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

Remind You of 2005?

It shouldn’t.

The Nationals of 2005 were a very different animal than the Nationals of 2010. In many ways, it feels the same, and Mark Zuckerman wrote today of the last time that the Nationals were four games above .500. But on September 18, 2005, the Nationals were riding the escalator down, while our 2010 Nationals are riding the escalator up.

The Nationals in 2005 were the bare bones leftovers that Major League Baseball decided to impose on its thirtieth city – in many respects, worse than an expansion team, because there was no need for MLB to create the illusion of fairness of an expansion draft. The league, with the able assistance of Omar Minaya and Jim Bowden gave Washington a team with a  slashed payroll and traded away every significant prospect. Even if the 2005 Nationals had found their way into the post-season, nothing between 2006 and 2009 would have been appreciably different.

Our Nats sucked, and they would have sucked, no matter what.

But here we are in 2010. The Nationals are about in the same place in the standings as they were in 2005. But the Nats’ future looks very different.

The problem is, nobody really anticipated that the Nationals would be all that different this year. I think most of us had absorbed the idea of 70-92, and most of us would probably have be OK with that. We were ready to accept twenty-two games below .500, knowing that we would be better next year.

But we’re better this year.

Which makes me wonder. At what point does Mike Rizzo decide that the Nationals need to make a run at this season?

The Nationals shopping list is actually rather short. While the Nationals desperately need improved starting and relief pitching, they have ample reinforcements on the way, in the form of Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Chien-Ming Wang, Jason Marquis, Ross Detwiler, and perhaps Jordan Zimmerman. Last night’s game exemplifies why the Nationals need to shore up their pitching. They won, but the bullpen made things exciting… perhaps a little too exciting for some people’s tastes. If we can wait out three weeks of Super-Two purgatory (and several rehab stints), the Nationals pitching will be getting a lot better very quickly.

The other glaring hole is in right field, where there is no in-house answer. The platoon of Justin Maxwell, Roger Bernadina, Willie Harris, Willy Taveres and who-knows-who-else (actually, I do know, Cristian Guzman) has been adequate to good defensively – and defense is a big part of the Nationals success in 2010. But at the plate, well… not so hot. There are some who argue that we should just let Willie Harris play the position.

I am torn. I think that Willie Harris will be a better hitter if he plays every day. But what he won’t be is the guy that offers protection to the lineup… and I think that the Nationals need one more feared bat in the lineup. Say what you will about Elijah Dukes, opposing pitchers at least respected him. Sure, you could throw breaking balls at him, but you couldn’t make a mistake to him.

The Nationals will be Also-Rans if they don’t solve their right field problem. The question is whether Mike Rizzo is going to be satisfied with meeting the 70-92 expectation, or whether he’s going to shoot for 92-70. If he chooses the latter, the Nationals are going to have to make a trade. The current winning formula isn’t sustainable… even with better pitching. They need their entire lineup to wake up at the plate. As it is now, there’s a path through the lineup where you can pitch around the hot hitters. A legitimate bat with the defense and arm for right field is what they need.

Right now.

O-Dog

Filed under: Personnel — Tags: , , , , , , — Wigi @ 3:38 pm February 4, 2010

There are some deals that you just feel bad about when they don’t happen, but for me, the Orlando Hudson deal wasn’t one of them. Not that I am the first to say this, but there are reasons that Hudson isn’t with the Dodgers, and there are reasons that the Dodgers acquired Ronnie Belliard last season.  Hudson was/is asking top shelf money,  and I think there are good reasons to believe he isn’t top shelf anymore.

I totally agree that the Nats have gaping holes at middle infield, but they have had them for a long time, and it isn’t an easy problem to solve. What is different now is that at least we have some prospects - Ian Desmond - who is in the neighborhood. After Desmond put on an encouraging showing at the end of last season, a lot of fans would probably settle for an Ian Desmond – Cristian Guzman middle infield. Clearly that isn’t what Mike Rizzo has in mind, but there is still time to work another deal, whether through trade or free agency. The worst we’re going to end up with is Desmond and Guzman. There are worse possibilities. Think Felipe Lopez and Jose Vidro.

