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January 7, 2009

On the Beat

The Dog Days of Winter

by John Perrotto

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Perhaps no team is happier to see 2008 receding in their rearview mirror than the Washington Nationals. They had the worst record in the major leagues at 59-102, and the only positive that they can possibly take from that is the future selection of San Diego State right-hander Steven Strasburg with the first pick in the first-year player draft. Unfortunately, they can then look forward to what will surely be protracted negotiations with Scott Boras. The pressure will be on general manager Jim Bowden to agree to terms and sign Strasburg: another low point of 2008 for the Nationals was their failure to sign first-round pick Aaron Crow.

Opening Nationals Park, which cost more than $600 million to build, also turned out to be less than successful. Washingtonians did not find the park or the team all that alluring, and the Nationals finished with a disappointing attendance total of just over 2.3 million. Toward the end of the season, Mark Zuckerman of The Washington Times wrote an eye-opening piece that painted a picture of great discord in a Nationals' front office that was so micromanaged by the Lerner family that requisitions needed to be made to buy something as inexpensive as a box of paperclips.

Capping off 2008, the Nationals were unable to persuade free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira to take their money during the finals days of the year. They had offered $185 million over eight years, but he instead signed with the Yankees for $5 million less. The Nationals were even willing to go to $200 million, though Teixeira never gave them that chance. The Nationals have also been linked to a number of other free agents, including left-hander Randy Wolf, second baseman Orlando Hudson, and outfielders Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu, but the nation's capital is not exactly the first choice of most players.

So far, the Nationals' biggest move of the winter may have already been made when they relieved the cost-cutting Marlins of two arbitration-eligible players by acquiring left-hander Scott Olsen and left fielder Josh Willingham in a November trade. While neither player figures to suddenly transform the Nationals into contenders, both are better than the players they'll replace on the roster. Olsen had 4.0 SNLVAR last season, which ranked 57th in the major leagues; left-hander John Lannan was the only Nationals pitcher with a better mark at 4.8. Meanwhile, Willingham's .289 EqA was topped by only two Nationals with at least 100 plate appearances, first baseman Nick Johnson (.300) and outfielder Elijah Dukes (.297).

"That was a step in the right direction," Nationals manager Manny Acta said of the trade. "We needed to do it because we need to send a message that we're trying to do more than just develop our farm system and our young talent. Fans already saw the brand-new stadium, and now we have to put a better product on the field and be able to start winning and developing at the same time."

While Ted Lerner paid $450 million to buy the Nationals out of Major League Baseball's stewardship in 2006, he has been perceived as unwilling to pay for players. Acta, however, believes the pursuit of Teixeira should be taken as a sign that the Nationals are serious about winning. "I think a lot of people have gotten confused," said Acta. "It's not that our ownership is not willing to go out there and sign a free agent, it's that we're looking for the free agent who can fit for us in the long term. If the right guy is out there, our ownership group has shown so far that they're willing to make the move."

Teixeira certainly would have helped an offense that had finished 28th in the majors in runs scored last season for an average of 3.98 per game. The lack of hitting was also the reason that the Nationals made a late pursuit of free-agent outfielder Milton Bradley, who instead decided to sign with the Cubs.

Acta believes that a lot of offense will be added if his corner infielders are healthy in 2009. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the face of the franchise, had a .264 EqA in 466 plate appearances last season as he was hampered by a slightly torn labrum in his left shoulder during the final four months, and first baseman Johnson managed just 147 plate appearances because of a torn tendon sheath in his right wrist. "I guarantee Zimmerman would have made a difference on our record because he's such an impact player in our lineup, not only offensively, but defensively," Acta said. "I think the fact that he lost 50 games-and then when he came back it took him awhile to get his timing down, his strength back, and his hands strong again. In the past I've seen him, without the best protection in the world, [still] produce for us."

Johnson has proven to be an on-base machine when he plays, but he missed all of 2007 while recovering from a broken leg, and then had wrist surgery last season. "It's been tough for Nick, but everybody knows how good he is when he's healthy," Acta said. "That being said, we know the history, and we have to prepare ourselves. That's why we're searching for a guy who can hit in the middle of the lineup and drive in some runs-because we just don't know."

