Monday, November 10, 2008

Nationals Trade Three Young, Cheap, Improving Players for Two Older, More Expensive, Declining Players... And the Crowd Goes Wild

The Florida Marlins, anxious to dump the salaries of a whole slew of newly arbitration-eligible players, just swapped Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen to the Nationals for Emilio Bonifacio, 19-year-old middle-infield prospect Jake Smolinski, and 20-year-old pitcher P.J. Dean (real name Philip, in case you're looking for him on Here's the story and Nats Fanboy Looser's, who had it before anyone in the MSM.

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.

(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.
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. 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.

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?


Jon Williams said...

Great write-up, Nats fans will have to hope that being in D.C. willwork wonders for this 24-yr old lefty. As long as Mock stays in the rotation I'mokay with adding him to the mix. But then I like those trouble maker types.

Dave Nichols said...

as soon as i saw this i knew you were going to crap your pants.

look, the Nats gave up almost nothing to get two regular major league players. they aren't all-stars, but Bowden has to put a major league team out on the field this year. HAS TO.

after the debacle that was 2008, he had to acquire some major league talent, whether by trade or free agency. the ST base is going to reduce by half easily, so they Nats are going to depend on walk-up sales, and hope the season ticket holders come back, and the only way to do that is to field a major league team.

i don't know where the Marlins play Bonifacio, or if Dean or Smolinski ever reach the bigs, let alone every day major league players, but the Nats at least can put out a major league lineup on the field every day now, something they could not do last year very often. Austin Kearns and/or Nick Johnson better be nervous.

bring on Mark Teixiera.

Steve Shoup said...

Honestly i'm ok with this trade and not just in a Fantasy baseball point of view. I didn't know all of Olsen's issues but I have to hope that they can be fixed. I also feel that its not as though Olsen never had talent, maybe he just needs a change of sceneary to revert back to his 06 form. That could be a big maybe but I think its worth the shot.

Willingham I like alot I think he does provide us with the insurance in case Johnson isnt healthy. If he stays healthy he can be a decent 6 hitter like you said.

Overall I like the price these guys are only hitting their first Arb. year meaning while they will make 7 figures they won't be breaking the bank. In fact their combined salaries for next year will likely be less then what it would have cost to keep Cordero ($5 million). Likely the total cost for each player for the next 3 years will be under $20 million. Its not that unreasonable esp. if Olsen get his head on straight. In terms of what we gave up I will miss Bonifacio but Hernandez is a decent option. Jake S. is a good prospect but is 4-5 years away and his worth is tied to his posistion as he must stay in the middle infield. Will I miss him sure but MI was prob one of the Nats stregths with them still having King, Smiley, Espinosa, and Desmond in the system. Dean also is prob 4-5 years away but in my opinion he seemed more like an org. arm with the possible upside of a Tyler Clippard. I just don't see the major talent that they gave up.

Steven said...

@Dave--hey, I believe what I believe, and you gotta appreciate my consistency in philosohpsy.

I understand that prospects aren't sure things. They might all work out or they might all wash out. But we know what Olsen is. He stinks. Period. Won't finish the year in the rotation and will be out of baseball before he turns 29. Every start he makes this year he'll be hurting the team because he'll be taking starts away from slightly less crappy pitchers like Mock or Bergmann.

Willingham is a nice player. I like him, I really do. But he's 30. If you're so worried about working up to 68 wins for the next 3 years, why not take the money that we're now going to spend on Willingham and Olsen and spend it on Dunn? OK, so that's not quite enough money to get Dunn, but it's pretty close. Buy an FA if you want to invest for short-term only, but you don't flip prospects for vets when you're the worst team in baseball. Period.

Doug said...

Keith Law seems to disagree with your analysis.

"It's an easy win for Washington, but Florida's only major gain may be salary relief."

You might want to lay off Bowden on this one....Looks like a pretty solid trade. Of course so did the Reds trade in we have crap aka Kearns and Lopez (thank god hes gone) and they have a great young middle reliever in Billy Bray.

Steven said...

I disagree with Keith Law. So be it.

You tell me how Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham are pieces of a contender in DC.

The goal isn't to tread water at 70 wins forever.

Dave Nichols said...

you gotta get back to 70 wins before treading there. and you gotta field a major league team to get fans back inthe stands. also, there's no telling that Willingham ever plays a single game for the Nats. he's not a first baseman, and the Nats now have too many outfielders.

but i'm not going to try to talk you into liking this. stay on point :-)

Anonymous said...

iam from staten island. And your right mets fans did give up on milledge why? i dont know cause i think hell be a solid corner outfielder for a long time. I also cant stand mets fans. At least they are better then yankee fans.

JayB said...

Count me in as one like Dave who thinks this is a needed deal. 70 Wins, I like the sound of that, it is a huge improvement. Got start somewhere and teach kids that winning games is the goal.

Steven, are you really saying Olson is not a huge improvement over Bergman or Mock? Come one, I know your on message here but Oslon is likely the best arm we have in the organization right now.....that is not easy to do at the cost they paid. No downside really here and granted a limited upside but like Dave I think adding two solid MLB players for 3 years is a good thing.

Steven said...

@jayb--you're massively overrating Olsen. He isn't the best arm in the organization. He isn't in the top 10. Yes, I'm saying that in 2009, the Nationals would be better off with Bergmann and Mock in the rotation than Olsen.

Check out these fielding independent ERAs:
Olsen 07: 5.33
Olsen 08: 5.02
Bergmann 07: 4.92
Bergmann 08: 5.12
Mock 08: 3.84

He stinks.

Dave Nichols said...

your hatred for Jim Bowden and Olsen the person is clouding your vision of this deal.

look, i'm all about the gloom and doom, and Olsen did have a down year last year in cmparison to his rookie year. but he is a legitimate big league pitcher who may or may not get better, but has shown the skill of being able to pitch 180-200 innings a year and be a semi-productive player. the only other pitcher the Nats have on the roster today that fits that bill is Lannan. at worst, he's a major league player under control for three years.

as if Olsen gets his shit straight? he's a legit #3. coupled with Lannan, who is also a legit #3, and you've got the makings of a rotation. they will be crafty veterans when Strasburg makes his debut in two years :-)

Andrew said...

Not quite with you on this one, but I am decidedly in the middle, shaded towards you. Between this deal and the FA "noise" being made (regardless if it's legit), what does this say about Kasten and Rizzo? The FA noise is totally anti-Stan and they just shipped off a Rizzo project as soon as they got him.

Jim is GM for Life.

Steven said...

Andrew--you're totally right that this was a Bowden move erasing a Rizzo move. I'm not sure it says that Bowden outranks Stan and Rizzo so much as it shows that there is no one in charge. This FO is a dysfunctional mess, GM-ing by committee, with no consistent leadership at the top.

Dave--you're right that I hate this deal on several levels, but I don't think I'm the one with clouded vision when it comes to Scott Olsen. There's just no evidence for what people are saying about him. He's one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball, period, and every game he starts will be a step back, even from the debacle of 2008. Mark my words.

Dave Nichols said...

duly marked :-)

MissChatter said...

OMFG - he graduated from CLS?!?! Holy crap - I probably knew his family growing up if he has any older siblings haha! How did I miss that little nugget? (I graduated from CL Central! but went to jr. high with all the CLS rich kids before we moved to the other side of town)