We Know What’s Wrong With The Nats, But How Can It Be Fixed?

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The Nationals were expected to dominate. Instead, the team that won 98 games in 2012 and seemingly improved over the winter is under .500, out of contention and facing a large number of changes this off-season. It’s not hard to diagnose what went wrong and here’s a brief synopsis:

  • Injuries

The Nationals lost Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Ross Detwiler for extended periods.

  • Underperformance

Dan Haren was signed to shore up the back of the rotation and has been awful. Drew Storen is out of his element as a set-up man and wound up back in the minors. Denard Span has been a disappointment. And Danny Espinosa’s numbers (.158/.193/.272 split with a .465 OPS and 3 homers) are worse than those of Cubs’ pitcher Travis Wood (.267/.298/.489 split with a .787 OPS and 3 homers).

  • Bad approach/bad luck

The Nats are seventh in the National League in home runs and next-to-last in the league in runs scored. They’re twelfth in the league in walks and fourteenth in on-base percentage. In 2013, they’re thirteenth in the league with a BAbip of .282; in 2012, they were fourth at .308.

  • Poor defense

The Nats’ catchers have caught 13 percent of the runners trying to steal on them. Anthony Rendon is a third baseman playing second. Ryan Zimmerman is in a defensive funk that’s gone of for the better part of two years.

  • Dysfunction

Manager Davey Johnson has openly clashed with general manager Mike Rizzo. Tyler Clippard ripped the organization for their demotion of his friend Storen. The players appear to have thought they’d have a cakewalk to the playoffs given the hype and star power.

In short, the Nats have gone from an embarrassment of riches to a plain embarrassment. With 2013 essentially over and 2012 long gone in the rearview mirror, what do the Nats have to do to get back to where they were supposed to be? What should they do?

With Rizzo having received a promotion and contract extension, it’s his baby. The luck/design argument is irrelevant. The Nationals happened to be the worst team in baseball two years in a row when once-a-generation talents were sitting there waiting to be picked first overall in Harper and Stephen Strasburg. That’s no one’s fault and to no one’s credit. It just is. Rizzo put a solid team together, but there’s been a semblance of overkill with the signings of Haren and Rafael Soriano. Haren’s performance in 2013 is indicative that his decline that began last season with the Angels was not an aberration. Soriano has pitched well, but he was not really a necessity for the Nats. He was available, they didn’t trust Storen and preferred Clippard as the set-up man. In retrospect, both were mistakes.

The question of who the manager will be going forward is vital. Johnson bears a large portion of the responsibility for this team’s underachievement. As great as his record is and as much as the media loves him for his personality and candor, Johnson’s style was a significant reason the 1980s Mets failed to live up to their talent level. He doesn’t care about defense, he trusts his players far too much in preaching aggressiveness, and the festering anger over the 2012 Strasburg shutdown—that I’m sure Johnson thinks cost his team a World Series—has manifested itself in open warfare between the manager and GM. If Johnson weren’t retiring at season’s end, Rizzo likely would’ve fired him a month ago along with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, or Johnson would simply have quit.

Johnson’s positives (he wins a lot of regular season games) don’t eliminate his negatives (he’s insubordinate and his teams are fundamentally weak). Thirty years ago, Johnson was seen as a computer geek manager. Nowadays, he’s considered a dinosaur. In reality, Johnson is and always has been a gambler and an arrogant one at that. His attitude is that the team he’s managing needs him more than he needs it. He doesn’t want people telling him what to do and he’s never taken well to front office meddling. The Strasburg shutdown and firing of his hitting coach are two instances in which Johnson would like to tell the front office to take a hike and let him run the team his way. Rizzo had problems with Johnson and his predecessor Jim Riggleman. With the next hire, he’d better get someone younger and on the same page. That doesn’t mean he should hire a yes man, but someone who he can work with sans this lingering tension and open disagreements.

