Friday, February 26, 2010

The Schedule

The Nationals were bad last year. Real bad. Even just bringing back the roster that competed after the All-Star break and play quite respectably at times, it would have been impossible to not improve.

This year in Interleague play, the Nats draw the woeful AL Central, as well as the rival Orioles. Last year, pitting up against the best teams in the AL East, they went 7-11, which isn't too bad considering the top four teams in that division all had Pythagorean records well over .500. Plus, the three game series against the Red Sox was a virtual road trip given the pro-Boston crowd. Cleveland figures to be better, Kansas City worse; Detroit is probably worse, while Minnesota may be a little better (though stadium effects are underrated). The White Sox are still managed by Ozzie Guillen. There is no clear cut favorite, and no team likely to win 90 games. Last year's Nats would likely have split against the AL Central.

This year, with the improvements they have made, they should post a winning record against that crapfest. The key and difference between 65 and 75 wins will be improving on that dreadful 25-47 divisional record.

PS: The Zack Greinke show will be in town June 21-23... hopefully he gets a start.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Detwiler's Injury Relapse

Injuries happen. They happen to all teams in all sports. While there are many theories and techniques to prevent them, none are proven 100% and no team should rely on one system and expect it to work on all players.

However, once an injury occurs, there ARE proven rehab regiments to prevent recurrences and relapses. However, it seems that this is where the Nationals continue to shoot themselves in the foot. So many players (Kearns, Olsen, Zimmermann, Flores) shut down to rest a diagnosed malady, only to have it immediately flare up once they return to action.

Detwiler's setback is alarming because it follows a slew of other injuries and could have easily been taken care of months ago.

They apologists says that it is up to the player to disclose as much information as possible regarding the injury. This is true, but hardly a fact of life. These guys are out competing in a multi-million dollar industry. The psyche of the athlete, particularly the best athletes, is that they believe they can battle through a little pain and still beat their opponent. Think of it as the "Brett Favre" mentality. This is why team staff several athletic trainers and assistants. They are not in there only wrapping ankles. They monitor these players to insure that the team's investment is not being put at risk, yet it seems that the recurrence rate is creeping higher with each sprain.

Once again, nobody can force Craig Stammen to admit that his shoulder is killing him, but it isn't difficult to review the film and data following his hot run in July and notice that his mechanics were suffering. Maybe they injury wasn't "preventable", but he could have easily been put into a rehab program a month sooner and been ready for fall ball. Detwiler should have been ready to go for Spring Training, but instead will be fortunate to be pitching full strength by June. And what of the other guys? Jordan Zimmermann should hopefully be following the James Andrews playbook, but who knows... with the track record right now (see: Patterson, John), we may be lucky to see him in a Nats uniform again, no timetable, if ever.

See, bad teams are bad for a variety of reasons. Rizzo can improve the level of talent, but if other areas are still poorly managed, they will continue to tread in mediocrity.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Long Term Impact of Being Cheap

It is more fun to root for a winner than a loser, though it is impossible to always win. If you can't root for a winner, it is certainly more fun to root for a team that is doing everything in its power to compete. There are many different models for doing this, from the Marlins' yearly "arbitration fire-sale" to the Moneyball employed in Oakland. Casual fans usually prefer to see players they have at least heard of before on the field, but more passionate followers know the value of replacement level players and that a relative unknown out of the minors may be a better fit for the long haul. What fans do not like is to feel like they are being screwed over by the team.

Nobody is going to fault management for being responsible with their purse strings. Hell, Alfonso Soriano could have single-handedly sunk the franchise. Instead, the team gave out several smaller bad contracts to spread the wealth. Then they did not sign their first round pick in 2009 over a few hundred thousand dollars, and battle with their "talent" at arbitration over even less. There is a line between being frugal and being cheap. The Marquis signing was frugal: the club didn't want to invest long term into the top free agents (not that those guys are coming to Washington), so they paid market value for the top of the next tier. Trading for Brian Bruney and haggling with him over 350K is just cheap. Why even bother trading for him in that case?

