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Beyond the Merits

When one is a fan of a team, there are generally two traps one must avoid when one's team makes a trade:

  • the myopic, knee-jerk belief that it is a great trade for one's team; and
  • the cynical, knee-jerk belief that is a horrific trade for one's team.
Actually, there's a third trap, which is referring to oneself in an annoying, detached, quasi-intellectual third-person sense, but that's a stylistic matter, not a fault of one's viewpoint. (Hmm, I did it again.) This is to say that the consensus among Natty fandom is that it's a good trade, a very good trade. We should be skeptical of this reaction, but it should not deter us, because I think reasonable observers would also consider it a very good trade for the Nats. On the merits, it's a fine, fine trade.

But what does that mean? Is a good trade still a good trade if its primary advantages are futile? It's great to get most of Jose Vidro's salary off the books (the Nats are on the hook for only $4M of $16M due to Vidro in '07-08), but will those savings be put to use? Will they be banked? If they're put to use, to what end? If they're socked away, and if this deal---as well as the Majewski-gate deal---is any indication of how easily the think tank can ride roughshod over the trading market, why not clear out more and more salary? Is this deal a route to putting together something resembling a big league starting rotation, or is it a revelation, a roadpath to---as others smarter than me have recommended---putting "The Plan" really in motion?

I have no answers, obviously---just questions.

Red Rover, Red Rover, Send Tomo Ohka On Over

Nine days ago, the Washington Post (in)famously published an article which depicted a frugal offseason plan---more frugal than most of us had anticipated, though the subject matter's magnitude ("They won't even spend money for Jamey Wright or Bruce Chen") is undoubtedly less harmful than it is frustrating from a fan's point of view. Pursuant to the article, the Nats weren't looking to buy into any kind of free agent pitcher; the attractive ones were too expensive, and ones remaining weren't attractive (and were too expensive). Reportedly, the Nats have bid on one free agent starter, Tomo Ohka, though the bid appears to be the equivalent of what a friend of mine does when he's out on the golf course.

Every time we reach a particular par-four, my friend takes a deliberate view from the tee box. He scans a nearly 400-yard hole that's bisected by a lake; the fairway dog-legs sharply to the left, drastically cutting down the distance from tee-to-green and presenting a tempting drive for an experienced and talented player, notwithstanding a tree line that obscures a view of the green itself. I'll be honest and say we're not all that good, my friend and I, but he toys with the idea every time. He slowly draws his driver out of the bag, deliberately pulls the cover off the club, and chews on his lower lip a bit. Then he emits a slight chuckle and concludes, "Nah." He's never serious about it. He pulls out the five-wood and goes the low-risk route.

That's essentially what the Nats have done with Ohka. He's inviting, and the Nats have toyed with the possibility, but the offer hasn't reflected sincere thought. The only difference is Ohka appears attainable; according to reports, he really would be open to signing with the Nats, which is a rather unaccustomed feeling.

The Nats just saved $6 million this season---and $6 million next season---thanks to tonight's trade. Unless a crazy Texan strikes oil inside of Ohka's body, the Nats clearly could afford the guy now. They can offer him something he'd be willing to be paid.

But does the trade actually change anything? The Nats almost certainly could have paid Ohka prior to this evening, as well; they merely chose not to offer Ohka an amount and term he'd accept. (Doubt this assertion if you wish, but Capitol Punishment aptly demonstrates why it must be so.)

Washington's pitching staff is as sorry untested tonight as it was this morning, when Jeff Sackmann of Brew Crew Ball published an article in the Hardball Times demonstrating just how sorry untested it is. That hasn't changed (well, except for the addition of Fruto). Has the decision not to do something about it changed?

The answer is unknowable, since it's possible the Lernastens all along have been intent on waiting around and picking at reasonable looking scraps when those scraps are most desperate. If not, and if no additional cost-cutting deals are to follow, then it's something close to indefensible not to explore the idea of buying someone's services. I mean, we're still talking about sport, right?

So, what about Ohka? What about Mark Redman? What about Jamey Wright? What about Steve Trachsel? (Don't answer that one.) What about our old friend Ramon Ortiz? Aside from potentially Ohka, none of these guys will pitch especially well, but at least most of them will pitch. The same can't be said about a prospective starting five that at the moment, features five guys with injury histories or who were hurt at some point last season. Heck, let's just set our sights lower. How about non-tenders? Would the Lernastens be willing to pay one or two of these guys, especially given tonight's constructive windfall? The answer is another question: Why not?

Last night, I tracked the non-tendered starting pitchers---mainly for sport, but what the heck. I identified a few non-tender options out there; maybe they weren't 100% appetizing, or even 50% appetizing, but they were options. Banks of the Anacostia took a good, hard look at most of them today. I might quibble with some of the details (for instance, assessments of Joel Piniero from a season and two seasons ago are of rapidly shrinking temporal relevance), but I agree with the spirit of the matter: Why not get on the phone with Jerome Williams agent? He's young. Why not make a pass at Victor Zambrano? He's coming off an injury and his name is mud, but he's also the only passable starter the Devil Rays have had in the past half-decade---well, other than the guy acquired for him, of course.