I think it only makes sense to be upset about losing Hudson if you think the Nationals are at 90 wins this year, and signing him gets you to 93… and if your argument is that Hudson is a stop-gap until Desmond is ready, $9 million is an expensive stop-gap. I think there are a lot of acceptable ways for a 75-to-80 win team to fill the middle infield for a year, and most don’t cost $9 million.

I absolutely want to see the Nationals acquire a top-shelf middle infield. But I think there was very little upside with Hudson, and a lot of risk. Hudson was not Mister Right… He was Mister Right Now. If we could have landed him for what (we think) Rizzo was offering, it was a good deal. I like that Rizzo stuck to his guns.

Makes you a little teary-eyed for Alfonso Soriano, doesn’t it?

Christmas in November

Nationals fans got some of their Christmas presents early this week, with the announcements that Ryan Zimmerman was honored with both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards for his amazing play in 2009. Add to that the announcement that Jim Riggleman has been chosen as the permanent manager for the Nationals, and you’d be hard pressed to find a week with more Nationals news that didn’t have seven lineup cards and a few home runs.

Bloggers got an extra gift this morning – a telephone press conference with Jim Riggleman.

After having spoken to Drew Storen last week in Arizona, I was curious if Riggleman had some advice for those young players that were hoping to crack the twenty-five man roster this spring. Riggleman pointed out that the players in the Arizona Fall League are the cream of the crop and that the majority of them make it to the Major Leagues – though not all make it right out of spring training. Riggleman added that Storen’s path through the organization – signing early after the draft, getting considerable experience in the minors, and then an additional stint in the Arizona Fall League has done nothing but help his chances. And while Riggleman said it was too early to say exactly where Storen might land in the spring, he suggested that there might be opportunities for him if he earns it in spring training.

Some other notes from the press teleconference:

  • Riggleman hopes to have Cristian Guzman play at second base this year. Guzman’s September injury to his shoulder prevented the Nats from trying Guzman at second at the end of the season. Guzman’s surgery was successful and the damage found was minimal, so there is every hope that a healthy Guzman will move to second base in the spring.
  • … which brings us to shortstop. Riggleman mentioned that he would be comfortable with Ian Desmond at shortstop, but there has been some recent rumors that the Nationals may be interested in other shortstops that might be available on the free agent market.
  • Scott Olsen is recovering well from his surgery, and is expected to be ready for spring training.
  • Jordan Zimmerman is also recovering well from his surgery, but Riggleman does not expect Zimmermann to be back before 2011.

Reminiscing…

I was reading Tom Boswell’s piece in The Post today, and it got me thinking about the Nationals, and their first year in Washington. The return of baseball to Washington had captivated me – as a native Washingtonian and childhood fan of the Senators, I made the trip back to DC for Opening Day – a ritual I have re-enacted every year since.

Back in Late July, 2005, I got a phone call from a friend of mine that lived in Denver. My friend had helped me with my business, and suggested that perhaps I should take a weekend and go to Denver, and take in the Nationals series against the Rockies. The Nats had just completed a torrid first half, had lead the National League East, but were now slowly coming back to the pack, and in fact, they had lost their lead by this time. I, like every Nats fan, was totally wrapped up with the improbable season, and I couldn’t get enough. While it was clear that the Nats had begun their slide back towards the middle of the pack, I expected the Nats to right themselves and stay in the playoff picture to the end. I was wrong, of course… but had the Nats played just .500 ball the rest of the way (a reasonable hope and expectation after a 51-30 first half), they might well have been playing in October – 90 wins won the National League East that year, and 89 won the Wild Card.