With the personnel, a lesson can be learned from the Big Red Machine Reds from 1971. In 1970, GM Bob Howsam and manager Sparky Anderson had built a monster. The Reds won 102 games and lost the World Series to the Orioles. Widely expected to repeat as NL champs, they fell to 79-83 in 1971. With cold-blooded analysis, Howsam realized that the Reds were missing the elements of leadership, speed, intensity and defense, Howsam traded 39-homer man Lee May and starting second baseman Tommy Helms with Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Jack Billingham, Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke. The clubhouse was transformed and they were suddenly a faster team with Gold Glovers at second base and in center field. In fact, it was that decried move that spurred their run to greatness.

Rizzo needs to look at the team’s deficiencies in the same way that Howsam did and act decisively. If that means getting a defensively oriented catcher, trading Ian Desmond, Clippard and some other names that are supposedly part of the team’s “core,” then they have to explore it. If a team underachieves from what they were supposed to be, there’s nothing wrong with dropping a bomb in the clubhouse. In fact, it’s necessary in order to get back on track. With their youth and talent, the Nats can get back to where they were with the right managerial choice and a gutty trade or two.

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Longoria, the Rays, and…Wright

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On the heels of Evan Longoria agreeing to a contract extension with the Rays that will guarantee him $100 million through 2022, the news is out that the Mets offered David Wright a 6-year, $100 million extension. Naturally, as is the case with anything the Mets do, this is cast as a lowball, “show me,” “look we tried,” proposition when the offer is legitimate and reasonable considering what comparable players have received.

The main differences between Wright and Longoria are leverage, age and perception. Wright is a free agent after 2013; prior to the new contract, Longoria was locked up by the Rays until 2016. Wright is about to turn 30; Longoria just turned 27. Longoria is considered a big game player because many of his hits have been considered “clutch” (with good reason) and Wright is more of a steady performer whose numbers accumulate and he’s unfairly been seen as a central figure in the disappointment of a Mets team that stumbled at crunch time.

In reality, they’re pretty much the same player. In fact, Wright has the advantage of durability that Longoria doesn’t have. Longoria has had quadriceps strains, hamstring tears, and wrist problems. Wright got hit in the head and suffered a stress fracture in his back, both of which he’s recovered from.

In his career, Longoria has traded his arbitration years and window to freedom for security. He signed a contract as a rookie (shortly after he arrived in the big leagues) that guaranteed him $17.5 million and could have made him as much as $44.5 million. Now, as an established star player, he’s got his $44.5 million and an additional $100 million on top of that. There’s not a no-trade clause in the deal with Longoria’s only recourse if the Rays decide to trade him is waiting until after 2017 when he’ll be a 10 and 5 player (10 years in MLB, 5 years with the same team) and subsequently can reject any deal. But before then, if the Rays choose to move him due to financial constraints or because they receive an offer they can’t refuse, there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s a trade-off that both sides made. Longoria gets his guaranteed money, the Rays have flexibility. Because Longoria is locked up until 2022, it doesn’t mean he’ll be a Ray for that entire time. That’s the way the contract was designed and the manner in which the Rays operate. The Rays said, “We’ll give you more security in exchange for flexibility.” Longoria accepted that.

The Mets are not in the position of the Rays where they have a terrible ballpark and limited fanbase. The Mets’ financial problems are not related to baseball’s structure, but are a byproduct of circumstance and will presumably end at some point. For the Mets and  Wright, the offer that has been made public isn’t for public relations purposes, but is a reasonable, market-driven deal. That doesn’t mean Wright’s going to take it. For all the talk that the Mets are dragging their feet, the Wright camp is probably also taking a wait-and-see approach to know where the dollar figures are for players in this year’s free agent class. If there’s a team that tosses a record amount of money at Zack Greinke and rolls the dice on Josh Hamilton; if a club gets crazy for Wright’s childhood friend in Virginia B.J. Upton, then Wright can say he’s going for the big money next winter and unless the Mets pay him and pay him big now, he’s not signing anything. But if the deals these players get aren’t what’s expected; if the number of teams that are still willing to go overboard as the Angels did with Albert Pujols is limited to one or two; if no club other than the Dodgers is spending wildly, then Wright isn’t going to do much better than the 6-years, $100 million and will be more willing to take it.

