Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Plan: Dead, Buried and Gone (?)

Once upon a time there was a team called the Washington Nationals. They had a "plan" of sorts, which though some understandably derided it as more a PR gimmick than an actual strategy for building a winning team, there was some real substance to it. The team was committing to youth. Knowing that there would be ugly moments and growing pains, the team knew that the fastest way to build a championship team was to commit to a core of talented under-25 players who would get good together, and, somewhere around maybe 2012, we'd have a contender.

So we made deals like Jon Rauch for Emilio Bonifacio. We turned Mike Stanton into Shairon Martis. We didn't waste top draft picks signing shiny free agents like Aaron Rowand, Torii Hunter, and Andruw Jones. We went after young players with upside like Elijah Dukes. And in one of my favorite deals of the Bowden era, we turned decidedly mediocre Ryan Church and Brian Schneider into Lastings Milledge.

Now, it appears, that might be all over. Elijah Dukes, easily the most talented player on the team and arguably their best player right now, loses his starting job on opening day because he strikes out a few too many times in spring training. Now, he's doing better, but because we want to protect playing time for a couple 30-year-old bottom-tier corner outfielders, we're going to send Lastings Milledge down to AAA.

Milledge turned 24 years old last week. Last season, at the tender age of 23, he really struggled early on while being thrown into the deep end, playing every day and learning a new position no less, but he showed steady improvement at the plate all year. In the second half, he hit .299 / .355 / .448, easily the best 250-AB stretch of his young career. The most important development was the improvement in his on-base skills, which portended further improvement in 2009. That .355 second-half OBP was almost 30 points better than his career rate of .326. His walk rate improved to 7.2% in the second half, up from 6.4% career. He wasn't exploding, but he was progressing. And that was with Lenny Harris as his main source of guidance!

Now, 26 plate appearances into the new season, he's off to Syracuse. There's no argument really that Milledge struggled... for a week. You know who struggles for a week once in a while? Everyfuckingone. Babe Ruth had bad weeks, man.

If you want to take the pressure off, here's an idea--let him bat seventh in the order. If he's struggling with learning to hit and play centerfield at the same time, how about this idea: let him play left field once in a while. How many games did we watch him struggle in center last year while Willie Harris made play after play in left?

Now we get to watch Josh Willingham and Austin Kearns. Shit, if I we wanted a mediocre corner outfielder with no real upside, we had one of those. His name was Ryan Church. Hell, he was better than Willingham and Kearns. And we had a competent catcher too who would have saved us a season of looking at Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada.

Rizzo says this is just a temporary move to help Lastings get his swing figured out in a less stressful environment. Maybe he'll be back in a week, refreshed and ready. He better be. Because this team has rarely felt so totally rudderless.

I expected better, Rizzo, I really did.

38 comments:

Jon said...

Its starting to appear that there is NO LIGHT at the end of this tunnel. It doesn't matter who the GM is, the boneheaded decisions keep coming.

NY Stat Guy said...

On the bright side, the pitching staff is performing to projections. Haha.

Rob B said...

At this point there are only two things that could get me to actually purchase a ticket to sit and watch this team in person.
Those two things are FREE and BEER

Jon said...

Has anyone noticed how HAPPY NatsNation is with this move too? How disturbing is it that you go on the WaPo site and read the comments, or onto a message board and everyone is thrilled with this move? There is no hope.

Steven said...

Yeah it's really disgusting how Nationals fans turn on young players. A guy gets hurt, he's a fragile bum. A pitcher loses his release point for a couple batters, he's mentally weak. A player is 23 years old, and he's uncommitted to the team.

A lot of Nationals fans are getting exactly the team it deserves.

JayB said...

Steven,

Milledge was not cold for a week....he was a mess for a month...I was in Spring Training....he was running into outs swinging at first pitches and over throwing cut off men each day.

But he is gone because of his poor attitude more than anything. Acta enabled a sense of entitlement in him and it hurt him and it hurt the team. Go back and walk through his comments this spring and match it up with his play.

You miss the rules meeting at age 24....you are not ready for the job. Let him grow up where he should grow up...on a bus in the minor leagues. Let him earn a job....that is how it should be.

