The Washington Nationals, unlike the last WWOD installment (San Francisco Giants), is a team that I am beginning to appreciate. Despite the large amount of criticism that Nationals GM Jim Bowden receives, he has begun to put together a core of nice, young hitters.
Bowden has done especially well to avoid taking on any major contracts, allowing his team time to develop and to spend once he feels they are ready, which may be sooner then most think (image courtesy-sportslogos.net).
The problem with the Nationals is a lack of legitimate minor leaguers and, worse yet, young pitching. With an already weak, and disappointing minor-league system, the loss of first-round draft pick, Aaron Crow, does not make matters any better for this organization, even though Bowden will receive a compensatory first round pick in the 2009 draft.
The next major problem with the Nationals sits in the form of some hefty contracts. Contracts that are owed to players so undesirable, it is nearly impossible to imagine the Nationals being able to trade for anything of significance.
During Spring Training, the Nationals could have moved one of Dmitri Young or Nick Johnson, however, the club had both of those players taking on specific roles within the organization.
Since then, both have suffered injuries and the duo will be lucky to have played in 100 games-combined! Young can continue to mentor Dukes, while Johnson can continue to build his stock as an American League DH—Ricciardi ought to give Bowden a call about that.
Another hefty contract is owed to the surprising batting title contender, Christian Guzman. Unfortunately, Bill Bavasi is out of a job and poor power-hitting, middle infielders with a high batting average (read: Jose Vidro) are no longer able to be sold.
In the mean time, the Nationals will pay Guzman $4M+. Fortunately, it isn't as if Guzman is blocking anyone of significance—in fact, if you own a glove, I hear the Nats are going to hold an open tryout for their middle infield (note: fantasy owners, steer clear of Nationals pitchers).
Austin Kearns also owns one of the Nationals' few seven-figure deals, being owed $8M in 2009 and $10M in 2010. A strong/healthy 2008 would have given the Nationals a chance to deal Kearns, however, as has been the case for the talented outfielders career, staying healthy was an issue.
Like Johnson, whatever the Nationals get out of Kearns next season has to be considered a bonus.
The rotation is youthful, although not entirely impressive. There is some potential, and some unrefined arms down the road, but nothing that is overwhelmingly impressive. The Nationals will be playing the free agent market when they decide it is time to contend.
The Nationals are bound for another last-place finish. The young players are bound to continue to develop. One of the many toolsy prospects is bound to figure it all out.
What the Nationals don't need:
If we were looking at the 2010 season, I would be okay with this. Signing a type-A free agent would cost a second-round pick (due to being protected in the first 15) but would give the team a legitimate shot. The young players would be at stages of their careers where expectations could be reasonably high.
However, we are looking at 2009. A season that has the Nationals with a very weak middle infielder and an equally weak relief corps. Let's not be surprised if Bowden makes a run at K-Rod.
The Nationals are fine with what they have. In fact, I would argue they are better than fine. If there was an extraordinarily young first basemen that became available, making a run at him wouldn't hurt, but otherwise, pocket the money and hold pat.
What the Nationals need:
An "Ace" in the Making
The Nationals do not have a future ace within their organization. Ross Detwiler is presumably the closest thing to that, although he somewhat stalled in his development during his first full professional season.
That is not to say he is being written off, rather, to say that his bar has been lowered, slightly.
Similar to the corner infield, there really isn't that young, high-ceiling pitcher available. Once rosters are sorted out after the postseason, a player out of options may come around, until then, the Nats simply have to hope and pray with what they've got.
When the Nationals picked up Emilio Bonifacio, I didn't understand it. They were giving up a highly-valued asset—Jon Rauch—for a fringe prospect in Bonifacio. Despite having incredible speed, Bonifacio will be fortunate to have the career that recently released Felipe Lopez has had.
That being said, Bonifacio is a nice, cheap player to own; he just does not have the value of a Jon Rauch.
The Nationals have dealt damaged goods previously, so I suppose it shouldn't surprise anyone if this is the case yet again.
Similar to the situation with pitchers, the Nationals are going to have to wait it out to see what prospects are let go by their parent clubs. Otherwise, the club should look towards a trade, picking up a middle infielder if some team will take Young, Johnson, or Kearns.
Of course, the Nationals could use some arms for their bullpen. Who couldn't? This should be an area where the Nationals look to buy veterans on one year contracts, and flip them for a profit at the 2009 trade deadline.
