SABR meeting report, part 2 (Paul White)Paul White, USA Today Sports Weekly senior editor, spoke about our roster, our prospects and a few other topics at yesterday's SABR meeting. For regular readers of this blog, much of his chat about our roster and prospects has been covered, but I'll still repeat what he said here, because much of it can boil down to opinion.
I'll say up front that White agrees with many other people (including me), in that he'd be shocked if our team plays 500 ball this year. He does think there's at least a 6 year honeymoon period, before the team really needs to be competitive to avoid hurting the franchise, and thinks there will be a good ownership group in place (more later).
About the people currently in contention for a spot in the rotation, he doesn't see a single star among them, with one asterisk that we'll get to later. All of them are nibblers, not real power pitchers. Livan Hernandez is obviously solid and a big innings eater. His weight "problem" isn't much of a problem, he's just a big guy. Basically, in the media, when he's doing well, "he's just big", and when he's not, "it's a weight problem". But the guy is a good all-around athlete who can both field his position well and hit. And, like Vidro, he also was extremely enthusiastic about being part of the franchise's new start, re-upping before anyone even knew where the team was going.
Ohka pretty much has no stuff at all, but gets quite a lot out of it, anyway, because he has very good control. But there's no chance this guy will ever be a number 1.
Zach Day is someone you could get a bit excited about, but in that transaction, we gave Cleveland everyone who is going to make them good in the next few years, so there's a lot to be disgruntled about there (more later).
Tony Armas, Jr. is not bad, but has been plagued by a ton of injuries, the implication being that this is likely to continue to be a problem. Certainly, it's hard to say how well he's going to pitch, but he's probably never going to be a #1.
Jon Rauch is the asterisk. Recently, he hasn't had the chance to be healthy, but now he does, so maybe he'll go back to being a guy with superstar potential, like he was when he was with the White Sox. This is a guy who must really be disappointed by the arrival of Esteban Loaiza, who pushed him out of the rotation in Chicago, and probably is doing it again here, since he probably would have won the 5th spot, if not for that acquisition (particularly because F-Rob liked what he saw from Rauch last year). As is, he's a sleeper to break into the rotation out of spring training, and if he does, it will be at the expense of Zach Day.
Our starting pitching may not have any superstars, but it's also not bad. What our pitching staff lacks is depth, particularly by the time you get to the minor league system. The only guy in our entire system right now with potential to be very good at the major league level is LHP Mike Hinkley, who White thinks absolutely needs a major league look this season. He didn't bring up Clint Everts, but it's unsurprising, since the guy is a complete unknown, recovering from Tommy John surgery (the only thing we know now is that we won't see him in 2005).
Depth plagues our entire organization. He said it was clear that when Omar Minaya was GM, he gutted the farm system, because those were the only valuable bargaining chips that he had, in order to remain competitive. Before Minaya, the Expos were becoming more and more statistically oriented (i.e., a Moneyball team). When MLB put Omar in charge, he reversed that course, because he's a gut instinct / 5 tools guy, who wants absolutely no part of any spreadsheets being placed in front of him. He also was willing to take big risks and come up a big loser on someone, preferring, for example, someone he felt had a chance to be a #1, even if he also had a big chance to become a bust, over someone he knew would be a #3, but probably would never be much more.
Minaya shouldn't take the full blame for the poor depth throughout the organization, though. His strategy for keeping us competitive was fine, but it's MLB's fault that "this team is not going to be as good as they could have been", because, for all the talent taken out of the system, there was virtually nothing put back into it. MLB would never pony up for anyone who required any sort of signing bonus, so we haven't been able to do well in the draft.
Whatever the reasons, the end result isn't pretty. Our minor league system does deserve to be ranked among the worst in baseball, particularly at the lower levels. He mentioned that the official scorer of the class A Potomac Cannons was in the room, and offered the advice, "Good Luck!" We really do only have 2 or 3 prospects who are way above average, Hinkley being one, and Larry Broadway (a power hitting 1B we've mentioned before) being another.
He spent some time on the starting lineup. Vidro should be Vidro, good for about 20 HRs and overall solid play. Brian Schneider is solid, but not spectacular (except on defense). Wilkerson is the one guy who does it all, currently, and is the only real star in the group. The issues with Castilla are obvious, the fact that he looked pretty bad outside of Coors last year, and that he's had a lot of bad years recently. Bowden didn't miss that. But, Castilla was brought in because he's a personality. He's already got a career in broadcasting, having been a color commentator for playoff games and the World Series, for Mexican Television. Supposedly, he's really good. He's certainly expected to provide some veteran leadership, and help some of the younger team members grow. White didn't say much about Guzman, other than the obvious, that he doesn't hit much.
White said, "Nick Johnson is theoretically the first baseman. If you're a moneyball kind of guy, you used to love Nick Johnson. Now, he still knows how to take a walk, but he seems to have forgotten the rest of it." The question is, if he doesn't get traded, whether Nick Johnson will play, or get benched in favor of Wilkerson playing first base. Frank Robinson's ideal lineup would include Johnson, Wilkerson and Endy Chavez. Robinson now loves Chavez because of the way he responded last year at this time, when Robinson hated him. Basically, he needed a ton of plate discipline, and he took it seriously, and made big strides at taking walks, in Frank's mind, at the very least. "Frank rewards people who are in his favor this week." Basically, if you play hard and play 'the right way', you'll make him happy, even if you don't always perform so well.
