Sunday, October 12, 2008

Position-by-Position Off-Season Outlook: Outfield

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

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 Outfield: Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge, and Austin Kearns
Dukes, when healthy, was a tremendous offensive player in 2008. Though he appeared in just 81 games, his .386 on-base and .478 slugging percentages compare favorably with Adam Dunn, Brad Hawpe, and Aramis Ramirez. Just 18 hitters in all of baseball matched his OBP and SLG in as many plate appearances. His season was all the more impressive considering how slowly he started. He was hitting just .155 / .301 / .190 after the first game of a double-header on June 5, and then went .294 / .410 / .555 the rest of the way. Those are very nearly MVP-worthy numbers over the course of a full year. What you love most are his 15.3% walk rate and .214 ISO power (SLG minus BA). Those are some of the stats that correlate most strongly to skill, and when you combine that command of the strike zone and pure power, you have a beast in the making. Next year, at 24, he'll be one of the top breakout candidates in all of MLB. (And since I've seen no first-hand reason for the requisite "if he can stay out of trouble" caveat that you always get when reading about Dukes, I'm not saying it.)

It was a bit of a tale of two seasons for Lastings. You probably missed the good part. In the first half, he hit .245 .312 .368. Same weak OBP he posted in NY, but less power. Not so hot. But in the second half, he leapt to .299 / .355 / .448, easily the best 250-AB stretch of his young career. His plate discipline improved steadily over the season as well, with a 7.2% walk rate in the second half that almost disqualified him from the ranks of the hacktastic. And the most important thing to remember--Milledge is just 23.

I wrote about Kearns at length in the last week of the season, so I won't recap all that. Bottom line is that he's not good. Check it out here if you're interested.
  • Back-Ups: Wily Mo Pena and Willie Harris or Ryan Langerhans
Pena will pick up his player option and cash a check for $2 million. Langerhans and Harris are both arbitration-eligible. Harris should be tendered a contract and get somewhere around $2 million I'd guess. He was worth much more than that last year, and I think given his defense and versatility that he's worth it even if his bat fades. I do tend to think this season's power was a bit of a fluke, and Harris has failed to hold up twice as an every day player, once in Atlanta and once in Chicago.

I assume Langerhans will be non-tendered, but it's possible the team could re-sign him anyway or he may like his opportunities better somewhere else. If so, oh well.

In the Minors
  • Michael Burgess
Mike Burgess, after Chris Marrero, is the top hitting prospect in the Nationals' system. In '07, he burst on the scene with an eye-popping 18-year-old season in the rookie leagues and low-A ball, hitting a combined .318 / .421 / .561 with an impressive 14.9 BB/PA. Expectations probably rose unreasonably high going into this year, as a 25-HR season in A and high-A ball has been seen as a disappointment. His walk rates dropped to 10.1 BB/PA--still pretty good for his age but not spectacular. And his strikeouts rose from the high 20s to the low to mid 30s, which isn't a problem if he keeps slugging like he has but may foreshadow a regression if pitchers can take advantage. Still, Burgess projects as a strong bet to be a starter and potential mid-order slugger by the FJB target date of 2011 for The First Great Nationals Team.
  • Justin Maxwell
J-Max in '07 finally dodged the injury bug and put up a season that earned him a memorable September call-up and tentative shot at starting in 2009. Then in 2008 he got hurt again. He's been hurt pretty much every year of his pro career but one, and he'll be 25 next year. His power-speed-plate discipline combo projects him as a starting center-fielder, but he's quickly moving into the Nick J./Shawn Hill category of guys you just don't count on.
  • Destin Hood
Hood, the two-sport star signed away from Alabama football, struggled in his rookie-league 18-year-old debut, hitting .256 / .333 / .349. Scouts love his power and bat speed but say he just doesn't really know how to hit. But his 8.5% walk rate and 22.1% K rate aren't awful--it's actually the lack of power that jumps out at you so far. But this is just 86 at bats, so we'll just have to wait and see. The tools give him a very high upside, but the low-end potential is that he totally flames out.
  • Leonard Davis
Davis wasn't on anyone's prospect lists going into the season, but this year at age 24 he earned Nationals Minor League Player of the Year honors by exploding at high-A Potomac and AA Hagerstown before finishing somewhat weak at AAA Columbus. He hit 25 HRs total for the year, and his walk rates and strikeout rates both improved significantly. However his BABIPs at Potomac and Hagerstown were .372 and .500, so expect the batting average and on-base numbers to sag. But the power and plate discipline may allow him to make it to the bigs as an IF/OF utility man. Still, I'm a bit of a skeptic, and you need look no further than Kory Casto to see a guy who had seasons like this at A and AA before flopping in MLB. I'm not sure I see where/when he fits with the Nationals, but we could see him this year if the 'right' injury occurs.
  • Roger Bernadina
As bad as he was in Washington, you might be shocked to know that he actually had a nice little season for himself at Hagerstown and Columbus. Has a chance to make it as a fifth outfielder/defensive replacement, but again it'll probably take an injury to get him there this year.

