Sunday, March 28, 2010

Two decisions made, another looming

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Ian Desmond has made the roster, but what about Scott Olsen?
VIERA, Fla. -- What began as a lazy Sunday morning at Space Coast Stadium quickly turned into one of the spring' most intriguing days.

To recap...

-- Ian Desmond has made the club and will be the Opening Day shortstop.

-- Cristian Guzman also will make the club, but serve as a backup at shortstop and second base.

-- Justin Maxwell was optioned to Class AAA Syracuse, a fitting conclusion to a disappointing spring.

-- Scott Olsen, given up for dead 12 hours ago, put together his strongest start of the spring and made one last case for a spot in the Opening Day rotation.

So at the end of the day, the Nationals made two key decisions that will shape their outlook for 2010 and now must confront another that has been looming all spring. Let's begin with the two decisions that were made: Selecting Desmond over Guzman and sending Maxwell to the minors.

Mike Rizzo and Jim Riggleman had no choice but to option Maxwell to Syracuse. Whether you think the 26-year-old still could be an everyday big leaguer or not, you have to acknowledge he looked totally lost at the plate this spring and needs to start over with a clear mind and a clear purpose. Had they let Maxwell try to work his way out of the slump in Washington, there's no telling how much worse things might have gotten. Do you honestly believe the best way to get this guy out of a month-long slump is to throw him out there against Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton and hope for the best?

No, Maxwell needs to get back into the low-pressure world of Class AAA, rediscover his swing and then force the Nats to call him back up at some point.

"I think that he's going to hit 25 home runs some day," Riggleman said. "He's very aggressive on the bases. He's a guy who could hit 25 and steal 35. But he's just going to have to make more contact for that to really show itself. He knows he's going to do it. He's confident it's going to happen."

The Nationals aren't totally confident Desmond will thrive as an everyday shortstop in the majors, but they are confident he deserves to prove he can. They may have come to Viera six weeks ago uncertain about the 24-year-old's progress, but they saw enough over the last month and a half to make this a no-brainer.

Aside from Ryan Zimmerman, who has looked in midseason form since the day he reported, Desmond has been the Nats' best all-around player this spring. Yes, he makes an occasional sloppy play in the field. Yes, he occasionally goes cold at the plate. But he's also one of the most dynamic players in the organization, both with his bat and with his glove.

We can all laugh at the way Jim Bowden compared Desmond to Derek Jeter in the spring of 2005, after the then-19-year-old made a couple of spectacular plays in the field. But there was something to the comparison. Desmond isn't anywhere close to Jeter's stratosphere at this stage of his career. But he sure does look like Jeter, carry himself like Jeter and occasionally play like Jeter.

And after six years at every level of the Nationals' farm system, Desmond needs to be given a chance to play in the big leagues. The time wasn't right before. It is right now.

"I think the path I took to the big leagues was the best path I could have taken," Desmond said. "I went through six years of baseball school. I got to learn from some of the best guys in baseball. Guys who won World Series. All those guys who groomed me to be a hard-nosed baseball player. It's exciting for me to be able to bring the game that I've played to the big leagues. I think it's going to be fun."

In order to make this happen, the Nationals had to inform Guzman -- a prideful man who, let's not forget, is a two-time All-Star who has made more than $40 million in his career -- he's no longer a starter. Guzman, by all accounts, took the news well and immediately began taking grounders at second base for the first time in his career.

Riggleman intends to get the 32-year-old into the lineup as much as possible, giving both Desmond and Adam Kennedy regular days off. The manager, though, needs to be careful not to cater to Guzman too much out of a sense of loyalty or respect. Desmond needs to play almost every day. By the end of this season, with fellow shortstop prospect Danny Espinosa looming, the Nationals need to know whether Desmond is the real deal or not.

The organization doesn't have that much time to decide whether Olsen is legit or not. In fact, that decision needs to be made within the next two days.

You see, Olsen stands to make $1 million this season if he remains with the Nats. That includes if he pitches in the minors. But if the club releases him by March 31, they only owe him one-fourth of his salary: $250,000.

The decision looked obvious as recently as this morning. Olsen had done very little this spring to prove he's fully recovered from his shoulder injury or that he could be an effective big-league pitcher. But then he took the mound against the Braves and proceeded to string together 5 1/3 quality innings, allowing one earned run without issuing a walk.

"I felt really strong in Lakeland five days ago, and I feel even stronger right now," Olsen said. "Obviously it's been a progression. It was real ugly there the first couple times out. Things were still building back strength and everything. But I think we're way past that right now. I think we're right where we need to be and ready to go for the season."

Clearly, Olsen has progressed since the start of camp through today's outing. But has he progressed enough to make you confident he's big-league ready?

"The ball's coming out of his hands good," Riggleman said. "I don't know what he was throwing, velocity-wise, but I'm not that concerned about that. It's more about effectiveness. They started a lot of their regulars in the lineup, and he was getting them out. If that means you're big-league ready, then that's what it means."

Here's the problem: Riggleman has already all but guaranteed rotation spots to Garrett Mock, Livan Hernandez and Craig Stammen. Is he going to backtrack on those proclamations just because Olsen finally figured things out on March 28?

The easiest answer to this quandary is to simply option Olsen to Syracuse. But it's not as simple as that. The Nats would still have to pay him his $1 million. Olsen may not be so agreeable to accept the option. And there's no guarantee he'd ever make it back up to D.C.

There are a lot of other pitchers on the verge of joining the Nationals' rotation. Before 2010 is complete, don't be surprised to see Stephen Strasburg, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann, Matt Chico, Aaron Thompson and others starting games in Washington.

Is Olsen obviously better than that group? No. Could he be better than some of those guys? Sure. Is it worth $750,000 to find out? That's what the Nationals need to decide, and soon.

