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FREE AGENTS AREN'T FREE: THE CURSE OF VINNY CASTILLA AND CRISTIAN GUZMAN

[December 12th] -- Before we ever saw the Nationals' new uniforms, "temporary" general manager Jim Bowden made two significant moves, signing 3rd baseman Vinny Castilla and shortstop Cristian Guzman to multi-year deals. At first blush, I was pleased. In an instant, the Nationals went from having no left side of the infield to having (what appeared at the time at least) two veterans who were both top-notch defensively and certainly "good enough" with the bat. As it turned out, however, neither player made an impact with the Nationals. Castilla had a solid first half of the 2005 season before a bum knee made him a liability in the last few months of the season. And Guzman, well ... I don't even need to go there, do I?

At the time, the cost of the two veterans, a second round pick for Castilla and a third round pick for Guzman, seemed a small price to pay for the stability they brought.

Is it still a small price to pay two years later?

Castilla was traded to the Padres for Brian Lawrence. He never played a game for the Nationals. Guzman, after a year in which he didn't play and another year we wish he hadn't, seems the heir apparent at short for 2007 (assuming Felipe Lopez moves to second to replace Jose Vidro). Today, those two lost draft picks are no longer "nondescript" and faceless.

With the Nationals second round pick, the Rockies selected outfielder Daniel Carte. The Twins, with the third round pick, took left-handed pitcher Brian Duensing. Remember, the Nationals had the #4 pick in each round, so these were high picks.

Daniel Carte struggled in 2005, batting .225-6-25 for Tri City. He fared much better last year, hitting .258-14-66 with 13 stolen bases and a .765 OPS playing for Ashville of the Sally League.

Carte was a standout in the Cape Cod League in 2004, chock full of America's top amateur players. He was only the 6th player in the history of the league to have double figures in both home runs and stolen bases. In 2004, he batted .308-11-38 with 13 stolen bases and made the Cape Cod All-Star team along with the likes of Alex Gordon and (yes) Ryan Zimmerman. He won the league's MVP award, edging out (you guessed it) Ryan Zimmerman by just a couple of points. Carte started showing the skills that lead scouts to predict his future success in the batter's box: quick hands and strong forearms. They allow him to load his swing quickly, reach point of contact in short order and put a marked charge into the ball upon impact.

How good will Carte be? He's projected as an average to above-average outfielder with his bat the only real "plus" talent he has. That said, major league scouts believe that his toughness and tenacity will make up for any lack of talent he may have. He'll probably be an everyday outfielder, they say.

With the Nationals third round pick, the Minnesota Twins took pitcher Brian Duensing. Duensing came to the University of Nebraska as one of their most prized recruits in decades, but missed most of his first two seasons because of a damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. He went 8-0, 3.00 in his last season at Nebraska before being drafted by the Twins.

Since the draft, Duensing has a record of 9-13, 3.21. He givesup 11 baserunners per 9 innings and strikes out nearly 8 batters per 9 innings pitched. He finished the season at 'AA' New Britain and is expected to be on the Twins' 'AAA' roster in 2007. A major league scout said that Duensing reminds him of Tom Glavine in general appearance and ability, and will likely be a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher in the major leagues by 2009.

So there you have it. The Nationals gave up a possible starting outfielder and a probable starting pitcher for Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman. Over the past decade, about 70% of the top 2nd and 3rd round picks (picks 1-4 in that round) have made it to the major leagues. It's obvious, then, that Bowden had no "plan" before Stan Kasten came along. I understand why Bowden did what he did, but I would much rather have Duensing and Carte in the farm system today. Neither Castilla or Guzman made a difference in Washington.

Duensing and Carte would have. Well, could have.

Note: One reader thought I was suggesting that the Nationals would have taken these same two players had they still owned those picks. I of course have no idea who the Nationals would have taken. They might have taken Duensing and Carte, or they might have taken someone else. The players might have been a little better than Duensing and Carte, or they might have been a little worse. I was simply pointing out what "might have been." Nothing more.


Comments:
It's so easy to forget that quick-fixes always have a price.
 
I buy into building for the future, at the expense of short term pain. I am "pro-planning." But are the Nats just being cheap? It seems like if they signed a few type B free agents, maybe one or two would pan out and yield some new farm additions down the line, like in July deals. Or maybe some signings from non-draft countries could help. How do you build a team? Relying on the draft by itself wouldn't do it, right?
 
Sorry to be a little combative, but you are talking about signings at the time that were questionable (Castilla) and flat out awful (Guzman). Of course minor league picks (and who knows who the Nats would have chosen given that their farm system was still a mess) would look good in comparison. This goes beyond lacking a plan, or choosing to go with free agents rather than building the farm system. Those two moves were primarily about a GM making bad choices on the free agent market.
 
I'll echo EGCN's comments. There's no telling who the Nats would have picked in the 2005 amateur draft if they had had the picks they lost for signing Castilla and Guzman. They might have picked Carte and Duensing or they might have picked two other guys who would have flamed out.

I'm sure you didn't intentionally mean to suggest that because JimBo signed Guzman and Castilla, then ipso facto they missed out on the two prospects, but that's the way it came across reading your posting.

Finally, when JimBo signed Castilla and Guzman, there was no plan for the team at all besides "hold on until ownership arrives." They were operating out of trailers in the RFK parking lot and a hotel room at the time, remember? To blame JimBo not trying to stock the farm system when the organization had not made that a priority has a whiff of Monday-morning QB'ing to me.
 
To suggest that the Nationals would have signed those two specific players would of course be a little silly. But the Nationals would likely have taken similar players, maybe a little bit better, maybe a little bit worse. I was simply stating who the Rockies and Twins took with out draft picks.

As to the "monday morning qb'ing," remember that I said that I understood why Bowden signed those two, and that I was as pleased as anyone at the deals. The idea behind this post was to say that those who believe that signing a mid-level free agent brings more problems than they solve.

Bowden signed Castilla and Guzman to make a splash -- to audition as the team's permanent GM.I get that. I was just trying to show what can happen when there is no plan, when the moves made by the team are haphazard in nature. I'm not blaming Bowden, just recognizing the downside of signing free agents.
 
You're overloooking the key factor in this. The problem wasn't so much that he signed them, but that he did it at a time that giving up the team's draft pick was automatic. Had he waited out the market to see which players wouldn't deliver compensation to their original teams (by all accounts the Twins were going to let Guzman walk), he could've signed them (or similar players) with no long-term harm to the team.

Signing free agents does not necessarily mean you're giving up draft picks.
 
You're right, Chris. Signing free agents doesn't necessarily mean you're giving up draft picks, but Bowden's desire not to wait "to see what happens" caused the loss of those two picks. That's all I'm saying.
 
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