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Back to the Well

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I can't wait until my desk calendar flips and 2006 converts to 2007; at that point, I reckon, "The Plan" will finally be a tired subject. I'm tired of it already. But it continues to pop up on message boards and in blog postings, and on that basis I presume the subject---lamentably, unfortunately, and even divisively---is still relevant. Consequently, I will chime in yet again. I do not intend to denigrate opinions held by others and puff up my own. I do not claim my opinions on the subject are correct---except to the extent that, inasmuch as I am the only writer at Federal Baseball, I represent the opinions of Federal Baseball, which are presumed correct for the limited purpose of this blog's position on such matters. Beyond that, for all I know, I could be presenting the wrong answer, two answers, or no answer at all.

To get right to it, this I believe:

"The Plan" is not a plan at all, but a truism.

For fun, I was reviewing Baseball America's 2005-06 Prospect Handbooks the other night. (I don't have a Nats prospects blog, unlike Nats Farm Authority, but I'm a glutton for punishment.) The organization's prospects really stunk in 2005---the No. 12 prospect excepted, of course---and the 2006 ones really stunk, too. I anticipate the 2007 names will stink, as well; even if they merely stink rather than really stink, mere stink is still bad. Suffice to say, this organization's got nothin' much on the farm. The conclusion that the franchise cannot keep on patching and waiting for lightning in a bottle---well, that doesn't exactly require great genius.

This "Plan"---this need to build up the organization's base of talent, progressively and methodically, into something self-sustaining---is so obvious or self-evident as to be hardly worth mentioning, except as a rhetorical device. That's a truism, folks. That's "The Plan."

Everthing else---and I do mean everything---is commentary on this truism, a truism 99.44% of us all accept, seeing as it's a truism. The commentary differs, to be sure. Some want a couple signings, if only perhaps for symbolism (or innings-eating); some preach patience and (extreme) fiscal asceticism. Some see the Lernastens as cheap, or potentially cheap; some see StanCo as wise, and perhaps even dignified. Some value the (theoretical) difference between, say, 65 and 70, or 70 and 75, wins; some see no need to make token gestures in order to garner a few meaningless wins. Some eschew any thought of free agent pitching "in this market"; some say there are bargains to be had (even if they're tougher to detect these days), and with ancillary benefits to "The Pla"---I mean, the truism.

But there's no either/or here. The team isn't going to contend and rebuild; it isn't even going to "be competitive" and rebuild, unless the definition of "competitive" is loosened or many things break right. That's the way it was at the outset of the offseason, and it's the way it is now. There's no either/or because the first half of such a duality just doesn't exist. And it doesn't exist precisely because of the truism. This team must rebuild or do nothing particularly productive.

Now, how to respond within the parameters of this truism: that's the fertile ground for this discussion. But it's not an ideological issue; it's not one of design, but of implementation. The question is in a lower order of importance---by which I mean, doing something or other wrong along the way creates less harm than screwing up something as paramount as setting a course (or recognizing the truism) in the first place.

Do I overstate the case? Perhaps. There is the small matter of punting away the 2007 season, kind of cynically, I might add, and focusing nearly exclusively on 2008 with the new park opening. You've read the articles about the "fan experience," and the HDTV scoreboard, and the LED (LCD? LSD?) advertising screens, and the red seats or something or other, and the statue of FDR on the can in the men's restroom. And many other things. But what about 2007? People are paying good money to buy seats in RFK Stadium, not just the presumptive Old Navy Yard. Advertisers are buying MASN's time in between innings and during pitching changes, and they'd no doubt prefer if their spots weren't associated with pernicious vomitting and rants about Ryan Wagner's arm angle. "The Plan" apparently requires sacrificing 2007 for a higher purpose, right?

Well, yeah---I guess. But, as a functional matter, that's the case no matter if the rotation is Patterson/Redding/O'Connor/Hill/Hanrahan (backed up by other crappy guys few have heard of) or Patterson/Two Low-Key Veterans/Redding/O'Connor (backed up by whoever and whomever). We can argue the merits and demerits of either course, but at the end of the day the positions are in a sort of equipose:

  • Option Two (with a couple of hoped-for innings eaters or somewhat steady veterans) might be somewhat desirable---as far as consumption of innings and perhaps asthetics are concerned, but it's possible these cheapies in Option One end up outpitching piece-of-crap veterans, and beyond that what's the point of bringing back Ramon Ortiz?
  • If you're punting 2007 anyway, you might as well do so in a potentially productive manner; while you might land one or two useful parts (for instance, Tim Redding), signing a veteran is an investment in a name---if the veteran does well, his name could drive a trade for someone worthwhile down the road. (Or, as Harper aptly put it, That’s why you sign a Ramon Ortiz. An 8-8 4.00 ERA Ramon (ok, stop laughing) gets you a B prospect, maybe more. An 8-8 4.00 ERA O’Connor gets you a shoulder shrug.)
Note that these views are reconcilable on some level. You don't need to bring in three or four veteran starters; instead, trying mixing and matching Patterson with two starters on-the-cheap listed above with one or two veteran bounce-back guys. This way, for 2007, you aren't putting all of your eggs in rather untested (and generally fragile) starters and, for beyond 2007, you might recoup a prospect or two based on three or four solid months' work. Otherwise, you're essentially betting the Joel Hanrahans of the world will not only survive 2007 but also sustain success beyond.

Now, that's my view, and I will admit some of my view is shaped by do-something expectations inserted by a lifetime of following Hot Stove activity. Heck, I not only admit that but relish it; I'm a fan, after all. It's all well and good to crow about how Bodes ripped off Bavasi, not only for two young guys, but just as importantly, for $12 million due to Jose Vidro for the next two seasons---except it would be "just as important[]" only if the team makes that savings seem an important accomplishment. It's fine to invest that savings into a scoreboard, I suppose (and let's dispense with the notion that a truly significant portion of the total payroll savings will be plugged back in, directly, to player development), but if it's not being used on the roster itself, it seems to me a rather empty and somewhat futile exercise in crowing. Take that, Bavasi! Scoreboard, baby! You just bought us some mega-pixels!

But that's just my view.

At any rate, slashing 2007 payroll doesn't necessarily mean the Lernastens are cheap, and it doesn't necessarily mean they're wise beyond even Ted Lerner's advanced years. And, if they (as I suspect) pick up a bounce-back guy or two in the next month or so, it doesn't mean "The Plan" has been foiled. That's because this is all extraneous to "The Plan," that simple truism that things must change radically. How radically? Open to debate.

But it's not nearly as fundamental a debate as I've seen it portrayed.