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

(Next) Spring is in the Air…

Filed under: Fan Experience,Personnel,Players — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 11:36 am July 29, 2010

This isn’t much fun for me.

Back in 2006, when Jim Bowden was shopping around Alfonso Soriano, we watched and waited every day… waiting for news… waiting to hear about the trade that would send our reason to come to the ballpark off to a contender, in exchange for prospects. Soriano smiled and worked hard, swiped bases, swatted home runs, and threw out runners from left field as if he was turning the 4-6-3, and we all knew that it was a charade. Soriano wasn’t staying, Bowden was asking for the moon, and Nationals fans pretty much knew that the rest of the season was really about showcasing the healthy trade pieces, and not about putting a winning team on the field. We heard the whispers, we read the rumors. Major League Baseball’s contenders were the vultures, and the Nationals were carrion. Bowden stood between them, looking to strike a deal that would send the choicest parts away, for a handful of magic beans.

No, July 2006 wasn’t much fun.

In a lot of respects, 2010 is worse. The Nationals aren’t quite dead,  but they’re not well, either. The vultures are circling, looking to pick up The Last Piece, in exchange for prospects. Bowden is gone, replaced by Mike Rizzo. He, too is asking for the moon. He’s asking for the moon for Adam Dunn. He’s asking for the moon for Matt Capps. Who knows who else is in the trade mix. One of the things that makes it worse is how ubiquitous Twitter has become. Rumors and whispers travel the InterTubes in nearly instantaneously in 140-character chunks.

The trade deadline is the point where most baseball fans (and all Nationals fans) have to come to grip with the fact that the sweet dreams that are born in Florida and Arizona in the spring are dead. General managers knew this in April, but fans hold out hope and root for their favorite players until the end of the season. Rizzo is thinking about 2011. The fans are thinking about the next game. As the trade deadline approaches, and the rumors fly, it isn’t very pleasant for Nationals fans, who spend the days leading up to the deadline contemplating the loss of their favorite players.

I think I can handle the rumors and hand-wringing. If the Nationals can make themselves a better team through trades, I’ll swallow a little disappointment now for a shot at the playoffs next year.

But I am not ready for more of the same.

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.

A few words with Stan Kasten

Filed under: Organization,Personnel — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 7:13 am April 18, 2010

Lets have a little contest. Without doing the research I had to do to compile these stats, tell me which set of statistics belongs to which season – the first eleven games of 2009, or the first eleven games of 2010:

  Year A Year B
Runs Scored 54 53
Runs Allowed 75 66
Team Batting Average .268 .250
Team OPS .755 .770
Errors 13 9
Team ERA 6.38 5.91

They seem pretty comparable, don’t they? One set of stats (2009) belongs to a 1-10 record, and the other (2010) to a 6-5 record.

The correct answer is, Year A is 2009, and Year B is 2010.

Statistically, they seem almost identical, but not only are the outcomes very different, the fan perception of the season so far is different, too. It is just a different vibe.

I have a theory about this. My theory is that the organization as a whole is a healthier place, and we have been seeing the benefits of it in many different forms, but now we’re seeing it on the field, too. This past winter, players (not all, but some) were lining up to play in Washington. A year earlier, nobody wanted to come to Washington. Whether you talk to players, general managers, pundits or fans, nobody sees this year’s team the same way as they saw last year’s team.

Organizational changes don’t happen overnight, and I wanted to find out more about my suspicions. I imagined that at some point in 2009, the Nationals decided that they needed to reinvent their front office, and from there the entire organization.

Last Saturday I spoke with Stan Kasten at Citi Field. I asked him at what point did he decide that they needed to wipe the slate clean, and reinvent the front office. Kasten said that the decision came in March, with the departure of Jim Bowden. I asked if the organizational reinvention was in reaction to the Dominican scandal, and Kasten was quick to point out that there was no way that Bowden or anyone else in Washington knew about the specifics of the Dominican problems, and that had they been aware, to allow it to continue would be professional suicide. Instead, Kasten suggested that Bowden’s resignation provided the opportunity to move in a new direction, and the Nationals took advantage of that.

Unfortunately for the Nationals, they were able to chart the course in March, but they could not act until the end of the season. Teams cannot recruit or hire people for the baseball operation during the season – most of the potential candidates are already committed to teams. But the Nationals planned through the summer, made note of those who might be available at the end of the season, and moved quickly to expand their front office once the season was over.

