October 21, 2020

Waiting for Fielder

As the Prince Fielder watch continues into what seems like eternity, the Washington Nationals still appear to have some roster work to do before spring training starts, barely a month from now.  GM Mike Rizzo’s stated goals over the winter included upgrading the center fielder position, finding a top-of-the-order table-setter, acquiring a quality workhorse starting pitcher and upgrading the options Davey Johnson can consider on the bench.

So far, Rizzo’s hitting just .250 for the winter.

Rizzo found his quality starter, former Oakland Athletic Gio Gonzalez.  The lefty, who made the A.L. All-Star team last season, will slot very nicely between Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann at the top of the Nats rotation.  He’s a classic power pitcher (high K rates, high BB rates) that seems to be able to keep the ball in the park.  We’ll have to see if the transfer to the N.L. mitigates his having played in a huge ballpark so far in his career.

But for the other stated goals, Rizzo has to be graded an “incomplete”.

Besides Gonzalez, the only other players of significance acquired this winter have been OF Mike Cameron and INF Mark DeRosa.  In fact, Cameron is only on a minor league deal.  At one point in their careers, both Cameron and DeRosa were quality, productive Major League players.  Good even.  But those days are long gone. 

Cameron is still a terrific defender and capable of popping one out of the park on occasion, but his contact and OBP skills have eroded past the point of earning regular at bats and DeRosa’s debilitating wrist injury has robbed him of much of the last two seasons and all of his power (.279 slugging in ’10-’11 in just 73 games).

There has been no table-setter acquired.  No everyday center fielder.  It’s questionable that Cameron and DeRosa represent an upgrade over Jonny Gomes, Laynce Nix and Alex Cora.  Steve Lombardozzi should be there from Opening Day this year, but he is an untested rookie who will be prone to slumps, plus he has very little power to speak of.

The funny thing is, if the Nats are successful in landing Fielder, they will upgrade their bench by osmosis.  Adam LaRoche would become the highest played back-up player, pinch-hitter and defensive replacement in the league.  His filling that bench spot would allow the Nats to prove his health, and if he can be productive in that role he could turn into a valuable trading chip.  But for now, LaRoche and his surgically repaired throwing shoulder are pencilled into the starting lineup.

The Nats brought in a bunch of players on non-roster invitations to spring training, but not nearly as many as in the past.  Past-their-prime (or never-had-a-prime) players such as Jason Michaels, Brett Carroll, Xavier Paul, Andres Blanco and Chad Tracy will hang out in Viera collecting some at bats and maybe provide some depth for the club at Syracuse, but none are viable contenders to contribute to the Nats if they really expect to be competitive this season.

There are a few free agents still floating around that might be interesting for the bench if the Nats don’t land Fielder, guys such as OF/1B Brad Hawpe, MI Ryan Theriot and old friend Rick Ankiel.  But those pickings are slim, and none fit the top-of-the order center fielder that Rizzo so covets.  Of course, Cuban refugee Yoenis Cespedes doesn’t have an offer yet, but it’s widely debatable if his obvious physical tools and success in the Cuban National League would translate to the Major Leagues, especially for the rumored contract he’s looking for.

So as spring training approaches, the Nats still seem to have some work to do around the edges.  There’s time yet, but more and more it looks like Rizzo’s willing to take the gamble that Bryce Harper is going to win the right fielder’s job, forcing Jayson Werth to center field and keeping OBP-challenged Ian Desmond at lead-off.  It’s not really a perfect long-time solution, but it would give Rizzo some more time to find that mythical lead-off center fielder.

Nats shouldn’t make Fielder decision based on current roster

As the baseball world continues to wait for Scott Boras to make up Prince Fielder’s mind on where he’ll play baseball for the next five-to-ten years, fans and media (local and national) that follow the Washington Nationals have been screwing themselves into the ground trying to figure out what’s best for this team, now and in the future.  It’s been a “death by papercuts” sort of exercise. 

