Darkest Before the Dawn?

Posted by Dave Nichols | Thursday, November 18, 2010 | , , , , | 12 comments »

Can the Washington Nationals take a step back record-wise in 2011 and still progress as a team?  It's an interesting question to ponder.  Because as things stand right now, it looks more and more likely the team the Nats field next season will be filled with the same questions as last season.  Or worse.

It's clear now that first baseman Adam Dunn won't return to the Nationals.  This has been about the length of the contract all along, clear and simple.  Even the dollar figures aren't as important as the length of the contract. 

GM Mike Rizzo has remained streadfast in not going over three years for the hulking slugger.  Dunn's agent is insisting on a four year deal, and rumors floated yesterday that the Detroit Tigers were willing to even offer a club-option on a fifth year.  Dunn will get what he wants in this market.  But it won't be from the Nats and he'll have to surrender his glove to make it happen. 

This was never about the defense -- for either side.

Hypocrites, all. 

Word came out yesterday that Rizzo is satisfied with stringing left fielder Josh Willingham along on a series of one-year deals as well, that is if they don't trade him or refuse to offer him arbitration.

And Rizzo himself the other day said on the radio that he wasn't going to "delude myself to the fact that we have a great chance of landing Cliff Lee," and that it would be very difficult this off-season to entice any difference-making pitcher to join the Nationals.

So, where does that leave the 2011 Washington Nationals?

It's entirely possible the off-season goes by with the Nats failing to acquire any real significant major league talent.  Sure, they'll be able to claim they were in pursuit of Lee, de la Rosa, Crawford or Werth.  But in the end they will be outbid by contending teams, offering similar deals in terms of dollars but with the added enticement of potential playoff baseball.

They'll also be able to say that they kicked the tires on Zack Greinke, Matt Garza and the like via trade.  But again, the asking price will be just too steep, considering the Nats should be building their stable of prospects and close-to-the-majors talent, not trading it away.

All of the Nats real talent base is still younger than 26, led, of course, by Ryan Zimmerman.  Ian Desmond.  Danny Espinosa.  Wilson Ramos.  Bryce Harper.  Those position players represent the core of the Nats lineup, none of which are approaching their peak years.

The pitching staff is similarly situated.  Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen all have yet to reach their 25th birthday.  It is here where the Nats still, after six years in the District, need to add to the stable.

Mike Rizzo knows this.  He knows that it will be 2-3 years before this core grows up and is ready to contend -- IF they all develop as he thinks they will.

But he also has to deal with an eroding and ever-frustrated fan base that is growing impatient for wins on the field NOW.

Last year's crop of free agents were brought in with the idea of stabilizing the Major League roster while letting younger players develop -- and avoiding 100 losses, which they were able to do barely.

Matt Capps.  Ivan Rodgriguez.  Jason Marquis.  Livan Hernandez.  Adam Kennedy.  Brian Bruney.

Stop-gaps all.  And mostly failed stop-gaps, at that.

I warn Nats fans to expect more of the same this off-season.  Expect a few fiscally conservative moves to attempt to bolster the pitching staff.  Expect a reclamation project (or two).  Maybe a couple role or bench players.  All in the pursuit of avoiding 100 losses.

Take a good look at last season's free agent class again.  Weren't we taking about these same problems at this time last year? 

I think that come spring training the names might be different, but the type of players -- and the problems -- will be about the same. 

Yes, eventually the Nationals are going to have to go out into the free agent market and sign players to contribute to a winning team. But they just aren't ready to do that.  The core of the talent on this team is still too young to justify signing older free agents whose contracts and Major League viability will be over by the time these guys are ready to contend.

And the thing is:  Mike Rizzo knows this.  It would really help if the Nationals organization were transparent about their plans, instead of leading their fans on with failed promises of the pursuit of free agent all-stars.

There are three ways to acquire talent in Major League Baseball:  drafting, trading and signing free agents.  But signing free agents is a way to supplement the talent you already have with older players, not a way to build a franchise.

This team is still building.

12 comments

  1. cass // November 18, 2010 at 12:20 PM  

    Ever get the feeling that the minors will be more exciting for the franchise next year than the majors?

    I'll be there for Strasburg's Return on South Capital Street, of course, which hopefully will come next September. Outside of that, nothing terribly exciting at the big league level, other than Zimmerman's usual sublime excellence.

