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!

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.

The Quiet Revolution

Before the Nationals game last Thursday against the Pirates, Manny Acta held a team meeting.

Since that time, the Nationals bullpen has an ERA of 2.30 (4 earned runs in 15 2/3 innings). Of those four earned runs, two were charged to Kip Wells, who gave them up in the twelfth inning of last Friday’s game against Baltimore. He was pitching his second inning in relief, and after a fluke base hit by pitcher Danys Baez of the Orioles, Wells gave up two doubles.  The bullpen has  struck out nine while walking eight – and if you throw out Daniel Cabrera’s performance last night, they’ve walked only five. Joel Hanrahan has two saves. Jason Bergmann, Kip Wells (despite giving up those two runs Fiday night), Ron Villone and Joe Beimel have pitched very well. Even Jesus Colome had a scoreless inning last night.

The team as a whole has had two errors, and given up no unearned runs.

That is quite a turnaround, and we would be feeling a lot better about it if the Nats were hitting the way they have been all along this season. What we’ve seen instead is a struggling offense. My theory is that the Nationals sorely miss the bats of Elijah Dukes and Jesus Flores. In the meantime, we’re left with a team that looks a bit like last year’s team -  a team that opponents can pitch around a bit, leaving our lineup without protection. The Nats are a very different team at the plate with Flores and Dukes in the lineup.

Add to it all the strong performances by callups Craig Stammen and Ross Detwiler – both of whom have pitched well as starters, and suddenly the Daniel Cabrera situation seems a bit less urgent. Cabrera didn’t make a strong case for himself last night… but at the same time, that probably means he could probably be DFA’d without risk of losing him, and perhaps some time in Syracuse would be good for him. And maybe that would be as good for him as time in Washington has been for Stammen and Detwiler.

The Nats rotation has enough depth to survive an injury or two. We’re playing better defense, and our bullpen has started to show their stuff. Later this week we should have two big bats back in the lineup.

I am not crazy enough to declare the disaster over… but there are certainly lots of reasons to be hopeful.

It may have all started in the Nats clubhouse last Thursday.

—–

On a different topic, Chico Harlan posted in Nationals Journal about the Reviewed, Debated Home Run. Here is what I commented:

This situation is the shame of instant replay.

It isn’t that the umpire made the wrong call. In my biased opinion, he did make the wrong call. But instant replay gives umpires the opportunity to make a mistake twice, under the guise of trying to get it right once.

With no instant replay, mistakes are made. With instant replay, mistakes are affirmed. And in fact, the instant replay rule detracts from the game. It isn’t as if instant replay eliminates bias – it eliminates a random event.

I don’t think it was a home run. But nobody is served by instant replay in this situation. The kind of remedy that instant replay gives you here is the same kind that technology might one day automate the calling of balls and strikes. It offers the illusion of objectivity… and it is just that, an illusion. Baseball is the most human of sports. Adding technology to the mix does not make the game better. It separates us from the game.  That the umpire made a mistake last night isn’t nearly as bad as the idea that technology only served to affirm that mistake.

I’ll take my chances with the umpires.

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.

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.

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.

Phillies: The New Cowboys?

I live far away from Washington now, and so I am sure it happens to me a lot more often than it would in DC. I’ll be walking down the street, and I’ll see that dreaded blue star. Perhaps on someone’s hat, perhaps on a bumper sticker. Every once in a while, on a stadium jacket. My thoughts immediately turn to Tom Landry and Roger Staubach. Clint Longley sneaks in there occasionally, too… and the hackles stand up. A visceral dislike for the Cowboys is one of the hallmark traits of a Washingtonian.

But rivalry requires reciprocity, and the Redskins haven’t held up their part of the bargain as of late. Other teams in other sports have drawn their share of ire from Washington fans – back in the early 1980′s, when the Capitals experienced their first surge into respectability, the Flyers were always the most hated team to come to the Capital Centre.

Last night, we may have witnessed the beginning of the Nats first real rivalry.

The building blocks have been falling into place for a while – The famous 11 PM start to a rain-delayed Nats-Phillies game, ending in a Nats win back in 2006. John Lannan hitting Chase Utley and breaking his hand last year. Kyle Kendrick’s chin music to Ryan Zimmerman, followed the next at bat by a home run – These are just a few examples.

But things changed last night. It isn’t often that one gets to see a straight steal of home (whether successful or not). But it wasn’t just that Utley tried to steal home, but rather, that he turned himself into a human projectile, and endangered both himself and Jesus Flores in the process. The collision resulted in a very scary and probably season-ending injury to Flores, and taken in the context of the apparently-escalating tensions between the two teams, perhaps there was more at stake than just scoring a run.

Chico Harlan reported in Nationals Journal about the clubhouse reaction to the play at the plate with Utley and Jesus Flores. I found the comments to be rather tame. In Chico’s online chat today, I asked him about whether there was more to the comments than meets the eye, to which he said, maybe, and maybe not.

I think there’s bad blood. The kind that transcends seasons. The kind that makes almost-meaningless games a lot more meaningful. The Clint Longley kind of bad blood.