They managed to make a bold call on the Desmond/Guzman dilemma today. They're going to have to be just as confident making the Olsen decision.

20 comments:

Doc said...

Someone has the stats, but I'll bet right now that Desmond has better range than Jeter, who is listed as only 10th in MLB comparisons. Jeter has had a great past, but it is the past! Go Desi!

Anonymous said...

Was there any chance to trade Guzman? Seems like right field could still use some stability.

Bill C-H said...

Keep Olsen - cheap at twice the price. The "Plan" is to have lots of pitchers; keep the best(and a few extra), and make some trades to get great prospects or proven veterans. I want to win a 100 games in 2011!

JayB said...

Mark,

It is not credible that they do not know what the speed on Olsen was. I know the Scoreboard did not have it but you can bet the Nats know. Time to find out. When I was in minor league camp I over heard several conversations about getting a gun reading on everyone pitching that day....They know!

Ben said...

Nice breakdown, well done. I'm inclined to say keep him somewhere, but its not my money.

Steve M. said...

Mark - How many fastballs do you think Olsen had today?

Steve M. said...

Mark - How many fastballs do you think Olsen had today over 90 MPH?

Section 222 said...

What's wrong with paying Olson a million bucks to continue to strengthen his shoulder in Syracuse? He can be ready to come up if Mock or Stammen falters, and Wang/Strasburg/Detwiler aren't ready. Are they seriously considering walking away from a guy who pitched as well as he did today and has an option left? I can hardly believe that. This is not a Patterson/Hill situation.

Nervous Nats Fan said...

Can he refuse being sent down? If I'm not mistaken, he has an option year remaining.

I mean, clearly he could sulk about it, but does his contract give him the chance to walk away?

phil dunn said...

It's not like Olsen is a $10 million gamble. We are talking about peanuts here. Certainly, the franchise can afford to take this small gamble. If Olsen turns out to have value and the Nats have no room for him, he would certainly have trade value. Decent left handed pitchers don't grow on trees. Further, there's no guarantee that Livan, Stammen and Mock will produce. I'll bet at least one of those three falters Martis was in the starting rotation last April and he has all but disappeared. KEEP OLSEN.

peric said...

Given the number of pitchers Rizzo has stockpiled including: Ryan Mattheus(TJ), Burnett(TJ), Severino(TJ), JZimm(TJ), Wang(shoulder) ...

Do you really believe that Mike Rizzo is going to outright release a left-handed starter, with starting experience in the majors, who is still young, and who has now shown that he is progressively getting stronger and better?

They really only have 4 other left-handed starters who are close to or are major league ready.

Lannan, Thompson, Detwiler, and Chico.

If it happens its an ownership decision not one by Mike Rizzo to save $750,000.

Anonymous said...

Olsen stays. Somewhere. Either here in DC (DL? BP?) Or (most unlikely), Syracuse.
Someone in the Nats starting 5 will either start stinking it up or get hurt....and Olsen will be viewed a godsend.

Avar said...

They have to keep Olsen. They have some depth but all of it is uncertain. Livo, Stammen, Mock, everyone in the minors, all uncertain. Even Strasburg. I know he dominated but that was spring. He's not a given. Even if Livo doesn't "struggle" but pitches like he usually does - Olsen is a significantly better pitcher than that when he's on form and it's looks like he's close to that.

Pay the money, use the option. Or if you want to cut someone, cut Livo but that doesn't make sense either until they are much more confident one of the replacements will be better than Livo.

Wily Mo Peterson said...

I agree with peric. With the dearth of quality lefty starts high in the organization, $750,000 is worth seeing if a 26 year old lefty who has already started 112 games, with 475 strikeouts to 264 walks can get healthy and find his form.

Also we hold a team option for 2011, I think for $2.5 mil, so if he does get healthy and realize his potential he will be an affordable lefty starter or great trade bait.

Again he is only 26 and he has been improving throughout spring training, lets see what the guys got.

Anonymous said...

I would let him go. SS, Zimmerman, or Wang would bump him out anyway. Even if he pitched well, it won't help this team this year. I don't see any upside for keeping him.

Joel said...

I really don't get it... all spring long we've been told by every writer, reporter, analyst, and team rep that the most important factor in determining whether or not Scott Olsen can win a job and be an effective pitcher in this league again is his velocity. It has been the center piece of every start Olsen has made so far. But now, on the most important start, the one that may very well determine his immidiate, if not long term future in the sport, nobody, not even the team's manager(!?!) seems to know anything about his velocity?

Anonymous said...

For anybody that really cares, there was one scout behind home plate with a gun and he obviously didn't work for the Nats (or if he did, no one is fessing up).

Jack

Anonymous said...

How is quality pitching depth a problem? How is keeping Olsen at a $750k cost even debatable? Three of the last 4 years, the Nats have had at least 10 different guys start 6+ games. Just as in year's past, there will be guys who don't perform, who get injured, who hit inning ceilings and who don't recover on the expected timetable.

Zimmermann may make some late year starts just when Strasburg is shutting down. All 5 of the April starters are unlikely to be effective and make 30 starts, and be replaced by one of Olsen, Detwiler or Wang. If we somehow luck into 2008 SP durability (with better results), then we have a surplus of cheap, MLB pitching at the midsummer trade deadline. What am I missing here?
-NatinBeantown

JayB said...

What you are missing is the Lerners are very cheap and if you want to stay on their good side you either wear leather pants, suck up to Mark Son and let him shag files OR you save money when ever possible and hope you made the best call. Rizzo has a hard job.

Anonymous said...

JayB:
So you're saying we're not getting Carl Crawford in LF next year?
-NatinBeantown

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