Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I Want to Be Excited, I Really Do

I've been dialing back my writing a bit lately, in part because of real-life demands but also because I frankly didn't want to harsh everyone's buzz. The Nationals have been a fun team to be a fan of this year, with likable players overperforming and more wins than losses. And you even get to do a little scoreboard-watching and think about things like wild card races and standings.

In the middle of all that, who wants to listen to someone like me making snide remarks about how this is mostly a small sample-size blip?

As I've discussed many times before, my outlook as a fan is that I root for championships. Getting from 70 wins to 81 wins is nice, but unless it's part of a progression to 90-95 wins and contention, I'm just not that enthused.

I grew up as a Cubs fan and a Packers fan, and I saw the Cubs in '84 and '89 and the Packers in '89. Those teams were fun while they lasted, but the '85 Cubs and '90 Cubs and Pack were rough hangovers. It was watching the Packers and the Bulls in the '90s that made me want more than the occasional fluke-y playoff run. I want my team to be well run enough to contend and stay in contention over a sustained period of time.

With the exception of Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond, the Nationals players who are contributing to the surprise run of .500 baseball are almost surely not the core of a contending team here in DC.

Dunn is 30 and is not likely to age well. Willingham is 31 and also doesn't have the kind of career trajectory you'd expect to carry into his mid-30s. Livan Hernandez, Cristian Guzman, and Ivan Rodriguez are all almost done. Nyjer Morgan turns 30 in July. Scott Olsen is damaged goods. Matt Capps and Tyler Clippard are useful guys to have around, but they aren't going to keep doing what they're doing now.

Bottom line, the vast majority of the Nationals' current roster is guys who are going to be getting worse, not better, over the next two years.

When Stephen Strasburg arrives, we'll see add another piece of a future contender. Jordan Zimmermann is another. But then that's pretty much all the help we're going to get from the minors for a while. Derek Norris will be the top prospect in the system, but he's still a year or two away at best. Bryce Harper won't be here till 2013 or later.

Right now, based on run differential (no, you can't just subtract Jason Marquis), they're 20-24. That's a 73-win pace. Let's be generous and spot them another 5 for good faith and say they're a 78-win team now.

Where does the improvement come from to get to 90 wins? Strasburg can do a lot. If he's the 2009 Zack Greinke, he can add 9.4 wins. And that's not out of the question. The guy is that good.

But let's be reasonable and say he adds 5 wins next year--something like Chris Carpenter or Josh Johnson last year. That gets you to 83 wins. Hope for Jordan Zimmermann, but he's still got a long road back.

Then start subtracting for all the players who will likely be at least a little (maybe a lot) worse while waiting for the next wave of premium minor league talent: Livo, Pudge, Dunn, Willingham, Capps, Clippard, Olsen, Morgan, Guzman, Kennedy... basically the whole team.

Don't get me wrong. I'm very happy the team is doing better. Remember, I was the #1 guy rooting for Mike Rizzo to take over this club. And I was at the game Saturday cheering in the rain when Adam Dunn knocked in the game-winning run with a base hit past the left fielder the Orioles use at second base.

But for all the progress they've made putting a respectable product on the field, I don't think they've made much if any progress assembling the a future contender, putting together the core of elite talent that will get better and peak together and win for a sustained period of time. From that perspective, they've added Strasburg to Zimmerman, and that's about it.

15 comments:

Positively Half St. said...

Your points are solid, but perhaps a bit too much on the pessimistic side. You contend that Dunn and Willingham are not likely to be as good in their mid-30s, but they won't be in their mid-30s the next two years. You also say that they don't have the elite players to contend, and that is true, but Ian Desmond could at least be very good. Beyond that, you can be sure that Mike Rizzo is paying attention, and will trade some of our pitching and sign some free agents.

The Nats aren't there yet, you are right. I hope they are not going to fall off a cliff the next two years, though.

Bote Man said...

You know that when Needham starts writing "what if..." articles in a positive vain about the Nats that something good is damn well afoot.

