Thursday, October 9, 2008

Position-by-Position Off-Season Outlook: Shortstop

Continuing my series looking at the Nationals' current personnel organization-wide and the opportunities to upgrade this off-season, next up is shortstop. If you missed it and are interested, click to check out my looks at the catchers, first-basemen, and second-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 shortstop: Cristian Guzman
Guzman had a career year, posting a very good .316 / .345 / .440 line. His 5.57 runs created per 27 outs (essentially a measure how many runs a lineup of 9 of the same individual would score per game) placed him 6th among 17 batting title-qualified shortstops in MLB and beating guys like Michael Young, Derek Jeter, and Jhonny Peralta. Amazing how these guys come through in their walk years, eh?

Well, that's not fair--there were many, me included, who scoffed at his hot start and howled when the Nationals re-signed him for two years and $16 more million at mid-season. And, as we predicted, he did start to revert to form, having a pretty darn dreadful July before getting hurt for 2 weeks or so. Then, lo and behold, he came back hotter than ever. In fact, the .981 OPS he put up in September 2008 was the hottest month of his entire career. Betcha missed it--it was pretty sweet.

So could it be that all this time we've been wrong about Guzman? There's no question that since coming back from his lost 2006, he's been a different guy. Many people, including Guzman himself, point to the Lasik eye surgery that he had while he was out in 2006. Indeed, his K/PA rate since the Lasik is 9.7, while his career rate pre-Lasik was 14.1. That's a huge drop. (Permit me to once again link to this article in the Times from July that reported that the team didn't give Guzman a vision test as part of his physical before signing him to his big four-year, $16 million deal. I'm still stunned, shocked, and dismayed that this could be true of any MLB team, much less mine.) Or maybe the shoulder surgery fixed some nagging thing that was hurting his performance more than anyone realized.

Before we go inducting him in the Hall of Fame, however, there are still reasons to doubt. First and foremost, he's almost totally eliminated the walk from his game. His 3.8% unintentional walk rate was ninth from the bottom among 147 qualified hitters in MLB, leaving him completely dependent on the vagaries of BABIP for his offensive value. His .339 and .364 BABIPs this year and last are just not sustainable. Consider: if his BABIP last season had receded to his career average of .306 and everything else was the same, it would have cost him 17 hits, dropped his batting average from .316 to .286 and his OBP from .345 to .319.

He also still has to be considered an injury risk. Over his career he's had serious shoulder and knee problems, he missed all of 2006 following shoulder surgery, most of 2007 with torn ligaments in his left thumb and a hamstring problem, and then even this year he was out for a couple weeks with a bruised right thumb.

And then there's his age. At 31, he's now at the age when most players start to decline. Players who depend on just one or two skills tend to age especially suddenly. For instance, players who have speed but who don't hit for power or draw walks
tend to age poorly (think Vince Coleman or Garry Templeton, both of whom ceased to be useful starters by Guzman's age). Players who age particularly well like Moises Alou or George Brett typically do several things well--hit for power, average, draw walks, speed, etc. Guzman lacks the multi-faceted skill set typically associated with guys who play well into their mid-to-late 30s, so look for him to decline pretty sharply over the next couple years.
  • Back-up: Alberto Gonzalez
Barring injury, Gonzalez is probably destined for Syracuse (the Nationals' new AAA affiliate). With the typical 12-man bullpen, that leaves room for just 5 position players on the bench. If you assume two outfielders and a catcher, you are left with two infielders, who will probably be Anderson Hernandez and a first-baseman. Regardless, if something happens to Guzman, Gonzalez would be our next option as the every-day starter.

Gonzalez, 25, is a glove-first shortstop who has yet to show that he has enough bat to make it as a major league starter. Like Bonifacio, he was a Rizzo guy as a prospect in Arizona before getting sent to the Yankees in the Randy Johnson deal.

When the team traded live-armed pitching prospect Jhonny Nunez (no relation to Peralta) to get him, Bowden predicted that he would hit .250-.260 and said that "all of our baseball people unanimously felt that Gonzalez was an everyday shortstop. Not just an extra player." When I spoke to Rizzo at ESPN Zone last month, he compared him to Adam Everett (who I guess qualifies as "not an extra player").

(Take this, like all JimBo puffery, with a grain of salt, but he also said at the time of the Gonzalez trade, "We feel now that with Gonzalez and Bonifacio and with Cristian Guzman signed, with Desmond and Smiley coming, we feel like we've really stabilized our middle infield for the short-term as well as the long term," suggesting that at least he's satisfied with the organization's current situation across the middle infield.)

There are plenty of people who think even Adam Everett is an overly generous comp. Chances are, with Guzzy's injury history, we'll get more opportunities to find out.

