Wednesday, September 17, 2008

S.O.B. Looks at Boz's Latest

After a chat chock-full of Nationals stuff we're treated to another Boswell column on the Nationals. The S.O.B. (Self-appointed Ombudsman for Boz) is up early to review the old-timer's work.
Cause For Concern
By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, September 17, 2008; E01

Ted Lerner sat in Nationals Park last night, as fascinated with his team and as optimistic about it, despite its 57-93 record, as he has ever been. "Our objective has been the same since the first day," he said. "We are creating a fine organization from top to bottom and we think we're going in the right direction."

All around the Lerner family, however, are members of the organization who are starting to worry. Not mutiny. Not doubting his family's pledges two years ago to do what was necessary to build a champion. But fretting. A lot. With good reason. The future of the franchise, which seemed so bright on Opening Night in a new ballpark, has turned progressively darker as this injury-demolished year has dragged toward its end.

That is the nature of such a season. Patience is tested. Cracks show. Can you stick with a plan that you believe is sound? But flexibility is also tested. Can a billionaire, steeped in conservative business practices, adapt that plan -- accelerate it or emphasize parts that become more urgent -- as circumstances demand?

Will he and his family spend the money that's necessary to give The Plan a fair chance? Will Washington, which built his team a lovely park, be given a good-faith chance for a return on its social investment?

We'll find out, because the Nats are being severely stress-tested. In the March 30 opener on South Capitol Street, Ryan Zimmerman, the face of the franchise, hit a game-winning home run that symbolized the hopes of a franchise whose revenue would rise enormously this year in a $611 million, District-built playpen. What could go wrong?

What hasn't?

Now, the tone of the team, from executives to the clubhouse, has begun to alter as the club wrings its hands that ownership has not made a single investment in a prime free agent over the last two winters or made an important trade that increased payroll. Is the support there?
S.O.B.: Trades that increase payroll = giving away young players for older. You may not realize it, but you're not arguing for spending money to give the plan a chance; you're arguing for abandoning the plan. You're arguing for more trades like Bray/Harris/Thompson/Majewski for Kearns/Lopez. Those moves move us further away from contending, not closer.
"We are making money," said one player, "but it doesn't look like we are spending money."
S.O.B.: Why the anonymous quote?
The Nats entered this season with the game's 26th-ranked payroll. After subtracting Paul Lo Duca, Felipe López, Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala and, if he doesn't recover from arm miseries, Chad Cordero, that budget for '09 may fall by nearly $20 million from its current $55 million.
S.O.B.: You're cherry-picking shamelessly. Yes, these players' salaries for 2008 add up to around $20 million, but Zimmerman's headed to arbitration, so his salary number will jump by at least $5 million, and Guzman's salary will double from $4 to $8 million. So that's $9 of your $20 million already committed. Redding's arb eligible, so he'll see a significant raise from his $1 million. Colome will get a little more. And with the Harris, Perez, and Boone free agents they'll have to spend to fill those gaps because they don't really have options in house.

I'd like to see more (smart) spending too, but you weaken the argument by presenting half-truths. Further, you're weakening your case by setting the bar so low at $55 million. But really, who of this group are you really sad to see go?
Will the same roster be back next season, with minor alterations, trusting merely to better health to produce a vastly better record? Is that how you revive a fan base that has become so somnolent that only 21,759 -- the second-smallest crowd of the season -- attended Monday's matchup of future Hall of Famer Pedro Martínez and the Nats' best young pitcher, John Lannan?
S.O.B.: No, of course not. I'd start by firing the guy who's picking the players and bring in someone who doesn't have a 15-year track record of failure.
The mood that surrounds the Nats could change in a day. If a Mark Teixeira, Adam Dunn, Ben Sheets or CC Sabathia signs as a free agent, views will change fast. "This offseason, we're going to give consideration to going to other places we haven't been," Lerner said last night, certainly hinting, as the Nats tend to do, but again not promising. "But it has to make sense."
S.O.B.: How exactly will the mood change if we sign one of these players? Best case, one of these guys will bring us 4-5 extra wins. Realistically, fewer, especially the starting pitchers. But what impact on attendance would there be if this team was on pace for merely 95 losses? How would the mood be better?

