Thursday, October 9, 2008

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

Continuing my series looking at the Nationals' current personnel organization-wide and the opportunities to upgrade this off-season, next up is second base. If you missed it and are interested, click to check out my looks at the catchers and first-basemen.

As always, 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 (FJB target date: 2011), 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 second-baseman: Emilio Bonifacio
Bowden and Rizzo have both indicated that we're looking at a spring training battle and possible platoon with Anderson Hernandez next year. A platoon seems likely, because, although both are switch hitters, AH has hit 312 OPS points better right-handed while Emmylou was 234 points better left-handed this year. But since the lefty gets the most starts in a platoon, we'll call Bonifacio the starter.

Bonifacio, 24, will never have any power, but, with his speed and good defense, can become a useful starting player if he can figure out how to avoid making outs often enough. To be a starter who actually helps us win, he needs to get his OBP up to the .350-.360 range or better. If he's down in the .310-.330 range or lower, he'll be hurting us more than he's helping. This year his OBP was .305. Left-handed, however, he got on at a .337 clip.

To get that high OBP, he needs to never strike out, take a ton of walks, or both. Just slapping at the ball all the time can produce decent results, but it's inconsistent. Sometimes the ball finds holes, and sometimes it doesn't, and the luck doesn't always even out over the course of a season. Case in point: Cristian Guzman. In his horrid '05, his BABIP was .255; this year, it was .339. There were other differences, but an 84-point difference in BABIP is huge, and a lot of that is seeing-eye dribblers he just didn't get in '05.

That's why Luis Castillo is thrown out there as Bonifacio's most favorable comp. In his prime, Castillo had not only a tiny K%, but also a very good walk rate. For his career, his K/AB is 13.3% (average is ~17-18%), and his walk rate is 10.7%
(average is ~10%).

Alas, this year, Bonifacio struck out a whopping 27.2% of the time, while walking just 7.7%, so he has a long way to go to become Luis Castillo, especially on the contact side. And although Castillo struggled in his first partial season in the bigs too, posting a 28% K-rate, he is probably not a reasonable expectation. Let's look at their ages 19-23 major- and minor-league numbers:

Age Level Ks PA K/PA BB BB/PA
Bonifacio 19 A 122 436 28.0% 25 5.7%
Castillo 19 A 50 395 12.7% 37 9.4%
Bonifacio 20 A 90 591 15.2% 56 9.5%
Castillo 20 AA 68 486 14.0% 66 13.6%
Castillo 20 MLB 46 180 25.6% 14 7.8%
Bonifacio 21 A+ 104 608 17.1% 44 7.2%
Castillo 21 AAA 22 146 15.1% 16 11.0%
Castillo 21 MLB 53 291 18.2% 27 9.3%
Bonifacio 22 AA 105 596 17.6% 38 6.4%
Castillo 22 AAA 68 455 14.9% 75 16.5%
Castillo 22 MLB 33 177 18.6% 22 12.4%
Bonifacio 23 AAA 68 438 15.5% 31 7.1%
Bonifacio 23 MLB 46 186 24.7% 14 7.5%
Castillo 23 MLB 85 563 15.1% 67 11.9%

From year to year, Castillo out-performed Bonifacio in both K/PA and BB/PA, even while playing at higher levels. Players develop at all different paces, so it's possible that Bonifacio will get there eventually, but it's not at all likely.

The comparables generated by PECOTA (Baseball Prospectus's trademark projection system) are probably more realistic. Weirdly, his top PECOTA comps include Anderson Hernandez and Nationals cast-off Alejandro Machado. Others mentioned include Alfredo Amazega, Alexi Casilla, Tony Womack and Miguel Cairo. None of these guys ever hit in the .340-.360 OPS range except for a career year or two here or there. So he's going to need to develop contact skills that don't yet appear evident based on his stats. Hopefully Rizzo sees something the numbers don't show.

Finally, he's supposed to be a plus-defender, but committed a whopping 7 errors in 37 games last year. I imagine he'll come around, but that's a concern. And despite blazing speed, he needs to improve on his 6 out of 10 steal rate.
  • Back-up: Anderson Hernandez
Like Bonifacio, Hernandez has no power, so all his value has to come from OBP. In 91 plate appearances with the Nationals this year, he did more than enough, posting an all star-caliber .407 OBP while striking out in just 9.9% of his ABs and walking in 11%. Of course, he also did that with a totally unsustainable .370 BABIP. And there's not much in his minor league numbers to suggest he can maintain those walk or strikeout numbers either. Still, as I wrote above, he could easily give up 50 points in OBP and still be a useful option at second base, and he'd be a decent lead-off option too. It just seems like he's probably going to lose more like 80-100 points of OBP.

He too is expected to play a plus-defense and has some wheels.
  • Back-up: Ronnie Belliard
Belliard is coming off what was quietly the best season of his career, a .287 / .372 / .473 line. If he had maintained that for a whole season, he would have been a solidly above-average offensive second-baseman. His 845 OPS tops the likes of Brian Roberts, Brandon Phillips, and Placido Polanco. He's a real defensive liability at second and is totally unacceptable at first and shortstop, and he'll be 34 next season, but with one more year on his 2-year, $3.5 million contract, he should have value to someone.

