Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Stories of 2008

'Tis the season for reflection... Chico Harlan did his list of the "stories of 2008" this week, and I actually was working on a very similar list of my own.

So before getting into my list, I thought I'd comment on Harlan's. I certainly agree that the opening of Nationals Park and losing Aaron Crow were both key developments in 2008 that will be remembered for years to come. Getting the #1 pick should be a development of lasting significance, but l
osing 102 games itself I don't think is all that different from losing 95 games or 90. The Nationals are awful, and that's a story that's a 4-year story, not a 2008 story. And I would agree that the ongoing growth (or lack thereof) of the young talent is a key story, but really it was less one big story and more several smaller ones, some happy and some not.

Harlan's other six "stories of the year" probably wouldn't make my list. Several of these stories were a big deal in the short term but will have little lasting significance--the injuries, Cristian Guzman's solid season, the team bidding on Teixeira, the relatively small sums wasted on the likes of Lo Duca and Young, and the firing of the coaching staff are all events that will soon be forgotten. According to Harlan Manny Acta lost his "halo," but I kinda doubt that he's perceived all that differently now than he was a year ago. He's a respected young manager coaching a terrible team.

So in addition to losing Crow and opening the new park, here are the other "stories of 2008" that I think will have the most lasting significance in the long-run.

  • Balance of power shifts from Kasten back to Bowden
From November 2004 until around mid-season 2006, Jim Bowden operated without an owner, and we saw what unadulterated Bowden looks like. It wasn't pretty. All the fatal mistakes Jim's been known for over the years were exposed: his lack of interest in defense, love of the limelight and desire to draw attention to himself, over-reliance on cast-offs for the starting rotation, inability to stick to a long-term strategy and pointless roster noodling, flipping batches of young players for declining vets, terrible managerial hires, tendency to stubbornly double-down on mistakes and fixate on favorite players, overemphasis on athleticism versus baseball skills, personal off-the-field shenanigans... we had it all.

Then, Kasten came in and things started to change.
It was widely believed that Kasten wanted Bowden out, but Mark Lerner kept him on. Still Kasten was able to install a team including Mike Rizzo that helped rein in Jim's worst excesses and focus him on a solid long-term plan. Over the last year, however, it seems that Jim's relationship with the owners has allowed him to regain the upper hand. When the whole world expected Jim to get the boot after his team bottomed out in his fourth year on the job, he seems to have emerged stronger than ever, and this year's off-season has seen a trend back towards more Jim-like thinking. Rumors have started to circulate about Kasten wanting out, and he's been linked to a job in Toronto.

True or not, anyone following the team can see that this is once again more Jim's team than it's been at any time since the end of the era of Jim Unplugged. To me, that's the #1 story of the year, and it ain't a happy one.

  • SmileyGate
The FBI's investigation into kick-backs and corruption among scouts in the Dominican Republic has according to multiple reports focused on the Nationals and Jim Bowden and Jose Rijo in particular. I don't know whether the allegations are true or not, but either way it's a black eye for the organization has has undoubtedly affected negatively our ability to scout and sign international free agents. In this world, reputation matters... a lot. Whether that's related to the fact that the team really hasn't signed any top-tier international free agents since Esmailyn Gonzalez is unclear, but this is a cloud that is still hanging over the team and slowing it's overall progress towards winning.
  • Elijah Dukes stays out of trouble
I've written about Dukes at length, but I think it really is remarkable given what people were saying (me included) around this time last year how little noise he's made. If this was the year Elijah Dukes grew up and learned to stay out of trouble, that might be the story of the year.
  • Terrible Attendance
Harlan called the attendance "adequate," but it wasn't. The 2008 Nationals had the worst attendance of any team opening a new stadium since the modern generation of new ballparks began with SkyDome in 1989. It was a monumental failure that will have ripple effects for years to come as the base of season ticket holders and young Nationals fans is far smaller than it should be. Such golden opportunities to broaden the fanbase are few and far between, and they blew it. It'll take a lot of winning to make up lost ground.
  • The continued decline of the Natmosphere
OK not to be too navel-gazing here, but there's no question that the level of Internet chatter about the Nationals is as an all-time low, and it's not good for the team.

