Regardless of How It Plays Out, We'll Know Which Path The Nats Choose By Saturday

It's been made clear throughout the past six weeks since I first posted this article that the readers around Federal Baseball are split on just how much of an effort the Nationals should put into being sellers at the upcoming deadline.  Regardless of how you feel about the frequent mention of Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, and Matt Capps in the media as players who could be traded by Saturday, you have to admit that whatever happens will have a significant impact on the Nationals' future.

GM Mike Rizzo's moves (or non moves, as the case may be) heading into this weekend are going to tell us a handful of different things:

  • Choosing not to acquire any young pitching for either Dunn, Willingham, or Capps (or Guzman, etc.) would likely tell us that he feels that the Nats have the pitching in the system (perhaps in the minors, but more likely currently on the disabled list) that's necessary to turn things around.  It would mean that he feels confident that Scott Olsen, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan, Jason Marquis, Yunesky Maya (a name that I just learned has half a dozen different spellings listed), and possibly Livan Hernandez will not only give them enough competition for four starting slots behind Stephen Strasburg, but that he also feels that he can find a #2 (presumably Zimmermann) and a middle of the rotation type starter or two from that group. 
  • Holding onto Dunn, Willingham, and Capps would tell us that Rizzo believes that the pieces he has in place will be ready to form a contender in the next year or two, contrary to their current performance and their performance in the recent past.
  • It would tell us that he feels he can find a free agent second baseman in the offseason to fill the vacancy left by (even a middling performer like) Cristian Guzman... or that he feels that Danny Espinosa is closer to the majors (and more importantly, being a contributor at the big league level) than we think he is. 
  • It would tell us that the team is ready to not only try to retain their players, but make a bigger splash on the free agent market than they have recently. 

At last year's trade deadline, Rizzo's hands were tied a bit.  For starters, he didn't necessarily have the sense of urgency to figure out what to do with a pivotal player such as Dunn.  Sure.... they had decisions to make about Joe Beimel (dealt to the Rockies for a pair of mid-level prospects) and Nick Johnson (dealt to the Marlins for Aaron Thompson), but neither of them had the impact that a player such as Dunn could have on a contender.  He also had the "interim" hanging over his title, and didn't have the full time job.

In one of the (many) Adam Dunn threads at MLB Trade Rumors, a user mentioned that he felt that the Nationals could go one of two ways.  His suggestion was that the Nats either completely blow it up or that they stand pat and re-sign Dunn... as well as be active in the free agent market.  His final suggestion, greeted with nods from a couple of other posters, was that the middle ground was death.  There are some valid points on all three sides of the argument, so we're going to examine them after the jump.

Do Not Trade Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, or Matt Capps

Some of what has to happen for this scenario to work out has been pointed out above.  Still, we'll begin with the rotation again.

  • The Nats obviously feel that they have a legitimate young ace in Stephen Strasburg, who is under club control through the 2016 season.  
  • There are pretty clear indications that the Nats believe that they have a legitimate number two starter in Jordan Zimmermann, though there's certainly significant risk with any player coming back from Tommy John Surgery.  Regardless of whether Zimmermann pitches like a top of the rotation guy or not next season, the Nats would likely have to go all in to find someone else of his caliber on the free agent market.
  • Is their third starter for next season Ross Detwiler?  The talent and the stuff are certainly there for him to develop into one, but he's also proven to be a bit injury prone.  He hasn't put forth the results that the club would have hoped for yet either. 
  • Is it Scott Olsen (entering his final year of arbitration)?  Again, the injury question lingers, as he's had two surgeries on his throwing shoulder in the past two years.  He also hasn't quite put the results up on a consistent basis, though he was off to a good start this year.
  • Is it Chien-Ming Wang (also entering his final year of arbitration)?  Umm... I hate to sound like a broken record.  The results have been there in the past, but he hasn't pitched in over a year, and the likelihood that he'll pitch in the majors at all in 2010 is getting more and more bleak by the minute.  Truth be told, when he last pitched in 2009 for the Yankees, he did so pretty poorly.
  • Is it Jason Marquis?  Like most of the other members in the above group, Marquis has missed more than three months this season due to injury.  Truth be told, there was a lot of reason to question Rizzo's signing of him to a fairly lucrative 2 year, $15 million deal in the first place.  He's made three starts with a 20.52 ERA, a 2.88 WHIP, and a 3:6 strikeout to walk ratio in 2010... No, that's not a typo.  He's been a consistent league average to slightly below league average pitcher throughout his career (4.57 career ERA, 1.43 WHIP, low strikeout rates, high walk rates, good groundball tendencies, but does that really play well in front of a porous Nats' defense?).
  • Is it John Lannan? He gave the Nats a couple of pretty nice years, though the underlying statistics pointed to.... well.... pretty much what happened to him this year.  A contending team might be able to get away with him as their fifth starter, but that's about it.
  • Is it Yunesky Maya?  I don't know.  As far as I know, he's yet to throw a pitch in North America that wasn't for the Cuban National Team in the World Baseball Classic.  There certainly appears to be a lot of upside (which should be reached quickly) with Maya's signing.  Can he be counted on to immediately step in as a middle of the rotation starter in the big leagues, though?
  • Is it Mr. National himself, Livan Hernandez?  We all love Livo to a certain extent, and we all want to see him do well.  His surface numbers this season indicate that it's possible that he could remain strong enough to be a middle of the rotation type of pitcher on a contending team, and.... man... I'm trying hard to avoid using some words.  I'm going to use "fortunate" and that his surface numbers are "better than expected" to tiptoe around that issue.
  • It's fairly obvious that no members of the following group are really going to be middle of the rotation contributors to a contending team (at least not quickly): J.D. Martin, Shairon Martis, Collin Balester, Craig Stammen, Luis Atilano, Brad Meyers..... or (barring Meyers, who we've yet to see, and who has dealt with injury issues himself this season) the AAAA starters that the Nats have been using for much of the past two years.

