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 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 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.


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.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Jed Hoyer: A clarification

Joe Posnanski wrote a blog post explaining why, no matter how hard Toronto's owner pushed for it, JP Ricciardi retains ultimate responsibility for Vernon Wells' bad contract. Joe wrote:
If you are a baseball general manager, you have to deal with quirks and vagaries of ownership and the direction other power brokers want to take the team. That’s not part of the job. That IS the job. It’s not like trading baseball cards. Owners (and presidents and scouts and the field manager and everyone else) want certain things, and they insist upon certain things, and they refuse certain things. Usually, owners want to spend LESS money, not MORE money — which is part of the reason I find the “They wanted to re-sign Wells at any price and over the objections of Ricciardi” line strained — but the point remains the same. No general manager – NO general manager — lives in a vacuum.

So how you deal with the often strange and contradictory decisions and leanings of ownership defines your tenure as a GM. I happen to know that Allard Baird had to deal with all sorts of lunacy and insanity when he was GM of the Royals — stuff that would make your head spin. But at the end of the day — and Allard would agree with this 100 percent — it was his job to overcome those things. And he could not. And he was let go.

Reading that, I realized I may not have been clear in my post on why I think Jed Hoyer should be the next GM of the Nats. I'm optimistic that Hoyer will be able to overcome the limitations placed upon him by Kasten and the Lerners. I'm not as optimistic about Dipoto's chances of being able to do so. What separates the two in my mind is Hoyer's stated and demonstrated affinity for combining observational scouting with quantitative analysis to produce the best results, which I believe will produce better results on the Lerners' assumed budget. Even though Byrnes' Diamondbacks also operate on a budget, and even though plenty of clubs use a mix of scouting and statistical analysis to inform their decisionmaking, I have more confidence that a guy who I know has his feet on both sides of the aisle will be able to use his resources with the greatest efficiency. And if the Lerners do decide to start spending, I have more confidence in Hoyer's ability to make the best use of a windfall.

Looking at the Rumored GM Candidates: Jed Hoyer

Gordon Edes of Yahoo! Sports reports that the Nats have interviewed Gerry Hunsicker, Jerry DiPoto, Jed Hoyer, and Chuck LaMar for the GM post. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported some sort of mish-mosh about DiPoto being the leading candidate . . . No, Hoyer . . . erm . . . maybe Rizzo after all? Chico Harlan says the GM search has narrowed to Hoyer, Dipoto, and Rizzo and that word might come sometime after the August 17 draft signing deadline.

Over the next few days I'm going to see if I can't come up with something interesting to say about these four guys, hopefully before I'm overtaken by events. Today: Jed Hoyer.

Here's how I feel about the possibility that Jed Hoyer could be the next GM of the Nationals. When I first started dating the woman who would eventually be my wife, I knew almost from the start that we were so right together that we were going to get married. That's how I feel about the possibility that Jed Hoyer could be the next GM of the Nationals.

Hoyer has a similar background to baseball executives like Theo Epstein, Josh Byrnes, Paul DePodesta, and Chris Antonetti -- played baseball in college, graduated from good schools with degrees in subjects like economics or business administration, and came up through the front office directly rather than through the scouting side. In a word, "Moneyball" guys.

After graduating from Wesleyan University in 1996, Hoyer worked in the Kenyon College admissions office before returning to Wesleyan as assistant dean of admissions and assistant baseball coach. Hoyer worked for a tech startup and as a management consultant before convincing the Red Sox to hire him as a 28-year-old intern in 2002. Hoyer rose from intern to assistant to the general manager to co-GM in 2005, when Epstein briefly left the Red Sox, and was promoted/reassigned to his current position as Assistant General Manager upon Epstein's return.

Like Jerry Dipoto, Jed Hoyer also turns up on a lot of those "Top Future GMs" lists. In addition to serving as the Red Sox co-GM, Hoyer interviewed for the Pittsburgh GM spot in 2007 and declined an interview with Seattle in 2008.

