Win Now Or Win Later - - Can The Nats Do Both?
[June 27th] - It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Jim Bowden added Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman in hopes that their veteran leadership and still adequate skills would keep the Nationals at or near .500 for the next couple of years, or at least until the team opened its new park sometime in early 2008. By then, Bowden hoped, the new owner's pocketbook would have purchased enough talent to contend for the division title. Oops.
The Nationals are on track to win 94 games and win the National League Eastern division this year. They've done it with a combination of talent, luck, and smoke-and-mirrors. While we could find the Nats in the cellar come September, they are just as likely to be in first, second or third place, fighting for at the least the wild card. All of Washington [and me out here in Pocatello Idaho] is enjoying its first pennant race since the Roosevelt Administration. You can't have lunch at work, or enjoy a movie at Tysons Corners, without hearing friends and neighbors talking about what is turning out to be the most amazing summer in Washington since Watergate. But is it the best thing for the Nationals? By doing all they can to win NOW, is Frank Robinson and Jim Bowden in someway short changing the future of the team?
Several of the Washington Nationals are locks to be part of the team when the new stadium and bigger payroll kick in three years from now and others could be:
1B]Nick Johnson [age in 2008: 30] Expected production: .300-25-100
It is very likely that one of the first things Jim Bowden or his replacement will do when the new owner takes over is to sign Nick Johnson to a long term contract. Johnson is a really really really good player, but not a great one, but that suits the Nationals just fine. While he doesn't have the power numbers of a prototypical first baseman, his on base percentage [.443] and slugging [.512] add an additional dimension to his play not normally found at first. I'd guess that the new park will be along the lines of RFK [read: spacious] so his high on base percent and outstanding fielding ability makes him the Nationals' first baseman for some time to come. Minor league talent: Larry Broadway. Although Broadway has been hurt for much of the season, he is expected to be a solid major leaguer with numbers similar to Lyle Overbay of the Brewers. Excellent Trade fodder.
2B]Jose Vidro [age in 2008:34] Expected Production: .280-15-80
Jose Vidro has shown that he is getting fragile as he ages. But don't think that he's been "Cal Ripken" like during his career. Since he became a starter in 1999, he has missed 171 games, or almost 15% of the team's games due to injury. As he gets older, we have to consider that injuries will continue to hamper his playing time at second base. Junior Spivey is a solid second baseman and has produced well in a starting roll. Having both of them to play second would be ideal, but will Spivey accept such a roll? Spivey will be 33 in 2008. Minor league talent: Brendan Harris. Harris has already shown that he can hit major league pitching. He's good at second base, but not great. He has the ability to start for the Nationals. He will be 28 when the new park opens.
LF]Ryan Church [age in 2008:30] Expected production: .280-25-85
Church is another of the young Nationals that need to be signed to a long term contract as soon as possible. He has speed, power and plays well in the outfield. Church's on base percent of .381 and slugging percent of .581 are great. Church HAS to be part of this club if it's going to succeed in the second half of the decade.
CF]Brad Wilkerson [age in 2008:31] Expected Production: .260-23-75
Although most Nationals fans love Wilkerson, I think he is more of a hindrance than a help. Regardless of his .370 on base percent and good power, Wilkerson strikes out 30% of the time he comes to the plate, and I don't care what Bill James says, a strikeout IS WORSE than other types of outs. I'd prefer to trade Wilkerson for a real leadoff hitter [someone in the Juan Pierre mold]. Of course he would still be a good addition to the Nationals outfield in 2008
RF]Jose Guillen [age in 2008:31] Expected Production: .285-30-100
Let's face it, he hasn't transformed himself into "Mr. Likeable" overnight. Stories still surface that he can be surely and downright unfriendly in the clubhouse. Teammates are learning when and when not to engage him in conversation. Still, as long as he doesn't kill anybody, I want him in right field for many years, and Guillen has said the same thing. Minor league talent: Matt Cepicky. Cepicky has hit well everywhere he's played, averaging 15 homers and 70 or so rbi's. He's not a great fielder and has holes in his swing, but can play everyday in the majors and produce "acceptable" numbers.
C]Brian Schneider [age in 2008:32] Expected Production: .260-12-50
Schneider continues to be one of the best defensive catchers in the major leagues, and provides enough offensive pop to make any team he plays for better. However, 32 years old for a catcher is "getting up in years," and the Nationals will need to have someone in the wings waiting to start taking some of the load. Minor league talent: None to speak of.
So, with the exception of shortstop and 3rd base, the Nationals could conceivably [but likely wouldn't] still have 6 offensive starters in 2008 that they use today. There will be some trades and free agent signings, but the core of the team will still be productive in three years.
So what do we do with third base and shortstop?
There is ZERO chance that either Vinny Castilla or Cristian Guzman will make the trek from RFK over to the new ballpark, contracts be damned. So is it better to leave them where they are now, take up space, hope they get a timely hit or two and perhaps lead the Nationals to a wild card or division title, or do the Nats at some point make the decision to go with their younger players in preparation for the future?
Ryan Zimmerman, the number one draft pick in the amateur draft, is 11-21 with 2 homers in his young career. Certainly, he is making the transition quickly and effectively. What happens come September when the Nationals are still hovering around the top of the division, and Vinny is still slipping in all offensive categories, hitting only pitcher's mistakes? Wouldn't it make sense to let the kid take over, get 30 games under his belt and see if he's ready to take over next year? I'm not talking about overwhelming him; only if he's ready. I'd certainly rather have Zimmerman as a two year veteran in 2008 instead of an untried rookie. A move like this might hurt our chances this year, but would strengthen the team's foundation for 2008.
At some point, Cristian Guzman's defense will not outweigh his poor performance at the plate. Sure, he may save 20 runs the rest of the year with his glove, but he might miss driving in 30 that another shortstop wouldn't. Should the Nats put Spivey at short and see what happens? Should Brendan Harris be given a chance? Again, these moves might cause short-term harm, but would certainly strengthen the team long-term.
My vote is to do what it takes to lay the proper foundation for the coming years. Sure, it'd be fun to win the division and see the team in the playoffs, but I'd much rather end the season with 85 or 90 wins and find out who can and cannot play short and third. The new owner could then sit down with Jim Bowden [or his replacement] and make reasoned decisions as to who to sign, demote, release, trade or outright to the minors. Yes, doing this might result in the Nationals not making the post-season, but the upside is far greater and more advantageous for the team.
But, I'm just one fan in Pocatello Idaho, and I doubt seriously that Frank Robinson or Jim Bowden will listen to me.
But they should.