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.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.
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.
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.