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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Washington Nationals: Off-Season Report Card


For years, this was a franchise who literally had no idea where they were headed. They learned after 35 years that French Canadians didn’t really like baseball all that much aside from Eric Gagne and Russell Martin. For over four years, they were owned by Major League Baseball, through which the owners of the 29 other franchises - those whose teams were in direct competition with the Expos on the baseball field - had control over the club’s future. They basically became guinea pigs as the new “owners” tested the financial possibilities of having a team in Puerto Rico before finally closing up shop in Montreal and landing in our nation’s capital.


I may be a Mets fan, but I’m first and foremost a fan of the game and this entire ordeal has made me want to root for this franchise. We the fans as well as the players who were on those final Expos teams deserved better than what we were getting. So I take some pleasure in being able to write that the Washington Nationals finally have a direction. They’ll have a brand-spanking-new stadium in 2008, for which I’m sure the hitters will be thankful. Their team will not compete for the division title in 2008, nor will they in 2009. In fact, they probably won’t have much of a shot for the next few years. But there is a glimmer of hope here, as well as stories to root for in 2008. And after years and years of seeing futility, I find that rather satisfying.

The first big move of the Nats’ offseason came at the expense of the New York Mets. The Nationals were willing to take on some risks and ended up with a young, promising center fielder. Rightly or wrongly, Lastings Milledge was branded as a guy who didn’t respect the game. His time in Flushing, New York could best be summarized by the story about Billy Wagner pinning a note on Lastings’ locker that read “Know your place, rook" back in 2006. Despite this, the talent is there. The soon-to-be 23-year old posted a 2007 OPS of .787 in 184 ABs, which is pretty impressive once you consider his age and the fact that he played most of his games at Shea. Although one cannot forget that Milledge is yet to play a full season at the Major League level (350 ABs in his entire career), the Nationals appear to have made a more than solid move in acquiring him for an aging catcher who can’t hit his weight (Brian Schneider) and a good, not great, corner outfielder who probably won’t get any better(Ryan Church).

Washington also decided to roll the dice on Elijah Dukes, another young outfielder with a poor reputation, but this one was far more deserved by most opinions. His upside as a hitter may actually surpass that of Milledge, but thanks to his inability to stay away from legal troubles, appears to have a much longer road to travel before he ever reaches that potential. He’s a guy with a big build who has already exhibited the ability to take a walk. Thus far in training camp, he's saying the right things, it seems, but as they say, talk is cheap!

With these two on board, the Nats appear to be able to field a promising, young, outfield with Milledge in Center, Austin Kearns in Right and Wily Mo Pena in Left. If Dukes can stay out of trouble, I’d imagine that he will bump either Kearns or Pena from the starting lineup sometime during the season.

The remaining acquisitions were basically players well past their primes. Paul Lo Duca, Aaron Boone, Rob Mackowiak, Odalis Perez, and Johnny Estrada all signed one-year deals to play in Washington. While none of them should be relied upon to do much of anything, I can’t really blame the execs for bringing these guys in (although Lo Duca’s $5 million salary is pretty high) on short-term commitments. Thanks to a farm system devoid of actual young talent, bringing in vets for one season isn’t a terrible way to go about doing things.

One has to wondered how the first base competition between Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young was going to play out. Well, based on Young's physical condition, believe it or not, Johnson may be the healthier one of the two. I still don’t quite understand the $10 million extension they gave Young back in July, and it certainly won’t pay more dividends now, unfortunately.

And of course, there’s Ryan Zimmerman, a player who deserves far more attention than he receives. Throughout Zimmerman’s career, the spotlight for young, talented third basemen in the NL East has belonged to David Wright and Miguel Cabrera. But why not Zimmerman? Sure, he failed to improve on his 2006 season, but this was in large part due to an unlucky .270 BABiP in the first half of the season. After the mid-way point, his BABiP returned to his regular range of .320+, and along with it came a .361 OBP (up from .302 in the first half) and a .486 SLG (up from .435). Add in a very good glove and a move away from RFK Stadium (one of the best pitcher’s parks in 2007) and you have yourself cornerstone.

