Monday, May 17, 2010

Eeyore; or, Is the Future Now?

I woke up this morning, took a look at the Washington Post sports section, reconfirmed that Bruney was indeed designated for assignment and that Storen was joining the Nats in St. Louis, and thought to myself, "Storen today, Strasburg in a few weeks . . . maybe the Nats really are just like the 2008 worst-to-first Tampa Bay Rays." Immediate corrective thought: "No they're not, you asshole."


This post is mainly in the interests of keeping myself grounded so I don't float off in a Kool-Aid haze like Tom Boswell. (Am I repeating myself? Maybe. But now that the Nationals are in OMG SECOND PLACE!!!1!! and Strasmas is nigh, tempering my own expectations is more relevant than it was last September.)

Apologies in advance for my inability to properly format tables in Blogger.


Why the 2010 Washington Nationals are not the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays

The Nationals may have sucked, but they haven't sucked enough


From 1998-2006, the Rays performed poorly enough to ensure that they selected eighth or better in the first round of the draft. The Rays selected first overall in 1999, 2003, and 2007. 





Tampa Bay Rays First Round Picks 1999-2007
Year
Overall Pick
Name
Pos.
1999
1
Josh Hamilton
OF
2000
6
Rocco Baldelli
OF
2001
3
Dewon Brazelton
RHP
2002
2
BJ Upton
SS
2003
1
Delmon Young
OF
2004
4
Jeff Niemann
RHP
2005
8
Wade Townsend
RHP
2006
3
Evan Longoria
3B
2007
1
David Price
LHP

Tampa Bay Rays Second Round Picks 1999-2007
Year
Overall Pick
Name
Pos.
1999
52
Carl Crawford
OF
2001
47
Jon Switzer
LHP
2002
43
Jason Pridie
OF
2003
38
James Houser
LHP
2004
45
Reid Brignac
SS
2005
56
Christopher Mason
RHP
2006
47
Josh Butler
RHP
2007
65
Will Kline
RHP

Tampa Bay Rays Third Round Picks 1999-2007
Year
Overall Pick
Name
Pos.
1999
85
Doug Waechter
RHP
2001
79
Chris Finn
RHP
2002
74
Elijah Dukes
OF
2003
68
Andrew Miller
LHP
2004
75
Wade Davis
RHP
2005
88
Avery Morris
RHP
2006
79
Nichoals Fuller
RHP
2007
95
Nick Barnese
RHP

Tampa Bay Rays Fourth Round Picks 1999-2007
Year
Overall Pick
Name
Pos.
1999
115
Alex Santos
RHP
2001
109
Dave Bush
RHP
2002
104
Wes Bankston
OF
2003
98
Travis Schlichting
3B
2004
105
Matthew Spring
C
2005
118
Jeremy Hellickson
RHP
2006
109
Alexander Cobb
RHP
2007
125
David Newmann
LHP


Even factoring in failed draft picks and development busts, the Rays' near decade of on-field incompetence allowed them to stockpile a huge amount of talent. Moreover, the Rays' player development process apparently works. Nearly every single one of the Rays' 1999-2007 1st round picks developed into a major-league regular. Rounds 2-4 couldn't be expected to be as successful, but Carl Crawford and Elijah Dukes stand out. The Rays also drafted Aubrey Huff in the 5th round in 1998 and Seth McClung in the 5th round in 1999. 

But successful drafting and player development does more than just replenish a team's major league roster -- it gives a team assets to trade. Just look at how the 2008 Rays were built:

Player
Acquired
Year
Grant Balfour
Trade w/MIL for Seth McClung
2007
Jason Bartlett
Trade w/MIN for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, Jason Pridie
2007
Carl Crawford
Draft pick
1999
Cliff Floyd
Free agent
2007
Matt Garza
Trade w/MIN for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, Jason Pridie
2007
Gabe Gross
Trade w/Brewers for Josh Butler
2008
Eric Hinske
Minor League contract
2008
J.P. Howell
Trade w/Royals for Joey Gathright,Fernando Cortez
2006
Akinori Iwamura
Free-agent signing
2006
Scott Kazmir
Trade w/Mets for Victor Zambrano,Bartolome Fortunato
2004
Evan Longoria
Draft pick
2006
Dioner Navarro
Trade w/Dodgers for Toby Hall, Mark Hendrickson
2006
Carlos Pena
Minor League contract
2007
Troy Percival
Free-agent signing
2007
David Price
Draft pick
2007
James Shields
Draft pick
2000
Andy Sonnanstine
Draft pick
2004
B.J. Upton
Draft pick
2002
Dan Wheeler
Trade w/Astros for Ty Wigginton
2007
Ben Zobrist
Trade w/Astros for Aubrey Huff
2006

Take away judicious (but still important) complementary free-agent signings like Iwamura, Percival, Floyd, and Pena, and nearly every major contributor to the 2008 Rays was a draft pick or traded for players the Rays had drafted and developed.

