Laying Down the (Keith) Law on Bowden

July 30, 2007

So they went ahead and did it, they singed Dmitri Young to an extension. It seems foolish to do this right now, the trade deadline hasn’t even ended, and yet they have given up on getting young talent for this veteran. What’s upsetting to me that they didn’t get ANYTHING for him, and they won’t be selling a guy who is clearly as hot as he is going to get.

Keith Law of, former Toronto Blue Jays scout and Baseball Prospectus writer has some very harsh words about the Young (and Belliard) signing. Basically, he says that this team shouldn’t be getting older it should be getting younger, that these players are worthless and that the Nats are overpaying. I figured rather than just giving you an assessment of what happened, I’d dissect his professional analysis of the situation and explain that it’s not as bad as he thinks, although it’s not that great, either. Here are some of my favorite quotes, along with summaries (by me):

“Young and Belliard were nice pickups, but both are in their 30s and both are having obvious peak seasons; Young’s on pace to set a career high in OBP and post his second-best slugging percentage. Bowden fell in love with these guys, and it’s going to burn his team.”

(they are never hitting this well again)

“Defense matters. Belliard is a below-average second baseman with a bad body. Young is a horrific defensive first baseman with a terrible body. The idea that the Nationals are going to put Young in left field next year if and when Nick Johnson is healthy enough to play first is an insult to the game of baseball. Their nice offensive numbers aside — and really, Belliard isn’t having that great of a season — their defense negates a lot of that offensive production.”

(they are not good at catching baseballs)

“Age matters. Those bad bodies on younger players wouldn’t be such a concern, but Young will turn 34 in October while Belliard will turn 33 right after Opening Day in 2008. Signing unathletic players to multi-year deals into their mid-30s is a terrible operating philosophy.”

(they may soon be dead)

He also talks about the other mistakes Bowden has made, including signing Guzman, Johnson, and Schneider to multi-year deals. I can’t argue with him that Bowden has yet to prove himself with this team, and has signed too many old players for too long of a time. But I really think Keith is being a bit harsh on the results of these deals.

What the Nats DID do

They got two players who can hit better than most of the rest of the team. At this point, the offense is atrocious, and nobody seems to be promising to live up to their potential. Sure Zimmerman is good and young and will hopefully get better, but counting on offense from Church, Lopez, and Kearns has SO FAR proven unwise. That will hopefully change, but who knows. Young and Belliard do improve the offense, and even though it may not be as much next year as it was in the past. In terms of defense, Law is correct, neither of these overweight 30+ year olds are great with the glove. I think his assessment of Young is pretty good, but Belliard isn’t quite that bad. Additionally, in terms of Belliard being the starting 2B, that’s probably only happening if people get hurt next season, like this year, so try not to panic too much. Belliard will probably start a few games a week and be a top player off the bench, which isn’t a bad role for him at all. Also, Law does not factor in at all what affect these players have on the Nationals clubhouse. While I cannot vouch for it, there is alot of talk that both players have been phenomenal in the clubhouse, working very well with the young players these team is filled with. And remember, these 2 players don’t make this team old, it just brings the average age up to around legal drinking age. Finally, I have a disagreement major disagreement with Law’s assessment. He falsely alludes to the fact that these players have tied Washington’s purse strings, as if this has decided what their 2008/9 starting lineup will be, and this isn’t necessarily true. It raises the payroll from the low $30 m range to the high $30 m range, and this team can really afford twice that. They aren’t going to come up short on free agent bids because of these signings, these players aren’t going to block young talent from being discovered, and they aren’t going to decompose out on the field, so in that regards, it’s really not as bad as Law claims.

What the Nats DIDN’T do

What they missed out on with these signings, and what Law doesn’t really talk about, is what hurts the most. Regardless of what level of talent the Nationals could have gotten in a trade, they could have gotten something, especially with how well Young is hitting. Anything would have been better if they had made a trade, because they most likely could have signed deals with both of these players in the offseason. Young might have been a bit more difficult to sign next season, as AL teams may have pictured him in a DH-type role, but it isn’t even that likely. So basically they passed on what may have been their best scenario, assuming you believe both of these players should stay, which is getting young talent and then getting these players next season. Also, since the Nats are going to have money, they certainly could have afforded to compete with other teams for at least one of these players in November, while stealing a minor leaguer in a trade right now. That is where the fans should really throw up their hands, that is where management truly screwed up, that is where the Nats missed out on doing something great for the team.