In the Minors
  • Stephen King
At 20, King has played mostly played 3B and has a good arm, but everything I've read has him moving to second base eventually. He has some good pop, but he has a big swing with a lot of holes and not enough walks. He made some progress on the strikeouts this year and was promoted to high-A Potomac mid-season, where he struggled. He could make it as a back-up or maybe even a regular 2-3 years down the road.
  • Jake Smolinski
Smolinski has shown good on-base skills and got himself promoted from low-A Vermont to A-level Hagerstown at mid-season this year. Moved from left field to second base this season, he made 12 errors in 75 games. Fielding stats in the minor leagues are funky, so take that with a grain of salt. He's just 19 and has a chance to make it as a bench guy.

Free Agents
Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here are the second base free agents available this off-season:
Willie Bloomquist (31)
Jamey Carroll (35) - $2.5MM club option for '09 with a $0.15MM buyout
Craig Counsell (38)
Ray Durham (37)
Damion Easley (39)
David Eckstein (34)
Mark Ellis (32)
Mark Grudzielanek (39)
Jerry Hairston Jr. (33)
Orlando Hudson (31)
Tadahito Iguchi (34)
Jeff Kent (41)
Felipe Lopez (29)
Mark Loretta (37)
Nick Punto (31)
FJB's Take
As much as Bonifacio struggled after coming over from Arizona, you have to look at 2009 as his chance to show he can do it at the big league level, at least as a strong-side platoon guy. More than anything, watch those strikeouts. He needs to get his Ks/PA down to at least under 20% next year--ultimately it needs to be in the 14-15% range or better. It would help if he could get that BB/PA number closer to 9-10%, but really it's the Ks that are killing him.

Hernandez is a bench utility guy, and if there's a GM somewhere in the league who is fooled by his 2008 and thinks he's a starter, trade him, but no one's that easily duped.

Belliard has to be traded this off season. He doesn't fit on our roster anymore, and there's a whole slew of contending and near-contending teams who need a second-baseman. The White Sox, Brewers, Cardinals, Mets, and Cardinals are all in that category, while the Giants, Royals, Rockies, and Padres are all in the market for a second-baseman as well. One of those teams will sign Orlando Hudson, but after that Belliard is as good or better than any of the other options in free agency. Ray Durham fetched P Steve Hammond and OF Darren Ford (a couple fringy prospects but prospects nonetheless) from the Brewers at mid-season. Belliard should bring back at least that much or more.

Looking ahead, if Bonifacio doesn't take a step forward, Brian Roberts (Orioles), Placido Polanco (Tigers), and Mark DeRosa (Cubs) will headline the free agent class of 2009-10.


carolync said...

I think 2nd base is the biggest question mark on our 2009 team and I think you are too optimistic in your assessment of Bonifacio. He has major hitting deficiencies despite having been in the Diamondback system since 2001. And his defensive stats are not good. I question why the Diamondbacks were willing to trade him since they expect to lose Orlando Hudson in the off-season. We need hitting and we just can't afford him on the starting roster in the hope that he might do better.

I would prefer to see Belliard and Harris platooon at 2nd until the better FA market in 2010. They both have better hitting and fielding stats than Bonifacio.

Steven said...

Well, I'm not sure how optimistic I am. I'm saying I'm not ready to give up on him, but I also compared him to Alfredo Amezaga and Alejandro Machado, said he's 45 points in OBP and 13 points in K rate away from where I say he needs to be. That's not a real optimistic outlook. I'm just saying we should give the kid a little more time to find out if there's another level there. He's only 23.

As for Belliard and Harris, they'd probably be better than Bonifacio/Hernandez in '09, but who cares? They're both on the downsides of their careers and will never be a part of a contending team in Washington. I'd rather used '09 to find out if Bonifacio can be part of the answer. You'd also be committing to crap defense at a key spot while breaking in new young pitchers, which I think is a mistake.

But the bottom line is that 2B is a problem.

carolync said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your bottom line. And I am well aware that the Nats Brain Trust will proceed with the Bonifacio/Hernandez combo, scary though it may be. I would just like to say that the Rauch trade was the point at which I started reading your blog.

I find your position-by-position analysis to be very well-done and I am looking forward to the rest of it.

Steven said...

Thanks. It's worth noting that Rizzo himself said that Bonifacio-for-Rauch was "his deal." I wouldn't damn him (or decide he's a genius) based on one deal, but just seomthing to note FWIW. It does seem like they should have gotten more for Rauch regardless.

Section 222 said...

I'll always have a soft spot for Belliard. He played anywhere they asked, almost always played hard, and was ridiculosly clutch at the plate (see especially that game winner against the Orioles that was my favorite moment of the season). But your analysis is sound. Second base is clearly a big question mark for the future. There seems to be only a small chance that Boni or Hernandez develops into a star unfortunately.

One thing that I rarely see mentioned about Boni is that because of his speed many singles are potential doubles and most doubles are potential triples. Might that change the assessment of his potential?

Steven said...

yes 222 that's a fair point. And if he can get 30-40 steals that makes a lot of singles and walks like doubles. But... none of that will come into play unless he gets the Ks down and the OBP up.