily replaceable assets (Majewski, Harris), and two mid-level prospects (Bray, Thompson) and turned them into two huge pieces of the (in-)famous Plan. Put another way, Bowden took players that either weren't going to be on the next good Nats team or were going to have an easily replaceable role and traded them for two good young players under team control for the next several years.

Granted, Clayton wasn't nearly the roster and contract problem Vidro was, but he was still literally a spare part, brought in to replace the sore-shouldered Cristian Guzman.

The Nats didn't miss any of the players they sent to Cincinnati. At worst, Bowden took a mixed lot of pieces and gambled that two players who were generally perceived to be major-league regulars would continue to be so.

Maybe it didn't pan out the way we all thought it would, but it remains a trade worth making.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Green Shoots

It's no secret that I wanted Hoyer. But that doesn't mean I can't learn to love Rizzo if he makes the right moves, or even if he makes the wrong moves for the right reasons. Hosannas aside, there were a few things said at Thursday's Rizzo press conference that I found interesting, or that at least set off my bullshit detector.

Questioned whether he uses statistical analysis to make decisions, the longtime scout claimed to be a baseball hybrid, saying that the Nats do a lot of "sabermetric calculations." Of course, leave it to proud papa Stan to oversell Rizzo's stathead cred:

"Oh, you've got to hear Mike talk about VORP and WHIP," Kasten interjected. "No, he's really getting good at that stuff."

"I'll throw WHIP at you," Rizzo said. "There's no doubt."

We already know Stan has his Mod Squad of stat dweebs. There's no need to try to convince me that Rizzo has changed his home page to FanGraphs and spent the last few months holed up with old Abstracts and a dogeared copy of Moneyball. Kasten could have just left it at this:
"As you know, [Rizzo's] background is eyeball scouting, which I continue to think is the most important thing. But it's 60-40. Not 90-10."
As long as Rizzo uses stats better than this guy, I'll pencil it in as a qualified win.

We also got the clearest statement yet of how Rizzo wants to shape the team and what his priorities are:
"In the immortal words of Stan Kasten, pitching, pitching and pitching. We understand that we have a very talented young starting rotation. That said, we need an anchor at the top of it. So some kind of veteran starting pitcher would help. You know, my philosophy is speed and defense, especially up the middle, and have your big mashers on the corners. So we're going to take that into account. Of course we have to stabilize a resurgent bullpen, but a bullpen that has not performed up to standards. That's another priority."
Ah, there's the bullshit artist who tried to sell me on the idea that the Nats have "seven or eight really good young starting pitching prospects." I was uncomfortable not being lied to.

Rizzo's list of priorities is notable only for how little it says. Everyone wants that veteran starter to anchor the rotation, good defense up the middle, power at the corners, and a shutdown pen. Rizzo describes the same basic philosophy that someone might use to assemble a Strat-O-Matic team.

Rizzo may want the ideal team, but what he has is a lot of doubts surrounding the rotation, second base, the bullpen, the health of Flores, and the futures of Dunn, Willingham, and Dukes. Setting the imagined distinction between building and rebuilding aside, we're still trying to read between the lines. We won't be able to tell this season whether Rizzo really thinks the core components are good enough for him to go all out in picking up complementary pieces for a 2011 run, or if, by dealing players like Guzman and Willingham should the opportunities arise, he shows that he thinks the team isn't quite there yet. With Guzman still stumbling around at shortstop in DC instead of Boston, I suspect Rizzo thinks the former.

Look at the different decisions Rizzo faces just concerning first base. The 30-year-old Willingham may be under team control through 2011, but Dunn is a free agent at the end of next season. If Rizzo wants to go for it in 2011, Chris Marrero might be key. If Marrero looks like he'll be ready for 2011, Dunn likely gets traded next season (unless Rizzo wants the agita of extending him and watching him try to play left field again). If Marrero isn't ready, then the Nats have to try to resign Dunn, move Willingham (or some other internal stopgap) to first base, find a trading partner, or hit up the free agent market for a first baseman.

If Rizzo doesn't think the team will be in a position to go for it in 2011, a player with Dunn's power probably gets traded regardless of how Marrero is doing.