The Jose Reyes comparisons are simplistic and stupid. Those negotiations weren’t “negotiations” in the truest sense. The Mets wanted Reyes back, but they didn’t want to give him $100 million (money that they didn’t have and certainly didn’t want to spend on him) and they knew they had a reasonable—if significantly less flashy—replacement for him with Ruben Tejada. It’s a different matter with Wright. The Mets want him back and know how hard he’ll be to replace on and off the field.

The common sense approach from the Mets to Wright is to be conciliatory and ingratiating. They should not imply that because Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman took $100 million over six that Wright should know what’s good for him and do the same thing. The Mets should approach Wright with the facts. Those facts are that he’s not going to do much better on the market than 6-years at $100 million with a reachable option to make it 7-years at $125 million and perhaps an eighth year option as well; that the Mets are in position to get markedly better and contend by possibly 2013 and definitely 2014 with all that young pitching and money coming off the books; and that, like the Rays and Longoria, it behooves both sides to come to an agreement. A no-trade clause isn’t even necessary for the new deal because Wright will be a 10-and-5 player after 2013.

The Wright-Mets extension talks aren’t in a holding pattern because the participants staked their positions with no room for compromise and a pure impasse. 6-years at $100 million was a start. If a deal gets done, it won’t be until the other pieces currently making the free agent rounds come off the board and there’s a clue as to what the numbers have to be and could be to make it worthwhile for the Mets and Wright. In that context, the Wright and Longoria comparisons are equal and like Longoria, I’d expect Wright to eventually sign an extension with the Mets, but it won’t be until the new year.

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Strasburg Ambiguity Mars The Nationals’ Magical Season

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How can anyone involved with the Nationals justify looking into Stephen Strasburg’s face and telling him that while the team is on its way to the playoffs and is a legitimate World Series contender that because of a random number of innings and the edicts of one person’s dictatorial, unchecked authority, he can’t be a part of it?

The number (supposedly 160 innings or thereabouts), so random and capricious with no ironclad guarantee that it’s going to help him stay healthy over the long-term, predicates that Strasburg should resist and use his power over the situation to escape it.

There are so many compelling stories with the Nationals that the looming shutdown of Strasburg is marring all they’ve accomplished and it’s coming down to the self-proclaimed final word, GM Mike Rizzo. Given the number of GMs who’ve been celebrated in recent years and either found themselves fired (Omar Minaya); on the hotseat (Jack Zduriencik, Dan O’Dowd); or seen their reputations shattered (Billy Beane), Rizzo might not even be there in 2015. Manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty are going along to get along, but Johnson’s style in his prior stops and the atmosphere in which he spent his formative baseball years—the Earl Weaver Orioles of Jim Palmer throwing 300+ innings—do you really think Johnson, at age 69, wants to hold back on the once-in-a-lifetime arm of Strasburg when he might be writing his ticket to the Hall of Fame with another World Series win? A win that could hinge on Strasburg being allowed to pitch? Do you believe that McCatty, who saw his own career demolished by Billy Martin’s and Art Fowler’s abuse, doesn’t understand the limits of a pitcher and when he needs to have the brakes put on? It’s inexplicable to hire qualified people to do their jobs and not let them do them; to have experienced baseball people whose in-the-trenches understanding of the game are dismissed in the interests of self-protection and “I’m not gonna be the one that’s blamed if he gets hurt.”

That’s what Rizzo is doing. It’s got nothing to do with studies or protecting the player; Rizzo is protecting himself. No one else.

The implementation of pitcher workloads has become a circular defense and is a logical fallacy. Because Jordan Zimmerman underwent the same Tommy John surgery as Strasburg and was limited to 160 innings last season, it’s presented as validation for Strasburg’s final number of 160 or so innings. But they’re two different pitchers with two different levels of talent and two different thresholds along with dozens of other variables that aren’t being publicly accounted for in the interests of a short and sweet, salable list of “reasons” to place Strasburg on the sidelines as the kid who has to take his piano lessons while the other kids in the neighborhood out enjoying the sun and playing ball.

