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

O-Dog

Filed under: Personnel — Tags: , , , , , , — Wigi @ 3:38 pm February 4, 2010

There are some deals that you just feel bad about when they don’t happen, but for me, the Orlando Hudson deal wasn’t one of them. Not that I am the first to say this, but there are reasons that Hudson isn’t with the Dodgers, and there are reasons that the Dodgers acquired Ronnie Belliard last season.  Hudson was/is asking top shelf money,  and I think there are good reasons to believe he isn’t top shelf anymore.

I totally agree that the Nats have gaping holes at middle infield, but they have had them for a long time, and it isn’t an easy problem to solve. What is different now is that at least we have some prospects - Ian Desmond - who is in the neighborhood. After Desmond put on an encouraging showing at the end of last season, a lot of fans would probably settle for an Ian Desmond – Cristian Guzman middle infield. Clearly that isn’t what Mike Rizzo has in mind, but there is still time to work another deal, whether through trade or free agency. The worst we’re going to end up with is Desmond and Guzman. There are worse possibilities. Think Felipe Lopez and Jose Vidro.

I think it only makes sense to be upset about losing Hudson if you think the Nationals are at 90 wins this year, and signing him gets you to 93… and if your argument is that Hudson is a stop-gap until Desmond is ready, $9 million is an expensive stop-gap. I think there are a lot of acceptable ways for a 75-to-80 win team to fill the middle infield for a year, and most don’t cost $9 million.

I absolutely want to see the Nationals acquire a top-shelf middle infield. But I think there was very little upside with Hudson, and a lot of risk. Hudson was not Mister Right… He was Mister Right Now. If we could have landed him for what (we think) Rizzo was offering, it was a good deal. I like that Rizzo stuck to his guns.

Makes you a little teary-eyed for Alfonso Soriano, doesn’t it?

The Font of Accountability

About twenty years ago I worked for a company called GlobeWireless that processed marine telegrams – messages to and from ships at sea. This was done via morse code. Every message that passed through our station was matched with a confirmation receipt. Nobody went home until every message was accounted for as being delivered. If it meant staying an extra two hours to track down the loose ends, that is what you did. My bosses insisted on it, because a lot hinged on the proper delivery of these messages. Money. Sometimes, lives. Records were kept, and we could prove the delivery of every message going back many years.

Years later, when I started working in the hospitality industry, I noticed that there was a certain similarity in the process. Our guests would want certain items reserved on their behalf, and we would make those reservations. As the manager, I insisted that we get written confirmation of every reservation, and that confirmation be compared to and attached to the original request. That way we could prove that every reservation had been made for the guests. The only problem was, my boss thought that was an unnecessary step, and so she wouldn’t back me up when it came to insisting my employees follow the processes.

The reason I mention these two examples is because I wanted to point out that accountability is an organizational value that starts at the very top of an organization, and the values that are held at the top are the ones that are implemented at the bottom.

What does this have to do with baseball? Only this: Look at the product that we see on the field at Nationals Park. How accountable are the players to the outcomes? Only as accountable as their manager asks them to be… who is only as accountable as his boss asks him to be… and so on, up the chain.

This is one of the reasons that I am much more concerned about the errors that the Nationals make than I am about the bullpen. Errors are, by definition… errors. They are the plays that the defense should make, but does not. Contrast errors with skill and talent: Ronnie Belliard can play third base, and he and Ryan Zimmermancould have the same fielding percentage, and have the same number of errors. But having Belliard at third is not the same as having Zimmerman. A sharply hit ball down the third base line gets snagged by Zimmerman and is scored 5-3, while the same ball is a double with Belliard at third. And that isn’t an indictment of Belliard – it is just that Zimmerman is more talented.

Yesterday’s game is a perfect example of one where we’re ready to pile onto the bullpen (and certainly the bullpen didn’t hold up their end of the bargain), but the real damage was done earlier in the game – by errors.  Ross Detwiler lasted five innings, but his defense gave up three errors. In my Fantasy Baseball Alternate Universe, if you take those three errors away, Detwiler goes six innings instead of five, with the same number of pitches (84), and comes into the 7th inning facing the 8-9-1 batters, and a 5-2 lead! Now, I know that you can’t simply advance through the results and assume they would be the same had certain events not occurred, but you have to admit, this would certainly be a plausible outcome - without those three errors. At that point, Manny Acta could have sent Detwiler out for the seventh, warming two pitchers in the bullpen, and be one inning further down the road, with a bigger lead, and a strategic advantage. The bullpen might well have blown up in the Alternate Universe, too. But the bullpen would have been entering into the game in a very different situation… one where they had a much better chance of success, and one that a winning team designs their bullpen around.

There may not be much that the Nats can do about the bullpen, in terms of talent. In today’s Nationals Journal, Chico Harlan points out that half of the Nats bullpen has a negative VORP (for the uninitiated, there is some discussion and explanation of this statistic in the comments of that posting). That statistic is calculated on the historical outcomes, so it is hard to separate talent from performance from VORP. But on the defensive side of the equation, the performance of the pitchers and the performance of the defense are not inseparable from the talent of the pitchers and the talent of the defense. In other words, if the team is not being asked to be accountable for their outcomes when they have the ball – when four errors in a game is minimized at the expense of overworking the bullpen, and hoping the bats come and bail you out - that is an organizational problem, not a talent problem. Being the less-talented team is acceptable – disappointing, but acceptable. Being a better team that is not playing at the level they are capable of is not.