No GM gets to put together his ideal team (well, maybe Cashman), so how flexible is Rizzo? The Lerners have shown they're willing to commit serious money to a marquee free agent like Teixeira, but what will Rizzo do when they say no? Will he spin his wheels trying to assemble his ideal team or will he be flexible in trying different ways to win?

I didn't expect Rizzo to get into this level of detail at a press conference that was intended to be more of a triumph than a genuine opportunity to learn anything substantial about the direction of the team, but it would have been nice for Rizzo to have given a hint.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The task ahead

Looks like Rizzo has some work ahead of him. Gammons:
Rizzo has a long way to go to build the organization. The Nationals have only four professional scouts, the front office is bare, they must get a Latin American program up and running and they need to work on the development group.

It's clear the way the Lerners handled the Rizzo hiring that they are fair and committed to allowing the reconstruction of the organization. They want Zimmerman and Morgan and Strasburg to be the faces of the franchise.

If the Lerners are only now committed to reconstructing the organization, what have they been doing since 2006?

Update: I was trying to figure out how many full-time scouts a MLB team usually carries. The best information I could find was for the Twins, which may be a scout-heavy team. As of the 2008 season, the Twins had 13 full-time domestic scouts (advance, minor league, and amateur). There would also be additional part-time scouts, foreign scouts, etc.

I think names of scouts are listed in the team media guides. It wouldn't be that hard to compare the Nats as of February 2009 with the other teams.

Mining the Bozchat: 8/20/2009

I know my three readers (Hi wife and two people in Australia) are busy and don't have time to read online chats. Especially Tom Boswell's. Sometimes, though, in between the football and the golf and the misspellings and the attempts at statistical analysis (Total Average FTW!), Boz has some actual Nats content. Introducing what I hope will be a regular feature here at Past a Diving Vidro -- Mining the Bozchat.
  • The Nats screwed up the 2009 offseason by not signing a veteran starter on the cheap. Boz says the Nats "want a 10-10 type pitcher at the least, like the Wolf, Garland, Looper class of '09 that they blew." Boz thinks that Zimmermann being out until 2011 will tempt the Nats to go for a better class of starter. "Kasten really wants to win -- in the sense of get to .500, maybe surprise people with a wildcard run -- sooner than expected." Kasten's anxious, but so would anyone at the head of an underperforming organization with a thin customer base that so far has shown little sign of loyalty. Boz says Kasten "always wears rose-colored galasses. People who are 'builders' almost always do." Boz thinks that "there will be a push to get a real mid-rotation guy, not just an innings eater for a year or two." Looking at the list of prospective 2010 free agents, I'm not sure I see any options better than Wolf or Garland. Maybe Washburn, who should come cheap now that the GM and Washburn's agent are so close. And stay the hell away from Looper. Only Dave Duncan knows how to make him work as a starter.
  • Regarding Acta, Boz says Manny "looked zoned-out beaten to fans, though not to his players," who "needed a change for change sake." Boz compliments Riggleman's managerial skills, particularly his quick hook and propensity for pitching matchups, noting that "Manny wanted to build long-term confidence, not yank'em, save the pen," while "Rig wants to win with what he's got."
  • Is Kasten looking for a way out? Boz: "If Kasten gets the kind of support ($$) from ownership in free agency this winter, I think he's around for awhile. Stan looks like a man who wants to stick around and see the vindication of his plan. He really likes to be proven right . . . But if this off-seasoin is one long "no, no, no," when he walks up those golden stairs for deal approval, then that will probably change."
  • Boz thinks the Nats should try to extend Dunn as soon as possible. Dunn is "already better (less bad) than I thought he'd be at 1st base. His big target seems to help Zimmerman overcome his throwing prolems (fears)" Memo to Boz: Ixnay on the armway angleway around Dibble.
  • "The Nats have their 3-4-5 hitters for '10 and '11. Zim is signed for five years. Willingham is under club control through '11. And I'll be amazed if they don't extend Dunn."
  • In negotiating with Strasburg, the Nats operated under an assumption that they could get him for $12m-14m "because, from all their back-channel sources, he wanted to play so badly and wasn't a money-is-everything." The Nats "gambled that he wasn't a 'Boras foot-soldier.'"
  • Both Tony Gwynn and Davey Johnson are very high on Strasburg (big surprise).
  • Boz thinks Guzman will move to 2B next season and a defense-first SS will be brought in and bat eighth. Guzman "has another 3-4-5 years in him as a .315-hitting second baseman." Boz hasn't seen Desmond enough to have an opinion on him.
  • Dukes needs to show some power to offset the fact that he "still looks like a .240-.250 hitter with lots of K's." Notes that Dukes lolligagged on a play last night. "He's not nearly good enough to play at less than 100% and survive with the Nats. Especially with Rizzo who just won't put up with it. He'll be high-character every minute he's on the field or he'll be gone before next year."
  • "It's nice to have young mediocre starters stock-piled now. None of them impress me much."
  • Since the Nats will have to compete on the open market for Aroldis Chapman, Boz assumes "they have absolutely no chance whatsoever" I take that to mean those cheapies won't bid high enough to have a chance at landing Chapman. What lesson has the team learned from the discount prices for Willingham, Dunn, Zimmerman, and Strasburg? "'Spend, but with restraint.' That's better than 'Spend? What's that?'"
  • TB lurves TP.
  • Who will manage the Nats in 2010? "If the team continues to play well -- and survives the N.L. East showdowns in September -- it will be Riggleman."
  • "I'm going to be back in the season-ticket line."
  • What's the team's record in 2010? "Lets say Strasburg (24 starts), Lannan (33) and Free Agent X (33) make 90 starts and the team is 47-43 in those games. That's an aggressive but not crazy assumption. Then say they are a .425 team in the other 70 games (31 wins).
    They go 78-84."
Ask Boswell: Stephen Strasburg, GM Mike Rizzo, Nats, Redskins and More

