A fan's observations on the Washington Nationals, from across the virtual divide.

Plan A

Filed under: Background,Fan Experience,Organization,Personnel,Players — Wigi @ 4:36 pm December 3, 2010

While my ties to Washington baseball are long and deep (and limited only by my middle age), I admit that I did not follow baseball as closely as I do now through the Dark Years. I was an ultra-fanatic as a child, took a thirty-four year break, and became an ultra-fanatic again in the fall of 2004, as the Nats came to town. Certainly there are those among us that followed every baseball season meticulously, but I was not one of them, and I suspect that for the vast majority of Nationals fans, the Dark Years were dark years.

When you’re a ten year-old kid, and you live, eat and breathe the Washington Senators, your focus is on your favorite player – for me, that was Frank Howard. I was only vaguely aware of who Bob Short was, and it was not until late in the 1971 season that I any appreciation at all for what his bumbling ownership meant. From the perspective of a child, he was an adult who had done me wrong, even if I was unaware or incapable of understanding how he had done it. I was hurt, and it was personal.

After Short came Bowie Kuhn, Ray Kroc and Peter Angelos – all three conspiring against me and other Washingtonians to keep baseball out of the Nation’s Capital. Perhaps it isn’t fair to lump all three into the same basket of disdain – after all, Ray Kroc was just trying to save the Padres for the city of San Diego, rather than deny them to Washington. But really, it didn’t matter, since I didn’t have a home baseball team.

When the Nationals came to town in 2004, it was only after Washington and a half-dozen other cities begged and pleaded with Major League Baseball to be allowed into the club, and the city of Washington paid a ransom of over $600 million, in the form of a new stadium. And in many respects, the 2005 Nationals were less than you would expect from an expansion team, since the entire organization had been gutted top-to-bottom. Washingtonians were starved for baseball. We were made to beg to get our team back (and our victory was at the expense of the fans in Montreal). The organization we got in the bargain has proven to be hobbled for what will likely be ten years because of Major League Baseball’s willful mismanagement of the team.

Now that I had a home team to root for again (even though I live 4000 miles away), I looked at baseball differently than I ever had before. Sure, I still had my favorite players, but of equal or even greater import was how the organization ran. For the next four years it ran not well at all. Under the ownership of MLB and then the Lerner family, Jim Bowden was part General Manager, part sideshow barker. His three tenets of management seemed to be to give the fallen a second chance, make a big splash, and “it’s about Jim Bowden, stupid.”

As a Nationals fan who watches the organization, the four major baseball holidays – Spring training, the entry draft, the trade deadline and the Winter Meetings – were times when you could always count on Jim Bowden to come up with something. Even his inaction, such as his inability to trade Alfonso Soriano, was structured to be a Jim Bowden publicity stunt.

More than once, both to friends and in this space, I made the argument that we as Nationals fans should be thankful that we have a team at all. Certainly that is true. But our gratitude should not be confused with blindly accepting the Nationals without looking at them with a critical eye – and I now admit that I was not as critical as I should have been. When SmileyGate broke in 2009 I realized what many before me had been saying – the Nationals were in the midst of an organizational crisis, and a big part of the problem was Jim Bowden.

When Bowden left, and Mike Rizzo became  the General Manager, Nationals fans finally caught a glimpse of what competent organizational management was all about. Rizzo couldn’t be more different than Bowden. Rizzo is all about building a top-shelf major league organization, and came to the position with a great resume’. Rizzo is quiet and thoughtful… and in fact, listening to him speak and trying to make sense of what he says is a bit like listening to Alan Greenspan talk about the economy – he is oracle-like in his obfuscation.

A year and a half with Rizzo at the helm has been just what the doctor ordered for Nationals fans. While the team as a whole has shown only modest progress under his leadership, the Nationals have a top-notch bullpen, and have drafted two of the most highly-touted prospects in many years in the form of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. In addition, other homegown talents such as Drew Storen, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond all made the Nationals in 2010, showing that the organization is indeed growing and maturing. Whatever angst Nationals fans had about the organization during the Bowden years has probably been assuaged.

Until yesterday.

And by yesterday, I mean, the day Adam Dunn signed a four-year contract with the White Sox.

Truthfully, that anxiety has been building since the summer, when it became clear that the Nationals weren’t all that interested in signing Adam Dunn. I think a lot of us thought that the Nationals would come to their senses and sign Dunn, and that the low and/or short-term offer was a strategy to get Dunn at the price they wanted. And perhaps it was, but you would think that Mike Rizzo wouldn’t take that stance without a Plan B.

Actually, I think that it is the other way around – Adam Dunn was Plan B.

Which brings me to the angst. If Adam Dunn was Plan B, what is Plan A?

I think, to most casual (and perhaps serious) observers, Plan A isn’t obvious.

I can tell you this, if Plan A is Carlos Peña or Adam LaRoche, I don’t think the fans are going to be happy. I won’t be happy.

I’ve said this before – I am not a Major League General Manager, and neither are (almost) any of you, so I am not, and you are not qualified to make an informed judgment about the merits of who the Nationals have to play first base. But given that most fans had a strong opinion on whether the Nationals were going to keep Dunn, I think that most fans would agree that Plan A better be some kind of plan. Nationals fans liked 40 home runs and 110 RBIs a season. Nationals fans liked the affection and respect that Ryan Zimmerman, Josh Willingham and Adam Dunn shared. Nationals fans thought that Dunn made Willingham and Zimmerman and the rest of the lineup better hitters.

