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

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?

Negating the Negative

Filed under: Games — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 10:52 am May 10, 2009

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, the scattering of spectacular wins that the Nationals have pulled off in the early part of the season were fun to watch, but not really indicative of the way a team builds a winning habit. Surround them liberally with games-they-should-have-won, and you have the formula for our April malaise.

Yesterday’s game was another spectacular win, but unlike some of the earlier versions, it was a game where the better team won, rather than the worse team getting lucky.

And don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of luck involved… but it wasn’t the luck that results from the other team’s bad fortune, but rather, the luck you create when you’re playing well. The highlight was Austin Kearns and Jesus Flores combining for a 9-2 force at the plate, but there was plenty of highlights to go around, and you can see them here (to see the Kearns-Flores put-out, click the link below the video player).

… and for those of us who care to revel in ex-Nat schadenfreude, there was no better central character than Felipe Lopez. In addition to being the player thrown out at the plate going from third to home on a ball hit to right field, he was called out at first earlier in the game on a ball hit in the infield , even though Adam Dunn dropped the throw… but Dunn was able to pick the ball up before Lopez got to first because Lopez didn’t run it out. Some things never change.

The Nats modest streak doesn’t undo a terrible April. But suddenly the Nats are winning the games they should win, and as a team, and for us, as fans… we can finally take a breath and look around at the MLB world. On this Sunday, we discover that we’re only 5.5 games out of first, and we no longer have the worst record in baseball – that distinction belongs to the Indians.

The Nats can’t undo April. But they’ve started to build a sound season, despite the rocky start.

Other notes: Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman both hit solo homers deep to center. Zimmerman’s extended his hitting streak to twenty-seven games. Both homers can be seen in the video highlights linked above.

Has The Ship Been Righted?

The opening game of our series with Arizona is in the books, and perhaps for the first time this season, the Nationals won with sound baseball.

In all of the previous wins, we’ve seen the extreme ways a team can win: flawless pitching, hitting barrages, improbable  comebacks – and don’t get me wrong, those wins were fun to watch and demonstrated some of the important characteristics that a team has to have.

What we hadn’t seen this year was a game where we took the lead early, held it all game, and protected a one-run lead in the ninth inning. Until last night.

This game was precisely the sort of game I’ve been waiting to see from the Nats – an unremarkable, fundamentally sound game. The reason is, almost all of baseball is comprised of games like this. You don’t often go down six runs in the first inning, and then come back to win 11-9… or get complete games from a 23 year-old starter… or hit four home runs in a game. The Nats wins this season  have been precisely this type, and while they’re fun to watch, they’re not the thing that a successful season is made of. Last night’s win was different.

Also important was the fact that the Diamondbacks are a team we should beat. They’re suffering from internal turmoil, having just let Bob Melvin go as their manager. They’re also a team of Nationals cast-offs – many of whom we’d like to see do well, and the occasional slacker-malcontent.

The Nats made giant-killers of every team in the National League East in the month of April, as they stumbled out of the gate. But just as the Nats played the rest of the division, they played each other, too… and now that we’ve bothered to look up and see where we are twenty-seven games into the season, we see that the rest of the division has been in a four-way bar fight with each other, and they haven’t put any distance between them and us. As we wake up on Saturday morning, we find the Nats six games out of first with most of the season ahead of us. The Nats are 5-5 over the last ten games, and 4-1 over the last five… and we have a runner on first with one out in the 11th inning against the Astros… and as the home team, I like our chances.

Am I suggesting that all is well with the Nats? Absolutely not! The Nats lead the majors in errors, and they continue to make plenty of miscues in the field. The bullpen is struggling, though recent moves to bring more veteran arms into the ‘pen seem to be helping… and of course it helps to have Joe Beimel back.

There’s a lot to be happy about with the Nats right now. They’re hitting a ton, their young starters are doing well (for the most part), and the bullpen seems to be settling down a little bit. They’re sure fun to watch – it is just a shame for most of you on the east coast that they are playing out here on the left coast. They make for entertaining viewing during dinner here in Alaska.

… and then there’s this: Ryan Zimmerman extends his hitting streak to twenty-six games, and probable future Nationals player Stephen Strasburg threw a no-hitter for the San Diego State Aztecs last night.

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.

Depressing…

It seems the Nats are losing a lot lately (though as I write this, they’re three of their last five, and leading the Dodgers in the sixth). And I am depressed.

