I'm a long-time advocate for the Nationals focusing more on the long-term rebuilding project, but I think the Marquis and Capps signings are solid moves. More to the point, I don't think these moves do anything to undercut the rebuilding effort.
Here the key things to avoid when rebuilding:
- Signing over-30 players to long-term deals, so that you have a couple good years for bad teams but are locked into a contract with an over-the-hill player when the team is getting good. (Example: if the Nationals had signed Alfonso Soriano after 2006.)
- Signing type-A free agents who cost draft picks (Examples: Vinny Castilla, Cristian Guzman in 2005)
- Trading away young, improving, team-controlled players for older, declining veterans. (Example: Houston trading for Miguel Tejada.)
- "Toss in" prospects with upside into trades (Example: Armando Galarraga.)
- Bring in veterans who will take away playing time from talented, younger players who could be better long-term (Example: Ned Colletti blocking Matt Kemp with Juan Pierre.)
- Sign just enough free agents to stay around .500 but never develop enough premium talent via the draft to take the next step. This is the Orioles cycle from the early-aughts. There's definitely evidence that it helps to have a top draft pick like Justin Upton as part of building a contender. But we've done that twice. I don't think the Nationals can be faulted for not getting enough high picks.
Of course, Matt Capps, Pudge Rodriguez, and Jason Marquis all are one one or two-year deals, and none of them cost pick. None of them are blocking a good young player. Eric Karabell was complaining that the Nationals should give Garrett Mock a shot instead of signing Matt Capps. Well guess what? There are over 1400 innings to pitch. There are plenty for Mock and Capps and more. Nyjer Morgan for Lastings Milledge is really the only younger-for-older trade since Rizzo took over, and there are other reasons why that deal made sense.
The other argument is simply that resources are limited, and so any dollar spent on someone like Jason Marquis is coming out of the budget for Bryce Harper. There is some merit to this argument in general. No team except maybe the Yankees operates on a totally unlimited budget.
But the Nationals are still just over $70 million in payroll for 2010. They could easily spend another $30-40 million based on their revenue, and they'd still only be in the middle of the pack in MLB. If the team doesn't want to spend that money, then that's a different problem. But it's not the Marquis and Capps signings that caused them to draft for signability after Stephen Strasburg this year. The could easily afford to do both.
The key is that the team has to invest in youth. That doesn't mean they have to completely starve other priorities. And the team has more than enough resources to do what's needed to keep bringing in premium talent. So as we complain about the Nationals not rebuilding, we should focus on the real problem, which is their failure to bring in and develop premium young talent, not signing veteran stop-gaps who don't come at the expense of rebuilding.