16 Million Reasons Bad Teams Stay Bad
Here's a pop quiz for aspiring GMs: your 30-year-old shortstop, a career .267/.305/.381 hitter (with no Gold Gloves) - is batting .300, leading the league in hits, and recently played in his 2nd all-star game. He becomes a free agent at season's end. Oh yeah, your team is currently 29 games below .500 and couldn't find their way out of last place with a GPS, a Sherpa and a ouija board.
A) Trade the shortstop to a contender for some tasty prospects?
B) Re-sign the shortstop to a 2-year/$16 million contract extension?
If you're the Washington Nationals, you just picked B and will now have the services of Cristian Guzman through 2010. Or for roughly another 230 losses.
One of the worst mistakes a bad team makes is getting too attached to its best players and hanging on to them for more time and/or money than prudence demands. The thinking goes something like this: "We're already in last place and he's our best player - what happens if we lose HIM?" Then panic sets in, and suddenly you're stuck with a mediocre talent making superstar money (see Leafs, Maple and McCabe, Bryan).
Guzman IS a mediocre talent. Even .300 hitting, all-star Cristian Guzman. With no walks and few extra base hits, his .333 OBP and .413 SLG aren't putting many runs on the board, and at age 30, he isn't likely to get any better.
It's puzzling that GM Jim Bowden already dealt closer Jon Rauch for a prospect, but didn't seem to realize that the same strategy made sense with Guzman. Bowden defended the signing saying "we're a better team with him than without him." Certainly, that's true, if the options are Cristian Guzman vs. Gaping Hole between second and third base. It's still probably true if the options are Cristian Guzman vs. Raw Young Prospect. But what if we fast forward a year or two and suddenly it's Aging Cristian Guzman vs. Improving Young Prospect Plus $8 million dollars we aren't spending on Cristian Guzman?
It's possible that Bowden tried to deal Guzman and couldn't find a taker (though the Dodgers and Rays could both use an upgrade). Fair enough. But in that case, why not let Guzman walk in exchange for draft pick compensation and spend the $8 million to improve your last place team elsewhere?
The original 4 years/$16.8 million deal the Nats signed with Guzman was widely panned at the time, and it looks like the critics had a point. For their money, the Nationals have received:
GP AB AVG OBP SLG
2005 142 456 .219 .260 .314
2007 46 174 .328 .380 .466
2008 100 433 .303 .333 .413
That's one terrible year, one decent year, a very good quarter of a season and a year and a half lost to injury.
So, having suffered through a contract in which the player was hurt or lousy more than half the time, the Nationals decided: Hey, let's bring him back for twice the money!
Residing in the basement provides a general manager a certain amount of freedom - and Bowden has made some promising moves, like snagging troubled but talented prospects Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge from other organizations.
There's no better time to experiment, after all, you can't finish worse than last. Though with moves like the Guzman signing, the Nats certainly seem to be trying.