Finally Law says this:

“Someone in the upper management of the Nationals needs to wake up and take the steering wheel back from Bowden, whose contract is up after this year but isn’t hesitating to make commitments through 2009. This franchise needs to concentrate on getting younger, not older, and on staying flexible, not committing money to mediocre players who are having fluke years.”

That, I agree with a bit more. Not the flexibility or money part, as I mentioned, the combined salaries of Belliard and Young should matter little to this team. Hell, they could probably go out and sign 6 more guys at $5 m a year and still be in the black. But other than the Kearns/Lopez/Wagner trade (and maybe give him credit for allowing Belliard and Young to come to spring training?) Bowden has done little of note, and the Nationals have depending solely on their farm system for help. He hasn’t done enough to make the team younger and if he doesn’t do something soon, there is no reason to sign him any longer. They could go with a fresh face who has little experience but strong credentials or a more experienced former GM who has a track record of success, but Bowden really doesn’t fit in either of these categories. He has been uninspiring as a GM, and maybe they need some look towards someone new.

A final note

I’m really sick of hearing how injury-riddled Nick Johnson has been. In this article, Law acknowledges that the Johnson deal was so-so because he can hit but “he has a long history of injuries and couldn’t even finish the first season of his three-year deal without sustaining a major injury, one that has cost him the entire 2007 season to date.” That kind of throwaway line is irresponsible reporting at best. Everyone who looks at Nick and thinks “he’s hurt all the time, so missing ’07 isn’t surprising” has no clue what they are talking about. That collision with Kearns was NOT a fragile player tweaking his weak knee. That was a freak occurrence that nobody could have predicted. GMs may have predicted a risk of injury, but nobody predicted that kind of terrible collision. I remember, and there was no Aaron Rowand-type discussion about how Nick plays so hard so he may shatter his leg. I don’t buy it. He showed in ’05 and ’06 he can play 120+ games a year, and when he’s back, I am willing to bet that a hammy or a knee isn’t going to flare up and keep him out half a season.


Someone Tell the Nats this isn’t the NFL

July 26, 2007

Alright, let’s get right into it. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Nationals may actually be focused on having guys who’s contracts run out at the end of the year:

“The Nats have been mentioned as suitors for Adam Dunn, Eric Gagne, and even Omar Vizquel. Does any of that make sense? No, not really, unless you buy into the idea that Mike Rizzo’s draft prowess is in play here. By grabbing soon-to-be free agents and the picks gained by letting them walk away, the Nats could gain a load of picks in this scenario.”

Let me just say, this is a terrible idea. This team is trying to be respectable next season, with the new stadium, and trying to be good in 2009, when the crowds from having a new stadium have died down. This idea of trading for draft picks is a pretty good way to build for 2012, not 2009. And unlike other major American sports, draft picks in baseball usually don’t even make it to the major leagues.

Right now, they need to take their mediocre players that are playing pretty well, sell high, and try to get minor leaguers. Guys who will be major league ready by the end of next season or the beginning of 2009. Are they going to get top prospects? No, of course not, nobody trades their top prospect anymore. But the #4 or #5 ranked guy in a farm system is probably going to make a good major leaguer, and is much easier to get. For example, while the Yankees can’t trade Phil Hughes if they don’t want the fans to burn down Yankee Stadium, but they can easily trade Ian Kennedy (if you say “who?” that is my point). If this team wants to be the Braves or Marlins, building up a champion from nothing, they can’t only plan for the distant future. 2 years ahead and 3 years ahead are important, too, otherwise you become the Pirates. If they can’t get something of value for one of the NL’s leading hitter, and for a closer who at the very least will be a quality setup man for a team on a stretch run, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything of value out there, it means that there is something wrong with this team’s front office.

