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!

The Case For Pedro

Does Pedro Martinez have an ego?

Uh huh.

Is Pedro a Hall of Fame starter in 2009?

Nope. If he was, do you think he’d be sitting the spring out?

So why would the Nats be interested in him?

Because they need him… in the ninth inning.

Honestly, the Nats don’t really need starters. Lannan, Martis and Zimmermann are good now, and may well be great in a couple years. Olsen is better than his statistics show, and would be better still if the defense would come to his rescue a bit. Cabrera… perhaps a lost cause… but the Nats have a slew of starters that are as good (or better) either languishing in the bullpen or in the minors. Pedro would be an improvement there, but only a marginal one, I think. If you look at the cost of Pedro, versus the cost of starters already in the system, you’re probably talking like $500,000 to $1 million per additional win with Pedro in the rotation – if you could get him for $2 million.

But imagine Pedro as a closer… He’d have his mug on television every other day. Opposing batters respect him, he’s fearless, he has the poise and demeanor to be in the game when it is on the line…

… and we got nuthin.

Suppose he really did cost $5 million for the rest of the season. Would it be a bad investment, if you could get him to be a closer? I don’t think so – he and Beimel would be anchors in the bullpen. I think anyone would suspect his ability to go five or six innings, but he could probably be counted on for one… not to mention that he’s not pitching now, so even if you were going to use him as a starter, you’d need to stretch him out a bit. Why not just leave him at 25 pitches an appearance?

To sell it to Pedro, you’d have to appeal to his vanity and ego: you’ve done everything else… finish your career showing that you can do this, too… and do it as only Pedro can.

To sell it to the Nats, I would point out that the Nats have a marketing problem – their team can’t play in a close game, and they need a closer. [As an aside, I think the Nats need a closer more now than ever in their history. This team's offensive strength is going to get them and keep them in games that they've never been competitive before. If they can solve the head problems they have with their fielding, the problem that is left will be left is the bullpen. It is the only problem that needs to be solved with personnel changes.] $5 million is a lot of money, but you could take it out of the marketing budget rather than personnel. It isn’t that people will come to see Pedro, but they’ll come to see the Nats win (or be competitive). If the Nats can’t put a .480 team on the field this year, they’re going to be in terrible trouble with the fan base. They’re not entertaining to watch right now. You’re sending fans home feeling worse about the team than when they walked into the park.

Does signing Pedro fix that? I don’t know… but maybe. The Nats can’t really afford to trade away the Major League-ready players (except for an outfielder, and you know how I feel about Lastings Milledge), and there really aren’t any prospects in the system that you’d want to part with. You could sign Pedro without giving up talent.

Of course, all of this presumes that he can actually still pitch. But assuming he can, I would remind the Nats that they’ve spent $5 million on a lot less than Pedro.

(Paul LoDuca)

The upside is, Pedro could be to the bullpen what Adam Dunn is to the lineup – his presence might make the whole team better.

But then, I could be wrong.

The Dawn of the Rizzo Era

There’s a lot to say about the Nationals fourteen games into the season. Unfortunately, a lot of it will sound like words from The Oracle (or Alan Greenspan) – truthful, but intentionally ambiguous:

What’s five minutes between friends? A good question. For Lastings Milledge, the ramifications of his tardiness were delayed, but for Elijah Dukes, he was asked to pay swiftly. Fortunately for the Nats, those events happened in the proper order; if Dukes’ punishment was followed by Milledge’s skate (in the short term), there would definitely be some problems regarding the appearance of equity. As it is, we may be seeing Rizzo assert his vision for the team… among them, that nobody is above the rules.

As much as it appeared that Dukes was giving back to the community on this Saturday morning, he was in fact, moonlighting. He was paid for his appearance at the Great Falls Little League. Benching him and fining him was the right thing to do.  Dukes has become a rather sympathetic character as of late, and it is tempting to want to cut him some slack,  but Thom Loverro urges that we not fall too deeply in love. What does this tell us about the organization? I don’t know. This is one of those cases where two points don’t make a line.

Produce or ride the bus. That would be the theme after half the bullpen traded their digs in DC for upstate New York late Sunday night. In some respects I think that the move was a little simplistic – the bullpen was put in a leaky rowboat by the poor fielding of the infield. But the beneficiaries of the move, particularly Garrett Mock and Jason Bergmann deserved to be in Washington in the first place, and in shuffle, two of Bowden’s projects, Wil Ledezma and Steven Shell, found their way out of the organization. It would have been a good move regardless of the circumstances. Timing the announcement after a third game blown in the ninth inning simply allowed Rizzo to bang his new drum a bit more loudly.

