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

What Scott Boras Could Learn at a Grocery Store

Walk into almost any grocery store, and watch the shoppers… especially the families. When they get to the checkout aisle, while mom and dad are looking to the left, and unloading the groceries onto the belt, the kids are looking to the right, scouting out the candies and toys placed in convenient reach of  the children. Watch the children ask their moms and dads, “Can I get M&Ms? Pleeeaaase?”

Mom and dad are placed in an unfair, but very familiar situation: relent and get the kids what they want, or risk a loud and possibly embarrassing tantrum.

It is with that in mind that I read Dave Sheinin’s post in Nationals Journal about the drafting of Stephen Strasburg. It seems that Scott Boras is intent on retaining control of how his client appears in public. That’s an excellent strategy, and I wouldn’t expect anything less from Boras, especially when he represents  a player as highly-regarded as Strasburg. But in the process, Boras is creating a divide. A divide between player and team, and between player and the fans.

I think he’s on the verge of sending the wrong message.

I went back today and looked at the Nationals number one draft picks since they moved to Washington. If you look at that list, you notice something every interesting. Almost every one of those first round picks are players that even casual fans would recognize, because at the time they were drafted, they appeared in the media and in person, where the fans could get to see and hear from them. The players I remember most from their media tours were Ryan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler. Both appeared on MASN and sat in the booth for a while during games… but other first rounders also came and visited Nationals Park, took questions from the media, etc. I remember thinking at the time, just how exciting it will be to see such a highly touted draft pick like Ryan Zimmerman grow and develop into a star with the Nationals. I thought the same thing about Ross Detwiler, too.

And then there’s Aaron Crow.

Of course, there was never any thought that Zimmerman or Detwiler wouldn’t sign with the Nationals. Part of that was because they stated publicly that they were excited at the prospect of playing in Washington… and it was just a matter of time and working out the details. And of course, there’s the news this morning that the Nationals other first round pick in the draft, Drew Storen has signed with the Nationals. But for Crow, who was invited to visit with the team, see the new stadium, meet the fans, wax poetic about his future in Washington – none of those things ever happened… and while it didn’t go unnoticed that Crow didn’t sign, for a lot of us, it wasn’t like we’d left a family member off the family reunion guest list. Crow’s negotiations were about the business of baseball, and not so much about the fans. You can be upset that Crow got away, but it wasn’t like Ryan Zimmerman getting away. The fans weren’t in love with Crow – they’d never met him.

And this, really, is the lesson that Boras needs to learn from the supermarket. Baseball teams pay the players salaries, but the fans are the consumers. The reason that the Nationals need to sign Stephen Strasburg is not because the Nationals need him, but because the fans want him… which is the same reason that mothers and fathers buy M&Ms for their kids. In fact, from a purely business standpoint, the Nationals don’t need him. It is only for the marketing and public relations value that Stephen Strasburg commands the price tag he does. For the kind of money Boras is talking, the Nats could sign a top-shelf free agent pitcher with a lot less risk.

So my message to Scott is this: If you want to get the best deal for your client, put him at the checkstand, right at eye level with every one of the Nationals instant-gratification-short-attention-span fans. Let Carpy and Dibble and Charlie and Dave interview him. Let him sign autographs. If you really want to be over the top, get the Nationals to have Strasburg be a guest of the team and throw out the first pitch at a Sunday afternoon game. Let Washington fall in love with Stephen Strasburg. Make it so that when the Natosphere whines and cries to mom and dad for M&Ms, there’s no real choice.

The mistake that Boras is making is that by trying to make an example of the inequities of the draft system, he risks convincing the consumers – you and me – that there is a price that is too high for a player… but the price is not a dollar price, but rather the price of the drama. The average fan wants to see Stephen Strasburg on the field. The average fan doesn’t particularly care if he signs for $15 million or $50 million. The average fan is inclined to blame the Nationals if contract negotiations fail – unless Boras calls so much attention to himself and his client that the casual fans see the absurdity in the argument that a $50 million contract in unfair – to the player!

