Saturday, November 21, 2009

Position-by-Position Off-Season Outlook: Middle Infield

I continue my position-by-position look at the off-season outlook for the Nationals with middle infield. You can check out my look at catchers here.

The Present

  • Starting second baseman: Cristian Guzman
It's impossible to say with 100% certainty at this point what the starting middle infield will be, but for now we're told that Cristian Guzman is the starter at second base, a position he's played exactly never at any professional level ever.

The team explains the move by pointing to Guzman's supposedly declining infield range. As I've pointed out before, there's not much evidence that Guzman's range is actually getting any worse. It's never been good, and some people have chosen to ignore that in the past, but it really isn't any worse.

In 2009, he made 43 out of zone plays in 993 innings. In 2005, he made 47 out of zone plays in 1161 innings. UZR actually says Guzman had the best season since 2004 with 2.0 runs above average in range runs (runs prevented defensively based on fielding range). Whatever, Guzman's glove has never been very good, and it's still not good, and at age 32 it isn't getting any better.

All things equal, second base is an easier position to play, and that should be worth something. Then again, all things might not be equal. Guzman's arm has never really been his problem, and the move to second will diminish slightly the value of his best defensive tool. The lack of experience won't help him, as he'll have to get used to turning the double play the other way, etc. And of course there's been a lot of speculation that he just doesn't want to do it, which certainly won't help.

The big question is why the team didn't bother to run him out to second at least a few times in late 2009. Jim Riggleman told Nationals bloggers last week that the reason was that Guzman's shoulder was hurt, so he couldn't play second. But that was a bunch of hooey.

Mike Rizzo started talking publicly about Guzman as a possible second baseman in late August (presumably they'd been talking about it internally for a while before that), and Riggleman kept sending Guzman out to shortstop almost every day for another month after that. And remember the talk about how Ian Desmond couldn't start because the veterans "deserved" to play?

Bottom line, the move could be worth as much as an additional win in runs prevented, or it could be a net-negative. We'll just have to wait and see.

As for Guzzy's bat, he managed to drive his walk rate down all the way to 2.9%, the second lowest in all of baseball behind Bengie Molina. His OBP has declined from .380 to .345 to .306 over the last three seasons. His walk rate isn't helping, but it's his declining BABIP that's really hurt him. Lady luck has soured, and fewer balls are dropping for him, plain and simple. This year he finished at .322, which is actually still a bit on the fortunate side, and chances are his BABIP, OBP, and overall value as a hitter will fall even further in 2010. That is, unless he starts taking more walks. Then again, the gods of BABIP might smile on him for another 500 ABs--stranger things have happened.
  • Starting shortstop: Ian Desmond
It seems pretty unlikely that Desmond will be the starting shortstop on Opening Day, but for now there's no one in the organization ahead of him.

Desmond was nothing short of spectacular in his 21-game cameo at the end of the season. He hit seven doubles, two triples, and four homers in 89 plate appearances, enough to give him the highest ISO power (SLG minus BA) on the team, besting Adam Dunn .280 to .262.

But as they say, beware August scouting. He's never hit more than 13 homers in any professional season. Ian Desmond has some nice gap-to-gap power, but he just isn't that guy. The numbers that mattered for Desmond were his falling strikeout rate and rising walk rate. In 178 PA at Triple-A, he posted a career-best 0.65 BB:K ratio, resulting in a ridiculous .428 OBP. He wasn't the second coming of Cal Ripken, but he was certainly good enough to be in the bigs.

Whether he can continue that against higher levels is another question. While he was tearing the cover off the ball in September, he also saw his walk rate was just 5.8% for the Nationals. He'll have to get back to basics to survive, especially after pitchers get two and three looks at him.

Then, there are the errors. Six errors in 113 chances is just way too many. While his athleticism allows him to make some great plays, he's always had a problem handling the routine ones. You'd think at some point this would get solved, and he'd become a true plus-fielder, but at age 23, you start to wonder.
  • Back-up infielder: Alberto Gonzalez
In 2009, Gonzalez turned 26. The season before he'd been traded to the Nationals and reunited with Mike Rizzo, the scouting director who originally signed him in Arizona back in 2002. Injuries, trades, and poor performances opened up repeated opportunities for him to grab a starting job. Everything was teed up for the AG to have the year of his life.

And he crapped the bed over, and over, and over. He made a whopping ten errors in 340 chances. He finished with a miserable .265 / .299 / .351. He wished he was replacement level. He's still young enough that he could rebound and earn a back-up infield job at some point in the next year or two, but his days as a guy who might matter are over.

In the Minors
  • Danny Espinosa
The latest product of the Long Beach State shortstop factory delivered big time in his first full pro season. He hit .264 / .375 / .460 at A+ level Potomac and earned himself an invite to the prospect showcase Arizona Fall League. There, he earned rave reviews while hitting .345 / .434 / .460. He had arguably the best minor league season ever for a Nationals position player not named Derek Norris.

Espinosa does everything well. He has a mature plate approach, fields his position well, and hits for some power. His upside is limited, and he faces a big step up to Double-A Harrisburg this year, but he has the look of a future starter in the majors, maybe as soon as 2011.
  • Jeff Kobernus
The Nationals' second round pick out of California, Kobernus got hurt right away but will be ready for 2010. He's a Mike Rizzo type--good make-up, good defensive tools, not particularly high upside. Baseball America has him as the #7 prospect in the organization, but in a top farm system he'd be closer to 15 or 20. If he advances quickly, he might have a shot to compete for a starting job at second base after Guzman leaves.

