So say Mike Rizzo’s on the up and up in this article, and the Washington Nationals really aren’t going to cave to the demands of Scott Boras and his client Prince Fielder. Where does that leave the Nats?
Well, frankly, right where they started. Still looking for a center fielder and upgrades to the bench. And starting a domino effect throughout the Nats roster.
If we assume Fielder does not reduce his demands, and signs an 8-to-10 year contract elsewhere, that leaves Adam LaRoche and his surgically repaired left shoulder as the everyday first baseman. Forget Rizzo insisting LaRoche is a “25 home runs, 85-100 RBI” guy — numbers barely average for full-time first baseman, by the way. He’s only been able to accomplish those numbers in three of his eight full big league seasons. Besides, RBIs are solely a product of the players around him in the lineup.
LaRoche has accumulated 6.9 WAR in his career, which even takes into consideration his above-average defense. Fielder provided 5.2 WAR just last season, as a base of reference. We’ll give LaRoche the benefit of the doubt and say that as a MLB regular he has been worth about 1.0 WAR per season. Emphasis on “has been”, because we don’t know what he’s going to be worth this season recovering from injury.
If LaRoche is at first, last year’s breakout player Michael Morse goes back to left field, where he is a significantly less-than adequate defensive player. If you have Fielder’s offense at first base, you can live with giving a few runs back on defense. But with LaRoche’s barely-average numbers, Morse’s value is reduced that much more by his play in the field. For all the noise about Morse emerging, he was only worth 3.0 WAR, losing almost a full point due to his lousy defense.
The question then becomes, do you rush Bryce Harper to the Major Leagues for opening day if you don’t sign Fielder or trade for a full-time, lead-off center fielder? At that point, is it worth a) the risk to Harper’s development; and b) forfeiting a year of arbitration? Probably not, as tempting as that might be.
Then, take into consideration Stephen Strasburg’s surgically repaired right elbow and the fact he’ll be limited to roughly 150-160 innings as Jordan Zimmermann was last season, effectively ending his season just as any playoff race was truly heating up, and that just further reinforces the idea that the Nats should use 2012 as another building year, and not blow the budget on one player. I’m not advocating that, I’m just pointing it out for when/if it happens.
That puts Jayson Werth, and his hideous contract, back into right field, and the Nats searching for options again at center. The in-house, on-the-roster options consist of Roger Bernadina and Mike Cameron, which is convenient since one is a lefty and one is a righty. As backups, both players have some merit. Bernie has a nice blend of pop and speed, and Cameron provides terrific defense. But neither have any plate discipline, nor should either be receiving regular at bats at this point in their careers.
If the Nats were to re-sign Rick Ankiel on the cheap, he’d replace Bernadina in the equation, but the result is the same. Center field would still be a gaping hole in the Nats batting order, lucky to break even at WAR.
There has been a lot of excitement around NatsTown the past week, talking about Fielder. He’s a bona fide star in the league, and his presence would lift everyone around him — in the batting order, in the clubhouse and in the media, both locally and nationally. Signing him would make the Nats the talk of the league. It would make the Nats legitimate contenders for at least a wild-card spot this season.
But if Rizzo sticks to his guns and doesn’t match Fielder’s demands — and fails to find an adequate center fielder — it starts a ripple effect that goes to the very core of the Nats offensive problems, and certainly limits the Nats chances to contend for anything other than third place in the N.L. East again in 2012.