No one’s saying to abuse him as the Cubs, chasing a dream and trying to slay ghosts, did to Kerry Wood in 1998. But to just say STOP!!! and be done with it is a different form of abuse.

Strasburg doesn’t want to have his season ended prematurely, but if the Nats get to the playoffs or World Series, he’s not going to be a participant; or if he is, it will be after a month of barely pitching. It’s ludicrous and could also hinder his career rather than save it. Strasburg has to have some recourse. Saying all the right things and being a willing accomplice are separate. If I were Strasburg and his representatives, I’d push back. Agent Scott Boras, no stranger to hardball as a former player and negotiator, knows the terrain of arm-twisting organizations in the interests of his clients. Strasburg and Boras have a large share of the say-so in this situation. The point of power is to use it. If it’s put out publicly that Strasburg won’t sign any long-term deal with the Nationals if they continue to put their constraints on his career, what’s going to happen? Strasburg could refuse to report to the club next season and force his way out of Washington; he could be a test case because the Nats are not operating in his best interests. The blowback of Strasburg tearing at his chains legally and in a public relations blitz would be fierce and Rizzo wouldn’t have a choice but to back down.

The number of great players in sports who have been part of teams that made it to the pinnacle of team achievement or came thisclose but didn’t close the deal are legion. Ernie Banks, Don Mattingly and the new Hall of Famer Ron Santo are three of dozens of examples who would’ve traded years of their careers for a title shot.

Exacerbating this travesty is that the Nationals—or simply Rizzo and Rizzo alone—didn’t take steps such as the 6-man rotation to specifically prevent the need to end Strasburg’s season in September.

It’s easy to suggest that what the Nats have built will be sustainable and they’ll have multiple opportunities to make it back again and again; that with Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and the young pitching staff, they’ll be contenders for years to come. Facts and history say otherwise. It’s not true that they’re absolutely going to have chance after chance. Ask Dan Marino if he’s stunned by never having made it back to the Super Bowl after his sophomore season in which he demolished the NFL record books and carried the Dolphins to the NFL’s ultimate game. Then ask him if he’d have sat by quietly if the coaches and front office decided that he’s thrown too many passes after 13 games and they were sitting him down to lengthen his career. You can say it’s not the same thing, but it actually is the same thing. Strasburg is a baseball player; he’s a pitcher. Sometimes, regardless of how they’re handled and babied, they get injured as happened with Strasburg two years ago. Nothing is to be gained by sitting him down with numbers that have no basis in reality. Yet that’s what the Nats are doing and it’s not about protecting anyone other than the GM of the team, which makes it exponentially worse.

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Who Won’t Be Traded At The Deadline?

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Everyone’s coming up with their lists of players who are going to be available or traded at the upcoming MLB trading deadline. I’ve been doing it too and will continue up to the big day, but there are also names floating around that come from anonymous (possibly nonexistent) sources; have reasons to possibly be on the block but actually aren’t; or are pulled out of the air by rumormongers because they can’t think of anything else to write or talk about.

Here are some of the players that are implied to be available, but aren’t and won’t be traded.

Josh Willingham, Twins

The Twins are ready to deal but they’re not going to get rid of every big league player on the roster. They just signed Willingham this past winter, he’s paid reasonably and they wouldn’t get much for him if they did decide to trade him. The days of teams taking on big contracts and giving up significant prospects are over and the Twins aren’t going to pay any of Willingham’s salary.

He’s 33 and is signed through 2014 at $7 million per year. He’s either more valuable for the Twins to keep or to look to trade as the contract winds down.

The Twins aren’t going to have the stomach to rebuild the team completely in an expansion-franchise sense. Willingham can help them in the next two seasons and he’s a good influence on the younger players.