Dave Nichols said...

it's still a very immature fan base in DC. most folks only understand what's in front of them, have no idea where it could go. my post the other day about roster construction was an illustration: BP says Milledge could be Andre Dawson. but the fans around here only know he's 4-for-27.

i HOPE this is temporary and gives the Nats a chance to move one of the parts for other parts. i'm willing to give Rizzo the benefit of that doubt. for now.

JayB said...

Andrea Dawson never had kind of me first entitled attitude Milledge has shown. Talent does not make you a great baseball player. Talent and mental make up work together to make a Dawson. Look at Dukes.....talent and tough work hard mental approach.....no saying you can not be a bad ass or a flake...you can....many have been but also have to be coachable and you can't be a bad teammate who is always looking at yourself on the hd screen. You have to be willing to improve your game, and work at it, not say I am who I am and I do it my way or no way at all.......Baseball is a team game and that approach kills clubhouses. As the A's and Giants about Dave Kingman.

Jon said...

Who cares about his attitude if he's Andre Dawson? And you don't demote a guy for being a jerk, even if he was one.

An Briosca Mor said...

Now, he's doing better, but because we want to protect playing time for a couple 30-year-old bottom-tier corner outfielders, we're going to send Lastings Milledge down to AAA.You have to be the only person in the whole world who believes that the reason Milledge was sent down was to protect playing time for a couple 30-year-old bottom-tier corner outfielders. Well, maybe you and Lastings Milledge.

An Briosca Mor said...

Andrea Dawson never had kind of me first entitled attitude Milledge has shown.But I bet Andrea Dawson, whoever she is, throws like a girl.

Will said...

I'm hoping the Nats don't draft Strasburg, so I can feel justified in not supporting this shitty franchise anymore.

I was an Orioles fan from as young as I can remember until 2004, and as shitty as the O's were, I can't ever remember it being as bad as these past two years.

e poc said...

Surprisingly, I'm all right with this. Milledge got to the Majors way too early, and there are definitely parts of his game that need work, particularly defense and strike-zone judgment. And, again surprisingly, I do think he could use a reality check. I don't mind that he's cocky or whatever, but he does need to realize that he's never been a valuable major league player and it's going to take a lot of work if he's going to reach that level.

Plus, unless I'm mistaken, leaving him in the minor leagues for a few weeks pushes his free agency back another year - he'll be a super-two next offseason instead of a normal first-year-arb player. Since we've got a ton of outfielders that don't fit into the future, we might as well give them a showcase in hopes that we can trade a couple or three of them. The only thing that bothers me about this is that they want Milledge to play all three outfield positions in the minors. Clearly, they should decide what position they think he belongs at and have him focus on that.

Of course, there's also the possibility that the Nats aren't thinking of any of this, and they've effectively given up on him. Who knows?

Steven said...

epoc--what's the evidence that he needs a reality check? that he missed Manny's speech? I just haven't heard or seen anything that corroborates the accusation that he doesn't take a perfectly professional approach to his job--Marquis Grissom isn't saying that he's not practicing hard enough. Lenny and Rick Eckstein aren't saying he's not coachable. The numbers suggest that he's actually TOO MUCH trying to change his game to be a lead-off man. It just seems like the NY media stuck him with the tag as "a bad guy" and it sticks because he's not ryan Zimmerman.

Hendo said...

If Milledge shows up for work on time and puts in some extra preparation, then he deserves a shot.

If he doesn't do those things and sends out an attitude of "I'm ready now and I don't need to be told otherwise," and puts up the performance he has to date, then he deserves to go to AAA.

Why should he get a pass?

Thomas said...

The team needed a jolt, a wake up call. Short of firing Manny, this was the best idea. Now they can showcase the others and dump one or two of them.

Sec314

Sean Hogan said...

I think Rizzo made the right call for a few reasons, but specifically because it appears that Manny has soured on Milledge. Would you rather have Milledge play 3 of 7 days each week in the majors or play 6 of 7 in AAA? At this point of the year where his swing is out of whack and his defense is still terrible, I vote AAA. It certainly didn't help his cause that he missed the meeting (how would your boss felt if you skipped a meeting?). It appears that Manny doesn't think he's dedicated enough to the team to play.