Not taking a quality batch of prospects for Dunn, or even a slightly lesser quality batch for Willingham and/or Capps indicates that Mike Rizzo would have to be confident that he can piece together not just a rotation for next season, but one that is significantly better than this year's group.  Currently, including performances that were better than expected by Livan Hernandez and Stephen Strasburg (as good as he's been, and as quickly as it's happened), the Nats rank 24th in the league with a 4.47 ERA from their starting pitchers.  Is counting on a handful of players who are going to be returning from injury (many of whom don't have a consistent track record of success) really going to correct that?  I sincerely doubt it.

If they go this route, they have to look long and hard at taking a serious stab at one of the following starting pitchers on the free agent market: Cliff Lee, Javier Vazquez, Ted Lilly, Jorge de la Rosa, Brett Myers.  There are some other decent guns that figure to be free agents at year's end, but a quality veteran starter who could make some noise near the front of the rotation would be a must.  Assuming they wouldn't go after Lee (who will be fitted for pinstripes exactly 15 days after the World Series ends), they're still looking at ~ a $10-$12 million dollar investment.

Positionally

  • I can understand management's commitment to letting Ian Desmond develop at the big league level, so we'll tentatively say that SS wouldn't be something that they'd have to try and upgrade.  First base and third base would be set, too (assuming that they extended Dunn), though there are some other solid 1b options that will be available on the open market that might provide a little less with the bat and more defensively... guys like Derrek Lee, Paul Konerko, Carlos Pena, etc.  With Pudge in town for another season, seeking a starting catcher wouldn't have to be a priority.  I do think that Pudge is best used in a platoon role at this point, though.  $13-15 million for Dunn/Other 1b
  • They'd have to spend on one of the big outfielders available on the market.  The top two will be Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth.  There's a significant dropoff to guys like Johnny Damon, Magglio Ordonez (who won't reach enough plate appearances with his injury for his option next year to vest), or Hideki Matsui.  The RF platoon hasn't worked this year; The pieces aren't close to ready to replace that with a regular starter from the minor league system.  Crawford is a franchise player.  Werth is really good.  The rest are good players at this point who are a bit past their prime.  $8-10 million for Damon, Maggs, or Matsui.... $15 million for Werth.... $20 million for Crawford, who (like Lee) will be clearly in the Yankees' sights
  • Don't fail in the pursuit of a guy like Orlando Hudson again.  I'm not saying it would have to be Hudson, necessarily, but the free agent options at second base aren't pretty.  Taking an unbiased look (err.... pretending I wasn't a Nats fan and just looking at production/skill set), I'd say that the top two free agent second basemen available on the market are going to be Orlando Hudson and (here's what the disclaimer was for) former Nat Felipe LopezAdam Kennedy and Alberto Gonzalez aren't likely to be a 2b platoon on a winning ballclub. Cheaper, but still $5 million or so

Why so heavy?  Why am I saying that if the Nats choose not to deal Dunn, Hammer, or Capps that they need to spend upwards of $40-50 million (per year, which would include Dunn) on free agents this offseason?  If they don't take a solid prospect package for them (particularly Dunn, whose contract expires at season's end), they're saying they're going all in.  If you're going all in, then you can't go halfway.