I debated the idea of going to Denver, and when I realized I could only make one trip east for the remainder of the year, I decided that I should save the opportunity, and go back to DC for the playoffs. I skipped the trip to Denver (where the Nats swept the Rockies), and instead watched the Nationals at RFK in September, where they lost their last three, to settle at 81-81.

The 2009 season is now over (for the Nats, at least). I watched the Twins-Tigers game yesterday, and couldn’t help imagining the Nats in that situation. Not our current Nats, mind you… but the team of our future. Maybe even next year’s Nats. There is a lot to look forward to, not the least of which is that it really can’t be any worse than it was this year. We have good young pitching today, that hopefully will be great young pitching tomorrow. We have the leadoff-hitting center fielder we’ve wanted since our hearts were broken by Endy Chavez. Willingham and Dukes could play for almost any team, and both are poised to find their place in the big leagues. Adam Dunn is proving to be a better first baseman than anyone ever expected, and while Ryan Zimmerman is proving to be everything we hoped he would be, our hopes are stratospheric. He is our superstar. Once again, the questions are up the middle, and while I am skeptical that Ian Desmond is the answer at shortstop, or that Guzman will thrive at second, I am just a blogger, and not a major league scout or GM… so what do I know? And the question remains whether Jesus Flores can come back from his injuries, and becomes the every day catcher we think he is, or the Nick Johnson of the catching fraternity.

So for Nationals fans, the slate has been wiped clean, and not a moment too soon. If you need a positive message to take forward from 2009, the Nats played .440 ball after the All-Star break (including the end-of-the-season seven-game winning streak, and an eight-game streak in August), compared to under .300 for the first half. And unlike in previous years (thanks, Jim Bowden), instead of needing to cobble together a team comprised mostly of castoffs and second chances, the Nationals have a small but manageable shopping list for the offseason. When you’re 58-103, the playoffs may seem to be light-years away, but the addition of just one or two players can make a huge difference; for example, the Nationals with Nyger Morgan were 22-26 (.458) , and 36-78 (.315) without him.

Boswell’s point today about the playoffs is this: Once you’re in, it doesn’t matter what you did before that. The same is true for the Nationals in 2010. It doesn’t matter what happened in 2009. On April 5th at 1:05 PM, we’ll all be in our seats at Nationals Park, our Nats will be tied for first, and the promise of every baseball fan everywhere will be ours – in April, anything is possible. The difference between 2010 and every Nats season that came before it is that the best Nationals team ever will be on the field.

All of the Pieces

You have to admit, watching the “Battle of the Beltways” has been entertaining so far.

In the last two games, we’ve seen great Nationals pitching and at least crisp, and occasionally spectacular defense:

Justin Maxwell snares fly in the first inning. (Image courtesy of MASN and the Washington Nationals. Used with permission)

Justin Maxwell robs the Orioles Adam Jones of a home run in the first inning. (Image courtesy of MASN and the Washington Nationals. Used with permission)

What we haven’t seen is the Nationals hitting the ball.

The reason for that has to do with the Disabled List. When you remove Jesus Flores and Elijah Dukes from the lineup, there’s actually a way to pitch around the Nats. Adam Dunn has struggled since Dukes has been out, and the Nationals miss Jesus Flores both behind the plate as well as when he’s at bat. And while Anderson Hernandez doesn’t make the lineup any more formidable by himself, his speed, and the presense of Cristian Guzman two hitters later in the lineup helps to insure he gets some pitches to hit.

In my last post I spoke about the need for the Nationals to be accountable for their level of play. The next day, Manny Acta held a team meeting, and since that time, the Nats seem to have been transformed – at least when it comes to pitching and defense. It hasn’t been lost on at least some of the national media: Tim Kurkjian wrote a piece last week about the bright future for the Nats. If the Nationals can play average defense and get average pitching from their bullpen, if the all-rookie (almost) rotation can continue to go six or seven innings every game… and if the Nats – and given history, this is a big if – can keep their starting eight on the field and off the Disabled List, we’re going to see real baseball break out on Half Street.

