Record/Position/Streak: 17-27, 6th in NL Central, L1 (3-7 in last 10)
Scheduled Starters: Monday, Levale Speigner (1-0, 4.91) vs. Bronson Arroyo (2-4, 2.64); Tuesday, Matt Chico (3-4, 5.44) vs. Kirk Saarloos (0-3, 5.09); Wednesday, Jason Simontacchi (1-2, 5.19) vs. Kyle Lohse (1-5, 4.75); Thursday, Mike Bacsik (0-0, 0.00) vs. Matt Belisle (4-3, 4.58)
In a sense, the 2006-07 Reds are similar to the 2005-06 Nats. Both teams made valiant but ultimately futile runs in year one, runs occasioned by standard bearers of mediocre quality, and both teams found (or are finding) year two much less enthralling. There appears to be the hint of turmoil surrounding the Reds, as general manager and apparent legal thriller devotee Wayne Krivsky accompanied the team on a West Coast road trip and speculation appears to exist that manager Jerry Narron is on the hot seat. There's even a snazzy campaign button advocating Narron's dismissal.
But Narron (and Krivsky) will be around for the four-game set against the Nats, so the natural angle for the series is a review of last July's big trade between the teams. (The other natural angle, both in its own right and bootstrapped into the trade via the Majewski grievance saga, is Captain Leatherpants' annual sojourn back to Cincy.) I regard the trade as I did ten months ago: a fine swap of talent for the Nats, one I won't really begin to evaluate from Cincy's perspective.
Now, it's important to align expectations of the trade with our current reality. And our current reality is that neither Felipe Lopez nor Austin Kearns is a star, neither player projects to be a star, and there's an argument to be made Lopez really has no long-term future with the Nats, either as a shortstop or as a second baseman. If we were to evaluate the trade on the basis of whether the Nats received stars, it would seem disappointing no matter what the Nats gave up in return. But who was expecting stars? Lopez was a former all-star and Kearns was still "projectable," so maybe the pair had star potential. At the time, however, I believe most people thought the Nats were gaining some next-wave players to replace (or eventually replace) Jose Guillen and Jose Vidro, two veterans more than likely (or, in Vidro's case, hopefully) on the way out. This is precisely what the Nats have received.
So, although Lopez and Kearns have stalled (as the rest of the team's offense has, of course), I believe the trade has the same merits today as when it was made. Lopez is forced as a leadoff hitter, but could be plus down in the order. Kearns, like Guillen before him, is not an individual who can carry a club, but he's a perfectly acceptable supplementary power source.
I've seen a couple posters at Baseball Primer attack the deal collaterally from the Nats' perspective. The basic argument is that the Nats are building for the future -- what with "The Plan" and all -- and neither Lopez nor Kearns fits that plan, insofar as they are already too close to their "theoretical peak," which is a shorthand way of saying the guys are close to age 27, the age at which Bill James two decades ago found a plurality of players enjoyed their best seasons. (Lopez and Kearns are both 27 years old this May.) Leaving aside the question of whether the age-27 peak year guidepost is still applicable -- or, indeed, ever was -- the criticism is that the former Reds are irrelevant to the Nats' rebuilding, as they will be either past their peak abilities, or too expensive to keep, or both, by the time the Nats are ready to compete in full come . . . well, whatever that comes to be.
I don't think much of this objection. It reduces the so-called "success cycle" -- a model of teambuilding capturing teams at specific moments when they are ready to build, tear apart, rebuild, or contend -- to something resembling an absurdity. Just because a team is explicitly starting over from scratch (which, at the team, was not precisely true last July 14) does not mean the team must, as a matter of logic and consistency, forgo efforts for immediate and intermediate improvement.
I've also seen a more nuanced variation of this objection, which essentially states Okay, fine, you made the trade; now trade these guys as assets furthering "The Plan." Actually, it's not an objection to the trade in principle, as we can see, but how the organization utilized the tools acquired in the trade going forward. There's merit in this criticism, but, for reasons outside the scope of analyzing the trade itself, I don't know if this is a politically palatable course.
A more specific objection is that the trade was contrary to Jim Bowden's mantra of "Pitching, Pitching, Pitching." It doesn't take long to reason that almost everything Bowden does is contrary to the mantra, since the mantra is nothing but mere puffery. Since when has Bowden valued pitching? He doesn't; one of his biggest blindspots as a general manager is appreciating rotational depth. I remember the MLB.com article explaining the loss of Darrell Rasner on waivers to the Yankees. The justification was the Nats saw Rasner as no more than a fifth starter. I'm sure the Nats saw Claudio Vargas as no more than a fifth starter, too. Bowden relinquished both pitchers for absolutely nothing. This result is close to unacceptable in my eyes not because Vargas or Rasner are any great shakes (certainly not now, since Rasner's pinky is mangled enough to warrant a three-month stint on the DL), but because guys who are "no more than a fifth starter" have some value -- or, at least, some value to people other than Jim Bowden.
In this case, though, Bowden gave up some pitching, but he didn't give it away for free. Furthermore, the pitching he gave up was of the most replaceable kind: relief pitching. The Nats have cobbled together a nice bullpen with the Saul Riveras and Jesus Colomes of the world, guys who cost nothing. Bill Bray might evolve into a shut-down lefty reliever, and Bowden certainly should know what it feels like when that happens; he traded B.J. Ryan several years ago. But maybe Bray stalls and, unlike Ryan, Bray was traded for contributing individuals. As for Gary Majewski, he was a dutiful reliever, but he wasn't the first middle reliever in the world to be overworked. (Incidentally, Majewski's family has been hit by the tragic death of his sister, a reminder baseball is baseball and life is something completely different.)
The only talent still yet to be revealed, down in the bushes lying wait, is Daryl Thompson, who, the Cincy blogosphere's version of NFA notes, had another fine outing yesterday and is climbing the organization's ladder. Thompson is a 21 year old righthander, an eighth round pick of the Expos in 2003, whose stay in the Natspos organization was interrupted by injury. Thompson could end up swinging the balance of last year's trade, but we'll make that assessment at the appropriate time. Thompson is at High-A ball right now. Although I certainly don't wish him further injury, plenty of factors could inhibit his development. Just ask Mike Hinckley, I suppose.
Anyway, it's nearly a year later, and I just don't see a compelling justification to reevaluate the trade. This is not to say Lopez or Kearns are setting the world on fire, but who is to say they would? By the end of the season, they'll rate as competent performers at their positions. That's fine in my book.