Justin Upton, Diamondbacks

I understand the thinking that the Diamondbacks might listen. Managing general partner Ken Kendrick called Upton out for his mediocre play and GM Kevin Towers listened to offers on Upton shortly after taking over. There’s a logic to doing something drastic when a team with high expectations is struggling, but Upton is only 24 (25 in August); is signed at a reasonable rate ($38.5 million from 2013-2015); and the Diamondbacks still have a good shot at the playoffs despite their poor start.

Upton has a no-trade clause to four teams: the Tigers, A’s, Indians and Royals.

Other teams will call and ask; as he should, Towers might listen to what the offers are; but Upton’s not getting moved.

Alex Gordon, Royals

He’s finally found a defensive home in left field; he’s signed through 2015; is hitting better after a bad luck-infused start; and the Royals aren’t doing the “we’re rebuilding” thing and dumping any and all veterans.

The Royals have something positive building in spite of their stimulus response critics. Gordon is a part of that.

Felix Hernandez, Mariners

They’re not trading him. Forget it.

It’s partially because the Mariners have a load of pitching on the roster and on the way up and need a veteran leader to front the rotation when they’re ready to move from terrible to mediocre to (someday) pretty good, but if they’re letting Ichiro Suzuki go after this season, they don’t want to alienate the fanbase entirely by dumping two fan favorites within months of one another.

Tim Lincecum, Giants

There’s a logic to the idea. He’s been bad this season, somewhat unlucky and his velocity is down. Lincecum is a free agent after the 2013 season and has shown no inclination to sign a long-term deal for one penny less than market value.

One thing that flashed through my head was Cole Hamels and one of the Phillies’ minor league arms (Phillippe Aumont, Trevor May) for Lincecum. The Giants would get an ace (pitching like an ace) for the rest of the season and a young pitcher; the Phillies would have Lincecum for this year and next.

But the Giants aren’t going to trade their most popular and marketable player regardless of how poor he’s going.

David Wright, Mets

Wright is having an MVP-quality season and is back to the player he was until the Mets moved into Citi Field and turned Wright into a nervous wreck who altered his swing and approach to account for the stadium’s dimensions. The Mets are hovering around contention and aren’t drawing well. Trading Wright would throw the white flag up on the season. That’s not going to happen.

He’s signed for 2013 at $16 million and the Mets are going to give him an extension comparable to Ryan Zimmerman’s with the Nationals. He’s going nowhere.

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Harper’s Promotion Is Not Just About Playing Baseball

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With the injury to Michael Morse, the Nationals have a huge hole in left field. Ryan Zimmerman is on the disabled list with inflammation in his shoulder that has been negatively affecting his throwing and could be a recurrent problem. Rick Ankiel is a good defensive outfielder, but his offense is limited to an occasional home run and stolen base speed with lots of strikeouts and little plate discipline.

Bryce Harper’s recall from Triple-A is, in small part, baseball-related but there are other factors involved in the decision.

On the field, Harper won’t be worse than the left field combination of Xavier Nady, Roger Bernadina and Mark DeRosa. He has star potential and can provide immediate impact. At worst, he’ll hold his own between the lines.

Off the field, at 19-years-old and as self-involved, bratty, catered to and obnoxious as he’s shown himself to be, is he ready for the scrutiny, attention, jealousy and outright loathing he’ll attract? Probably not, but that will take care of itself.

In spite of a league-best 14-6 record, the Nats are 12th in the National League in attendance and there is a spot in the lineup for Harper—it’s not pure shtick to fill the park. They have nothing to lose by bringing him up now. His arbitration clock is ticking, but he’s not going to be eligible for free agency under any circumstances until after 2018. So why not have a look? They can always send him down.

It’s not going to happen this season, but the Nats’ configuration in the field will possibly have Zimmerman shifting to first base to account for his shoulder and inability to throw. Current first baseman Adam LaRoche is off to a hot start, but has a team option for 2013 that’s unlikely to be picked up. Anthony Rendon is a top third base prospect and Harper can find a home somewhere in the outfield.