Hoyer, who started off doing quantitative analysis and modeling for Epstein, eventually evolved into someone a 2005 Boston Globe article called "Epstein's prime confidant outside of [then-Red Sox Asst. GM] Byrnes." Hoyer accompanied Epstein to Phoenix in 2003 for Thanksgiving Dinner with the Schillings and was part of the December 2003 face-to-face talks with A-Rod over renegotiating his contract as part of a trade from the Rangers. As co-GM, Hoyer was part of the group that decided to trade Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez to the Marlins for Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and Guillermo Mota. As Assistant General Manager, Hoyer's duties have expanded from major league transactions and contract negotiations to encompass scouting and player development.

What you have in Hoyer is a guy who knows the value of combining observational scouting with quantitative statistical analysis to consistently churn out winning teams. Hoyer in a 2007 interview:
As we see it, we want every piece of information possible before making a decision. We have spent a lot of time and energy in developing our quantitative methods and we certainly use them in making player personnel decisions. But we also have a lot of great scouts and we read their reports and have lengthy conversations with all of them before making decisions. The idea that teams are either "Moneyball" teams or "scouting" teams is an incredible over-simplification. You need to have both of those components - as well as medical and contractual - to make an educated decision on a player.
Hoyer's been there while Boston's player development system keeps producing valuable prospects that either other teams want in trade or the Red Sox to want to keep for themselves. Hoyer's been there as the Red Sox continue to recognize the importance of scouting for players globally, not just at US high schools and colleges. He has firsthand contract negotiation and free agent wooing experience. His organization has usually made the right moves when it comes to trades and acquiring complimentary free agents. And it doesn't hurt that Hoyer comes out of a Red Sox front office that has been an incubator for talented baseball executives (Byrnes, Dipoto, Peter Woodfork).

If you were to draw up a checklist of attributes you want your ideal GM to possess, you'd end up with someone a lot like Hoyer.

Yes, it's true -- I'm in love with Jed Hoyer. But surely there must be something wrong with him?

OK, there is one thing that worries me about Hoyer. Money. The Red Sox have the means to pursue their needs with almost no regard for cost. (See Crisp, Coco; Varitek, Jason; Beckett, Josh; Matsuzaka, Daisuke; Drew, J.D.) Moreover, the Red Sox have a huge margin for error because they don't really have to worry about their mistakes limiting player payroll.

Just look at their shortstop situation since letting Orlando Cabrera leave as a free agent after 2004. Sick of Alex Gonzalez? Sign Edgar Renteria for $40m/4. Sick of Renteria? Trade him away and pay Gonzalez $3m to stick around. Alex not working out? Give Julio Lugo a $36m/4 deal to be inadequate until you DFA him. The Red Sox do a pretty good job of growing their own players, but they don't let a little thing like money stop them from shopping for expensive solutions to any holes in their roster.

Jed Hoyer understands how to conceive and implement the organizational overhaul the Nationals desperately need. Whether it's the front office, player valuation, player development, or international scouting, I believe Hoyer has the ability to come in and fix the ailing Nationals. My only question is this: Can he do it on Ted Lerner's budget instead of John Henry's?

Since he didn't withdraw from the interview process, Hoyer likely feels assured that Kasten and the Lerners will allow him to implement his vision for the Nats. Conversely, Kasten and the Lerners likely feel that Hoyer can improve the team on the thin dime they'll give him. And, of course, the Nats still get the great PR bump (The Lerners finally get it!) of signing a young forward-thinking star with the flowery smell of the Red Sox all over him.

I would be reasonably pleased if the Nats hired Dipoto, but I would be ecstatic if they hired Hoyer. Dipoto is an excellent scout and player development guy, but I don't have the confidence that he would take the Nats front office into the next generation of baseball front offices. I don't know that Dipoto is anything more than the scout that works with the quants and answers to the Diamondbacks' hybrid GM. And hiring Dipoto might be a sign that Kasten and the Lerners don't want that kind of guy running the organization, that they want to stick with someone with a traditional scouting background.

Hoyer may not have the same scouting and player development background as Rizzo and Dipoto, but he appreciates the value of scouting, with the addition of knowing how scouting and quantitative analysis can complement each other. I'm hopeful that Hoyer would hire a staff that can provide him with all the observational and statistical information he needs to make informed decisions. And I'd like to think that Hoyer isn't too ambitious to have taken himself out of the running if he thought Kasten or the Lerners were going to be an obstacle to him putting together his own team.