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Enough already

The latest report from Nationals.com dictaphone Bill Ladson says that Rizzo will be named permanent GM at a press conference Thursday. Mark Zuckerman confirms the report.

I've said my piece about Rizzo, but I'm willing to withhold judgment and see what Rizzo can do when he's in the driver's seat for real. I hope that he gets carte blanche to remake the front office, overhaul the player development system, and check off the other items on the list. Assuming this latest report is accurate, it looks like cursing at Boras really paid off for Rizzo (even though Strasburg wanting to just get it over with and play was an important fact and maybe a different negotiator also reaches the same result).

Also, I'm tired of hearing rumors about who's going to be the next GM. The stories about the Nats' search for a permanent GM gave me bad flashbacks to all the speculation last summer about who Obama was going to tap for VP. After the Bowden drama and the Strasburg drama, I want the Nats for once to be a quiet team that doesn't make news out of the front office and stays out of late night comedy monologues.

DiRizzo?

Phil Wood dropped an interesting aside into this morning's bellyache about why Rizzo deserves to keep the GM job on a permanent basis:
The only way something like this is palatable at all is if DiPoto gets the job and reports to Rizzo. And that's not out of the question.

I was told by a Nats' official at spring training following the departure of Jim Bowden that, once the season was over, there would be some restructuring of the front office. Titles and responsibilities would change, as would some of the faces; some of the Cincinnati guys brought in by JimBo had contracts that would expire after the '09 season and would receive lovely parting gifts, including the home version of the game.

I'm not sure I understand why Dipoto would leave the Diamondbacks if he would still have to answer to Rizzo, but there's a lot of conflicting information. Edes' sources say Dipoto is the guy, Knobler's sources say Dipoto's ready to accept, Chico's Nats sources say Edes and Knobler are wrong, Ed Price says a decision is on hold, and then Wood comes in with something out of left field.

Dipoto is either the new GM or he's not, he's either staying in Arizona or he's not -- the conflicting reports can't all be right. Or can they?

Let's engage in some crazy baseless speculation.

Assuming I'm correct in thinking Dipoto wouldn't leave Arizona just to be Rizzo's deputy, what if the Nats are planning some sort of front office shuffle that ends up with baseball operations looking something like this:



The closest recent analogue to DiRizzo would be how the briefly Theo-less Boston front office looked: Jed Hoyer (Co-GM, Major League Transactions) and Ben Cherington (Co-GM, Player Development) reporting to team president Larry Lucchino, with input from special assistants Bill Lajoie and Craig Shipley. That arrangement didn't last long before Theo came back. The Orioles also tried co-GMs from 2003-2005, with few positive results.