In the Minors
  • Ian Desmond
The Expos' third-round pick out of high school in 2007, Desmond has always gotten high marks for his defense but has fallen far short of high expectations offensively. This year, at age 22, he had his second crack at AA after getting rushed and flopping there at 20. He hit an unimpressive .251 / .318 / .406 and backslid on plate discipline from what he'd done the previous year at high-A. It wasn't that long ago that people thought he might have been ready to take the reins at the big league-level at the end of Guzman's contract this year, but that had ceased to be an option long before Guzzy re-signed. Late bloomers happen, so I don't think it's quite time to give up on him, but time is running out.
  • Esmailyn Gonzalez
The 18-year-old Smiley made news for more than just FBI investigations this year, as his second trip through the rookie Gulf Coast League saw him up his batting average from .245 to .343, the highest BA in the whole Washington Nationals organization and good enough to win the GCL batting title. That's cool, but the fact that he was in the GCL at all was a bit of a disappointment. Still, I love his 10.7 BB/PA and the fact that he walked more often than he struck out in both of his pro seasons. He also showed developing power, as his ISO power (SLG minus BA) rose from an adolescent .066 to a much more mature .132 (and strictly speaking he's still an adolescent). There's a question about his ability to make it as a shortstop, and 18 Es in 47 games this season don't inspire a ton of confidence.
  • Danny Espinosa
The Nationals' third-round pick out of Long Beach State, Espinosa is a switch-hitter with some pop, hits for average, and has shown developing plate discipline. None of his tools overwhelm, but he gets high marks for work ethic and leadership. He broke in this summer with a hot .328 / .476 / .359 line in 64 AB at low-A Vermont (notice the gap between his BA and OBP--that's 17 walks to go with 21 hits in 87 PA) and rated as the #14 prospect in Baseball America's New York Penn League Top 20. He may get moved to second base at some point.

Free Agents
Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here are the shortstop free agents available this off-season:
Willie Bloomquist (31)
Orlando Cabrera (34)
Alex Cintron (30)
Alex Cora (33)
Craig Counsell (38)
David Eckstein (34)
Adam Everett (32)
Rafael Furcal (31)
Nomar Garciaparra (35)
Jerry Hairston Jr. (33)
Cesar Izturis (29)
Felipe Lopez (29)
Edgar Renteria (33)
Juan Uribe (30)
Ramon Vazquez (32)
Omar Vizquel (42) - $5.2MM club option for '09 with a $0.3MM buyout
FJB's Take
At some point I may have to admit that I'm wrong to curse the day I first laid eyes on Cristian Guzman, but we've got a ways to go yet. His resigning smacks of Jim's "I'll prove to you I was right!" tendency to double-down on mistakes. If Guzzy gives us two more years like the last one, I'll tip my hat to Jim (but I'll still wonder if we maybe would have made the playoffs in 2005 if they'd have just checked the guy's vision for god's sake). But I think there's a better chance that he goes the way of Felipe Lopez in mid-2010 than that he maintains his 2008 level for two more years.

For now, I still think Guzman's greatest value to us is as trade bait. He'll never have more value than he does right now, and although the $8 million is objectionable when compared to the $5 million Milton Bradley cost, it actually probably makes him a little more tradeable because of the two-year contract length.

Rafael Furcal is clearly a better option for any team ready to spend to make a run, but if you lose out on him, who's better than Guzman? A 34-year-old Orlando Cabrera? At probably $3-4 million more per year? I don't think so.

Maybe a team like the Cardinals would part with left-handed catcher prospect Bryan Anderson or LHP Jaime Garcia to solve their SS problem. Or if the Dodgers lose Furcal, maybe the kid-hating Ned Colletti will send us one of their pitching prospects like Scott Elbert or James McDonald. Or perhaps the Giants' Brian Sabean, always looking to take on over-valued veterans for no apparent reason, would send us Jonathan Sanchez or Henry Sosa or Tim Alderson.

The Nationals aren't going to win anything in 2009 or 2010, so I'd rather turn an asset like Guzman into someone who might be part of a contender in 2011-12. As I've preached all along, if we'd have taken that approach with Nick Johnson, Brad Wilkerson, Chad Cordero, Jose Vidro, Livan Hernandez, et. al. starting in November 2004 we'd be a lot closer now.

If we did that, we'd go into next season with a middle infield of Anderson Hernandez, Alberto Gonzalez, and Emilio Bonifacio at the big league level, and maybe Ron Belliard or Willie Harris in there somehow. Almost certainly it would make us worse in 2009, but we don't have very many more tradeable assets than Guzzy, and if the goal is to contend (and it should be) there's not much point in just watching him decline for two years on losing teams.

1 comment:

miguel said...

a saw omar vizquel went he was 17 before and also went he play in the minors and no one give him a chance,good glove always the people said and scouts but no bat or chance to play regular in mlb,well you know the story,every where in baseball i mean scoys,pro scouts,coaches in diferent league and organizations said that alberto gonzalez is vizquel type a player given the chance to play everyday far more superior that bonifacio and hernandez combine in any position,now people who ? his bat are reportes or writers like went vizquel was young,hall of fame now,dont know if gonzalez will be like vizquel but he can pick and throw with the best,well yankees want him to back up jeter,rodriguez and cano,girardi love him,enjoy him