But not so much about the team. Yeah, I had higher hopes – really high hopes. I was the one that stole the term, “Irrational Exuberance” from Alan Greenspan. Greenspan was right, and apparently I was also right (in my wrongness). But as frustrating as it is to watch the Nats sometimes, it is nothing compared to reading the fan commentary in the blogs. As irrationally exuberant as I was in March (and especially after the Nats starting the year 3-0), the most boisterous of the blogosphere are irrationally vitriolic. Pick a target – Felipe Lopez, Paul LoDuca, Jim Bowden, The Lerners, Stan Kasten, Austin Kearns, Luis Ayala… even Ryan Zimmerman and Manny Acta – All of them have had critics crying for their firing, trade, release or public flogging.

All because the Nats are a last-place team.

Is this an unexpected result?

Lots of people hoped that the Nats would have been a lot more fun to watch. Whether that means flirting with a pennant race, or just being a .500 team, or even just a chance to see the Nats win every time you come to the ballpark – Most of us hoped for something more than we’re getting. As it turned out, what we’ve gotten is something we hadn’t considered – the historically-bad team we were promised last year – or at least, something close to it.

Back in June I wrote this, because it was clear back then that the Nats weren’t going anywhere, and the important things to watch and look for this season had little to do with the specific outcomes of games. I still believe what I wrote, especially the last line – “The medicine tastes awful, doesn’t it?” The problem is, the medicine was unnecessarily bitter.

If you’ve waded around this blog, or know me personally, you know that my academic and professional background is in organizational communication. One of the most important tenets of getting the most from your organization is to have a clear, organization-wide philosophy – and this is exactly where the Nats got themselves in trouble with their fans this year.

Once the Nationals organization realized that this year was about preparing the organization for growth and success in 2009, 2010 and beyond, each game became a marketing exercise to impress visiting scouts. We saw Paul Lo Duca play all over the field. We saw Felipe Lopez sleepwalk through a summer. Neither deserved to play, with healthier and better-performing alternatives available. But the Nats were not about putting the best team on the field every night, but rather, about getting the most from their personnel investments. When doing your best (by playing your best players) isn’t your organization’s primary goal, then your employees (and players) rarely do your best.

Fans may not have thought about this explicitly, but most knew that they weren’t seeing the best team on the field every night… and even when the best team was on the field, you always got the sense that the outcome of the game was secondary to making sure the scouts in attendance saw all of the goods that were available for trade.

The catharsis we all felt when the Nats released LoDuca and Lopez, and the hot streak that the team set out on immediately afterward, shows how quickly the change in philosophy can work. A lot of people thought it was about the addition of new, young players, but more likely, it was addition by subtraction.

I don’t blame fans for being frustrated, disgusted or even angry about this season. The Nats front office has created a lot of their own problems and left it to the fans to endure a 90 percent product. But regardless, the Nats foibles are short-term ones, that come the end of September, will be meaningless. The Nats will have made important progress towards building a perennial winner, and really, that is all we could reasonably expect from the 2008 season.

Which brings me back to the depressing, vitriolic blogosphere. Be angry. Be upset. Be frustrated. But the incessant, shrill whining about how cheap the Lerners are, or whether Bowden is a competent general manager, or even if Lenny Harris should be fired – is tiresome. I might be inclined to listen if the blogosphere were populated by billionaires, Major League GMs and hitting coaches. But mostly, the blogosphere is made up of men and women just like me – passionate about the Nationals, but for the most part, no more knowledgeable or competent at any of those positions than that guy sitting on the Metro reading the newspaper. Repeating your truth over and over doesn’t make it a universal truth.

But apparently, it makes an already bitter medicine even more bitter.

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.