Many fans and bloggers will correctly point out that the $500,000 difference that kept Aaron Crow from signing with the Nationals was a trivial amount, and that it shouldn’t have prevented him from signing. But suppose in that alternate-universe reality that I am so fond of, that Aaron Crow had made those public appearances at Nationals Park, been interviewed on MASN and on the radio, met the team, visited the stadium, seen Washington… given the fans a chance to fall in love with him. Do you think he wouldn’t have been signed? Do you really think that the Nationals could have let Crow walk away, while the casual fan pined for Crow in a Nats uniform? Do you think that $500,000 would have stopped the Nats?

Not a chance. Just the marketing and promotional value of those appearances would have been worth the $500,000, especially as poor as last season was.

My approach works for both parties. The Nats are desperate to show forward progress as an organization. Trotting Strasburg out at Nationals Park would be a huge win for them. And it would be a win for Strasburg, too. It serves to gloss over the monopolistic organization that is Major League Baseball and its inequities, and puts free samples of M&Ms in the hands of kids that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer when they cry for more. We want M&Ms! We want Strasburg!

A quick, fair, and probably record-breaking contract negotiation is a win for everyone. A drawn-out, acrimonious, tedious negotiation full of the minutiae of contract law and the inequities of a monopolistic system, argued on behalf of a college kid with no Major League experience that might make $500 million in salary and endorsements over the course of his career – that would be a loss for everyone.

Remember who the consumers are.

Assuming Facts Not In Evidence: Lerners Are Cheap

IntroBowden is incompetentAaron Crow Sidebar… Lerners are cheap…

Cheap is such a pejorative term, don’t you think?

And in this context, it defies definition. It all started with Ronnie Belliard’s bats, some FedEx letters and team expense reimbursements. Today it has morphed into a commentary on the Nats participation in the free agent market.

Let’s start with the small stuff first. Baseball is an old industry. Very few people work professionally in baseball, and when it comes to management, the there are probably less than 500 people in executive positions across the Major Leagues. To be qualified for one of these positions, you almost certainly come from one of three tracks: you already work in baseball in an executive capacity, you already work in another professional sport in an executive capacity, or you are being groomed internally to advance within an organization. Or, the fourth track, you could buy a baseball team.

The difference between the first three and the fourth is that people who come from the first three are steeped in the culture of the industry. There is a way that you do things in baseball. People who come from a real estate background will likely have a very different view of how one conducts business. Business people draw a distinction between the core knowledge and talents that one needs to develop real estate (or throw a curve ball) and the skills and talents you need to manage your accounts payable. To most business people payables should be the same whether they are FedEx for contracts and blueprints, or FedEx for scouting documents. I am not at all surprised that the Lerners would want to examine the way they procure items or pay expenses.

In a lot of ways, the Lerner’s acquisition of the Nationals was like a merger – of course, the industries couldn’t be more dissimilar – but in any merger, there are always going to be ruffled feathers and hurt feelings as the new parent company asserts its control over the organization. Complaints about payables is just one of the things that happens in a merger. It doesn’t mean that the Lerners are cheap. It just means that the Lerner’s way of doing business was not immediately compatible with the culture of Major League Baseball.

When you’re sitting in a quiet room, and you hear someone in the back of the room cough, it doesn’t mean that everyone there is going to get the flu. In the absense of sound, every little breath is magnified. So it is when the Natosphere waits to hear more about the thrifty ways of the Lerners, and the Nats trade veterans for league minimum players or minor leaguers. Trading veterans for prospects, signing journeymen free agents rather than stars, letting your number one draft pick walk over a difference of $500,000 - the Glass Half Empty crowd sees this as irrefutable proof that the Lerners are cheap… and by this, the critics mean, too cheap to field a respectable team.

