Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Free Agency: Can Washington Compete

Now that the games are more or less extended "Fall Training", management should be focusing not on wins and losses at all, but how these pieces will come together for next season. Funny, Riggleman was preaching this back in July, but once the team submarined his chances at the full-time gig (which were slim at best), he defended his stance on keeping the kids on the bench.

The Nats' farm system is pretty thin, and much of it has had at least a cameo with the big club. There are holes everywhere that will have to be addressed via trade or free agency. The club landed Adam Dunn last off season for a reasonable contract, but which upper echelon free agents are going to settle on Washington? Having the number one pick in the draft consecutive years is not a resume bullet-point.

The Nats need to study and settle on three things: which type of free agent they want to pursue, how they plan to market their club to these players for 2010 and beyond, and what incentives they can offer to get these players to sign. You would think every team has a plan like this, but looking at the rosters of some of these teams, it is clear some (Jim Bowden) approach the profession with darts and rhetoric, not statistics and analysis.

Every year, teams are lauded for getting a good deal on a good free agent only to have a player who is a poor fit for the team and environment, and eventually ends up sulking the whole season (think Orlando Cabrera and Milton Bradley). Adam Dunn could have fit this profile (defensive shortcomings) had he not been a big hit with the fans. This struggle is often lost when the baseball minds do not agree with the people trying to fill the seats, and a name is signed instead of a player.

Billy Beane constructed his profile almost ten years ago, and many teams have begun to mimic his methods. The baseball landscape in 2009 is much different than in 2001. Veterans are aging in a more traditional method, players' stats bell curve more as opposed to spiking. Mike Rizzo has to identify what type of player will best fit with the team's 2010 roster and expectations. Chasing Mark Texieria, while great for appearances, would have been a disaster in both the short and long run. The Nationals would have been best committing the money to several useful players. Instead, they missed the boat on most of the good free agents.

Even once players are identified as being a good fit for the organization, whether determined by skill set, age, value, they still have to realize that the Nationals are an organization building a winning roster, and that they are not just looking for a one-year stop-gap. While those who follow the team may understand how Rizzo has changed the philosophy here in DC, the media still portrays the Nats as a bunch of wandering buffoons more adept to being on the wrong end of historic milestones. Developing a rapport with agents, who can work some magic, will be key.

Some players will not want to risk playing for a potential dud like the Nats. There are plenty of players who will consider it, but what are the incentives? The Nats will have to bargain competitively to bring in talent. Whether it is to invest an extra year into a contract, throw in a creative signing bonus or performance clause, or target higher risk guys that may not be getting a fair shot (guys coming off injuries, stuck on the bench, etc), that player needs to want to choose the Nats over 29 other teams. You don't want Julian Tavarez back.

All that stated, what are the Nats off season needs? Position by position, here we go:
1B- Adam Dunn: an attractive trading chip, but if he wasn't allowed to be moved in July, doubtful he goes anywhere by next July
2B- Cristian Guzman?*: Yeah, speculation is that he could be a candidate to shift over. Orr isn't a long-term solution, and Desmond at shortstop make the defense immensely better. Guzman moves to his right fine, and has the arm to fire from deep in the hole. It should be a sweet deal for both sides, but ego have a tendency to blow up logical situations
SS- Ian Desmond or Cristian Guzman: Orr is proving he can be a decent backup, but is probably not going to take a spot from Gonzalez. There is a need in the middle infield.
3B- Locked up till 2013
C- Jesus Flores: Hopefully 100% next season
LF- A tricky one. The Hammer will probably cost close to 6 million at arbitration. He is 30 and probably having a career year, minus the misfortunes. It will be hard to get good value for him long term, so he is likely the best trade-bait the Nats possess. I like Willingham and am glad the Nats buried Kearns to give him a real shot, but the moons really are not going to line up for him on the Nats. Possibly in the market for a corner outfielder.
CF- Nyjer Morgan: Second easiest call on the board. Just don't Juan Pierre this one.
RF- Elijah Dukes: No trade market for him, he's cheap, and he may be ready to break out after a disjointed season.
PH- Mike Morse: Can eat up a few of the spots in the field when necessary, but Rizzo traded to get his bat. Probably will never be an All-Star, but could be next year's version of Josh Willingham, sans home runs.
Bench: Wil Nieves, Alberto Gonzalez, Willie Harris, ?, ?: With Norris waiting in the wings, Bard likely becomes a solid back-up for a contender. I don't envision Maxwell making it, a much of the rest of the AAA cupboard is barren. This where the "Moneyball" teams butter their bread, finding valuable contributors and staying away from Anderson Hernandez.

There, quick and dirty, that is what the Nats should be looking for come off season: a starting caliber middle infielder, a starting left fielder, and two valuable contributors off the bench, hopefully good enough to push for playing time. The pitching staff is a quagmire for another time. Nationals Inquisition probably hits it on the head, though. In any event, enjoy the rest of the show and root for the Nats to JUST edge out the Pirates and Royals for the #1 pick.

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