30 Teams in 30 Days: Washington Nationals Roundtable

Nationals

Our guest bloggers is Matt Seybold from The Sporting Hippeaux, Ron Kaplan from Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf and Mike Henderson from Hendo’s Hutch.

Question 1 – Was Stephen Strasburg’s demotion justified?
Ron: Sure. It’s not as if he’s the one piece that will put them over the top. There’s no harm in farming him out, giving him some pro experience. Perhaps, in a couple of months if Marquis, Wang, and Lannan can keep the Nats from sinking to the bottom of the division, the team can reconsider. Of course, if it’s a matter of putting fannies in the seats, that’s another story.

Then there’s that pesky free agent-arbitration eligibility thing…

Mike: The arb and free-agent eligibility is the big-picture issue for both Strasburg and Drew Storen. Especially considering the arb raise Strasburg would likely command after the expiration of his current major-league contract, it’s important from a business point of view that the team extend his arbitration eligibility out as late as possible.

Matt: “Justified” is certainly pushing it. I think it’s safe to say that with Jordan Zimmerman, Ross Detwiler, and Chien-Ming Wang opening the season on the DL, Stephen Strasburg definitely proved that his was one of Washington’s five best options at starting pitcher.

That said, I applaud the move on fiscal grounds. The Nats aren’t going to contend in 2010, but they’re a quietly putting together a team that might be reasonably good a couple years from now. Better to have Strasburg for all of 2016, than for the first two months of this season.

I do not, on the other hand, see any reason to keep him in the minors past midseason, assuming he is dominating. Starting him there helps to relieve some pressure and alleviate the media microscope, but you also want him under the watchful eye of major-league pitching coaches and medical staff. The worst-case scenario for the Nats is having Strasburg develop some kind of arm problem before he gets to the majors. I think he’ll make his first start in Washington sometime around June 1st, after which I expect the Nats to severely limit his innings (and maximize their profits) by pitching him primarily at home.

Daniels: It was probably justified. Honestly, sending the kid out there on opening day without really knowing what he’s going to do against top-tier hitting is just a bad idea. Maybe he mows through an entire lineup, or maybe he gives up 10 runs without getting an out and is ruined forever. Strasburg isn’t going to be hurt by a season in AA or AAA, especially in a season when the Nationals probably aren’t going to contend in a loaded division. Let him season this year, sign a free agent pitcher next season, and let him come up then with a guy who’s better than him to keep him grounded. Nobody’s hurt by that other than Strasburg and his service time.

Question 2 – Can the Nationals attract free agents without over paying?
Ron: Sure they can, but they won’t be the top tier. If the Nats show they’re serious about remaking themselves into a well-maintained organization (which they haven’t been since the early 1990s), that might be a point in their favor. Their minor league outfit is ranked 21st by Baseball America in its 2010 Prospect Handbook, which doesn’t bode too well. Another admittedly lesser factor is more about the quality of life than on the diamond: What does DC have to offer, since the player will be spending considerable time there?

Mike: Few teams can attract quality free agents without overpaying, and the Nats are not one of the few. All the same, they need to bring on good young talent wherever they can find it, both to improve their current standing and as trade chips for prospects to help them continue to rebuild the still-anemic minor-league system. This will be a costly process, but essential if the team wants to contend before 2020.

Matt: The first step for the Nationals is retaining Adam Dunn. Dunn signed with them last offseason mainly out of desperation, as he found his market to be far less lucrative than expected. Assuming he posts another 40 HR, 100 RBI season in 2010, I have to believe he’ll have more suitors this time around. The Nats jumped from 15th to 8th in run-scoring last year largely because of Dunn’s presence. He provided protection for Ryan Zimmerman and RBI opportunities for the players hitting behind him. And, he seemed to be enjoying himself. If the Nats can persuade him to stay for another three or four years, the combo of him and Z-Pack, as well as an improved pitching staff, should make Washington a much more appealing destination for other free agents.

A good start would be finishing higher than fourth place, something which has happened only once in the last thirteen seasons. While 2010 probably isn’t the season they achieve this goal, the stable of young pitchers led by Stephen Strasburg and John Lannan makes me optimistic that by 2011 the Nationals will be featuring the best rotation they’ve had since moving to D.C. That should be enough to help them move toward .500 or better.

In the end, the Nationals best players are probably going to be groomed from within, as is the case for most contending mid-market franchises. They need to pay close attention to the models of Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Oakland, and Arizona, organizations operating with roughly the same financial restraints (although Minnesota may surge ahead starting this season) who have managed to put a consistently competitive product on the field.

In most cases, the Nationals should not be targeting elite free agents, but rather looking for good complimentary players who might come at a discount. They’ve done a pretty good job of this recently, evidenced by the signings of Dunn, Adam Kennedy, Chien-Ming Wang, and Matt Capps. (I’m not so crazy about Jason Marquis and Pudge Rodriguez, but they were also relatively cheap, and I see the logic.)

If the Nats want to turn Zimmerman and Strasburg into franchise players, they need to field a contending team by 2013, after which Z-Pack becomes a free agent. Four years is certainly a reasonable amount of time to get this organization on the right track, considering the number of quality players already in the fold.

