When Thomas Boswell first began writing for the Washington Post, Ronald Reagan was still a one-term president and the Washington Redskins had just won their third consecutive Eastern Division championship.
My, how times have changed.
Since then, I have read many of his baseball columns. Some have been dead-on and insightful, full of accurate predictions and intelligent conjecture. But others have been clouded in a “where in the world did you get that from” storyline.
Unlike other writers who are always somewhat right and somewhat wrong each time they take pen to paper, Boswell seems to either get it all right or all wrong.
Talk about a love-hate relationship.
Last week, he wrote a great column about how the Washington Nationals are quietly hopeful about the upcoming season. Then I read his latest article, “After 13-year drought, excitement finally surrounds the Orioles.”
Now let me be clear, I harbor no ill-will against the Baltimore Orioles. I would love nothing better than for both teams to contend in 2011. That Boswell sees good things happening in Baltimore is great for baseball, both for our neighbors to the north and for the sport in general.
But many of the Orioles’ additions seem eerily familiar to Nationals’ fans who have had to endure an endless string of over-the-hill players who ended their careers on the Washington waiver wire.
The premise of Boswell’s article is that the Nationals promised big changes this past offseason and didn’t deliver while Baltimore quietly brought in many new, quality players, a few of which were signed right out from under the Nationals.
Let’s take a look at those additions and see if Boswell's accolades are justified:
Vlad Guerrero was signed to a one-year, $8 million contract after hitting .300-29-113 for the Texas Rangers last year. Yes, that’s a great season, but it also follows two years with the Angels when he hit .300-21-70. He wasn’t exactly the Vlad of years past.
He’s 35 now and averaged just 121 games played in 2008 and 2009. Has he miraculously found the fountain of youth, or will he revert back to the player he was, a good-but-not-great aging star?
The Nationals were ridiculed over the past few years for just such a signing. Why, it was asked, would a rebuilding team plug a hole with an over-the-hill player who won’t be around when the team finally starts to win?
If the Orioles, like the Nationals, are rebuilding, then why burden their roster with a player who is just as likely to hit .270-15-60 this season as .290-25-90? Shouldn’t the team’s prospects be given the opportunity to play every day?
No, it would make more sense to sign a true five-tool player in the prime of his career to a long term contract that would keep him with his team for the most of the upcoming decade.
And that’s exactly what the Nationals did. Instead of signing an aging star like Vlad Guerrero, the Nationals inked Jayson Werth, five years younger, much better defensively and still ascending his career ladder.
Would Boswell prefer to see Guerrero in right for the Nationals?
Another addition that Boswell trumpeted was the trade that brought third baseman Mark Reynolds from the Arizona Diamondbacks. He quoted Orioles GM Andy McPhail as saying, “Last year, Reynolds had an off year [with 32 homers and 85 RBI] but he would have still led our team in homers and RBI.”
But in the three seasons before his “off year,” Reynolds averaged .257-30-87 with a .338 on-base percentage and 216 strikeouts. Last season, he batted .198 with a .320 on-base percent. So it's not like he was ever a star.
Defensively, he committed 34 errors in 2008, 24 in 2009 and 18 last season. His career .937 fielding mark is a full 24 points below Ryan Zimmerman’s.
In other words, he is Adam Dunn with a lower on-base percentage and less power.
The Nationals are now beyond the need of one dimensional stop-gap players, or at least so they believe. Adam Dunn, one of the game’s premier sluggers, was unceremoniously shown the door after hitting 38 homers last year. Why then would the Nationals have wanted to sign Dunn lite?
Trading for Mark Reynolds (really, a Mark Reynolds type player as the team doesn’t need a third baseman) would have been met with consternation by the Nationals Nation.
Over the past two seasons, however, he has hit just .247 with a .310 on-base percentage, averaging eight homers and 42 RBI. He is a quality defender, though.
Tell me if we as Nationals fans haven’t heard this before: “Certainly, Player X had a down year last season but we’re hoping he can recapture his numbers from three or four years ago.”
That seems to be the Orioles' new mantra.
If the Orioles are indeed on the rise, and are deserving of Boswell’s kudos, why do they keep plugging their roster holes with players who “might,” “could” and “with a little luck” make them a better team?
The Nationals tried that and it didn’t work.
Another one of those players that needs to have a comeback year for the Orioles to succeed is first baseman Derrek Lee, one of the players that both teams negotiated with this offseason. Lee, like Guerreo, is 35. Lee, like Guerreo, is a former All-Star who is watching his talents slowly ebb away.
