Given that the Nationals were one of the worst offensive teams in baseball, you won't be surprised to hear that we advocate big changes. We're not talking about tweaking the lineup or filling a hole, we're talking about rebuilding an offense that was embarrassingly bad. At a minimum the Nationals need a left fielder and either a shortstop or a third baseman, depending on where Ryan Zimmerman plays next year. We're assuming that Zimmerman will be the everyday third baseman, but, as you'll see, we propose that Zimmerman move to short and the Nationals acquire a big hitting third baseman. That would upgrade dramatically the team's production from the left side of the infield.
The team also needs either the old Vidro at second and the old Brad Wilkerson in center or new players at both positions. Vidro and Wilkerson vastly underperformed expectations last season, and while we all hope they'll return to form next year, there's more than a little bit of doubt in our minds about that. We'd like to see Rick Short at second and Jose Vidro in another uniform, but that isn't likely. We nevertheless can dream. In any event, second and center are longer term projects because Vidro and Wilkerson will be given a chance to prove themselves again.
The Nationals can't make all these changes in one off-season. They should, however, start the rebuilding process now by selectively acquiring young players who are likely to be consistently productive major leaguers for a long time to come. The worst thing they could do is repeat their Cristian Guzman mistake--overpay for average production from players past their prime. They need to be patient, and we, as fans, needed to patient, too.
This post is laden with numbers, some of which we haven't used before. Here's an explanation of the terms that are new to this blog. OPS+ comes from baseball-reference.com; it normalizes OPS for both the park and the league in which the player played, thereby providing a better method for comparing hitters. EQA, which comes from baseballprospectus.com, also attempts to create one number for comparison purposes; it measures total offensive value per out, with corrections for league offensive level, home park, and team pitching. EQA considers batting as well as baserunning, but not the value of a position player's defense.
We've tried to analyze both offensive and defensive production because readers from time to time criticize us for not valuing a player's defense or recognizing that a player is such a defensive liability that he doesn't belong on the field. RF is an acronym for range factor. It comes from ESPN.com and is calculated as follows: (put outs + assists)/innings played. RATE 2 also comes from baseballprospectus.com; it calculates a fielder's rate of production, equal to 100 plus the number of runs above or below average this fielder is per 100 games. A higher number is better for both RF and RATE 2.
It was a great season for Schneider, who established himself both on the offensive and defensive sides. We'd like to see more at bats next season, but that's a mild criticism for a player who is definitely a keeper. Gary Bennett was a liability whenever he played, but most every number two catcher is a liability. It just doesn't make sense in this era to spend much on a back-up two catcher, so Bennett is probably worth keeping unless a better option falls into the Nationals' lap.
It was a great season for Nick Johnson, too. He is an on-base machine, and he generates enough power to produce an OPS+ and EQA 40 points higher than the average first baseman. He isn't the most nimble fielder, but he's adequate. The only knock on Johnson is that he's injury prone; he hasn't been healthy for a full season in pretty close to forever. If he's going to reach his potential, he needs to give the Nationals more than 500 at bats.
Jose Vidro was one of the team's biggest disappointments. He was essentially AWOL for the entire season, both because he was injured for much of the year and was a shell of his former self on those rare occasions when he did play. Vidro cost the Nationals $7 million per, and for that they got league-average performance for less than half a season. Contracts like that can kill a team, and Vidro must ramp up his performance in a big way if the Nationals are going to win the East next year.
Jamey Carroll is one of those players fans love because they see themselves in them. That's good for a player's popularity, but doesn't reflect well on his skill level. The David Ecksteins of the world have enough talent to make it work, but Carroll is no David Eckstein. You'd like to get league-average performance out of your utility infielder, but Carroll won't give us that. On the other hand, he makes the league minimum so it's not like the Nationals are out of pocket a lot of money. It would be nice to have a better option off the bench, but only if the option is cheap.
Speaking of options, imagine that you're Rick Short. You've toiled in the minors for a decade, but you're hitting nearly .400 in AAA New Orleans so you're hoping the call from the majors comes soon. Instead, you spend nearly the whole season in the minors, even though the big club's hitters look like they're on serious doses of valium. Then, in September, with less than a month left in the season, your call comes and you finally get a chance to prove yourself. You hit the ball really well in The Show, demonstrating that you're comfortable at the plate and, because you take pitchers like John Smoltz to the opposite field, that you're a professional hitter. All you need now is more time. But then something cruel happens: with a little more than a week left in the season you go to the ground hard, separating your shoulder. The injury looks bad, and it is: you're out for six months and won't be back until March. The team wanted you to use the winter to work on your defensive skills so that you could play second base, but now you'll be idle until spring training. The chance you wanted so badly and for which you waited so long suddenly seems out of reach yet again.
The baseball gods can be cruel, and a guy like Rick Short is going to have to stare them down if he's ever to play in the majors. Yes, he had only thirteen September at bats, but it's not like that performance was out of character. It's become generally well accepted that players who hit well in AA or AAA will hit well in the majors, and we think that's true of Short, even though he is older than most minor leaguers. Short deserves a chance, and we hope the Nationals give him an oppotunity to make the big club. His injury won't help, but hopefully he'll be healthy in March. We got a lot of criticism for ignoring Short's defensive shortcomings, but the stats, meager as they are, don't suggest that he's a liability, and his bat would make up for a lot in the field. We're confident that Short could become an adequate fielder.
