Sunday, July 29, 2007

A U-Turn on East Capitol Street?

Just a few quick thoughts on the events of the past week. As you all know by now, Ronnie Belliard and Dmitri Young, easily the two best Nats of 2007, have been signed to two-year extensions. Belliard is getting $3.5 million and Young $10 million. Given all of the "Plan" stuff we've been hearing, I thought for sure that Bowden and Kasten would trade both of these guys for whoever they can get, the way they traded off nearly all serviceable talent this time last year. I was surprised (but not necessarily disappointed) to see these two re-signed, which probably takes the Nats completely out of the trade game this year. The signings also seem to represent somewhat of a departure from the original doctrine of "The Plan," i.e. trade anyone over 30 for anyone under 30.

So what gives? I like the signings for the following reasons:

-As a fan, Belliard and Young are fun guys to root for.

-This gives the team some stability. I was getting really tired of the annual offseason castoff-signing-a-palooza that has gone on in '06 and '07. At some point Bowden has to realize that he's basically creating a revolving door of similar talent coming and going.

-Belliard and Young are versatile in that they will be just as valuable as off-the-bench guys as they will be as starters. This gives the team some insurance against inevitable future season ending injuries to just about any infielder.

-I agree with SBF on this one: the old idea of contending teams picking up guys as two-month rentals is pretty much dead. General Managers are no longer (if they ever were) willing to mortgage the future of their teams just to pick up a guy for the playoff run. Any guy picked up at the trading deadline has to be able to make a near-term contribution, but he also has to be part of the long-term picture. I think Bowden did not want to be stuck losing Belliard and Young to free agency for virtually nothing in return. The money was there and it made sense to sign them.

-Young and Belliard are not Jeter and Giambi, but they are decent ballplayers. The fact that the Nats have locked them up for two years indicates that we are starting to pull out of the personnel nosedive and begin an upward trajectory toward contention. Holding on to those guys pretty much guarantees that the team will be better in 2008 (provided other offseason acquisitions/picks pan out) than they were in 2007.

What do you think?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

One Year After the Blockbuster

Just one year ago Nats GM Jim Bowden pulled off what can arguably be called the most audacious trade of his career. Bowden traded perpetual-prospect Brendan Harris, over-the-hill Royce Clayton, young relievers Bill Bray, Daryl Thompson (who?) and, notoriously, Gary Majewski to the Reds for veteran outfielder Austin Kearns, second baseman Felipe Lopez and reliever Ryan Wagner. When all was said and done, Trader Jim had once again shocked the baseball world with an outrageous trade that was nothing short of a blockbuster.

Well, it depends on how you define "blockbuster." No big-name player was involved, and the deal wouldn't change the tide of playoff contention for either team in 2006. Nonetheless, the trade was remarkable for its size (eight-players involved), scope (sudden transfer of two everyday players from one team to the next) and its immediate, striking lopsidedness in favor of the Nationals. So yeah, I'd call it a blockbuster.

Although the trade was almost universally hailed as a windfall for the Nats, some fans are now questioning whether Washington really did get the better end of the deal. It seemed like a no-brainer at the time, but a year later it remains unclear as to who, if anyone, got the upper hand.

Let's take a look at where the players involved have ended up. First, let's catch up with the guys who were dealt to the Reds:

-Bill Bray: He's 3-2 with a 4.09 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 48 games for the Reds this year. Not bad, but not irreplaceable either.

-Daryl Thompson: He's 8-3 with a 3.35 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 18 games for the Reds' Class A affiliates this year. That line is nothing to sneeze at, and Thompson seems like just the kind of young pitcher the Nats are looking to acquire. He's 22 years old, and might have been ready to emerge just as "The Plan" was springing into action like a tiger from its cage.

-Royce Clayton: Clayton finished last season with even worse numbers than he put up with the Nats, batting only .235 in 50 games for the Reds. He is now with the Blue Jays, where he continues to put up a Clayton-ish .258 average with 11 RBI in 58 games. The Nats offense sucks bad enough without him, thank you very much.

-Gary Majewski: Majewski has been the poster child for buyer's remorse on the part of the Reds. Soon after the trade, Reds GM Wayne Krivsky started complaining that Majewski was "damaged goods." Krivsky contends that the Nats deliberately concealed a shoulder problem that caused Majewski to perform horribly in only 19 games for the Reds before going down for the year. Majewski started the year at AAA Louisville and has gone a frighful 0-1 with a 15.88 ERA and 3 strikeouts in ten games for the Reds. The Reds filed a formal grievance against the Nats in May and a ruling from MLB is due any day now. I don't know if the Nats deliberately dumped Majewski or not, but I do know that Krivsky probably feels just like you did as you were walking out of the movie theater after seeing 1991's Cool as Ice. Go ninja, go ninja, go!