What would this mean on a practical level? The lines of authority likely wouldn't be as rigid as my speculative org chart indicates; there would probably be lots of collaboration and crossover. Basically, Rizzo would be the guy who negotiates contracts and works on major league trades and Dipoto would be the guy who decides when Chris Marrero is ready for AAA and works on an organization-wide system of player development ("Nationals Way"). Rizzo and Dipoto get to overhaul their areas of authority and bring in their own people for their respective sides of the front office. The Nats get to have Dipoto's player development and evaluation talents without losing Rizzo's scouting and negotiation skills. And sitting above it all like a proud papa -- Stan Kasten.

DiRizzo benefits Kasten in several ways. First, Kasten finally has people he trusts running baseball operations, leaving him free to focus on the business side. Second, all final baseball decisions would be approved by Kasten. As president, Kasten already has nominal final say on decisions, but with DiRizzo, Kasten would be the one with the power to break a tie. Third, a traditional GM could once again capture the Lerners' ears and become an independent power source contrary to Kasten. DiRizzo minimizes the chances of that happening. Fourth, with two subservient co-GMs jockeying for attention and power, Kasten gets to be the one behind the scenes shaping the organizational philosophy.

DiRizzo comes with its own set of risks. The organization may suffer for lack of a single strong voice. Like Beattie and Flanagan in Baltimore, Rizzo and Dipoto may not get along when they actually have to work together. The bureaucratic shenanigans and competition may mean nothing gets done, especially if you throw what Bob Nightengale said into the mix. Kasten may make bad decisions when DiRizzo presents him with competing alternatives. Atlanta's mid-'90s success was more a lot more Schuerholz's doing than it was Kasten's.

Why would Rizzo or Dipoto agree to this sort of situation? Would this mean the Lerners are stepping back a little bit and letting Kasten be Kasten? Would this be good for the team? I don't know the answers to these questions. All I know is that I can see how DiRizzo might make Kasten smile. I know it makes this guy smile.

Reading the entrails

Who's going to have a press conference first, Stephen Strasburg or the new GM of the Nats?

All indications are that Rizzo is going to be replaced, and soon. In the wake of the successful Strasburg negotiations, Kasten has been extremely non-committal when speaking about Rizzo to the media. Gordon Edes is out with another report saying Dipoto is the winner, and Danny Knobler reports that Dipoto plans to accept the job. Perhaps the most interesting thing I saw was this tweet from Bob Nightengale last night:
My interpretation of all this was that Stan really wants to recreate the 1990s Braves, with Dipoto as the new Schuerholz and a strong manager a la Bobby Cox.

But then Mark Zuckerman said something that hearkened back to an earlier report that Kasten prefers Rizzo, while the Lerners want to make a splash by bringing in an outside candidate:
There's another factor in all this, one that was pointed out to me earlier this evening by someone who knows the Nats front office well. The GM decision can't really be made until Stan Kasten has decided whether to remain as team president or not. There haven't been many rumors lately about Kasten's potential departure, and certainly there's reason to believe he's going to stick around here a while longer. And if he stays, this person believes, Rizzo likely gets the GM job. If Kasten were to leave, though, then whoever the new team president was would have to have the final say on a GM.
So, we're back to our old trope about who's really running the Nats and the conflict between Kasten and the Lerners.

Both could be true: Kasten could be trying to recreate the Braves while fighting the Lerners every step of the way. Is hiring Dipoto a sign that Kasten is winning or losing? Yes. No. Who knows? In the meantime, the front office staff is waiting for the other shoe to drop and bloggers and the media are clamoring that to ditch Rizzo right after signing Strasburg would be another tone deaf, classless move by the Lerners.

You know what? They're not entirely wrong. Again and again, the Lerners have shown they don't exactly possess a deft touch when it comes to the media or public relations. There shouldn't have even been such a public GM search during the season. After the Lerners got it through their skulls that Bowden was radioactive, the Lerners and Kasten should have presented a united front and stated very clearly that Rizzo was going to remain as acting general manager for the entire 2009 season, that the team would announce a decision on a permanent GM after the season, and refused to comment on anything else. There would have been some heat on Rizzo and the rest of the front office staff, but nothing like the swirling speculation there is now. And Kasten and the Lerners could have taken the time to interview other candidates while deciding whether their forced marriage with Rizzo was for the best.