We think the Nationals should adopt a novel approach for next year: start Rick Short at second, Ryan Zimmerman at short, and a big bat at third acquired via free agency or trade. The Nationals' current options in the middle infield positions aren't great, and Short and Zimmerman would save them money they could spend on an impact third baseman. Yes, Vidro stands in the way, but we'd love to see him sent packing via trade even if the Nationals get only minor leaguers in return. He's on the downside of his career at a time when the Nationals have to spend a lot of money to get below average production. Anyway, it's just a thought.
What is there left to say? Guzman was one of the worst free agent signings since Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause, and it's very possible that the Nationals would have made the playoffs had they started a replacement-level shortstop. Instead, they started a guy who until September had lost whatever skill he once had at the plate. For five months he was one of the worst hitting shortstops in baseball history, and he looked every bit as bad as his stats suggested. To all those who think Guzman's September signals superior production to come, we say look at his career stats, because there's not a whole lot there to like. Guzman's defense was awful, too; his defensive stats mean that he needs Rick Short's bat to justify his playing time. He doesn't have it, and it will be virtually impossible for Guzman to justify his ridiculous contract. The Nats need to face reality and search for a replacement shortstop.
Another big hole that the Nationals need to fill. Castilla was great in April, average in August, and awful the rest of the season. He seemed to be going through the motions as the season wound down, and it's hard to see him as an integral part of this team going forward. Castilla was never as good as his stats suggested because he played in Coors Field, which is the most pronounced hitters' park in baseball history. RFK has exposed his limitations in an embarrassing way. Yes, he was injured, but Castilla is almost forty, so injuries will be a fact of life with him from here on out. The Nationals need big production from this position, and they're not going to get it from Castilla.
They could get it from Ryan Zimmerman, though. Zimmerman was brilliant after his September call-up, consistently driving the ball to all fields. Like Short, he was very comfortable at the plate, which bodes well for his future. We have to temper our expectations somewhat because he's only twenty one, but his future looks very, very bright. Zimmerman could be valuable at third, but he could be great at short. The stats suggest that Zimmerman would be a more than adequate defensively at short, and if his bat is as good as his September performance suggests he's potentially one of the best shortstops around.
With Zimmerman at short and an impact bat at third acquired through free agency or trade, the Nats could have superior production from the left side the of the infield. That's the kind of smart move a team building for the future needs to make.
Try this experiment: get Jose Guillen and Frank Robinson mad at each other and put them in the same room. Would you produce spontaneous combustion? You might, because both are fiercely competitive and downright volatile. They were perfect for each other, with Guillen channeling Robinson's take-no-prisoners personality on the field and in the clubhouse. It worked for most of the season because Guillen was one of the Nationals's few bright spots on offense, at least before September, when he was simply awful. When the Nationals needed his bat to mount a climb back to the top of the Wild Card Race, Guillen's September OPS was an anemic .427. Guillen wore down as the season progressed, both physically and mentally. He appears to have been the source of a lot of clubhouse friction, although that story still hasn't been told fully. We all hope Guillen will calm down, but that's not likely. He's a hyper-competitive guy with thin skin, and that's not a good combination. Still, the Nationals have to count Guillen as one of their everyday players in 2006.
Another huge hole for the Nationals in 2006. Wilkerson had two good months--April and June--but was otherwise terrible. The Nationals were counting on Wilkerson to supply significant production at the top of the order, but he didn't come close to meeting expectations. Everyone knows about the lack of power, but his OBP in July and August was .314 and .319, respectively. Some attribute his lack of production to injuries, and we hope that's true. The Nationals either need strong production from Wilkerson or a replacement if they're going to be a playoff team. With all of their other holes, it's going to be hard for the Nats to find a replacement for Wilkerson, so we'll probably have to put our faith in him for next year. The team should, however, be looking for a long-term replacement.
Jim Bowden wanted us to believe that Preston Wilson was the answer to all of our problems. What we got was the type of average performance you expect from a fourth outfielder. We trust that Wilson won't be back next year and that in the future the Nationals will invest their money in offensive production that isn't pumped up by Colorado's thin air.
After a hot start, this was a lost position for the Nationals. Church was awesome in May and June and awful thereafter. He appeared to lose both his confidence and his swing beginning in July and was never the contributor his early season performance suggested he could be. The question now is whether Church can duplicate his May and June performance over the course of a season. If he can, he'll be a starter. If he can't, he'll be back in the minors pretty quickly. Church is no doubt better than the season's last three months suggest, but we don't think he's going to be good enough to be a starter on a division winner. He more likely will be a fourth outfielder, which isn't so bad for a guy no one had heard of before last season.
Marlon Byrd is another fourth outfielder, at best. He was awful before being called back up to the majors in late-August, but he was a different hitter in September, driving the ball in a way he hadn't earlier in the season. Let's not make too much of this, though, because Byrd managed only one homer in 57 September at bats. He's never shown that he can be a consistently productive major league hitter, and we don't expect him to start now.
Brandon Watson was a complete washout. Jim Bowden overhyped him in the extreme, which was unfair in the extreme. Watson is hitting well in winter ball, but we don't hold out much hope for his next season.
The Nationals need serious help in left field. If they're going to challenge for the East title next year they need to acquire a big bat for this position.