But in this respect, the Nationals are fragile. As well as the team has played since the end of the Pittsburgh series, they’ve barely been able to put up runs, even against a team as weak as the Orioles. Once you’re into the bench, things get dicey. The bench is acceptable, and perhaps above average, as a bench goes. But when the Nats bench is starting every day, the lineup just isn’t as imposing as it could be.

And as spectacular a catch as Justin Maxwell made today, he isn’t the hitter that Dukes is.

The sample size is small – three games – but since Manny’s team meeting, the Nationals seem to have their head screwed on more or less straight. Once we get all of the pieces back, we might actually see what the Nationals are capable of.

Don’t Be Fooled

For most of the season, Nationals fans have been rooting for exactly the scenario that they received last night: a lead in the ninth inning, and Joe Beimel in to close the game.

The result: A blown save.

Most of the Natosphere was probably asleep as the Nats fell behind, then came back and took the lead, heading into the bottom of the 8th up 7-5. Kip Wells gave up a  solo homer in the 8th, and the Nats took the field in the bottom of the 9th ahead 7-6. Beimel retired the first two batters, then allowed Emmanuel Burris a single up the middle. Burris took a lead off first, and Beimel threw away a throw-over, and Burris advanced to second. Beimel walked Edgar Renteria and then served up a hanging curve to Pablo Sandoval, who dutifully placed the ball into the left field stands. Nats lose, 9-7.

Everyone is going to want to pile on to the bullpen, and Beimel in particular after yet another blown save. But none of that matters.

It doesn’t matter because Cristian Guzman’s error in the 4th inning contributed two unearned runs to the Giants total. Two runs. Who knows how many additional pitches. Beimel’s error in the 9th didn’t make a difference in the final outcome, but Beimel would likely have pitched differently with Burris at first, rather than at second.

The bottom line is, the Nats are playing sloppy defensive baseball, and the pitching staff, and the bullpen in particular, are paying the price. That isn’t to say the pitchers are blameless. Daniel Cabrera couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn from the inside with runners on base. But the pitchers are being asked to do more than they should have to do… and the pitching staff is the Nats weakest link.

The Nats can’t continue to play sloppy defense, and hope that a top-notch offense will come to the rescue every night. The interesting thing is, the offense does seem to come to the rescue every night. But the team has to pitch, and the team has to play defense. Lately, it has been enough about half the time. Imagine how good the outcomes would be with fewer erros.

Rob Dibble posted a very interesting blog on the MASN site the other day, suggesting that the Nats could win 92 games if they won four out of every seven every week for the rest of the season. Of course, it is foolhardy to believe that this team could do that. Or is it? I argue that it is only foolhardy to believe it because this team either can’t or won’t play the disciplined baseball they should be playing.

For the first time since the Nats moved to Washington, they have a team that can hit. No lead is safe when playing the Nats. But because the Nats don’t play disciplined baseball when they have the ball, no Nationals lead is safe, either.

The Nats are making too many errors.  They’re throwing too many pitches. They’re giving away too many bases. They’re handing their opponents too many runs.

Joe Beimel blew a save tonight… A save he should have made. But don’t be fooled – it should never bave been a save situation in the first place.

Wonder Bread

Filed under: Organization,Training and Conditioning — Tags: , , , , , — Wigi @ 4:07 pm October 17, 2008

When I read that Dr. Ben Shaffer resigned from the position of Medical Director for the Nationals, my curiousity was again piqued at the nature of the Nationals training and conditioning program, and the way they manage the health of their players. I’ve long been curious about it, and back in late March I had a conversation with Mike Henderson of Nationalspride.com on this very topic. At the time, I had no idea how profoundly troubled the Nats collective health was going to be this past season, and 2008 has only made me even more curious about how a professional baseball team manages the health of their players.

