Youngsters or Free Agents? Who is the Answer to Nationals Woes?

Farid RushdiAnalyst IDecember 16, 2009

LAKELAND, FL - MARCH 05:  Pitcher J.D. Martin #60 of the Washington Nationals throws during a spring training game against the Detroit Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium on March 5, 2009 in Lakeland, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Thank goodness the Washington Nationals are finally acting like a real Major League Baseball team. But with that status come new questions and concerns.


No longer does the team have to shop for players in baseball’s bargain basement.  If they are no longer in need of players like Paul LoDuca and Odalis Perez however, what caliber of players should they be after?


How much better should they be?


Should they be attempting to fill roster slots with veteran players with good track records or should they let some of the blossoming young talent take over?


It’s a difficult problem, to be sure.


For instance, the rotation is beginning to take shape now that Scott Olsen seems healthy and has been re-signed to an incentive-laden contract. The Nationals are talking about signing one—and preferably two—quality major league free agent pitchers to join them in the coming days and weeks.


But do they need two? Would signing, say, Jon Garland and Jason Marquis stunt the growth of the young pitchers they now have?


If the team does sign two starters, that would leave one spot available for several promising pitchers.


Ross Detwiler returned in September and went 1-1 with a 1.97 ERA, allowing 18 hits in 23 innings. His batting average allowed was just .220 and his slugging percentage allowed was an anemic .268.  He certainly deserves a chance.


J.D. Martin is a former first-round pick by the Cleveland Indians who was released after having shoulder surgery. In September, Martin was 2-1 with a 4.01 ERA (5-4, 4.44 ERA overall) and a .262 batting average against. After 15 starts in 2009, he too deserves a chance to be an everyday starter.


Before his shoulder and elbow problems took their toll, Craig Stammen was pitching very well for the Nationals, sporting a record of only 3-5 but with a 4.02 ERA and a .253 batting average against, along with an impressive .297 on-base percentage against. He had surgery last fall and is now 100 percent. Stammen was a topic of many trade talks at the winter meetings in Indianapolis last week.


Matt Chico had a very good rookie season in 2007 before Tommy John Surgery forced him to miss most of the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Though he had a 4.63 ERA, he allowed three runs or fewer in 20 of 31 starts. He had a 3.96 ERA in rehab stints with Hagerstown and Harrisburg last summer and is ready to rejoin the team this spring.


And from listening to Stan Kasten on the radio yesterday, it’s apparent that Stephen Strasburg could very well come north with the team this spring.


If the Nationals sign two free agents, and have just one spot in the rotation, three young pitchers who have had success in the major leagues will be thwarted and forced to dwell in the bullpen, or worse, be returned to the minor leagues.


And if Strasburg starts the year in the rotation, all four would be on the outside looking in.


For example, let’s compare Jon Garland’s statistics from 2009 with those of J.D. Martin.


Martin started 15 games to Garland's 33. I’ve expanded Martin’s numbers to equal Garland’s 204 innings.



Garland: 11-13

Martin: 11-8



Garland: 225

Martin: 223



Garland: 61

Martin: 67



Garland: 109

Martin: 104


WHIP (base runners allowed per inning)

Garland: 1.40

Martin: 1.41


Batting Ave./On Base Pct./Slugging Pct. Against:

Garland: .282/.341/.489

Martin: .279/.335/.437


Based upon identical innings pitched, there is virtually no difference in their totals from 2009. The team would have been no better—or worse—with either in the rotation.


However, Garland is 30 and reached his upside years ago. Martin is 26 and will only get better. Garland made almost $7 million in 2009 and will likely cost the nationals $7-8.5 million for 2010. Martin would cost about $500,000.


So what’s the right choice?


If the Nationals sign Jon Garland, their fans would certainly feel better about the upcoming season, but in reality, would the team really be any better?


Josh Willingham hit .260-24-61 for the Nationals in 2009 and made $2.9 million. He is arbitration eligible and will likely make close to $4 million next year. He is an average defender.




Justin Maxwell is now 25 and experienced enough to stay with the Nationals. If we expand his 129 career at-bats to 550, we get a good sense of how he might perform in Washington:


Ave: .252

AB: 550

Hits: 131

2B: 21

3B: 6

HR: 27

RBI: 75

SB: 27


Based on Willingham’s career numbers, Maxwell will hit for a slightly lower average, more home runs and many more stolen bases. His on-base percentage and slugging percent are similar.


And he is a flawless fielder.


It would seem that the Nationals could trade Josh Willingham, for a middle infielder or another starting pitcher, and be a stronger team because Maxwell’s defense is so dynamic while hitting about as well.


An outfield of Maxwell, Nyjer Morgan and Elijah Dukes would be fast, quick to the alleys, and would help transform a team who has been the worst defender in the National League the past couple of years.


The problem is, of course, what if these young players don’t produce as expected? What if the young pitchers and Ian Desmond and Justin Maxwell don’t make it?


All the efforts to make the team better this off-season will have gone for naught.


But if they do, the Nationals could use the saved millions in other places, and allow “The Plan,”—the transfer of the team roster from journeyman to young stars—to continue unabated.


I don’t have the answer. Personally, I’d love to see Detwiler and Martin and Stammen in the rotation with Strasburg and John Lannan.


I just don’t want to see what happens if they fail.


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