Hire Jed Hoyer.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Looking at the Rumored GM Candidates: Jerry Dipoto

Gordon Edes of Yahoo! Sports reports that the Nats have interviewed Gerry Hunsicker, Jerry DiPoto, Jed Hoyer, and Chuck LaMar for the GM post. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported some sort of mish-mosh about DiPoto being the leading candidate . . . No, Hoyer . . . erm . . . maybe Rizzo after all? Chico Harlan says the GM search has narrowed to Hoyer, Dipoto, and Rizzo and that word might come sometime after the August 17 draft signing deadline.

Over the next few days I'm going to see if I can't come up with something interesting to say about these four guys, hopefully before I'm overtaken by events. Today: Jerry DiPoto.

You can be forgiven if your first reaction to learning that Jerry Dipoto is a candidate for the Nats GM job was "Who the hell is Jerry Dipoto?" Most people who have heard of Dipoto knew him as a middle reliever who bounced around from Cleveland to the Mets to Colorado before retiring in 2001 because of a bulging disc in his neck. He latched on as a scout with the Red Sox in 2003 and has had a rapid rise, moving to the Rockies as scouting director at the beginning of 2005 and following then-Red Sox exec Josh Byrnes to Arizona at the end of 2005. Dipoto started off as Arizona's director of pro scouting and was promoted to his current position as Director of Player Personnel in 2006.

Often seen on those lists of future general managers, Dipoto was in the running for Seattle's open GM spot after last season.

Dipoto is known for his talent evaluation, and he was an integral part of Arizona's important 2009 draft effort, but it's easier to find complimentary quotes about Dipoto than it is to appraise his impact on the Diamondbacks. Commonly described as "highly regarded," Byrnes says Dipoto is "a central part of every decision that we make." The most insightful quote about Dipoto comes from Dipoto himself:
I believe I'm a baseball fanatic. I've followed the game passionately since I was a kid. One of the things I did was watch trends. What makes a team great? What creates long-term success? The Twins in the early '90s. The Braves in the late '80s and early '90s. The Mets of the mid-to-late '90s. What they had in common was a very high-level minor league system and a sound process, a right way to do things.
In Dipoto, we have a guy who played professionally, is extremely well thought of within the small world of baseball executives for his scouting and talent evaluation prowess, and is a close observer of the game. Other than his age and a better career as a player, what makes Dipoto different from Mike Rizzo?

What separates Dipoto from Rizzo is who Dipoto has worked for -- forward-thinking GMs Theo Epstein and Josh Byrnes. The best-case scenario would have Dipoto the scout using his time in Boston and Arizona to absorb the benefits of running a front office on a hybrid scouting/statistical analysis model, then implementing that knowledge with the Nats (whose use of statistics is a matter of dispute). A different scenario would have Dipoto the scout coming to the Nats but not taking any steps towards trying to make the team another Oakland, Cleveland, or Tampa Bay (not that the Nats are a small-market team, but that's what the Lerners seem to have convinced themselves and what they'd like us to believe).

But that second scenario doesn't have to be all bad. It's telling that Dipoto named the Twins, Braves, and late '90s Mets as teams he admired. The Nats would be doing well if they were as successful on the field as those teams were, even if they weren't necessarily the best-run organizations (I'm looking at you, Steve Phillips).

What Kasten's Braves had -- and what Kasten's Nationals lack -- was a single philosophy that governed how they ran the entire organization, from the major league team down to short-season ball. There is no "Nationals way" like there was a "Braves way." As disappointed as I would be if Dipoto turns out not to be a disciple of Epstein and Byrnes, there would be immense value in having an outsider skilled in player development and talent evaluation come in and force some kind of order and process on the organization (ideally turning over most of the front office along the way).