Ok, now let's look at the guys who came to the Nats:

-Ryan Wagner: He went 0-2 with a 5.72 ERA and 9 strikeouts in 15 innings of work this year before going down to a shoulder injury in May. The injury was disappointing given his strong finish last year, but the Nats are getting about as much value from him as the Reds are from Majewski. He's just one of many Nats that can't stay healthy.

-Felipe Lopez: How do you say "meh" in Spanish? Lopez was once Barry Larkin's heir apparent as the Reds' franchise shortstop but by 2006 (his 26th birthday) the Reds felt that he'd maxed out his development and decided to ship him. He's been just okay for the Nats, batting .244 with a .299 OBP and only 34 RBI this year. Still, he's an everyday player whose middle infield flexibility has been invaluable in light of Cristian Guzman's constant absence. Felipe is probably just about as good as he's ever going to be, but there's no doubt that he's an upgrade over Clayton.

-Austin Kearns: Like Lopez, Kearns was once a vaunted Reds prospect who never emerged into the slugging outfielder the team wanted. Kearns bounced back and forth between AAA and the bigs and became expendable in the Reds' crowded outfield once Griffey stayed consistently healthy. He's been so-so for the Nats, batting .252 with a .326 OBP and only 33 RBI. At 27 his "prospect" days are over but he's a steady presence on the team who probably has a few solid seasons ahead of him.

So how did it all pan out? Majewski and Wagner pretty much cancel each other out and Clayton was a toss-in, so the trade really comes down to Kearns and Lopez for Thompson and Bray. That's two mediocre everyday, play-right-now guys who may yet break out for a solid reliever and a distant starting pitching prospect. When you look at it that way it's not so clear which team benefitted the most.

The Reds had guys who could replace Kearns and Lopez, so giving them up wasn't the end of the world. On the other hand, the Reds aren't exactly tearing up the NL Central this year either. The Nats, despite all Bowden's talk of pitching, gave away two solid young prospects for a pair of young veterans whose skills are probably interchangeable with any number of free agent pickups. On the other hand, the Nats didn't have anyone that could fill in for the traded Jose Guillen and the team turned out to need a replacement for Guzman again this year.

In retrospect, the whole trade looks like an even deal for both teams. At the very least, no reasonable person could still contend that it was a huge steal for the Nats.

What do you think about the trade now that a year has gone by? Let 'er rip in the comments.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Yeah, Duh!

I'm all in agreement with Chris and Ryan on this one: if some opposing GM not named Wayne Krivsky wants to trade us a prospect or two for Dmitri Young, Jim Bowden should react like the Dutch buying Manhattan island for a bunch of wampum.

Tom Boswell says "The Nats are out of their minds if they trade Dmitri." By what logic? Boswell cites Young's hot bat, popularity with teammates, injury-resistance and insurance for Nick Johnson-ness. These are all attributes of Young's value to the team in this crappiest of seasons, but none of are good reasons to sign the guy to a long term deal when, just like the rest of the quasi-good veteran parade we've seen since 2005, he is just not part of The Plan.

Look, I'm a Dmitri Young fan, and there's no question that he's provided the only modicum of offense that this team has produced all year. But just because he's the best guy this year doesn't mean he'll continue to be the right fit on a team that's going to start looking a lot like the Milwaukee Brewers in 2-3 years. The Nats would be out of their minds not to trade Dmitri. He's playing way over his head and he's precisely the kind of guy I'd want to see my team pick up if we needed a bat off the bench for the playoff chase. The Nats' hopes for the playoffs ended back in September 2005 and are on an indefinite hiatus.

This has been a forgotten, forsaken season for the team. Zimmerman has been lackluster, the Cincinnati kids are exactly what they've always been, Nook Logan is still in a Nats uniform, Nick Johnson is still out, Cordero can't close games and Patterson is officially a bust. Dmitri has really been the only exciting player on this team and it's understandable that some fans are looking for something to hold on to. If you're one of these people, you just have to let it go.

This season isn't about what's happening on the diamond, it's about management biding its time until next April. Young is the only tradeable commodity on a team that isn't going anywhere until at least the 2009 postseason. He should be dealt to the highest bidder immediately. It's been cool to see his resurgence here, but I won't be sorry to bid him a fond farewell if it means stocking a rapidly improving farm system.

