Sunday, August 3, 2008

John Manuel, J.J. Cooper Speak the Gospel Truth--Amen, Brothers!!

I wanted to share this little tidbit from the latest Baseball America free download podcast, which sums up perfectly a lot of what I think when I look back at the Nationals' last four years and Bowden's performance as a GM overall. If you download it and listen, it starts at about 17:40 into the podcast (just before the halfway point). They're talking about the Pirates and their problems over the years, and J.J. Cooper goes into a sidebar about how there's no excuse for small market teams being bad forever.

(The rest of the podcast is well worth the listen too--all about breaking down the trade deadline deals, though sadly no mention of the Nationals, oh well. I recommend all their podcasts really. Go ahead and subscribe on I-Tunes and if you are interested in fun, smart chatter about prospects, you won't be disappointed.)
JJ: The Rays have this year have shown, there is no excuse out there for any team--not that you're going to be good all the time--

John: Yeah.

JJ: But the economics of the game are now--

John: To have a window.

JJ: This is not--if you wanna say 1995 they were not there--it's not that way now. If you draft well, because if you're bad you're going to have high picks. If you draft well, and you draft with the willingness--we're not talking about spending $50 million on a player, if you draft with the willingness to spend $4 million or $8 million if you need to to get the top talent in the draft and then if you trade with the eye on not, "hey we're going to win 10 more games this year and get up to 81 wins," but trade with the idea of three years down the road we want to be a 90-win team the pieces are there for you to do that. The Rays have shown it's possible.

John: It's absolutely possible.

JJ: Without spending a lot of money.

John: And there is no excuse. Now maybe you won't be able to keep Johan Santana when he blows up. But guess what, if you prepare, you can trade Johan Santana, not even get any really return for your big league team, and still compete. I mean, the A's have done it for years I mean they could have kept competing this year, they chose to punt, that's a whole other podcast.

JJ: But the thing about it is, being bold is actually... there's a lot better possibility of success with being bold than timid. If you want to describe what the Pirates have done in the past regimes.

John: Oh, timid is one of the words, yes.

JJ: Timid is the word because, basically.

John: Brian Bullington was a timid draft pick. No offense to Brian Bullington, but he was a timid pick, when B.J. Upton would have been bold. Scott Kazmir that year would have been bold. He was the best talent in the draft. If you want to take a pitcher, you would have taken Scott Kazmir, and look how much better off they'd be with Scott Kazmir.

JJ: But look how many years they went with, "you know what, we're going to take the safe bet, who's closer to the..."

John: Yeah, Brad Lincoln, I wouldn't say timid, but he was the safe pick. Tim Lincecum would have been the bold pick.

JJ: Right, and we'll say, hindsight's easy.

John: Yeah but we had Lincecum as the #2 guy in that draft...
They talk about this topic a little more, with examples of how to do it and how not to. They talk about the Orioles for a while. But this was the key portion.

There's so much here that I totally agree with and that speaks to why we aren't further along in our rebuilding. Trading with an eye not to winning 90 games but to help a bad team win 5-10 more games (Soriano, Guillen). Not drafting well (how do you draft well when you give away your second and third-round picks for the likes of Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman?). The timidness--trading Nick Johnson or Brad Wilkerson in 2004 for prospects would have been bold. Trading Chief at his peak value would have been bold. I'm not sure it's fair to call the Zimmerman pick timid (I'd be interested in what John would say about that), but certainly right now it appears that we took the safer, very good player and passed on the riskier player with the higher upside (Braun, perhaps).

And for all the people who go on about what a victim Bowden has been with payroll, where's the example of the Johan Santana whom he drafted or developed and then lost to free agency? If Bowden had some long list of great players who were pillaged by the Red Sox to win in '04, then I'd be saying, "yeah, he really got screwed by the payroll." But I can't think of a single Reds or Nationals stud player of significance who was lost for purely economic reasons like Manny or Giambi or Santana or Curt Schilling. Not one. Really, payroll isn't his problem. The ability to identify and develop talent is.

Like they said, hindsight is easy, so I don't want to get bogged down in just, "they should have drafted this guy not that guy." But the overall approach that this team had pre-Kasten was absolutely the Pirates' approach of just trying to get to .500. And never really committing to the long, hard work of building a contender. Same can be said of Bowden in Cincinnati in the later years after he no longer had the top-tier payroll that he had in Cincinnati for his first 4-5 years there.

