Sunday, October 12, 2008

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

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

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 Third-Baseman: Ryan Zimmerman
Three years ago, the 21-year-old Zimmerman broke in with a .287 / .351 / .471 and 112 OPS+ while playing gold glove defense--good enough to finish second behind Hanley Ramirez in the rookie of the year balloting. Since then, he has not progressed the way we all had hoped. MVP talk was always a bit overblown, but I think the '08 PECOTA projection for him of .292 / .357 / .492 was a good, mid-range expectation for a healthy Zimm. Of course he wasn't healthy; hampered by a shoulder injury in late May that in particular sapped his power numbers, Zimmerman had his worst season statistically, falling to .283 / .333 / .442.

Let's try to get a handle on what Zimmerman is based on what we know now. The way I see it, 2008 for him was like four seasons in one. First, he had what has become his typical season-starting slump. For his career, he has a .657 OPS in March/April, compared to an overall career OPS of .803. This season, he hit .632 OPS through the end of April, even worse than normal, but within the pattern we've come to expect.

Then, in May, right on schedule, he started to come on, especially in his power numbers. He hit .289 / .319 / .511 for the month. Signs were there that he was going to put together another good year after all, but there were reasons for concern as well.

Most troubling, he seemed to be regressing in terms of plate discipline, posting a Guzman-esque unintentional walk rate of 4.3 BB/AB before the shoulder. He's never really shown a great hitter's eye, but this was totally unacceptable. Whether he was 'pressing' because of the team's overall offensive problems or a getting screwed up by Lenny Harris or failing to respond to the league's adjustments to him is hard to know. Regardless this was a recipe for a major regression, not breaking out.

Then he got hurt. He lost all of June and most of July, and when he came back, the third part of his season saw him reduced to a singles hitter who lacked the power to drive the ball for extra bases. From his return on July 22 to August 26, he hit .287 / .358 / .352. Though his power was almost non-existent (SLG less than OBP), his unintentional walk rate more than doubled to 10.2 BB/AB. Finally, on August 27, he hit his first homer since coming back, and from there on out he was white-hot, crushing he ball to the tune of a .325 / .381 / .553 line while his BB/AB rate stayed high at 9.6.

If Zimmerman had stayed healthy, I think it's reasonable to assume that he would have had one other hot stretch similar to September and maybe hit like he did in May or a bit better the rest of the way. With that, he would have finished within spitting distance of that excellent PECOTA projection, even despite the dreadful start and walks problems.

So overall, I evaluate Zimmerman more or less no differently than I did a year ago. He's still a very good young hitter with a mix of power/average/speed tools that will allow him to be an above-average to all-star caliber player for another decade or more. To take the next step, he needs to improve his plate discipline and do something about those awful starts. But even if there isn't really 'another level' for Zimmerman, and 'all there is' is a 25 HR, .280 hitter who saves us 20 runs a year over replacement with his defense, you have a true championship-caliber contributor.
  • Back-Up: Ron Belliard, Willie Harris, Alberto Gonzalez, Pete Orr, or Kory Casto
Aaron Boone is a free agent, and at 36, I don't see the team bringing him back. A full season in the majors would have made Pete Orr arbitration-eligible this off season, but it looks like he's fallen short, so he could be back as a AAA guy who plays in a pinch. Harris is arbitration-eligible, and although for fans this is probably a no-brainer I'm not sure it is. Casto should be back in the minors to start the year. Hernandez and Bonifacio have never played third, and Harris had only appeared there in two games career before this season, so I don't think either of them are real options as everyday players if Zimm goes down. Belliard as I've said is a trade candidate. As I wrote in the first base post, it might make sense to bring in someone like Eric Hinske who could be a fall-back at first base but also be useful as a back-up at third and in the outfield.

In the Minors
  • Zilch, nada, bupkis
Stephen King, whom I discussed in the second base post, has played a lot of third and has the arm to stay there. But that would only make sense if something happened to Zimmerman, and otherwise there's not a true prospect of any kind anywhere in the system.