I asked Kasten if the Nationals were done with their organizational overhaul, and Kasten said no, that they hadn’t hired everyone they wanted, and that they expect to further enhance their baseball operations. Look for more additions in the fall. Kasten also added that the new facility in the Dominican Republic is expected to open in May, and that he has high hopes for what the Nationals can accomplish there.

I suspect that the work the Nationals have done over the past year – starting with the reinvention of the entire baseball operation has made a huge difference in the way the club sees itself and how others see the Nationals. Washington is now an attractive place to play, and I think that we are seeing at least a part of that difference manifest itself in the outcomes of the games at the beginning of this season. The statistics aren’t all that different between this year and last, but the results are certainly different.

Other notes from my conversation with Stann Kasten…

One of the topics of conversation that came up was Adam Dunn, and the status of his contract. Kasten mentioned that he thought that it was a mistake for Dunn to insist that he’s a National League player. Clearly, Dunn would be an attractive candidate for an American League team looking for a designated hitter. I asked Kasten if that gave the Nationals some advantage in their negotiations with Dunn for his extension, and Kasten said that the only thing that was preventing a deal was that Dunn needed to show that he could really play first base. Kasten said, “I love Adam Dunn… I really do love him… but he has to prove he’s a first baseman”

***************

Hendo commented that it was easy to tell the difference between 2009 and 2010 because of the errors… but if you only compare the first ten games, they become almost indistinguisable:

  2009 2910
Runs Scored 50 53
Runs Allowed 68 66
Team Batting Average .269 .243
Team OPS .763 .754
Errors 10 8
Team ERA 6.32 6.52

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Filed under: Fan Experience,Players — Tags: , — Wigi @ 3:51 pm March 17, 2010

Damn you, Jim Bowden.

Back in 2007, when Bowden traded for Elijah Dukes, the fans of the [Devil] Rays couldn’t have been happier to get anything in trade (in this case, Glenn Gibson) for Dukes. Tampa Bay fans, and the Rays organization had given up on him. Nationals fans, while wary, were willing to give Dukes a chance. The team made efforts to give Dukes a support system. Over time, Elijah grew on many Nationals fans.

Today, as we digest the news that Dukes has been unconditionally released from the team (here and here and here), most fans are expressing shock and sadness. In the three seasons Dukes played for the Nationals, we saw numerous flashes of brilliance, struggles at the plate and on the field, a demotion, a call-up. We saw Dukes make halting steps forward as a person. I think most Nationals fans were rooting for Dukes as a player and as a person. We were ready for another Dmitri Young story – a disturbed and troubled man finding his way, finding redemption in his God-given talents. Coming into spring training, we all wanted to believe that we were a few weeks away from seeing the complete transformation of Elijah Dukes.

And we (he)  may well have been that close.

Damn you, Jim Bowden.

The problem is, Nationals fans should never have been put in the position of having to mortgage their hopes on (one of a series of) Cinderella stories. It doesn’t matter what metaphor you want to use for Elijah Dukes – the kid deserving a second chance, the low-cost, high-upside gamble, the misunderstood and unpolished superstar (oh wait, that was Lastings Milledge). Because of Bowden’s need to weave together getting something for nothing and a morality play, success for Elijah Dukes has always been defined as something more than just becoming a successful baseball player. That is unfair to Dukes (though he has some control over how his morality play turns out) and it is unfair to the fans.

All of that additional drama, heightened expectation, and now hand-wringing is courtesy of Jim Bowden. Bowden couldn’t acquire a player (or make any kind of a public move) without inviting controversy. Pick your player/story: Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez, Chad Cordero, Aaron Crow, Wily Mo Pena, Paul LoDuca – I could go on (and on… and on) – they all seem to have some BowdenDrama back story that makes them more about Jim and less about the player.

Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love Elijah Dukes, and nobody wants him to be successful more than I do… and nobody is more crestfallen about his release. But it is easy as a Nationals fan to accept that the development of a player was not only good for the team but good theatre… because that is the bill of good that Bowden sold us, over and over. That isn’t the way it has to be.

If you look at Elijah Dukes’ career thus far, but forget that it is Elijah Dukes, there really isn’t anything all that surprising about his release at this point. The Nats are flush with outfielders, many as young and promising as Dukes, but with a lot more potential and organizational flexibility. Dukes had to come into spring training and own right field. He didn’t. He’s gone. We’re only in a dither about it because he’s Elijah Dukes.

As I read the news this morning, I couldn’t help but think that if Jim Bowden had spent as much time evaluating talent and charting a course for the team as he did weaving the BowdenDramas he wove, the Nationals might be in a much better place today than they are. Most of us might never have learned the full Elijah Dukes story, and at one level that would be sad, but that story wasn’t about baseball.