Tex is a fine hitter, but why commit to him for 8-9 years, when he's going to be in steep decline at the end, when our very best prospect is a first baseman, when we actually have two guys under contract for next year that would give us league-average offense at 1B? Sabathia will command a similar 8-9 year deal. Contracts of that length are always a huge risk given the injury risk of any pitcher. Sheets is just crazy--the last thing we need is another player who is guaranteed to hit the DL every year for an extended time. And Adam Dunn is your idea of flexibility to change the mood? Surely you jest. Between the defense, the strikeouts, and the Reds connection, he'd be despised.
The Nats are still furious that they didn't sign their first-round draft choice -- No. 9 overall pick Aaron Crow.
S.O.B.: Good. Does that mean they're going to fire the buffoon who blew the negotiation?
"That one is not our fault. What he wanted was way out of line," said one Nat who otherwise has doubts about the team's willingness to spend. Next year, when the Nats may have the top pick overall, as well as pick No. 9a to replace Crow, Lerner vows, "We will do everything humanly possible to get our top pick signed."
S.O.B.: OK so if you want to make an issue of spending, why don't you call this anonymous source (Bowden) on this shit? A $4.4 million one-time bonus for a blue-chip talent in MLB is not not not out of line. It's cheap. Averaged out over the first 3 years of his career when we'd have been able to pay him the MLB minimum, we're talking about maybe $2 million a year. That's Wily Mo Pena money. Ronnie Belliard money. Rob Mackowiak money.
According to sources, the Nats are already willing to make trades of the kind that add perhaps $6 million to $8 million a year to payroll. But some potentially bigger signings, like a groundswell to beat the Dodgers in the bidding for Andruw Jones last winter, have met resistance at the top.
S.O.B.: You're complaining that the team didn't sign a guy who has a .158 batting average? Thank god that resistance was there. The only thing that would have made this season an even greater debacle would have been signing Andruw Jones. You're making Lerner's argument for him.
"I have never turned down anything that [Nationals president Stan Kasten] has directly recommended to me," Lerner said.
That's fine. But it's not exactly the same tone of voice from the boss as, "Let's go get a couple of good players and build this team a little faster, guys."

It's difficult to tell a genial but imposing business titan that you'd like him to reach deeper in his pocket, especially if you work for him. And, according to Lerner, not one person, either fan or employee, has said anything to him this season except, "Good job."

So, for variety, I said: "Fine businessmen tend to make bad owners. To win, you must try to lose -- money."
S.O.B.: You've now completely left the realm of reality. Baseball is a business. They didn't buy the team as an act of civic philanthropy. I really hope you didn't say this to Lerner, because it's such a foolish, naive, idiotic thing to say that he must have just laughed in your face.
Lerner laughed. It's easy to see why he's liked, but also seldom contradicted -- at least to his face. So, let me help.
"A 'plan' has more than a first sentence," one member of the Nats' front office said. "We're developing our farm system and making trades. But there is the third way you get players, too." Let's see, that would be free agents.
S.O.B.: We've signed free agents. And some good ones too. Redding and Perez are a hell of a lot better than the big money options, Zito and Silva. We signed the most expensive catcher available, and we saw how that worked out.

What we haven't done is sign long-term blockbuster types who will be in decline by the time the team is really ready to contend if the rest of The Plan goes right. Those players also cost draft picks. You're arguing for a strategy that would delay the arrival of the first great Nationals team in order to lock in an endless cycle of 70-75 win seasons. Haven't you seen enough of that from Baltimore?

Reasonable people can disagree on the argument that I'm making here, but you have to acknowledge that type-A free agents have downsides. And if you go sign guys like Andruw Jones, the downsides are massive.
"We're doing a lot of things right. But when you're rebuilding a team, you need to add at least one player from the outside every year, sometimes with a trade that adds to your payroll," said a key member of the team's staff.

Many will mutter but, so far, only one -- Zimmerman -- says, "Okay, quote me." That's because he's the one National who most wants to stay in Washington and be part of a winner here. So, logically, he is also the man most worried that it doesn't seem to be happening yet.

