As always, I have two key questions in mind, the first far more important than the second: 1. what can we do to field The First Great Nationals Team by 2011 if not sooner, 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.
- Starting first-baseman: Nick Johnson
As always with Nick, it starts with the health report. A torn wrist tendon ended his '08 season after 38 games. He is expected to be back in time for spring training. But with Nick, it's hard not to think of every rehab as simply a prelude to the next injury. He's only had 500 ABs once in his career, and he's ended the season on the DL three straight seasons.
The good news is that when Nick was in the lineup this year, he showed that he's still an outstanding hitter. Ignore the .220 batting average. His .415 OBP showed his true value.
Just to remind everyone how good Johnson is, his OPS+ stats in '05, '06, and '08 were 137, 149, and 123. Have a look at how that compares to the MLB OPS+ leaders among 1Bs this year:
The fact is plain: when he's been on the field, Nick Johnson has been an elite offensive player and the best bat in our lineup. He's also under contract for one more year at $5.5 million and will be just 30 next year.
- Back-up first-baseman: Dmitri Young
If Young is on the field, he'll hit around league average for a 1B or a little better and play terrible defense, probably costing enough runs in the field to offset most if not all of whatever advantage he gives us compared to average.
In the Minors
- Christopher Marrero
Sadly for him, us, and the Nationals, he broke his leg and tore a bunch of ligaments in his leg this year, losing most his age-19 season. If he had played all year and played well, he might have been in a position to challenge for a roster spot in 2009, maybe after a mid-season trade if not on Opening Day. As it is, Marrero's development is pushed back a year at least. A third-baseman in high school who didn't work out in the outfield, he needs the time at first base as much or more than he needs he at bats.
Even after the injury, however, Marrero was rated as the #10 prospect in the Class A Carolina League. He's reportedly healing fast and is on the Nationals' Instructional League roster this fall. There really isn't any reason to alter his long-term projection as a result of the injury--it just pushes back his arrival.
- Kory Casto
- Bill Rhinehart
Again, courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here are the 1B free agents available this off-season:
Rich Aurilia (37)FJB's Take
Hank Blalock (28) - $6.2MM club option for '09 with a $0.25MM buyout
Sean Casey (34)
Tony Clark (37)
Carlos Delgado (37) - $12MM club option for '09 with a $4MM buyout
Nomar Garciaparra (35)
Jason Giambi (38) - $22MM club option for '09 with a $5MM buyout
Eric Hinske (31)
Doug Mientkiewicz (35)
Kevin Millar (37)
Richie Sexson (34)
Mark Teixeira (29)
Daryle Ward (34)
First, forget about Tex. The guy's going to get over $200 million from the Yankees or the Angels, and if it takes more to get him, they'll probably go even higher. Don't forget that it would cost us a draft pick too. And really, if you consider that Marrero is still our top prospect and a healthy Nick Johnson could very well match or even beat Tex's offensive production this year at the bargain price of $5.5m (don't believe me? Look at what Nick did in RFK in 2006 versus what Tex did that same year in the Bandbox at Arlington), you don't have to be a cheapskate to decide this isn't the time or place to blow your wad.
So it's going to be Nick. The operative question then is how to deal with the injury risk. When Bowden re-signed Young, I was kind of a fan of the plan to go with essentially two starting-caliber first-basemen. The way to keep Nick healthy might just be to ask him to play only 4-5 days a week. But if plan A is a huge injury risk, plan B has to be safe and steady, or else you're setting yourself up for disaster. And giving two years and ten million dollars to Dmitri Young was so far above his market value and such an obviously foolish decision that there's no forgiving Bowden for how things have gone since then.
So what do we do now? Live with a second year of the same foolish plan? Or give up on Young and eat the $5 million? Jim didn't say exactly what he had in mind when he said last month that he wouldn't go into '09 counting on Johnson and Young, but he seems likely to do something.
Eric Hinske, who had a nice bounce-back year in Tampa, might be a decent solution. He would be a better than replacement-level option if forced to start, while if, miracle of miracles, Young and Johnson are both healthy, he can still be useful as a four-corners back-up. He can also compete with Kearns to start in right field. Even if he never starts consistently, he could easily get 350 ABs backing up the corner OF and IF.
After that, you're signing guys knowing that you're going to have more major-league 1Bs than you can use, which means you're guaranteed to carry some dead salary, but it seems Bowden's convinced Mark Lerner that this is a forgivable sin, even if it shouldn't be.
Doug Mientkiewicz can at least catch the ball over there, and his bat isn't awful--he's just not your prototypical bopper. He's another lefty, but if Nick goes down, and we're starting Young, Mientkiewicz would be a good fit to start twice a week and play the '07 Robert Fick late-innings defensive replacement role.
Other than that, the only guys who might possibly be options to start here are Kevin Millar or Richie Sexson. Maybe Rich Aurilia? If it comes to that, it's just blech, gag, phooey.
And then there's always the ex-Red factor in Sean Casey. But if JimBo brought him in, he'd be no different than Aaron Boone or Rob Mackowiak: just a pointless vanity signing. He's over the hill and has no power left whatsoever. If Jim signs him, we should see a spike in FJB t-shirt sales, if there's any justice.
Bottom line, I just don't see that it makes sense to make a huge splash here now. It's a decent bet that Johnson will play well, and Marrero could very well be the long-term answer. If Marrero doesn't pan out, we can get the final piece of that First Great Nationals Team from the 2011 free agent class of Derrek Lee, Carlos Pena, Kevin Youkilis, and Paul Konerko. For now, our need is a reliable plan B, not a blockbuster type-A.