Ronnie Belliard is Here to Stay (Probably)

Washington extended Ronnie Belliard‘s contract this week. He’ll be making $3.5 m total over the next two years, which isn’t at all an expensive deal for a veteran of over 10 years. Remembering that the Nats’ are trying to up their payroll with players that may actually help them win, this seems to be a great deal for them. A veteran presence who plays well, is hitting and fielding well, and isn’t quite yet old (he won’t be 35 when the contract ends). Additionally, he may be the only stable presence in the middle infield going into next season. Felipe Lopez has hit so poorly since he’s come to DC that his value for the future is questionable. Lopez’s glove was never his strongest asset, so if he isn’t getting on base and stealing (let’s forget about the power, 23 HR in 2005 were park assisted, 12 is more likely and perfectly acceptable for a speedy middle infielder), he isn’t valuable as a starter. Regardless, if Guzman and Lopez both end up being incredible in 2008, it is still important for a team to have a versatile backup infielder who can hit, especially in the National League, and Belliard has played all 4 infield positions this year.

Belliard’s bat this season has been very good, .304/.351/.426, but he doesn’t need to be that good in order for this to be a very good signing for this team. His career numbers show him being a .275/.340/.410 hitter, give or take a few thousandths of a point. He doesn’t steal much and doesn’t hit many home runs, although a dozen dingers a year isn’t out of the question. Either way, for a guy who can start at 2B, 3B, 1B, and in a pinch, SS, it sure beats most other players in the league. If either Guzman or Lopez doesn’t perform well next season (doesn’t seem too far-fetched) he can play 2B while the other plays short. UnfortunatelyBelliard and Lopez, if they both stink, he can’t play both positions. Belliard is known as an excellent presence in the clubhouse, a veteran with a great work ethic, and is a great influence on the young players that this team has and will have over the next few seasons. He even says he envisions himself as a utility man after this signing, although what he meant by that can be questioned, it can be assumed that he isn’t going to complain about a bench role. Also presumably, his presence won’t block the team from making other deals to acquire a potential middle infielder of the future. Despite my preference for this team making trades, I do believe a player like Belliard is not easily replaceable, and without great trade offers (which they weren’t getting) this was probably the best move for the Nats.

Zimmerman’s Fielding and the Nationals’ Power Drain

July 23, 2007

As much as I like Ryan Zimmerman (more than a friend), he hasn’t been what everyone thought he would be this season. Bad things first – he has 11.6% of all of the Nationals plate appearances, more than any other 3B in baseball aZimmerman Throwingnd 10th overall in the league, but his VORP of 8.8 so far put him right on par with Chad Tracy, who’s been hurt much of the season (remember VORP is cumulative). So he is using up many of the teams outs, hitting .259/.313/.438 this season, and on top of that, he leads all 3B with 14 errors. The good news is, the hitting is coming around. He is tearing it up in July, and while the walks still aren’t where they should be, he is hitting more and with more power the last 2 months. But his fielding, that is surprising. Those errors from a guy who was called a “once in a generation” fielder? My feeling from watching him is that he makes more plays than most, so he makes a few more errors, but stats may say something different, so I decided to check it out. Here are the Range Factor [(Assists + Putouts) / Games] rankings for all 3B in the league, with their fielding percentage listed next to that.

Range Factor 3B

Zimmerman ranks #3, barely behind the leader and a distance ahead of the rest of the field. Fielding stats’ relevance are murky at best, misleading at worst (like looking at errors alone). But Zimm’s range factor is incredibly high, so Nats fans should sit back and enjoy watching. The best part about this stat is it confirms what most people feel – yeah he made a few extra errors, but he made so many more plays than a normal 3B would.

Power Outage

Early in the year, we discussed how the potential lineup wasn’t going to be as bad as everyone thought. If Church, Young, and Belliard played instead of Logan, Fick, and Guzman we said, there was a chance of scoring some runs. Well things never seem to work out as we think they will. It turns out, Belliard and Young have been even better than I predicted here (which was already better than most thought) while Church has been worse (but more valuable than Logan). The problem isn’t any of these players per se, although Church is part of it. The real problem is the lack of HRs. Nobody other than Zimmerman is hitting with any power at all, and without going long, it is alot harder to score runs consistently. Not that it doesn’t happen. Colorado is pretty low on the HR scale but #2 in Runs Scored. But that has something to do with the new dynamics of their ballpark – it is HUGE and thanks to the baseballs being frozen, not alot of HRs get hit there – but not surprisingly the team is #2 in hits and #1 in BBs, so they actually are stringing together hits.