Since that's not the route they chose, there's another consideration. At this point, anything that might delay the needed overhauls of the player development system and front office should be avoided.

The PR hit the team will take -- and it will be significant, at least in the local media -- will be worth it if it allows Dipoto to start making changes immediately. Although many of the new people one assumes Dipoto would like to bring in are under contract to other teams through the end of this season, there's still a lot for him to do. Giving Dipoto the job now allows him to spend the rest of the season discovering just what he's gotten himself into, learning what's broken, and thinking about how to fix it. Edes also points out that this is when most teams are preparing their 2010 budgets. Bringing Dipoto in now gives him a say in the process, letting him prioritize what he thinks is important, rather than having to work with someone else's budget. Hopefully, Dipoto will also spend the rest of the year conceiving an organizational plan and figuring out just what the "Nationals Way" is going to be."

Dipoto would be the Lerners' first real independent hire, and as such represents a dramatic step for the Nationals. Kasten was forced on the Lerners by Selig. Bowden was a legacy of MLB's ownership of the Expos. Rizzo was a part of the Bowden regime and is only in the mix because of Smileygate. Sure, there was some speculation way back in 2006 that Rizzo was brought in to be GM after Bowden, but that talk died down after Bowden kept parking his car in the spot reserved for the GM. A new GM, whether it's Dipoto or someone else, secure in his employment, will hopefully have the vision and authority to take The Plan® from a joke to, well, an actual plan.

The timing of the hire may make it look like Rizzo is getting the Moe Greene treatment, but it's for the good of the team.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

December 26

What just happened and where are the Nationals now? Here's a good summary of the last few days for the Nats:



Even the most curmudgeonly Nats fans are rejoicing (and the most bipolar Nats fans are clearly in a manic phase). After all the rumors that Boras was asking Matsuzaka money for Strasburg, the two sides settled on a $15.1m contract that appears to be win-win. Perennial Nats-bashers can't deny that the team has taken a huge step towards respectability by signing Strasburg.

It's unclear if Strasburg will make a token appearance at Nationals Park this season. Boras indicates that a token appearance is unlikely, and says that Strasburg might pitch this year in either the instructional league or the Arizona Fall League. The team definitely needs to protect its investment and not rush Strasburg to the big leagues before he's ready just for the sake of generating buzz.

Be happy, Nats fans, but don't be too happy. There's still a long way to go before they hang a pennant.

While having a formidable one-two punch at the top of the rotation can obscure enough faults to put a team close enough to the playoffs that it's willing to trade a top prospect for Freddy Sanchez, slotting Strasburg behind Lannan on the pitching depth chart doesn't automatically make the Nats 2010 -- or even 2011 -- contenders. I'll run the risk of minimizing Strasburg's impact by saying that signing him does little to heal the Nats roster woes. A true ace is valuable, but not as valuable as a position player like Bryce Harper.

The Nats shouldn't let the addition of a pitcher they hope becomes the next Walter Johnson distract them from fixing the roster. They still need three more starters, a second baseman, etc., etc.

Similarly, adding Strasburg to the rotation doesn't mean The Plan is working. Strasburg isn't so much Jordan Zimmermann as he is Ryan Zimmerman, a sui generis player who will probably glide onto the 25-man roster after getting a few token mosquito bites on City Island. Like Zimmerman, Strasburg likely will not be a reflection of the Nationals' player development system.

Another item in Eeyore's list of Things Not to be Excited About Despite the Fact That OMG! the Nats Signed Strasburg: it's more likely now than it was on Monday afternoon that Rizzo will be kept on as permanent GM. Ted Lerner having a sit down with Strasburg may have tipped things in the Nats' favor, but Rizzo was the one running point on the negotiations with Boras. Harlan mentions "a shouting match between [Rizzo] and Boras filled with words that always get you ejected" occurring in the last few days of negotiations. Kasten's reaction: he "simply listened to that one in awe: 'A classic confrontation. I felt like a proud papa.'" If I'm Mike Rizzo reading that quote over breakfast, I'm feeling pretty good about my chances of not having to look for another job. Not to mention the fact that every single WaPo, WashTimes, and MASN pundit seemed to think Rizzo deserved the job even before Strasburg was signed just for making the bullpen a little less hemorrhagic.