Deal Them All

Dunn isn't going to get the Nats Gordon Beckham... or Matt Garza... or (probably) Madison Bumgarner (just using names that it's been reported that Rizzo has asked for... whether any of them are true or not we can't say).  He would likely net the Nats a cost effective starting prospect who is (or is extremely close to) big league ready with the potential to move towards the middle of the rotation (using the most frequent example on the internet, a guy like Daniel Hudson).  He would also likely net the Nats another slightly lesser prospect and/or a handful of guys a notch below that.  Yes.  They'd be losing that big middle of the order bat.   In his place, they'd be fixing a problem in another (presumably less replaceable) area with a long term solution and probably finding another player who could fill one of the other holes on the roster pretty quickly.  The key is that the secondary player also has the upside to contribute more down the road than what the Nats have in the system.

There are differences of opinion on what the Nats could get for Josh Willingham.  Some feel that the extra year of control (despite a slightly lower caliber, but similar skill set to Dunn) could net the Nats pretty close to what Dunn would as a rental player.  Others just see the slightly lower caliber, same skill set and think that he'd come a lot cheaper.  The fact of the matter is that they won't get the top player in the deal that they would for Dunn, but a slightly lower caliber top player.  They'd still probably fill multiple holes in the lineup/system by dealing Willingham.

Capps is a different case altogether.  They have two capable replacement options in Clippard and Storen (Joel Peralta's making himself difficult to ignore as well) should they move him.  Like Willingham, Capps has another year of arbitration eligibility remaining.  Like Willingham, Capps figures to get a substantial raise next season.  There's an excellent chance that Capps asks for (and receives) $6 to $7 million through arbitration.  The relief market is pretty dry this season, with Scott Downs and Octavio Dotel being the primary names thrown around.  Capps wouldn't be likely to fetch a major return, but the cost of keeping him will likely far outweigh the benefits.  He could maybe fetch a starter on the cusp of the high minors with the potential to be better than one of the back end seven (or twelve, if you prefer) that the Nats have now.  Maybe he could fetch a future bat at a position of need that's closer to making an impact than the Michael Burgess', Destin Hood's, or Chris Marrero's of the world.

I know Livan has said he wants to retire a National, but wouldn't it be crazy not to sell high on him if a team came calling?  We all love Livo (he's Mr. National, after all), but how many of us really think that Livan's in the plans for 2012?  Cliff Lee's gone.  Dan Haren's gone.  If rumors that have come through the pipeline early this morning are true, Roy Oswalt is gone (to Philadelphia).  Contending teams are still looking for pitching, and their options are dwindling fast.  Like Capps, he wouldn't fetch a big return, but some desperate GM would likely overpay a bit for him.

From experience on this site (in just about every gameday thread I've been in), we'd all love to see the Nats get rid of Cristian Guzman for a bag of baseballs and a batting helmet.  Eat the $3 million left on his deal and get a low-mid level pitching prospect for him. 

If there's someone who will pay the rest of Willie Harris' (small) salary, let them have him.  If not, designate him for assignment.  Mike Morse, Roger Bernadina, and Justin Maxwell have nothing left to prove in the minors, and should be getting their reps to see if they can hack it at the big league level (personally, I have my doubts about J-Max, and I'm concerned with what we'll see out of Morse if he gets overexposed, but we don't know because Willie Harris is stealing too much time away from all three of them). 

In the true "Deal them all" scenario, you have to consider getting rid of Ivan Rodriguez and Adam Kennedy.  Neither are going to be on this team in 2012 or 2013 when they're ready to contend.  Pudge could have value as a backup/platoon catcher on a contender.  Kennedy.... well.... he's had some success in the past.  I couldn't see much of a return for either of them, to be honest.

Basically, if it's not nailed down (signed, sealed, delivered) for 2012, move it and see what you can get.

The Middle Ground

Seriously, I saw the nods and heard the statement from (presumably) outside observers when the middle ground was described as death.... OK... not death, but the acceptance of mediocrity.  Part of me agrees.  Part of me sees the value in keeping some of the veteran talent around.

