"A PLANNER IS AS A PLANNER DOES, SIR"
[December 10th] -- I ran to the corner to get a pop yesterday morning and (as usual), my XM receiver was dialed into XM 175 -- the baseball channel. The "Sunday morning guy" was talking about the just completed winter meetings, and after naming the Boston Red Sox the "winner" of the just concluded meetings, he then went on to name the "loser."
"The Washington Nationals."
He declared the Nationals as "losers" for two reasons. First, the Nationals allowed Alfonso Soriano to sign with the Cubs and received only a 2nd round and sandwich pick in return. Secondly, the Nationals didn't do anything during the meetings. He then said this: "I really like Stan Kasten -- he did a tremendous job in Atlanta, but why oh why did he keep Jim Bowden? How could Bowden trade for Soriano and then just let him go for nothing. I understand that the Nationals are standing pat for now and building for the future -- 2008, maybe 2009, but man, they need to be doing something."
First, on the loss of Soriano: like New Yorkers like to do, let's cut out the middle-man. We really didn't trade Soriano for those two picks, we traded Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and Armando Gallaraga for those two picks. I am afraid that Wilkerson has proven that he is not a top-flight everyday major leaguer. True, he has power, but I don't want that power at the expense of a low batting average and a high strikeout rate. Gallaraga had a bad year in the Rangers' farm system, and Sledge spent most of the year in the minor leagues. So really, two draft picks for Brad Wilkerson? That's a pretty good deal. As far as Bowden not pulling the trigger on a trade-deadline deal, I accept Bowden's explanation that he wasn't offered a good enough package to make the trade.
Second, as far as the Nationals' relative silence during the winter meetings, sometimes, doing nothing has more value than doing things that make no sense. I can't believe that Nationals fans (who the XM guy specifically said hold no hope for the future) would have wanted the Nationals to have signed Gil Meche, or Ted Lilly, or Vincent Padilla. The Nationals, like most other teams, have a firm payroll ceiling. One or two bad contracts would keep the team from bettering the roster over the next few years. How many times have we bemoaned Jose Vidro's $8 million dollar contract? The Nationals aren't signing free agents not because they are cheap, but because the last thing they want to do is make future rosters unflexible.
The Nationals fandom has split into two groups, the "pro-planners" and the "anti-planners." The fans who support the Kasten model understand that you can't build for today and tomorrow at the same time. Oh, you can try, but neither effort will be a success. The "pro-planners" are quite content watching the Nationals get their butts kicked in on a regular basis this coming year because the silver lining in all those losses will be 1) seeing just how good the young kids are and 2) giving those young kids much needed major league experience. "I'll come to your games as long as you stick to the plan" they say.
The "anti-planners" believe the Nationals can only show their good faith for the future by spending money on free agents now. They would love to have seen a rotation that included Meche, Schmidt and Padilla. They see the Nationals as a governmental agency, able to spend money they don't have. "I'll come to your games only if you field a good team today" they say.
Regardless of how big a market Washington may be, and regardless of how much money the team could spend on payroll, I'd love to see the team create a plan that never changes -- a plan that prepares replacement players before they are needed. Let's have a combination of the Indians and the Athletics systems from the 1990's. Like the Indians, sign the team's young players to long term contracts when they are in their third or fourth year, giving the team a core of stable players. For the rest of the roster, swap 'em out like the Athletics. After a young player has started for three or four years, trade him for prospects before they enter their walk year.
Using the current roster as an example, I'd sign Cordero and Zimmerman to long term deals, and then trade Nick Johnson and Brian Schneider in two years for two prospects each. If the Nationals keep making two-for-one trades, the farm system will be so well stocked that the team would be in a position to trade it's excess prospects to fill holes on the major league roster.
Free agents are not a panacea. They change the chemistry of a team, and can cause problems between the players. Sure, sign them, but as a last resort and not as the initial reaction to a team's perceived need.
The plan is a good one. Let's stick to it.
The Athletics have a good plan, but even they know the value of a overpaying a veteran, if he has certain skills you need and the dpeth in that position, both internally and externally is shallow. (see: Jason Kendall)