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July 15, 2011 / Nat Anacostia

Envisioning the 2013 Nationals (Part two – the position players)

The Nationals are now close enough to putting together a contending team that we can start to envision what it will look like and what steps still need to be taken. In my last post I discussed the pitchers. Now it’s time to look at the position players.

At catcher, we face an interesting dilemma. We’re obviously pleased with the development of Wilson Ramos, who has shown both superb defensive skills and a bat that rates above average for his position. On the other hand, the Nats’ number two prospect, Derek Norris, is also a catcher. Currently at Harrisburg, Norris projects as a Mickey Tettleton-type batter, with plenty of walks and home runs offsetting a low batting average with a ton of strikeouts. The co-existence of these two young catchers opens a range of possibilities—trade one or the other? Let them share playing time? My own preference would be to hold onto Ramos and to make Norris available if needed for an important trade, but it will be interesting to see how the Nats handle it.

At first base, the Nats’ current incumbent, Michael Morse, is also currently their best hitter with a line of .306/.351/.535. Morse also plays first base smoothly, contrasting with the awkwardness that he sometimes exhibited while in the outfield. It’s a shame that someone didn’t realize six years ago that first base was his natural position—he might have had a nice major league career.

In evaluating Morse going forward, however, it’s important to keep in mind that he’s 29 years old, so this season is probably the best he’ll ever play. Morse will be under team control through 2013, and I wouldn’t have a problem leaving him at first base until then (though he’ll probably have to share time with Adam LaRoche next season if LaRoche comes back successfully from his surgery). On the other hand, I wouldn’t be opposed to trading him if we get a player with some real value in return. We’ve seen rumors of the Nationals having interest in signing a prominent free agent first baseman—Prince Fielder, specifically, has been mentioned. I’m not really a fan of this idea—first base is not the Nats’ biggest deficiency, and players who are able to play first base are relatively abundant. I’d prefer to use our free agent dollars on positions where the need is greater and talent is scarcer, such as starting pitching, shortstop, and center field.

While the as-yet unsigned 2011-draftee, Anthony Rendon, is officially designated a third baseman and will probably play that position in the minors, I have a hunch that he may end up at first base. Maybe it’s my memories of Nick Johnson, but when I see Rendon described as “an on-base machine with good power” and also read about ankle and shoulder injuries, I think of first base. Having been one of the best college hitters for the last three years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rendon advance through the minors quickly enough to join the Nats by 2013.

The development of second baseman Danny Espinosa has been one of highlights of this season. Above average in every aspect of his game except batting for average (and he’s much improved there), he’s currently rated by fangraphs.com as 3.3 wins above replacement, ranking 26th among all major league position players. He carries the promise of being one of the better second basemen in baseball for the next several years.

Ryan Zimmerman, of course, holds down third base through 2013 and remains the team’s best player. Do his injury and surgery affect the outlook for his future? To some extent, I think they do. As we consider possible scenarios for his future career, I think the ceiling remains the same—one of the best players in baseball, possible MVP, possible Hall of Famer, etc. But the risk that his career turns to disappointment has gone up—not a lot, but somewhat. There is simply more uncertainty about his health and his future performance than we thought there was a year ago.

I hope that this elevated uncertainty doesn’t derail the possibility of signing Zimmerman to a long term extension. Teams that have signed their “face of the franchise” to extensions for the period in which the player is still in his prime (like Tampa Bay with Longoria and Colorado with Tulowitzki) have generally received good value for their investment (in contrast to teams that have signed big extensions to players in their declining years).

Shortstop presents the most interesting dilemma for the Nationals. Ian Desmond has shown promise and is young enough to be given time to establish himself, but has struggled. If he could just put together the hitting that he exhibited in 2009–10 (.270/.309/.415, 93 wRC+) with the above-average defense that he’s exhibited in 2011, he would be a good, above-average shortstop. (Although his hitting statistics for 2009–10 may seem low, they’re actually better than the average for shortstops, which in 2010 was .261/.316/.373.) This year Desmond’s struggled with the bat (.223/.264/.308) and the Nationals seem to be willing to give him time to get his swing back. I’m hopeful that with patience and coaching he can cut back the strikeouts and regain the power that seems to have disappeared.