"I love it here. It would be so much fun to win in Washington. And it's close to home" in Virginia Beach, Zimmerman said. "But every player in this game is the same. Most of all, you want to win. If it looks like we're going to lose 90 games every year . . . I'm not going to play here my whole career if we're not going to win."
S.O.B.: I'll give you credit for some good reporting. This kind of quote I haven't seen from Zimmerman. It's depressing as all get out, but good reporting.
Zimmerman's not leaving anytime soon. He won't be a free agent for three years, though he's eligible for arbitration this offseason. And he makes it clear he's not unhappy that he hasn't signed a long-term contract. Before this season, the Nats offered him what he considers "a fair deal," similar to that of Rockies star Troy Tulowitzki. But he wants to prove he's worth even more, like Hanley Ramírez of the Marlins.
S.O.B.: Did he say that? I doubt he let the name Hanley Ramirez slip. But again if you're going to harp on spending this off-season, re-signing Zimmerman long-term would be a smart place to focus, rather than complaining that they didn't blow $36.2 million on the worst starting position player in MLB.

Let's look at it. First, there's a huge gap between those two guys' deals. Ramirez got 6 years and $70 million. Tulowitzki got 6 years and $31 million. Second, Tulo signed that contract when he was still over 2 years away from arbitration and 5 from free agency. At the same point in Zimmerman's service time, the Nationals didn't have an owner. So the opportunity to negotiate a deal like that never existed for the Lerners. Had Bowden held Zimmerman back in the minors till the last week of May in 2006 the way the Reds held back Jay Bruce and the Brewers held back Ryan Braun, Zimmerman would still be a year away from arbitration, and when the Lerners bought the team they would have had a chance to negotiate a Tulo-like long-term deal at an annual salary discount. But Bowden didn't do that--he brought Zimmerman up to ride the pine in Sept., 05 and then left him up through a rough rookie slump at the start of '06. Either way, offering Zimmerman going into year 3 a Tulo-type deal wasn't fair or serious. That was a low-ball offer, and you should call them on it.

Ramirez signed his contract at a similar service time point that Zimmerman is at now, so he's more comparable. Of course, Zimmerman isn't quite the player Hanley is. But let's say Zimmerman will sign for 6 years and $55 or 60 million? The Nationals would be dumb not to do that. Wait three years till Zimmerman's going into his age 27 season and bid against the Red Sox-Yankees axis of evil, and you could easily be paying double that.
Lerner knows his mind and, while he welcomes input, doesn't change it often on basic precepts. "We're not taking any profits for 10 years and we'll make appropriate player moves at the right time," he said. "That's not including the money [more than $40 million] that we put into upgrading the park. That was a [one-time] cash contribution for extras."

As for attendance, now averaging 29,379 and ranked 19th in baseball -- disappointing to many observers for a new park in a sizable market -- Lerner says, "We met all our objectives on realistic numbers. We expected to draw 2.2 to 2.4 million and we'll end up at 2.3 million. We've reduced prices on 7,500 seats for next season."

"It takes time to build a club," says Lerner, tapping his finger on the railing in front of him, "but the money we are taking in is not going anywhere but into this team."

That's what everyone hopes. And expects.
S.O.B.: Frankly, no one who understands business expect this. The Lerners would be stupid to damage the value of their property by strangling the team's (smart) spending, but to expect that they aren't going to take a profit is silly. Again, baseball is a business, not a public trust. If you want to root for a baseball team that's uncorrupted by rank capitalism, there's a damn good Cuban squad to cheer for.


Harper said...

It's not philanthropy but since the vast majority of money comes from the investment in a team rather than the day to day operation it's a question of philosophy.

Do I spend a lot, possibly lose money day to day, because I want a winner and I know that I'll make a ton on the sale (whenever that will be)?


Do I pinch pennies and try to make the day to day sales as profitable as possible to get as much money from this as I can.

Of course everyone wants to win and everyone wants to make money, but what is of PRIMARY importance? Winning or Earning? That's the question facing the Lerner's as FA comes more into play

Steven said...