Meanwhile, back in DC, the Nats can’t hit HRs. They are currently dead last in the Majors with 60 HRs. Not entirely shocking because they play their home games, at a huge park, and 3 of their division mates play in huge parks as well. But these teams, the Mets, Braves, and Marlins all have over 100 HRs, in fact, Florida is #4 in the NL with 121 of them. Fittingly, they fall in at #2 in total runs (unlike past seasons, this year it is their pitching that is betraying them). The Nationals power drought can be seen in individual performances. Ryan Church hasn’t hit a HR since June 12, a total of 29 games, but it’s hard to get on his case since he’s on pace to hit 50 doubles this season, despite the fact that he’s been hitting poorly since the beginning of June. Austin Kearns is someone that has hit with so little power many have begun to notice. He hit a HR sunday, before that, his last HR was on May 22, a drought of 52 games and 209 PAs, which is unacceptable for a corner outfielder unless he’s hitting over .300 and stealing bases. In that time, he has hit .254 with an OBP of .340, neither of which is much worse than you’d expect from him. But in terms of power, his ISO was an abysmal .061, awful for a middle infielder, nauseatingly bad for a corner outfielder. Also, it doesn’t help this team that Nick Johnson hasn’t taken a walk or hit a home run since September of 2006.

Where does all of this get us? Well, this team is going to be making trades (hopefully) over the next couple of weeks and signing free agents (hopefully) this offseason. It shows us that they really need to pursue one thing more than anything else, which is a power bat. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, they need more HRs, especially out of their OF, and now is the time to start looking.

Yeah, the pitching is that bad

July 16, 2007

The VORP blues

While they have seen innings eaten by Simontacchi and Bacsik, the Nationals starting pitching woes are apparent to even the most non-statistics dependent observer. But for us sabr-fencers, here are the top 5 pitcher by VORP for the Nationals, in order: Shawn Hill (13.3), Jesus Colome (13.2), Chad Cordero (11.6), Saul Rivera (10.7), Jason Bergmann (7.8). Remember that VORP is cumulative. This stat is saying that despite the fact that he’s been out since mid-May, Shawn Hill has added more value, contributed more to the team’s total wins, than any other pitcher on the team. Statistically, relievers get much less credit with VORP, SPs are just considered more valuable (sabrmetrics believes an inning is an inning, and since the stat is cumulative and starters throw so many more innings, they’ll get more credit). Which makes me wonder which is more pitiful, the fact that relievers make up 3 of the 5 names, or that a guy who hasn’t pitched in 2 months tops the list. I guess it helps that the bullpen leads the NL in IP by a healthy margin of 8 2/3 innings, are second in the majors by 2/3 of an inning to Texas, and well ahead of the noted bullpen lovers (or needers) the Royals and Yankees. At least Hill should be back in a little less than a month…

Money makes the league go round

As poor as this team has played, they are still seeing fans show up. Their home games drew more than most of their away games have over June and July, barring two or three games, they are outdrawing their competition for home games. This is important for aRFK Stadium2 team that is claiming they will spend money in the offseason – they have to be confident it’s there. If they’re drawing 23/24,000 people at home in a losing season, they can believe that more will come if they actually started winning. It is especially nice seeing the Marlins averaged under 15,000 for the weekend series, with a pitiful 11,438 showing up on Friday. Other than those freezing cold games in April, the Nats haven’t seen a home crowd less than 18,000 strong this season. Management factors these kind of things into their revenue calculations, so hopefully that will allow them to pay top dollar for Buerhle… err… Ichiro… ugh, never mind. Regardless, this is a great sign considering they play in the worst stadium in the league this year (and won’t be there next season), and don’t have any truly big names. By next season if they sign a free agent or two, and if Ryan Zimmerman moves into the ranks of big names (outside of DC, his name is only long, not big), and they have a real honest to goodness baseball stadium, they could be already bumped up to a top 15 drawing team. We’ll see if they can hold up their end of the deal on all that improvement stuff.

