July is a telling month in the world of baseball. With the trade deadline coming at the end of the month, contending teams seek to shore up any potential weaknesses by dealing prospects for (usually) short-term solutions.
A prime example came just last year, when the Milwaukee Brewers, who surprisingly found themselves in a pennant chase for the first time since the Reagan Administration, traded four of their prized prospects to the Cleveland Indians for star pitcher CC Sabathia, who led Milwaukee to the playoffs but became a free agent in the offseason and signed with the Yankees.
But in order for teams like the Yankees and Dodgers and Red Sox and Cardinals to improve in July, other teams have to get worse. Certainly, the Indians improved their future by trading for those Brewers' prospects, but they hurt themselves in the short term.
One need only look at this morning's standings to see that the Indians' 33-49 record is the worst in the American League and third worst in all of baseball.
Sometimes, these star-for-prospects trades do help the wobegone's of the league get better. In 2002, the Montreal Expos were in a pennant chase and desperately needed pitching. They traded for Cleveland all-star Bartolo Colon, whose 10-4, 2.55 effort did improve the club for the rest of the year. But who did they give up?
Oh, no one special. Just all-star Grady Sizemore (.268-33-90 last year), all-star Brandon Phillips (.261-21-78) and Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee (22-3, 2.54).
But for every steal, there is a dud. In 2006, the Nationals traded their best pitcher, Livan Hernandez, to the Arizona Diamondbacks for pitchers Matt Chico and Garrett Mock.
After a promising but unspectacular rookie year in 2007 (7-9, 4.63), Chico underwent elbow surgery last season and is currently trying to make a comeback at 'AA' Harrisburg. Mock is a on-again off-again starter who was a reliever but is again a starter for the 'AAA' Syracuse Chiefs.
So with less than a month to go before the trade deadline, where does all this leave the Washington Nationals? Their 23-55 record is as bad as it gets, and while they aren't on a collision course with the 1962 Mets, it's going to be a near miss.
In an interview with Washington Post beat writer Chico Harlen yesterday, acting general manager Mike Rizzo said that he has "no plans" for a July fire sale. Uh-huh. That sounds a lot like Rudy Guliani last week when he said he had "no plans" to run for Governor.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the Nationals' position players most likely to draw interest from other teams this month:
1B: Nick Johnson (.295-5-34)
There is no way Johnson will be with the team come August 1st. His four-year contract ends this year and the team can't take another chance on their oft-injured first baseman. For his career, Johnson has been available for just 57 percent of his team's regular season games. He's a disaster waiting to happen. Again.
If that's not bad enough, there is little chance that the Nationals would receive a compensatory pick in next year's amateur draft if he's signed by another team. Their only viable option is to trade him now.
However, the Nationals have no one in the minor leagues who is even remotely close to being ready for the major leagues. Bill Rinehart ('AA' Harrisburg) and Chris Marrero ('A' Potomac) are both years away. Adam Dunn would be Johnson's likely successor, but he's even a worse defender at first than he is in the outfield.
If that's even possible.
SS: Cristian Guzman (.316-3-21)
In his first year with Washington (2005), Guzman didn't reach .200 until September and finished the year with a .260 on-base percentage. He missed the entire 2006 season with injury and played just 46 games in 2007. He came into his own last year, however, batting .316 with nine home runs.
Enter Jim Bowden. On the basis of one good year in four, he bestowed upon the 30-year-old a two-year, $16 million dollar contract, saying that the shortstop gave the Nationals a "home team discount" to sign.
Let me see. A career .273 hitter signs for $8 million a year at a discount but Adam Dunn, who just hit his 300th career home run, signed for $10 million a year.
Make sense? Didn't think so.
While Guzman is still hitting well (.316 entering Sunday's game against the Braves), his on-base percentage is down and is fast becoming a defensive liability. His fielding percentage in 2009 is the worst of his career and is a full ten-points lower than the league average.
Will anyone want an overpriced shortstop whose defensive skills are in decline? Probably, but what the Nationals might get in return wouldn't be much more than a mid-level prospect.
LF: Adam Dunn (.265-22-59)
In his first year with the Nationals, Dunn is on pace to hit .265-45-120 with a .403 on-base percentage. True, he's a liability in left (and I'm being kind here) but the city has a history of bad fielding, home-run hitting left fielders who mesmerize the fans.
Do you think Bob Short would have been able to leave Washington in one piece if he had traded Frank Howard?
No one in Nats Town would bat an eye if the Nationals were to trade Nick Johnson or Cristian Guzman this month. Both moves would make sense. But by trading Dunn-and there are many insiders who suggest this could happen-the Nationals would be throwing in the towel for not just this year but 2010 as well.
And that would be a bad move. The team's starting pitching has the potential to become an outstanding rotation as early as next season.
John Lannan has proven he's a solid major league starter. Jordan Zimmermann looks better every time he takes the mound. Scott Olsen's past production-and his first start since returning from the DL-shows that he has been and will again be a capable number three starter.
By next spring, the Nationals should have-and I pray every night that it happens-Steven Strasburg in the rotation as well.
That means that the team only needs one success story from Shairon Martis, Ross Detwiler, Craig Stammen or Colin Balestar and they could have a very solid rotation.
If the Nationals keep Dunn, and add one more proven major league talent, 2010 just might be something special.
RF-Josh Willingham (.286-9-20)
Willingham, obtained from the Marlins for Emilio Bonifacio, should have been penciled into the lineup on opening day and left there. Instead, Manny Acta played a game of mix-n-match in the outfield, and Willingham suffered from a lack of playing time.
Once Austin Kearns and Elijah Dukes flamed out, however, Willingham began to play every day and his production blossomed. If he had played regularly all year, Willingham would be on pace to hit .286-30-80. Instead, he's rumored to be heading out of town.
Willingham is under team control for two more years. He's averaged 25 homers and 85 RBI over a 162 game season throughout his career. He's what the Nationals hoped Austin Kearns would be, though admittedly, his defense isn't spectacular.
And he's a solid clubhouse presence.
And yet he could be on the trade block because of Adam Dunn. The Nationals have two slow-footed power hitting outfielders on a team that can afford just one. So if Willingham gets traded, it's because his team screwed up, not him.
Willie Harris, Ronnie Belliard and one of the team's second-string catchers, either Josh Bard or Wil Nieves, are also trade possibilities, though none of them would bring the Nationals much more than organizational players in return.
In the coming days, the Nationals will make a statement to their fans. If they trade Nick Johnson or Cristian Guzman, they will say that they are making prudent, measured decisions for the long-term viability of our team.
If they trade Josh Willingham, they will be admitting that the team was doomed to fail because management rested the team's season on hope, prayer and a series of best-case scenarios that didn't pan out.
And if the Nationals trade Adam Dunn, they team will be acknowledging a distasteful similarity between them and the Soviet Union of the 1930s.
Nationals fans, just like those citizens of Soviet Russia, will be forced to sit back and watch a succession of five-year plans come and go, each wiping out the last, with little hope that anything concrete and positive will come from them.
July is usually for vacations at the beach, fishing in the mountains, and a day at the ball park. For the Washington Nationals, July will be for letting its fans know-once and for all-if they intend to become a major league baseball team.
I'm not sure I can watch.