Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Spring Training Questions: What if Austin's Weird(ly Good)?

I know it's hard to remember now, but Austin Kearns not that long ago was a legitimately quite good Major League Baseball player. In 2006, the year he was acquired by the Nationals, he put up a stat line including a .363 OBP, .467 SLG, and 24 HR. Paired with 15 runs prevented above average defensively (averaging UZR/150 and Rate2), that made him almost a 3 wins above replacement player (which is good--not quite all-star, but good). And before you assume these numbers are inflated by his 154 ABs in the Great American Small Park that year, his OPS+ at GASP was 104, eight points shy of is 112 overall OPS+.

I've written a lot about how bad Kearns was last year, when his staggeringly horrific .217 / .311 / .316 line made him one of the very worst offensive regulars in all MLB. And I don't expect a bounce-back to 2006 for him. But I can't say for sure that it's not going to happen. Austin was hurt last year, he's still just 29, and this is a walk-year. Bill James's projection sees a .359 OBP and .435 SLG for him in 2009. OK, so that's the most favorable projection I could find, and it's still not as good as 2006, but that'd still be a pretty nice season.

Let's say that Austin shows up at camp on a mission and starts lining ropes all over the place. Let's assume he forces himself into the lineup, and no one gets hurt. What do you do?

Well, I first drafted this post last weekend, I said this:
I think you have to send Willingham to the bench. Elijah Dukes is the Nationals' very best hitter not named Nick Johnson, and he has to play. To bench Milledge would be to sacrifice the future for a meaningless current.

I know Willingham is the Nationals' biggest off-season addition, but Willingham at his best really isn't as good as Kearns at his best. Willingham's been a bit better hitter, but not enough to make up for the huge difference between the two of them in the field, where Kearns has been about 17 runs per 150 games better, based on Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), a difference of almost two wins just with the glove.

Chances are this is a problem the team won't need to worry about. If Josh Willingham can really play first he could spell Johnson either as a platoon partner or just to keep him fresh. Willingham, Johnson, Kearns, and Dukes are all pretty significant injury risks. And of course Kearns probably won't suddenly return to his 2006 form.

But if you're trying to imagine scenarios for how the Nationals might exceed expectations, a revival from Austin Kearns is definitely one of the ways it could happen.
OK, so now that Dunn's in the mix, that's not relevant anymore. Now, assuming no one gets hurt and no one gets traded, the only way Kearns find the field is at Milledge's expense, which I can't see happening. It may in fact take two injuries to get Kearns on the field with Willingham hanging around. And you can't totally eliminate the possibility of Wily Mo Painful getting another shot.

Any way you cut it, Kearns's goal this spring is to force a trade--either of himself or Milledge, Johnson, and/or Willingham--to get himself on the field. I don't put that much stock in the idea that the team won't trade Kearns because he's Dunn's friend. If Jim traded Jeff Shaw after signing him to a hometown discount and promising not to trade him, he'll flip Kearns. I even kind of think Jim would enjoy doing it as a big show of how committed to winning he is. But given his $8 million contract, he's not tradable unless he can light up the box score this spring.


Nate said...

I'd add this to the file of "good problems to have" and move on. If Nick Johnson is fully recovered, if Austin rebounds, and if none of the outfielders get banged up in ST, then maybe this becomes an issue that needs to be addressed. That's two more conditional clauses than I'm prepared to worry about at the moment.

Hell, what if Meat Hook shows up to camp in the best shape of his life and starts legging out triples? Granted that would be followed quickly by the rain of frogs and the end of days, but still...

Michael said...

You've indirectly implied the nightmare scenario for the Nats at spring training, with Kearns, Willingham and Pena having monster camps with Dukes and Milledge struggling. The only way to wake up from that is if prior to Opening Day we got lucky and someone offered us to trade us a fermented chicken beverage for Pena.

As for Kearns, he's never been a particularly good player at his home parks (his OPS+ (team) at GAB and RFK are/were both sub 100), but while he was slightly worse at home last year compared to '07 with an 11 point drop in OPS+ (league), but he was MUCH worse on the road, for a staggering 54 point drop in that stat. His '07 was pretty good when you factor in RFK. The stadium had 93 ballpark factor which for Kearns translated into a 82 OPS+, while he was a near All-Star caliber player on the road, with a 124 OPS+.

This leads me to believe either '08 was total statistical aberration, or more likely, his bone fragments in his left elbow are worse than initially thought or he came back from the surgery too fast. In that way, the foot injury may have helped his '09 by getting him off the field to rest his elbow. One hopeful sign, his eyes don't seem to be the problem, as his OBP was still about 100 points above his BA.