Going all the way back to 2005, the only consistent thread in all four of the Nationals seasons is the tremendous number of injuries and player-days lost to the disabled list. Strains, tears, tweaks, pulls, fractures – call them what you will. But they were stunning in both their number and variety. And no doubt, they cost the Nationals games, and in more than one case, the Nats had to promote, trade or sign players that they might not have moved otherwise, simply to cover injuries with the big club.

Now I have no first-hand knowledge about the quality of the Nationals medical staff, including the quality of service provided by Dr. Shaffer. I would assume that it was at least adequate, and my guess is that it was probably world-class as sports medicine goes, if for no other reason than the Nats have had so many opportunities to seek out the best sports surgeons in the world. I don’t think the problem with the Nats had anything to do with the quality of the care they received from their medical staff. Instead, it was that they needed the care in the first place. In many ways, having the best surgeons on staff is a bit like a NASCAR team having the best body shop – you hope that you never need them, but they don’t help you win today.

If I were the owner of a Major League Baseball team – a team that cost me $450 million and certainly worth more than that now, and a big part of my success hinged on keeping the moving parts well-oiled and in factory condition, I would want a state-of-the-art shop and the best mechanics. I would want the best equipment, the best minds and a cutting-edge philosophy on how to get the most from my players, and how to keep them healthy. Medicine and conditioning science is not like classical physics – in medicine and fitness there are new discoveries and new understandings of the way the body works seemingly every month. Not much new has happened in classical physics since Kepler figured out the orbits of the planets. With the kind of investment that an owner has in his or her team, and profound impact that the health of the players have on the bottom line, you would think preventing injury and enhancing performance (legally) would be near the top of the list of organizational priorities. Is it with the Nationals? I have no idea. The anecdotal evidence says, probably not.

If I were the owner of the Nationals, this is what I would do:

  • Place a clause in every player’s contract that offered a bonus for staying injury-free for a season, and for self-reporting injuries that require medical intervention, but would otherwise go undetected. For example, a player might self-report that he has pain when swinging the bat, and his report would precipitate a medical examination. Wily Mo Pena is a perfect example of this scenario, but if you remember, Jose Guillen had a similar problem, too. In Pena’s case, it might have prevented further injury, and it might also have prevented his acquisition by the Nats, had his shoulder problems been known in 2007. If a player is hurt, and his continued play either risks further injury, or significantly degrades his performance, there needs to be an incentive to get the care he needs. The bonus shouldn’t be large, but  big enough to get the job done. Perhaps the bonus goes to a charity, rather than directly to the player. I am open to suggestions. And this isn’t to say that the Nats have to put the player on the DL. But at least they are better informed to make the right decisions.
  • Every player should have his eyes checked [Cristian Guzman] every year… In the fall, so they can have whatever corrections that need to be made with plenty of time for recovery.
  • Every player should have a contractual obligation to a fitness regimen, and the proper incentives or penalties for meeting or not meeting fitness goals. Players with chronic conditions should be required to aggressively follow their progress. For heaven’s sake, they’re professional athletes (more or less)!
  • The team should align itself with academic institutions that lead the fields of fitness, nutrition, conditioning, repetitive stress injuries, kinesthetics, sports psychology – any relevant field. They should donate money for research. They should hire practitioners as consultants and coaches. In short, the Nats should lead, rather than follow, the endeavor to learn and create the cutting edge philosophy of fitness and sports medicine. And by funding that research, they have first access to its practical application.
  • The team should cultivate a staff of world-class sports medicine physicians. Apparently they already have done this, but it is never time to rest on your laurels. Have the best surgeons, and hope you don’t need them.
  • Lastly, the Nats should take some of their new-found knowledge and offer some community outreach to schools and neighborhoods so that amateur athletes, and kids and families in general can benefit from the cutting edge of sports medicine. They could offer workshops for high school coaches, create Nats-based fitness plans for kids that mirror a player’s plan – in season, being in game shape, and in the off-season, keeping in shape and working on new things. The options are numerous, can be easily tied into marketing (and thus, income) and fulfill a mandate to serve the community.

