July 29, 2007
The Vision Thing
The Washington Nationals, last in the National League East, in dire need of an influx of younger talent at every level of the organization, have taken one of their top trade chips-a player having a fluke season at age 33-off of the market. Instead, they're committing to the player's age-34 and -35 seasons at a cost of $10 million over the two years.
A year ago, Jim Bowden's inability to trade Alfonso Soriano, also in the middle of a career year and also on the brink of free agency, was a blow to the Nats' development as a franchise. For all the talk about "two draft picks," picking up a sandwich pick and a second-rounder-teams in the top 15 of the draft don't surrender their #1 pick by signing free agents-isn't a good haul, not when we know that the top of the draft is a place where the value of a pick slips precipitously after the top few slots. Whatever you believe about the offers that came in, Soriano would likely have returned two major league-ready players with middling upsides who would be under cost control for five to six years. You build championship teams with players like that.
It could be argued that Soriano was a star. He eventually signed with the Cubs for eight years and $136 million, so clearly the market treated him as one. Any defense of Bowden for his decision rests on the idea that signing Soriano would have given the team a star player, someone to build around. I disagree with the premise that Soriano is that guy, but his 2006-07 performance, his reward from free agency, and his perception within the game all argue for it.
What they've done this year, however, defies explanation. One of the last remaining free agents this spring was Ronnie Belliard, a middling second baseman whose career fits the definition of "journeyman." The lack of demand for his services at the age of 32 was mildly surprising, and reflective of his limited value as a bench player. The Nationals signed him in March to bolster their middle infield, and have been rewarded by a .298/.342/.425 line through four months, figures buoyed by his highest batting average since 1999. His defense is passable, not much more, and given the condition he keeps himself in, you can expect his range to decline over time.
With all that, last week the Nationals signed Belliard to a two-year deal, albeit at a low price, through 2009. They've allowed themselves to be fooled by an inflated batting average-as Belliard's walk and strikeout rates continue to deteriorate-and their own desperation for major league infielders this season. The only positive to this deal is its price tag, $3.75 million total, a cost that will be easy to swallow should Belliard fall off a cliff-a near certainty-in the next two years.
At least Belliard has a recent history of being a league-average player. Re-signing Dmitri Young is just inexplicable, the kind of commitment to service time, perceived attitude, and short-term performance fluctuation that you'd think would be hard to find in the post-Moneyball era.
Here's Bowden, from the AP article linked above:
[Young's] infectious love for the game, and playing it the right way, has had a positive influence on this ballclub, both in the clubhouse and on the field.
Not even one full year ago, Young was so unwanted by Jim Leyland that the Tigers released him on September 6, choosing to not have him at all rather than keep him around during the period of roster expansion, when the cost of having a player is virtually nil. That's a devastating statement as to who Young was a year ago, and if all signs point to that person-someone who was charged with assault and who underwent treatment for alcohol abuse-being changed, it's still a bit hard to swallow the notion that non-baseball reasons are driving this decision. After all, Young's positive influence has "led" the Nationals to last place. Again.
Young has had a career half-season for the Nationals, batting .330 in 330 at-bats, inheriting the first-base job when Nick Johnson's rehab of a broken leg extended into the season. He was the Nationals' All-Star, and not an undeserving one given that he made the squad for being the best player on a team with no other candidates. He's roped 37 extra-base hits and drawn enough walks to give him a .382 OBP. It's not an empty batting average.
The problem isn't Young's 2007 line. It's his 2006 line (.250/.293/.407; released), his 2005 line (.271/.325/.471), and his 2004 (.272/.336/.481). The 1000 at-bats prior to this half-season all sent the same message: Dmitri Young peaked at 29, and as a player with absolutely no defensive value who bats at five to ten runs above the league-average line, he's barely worth a roster spot, much less a starting job.
Even if you wanted to retain Young's services, why sign him when his perceived value is at its highest? The difference between Young now and Young 2004-06 is basically 60 points of batting average, points there's no reason to believe that he'll keep as the year goes on. He'll come a lot more cheaply at the end of the season than he does right now, and if he doesn't because some other team snakes him from you, so what? He's Dmitri Young. Over the next two seasons he's probably going to hit .280/.330/.450 with negative defense and baserunning and make two trips to the Disabled List. He doesn't do anything for you that a minor-league free agent couldn't.
Jim Bowden has foregone the low-cost prospect he might have been able to get for Young in favor of paying $10 million over two seasons to a below-average first baseman, and all because he can't tell the difference between a .330 hitter and a .280 hitter on a hot streak.
It's actually even a little better than that. See, that Nick Johnson guy is still around, and even if Johnson's 2007 season has been a complete wipeout, he's already signed for 2008 and 2009 at $5.5 million per season. The broken leg that has shelved him this year precludes moving him to the outfield, which means that the Nationals now have two first basemen, neither one of them a star, signed for the next two seasons at a total cost of $10.5 million. One is coming off of a lost season, and the other is 34 and was a zero from 2004-2006.
These are the professionals, folks. Don't try this at home.
The solution to this dilemma apparently involves the boxscore line "Young LF," which is laughable on its face. Has Bowden met Dmitri Young? The man is listed at 245 pounds, which even if accurate would make him the biggest left fielder in the game. That's his flattering listed weight, and it's at 33 years old. Tack on five to 10 pounds for reality, and five to 10 pounds over the next couple of seasons, and…I mean, can you picture this? One of the Nationals' problems has been brutal outfield defense in support of a contact pitching staff; Dmitri Young would exacerbate that problem. He'd be a corner outfielder who costs you 10-15 runs below an average player, and easily among the worst in baseball. Young is such an attractive option in an outfield corner that the Nationals haven't played him there once all season, and he's made just 22 appearances in major league pastures over the last four years.
This is an awful signing, the kind of move that defines a bad franchise. The Nationals are overrating a player based on short-term performance, overvaluing service time, signing a player at the absolute peak of his value, foregoing the chance of acquiring a low-cost option, blocking a better player, and potentially forcing a ridiculous defensive alignment. This would normally be the worst decision made in any city over the course of a year, but Bowden is fortunate to work in Washington, D.C., where the standards are much, much higher.
The Nationals will move into a sparkling new ballpark next year, and they'll draw close to three million fans no matter what team they put on the field. The shame is that every decision like this one pushes them a bit further from sustaining those fans once the new-ballpark smell wears off and people begin to expect a winning baseball team. The Nationals look like little more than a Beltway version of the Pirates now, on their way to a decade of futility because they just don't know what they're doing.