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Third Annual Nats-Centric Baseball Prospectus Review

I've never conducted an official poll of stathead movie preferences, but I get the feeling Sneakers is not tremendously high on the list. This surprises me a bit. Sneakers is, as far as I know, the only movie in which an elite mathematician is breathlessly pawed at by a busty Russian lady who wants to "do what we did in Mexico City." You'd think this would be like a dream scenario realized for your Nate Silvers and Keith Woolners and Tom Tangos out there.

Anyway, Sneakers wasn't a huge draw at its time of release, and some of its computery aspects are hilariously outdated, but it's a solid flick. Not exactly Die Hard, but you also don't see my referencing Barton Fink, do you? One neat little detail in Sneakers is how Redford's ragtag crew can tell big money clients from the half-steppers: shoes. If the shoes are "nice," then even Akroyd's character attempts to maintain a certain . . . well, kemptness.

When it comes to the Washington Nationals, Baseball Prospectus has matured a goodly amount in one year. Gone is the sort of snarkily sophomoric approach to the team that sullied the previous two BP editions from a Nats-centric perspective. And the analogy to Sneakers is less of a non sequitur than you no doubt think it is: last season's "Los Nacionales" nonsense in the essay's footer - as disjointed as a businessman wearing flip-flops - is gone. In BP's current edition, the team is just the "Washington Nationals." It's time to take what the essay says rather more seriously.

By "serious," I do not necessarily mean "overwhelmingly positive," though there is a good amount of positivity in BPro's Nats essay, a surprising position given everyone else is talking about how comically bad this team might be. In fact, once the essay (pages 537-39 of this year's annual) moves past the inevitable stadium deal history/recap section, it heaps an unusual amount of praise on the team's management. Other publications have pointed out the money Stan Kasten is dropping into the new stadium for a souped-up Tyrannovision and shiny stuff for the big-wig politicos, at the expense of the major league roster. BPro actually praises ownership's intelligence for the very same thing:

The Lerners aren't dumb, and they're not going to make the mistake the White Sox did when they moved into their new ballpark - with the park as yet unfinished, now is the time to do whatever it takes to help make the ballpark a cash cow and a fan favorite, not years after moving into the premises.

The essay then transitions into a long reflection on Jim Bowden: the moves that worked (Soriano) and those that didn't (Guzman, obviously, as well as criticism of Schneider's four-year deal); the surprise he is still around, especially after Mike Rizzo's arrival from Arizona; and his work infusing new talent into the organization from very limited existing resources. The thrust of the Bowden section is positive, a development that the essay writer even appears to recognize is unexpected. As the essay notes, BPro has been critical of Bowden before, and the consensus in sabermetric and transaction analysis circles has long been that Bodes is something of a buffoon. Granted, this perception is not at all unfounded, but Bowden's standing has evolved into a caricature above all else somewhere along the way. While my evaluation of the guy has been far from pristine, it now amazes me to see unreasonably harsh criticisms of the man's ability as a general manager. In this Baseball Think Factory thread, for instance, a poster refers to Bowden's "after-effects," as if the end of Bowden's tenure, whenever that is, will be analogous to a slowly wafting fart.

Granted, Bodes has made some poor moves as general manager, and I admit I'm still not completely sold on him long-term. However, I quite like the Lernasten-era Bodes. Aside from an occasional David Caruso impression, he hasn't made a fool out of himself in a year; furthermore, as the BPro essay notes, how can you not credit him with the MajeskiGate and VidroDough trades?

The essay provides a thorough, yet familiar, recap of Bowden's past year; as it is familiar, I will not bore with a detailed recap. Instead, I will note the writer is fair with an assessment of Bowden's strengths and weaknesses, and how those comport with the 2007 Nats. The essay makes the fair point/counter-point that Bodes is a wastrel when it comes to pitching, yet his creativity could produce a better pitching staff than ownership's 2007 budget by all rights should allow:

Faced with this year's challenge of summoning up a pitching staff amid a pitching market gone mistral-mad in its mayhem, Bowden's rapacious taste for hurlers of almost any stripe is exactly what the Nats need right now. He's been admirably aggressive in assembling a group of Loaiza wannabes. Guys such as Tim Redding, Joel Hanrahan, Jerome Williams, Jim Magrane, and Brandon Claussen aren't just part of an ensemble cast from an indie film called Once We Were Prospects, they're pitchers that Baseball Prospectus or Baseball America were touting not so very long ago, with performance to match.

