Sunday, November 22, 2009

Position-by-Position Off-Season Outlook: Corner 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 and middle infield here.

The Present

  • Starting first baseman: Adam Dunn
Dunn was pretty much exactly as advertised in 2009--big-time power, lots of walks, plenty of Ks, and no glove. His .267 / .398 / .529 line wasn't quite good enough for another 40 HR season, but it was good enough to keep a lot of fans in their seats to wait for one more at bat.

But Dunn's defensive inadequacy remains under-recognized by fans and the media. Somehow I think that expectations for him were so low, that if he could just get through most games without three errors, fans would say he's "not so bad." Then of course you have Tom Boswell, who simply denies that fielding is much of a factor in baseball, comparing Dunn to Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron in his chats each week.

Alas, between his lack of speed and agility to poor instincts and footwork and weak arm, Dunn just doesn't have the physical tools. He's willing--I give him credit for trying. But fact is that his glove gives back a big portion of the value of his bat.

Revised Zone Rating tells us the percentage of the time that a fielder makes a play on balls hit near him. Dunn played 540 innings at first last year with an RZR of .651. The worst qualified first baseman in baseball last year was at .709. In fact, over the last six seasons, only Mike Jacobs in '08 and Dmitri Young and Richie Sexson in '07 have been worse than that. Tom Tango's fan scouting report rated Dunn a 2.17 out of five in overall fielding, one of the lowest scores of anyone in the league.

If the other metrics don't like Dunn, UZR absolutely hates him, rating him at -14.4 runs per 150 games for his career in the outfield and -17.9 at first base. And UZR had him as the single worst fielder in all of baseball in 2009. If he really was that bad, even with his big bat he was still just a 1.2 wins over replacement player--somewhere between Jack Cust and Chase Headley. I tend to think that's a touch overly harsh, but even if he's a full win better than that, there are a lot cheaper ways to get 2.5 wins out of first base than paying $12 million to Adam Dunn.
  • Starting third baseman: Ryan Zimmerman
Gold glove, silver slugger, big contract... Zimmy slipped on the list of best-looking Nationals behind, these, four, guys, but everything else went his way in 2009. He's established as one of the very best fielders at any position in baseball, and his .288 / .364 / .525 line, he was the fourth most valuable player in the National league by WAR, behind just Albert Pujols, Chase Utley, and Hanley Ramirez.

The question now is whether we can follow it up. Was this a career year, or has he reached a new plateau? Statistically, there's nothing about his season that jumps out as unsustainable. His breakthrough started with a big improvement in strike zone command. His walk rate jumped to a very good 10.6% from 6.8% in 2008. And finally fully healthy, his power blossomed along with his approach. His BABIP was a perfectly sustainable .317, and The Hardball Times's Projected OPS for Zimmerman was .875, just a hair below his actual OPS of .888. It's tough to expect any hitter to do this year in and year out, but I do believe that we saw the real Zimmy in 2009.
  • Back-up first base: Mike Morse
Once upon a time Morse was an interesting prospect. But that was when he was a shortstop with unusual size and pop. Some scouts saw a very, very poor man's Cal Ripken. But he will be 28 in 2010 and can't play the middle infield anymore. He does play ok corner outfield and first base. He's a big-time free-swinger, and he still can hit the occasional long-ball. He's a good guy to have at AAA in case you need to bring up a bat for the bench. He's not really a guy you want in your Opening Day 25.

In the Minors
  • Chris Marrero
Chris Marrero was a much more interesting prospect when he hit .275 / .338 / .484 at in Single-A at age 18 than he was hitting .287 / .360 / .464 at the same level at age 20. Baseball America dropped him to #6 in a weak Nationals system. He wouldn't even be in the top ten in a strong system. It's still an iffy proposition that he'll be able to play the field well enough to stay in the NL, and the bat projects more as a good #6 hitter than a true middle-of-the-order bat.