Now *there's* a good argument. Invest now to build a winner that will be worth more on the back end. Maybe the Post should hire you to write something sensible.

But if Boz really looked Lerner in the eye and said, "you should try to lose money," I feel bad for Boz. People seem to think he was once a pretty serious dude, but that's just buffoon-ish.

On this last thing, I just take it as a given that for every owner in baseball primary importance is earning. Maybe I'm too cynical, but I don't think so. It's like expecting the oil industry to care for the environment. I could get all worked up that they don't, but I can't because it's stupid. You just have to regulate them if you expect them to change.

But as you say, winning is consistent with earning thankfully, so presented intelligently one could persuade a gutless capitalist pig to invest in building a winner.

Will said...

Steven, I’m usually with you, but boy do we see things differently here. Particularly on your comments about signing a big name free agent (or two). You said:

S.O.B.: How exactly will the mood change if we sign one of these players? Best case, one of these guys will bring us 4-5 extra wins. Realistically, fewer, especially the starting pitchers.

I’d be willing to bet that you’re underestimating the effect someone like Sabathia would have on the team. If you replace him with our ever rotating 5th starter, I’m sure the difference would come out to more than 5 wins. I know there’s statistics that measure this, but I’m too lazy to look. But, please, prove me wrong.

But what impact on attendance would there be if this team was on pace for merely 95 losses? How would the mood be better?

The Nationals will not lose 95 games next year. I was reading an article that was about how the Nationals injury woes this year were historically bad. I don’t think we can expect the same number of injuries to so many key players (are there any starters who haven’t spent time on the DL?). Additionally, Milledge and Dukes are significantly better right now than they were at the beginning of the season, if they continue to progress, there will be a marked progress in our winning percentage next year. Not to mention Flores, Lannan, Bonifacio, A. Hernandez, A. Gonzalez, Hanrahan and Balester have all showed promise of a brighter future. This season was basically a worst-case scenario.

Tex is a fine hitter, but why commit to him for 8-9 years, when he's going to be in steep decline at the end, when our very best prospect is a first baseman,

Who are you referring to? Chris Marrero? The 19 year old, who’s never played above A ball and sat out half this year with a broken leg? You’re willing to put all your money in on a this guy? I’m sure you’ve heard of Larry Broadway, that ever so promising 1B who lit up single A Savannah, yet five years later still hasn’t seen the big leagues. There is no such thing as a 19 year old “sure-thing”.
Furthermore, Marrero is hardly a 1B. He never played first until this year. He was a 3B in HS, and then an OF the previous two seasons. I can’t imagine it would be hard to mold him back into an LF, to fill that gaping hole filled by W. Harris. Tex would be an excellent addition.
If we make the right additions through free agency, I think we can compete in three years. This would give a full 5 years of Tex.
Yes, he would start to decline in the latter years, but just to name a few of the top 10 players he compares most favorably to, they are Fred McGriff, Carlos Delgado, Will Clark, Willie McCovey, Jim Thome and Jeff Bagwell. All of whom were very effective after age 35.

when we actually have two guys under contract for next year that would give us league-average offense at 1B?

Steven, in your own words, “First base is one of the easiest positions to play defensively, and as a result you have to have a bopper.” Neither NJ nor Dmitri qualify for “bopper” status.
Also, are you confident that Johnson and Young will be healthy next year? NJ has averaged 88 games played per season in his career. When is Young going to get his diabetes and weight under control? I’m still waiting for some sign that he can. Until then, we always have Casto to fill in!

Sabathia will command a similar 8-9 year deal. Contracts of that length are always a huge risk given the injury risk of any pitcher. Sheets is just crazy--the last thing we need is another player who is guaranteed to hit the DL every year for an extended time.

I agree long-term pitching deals are risky, especially with Sheets, but I don’t expect him or Sabathia to get any more than 7 years. Santana only got 6, I don’t expect an injury-prone Sheets to get a longer deal than the best pitcher in baseball. That being said, I’d be fine with the Nationals offering 5-6 years for Sabathia.

And Adam Dunn is your idea of flexibility to change the mood? Surely you jest. Between the defense, the strikeouts, and the Reds connection, he'd be despised.