Over the years I gave Bowden the benefit of the doubt – as a rule, I don’t think I have much grounds to comment on what a GM does, because I don’t have those skills or tools. I think now I was wrong not to be more critical.

I am really going to miss Elijah Dukes. But I think that his release was both the right decision and a gutsy one on the part of the Nats.

Damn you, Jim Bowden.

We All Get a Little Pudge Around the Holidays

Filed under: Organization,Players — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 1:46 pm December 8, 2009

If it weren’t for Paul LoDuca, we would all be thrilled about the signing of Ivan Rodriguez.

Pudge isn’t LoDuca. Pudge (presumably) knows what his role is… I’m not sure LoDuca did.

This should be a no-brainer for Nats fans.  As much as we all love Wil Nieves, Pudge is in a different tier than Wil.

Pudge will be in the clubhouse as much (and maybe more) for what he knows and who he is, than for what he can do. In the most recent Nationals Journal posting, Chico Harlan quotes Jack McKeon about Pudge:

“What a leader he was,” McKeon said. “He not only leads by example, but he was really positive with the Latin players. He’s a guy that took charge. He took charge of that [2003] club. Good guy, comes to play, unselfish, does all the little things. He’s a winner. I heard about the move and I couldn’t wait to see Rizzo to say, ‘Damn, you got one of my favorite guys!’”

Later in our [Harlan and McKeon's] discussion, McKeon explained Rodriguez’s value in relation to the young pitchers he can potentially help.

Speaking about the Nationals, McKeon said, “You’re probably going to get a half a year quicker development from those young guys and that’s where he’ll really pay off. That’s where you’ll really like him.”

As for the salary – critics of the Nationals payroll over the years complain both that it is too low, and that the Nats are wasting their money. As for the wasting part, we can point fingers directly at Jim Bowden, who today said:

“Following in the footsteps of Paul LoDuca and Dmitri Young, another bad [signing] by the Nationals,”

quoted from Dan Steinberg’s D.C. Sports Bog

Seems to me, if anyone would know a bad signing in this world, it would be Jim Bowden…

On the other hand, if Bowden doesn’t like the move, how bad could it be?

If the Nationals get the kind of leadership from Pudge that he’s brought with him for his whole career, $6 million will be a bargain.


Encouraging Signs

Filed under: Organization — Tags: , — Wigi @ 7:30 am March 3, 2009

As the faithful dance in the streets over the departure of Jim Bowden, I have been watching for signs that the real issues are being addressed.

Everywhere you look you see Stan Kasten reasserting unmistakable control (here, here, here) of the entire Nationals operation. He has assumed the role of General Manager (until such time he can name a replacement). He has encouraged his front office staff to look for new and better ways of doing things, telling them that in the face of adversity, opportunity is often found. He’s appearing in the media frequently. He has a coherent message, and has had one since the whole Smileygate brouhaha came to light. He has taken responsibility for the situation in the Dominican Republic, and for the tenure of former GM Jim Bowden.

These are all the things that a team president should do. What is most interesting is the great skill and poise that Kasten is showing as he does all of these things.

Back in 2006, when Major League Baseball was still evaluating the different ownership groups, Kasten joined the Lerner team at the suggestion of Bud Selig. The idea was that Kasten brought the baseball knowledge and track record in professional sports that were necessary for a successful organization, and as I pointed out in a posting last week, this move was widely seen as being the one that made the difference for baseball, and made the Lerner bid successful.

We’re now down the road three years, and the Nationals have struggled to find direction. Often when organizations struggle this way, it is because there is a lack of clarity within the organization. Many would point to Bowden and suggest that he was the cause of that lack of clarity, but I would suggest to you that he was a symptom rather than the cause. The real cause of organizational frustrations such as these are often difficult to see from the outside, even in organizations whose profile is as public as a professional sports team. Organizations often don’t realize the energy and resources that are wasted as different parts of the organization pull against each other, rather than focusing that energy towards a common goal.

The outward signs, as imperfect as they are, suggest that many of the divergent motivations within the organization are now being addressed. Kasten seems to be consolidating the operation into a single coherent unit. The public face, as seen in the media, has taken a very different appearance in just the last week.

That said, we can’t know for sure that whatever has been causing the Nationals to spin their wheels organizationally is being addressed. But at least, from where I stand, there seems to be movement in a positive direction.