Like Mr. Half Street I am cautiously optimistic, although as of this last stretch of home games we are seeing something of a reversion to reality. Call it the dead-arm period, call it a May slump, it's still fun to watch a team that doesn't stink up the field and actually keeps you thinking that they have a chance to win into the late innings.

I'm still sticking to my totally unscientific W.A.G. of 74 wins that I made at the beginning of the season. I hope I'm wrong, though, in a good way.

Harper said...

I think 1/2 ST > 0 is right. Dunn, Willingham, and Morgan aren't at the age yet where they are likely to drop off a cliff. In fact anyone of them could still have a better than average year left. We'll have to see where they end up this year of course, but I think "pretty much same as before" would be a safer bet than significant decline, at least for 2011.

Of course that still doesn't answer your Q of how the Nats get to 90 wins. Internally it would take at least Desmond becoming a star AND Zimmermann coming back from injury and immediately being a great #2. (along with no decline from the above and no other bad luck). Free agency seems a better bet.

ckstevenson said...

To somewhat piggyback on the prior posts, FJB I think you should also consider that not all teams are constantly reloading with young in-house developed talent.

All the guys you mentioned who are or are near 30, they are perfectly viable cogs to the machine. Every team needs those guys. Maybe we'll never develop a 1B better than Dunn, and in a year we'll be signing Dunn v2 from somewhere.

We'll always need the Willingham's and the Kennedy's and the Pudge's of the world on the team, and so does every other team in MLB. The key is to sign the right guys at the right price. Also, we have to hope that Rizzo is good at figuring out when 30 year olds have more left in the tank, and when to sell high.

If the wheels fall off over the next two months, then I think it is safe to assume either Dunn or Willingham will be traded. I'd assume Josh just because we have no viable 1B options (Morse as a fill-in? Kennedy?) elsewhere, but do have some OF options.

warhawk24 said...

what a downer....

estuartj said...

Everyone talks about small sample size when a team is over-performing, but we are over a quarter of the way through the season. Will Pudge keep batting close to .400? Of course not, will Livo be a top 5 starter for the year? No, but the performances of Dunn, Willingham, Guzman & Clippard, Capps & Olsen are within reasonable expectations.

Most importantly those 23 wins are in the books and getting 60-65 very possible, now take into account additions like Strasburg (June), Wang (July), Detwiler (June), Marquis, Mock, Zimmermann (September?) you have a huge upgrade if even 3 of those guys works out, plus you can upgrade elsewhere by selling high on guys like Olsen & Livo (and maybe Willingham & Dunn) to improve the team long term.

One other thing, why CAN'T we subtract Marquis? If the guy is really injured (and not just terrible) then those runs he gave up are NOT indicative of the talent of the team. I don't like cherry picking teams stats based on arbitrary dates (ie we are .585 since April 18) UNLESS they correspond to major roster shakeups. For instance, judging the '08 squad based on record before they cut loose FLop & LoDuca and after IS valid to a degree.

estuartj said...

That's getting 60-65 MORE wins (season total of about 82 to 87)

Grover said...

Zero mention of a bullpen star in the making who's under team control for many years to come?

Zero mention of a young, obviously still-developing outfielder with a 109 OPS+ on the season and sublime defensive skills who can play RF or CF?

Zero mention of the fact that once the team does reach that .500 level of respectability, the super-rich ownership might be inclined to start spending a lot more of the money they've been making hand over fist on this team, as they've been saying all along was part of the "plan"?

There's plenty of value in skepticism and pessimism and staying grounded, and I like reading this blog for that reason. But why ignore those very obvious elements of our optimism?

Also, not sure I follow the logic of dismissing Norris as "a year or two away at best," and then also dismissing Dunn/Willingham because there skills will likely decline after that same sort of time period. That seems kind of irrationally pessimistic. Either you can look short-sightedly at 2010 and 2011 or you can look at the long-term picture, but you can't pick and choose to cast the Nats in the most negative light possible from both perspectives.

Aeoliano said...