The Nats are one of the few organizations in baseball with depth at third base, and they can replicate what the Dodgers of the early 1970s did when they had two big league-ready third basemen (Steve Garvey and Ron Cey) and one—Garvey—who couldn’t throw the ball to first base without it being a hair-raising adventure. They moved Garvey to first base and he became an MVP, perennial All-Star and Gold Glove winner. For all of Garvey’s polished good looks, crafted image and Hollywood star power, the awkward and strange-looking Cey (known as the Penguin because of his odd body type and style of running) was an excellent player in his own right and as much, if not more, of a key to the Dodgers dominance in that decade and beyond.

The Nationals have similar options.

For Harper, it’s not the actual playing of that game that will be the attention-grabber, but how opposing clubs, umpires, the media and even his own team react to his first tantrum.

As far as playing, he’ll be fine, but if the Nats suggest that it’s a purely baseball-related decision, it’s simply not the truth.

My book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide, is now available in the I-Tunes store.

Check it out here.

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The Nationals Need a Pitcher More Than a (Prince) Fielder

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Any team can use a bat that will hit 30-40 homers and get on base 40% of the time, but when that bat is attached to a body of jiggly flesh that’s going to grow larger and more jiggly as time passes; when the team doesn’t have the DH available to stash said player to account for his defensive deficiencies that are going to grow worse as he grows older (and larger); when the player is represented by an agent whose demands are starting at 10-years; and when the team has holes on the mound bigger than in their lineup, it makes little sense to spend the vast amount of money it’s going to cost to sign that player.

The Nationals have the money to sign Prince Fielder; they can certainly use his power; their ownership is very wealthy; and the team is on the cusp of legitimate contention, if not already there. But do they need him?

Their offense finished 12th in the National League in runs scored, but that’s misleading. Jayson Werth was awful in 2011 and will absolutely be better in 2012—in fact, I think he’ll have a very good year. Ryan Zimmerman missed a chunk of the season with an abdominal injury. They’re replacing offensive hindrances with occasional power, Rick Ankiel and Laynce Nix, in the regular lineup.

If Adam LaRoche returns and hits his 20 homers, they’ll score enough to win if their pitching performs; the rotation as currently constructed is good enough to loiter around contention; the bullpen is shutdown with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen shortening the game. But they need another starting pitcher who can be trusted to take the ball every fifth day and give them a designated number of innings. Mark Buehrle would’ve been perfect, but he signed with the Marlins.

The Nationals will eventually start to win as a matter of circumstance even as the front office does baffling things like trading a package for Gio Gonzalez that would’ve been suitable for a far better pitcher like Matt Garza; signing a good background player like Werth to a contract befitting a star; or seriously considering meeting agent Scott Boras’s* demands for Fielder.

*Do people realize that Boras was a minor league player before becoming an agent of evil? Click on his name above; he was actually a good hitter.

As much as the Nationals are playing up their starting rotation with the addition of Gonzalez, they don’t have a horse at the front. Stephen Strasburg is an ace talent, but your number one starter cannot be on an innings/pitch count—he’s not going to give them 200 innings next season. John Lannan is a good pitcher, but he’s not an every fifth day, “put the team on his back” guy either. No one can predict what Chien-Ming Wang is going to do. Jordan Zimmerman is in the same position as Strasburg.

The Nationals have talked about moving Werth to center field until next winter when B.J. Upton—in whom they’ve long had interest—will be available; Werth can play center field serviceably enough, but the smart thing for them to do would be to steer clear of Fielder; sign a pitcher who will give them 200 innings like Edwin Jackson; sign Cody Ross as a left field stopgap; and install Michael Morse in right.

Also, Bryce Harper is going to get a legitimate shot to make the team out of spring training. The Nats have to be careful with Harper and manager Davey Johnson must learn from the mistakes he made with a similarly hyped prospect and immature personality, Gregg Jefferies. Johnson coddled Jefferies and enabled the diva-like behaviors exhibited by the then 19-year-old; when he stopped hitting and his self-centeredness drew the ire of the Mets veterans, Johnson continued writing his name in the lineup creating a fissure between himself and the players with whom he’d cultivated a relationship from their formative years.

He cannot do that again.

