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On Knowns, Unknowns, Reasonableness, and Hedging Bets

Nothing scares me more than the fear of the unknown. I am one of those individuals who grinds and thrashes about internally, who tries his best to project positivity at times of distress, ultimately to my detriment, because I don't want people to know my struggles. I don't want people to know the unknowns that I fear will ultimately become known, if you know what I mean. I doubt I am really all that exceptional in this regard. There must be a reason we're a society full of messed-up people, and I am extremely grateful I am a functioning and productive person, notwithstanding my fear of the unknown.

Of course, this is a personal fear. It extends to close friends and immediate family but not so strictly and powerfully to, say, the Washington Nationals. OBP may be life, as the 1990s stat drunk computer nerd slogan went, but life's bigger than baseball. I cheer, and I observe, and I evaluate, and I root---but I don't have that fear, that pit in the center of my very essence, that the unknown will be horrible for the Nationals. I have faith it won't be, and I'd imagine much of this faith emanates from the fact that it's only a game.

Which isn't to say there is not an unknown surrounding the Nats; on the contrary, pretty much the entire team is an unknown. Eighty percent of its rotation will be, with the known quantity representing the remaining twenty percent being known only to the extent that he's found harbor in our recent memory. The bullpen seems set, but it's a trade---an unknown---away from being a pretty unknown quantity. The left fielder? Even accounting for the early line, it's still an unknown. Whether the centerfielder can hit? Definitely an unknown. The shortstop? Let us only hope that one's unknown.

Even the manager is an unknown. All you read is praise of Manny Acta, and I'll jump on that. In a word, he sounds great; I do believe he was the perfect hire. Nevertheless, he's never managed a big league game, and he's never negotiated a big league clubhouse. He's an unknown.

Add all that up, and what do we know about the team? We know observers believe it faces long odds in 2007, and that sounds right. But can we be sure? No; the entire major league season for this year is an unknown.

* * * *

An interesting theme has emerged this offseason from the real diehard fans of the Nats, the denizens of the message boards and the rodents attending to the blogs. (This is not to say that one must be a message board denizen or a blog rodent to be a diehard fan; however, it is pretty certain those individuals are.) The theme---cultivated in appreciation of "The Plan" and expressed by the "Stay the Course, Stan" sentiments---involves a sort of ritualistic degradation of "knowns" and a sort of giddy fondness of "unknowns." Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas, Pedro Astacio, even Livan Hernandez: these guys are known quantities, mediocre veterans, wastes of money. What purpose would they serve? Joel Hanrahan, Tim Redding, Beltran Perez, Matt Chico? These are the unknowns; they're cheaper (and, according to assertions I've seen, better) than the knowns, and people will realize that once they get to know them.

It should be noted this approach is hardly novel. Open up a Baseball Prospectus, especially from the late 1990s, and you'll see the same types of comments. In a sense, the 2007 Washington Nationals are an experiment into that approach, an attempt---whether knowing or unknowing---to destroy the perception of Proven Veteran-ness, to demonstrate you can do just about the same with other people's trash.

I have no particular truck with this approach. And I sure as heckfire didn't want to see any more of TA-II. But things tend to be good in moderation, and I never bought into the false choice, perpetuated by many out there in cyberspace, that it was Ortiz-Armas-Astacio versus Redding-Williams-Hanrahan (or whomever from the Gang of Thirteen). Ramon Ortiz is not an effective pitcher, but he is a durable pitcher; no matter how effective a pitcher is (or can be), his value is diminished if he is not sufficiently durable. If the Nationals had three, four, or five starting pitchers at their disposal who not only stood to be better, but also stood to be similarly durable, I would have never raised his name. Please understand, I had no desire to raise his name.

As it stands, the Nats currently---there's that tinge of unknown again---don't even have one. Not one. That's why I pushed for Ortiz, and that's why I'd keep Mark Redman's name starred in the address book. Does Redman, like Ortiz, pretty much stink? Yes. But he's a decent bet to be able to go out there and pitch. How many pitchers are derailed by that very inability? Quite a few. Just look at the Nats' camp; it's chock full of those guys, and that's why they're there.

As an aside, how bad are Ortiz and Redman really, as compared to the guys the Nats have in camp? Consistent with the known-vs.-unknown theme, I've seen sentiments like (and I'm paraphrasing here, subject to strawmen and somesuch) "Ramon Ortiz put up Such and Such ERA last season; he can't pitch. So and So will do better, because . . . " The elipsis is there because a solid reasoning for the conclusion isn't yet provided. It's sort of an apples-vs.-oranges comparison afoot. We're talking about big league washouts and never-weres, reclamation projects if you will, who are better pitchers because they . . . what? Say what you will about Ramon Ortiz, but he has held a big league job for nearly a decade, despite not having much recent success at the big league level. Why? Because "success" isn't only quality; it's also quantity. He's able to remain on the mound and avoid the disabled list, and for a pitcher, that constitutes some measure of success.