Sometimes you meet people who remain fixtures your life. Sometimes people play a role for a brief period of time and then move on. Dmitri's time here has come and gone.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Getting Greener at Nationals Park

Last year I wrote about the DCSEC's plans to incorporate design features into Nationals Park that would make it the first LEED certified green baseball stadium in the country. The stadium's architects and designers pledged to make the building more energy efficient and minimize the park's impact on the Anacostia River. The new features of the park will indeed be very environmentally friendly, but I am concerned that the park still does not have an adequate plan to recycle the staggering amount of trash generated at each game.

The specific design elements that have emerged now that stadium construction is well underway are truly striking. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, arbiters of the LEED certification, Nationals Park will include:

-Field lights that will save 21% energy over the lights used at RFK
-An advanced filtration system to keep trash out of the runoff from the hosed-down stands after each game
-The use of 28% recycled materials, including 95% recycled steel, in the construction of the stadium itself
-The recycling of 5,500 tons of construction waste from the ballpark site
-Receptacles for fans to recycle metal and glass

These features will go a long way toward helping the environment in our community. However, I'm concerned that halfhearted in-park recycling efforts will still cause thousands of cubic yards of recyclable trash to wind up in area landfills each season.

At RFK, washed-up veterans are recycled almost daily but thousands of bottles and containers are not. The Green Miles blog points out that "there's no evidence recycling of any sort takes place at RFK Stadium." There are no recycling bins of any kind at the park- fans can't recycle even if they want to. Fans consume food and drink out of all manner of recyclable containers and either leave them under their seats or throw them in a concourse trash can. At the end of the night cleaning crews sweep through the stadium and throw everything, recyclable or not, into the general trash.

A friend and I sat at RFK stadium last Thursday night downing beers as usual when we looked at the row of eight empties and wondered how much of this trash is generated on a given home game, never to be recycled. I did some research and found that 18-25 tons of waste was generated per game at 46,000-seat Oriole Park during its first season of operation. That translates to nearly a pound of trash per person per game. The Nats are averaging about 25,000 fans per game this year so it would seem that RFK is belching out 12.5 tons of mostly-recyclable garbage every night. That comes out to 1,012.5 tons for the season- imagine what it will be like next year.

Fans in 2008 will finally be given the opportunity to recycle some of their containers, but it still doesn't seem that management is committed to systematically removing all recyclable trash. Susan Klumpp, architect and project manager for HOK says "Fans will be encouraged to recycle their soda and beer bottles. There will be recycling containers across the ballpark, accepting glass, aluminum, and other metals from fans. There will be a centralized loading dock for all these recycling bins, with more than 400 cubic yards per home stand heading to recycling facilities." That's great, but what about the plastics and paperboard that make up the lion's share of food and beverage containers at the stadium?

Maybe Klumpp wasn't speaking in terms of specifics, but recycling only glass and metals won't make a dent in the trash problem. Glass containers are prohibited at the stadium, so there shouldn't be any of them to recycle. The aluminum beer bottles are numerous (Lord knows I'm good for 3-4 per game) but they are the only metal containers available. The DCSEC needs to provide receptacles for fans to recycle all that plastic- beer and soda bottles, cups, kettle corn buckets, Dippin' Dot bowls, etc. that we all happily plow through at each game. All the cardboard hot dog containers and drink trays can also be recycled.

Encouraging fans to recycle is great but the team needs to be committed to recycling the trash collected after the game. Most fans, being human, will continue to leave their empty containers under the seats when they leave the game. All of this garbage will head straight for the landfills if the team doesn't require the cleaning crew to sort the items they pick up. A few other stadiums are pursuing this approach with great success. The Seattle Mariners, with a grant from the EPA, began a comprehensive waste reduction and recycling project when Safeco field opened in 1999. The Mariners recycled over 22 tons of waste that year, including 44% of all plastic and cardboard generated. By 2006 the team was recycling 97% of its plastic cups and bottles. Similar programs are in place in Toronto and at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. The Oakland Athletics have even gone so far as to eschew plastic beer cups in favor of biodegradable corn cups, eliminating the plastic waste issue altogether.

The Nationals have a chance to show some real environmental leadership at Nationals Park. The prospect of becoming the first green ballpark is exciting, but the park won't stay green for long if all that solid waste remains bound for landfills. The team needs to do its part to follow in the footsteps of the Mariners and other teams that are taking stadium recycling seriously. We the fans need to pitch in by taking our empties to the recycling bins on our way out of the park and cleaning up after our tailgate parties. If we all work together we can enjoy a nicer park, a cleaner community and a greener world.

Photo of stadium trash at Michigan State University by Patty Mallett for the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Fatal Exception

Hi everyone. It's been awhile, huh? Sorry I haven't posted in two months. Actually, I'm not sorry. I needed a vacation, nay, a sabbatical, from the blog. I just got tired of it and started filling my time with other things. I've started pursuing my other hobby- playing, writing and performing guitar music- with more vigor than ever before. I've also been working...and working...and working some more. I've shown up at RFK for weeknight games in a suit more often than I'd care to admit.