Interleague play and Beltway Series don’t make for a rivalry, especially between two second-tier teams. The Washington-Baltimore rivalry was a lot more intense in 1971 than it is in 2008, and until the Nats plays the Orioles in October, it is going to stay that way. A late-night loss in front of 200 fans, the loss of a star player to a broken hand on an HBP, a 23 year-old third basemen getting knocked down one inning and going yard the next AB and a straight steal of home that looked more like breaking up the wedge on a kickoff than a stolen base attempt – those may be the birth of a rivalry, because the players feel it… not just the fans.

Of course, I didn’t need any help disliking the Phillies anyway.

Fan’s Guide to Watching The Washington Nationals (revised 6/19/2008)

It isn’t just about the expectation of wins (and losses). It is now, and has always been, about building for the future. The problem is, from where the fans sit, it isn’t entirely clear that the Nats are really building.

In fact, thirty seconds of thought will indicate that they are; one only has to look at the minors to see that the pipeline is at least partially stocked with something other than cobwebs. Moreover, the Nationals minor league system has the best combined record in baseball. Admittedly, minor league baseball may not be all about winning, but if nobody is out there trying to win as their primary goal, but rather to foster the growth of young talent, one could reasonably make the argument that won-loss record is at least a partial indicator of success.

But little of that is consoling after watching the Nats flail in Minneapolis. Even when they’re winning, there is something a bit unsettling about the team. I feel very fortunate to have seen the Nats in Seattle, where they caught a team that was struggling as badly as they are. It was fun to watch, but I never got the sense that I was watching a juggernaut, even when sweeping the Mariners in Safeco. So there’s something very ‘MSG’ about our Nats diet as of late. An hour after a win, we’re hungry again.

So this is what I suggest: Stop watching the Nats with the expectation of a particular outcome, which is to say, that the Nats are going to win. Instead, look at the individual moving parts, and lets watch how they grow and develop. And with that in mind, here is my list of things to watch for the rest of this season:

  • Watch for a lack of personnel changes at the top: Don’t expect Bowden to be fired before the end of the season. If you ignore the won-loss record this year, and simply look at the acquisition of personnel, Bowden has done a pretty good job as GM. The Nats have drafted and traded for prospects rather well, and in doing so, provided the foundation for a winning club, if not this year, in a year or two. What Bowden hasn’t done well this year is manage the 25-man roster. Admittedly, the roster problems are even more severe than usual, with all the injuries, but there has been a lot of playing with a short bench. I predict that Bowden will be fired at the end of the season, and it will signal an important organizational change for the Nats. It will signal the transition from the ‘acquiring the pieces’ phase to the ‘putting the pieces together’ phase. Bowden has some important shortcomings that, in my opinion, make him unsuited for the latter task. If I am wrong, and Bowden is fired before the end of the season, it will almost certainly be because other MLB teams are trying to court Mike Rizzo into GM positions, and the only way the Nats can keep Rizzo without crippling Bowden in the trade market is to fire Bowden and make Rizzo the GM.
  • Watch the Nats designate Wily Mo Pena. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened today or tomorrow. If you’re Bowden, and you still love him, send him down (he’ll clear waivers) and let him get his 300 AB in Columbus, and then bring him back in September… maybe. Who would you bring up instead? Well, there are all sorts of choices. Pick one.
  • Watch the development of Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge. It is hard to really appreciate the growth that they’ve experienced thus far, when it rains in our hearts every day, but give Bowden credit on these two acquisitions. Milledge is already as good as Church would have been on this team, and Schneider would be spare parts, with the emergence of Jesus Flores. Dukes has some growing up to do yet, but at least in public, he’s been a good citizen, and he’s flashing the leather and getting good ABs.
  • Watch the team develop some synergy as the injured veterans clear the DL. When healthy, we have a middle-of-the-pack roster, that without the clutch bats of Zim and Nick Johnson, and the steadying presence of Austin Kearns, is exposed and easily pitched around. Clearing the DL will go a long way towards creating more sunny days in our hearts.
  • Watch the development of our starting pitchers. Shawn Hill sure struggled today, but looking back at recent pitching performances, for the most part, the scores and the won-loss record belie the fact that the Nats have pretty good starters. Lannan is going to be spectacular, Bergmann has his flashes of brilliance, Redding and Perez have both been more than serviceable, and when Hill is on, he’s amazing. But all of them have been hung out to dry by their offenses, and while one might say that what happens at the plate is not related to what happens on the mound, the question is, how long can a pitcher pitch with no margin of error? When our bats give the starters a lead, the pitchers will be dazzling… and none of that addresses the talented arms in the minors waiting to come up.

I am disappointed that the Nats are not on the road to 85 wins this year. Before I started blogging, I was Professor Emeritus in the “Glass Half Full Department”, and as you can see, I revert to my roots. But that being said, I think we will soon see the end of the Bowden era, and for no other reason than it will shake up the clubhouse a bit, a change in the coaching staff, particularly with regard to Lenny Harris. But there are other lessons to be learned this season and chemistry to build, so don’t expect too much change before October. Making changes now sends the message of panic and instability, neither of which is what the Nats need.

The medicine tastes awful, doesn’t it?

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.

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