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Mike Scioscia has not been named Angels' manager for life, though the contract extension that he signed with the Angels earlier this week which runs through the 2018 season may make it seem that way. Scioscia will begin his 10th season on the job this year. Just two other current managers have been with the same teams longer; Bobby Cox has logged 18 seasons with the Braves, and Tony La Russa has been at the helm for 13 seasons with the Cardinals. "It's been a blessing, because I love it and it's enjoyable," Scioscia said. "I can't believe I'm going into my 10th year, to be honest. It seems like yesterday that I got the job. It's still exciting, still fresh. We all love it. It's great to be part of it."

The Angels had the best record in the major leagues last year at 100-62, but were knocked off by the Red Sox in the American League Division Series. Angels owner Arte Moreno had no trepidation about extending Scioscia, despite the disappointing finish. "The one thing you respect about Mike is, win or lose, he's going to be a stand-up guy," Angels GM Tony Reagins said. "He's going to do what got us where we were able to go. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but the consistency and the commitment to do things the right way outweighs the glitch we had in the postseason."

If Scioscia makes it through the contract, he'll have spent 19 seasons on the job. He has an 803-655 record, and led the Angels to the only World Series appearance in their history in 2002 when they beat the Giants. "It's definitely a place I want to be, and I know Arte and Tony felt the same way," said Scioscia. "It was a mutual commitment we feel comfortable with. I want to keep going in the right direction, get back to the World Series, and win it. I'm excited to keep having this opportunity until we see it through."

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Eligible players can begin filing for salary arbitration on Monday, and nobody is going to be busier preparing for potential hearings than the Phillies. The defending World Series champions had 11 players eligible for arbitration, easily the most among the 30 major league clubs at the beginning of the offseason, though reliever Clay Condrey and utility player Eric Bruntlett have been signed to one-year contracts, and pitcher Scott Mathieson was non-tendered and then re-signed to a minor league deal.

Among the eight remaining players, the most interesting cases are those of first baseman Ryan Howard and left-hander Cole Hamels. Howard went to a hearing last spring, received a record award of $10 million, and then posted a .291 EqA. After finishing fifth in the major leagues with 7.2 SNLVAR, Hamels figures to receive a huge raise over the $500,000 he made last season, when he had yet to accrue enough service time for arbitration.

Also on the Phillies' arbitration docket are starter Joe Blanton, relievers Chad Durbin and Ryan Madson, third baseman Greg Dobbs, center fielder Shane Victorino, and right fielder Jayson Werth. "I think each one of them is an individual case," Phillies assistant GM Scott Proefrock told David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News. "We look at the circumstances, and react accordingly to what our long-term plans are for a particular player."

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AL Rumors and Rumblings: Free-agent Jason Giambi's return to the Athletics is likely to become official today if he passes his physical examination. ... The Yankees will continue to try to bring back left-hander Andy Pettitte as a free agent, but at a lower cost than the one-year, $10 million contract he turned down earlier this week. ... The Red Sox have interest in free-agent reliever Takashi Saito. ... Troy Percival will remain the Rays' closer, despite missing the postseason last year and then undergoing back surgery. While Matt Joyce, acquired from the Tigers in a trade last month, appears to be the favorite to be the Rays' right fielder, Gabe Gross, Fernando Perez, and Justin Ruggiano will also compete for the job in spring training. ... The Yankees will look at rookie left-hander Phil Coke as a starter in spring training.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Brewers appear to be the likely landing spot for all-time saves leader and Trevor Hoffman, who is a free agent. ... The Braves will likely sign center fielder Andruw Jones if, as expected, he is released by the Dodgers. ... Mets GM Omar Minaya will meet with agent Scott Boras today about two free-agent starters, left-hander Oliver Perez and right-hander Derek Lowe. The Mets would also be willing to bring right-hander Pedro Martinez back as a free agent if he would agree to a contract with a low base salary heavy on performance bonuses. ... Free-agent reliever Chad Cordero, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, will throw in front of scouts this week. Among the teams expected to attend are the Diamondbacks, Tigers, Angels, Mets, Cardinals, and Rangers. ... The Cardinals also have interest in free-agent reliever Brandon Lyon ... The Braves appear to be in the lead to sign right-hander Kenshin Kawakami, a free agent from Japan, with the Orioles, Red Sox, Twins, and Cardinals also in the mix. ... Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt has agreed to pitch for the United States in the World Baseball Classic, and is likely to be the number-one starter.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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