Free Agents
Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here are the free agent outfielders available this off-season:
Bobby Abreu (35)
Moises Alou (42)
Garret Anderson (37) - $14MM club option for '09 with a $3MM buyout
Rocco Baldelli (27)
Casey Blake (35)
Willie Bloomquist (31)
Milton Bradley (31)
Emil Brown (34)
Pat Burrell (32)
Mike Cameron (36) - $10MM club option for '09 with a $750K buyout
Carl Crawford (27) - $8.25MM club option for '09 with a $2.5MM buyout
Adam Dunn (29)
Jim Edmonds (39)
Cliff Floyd (36) - $2.75MM club option for '09 with a $0.25MM buyout
Brian Giles (38) - $9MM club option for '09 with a $3MM buyout
Luis Gonzalez (41)
Ken Griffey Jr. (39) - $16.5MM club option for '09 with a $4MM buyout
Vladimir Guerrero (33) - $15MM club option for '09 with a $3MM buyout
Jerry Hairston Jr. (33)
Raul Ibanez (37)
Gabe Kapler (33)
Mark Kotsay (33)
Kevin Mench (31)
Jason Michaels (33) - $2.6MM club option for '09
Craig Monroe (32)
Greg Norton (36)
Jay Payton (36)
Corey Patterson (29)
Wily Mo Pena (27) - $5MM club option or $2MM player option for '09
Scott Podsednik (33)
Manny Ramirez (37)
Juan Rivera (30)
Fernando Tatis (34)
Brad Wilkerson (32)
FJB's Take
Dukes and Milledge are a very exciting pair, and Burgess, Maxwell, and Hood are an exciting batch of prospects down the road, but for the next couple years they need to upgrade from Austin Kearns. We just can't compete with him in right field, and Pena's just limping to the end of his time in the bigs.

Therefore, outfield is one of two places where I would like to see the team make a run at a free agent (starting pitching is the other). There are a lot of interesting names here, and some real sleepers.

I'm going to probably shock everyone and say I think Adam Dunn--
Jim Bowden Reds-reunion punch-line--would make a lot of sense for us. First, he's a beast. Other than Manny, he's the best run-producer available. Some people don't like his strikeouts, but they don't understand how runs are scored in baseball. He has a .380 OBP and slugs with he best of them. Second, he could cover first base in a pinch. He played almost as much 1B for the D'Backs as he did outfield, and although again we have an awful lot invested in IF defense, Dunn wasn't really any worse at first than in the outfield (incidentally not every statistical measure hates him defensively; Clay Davenport's 'runs above average' stat has him really right around average the last two seasons). Third, I think it would only take a 2-3 year contract to get him, so we don't have to marry the late declining years of the guy like you would with most blockbuster free agents. Fourth, based on reports around the trade deadline, there aren't as many teams interested as I would have thought, including none of the really big-payroll teams. And finally, he'll only be 29 next year.

If not Dunn, another interesting name is former-Expo, momentary-National, Juan Rivera. He's had really only one full, healthy season in the Angels' crowded outfield, and that year, 2006, he ran circles around the guy he was traded from the Nationals for, Jose Guillen, hitting .310 / .362 / .525. Then he broke his leg in '07, and in '08 he got shuffled in and out of the line-up, had some bad luck (.242 BABIP), but showed the power is still there. He doesn't walk or get on base much, but he'd likely knock 25 homers a year for us, and that would be worth a short one or two-year deal.

Rocco Baldelli could be an interesting buy-low candidate, but I don't see how we could take on another injury risk. Still, he's arguably the best mix of youth and talent here.