Oh, and the Nats failed to sign their fifth round pick. Bet that's going to get glossed over in the glee over signing Strasburg.

Don't worry, even with all that other stuff there's still a big-picture reason to be happy. Like the offseason contract offer to Teixeira and the deal made with Dunn, signing Strasburg is another indication that ownership is willing to spend when they feel it's necessary. Getting Strasburg is a hopeful sign that Ted Lerner wants to make the team better and avoid having the name Lerner be synonymous with Glass and McClatchy.1

1 Sign Aroldis Chapman!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Why not Rizzo?

Why hire a new GM at all? Why not just make Mike Rizzo the permanent GM? He's done a good job, right? Brought in Beimel. Traded Beimel. Traded Johnson. Scraped together a passable bullpen (insert your own scare quotes). And look at the results of his biggest trade -- the Nats are 19-21 since Nyjer Morgan's July 3 Nationals debut. With all the holes in the Nats roster, that's got to be considered some kind of argument for keeping Rizzo (and Riggleman) on, right? Surely, Rizzo deserves a shot at the job without the interim tag hanging over his head, right?

Not really.

Here are my problems with Rizzo:

1. Rizzo overemphasizes makeup when evaluating players

Watching Debbi Taylor interview Rizzo last year about the trade for Emilio Bonifacio, I was a little surprised that instead of puffing about Bonifacio's tools or potential, Rizzo spent almost the entire interview talking up what a high-energy guy Bonifacio was and how Bonifacio would be a great guy to have around the clubhouse. Maybe Emilio will pick you up at the airport, but he sucks as a baseball player.

When Rizzo flipped apparent war criminal Lastings Milledge for Nyjer Morgan, Nats fans were inundated with reminders about how high the Nats are on Morgan's fabulous hockey attitude. Milledge has brought legitimate defense to the Nats outfield and speed to the lineup, but his hockey attitude hasn't helped Capt. CS learn to be a better baserunner.

Rizzo demoted noted dickhead Elijah Dukes in the middle of a slump with an eye towards trading him. Word out of the Nats clubhouse was that Dukes' bad attitude was harshing everyone's buzz.

Everyone agrees that makeup is important, but as interim GM, Rizzo has shown no willingness to or aptitude for dealing with players that have a problematic makeup. Instead of trying to fix Milledge and Dukes, Rizzo was all too willing to cut bait on players that had a chance to be a part of a future winning team. I can only assume that Dukes is still around because Rizzo couldn't find a suitable trade partner.

Milledge was a shithead, but I think Rizzo traded him too early. What would have been the loss in keeping Milledge around in AAA for the whole season and then trading him in the offseason if he still wasn't working out? Instead, Rizzo sold Milledge when his stock was at its lowest for a 29-year-old speedster who gets caught too often to make his steals valuable and who most likely won't be a part of the next good Nats team.

Or will he?

2. Rizzo thinks the Nats are better than they really are

Just look at the quotes from Kasten in this Tom Boswell column. Sure, the Nats still need four more starting pitchers, a completely new bullpen, a second baseman, and another outfielder with a decent bat, but Stan assures us that "those are things you can get." The Nats "have the 3-4-5 hitters." They "have the leadoff man now." And they "have depth in inventory in young starters." Bonus: "We have Drew Storen. He walked another man the other night."

Kasten is a salesman, but would he be saying these things if Rizzo was telling him otherwise in private? Is this just a case of Rizzo telling ownership what he thinks they want to hear? I don't think so. Kasten hasn't shied away from giving a somewhat honest assessment of the team in the past. When Kasten talks about how close the Nats are to being good, I think he's speaking based on information he gets from Rizzo.

Don't forget, Rizzo is the guy who said this about where the Nats are: "We are a team building, we are not rebuilding. We are not tearing this thing down to the foundation and rebuilding it . . . This is a team, in my opinion, that's not far away from being a good solid baseball team."

