As my beloved Nats plummeted to their second consecutive 59 win season (just think if they hadn't won the last seven!), it's clear to me that the old "lipstick on a pig" band-aid isn't going to work this offseason. Mike Rizzo and Co. have a lot of work to do, and though I'll have absolutely nothing to do with it, I'm going to brainstorm some ideas. I'm not the first member of this support group to do so, and I doubt I'll be the last. While I'll certainly comment on others' thoughts when they post them, I'm not necessarily saying my ideas are better or worse than anyone else's... sometimes they're just different (I remember feeling like I was coming off a bit antagonistic around the trade deadline in here, so.........). At any rate, my detailed ideas on what the Nats should do this offseason. I guess I'll begin by naming most of the current core:
C - Flores, ?????
1b - Dunn
2b - Desmond/Guzman
SS - Desmond/Guzman
3b - Zimmerman
LF - Willingham
CF - Morgan
RF - Dukes
SP - Lannan, Detwiler, Olsen, and then the glut of Stammen/Mock/Balester/Martis/Martin and hopefully not Livan
RP - Clippard, Burnett, MacDougal, and no... I don't trust any of the rest (come to think of it, I don't trust MacDougal)
Primary Needs: A dependable starting middle infielder, two or three starters (at least one near the top of the rotation), and about 25 bullpen arms! I'd say closer, but paying top dollar for a closer is a waste when you can't get the game to him.
Analyzing what's available: Let's go with a top ten, including the likelihood that the Nats would have a chance at the player and that he'd be a good fit, in the starting pitching department: I'd set my budget around $25 to $30 million if I wanted to make the team competitive (challenging ..500).
1) Rich Harden (Type B), CHC - An injury waiting to happen? Most likely, though Harden has enjoyed consecutive pretty healthy (particularly for him) seasons the past two years after making just 16 appearances in 2006 and 2007 combined. Harden would be beneficial for the Nats in a handful of ways. For starters, if he's healthy, he'd absolutely be the ace of the staff. Secondly, he'd bring an excellent mentor for the few young power pitchers in the Nats' system (notably, Strasburg and the injured Jordan Zimmermann, though you could throw Detwiler in that mix a bit as well). What's more, Harden isn't coming off of his best season (4.09 ERA [4.35 FIP], 1.34 WHIP, though he's proven he can stay relatively healthy) and may be a bit devalued because of that.... despite the fact that he's just hitting his prime (27 years old). The assumption is that a great season could have pushed Harden towards a deal similar to that signed by A.J. Burnett with the Yankees last year. The more likely scenario is that he'll want to sign a relatively short-term (1 or 2 year) deal in the $4 to $6 million range. I say you take a shot at getting a potential ace cheap and spend up to $8 million per if you can get a third year tacked on with incentives that could push it a little over $10 million if he hits them. I feel Harden should be their top priority of all players available.
2) John Lackey (Type A), LAA - Chances are that he's priced out of what would be an acceptable gamble for the Nats to sign him. My plan centers around finding 5 or 6 players (2 starters, a starting middle infielder, and some bullpen arms, one of whom will be in the $3-5 million range) through free agency, and blowing half of that budget on one starter would fit into the "lipstick on a pig" that I started with. Barring the Diamondbacks declining Brandon Webb's option (not gonna happen), Lackey will be the top free agent pitcher on the market this offseason, and he's going to sign for $12 million+. I love the big game experience and the bulldog mentality. I do think that the Nats should throw their name into the proverbial hat and make a little run at him, but don't think he's a player worthy of breaking the bank for. He's also four years older than Harden.
3) Tim Hudson, ATL - I think he re-signs with the Braves (rumors are already flying that they pretty much have a done deal), so I'm not going to elaborate much. If not for the availability issues, I think Hudson would be a great fit if they could get the deal done at around $10 million per (about what the expectation is with Atlanta). I also think that if Hudson is going to sign a three year deal for between $27 and $30 million (the rumor), that means Lackey is certainly going to sign for at least $12 million.
4) Brett Myers, PHI - He's certainly been disappointing the past couple of years with the Phillies, but Myers has proven that he's capable of handling a top three spot on a contender throughout most of his career. At 29, there's still plenty left in the tank, and his disappointing (injury-marred) 2009 campaign probably bumps him down from the $8-10 million we would have expected him to sign for when he hit free agency in, say, 2007, to less than half of that. Myers is another good, proven (but still fairly young, at 29) option who likely signs a relatively short-term deal below market value so he can try and cash in next time around. Look for him to sign a 1 or 2 year deal for around $4 million per. That could be worth gambling on. Unlike Harden, I don't try and attach a couple of million onto a deal to try and add a third year.
5) Erik Bedard (Type B) , SEA - I'll be the first to say that signing both Bedard and Harden would probably end in disaster. That said, the small chance that they could both stay healthy could transform the Nats' rotation from one of the worst in the league to one of the top five. Bedard would be another guy looking to sign a short-term deal and have a big year wherever he goes to capitalize later. I think he signs for less than Harden (injury troubles are more recent), but I also don't feel quite as good about Bedard as I would about Harden. Expect him to sign an incentive laden deal for somewhere in the $3-4 million range.