I remained interested in the Nats, but not so interested that I could sit down and crank out anything worth reading. I considered killing off the blog entirely but that always seemed And I figure hey, as long as Ryan Langerhans and Robert Fick are out there hacking away every night, I might too. So here you are, and here I am. Let's talk Nats baseball.

It's halfway through the season and it's pretty clear what this incarnation of the Nats will be- a bad but forgettable squad that was fun to watch as long as 24 or American Idol wasn't on instead. Oh, I mean forgettable in a good way- the team is not so bad that they will set records for suckery, and the best years of many of the players still lay ahead. They are what they are, no?

Here is my mid-season take on the state of things:

What I Like:

-Dmitri Young: I'm really glad to see someone finding some salvation in this forsaken season, and I'm glad that someone is Dmitri Young. I've been a fan of his since my Reds days, and when Bowden scooped him up I felt that he would replace Daryle Ward's role off the bench from 2006. Young has stepped up to fill Nick Johnson's sorely-missed shoes and in the process has resurrected his career by holding down one of the best batting averages in the NL. He's been rewarded by being named Washington's token All-Star, and no one deserves it more than him. It's nice to see a guy take advantage of a second chance in life.

-Manny Acta: There is something about Manny's demeanor that gives me hope for the future. Just having him around makes things seem not so bad. Can you imagine Frank running this team? Player morale would be in the tank and lots of fans would be reconsidering their decision to Pledge their Allegiance. I'm looking forward to seeing what Manny can do with some experience under his belt and more resources to work with.

-The Relocation Guide: Wow. The relocation guide that the team sent us season ticket holders was impressive! The process was fair, the rationale was clear and the available options were clearly explained. The DVD that came in the mail was just plain exciting. I was seriously considering not renewing my tickets for next year but the relocation package convinced me that the front office plans to run this team more like a big-town ballclub and less like an Arena Football League franchise out of Kalamazoo. I'm looking forward to remaining a season ticket holder for 2008.

-RFK Stadium: This season is RFK's finest hour. The service is great, the food options are diverse and tasty, the President Race is a hit and the Curly W design in the outfield grass is awesome. If only they could make soft pretzels in that shape... It's too bad that the park is coming into its own just as we arrive at its demise, but the good things going on at RFK are more signs that management gets it.

-MASN: It's almost to the point where I'm taking it for granted, but it's great having the games on TV to watch, or not watch, on any given night. This year's broadcast looks like a real sports broadcast and not like a Public Access television airing of a grade school girls softball game. My only beef would be with the stodginess of the Nats Xtra broadcast. Just once I'd like to hear Johnny Holliday or Ray Knight let rip with a "Boo-Ya!" or similar outburst.

What I Don't Like:

-Injuries: Is it just me or have the Nats, for the past three seasons, been unduly beset by serious injuries? I understand that guys get hurt but the players on this team constantly fall victim to all manner of 60 day or season ending injuries. It's an incredible shame to see Cristian Guzman go down for the season, again, after the year he was having. I don't know if I'm looking forward more to Guzman's contract expiring or George Bush's term ending. I harbor no ill will toward Guzman but as a fan I'm tired of seeing one player eat up so many resources for so little return.

-Chad Cordero closing baseball games: I'm really, really tired of seeing the "Chief" come out there and blow save opportunities. It's frustrating when our pitching staff manages to keep it together all night only to have Cordero put two runners in scoring position with less than two outs. I'd like to see Cordero moved into a setup role with Jesus Colome closing games.

-Middle infielders sailing balls over Dmitri's head: Yes, it's awesome that Ronnie Belliard can throw all the way to first while falling backward on his ass, but he's not being paid to shoot fade-away jumpers. Young may not be the largest target at first, but Belliard and Zimmerman seem too eager to rip off throws at times when it might be better to just hang on to the ball. Too many bases are being given up because of throwing errors.

-The attendance situation: I see that the Nats are 26th in the majors in attendance despite the fact that over 39,000 people showed up for today's shutout of the Cubs. We're all familiar with the excuses behind the attendance numbers, but the Lerners/Kasten should be concerned. To me, the legions of visiting-team fans at nearly every game is an indicator of just how far this team still has to go to win hearts, minds and wallets around here. Hopefully someone in the front office will leak some 2008 Season Ticket deposit numbers to the press so we can see what, if any, effect the new stadium is having.

Okay, that's enough for now. Happy 4th of July...bang, zoom and all that. It's good to be back, for now.