Snivius said...

I think there's an upside and a downside to Milledge's demotion. On balance, I don't have a problem with it.

Of course we don't have quotes in the WaPo or other outlets from Grissom or Eckstein saying anything bad about Milledge like he's "not coachable"!

Do you honestly think that this kind of dirty laundry is routinely revealed in public to the press? First, this kind of stuff stays in the clubhouse. It would league-wide news and an ESPN headline a la Yankees controversies if either coach leaked dirt about a full-blown attitude problem. Second, from a purely selfish standpoint, the team doesn't want to degrade Milledge's potential trade value by adding "baggage." Leaked quotes to that effect from "Unnamed Nats coaching staff member" would do that in a hurry.

Basil said...

epoc--what's the evidence that he needs a reality check? that he missed Manny's speech? I just haven't heard or seen anything that corroborates the accusation that he doesn't take a perfectly professional approach to his job--Marquis Grissom isn't saying that he's not practicing hard enough. Lenny and Rick Eckstein aren't saying he's not coachable.Since the Nats don't really have an open-file policy for this kind of thing, it's less about evidence in terms of "testimony" from the team's coaches and more about assigning inferences that flow from the beatwriters' background info and, ultimately, from the organization's actions. And here, it just seems as though Lastings rubs the organization's authority figures the wrong way. You could demand better evidence of this, sure, but it still seems pretty apparent.

I do understand the frustration, though; I recall feeling similarly when Church was yanked around in 2006. And Milledge is now, unlike Church then, a projectable guy still of prospect age. Would this stuff have come up so much if Milledge didn't have an option year remaining? No. But he does, and his demotion is also the most expedient way for Manny to handle the flux in the OF, which has seemed a difficulty so far. Milledge's bad start/defense/apparent "attitude issues/etc. are both the cause and the pretext here.

Steven said...

Basil--that's fair, but I just don't buy it. These guys are all very public figures. We see them on TV all the time. If he really doesn't take his job seriously, I think we'd have much more concrete examples in front of us. Manny Ramirez sits down in left field and makes cell phone calls during pitching changes. It's pretty clear that he's not taking a professional approach. OK, that's an extreme example. Look at Scott Olsen. We know he has problems becacuse we've seen Joe Girardi shoving him in the dugout and fist fights with Miguel Cabrera and Randy Messenger. Terrell Owens. Dennis Rodman. Etc.

In Milledge's case, it's all implied, this vague sense of baggage that started in NY because the media wanted to manufacture a story and Wagner and Lo Duca gave them a chance to do so.

Some people I think were dead set on not liking Milledge from the get go. Some people don't like hip-hop, dreadlocks, youth, etc. He plays the game with more of an NBA-style flair. Some people take offense at that. I think those people are fuddy-duddies, but even if I agreed with them I don't think it's fair to deduce from his flashy demeanor that he's not taking a professional approach to the game.

Brian said...

Steven - You can no more assume it's a "hip-hop, dreadlocks, youth" thing than the people you are criticizing can immediately assume the counterpoint.

SUSasskuash said...

I don't think too many people have "turned" on Millege. I heard all offseason many were calling him to be traded. I heard lots of questions and complaints when he was announced as the starting CF early in ST with no competition. I heard a lot of people express doubt when he was first announced as the leadoff hitter. I think a lot of Nats fans had questions about Millege all offseason, and his performance to start the season just pushed them to despise his status as the unquestioned CF of this team.

Another factor in the Millege hating is that Millege got a starting job, no questions asked while Dukes, who is probably a better player, was riding the bench for "poor ST performance." The explanations didn't make any sense.

Finally, I think this move will help Millege. I think not forcing him to compete for a job hurt him this offseason. I maintain that it's not his 4-27 start that shows he's not ready (that's too small a sample size to make this sort of move) but the fact that he doesn't know how to field a fly ball. He looks drunk going back on deep balls in CF. There can be some on the job training for young prospects, but he needs to learn the basics of fielding the outfield. That should be done in the minors, not at the expense of (currently) better players like Dukes. Millege is still young and he's an incredibly gifted athlete. I hope he figures out how to field his position and comes back to show us the potential Manny has seen all along.