Even Tom Boswell piled on today. And I don’t blame him, or anyone else for being upset about the outcome of this season – and there are good reasons to be concerned about the perception of the team by the fans. I am upset too. But the foundations for this year’s poor performance were laid in the offices of Major League Baseball and in Montreal (and San Juan). I don’t see how spending more money could have made the Nats any better or more entertaining to watch. Who could the Nats have signed as a free agent that would have made them better (or more entertaining)? We’ve been promised historically bad teams since 2005, and every year the Nats have overachieved – until this year. In fact, one could even make the argument that spending free agent money caused some of this year’s problems.

The Nats signed two free agent catchers – Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada – with the idea that Jesus Flores needed to play every day. The thought was that he should do that on the farm, where he could become familiar with the Nats pitching prospects, and get another year of seasoning in a less stressful environment. On the surface, that sounds like a wise and conservative way to grow your catcher of the future. But when both Lo Duca and Estrada were injured, Flores was called up, followed by Will Nieves, both Flores and Nieves played their way into the top of the depth chart, leaving Estrada to be released and Lo Duca playing any available position just to get ABs. And why did Lo Duca need plate appearances? Because if the Nats were going to recoup any of his $5 million in salary through trade, he had to play, even if there were better choices – either more talented, more healthy, or just youngsters with more long-term potential. Of course, injuries to Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson, Wily Mo Pena and Austin Kearns made it easy to find potential places to play Lo Duca. Add to that the 40 percent effort that Felipe Lopez gave the Nats, and the same motivations to get him playing time, and it was clear that attending a game during the Nats 2008 season was more like shopping at Big Lots than going to the ballpark.

Don’t think the fans didn’t notice. They did. And just like a 20 minute shopping excursion to Big Lots, when watching the Nats, most fans felt that it was 19 minutes too much.

And it was like that until July 31. And while things were better on August 1, it hardly mattered by then.

But that doesn’t make the Lerners cheap. If you add $10 million to your payroll, and it doesn’t generate any wins, should you spend that $10 million? Is there some other return on your investment?

I don’t know. Probably not, and it is one of those things that is unknowable. But the premise that the Nats are unwilling to spend on free agents has yet to be proven. One can point to the Aaron Crow situation and try to infer something about the Nats willingness to spend, but one could just as easily infer the Nats desire not to be railroaded into overpaying for draft choices.

Stan Kasten made the point back in 2006 that major free agent signings are the last step you take, to get the final piece of your championship team. It is hard to make the argument that the Nats are anywhere close to that point, as they teeter at the edge of a 100-loss season.

Are the Lerners cheap? I don’t know. Either do you.

Assuming Facts Not In Evidence: Bowden is Incompetent

Intro … Bowden is Incompetent… Aaron Crow SidebarLerners are cheap

There seem to be a lot of people who are unhappy with Jim Bowden. Interestingly, very few of them happen to be the principals of the Washington Nationals.

Bowden didn’t sign Aaron Crow. Bowden signed Lo Duca and Estrada, and ended up stuck with their contracts, rather than starting Flores with the Nats. Bowden traded for Kearns and Lopez. Bowden traded for Wily Mo Pena. I could go on (and on). Suffice to say, Bowden’s list of sins is long.

Unless, of course, these are not sins at all.

Fans have no problem spotting poor performances on the field. Every fan has his or her favorites, and his or her list of players that need to be playing somewhere else. Watching a team like the Nationals is particularly painful when, for most people, the second list is considerably longer than the first. But having a list of players you would rather see somewhere else… or perhaps, a list of players that you would prefer were never here in the first place, should not be misconstrued as a referendum on the tenure of a general manager, whether he be Jim Bowden or anyone else.

Acquiring Major League players is not an exact science. In fact, it is not a science at all, but rather, an art. Billy Beane and other proponents of the Moneyball mindset would like you to believe that player acquisition can more or less be distilled down to an equation. But in reality, it can’t. Every GM has a philosophy about how the game should be played and which players best embody the skills needed to play the game that way. Implementing that philosophy takes all that into account, plus the specific conditions at the time – the team’s budget, the availability of players and prospects in your system to trade, the current state of the season (or offseason), etc.