One of the greatest things about advanced statistics — and their accessibility now due to sites like Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference — is that so many more people can make informed commentary about what constitutes winning baseball.  One of the drawbacks to this accessibility is that… so many more people can make informed commentary.  You get the point.

Lots of folks are worried about how — or even if — Fielder “fits” into the Washington Nationals roster as currently constructed.  Prince Fielder is one of the top half-dozen hitters in the game today, and should be for the next five years or so.  Past that is a serious question mark, but even if he does a total collapse as some of his big-bodied brethren have before him (including his equally prodigious, but not as complete as a ballplayer father), he should be able to maintain his production until age 31 or 32.  The point is: If you’re able to lock up one of the best hitters in the game for what should be his peak years, you do it and sort the rest out later.

Veteran columnist Thom Loverro ponders the lineup question in his most recent column as well.  I really respect Thom’s opinion, but I’ll respectfully disagree.  This team would be much better off with Ryan Zimmerman continuing to play Gold Glove caliber defense at third base.  His injuries two of the last four years have been of the incidental variety, not chronic in nature.  He sorted out his throwing woes for the most part as the season wore down, and now fully healed from the abdominal injury should go right back to being Ryan Zimmerman this season — and for the future.

Zimmerman is one of the elite third basemen in the league.  Move him across the diamond, and he’s merely average, even if he becomes the greatest fielding first baseman since Keith Hernandez.  His value is so high precisely because he plays such stellar defense at third with his all-around hitting game.  Moving him reduces that advantage.

Anthony Rendon will find a position to play in the majors.  It might be second base.  It might be left field.  It might end up being third base.  But if his bat develops like most in the industry thinks it will, it will be a plus bat regardless what position he plays, except of course if someone thinks he should play first base.

The silliest debate going around these days is: What happens to Michael Morse if the Nats sign Fielder?  I’ll tell you what happens.  You let him play left field.  If he is able to approximate his numbers from last season (which will be difficult unless he reduces his K/BB rate), you trade him at the deadline.  Or not, give him another significant pay raise at arbitration and let him walk after his 2013 free agent year.  What you don’t do is avoid signing one of the most productive hitters in the game for a player that in his career year still only accumulated 3.0 WAR. 

Under no circumstances do you award Morse with a multi-year deal.  The Nats have too many of their core (Zimmerman, Zimmermann, Strasburg, et al.) coming up on free agency or arbitration.  His value will never be higher than it is today.  He has no position.  His production, while real, is significantly flawed.  The Nats have holes in their lineup they need addressing.  You see where I’m going with this.

And I haven’t even mentioned Adam LaRoche, he of the $9 million due to him ($8 million salary, $1 million buy-out for 2013).  As he recovers from his injury and proves his health, let him pinch-hit and be a defensive replacement.  He’d be the best bench player the Nats have ever had.  It’s an expensive proposition to be sure, but it’s only a one-year problem and he’s off the books by the time the Nats have to give raises to their core.

The Nats will be a better team with Prince Fielder, on the cusp of truly being competitive.  At just 27 years of age, he should hold his value for the next five years.  They have a core of young players that are all entering the primes of their careers during those same five years.  The Nats should pay for those years and try to win in that time-frame.   If they keep waiting and finding excuses, they may just run out of time.

Nationals close to deal with INF Mark DeRosa

According to multiple local and national sources, the Washington Nationals are just a physical exam away from signing veteran infielder Mark DeRosa to a Major League contract for the upcoming season.  DeRosa, 36, has spent the last two injury-plagued seasons with the San Francisco Giants.

DeRosa, over just 73 games in 2010-11, hit .235/.313/.279 with just six extra base hits with the Giants.  His latest wrist injury came in May and sidelined DeRosa until August, when he came back to hit .367 with .439 OBP in 29 games — but just 57 plate appearances.  He was mostly relegated to pinch-hit duty for the contending Giants.