Errors, narrowly defined as a statistic, do not answer all of the questions. Errors, as a statistic, are an indication of the larger problem. The problem that makes the Nats play sloppy in all aspects of their game. The problem that causes Elijah Dukes to be picked off first four times. The problem that has bullpen pitchers taking the mound and believing that they need to be perfect, because if the defense isn’t there for them, the pitcher is the one on the way back to Syracuse (or free agency, in the case of Mike Hinckley). The problem that prevents a team from executing basic, fundamental baseball.

It isn’t about errors. It isn’t about poor baserunning. It isn’t about the bullpen or the pitching – and in fact, complaining about that distracts from the real issue. It is about being sloppy and unprofessional in every aspect of their game. The Nationals are sloppy because they are allowed to be sloppy. I am not saying they’re not trying. I am saying they’re not disciplined.

Rob Dibble has advocated that the Nationals take infield practice every day. There’s something to be said for that, though it has to be part of a larger belief – that excellence and being accountable for the outcomes is important. That has to be a core organizational belief. And it has to come from the top, Ted Lerner. If you’re still unconvinced, you only need to look up I-95 forty miles. The Orioles were the envy of every Major League team in the 70′s and 80′s. They created “The Orioles Way”, which was an organizational philosophy of excellence. Everything they did furthered that goal. Enter Peter Angelos. Witness the death of “The Orioles Way.”

It isn’t that the Nats are not talented. It is that nobody is holding the organization accountable for doing their jobs. When Ted insists that it be done, it will be done. And if it isn’t, find someone that will do it.

Period.

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.

What To Do…

Filed under: Personnel,Players — Tags: , , , — Wigi @ 6:41 pm June 24, 2008

One of my good blogging friends and fellow Nats fan, Mike Henderson (whose blog can be found at nationalspride.com) wrote a recent posting concerning Cristian Guzman, and his potential to be the Nats’ All-Star for 2008. At the end of his posting, he wrote the following:

More importantly, now is the time to consider what the Nats should do with respect to Guzman at the end of the season, the final one of his current contract. If he is priced reasonably, should they think about trying to re-sign him to a multi-year deal?

Cold-hearted though it may sound, from where I sit the answer is no.

Lest we forget, the Nats are still in the process of rebuilding the system, from the MLB level right on down. What they should do is, first, shop Guzman to a contender during the season in exchange for prospects. If that doesn’t work out, by all means offer him arbitration at the end of the season.

If he accepts a one-year arbitration deal, fine. If not, the Nats should be happy to get the two draft picks that accrue when a Type A free agent (which I think Guzie will be) declines arbitration.

While it’d be heartwarming to say that Guzman should be welcome to a place at the Nats’ table for as long as he wants to stay and is effective, the big picture needs to be kept in mind.

And while it’s a little sad to consider the thought of perhaps having to say goodbye, the decision to continue to move the franchise forward shouldn’t be a tough one.

I don’t agree. Here’s why:

Let’s assume for the moment that Guzman is gone in 2009. For a different set of reasons, but just as certainly, we can also assume that Felipe Lopez will also be gone in 2009. This would leave the Nats with no middle infield, and the necessity to acquire at least one, and perhaps two major-league ready players to fill those positions (one could make the argument that Ronnie Belliard, under contract through 2009 could play every day at second base). Where would the Nats acquire one or two middle infielders?

  • In trade – The Nats have nothing to trade that would get them a majors-ready shortstop, with the possible exception of a starting pitcher, and I think it is safe to assume that we’re not trading John Lannan (or any of our other starters).
  • From within the system – There are no majors-ready middle infielders in the Nats system. There are some replacement-player-level players, some of whom are young, and might be diamonds in the rough. But these are not the players that you come north out of spring training, thinking that you’ve solved your middle infield problems.
  • Free Agency – There is some possibilities here. Suppose I told you I knew where you could find a 30 year-old free agent shortstop who is a switch hitter, is hitting over .300 and is having an all-around career year. Moreover, he’s been injured for most of the last few years, so his recent stats don’t look that great, so there’s probably some discount to be had. Plus, you can start negotiating with him today, rather than waiting for the start of the free agency period in November (the advantage being, no competition from other teams). Lastly, he’s probably among the best of the available 2009 free agent shortstops. His name? Cristian Guzman.

Some might argue that what the Nats need are prospects, and not majors-ready players. The Nats absolutely do need prospects (particularly in the infield). But the one area that the Nats are probably most in need is at second and short, and there is no hope that any infield prospects that they might acquire (or any that are already in the system) would be ready to play at Nationals Park anytime before 2010. So that leaves the Nats looking for a free agent shortstop (and/or second baseman) to play next year, and perhaps the year after. Why not extend the one you have, who has shown that he’s the real deal? Nobody knows more about Guzman than the Nats do now, so there would be few unanswered questions. Everyone will worry that his production will wane, but that is going to be the case with any free agent that you might select, so if you’re pretty certain that you’re going to have to sign a free agent, you may as well get the best available at the position.

Here’s the proper strategy for Cristian Guzman: Sign him to a four or five year contract. Spend some money, and load the back end with incentives. Look to trade him with a year on his contract. This gives the Nats time to find and develop the top-tier shortstop that they are going to need in the long run.