Think back to 2005-06. Capitol Punishment was the flagship, but there was Banks of the Anacostia, Curly W, Nats Blog, The District of Baseball, Basil Tsimpris writing at the old Nationals Inquirer and then Federal Baseball (which of course is still running under new ownership), Nationals Report, Ball Wonk... all have come and gone. Others, including Nats Triple Play, Distinguished Senators, Miss Chatter, and The Beltway Boys, seem to be fading out (though I hope it's just an off-season lull for each). The size, variety, and quality of the blogging about the Nationals was a sign of the strength of the base of Nationals fans. It was inevitable that a number of those inital bloggers would drop out, and yes there are some newbies that have started up, including Dave at Nats News Network, We've Got Heart, Nats Fanboy Looser, Nationals Review, and yours truly. And of course we still have Nationals Farm Authority, Nats 320, Oleanders and Morning Glories, Nationals Pride, and Nationals Enquirer, who have all been in it since more or less the beginning and are going strong.

This year the crowd thinned to the point that the Nationals are now one of the more poorly covered teams in the blogosphere. It's just another sign of how enthusiasm has waned.
  • Jordan Zimmermann emerges
There's no more valuable commodity in baseball than a stud young pitcher, and it would appear that we have one. With an 8.69 K/9 against 3.29 BB/9 over 106.2 innings in AA, Zimmermann showed that he's got the stuff to lead a major league rotation.
  • Lastings Milledge fails in centerfield
I tend to think he still could figure it out enough to be a near-average defensive centerfielder and an overall above average contributor, but with a -10.9 UZR/150 it's not unfair to conclude that Milledge isn't good enough to play everyday in center. And that's what it appears the team has concluded. That means we're probably looking at a middling or worse corner outfielder or perhaps even a bench guy. You can't underestimate the difference in Milledge's value as a CF versus a corner OF.
  • Ryan Zimmerman doesn't re-sign
This year could be remembered as our last best chance to resign Zimmerman at anything remotely resembling a discount. In an injury-plagued season, Zimmy got a first-hand lesson on the uncertainties of life as a pro athlete. But chances are by this time next year he will have re-established himself as one of the best young position players in baseball, and his price tag will go nowhere but up as his 2012 arrival in free agency draws nearer.

# # #

So there you have it--the most important stories of 2008, measured by long-term significance. There were a few other stories that I decided didn't merit inclusion on this list because of their lack of staying power. Feel free to interpret these as predictions if you wish: John Lannan's breakout, Chris Marrero's inability to stay healthy, Ross Detwiler's slippage, Armando Galarraga as a #2 starter, Leonard Davis, and the seeming end of Nick Johnson's career.

20 comments:

Hendo said...

The definition of a top-tier international signing may be somewhat fluid, but it cannot be denied that the Nationals have a strong presence in the Dominican Republic.

Let's not forget that one of their two Dominican teams steamed to a 2008 record of .764 over 72 regular-season games en route to the Dominican Summer League championship. And the recent signings of Gregory Baez and Bill Pena were sufficiently noteworthy to be picked up by the New York Times.

There are enough substantive areas of concern that merit discussion -- not excluding the real issues in Dominican recruitment, of which there are many, and many still unresolved -- without getting distracted by some FBI fishing expedition.

Happy New Year.

An Briosca Mor said...

Five years from now, the only way the Crow non-signing will still be viewed as a bad thing is if Crow himself turns out not to be a bust in whatever organization does draft him in 2009. The jury is still way, way out on that one.

If Kasten as rumored is ready to leave, and the Toronto job is right there waiting for him (and has been for quite some time) why then hasn't he left yet? I would discount those rumors. Kasten himself has shot them down several times since the season ended.

For a team that lost 102 games, and given the massive campaign of transportation scare publicity that was waged well into the season, I would say that 2008 attendance was more than adequate. They indeed got the attendance they deserved, as Kasten predicted. The real test on attendance will come in 2009, and it will all depend on how the team plays. TBD.

Dave Nichols said...

i agree with ABM that attendance was hampered, at least partially, and maybe quite significantly, by the team-inspired traffic propaganda. we get it that Metro was the best way to go. but the scare tactics drove away countless people from the stadium.

we drove to almost every single game and a) had no problem with the actual traffic; and b) parked for free on the street much of the second half of the season.

i realize that my second statement above may jeopardize that standing next season, but with the decline of the fan base, i think 90% of people reading our blogs are the (few) other bloggers.