The Natmosphere has dissected the Brian Bruney arbitration mess from every angle, but the question remains: why will players come sign for a perennial loser if the team does not seem to be working in the players' best interests. Regardless of whether or not the Nationals go out and make competitive offers on the open market in the future, if they are labeled as being cheap by the players and agents, it will have long-term effects. Does anyone think Brian Bruney is going to go out and recruit any of his Yankee buddies in the coming offseason? Hell no. And when the players hear cheap, it doesn't just apply to salaries; they will assume that equipment, accommodations, etc, are all run the same way (which is sadly not far from the truth).

Nobody wants to work where the employees are miserable and there is little hope of change. Sure, it is great to get paid millions of dollars with little pressure to succeed (unlike a market like New York, where Javier Vasquez is returning to be crucified again), but in the end, the players that want to win are going to find a winner, and the rest will play for the Royals.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Adam Kennedy...

Well, he was the A's MVP for a good chunk of 2009... so why can't this guy get a contract before Spring Training?

So much of baseball has to do with "perception" and "reputation". Jason Kendall was once a great all-around athlete who could provide both offense and defense at a premium position. He had his foot knocked off with a baseball (one of the more gruesome baseball injuries I've seen) and was never the same. However, teams keep pursing him like this 2000, not 2010.

I like Fangraphs because they put all the different numbers and tools in one place. Since he will not be joining the organization this year (all the friggin snow probably scared him off to Minnesota), we probably will not mention Orlando Hudson any more after this column. Hudson, both in 2009 and over the course of his career, has posted better OBP and SLG than Kennedy, all the while collecting four Gold Gloves. Orlando Hudson has both those two words going for him. So despite having an advantage over Kennedy both on the field and at the plate, how the heck did Hudson generate less WPA?

Hudson hit in a lineup protected by some of the better hitters in the game; Kennedy, some of the worst. Kennedy split time between second base and third base, but fielded neither up to his standards. Hudson, since leaving the friendly turf in Toronto*, has been rated just an league average fielder.

* The differences between turf and grass are well documented, but how it impacts the different defensive positions really isn't. First and third base feel like fish in a barrel on turf. The English on a well struck ball is exacerbated by the synthetic surface, which makes playing a one-hopper like Russian Roulette. However, ground balls up the middle have less spin and roll true. The deep middle infield positions, however, are forced to deal with impacts of variable length grass, the transition between the grass, dirt, and grass again. The Minnesota Twins are really playing with fire by abandoning their BaggyDome. That turf is a huge home field advantage.

The thing that separates them most is that Kennedy is two years older and because he has had that one "down" year (2007... yikes!) is more or less written off. Hudson's career numbers are trending very predictably, with his defensive peak occurring in his mid twenties, his offensive peak occurring two to three years ago. There is little reason to believe that, barring injury, Kennedy will not contribute the same, if not more, WAR per at bat.

Given that the Nats plan to give Desmond a good look in the middle infield and still owe Cristian Guzman eight million dollars, a utility player like Kennedy probably makes more sense than a guy who can only play second base and will be less likely to check his ego at the door. See, sometimes those two words work both ways.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


There have been some rumblings that the MLB and NFL should expand their playoffs. Fortunately, the only time the grumbling surfaces is when there is a disparity between a weak division winner and a 90+ win wild card team that gets left at the altar. After 162 games, 8 finalists are more than enough to determine the best team (as a matter of fact, it is much more likely to NOT determine the best team, but given the differences in the leagues, the benefit of doubt has been granted).

This is mentioned in light of the NCAA basketball tournament considering expansion to 96 teams. Yes, the number of Division 1 schools has increased dramatically since the tournament went to 64 teams (234 to 347), but most of those schools that have ascended are not competing for the overabundance of at large spots. These would go to the major conference bubble teams, along with a couple to the mid and lower major conferences. If a 96 team tournament were to start today, EVERY SINGLE TEAM IN THE ACC (even friggin Boston College) would get in. Why even bother with a regular season, or conferences, at that point.