I'm just waiting for the Nats to invite Oil Can Boyd to camp. His dad played for the Homestead Grays, and it would give Oldalis Perez someone his own age to talk to, so it seems like a natural fit.

If nothing else, the next 6 weeks should be interesting.

Uncle Dak said...

What is preventing a return to catcher for Willingham?

traderkirk said...

Actually, if Kearns DID show up in Florida spraying line drives all over the field, he wouldn't be that hard to trade . . .

IF and this is a BIG IF

The Lerners would be willing to take back an equal or larger contract.

Any club that trades for Kearns would only be on the hook for $8m this year. Think the Mariners or the Tigers wouldn't take Kearns on if they could dump one of their bad pitcher contracts?

Would Frank McCourt say no if he was able to reduce payroll by $4m by swapping Jason Schmidt for Kearns?

It is highly unlikely that no matter how good Kearns is in ST, that anyone is going to take on his salary and give a quality prospect. If Bobby Abreu is worth only $5m, then you'd have to hope real hard for at least an average season at the plate to make Kearns that useful.

Meanwhile, doesn't Kearns strike you as an excellent 4th OF? Can play all three OF positions, is a plus defender (can be a defensive replacement in LF or CF where we'd need it). If he's swinging the bat well that gives the Nats a dangerous PH. Did any manager fear going to the Nats bench last year? Did they even get a PH at all last year? How about a PH HR?

An Briosca Mor said...

What is preventing a return to catcher for Willingham?

Jesus Flores, and his back. Not necessarily in that order.

estuartj said...

A healthy and '06 level productive Kearns would make Willingham expendable. An outfield (w/ NJ out) of Milledge/Dukes/Kearns (Dunn at 1B) is great offensively and defensively. With NJ in I can't see Milledge or Dukes getting benched for Kearns if he's playing anything short of All-Star level ball (.300/.400/.500 or better).

I don't see Kearns being moved either way, he's far more valuable as a defensive replacement and back-up than we could ever hope to get back in trade.

How about trading Willingham to ARI to get Rauch back, we'd have gotten Olsen for half a season of Rauch (plus two C prospects), not enough to take down this site, but pretty good GM work none-the-less.

redcottageaudio said...

The real upside to a good Austin Kearns would be a Willigham trade. Kearns defense means that his still useful to us. He is the only legit right fielder besides Dukes, whereas the left field is over crowded with guys with decent bats and no real defense.

Willigham might get a decent return, especially if any team loses a home run producing outfielder in Spring training.

The only thing that makes Kearns expendable is a really good spring training from Maxwell. I would love that to happen but will certainly not be holding my breath.

Steven said...

A lot of interesting ideas. This is problems of the rich, as Nate says, but fun barstool talk nonetheless.

I do agree with those here who have said that it'll be hard or impossible to get value for Kearns no matter what. Kearns at his best is a good piece to have. Look what we gave up to get him. Think we could get Daryl Thompson and Bill Bray? But no matter how good he is in ST we're not going to get that kind of value in return. People will need to see it in the regular season over time, and he's not going to get that chance here barring injury.

Will said...

If there's a OF logjam, the only solution is trading Willingham. He makes significantly less money, and probably has higher trade value than Kearns. On top of that, he's not best buds with our newly acquired masher, and doesn't provide plus defense. Basically, he's a lesser Austin Kearns.

However, as Nate said, there's too many unlikely scenarios at play to put too much thought into it.

An Briosca Mor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

A $10 million option??? Couldn't they grant him free agency and then resign him?

Will said...

ABM, Willingham is actually over a year older than Kearns. Also, its a $10m club option with a $1m buyout clause in 2010. If the Nats did decide they wanted Kearns next year, they'd buyout his contract then resign him to much less than $10m.

Besides that, Kearns has been an all around better player than Willingham. Willingham is slightly better offensively, but Kearns' defense makes up for that. Kearns was a 3.6 win player in 2007 (in a pretty average season), Willingham has never been more than a 2.7 win player.

e poc said...

I'll echo others in saying that I don't think it would be that weird if Kearns was pretty good in '09. He had a bad season in 300 (injury-affected?) ABs last year, but he's 29 and has a pretty consistent track record otherwise. I'd bank on him being an average hitter and a plus 10 fielder - i.e., our third best outfielder. I never thought he was a problem, and the only reason he's a problem now is that Bowden decided inexplicably to add Willingham, Dunn, and Harris to the three outfielders we already had. Now Kearns just looks like a bad contract and a tough decision.