An Briosca Mor said...

I think the traffic propaganda was city-inspired, not team-inspired. The council went batshit over the possibility of traffic/parking issues with the stadium, and the team had no choice but to react and show that they had a plan. Unfortunately, they overplanned and over-reacted, and when the season started with no problems evident the Nationals cut way back on their scare-mongering. But unfortunately, by then the media had taken the ball and was running away with it, never letting up. And the rest is history...

Steven said...

Re: Crow--yes the jury is out, but my opinion is that it will be remembered (ie he will not be a bust).

Re: attendance. You're got under my skin on this one, so fair warning I'm about to rant.

They had the worst attendance ever for a team in a new stadium. Is that what they deserved? Sure. But it's a disaster, period.

I think blaming the traffic "scare" for the Nationals attendance problems is kinda silly. The traffic issue was over by opening night. People didn't go to games because the team stunk.

And then to go one step further as ABM seems to here to BLAME THE CITY COUNCIL???? C'mon. The city goes and builds them a new stadium and still they get tagged with screwing up the team? What is the city supposed to do, pay city employees to go to games? Why not just forget the whole baseball thing and just write checks directly to the Lerners from the city treasury? That'd be a great business model.

At what point is the team treated as a private business like any other and supposed to actually provide a product worth consuming? If a restaurant is dead on Friday night because of bad food and lousy service, would you want the city pay for renovations? And if the city did pay for renovations would you still blame the city when the lousy restaurant still failed?

If it wasn't for the city's completely unjustified lavishing of money on this team, they'd still be in RFK and would have drawn half what they did. So I don't want to hear anything but "thanks" from this team when it comes to the city.

An Briosca Mor said...

If it wasn't for the city's completely unjustified lavishing of money on this team, they'd still be in RFK and would have drawn half what they did.

If it wasn't for the city entering into the stadium agreement with MLB in the first place, long before the Lerners bought the team, this team would still be in Montreal or more likely contracted. Don't blame the Lerners for playing hardball with the city to get them to live up to their side of the stadium agreement, which is exactly what the Lerners did in their successful withholding of rent. The Lerners weren't a party to the crafting of the stadium agreement, and I'd be willing to bet that if they had been it would have been written very differently from the way it was.

They had the worst attendance ever for a team in a new stadium. Is that what they deserved? Sure. But it's a disaster, period.

This is like saying that season 14 of Survivor drew the worst ratings of any season yet. What episode of "brand new stadium in town" was Nationals Park, about 15 or so since Camden Yards opened? That series long ago jumped the shark. The Nationals fielded a team that lost about 15 more games than an already lackluster team had lost the year before, yet attendance went up about 600,000 and nearly hit 2 million. That's not a disaster by any definition of the word, period.

Steven said...

If it wasn't for the city entering into the stadium agreement with MLB in the first place, long before the Lerners bought the team, this team would still be in Montreal or more likely contracted.

When someone puts a gun to your head and steals your wallet, it's called a mugging. When a corporation does the same thing, it's not different.

Companies do this every day--threatening communities that unless they get to raid the public treasury they will pull up stakes and move the [fill in the blank: auto plant / textile mill / sports team].

I'm a Nationals fan, but if I had to choose between the city getting raped and not having a team, I would have left the team in Montreal. And the overwhelming majority of the voters of the District agree with me. Hence, Mayor Fenty, former councilmen Brazil and Chavous, etc.

I care about the Nationals, but I care more about my city and my country. Citizen first, fan second. I hope you and every other Nationals fan would feel the same.

As for your explanation that Nationals Park did so poorly because new stadia are 'old news,' there's just no correlation between when a new stadium opened and how well it did. The last 2 stadia to open were Busch III and Citizens Bank, and they all drew more than TEN THOUSAND FANS PER GAME better than Nationals Park. And how much do you wanna bet the new Yankees and Mets stadia draw 40k or more.

If you look at the teams that drew similarly poorly in their first years in new ballparks (GABP, Comerica, PNC, Rangers Park...), the year of opening isn't the common factor. The common factor is that the teams were all bad.

