In this kind of exercise, where you get to be Jack Bauer of the boardroom and rule your ballclub until somebody politely asks you to hang up the phone and allow yourself to be escorted from the building, you can go about it in one of several ways.
You can devote yourself to your plans for world domination, painting on the biggest canvas with the boldest colors. The production values are high, the ambitions vaulting, and the payoff is a permanently acquired reputation for genius, or at least the sort of jewelry that works with everything. Or, you can be more technical, and think in terms of problem-solving; modest progress is still progress. It may not ever land you that glitzy studio gig, but you're sure to be on the short list for one of those “special advisor to the GM” sinecures. Or you get to inherit something so deeply down the well that the former choice is ludicrous, while the latter falls in the categories of understated and obvious.
Enter the Nationals. They're not going to win in 2011. Nothing we do here is going to alter that. The question instead is what they might do to help provide a worthwhile product on the field. Consider this a pragmatic sanction of sorts for what Mike Rizzo is already up to, tailored for a goal that's more attainable, like 80 wins without sacrificing any of the future. Even that's not so easy, because the Nationals are already staffed in most of the bigger slots and roles.
1. Offer Adam Dunn arbitration. You'd think we'd have long since seen the market correction Dunn deserves, and it shouldn't be that likely that the market screws up yet again and ignores him, but if it does, maybe he accepts. It's highly unlikely, but it's not such a terrible outcome. On the other hand, maybe a stack of bad ideas at first base encourages other clubs to reach for that instant offensive boost, and you get draft picks. Picks are life, because however much progress has already been made on the player acquisition front, there's always room for more.
2. Sit back and let Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa become your middle infield combination of the present. While they're never going to grow up to be Tram and Sweet Lou, getting a little bit of offensive production from second base and shortstop is a nice feature for a club that won't have a lot of young offensive help in the near future.
3. Don't let it ride in the rotation. Even after giving Livan Hernandez an extension in late August, the Nats aren't exactly set for a front five, but they might seem to have enough options to sort through if they exploit their contractual control and the fact that they're handing out opportunities for guys running out of lives faster than a cat with a death wish.
But of course Livan is going to pitch worse next year than he did last–keeping his opponent's BABIP below .300 this year is an important reminder this bend/not break style owes a lot to his friends. After the elbow that roared shelved Stephen Strasburg, a rotation with Livan and Jason Marquis up front, with John Lannan getting tattooed even more frequently, and with Jordan Zimmermann fronting the kiddie corps doesn't sound all that great. Rather than futz around with last year's retreads, skip having control over Scott Olsen and Chien-Ming Wang at relatively meager expense for one more season apiece, and go after one of the guys who might really have bounce-back value higher than tossing that dead cat on a trampoline. Whether that's Rich Harden (if available) or even a steeply discounted Javier Vazquez, it's worth trying on the chance that if the good version of either shows up, they might be worth something of value to the next GM who forgets their P.T. Barnum and gets worked up about guys recovering their mojo while pitching in the weaker league.
4. Trade a bucket of balls to the Cubs for Kosuke Fukudome and $8.5 million. The Japanese leaguer would have to agree to the deal, but the Cubs owe him $13.5 for the last year of his contract, and little interest in playing him. Offering Jim Hendry $5 million back on his club's bottom line while also getting a fine OBP source would make for a nice one-two punch atop the order (joining Nyjer Morgan). Giving Josh Willingham and Ryan Zimmerman baserunners to plate is never going to be a bad idea.
5. Don't move early to find a replacement for Dunn. First base is essentially the only open position in the lineup within my design, but skip racing to get in on the likes of Lyle Overbay or Carlos Peña. You have at-bats to give away, and the smarter veterans who realize they're not Dunn or Paul Konerko will be calling you to try and get that playing time for themselves. And it isn't even like the Nats are unmanned at first base. Mike Morse might be part of any temporary solution, and you might want to move Jesus Flores out from behind the plate on the off chance that helps him stay healthy. I'd still look at Russell Branyan or a return engagement with Nick Johnson (if he's non-tendered) or even Overbay, because they're left-handed and the lineup could use some pop from that side of the plate.
6. Sign or trade for arb-eligible or lower-end free-agent relievers. In a perfect world, you could get Joaquin Benoit by offering him a chance to close, but J.J. Putz might do. In either case, you'd want to settle for short-term deals and try to flip them for goodies at the deadline, just as Rizzo did with Matt Capps last summer. Scot Shields would be worth a peek as a retread option.
7. Entertain offers for Willingham, but don't deal him just to deal him. While he's been an asset, keep in mind he's also heading into his last season under club control, and it's his age-32 season already. If he's amenable to a low-end two- or three-year deal, offer it, but chances are he's going to have to gun for a bigger score, because this will be first and probably last really good shot at making major money. If a team decides to wow you with a worthwhile prospect package, you can always just turn left over to Morse. Michael Burgess isn't too far off from entering into the picture for one of the outfield corner slots, so seeing what Willingham's worth by dangling him a bit is merely good business practice.
Put all of that together, and you don't have a great team, but let's face it, in 24 hours you aren't going to be able to assemble one. Rizzo's already invested in a future that rests on Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman and Jordan Zimmermann. The young Desmond/Espinosa double-play combo could be part of that future, and catcher Wilson Ramos might be as well. Few of the retreads will demonstrate any lasting value, but they don't have to. The club will remain plausibly competitive, not a bad place to be when you're not about to overtake the Phillies.