The Mariners just handed the Nats $12 million over the next two years. That's the way I see it. Viva el Birdos speculates Ohka could get an Adam Eaton-ish deal: three years for $24 million. Not worth it? Then look at it as three for $12 million and thank the Mariners for the rest. They just traded for our millstone. (Or one of them, Guzman being the other.) Still not worth it? Go after Redman or Ortiz just for the fun of it. Why not? You're $12 million richer today. Does Jamey Wright's presence kill "The Plan"? Let us not be absurd, friends.

I'm not saying to spend willy-nilly here, but I see no reason not to believe Vidro's departure has bought the team at least a little depth in the rotation. I've seen many people argue---some more convincingly than others---that Redding/O'Connor/Hill/Lewis/Perez/Hanrahan/etc. would do just as well as veteran dreck, and at much less cost. In a sense, they are right. As I pointed out at the end of season, the de facto "ace" (Ortiz) pitched just as well---which is to say just as badly---as the rotational replacements, who were legion but mainly inept. We're not necessarily talking quality, but we are most likely talking quantity. This is all to say the biggest problem with a projected rotation of:

  • Patterson
  • O'Connor
  • Hill
  • Redding
  • Perez
(or whatever) with Lewis and Hanrahan (check out a nice bio at Beltway Boys) in reserve is that everything looks much better when it's projected, before reality sets in. What happens if, heaven forfend, Patterson comes up lame again? Or if O'Connor can't get by with smoke and mirrors again? Or if Hill's arm woes return? Or if Redding's career really has stalled? Or if Perez proves unreliable? Or if two or three or four of those all happen?

It's just as likely this rotation would be wildly successful as it would be catastrophically horrible, but the middle ground is two or three spots opened up as a matter of circumstance. And then the replacements come in; generally speaking, they're replacements for a reason. And then the whole thing's a mess.

What a veteran free agent does isn't necessarily make the team better, but cut down on the mess. Yes, it's mainly an aesthetic advantage. But there's also someting real to it: Outside of a family emergency, Ortiz never missed a start, and in most starts he was good for five or six innings. That's not great (believe me, the results were decidedly not great), but it was reliable in its own substandard way. It's paying for the cost of comfort.

When there's a bit more cash on hand---and when you consider such an acquisition does not impact "The Plan" but in the most attenuated sense---there's little reason not to pay for such comfort. It's cold comfort, but it's preferable to a bed of nails.

Dollar General

I submit that if the Lernastens choose not to spend at least some of this Vidro money on innings pitched, then there seems to me little sense to hold onto anyone making significantly above the league minimum. Today, I was discussing the Nats with someone very knowledgeable about baseball but with no particular allegiance to the Nats. He asked me, The thing with "The Plan" is, why is Nick Johnson still around? It's an excellent question. I'm certainly not the first to point this out, but if you're going to dive the lane, you might as well go hard to the hole. Johnson's a productive hitter and has a bargain contract in this market; I can think of a few teams who would love to tag that.

What about Austin Kearns? Nice trade, obviously, but he doesn't really fit in with "The Plan." He'll be 27 in May and is coming up on a couple of arbitration seasons. Who would trade a couple of prospects to buy into a presently affordable rightfielder? What about Felipe Lopez? He'll also be 27 in May and will be getting more expensive as time goes by; he's got those defensive yips, but he's pretty potent and can run. How marketable do you think he is?

Add in Chad Cordero. He's entering arbitration for the first time, and he's a Proven Closer. What's he worth? What's prohibitive to "The Plan" might be a bargain for a team that values the closer position. And then, of course, they can trade Ryan Church just because.

Basically, gut the rest of the team and jump-start "The Plan." It probably wouldn't be done; it would look so destructive, but there's case to be made for it.

* * * *

All that aside, what's the score right now?

Most obviously, two things:

  • As OMG notes, Cristian Guzman is now the presumptive starting shortstop, a bit of a sobering pill in all this (I assume Guzman is completely unmovable at this point); and
  • There is a glut of outfielders.
As to the second point, I count seven outfield candidates: 1) Kearns (presumptive starting rightfielder); 2) Logan (presumptive starting centerfielder); 3) Casto (possible starting leftfielder); 4) Church; 5) Escobar (presumptive injury); 6) Restovich (reserve righty); and 7) Snelling. Plus, there's probably Jose Macias, who can also play the outfield.

Chuch's name has been linked to five or six teams. I suppose this is one of those smoke ---> fire things. Irrational and unending blogger love for him aside, Church would seem a bit more certain to be dealt. He and Snelling are atypical in offensive style, but they're both lefty hitters, as is Casto.

The other possibility is that Kearns might be dealt. Just spitfiring, but what would Oakland give up to get him?

As for the threadbare rotation, Nats320 has a scouting report loaded with observational insights. Add Fruto to the bullpen, which is shaping up as a strength, relatively speaking.

As a last note---and before I forget at this late hour---Nats Farm Authority takes a look at the new acquisitions. Apparently, Fruto's got a sweet change. Who'd guessed that?