I can see Kasten and the Lerners trotting Dipoto out at the press conference, crowing about how they made a great hire, a rising star who will further The Plan. And I can see how the Nats' underperforming player development operations could benefit from someone as talented as Dipoto. And I can hope that Dipoto will be a strong executive and that the Nats will finally have a good GM that will allow the team and the fans to put the Bowden years behind them. But I just don't know.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Looking at the Rumored GM Candidates: Gerry Hunsicker

Gordon Edes of Yahoo! Sports reports that the Nats have interviewed Gerry Hunsicker, Jerry DiPoto, Jed Hoyer, and Chuck LaMar for the GM post. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported some sort of mish-mosh about Dipoto being the leading candidate . . . No, Hoyer . . . erm . . . maybe Rizzo after all? Chico Harlan says the GM search has narrowed to Hoyer, Dipoto, and Rizzo and that word might come sometime after the August 17 draft signing deadline.

Over the next few days I'm going to see if I can't come up with something interesting to say about these four guys, hopefully before I'm overtaken by events. Today: Gerry Hunsicker.

Close your eyes and think of a baseball executive. Through a process of player development, good trades, and some judicious free agent signings, this executive led his mid-market team to a streak of postseason appearances, including the World Series. During his tenure, the team compiled one of the best winning percentages in baseball. In addition, this executive also shepherded the team's move from an outdated multiuse cookie-cutter stadium to a modern, baseball-only ballpark. One more thing -- the name of this executive's former team begins with the letter A.

You were thinking of Stan Kasten, weren't you? Wrong. The executive is Gerry Hunsicker.

Looking at the facts above, it's not hard to imagine that Hunsicker could be Kasten's ideal candidate. Hunsicker's reputation for success, not only with the mid-market Astros, but also with the small-market Rays, presumably also makes him attractive to the Lerners.

Kasten looks at Hunsicker and probably sees an experienced former GM who achieved success while navigating a sometimes-contentious relationship with his billionaire owner. This sounds familiar to Nats fans, too.

Hunsicker's time with the Astros (1996-2004) was an almost (we'll come to that later) unqualified success. His draft picks were successful enough to develop into a cheap, homegrown core that made significant contributions to the Astros winning teams of 2001-2005 (Richard Hidalgo, Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg, Roy Oswalt, Jason Lane, Wade Miller, Brad Lidge, Adam Everett). He also made good trades that improved the Astros without bankrupting the minors (Randy Johnson, Moises Alou, Octavio Dotel, Carlos Beltran, Jose Lima, Carl Everett) and signed some expensive free agents to fill in gaps on the roster (Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Jeff Kent).

So, Hunsicker's great, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, he made a lot of really good moves. But he also made some expensive mistakes. And Drayton McLane was a different kind of billionaire from Ted Lerner.

Hunsicker's biggest obvious mistakes were the heavily backloaded contracts he gave to Jeff Bagwell and Hidalgo. Swayed by his outsize 2000 performance, in 2001 Hunsicker signed a 26 year-old Hidalgo to a $45m/4 year extension (with a $15m team option for 2005 and a $2m buyout), after which he never put up the same numbers and spent some time on the DL before being unceremoniously traded to the Mets for a couple of relief pitchers and a promise to pay a significant part of the freight on what was left of the contract. Hunsicker made a large gamble on the assumption that Hidalgo's 2000 season represented the center fielder's transformation from very good player into Willie Mays. Except for 2003, the contract was a disaster for the Astros.

In 2000, Hunsicker signed a 32-year-old Bagwell to a 5-year extension starting in 2002 worth $85m, with a 2007 team option for $17m ($7m buyout). If Hidalgo's contract was merely a disaster, Bagwell's contract was the Titanic. It started with good intentions and happy quotes and ended with an injured player insisting he could play, a team trying to keep him off the field in order to preserve an insurance claim, and a lawsuit. Sure, Bagwell was a fan favorite and one of the best players in the game -- but the backloading . . . the backloading! The contract wasn't even going to start until Bagwell was 34. And did Hunsicker really think Bagwell was going to be worth $17m at age 39? Not to mention that the team's financial obligations to Bagwell (and, to a lesser extent, Hidalgo) made it difficult for the Astros' to compete for free agents. When talking about all the things that were wrong with the contract Hunsicker gave to Bagwell, it's not where to begin, but where to stop.

Part of the blame can probably be laid at the feet of Drayton McLane, a freespending owner who continues to throw money at overpriced free agents (Carlos Lee, Kaz Matsui) while screaming that baseball needs a salary cap. Luckily for Hunsicker, holding back an owner who insists on overpaying for players isn't something he'll have to worry about in DC.