The Zims. Ryan Zimmerman has a new long-term contract. You would be hard-pressed to find an unhappy voice on this topic, except perhaps from a certain personal injury lawyer. If Bowden is the GM, this deal doesn’t happen… at least not now. While all of us fans see the wisdom of it, there’s a certain business sense to the move, too. As for the other Zim, JZim, N**2, Jordan Zimmermann, there are a lot of fans grumbling about the rain-delayed start of his Major League debut game. It is a shame that people were inconvenienced, but really, there was too much at stake to do anything other than what the Nats did. It was good for Zimmermann to get his full game in, and it was good from a public relations standpoint – at least for the vast majority of the fans who weren’t there. In a year, we’ll all remember his stellar start, and hardly a soul will remember that the actual  game didn’t start until 9:15.

More Rizzo fingerprints.

Indignant Manny. It is no coincidence that the Manny Acta we’re hearing at post-game press conferences has lost his teach, learn, roll-with-the-punches rhetoric, and replaced it with, well, Indignant Manny. After Sunday’s loss to the Marlins, I was talking with Mike Henderson of NationalsPride.com, and I mentioned to him that Manny’s original mandate has ended. Sure the Nats are a young team, but managing the Nationals is no longer about transforming a bunch of rookies into Major Leaguers. It is about learning to win. And this raises a question: Is Manny the guy to teach our team how to do that? Since the mandate has changed, so will his demeanor. Should Manny be worried about his job? No more or less than the other twenty-nine managers in Major League Baseball. But now all thirty are being asked to do the same thing: Win. Who do you suppose instigated this change? His boss, Mike Rizzo. That’s my guess, anyway.

We may be witnessing a transformation. As long and as slow as every one of those torturous Marlins games seemed, the change is actually occurring at a lightning pace. Players are being held accountable. Managers are being held accountable. The internal expectation is higher. What we’re seeing now is the demonstration of which members of the organization have more to give, and which are just spare parts.

… and this is exactly how it was always supposed to be. Stan Kasten’s plan was to build a professional organization from top to bottom. One that nurtured the growth of prospects and furthered the success of the Major League Team. Instead, what we got was a used car lot, with a segway-riding salesmen at the helm.

Will the Nats win more games this year?

Who knows. It is certainly going to be different with Mike Rizzo at the helm of the organization. One thing is for sure – almost certainly, we’ll feel better about the outcome… no matter what it is.

One last thing: Excellent game, John Lannan. You deserved to win.

Unanswered Question of the Day

Filed under: Games,Injuries,Organization,Personnel,Players,Teams — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 9:47 am April 16, 2009

Nothing in sports is sure… but there are some things that you can almost always count on:

  • When you fire a head coach or a manager, the team almost always wins the next game.
  • When the pitching coach comes to the mound to talk to the pitcher, the next pitch is almost always a strike (unless the pitcher is Daniel Cabrera)

So where does sending Lastings Milledge to Syracuse fit among the list of almost “sure things?”

It is hard to say. It isn’t as if Milledge was single-handedly costing the Nats games, so the “addition by substraction” thing doesn’t work here by itself.

Communication guys like me are always ready to point to some sort of synergy issue when it comes to analyzing how a team performs (or in this case, under-performs), and it is a tempting conclusion to jump to here. Sending Millege down could be an attempt to send a message that working “hard enough” is not “hard enough”. It could also be the message that no matter how secure you are in your station on the team, you have to perform to stay there.

It could also be about getting Milledge some reps in a situation where his presence on the field isn’t quite so expensive.

Winning tonight won’t answer this question. The Nats are close enough that they’ll luck into a win eventually, and making a connection between a win and Milledge’s departure would be meaningless. And a loss wouldn’t necessarily mean that the Nats are sleeping through their alarm clock, either. We still don’t know if Cristian Guzman will play tonight, and the injuries to Belliard and Harris and the tentative play of Alberto Gonzalez and Anderson Hernandez make for a shaky middle infield.

Being the optimist that I am, I think the Nats are finally set up with their best shot to get off the schnide. But there are no sure things… If the Nats finish the homestand 4-4, come ask me then.

So this morning, in order to get some reassurance, I went to the one place I go when I need the defintive answer: The Magic 8-Ball. It said:

Answer uncertain. Ask again tomorrow.

And with that, I will see you at Nats Park tonight.

Milledge Vs. Dukes

Filed under: Injuries,Organization,Personnel,Players — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 1:05 pm April 11, 2009

There is a piece of this puzzle I don’t understand. He’s better defensively. He’s better offensively. He works harder.