For all I know, the Nats are already doing at least some of this. But my guess is, probably not. I think baseball is slow to accept new ideas (and I am the first to admit, there’s nothing that says this is a new idea – it is just new to me), and if this is one, then perhaps it is time to think outside the box. My guess is that there is still a lot to learn when it comes to conditioning and preventing injuries… and we’ve come a long way since “building strong bodies twelve ways”.

Injuries happen in baseball, as they do in all sports. But given the profound number of injuries the Nats have suffered, the mind begs for a connection between them. It might be conditioning, and it might not. It might be that the Nats have consistently pursued and assembled a team of chronically fragile players. Either way, both have a systemic solution – and one that needs to be found soon, because the fans can’t take another season with the best DL team in the league.

Built, Not Bought

Filed under: Organization,Personnel — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 12:13 pm August 29, 2008

Back in June, 2006 I came across a link for the Nationals Park Web Cam. It was very cool. I could click on it and watch the slow but steady progress as the stadium was built. The cam had an interesting feature in that you could select the time for an image – typically there was a new one every 20 minutes or so – and you could watch the minute-by-minute changes in the stadium. The thing is, on a project as large as this, it was difficult to see anything significant that changed in a 20 minute timeframe. In fact, were it not for the moving cranes and the slightly changing shadows, one might not notice the difference from one image to the next. In fact, it was often difficult to tell whether anything changed from day to day. It took some scouring of the images to notice that a new girder had been placed, or a more concrete poured.

Sometimes it would rain (or snow) and the camera would be obscured. Sometimes the camera would be down for a day or two. I would look at the cam every day, but I would probably have been better served to look at the cam once a week, or even once every couple weeks. It was only on this longer time scale that one could see progress being made. [As an aside, follow the link above and do just that... pick a day and go one week by one week... it is an interesting progression.]

Nationals Park is our team’s home for the next thirty or so years… and while it is a building, it is a good metaphor for the Nationals as an organization.

What didn’t happen with Nationals Park is that the city didn’t go to stateoftheartballparks.com, click on ‘New Stadium’, ‘Add to Shopping Cart’, ‘Check Out Now’, pay with a credit card, and wait for the stadium to show up on the UPS truck. Similarly, fans shouldn’t expect that of the Nationals, either.

I have been stewing about this issue for weeks, and last night’s game gives me the perfect opportunity to write about it: two important pieces of the Nationals future had spectacular games last night, and in the process, helped the entire team have one of their better outings of the year. As painful as this season has been to watch, last night we got to see a glimpse of what is possible with the Nats of the future.

Hitting for the cycle is one of those batting achievements that happens only slightly more often than pitching a no-hitter, and Cristian Guzman was spectacular last night hitting for the cycle last night. Of course, he was almost too productive in the process, getting his single by getting tagged out at second trying to stretch it to a double. But as Chico Harlan pointed out in his gamer, by the time Guzman hit his triple, the game had become more about a spectacular finish than winning.

As impressive as Guzman’s performance was, the real reason for hope was Elijah Dukes. We didn’t see a career night last night from him, but rather, we saw a glimpse of the incredible power he brings to the plate. Don Sutton pointed out after Dukes’ first home run that it wasn’t a home run swing… but that he has so much strength that often times, making contact is enough. His second home run was, well, a moon shot. Add to that his speed and defense, and the fact that he seems to have (at least for now) rehabilitated his character… I think a lot of Nats fans are glad that he’ll be around for a while.

What is significant about both Guzman and Dukes is that both are slated to be part of the foundation upon which the Nationals dynasty is to be built. Of course, they’re not the only pieces – a certain third baseman, and a catcher, and a number of pitchers (three starters got wins against Los Angeles) all come to mind… Building the Nats is not a click-and-deliver proposition. It takes time, and sometimes it is hard to see the progress… and sometimes the webcam is off, or obscured by snow and rain, and it seems that things are regressing rather than progressing. Sometimes, like last night, the view is spectacular.