Hunsicker resigned as Houston's GM in 2004 and became Senior VP of Baseball Operations for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2005. He serves as Tampa Bay GM Andrew Friedman's top adviser and likely has a hand in any baseball decision the Rays make. To me, it looks like Hunsicker is a baseball-lifer counterpart to the non-traditional Freidman, who worked in private equity before joining the Rays in 2004. He's not the GM, but it seems like Hunsicker has made a successful transition from working for Moneybags McLane to thinking creatively about how to win with a team that can't afford big-name free agents.

Hunsicker comes from a traditional scouting background, but he's comfortable with newer analytical methods of roster construction. He has a track record of success with the amateur draft and international signings, but he also knows how to use trades and free agent signings to complement those homegrown players. He's shown he knows how to build a team whether the owners are spendthrifts or parsimonious.

Kasten probably appreciates that Hunsicker might be another voice telling the Lerners to just listen to Stan, he knows how baseball works.

The Lerners probably appreciate that hiring Hunsicker would be a sign that they get it. They've made some mistakes as owners, but Hunsicker shows they're serious about winning. And hopefully Hunsicker won't be too independently minded or be a"handful to work with" like the Sage of the Senators hears.

Nats fans would probably be happy, too.1

1 OK, maybe it is true that Hunsicker turned down the job. But hey, that guy's been wrong before.

Monday, August 10, 2009

This hurts

This could be the beginning of a very bad seven days for Nats fans. We found out today that Jordan Zimmermann is going to have Tommy John surgery, and we'll find out next Monday whether or not the Nats were able to sign Stephen Strasburg.

Like last year's failure to sign Crow, a failure to sign Strasburg will provoke outrage, but I don't think I'll feel the same way next Monday night that I felt tonight when I saw the news about Zimmermann. This hurts.

This hurts because Zimmermann is ours and Strasburg remains an abstraction. This hurts because Zimmermann has been touted since last season as the first fruits of the pitching, pitching, pitching draft strategy. This hurts because when Zimmerman pitches he looks like he could have the kind of future that I don't see Martis or Balester or Stammen or Martin or McGeary having. This hurts because with Zimmermann, Lannan, Zimmerman, a few high ceilings here and a few career years there, I could see the playoffs if I looked far enough over the horizon.

In general, I'm pretty pessimistic about the state of the Nats and how I see the team's short-term future. Without Zimmermann, there's Lannan, maybe Balester, hopefully Strasburg, but still gaping holes in the rotation for the foreseeable future, and that's before being reminded that the Nats also need a second baseman, a healthy and productive Flores, and a real bullpen before they can even dream of being competitive. If the Nats might have begun to be competitive in 2011 or 2012 with Zimmermann and a few breaks their way, how far into the future does Zimmermann's hopefully complete recovery from Tommy John push that long-awaited competitive season?

I'm not usually sappy about players. Soriano leaves, Johnson gets traded, Cordero gets non-tendered -- all fine by me. I understand that building a winner is a process. I know that as much as I might cheer for a Dunn home run or a Lannan double play grounder, I'm really rooting for laundry. And I know that There's No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect, that injury flame-outs happen all the time, and that counting on Zimmermann to be a cornerstone of anything was in some ways always a risk-laden pipe dream.

Even though I know all of these things, this hurts.

Looking at the Rumored GM Candidates: Chuck LaMar

Gordon Edes of Yahoo! Sports reports that the Nats have interviewed Gerry Hunsicker, Jerry DiPoto, Jed Hoyer, and Chuck LaMar for the GM post. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported some sort of mish-mosh about Dipoto being the leading candidate . . . No, Hoyer . . . erm . . . maybe Rizzo after all?

Update 8/11/2009: Chico Harlan says the GM search has narrowed to Hoyer, Dipoto, and Rizzo and that word might come sometime after the August 17 draft signing deadline.

Over the next few days I'm going to see if I can't come up with something interesting to say about these four guys, starting with the easiest one of all, Chuck LaMar.

