With the christening of their new ballpark only weeks away, the Nationals finally look like they're beginning to take root in D.C. Long gone are the days of contraction talks and chartered flights from Montreal to San Juan back when it was the shame of the league to call yourself an Expo and the organization's motto was "Anywhere else or bust."
And although the pall of mediocrity has haunted the team since its move to the nation's capital in 2005, they kept their heads held high, employing one of the game's most revered legends, Frank Robinson, as manager for their first two years in D.C. before bringing upstart manager, Manny Acta into the fold last year to help move the organization toward a positive future.
Acknowledging that the team still has a long way to go in one of the most competitive and cut-throat divisions in baseball, the NL East, the Nats made three relatively minor trades this past off-season that illustrate the organization's willingness to go where others will not and ability to act upon creative baseball thinking.
TRADE #1—November 30, 2007
In the first of their "jail break" trades, the Nationals acquired Mets' problem child, outfielder Lastings Milledge, who had fallen out of good graces in Queens due to his reputation as the resident punk in the Mets' mostly-veteran clubhouse.
Add to that Milledge's lackadaisical approach in the outfield, which made even Manny Ramírez look like Roberto Clemente, as well as his inability to provide immediate potency to the Mets' lineup, and it became clear that his days in Flushing were numbered.
Recognizing a good opportunity when they saw one, the Nats struck while the iron was hot and claimed the once top prospect in exchange for a lifetime .252 catcher, Schneider, and a 29-year old outfielder, Church, who in his first shot at a starting job in 2007 demonstrated the ability to post mid-level power numbers.
In what I would call a win-win trade for both teams, the Nationals fortified their long-term outfield situation with the soon-to-be 23-year old Milledge, who, although often stigmatized by New York fans and media, made strides last year in improving his OBP and SLG.
With a likely starting job lined up for him in center field, Milledge should continue to steadily improve while gaining a year to mature on a club removed from the glare and criticism of New York City.
Also, trading Schneider allowed the Nationals to slightly upgrade at catcher with the off-season signing of Paul LoDuca.
TRADE #2—December 3, 2007
A few days after adding Milledge, the thrill of trading for another bad boy was too much to resist, and the second of the Nationals' "jail break" trades brought Elijah Dukes north from Tampa Bay.
Over the past two seasons, Dukes' status as a top prospect has suffered while his well-publicized criminal rap sheet has grown. Once considered an all-around athlete with the potential to produce 15-20 HR, 30+ 2B, and 15+ SB per year, the doubts that surround Elijah's composure left the Devil Rays feeling frustrated. The fact that the organization has one of the deepest minor league systems in the league, gave the Rays the luxury of moving Dukes.
In return, the Nationals parted ways with 20-year old prospect, Glenn Gibson.
Gibson started 15 games over the past two seasons for Vermont of the NY-Penn League. He is known to have a low 90s fastball, plus curve, and relentless work ethic, which he enlisted to impress in nearly every statistical category during those 15 starts. Gibson is still far from seeing Major-league action, but could continue to raise his projected ceiling this upcoming year.
Don't be surprised to see him start in A-ball with a mid-season promotion to AA.
Meanwhile, Dukes will compete with Wily Mo Peña to start in left field for the Nationals this spring.
Peña had an above average showing in 2007 with limited plate appearances, but is prone to inconsistency and is generally a dodgy fielder. Some have tipped Dukes to get the starting nod although his spring training performance is likely to go a long way in deciding whether or not that actually happens. Like Milledge, Duke's could be a case where a change of scenery makes all the difference.
TRADE #3—December 4, 2007
Twenty-four hours after acquiring Elijah Dukes, Washington pulled the trigger on their third trade in just five days. In return for Jonathan Albaladejo, a reliever who was lights out for the Nationals in 14 appearances at the end of last season, they received Tyler Clippard, a now 23-year-old soft-throwing right-hander.
Clippard made his big league debut for the Yankees in 2007, but failed to impress New York's unforgiving management due to his inability to translate four average pitches into practical success. Going into last season, Clippard had strung together four consecutive minor league seasons where he posted strong K-to-BB ratios, low WHIPs, and solid ERAs. However, Tyler couldn't seem to find his groove in 2007, going through AA, AAA and finally the Majors without putting his stamp on the mound.
At 6'4" and 170 pounds, Clippard is still young enough and still has plenty of room to fill out his frame, which could add velocity to his fastball that hovers around 91 mph. Scouting reports complement his change-up but remain lukewarm about his third and fourth pitches—a two-seam fastball and a curveball.
At this point in baseball's history, logic dictates that any pitcher will find more success going against National League lineups than those of the American League—especially those of the AL East. This should give the Nationals hope enough, and they will probably assign Clippard to AAA to get his confidence back and provide a reliable call-up for what has been an oft-injured rotation.
Best-case scenario—Clippard reserves a spot in Washington's 2009 rotation.
Worst-case scenario—He becomes the next Mark Hendrickson.
While Washington's bullpen loses depth minus the bulky Albaladejo, any time a team can get a former top prospect (just one year removed for this status) for a reliever, you can't blame them for jumping at the chance.
Without surrendering much talent, the Nationals gave themselves a shot to revive three former top prospects. While losing an arm like Glenn Gibson's may prove costly in the long run, one has to believe that overall the Nats received much more than they dealt away.
While the national media drooled this past winter over the Johan Santana and Miguel Cabrera trades (and rightly so), which seemed to blind everything in the periphery, the Nationals deserve credit for taking a chance and thinking creatively.