Wednesday, January 24

The cost of "Veteran Presense" - when it's not really needed.

There's a long-held belief in baseball that the idea of having veteran presence on a team is inherently valuable. It makes sense in theory - after all, if you have a group of talented youngsters, it can at worst be useful to bring in a guy that's been there before. Whether he's acting as an example for the kids or telling them what they should be doing, there's at least a moderately proveable correlation here.

However, like any idea when carried to extremes, it quickly falls apart. Case in point? Ramon Ortiz signing with the Twins for $3.1 million. There's a fine line between "bringing in helpful veterans" and "squeleching the youngsters". The Twins, for those unfamiliar with the organization, have a pretty good group of young pitching. There's the obvious one (Johan Santana), the even younger lefty (Francisco Liriano), and there's a host of young righties (Boof Bonser, Matt Garza, Scott Baker) that I can all recall off the top of my head. That's enough for a very, very young rotation - and I can understand wanting a guy who's had more than, oh, 25 big-league starts in there. That's doubly true given Liriano's likelihood of missing the 2007 season with surger and rehab.

However, the Twins already have Carlos Silva. Silva's not great - his calling card is excellent control, and over the course of his career he's been about average (101 ERA+). Again, that's not great, but when you have the talent that the Twins do, you would prefer it if the vets largely stay out of the way, right? That's what Silva does - and he's not a great player, don't make the mistake of thinking I'm saying that. He's either average or slightly below average (if you like your starters to strike people out, he's not your guy). So if we replace Liriano with Silva, now we have a rotation that looks something like:

Santana, Bonser, Silva, Garza, Baker

That's not bad. It's young, cheap, and effective. When you're operating on a shoestring budget, it's as good as gold to find that kind of rotation.

So now we add Ramon Ortiz to the mix. What's he offer? Really, not a whole hell of a lot. Think a worse version of Silva (93 ERA+) that will eat about 190 innings below league average. Great. That's useful if you're going to be looking at an innings shortage. However, the Twins aren't going to need that - they have at least 5 pitchers (already mentioned), plus a few other arms in AAA that they could call up who would be much cheaper than Ortiz. They'd probably be less effective, but whatever.

Basically, what it boils down to is Scott Baker v. Ramon Ortiz. Now, I'll admit I'm biased here for two reasons:

1 - I saw Scott Baker shut down the Durham Bulls for 8 1/3 innings two years ago, so that's my memory there.
2 - I saw Ramon Ortiz suck last year for the Nats.

So, let's compare. Scott Baker has a career ERA+ of 86 - worse than Ortiz, and Baker sucked last year (ERA+ of 70). However, Ortiz wasn't much better last year (ERA+ of 79 in a ton more innings) - and when coupled with 2005, that's about 350 innings of 81 ERA+ ball, give or take. That's worth about $2.7 million more than Baker? Never mind that Ortiz is now past the peak age for a pitcher and will probably decline from hideous to god-awful here in the next couple of years - plus he's losing the RFK effect. Baker, meanwhile, will be 25 this year (still well in his growth phase). Why not give him the chance? At worst, he'll do what he did last year - which wasn't much worse than Ortiz's effort - but the odds seem to speak against that. At the worst, he's cheaper, which leaves more room to sign Santana to a long-term extension. I don't think any Twin fan would argue with that.

Anyway, the Twins' rotation now looks something like:

Santana, Bonser, Silva, Ortiz, Garza

And they're looking at signing Bruce Chen. If they do, you can repeat the above argument but put Matt Garza's name in place of Baker's. Let's hear it for Terry Ryan.

Monday, January 22

Washington Nationals 2k7: Hide the Women and Children

First off, I'll be honest here - I'm a huge fan of the Nationals, have been since they were the Expos back in '94. I've been following them for over half my life, and this might be one of the worst teams they've fielded. You know it's bad when you're considering a 95-loss season a success. Still, I can't help but follow them. The rest of this post will be dedicated to them, mostly as an analysis of the team for 2007 (like last year, I plan on doing this again this season; unlike last year, I'm starting in January) but also as a study for when truly bad teams have little to play for.