Out of the guys competing for the final four spots in the rotation, have the Nats found someone better than Ortiz? Golly, I hope so, because this is a pretty loose standard to achieve. Who wants Ortiz as your best or second-best (or third-best, or fourth-best) starting pitcher? Nobody I know, pro-Planner, anti-Planner, or actual pro-Planner/perceived anti-Planner.

* * * *

The whole point of the Ortiz talk---and the only legitimate one that I can perceive, aside from maybe his pinch-running abilities, and I'm only kidding there---is that the Nats have nobody, and I mean nooooobody, who has established he can withstand a workload. That's it; that's all. To me, that's worth $3.1 million during the course of a season these days. As bad as Ortiz pitched last year, it was still worth $2.5 million.

And that's the final Ramon Ortiz reference I will make at this blog. He was our avatar for the known---the last, remaining, possible holdout of that banal species---and he's been slayed by a cast of dozens. On to the unknowns!

As for how those guys will pitch---and as to who those guys actually are, particularly---I don't really know. (That's what IDOIT is for.) What's a best-case, lightning-in-the-bottle scenario? Well, it all starts with our sorta-known, John Patterson, stepping up into known territory, by which I mean the high-rent district thereof. Patterson must be an anchor.

Beyond Patterson, I'd say Tim Redding offers the best chance for stability. Maybe it's the product of his sturdy campaign for Charlotte, but it seems like he can be relied upon to absorb some exposure. Redding doesn't even have to pitch particularly well, though that would of course be of substantial benefit. He just has to be able to pitch. I guarantee you several of the other guys won't, if handed the ball.

I regard Jerome Williams much the same way, although maybe I just look at his frame and fondly recall Livan. Williams is younger than Redding and is, in fact, young enough to qualify as an actual "Plan" acquisition. In a sense, and even though he's a reclamation project, he is perhaps the organization's best pitching prospect. I know that sounds oblong, but Williams five years ago is sort of where Chico is now, and Williams is still only now at the age where he can rent a car without a risk penalty. What an exciting age!

If Acta were to put Redding and Williams behind Patterson, I'd be delighted. I'm not even particularly concerned how they pitch, assuming they remain able to pitch; spring training is a small sample, and although I have no experience in professional baseball, it strikes me as a poor idea to make too many significant decisions based on spring performances.

After those three, one would think Shawn Hill needs a spot. He's a decent, fringy starter option. On this team, that translates to "solid." There's probably no glory on his horizon---and, speaking as a cold matter of percentages, there's probably a not-insignificant chance injury will derail notable progress on that path---but Hill fits in best among the remainder of the guys.

Once we've accounted for Patterson, Redding, Williams, and Hill, I don't much care. Several folks probably have arguments. Colby Lewis had a good minor league track record seasons ago. Hanrahan has offered promise. Jason Simontacchi has been around the block and could perhaps be a positive influence on the "youngsters," assuming any actual youngsters pitch for this team in 2007. You don't want to rush Chico or certainly Collin Balester, but I guess they remain in the back of your mind. There are others, of course, like: Beltran Perez; Mike Bacsik; Brandon Claussen and Mike O'Connor, when they return; and Chris Michalak, who strikes me more as a reserve situational lefty, but whatever. I mentioned Mike Hinckley the other night; the point really is "Why not?" What are the chances you actually select the right guy out of this mass of humanity?

* * * *

Well, that's what I think. Seems reasonable to me. But I regard actually picking a rotation of five as a bit of a foolish endeavor for two reasons. First, impressions are already being made, and there is much information that is unable to us. Second, well . . . what does it matter?

Pick five, any five, betcha it won't be the same five.

Apparently, twenty-five percent of an average team's starter innings are compiled by pitchers not among the original rotation on Opening Day. That's your average team, which includes teams with solid rotations and suspect rotations, headed by sturdy guys and fragile guys. Twenty-five percent.

What will the percentage be with the 2007 Nationals? Well, let's go back to my old saw that I periodically dig into the ground trying to saw my way to China, if you'll pardon the mixed and forced metaphors. Your average National League team will receive 900-950 innings pitched from their starters; last season, the starter-poor Nats got 879.1, from a combination of "knowns" and "unknowns" (and a few hope-never-to-know-yous). I think any fewer than that will kill the bullpen, so we'll place a limit near last season's total, give it a round number, and say 875 innings.

I'll do this only briefly, since I've certainly treaded this ground before. (Imagine me ambling to the mound like Frank did, because both of us have deadened some prescription turf while pondering the starters.) If we give Patterson 200 innings, that's a great jumping-off point; if we don't, then there could be trouble. Just select four guys after Patterson, any four guys you find reasonable based on what you know (or what you think). How many innings are those guys good for? I mean, realistically right now. Account for injury, ineffectiveness, stolen Escalades, or whatever. What percentage of the 875 innings do we get?