So, okay, I thought a first step of the process of creating a contender, (we'll be nice and assume the BoSox model is in play?), was to draft, sign, trade for lots of unpolished prospect pitching. Develop them. Keep the ones you need and trade the others for positional prospects and players?

Isn't that still happening? I see lots and lots of budding pitching prospects. And yes there are at least 4 who are potential Stras Class Cruisers at the top of the rotation? Karns, Frias, Jaime all come with those arms. And with the upcoming draft surely more will be added?

This season, they way it has played out, wasn't supposed to happen. They weren't supposed to be as competitive as they currently are. They were still supposed to be cellar dwellers in the NL East. And they may still make Jim Bowden's (hmmm awfully similar to yours eh?) that they will be back where they belong in the NL East cellar by the end of May.

Maybe its those 30-somethings who really don't have the years to spare waiting for that contender to grow? Just maybe they want it right now. So, you get a Willingham playing the all-star left-fielder. Pudge hitting like there's no tomorrow. Guzman hitting far better trying to just stay in the mix? Capps pitching the exact opposite of last year. Guys like Hernandez and Olsen suddenly pitching like top of the rotation starters on a contender?

And to support them top quality young stars in the making in Zimmerman, Desmond, Bernadina, Storen, and soon Strasburg?

Its the players themselves that will decide where this season goes. They aren't patsies for other teams that's for sure.

Maybe its best to just wait and see ... let the drama unfold. Let Rizzo and the massive brain trust he hired decide when its time, when and whether they have a contender. Enjoying the fact there are some very hard-nosed, tough, competitive players who think that is right now.

Will said...

Pythag is not useful for predicting future success. As estuartj mentioned, Marquis' past failures have no bearing on the Nationals' future ability to perform. Pythag is useful to determine how (un)lucky we've been, but it's relatively meaningless to use our current pythag to determine how we will fare over the next 100 games. Case in point, on this day last year the Pirates had a pythag of .511 and a winning percentage of .467. They finished the year with a pythag of .452, and a W% of .385. The fact that they were unlucky through May did not mean they were expected to see some improvement over the rest of the season.

Aeoliano said...

"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan "press on" has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race." - John Calvin Coolidge

Section 222 said...

I appreciate your dash of realism but I think you should also be a little more realistic in your expectations. You say:

"I want my team to be well run enough to contend and stay in contention over a sustained period of time. With the exception of Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond, the Nationals players who are contributing to the surprise run of .500 baseball are almost surely not the core of a contending team here in DC."

I just don't think that's right. Dunn, Willingham, Capps, Clippard, Morgan, and even Pudge could contribute to the Nats contending next year or the year after, especially if SS, Storen, Wang, and Zimmermann are the pitchers we hope they will be.

Furthermore, teams that contend over a long period of time don't have the same players for that entire period. As Dunn's and Morgan's skills fade, we hope they will be replaced with similarly skilled, or even better, players. It's important to keep the farm system stocked and to be able to attract top flight free agents. It's not realistic to think that seven or eight top players will be major league ready at exactly the same time.

I mean, lets face it, Zim is already a fifth year player. By the time Bryce Harper is here, he'll be almost ready to go on the open market. We have to make sure that the team is close enough to winning and has had enough success by then for him to want to stick around rather than don the pinstripes.

Juan-John said...

Interesting how no one has mentioned Jesus Flores. It's as if the Nats' former catcher-of-the-future just fell off a cliff.

Aeoliano said...

Juan-John,

Flores hasn't fallen off a cliff. But he must now be placed back with Norris and Solano. He has yet to play in any games where he can throw the ball around the infield. He has yet to play in any games that I know of? Like Detwiler, it means he goes back into the pack and must now compete to get his job back. It wasn't as if he has spent a great deal of time in the lineup proving that job was his?

I think they need to acquire another catching prospect that is further along the way Flores was. Someone to go with Pudge and Flores.

RA said...

The 1989 Chicago Cubs. That brings back memories. That had to be one of the worst teams to ever win 90 games in history. I kept expecting the wheels to fall off and they never did. Great year to watch the Cubs and be entertained by Harry Caray.