On Friday, reader (and, as I recall, an ertswhile O's/Nats fan) Joltin' Joe Orsulak posted this diary as a retrospective of the Jose Guillen trade, and I find it quite worthy of repeating as a main story idea. (If I remember correctly, the diaries don't pick up on news feeds.) So, without further ado, here's his take:
After last year's early-season success, pretty much everyone gave up on critiquing the Guillen for Rivera/Izturis deal. And you could argue that no matter what happens, the deal was a success because the Nats' great start had such an important psychological and public relations effect.
But a lot of the substance of the criticism wasn't so much about that first season, but about the deal's long-term effects. In fact, I'd argue that this deal, although it isn't really controversial in the public mind anymore, is exactly the kind of defensible but wrong-headed thing that will hurt the team in the long term. Nats fandom is nothing if not masochistic, so let's take a look at the numbers:
Guillen 2005: .283/.338/.479 in 551 AB, with 24 HR, 32 2B, 76 RBI, and 81 R.
Guillen 2006: .206/.267/.406 in 212 AB, with 9 HR, 13 2B, 33 RBI, and 26 R.
Rivera 2005: .271/.316/.454 in 350 AB, with 15 HR, 17 2B, 59 RBI, and 46 R.
Rivera 2006: .286/.349/.514 in 175 AB, with 10 HR, 10 2B, 35 RBI, and 28 R.
Guillen was clearly better in 2005, but by the end of the season, the difference wasn't as great as I imagine most people assumed it would be, particularly if you accept that Rivera could have sustained that rate of performance in a full-time role (I think so, but I suppose you could argue differently). This year, Guillen has sucked, and Rivera is doing quite well, albeit not quite in a full-time role. Guillen's injuries obviously play a role here, but when you acquire a guy headed into his 30s, that's a possibility you need to factor in to your decision making.
I'd argue that you really could (and should) have seen something like this coming -- Rivera's track record suggested that he was close to the same player Guillen was before the deal, despite Guillen's reputation as a slugger, and his age (a bit less than two years younger) and better plate discipline suggested that he was a decent bet to get better, while Guillen's track record (esp. high Ks and low BBs) and age suggested that he was a good bet to decline, at least a little and perhaps a lot.
On top of that, let's look at the money...
Guillen made $3.5 million in 2005, and $4 million in 2006. He will be a free agent in 2007.
Rivera made $390,000 in 2005, and avoided arbitration by signing a two-year deal that pays him $1.25 million in 2006 and $2.025 million in 2007. He's eligible for arbitration again in 2008 and for free agency in 2009.
So that's $7.5 million for two years of Guillen vs. $3.665 million for three years of Rivera, and he'd be under control for at least a fourth year at a reasonable salary ($4-5 million max). Guillen's contract really isn't bad at all, but Rivera would have been a tremendous bargain at least through 2008 -- enough to pay for an average-to-above-average player at another position, like pitcher, shortstop, or centerfield, perhaps.
None of this factors in Izturis. It's not clear that he would have made it as an everyday shortstop, so quantifying this part of the deal is tough. Izturis's numbers as a utility guy in the majors haven't been impressive. Although he likely would have been better than Guzman, I'm not sure that it's fair to think that that was obvious beforehand -- everyone (except apparently Jim Bowden and Tom Boswell) knew the Guzman deal was a bad one and that he was a bad player, but the level of badness he reached in 2005 was unprecedented.
So it's hard to put direct blame on the front office for not installing Izturis as the starter in the first place...but you can blame them for the Guzman deal and point out that, no matter what people could have reasonably foreseen, the fact of the matter is that the team would have been much better off if they HAD installed Izturis as the starter. At the very least, he would have provided a similar offensive performance for somewhere near the league minimum, instead of the four years of suckitude we're getting for $16.8 million for Guzman along with $1 million for Clayton and whatever other money has to be spent fixing the position over the next two years.
Ultimately, I think this deal is a tragedy of conventional thinking -- realistically, it's hard to blame the front office for the deal. Guillen was established and had an image as a slugger (and as a head case, of course), made largely by an amazing 300 AB in Cincinatti, although his year in Anaheim was pretty good too. The reality was a bit more complicated, since he had real weaknesses in his game that indicated that he wasn't likely to keep up that level of performance. Given the pressure to bring in a real major leaguer and given the unfortunate but understandable cover-your-ass bias among most GMs towards established players rather than unestablished ones (if the established player fails, it's the player's fault; if the unestablished one fails, it's the GM's fault for not bringing in an established player) it's hard not to accept the deal as a reasonable one within the realistic universe of major-league decision-making. But I think that the way that the deal has and will continue to play out has deeply hurt the Nationals' medium-term future, in terms of money spent (on Guillen, on Guzman, on Clayton, on utility guys on the bench) and in terms of on-field performance, since there's a more than reasonable chance that Rivera is likely to be better than Guillen for the rest of their careers.