Steven said...

Brian--I've heard lots of people on talk radio, blogs, chat rooms, at the stadium say things like, "I don't like that kid with his rap music, and his nappy hair..." It's not an assumption, and I'm not saying that it's the first reason for most fans, but it's A reason for SOME fans, clearly.

Brian said...

Then there also should be some merit in the assumptions based upon what we have read and heard about Milledge's attitude.

Chris Needham said...

"I've heard lots of people on talk radio, blogs, chat rooms, at the stadium say things like, "I don't like that kid with his rap music, and his nappy hair...""

Really? Not just the voices in your head?

I realize that's a bit of hyperbole, but that's the problem with the argument you're making. You're arguing a strawman, when there's a more reasonable argument there in the middle.

That might work on Fox News, but it sounds stupid here.

Steven said...

I think you two are overreacting a bit. I said that some people didn't like him from the start because he takes more of an NBA style and less of what I consider a stodgy, MLB traditionalist approach. I'm not saying that's most fans, and I'm not saying there aren't legitimate critisms of Milledge. But some people didn't like him from the start because of his style. I'm not sure how you disagree with that.

@Brian--I asked epoc this same question before, and it's not rhetorical. What EXACTLY have we seen or heard that justifies the claim that he's such an attitude problem. I'm not in the clubhouse, but I just don't see it. He claps for his teammates when he's not playing, he seems to be making an effort to be more patient as a lead-off man, etc. I don't see him dogging it. I see a guy who lacks some key skills that make him ill-suited to play centerfield, but I don't see that as an effort thing. When he takes an uneven route to the ball that forces him to dive crashing into the wall to make a catch, that's a guy who's willing to crash into a wall but isn't athletic enough to make the play look easy. Right? If there's more to it, you tell me. What do you see that justifies the conclusion that he's a big cancerous attitude problem who needs to be shipped off the Syracuse?

Steven said...

Harper says it better:

"Was it his attitude? Almost certainly. But as far as I have heard this consists of showing up late to a meeting on his birthday (for which he was fined and punished) and not doing what everyone else does and showing up a mere half hour before stretches. Not that he wasn't participating in team stretches or that he was told to come 3 hours before and didn't. It was that he didn't follow some ass-backward tradition and that irked some guys in the clubhouse. You want to know what's really irking the guys in the clubhouse? The fact they're 0-7. If they were 7-0 you think they'd care? I love sports because of their simplicity - the most talented players between the white lines create the most wins. Heart, morality, personality all get checked at the door. If you don't play your most talented team - you are going to lose more often than not."

Chris Needham said...

"What do you see that justifies the conclusion that he's a big cancerous attitude problem who needs to be shipped off the Syracuse?"

Again. Leave the stupid hyperbole out of the argument.

Why do you take EVERY THING to the extreme?

He doesn't have to be "cancerous" to have an attitude problem.

If you can't see -- from the stories, the implications, and some of the comments (his own included) -- that he's someone who doesn't want to put the work necessary to maximize his talent, then you've got a bigass set of blinders on.

Maybe that's not a reason to demote him, but to pretend it doesn't exist is ridiculous.

Brian said...

and it was responded to .. you are never going to get that sort of stuff from the team. The fact is that these undercurrents have followed Milledge from his high school days.

Listen, I'm not saying he is a clubhouse cancer, but you cannot simply ignore the comments that frequently follow him. Reporters from New York and Washington suggest it in their writing. The radio and TV faces and voices talk about it. This is not a huge conspiracy against one guy.

The fact is that the truth behind the move will never be known and is likely a whole lot less interesting than either side of the argument believes.

Milledge had options remaining. The Nationals had a guy they thought could play CF but apparently cannot. With Willie Harris on the DL and Elijah Dukes as their only CF, they made a move.

Steven said...

Well, maybe I have blinders, but watching the guy play, I just don't see it. And if his attitude was so much worse than the average guy, I think we'd see it. We'll just have to agree to disagree on this one, but I just don't see evidence that the supposed attitude is anything more than a guy who has more of an NBA style in MLB, which isn't a conspiracy at all, but also isn't really an attitude problem so much as a culture clash.

e poc said...

