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May 17, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

Jeff Euston's Initial Entry

by Jeff Euston

Bio: Hi, I'm Jeff Euston. I'm a fan who follows baseball from a cul-de-sac in Kansas. I also track the market for MLB players at Cot's Baseball Contracts. If I win, I would hope it's because I've dared to write about the Nationals and I've written something worth reading.

Entry: Payroll by Position

We're not yet reached May, but the year already has been a long one for the Washington Nationals.

The Nats fired front office executive Jose Rijo in February in the midst of a federal investigation into the skimming of bonus money for players in Latin America. Fallout from the scandal later led general manager Jim Bowden to resign.

On the field, left-handed pitcher Odalis Perez, the club's Opening Day starter in 2008, failed to report to Spring Training and was released.

Once the season began, things only got worse. Washington stumbled out of the starting blocks like perennial loser Teddy Roosevelt in the nightly Presidents Race at Nationals Park. The Nats set out on a six-game road trip to Florida and Atlanta, where they were outscored 45-26. They returned to Washington winless and were met by boos at their home opener, a loss which dropped their record to 0-7.

Opening Day center fielder Lastings Milledge played his way into a demotion to Class AAA Syracuse. Shortstop Cristian Guzman provided a bright spot with a 5-for-5 day at the plate in the home opener, but strained a hamstring in his final at-bat and is convalescing on Washington's disabled list, which now includes six players. Washington stars Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman took the field Friday wearing jerseys reading "Natinals." It has been that kind of year.

Acting general manager Mike Rizzo gave manager Manny Acta a vote a confidence before Sunday's game with Florida. But only a few hours later, after watching his bullpen blow a save for the third game in a row, the frustration boiled over for the manager.

"I think it's embarrassing," a visibly angry Acta said. "I think it's unacceptable. I think our fans have every right to be mad, like we are right now. This is the big leagues, and they're big league pitchers, and you win with pitching. We had a chance to win three games in a row, we couldn't do it, and it's not going to be tolerated. So starting tomorrow we're going to have a brand new bullpen. Plenty of moves, and more to come."

Rizzo and Acta made good on that threat, demoting four players, including three relievers. Only 12 games into the new season, seven of the 25 players with Washington on Opening Day (Milledge, Guzman, Willie Harris, Wil Ledezma, Steven Shell, Josh Bard and Saul Rivera) were no longer on the active roster. (Rivera has since returned.)

For all the new additions to NatsTown, the club's overall talent level is roughly the same. Acta is outmanned most nights, mixing and matching, creatively trying to find a combination of pitchers who can put up a few scoreless innings and hitters who can scrape together a few runs.

But the Nationals face another challenge as well, the fallout from Bowden's roster construction. Washington boasts baseball's most unbalanced roster, devoting more than 80 percent of club payroll to position players, according to an analysis of Opening Day club payrolls. (For a team-by-team breakdown of spending by position, as a percentage of total club payroll, click here.)

With a National League-leading 80 runs allowed, pitching remains an issue. The Nationals devoted just 19.76 percent of their payroll to pitching ($12.15 million), the majors' lowest figure. Only Oakland is close, spending 20.4 percent of payroll ($12.77 million) on a staff that has allowed only 55 runs in 13 games. Surprisingly, the big-spending Yankees rank third at 31.5 percent ($65.1 million).

How did it come to this for Washington? Skewed resource allocation figures often can be traced back to one bad contract. The Tigers committed more than 37 percent of their 2009 payroll to outfielders (fifth in baseball), thanks in large part to the $13.6 million they'll pay Gary Sheffield to enjoy new Citi Field this summer. Nearly 12 percent of the Phillies payroll is going toward Adam Eaton of the Orioles and Geoff Jenkins, who is working out in Arizona, awaiting a call from his agent.

The Nationals owe Wily Mo Pena $2 million this season, but they have relatively little dead money on their books. Instead, the Nats simply poured money into position players, primarily first basemen and corner outfielders. Six players alone - Nick Johnson, Dmitri Young, Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, Josh Willingham and Pena - make up more than 50 percent of the club payroll.

At the other end of the spectrum is one of Washington's NL East rivals, the Atlanta Braves. General manager Frank Wren added starters Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami and Javier Vazquez during the off-season, devoting a Major League-leading 66 percent of payroll to pitching ($64.5 million). Atlanta's five-man starting rotation makes up a full 53 percent of the club's overall payroll. In terms of raw dollars, the Braves actually committed more to their bullpen, $12.73 million, than the combined salaries of the entire Nationals pitching staff ($12,152,049). (For a detailed summary of the spending by the Braves and Nationals for 2009, click here.)

The Braves had the luxury of going outside the organization to acquire pitching because of a farm system that has produced a young core of five starting position players still years away from free agency. Atlanta has devoted less than 11 percent of payroll to Kelly Johnson, Yuniel Escobar, Brian McCann, Jeff Francouer and Jordan Schafer. The emergence of another young player, Jair Jurrjens, softened the blow when $15.5 million starter Tim Hudson underwent elbow ligament replacement surgery last August.

Though Washington's scouting and player development is not yet on par with Atlanta's, there are signs of hope. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman signed a five-year contract Monday, and top prospect Jordan Zimmermann defeated the Braves later that night in his Major League debut. Acta's revamped bullpen has given him six consecutive scoreless innings.

With Zimmermann and high-ceiling minor-league pitchers Ross Detwiler and Jack McGeary, the Nationals have the makings of a promising young core of their own. If the club manages to sign San Diego State pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg this summer, soon Washington might no longer be first in war, first in peace and last in spending for pitching.

A STUDY IN CONTRASTS: Spending by position, as a percentage of total club payroll
ATLANTA BRAVES
Opening Day payroll $97,692,834 *
Infielders          $19,400,000 (19.86%)
Outfielders          $8,312,500 ( 8.52%)
Catchers             $5,466,667 ( 5.59%)
Starting Pitchers   $51,783,667 (53.00%)
Relief Pitchers     $12,730,000 (13.04%)

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Opening Day payroll $61,455,049 *
Infielders          $24,525,000 (39.91%)
Outfielders         $23,317,500 (37.95%)
Catchers             $1,406,500 ( 2.38%)
Starting Pitchers    $6,351,049 (10.34%)
Relief Pitchers      $5,801,000 ( 9.42%)

* Figures include 2009 salaries for players with Major League contracts, including signing bonuses, pro-rated over the life of each contract. Figures do not account for deferred money and do not include performance, award or roster bonuses.

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

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