Milton Bradley's another talented but high-risk guy we probably need to avoid. As great as he was this year, it'll take a multi-year deal to get him, and that makes no sense for any National League team.

I would stay away from pretty much all the other big names--Abreu, Burrell, Manny, Edmonds, Ibanez--all because they are older guys whom I expect to rapidly decline over the lives of their next contracts.

I'll also just throw out there that Mark Teahen could get non-tendered, and if so he'd be another interesting choice for the "versatile fourth outfielder who's good enough not to embarrass us if forced to start at 1B" slot.

Oh, and one last thing--Griffey's option will be declined, and if Bowden denies at least calling him to chat, he's lying.


Don't show a fool and unfinished job said...

I see Davis and Harris as 2bmen. Their bats look better there. Left handed hitting infielders are valuable. You wrote that we don't have any 3bmen behind Zim, but Davis is primarily a 3bman. Chris Needham described Kearns as a plus rfielder in `07 because his defense netted win shares.

ckstevenson said...

Maxwell has not only been hurt all but one year of his professional career, he was hurt all but one year of his college career. It pains me as a MD and Nats fan to say it, but continuing to count his as a prospect is going to get us nowhere. Until he can play another season healthy, and perform, and move up in the organization he's just filler.

Steven said...

@don't--Davis and Harris are both utility bench guys, so I just shoved them in where I thought they projected most likely. I just didn't think it was worth mentioning them repeatedly, but you're right they are potentially part of the mix in those spots. Chris loved Kearns; I don't. We just disagree there. I actually doubt that if Chris was still blogging that he'd be still making the strong case for him.

@ck--I tend to agree he's not someone you count on, but because of his high end I think of him as a prospect more than as filler. Filler is Pokey Reese. Maxwell isn't one to count on, but he's a prospect still. Prospects by definition aren't ones to be counted on.

Scott said...

Langerhans was waived/outrighted to Syracuse.

Mike said...

I'm warming up to your Dunn idea, especially if the contract is on the shorter side. What gives me pause, though, are the reports that Dunn is a clubhouse cancer (or at least a first class jerk). I'm not suggesting that the Nationals have any outstanding or noteworthy chemistry at this point, but I think we saw this season how personalities can have an impact. Of course if having Dunn means you win more games, maybe that makes up for attitudes.

Steve Shoup said...

I just can't get my head around the Nats signing Adam Dunn, and its not just the fear of another Bowden reunion talking. I believe that when a team is rebuilding like the Nats they should only give up a draft pick for a player who is young enough to help this team win in the future and talented enough to be a centerpiece of that winning team.

I believe only two players fit this bill, Mark Teixiera and CC Sabathia and the Nats aren't getting either one of those players. Of the other Type-A players who aren't too old I feel they lack the consistency and star quality that the Nats should look for. To me Dunn or Burrell aren't the answer though if I had to pick one i'd actually pick Burrell. Dunn just worries me and its not just his defense which is average at best. But its his offense, yes he is a 40 HR guy and will put up an OPS of .900+ but I don't think he's a true impact bat. His strikeouts worry me, and though he does walk enough to balance them out, strikeouts are unproductive outs. By putting the ball in play you allow for a chance of an error, which does happen to teams other than the nationals surprisingly. Also by being able to make better contact a batter can advance the runner. While these things might not always show up on stat sheets they can be the difference between winning and losing.

The other area that concerns me about Dunn are his splits, vs. lefties in 2008 Dunn hit only .195 with a .773 OPS. His 3 year splits 05-07 he hit .237/.821, which isn't as bad but is artificially high as he killed lefties in 2006 .270/.896 but struggled against righties .215/.836. For his career Dunn has not fared well vs. southpaws which isn't exactly shocking as alot of big time left handed power hitters see a decline vs. lefties, Dunn does have some of the worse numbers out there vs. southpaws. Its just hard to imagine him as a centerpiece and cleanup hitter when he is a liability against Santana, Hamels and the other lefties in the NL East. Speaking of clean-up hitters, I don't believe Dunn is one of them. I know everyone would say with that OPS get him 3rd or 4th in your lineup but the numbers don't support that. In 2008 batting 4th Dunn hit .217/.804 in 152 AB's. His 05-07 numbers he hit .223/.844 as a cleanup hitter. Dunn has consistently put up his best numbers as a 5 or 6 hitter and worst as a 3 or 4 hitter. That i find worrisome esp. given the fact that he had more protection with the Reds than he would with the nats.

