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Effectiveness Delenda Est(es)

If you'll pardon a second reference to The Firm in a few days, do you remember the question Tom Cruise's character asked regarding quarter-horses? Of course you don't, because the movie came out over a decade ago and hasn't really aged well. (Check out the size of Ed Harris's cell phone near the end of the movie!) Well, Mr. Katie Holmes asks, "If you have two quarter-horses, does that make half a horse?"

For some reason, that quote now comes to mind when I ponder the Nats' budget and what prospective free agents might fit within it. A week ago, we were hot on the tails of some half-aces, the best guys remaining on the market or available via trade. Now it looks like we'll be trolling the depths for some pond scum. Oh well.

At last report from teh Needham, right after the Soriano trade, the Nats were looking at roughly $8 million in wiggle room on the budget:

This totals out to $52.3 million for 24 players (assuming minor leaguers where appropriate). If the payroll is $60, as reported last week, that leaves just under $8 million for a starting pitcher. That should be enough money to be competitive for Weaver/Washburn, etc. It may not get them, but their agents won't laugh in our face, at least.

Well, after today, we can tack on another $2 million and change on the big board, as Joey Eischen remained a Nat (to the tune of one year, $1.3 million) and Robert Fick (one year, $850,000) signed up for a tour.

All else equal, that would give us roughly $5-6 million with which to work, and boy does that show. Bodes has now set his sights a bit lower:

In other news, the Nationals are trying to get starting pitching, but Bowden said he is not entirely confident that he will land a frontline starting pitcher. The team has offers on the table to Kevin Millwood and Jarrod Washburn, and has shown interest in Shawn Estes, Pedro Astacio and Brett Tomko.

"We continue to work on it," said Bowden. "The market is such that it became a runaway train and at the end of the day, the GM of every club has to make difficult decisions. Pitching is a lot more expensive than it was three months ago."

So that's a no to Millwood and Washburn, as well as to Javier Vazquez, who's too steep in price and return for the Nats now. Jeff Weaver doesn't appear to be on the radar. As far as potential "impact" pitchers go (and, especially in this offseason, doesn't that description seem mighty stretched?), we may presume we're out of luck. I don't see Vidro being dealt until he actually establishes that he's healthy, and I don't see Soriano asking for his salary to be cut in half via arbitration.

Consequently, our focus must change from "Hey, let's have a stout top three!" to "Well, at least let's have some rotational depth." As of now, the rotation looks like:

  • Patterson
  • Hernandez
  • Lawrence
  • Armas/Drese
  • Drese/Armas/Rauch
There's a limit to how many back-enders a team can actually employ; once or twice a year, there are reports are about how teams will go with a "six-man rotation." I generally laugh, because---well, first, that's never the intention, really, and second, the sixth guy is usually needed in the bullpen before his turn to start. So we're looking at a finite number of roles, and there's little sense guaranteeing money to a fellow without envisioning his precise role on the team.

I figure the team ideally would like to ensure that Rauch tosses long relief. Drese certainly provides less-than-ideal surety. Given Armas's early-game troubles putting hitters away, maybe he'd benefit from some time in middle relief, so that he wouldn't have to worry about pacing himself through five inning, 100-pitch outings. You might say we only need two of those guys to settle into reliable starting roles, but I suggest "only" is probably a word misplaced in this context.

Thus, if we're not going to go the expensive route and lock up a solid third starter, we might as well go the less expensive route and sign up a serviceable piece of back-end insurance (and maybe use a bit of the leftovers on another middle reliever).

Tomko's been kicked around the Natosphere quite a bit lately; I might have even taken an extended look at him a couple weeks ago, but I can't specifically recall. At any rate, this Banks of Anacostia evaluation will do just fine:

Tomko appears to by flying under the radar on the free agent market this year, and his 3.78 ERA/1.35 WHIP numbers after the break suggest that there may be some value there for 2006. . . . I like Tomko's promise and the fact that he has thrown 190+ innings in each of the last 4 seasons. What keeps me from ranking him higher is the possibility that he will want the same $2.65 million deal he had in '05 or even more.