This is a big-picture endeavor.

What To Do…

Filed under: Personnel,Players — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 6:41 pm June 24, 2008

One of my good blogging friends and fellow Nats fan, Mike Henderson (whose blog can be found at nationalspride.com) wrote a recent posting concerning Cristian Guzman, and his potential to be the Nats’ All-Star for 2008. At the end of his posting, he wrote the following:

More importantly, now is the time to consider what the Nats should do with respect to Guzman at the end of the season, the final one of his current contract. If he is priced reasonably, should they think about trying to re-sign him to a multi-year deal?

Cold-hearted though it may sound, from where I sit the answer is no.

Lest we forget, the Nats are still in the process of rebuilding the system, from the MLB level right on down. What they should do is, first, shop Guzman to a contender during the season in exchange for prospects. If that doesn’t work out, by all means offer him arbitration at the end of the season.

If he accepts a one-year arbitration deal, fine. If not, the Nats should be happy to get the two draft picks that accrue when a Type A free agent (which I think Guzie will be) declines arbitration.

While it’d be heartwarming to say that Guzman should be welcome to a place at the Nats’ table for as long as he wants to stay and is effective, the big picture needs to be kept in mind.

And while it’s a little sad to consider the thought of perhaps having to say goodbye, the decision to continue to move the franchise forward shouldn’t be a tough one.

I don’t agree. Here’s why:

Let’s assume for the moment that Guzman is gone in 2009. For a different set of reasons, but just as certainly, we can also assume that Felipe Lopez will also be gone in 2009. This would leave the Nats with no middle infield, and the necessity to acquire at least one, and perhaps two major-league ready players to fill those positions (one could make the argument that Ronnie Belliard, under contract through 2009 could play every day at second base). Where would the Nats acquire one or two middle infielders?

  • In trade – The Nats have nothing to trade that would get them a majors-ready shortstop, with the possible exception of a starting pitcher, and I think it is safe to assume that we’re not trading John Lannan (or any of our other starters).
  • From within the system – There are no majors-ready middle infielders in the Nats system. There are some replacement-player-level players, some of whom are young, and might be diamonds in the rough. But these are not the players that you come north out of spring training, thinking that you’ve solved your middle infield problems.
  • Free Agency – There is some possibilities here. Suppose I told you I knew where you could find a 30 year-old free agent shortstop who is a switch hitter, is hitting over .300 and is having an all-around career year. Moreover, he’s been injured for most of the last few years, so his recent stats don’t look that great, so there’s probably some discount to be had. Plus, you can start negotiating with him today, rather than waiting for the start of the free agency period in November (the advantage being, no competition from other teams). Lastly, he’s probably among the best of the available 2009 free agent shortstops. His name? Cristian Guzman.

Some might argue that what the Nats need are prospects, and not majors-ready players. The Nats absolutely do need prospects (particularly in the infield). But the one area that the Nats are probably most in need is at second and short, and there is no hope that any infield prospects that they might acquire (or any that are already in the system) would be ready to play at Nationals Park anytime before 2010. So that leaves the Nats looking for a free agent shortstop (and/or second baseman) to play next year, and perhaps the year after. Why not extend the one you have, who has shown that he’s the real deal? Nobody knows more about Guzman than the Nats do now, so there would be few unanswered questions. Everyone will worry that his production will wane, but that is going to be the case with any free agent that you might select, so if you’re pretty certain that you’re going to have to sign a free agent, you may as well get the best available at the position.

Here’s the proper strategy for Cristian Guzman: Sign him to a four or five year contract. Spend some money, and load the back end with incentives. Look to trade him with a year on his contract. This gives the Nats time to find and develop the top-tier shortstop that they are going to need in the long run.

