Can the Washington Nationals be saved?
The 2009 Washington Nationals might want to start looking at their baseball history. Specifically, the case of the 2003 Detroit Tigers.
The 2003 Tigers lost 119 games, losing more than 70% of it’s contests. Three years later, they represented the AL in the world series, and in the mind of most, were the favorites to win it. The Nationals may not lose 120 games this year (they probably won’t), and they might not be at the top of the NL in 2012 (it’s unlikely, to say the least), but the model of the Detroit Tigers might help the Nationals build a plan to improve, and do so quickly.
If we quickly look at the Tigers that year, they featured only three regulars from the season produced above average OPS+ figures: 1B Carlos Pena, who has since become arguably the most prolific power hitter in the AL with the Tampa Bay Rays; 3B Eric Munson, and DH/1B Dimitri Young, who needs no introduction. No regular pitchers produced above average ERA+ figures.
But just because that one Tigers team was littered with replacement level hitters and terrible pitching didn’t mean that the team had no contributors. The catcher on that team was Brandon Inge, who the Tigers turned into arguably the league’s best defensive third baseman. LF Craig Monroe ended up having three productive years following the 2003 season. RF Bobby Higginson was the superstar on this Tigers team, but the 2003 season was really the beginning of the end for him. It’s too bad it didn’t come sooner, because currently productive Marlins outfielder Cody Ross was a young player in the Tigers system who couldn’t get ABs.
The Nationals are, at a glance, much better off in that respect. For one thing, the Nationals are by no means a poor hitting team. In fact, they are probably another middle infielder away from a league average lineup. The defense has been horrific all year (no fault to Ryan Zimmerman), and the pitching has been worse than that. More significantly, once you get past John Lannan in the rotation, none of their young talent has appeared to be remotely promising. Jordan Zimmerman at least appears to be holding his own in that rotation, but the rest of the contributors are veterans who are not in the teams long term plans (Ron Villone/Joe Beimel).
The Nationals likely aren’t going to find themselves penny pinching like, say, the Marlins anytime soon, so they can always reasonably expect to replace the contributions of the veterans they are getting right now. The first part of the formula for the Nats to get to respectability is to sign major league quality pitching. Last year, they drafted Missouri P Aaron Crow in the first round, and did not sign him over a matter of roughly a half million dollars. This year, Crow was drafted by the Royals. This only makes the prospective signing of first overall draft pick Steven Strasburg more critical.
The second part of this equation is the challenging part: the Nats will remain uncompetitive until they can improve their team defense. Unlike some other teams in the league, the Nats don’t simply have to develop and sign better defenders. They have to do so without significantly hurting their own offense. They helped this out some by trading for CF Nyjer Morgan from the Pirates, but LF Adam Dunn will continue to be a butcher with the glove (and great with the bat), and players like 1B Nick Johnson, OF Josh Willingham, or SS Christian Guzman are hurting this defense more than they are helping. The positions of Catcher and 2nd Base are already black holes on this team, and the Nationals would likely find it cheaper to acquire defense in those positions than to go out for offense.
Dunn would have considerable trade value to an AL team, so the Nationals would be wise to pursue potential trade options in the offseason. In the short term, the Nationals could add 2B Mark Grudzielanek as a free agent, as though he is 38 years old, he’s still an above average defender. The defensive shortstop market is strong this offseason, and it should not be hard to replace Guzman with a better defensive player who can handle the bat, such as Marco Scutaro. These are all short term things that the Nats could do to achieve respectability in the short term, but the 2003 Tigers became the 2006 Tigers became a world series participant because they developed their pitching, and did it quickly.
In 2003, the Tigers had perhaps their worst pitching staff in team history. In 2006, they had maybe the best. The only difference, really, was the development of Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson into frontline starters, and the drafting and subsequent ROY-like season from Justin Verlander. If Strasburg ends up being the Nats version of Verlander, then a John Lannan, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman rotation makes an intriguing top end on a playoff contender.
Like any other team, a long term plan for building the Nationals will center around drafting and player development, but if the Nationals are looking for a savior, Strasburg is as good a face as any for the role. As most Nats fans will understand, signing Strasburg is simply the first step, as a marked improvement is as much about identifying the Brandon Inge’s and Nate Robertson’s of your team from the Eric Munson’s and Nate Cornejo’s. The Nats are a young team, but they aren’t a young, talented team, and that disambiguation the difference between the Rays of two years ago, and the Nats of two years from now. With good management, the ability to draft and sign amateur talent, and slowly weed out the bad players, the Washington Nationals can be saved.