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One More Cup of Coffee for the Road, Before I Go to the Valley Below

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The Nationals exchanged Larry Broadway for Dmitri Young today, graduating Young from the accelerated minor league camp and consigning Broadway to Triple-A Columbus. Concerning Broadway, I am conflicted.

On the one hand, while I don't think I would go as far as Beltway Boys and label the move "stupid" thrice-over, the logic in the linked post is plainly evident. The Nats have gone young and cheap, and you would think they would find a place for one of the few semi-competent upper-level position players in the system, especially when the competition is a straight-up glove guy (Travis Lee) and a rehab project (Young). I would also add that it's not like Broadway was flailing cluelessly. He was batting .333; although he was reportedly demoted for lack of power production (only one extra-base hit), anyone can go homerless in a 21 at-bat stretch. At a minimum, I figured the team would give Broadway the entirety of the exhibition season to demonstrate his worth.

On the other hand, while I sympathize with Broadway's professional plight (age 26 and not one regular season big league at-bat), I find it hard to raise a dander over him. This offseason, it seemed the team tried to promote a convenient fiction that Broadway's .288/.353/.455 batting line as a first baseman in the Pacific Coast League was to be construed with great positivity. It really wasn't. Even if New Orleans isn't exactly an outlandish PCL hitters' context, Broadway's 2006 campaign was quite hum-drum. He appears anchored at first base, so something more than hum-drum is required. Does he merit the initial shot filling in for Nick Johnson? Probably so. But I would react more strongly if he were a real prospect, a guy with a high level of performance and/or projectability. Broadway simply is not.

Additionally, it is not as though Broadway has been summarily executed. The Nats can send Broadway to Columbus without consequence; as Jim Bowden recently recalled concerning an episode with Jon Rauch, a team's ability to manipulate a player's options status is useful and often inevitable. I am not at all certain why the team had to relocate Broadway now (other than to clear plate appearances for Young), but nothing today foreclosed Broadway's future prospects with the team, at least procedurally.

Substantively, we move on to Young. Let it be said he is nearly without doubt preferable to Lee, although this assessment is more an indictment of Lee than an enthusiastic endorsement of Young. As the Post noted, Young brings with him age issues, conditioning issues, diabetes issues, declining bat issues, character issues, former teammate issues, and bad glove issues. That's a lot of issues. He also envisions himself as a regular, which might be an issue, although perhaps less of one with Broadway out of the picture for now.

* * * *

The Nationals have made a lot of cuts recently, and we are approaching a point where we can make reliable Opening Day roster projections. Start with 25 slots, eliminate the 12 openings devoted to pitchers, and then cancel out the five spots locked in by regulars: Zimmerman, Guzman, Lopez, Schneider, and Kearns. Then eliminate the three spots reserved for Logan, Church, and Snelling, who are all out of options. And then toss one spot over to Flores, the Rule 5 catching prospect.

We are left with four spots, and two of the remaining spots are either compulsory (first base) or decidedly non-discretionary (utility infielder). A fifth outfielder is probably preferable. We know the team will not double up the utility/fifth outfielder spots with poor man's Freel-types like Womack and Macias; those guys are out of the picture. The fifth outfielder will be a discrete individual (and it won't be Alex Escobar, who seems headed to the disabled list). That leaves one entirely discretionary role, and it will more than likely go to Robert Fick, for his versatility as a backup catcher/first baseman and pinch-hitter.

Viewed realistically, Young and Lee are competing for at best two openings: first base and bench muscle (in lieu of an actual fifth outfielder). Aside from Lee's ability with the glove, I cannot conceive how carrying both Lee and Young would benefit the club. Young is a switch-hitter, and Lee bats only from the left side (to the extent he can still hit at all). Given the lefty-heavy nature of the bench (Snelling, Fick), Lee seems like surplusage. (To the extent it matters, I'd note Young hasn't really hit lefties all that well since 2003.) Plus, one probably cannot suppose right now that Ronnie Belliard will fully satisfy the utility role by serving as a sort of "constructive utility man" in the sense that Lopez can slide over to short while Belliard takes second. So maybe we are looking at both Belliard and a "proper utility man" such as D'Angelo Jimenez or Josh Wilson.

In other words, it's getting tight. With Fick seemingly on board, I'm assuming Lee doesn't make the cut. So it looks like Young very well could be the first baseman, with Fick providing some depth. Does that excite? Not exactly. But it may be.

* * * *

There remains at least one other possibility. Recently, noted Kory Casto began fielding ground balls at first. The organization has never found a comfortable position for Casto, though this does not seem to be any fault of Casto's. If I correctly recall the history, he was a college outfielder; was converted to third base as a professional; was once foreseen as attempting to switch to second base, though the conversion was never actually attempted in game conditions; and then he was shifted back to the outfield after Ryan Zimmerman claimed the hot corner until most of our kids (heaven forbid) start blogging. If the organization thinks Casto can handle first, then I suppose he probably can.

Casto will be playing regularly, either in Washington or in Columbus. Chances are it's the latter locale, given he is optionable but two lefty-swinging outfielders ahead of him (Church and Snelling) are not. But slotting in Casto intrigues me. It appeals to my sense of history. I recently recalled that David Justice essentially started out at first as a big leaguer, owing to Nick Esasky's unfortunate affliction with vertigo. I do not want to stretch "The Plan" into a Casto/Justice comparison, as the two players probably aren't all that comparable. (They have superficial power/patience similarities, though I'd doubt Casto is capable of seasons as explosive as some of Justice's.) But with Johnson gone for much of the season and no clear replacement on hand, perhaps there's an opportunity for Casto.

In summary, here are the remaining candidates for what I will call "discretionary spots":

  • Belliard
  • Jimenez
  • Wilson
  • Lee
  • Young
  • Fick
  • Casto
Four of these seven players will most likely make the Opening Day roster. (At some point thereafter, one might have to be sacrificed when Escobar is ready to return, though given his throwing troubles currently, will his arm be full-strength? Is he worth carrying if it isn't?)

There are no perfect choices with this team. This statement should not come as a surprise; bad teams are flawed teams, and the 2007 Washington Nationals project to be both. Acceptance and creativity will both be required from Manny Acta. As noted, Church and Snelling are both lefty-hitters. You can't platoon them, and you can't carry a dedicated platoon partner such as Michael Restovich (or, when healthy, Escobar) unless you cut someone else out of the picture---in which case, another opening arises. Acta's job will be to plug the leaks as best as possible. We tend to think of this mainly with the pitching, which is understandable. But it is also true with the position players.

All of that said, what is the least harmful leak to allow to remain . . . leaky? Reducing the question to its essence (for now), I would ask: Is it more important to protect Jesus Flores or Cristian Guzman? If Flores can be entrusted with being more than a sub-backup catcher, then Fick should be the one to go. If Guzman can be entrusted with being healthy and, you know, competent, then maybe the Jimenez/Wilson-class utility guy can go by the wayside.

I'm tempted to say the former course provides the better alternative. Although you don't want to: (a) destroy Flores's confidence and (b) run Brian Schneider into the ground, and while there are (c) rules limiting how much time Flores can spend on the DL with Rule 5 Disease, I'd still say (d) that's why you have a bright young mananager, a creative general manager, and a Brandon Harper lying around. But I could also be letting my recollections of way Guzman rendered hopeless the '05 middle infielder picture affect my preferences now.

Ultimately, these choices sound more important than they actually are, as the team's needs won't remain static. And perhaps the same can be said of Larry Broadway's lot in life as of today.