Malaise

Watching the Nats is like tending a campfire on a rainy weekend. You feel miserable, and desperately want things to get going, so you can warm up and be comfortable. You poke and prod, add kindling and wood, huff and puff, and every once in a while, you get a flash and some heat and light, but mostly what you get is a smelly, smouldering pile of ashes.

Flashes:

  • Elijah Dukes – He’s a kid. A kid with man-sized problems. But a kid that works hard, loves the game, and has shown improvement over the season – but most importantly, improvement that has come from learning and hard work, and a bit of luck. His discipline at the plate is getting better, he’s getting on base, and with his move to the second spot in the order, he’s getting pitches to hit. Despite two base running gaffes today, he is mostly competent on the basepaths, and is going to get better with experience. Unfortunately, he cost the Nats at least one run, and perhaps more today, but that’s not going to rain on my parade – there were plenty of other players that had opportunities to perform, but didn’t. Throw in the personal redemption angle, and he’s quickly becoming my favorite player… an important, if not fragile distinction.
  • Lastings Milledge – Like Dukes, he has steadily improved through the season, apparently through hard work and observation. I have seen a number of people from the “Glass Half Full Department” comment online that they believe that when he fully matures, he might be a twenty to thirty home run a year hitter. We can hope. I think there’s some noticeable improvement in his defense, and the SABRmetricians among you can tell me if his fielding and range are indeed getting better. Is he a center fielder? We can hope. There are still plenty of unanswered questions about Milledge, but for the unconvinced among you, I have these two words: Nook Logan.
  • Cristian Guzman – The only player on the team to blaze out of the gate, Guzman’s performance is showing that last year’s short but sweet performance wasn’t a fluke. The horse racing analogy is apt with Guzman, because if you look at past performance, you wonder which of the last four years is the real Guzzie. A shoulder injury and poor eyesight make for a convincing argument that 2008 is the norm and 2005 is the anomaly. The Planetarians as a whole would almost certainly feel differently if one or both of those had not happened or were addressed earlier. He’ll make Bowden’s (or whomever the GM is) job more difficult come November. Were I the GM, with no credible prospects in the pipeline, I’d be wanting an extension now.
  • Jesus Flores – There’s not much to say, except that Flores is the catcher of the future, and the future is now. He hits, his defense is good (but could be better), he calls a great game, and the pitchers love him.
  • Starting Pitching – The Nats have, for the most part, gotten more than they bargained for from their starters. Putting Perez on the DL isn’t so painful, given that you can have him back for his next start, and you have a number of credible replacement parts. Thank goodness for good drafts and smart veteran signings.

Ashes:

  • Felipe Lopez – The poster child for malaise. If he did nothing else other than hustle on every play, he could hit the same and field the same, and I would feel a lot better about him being out there. But he doesn’t, and I don’t. And if he did hustle on every play, he would hit better and he would field better. Were it not for all the injuries…
  • Wily Mo Pena – Man, I really want him to get ahold of just one ball… just one. But he’s a liability at the plate, and a liability in left field.
  • Paul Lo Duca – The “Glass Half Full Department” thinks that his clubhouse experience on winning teams could be a valuable asset. But anyone that enjoys tinkering with chemistry knows that sometimes when you mix things together, you get pretty colors, and other times you get maiming explosions. Add to that deteriorating skills both at the plate and behind the plate, and it becomes clear that the only person that is threatened by Lo Duca’s presence on the roster is Don Sutton.

What I want to know is, why is it raining in the first place? This team is more talented than last year’s team, by quite a bit. One can point to injuries, but the Nats have always had them, and this year is not that much worse than others.

My biggest concern for the season is that the Nats are learning how to lose, rather than building character and learning how to win. Getting some players back from the DL will make a huge difference. I like Belliard, but he’s no Zim. I miss Nick. A .250 hitting Austin Kearns is a huge upgrade over Pena. But until they’re back, the team is broken… both in a physical sense, and from where I sit, in their heads.

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