6) Carl Pavano (Type B), MIN - A return to the National League should suit him, and while the traditional numbers don't completely bear it (5.10 ERA, 1.37 WHIP), he did have a pretty good season between the Tribe and the Twins (4.00 FIP). He's also a pretty solid indicator of what can happen when you sign a player below market value coming off of a bad year (or, in Pavano's case, contract). Pavano was signed for just $1.5 million with incentives by the Tribe last offseason.
7) Joel Pineiro (Type B), STL - I don't advocate signing 31-year-old pitchers with poor strikeout rates coming off of career years, but Pineiro could give the Nats a decent legitimate #3 starter. Now, if only they really had a legitimate #1 and #2 starter.
8) Vicente Padilla (Type B), LAD - Really was a pretty solid pitcher in Texas. He was outstanding in Los Angeles after returning to the National League. By no means is he a front-line type (the only real potential front-line starters that are on the market this season will be Lackey and Harden... maybe Bedard... maybe Sheets), but he's a nice middle of the rotation type. He's a league-average type who will sign in the $5-$6 million range.
9) Ben Sheets, FA - Didn't pitch at all this year. When he's healthy, he's one of the top 15-20 pitchers in the game. He's never healthy, though.
10) Jason Marquis (Type B), COL - I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Honestly, Randy Wolf would be a much better fit, but there's no way the Dodgers fail to retain him. I'd even prefer to go after an ageless wonder like Smoltz, Randy Johnson (who I assume retires), Tim Wakefield, or even Jose Contreras. Andy Pettitte is mysteriously absent from this list because I believe he retires if he doesn't re-sign with the Yankees.
My goal, above all else, would be to sign Rich Harden and then complement him with one of the other options listed (preferably a Myers or Bedard, who will both certainly be available, but I could live with a Pineiro or Padilla), setting up the Opening Day rotation as follows:
A hopefully healthy Scott Olsen, who I think the club should offer arbitration to depending upon his rehab progress
Strasburg should begin the year at High A ball. Assuming he's progressing nicely, he should make a few starts at A+, a few at AA, and possibly some time in AAA before reaching the bigs. Be prudent and patient with him, and this isn't just to delay his arbitration clock. Let him develop.
Pretty much every decent, experienced closer available (with one exception, though I have a non-closer who could close I'd prefer over a few who is a Type A) is a Type A Free Agent, so if the Nats go after a closer, the top pick in the second round is history. So be it.
1) Rafael Soriano (Type A) - Screw the injury history when he was in Seattle. Soriano is hands down the best reliever on the market this season (he's also the youngest, at 30), and the fact that he has less career saves than most of the other closers on the market may keep his price somewhat reasonable. The safe money says that Atlanta re-signs either Soriano or Mike Gonzalez (not both), and whoever they don't sign ends up hitting the market. While the fact that Soriano served as their primary ninth inning guy this season would indicate that they'll probably try and retain Soriano, my belief is that they might feel they have a cheaper alternative in Gonzalez and let him walk. He should be worth $7 million+ even in this market, but I doubt he goes that high.
2) Jose Valverde (Type A) - Down year in the save department (25) because he missed May and the Astros weren't that great. He still displayed strong peripherals and big strikeout numbers. At 32, he's younger than any closer who could hit the market other than Rafael Soriano. Valverde has electric stuff, and he's crazy enough of a guy to continue succeeding in the ninth. The concern is that he has enough experience as a closer and strong enough numbers so that he'll be the highest-priced closer on the market, and it doesn't make much sense for a team that's won 118 games the past two years to put that much of a premium on the ninth inning.
3) Mike Gonzalez (Type A) - Depending upon who (if either of them, depending upon whether they accept arbitration) the Braves retain, Gonzalez would make for a fine addition at the back of the bullpen himself. He has plenty of experience in the closer's role, keeps the ball in the yard, and brings big strikeout production to the table. The problem is that he struggles with the walk at times, which means he'd fit right in (I guess).
4) Billy Wagner (Type A) - Unfortunately, his outstanding effort down the stretch for the Red Sox probably means he still sees a big contract. Wagner wants to close, which means he won't be staying in Boston, and he's still going to be fairly affordable after throwing just 62 innings the past two years. He's 38, but if that arm's healthy, it's got three more years in it.
5) Rafael Betancourt (Type A) - Neither Fernando Rodney nor Kevin Gregg excite me at all. Betancourt's option ($5.4 million) certainly won't be exercised by the Rockies, and he's probably going to sign in the $3 million range. A poor 2008 dropped his star quite a bit, but he served as arguably the top setup man in the game in Cleveland in 2007. After a decent rebound in Cleveland, he was an absolute monster for Colorado upon being acquired there. He's 35, has no real closing experience (18 years scattered throughout his 7 year career), but his stuff screams closer. He wouldn't be "draft & develop" cheap at the back of the bullpen, but he'd also be someone who could hold the fort until a guy like Storen may be ready to take over the role in a few years.
Other Bullpen Options
Kelvim Escobar - Talk about a rehab project, but the talent's certainly there if he's ever healthy again. Could be a steal as either a starter or a reliever.