Infield & Catching
1st Base
Nick Johnson will play first - when he's healthy. Unfortunately, he won't be healthy to start the season thanks to recovery from fractured right femur and subsequent surgery (and surgery to fix the previous surgery), which means the Nats will be forced to turn elsewhere. It's likely 27-year-old-but-still-propect Larry Broadway will snatch up most of the early season at-bats until Johnson is healthy. When healthy, NJ provides great on-base skills, good power, and plus defense at first. Broadway has a passable skill set, but the biggest knock against him is that he's a little old to be getting his first shot at big-league playing time at 27. He'll function as a cheap stopgap until NJ returns to health - unless he performs well. Then he'll function as a cheap stopgap and provoke controversy when NJ gets healthy.

2nd Base
Thanks to the Vidro trade (and I do mean thanks - thanks, Bavasi!), Felipe Lopez will slide over from short to play 2nd on an everyday basis. His offensive skills are certainly much improved from where they were - on some level. If he's allowed to run, he'll certainly do so, but he struggled to show any real semblance of power once he was traded to the Nats. Defensively, he's not much to call home about, but he's better than (past a diving) Vidro, which has to count for something. His backup will be Bernie Castro, whose main attributes are 1) he's young and 2) he's cheap. Sense a trend yet?

The job is Cristian Guzman's. And when I say that it's his job, I mean that it's his - not even his to lose, really. If he was going to lose his job, that would've been back in 2005 back when he was putting up 456 ABs of .219 BA. He was out all of last year with a torn labrum, but looks to be back and healthy - don't celebrate too much. Offensively, there's really not much there - if you're lucky, you'll get a pedestrian offensive shortstop who'd be pretty good as long as we're talking 1985 or so. Defensively? Around average as well, maybe slightly worse. We'll see what it looks like, but still. Yech.

Third Base
It's tough for most Nats fans not to be happy talking about Ryan Zimmerman - and on this hellhole of a team, you can't blame them much. He's still young (22), but he's above-average defensively already and may provoke Scott Rolen comparisons before too long. Unfortunately, he may also be the third-best 3B in the division behind David Wright and Miguel Cabrera, but that's not his fault. He's still - at worst - above average in a league stacked with 3Bs, and at this point the sky's the limit for him.

Brian Schneider had what seemed like a rough year at the plate, especially with his power. However, his power's really been decreasing over the last 4-5 years (check out his doubles and HR) and unless that returns he'll basically be a better defensive version of Guzman. That's normally scary enough to begin with, but if you already have the original Guz.... that's when problems start. Jesus Flores - a Rule V pick from the Mets - will back up. Not terrible, I guess. I mean, he's a backup C that will probably start 20-30 games or so. Whatever, he won't make or break the season, and he can't really perform much worse at the plate than Brandon Watson did last year. Whoopee.

Right Field
Austin Kearns will be the everyday RF, and as long as he's healthy he should provide about league-average production offensively. Defensively, he's above average - one of the better defenders in the NL. He hasn't been injured in two years, but I still remember his injury-plagued seasons before then. I'm probably unfairly biased with regard to his health; he'll be at worst adequate protection for Zimmerman and at least a small ray of offensive hope before the lineup plunges into the black abyss.

Center Field
The job's Nook Logan's. Why it's Logan's is anybody's guess, however. He brings a ton of speed and a hideous skill set beyond that - no average, no power, below average fielding. Sounds good enough for me, right? Evidently it's good enough for the Nats. Meanwhile, Ryan Church - who was perfectly fine last year but ran over Bodes' dog coming out of the parking lot on the first day of Spring Training - will get relegated to a backup role here. Alex Escobar is in the mix and will see PT, but probably not at the outset. Will produce when healthy, which is anybody's guess.

Left Field
This is an interesting case, and I think we're going to need to watch this closely (well, as closely as we can get with this team) once Spring Training gets underway. Right now it looks like Kory Casto's job (according to the Nats' official depth chart), but recent arrival Chris Snelling may play there as well. Snelling is like Escobar in one important way; chronically injured. He's also chronically out of options and on the 40-man roster, which would lead me to think he's getting PT. Both Escobar and Church are on the depth chart here too, although I'd say it's more than likely this will shake out over ST. Personal guess? Snelling and Escobar will play until they get injured, then Casto will get the job.

Bench Players
There's some weird NRIs out there - Tony Womack, Travis Lee, etc. It's certainly not surprising if they end up on the big-league team when they break camp. Same for D'Angelo Jimenez. Aside from them, there's the usual fare; we've already talked about Larry Broadway and I mentioned Castro a while ago, and they're very likely to break with the Nats. The outfield bench is going to mostly consist of some combination of whomever isn't playing in the OF among all those CF/RF candidates (Logan, Church, Snelling, Casto, and Escobar, for those of you attempting to score at home). Rule V pick Jesus Flores has been mentioned already. That'll just about cover it - there's some interesting potential here, but it's more than likely it won't really amount to anything. Don't get too excited.