It wasn't the traffic. It wasn't that people are bored of new ballparks. And it sure as shit wasn't the city council. Attendance at Nationals Park was historically awful because the team was historically awful.

e poc said...

this is a really tough call for me to make, because i'm the biggest milledge apologist there is, but i don't think there's any reason to give up on milledge right now, especially if you're the nats (i.e. a terrible team that's got awhile to go before you seriously compete). he'll turn only 24 in april. he hit at every level before coming to the majors at only 21. he hit in the second half last year. before 2008, he spent two years playing all over the outfield and sitting on the bench, which almost certainly hurt his development as a defender in cf. even if he remains a -10 defender, he's still a very valuable player if he hits like he did in the second half. did i mention he'll turn just 24 in april? i've heard a lot of stuff about him not having great work ethic and stuff, which i admit is troubling, and i know you weren't saying that the nats should give up on him now, stephen (though it seems like the nats already have, according to ladson and just reading between the lines of some of this offseason's moves and rumors), but anyway, i thought i'd say my piece about how optimistic i am about milledge.

Steven said...

epoc--I'm going to write a longer post on this exact topic, but I'm with you. My post here was just commenting on where Milledge's standing with the team, but I don't at all think it's time to give up on him.

If I was running the Nationals I would pat Lastings on the back and tell him to go right back out there. If he keeps getting better at the rate he has since 2006 he's going to be a near-AS CF by 2010.

An Briosca Mor said...

Rant all you want, it's your blog. But realize this:

(a) If the city was raped by MLB, so be it. But a child was born from that rape, and if the city chooses to keep that child it needs to set aside the lingering grudges against that child and raise it just as fairly and equitably as if it was a legitimately-born child. Otherwise, it's nothing but child abuse. The city entered into a legal agreement with the team, whether under duress or not is immaterial. If it chooses to remain under that agreement rather than choosing to have it voided, then the city needs to play fair under the legal terms of that agreement. That's the basis of the legal system this city and this country operate under. The Nationals are not asking for anything from the city that is outside the confines of the legal stadium agreement. Your position would have them operate as second-class citizens with a limited set of legal rights the entire time they are operating in this city. That's flat out wrong.

(b) The "lowest-ever attendance for a new stadium" is a meaningless statistic. Attendance at the new stadium wasn't "historically bad". Indeed it wasn't bad at all, it just wasn't as high as the lofty expectations set before the season started. Given a 102-loss team and all the other stuff that went on last year (traffic scares, lack of any good press at all, etc) attendance was actually surprisingly good, I'd say. Had the team played better, of course they would have drawn more people. Guess what? If the Yankees or Mets lose 102 games this year, their new stadium crowds won't live up to expectations either.

Steven said...

Your position would have them operate as second-class citizens with a limited set of legal rights the entire time they are operating in this city.

What do you base this on? You said you blame the city council for the Nationals poor attendance, and I said I thought that was absurd, that the attendance was what it was (whether you want to call it good, bad or indifferent) because of the quality of the product on the field. Where do you get that I think the team should be treated as a second class citizen?

Had the team played better, of course they would have drawn more people. Guess what? If the Yankees or Mets lose 102 games this year, their new stadium crowds won't live up to expectations either.

My point precisely. I'm glad I was able to bring you around. ;-)

An Briosca Mor said...

What do you base this on? You said you blame the city council for the Nationals poor attendance

Where did I ever say this? Quote me the words. All I said about the council was that they were the first to raise the alarm about traffic and parking concerns, which they were. The team reacted to this with their plans for parking lots and prices, the "take Metro" ad campaign, and the RFK shuttle (which BTW was the most successful part of the transportation plan and which BTW the city fought every step of the way). The traffic scare is not completely to blame for less-than-lofty attendance (not poor by any stretch of the imagination), but undeniably it was a factor in it.

Your position would have them operate as second-class citizens with a limited set of legal rights the entire time they are operating in this city.

What do you base this on?


How about these statements of yours, which BTW the Nationals have not done despite your insinuations to the contrary:

When someone puts a gun to your head and steals your wallet, it's called a mugging. When a corporation does the same thing, it's not different.

Companies do this every day--threatening communities that unless they get to raid the public treasury they will pull up stakes and move the [fill in the blank: auto plant / textile mill / sports team].