If Desmond can’t re-establish himself as a major league hitter, the Nationals lack any real shortstop prospects, so they may need to turn to external sources. Signing a free agent may be a possibility, with several prominent shortstops potentially available on the market this winter (José Reyes, Jimmy Rollins, JJ Hardy). With talent in limited supply, however, the competition to sign free agent shortstops is likely to be intense.

A number of fans have suggested addressing the Nats’ shortstop problem by promoting Syracuse second baseman, Stephen Lombardozzi, who has been hitting well in in Harrisburg and Syracuse, and moving Espinosa to shortstop. This is one of those moves that probably works better in fantasy baseball than it would on a real team.

Running Lombardozzi’s 2011 minor league numbers through the handy major league equivalency calculator at minorleaguesplits.com takes a lot of air out of his numbers—he projects to .255/.292/.355. Not only is there a significant lack of power, but there aren’t as many walks as you’d like from a guy whose role is to get on base. While Lombardozzi’s projected numbers are better than Desmond’s 2011 numbers, they aren’t that much better (and they’re actually worse than Desi’s 2009–10 numbers). More ominously, this move runs the risk of making the Nats worse defensively at both shortstop and second base. While Espinosa has been an excellent second baseman, he projects as just an average shortstop, and Lombardozzi would have to be awfully good not to have a drop off in defense at second base.

My bottom line on this proposal is that it should be a last resort—something to try if Desi can’t get back on track with the bat and we’re unable to solve the problem with a trade or free agent signing. I’ll also note that because Lombardozzi is three years younger than Desi, he has more room to grow, so the numbers perhaps aren’t quite as gloomy as what the MLEs currently indicate. But the point remains that the offensive advantage of the move is so small that it could easily be trumped by a loss in defense.

Moving to the corner outfield positions, it’s easy to assume that Jayson Werth will hold one position and Bryce Harper the other for 2013 and several years thereafter. (I don’t think it really makes much difference which player goes to right field and which to left.) There’s, of course, a small risk that Harper’s ascent through the minors takes longer than we anticipate, but based on his progress to date, he should be in place on the Nats by 2013.

As fans, our bigger concern may be managing expectations. For 2013, what we should be looking for from both players is just good performance, such as a +3 WAR season . Werth will be 34 years old and isn’t likely to provide +5 WAR performances again. And while I’m confident that Harper will eventually have all-star seasons, most players struggle with adjustments during their first season or two in the majors, so it would be best to ignore the hype and Griffey and ARod comparisons and hope that he can adjust reasonably well to major league pitching.

That leaves center field, which is the Nats’ biggest hole. Roger Bernadina is currently 27 years old, so he’s not getting any better. As many observers have noted, what we have is a player who is not good enough defensively to be a center fielder and not a good enough hitter to be corner outfielder. If he stays with the Nats, it should be as a fourth outfielder. The Nats’ best center field prospect, Eury Pérez, is struggling at Potomac and is unlikely to be ready by 2013.

That leaves external sources. There don’t appear many free agent options, so the Nats will probably need to make a trade. I note that, with Mike Trout available, at some point the Angels may be willing to deal Peter Bourjos, though he certainly wouldn’t come cheaply. Fortunately, there is now getting to be enough talent in the Nationals’ system that such trades can at least be contemplated.

All in all, the Nationals are in very good shape looking forward to 2013. The two needs that I expect will have to be filled externally are a number two pitcher and a center fielder. Depending on Desmond’s performance, shortstop could be a third need. Otherwise, the system already has the talent to produce a contending team for 2013.

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