Free Agents
Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here's this year's list of free agent middle-infielders:
Second basemen
Ronnie Belliard (35) - Type B
Jamey Carroll (36)
Alex Cora (34)
Craig Counsell (39)
Mark DeRosa (35) - Type B
Chone Figgins (32) - Type A (note: not listed as a 2B on MLB Trade Rumors)
Nick Green (31)
Jerry Hairston Jr. (34)
Orlando Hudson (32) - Type A
Adam Kennedy (34)
Felipe Lopez (30) - Type B
Mark Loretta (38)
Pablo Ozuna (35)
Placido Polanco (34) - Type A
Luis Rodriguez (30)
Juan Uribe (31)

Eric Bruntlett (32)
Orlando Cabrera (35) - Type A, can't be offered arbitration
Juan Castro (38)
Alex Cora (34)
Craig Counsell (39)
Bobby Crosby (30)
Adam Everett (33)
Chris Gomez (39)
Alex Gonzalez (32)
Nick Green (31)
Khalil Greene (30)
Jerry Hairston Jr. (34)
John McDonald (35)
Luis Rodriguez (30)
Marco Scutaro (34) - Type A
Miguel Tejada (36) - Type A
Wilson Valdez (32)
Omar Vizquel (43)
FJB's Take
The cupboard certainly isn't bare long-term, but the outlook for 2010 is grim. Guzman's an iffy proposition at second, Desmond probably isn't ready, and this list of free agent shortstops is ugly, ugly, ugly.

The shortstops divide into three basic categories: type-A guys who aren't going to be worth near what they cost (Tejada, Scutaro), glove-only guys who can't hit a lick (Gonzalez, Everett, Vizquel), and a bunch of guys who really shouldn't be in MLB. The Nationals seem committed to signing a gloveman, and if they do my pick would be Vizquel. But you would hope to do better.

There are two guys who might fall outside these categories: Khalil Greene and Orlando Cabrera. Greene averaged .256 / .313 / .446 with 18 homers a year from 2004-2007 while playing half his games in Petco. Then, in 2008, every part of his game totally collapsed, especially, his strike zone command, and he was one of the very worst every day position players in all of baseball. Then he was traded to St. Louis and was a popular pick to bounce back in 2009. It didn't happen. He had some injuries, but mostly he was terrible, especially defensively. Still, Greene will be just 30 in 2010, and he would come cheap. It might be interesting to give him a look as a second baseman/utility man and see what happens.

Cabrera looked over the hill in 2009, and indeed he might be. His once-solid defense fell a whopping 26.8 runs in UZR, and he struggled to keep up with any kind of fastball. Still, he made enough contact to finish with a respectable .284 / .316 / .389 line. He's a type-A free agent, but his contract says he can't be offered arbitration, so he won't cost anything in draft picks. He got one year and $4 million from the A's last year, and for that much he might be the Nationals' best option.

Given the thin free agent market, the Nationals will have to look to make a trade to improve. J.J. Hardy was my top choice, but that's over now. Other guys who might be available: Reid Brignac (Rays prospect blocked by Jason Bartlett), Chin-Lung Hu (Dodgers prospect blocked by Rafael Furcal), Ryan Theriot (the Cubs may be looking to make room in 2010 for top prospect Starlin Castro, though probably not till mid-season), Maicer Izturis (awful lot of shortstops in Anaheim), and Mike Aviles (for whatever reason Dayton Moore loves the awful Yuniesky Betancourt, and Alberto Callaspo's established at second). Or how about this one: Jose Reyes! The Wilpons lost a lot of Madoff money.

The second base market is much better looking, though the top players will likely cost more than what would make sense for the Nationals. Some fans might want to see more spending just for the sake of spending, but the reality is that giving up the first pick in the second round and committing multiple years to an over-30 middle infielder like Orlando Hudson or Chone Figgins or Placido Polanco probably takes you further away from a winner.

But a guy like Mark DeRosa is interesting, as are likely trade candidates like Brandon Phillips, Aki Iwamura (too late--already went to Pittsburgh for this guy), Dan Uggla and Kelly Johnson. You have to wonder if Rizzo is missing the best opportunities to improve by fixating too much of fielding and locking Guzman in at second. We'll see.

So enough equivocation. Here's my plan. Step one: commit to playing Desmond at Triple-A and Espinosa at Double-A at least until the All-Star Break. Nothing trumps their development. Step two: be ready to move Guzman, but don't lock that in. Be flexible enough to keep him at short to start the season. Step three: sign either Vizquel, Gonzalez, or Everett. Step three: offer J.D. Martin and/or anyone else outside outside the top fifteen or so on this list for Uggla, Aviles, Theriot, or Hu, etc (Hardy and Iwamura would have been on this list a few weeks ago as well). If no takers, sign Mark DeRosa or Orlando Cabrera. Be willing to overpay in dollars but not years; if you can't get them for a one-year deal under $8 million or so, fine. Also take a flier on Khalil Greene. Then, see how things shake out between now and the trading deadline next summer, and if everyone works out, pick two of the younger guys and ship everyone else (including Guzman) to whoever wants them.

1 comment:

Section 222 said...

Great analysis. It will be fascinating to see what Rizzo does. I agree they shouldn't lock themselves in to Guzman at 2B, although a shortstop's strong arm at 2B is not a bad thing (see Felipe). But the chances of improving the team with a FA 2B seem higher than if they bring a good field no hit guy at short.

I certainly wouldn't argue for resigning Ronnie Belliard, but I'm curious how you analyze his post trade deadline/post season play with L.A., where he put a type A FA on the bench. Is he just the exception to the saberwisdom that there is no such thing as a clutch player? He does seem to have a knack for providing the big hit. Anyway, thanks for work you're putting into analyzing where this team ought to head.