The ideal situation for me is trading Cristian Guzman for a solid prospect (anywhere on the field but 3b), finding a 2b, letting Desmond start, and rolling with either Pete Orr or Alberto Gonzalez as the utility infielder. The more likely scenario is that they can't find a taker for Guzman, in which case they should sign a 2b, start Guzman 4-5 times a week at SS, and allow Desmond to serve as a backup getting 4 starts a week between 2b and SS.
1) Chone Figgins (Type B), ANA - The good: Figgins had a terrific UZR/150 this year, actually ranking third at his position. The bad: Figgins has seen the bulk of his work at third base since 2007, and never really proved to be a very good defensive 2b earlier in his career. The ugly: Particularly since he's being projected as a Type B Free Agent and because he's coming off of his best season, Figgins is going to be highly sought after this offseason. I expect him to be priced out of the Nats' range, but I do believe that whoever signs him will sign him with the intent of moving him back to the middle infield. Nyjer Morgan's presence would drop his value a bit to the Nats, as they wouldn't need to have him take over the leadoff spot.
2) Orlando Hudson (Type A), LAD - I kind of flip-flop between whether they'd be better off going after a guy like Hudson or Placido Polanco, but I think that the fact that Polanco's hitting style mirrors that of Cristian Guzman so much means I'd rather have Hudson. Improved defensive metrics tell us that Hudson is certainly not the annual gold glove candidate he was earlier in his career... in fact, he's been below replacement level with his fielding at 2b the past two years (that's the plus for Polanco that makes me go back and forth). I think that what cinches my decision to go with Hudson over Polanco is the fact that he's two years younger, and probably is less likely to decline than Polanco.
3) Placido Polanco (Type A), DET - Apart from his absolute lack of patience (averaged 36 walks the past three years... which is actually higher than his numbers throughout his career), Polanco brings plenty to the table. He's a fantastic average-hitter who always puts the ball in play. He's consistently displayed double digit home run power since 2002. The former utility man has also turned himself into quite the defensive second baseman, having finished with a positive UZR/150 in each of the past seven seasons, including a +8.5 in 2009, leading all second basemen. He's good defensively, he's a great contact guy (read: hit & run behind Nyjer Morgan), and he probably won't be insanely expensive.
4) Felipe Lopez (Type B), ARI - Been there, done that. He's solid across the board, but Bowden shipped him away after struggling a bit for a year and a half.
5) Ronnie Belliard (Type B), LAD - Shrug. This is turning into a list of guys the Nats dealt away/let go. He tries to conceal his lack of range by playing in short right field, and usually does OK with it. He should certainly have been the starting 2b from the start of the year (though he wasn't 100%), but Acta botched that.
I could live with the Nats looking for a backup/co-starting catcher, given the fragility we've seen out of Flores the past couple of years. The available 1b don't excite me much, though I could live with the Nats trying to sign Hank Blalock if they can do so cheaply (won't happen) to free up Dunn or Willingham on the trade market a bit more. I don't see an outfielder I'd break the bank on, and think they're better off rolling with Hammer, Morgan, and Dukes (with Maxwell as a roving fourth outfielder and [hopefully] a healthy Bernadina as the number five).
So, with all the options out there, here's what I'm thinking. Again, limit the budget to $25-$30 million. I'm not going to go overly aggressive with any of the figures, but I'll try and be realistic:
1) Sign Rich Harden (3 years, $7 million per with incentives that could push it up to $10 million per if he reaches them)
2) Sign Brett Myers (2 years, $4 million per)
3) Offer Scott Olsen arbitration
4) Commit to Ross Detwiler remaining in the rotation full-time
5) Sign Rafael Soriano (3 years, $7 million per) or Mike Gonzalez (2 years, $4 million per) or Rafael Betancourt (2 years, $3.5 million per)
6) Sign Joaquin Benoit (1 year, $2 million)
7) Sign Placido Polanco (3 years, $7 million per)
Going with the highest end options on that list, (Harden, reaching the incentives for $10, Myers for $4, Soriano for $7, Benoit for $2, and Polanco for $7), we're looking at $30 million. While I feel that the $7 or $8 million may be high for a proven injury risk like Harden, teams like the Nats are going to have to overpay a bit because they're not going to get players to pick them as a "winning destination." It's a pretty similar situation with Polanco (it would appear the Tigers are going to decline his $6 million option for this season because of Magglio Ordonez's $18 million vesting option kicking in). In this scenario, here's what the club would look like next season:
C - Flores/???? (Nieves, most likely... yuck)
1b - Dunn
2b - Polanco/Desmond
SS - Guzman/Desmond
3b - Zimmerman
LF - Willingham
CF - Morgan
RF - Dukes
SP - Harden
SP - Lannan
SP - Myers
SP - Olsen
SP - Detwiler
CP - Soriano/Gonzalez/Betancourt
Setup - Clippard
LH Setup - Burnett
RP - Benoit
RP - MacDougal
And then piece the rest of the bullpen together with converted starters, though Storen looks like he may play a role by the end of 2010.