The 64 team tournament was great because it followed the old premise that every conference would be represented, but also allowed for the thirty or so "next best" teams a shot. College basketball does not require the large financial resources that football requires, so if a low budget school invests wisely (think Gonzaga) they can compete and win at the highest level. The Cinderella premise is what drives the interest for the NCAA tournament. With more schools at such a premium to win each year, coaches have learned to schedule wisely, peak at the right time, and the major conference teams, despite a run from George Mason to the Final Four, have squeezed the non-BCS conferences almost out of the picture. The NCAA, knowing they cannot win a financial battle against those schools, folded and increased the participation.

In the end, it is only one extra game for 64 schools, but it really dilutes the talent level in the tournament and makes it much more difficult for the "Best Team" to win it all. Does the EPL, or any soccer league outside the US, need a playoff? Hell no. If a team cannot prove themselves over 162 games, they do not belong in the championship discussion.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The MLB Doppleganger

The Reds outbid the Nats for the services of Aroldis Chapman, and now it looks like they have also won out on Orlando... Cabrera. I do find the tactics employed by the "New Front Office" fascinating. Rizzo is playing this like the drunk guy at the bar at last call; he will show interest in any girl with a pulse, and it all comes down to finding that one mark willing to go home with him. Most of these players on the Nats radar are ones that playoff contenders (the top 20 teams) covet to fill in the missing link, to push them over the top. And now with Cabrera a Red, Rizzo may actually get the second baseman of his dreams, Orlando Hudson.

The consensus was that the Nats needed to "rebuild." However, browsing the Washington farm reserves must have inspired a different approach. These signings look like that of a team trying to win, and of course the Nats are not trying to lose. However, look back to last year. The major league roster was so terrible last season, too many untested players were forced into roles they were not ready to handle. By bringing in some of these players on the cheap, hopefully some of these younger arms (Strasburg, Storen, Detwiler, Meyers... Stammen and Zimmermann) are able to develop outside the pressure of the major leagues and stay healthy. Most people feel the model for rebuilding is the Florida Marlins, an organization that sends their younger, cheaper players out there early and often, then trading them for more prospects prior to arbitration. The Nats have the money to keep their arbitration eligible players, so they make good use of the money.

However, take a look at these numbers: 73, 80, 72, 74, 78. Those are the win totals of those same Cincinnati Reds that have picked up Cabrera as a "final piece." The Reds are caught in the cycle that many teams get caught in year after year. They have enough capable major league players to feel they can compete, but never take the next step to breaking .500. Their problem, for quite a while, was holding on to players instead of cashing them in when their market value was highest, such as Adam Dunn, Aaron Harang, etc. Then they bring in second tier free agents, hoping Albert Pujols blows out a knee and they can sneak into the playoffs. In reality, they used up their young pitchers to quickly and are now hoping that Harang, Volquez, and Cueto can come back from injury. Had they eased of the accelerator in 2007 and 2008, they would have those guys healthy to join a peaking Homer Bailey and anchor Bronson Arroyo on opening day.

The Nats are likely to win 70-75 games this year, and making another small move coupled with the maturation of the young players on the roster, could improve on that to 75-80 wins. However, without a deep farm system, they will be forced to rely on getting lucky with a Jason Marquis or Orlando Hudson (both players who had outstanding impacts on their team last year) as a free agent, or hit home runs with the draft each season to avoid the type of sustained mediocrity posted by a team like the Reds. Sure, 78 wins looks so good to Nats fans right now, and given the current economic landscape, maybe that is as far as the Lerners feel they have to take the team to keep the fan base. The fans, though, really want to beat the Phillies, Mets, and Braves regularly, and probably will not hang around to watch ticket prices go up for a team destined for 70-80 wins each year because they invest too much in the present and past and not enough in the future.

Tough call