Free Agents
Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here are the free agent third-basemen available this off-season:
Rich Aurilia (37)
Casey Blake (35)
Hank Blalock (28) - $6.2MM club option for '09 with a $0.25MM buyout
Willie Bloomquist (31)
Aaron Boone (36)
Russell Branyan (33)
Craig Counsell (38)
Joe Crede (31)
Nomar Garciaparra (35)
Mark Loretta (37)
Fernando Tatis (34)
Ramon Vazquez (32)
FJB's Take
Let’s keep it simple: Re-Sign. Ryan Zimmerman. Long-Term. Now.

Zimmerman is arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2009 season, and in three years he’ll become a free agent as he’s entering his age-27 season. If the Nationals allow him to reach free agency on that date, it could easily cost over $150 million to re-sign him. If he goes out and starts hitting 30-35 homers a year or explodes in his walk year, he could drive that number to $200 million or more.

Our best chance to re-sign him at a discount would have been during the 2006 season, in his first year of major-league service time when he was still two years from arbitration. But we didn’t have an owner then, so we missed it. I’ve written before that Bowden could have protected us from this problem by holding back Zimmerman in the minors until late May 2006, but, never one to care about the long-term over drawing attention to himself in the short-term, he didn’t do that.

Last year, the team offered him a contract that was compared to Troy Tulowitzki’s six-year, $31 million deal. In fact, this was a silly low-ball offer because, although Tulo is probably a comparable talent, at the time Tulo was one full year further from free agency and arbitration than Zimmerman. Even with his sub-par season, Zimmerman stands a good chance of getting more than $5 million this year in arbitration, and his salary would only go up from there, so why would he have locked himself into that long-term last off-season?

The team’s handling of Zimmerman then smacked of the disingenuous approach they took with Aaron Crow—cherry-pick the smallest contract signed by any remotely comparable player, call that ‘the market,’ and then refuse to consider a dollar more. This approach is penny-wise and pound-foolish, as the team will only lose leverage as time goes by and have to pay even more later. At this point, the team should sit down with Zimmerman and do what it takes to get him locked up through at least age 30. Seven years and $60-65 million should do the trick, and if you can get him for less, more power to you. But his price tag is only going to go up from here.

I repeat: every day we wait he’s getting more expensive, and every day we wait, we’re getting closer to losing him. And if you think the season ticket renewals look bad now, just wait till Zimmerman’s playing for the Angels or Red Sox in 2012. There’s cheap-smart (passing on Zito, Silva, Jones) and there’s cheap-dumb (letting Crow walk over $900k). This would self-destructively, insanely, invade-Iraq-without-a-post-war-plan, idiotically cheap.

Don’t let your stubbornness make you stupid, Ted. Re-sign Zimmerman now.


Will said...

Leonard Davis, MVP of the Nats' farm system this year, played at thirdbase the four years prior to this year. If he proves he can play at the big-league level during ST, he could play a role similar to Hinske. Davis spent the majority of his time at third, while getting some time in at second, then this year moved to the outfield.

The only problem is he hasn't shown he would be major league ready any time soon. He played poorly in Columbus and hasn't come out strong in the AZ Fall League.
Either way, he's worth keeping an eye on.

And I wholeheartedly agree about signing Zimmerman as soon as possible. This waiting game the FO is playing is only going to cost them more and more money the longer they wait. I can't see Zimmerman faring any worse next year. I think the odds he puts together another 2006 in 2009 are fairly good. The FO should sign him now, it's in everyone's best interest.

Will said...

One more thing. I just came across this great minor league stat site. It's much better than any other minor league sites (The Baseball Cube, MiLB, etc) that I've seen.
Minor League Split Stats

Anyway, to clarify based on this new-found knowledge, Davis apparently spent most of his time at 3B last year. Despite every Nationals site/article listing him as an outfielder (leftfielder), he didn't make the transition to LF until he got to Columbus in July. Up until then, he was still playing 3B.

Steven said...

My understanding is that Davis projects as an outfielder not an infielder, and a bench guy at best, but if that's wrong, you're right, he would be another potential 3B in the system.

Thanks for the link. That's not a site I was aware of.

Section 222 said...

No one can argue with this analysis Steven. If the Lerners sign Zim to a long term deal, they make a major and necessary statement about their commitment to a winning team. And if they don't, there is nothing that will kill fan interest and support for the Nats faster. It's that simple. The longer they wait, the more expensive it will be.