Boxed Scores

Filed under: Organization — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 4:45 pm February 24, 2009

A quick perusal of today’s Nationals Journal and The Washington Post (and here) point out that the Nationals have painted themselves into a corner at a rather bad time. It is Spring Training, the Nats have some moves they need to make, the roster is filled with unanswered questions, and a cloud hangs over the General Manager.

The Nats have a problem.

There are the obvious ones. Smileygate (I hate the ‘gate’ suffix, but it just sounds so funny in this case) is the obvious one, but my issue is actually much larger. In fact, if you think about it, Smileygate isn’t all that big a deal if you look at it by itself – the Nats investment in real dollars is comparatively small, there is about zero chance that the organization did anything wrong, and the worst case scenario is that Bowden (not the organization) pocketed some of Smiley’s bonus – again, highly unlikely. Some would argue that the Nats reputation was already trashed, and this doesn’t really make things any worse than they already were.

But here is the problem – Whatever one might think the solution is, the Nats are paralyzed. For the moment, they can neither fire Bowden nor endorse him. They put themselves in that situation, in my opinion, because they made the choice to put off ‘good’ and instead accept ‘good enough’.

When you’re an entrepreneur, ‘good enough’ is usually good enough. You go to Costco to get your cups for your espresso stand. But once you get a little bigger, or more successful, you might want your logo on the cups. On the other hand, when you’re at the elite level of your industry, the things that separate the top from the bottom become a bit more esoteric. Logos on your cups are a given. Logos on the napkins, too. You now start to worry about other things – the things that differentiate your business from all others. The things that makes people choose you over your competition, and things that make you out-compete your competition.

When Major League Baseball awarded the Nats to Washington, and then selected the Lerners as the owners, we (Washington fans, and the Lerners) received an eviscerated franchise, burnt to the ground by the league. MLB was essentially saying, here is your ticket to play in our league. It is up to you to make of it what you will. In a New York Times piece written on opening day, 2006, Murray Chass writes about the impact of adding Stan Kasten to the Lerner’s ownership group – and speculates that by doing so, the Lerners guarantee success. I think that was a very astute observation then, and it is still true today. The thought was that Kasten added a level of gravitas to the ownership group that made them credible within the world of Major League Baseball. But as Kasten has said all along, the process of making a success of the Nationals is a long term project, especially given the state of the organization at the time they took over… and nobody should expect instant results – hence, the birth of “The Plan”.

The Lerners and Kasten inherited Bowden from the days of MLB’s stewardship, which was the definition of ‘good enough’, though just barely. At the All Star break in 2006, the Lerners should have replaced Bowden – not because he had done a bad job… in fact, I would argue that he did an amazing job with nothing at all. The Nats were the Stone Soup of baseball in 2005 and 2006. The reason that the Nats should have replaced Bowden is because it would have signaled an end to the ‘good enough’ era, and the beginning of the ’good’ era.

Today they are suffering from that legacy. The Nationals ownership has had numerous logical opportunities to replace Bowden, but did not. The argument that one would make to replace Frank Robinson with Manny Acta would be the same one you would use to replace Bowden – it is time for a new direction, time for a new philosophy, time for a new tradition of excellence. Instead, the Nationals took a pragmatic approach to the operation of their front office – and let’s be clear here, there was a certain logic to keeping Bowden. If your team is going to be bad, no matter what… and cobbling together a Major League roster is going to be the modus operandi for a year or two, why not keep the person who has done it both the best and the longest – Bowden? But this brand of pragmatism comes at a cost – the reputation of the organization… and not because Bowden had done a bad job, but rather, because his retention signaled that the Nats weren’t prepared to commit to the level of excellence that was expected of an elite organization… the kind of organization that the Nationals aspire to be. By not replacing Bowden as a part of a new era for the team, they squandered a good potion of the reputation that they brought to the table.

So here we are, at Spring Training, 2009. I think it is clear that ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough anymore. You can argue, as Boswell did today, that Bowden has done at least an average job. But as Chico Harlan reports, the organization is now looking for that excuse to cut their ties with Bowden.

The thing is, the Nats don’t need an excuse, and they never did. It was always the right thing to do, and I suspect that they knew it. It is just that now, they can’t do it ethically without convicting Bowden in the court of public opinion – and if my gut is right, Bowden is guilty of nothing more than being duped by those intent on defrauding the Nats for a million or so dollars. So the excuse they’re waiting for is really the excuse they need so that they don’t have to be accountable for their own poor choices.

