Friday, January 28, 2011

Justin Maxwell, Kory Casto, and the English Common Law

A brief discussion of the English common law, as it pertains to Justin Maxwell, who was designated for assignment by the Nationals yesterday:

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, "The customs, beliefs, or needs of a primitive time establish a rule or formula. In the course of centuries the custom, belief, or necessity disappears, but the rule remains." This rule was the venerable common law, the body of case law developed over several centuries by judges in England. The rules of the English common law remain in effect (sort of) in the colonial states of America, such as Virginia, unless the people have decided that those rules are "repugnant." If so, the legislature passes a statute tossing aside the old common law rule, and a new body of case law emerges interpreting this new statute.

An example: Let's say you're a landlord. Your tenant owes you back rent. Can you distrain your tenant's chattel until you collect the debt? In other words, can you hold your tenant's flat-screen TV hostage until he pays up? Well, up until 1835 the common law would have said, "Yeah, that's cool." But that year the Virginia legislature passed a law saying, "Nope, you can't (and the TV probably sucks, so why bother?)." Apparently this practice caused other kinds of problems, so the legislature enacted a law saying only a sheriff could do this under a court order. Virginia's customs, beliefs, or needs changed, so its people acted to toss out the common law rule.

Well, Justin Maxwell was a remnant from the old English common law system -- back from the time when MLB owned the Washington Nationals. While Maxwell was enthusiatically received when he was drafted by the Nats back in 2005, the guys who drafted him and praised him -- the old "judges" of talent such as Jim Bowden and Dana Brown -- are long gone. The guys who replaced them, Rizzo & Co., gave it a shot with this old holdover. But yesterday, they (in effect) legislated him out of the organization. Maxwell, like many other holdovers from the MLB regime, was tossed out, just like the old common law when it becomes too archaic.

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Maxwell's rise and fall in the Nats' eyes is a fairly representative blurb on this organization's early history in Washington. His story can be told more comprehensively and analytically elsewhere, but let's highlight a morsel of it here. Just as much as his story is a commentary on the period of MLB rule, it's also a commentary on the early stages of the Lerner/Kasten ownership group (the roll-out of "The Plan").

In a way, the Justin Maxwell Story can be subtitled "The Further Adventures of Kory Casto." If you're reading this blog, you remember Kory Casto. Because he was an early-round pick a couple years before the move to DC, and because he put up some good batting lines in the low minors, Casto was one of the few advanced position player prospects the Nationals had during the early "Plan" period. Casto was never a very good prospect, but the Kastenites had a way of puffing up his importance -- probably because, well, Casto was one of the few guys they could pump up at that point. At the time, I called this phenomenon the Kory Casto effect; see also Larry Broadway. Back then, Casto and Broadway were puffed up by the organization in large part because they were (somewhat) young and, given the team's stated direction, young talent equated with "excitement."

However, once Casto started getting some playing time in 2007-08, there developed a substantial disconnect between the organization's stated praise for him and his actual level of play. Put another way, Casto sucked. (As for Broadway, he never even reached the majors.) Not too soon thereafter, Casto was discarded. You could just as soon distrain your tenant's chattel for rent than you could see Casto meaningfully contribute to the Washington Nationals.

Maxwell is the same tune, different verse. He entered the organization as a something of a find, a "first-round talent" with an injury history pushing him a few rounds lower. But they kept saying he was a talent, and he continued to show glimpses of it. Yet he would get injured at inopportune times, and he had a hole in his swing the size of Montana. Given sporadic playing time last year, he drew some walks, but his batting performance was generally the worst damn thing I've seen from a Washington National, and that includes Joe Horgan in 2005. Maxwell is now 27, is out of option years, and, like Casto before him, has glimpsed the fullness of his time with the Nats.

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Of course, it's best not to overstate things: every organization experiences prospect erosion and sees its talent turn over continually. Just because a team drafts or signs a young player does not mean the young player will become a centerpiece of the major league team (or even reach the majors, like Maxwell and Casto did). The overwhelming majority of draftees or signees make no big league impact at all. And it's not just organizational guys who end up being Rule 5 picks or minor league free agents; former prospects bounce around too. The odds were Maxwell and Casto would fail as big leaguers -- no matter that MLB drafted them, no matter how the Kasten crew touted them -- because those are the breaks of the game. There's no shame in trying.

And this is not to suggest that the organization has derived no continuing benefit from the prospects it inherited from MLB ownership. Ryan Zimmerman, of course, was drafted nearly a year before the Lerners were selected, and you could say he's worked out well so far. John Lannan, selected three rounds after Zimmerman, is no star but has been something of a diamond in the rough. The righthanded poor man's Lannan, Craig Stammen, was taken thirty picks later. Ian Desmond, a 2004 draftee who is now years removed from Bowden's rank hyperbole, began making an impact last season. Collin Balester, drafted one round after Desmond, might be gaining a toe-hold in the bullpen after a couple of false starts in the rotation. These guys have propped up the (so far) barren draft of 2006, which occurred during the ownership transition.

Then there's Roger Bernadina, who might be the next in the Maxwell/Casto line, or might not. Bernadina actually predates the MLB ownership era; I believe he was signed so long ago that Sir William Blackstone was the guy who signed him. At any rate, Bernadina turns 27 in June and is entering his make-or-break season. There's room for him to make an impression, but odds are he's not more than a role player.