DeRosa’s last good year came in 2009, split between Cleveland and St. Louis, when he hit .250/.319/.433 with 23 home runs and 78 RBIs, which earned him a two-year, $12 million contract with San Francisco.  But two wrist surgeries have completely robbed him of his extra-base power, as he had just one double after he returned from his latest surgery last August.

DeRosa is a career .272/.341/.416 hitter with 14 home runs per 162 games, and will most likely be used as a utility player and right-handed bat off the bench, most likely prohibiting the Nats from carrying Steve Lombardozzi on the roster in a similar capacity.

With the Nats claiming third baseman Carlos Rivero off waivers from the Phillies, if DeRosa passes his physical, they will have 38 player on the 40-man roster.

Rivero, 23, hit .260 with 16 homers, 71 RBI and a .326 on-base percentage in 136 combined games between Class AA Reading and Class AAA Lehigh Valley in 2010.  He should provide organizational depth at the third base position as prospect Anthony Rendon makes his way through the system.

Nationals sign Mike Cameron to minor league contract

According to multiple reports, the Washington Nationals signed 17-year veteran outfielder Mike Cameron to a minor league contract Monday.  Cameron, 39 on Jan. 8, hit .230/.285/.359 with nine home runs and 27 RBIs last season in 269 plate appearances between Boston and Florida.  For his career, Cameron has hit .249/.338/.444 with 23 home runs per 162 games played.

Cameron was once a prolific base-stealer as well, with a career-high 38 in 1999, but does not run much at all anymore, as his one successful attempt last season will attest.  He is a terrific defender, having won three Gold Gloves throughout the course of his underappreciated career.

Cameron spend the second half of last season with Florida, where he hit .238/.331/.420 with six homers in 164 plate appearances before being released after an altercation with a flight attendant on a team charter.  Cameron also served a 25-game MLB suspension in 2007 for testing positive for a banned stimulant.

It’s no secret the Nats have been in the market for a center fielder this winter, especially one that could hit lead-off, but they have been unable to crack that market as of yet.  Cameron gives them a decent fall-back option to platoon with Roger Bernadina or Rick Ankiel should they not be able to upgrade at starter over the off-season. 

Alternatively, if the team feels Bryce Harper is ready to make the team out of spring training — presumably in right field, with Jayson Werth sliding over to center field — the Ankiel-Cameron outfield bench would give the Nats plenty of late-inning options, both offensively and defensively.

Nationals non-tender Slaten; free agent ranks grow

The Washington Nationals failed to tender a contract to LHP Doug Slaten by the midnight deadline yesterday, thus making the veteran left-hander a free agent.  Slaten, 31, was downright horrible in 2011, allowing 47 percent of inherited runners to score.  He pitched to a 4.41 ERA and simply incredible 2.143 WHIP in just 16 1/3 innings over 31 games and allowed left-handed batters to reach base at a .333/.368/.639 clip. 

Slaten was arbitration eligible this season, and though his salary would have still been modest, the Nats decided to cut ties with him regardless.

There were a few other names across MLB that were reportedly non-tendered that might be of interest to the Nats as they continue their search to bolster their rotation and bench.

Joe Saunders:  The Arizona Diamondbacks non-tendered the 30-year old left-handed starter.  Saunders is a D.C. local product, a graduate of West Springfield High and Virginia Tech.  Last season for the D-backs, Saunders went 12-13 with a 3.69 ERA and 1.307 WHIP, striking out 4.6 per nine and walking 2.8 per nine.  He’s a poor man’s Mark Buerhle, and is capable of throwing a lot of innings for a team.  Is Saunders an upgrade over Ross Detwiler at this point of their careers?  Also, reports indicate Arizona is trying to lock up Saunders to a more favorable contract via free agency than they would have been stuck with through arbitration.

Hong-Chih Kuo: A left-handed reliever, Kuo was one of the best int he N.L. for several seasons, earning an All-Star nod in 2010 for his 3-2, 1.20 ERA, 0.783 WHIP season.  Last year he got roughed up and eventually required elbow surgery, but he’s expected to be ready for opening day.  In seven MLB seasons, Kuo has averaged 10.6 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9, so if healthy he could really help a team out in need of a lefty reliever.