Starting Pitching
Ye gods, this is when the fun begins. I worked this out a while ago, but it still stands. Here's your possibilities.

John Patterson - obviously the ace when healthy. The keyword here: healthy. Averaged about 80 days on the DL over the last 3 years (yes, it's biased because of 2006), so breaking that out over a season.... that's probably about 20 starts.
Tim Redding - should make the club out of ST, and among Nats circles that I'm a part of, he's been one of those "quietly good signings". Of course, he's also been the only signing so far. If healthy, they'll probably toss him out there every 5th day.
Billy Traber - for some reason he's fallen out of favor with Nats management, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up in the bullpen for most/all of the season. He may end up in Rauch's role from 2006. (Lord knows they'll need bullpen arms anyway.)
Chris Michilak - is this guy old? I haven't found any mention of him in the rotation anywhere beyond Rotoworld. Even the Nats don't have him on the 40-man roster.
Jason Bergmann - see Traber.
Mike O'Connor - probably a default #3. Unspectacular, but he's ML-serviceable if he keeps his walk rate down and stays healthy. Look for 20-25 starts, as ...really, who else are they going to bring up? (note: will not be ready for Spring Training)
Shawn Hill - better skill set than O'Connor, but will probably end up as #4. See above.
Joel Hanrahan - probably won't open the season in the rotation, and he definitely won't if a couple of other things happen (more on that in a minute). If and when injuries strike, he's, 2nd or 3rd in line to get starts, I guess. Will flirt with 15 starts.
Ramon Ortiz - the Nats just made an offer to him, and since I'm guessing teams aren't knocking down his door for 200 innings of 6.00 ERA ball, he'll probably sign with the Nats. I'd expect slightly better, but not by much.
Jason Simontacchi - see Hanrahan.

In addition, the Nats have made offers to Ortiz, Armas, Steve Trachsel, Jorge Sosa, and Jerome Williams. Of those, if *any* of them sign they'll be in the rotation. Obviously Armas and Trachsel have injury concerns attached to them; I'd only remotely consider Williams out of that crew. Tomo Ohka is still floating around, too.

A couple of other names I've heard thrown around but haven't seen here yet:

Beltran Perez - will fill the 5th spot?
Matt Chico - one of the prospects (hey, this is the Nats system, he's a prospect) acquired in the Livan deal. Since the Kasten Plan revolves around not spending a lot of ML-level money this season, Chico in the majors wouldn't surprise me a lot. Is he ready? No. But the Nats could easily throw him out there for 20 starts and let him mature on his own - and leave it to Randy St. Claire to make sure his psyche stays intact.

A rough guess on the number of starts everyone will make:
Ortiz, Sosa, Williams, Ohka (if any of them sign with the Nats)
Patterson, Armas, Trachsel (sign / health)
O'Connor, Hill, Redding
Simontacchi, Hanrahan, Chico, Perez

That really doesn't help a whole lot, but it's at least a rough attempt to work out who they'll be throwing up to pitch.

Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch will do at least a passable job of protecting the 6 leads they get all season. (Sorry, excessive pessimism.) Aside from them, there's enough spare rotation fodder and discarded parts to put together a decent bullpen, I'd guess. Bergmann and Traber will probably end up here, and it remains to be seen if Ryan Wagner can stand a chance of living up to any of his potential. First step: stop allowing baserunners to score way above the league average. Emilio Fruto was the other guy in the Vidro trade, and he did quite well in moving from AA to AAA last year. Nothing special in absolute terms, but he'd be a reliable option here. Luis Ayala and Saul Rivera will probably show up, maybe Micah Bowie.

Bottom Line
Don't expect much. The bullpen shouldn't be horrid, the infield won't be terrible when healthy, and the outfield will at least have 1 1/2 quality players most days. However, there's really only half a lineup there (Lopez, Zimmerman, Johnson, Kearns, maybe Church/Snelling/Escobar when healthy and if you're generous) with the rest of it being either bad or abysmal, and good luck trying to figure out who the hell is going to start. That alone will doom the Nats to 100 losses - if they're lucky, 95.