The mistake was that the organization made a commitment to mediocrity, with the idea that mediocrity was all the Nats could muster for a few years, no matter what. The right course of action might have been to embrace excellence, put the proper front office together that you want for a long time, and be dissatisfied with that mediocrity. It might have been frustrating and painful, as viewed from within the organization. But from out here, in the world of the fans, we probably wouldn’t have noticed a difference. There would have been a unity of purpose, and the Nats could have spent those two years cultivating their reputation within baseball. Would it have made a difference? Who knows. But the fans, and the pundits, and I think perhaps the baseball world world would feel a lot more at ease with where the Nats are now.

Unfortunately for the Nats, getting rid of Bowden does not in and of itself solve the problem. The Nats could get rid of Bowden, and still settle for another mediocre solution. The problem is understanding the difference between the pragmatic course, where you operate the team in one way (rebuilding) until you’re ready to operate the team in another way (contending), and the course of excellence, where you assemble the organization that will build and maintain excellence from the first day, and settle for nothing less.

When I first started this blog, I posted a page and another page about my professional and academic training, and how that colors how I view the Nats. One of the things that I bring up in those pages is the idea of a “Clear and Elevating Goal.”

There is nothing clear or elevating in mediocrity.

Eggs in One Basket

Filed under: Organization — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 3:30 pm December 23, 2008

They never really had a choice.

For all of the reasons that people have quoted, including Jim Bowden’s comments in the most recent Nationals Journal posting,Mark Teixeira was the perfect free agent candidate for the Nationals. He addressed virtually every one of the Nationals major needs: he plays a position that the Nats are now desperately trying to fill, he can hit, he’s a local product. The magnitude of his contract dispels (at least partially) the notion that the Lerners are unwilling to spend money on payroll. By making a credible offer to Teixeira, the Nats have helped change the perception of the organization in the eyes of the public and the media – though I would say that there is still a long way to go there.

Only one problem – Teixeira now wears pinstripes.

And what a problem it is. The Nats really needed to sign Teixeira, but for more esoteric reasons than simply the performance of a player on the field.

Bear with me for a moment – I want to perform a mental exercise. Suppose you could wave a magic wand and make two things happen: First, you would make Nick Johnson impervious to injury, and second, make sure he performed at the level he has during his healthy times with the Nats. Would Nick Johnson be all that different from Teixeira?

Not that different. Comparable OBP. Less power. Similar average. Similar fielding. Nick Johnson isn’t Mark Teixeira. But he isn’t bad. An injury-free Nick Johnson (the logical equivalent to a calorie-free cheesecake – nice in principle, but a fantasy) would solve the Nats on-field problems for a quarter of the money. But what the magically-enhanced Nick Johnson doesn’t do is this: He doesn’t have local roots. He doesn’t have star power. He doesn’t send a message to the clubhouse that today is the day to win, not next season. He doesn’t send a message to all of Major League Baseball that the Nationals have come to play, create a baseball dynasty in Washington, compete perennially, and be a force both on the field and in the marketplace.

Teixeira does.

But nobody else does, even with a magic wand.

There is nothing in the free agent market that the Nats need the way they needed Teixeira. That’s not to say that there are not free agents out there that the Nats might pursue. But the scope of the Nats need is very different with respect to the remaining marketplace. Signing Dunn (or, heaven forbid, Manny) will be a hollow acquisition unless either can be had a fire sale prices. Both have significant flaws and pose problems for the organization in terms of making them fit. And sure, lots of people can make arguments about this player or that one, but again, which of them puts fans in the seats and makes Nationals Park a line of pride on the back of a baseball card? None of the free agents address that issue, and honestly, I believe that is the most important issue that faces the Nats – credibility.

Do you need proof? We only need to look at the pursuit of Teixeira, and how it turned out. Could the Nationals have kept a low profile, as the Yankees did and then swoop in at the last minute? Of course not. The only reason the Nats were even in the running is that they substituted cash for credibility – and apparently Teixeira left some cash on the table in order to play for the Yankees.

Need another example? Free agents don’t walk away from Redskins money, regardless of how poorly they play. And it isn’t like the Yankees tore up the AL East last year. No reputation and no track record equals the Nationals. Fix the reputation and the need for a track record goes away.

If the Nats are significant players in the remaining free agent market, it will be like sending the kids off in a toy store with $20. They’ll spend every penny and have nothing to show for it in a week. On the other hand, not making a significant expenditure will rile the portion of the fan base that has only a one-dimensional view of player personnel, where payroll is correlated with quality.

So the Nats lost in their quest to land Teixeira. But there was a lot more at stake than the obvious. Fixing the hole on the field will be relatively trivial. Fixing the hole in the baseball world will take time.

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.

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