I know I'm not alone, and I know I'm certainly not opposed when I say this.  The best move for Mike Rizzo and the Washington Nationals absolutely involves them dealing at least Adam Dunn or Josh Willingham and Matt Capps.  We all want to see the Lerners show that they're willing to spend to compete, but even those teams with the highest payrolls need some cheap talent to go along with their high priced hired guns.  Don't believe me?  Brett Gardner currently ranks third among Yankees' hitters with 2.8 WAR.  He's making the league minimum.  Phil Hughes ranks third among their pitchers with 1.7 WAR.  Joba Chamberlain is fifth among their pitchers.  Yes..... The Nats should have the money to open up the purse strings a bit more, but having some cheap, cost effective contributors to build around makes that money go a lot further!

I'm not sure I'd say that they should deal both Willingham and Dunn (which I'm fairly certain isn't going to happen), but dealing one of them seems like it would be the prudent move... and the guy who would fetch the most and appears less likely to be around when the Nats are ready to contend is Dunn.  That said, even if they deal Dunn, if they can get an above market deal for Willingham, they'd have to consider it.

Shopping Livan around to the teams that have missed out on some of the bigger starting pitchers on the market would still seem wise.  Again, we all love the guy, but he's not going to be contributing when this team is ready to make a serious run. 

Capps' assumed financial hit, as well as the fact that he's certainly replaceable by players who are not only in the system, but already at the big league level, should make shopping him an easy choice.  The extra year of club control (though it will probably be expensive) could make him more attractive to some interested teams.  Eating the rest of Guzman's contract and getting a prospect from a contender looking for middle infield help would still be logical as well.

Basically, my middle ground centers around keeping two players not nailed down for 2012 (Pudge, and you'll be disappointed with the other one) and dealing another (Willingham) only if they can get far more than Rizzo thinks he's really worth.

First, let's deal with Pudge.  Assuming young (big league ready) pitching is coming back if they deal Dunn, three of the starters next season are going to be Strasburg, Zimmermann, and (insert player traded for here).  Veteran presence is often overstated, but when you're talking about a veteran Hall of Fame catcher helping to groom young starting pitchers and teach them the game, it's another issue.  They wouldn't likely get much for Pudge on the open market right now anyway, and his salary for next season ($3 million) wouldn't kill them.

Err.... The other one.  "Professional hitter" Adam Kennedy.  Why keep him?  He's a stopgap, and a pretty cheap one at that.  Kennedy would be due $2 million in 2011 if the Nats pick up his option, and would likely serve in a platoon role at 2b with Alberto Gonzalez.  The key is whether or not Rizzo feels like Danny Espinosa will be ready to reach the majors by 2012 (either pushing Desmond to second or manning second himself).  As Gonzalez has shown a tendency to crush lefties from the right side and Kennedy (.283/.336/.404) has handled right-handers fairly well throughout his career, they make a decent enough platoon for 2011 (when the Nats still aren't likely to be contending anyway) until Espinosa is ready to take over.

Activity in the free agent market would still be optimal.  Particularly if the Nats are able to acquire a potential cheaper and younger first base replacement for Dunn in dealing one of these guys, they'd have a lot more financial flexibility heading into the offseason.  If they've retained Kennedy affordably and are happy with what they see out of Espinosa (i.e., confident enough that he'll be ready to go by 2012), they don't have to pursue an Orlando Hudson or a (protecting my face) Felipe Lopez.  They should pursue Crawford or Werth with everything they've got.

Either Way, Rizzo's Tenure Could Be Defined By The Next Few Days

Which course Rizzo chooses to take, I can't say.  However, which one he chooses could well define his legacy (or failure, though I hope that's not the case) in the coming years.  He could deal Dunn for a handful of prospects that never pan out.... heck, he could deal Dunn, Capps, and Willingham for a handful of prospects that never pan out. 

He could make a deal or two that turns out to help shape the franchise for a playoff run a couple of years down the road. 

He could hold onto Dunn, re-sign him and watch him either flourish as a happy tertiary face of the franchise (sorry... not surpassing Zimm or Strasburg) or flop as a guy whose skills don't seem to age particularly well. 

He could keep them all and lose Dunn for draft picks in the coming offseason, either to hit the jackpot again with a kid like Jordan Zimmermann or grab a couple of guys who never really have any success above A ball. 

Either way, Rizzo's decisions about what to do by Saturday could be the biggest decisions he ever makes as the General Manager of the Washington Nationals.  I, for one, am enthralled.... even if many of you just want it to be over.

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