If Harper is in the big leagues and Werth or Zimmerman feel the need to dispense old-school clubhouse discipline on the mouthy youngster, Johnson has to stay out of it; and if Harper isn’t hitting, he shouldn’t play simply because his name is Bryce Harper.

The one free agent bat at a key position they could’ve used was Jose Reyes; like Buehrle, he signed with the Marlins. Now the big offensive name remaining on the market is Fielder. But having a lineup inhabited by two players who are going to be contractually locked in for the next eight years limits flexibility and will result in diminishing returns quickly. If the Nationals have a budget, it will hamstring them financially as well.

They don’t need Fielder.

Signing him would be spending just for the sake of it and not help them achieve their goals any faster than they are now.

They’d be allowing Boras to play them just as they did last winter with Werth and it’s a mistake.

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It’s a Gio!!!!

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Let’s look at the Gio Gonzalez trade and its ramifications for all parties.

B-B-B-Billy and the Nats.

As I said in my prior posting, based on the flurry of trades he made and prospects acquired, the floating barometer of genius for Billy Beane is back in the green zone.

Of course it’s nonsense. The players may make it; they may not. You can get analysis of the youngsters here on MLB.com. The way the trade is being framed, it looks like the Nationals overpaid for a talented but wild lefty in Gonzalez.

The A’s are building for a future that may never come in a venue they don’t have assurances will be built—ever.

The Nationals are again hopping between two worlds. On one planet, they’re building for the future with young players Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper—along with the top-tier prospects they’ve accumulated in recent drafts; on the other, they’re signing to massive contracts background talents of advancing age like Jayson Werth.

Which is it?

If he’s healthy and throws strikes, Gonzalez will add to the Nats improving starting rotation.

Those are big “ifs”.

Right now, if things go right for the Nationals, you can make the case that they’re better than the Marlins, are going to be competitive with the Braves and maybe even the Phillies if they begin to show their age.

That would be an extreme case of things going “right”, but we’ve seen it happen in recent years as the 2008 Rays came from nowhere to go to the World Series.

The Gonzalez Chronicles.

The Red Sox were said to be pursuing Gonzalez as well; with their limited cupboard of prospects, they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) match what the Nats traded away.

What their decision to bid on him at all does it open up a series of questions as to how much influence new manager Bobby Valentine is having on the composition of his roster.

When he was the manager of the Mets, Valentine was against GM Steve Phillips’s acquisition of Mike Hampton at Christmastime 1999; Valentine felt Hampton was too wild.

If that’s the case, then what does he think of Gonzalez, who’s walked over 90 batters in each of the past two seasons?

It could be that Valentine has evolved from his earlier beliefs.

Maybe he thinks Gonzalez would’ve been worth it.

Perhaps he’s being conciliatory and flexible in his first few weeks on the job.

Or he’s being ignored.

The Yankees stayed away from Jonathan Sanchez because GM Brian Cashman didn’t want a pitcher that wild. He wasn’t going to mortgage the system for Gonzalez when they’re still after Felix Hernandez.

Other teams were chasing Gonzalez, but the Nats blew them away.

Those teams were smart to steer clear; Beane was savvy to deal Gonzalez now and use the A’s teardown as a cover; and the Nats are taking an enormous leap of faith with a pitcher who’s going to aggravate them with his inability to find the strike zone.

There are better pitchers on the market via free agency (Edwin Jackson; Roy Oswalt); and trade (Gavin Floyd, Jair Jurrjens)—all are superior options to Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is a deep and risky bomb for the Nats that I wouldn’t have attempted.

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Even With Willingham, the Twins Have a Long Road

All Star Game, Ballparks, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

Twins GM Terry Ryan is making intelligent acquisitions to address some of the issues that caused the Twins to fall from being picked in certain circles to go to the World Series down to a 99-game losing disaster. But even with the apparent contract agreement with Josh Willingham, they’re still only about a third of the way to putting a competitive team back on the field.

Few are truly realizing how bad the Twins were last year. It’s not injuries and poor personnel decisions that caused the train wreck but that they were simply bad.