Although I'd probably consider Tomko the most attractive of the three cheapies listed by Rocket Bill, I confess to some fascination how he keeps getting heavy work following a two-year exile in Triple-A in the late 90s. If Brian Lawrence is a poor man's Esteban Loaiza, then Tomko is a poor man's Lawrence. The guy's put in nine big league seasons, seven of them with substantial innings pitched, and he's reached an ERA+ of 100 but twice. Nevertheless, he's hurled at least 190 innings in a season on five occasions, including four consecutive seasons.

Still, with the exception of an utterly horrid 2003 for the Cardinals, Tomko has never been truly awful in a full season. Despite rarely hitting the park- and league-adjusted break-even mark, his career ERA+ is still 94, and he's a solid bet to remain in the 90-95 range; his peripheral indicators are unspectacular but steady, except for his home run rate---which predictably became far more manageable once he landed in PacBell/SBC/EvilCorporateCon Park.

Thus, while Tomko sported essentially an even groundball/fly ball ratio in '05, I suppose he's one of those "RFK might help him" candidates. Then consider that he'll have his 190-200 innings covered (an assurance that the Nats most definitely did not enjoy toward the end of last season), and one can envision his contribution---as the baseball cliche goes---having "value." Perhaps not tremendous value, but not everyone is Walter Johnson.

Or John Patterson.

Or Jarrod Washburn.

Or Esteban Loaiza.

Or even Brian Lawrence.

I would say that Estes represents a higher risk, higher reward proposition than Tomko, but I regard that as only half right: Estes is a higher risk but probably offers no greater reward.

Somehow, the man keeps getting work. In the past four seasons, he's averaged well over 150 innings per, yet last season's 92 ERA+ not only represents the high point of the stretch, but stands out like a skyscraper. Of course, he keeps getting work in large part because:

  • he's lefthanded;
  • he once won 19 games in a season, and there's always that myth of the eternal return;
  • he's lefthanded;
  • he's a groundball pitcher (e.g., 1.87 GB/FB in '05), and his last three employers (in the last three seasons) have considered that attractive; and,
  • he's lefthanded.
Well, he's still lefthanded. The Nats don't have a lefthanded starter, and aside from Washburn, he's the only lefty who has been considered by the team. I can see the Nats signing Estes on the rationale that a southpaw will "balance" the rotation or somesuch. I don't buy it, and I'm a lefty.

Speaking of Estes, guess who is his "most similar" pitcher through age 32. No, guess.

Okay, I'll give you a hint. He used to be a Nat. Want another hint? He signed with another team. One more? The guy signed for seven million per year.

I guess there's a difference between having your big year 8-9 years ago and 2-3 years ago. In all likelihood, the difference will be two years and about $18 million.

Finally, there's Astacio, who simply will not die. Did you realize he pitched 126 innings last season? Neither did I; he had worked all of 45 in the previous two seasons, after all.

What a weird split season, by the way:

TEX    67 79 11  45   13  6.04
SDP    59 54 26  33   4   3.17

Upon resurfacing in San Diego, Astacio struck out fewer guys, his walk rate went to pot, but he kept the ball in the park and experienced some fairly startling success upon arriving at Petco Park. (For what it's worth, he was a slight groundball pitcher in both destinations.) Speaking of which, there was one NL park more favorable to pitchers, and it was in San Diego.

Astacio is the most accomplished of the three, but he's the one who has fallen the farthest, thanks mainly to injury. He'd be the cheapest option. Tomko has his durability, and Estes has his lefthandedness and a fluky 15-win season in '04 that preserved his marketability.

None of these three is a particularly attractive choice. Nevertheless, if forced to choose, I'd pick Tomko.