Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Building the 2009 Washington Nationals

The Washington Nationals are really bad. They are on pace to win only 57 games this season after winning 73 last season. The interesting thing about the team, though, is that they really aren't in bad shape. Ok, that's an overstatement - they are in bad shape, but things could be a lot worse - they have no players that are making more than $10M a year and they have no contractual obligations that extend past 2010 (and there are only a couple that go past 2009). So, while the roster is pretty bad right now, the team is in a position to make moves and turn over as much of the roster as they desire.

The Nationals best player is Ryan Zimmerman, who is a fantastic defensive third baseman and has been a terrific hitter in the past, although he has slumped this season to a line of .268/.315/.403. The team has surrounded him with a group of talented hitters that, either through injury or attitude problems, have failed to live up to their billing. Imagine what this lineup could do if they could all stay healthy for a full season:

Christian Guzman
Lastings Milledge
Ryan Zimmerman
Nick Johnson (or Dmitri Young)
Austin Kearns
Wily Mo Pena (or Elijah Dukes)
Ronnie Belliard
Jesus Flores
Pitcher Spot

So, while the Nationals have done a good job of accumulating unrealized talent, it has been their misfortune that none of these guys have had a breakthough. You would think that at some point one of these "projects" would end up working out and turn into a very good major league ballplayer.

The pitching staff, unfortunately, doesn't even have the upside that is present in the offense. John Lannan is the only starter they have that has value going forward and he is probably best suited to be a #3 starter. To add insult to injury, the Nationals have taken polished college starters with thier first pick in each of the last two drafts and the 2007 pick, Ross Detwiler has struggled in the minors and the 2008 pick Aaron Crow did not sign and will go back into the draft pool next season.

As opposed to their hitting, however, the Nationals didn't fill out their pitching staff with high potential offcasts, instead they signed no-upside retreads like Odalis Perez and Tim Redding. They, predictably, received mediocrity in return which would have been a decent temprorary fix if their offense had broken through, but instead they have become the worst team in baseball.

The Nationals 2008 team salary is about $55M. After offsetting some salaries that are coming off the books with some built-in increases, it looks like the Nationals will have about $20M to spend in free agency this offseason (while keeping their budget the same as in 2008). I think they should continue the strategy of investing in high potential players that can be acquired cheaply - eventually one of these guys will be an impact player. They should extend that strategy to pitchers as well and try and accumulate talent for the pitching staff.

But the best way to spend the money they have available would be on a free agent starting pitcher. They have a lot of holes in their pitching staff, many of which can be filled by dumpster diving, but you usually cannot get a staff ace that way. The Nationals will almost certainly never attract Ben Sheets, CC Sabathia or anyone at that level, but if they can get one or two solid pitchers that can be quality major league starting pitchers- similar to the way the Royals grabbed Gil Meche in 2007 - they will take a big step towards respectability. I think the Nationals should spend what it takes to get Kyle Lohse and Oliver Perez. Combined with John Lannan, they would have three solid major league pitchers. If they dumpster dive for some other young pitchers, they would have a respectable starting rotation.

Then, whatever money is left should be spent on the medical staff so they can try and keep their talented young hitters healthy and on the field. The road to respectability isn't as long as it may seem.

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