One area in which they were just unable to improve was pitching. One of the major side effects of the franchise existing in MLB purgatory for all those years was that everything was being done for the short-term. You can’t start a rebuilding process successfully if you’re not sure you have a future to begin with. Under the ownership of MLB, the Expos/Nationals were completely handcuffed. Omar Minaya, who had been the GM of the Expos, was basically auditioning for his next gig the entire time he was there because he knew he had no long-term job security. So they went out and signed a bunch of veterans to field a decent team and ignored their “future” (i.e. prospects) in the process. The end result is the fact that despite pitching in RFK Stadium, 43 of their games in 2007 were started by pitchers who sported ERAs north of 6, plus 20 others by Mike Bacsik and his 5.11 ERA.

As it stands today, Shawn Hill and John Patterson are the only two who have a good shot at posting a league-average ERA in 2008. Is Patterson completely recovered? Well, not yet he isn’t. He pitched to live hitters for the first time since May 2007 just last week and still needs to build up arm strength. But just looking at his 2005 numbers, makes me not want to give up on him. We could be seeing young Ross Detwiler again on the MLB mound very soon as well, but from everything I hear and read, he’s more of a mid-rotation arm than staff ace.
I still believe that they should have dealt closer Chad Cordero and set-up man Jon Rauch months ago. Cordero is a “closer” by name only but his perceived value still outweighs his actual. With Rauch, you have to worry about a 6′11″ pitcher who is about to turn 30. I can’t imagine a guy with his frame and his workload over the last two seasons (173 games pitched - tops in MLB) not lasting very long. Get out while ya can, Nats.

ADDITIONS: Paul Lo Duca, Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge, Bret Boone, Aaron Boone, Rob Mackowiak, Tyler Clippard, Odalis Perez, Johnny Estrada, Willie Harris

LOSSES: Ryan Church, Brian Schneider, Nook Logan, Robert Fick, D’Angelo Jimenez, Tony Batista, Micah Bowie, Jerome Williams

PROJECTED LINEUP:

SS - Christian Guzman
2B - Ronnie Belliard
3B - Ryan Zimmerman
1B - Nick Johnson
RF - Austin Kearns
LF - Wily Mo Pena
CF - Lastings Milledge
C - Paul Lo Duca

PITCHING:

SP1 - Shawn Hill
SP2 - John Patterson
SP3 - Jason Bergmann
SP4 - Matt Chico
SP5 - Tim Redding

CL - Chad Cordero
SU - Jon Rauch


OFFSEASON GRADE: B-

I really like the Milledge and Dukes trades quite a bit for a team like the Nationals. Their drafts simply haven’t been good enough to stock the minor leagues with real talent, but by this method they still were able to bring in Major-League-ready prospects into the fold. By also not signing any long-term contracts aside from the two-year deal given to Jon Rauch, they have a tremendous amount of financial flexibility. The currently have only five players under contract for 2009. In fact, here is a list of the players who are guaranteed a contract two years from now.

That is all.

Of course, this isn’t entirely a good thing. It’s nice to know you’re going to have a team. But there is real talent here, and given the increased contract expectations of even younger players who only qualify for arbitration, financial flexibility should allow them to navigate these waters more assuredly. Again, it looks like it’ll be a few years before we can possibly consider the Nationals as contenders in the NL East. But there are things to look for in 2008, and I’ll be watching.


Philadelphia Phillies: Off-Season Report Card
Atlanta Braves: Off-Season Report Card
Florida Marlins: Off-Season report Card

4 comments:

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Doug said...

DJ, when are you planning on doing the Mets offseason report?

DJ Rielly said...

Thanks for reading Doug. It's coming, I'm working on it now.

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