Why, then,  is Elijah Dukes being asked to prove (and reprove) himself while Lastings Milledge is not?

For those that wonder about my perspective, I wouldn’t put myself in the “Milledge Hater” category. I would put myself in the “The Bar is Set Higher This Season, And Last Year’s Good Looks Aren’t Enough Anymore” category. The team, and especially the outfield, is much stronger this year, and I expect more.

There is no question that Milledge is talented. Some in the Natosphere have pointed this out, and I said last year, as Felipe Lopez demonstrated somnambulance on the field – that Milledge would be an interesting second baseman – assuming he could master that skill set. But so far this season…  in center field, and as a leadoff hitter, I expected to see more.

There is another issue here, though, and while it applies in this argument, it also applies across the baseball world, and to many players: What message does a team (the Nats) send to a player (Elijah Dukes), who appears to have done everything a team (the Nats) have asked of him, that he rides the pine while another player (Milledge) starts? The expectations of Dukes were high, but he has done what was asked. Shouldn’t  he be rewarded for that?

I’ve advocated trading Milledge as a way to solve the Nats’ glut of outfielders. But I realize that is a simplistic solution, at least without considering all of the ramifications. I have suspected, but don’t know for sure, that Milledge’s presence on the team has been a big help to keeping Dukes on the straight-and-narrow. They were childhood friends, and one only has to watch them in batting practice and on the field to know that they’re close now. But for most fans who are not me, these sort of social considerations are not really relevant in making personnel decisions on a Major League team.  So, if you exclude that argument – that they are good influences for each other, and that makes them better players,  no matter which remaining calculus you use, the conclusion I come to is the same.

Unless, of course, there is a calculus I hadn’t considered… hence, the piece I don’t understand.

The Nats have to find another place for Milledge to play. Maybe it is Syracuse. Maybe it is second base. Maybe it is in the American League. If you take Milledge out of the outfield mix, the options are still intriguing and entertaining. Willingham has lived up to my expectations. Dunn has exceeded them. Not only does he do everything one would hope on the field, he’s bringing that veteran leadership that has been lacking in the clubhouse. Kearns has become the outfielder many of us hoped and knew he would be – and as an aside to all the Kearns critics, how many of you are that dedicated to your employer that you show up and work every day, even when you know you should have a physician looking at whatever it is that is ailing you… as Kearns did in 2008?

Dukes’ (hopefully) minor injury last night delays the need to solve the outfield problem immediately. But between the serendipity of the Scheduling Fairy that allows the Nats to leave Jordan Zimmermann in Syracuse until next Sunday and Dukes’ (and Belliard’s) nursing of minor ailments, the urgency to move position players off the 25-man roster is less. But the clock is ticking, and the roster will have to be adjusted soon, and not later than next Sunday.

As they used to say on television: “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of Our Lives…”

… if you live in NatsTown.

Rash Decisions

First, let me say… I don’t do the armchair GM thing. There are tons of bloggers eminently more unqualified than I am to tell Mike Rizzo how to run the Nats. I see myself more as a psychic than a GM.

So yesterday’s drubbing at the hands of the Marlins has opened a rift into the psychic world, and have provided me the answer (which I already knew) as to how the Nats will solve their outfield problem.

To be fair, and to provide some empirical support for the results from the tea-leaf-reading, a few weeks back I was talking to Mike Henderson of NationalsPride.com, and I told him this very scenario. I honestly thought it would have played out in spring training, but between our strange economy and the still-slightly-muddy waters in the Nats front office, the True Course of Fate has yet to be revealed to Rizzo.

The Nats will trade Lastings Milledge for (almost anyone).

Almost anyone? Give me a break… the rift into the psychic world isn’t that wide that I have both pieces of this puzzle. It was just one game, and against the Marlins, to boot. How much psychic energy could be released in that contest? For heaven’s sake, ESPN barely knows the game took place!

Trading Milledge makes the most sense. Dunn… very funny. Kearns - there’s the matter of the King’s Ransom the Nats are paying him, and it is a walk year. He’s going to perform if he expects to play next year. Willingham is a young, and his failure (combined with the potential failure with Olsen) would mean that we gave away Bonifacio for nothing… so the Nats are “all in” with him. Dukes has the most upside and is still untradeable.

Who’s left? Ocho-Cinco.

This would solve a lot more problems than it would create. Dukes would have a permanent, play-everyday home in center. My guess is he shines. Kearns could play there to spell Dukes, Willingham can play either corner (and probably be close to as good as Milledge in center defensively). Willie Harris can play the outfield, too. The two problems you’re left with is who leads off, and does removing Milledge  from the team affect how Dukes (a childhood friend)relates to the world off the field.