Unlike Guerrero, however, Derrek Lee has yet to have his bounce-back season. From 1998 to 2009, Lee averaged .282-30-88 and played flawless defense. Last year, however, he batted just .260-19-80.
Sure, he was injured for part of the season, but a couple of stats that are good indicators of advancing age don’t bode well for the former Gold Glover. His on-base percentage dropped by almost 50 points and his strikeouts were the highest they have been since 2002.
And while Lee’s numbers are slipping, Adam LaRoche—the Nationals new first baseman—has been a model of consistency. He has hit exactly 25 home runs each of the past four years and has averaged 26 for his career. His RBI totals since 2006 are 90, 88, 85, 83 and 100 last season with Arizona.
And he’s a defensive wizard too.
And he’s five years younger than Lee.
Sure, Lee might regain his ability and whack 30 homers with 100 RBI in 2011, but it’s far more likely that LaRoche will hit 25 homers and drive in 90.
So I’m pretty sure Boswell wasn’t talking about the Derrek Lee signing as an indication that the Orioles are making headwinds while the Nationals are adrift.
And apparently, the Orioles heard that the Nationals were interested in reliever Kevin Gregg and snatched him away too with a two-year, $10 million deal.
Wow. Lucky Orioles.
The 32-year-old Gregg has amassed a record of 7-12 with a 4.16 ERA over the past two seasons, allowing 8.2 hits and 4.2 walks while striking out 8.8 batters. He has saved 60 games though.
Um, where exactly would Gregg—or someone like him—even play for the Nationals? Right now, Drew Storen, Henry Rodriguez, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Cole Kimball, Colin Balester, Todd Coffey and Doug Slaten all have played well enough to be part of the team’s bullpen.
The Nationals will likely carry seven relievers and the eight players listed above are just the team’s top eight relievers. The Nationals have a farm system stocked with relievers who can throw in the mid-to-upper 90’s.
Instead of signing Gregg, the Nationals traded for Henry Rodriguez, a relief pitcher who consistently throws at 100 mph, is just 24 and last year struck out 33 in just 27 innings.
Rodriguez is eight years younger than Gregg, has seven more miles-per-hour on his fastball and could be the team’s closer in 2011. I guess Boswell would prefer Gregg on his fantasy team.
The other “big name” signed by the Orioles was pitcher Justin Duchscherer, an oft-injured 32-year-old who’s averaged nine wins a season along with a 3.13 ERA in eight seasons with Oakland. The Nationals sniffed a little but decided to trade for Tom Gorzelanny instead.
Gorzelanny is a 27-year-old power-pitcher who over his career has averaged 11 wins over a 162-game season. He won 14 games in 2007 and posted a sharp 3.88 ERA. Last season with the Cubs, he went 7-9 with a 4.09 ERA.
So in virtually every case, the players the Orioles added to their roster are older and need to recapture lost ability, and are in no way part of the team’s future. The Nationals, on the other hand, signed their new right fielder for eight years, their first baseman for two and their new starter is under team control for some time to come.
And yet Boswell says of the Orioles, “So far, [they] have stolen the spring spotlight, right down to their lovely new spring training park in Sarasota Florida.” He ends by saying, “The Nats talk about the synergies between their improved defense and their humble pitch-to-contact starting rotation. Oh, that’ll draw ‘em to South Capitol Street in droves, especially with slugger Adam Dunn gone.”
These Orioles’ signings have all the feel of 2008, when the Nationals brought in a handful of veterans who had been successful during their career but had already begun their slide towards anonymity. All Star Paul LoDuca batted .243 and was released later that summer. Johnny Estrada, another former All Star, never hit above .170 and he too was released, never to play another Major League game.
Aaron Boone, Tim Redding and Odalis Perez were also veterans trying to re-percolate their careers and failed.
This is the direction the Orioles are heading. Weren’t they watching the Nationals on their own TV channel?
Boswell points out, “The Nats and Orioles haven’t had a rivalry since Washington got baseball back because neither team was good enough to inspire one. Finally, the Orioles have done their part.”
Yes, they have done their part. They are making the same mistakes the Nationals made three years ago. And when they figure out their mistake and seek to correct it, the Nationals will be a young and powerful team headlined by Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper.
And then Mr. Boswell can wax poetic all he wants about which team is in the spotlight.