By this logic, you’d think he was basically Wily Mo Pena. Except Dunn has been one of the best power hitters in the game the past half-decade. Who cares how much he strikesout with a career .382 OBP and a 130 OPS+!

Quick, name all the players who have hit 40+ HR every year for the past four years…

(I apologize for the length)

Steven said...

I'll have to do this in pieces.

On your first point, WARP (wins above replacement player) is the stat you're looking for. Last season, Jake Peavy and his 223.1 innings of 2.54 ERA produced a WARP of 9.6. Livan Hernandez's 204 innings of 4.93 ERA gives WARP of 4.2. Matt Chico's 162 IP produced a WARP of 2.7. I think it's probably a bit too generous to say the CC would give 4-5 wins more than what we'd get otherwise.

Let's look at the hitters:
Tex 07 WARP: 6.0
DY 07 WARP: 4.1
NJ 06 WARP: 8.4

You get the idea.

Steven said...

On the projection for next year, you may be right. I tend to think that Guzman will be worse by probably a good bit and 2B will be worse if you make it a learning season for E-Bone. On the other hand, Zimm will be better, 1B will be better one way or another, Dukes will make LF better, and Kearns will probably be better. And C and CF I tend to think will be about the same because age 24 isn't usually a breakthrough year.

The SPs could easily be worse, and the bullpen will probably be worse.

So let's say all that means 72 wins.

Then the question is "how many more wins are needed to really change the enthusiasm of the fanbase?"

Nate Silver tackled this exact question in the essay "Is Alex Rodriguez Overpaid" in Baseball Between the Numbers. Without getting into the messy details, you don't see a big jump in the metrics that would measure fan excitement (ie more spending at the gate, merch, etc.) until you get into the mid-80s in wins. Basically, fans want to feel like you have a chance to make the playoffs until the last weeks of the year.

The WARP numbers from the last comment shows that Tex nor CC, the best of the best FAs, would allow us to reach that tipping point. Even if we don't have more injuries and things basically go pretty well, we'd be about 10 wins away from a serious "mood change."

Steven said...

Re: 1b, I think you're undervaluing Nick J. In 2006, his last full year, he had an OPS+ of 149. No, he's not a 40+ HR bopper, but he's a 20-25 HR guy who gets on base like Jackie Robinson.

Meat is a good second option. HIs OPS+ last year was 129 and this year 111.

Tex's OPS+ the last 3 years: 147, 150, 126.

Don't get me wrong, the injury risk is real, and if everyone plays their best Tex will be the best, but not by as much as you think. Knowing that next year is going to be another lost season, I would rather just take my chances with Nick and Meat and see where we're at with Marrero at this time next year.

It's not like Tex is a once in a generation talent. Most years you can go out and buy a 1B who can hit if that's the last piece in the puzzle.

I also think Marrero the now-20 year old could be a real stud. I don't want to shoot one of my big wads getting to 75 wins and in the process blocking our top prospect.

Steven said...

Santana wasn't a free agent. He was only negotiating with the Mets. No bidding war. What did Zito get on the open market? Seven years. He's the last FA who was regarded as a front-liner. No chance CC only gets 5.

Pitchers are always a big risk. They get hurt a lot. There are a million examples, but to commit to an arm long-term, boy, you better think you're signing a guy who's going to put you in the WS in the next 2-3 years, because chances are he's going to be hurt after that.

Forget Sheets. I want no part of that.

Dunn? Well, he's the one guy here who might only require a 2-3 year deal, so maybe his downside isn't so much. But they hate him in Cincinnati. And there are a lot of people sick of all the Reds. I think people will be predisposed not to like him unfairly because of the REds thing, and then with all the errors and Ks I just think he'd be the guy fans love to hate.

But if you had to sign one of these guys, I guess Dunn would be my choice. But I'd still rather have Derek Lowe or Jon Garland.

Will said...

