I have two key questions in mind, the first far more important than the second: 1. what can we do to speed the arrival of The First Great Nationals Team (I have what I think is an optimistic but not delusional goal of 2011 in mind), and 2. what can we do to move towards respectability in 2009.
The first step is to evaluate accurately and honestly where we stand now, and the next step is to look at opportunities to upgrade. Today, I'm starting with the catcher position, a nice, hopeful place to start.
- Starting catcher: Jesus Flores
On August 8, about 250 PA into the year, he was sitting on a very solid .281 / .329 / .451 line and looking like every bit the future all-star we were hoping for. But he faded horribly over his last month and finished at .256 / .296 / .402. That represents good progress in his power numbers (up from .361 SLG last year), but everything else was worse.
Most alarming was his regression in terms of his approach and patience at the plate. Between '07 and '08, his ISO patience (OBP minus BA) declined from 66 to 40, and his walk percentage fell from an impatient 7.2% to a downright hacktastic 4.7%. Looking deeper, he swung at 36.93% of pitches out of the zone (up from 32.49% last year), a rate that would have put him in the 'top ten' (or bottom ten) of batting title-qualified hitters. That could be the league adjusting to him, bad coaching, fatigue, stunted development of a guy who really did belong in the minors, or something else, but whatever it's problematic.
And really his overall line was probably a bit lucky, as he did this with a BABIP of .321. You probably remember him showing an uncanny ability to get hits while down in the count. Those memories were real, but it probably wasn't a result of 'real' skill.
One important area where he did show some improvement was against righties, who dominated him in '07, holding him to a .572 OPS. This year that split rose to .653--still not very good, but progress.
Defensively, he's probably a touch below average--certainly good enough if he's hitting like he was in June and July, but not good enough to contribute should his offense regress.
In the short term, I think it would be a reasonable expectation for Flores to elevate his offense in '09 to league-average for a catcher (.255 / .328 / .387; 93 OPS+). Longer term, he still has a chance to be an all-star catcher within the next 3-4 years, but the likelihood of that has to be considered at least a bit more remote now. 'Merely' above average may be a more reasonable projection at this point.
It's also possible to imagine him regressing as pitchers take advantage of his willingness to chase. Wily Mo Pena is a great example of a hitter whose inability to command the zone has caused him to plateau and regress in years when you usually see hitters improve. It all comes down to whether he can improve his command of the zone, get himself into more hitters' counts, and thereby maintain or continue to develop his power while upping his OBP.
- Back-up catcher: Wil Nieves
In the Minors
- Derek Norris
- Luke Montz
- Devin Ivany
- Other guys: Adrian Nieto, Dan Killian, Jhonatan Solano and Sean Rooney will all be under 24 next season and give us nice volume and potential. None of them are top prospects, but if you stockpile enough of these guys one of them might break out.
Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here's this year's list of free agent catchers:
Brad Ausmus (40)FJB's Take
Paul Bako (37)
Rod Barajas (33) - $2.5MM club option for '09 with a $0.5MM buyout
Michael Barrett (32)
Henry Blanco (37) - $3MM mutual option for '09 with a $0.3MM buyout
Johnny Estrada (33)
Toby Hall (33) - $2.25MM club option for '09 with a $0.15MM buyout
Jason LaRue (35)
Paul Lo Duca (37)
Miguel Olivo (30) - $2.7MM mutual option for '09 with a $0.1MM buyout
Mike Redmond (38) - $0.95MM club option for '09 with a $0.1MM buyout
Ivan Rodriguez (37)
David Ross (32)
Javier Valentin (33)
Jason Varitek (37)
Gregg Zaun (38)
With Flores and the nice collection of young guys in the system, catcher is one of our stronger suits both short- and long-term. Still, it's not as if we're sitting on Matt Weiters or Brian McCann here. We shouldn't be resting on our laurels.
Ideally, I'd like to see the Nationals cut Wil Nieves loose and bring in a younger major league-ready left-handed (or switch-hitting) back-up with at least some upside to pair with Flores and start maybe 40 games next year. That means making a trade. Some guys I see out there who might be available and fit the bill: Miguel Montero (D'Backs), Jason Jaramillo (Phillies), or John Jaso (Rays).
Failing that, I would still rather see them bring in a veteran lefty free agent backup like Greg Zaun (Blue Jays), Josh Bard (Padres), or Javier Valentin (Reds) rather than settling for Nieves or Montz. These guys at least would give us an upgrade in '09 and give us a more credible fall-back should Flores get hurt or something.
One final thought--Flores has just a hair under two full years of MLB service time under his belt and stands a good chance of qulifying for arbitration eligibility under the super-2 rule after next season. That means that, if Flores is looked at as a future all-star, you might want to think about signing him long-term now. I wouldn't advocate this course of action--there are too many risks with any young catcher and too many holes in Flores's game at this stage--but if you wanted to do that, now would be the time.