Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Position-by-Position Off-Season Outlook: First Base

Continuing my series looking at the Nationals' current personnel organization-wide and the opportunities to upgrade this off-season, next up is first base. You can check out my review of the catchers here.

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.

The Present
  • Starting first-baseman: Nick Johnson
I know a lot of you are ready to throw in the towel on Nick, evidenced by the poll on this site showing you all rating 1B the #1 off-season need. But barring another injury setback, I see next to no chance that Nick Johnson isn't our starting first-baseman next year.

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:
A. Gonzalez--135
C. Pena--132
M. Cabrera--131

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
Like with Johnson, it's all about the health report with Young. But as big a risk as Nick is, Meat is even bigger. With Johnson, it seems like it's always something. With Young, it's always the same thing. He is in fundamentally poor physical condition. And he has diabetes. As a result, he can't stay on the field. He's never going to be cured of diabetes, and he's probably never going to consistently eat right and exercise more. But as far as we know, there's nothing diagnosable wrong with Johnson. Maybe Nick grew up next to a toxic waste site and has weak bones. Maybe he has some vitamin deficiency. Rocco Baldelli has a mitochondrial disorder. A friend of mine was always sick and it turns out he had AIDS. But as far as we know, none of those things are true of Nick. Young's condition is chronic, while Johnson's is not. That's the difference.

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
The consensus top prospect in the Nationals' system going into this season, Marrero, the 15th pick in the 2006 draft out of high school, has tremendous power potential and projects as a middle-of-the-order power bat. Scouts love his smooth swing, and statheads love the .173 ISO power (SLG minus BA) and 11.1% walk rates he posted in high-A at age 18.

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
He's 26 and although he's hit at pretty much every minor-league level and hit the homer that ended Bill Bavasi's career in Seattle, he could only muster a .215 / .297 / .313 line in 163 AB this year in the majors. Move along. Nothing more to see here.
  • Bill Rhinehart
He rocked the class-A Sally League this year at age 24, showing great OBP skills and contact rates, but he faded badly after being promoted to AA Harrisburg. Next year needs to be a significant step forward if we're ever going to see 'Dolla Bill' in Nationals Park, and even then he's not going to be more than a bench guy.

Free Agents
Again, courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here are the 1B free agents available this off-season:
Rich Aurilia (37)
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)
FJB's Take
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.


Will said...

Sean Casey wouldn't be a bad signing if he was being signed as a backup, although I doubt he would want to be a backup on the Washington Nationals.

I don't know what makes you say he's over the hill. He hit .322 this year in Boston. He's a career .302 hitter. He's not very good defensively, but hey, he's better than Da Meat Hook.

Steven said...

Casey won't start anywhere, so I'm not sure he's in a position to pick and choose.

Yeah, he hit 322, but he slugged .392. That's zero power. None. He'll be 34 next year. He's done as a useful major league player. He had 64 hits, and 50 of them were singles. That's a lower ISO power number than Michael Bourn, Jason Kendall, or Marco Scutaro. He sucks.

And he's not better than Meat.

And his BABIP was .368.

Sean Casey would be a horrid, unforgivably awful, vomit-in-my-mouth, gut-wrenchingly sickening signing.

Mark my words--Sean Casey will be the least valuable 1B in MLB next year if he's given a starting job anywhere. And I'll bet he's out of baseball by May 2010.

Hendo said...

You may be right about Casey. BP gives him until 2011, but no great projections for whatever turns out to be the rest of his career.

Also, excellent point about the draft picks. The Nats need to think long and hard about giving up draft picks to sign Type A FAs. I didn't in my Big Hot Stove Post, and will need to atone for that at some point.

Steve Shoup said...

Not a Casey fan at all I really hope that isn't the move, I wouldn't be too dismissive of Millar if the Nats go the Veteran route. While he doesn't have clean-up hitter power he still can rock the ball better than guys like Casey, Aurilla, and Doug M. And watching him the last few years in B-more he plays better defense then one would think. Also Millar is well known for his club-house presence meaning that he can be good for the Nats while they have him and he could offer some moderate trade value at the deadline for a contender.

As for your provision of adding respectability to the Nationals I think a Dark horse could be Jason Giambi. I know most people would think i'm crazy for saying that but really why not? According to the Tigers Blogger who has been trying to predict the Elias free agent rankings Giambi is a Type-B at best (final projections aren't out yet but he wasn't anywhere near the cut a month ago), meaning he wouldn't cost us any compensation. His price tag is going to be way down prob. 2-3 years at 10-12 million a year max. I mean we are going to spend that much on Johnson and Young combined. The short committment won't block Marrero if he is the future at that position. He's not as bad defensivly as one might think (he's not gonna win a GG but he is better than Young). He would add instant respectablitly to the lineup, and would go a long way in protecting Zimmerman in the line-up. He can still hit and while he is not what he once was an OPS around .900 and 32 HR's in 450 AB's looks pretty good to me.

Steven said...

I wouldn't do Giambi because 1) the defense--we're going with a middle-infield strategy of weak offense and good defense to help the young pitchers, so let's not screw it up with a a guy with all the agility of a trained circus bear at first base. 2. I still think Nick has some good years in him. 3. If Nick does what he's supposed to do, Giambi won't go to the bench happily and can't do anything else.

On Millar, maybe, assuming he's happy on the bench if Nick is healthy. You're right he's an underrated defender, so maybe he doesn't deserve to be lumped in with Sexson and Aurilia. He's going to be 37 though. That's a big part of why I put him in the blech category. I expect his annual decline in productivity to continue till he's out of baseball in 18 months or so.

Athan said...

Of that very uninspiring list, I'd go with Heinske for a year until Marrero is ready. He had decent power numbers in Tampa this season, and is more than adequate. Young is a likeable guy, and I root extra hard for someone with diabetes (even Type II; my daughter has Type I) but giving him $5 million a year is another reason to Fire Jim Bowden.

Steven said...

I have no problem rooting for Meat. He was a very feel good story in '07. But that doesn't mean he's a good fit for this team at this price. We should be rooting for him to succeed as a DH in the AL.