It's actually mind boggling how penny and pound foolish they have been so far on this issue. If they had made a generous offer last year, they would easily have saved enough money for several Aaron Crows over the next six years. Now they will pay through the nose to keep him in Washington. For a supposedly tough minded and long term thinking business family, that was a colossal mistake.

Athan said...

I agree with Section222 - not signing Zimmerman would be another kiss off to the fans. I agree FJB assessment of Zim's skill - he'll be a solid 280 - 25 HR guy and he's under 25 years old. But more importantly, he's the face of the franchise and the most popular player on team. Sign him to show the fans you are serious about your vaunted 'plan' to build around young, home grown talent.

Steven said...

The only revision I'd make to you Athan is that he IS a 25-HR, .280 guy NOW. The only question is whether he'll get substantially better than that.

Even with the shoulder injury, he hit 14 this year. His 162-game average up to this point in his career is 21 HR and .282. He hit 24 dingers last year, and I don't think there's any question that with 600 healthy ABs that he would have gotten 11 more.

Steve Shoup said...

Fully agree with your assessment Steven about the Nats needing to sign Zimmerman long term ASAP. And honestly give a bone to the Fans don't just lock up his first year or two of free agency, sign him to an 8 or 10 year deal. Let us fans know that the Nats will retain their talented young players.

One other thing I want to mention is I think Zim's slow start this year and overall lack of power can also be attributed to the Hamate injury. They always say it 'saps' the strength for upto a year. Also zim couldn't have been as in shape for the season as he would have been otherwise. Here's hoping he does break out for a .290-30-100 year this year (after we sign him long term).

Will said...

Ted Lerner should take a cue from the other Ted L. owner in Washington. Leonsis wisely recognized that Ovechkin was a special player and a fan favorite. So what did he do? Locked him up for the rest of his career. He didn't wait until he became a free agent to do so. And while Ovechkin got the biggest contract in NHL history, he'd have paid much more if he waited until other teams could begin offering Ovie money.

Zimmerman isn't quite as good as Ovechkin but he's in the same situation. The brighest spot on a team with a history of losing. Ted, get the deal done soon.

Dave Nichols said...

the Lerners have a long way to go to catch up with Leonsis on how to run a customer-oriented business.

honestly, what have they done at this point to indicate that they would even contemplate giving Zimmerman a long-term deal? long-term to them is 2-year, $10M to overweight, out of shape past-their-prime players.

ah, bitterness. just as i thought relishing the early-season Caps success would mellow me, it takes just one Nats article to push me back over the top.

Steven said...

Don't forget the 3 years and 17.5 to Kearns and 2 years and 16 to Guzzy.

An Briosca Mor said...

The team offered Zimmerman a long-term deal early in the 2008 season. Reportedly it was in the Tulowitzki range, i.e. much more than 2 years $10M. Zimmerman chose not to take that deal. Obviously it is not entirely the Lerners' doing that Zimmerman hasn't signed a long-term deal. It takes two to tango, and Zimmerman apparently doesn't want to open up his dance card yet.

Steven said...

ABM--Yes the Tulo contract offer was referenced in my above post. That was a low-ball offer no different than telling Crow "you get what Ross D. got period..." Tulo signed that deal at the end of his first year of service time. Zimm was offered the same deal after his year 2 of service time. It's not the same. The player has less incentive to sign at a "discount" at that point.

An Briosca Mor said...

Why should Zimmerman get a premier contract if his performance has not been up to that level? You sling numbers around to "project" Zimmerman as being better over a full season than he has ever been in any cherry-picked 162 games of his career. How is that any different than what you castigate Bowden for doing with Austin Kearns? If Zimmerman had been performing better when that Tulowitzki-like offer was made, he would have gotten a better offer. As it is, Zimmerman has been trending down ever since his very good rookie year in 2006. Whatever the reasons for that, why should he get a premium long-term offer before he at least demonstrates that he can trend up over the course of a season or more? Just because he's the best we've got? That sounds like you're advocating spending money just for the sake of spending money.

Steven said...

It all comes down to how you evaluate the player. If you don't think Zimmerman is going to be as good as I do, then going year to year is the right thing to do. We shall see.