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Back to Maxwell for a second, and I promise this has nothing to do with the English common law. Back in October, Maxwell had Tommy John surgery. At the time, the organization anticipated him returning to full strength in February. I haven't really seen anything about his progress lately, but I'd guess there's a chance that the DFA means simply nothing more than that the Nats can pull him from the 40-man roster and slip him through waivers. If so, the Maxwell era continues, albeit less enthusiastically.

However, as often happens, when a team makes a player available to other teams, other teams' fans start imagining what that player could do for their teams. And so it goes with Maxwell -- I've seen fans from the Phillies, the A's, the O's, the Cubs, etc. hoping their team picks him up and gives him a shot. And, to be honest, I think Maxwell's worth another shot (with the Nats or with another organization). He's physically gifted, and his development as a player has been delayed to some extent. He could need another season or two to pull it all together. It doesn't happen often for a player Maxwell's age, but it does happen.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tom Gorzelanny is a Gobot

Over at Fangraphs, Dave Cameron asks the question that has confounded us literally for hours, several hours -- "What is Tom Gorzelanny?" Gorzelanny's been a strikeout guy, kind of, but at other times hasn't been; he's had abysmal control at times, then it's been okay other times; he's been a gopherball guy, except when he hasn't; he's had okay ERAs with bad peripherals, and then he's had bad ERAs with okay peripherals. It's confounding! The answer's out there, one supposes, and maybe it's in Cameron's face, but he can't grab it -- "He’s one of the most confusing pitchers in the game."

So what is Gorzelanny? Well, on a somewhat less analytical level, he's a Gobot.

The Gobots, of course, were similar to the Transformers, but not nearly as cool. Gobots were rather clunky and blocky, and their individual names tended not to capture the imagination. The Gobot modeled after a tank, for instance, was named "Tank." Gofigure. When they went off the reservation a little bit and tried to be creative, the results were even worse. The name of the dump truck was "Dumper," which seems apt.

Yet, while they most definitely were not the Transformers (and thus never earned the distinction of Michael Bay's muse), the Gobots were a serviceable toy. The Gobots could play, especially for the family on a budget.

The Transformers of the pitching realm this offseason were Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke, and Matt Garza. Garza might be stretching the analogy a touch, but generally speaking, these three belong in the class of pitchers you keep around for quite awhile. You use them regularly with confidence, you display them prominently, and you really don't want to imagine losing them. The Nationals were in on all these guys, at least in theory, but they were never really in the catbird seat on any of them (albeit for different reasons).

So the Nats downshifted yesterday and got Gorzo, a Gobot. He'll fit in decently, unless he breaks down, but in any event he probably won't be around for a very long time because he doesn't figure to be very important to the Nats' long-term interests, win or lose. So they'll use Gorzo for awhile, and maybe the results will be pleasant -- knowing all the while that he's being acquired with discarding him in mind, just like a Gobot.

The biggest key to understanding the Gorzelanny trade, in my view, is in accepting that a Gobot is a fine thing to have. It's not a great thing to have, like a Transformer, but it's fine nonetheless. If you're expecting a "No. 1 starter," then the trade for Gorzelanny leaves a sour taste, but he's appreciably better than the guy who would have been the last pitcher on the pitching staff prior to yesterday. His presence improves the situation, if modestly. And the Nats can use all the improvements they can manage to squirrel up.

The second biggest key to understanding the Gorzelanny trade is knowing what the Nats gave up to get him. This does give me some pause -- not really in the case of Michael Burgess, but perhaps in the case of A.J. Cole. John Sickels rates Cole as a Grade B prospect, and Sickels is known as a tough grader. But Cole has a long way to climb until he's in a position to make any kind of impact, and bad stuff can happen to a pitcher in that time. This is not to suggest that such bad stuff would happen to Cole (whether a Nat or a Cub), but the posture of this trade as it stands right now is that the Nats have surrendered two projects and a filler.

EDIT: Well, crap. That should be A.J. Morris, not A.J. Cole. Whoops. Thanks, Steven. I suppose I do have a dim view on pitching prospects, since I was okay parting with Cole. But as you can tell, I don't really follow the Nats minor leaguers all that carefully anymore -- if I ever really did. Okay, back to the post . . .

It is fashionable in this narrow niche known as Nats fandom to state that the Nats already have many, many fourth- or fifth-starter types, and that perception is correct. And at some point the Nats will have to see what they have in Detwiler and Maya. But the Gorzelanny trade gives the Nats an acceptable alternative to those guys, or alternatively, some time to season them a little more. Gorzelanny is insurance should Wang face yet another setback, or if Livan turns back into a pumpkin, or if Lannan goes through another one of his punching bag spells. In other words, Gorzelanny is Scott Olsen except with the potential for sustained competence. He's not the difference between being bad and contending, of course, but he might help late July or August or September be a little less dismal. That would be worth whatever he'll be making in 2011, and the front office guys were willing to risk that it was worth what they gave up to get him.

The alternative was to overpay on Carl Pavano, who, to extend the analogy, is a Micro Machine. He's relatively cool, and he comes with some flashy (or cheesy) packaging, but in the end you're probably left to ask, "What the hell was that?"