Few Nationals fans are going to be hollering about losing Bonifacio, but it's too early to know what we really gave up. He's a scary fast, slappy guy whose .305 OBP in 2008 was at least 30 points too low to justify his starting spot. Worse, he struck out 27% of the time, about double what a guy like him can get away with. On the other hand, as a lefty, he had a .337 OBP, so if he had been platooned with Anderson Hernandez this year, he had a chance to put up some nice numbers as an 8-hole hitter starting around 100 games while playing great defense. He might become an exciting, poor man's Luis Castillo (or he might never be a starting major leaguer again). One thing he has going for him that you can't say about either of the guys we got back: he's a young, improving player with upside.
Smolinski is a definite prospect. Not a blue-chip, can't miss guy, but a solid prospect who projects as at least a utility bench guy or perhaps a solid starter. He's bounced around from the infield to the outfield and back, and now seems to be settled in primarily as a middle-infielder, which is a better spot for him, because he really lacks the power to be a corner OF. He has gap power and very good on-base skills for a 19-year-old, taking plenty of walks and making plenty of contact, but he struggled a bit after getting promoted from low-A Vermont to A-level Hagerstown and saw his excellent .370 OBP with the Lake Monsters slip all the way to .338 for the Suns. Still, that's just a 50-game sample size at Hagerstown at age 19. One thing he has going for him that you can't say about either of the guys we got back: he's a young, improving player with upside.
P.J. Dean was a seventh round pick out of high school in '07. He's 6'3" and a good athlete. His 1.57 ERA at low-A Vermont will catch your eye, but he did that in 46 very fortunate innings with a .200 BABIP against and 82% strand rate, both unsustainable numbers that will raise his ERA by at least 2 runs when they regress to the mean. His 6.65 Ks/9 is ok but doesn't knock your socks off. Still, while he doesn't get mentioned among the Nationals' top prospects, his fastball-curveball-change combination is good enough that he has a chance to make it. And knowing that pitching prospects are famously difficult to predict and the best way to develop them is to stockpile them, I always cringe whenever we send away another young, live arm. One thing he has going for him that you can't say about either of the guys we got back: he's a young, improving player with upside.
So what'd we get back?
Josh Willingham is easily the better of the two players we acquired. He'll be 30 on Opening Day, and although he has played mostly LF, he supposedly can also play first (he's appeared there in just two games in his five-year major league career) and once upon a time was a part-time catcher as well (he hasn't appeared there since 2006). He will either push Austin Kearns to the bench or fill in for Nick Johnson if he's not healthy. Hope for the former. He'll be an offensive upgrade over what we had in 2008 in LF (hard not to be), but he wouldn't be counted on to be more than a 6-hole hitter on a good team. In 2008, he posted a slightly above-average .254 / .364 / .470 line (the average NL LF hit .271 / .350 / .453). He draws a decent number of walks (12% in 2008), but doesn't have quite the pop you'd look for in a corner outfielder. If this sounds familiar, it should. He's basically what Austin Kearns was supposed to be, but older and with bad defense. He missed a month and a half in 2008 with a back issue, but he'd been pretty durable before that. Look for pretty much the same production in '09 that he gave Florida from '06-'07: .270 BA, .360 OBP, and about 20-25 HR. Not a bad complimentary player, but nothing that's going to turn the Nats around. He'll play three league-average seasons on terrible Nationals teams and the leave as a 33-year-old free agent after the 2011 season.
Which brings us to Scott Olsen. I really, really, really hate that Scott Olsen is a National. Just hate it hate it hate it. I will frankly have a hard time working up the energy to even cheer for the Nationals when he's on the mound. I'll just start saying it now: "Manny!! Bring in Bergmann!!! Olsen's a bum!!!!"
Here's what I wrote about him in my September 19 preview of his start versus the Nationals (since Jim admitted to me that he reads this site, perhaps he did it to spite me):
Scott Olsen: The Crystal Lake South High alum (not too far from where I grew up--think John Hughes-style tony Chicago suburbs, except a teeny bit more rural exurban but no less rich) has been in physical fights during and before games with teammates Randy Messenger, Sergio Mitre, and Miguel Cabrera. The first of those fights memorably left him making a start with a big ol' shiner. He was suspended last year for undisclosed "insubordination." He flipped the bird to the nice people of Milwaukee after a rough outing in Miller Park. And last July he was arrested for driving drunk, then fought with the cops and got himself tasered. Of course, he made his next start less than a week later. The extra electricity in that arm didn't keep him from giving up seven runs in five innings. However, Olsen's really had no serious run-ins since last July. I guess those anger management instructors really earn their keep.Somehow the really obvious factor I didn't notice when I was writing up that preview is that the reason Olsen's K rate has collapsed is that he's lost about 3 mph off is fastball since his excellent 2006 season, dipping to 87.8 mph last year. Fangraphs.com wrote about him after the season--check it out if you want another 500 words about why Olsen stinks. And just think--instead of the five starts he got in '08 against the terrible Nationals offense, he'll get to face the Marlins instead. That alone should be worth half a run on his ERA.