Steven said...

Steve--I think you're reading too much meaning into some of these stats. I haven't seen much if any evidence that where a guy hits in the order affects his hitting, and so I think you have to chalk that up to random fluctuation. Similar, your lefty splits are prone to small sample sizes, and individual hitters actually have quite a surprising level of year-to-year fluctuation. Even still, I'm not sure why a .773 OPS against lefties makes him a 'liability.' That's right around what Guzman did this year, so it's not like he's an automatic out against lefties. In fact career he's an .833 OPS guy.

On your first point about the draft pick, I think there's validity that if your pure goal is to win a world series as soon as possible that it may make more sense to just keep the draft pick and stockpiling the 2012 cohort of peaking talent. I want the team to prioritize winning it all instead of getting to 75 wins, but I'm compelled that we could be a little more respectable along the way. This is the Harper argument--that there are trade-offs but that you can both get to respectability and build the minors at the same time. I'm not quite as far in that direction as he is (and I totally reject the Needham argument there is no trade-off whatsoever and it's all just so much skinflint BS) but since we'd most likely be losing only a 2 I think this would be worth doing for 2 year deal.

Will said...

You also have to consider that if we did sign Dunn to a 2 or 3 year deal, at the end of his contract he would still likely be a type A free agent (after all, Jamie Moyer is still considered a type A player), so the 2nd round pick we would give up to sign him would be returned in the form of a first round supplementary pick in 2011 or 2012.

I think the positives he'd bring to the team (a power bat) would far offset the negatives (the 3 extra years we'd have to wait to get that 2nd round pick back).

Steve Shoup said...

My problem with the theories of giving up picks for respectablity is that I feel the same arguements were made 4 years ago when the Nats signed Guzman and Castillo. Then too the nats only gave up a 2nd and a 3rd round pick to field a better team. At the time i think it made sense (even more so than now since the Nats were new and had to put some sort of product on the field). Now i'm not saying that Dunn is the same as Guzman, Dunn is a top offensive producer but at the same time Guzman represent a legit leadoff option who played a premium position. Look at the players that were still available back in 2005, there are some pretty good young players. Sure maybe the Nats wouldn't have picked them but by the same token we don't know that they wouldn't have.

I am all about seeing the Nats get back to respectablity but I would focus on some of the other names you mentioned, Rivera, Baldelli ect. I think if either is healthy they could be a steal for the Nats and provide trade value or at least solid play. I would much rather save my money and outfield spot for the 2010 free agent class, when you have guys like, Ankiel, Bay, Nady, Holliday, Crawford, Guerrero, Matsui on the market. Sure not all these guys will make it to free agency but those that do are better options then Dunn. They are worth the draft pick and Bay, Holliday, Crawford and prob Ankiel fit the bill of a centerpiece ballplayer.

Will said...

Steve, I agree on Baldelli. I think he'd make a great reclamation project for not much money. We should offer him a very heavily incentive-laden contract based off plate appearances or games played.
If he stayed healthy, great. If not, he wouldn't be much of a burden on the Ted's wallet.

I think we should do the same with Milton Bradley, except he'd cost a lot more than Baldelli (but then again he also has a greater upside).

Will said...

Steven, have you seen some of the stats that have come out regarding Harris' season?

Bill James' Fielding Bible ranked Willie Harris the second best defensive left fielder in baseball (best in the NL).

The guys at Beyond the Box Score ranked Harris as the 6th best left fielder in baseball last year, taking into account offense and defense (better than Carlos Lee, Burrell, Bay and Crawford). Just defensively, he was the best by far.

I don't even pretend to understand the methodology completely, and it appears that they do place a little too much emphasis on defense, but still according to them Harris is worth 8 runs more than Adam Dunn and will cost millions less.

Steven said...

I agree totally that Harris was a brilliant defender. I gave him my team gold glove.

I don't think it's credible though to argue that Harris was more valuable that Burrell, Lee, or Bay. Crawford had a really down season and was hurt a bunch.

I'm all for keeping Harris around as a utility guy, but he failed twice as an everyday guy in Chi and Atl. I just don't think he can hold up. If he couldn't do it in his late 20s, he sure can't now.

But I like him. If he gets 300 ABs as your 4th outfielder and late-innings defensive replacement and occasional utility IF, that's fine.