Speaking of big names

The Zimmerman is heating up in July. So far he’s hit .341/.408/.500 and his numbers may go unnoticed by the league, but a little more power and those are player-of-the-month kind of stats. If he keeps it up, he might even deserve the award, but he probably won’t get it because who’s going to notice? Meanwhile, Christopher Morrero made Baseball Prospectus’ top 100 list again this week. As usual, he was the only National to make the group, coming in at #93 (in a group that includes some 20 or so current major leaguers) they said about him:

Last year’s first-round pick hit .293/.337/.545 for Low-A Hagerstown before moving up to the Carolina League, and he picked up where he left off there (.286/.368/.464). He’s one of the more impressive teenage bats around.

He will hopefully continue this hitting, but if you want to see him up in the bigs right now, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Tearing up Low and High-A is a good sign of things to come, but shoving an 18 year old into the majors so early is a great way to ruin him forever. Be patient, he’ll be here eventually, and all signs indicate he should hit well.

Halfway through the last year at RFK

July 9, 2007

Time for a break!

The All Star break couldn’t come sooner for the Nationals. Going 6-15 since the last time they strung together 2 wins in a row, they have hit a bit of a lull recently. Alternatively, perhaps they’re really waiting for the end of the season. To be fair, other than the Pirates, they have played some good teams recently – the Braves, Milwaukee, Cleveland and the red-hot Chicago Cubs. They play a somewhat easier schedule after the break, so they should be able to string together a win or two. Regardless, they have gone 35-52 to this point, on pace for 65 wins and, that’s right, LESS than 100 losses. Sure, they’re not gonna win anything this year, but for a team trying to learn who will be part of their future, they know that nobody is giving up, and they know that even now they’re better than people expected. They also have a few more starters than they realized, even with out John Patterson. It will be interesting to watch them when they can send out Matt Chico, Jay Bergmann, and Shawn Hill on consecutive nights. That kind of group, while not a set of aces, does help limit losing streaks and turn bad teams into mediocre teams. If the three of them can form a core of quality starters, this team may be closer to contention than people realize. If Patterson makes any sort of recovery to pitch like his old self, this team may actually have 4 of their 5 starters set for next season.

The big questions for this team right now surrounds trades. Who will they get rid of? What will they get in return? Right now, there hasn’t been too much interest in Dmitri Young, but that is subject to change as the trade deadline approaches. Belliard is another player who is doing well right now and could be a key trade piece. Remember though, the players that are playing well are on one-year contracts. Trading teams would get rent-a-players, and they aren’t going to give up their top prospects for these guys. For now, just sit back and relax, enjoy watching Da Meat Hook in the All Star game, because it is really a remarkable comeback for him.

Lopez’s new address

Since Felipe Lopez moved to SS he is hitting better than when he played 2B. He knows that he is pretty much the SS for the rest of the season, so he can relax and concentrate on hitting. As of the break, his splits are .279/.380/.395 since he moved over from second, which are boosted by a strong Sunday, and are only over the course of 13 games. What will be interesting is seeing if the hopefully more relaxed Lopez can hit the way he was expected to hit when he got traded from Cincinnati. He may not have the best glove in the league, but if he can hit somewhat like he did with the Reds, well, obviously it’s better to have a poor defender who can hit at SS than a poor defender who can’t at 2B.

Sad Day at The Review

The White Sox locked up Mark Buehrle to a four year deal this weekend, and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. Not that the Nationals had much of a chance of signing him, but it would have been nice to see them take a shot. What’s so great about him? Well, at some point at the end or after the season we’ll go over the list of free agent pitchers available. It is not promising and Buehrle was the best of the bunch. Many of you may be thinking that I am overvaluing Mark, but take a look at what he’s done. He had a bad season last year. His ERA was 4.99 and he struck out less than 100 batters. But look at his career prior to that. He is not considered by many to be an elite pitcher, but he may be a “quiet” elite pitcher. Since 2001 he has been top 10 in the AL in the following categories multiple times:

  • ERA, Wins, WHIP, K/BB ratio (3 times each)
  • Games started, CGs, shutouts (4 times each)
  • Innings pitched (5 times)

Buehrle is a machine. This season, besides throwing a no-hitter, he is on pace to have over 200 IP again, for the 7th year in a row. And as of the All-Star break, had the 6th best ERA in the AL. Take a good look at this 28-year-old one more time. If he continues what he’s done for the next 10 years, he may never win a Cy Young, but he could rack up 250 wins. If he moved to the pitcher-friendly confines of NL East parks, who knows what he could have done. Oh well, congrats to him for playing just where he wants to play.