With all of that said, the opening-day lineup I would put on the field, if I were Jim Bowden would look as such:
CF - Lastings Milledge
2B - Emilio Bonifacio
RF - Elijah Dukes
1B - Nick Johnson
3B - Ryan Zimmerman
LF - Austin Kearns
SS - Christian Guzman
C - Jesus Flores
The bench would consist of Dmitri Young, Wil Nieves, Willie Harris, Ronnie Belliard, and Kevin Mench.
Unfortunately, the Nationals are stuck with some of their problems; namely, Kearns and Guzman.
Of course, for a rebuilding team, players such as Young and Belliard are expendable as well. Despite this, unless someone is willing to take on these players' entire contracts and send over a young pitcher, the Nationals are stuck.
Given that I try and create the most realistic scenarios possible, I find it impossible that the Nationals can move these players and help the club's future.
However, as I mentioned previously, Bowden is beginning to put together a nice young nucleus, centered around Ryan Zimmerman. Milledge and Dukes are two exceptional talents, who are both coming into their own this season. With another year of seasoning, these two should be ready to become major contributors.
There are two prospects whom I view as being major-league ready and could produce at least league-average statistics. The first being ex-Arizona Cardinal offensive lineman (kidding) Leonard Davis, the second being toolsy and finally developed Rogearvin Bernadina.
If the Nationals could move Johnson, Davis should be given the opportunity to play every day at first, and similarly for Bernadina in left field if Kearns were to be traded. In fact, I contemplated with allowing Davis and Bernadina onto the club's bench; however, I felt the team was better in the long term by allowing those two to get regular at-bats.
The rotation is young and has had a fairly nice and surprising season. Nationals Park is not the pitching-friendly ballpark that RFK was, but I'm certain Jose Guillen would be pulling out the measuring tape for this ballpark as well. The rotation for 2009 should look as follows:
As mentioned, the Nationals could use a little lady luck with landing a legitimate starter. Hopefully a starter runs out of options elsewhere or a young pitcher becomes too costly. Otherwise, the club will have to go season to season with reclamation projects like Odalis Perez (why didn't they trade him??) and my 2009 pick, Kip Wells.
Wells' fastball velocity has been sitting at 92.0mph in a small sample this season. While his control certainly looks to have left him after suffering through several injury-plagued seasons, there's no harm in giving the 31-year old another shot.
Young lefty John Lannan has developed into quite the nice pitcher and should be a long-term option for the rotation. In addition to Lannan, Shairon Martis has shown enough in the minors this season to have him be considered as an end-of-the-rotation starter, at least.
With word that ex-closer Chad Cordero, a player that used to be on everyone's radar, is going to be released at the end of the 2008 season, the Nationals' bullpen will take quite a hit from the one they had entering this season.
Gone are Cordero, Rauch, and Luis Ayala. What was once a fairly steady, and nearly certain bullpen, is now shaky and full of question marks:
CL - John Hanrahan
SU - Steven Shell
RP - Jesus Colome
RP - Saul Rivera
RP - Juan Cruz
RP - Joe Beimel
RP - Garret Mock
The idea here is to build a bullpen with live arms. The problem here is both Cruz and Beimel will come at a high cost. Thus, this bullpen is constructed with the hope that Cruz and Beimel can be lured to Washington as the team's closer and set-up duo, something no other major league team could offer.
"Promising" the closer/set-up gig to these two players could be enough to sign them to one-year contracts at a fairly reasonable rate.
Since both Cruz and Beimel are fairly strong relievers, there is little reason to believe the pitchers could not succeed for the Nationals in these roles. Thus, the rationale behind signing these two arms is to move them at the deadline.
Again, this is all hypothetical and there is no guarantee. However, this is the best and cheapest route for the Nationals to invest in free agency, with a return greater than on-field production.
Similar to the team I put together for the Giants, the Nationals are not nearly ready to compete. This is a team that should be putting pieces together—whether complementary, or otherwise—in an attempt to build around Zimm, Dukes, and Milledge.
The team can begin to think about how their team will shake out for the 2010 season. What pitchers they want to keep around. Which prospects will invariably be apart of the team at some point in 2010.
At which point, Bowden would be justified in going after a top young pitcher (see John Lackey and/or Yu Darvish) and a top young middle-of-the-order bat (e.g. Prince Fielder, who may price himself out of Milwaukee).
However, all of that can only take place if Zimm, Dukes, and Milledge prove to be worthy cornerstones. If they do not continue to develop or run into some injury issues, the Nationals will have to start all over. Such is the case for a rebuilding organization.
Next up: WWOD to the Baltimore Orioles?