I actually have little gripe with a lot of what's in this column. He's right--if the Nationals start winning, the fans will come. The stat about how the Nationals have the second-best attendance of any 100-game loser ever is a shamelessly misleading, cherry-picked stat, but aside from that he presents mostly accurate, appropriately contexted facts to back up his argument. His Kasten quotes are interesting, if not all that new.
My big problem with the piece is back to my more fundamental disagreement with Boz, his contention you can't win without big spending and that the dominant reason the Nationals aren't winning is the absence of big money free agents.
The main reason I keep harping on this is that it lets everyone else in the organization off the hook for the quality of their work. As long as you believe that it's impossible to build a winner without a $100 million payroll, then Stan Kasten, Jim Bowden, Manny Acta, Dana Brown, Mike Rizzo, Randy St. Claire, Lenny Harris, all the minor league coaches and managers, and everyone else involved in the organization is off the hook.
And it also bugs me because it is demonstrably wrong. You can win with a $55 million dollar payroll, and a $100 million payroll doesn't guarantee success. The two biggest spending teams in the league--the Tigers and the Yankees--are both out of it, while the 24th and the 29th cheapest teams, the Twins and Rays, respectively, are right in the mix. The three cheapest teams in the league (Marlins, Rays, and A's) have actually won six more games total than the three most expensive (Tigers, Yankees and Mets). The correlation between spending and winning has never been weaker.
You can look at the free agent classes of '06 and '07 here, but let's look closer at how we might have improved ourselves with free agent last year. The highest paid catcher and first baseman available, in fact, were Paul Lo Duca and Aaron Boone. At second base, the most expensive options were Luis Castillo and Kaz Matsui. At shortstop, David Eckstein. Let's agree we're not shopping for a third-baseman.
So that leaves us with the outfield. Would we be better if we took at bats away from Willie Harris (101 OPS+) and given them to Aaron Rowand (OPS+ 99) or god forbid Andruw Jones (32)? Torii Hunter (114) would have been a slight upgrade, but not much. You can blame Manny for not benching Wily Mo Pena for Willie Harris in May, but Harris was every bit as productive as the big money guys.
And then there's pitching. Bullpen free agents are so notoriously risky and closers so much less valuable for losing teams that I'm setting that aside. But even the big money starting pitching options would have made little if any difference. Carlos Silva (6.46 ERA) was the biggest fish, and if we traded Odalis Perez's (4.27 ERA) innings for his, we'd be far worse off in every way except in the Strasburg Sweepstakes.
If the Nationals had wanted to improve via free agency, their best course of action would have been to spend the $5 million they handed to Dmitri Young and Paul Lo Duca this season to Milton Bradley (165 OPS+) and Kyle Lohse (3.78 ERA). In fact they'd have saved a bit since Lohse ended up signing for $4.25. Start Bradley in left field from opening day and add 200 innings of 3.78 ERA from Lohse, and now you are talking about a team that would have been measurably better.
Of course, maybe Bradley doesn't stay healthy if he's in the field all season, and maybe Kyle Lohse doesn't do as well without Dave Duncan. My point is that building a winner is about player evaluation and projection, not just spending the most money.
You have to be smart, not rich, to win. Period.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. Free agency is by definition about acquiring older, declining players who no one bothered to sign long-term in the first place. Wayne Huizenga bought a World Series championship ten years ago, but free agency has changed a lot since then. More and more teams are locking up stars long term. There just aren't as many great players available out there when you go shopping.
Don't get me wrong. I want this team to spend more too. International free agents, signing draft picks, an extension for Zimmerman, and yes even more free agents can help. I'd like to see the team make a run at a starting pitcher in this year's unusually strong class of FA SPs. I think a smart critique of how and how much the Nationals have spent can be made, but it's only one part of the story of how we need to improve, and frankly it's not the most important part.
Boz is the highest profile media critic of the team, the guy most able to hold the Nationals accountable. If he's going to have any influence at all (and I do believe that media criticism can influence a team), we need him to look at more than just payroll, and I want to see him stop letting everyone off the hook by pinning all the blame on the bogeyman of free agency.
- Update: from today's chat with Boz: "I'm not sure, until recent weeks, that I had ever HEARD of the Potomac Nationals. Or the'P'Nats.'" All I can say is... Wow. Just, wow. (Hat tip to the commenter on NJ who pointed it out.)