The problem with fans evaluating the performance of a general manager is that fans have almost no information (in real time) about any of this… and for that matter, any idea what the GM does day to day. Fans do not have access to scouting information. Fans do not have information about injuries. Fans do not follow the GM around, listen to his phone calls, sit in on meetings, talk to managers and coaches, etc. Most importantly, GMs are not accountable to the fans, and so the fan’s standard of competence isn’t even relevant.

When fans do get insight into the workings of the organization and the job of the general manager, much of it comes in the form of formal statements or presentations created for fan consumption – such as a radio interview or a fan event with a Q and A session. It is great when those things happen, but it is fair to say that whatever comes of those statements and presentations is canned content for the fans, and that there really isn’t anything of substance said… and certainly that is true with the Nationals.

Even if one looks at the comments that Bowden made regarding the status of Chad Cordero’s 2009 contract, no reasonable person would be surprised by the fact that Cordero would be non-tendered, given the circumstances. What bothered people most is how it was done, and I thought that it was rather boorish to have it play out the way it did. Even so, those are style points, and for the most part, they don’t affect how the GM does his job.

Here is what we do know about the Nats and Bowden: Bowden arrived with the Nats at a time where the ownership had a conflict of interest with the rest of the league. By the time that conflict of interest was resolved and the Lerners were sold the team, the minor league system was bereft of talent. The team, under the stewardship of the Lerners and the tenure of Kasten, implemented a plan to rebuild the team through the revitalization of the farm system, much as Kasten did in Atlanta with the Braves (The Plan). This involved good scouting, strong drafts, trading performing veteran players for prospects, developing your own talent within the system, and the judicious signing of free agents – low budget at first, and then big names when it came to the last piece or pieces of a championship team.

What part of that plan hasn’t Bowden done? In fact, he’s done it all, just as promised.

But what about Aaron Crow? How is letting your number one draft pick walk part of “The Plan?”

Good question. The answer is, none of us know – and can’t know, because teams (and agents and players) just don’t share this kind of information. My guess is that Crow never intended to sign with the Nats, either because he disliked the idea of playing here, or he was hiding something – an injury, perhaps - that affected his ability to play. By orchestrating the failed negotiation, he retains his draft value in the future… and who better to make the patsy of a failed negotiation than someone whose reputation has been called into question, such as Bowden? That gambit doesn’t work with another GM.

The problem is not whether Bowden is competent, or whether he is a good judge of baseball talent, or a good GM. For most fans, the real issue comes down to not liking Bowden, and at the same time, not liking the team they’re watching. Sure, fans can point to particular transactions and say that the Nats should have done this, and not done that… Or that, and maybe they should have done this, too. The fan substitutes his or her amateur 20-20 hindsight for the judgement of the GM, and the fan always comes out smelling like roses, as he or she sits in their $40 seats watching the latest four-pitch walk or two base error, or GIDP. The bottom line is, no fan is qualified to evaluate the performance of the general manager. Fans have no meaningful idea what is being asked of Bowden and whether he is or isn’t doing what it… and none of us are qualified to be general managers or team presidents… Otherwise we would be GMs or team presidents.

As an outside observer, I believe Bowden has been given a specific mandate, and he appears to have done exactly what has been asked of him. Does that mean he is beyond criticism? Absolutely not! I have my own reasons to be unsure of Bowden and of his future with the Nats. But none of my questions have much to do with who was traded for whom, or who we drafted. I don’t believe that the Nats are anywhere except exactly where we were told they would be at the end of this season. Sure, their record this year is worse by quite a bit, and it was one of the more painful seasons to watch. But the Nationals are fundamentally a much better organization in almost any meaningful way (except won-loss record) than they were at the end of last year. All of the facts are entirely consistent with the implementation of “The Plan.” The problem is, most of the fans can’t stand it.

There may be good reasons to get rid of Jim Bowden. I haven’t heard anyone articulate them yet.