Some I'm sure will read this and say, "but WE'RE NOT THE PIRATES!! WE'RE A BIG MARKET!!" And that's true, but the two points aren't mutually exclusive. You can both think that well run teams with small budgets can win, that there's NO EXCUSE for Bowden's failures here and in Cincinnati, and at the same time you can believe that the Lerners should be spending more on this or that, which is a topic for a different post.

Anyway, download the podcast if you like, and listen to the whole thing. It's well worth it for your treadmill time or whenever you want to listen to smart baseball chatter.


Nate said...

Just to clarify, Manuel and Cooper never actually said anything about the Nats in that podcast. Your review could be read to imply otherwise.

Steven said...

No question--you're absolutely right. I tried to be clear on that in my intro that they were talking about Pittsburgh (then the Rays and Orioles) and made no mention of the Nationals at all in the whole podcast. But you're absolutely right. I'm the one saying the substance of their comments is relevant to the Nationals and Bowden.

Mike said...

I agree with a lot of this, and I'm more in the camp of not understanding the call for big-name free agents. I don't even think there is any real long-term benefit to it with the fans. If you want to build a fan base, build a winner, and people will come.

Having said that, I think some of the stuff with the picks is cherry-picking a bit. The Upton/Bullington pick was bad because I think it was widely accepted that Upton was the better talent, but Pittsburgh passed for financial reasons. The same could be said of their passing on Weiters last year. I think those are real issues to take with the Pirates and other clubs who have done similar things, espcially with how much revenue the teams are taking in.

But, I think there is real value sometimes in taking the surer player over a toolsy guy who has less of a chance to have an impact. The Red Sox have done a lot of this kind of drafting if you look at guys like Masterson, Pedroia, Ellsbury, Lowrie, etc.

I think Zimmerman tends to get overrated as a player by the casual fan, but that doesn't mean that he wasn't a very good pick when you consider how much they've already gotten out of him. When you consider how many first-rounders don't make it, I don't think the production he's already given can just be dismissed. He's never going to be the hitter Braun is, but when you factor in his defense, he's got a chance of being a good major league third baseman.

Take last year as an example. The Brewers took LaPorta before he was expected to go, but they got a player who was closer to the big leagues than most of the people taken around him. They were able to cash in on that this year with the trade. In an organization that is devoid of upper level prospects like the Nationals are, I think this is a very defensible position. And note, I'm not saying they should never take chances, just that I think a mix of those type of players is useful.

Steven said...

I don't know enough to comment on whether Zimmerman even qualifies as a "bold" pick, following the question as John and JJ framed it. I was more just throwing it out there because I thought it was an interesting observation about drafting philosophy.

I agree with you that probably a mix is good, and you have to exercise judgment on when the high end potential is significant enough to justify the risk.

I think what they're saying though is that a) you're probably better off erring on the side of doing the bold thing, or at least don't just always be timid, and 2) be willing to pay for the best talent. I take it that they're blaming owners who go cheap on high draft picks as much or more than GMs. I think part of their point is that there's no excuse for passing on BJ Upton for financial reasons. Every team can afford to sign the best talent in the draft. Maybe the Indians can't outbid the Sox for Manny, but anyone can sign the best players in the draft.

And then I think if anyone out there can make hindsight draft criticism like this without being accused of cherry-picking, it's John Manuel and BA, since they put themselves out there year in, year out. They certainly get plenty of cherry-picking hindsight criticism from know-it-all bloggers attacking them!

Mike said...

Well, on the money issue, I entirely agree. There's no excuse for what the Pirates did last year passing on Weiters for Moskos. But I don't see that as being bold or timid, I see it as being cheap and short-sighted. I don't think picking Upton or Weiters is bold because they were clearly accepted as the best talent available at their slot. It should have been a no-brainer to them, especially when you consider how much revenue is in the game now. And this probably has affected the Pirates more than most teams because they have picked high so many times, when it's easier to say more clearly who the best player available is.

I can see Lincecum being a bold/timid issue because there were fears with his delivery and size(wasn't size an issue with Kazmir as well?). But to some extent I still think this is cherry-picking because you can also pull up names where there were concerns with players that turned out to be well-founded and the players never did anything in the big leagues.

I don't know, I'm just offering a different perspective. I'm not trying to argue semantics, just that I really believe there is a difference between being cheap and taking players who might be closer to the big leagues where you might be sacrificing ceiling a bit. Of course, I'm not sure that's really that much of an issue at the top of the draft.

Steven said...

I agree. It's two separate points.