Free Agents
Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here's this year's list of free agent corner infielders:
First basemen
Rich Aurilia (38)
Jeff Bailey (31)
Hank Blalock (29)
Russell Branyan (34)
Miguel Cairo (36)
Frank Catalanotto (36)
Tony Clark (38)
Carlos Delgado (38) - Type B
Nomar Garciaparra (36)
Ross Gload (34)
Eric Hinske (32)
Nick Johnson (31) - Type B
Adam LaRoche (30) - Type B
Doug Mientkiewicz (36)
Kevin Millar (38)
Fernando Tatis (35) - Type B
Chad Tracy (30)
Daryle Ward (35)
Dmitri Young (36)

Third baseman
Rich Aurilia (38)
Brian Barden (29)
Adrian Beltre (31) - Type B
Aaron Boone (37)
Craig Counsell (39)
Joe Crede (32)
Bobby Crosby (30)
Mark DeRosa (35) - Type B
Pedro Feliz (35)
Chone Figgins (32) - Type A
Nomar Garciaparra (36)
Troy Glaus (33) - Type B
Adam Kennedy (34)
Mark Loretta (38)
Melvin Mora (38) - Type B
Pablo Ozuna (35)
Robb Quinlan (33)
Miguel Tejada (36) - Type A
Juan Uribe (31)
FJB's Take
The Nationals are obviously fine at starting third base for the foreseeable future, though they don't really have very good options should Zimmerman go down, so they could afford to bring in a bench guy. That's another of the virtues of signing a second baseman like Khalil Greene or Mark DeRosa, as I advocated in the middle infield post.

First base is another issue. Adam Dunn is a free agent after this year, and it's looking less likely than ever that Chris Marrero will be the answer starting in 2011. The team has a big decision to make with Dunn. Should they re-sign him, trade him, or risk losing him for nothing but a draft pick after this season.

I continue to feel that there must be a way to trade Dunn to an American League team. He would have significantly more value to any AL team as a DH than he does to the Nationals as a first baseman or left fielder, so in a functioning market the Nationals should be able to get more value (for them) than they'd be sending away in Dunn. The Angels, Mariners, Twins, Tigers, and Rangers are all teams that make more sense for Dunn than the Nationals do. Plus, though he's not old, he'll be 30 next year, and he's not the kind of player who tends to age real well. I would be more concerned about overpricing him than selling him too cheap.

Aside from Dunn, they could trade for Dan Uggla and move him to first. I would be happy to bring back Nick Johnson, especially if you could figure out how to limit his at bats to keep him fresh and healthy.
Xavier Nady is probably the best free agent available who wouldn't cost a draft pick and would likely give the Nationals as much overall value as playing Dunn every day at first. Non-tender candidates include Conor Jackson, Casey Kotchman, Andy Marte, Lyle Overbay, Mike Jacobs, Jorge Cantu, and Ryan Garko.

The premier trade candidate is Adrian Gonzalez, who will be difficult for the small market Padres to sign long-term. I don't think the Nationals have enough in their farm system to get Gonzalez, however.

My plan would be to trade Dunn and then get creative. First, I would call Cincinnati to see if they're ready to move Joey Votto to make room for Yonder Alonso. That's still probably a year away, but it can't hurt to ask, and I'd give up any prospect not named Strasburg or Norris to get him.

As I mentioned in the middle infield section, I like the idea of trading for the arbitration-eligible Dan Uggla, though he could fit in at second or even in left field at some point. If that didn't happen, I would bring back Nick Johnson and pair him with a platoon partner like Ryan Garko or Jorge Cantu, both of whom should be available for reasonable trades if they aren't non-tendered and available as free agents. If for some reason Johnson gets more than a year from someone, Aubrey Huff would be another relatively cheap option as a lefty platoon partner.


Todd Boss said...

We'll start the season with Dunn at 1B, but i'm guessing one of two things will happen:
a. he'll sign an extension in the spring for two more years at slightly elevated salary.
b. He won't sign, and we'll deal him to Boston or the Yankees at the deadline to be the most talked about power hitting DH in the league as he blasts 20 homers in the season's final two months.

Morse shows promise and is a great fielder. Maybe Marrero comes up and gets some looks if Dunn takes off.

Ben said...

Dunn has no real business being in the National league.

He should be traded during the off season for something. Anything. If we eat a certain amount of his salary I imagine that the return might be quite high. But he costs us an awful lot of runs according to his UZR/150

Anonymous said...