It's sort of impossible to tell, isn't it?

Well, of course it's impossible! I can't even predict with assurance what will happen thirty seconds from now. But it's certainly not easy to make that percentage prediction, is it? In fact, it's very difficult. It feels like our information isn't complete. And that's because it isn't. How do we know whether the team will pick (regardless of the pitchers actually picked) guys who are:

  • the right guys from the outset, who
  • are also the guys best suited to remaining healthy, and who
  • are also able to remain effective enough to hold a place in the rotation for a significant amount of time?
It's just hard to say.

But imagine---if just for a moment---Acta picks the right guys, based on what he has in camp, but those guys come up lame. What if the wrong guys are the ones in reserve, the ones resorted to, and the ones who are forced to compile a heavy bulk of the innings. Somebody must pitch them, after all.

The rotation is unknown, and it could get ugly.

* * * *

Just the same, I must acknowledge my bias in the matter. I'm not proposing the doomsday scenario above because of any special knowledge or clairvoyance; heck, I admitted at the outset of this post that I fear the unknown. I did that for a reason.

It is entirely possible I've misjudged this whole thing, and we could be looking at calculated, lighting-in-a-bottle arms. Patterson is a very good pitcher when healthy; why would I not think he could be healthy this season? Beltran Perez flashed a some ability late last season; why can't he build on that? Joel Hanrahan . . . maybe this guy is a real find.

Redding, Williams, Hill, Lewis, Claussen, O'Connor . . . there are options here. Just because they're essentially unknown doesn't mean they're essentially bad. What's stopping Chico from busting out?

* * * *

I'm not much for predictions. Most people know me as basically a reasonable guy, and one of the secrets of my success is hedging bets. Generally, after I've evaluated things fully, I find fence-sitter preferable. I'm the ultimate dissenter-in-my-own-mind. Two seasons into the Washington Nationals, and I've predicted 75 wins both times. I had no particular confidence in the pick either year, but it seemed temperate and reasonable. It was a hedge.

As for this season . . . well, how can a guy hedge? What's a decent range for this team? I've seen people mention 110 losses. Is that overreacting, or is it merely a worst-case scenario? On the other hand, I've seen people hope for 82 wins. Is that lunacy, or is it in fact a scenario where things break right?

The team won 71 games last year with terrible pitching and terrible defense (don't underestimate the extent to which those are related). Is there any particular reason why a rotation full of the unknowns cannot do that? Honestly, I have no clue; that's not even a hedge, honestly.

What about the offense? Remove Soriano, remove Johnson, and insert . . . whom? Ryan Church seems a nice option in left, though I recognize he's still a bit of an unknown. At first, Larry Broadway is a serious unknown.

Broadway's a bit of an inside-the-Natosphere reference point. He has one serious admirer and a number of rather benign skeptics. I belong to the latter group, though I appreciate the conviction from the admirer. And you never really know; he could be right. Broadway's a big guy, theoretically capable of producing significant power. Whether he will is an open question, of course, but there's no particular reason not to give him a shot in the absence of Nick Johnson.

* * * *

I'm getting too details-heavy here, and let me tighten the focus before I get too far afield. And, by tighten the focus, I really mean broaden all possibilities, then zoom in on the fun of it. While it is practical folly (probably) to base decisions off a month of exhibition baseball, isn't it fun? There are dozens of guys---and, with more than seventy players in camp, dozens of guys is not hyperbole---who are fighting for their professional lives, who were drawn to Washington because, even for one season, it is the Land of Opportunity. For so many guys, it is within their grasp.

As desultory as the team could be---and get back to me in July on this---I'm fairly optimistic at the moment. I still think the Lernastens have adopted a rather cynical position about the upcoming season (in a sense waiving it, with all anticipation oriented to the opening of the new ballpark), but cynical is one characterization among many. And in a way, this offseason is much more interesting. The past two offseasons seemed sort of pointless. (Disregard for the moment that I misgauged the Soriano trade.) There was a lot of minor shuffling, and especially last season there was much focus on several players fighting out for constrained bench roles. Is there anything more boring or depressing than evaluating what effect Michael Tucker has on Daryle Ward has on Matt Lecroy has on Robert Fick has on Damian Jackson has on Jamey Carroll has on Royce Clayton? Straight up tedious, man.

This season, by comparison, is just so wide open. I'd say there's a high probability the mix will be disasterous for the team's '07 record, but what would that probability be? Sixty percent? Seventy percent?

Even if it's eighty percent, there's still a twenty percent chance things will shake out fine. And I must admit: If it's twenty percent with Ortiz, Armas, Astacio, and Drese, I'm not nearly so interested. They are . . . well . . . known.

And so maybe I come full circle here . . . unknown can be fun. Like I said above, I don't accept the false choice, and the thought of a known or two out there shouldn't be foreclosed. But just because I advocated for a known doesn't mean I cannot appreciate all the unknowns.