Change-UpFebruary 25, 2010
Stakeholders - Washington Nationals
By Patrick Sullivan

From now through the beginning of the regular season, we will not be posting in-depth round-tables previewing each division like we have in years past. Instead we will feature brief back-and-forths with "stakeholders" from all 30 teams. A collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel will join us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some will be in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but they should all be fun to read and we are thrilled about the lineup of guests we have teed up. It might be a misrepresentation to characterize today's guest as a Nats "stakeholder" but he certainly was a huge fan of the Montreal Expos. It's Jonah Keri on the Washington Nationals.

Patrick Sullivan: First, thanks a lot for joining us, Jonah. It's no secret that you look back on your days as a Montreal Expos fan with fondness. So tell me, if the 2009 Washington Nationals were in the same division as the 1994 Expos and they faced one another 19 times, what would Washington's record have been in those games?

Jonah Keri: Expos 18, Nationals 1. Montreal wins the first 18 games of the season series, escalating their post-game drinking after each win. The Expos finally lose Game #19 after Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Pedro Martinez and John Wetteland consume so much Molson Canadian that they begin hallucinating, mistake Adam Dunn for a fire-breathing dragon, and jump into the St. Lawrence River.

PS: Speaking of Adam Dunn, any idea why he is still playing in the National League? I had the "chance" to watch him play a game at 1st Base for the Nats last September at Wrigley and it was one of the worst single-game defensive performances I've witnessed. Oh and did I mention he started 84 games in the outfield last season?

JK: He's playing in the NL because no AL team saw fit to match the Nats' offer. Teams are (mostly) wise to the limited value of one-dimensional players. Most of the teams that aren't wise to this (say, KC) don't have the money to sign 'em anyway.

PS: Makes sense. Where do you come down on a signing like Jason Marquis? On the one hand, he won't figure into the next (first) Nats World Series team but on the other, you need to field a competitive baseball team. My personal take is that sometimes bad teams take too much heat for playing in the free agent middle market. What do you think?

JK: I agree with the general point, that you still have to puts butts in seats - plus always the option to flip a vet for prospects later. Just depends on the particulars of a given signing. In this case the price didn't seem too egregious.

PS: Ok let's focus on the positive for a moment. Talk to me about Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman and Nyjer Morgan. Don't talk to me about Shairon Martis.

JK: I expect Strasburg to be in the Nationals' rotation and pitching well by June 1, if not sooner. His unique contract ensures the Nats don't need to play any dodgy games of service time suppression; the Rays got the benefit of a full Evan Longoria season in 2008 for similar reasons, and that worked out great. Strasburg instantly becomes one of the two best players on the team, with enough star power to be the rare player who gooses attendance by himself by dint of the "Dude, let's go see the Nats tonight! Strasburg's pitching!" demographic.

Zimmerman's the real deal. He's still only 25 so there's additional power potential there, which is scary after he cranked 73 extra-base hits last season. He's also a great defender and a worthy challenger to Beefcake McWright for the title of best third baseman in the NL.

I'm not completely sold on Nyjer Morgan. Yes, I'm well aware of the UZR numbers that say that Nyjer Morgan was more valuable than Joe Morgan last season (I'm almost not kidding). I'm just not ready to throw a parade in someone's honor for one year's worth of defensive data. Yes, he looked good in limited playing time in previous seasons, but this was Morgan's first year as a (near-)everyday player. I'm not convinced this is a player who's a lock for nearly 3 wins of value on his defense alone. The fact that he turns 30 this year doesn't inspire confidence either. If I were the Nats, I would have shopped Morgan this off-season after what was likely a career year. The problem is that the teams who will properly identify his great defensive value are also probably intelligent enough to be skeptical of one-year numbers and generally aware of the risk of regression to the mean. So the Nats will be stuck with a cheap defensive whiz who gets on base and steals tons of bases. There are worse fates, even if 2009 was the best we'll ever see from Morgan.

PS: Ok, the starting pitching is horrible, the bullpen has a few interesting arms in Brian Bruney, Matt Capps, Tyler Walker and Ross Detwiler, and here's the lineup.

C - Pudge
1B - Dunn
2B - Kennedy
3B - Zimmerman
SS - Guzman
LF - Willingham
CF - Morgan
RF - Dukes

Am I nuts or is that a decent lineup? Tell me what you think and then give me a prediction for this Nats team. Where would you set the over/under on wins?

JK: Pudge is finished and Guzman is a pretty lousy hitter when he's not over .300. Otherwise, absolutely. Loved the Adam Kennedy signing in particular. It's entirely possible that Kennedy's .337 wOBA last year was a fluke and that he'll revert back to being a negative at bat. But he put up those numbers playing in the AL, in Oakland no less, and his BABIP wasn't so far above career norms (.326, vs. .311 lifetime) that it suggests a huge regression ahead. Yes he's 34, no he's never been anything close to an elite player - but for $1.25 million, after the season he had in '09, Kennedy's a good get.

Dunn, Zimmerman and Willingham speak for themselves, all very good offensive players. Morgan's a useful table-setter and Dukes has plenty of upside in him, if the Nats will just leave him alone and give him 500 PAs.

Wins might be another story. Factors like bullpen can make a huge difference in converting talent into actual wins, and you're right that the Nats haven't made much of an effort to build out that part of the roster - with good reason, because giving big contracts to relief pitchers when you're not a contender makes little sense. PECOTA has the Nats at 76 wins, CHONE says 74. If Strasburg is in the rotation all year, or most of the year, I could see it. Otherwise, given the holes that come after the team's top few players, I'd take the Under on that 75-win midpoint.

PS: Great. Thanks so much, Jonah. Seems like the Nats might be a pretty decent bet for biggest jump in year over year win totals.

Jonah Keri is a writer for Bloomberg Sports (check out Bloomberg Sports' full suite of fantasy baseball tools here). He's also writing a book about the Tampa Bay Rays, their climb from worst to first, and the Wall Street-inspired methods they used to get there (Spring 2011, ESPN Books/Ballantine).


Can you explain this comment re: Strasburg -- "his unique contract ensures the Nats don't need to play any dodgy games of service time suppression."?

With most prospects their salaries are severely depressed for the first 2-3 years, so you do everything you can to keep the cost down, including waiting to call a guy up until June, even if he's clearly ready. Strasburg was signed to a major league contract, which means the Nats are already shelling out for him, so might as well use him right away if he's ready.

Can I assume you'll be lining up a Washington Senators fan to do the "Stakeholder" previews of the Twins and Rangers?

Re: Strasburg

So does that mean he's up for arbitration as soon as the 4 years on his contract are up? Can't the Nats still delay free agency by keeping him down for a bit, or does the major league contract wipe out the six year service time thing?

Ha, fair commentary Nate. You want to come back later in March? You can DH one day and preview the Nats in earnest.

If Adam Dunn's play at first base was truly the worst defensive performance you've ever witnessed, then I implore you to search the game tape for Ryan Raburn's play on August 16th, 2009 for the Tigers against the Kansas City Royals.

Certainly Dunn could've been no worse than this. He was charged with 3 errors (including 2 in the 10th), but very easily could've been charged with 6 (including 3 in the 10th, two of which he actually was charged with). If ever one were to look back into the archives of history to understand why the Tigers continued playing Brandon Inge in the season's second half in spite of an OPS around .500 and obviously gimpy knees that he should not have been playing on, it takes only a review of that August 16th game to understand. Raburn never played another game in the infield for Detroit, and ought never again find his way to the infield unless he's running the bases.

More on topic, I had no idea that Morgan was 30. I thought he was a younger player, probably due to his skillset and recent breakout year.