* * *

That's how Nats fans should react when they hear Chuck LaMar could be the next GM. If you want a situation bad enough to make you nostalgic for the halcyon days of Jim Bowden's toolsy outfielder acquisition program, LaMar's your guy. Others have described LaMar's tenure in Tampa Bay better than I can, but let's just say that things
didn't quite work out and the Friedman regime has been slightly more successful at constructing a winning team. Having spent 1991-1995 as Atlanta's Director of Player Development and 2007 as a special assistant to Bowden, LaMar is familiar to both Kasten and the Lerners. He is currently the Phillies' Assistant General Manager, Player Development & Scouting.

A string of postseason appearances and a couple of World Series rings make LaMar's stints in Atlanta and Philadelphia look good, but you can't tell how much of that was LaMar's doing and how much was everyone above him on the org chart. I can't get much from how the Phillies drafted with LaMar either. Let's suppose LaMar is a premier talent evaluator and terrific at player development -- the answer is still no.

LaMar didn't just tread water with the expansion Devil Rays, he made them worse. He may be able to identify talented players, but once he does, he has no idea how to use them to win. Whether it's trading future All-Stars for veteran peanuts (Bobby Abreu for Kevin Stocker, Dmitri Young for Mike Kelly), sponsoring farewell tours for fading marquee names in a misguided attempt to make a splash by emulating the freespending Diamondbacks of the late '90s (Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff), facilitating a three-way trade that sent Johnny Damon to Oakland while the Devil Rays got Ben Grieve, bad free agent signings (Wilson Alvarez, Greg Vaughn), or drafting poorly despite having the first overall draft pick (as well as high picks in all the subsequent rounds) for ten years in a row, all the evidence shows that Chuck LaMar is a guy who needs a boss to tell him no. He may be a good scout, but he sure as hell was a bad GM (et tu, Rizzo?).

If it's true that LaMar is front office poison, then why are the Nats interested in him? Like so many things with this team, it all comes down to the question of who's really running the Nats. John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus had a tidbit last weekend:
Those close to the Nationals’ situation believe Rizzo will get the job if the decision is left to club president Stan Kasten. However, there is a feeling that the owners of the team, the Lerner family, may want to make a splash by bringing in both a big-name GM and manager.
Assuming a former employee counts as an outsider, hiring Chuck LaMar would certainly make a splash. For all the talk that the Lerners are hands-off owners who merely sign the checks and let Kasten run the show, we know that's not even close to the truth. The Lerners are happy to put Kasten out to the public as the decider, but in private there's a constant tension between what the Lerners think is the best way to run a baseball franchise and what Kasten knows is the best way to run a baseball franchise. Don't forget that it was the Lerners who kept Bowden around until Smileygate made that relationship untenable.

Would LaMar be acceptable to Kasten? Stan seems like a sensible guy, and I hope he would be unable to overlook just how poor LaMar's record as GM really is. Given his relationship with the Lerners, however, what Kasten thinks might not matter.

Why are the Lerners interested in LaMar? It's possible that the owners credit LaMar for laying the foundation for the winning Rays. In that case, the interest in LaMar could also be a sign that the Lerners truly believe the Nats aren't that far away from a similar kind of worst-to-first turnaround.

Bringing in LaMar might also indicate that the Lerners are generally dissatisfied with how the team is being run. Any new GM is going to want to bring in his or her own people, but based on their philosophical differences with LaMar, Rizzo and current Scouting Director Dana Brown would almost certainly be gone.

For all my feeble attempts at Kremlinology, I'm on the outside with no idea what's really behind the Nationals' interest in a retread failure like Chuck LaMar. Maybe the Lerners really miss the way Bowden smarmily sidled up to them back in 2006 and they see a yes-man replacement in LaMar. Maybe Kasten brought LaMar in as a Scared Straight exercise to show the Lerners how bad a bad GM can be. Maybe they think LaMar has learned from his Tampa Bay mistakes. I'm not even sure I care what's behind their interest in LaMar. All I know is that the Nats shouldn't hire Chuck Lamar.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Nationals should sign Aroldis Chapman (a distressingly Boswellian post)

With the deadline for signing Stephen Strasburg just a week away, hopefully the Nats are consumed with negotiating the size of the barrel Scott Boras is going to bend them over. But after the Strasburg negotiations are over, the Nats should turn to what ought to be their next challenge: signing Aroldis Chapman.

