Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Sound of Silence

I'm back from yet another hiatus. I took a new job at the beginning of the month and I've been in training in sunny San Ramon, California for the past three weeks. I like to think of it as Spring Training for IT Consultants. If any of you are still reading, please forgive my absence!

The Natosphere has comprehensively covered all of the developments surrounding the team as it begins Spring Training and I really don't have anything substantive to add. I would, however, like to thank the proprietors of the many fine Nats blogs for keeping me informed.

I'd like to talk about the one topic that no one seems to be talking about these days: the stadium situation. We all held our breath as the D.C. Council reversed course and passed the stadium lease legislation on Wednesday, February 8th. Bob DuPuy's initial reaction was to express great concern over the details of the legislation and hinted that baseball might take the city to arbitration. However, he seemed to embrace a "wait-and-see" stance on the deal, saying that he needed to hear what D.C. CFO Natwar Ghandi and the D.C. Attorney General's office had to say before making any decisions. In the meantime, Mayor Williams expressed his usual confidence that the deal would soon get done, and Ghandi and the AG's office came out in support of the deal. That was February 14th. For ten agonizing days, we've heard nothing at all on the issue from either the council or Major League Baseball.

Does this strike anyone else as strange? For more than a year Tony Williams, council members and MLB brass have made a habit of waging war against one another in the press. Hardly a day went by this past offseason without an exchange of barbs between the parties, but all is suddenly quiet from all camps. This silence is astonishing: the council's approval, long held out as the sticking point in the sale of the team, has been granted. The ball is clearly in MLB's court, yet each passing day brings no word of progress, or lack thereof. This uncharacteristic lull can only mean two things: back-room negotiations between the city and MLB are continuing in extreme secrecy, or baseball has simply decided to abandon any sense of urgency.

Clandestine negotiations seem unlikely given the saturation of media coverage on the stadium issue. It would be extremely hard for baseball and the city to haggle under the watchful radar of the press, but I suppose it's remotely possible. In a practical sense, though, what is left to negotiate? it seems unlikely that there is even a millimeter of wiggle room left for changes to the deal, given the acrimony of the council debate and the near-death of the lease. The council simply cannot revisit the lease again without a huge political backlash. Baseball must either cut its (meager) losses and agree to the deal or head down the long and perilous road of arbitration, which ends only at the cul-de-sac known as Square One.

It seems more likely that baseball is simply resting on its laurels. Now that the city has shown its cards, MLB has all the time in the world to plot its next move. After all, the council has agreed to lease RFK stadium to the team through 2008. This development has completely erased any sense of urgency created by the need to finish the deal in time to start construction of the new stadium for an opening that same year. In addition, the 2006 season is now officially under way with the start of Spring Training last week, and the first World Baseball Classic is just around the corner. It's highly likely that MLB is simply taking a vacation from the D.C. issue in order to focus on these other, less aggravating priorities.

In fact, baseball can now take all the time in the world to work this thing out on its own schedule. From baseball's perspective, there is absolutely zero reason to pick up this battle again until after the 2006 World Series. There are no longer any consequences for delay. I am beginning to fear that the Nationals are now entering a prolonged state of limbo. Baseball knows that the status quo, while not ideal, is certainly manageable and even profitable. The team didn't have an owner in 2005, what difference would one more year make?

Perhaps I'm overly pessimistic and jumping the gun. After all, it's only been two weeks since the action stopped. And yet, I have to wonder...what the hell is going on?

Does anyone know anything I don't? What do you think?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Middle of Nowhere

Oh, for heaven's sakes. The Nats went out and signed Royce Clayton to challenge Cristian Guzman for the starting shortstop role in Spring Training. Clayton joins an already crowded middle infield for the...no, wait. I'm tired of people calling the Nats' middle infield "crowded." The Nats middle infield has more hopefuls than the first day of American Idol auditions.

Rocket Bill runs down the middle infield situation in an article on the team's site today. Anticipating the Clayton signing, Ladson has a casual insight that made my eyes bug out:

"[Damian]Jackson will be the backup shortstop unless Clayton wins the shortstop job. That would mean Guzman would be the backup. A player who could also play the outfield and second base, Jackson hit .255 with five home runs and 23 RBIs for the Padres last season."

Wow. So if Royce Clayton wins the starting shortstop gig, then Guzman, he of the 4-year, $16 million contract, will be the backup. What does that make Damian Jackson? The third stringer? He can back up second base, but we already have Marlon Anderson for that. In fact, there are so many backup infielders on the team that Ladson actually forgot to mention Jamey Carroll, who is currently listed as fourth on the depth chart. And let's not even discuss the unfolding debacle at second base between Vidro and Soriano.

I don't envy the job that Frank Robinson and the Nats coaching staff have cut out for them in Viera. They have to wade through a depth chart four players deep to find the starting and backup shortstop and second basemen. If we were talking about inviting a few veterans and many rookies to try out, this would be a different story. But the team is auditioning seven veterans for two positions! Some of these players, like Carroll, have non-guaranteed contracts, but those contracts are still somewhat hefty for a team with a miniscule payroll. And on top of all this, that money could have gone to invite more pitchers out to Viera and address a true position of need.

It's a tired refrain, but I've got to say it again. Jim Bowden has put the Nats middle infield in the middle of nowhere.