I'm a Nationals fan, but if I had to choose between the city getting raped and not having a team, I would have left the team in Montreal.


You're basically calling the Nationals rapists here and implying that they should have to operate under a set of reduced rights akin to what registered sex offenders do, just because of that. At least that's how it sounds to me. What have the Lerners done that is outside the legal provisions of the stadium agreement (as determined in a court of law, if it should come to that) to arouse your ire against them?

Steven said...

MLB was in charge when the deal for the stadium was negotiated, not the Lerners. I'm not talking about the Lerners specifically. I objected to your second comment. I don't think the parking was really all that significant of an issue, and I think laying *any* of the blame for the Nationals attendance at the feet of the city council that's done nothing but kow-tow to the Nationals from day one is ludicrous. That's my point.

The solution to all this of course is for our democratic institutions--Congress, city councils, state legislatures--to stop falling for the same bluff. If every city or state all told all these teams to go take a hike, the threat to move wouldn't have any teeth. We as taxpayers could go on our merry way and as baseball fans would get a better product because MLB would have to figure out how to make money the honest way instead of through rent-seeking.

And while we're at it as Dave says if Congress should take away this silly and anti-competitive anti-trust exemption, which the Supreme Court invented 80 years ago on the theory that MLB is not interstate commerce (huh?).

Steve Shoup said...

Steven and ABM: I think you are both right on some points. In many ways the new stadium was a success, 600K more fans than than the year before, higher ticket prices adding more money that allowed the team to even think of someone like Tex. And I feel that overall most people had a very favorable expierence of the new stadium which will make them want to come back even when the team isn't the greatest.

In many ways though the stadium did represent a failure as well. It was the lowest attendance in a new stadium in the last 15 years. That in conjunction with their TV and radio numbers should be a cause for concern. Espcially given the market and overall affluence of the area. I think that anyway you look at it the Lerners and baseball were disappointed with the opening.

Now I do think their were a number of contributing factors to the lack of attendance. The first one being a lack of history this team has. It doesn't have the same fan base that even the Pirates or Reds have. People who grew up with those teams and watched them win and be successful have a stronger allegiance than Nats fans (by in large). I don't think the "Take Metro" campaign was the root cause of the lack of fans. I feel that most fans didn't have many problems so they were likely to come back. I tried all 3 ways (shuttle, Metro, Parking Pass) and didn't have a problem with any of them. I do feel that the media did blow the story up and it did leave a negative taste in the mouth of Nats fans. I feel that the negative media story that seemed to haunt this team was actually probably the biggest thing outside of on the field product that kept fans away. Now i'm not saying that Chico and other Nats writers were unfair or unjust in the representation of the Nats but it became a year full of negative Nats story lines. From parking issues, stadium not being done, with holding of rent, big name/money players not producing, young stars injured, top minor league players injured/not producing, lack of Tv and radio numbers, not signing Crow, Dominican scandel, finishing with the worst record. It was a bad year for the Nats any way you look at it. And whether or not these are short term stories or long term issues they would have had an impact on the perception of the Nationals. And I feel these stories were a big cause for why their were not more fans at the park.

An Briosca Mor said...

the city council that's done nothing but kow-tow to the Nationals from day one

Exactly what has the DC Council done that kow-tows to the Nationals since MLB moved the team to Washington? Seems to me that it's the other way around, with the city constantly trying to force the Nationals to kow-tow to them. Just a few incidents of that, off the top of my head:

o Political shenanigans on the council that kept the stadium agreement in doubt over a year after the team moved here. You can hardly call this a rape of the city by MLB if the council couldn't even generate the political will to either throw its rapist out of town in its second shot at it, or failing to do that at least adopt a unified front in living with the agreement they had negotiated. (Ironically, Fenty who as council member was one of the leading anti-baseball voices is the one who as mayor has resolved that since the original agreement was put into effect it was not going to go away and the best choice in that reality is to make the agreement work rather than subject it to ongoing shenanigans as the council has done.)

o As I mentioned already, the city fought the RFK shuttle - a perfectly sensible and ultimately successful approach to the traffic issues - every step of the way.

o The city failed to complete the stadium per the terms of its contract, forcing the team into the ultimately successful, certainly not pretty but basically only available option of withholding rent until they got the job done.

o The city tried to strong-arm the team into using its rented premises as a political tool for its landlord by sticking Taxation Without Representation signs up inside the ballpark. Fortunately they were not successful with this. Where else does a landlord get to direct that its tenants must espouse and visibly argue for certain political views as a condition of occupancy?