Chapman reaches triple digits with his fastball and has been described as a "left-handed Stephen Strasburg." While there are concerns about the effectiveness of Chapman's secondary pitches and his maturity level, it wouldn't be a stretch to call Chapman the top international free agent. The Yankees have already declared their interest, and other free-spending teams are sure to join in bidding. We're told that a contract on par with those given to Jose Contreras ($32/4) or Daisuke Matsuzaka ($50m/6) is likely.

Even after forcing the resignation of Jim Bowden, cutting ties with Jose Rijo, and sending Mike Rizzo to the Dominican Republic to clean house, the stink of Smileygate still hovers over the organization's international operations. They signed a few prospects out of the DR this summer, but one could hardly call them players on the international market. With so much competition for top Latin talent, there's been no sign that the team has begun to mine underexplored places like Eastern Europe, China, Korea, Africa, or India for baseball talent.

Wiping out the memory of Smileygate would be merely a side effect of signing Chapman. Putting Chapman in a Washington Nationals jersey would be a warning to other teams that the Nats will no longer stand idly by while other teams ink top international prospects.

Chapman could also complement, or -- worst case scenario -- replace an unsigned Strasburg in the starting rotation. It's no secret that for all the pitching, pitching, pitching the Nationals have drafted the last few years, there are serious problems with the names the front office has touted the most. Number 1 prospect Jordan Zimmermann -- down with an elbow injury and referred to Dr. James Andrews. First-round draft pick Ross Detwiler -- some rocky seasons in the minors followed by a rocky time in the bigs this season capped off with a return to the minors. Jack McGeary -- the old college try didn't work and he's still struggling in the low minors. Shairon Martis had a few lucky wins and he's now pitching poorly in AAA. Scott Olsen -- recovering from labrum surgery and just as likely to be non-tendered after the season as to make another start for the Nats.

After Lannan, there's little to count on in the rotation going forward. Maybe Balester is starting to become something, but Stammen, Mock, and Martin are at best fourth or fifth starters on a bad team (or the Mets). Even if both Strasburg and Chapman need to spend an entire season in the minors, Lannan will remain under team control long enough for him, Strasburg, and Chapman to provide an effective 1-2-3 for a few seasons. Getting back a healthy Zimmermann might give the Nats the best rotation in the NL East.

Sure, there's a lot of risk in signing Chapman. Contreras and Matsuzaka are far from the world-beaters the Yankees and Red Sox believed they were getting. Chapman could be as immature as he looked when Japan knocked him out early in the WBC this year. Or he could get hurt or simply not pan out. But there's a lot of risk in not signing Chapman, too. There's the risk that the Nats don't sign Strasburg and end up with nothing more than pick 1A in the 2010 amateur draft and an even more deflated fanbase. If they do sign Strasburg, there's the risk that his fastball really is as flat as it looked against Virginia in the NCAA Irvine Regional. Or he could fall prey to injury. Or maybe Lannan's not as good as he appears and he makes a sharp regression to the mean. Or Zimmermann needs Tommy John surgery and won't make another start until 2011.

That's the whole point -- real pitching prospects are inherently risky. And that's why the Nationals need to acquire as many of them as possible, even if it costs them tens of millions of dollars. Like Strasburg, Chapman is the kind of high risk-high reward gamble the Nats are going to have to take if they're ever going make a decisive step towards becoming competitive. Sure, Chapman might cost a lot more than Strasburg, but that's an argument to subject international free agents to the amateur draft, not an argument against signing Chapman.

Of course, you never know what the Nats might do. If they do sign Chapman but then aren't in the mix going forward, every time the fans complain about another team making a significant free agent or international signing, the Nats could point to Chapman and say "But look what we did and how much money we spent!" And if they make a serious play for Chapman but don't sign him, like with Mark Teixeira, the Nats can use their failure to ward off fans' complaints that the the team isn't a player on the free agent or international markets by reminding fans that they tried that one time.1 And then there's the most likely possibility of all, which is that the Nats don't even try to sign Aroldis Chapman.

1These two scenarios apply doubly to signing Strasburg, who can only negotiate with the Nats, with the added bonus of 2010 pick 1A for the Nats to point to.