Obviously, this excerpt - overly flourished as it may be - does not stand for the proposition that all of those guys will contribute. Of those five, Redding has already washed out (for now, at least), Magrane never made any impression, and Claussen's rehab is still in progress. But Williams made the rotation with a solid second half of the spring, and Hanrahan is hanging around the fringes after a disasterous start. The point is Bowden knows how to scrounge, and he made some good choices considering the pickin's. I think that's fair.

Bowden also plays a major, albeit collateral, role in the Cincinnati Reds essay. Described as "Cincinnati's Dr. Caligari, the evil genius whose schemes seem defined by a hyperactive creativity," Bowden ("the ultimate transactions addict") jumped on an opportunity and wrought "unmitigated disaster" upon his former employer. Granted, it's easy to look dignified when compared to Wayne Krivsy, but the regard shone to Bodes stands in stark contrast to last year's BPro, when he was accused of ignoring Alfonso Soriano's home/road splits and dealing "star outfielder" Brad Wilkerson.

As always, the player comments are a fusion of insight, conclusory statements, sharp commentary, and forced jokes/allusions. Among the most notable player comments:

  • Tony Blano (remember him?) is among the type of players most vulnerable to the lost developmental time that comes along with being a Rule 5 draft pick. Jesus Flores (found in the Mets comments) gets similar treatment; the comment predicts he would either be returned to New York (doesn't seem likely right now) or suffered stunted development. I'm not sure how much Flores's impressive spring performance alters the assessment that he's not ready to play in the bigs, but I'm pretty sure it can't hurt.
  • Larry Broadway will get first dibs on a locker in New Orleans; the comment was probably written before the affiliation shuffle. Then again, BPro prospects guru Kevin Goldstein still has Savannah as a Nats affiliate in an article written a little over a week ago. I wouldn't say affiliate misidentification is a big deal, but it does call into question how intently a publication is following a team, especially in the eyes of the team's hardcore fans. It's a credibility issue, in other words.
  • Kory Casto's 2006 struggles against lefties were noted. I still haven't seen if he had the same struggles in past professional seasons, though maybe that data is not publicly available. (All I can say is is an excellent resource.)
  • The comment about Ryan Church is not a reflexive "Why are they jerking him around?" assessment. It notes Church is not agile enough to cover center at RFK and is prone to streaks. Additionally, it vaguely references Church falling out of the team's graces, which may be a reference to "bad body language" or may be a reference to the whole Post article on the team chaplain from the '05 season.
  • The Robert Fick comment points out an interesting trend in backup catching: some teams are now willing to sacrifice a little defense for a decent stick. This development is at least somewhat in tension with Nichols Law of Catcher Defense, but it makes some sense if the backup's strengths match up well with the starter's weaknesses. Additionally, although Fick (a lefty hitter) is not particularly well matched with Schneider (also a lefty), Fick's presence relieves some pressure on Flores.
  • Referencing Ayala's 2004-05 workloads, the comment author acknowledges pitcher usage research is far from complete and poses questions I considered around the all-star break of '05, when Ayala's usage was at its most extreme: More games/fewer innings per game, or fewer games/more innings per game? Age? Repetoire? What does it all mean?
  • Garrett Mock "is among the most frustrating [yet] promising arms in any organization."
  • In one of the short-form "Lineouts," the Melvin Dorta says something about his free-swinging and how he came along too late for the sexual revolution. Nothing about Mike Hinckley trying to kill President Reagan.
At any rate, there's your Nats-centric review. There's a lot of good stuff in this year's BPro; it's worth the cost. (As someone who's purchased the last nine or so editions, I suppose I know of what I speak.) The Prospectus gang has worked hard to carve and expand a significant niche. I think I recall seeing references to bestseller lists and the like, which is a great feat. So, with the preceding in mind, I will now say the following: If you want a more interesting read, check out the Hardball Times annual. This is not a knock on Prospectus; in fact, I find BPro quite a bit more tasteful now that, say, the 2001-04 era attitude has diminished. But it's more impressive than it is fun, and in that sense Hardball Times is a good companion. Get 'em both.