(Quick quiz: what do these things have in common: punching teammates, drunk-driving, getting tasered, and growing up in a superrich privileged, wealthy suburb? They're all things Elijah Dukes has never done!)
To the matter of Olsen the pitcher: he's a 6'5", rail-thin lefty. His best pitch is a slider, and his other pitches are a high-80s fastball and a change-up. In 2006, he came up in June and posted an excellent 8.27 K/9 rate and looked like a real stud. Since then, his reputation is the only thing that's suffered more than that K rate, which is down to 4.86 this year. He's walking 3.14 per 9, and his flyball rate has also jumped from 37% two years ago to 44.1%. In short, even discarding his personal issues, he doesn't look like half the pitcher he did as of July 2006.
All that said, he has a 4.41 ERA and is on track to pitch about 200 innings, which ain't nothing to sneeze at. He's floating a bit on a .266 BABIP (typically this number is around .290 and is largely a function of defense and luck). His Fielding Independent ERA (which attempts to figure what a pitcher's ERA would be if luck and defense were out of the equation) is over 5.
And over his last six starts he's really faded, posting a 6.56 ERA in his last six starts. His innings count isn't any higher than what he's done the last two years, so he shouldn't be out of gas.
Finally, Olsen is a candidate to get non-tendered this off-season, which would make him a free agent. I know a certain GM who has a fancy for troubled athletes and needs a couple SPs... and should have no interest in my former school-district-mate.
Make no mistake, Scott Olsen is an awful pitcher, a worse teammate, and soon he'll make you long for the days when your least favorite Nationals were Paul Lo Duca and Felipe Lopez.
Bottom line on this deal: it's 2006 all over again. Jim, as he did from November 2004 through July 2007, appears to have mis-evaluated his own team's talent, believing his own bloviating hype and convincing himself that we're far closer to contending than we are, and he's now back in the mode of giving up young, improving players for older, more expensive, and/or declining players.
This trade will likely make us better in 2009 (although you will doubt that after watching Olsen take the mound), but not better enough to keep people paying attention in July (or June, for that matter). And we've given up two, maybe three guys who have a chance to be part of The First Great Nationals Team for two guys who have no chance.
If you are one of the people who wants the Nationals to raise payroll and spend their assets scratching and clawing towards mediocrity with no real plan for actually building a contender (Boz), this deal's for you. And we're now bringing in two arb-eligible players who will be getting money that would have been far better spent extending Zimmerman and who will either be gone in free agency or washed out of baseball before the team ever gets any good.
Sure, it's possible that none of the young guys we gave up will come back to haunt us, but as Armando Galarraga taught us, when you send away enough young, improving players for mediocre, declining vets and short-term rentals, sooner or later you get bitten in the butt. And chances are at least one of these three will pan out.
But Jim will mostly get applauded for this deal over the next 24 hours because casual fans who play fantasy baseball (not to Boz and Harlan) have heard of Olsen and Willingham and haven't heard of Smolinski and Dean and gave up on Bonifacio after his first 30 at bats. And for Jim, that means this is a good deal. Bowden in 16 years as a GM has always followed a single rule of thumb for every move: will it look good in the morning's papers? Nevermind whether it's good for the team long-term, if it makes gets him favorable ink the next day, Jim's sold. That's how the Soriano, Kearns/FLop, Lo Duca, Vinny Castilla, and Jose Guillen deals got done, and that's what happened here. Sometimes those deals work out, but mostly they don't. That's how you run up seven straight non-winning seasons as a GM with no light at the end of the tunnel whatsoever.
I don't like this deal for it's own sake, but more than that I hate hate hate what it says about the direction the team is going. Six months ago, I would have said the optimistic arrival date for the First Great Nationals Team was 2011. Now, with the apparent return of '05/'06 Bowden-Unplugged and the disappearance of what was for a time looking like a rational plan to build a winner, that date is drifting farther and farther over the horizon.
- Update: turns out Scott Olsen also once threw gum at Miss Chatter. Booo!!! Bring in Bergmann!!!
- Update 2: if you're going to lump in Olsen with previous "attitude problems" that Bowden's brought in, can you please not drag Lastings Milledge into that? The guy is clearly a great teammate and a really good kid. So some jerky, short, ugly, GDP-machine, gambling, PED-taking, PED-dealing, cradle-robbing punk who happened to be popular among Mets fans on Staten Island said Milledge didn't "know his place." Are you still taking Lo Duca as a character witness?