  2. Dave Nichols // November 18, 2010 at 12:38 PM  

    kind of agree Cass. this is what the team should have been doing in 2005-2008 instead of Jim Bowden's half-hearted attempts at mediocrity. and the Nats really should be following Ted Leonsis' method of transparency instead of all the cloak-and-dagger Dan snyder shenanigans. better way to build a loyal fan base, IMO.

  3. lung-gom-pa // November 18, 2010 at 1:51 PM  

    Have to assume you were one of those nay sayers who thought that Mike Rizzo would NEVER sign both AJ Cole AND Robbie Ray to a contract? Now, weren't you? Fess up now?

    Give the man a chance just the above and the fact he signed all of his top draft picks should be enough to convince you he just may be the real deal. Jury is still out what he and the newly revamped FO do and don't do during this offseason.

    This is NOT Bowden-ball.

  4. Dave Nichols // November 18, 2010 at 2:08 PM  

    lung: i respect Rizzo's amateur scouting and development skills and properly acknowledged him when he signed all his picks last summer.

    this article was not meant to be a critique of his major league scouting skills. rather, to illustrate my point that he knows where the Nats currently stand in the developmental phase and the difficult job he has since the organization continues to operate under a cloud of secrecy and deception instead of transparency.

    i think most Nats fans would rather be told at this point: "we're saving our bullets until our core is ready" instead of "we tried to sign ALL the big free agents but they didn't want oue money."

  5. Mark // November 18, 2010 at 3:14 PM  

    The Nats (Lerners) seem to think that there are only 2 options: (1) build for the future, (2) go for it all now and sign free agents.

    In reality, there's a third option, rebuild the farm system (Which is taking far longer then it should have) and use free agency to make smart choices and fill in the holes to field an MLB quality club.

    My suggestions for this year - Willingham (2 years, $15M with an option), De La Rosa (2 years, $16M with an option), LaRoche (1 year, $7M) and Webb (1 year, $6M with a $10M option that vests at 25 starts).

    Are these bargain, smart money signings? Nope. But they'd put an MLB team on the field. They'd bridge the gap until the farm system can produce enough players to field a field MLB team. And they'd inspire some confidence in the fanbase that the Lerners are actually trying to field a Major League team. Because so, it doesn't look that way.

    Otherwise, the under $50M payroll looks like they don't even care.

  6. Mark // November 18, 2010 at 3:15 PM  

    Oh, and here's what the Nats current payroll looks like for Opening Day 2011: under $49 million.

    https://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=0Ah8KBga3QqVzdFNtYmtNdS1ZU2FIMVhvNWRwM2VlckE&hl=en&authkey=COWdnpcM

  7. Dave Nichols // November 18, 2010 at 6:31 PM  

    Mark, thanks for the comments. the Rockies dropped out of re-signing de la Rosa because his agent is looking for a four-year deal, much like whythe nats will lose Dunn. so the two-year you propose is probably a non-starter.

  8. bdrube // November 18, 2010 at 7:00 PM  

    Dave, you are totally correct that this is what they SHOULD have been doing before. But they didn't and the fan base is rapidly disappearing. I fear that by the time they are ready to sign those free agents, they won't have sufficient revenue.

  9. Mark // November 19, 2010 at 9:12 AM  

    Well, I'm not sure that I'd go 4 years on De la Rosa, but the Lerners have to learn that the players cost what they cost - what other owners are willing to pay. Free agent players don't cost what the Lerners want them too.

    My beef with the Lerners is that they've never showed any inclination to fielding a winning team.

  10. David // November 19, 2010 at 11:15 AM  

    Good column. My thoughts exactly. I had been trying to find a silver lining in the fact that - wait a minute - they're going to be WORSE next season. Not sure how Rizzo could possibly be honest about that fact. But for the sake of the fanbase - he's got to overpay for some decent vets. Just got to.

  11. Doncosmic // November 19, 2010 at 12:45 PM  

    Mark, I don't think that the Lerners ever had a real chance to field a winning team. They would have had more of a chance if they had fired Bowden earlier.

  12. Mark // November 19, 2010 at 1:46 PM  

    @doncosmic The Lerners haven't had a real chance? Can you explain that to me?

    They had Kasten the whole time. I think they chose to listen to Bowden over Kasten, which sounds asinine when you say it out loud. Either way, they didn't give Bowden an MLB Budget; if you listen to him on XM (or ever, anywhere), he wouldn't left money on the table. The low payrolls are on the Lerners, not Bowden.

    Even now, Rizzo doesn't have a budget. He needs to justify his expenses; read Kilgore from earlier in the week.

    The Lerners are cheap and incompetent. The only thing that can change my opinion on that, will be results.