Things I Got This Weekend

I am back in Anchorage after a weekend in Seattle. I went to Safeco Field for each of the three games, and here’s what I got:

  • I got a nasty sunburn on Sunday. Aparently Alaskans are not designed for temperate latitude sun.
  • I got to see the Nats sweep the Mariners. I came away from the first game thinking that it was mostly the luck of a poor pitcher, but my opinion has changed some. The Nats got some timely hitting in the second inning Friday night, and made the most of it… though I think the Nats don’t win that game without the DH (Pena singled in the second, pitcher would have bunted). Most of the moving parts worked well on Saturday and Sunday.
  • I got an Adrian Beltre Bobblehead.
  • I got Ryan Zimmerman’s autograph (and John Lannan, Tim Redding and Wil Nieves. Good thing I got Nieves, never know what is going to happen to him).
  • I was convinced (yet again) that Jesus Flores is the real deal.
  • I got to impress some Seattleites by predicting (at three different games) a Felipe Lopez groundout, 4-3, a Jose Vidro groundout, 4-3 and a Wily Mo Pena strikeout. How hard can any of those predictions be? In all three cases, they came up with runners on base.
  • I got to enjoy Safeco Field. All the things that people say about the place are true. Plus, when you walk around wearing Nats gear, they treat you like a guest. One of the hosts gave me her secret route out from the ballpark, which worked like a charm. Lots of people asked where I was from, and if I had come from DC to watch the games. Everyone was friendly and courteous. Reminded me of 1/(Citizens Bank Park).
  • I got to see JimBo on the field with his gal pal and another couple. He was wearing some ratty jeans, but his girlfriend looked nice. I didn’t say hello – I am not sure I want to be seen in public with him.

I couldn’t have asked for a better trip to Seattle. But I am still conflicted about our boys. But I am starting to think that when people get healthy things may start to change. A healthy Kearns spells the end for Wily Mo. Dukes (despite his run-allowing error today) has locked up an outfield spot, though I think that he might be a better centerfielder than Milledge. A healthy Zim spells the end for Lopez – and by the way, I would love to hear from the SABRmetricians out there about how much of a difference there is defensively between Zim and his replacements. My non-scientific answer is, a ton.

Know what else I got this weekend? Some reason to hope that things are going to get better.

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.

Don’t Panic!

I watched the game last night. It was bad. Really bad. Terrible. I begged, “Make it stop!” It was so bad that when I was chatting in the PlanetNJ chatroom when Elijah Dukes came up in the 8th inning and someone asked what people thought of Dukes - at that moment Dukes hit into a double play – I answered, “I am liking Dukes pretty well right now, he’s not prolonging my agony.”

But it was just one game.

The thing is, nothing is really any different than it was before last night’s game. The Nats are still not hitting. Starting pitching is still a strength, despite Chico’s performance last night. We might point some fingers at Colome, except that he hadn’t pitched since Friday night in Baltimore. When was the last time a Nats reliever went six games between appearances? Did I mention that the Nats are still not hitting?

[506, a reader/participant from "Nationals Journal" points out that our position players actually hit pretty well last night:

Lopez, 2 for 5, 2 doubles, 1 K
Zimmerman, 2 for 4, 1 RBI
Young, 1 for 3, 1 RBI, 1 BB
Milledge, 2 for 4, 1 K
Flores, 3 for 4, double]

I might have predicted that the Nats would lose last night. In fact, I did predict it. I just didn’t tell anyone. Matt Chico isn’t Shawn Hill, and that’s probably good, if for no other reason that Shawn Hill has a bum arm. But, he’s also not the same quality pitcher as Shawn Hill, and to me, Hill missing a start meant a loss. I hoped for a different outcome, but it was not to be. The bottom line is that last night’s loss was about pitching… and for the most part, our starting pitching has not been a problem this season.

Over the past several weeks, there has been considerable rumbling among ‘The Constituency’ for the firing of both Lenny Harris and Jim Bowden. I would point out that last night’s game does not make the argument for either of their firings more compelling. I have been critical of Lenny Harris in that position, but my reasons have more to do with the fact that I think it is inappropriate for the Nationals to provide on-the-job-training for a MLB-level hitting coach more than with Harris’ performance… And his performacne is not something that I am in the position to evaluate. The external indications are not good, but the magic of that position occurs in the clubhouse, and I am not privy to the goings-on there.

As for Bowden, many will point to his comments yesterday as indication that he’s not the man for the job. I don’t think you can take much of what Bowden says to the press to be very meaningful. The personnel operations of an MLB team are inherently secretive, and I think it is safe to say that anything that Bowden might say is vetted and filtered through the “appropriate for public consumption” filter. Bowden isn’t going to divulge anything of substance to the public that either does or does not indicate his fitness for the job.

These are tough times, but mainly because we have higher expectations. I would point out that while Chico’s performance last night was abysmal, the overall quality of his pitching this season is no worse than we came to expect last year… and this year we have five starters that are performing better than he is. That’s progress.

Just relax!