Apparently, Jose Guillen is a great guy. For example, he goes out of his way for people working at the ballpark and for the team, and has regularly gone out of his way for people like secretaries, buying them things they need, etc. There may be two sides to the guy, but it sounded like White likes him, and he'll do fine under Robinson.
Talking about players who might make the 25-man roster, White likes Ryan Church, and thinks he'd be good, but needs an everyday job. If he somehow were able to beat out both Sledge and Chavez for the third outfield spot, that'd be good for him, but it wouldn't make any sense for his development to be the 5th outfielder, and warm the bench.
He felt similarly about Brendan Harris, who is "an average speed white guy, but he produces... a decent little player". He's major-league ready, but since his two primary positions are taken by Vidro and Castilla, he's better off in AAA than warming the bench, even though he could very well end up a utility infielder.
Who are natural rivals for the Nats? White said to forget about the Orioles and the Phillies. It's the Marlins! The players despise the organization (he said they think it is evil), because of the way things were handled when Loria sold the Expos to MLB and bought the Marlins. Loria stole away anyone good from the Expos organization who had any clue, and was pretty unfair about it, using the fact that "MLB couldn't guarantee jobs for those people", which was somewhat disingenuous. Basically, Loria caused much of the organizations' front office to be gutted in a way that should never have happened.
He talked a lot about team ownership. He thinks that it's going to get pretty complicated, and that there's no way it will be settled in the first half of the season, and said that "we might even get through the whole year". He predicts that the ownership group that wins the team is likely not the be anyone we've heard of so far. There may end up being a big chain of moves that is complicated to pull off. He's heard some amazing rumors, one, for example, having Larry Lucchino coming back. Associated with that seemed to be a complex chain of events that would include a swap of L.A. for Boston (John Henry is from L.A. and Frank McCourt is from Boston, owns the land that a new park would probably be built on and lost out on that bidding in the weird deal that went down).
That rumor had a lot of facets to it. L.A. and Boston have vastly different values, because of NESN, the sports network that the Red Sox own outright. There's talk of John Henry selling this off, making a ton of money and balancing out the value of the two franchises. What would happen to NESN? The rumor there is pretty interesting... people are looking into building a big conglomerate mega-baseball cable outlet that covers the east coast. It would basically see YES, NESN and whatever network is being put together for the Nationals / Orioles being brought in under one parent company.
As for other ownership possibilities, there are feelers out to Cal Ripkin, who wouldn't be a majority shareholder, but would be the face of the organization, with really big wallets in the background. The question Ripkin's got to be wrestling with is "do you dive right in there and stick it to Angelos?"
Frank Robinson's also expressed interest in being an owner, which is part of the reason why he originally only wanted to stay on for a year. It sounds like that has slacked off some. White recounted an anecdote of a game where Robinson's comp seats were being occupied by some mega-celebs with deep, deep pockets, including Bill Cosby. White knew F-Rob was interested in ownership, and asked about those people sitting in the seats (which would definitely make MLB excited, as they're in dire need of good minority ownership groups). Robinson's answer was, "If you ask your friends for money, you lose your friends." It didn't sound like he'd really be in the mix.
Somewhere in there, he talked about Northern New Jersey being a more fertile baseball market than even Washington. He said that Loria has been pushing to get into that market for quite a long time, but probably will never get it, because not only do the ex-Expos hate him, but so do most of the rest of the owners. But, there is some possibility that someone will eventually get that territory, and White thinks it would be far more effective than the luxury tax for enforcing competitive balance. He thinks it would be a good idea to split any sort of expansion fee between the Yankees and the Mets, and be done with it. Even so, the Yankees will still be the Yankees, and will still have plenty of fans supporting them in N.J.
There were some interesting discussions in the Q+A period. Someone asked about whether a return to a 4-man rotation would ever make sense. White thinks that the 4 man rotation probably wouldn't be a bad thing for the game or for too many individuals, but it would be incredibly difficult to do. He thinks that, in order to do this effectively, an organization would have to make a big transition to get people adjusted to it, starting by putting a 4 man rotation in rookie ball, and then the next year instituting it in AA, and so on up to the bigs. Clearly, the people left in the rotation who didn't work their way up through the system would also need their endurance built over a period of time as well.
Here, there was a long discussion about teams babying pitchers too much in the minors, because the investments are getting so big. It makes it difficult to build the kind of endurance needed for a 4-man rotation, when every prospect is pitched so little, for fear of hurting them. It also means, they have to develop with far less opportunity to get up there and throw in a game situation. Every organization now has a binder for each player, with detailed information of how much he's allowed to pitch, getting down to, for example, how many breaking pitches of each type he's allowed to throw in each game.
There's a problem here, not only in getting to a 4 man rotation, there's a problem in promoting people into the bigs for a full season. By August, most such players hit an inevitable wall, and their numbers start declining, because they've never done anything like it before.
As a tangent here, he pointed out that pretty much all major league pitchers are starters in the minors. Closers in the minors don't turn into good major league closers. "If you see someone with 30 saves in the minor leagues, ignore him. He's got one pitch, probably a curve". Clearly, success for minor league closers has a lot to do with many minor leaguers having big trouble with breaking pitches.
He was also asked about the draft, and said that our first pick will probably have to be for a pitcher out of college. Ultimately, our depth in pitching is worse in the minors than our offensive depth. But, whether we improve our minors quickly will have more to do with how well we pick in later rounds.