Hey, Zimmermann won't be seen again until 2011? Rizzo reminds us why we shouldn't worry about the starting rotation: "That's the reason why you say you never have enough pitching prospects. I think we're fortunate here that we've got seven or eight really good young starting pitching prospects." Zimmermann was one. Who are the others? Surely he can't mean the AAAA filler that's cycled through the rotation this season.

Instead of engaging in a complete teardown, Rizzo keeps the team from getting better by refusing to sell high on a player like Josh Willingham, instead mistakenly viewing him as part of the team's future. More perplexing, Rizzo refused to trade Cristian Guzman, going so far as to call Guzman "a critical part" of the Nats' offense.

But it's possible Guzman and Willingham wouldn't be moved even if Rizzo were actively looking to trade them. Why not?

3. Rizzo overvalues his assets

Whether it's because he genuinely overvalues Guzman and Willingham or because he feels he has to get a killer return to demonstrate that he deserves the permanent GM spot, Rizzo appears to be overvaluing his players. Guzman is almost certainly not going to be a part of the next good Nats team, yet when there's a team (Boston) that has a gaping hole at shortstop, Rizzo insists on holding onto Guzman unless he gets back a "significant return." Rizzo apparently had a similarly high standard for trading Willingham, who drew trade deadline interest from several teams.

OK, it's true that Willingham can probably be traded next season, too. But when it came to Nick Johnson, who Rizzo almost had to trade, and who had drawn serious interest from San Francisco, Rizzo still waited too long to pull the trigger. The chances of maximizing the return for Johnson pretty much slipped away once the Giants traded for Ryan Garko. Instead, Rizzo was lucky that he was able to get a fringe 5th starter for Johnson when the Marlins decided they were close enough to contention and sick enough of Bonifacio that they needed to make a move.

Well, at least Rizzo got some return for the players he was willing to trade. Aaron Thompson is still an addition to the farm system, which I hear is rebounding?

4. Rizzo must bear some responsibility for the Nationals' underperforming player development system

For all the talk of The Plan and building a winner through player development, the players the Nats have drafted since 2005 haven't really been developing. With their past draft focus on pitchers and toolsy outfielders, the Nats have yet to develop a position player worth carrying on the major league roster. Ryan Zimmerman was essentially major-league-ready when he was drafted, and Storen is looking like he might be as well. Derek Norris and Chris Marrero might have bright futures, but they're not all the way there yet. And even five years of emphasis on drafting pitching, pitching, pitching has produced only the lucky break Lannan and the injured Jordan Zimmermann. I understand it takes time to develop players, but the system still seems to be churning out mostly organizational filler.

If the Nats have been drafting well, why is the system still so lackluster? Even giving Rizzo the benefit of the doubt for this year and supposing that he hasn't been allowed to make wholesale changes to the player development system as interim GM, Rizzo has been Assistant GM since 2006. He has to share at least some of the responsibility for the state of the Nats' minor league system.

But that gets us to a bigger problem with Rizzo getting the permanent GM job.

5. Rizzo will have no real authority

It would be very easy for Kasten and the Lerners to keep Rizzo on as GM, making him tap dance every year for a new contract, thus keeping him on a short leash. If Rizzo is given the GM job on a permanent basis, I'm pessimistic that he'll be given a free hand to turn over the front office and bring in his own people. Will Rizzo be allowed to get rid of Bob Boone, who you would have thought would have been one of the first casualties of Bowden's resignation, yet still seems to be hanging on? Will Rizzo (or anyone really) be allowed to fire the Assistant GM for Baseball Administration Squire Galbreath, who also happens to be minority partner Squire Galbreath, not to mention Jim Bowden's college pal? Will Rizzo be allowed to overhaul the player development system (Bob Boone again), bringing in new people where he sees fit, or will he be given all the authority Manny Acta was given to hire his own coaches?

Unfortunately, it's entirely possible an outside hire would also be given only limited authority, but Kasten and the Lerners are already used to keeping Rizzo on a short leash. Which brings me to the key argument against keeping Rizzo on.

6. Rizzo is a holdover from the Bowden era

It may be guilt-by-association, but the Nationals need to purge as much of the Bowden era as they can. As much of the old regime as possible needs to go. Rizzo may be a talented evaluator of baseball talent, but some things go beyond merit. Besides, Rizzo's skill set isn't irreplaceable. It's only too bad we can't replace ownership.