Ryan Theriot:  Theriot will probably look for a starting role somewhere and probably get it, but at this stage of his career he’s more suited for a utility role.  He could be a nice fit in D.C. as a utility player or possible replacement if a middle infielder was dealt for pitching.  In seven MLB seasons, Theriot has hit .282/.344/.353 with a SB ratio of 108/44.  He doesn’t have any pop, but is a decent fielder at second or shortstop and is one of those guys lauded for his “lunchpail” work ethic, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Are Nats looking overseas to fill their needs?

It’s widely accepted that the Washington Nationals are in the market this off-season for a No. 3 starter and a center fielder, preferably one that possesses a high enough OBP to hit in the lead-off spot.  Thus far, we’ve seen a bunch of free agent pitchers that could have fit the bill sign elsewhere, and the market for center fielders is slim, indeed.

Could the Nats turn their attention overseas to fill both slots?

The big name from Japan this winter is pitcher Yu Darvish, 25, who has put up otherworldly stats against mostly high Double-A/Triple A competition in the Japanese National League.  Last season, Darvish dominated his possibly final season in Japan with an 18-6 record, 10 complete games, six shutouts, a 1.44 ERA, 276 K’s (10.71 K/9) and 36 BB (1.40 BB/9) in 28 starts and 232.0 IP for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.   Them’s some crazy numbers.

Darvish, under the process the Japanese major league uses to allow their players to become free agents, was posted by the Fighters last Thursday, and any MLB team that wishes to have the rights to negotiate with the righty has until the middle of this week to submit their bid.  After the posting bids are processed, the team that won the bid then has 30 days to negotiate a contract.  If the posting team doesn’t receive what it thinks is an appropriate bid, they can take the player off the market.

The last two prominent Japanese pitchers that went through the posting process, Kei Igawa and Diasuke Matsuzaka, garnered posting fees of $26 million and $51 million respectively.  Darvish should command closer to Matsuzaka than Igawa.  Then the team that wins the bid has to negotiate a contract on top of that.  It’s a dicey proposition (all puns included) bidding on a Japanese player, with their gaudy stats and mysterious allure.  Neither Igawa nor Matsuzaka flourished — as their Japanese record might have indicated — once they got over to the states.

The Nats have scouted Darvish intensely and figured to be one of the MLB teams that submitted a posting bid, but only GM Mike Rizzo (and his owners) know for sure. 

Today, we found out that the Tokyo Yakult Swallows submitted posting paperwork on their center fielder, Norichika Aoki.  Aoki has an impressive pedigree in his own right, and some have called him the best hitting prospect in Japan since Ichiro Suzuki.  Aoki, 29, is a three-time Central League batting champion, a six-time Gold Glove winner and owns a lifetime .329 batting average in eight seasons.  He hits left and throws right, and has posted some decent stolen base numbers in the past, though he stole just eight (against three caught stealing) last season.

The posing fee on Aoki will be considerably less than that for Darvish, but it could still climb as high as $10 million for just the negotiating rights.

The free agent list for center fielders is short, and starts with Coco Crisp.  But Crisp is 32 and has played more than 139 games just twice in his 10-year career.   He led the American League in steals this past season with 49 in 136 games, but hit just .264/.314/.379.  The Nats have long been rumored to be in on Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton should he become available for trade, but the 27-year old is even less of an ideal lead-off hitter than Crisp, and would be expensive in terms of players needed to acquire the toolsy outfielder.

All Aoki and Darvish would cost is money.  Could they be the solutions to the Nats two biggest off-season problems?  We’ll find out in the next week which MLB won the rights to negotiate with both players.  But will their talent translate to the Major Leagues?  We won’t know that answer for a while, but history says that it’s a risky proposition.  For every Ichiro there seems to be a dozen Kei Igawas.  Signing one of these Japanese imports is risky enough.  Can the Nats afford — monetarily and playing time-wise — to take a chance on both?

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