Still unconvinced? Of those that one would conceiveably trade, which of them do you get the most for?

Milledge.

What happens if Dukes gets hurt? J-Max. Bernardina.

Will Milledge kill us when we face him? Of course. Trade him to the American League. You face him three games every three years.

To be honest, Milledge continues to do all the little things that drive me crazy. The revelation about being fined for being late for a team meeting is just one more. His comments about his work habits had me a little put-off, too.

… And I think he was given a walk this spring. He should have had to compete for a spot, just like everyone else. Perhaps Acta is crazy like a fox, showcasing Milledge as the shoo-in starting center fielder in anticipation of a trade. On the other hand, perhaps there was something in the water at Shea that makes the two of them particularly loyal to each other.

Boz was right in Nationals Journal today… it is too early for panic – it is only one game. But sometimes that one game gives us a little clarity about what needs to be done. This is how Order will be restored to the Nats Universe.

Am I sure? No. But psychic rifts help.

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?

Please Sir, May I Have Some More (Kool Aid)?

I am definitely a ‘Planista’. The thing that I like most about ”The Plan” is that it is an organizational philosophy that has a clear goal – winning the World Series. Certainly there are critics, among whom are those that think that the Nationals ownership is ‘cheap’, but I believe that the low payrolls are more an artifact of their approach to personnel rather than a goal in and of itself.

Now that we’re between a third and half way through the season, it appears pretty plain that my “irrational exuberance” (and that of a lot of other people) is somewhat misplaced, and at this point, if the Nats could garner 74 wins (to match last season’s record) it would be quite an accomplishment. So now that our expectations are now more in line with reality, I am curious to know what people think would be realistic goals for the Nats this year.

Here are some of mine:

  • Resign Cristian Guzman. If you could get him for three years, I would do it.
  • Find out if Dukes and Milledge are long-term pieces. I think they are, but I could use another 90 games to convince me.
  • Find your rotation of the future. The Nats have probably ten starting pitchers that are credible candidates. Who are your five?
  • Sign your draft picks.

If you do those things, you’re left with long term holes at first and second base, and you have Marrero as a possible first baseman. Perhaps now you’re at the spot where you make the blockbuster trade for a second baseman, or sign a free agent.

So, what are your goals?

Luck, Disguised As Skill

Filed under: Fan Experience,Games,Personnel,Players — Tags: , , , , , — Wigi @ 10:35 am June 14, 2008

I wore my red last night, the same Nats pullover that I wore for the exhibition game against the Orioles, opening night against the Braves, and the next game against the Phillies in Philadelphia. I really think it made a difference, because there wasn’t much from the Nats performance last night that would lead you to believe that there was something about them that was substantively different than on any previous game.

After a six-run second, I imagined two possible outcomes: one where Shawn Hill took command of the game, and stifled the home team, finally cruising to a lopsided something-to-one score, and the second where the Nats would slowly desanguinate themselves, and finally bleed out at the end of the game.

Lastings Milledge pops up at second after a successful steal in the second inning.

Lastings Milledge steals second in the second inning of last night’s game

The second scenario was much closer to reality, and were it not for an emergency transfusion by Jon Rauch in the ninth, my fantasy would have become a nightmare-come-true.

The second inning was spectacular – lots of disciplined strokes, and the resulting runs. But the key to the Nats success in the second is found in the box score, for as soon as R. A. Dickey left, so did the Nats mojo, suggesting that the explosion was more about poor pitching than good hitting.

Hill was good enough, but were it not for the good fortune of the second inning, it would have been just another disappointing outing for him. There was a noticeable lack of ground ball outs, something one would hope to see with Hill on the mound.

After the second, the Nats hitters reverted to old forms, with Milledge, Dukes and Pena all swinging for the fences at every at bat, hoping to tack on an insurance run. However, I believe this was actually a counterproductive strategy. Bullpens tend to be more fragile when they are pitching with runners on base, and the Mariners (with the help of Nats batters) were effective at keeping the basepaths empty.

The good news is, the Nats nicked the Mariners bullpen last night, and with J. J. Putz on the DL, a return to (or perhaps more correctly, a new visit to) a disciplined approach at the plate could lead to a victory tonight.

The Mariners are eerily like the Nats. Kick ‘em while they’re down

(by the way, I have pictures from the game, but I need to get them from my camera to the computer… I’ll work on that later and post them to this entry)

Malaise

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

Flashes:

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

Ashes:

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

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

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

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