Daniels: It depends on what they look like when this season closes. I think the Nationals are going to make a little run this season and fade in the second half as their younger players run out of juice. If the team looks good, then they can probably pay market rate for free agents. If they still look catastrophically bad, not so much. But — the Nats are going to have a decent core of young pitchers, they have pretty good position players, and they’ll likely take Bryce Harper with the first pick in this year’s draft and rush him to rookie ball and the fall league. They can appeal to a big free agent’s ego with a “you’re the one thing that we need to get over the hump” sales job. It might cost them an additional guarantee year but, ultimately, that’s usually worth it.

Question 3 – Which player could break out this year?
Ron: Strausburg, obviously. Dunn and Zimmerman will be expected to do as they have done before, so there’s nothing to “break out” from. On the other hand, Wang might make a good comeback story. And don’t forget: Every team Marquis has been on since his debut has made it to the post-season. I’m just sayin’.

Mike: JD Martin, if he’s given a full season to prove himself in the rotation, could turn in a sub-4 ERA which would look pretty good on this staff.

Matt: A couple weeks ago, I probably would’ve answered this question by talking about Elijah Dukes. Alas, his breakout will have to happen elsewhere.

Nyjer Morgan hit .351 with 24 SB after joining the Nationals. This year, he’ll open the season as their everyday centerfielder and leadoff man and I think he’s capable of doing a pretty good Jacoby Ellsbury impression (but with better defense).

With Strasburg, Zimmerman, and Detwiler unavailable, at least for a couple months, the Nats would love it if somebody like Wang, Martin, or Craig Stammen stepped up and made a long-term claim on their spot in the rotation.

For me, however, the real “breakout” candidate is John Lannan. Lannan is just 25-years-old and has already had back-to-back seasons with 30+ starts and an ERA under 4.00. I like betting on third-year starting pitchers in their mid-twenties and although Lannan doesn’t have overpowering stuff like Chad Billingsley or David Price, he is a groundball machine, who with one small step forward could resemble Derek Lowe in his prime. The presence of Wang, a veteran sinkerballer, should be helpful, but most of all, the Nats improving offense and bullpen, might help Lannan pick up more then 9 wins (his total for both ’08 and ’09).

Ron: Let’s just hope it’s not out of jail…

Daniels: I have to agree on the huge year for John Lannan. As a fellow Siena grad, I only hope good things for him.

Question 4 – What place will the Nationals finish?
Ron: Fifth, even with a good year, unless the Braves collapse and finish there. I can’t see anyone else dropping into the basement.

Daniels: I honestly think this is the year the Marlins just can’t do it anymore. I think the Nationals pick up fourth in the division with about 75 wins. Next season, I think they’ll be terrifying.

Mike: Fifth. Not a galactically distant fifth as in the past two seasons, but still fifth.

Matt: I’d agree with Daniels, not necessarily about the Marlins specifically, but I think all three NL East borderline contenders – Braves, Mets, and Marlins – have pretty serious issues and a little bad luck could see one of them falling back of a maturing Nats team. I expect the Nats pitching will improve dramatically over the course of the season, as they get older and reinforcements become available in the form of Chien-Ming Wang, Strasburg, Drew Storen, Ross Detwiler, and, depending on the progress of his rehab, maybe even Jordan Zimmerman by the end of the year. It will be very interesting to see how they deal with Adam Dunn and, to a lesser extent, Cristian Guzman, both of whom could have some value at the trade deadline. Their desire to resign Dunn doesn’t necessarily mean they can offer him up as a rent-a-player in July (Kenny Lofton, for instance, played a season with the Braves in ’97 before the Indians resigned him in ’98). But if Dunn gets a taste of the pennant race, will he even consider coming back?

Eugene: The Nationals did say they were not going to talk extension until Dunn proves he’s a capable first baseman. It could be their way of saying that he could be moved without saying it.

I see them in last, but as other have said, they will improve. If they can develop some hitters to complement the young pitchers, they’ll be in a good spot.

Daniels: Dunn is a DH is a National Leaguer’s body. His future is on an AL team… or the Mets.

Ron: Nah, he’s too healthy for the Mets. Let’s wait awhile. Then we can say he’s Over and Dunn.

Matt: I’m a big believer in the defensive metrics, but I think the trend worked spectacularly to Washington’s benefit in terms of Dunn’s contract. Dunn’s utter consistency, his durability, and his annual 900+ OPS are truly rare qualities, even in bumbling defenders. Wouldn’t you rather preserve you DH spot for somebody who’s fragile? Dunn has played 152+ games in seven of his eight seasons, despite the fact that he looked like Crash Davis is the outfield for much of that time. The cascading effect he has on the lineup everyday due to his patience and power is something the Nats would have a very hard time replacing at $10-$12 Million a year. Not to mention, by all accounts Dunn is an affable, fun-loving clubhouse presence.

Should Dunn make Mark Texeira money? Certainly not. But here’s a brief list of some of the players making more than Adam Dunn: Aaron Rowand, Chipper Jones, Travis Hafner, and Jose Guillen. I’ll pay for defense up the middle, but give me a fat, healthy, iron-gloved 40 HR slugger at first base for $10 Million and I’ll say thank you, thank you very much. My infielders will just have to work on throwing more accurately and remember how much they enjoy hitting in front of him.

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