To respond for myself, Stephen, when I say that Milledge needs a reality check, I am not saying that with the implied voice of the Nats' coaches or front office. For myself, it just seems that way, and I'm pretty sure I've said enough on your blog to prove that I don't have anything against hip-hop, dreadlocks, or young people. In fact, I love Milledge.

But here's what's a little upsetting to me: his refusal to take responsibility for his bad defense when confronted about the two Bonifacio hits that went over his head; his refusal to do any more work than necessary (I'm talking specifically about the interview he gave about not wanting to show up any earlier than mandated, including his claim that 5 minutes watching video and 15 minutes in the cages is enough preparation); and his recent claim that he knows he's better than he's playing now.

Of course he's better than how he's playing now, but not that much. He's terrible defensively and in a full season last year he was terrible offensively. I agree that he plays hard and supports his teammates, and I don't have a problem with his attitude toward the game or in general, but he needs a lot of work and he needs to admit to himself that he needs that work.

I could be wrong about him needing a reality check, and I'm okay if you disagree with me about it, but I do think that there's plenty of evidence to suggest that he doesn't realize that he's not good, doesn't realize that there's a difference between his potential and his present skill.

Again, I don't know that that's the reason the Nats are doing this. It could be because of hip-hop for them. But for me, it seems like he needs to get it through his head that he's a AAA player and has been for the last three years.

Doctor Joe said...

Steven, did I really read you state that Milledge plays the game with flair?? Joe Dimaggio had flair. Willie Mays had flair. Rickey Henderson had flair. Bonds, Griffey - they played with flair. I think you are confused. Milledge is splashy and ostentatious, no doubt about that. But sir, he most assuredly does NOT play the game with flair. It takes real baseball skills to do that.

Doctor Joe said...

By the way, Steven. I was recently turned on to your web page and it is very good. You and I will not see eye-to-eye all the time, but the material is quite thought provoking. Good work.

An Briosca Mor said...

Now that he's no longer a big leaguer, I bet if Milledge takes an off-season job at TGI McScratchy's to make ends meet, he'll do it with flair.

Steven said...

This is the kind of thing I was talking about when I said that some fans don't like Milledge's style. Not to single you out Dr. Joe, but you make a handy point in case:

"Milledge is splashy and ostentatious, no doubt about that"

Doctor Joe said...

Ah, but Steven, I could care less about the splash if he could actually play at the big league level. The showboating of a Henderson or Bonds never bothered me. In fact, the passing of Fidrych reminds us of the many unique personalities that have played this game. Now, if you are going to call attention to yourself, you better be able to back it up, lest you look like a fool. Lastings does appear to have some God-given talent, but the young man definitely needs to develop the requisite skills if he wants a long career in baseball.

Michael said...

In terms of how people react to Milledge and his alleged attitude problem, Steven is making the most sense. The problems with him seem to be entirely a creation of the media, that they're the sort of thing people repeat without any backing, but it gets repeated so much it becomes accepted as fact.

As for clubhouse chemistry, again, bunk. Someone brought up the A's, well, the A's dynasty in the 70's wasn't exactly a happy family, and they DOMINATED. The 1986 Mets hated each other. The Cardinals teams of the 80's barely spoke to one another. The late 70s Yankees weren't exactly buddy-buddy. Did the Marlins WS teams even know each other's names? There are plenty of teams that could hold hands all day long that never won a thing. Team chemistry is horribly overrated and largely unrelated to performance.

That said, I don't think it's such problem to send him to the minors. If Kearns or Willingham are to have any value in the trade market, they'll have to put some numbers up ASAP. That can't be done with Milledge in the OF, unless you sit Dukes or Dunn. Milledge's skills need fine tuning, and a good deal of it. He needs to learn how to take a pitch, not be a liability once on base, and be the captain of an outfield. That could be done at the MLB level, but since the team is not going to win anything (and perhaps anytime...) this season, why not roll the dice on Willingham or Kearns having a huge first half? It seems like that is the course of action that gives them the best chance of success in the long run.

SUSasskuash said...

How long does Bernadina stay up? Just until Harris is healthy again?