Mike Rizzo, you better have a heck of a Plan A.

What is different today is that the bar is set a lot higher for Mike Rizzo than it was for Jim Bowden – and rightly so. Nationals fans are done with rebuilding, especially when, from their perspective, the rebuilding is being preceded by demolition. I am willing to take Rizzo’s actions as an indication that one of baseball’s best minds has a plan, and that 2011 will be better (by a lot) than 2010. In the meantime, I think I need to express my expectations.

The only rationale that works for me is that by letting Adam Dunn walk, the Nationals are going to be a better team… and not in three or four years, but the day pitchers and catchers report. Of course, Rizzo isn’t one to articulate his plans to the public – after all, he’s like the oracle. We have to infer his intentions from his actions.

We suffered through Bob Short, and we suffered through thirty-four years of no baseball. We begged for our team and paid the ransom. We put up with the dysfunction of Major League Baseball-as-owner, and the dysfunction of Jim Bowden. As fans and as a community, we’ve been at this for almost fifty years, and for forty-eight-and-a-half of them we’ve gotten the short shrift. I was ready to believe that when Mike Rizzo became GM, that we had finally seen the beginning of a new era.

I want to believe that. But you’ll forgive me if a lifetime of rooting for baseball in Washington has made me cynical.

By letting Adam Dunn go, Mike Rizzo has set the bar very high.

Mike Rizzo, you better have a heck of a Plan A.

4 Comments »

  • Wigi, I hope you are right, I hope there is a Plan A. Overall I think Mike Rizzo has made good decisions – certainly the superior bullpen is a testament to that, and overall I think the trade with Pittsburgh was for the better – but my sense is here that this was not Rizzo’s finest moment, and there is no grand Plan A. (Hope I’m wrong, of course.) Despite the fondness in the blogosphere for the “Lerners are cheap” refrain, I don’t think that was the problem here, although overall the Lerners and the Nats organization does seem to have a naive idea of what good players command in the market. A big problem is that we could have understood the need for building years, but we heard that all through the Bowden years – in fact there was no plan – so we don’t want to hear it again. For that reason I wish we had given Adam his 4 year contract, which might well have been 3 years deserved, one not – that we could immediately enjoy his playing.

    One correction on your Senators/Nats history – I don’t think it is fair to say that our getting the Expos was at the expense of the fans in Montreal. MLB was planning to fold the club, so Washington rescued it from oblivion (and other cities would have been willing to do so as well), we did not take it from Montreal. I also think we have been doing a good job of respecting the Expos history, which is likely not being done in Montreal.

    Comment by Traveler8 — December 4, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

  • I am sure there is a Plan A – if it had been to sign Adam Dunn, they would have signed him. Dunn was inclined to sign with the Nats, at least, originally… and they would have found a way to afford him. I think the Nationals had every intention of letting Dunn walk… and this is where my frustration with Rizzo comes in. I want to believe that letting Dunn walk was a calculated part of the plan, and that there are other pieces to the plan that we’re not aware of. I don’t expect Rizzo to inform me of what his next move is, but I want to believe there is a next move.

    I think one possibility is that there is a thought among those in baseball that in the post-steroid era, there is a new calculus regarding how you build a team, and the Dunn/Ryan Howard model at first base is obsolete (Pujols would fit that mold, too, except that he’s a very good defender). If that is the case, then Rizzo has to keep that a secret because it would increase the market price for those players that fit the new mold.

    I don’t think this is an issue of money, I think it is an issue that Adam Dunn is not the kind of first baseman the Nationals are looking for. But at some point, Rizzo is going to have to disclose the kind of team he is trying to build. If it turns out that the team took a step backwards in terms of hitting because the organization was afraid of the implications of the kind of player that Adam Dunn would be in four years, I think fans are going to be sorely disappointed.

    Regarding your comment about the Lerners being naive about the cost of free agents, I don’t believe that is the case. I think they know exactly what they cost, and they (often correctly) assume they are not worth it. The “Lerners are Cheap” crowd are operating under two mistaken premises: that the Lerners are unwilling to spend on players, and that spending on free agents is a productive way to build a team.

    Regarding your comment about Montreal, I don’t think that MLB ever intended to contract the Expos; it was a ploy for leverage with the union and also to increase the bidding pool for cities wanting a team. I would agree at some level that we didn’t steal the Expos from Montreal, but the circumstances regarding the Expos and the Senators is eerily similar – terrible management, a dwindling fan base, and an opportunity for the owner to make a killing by moving the team. The losers, in both cases, were the fans… first in Washington, and then in Montreal.

    Comment by Wigi — December 4, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

  • Okay, so Jayson Werth is Plan A – plus a strong fielding first baseman?

    Comment by Traveler8 — December 5, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

  • A year after your post shows that Plan A was okay. Of course, hiring Davy Johnson was not part of the orignal plan but that worked out. 2012 with Straburg, Zimmerman, Gio and “pick em” with Harper in June (if not before) will make 2012 even better.

    Comment by Sec 204 Row H Seat 7 — December 28, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

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