All Stars, Canadialand, and the end of Guzmania

July 2, 2007

Dmitri Young made the All Star team as the Nationals “required” player. Normally, requiring every team to have a player bothers me a bit. If any team, eveDmitrin the vaunted Washington Nationals, doesn’t have someone worthy of being an All Star, then why should someone who is deserving get snubbed? But this year, it worked out well, because Young is having a great season, and as flukey as people say it is, he deserves to go. Without that rule, he probably would not make the team in favor of some other significant snubs like Jimmy Rollins or Ian Snell. But he is really having an All Star-cailber season so far. As bad as he looked only last year, when nobody wanted anything to do with him (how much would a team like the Yankees like to have had him for the first half of the season?), it is nice to see him invited to the mid-summer classic. This may not be the only honor Dmitri receives this season , and I’m not talking about being traded to a World Series champion, which is of course a possibility. It’s time to start thinking of him as the leading contender for comeback player of the year.

Molson can fix anything

John Patterson is going to Canada for a look at his arm. Basically what it comes down to is this: if he needs surgery he’s out for the season, if he doesn’t he will spend this season working through his injury. Neither is particularly appealing, but it is probably more important for him to figure out how to fix his problems than just patch things up a bit. A Patterson with a fastball under 90-mph and no bite on his curve is like having no Patterson at all. The Nationals don’t need warm bodies to throw on the mound, they can find anyone to go up there and have an ERA over 7 (like Patterson). What they should be trying to do is find out who can be a legitimate starter next season. I don’t know what this newest course of action for Patterson is supposed to produce, but let’s hope Patterson’s success in 2008, not 2007, is everyone’s biggest goal.

A final word on Guzman

By now everyone probably knows that Christian Guzman is out for the season, an unfortunate injury for a player who was hitting well for the first time in 6 years and (by all accounts) never stopped playing hard. For the team, the big problem with Guzman being out has nothing to do with this season. If he hit .800 this year, the Nats still aren’t making the playoffs. But it was important to see what he was capable of doing. Well, he’s capable of hitting over .300 with an OPS of .850, at least for 2 months. Whether he can do that for a full season is will not be learned this year. Now, going into 2008, they are apparently planning to start Guzman as their leadoff hitter and SS for the season. The lineup position isn’t important, it can always be juggled, but there is some cause for concern that he will not hit that well again. Unfortunately they have their money invested in someone who has spent the majority of his time with the team on the DL, and most of the remaining time hitting as poor as any starter in the league. They are probably handcuffed to make a move for the future in that position this year, and they probably aren’t too sure of his ability to play 140+ games next season.

The tag that he is a fragile player may not be fair, he actually played in over 140 games for 5 of his first 7 seasons. The problems have come after he moved to DC. Since then he has played one terrible season and followed that with 2 seasons where he played a total of 43 games. Regardless of his abilities or, as some believe, lack thereof, Guzman has been an awful investment. The team signed Guzman to a 4 year deal, worth $4.2 million per year, for a total $16.8 million investment, ending in 2008. He is basically the closest thing to a big name free agent this franchise has signed in forever, and they signed him for more money than they have signed anyone for, as far as my research has shown, EVER. In fact, thanks to salary inflation and a lack of signings, there have only been 5 people who have been paid more annually by this franchise (coming from trades and arbitration, but not by free agent signing) – Vlad Guerrero, Jose Virdo, Livan Hernandez, Fernando Tatis, and Javier Vazquez. So far the investment in the light-hitting speedster has yielded 9 SBs and splits of .250/.294/.356. According to sabermetricians, the Nationals were able to win a whopping 4.2 more games over those 3 year with him than if they had just used a replacement level player (Guzman’s WARP-3). Now, with one more year on a contract that the Nats must honor, they are of course going to allow him to start again, not for his ability to hit or field, but because they are paying him to do so.

A Couple of final notes

It will be interesting to see how Felipe Lopez hits now that he doesn’t have to play 2B, where he had yet to claim that he felt comfortable. Shawn Hill has begun throwing again, and will hopefully be back by the end of the month.