Offensively, the Twins were next to last in the American League in runs scored, OPS and total bases; they were last in home runs.

Their pitching was last in BABip; next to last in ERA; gave up the second most hits and runs; and were last in strikeouts. Their starters didn’t provide depth and the bullpen led the league in allowing inherited runners to score.

Defensively they had the second most errors; were next to last in fielding percentage; and last in defensive efficiency.

On the surface, it’s clear why they were so atrocious, but you need to look at these numbers closely to truly understand the level of awfulness they exhibited in all phases.

It was cyclical. When you combine an injury-ravaged team that doesn’t hit home runs, doesn’t get on base and can’t score with a pitching staff that doesn’t strike anyone out and has a horrific defense behind them, you wind up with 63-99.

Ryan has gotten an adequate part-time backup for Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau with Ryan Doumit; using addition by subtraction, he removed Tsuyoshi Nishioka from the regular lineup; shored up the defense by signing Jamey Carroll and moving Alexi Casilla back to second base where he belongs; and he’s brought in a proven and underrated power bat in Willingham.

When he was with the Marlins and Nationals, the player to avoid in their lineups with runners on base was Willingham—not Hanley Ramirez nor Ryan Zimmerman.

The improved defense will help the contact-centric pitching; the offense will be better with the new players they’ve imported; but the bullpen hasn’t been improved—in fact, it’s been downgraded with the departure of Joe Nathan. No matter how much better the Twins defense is, they can’t rely on their old template of fundamentally sound defenders; functional starters; and a deep, interchangeable bullpen if they don’t have the bullpen arms they once did.

Bullpen performances fluctuate so there’s a good chance of marked improvement; but their starting rotation is still mediocre at best.

Ryan’s made decisions to bring them back to respectability and they’re cheaper. Given how atrocious and overpaid they were in 2011, that’s not all that difficult. Fixing the other holes and bringing them back to where they were for a decade—as an annual playoff participant—will be.

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Werth Batting Second?

Books, Management, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players, Spring Training

The Washington Nationals have announced their intended lineup to start the season. Their big free agent signing ($126 million to be exact), Jayson Werth is going to bat second—Washington Post column.

There will be undisguised outrage at this decision.

I’m not as ironclad in lineup beliefs as others—I prefer the old-school style of having a speed/on-base guy leading off; followed by someone with a little pop, on-base skills of his own and reasonable speed to prevent the double play; the best hitter in the lineup batting third; the most feared hitter fourth; and RBI men fifth and sixth.

But it all depends on the personnel.

If the Nationals are going to think outside the box with Werth and bat him at the top of the lineup for the reasons presented (he walks and has power), why not bat him leadoff?

It’s not as if they have a prototypical leadoff batter; if they plan to use Ian Desmond in the role, it defeats the purpose of batting Werth second. I like Desmond, but he doesn’t get on base and strikes out a lot.

Werth strikes out a lot as well.

This concept of having a runner or runners on base for the middle of the lineup to drive in is, more often than not, going to be sabotaged.

Batting Werth leadoff might not be a conventional approach, but he would be a potential rally-starter. He gets on base, has power, hits plenty of doubles and can run. There have been players of this kind—who also struck out a lot—that have been very good leadoff hitters. Bobby Bonds was one such player.

In his early years with the Giants, Bonds would bat leadoff with Willie Mays and Willie McCovey behind him and he’d score well over 100 runs a year. He’d either strike out, homer or start something with his speed.

The Nationals don’t have that kind of power behind Werth, but there are hitters who will drive in runs—Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman and Mike Morse.

If they so desperately want to bat Werth at the top of the lineup, I’d bat Werth first; rookie Danny Espinosa second (he can hit—watch); Zimmerman third; LaRoche fourth; and Morse fifth.

Batting Werth second is an attempt to be too clever. Rather than that I’d prefer to go for the bomb early, especially considering how outmanned the Nationals are in terms of talent when comparing them to the rest of the National League East and NL proper.

Either bat him leadoff or bat him fourth.

Not second.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

The book is available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

Now it’s also out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.


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