WESTERN HOMES: Is getting guys with character issues the newest "Moneyball" tactic? If you look at the few guys that Washington has in its system that are high on potential and anywhere near major-league ready, they're "off-field" issues discards from other franchises -- Wily Mo Peña, Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge. The Nationals have a rising star of a manager in Manny Acta and they think they can get a competitive advantage by acquiring these wild-child guys for less than their talent level alone would suggest and bringing them to heel.
RESEARCH DEPARTMENT: There's not really a recent baseball team you can compare to the Raiders or the Trail Blazers in terms of off-the-field issues completely interfering with the franchise's efforts to win games and make money.
WH: In baseball, players like Milledge can get dealt for way less than their actual value if their teammates don't like them for whatever reason. Michael Barrett could tell you all about it.
RD: Which is strange, because baseball is the team sport where teammates interact the least. You'd think that if a quarterback and a wide receiver who hate each other can still complete touchdown passes together, guys could bat in a lineup with anyone.
WH: I think the humbling process of going through the minor leagues makes the average pro baseball player more sensitive to squeaky wheel-type behavior than stars in basketball and football who have been top dogs since high school.
RD: I get worried about Elijah Dukes landing himself in prison, but to be worried about him somehow making Ryan Zimmerman or Paul Lo Duca hit worse seems pretty silly to me.
WH: Well, the Nationals are walking a bit of a tightrope. They certainly don't need Jail Blazer-type press around their fledgling new identity in the year of their new ballpark's opening. But also if they're going to sustain the attendance boost the new stadium will bring they need to appear as if they're making progress towards winning. Taking on these high-risk, high-reward prospects might be the only option available to them, particularly considering how barren the Montreal/Washington system was left after MLB and Omar Minaya's stewardship of the organization.
RD: Part of the reason that teams get bad press is that they play along. If Jim Bowden and Acta just tells everyone "If you hit, you play, and we don't care about anything else" and all the players are on board with that it could totally be a non-issue.
WH: No sport is more dependent on everyone's collective maintenance of popular fictions than baseball. We're kind of meandering a bit on this topic, but I don't how much there is to say about the Nationals on the field this year. It's a bit of a placeholder year for the organization... they've got help on the farm that's coming but it's a few years off and this season the goal seems to just be to not embarrass themselves or the city in the new ballyard. They've gone about it better than some other teams in recent memory have... they have some attractive and marketable young players. Perhaps it helps their offense-oriented team that they're moving out of RFK Stadium, which played as a pretty extreme pitchers' park.
RD: They should be able to score some runs, but man, their pitching staff is going to be ghastly.
WH: Don't you love their pitching rotation?
RD: They have a rotation?
WH: Shawn Hill, John Patterson, Jason Bergmann (?), John Lannan (??), and Matt Chico(???). Subject to change!
RD: Seriously, you know which starter on their roster is making the most money? Tim Redding at $1 million. Everyone else you just named is making less than a million dollars. So you would have to assume that nothing is settled and it will all have to be shaken out this spring. Every single starter they have is completely disposable. "Oh, no, we can't take John Patterson out of the rotation with his eight hundred and fifty thousand-dollar salary!" And everyone after Redding and Patterson is making the minimum. Well, except for some of the bullpen. And their bullpen isn't going to be the worst in the league, again. They seem to be going for a bit of a Marlins-lite strategy at least as far as pitching is concerned. There's so much playing time to go around that someone has to seize the opportunity with a good season. At the very least after this year they'll have a clear idea as to which of their B-grade pitching prospects will be #3-4 starters and which will be relievers.
WH: They need their own Gil Meche. The marginal value of one legit starter, even one being substantially overpaid, would be off the charts for this team. Tim Redding, really? That's awesome. Any inkling as to whom among these prospects has a breakout season?
RD: Boy, it's a crapshoot. I think they should spend their first six or seven picks in the draft this summer on pitchers. If they can add one or two legit prospects, a couple innings-eaters, and one good free agent or trade pickup, they could have a winning club in 2009. That is if the gambles this year to improve the offense don't blow up in their faces. They might as well go all in and try and find the pitching equivalents of Dukes and Milledge. I'm not sure who those are right now.
WH: Just in comparison to the Pirates whom we just discussed, Washington looks like a much more attractive team to be following. They have a couple of players worth paying to see, and a few of them were basically free talent. They've drafted better than Pittsburgh.
RD: They could certainly end up in the Pirates' situation in four or five years if they keep losing.
WH: They're in a different situation because of the relocation. I think it's more likely that the trap that will befall them is misjudging how close they are after the new ballpark revenues start streaming in and overspending. Even so, I feel confident saying that this is both the lowest-payroll and lowest-win total club the Nationals will have for a good while. A few more little things... did anyone anywhere expect that Cristian Guzman would actually play out his entire four-year contract with the Nationals, barring injuries as a starter?
RD: It's not like anyone else would want him. I suppose they could have cut him by now, but they're not contending, so who cares?
WH: The team around him has improved so much that you could argue he's not really killing them so long as he hits down in the order and plays good defense. There's a lot of trade bait on this roster... Lo Duca, Dimitri Young, Ronnie Belliard, Austin Kearns. If the deadline passes and the Nationals don't haul in a bunch of young arms Bowden is going to have some explaining to do.
RD: That's the biggest thing they have on their plate this year other than drafting.
WH: I would also like to send out a quick tip of the cap to Jon Rauch for pitching in 85 games in 2006, and then 88 games in 2007. You have to be pulling for him to break the 90 barrier this year.
RD: Why not 100?
WH: Indeed, why not? The Vegas over/under line for Washington is 72.5. I'll go slightly over... 75 maybe?
RD: Yeah, slightly over. 73.
WH: They're in a different situation, again, than the Pirates because if some of their not-so-exciting veteran guys get moved or hurt, the young players taking their spots will probably perform better.
RD: And they have more high-ceiling guys playing already.
WH: Yes. We're all very positive about the future of baseball in Washington, D.C. Other goings-on in that city are beyond the scope of this roundtable.