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

Will History Repeat Itself?

I make an effort not to put myself in the position to be an armchair General Manager. I figure that there are probably fifty people in the world who are qualified to be a Major League GM, and I am not one of them. For me to comment would be a little like me commenting on major surgery – Take that spleen out! You can live without a spleen, right?

But there are aspects of being a GM that isn’t about evaluating talent or negotiating contracts.

One of them is, what happens when one (or more) of the Nationals’ prospects ends up playing themselves onto the big club’s roster?

The gaudy (in a bad way) start of spring training is setting up the scenario where it is entirely possible that a player like Ian Desmond or Drew Storen so handily outperforms the incumbent that Mike Rizzo’s biggest April worry is what to do with Cristian Guzman and Jason Bergmann. It wasn’t so long ago – 2008 – that this very scenario played out as Jesus Flores played himself onto the big team’s roster, even when his ticket seemed irrevocably punched for AAA.

Back in November, I traveled to Arizona for Arizona Fall League, and I interviewed Drew Storen about his plans for spring training. At that time, he said his plan was to come to Florida and make an impact. While he’s had only one appearance so far, it was notable for both its success and brevity. He’ll pitch again tomorrow – and while his appearance may be overshadowed by Stephen Strasburg, a strong performance will almost certainly get the attention of the front office. An impact, indeed.

Ian Desmond is doing the same thing… and as a position player, he’s getting a chance every other day or so to show that perhaps Syracuse isn’t the place for him.

The problem that Rizzo faces is that the business of baseball – assigning players to the minors in order to both foster their development and slow down the arbitration clock – seems to be in conflict with the actual performance of the players. I suspect it is tempting to not let a player’s emprical performance on the field interfere with a perfectly good business decision. But the fans don’t see it that way, and people like me are rooting for Drew Storen and Ian Desmond.

I am not saying that Storen or Desmond… or any other Nationals rookie… deserves to make the team. What I am saying is, if they have game, they don’t deserve to ride the bus in the minors because the Nats have expensive contracts with veterans. The fans don’t deserve it, either. I think we deserve the best available team… and I think that the take home message from 2009 is that  it is a mistake to assume that any player on the team is a lock at his position on the first day of spring training (see Milledge, Lastings). Albert Pujols comes to spring training believing he needs to earn his spot. It seems to work out for him.

So will history repeat itself?

Let’s hope!

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.