WARP- thanks, I couldn't remember what the stat was.
Sabathia's WARP last year was 9.6, but he's been even better this year, so we can assume it will be somewhere around 10+

Replace him with Bergmann, since the 5th starter has been a melange of Martis, Chico, Clippard, Mock and others. BP's forecast for Bergmann this year was pretty much spot on. It gave him a WARP of 1.7

That's about 8 extra wins that Sabathia would bring.

Steven said...

Keep in mind WARP is a counting stat. PECOTA projected Bergy at 1.7 WARP in 115 innings. Give "Bergmann-level production" over 230 innings, and WARP doubles. So the difference between 3.4 WARP and 10 is 6.6.

League-adjusted, I'm not sure CC has been better. Someone else will need to do the fancy math, but I wouldn't assume a whole additional win in WARP--some of that is that he's pitching in a lower run environment. That's no criticism of him--he won a CY last year...

I also think it's at least unwise to assume that Sabathia's career year will become his norm going forward. He's a great pitcher, but to assume, hey, he had a 10 WARP in '08 therefore let's chalk up 10 extra wins for next year! isn't realistic. He's human. Remember, he had a 13.50 ERA after 4 starts this year.

Regardless, you're assuming that our choices are either CC Sabathia or absolute bottom of the barrel replacement level performance. I don't agree. Why not re-sign Odalis for another year? It'll cost probably 3-4 mil this time, but fine. Or I've been thinking about Lowe or Garland if you want to go the FA route.

Will said...

I agree with you on Sheets, especially considering his most recent injury.

Secondly, I love Nick Johnson. If he could stay healthy, he'd be an incredible player (there's very few players who can consistently post .400+ OBPs). It's too bad, though, that he can't stay healthy. Young is the same way.
As they (not Dubya) say, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." Well we've been fooled now twice into thinking we'll have a healthy Johnson at the start of the season. I don't want to get fooled a third time.

The way I see it regarding free agency, is if we signed Sabathia, Lowe and Dunn/Tex, that would give us about 12-14 more wins (6 from CC, 4 from Lowe and 2-3 from Dunn). If we use your estimation of 72 wins next year, tack on 13 more, that puts us into that mid 80 win range you cited, that starts to pay dividends.
It wouldn't inhibit development, as Redding, Perez (if we resign him) are on their way out in another year or two, in time for the likes of Zimmermann, Detwiler and others to fill their spots.
Burgess is our only legitimate OF prospect, and is still a few years away. He'd begin to start realizing his real potential just in time for Dunn's 5 year deal to expire.

Sure, an 8 year deal for Sabathia is risky, but as you've said, baseball is a business. And to succeed in business, you must take risks. You might get a Barry Zito (FWIW, most everyone in baseball could have told you the day Zito signed that contract that it was a Giant mistake, pun intended) or you might get a Manny Ramirez (I don't think the Red Sox would complain about the deal they made, despite the uproar at the time he signed his 8yr/$160mil deal).

This sitting back and waiting mentality is not what made Ted Lerner so rich. You must take a proactive stance in developing your business, marketing it and producing a strong product. Right now, the Nats are doing very little of any of this.
A big signing this off season, coupled with some other minor additions and another big signing next year (Matt Holliday? Jason Bay?) would propel us right into contention.

Steven said...

Will--I agree with your assessment of what that kind of spending could do. It would put us right in the mid-80s in terms of wins, most likely, probably just enough to miss the playoffs or get bounced in the first round, and then we'd slowly start to decline from there are our very best players would age. Or maybe we'd plateau at 85-88 wins for a year or two and then decline. And if we caught fire like the Cardinals and won a WS, then I'd say it would be worth it. But that's a huge bet to make, one I don't blame the team for not wanting to make, and you're committing to several years of bad baseball when those big salaried guys go into decline. And if even one of them gets hurt, you're back below .500.

But I'd say that if we're going to go the big money FA route, we should really try to get 3 big guys all at once as you propose. That makes a lot more sense than nibbling on one big time guy and getting stuck at 75 wins like in 2006.

It's debatable, and we can disagree. I'll tip my hat to you that you make an argument based on facts and a reasonable assessment of the team's assets, instead of just ranting that this team would be in the WS if Lerner wasn't so damn cheap, which is 90% of what you hear.