What are we going to get in return for Dunn? With his $12 million salary we wouldn't be able to demand much in return. Plus ownership is going to want to keep Dunn because he is one of two guys we have that bring people into the park.

The only question is whether he resigns or leaves as a free agent. How much are the Nats willing to offer and does Dunn like playing in DC become the two big factors. I expect that Dunn leaves as a FA next winter and the Nats are happy with the draft picks as compensation.


Steven said...

you're predicting what you think the Nationals WILL do. My post is what I would do. Those are just different things.

Anonymous said...

Good point, but you are suggesting that the Nats could get more value in return for trading Dunn than by keeping him and with his salary I'm not so sure that is true.

On another note, I got the impression that Nick Johnson was ready to move on, I don't know if he'd come back even if the Nats were the highest bidder.

Nice blog entry, I'll be looking forward to the pitching and outfield reviews.


Ben said...

I wonder what agreeing to eat some of his salary would do to Dunn's trade value.

Will said...

Dunn is immensely valuable to an AL team. As a DH, Dunn would have been worth 4 wins above replacement last year. In reality, he was worth 1.2 WAR. If you figure the worth of an additional win is $4mil, Dunn becomes well worth his $12mil salary as a DH.

Last year, only three DHs were worth more than 2 wins (only Jason Kubel exceeded 3 wins), so there's no shortage of teams that could use a guy like Adam Dunn.

Steven said...

I agree with a bunch of the points made. There could certainly be teams out there in the AL who think they'd be getting a 4-5 win player. The Nationals in fact probably think he's at least a 3-win player, even with the fielding. So I don't think a $12 million contract is prohibitive.

Even in last year's depressed FA market, Tampa paid Pat Burrell $7 million to be their DH.

Also, teams tend to shy away from long contracts, but any one-year deal like this isn't as much of a problem. That said, the Nationals could probably get more back in talent if they agreed to eat some contract. That's always the case.

Without throwing out specific names, I think it's reasonable to think the Nationals could get a B-level prospect and a C-level or two for Dunn, if they could find the right partner.

Ben said...

Well, if the do trade him, then let's hope that B level prospect is a Shortstop with range to spare.

I would trade Willigham too to be honest. He is more valuable now than than his limited skill set warrants. Trade high, and don't get enamored with toolsy outfielders who can't defend. That is the Bowden way.

estuartj said...

Watch David Ortiz in Boston, if he's back where he was 2 years ago then never mind, but if he continues to fade and Boston trails the Yanks (and Rays?) they will have to make a move, Dunn fits into that role well and gives them some flexibility to play 1B as needed. Boston also has tons of pitching and Middle Infield depth to work from, and both of course are high priority positions for the Nats.

I'm a bit more up on Chris Marrero, who I see as a clone of Willingham's bat and defense, but at 1B. After a solid AFL I see him at AA Harrisburg to start '10 and ready for a cup of coffee or fill in for Dunn post-trade if needed.

phil dunn said...

I suspect the Nats will sit on Adam Dunn, just like they did Soriano, and end up getting nothing for him. I agree--send him to the AL in a trade and bring back Nick Johnson on a two year deal with incentives.

An Briosca Mor said...

I suspect the Nats will extend Dunn before the trade deadline in 2010 and he'll be sitting on their roster for sseveral years to come. Which is as it should be.

Sasskuash said...

Please correct me if I'm wrong about this, but neither UZR or RZR measure his ability to "cover the bag" at first base, correct? My understanding is that both those statistics measure the fielding of a ball hit to the first baseman. Is there a statistic that measures whether Dunn is an asset or liability when fielding throws from other fielders? I feel like this is just as important for a first baseman in measuring his defensive value as the RZR, and I think Dunn was a pleasant surprise last year in scooping up throws on the bounce and stretching for throws wide of the bag. But that's what my eyes tell me, I wonder if there's a stat that can confirm this (or prove my eyes wrong). I notice that first basemen tend to have lower UZR's than other fielders in general. I think their defensive skills are not adequately measured by normal range-based defensive statistics.