I could go on, but really I'm tiring of arguing with a brick wall.

Steven said...

Well, I'm not sure I'm a brick wall, but we should just agree to disagree.

We're coming at this from totally different perspectives politically. To me, it's totally and completely outrageous that one red cent of public funding ever goes into any sports arena ever. I hated the stadium deal from the start, and barring some radically new evidence about the economic stimulative value of new arenas (which to date have been shown to be a total waste of public resources by every study done), I will never change my mind.

You're in a very different place on that issue. So once we get into the particulars it's not surprising that we have totally different takes. It's like white and black America arguing about O.J. If you think he's a murderer, then you see the whole thing through that lens. If you think he's a persecuted, race-profiled victim, then you see everything in exact reverse.

So we should just move on and get back to on-the-field stuff.

An Briosca Mor said...

To me, it's totally and completely outrageous that one red cent of public funding ever goes into any sports arena ever.

Are you equally opposed to public funding of other entertainment venues, such as concert halls, museums, art galleries and the like? Because at their base all sports arenas are basically entertainment venues. And it's certainly not unusual for non-publicly-funded entities to present entertainment in publicly-funded venues. For instance, the Kennedy Center was built entirely with public funds and is run by the government, yet private organizations (such as the Washington Performing Arts Society for one) use it all the time to present their own particular brand of entertainment and make money off of it. I would not argue that there haven't been some major abuses of the system in the public funding of sports arenas, but it's a rather extreme position to say that an entire system of doing something should be abolished just because it has been abused, even more often than not. Why not argue that the system should instead be fixed? Would you argue that free agency in baseball should be abolished just because it's a system that's more often than not been abused for massive profits by some to the exclusion of others?

And it also seems odd that you place quasi-public funding of sports teams as the ideal (a la your Packers obsession) yet would argue against public funding of stadiums. If all teams were publicly funded, who would build the stadiums for them to play in?

An Briosca Mor said...

Another thing just occurred to me. Privately-funded sports stadiums are not 99 44/100% pure either. Perhaps you were not living here at the time this all went down, but Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke inflicted a fair share of abuse on the local governments of DC and Alexandria by playing them off against each other before his team left publicly-funded RFK Stadium to start playing in his privately-funded Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (now FedEx Field) in Raljon (now Landover) Maryland. No local governments were full-on raped in the process, but all of them probably felt violated by the time it was all over. Former DC Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon/Kelly's reputation was pretty well destroyed in the process, making an opening for Marion Barry part deux and the financial control board that begot Mayor Baseball, Tony Williams. If you insist on purity in your stadium deals, you'll forever be disappointed. Enjoy the game.

James Bjork said...

I tend to like Steven's list better than Chico's, such as by mentioning the scouting sleaze and the balance of power between Bowden and Kasten.

I cut Chico some slack on the latter because the latter conclusion is SPECULATIVE, and is a sense moot if neither Bowden nor Kasten can really do anything substantive with the Lerners micromanaging personnel decisions to make sure noone gets signed who isn't cheap (aside from once-in-a-blue-moon free agents like Tex).

I think missing out on Tex was more significant long-term, because we at least KNOW with pretty high certainty that we DID in fact miss out on a multi-skilled player of his caliber providing high output for at least five years or so.

Crow is a question mark-- a probability, where his probability that he would have been a staff ace quality pitcher for the nationals (or any other team) down the road is far from certain. On those grounds, I'd move Crow down the list relative to Tex, but both were significant events.

I also agree with the decline in buzz about the team. We are probably the only 17 people left who care.

oo- I notice that the Word Verification for this post is "winess"-- darn close to "winless". Just sayin'.

Steven said...

Harlan's list was fine if you were writing a list of the stories that got the most attention this year. But I think these end of the year type stories should be more reflective, so I tried to think with now a few months of hindsight which stories will really *matter* years down the road. Harlan's list was fine--we were really answering two different questions.