The Expos/Nationals haven't been nearly as successful at drafting and player development over the same span of years. The Nationals excel at promoting major-league ready 1st round picks to the major leagues, but struggle to develop those less-polished players that need time in the minor leagues. To wit: most of them. So far, the Expos/Nationals drafts have produced few major league regulars (Cordero, Zimmerman, too soon to tell on Desmond and Bernadina, please please Strasburg and Storen), and are still more notable for high profile washouts like Mike Hinckley and Colton Willems. And as for tradable commodities, there's little else after Derrick Norris and Danny Espinosa. The Nats don't have the goods to both service the major league roster and trade for established players.

The 2007 Tampa Bay Rays were already pretty close to being the 2008 Rays

Compare the rosters for the 2007 and 2008 Rays and you'll notice a lot of the same players. So why were the Rays so much better in 2008 than they were in 2007 and how do the 2010 Nats differ?
  • Better defense: The 2008 Rays allowed 273 fewer runs than the 2007 team. The 2010 Nats are on pace to allow 116 fewer runs, which is impressive, but it's not quite the dramatic defensive turnaround displayed by Tampa Bay.
  • Better pitching: The Rays replaced the unreliable Jason Hammel with the solid Matt Garza, every other Rays starter had a better year in 2008 than he did in 2007, and the team completely remade its bullpen for 2008. While the Nats' bullpen is markedly improved over 2009 (now that Bruney has been DFA'd), the starting pitching is still a jury rigged mess. St. Stephen is on his way, and Olsen looks good so far, but Livan/Lannan/Stammen is duct tape. The Nats' starting pitching still needs an overhaul.
  • Run production: The 2008 Rays scored eight fewer runs than the 2007 team while getting offensive contributions from more players. The Rays' improved 2008 bench, a better season from Navarro, and the additions of Longoria, Gross, and Floyd allowed the Rays to weather down years from Pena and Crawford while simultaneously providing enough pop to cover for all-glove no-bat Bartlett. The Nats are also on pace to score slightly fewer runs in 2010 than they did in 2009, but that's mainly because they have fewer sources of run production. Kennedy and Desmond are below-average, the bench is not so hot, and Nyjer Morgan is slowly failing (or, if you want to be charitable, merely slumping. Can one slump on the basepaths?) Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham -- and then what? Hope Zombie Pudge is well-supplied with the brains that have him off to such a hot start (pay no attention to his lousy May)? The Nats' roster has a lot of offensive soft spots.
There's no need to create artificially elevated expectations by comparing the 2010 Nationals to the 2008 Rays

The 2008 Rays were a great story because they seemingly (if you weren't paying attention) came out of nowhere to go from last place in their division to first place. Worst-to-first was a great story with a compelling narrative arc that everyone was able to grasp the broad contours of even if they remained fuzzy on some of the details. It's not so easy to get excited about a multi-year rebuilding process. Pointing at the May standings and drooling over Strasburg and Storen might be good for short-term ticket sales, but is it the best way to convert the locals, who have mostly ignored the Nats? I'll be pretty damned happy if the team ends up doing something as miraculous as ending 2010 with a record close to .500, but how will all those new fans who were sold a shot at the Wild Card feel if the Nats are playing golf come October? 

Even though I still have doubts about Rizzo and doubts about the Lerners, there's no denying anymore that the team is on the right track. Combine that with the aging Phillies roster, the Mets' boundless ineptitude, and the Marlins' self-destructive frugality, and it's not unreasonable to envision the Nats being truly competitive (with the right moves and the right breaks) as soon as 2011. There's no need to punch up the Nats' story when that story hasn't lacked for drama. From the front office housecleaning to signing Strasburg at the last minute to free agents viewing DC as a viable destination to the death of Nats Fail, the Nats have come a long way since the "Natinals" days. (Although Opening Day might have been the biggest fail of all. Never forget.) The Washington Nationals have their own story; they don't need some other team's.

*          *          *

In other words, is it still too early for thisGet back to me in September. Does that mean they shouldn't do something to improve their chances of making the playoffs this year, like maybe trading for Roy Oswalt? Not necessarily. (Besides, Roy is under contract for 2011, too. Possible 2011 rotation of Oswalt, Strasburg, Zimmermann, Wang, Olsen/Lannan/Stammen/Marquis excite you the way it excites me?)

1 comment:

bdrube said...

Great post. I am still angry at MLB for the destruction of the Expos franchise during its ownership and the reign of error of GM Omar Minaya. Wouldn't the Nats have looked so much better in the past few years with Jason Bay, Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore? Of course they would have.

Minaya traded away all of the Expos great young talent and MLB caused them to draft "signable" busts like Clint Everts and Josh Karp in the first round. Even Cordero was a signability pick. Plus you have to figure that the minor league system then became home to the management dregs who couldn't land jobs elsewhere, so there was little player development beyond round 1.

Then you turn things over to Leatherpants in 2005 and his addiction to the "toolsy" and the result is a lucky break with Zimmerman and Lannan in 2005 and no adults doing the drafting until last year.

If I blame the Lerners for anything it is for not firing Bowden when they bought the team and bringing in a real GM from the start. But hey, at least the team is competetive again and that is an important first step.