Saturday, December 5, 2009

Position-by-Position Off-Season Outlook: Outfield

I continue my position-by-position look at the off-season outlook for the Nationals with middle infield. You can click these links to check out my look at catchers, middle infield, and corner infield.

The Present

  • Starting left fielder: Josh Willingham
On August 18, 348 plate appearances into the season, Josh Willingham was hitting .309 / .420 / .596. To that point, he was having a career year that would have gotten him serious MVP consideration had he played for a team like the Dodgers or Phillies.

Sadly, he played for the Nationals. And even more sadly, over the final 172 plate appearances of the season, he hit a pathetic .172 / .267 / .325. You can be forgiven if you tuned out the last month or two, but the fact is that Willingham was awful in the home stretch.

In the end, Hammer's would-be career year ended up pretty much right where he's been the last few seasons. He hit .260 / .367 / .496 and played defense badly enough to give back about one win of his offensive value (-9.2 runs in UZR).
Fangraphs had Willingham at 2.3 wins above replacement, which would be better than just about exactly half of the full-time LFs in baseball.

So what can we expect going forward? The team seems totally committed to him as their starting left fielder in 2010, which makes sense. He'll get somewhere around $4 million in arbitration for 2010, and he's a great value at that price if he comes close to repeating his 2005-2009 level of performance.

But he will be 31, and it's not to early to start to watch for downward trends. Both Baseball Reference and PECOTA saw Bubba Trammell as Willingham's closest career comp going into 2009, and Trammell was out of baseball at age 32. He was a late bloomer, starting in the big leagues for the first time at age 27, and guys like that usually don't have long careers. Plus, when a player ends a season with a slump as deep and prolonged as Willingham's, it's not a real auspicious sign for the upcoming season.

We know his defense isn't getting any better, and if his OPS falls let's say 15 points, he'll suddenly be a very marginal Major League corner outfielder. If he's your third best outfielder, you're doing ok. But if he's expected to be one of your best two or three players, you're not very good.
  • Starting center fielder: Nyjer Morgan
The man known in Pittsburgh as the "mayor of Morgantown" was magnificent in 49 games for Washington. Hitting .351 / .396 / .435 and playing some truly special outfield defense, Morgan finished the season ranked eighth among all qualified OFs in baseball in wins above replacement and became a one-man open-and-shut case for Mike Rizzo as permanent GM.

While Morgan's excellent defense should continue, his bat will almost certainly cool off at least a little, and probably a lot. His career average is .303 / .362 / .391. And while in DC his component stats were actually worse than his career rates. His walk rate was 5.4% (7.4% career), line drive rate was 19.5% (20% career), and his ISO power was .084 (.088 career). He did strike out less at 13.1% (17.0% career), but his 84.6% contact rate was actually lower than his career 84.6%, suggesting that his decline in strikeouts may not have been a result of improved contact skills.

The reason Morgan was so much better in Washington than he'd ever been before was his .400 BABIP, a ridiculously high rate resulting from lots and lots and lots of seeing eye grounders, bloopers, etc.

Still, Morgan's speed, decent walk rate, and ability to keep the ball on the ground should allow him to keep his batting average around .280-.290 and his OBP around .350, which, combined with his excellent defense would still make him the best player on the team not named Zimmerman. He's just not going to be the best center fielder and lead-off man in baseball.
  • Starting right fielder: Elijah Dukes
In 2009, Elijah Dukes stayed mostly healthy and mostly out of trouble. Everyone, including me, assumed that if he could just do those two things, he'd be be an all-star (or at least average) real soon.

Unfortunately, the one thing Dukes didn't do right in 2009 was play baseball (well, that and the whole child support thing). His .250 / .337 / .393 batting line was totally inadequate for a right fielder. His always-advanced plate discipline slipped badly, as his walk rate fell from 15.3% in 2008 to 11.2% in 2009. Getting fewer hitters' counts, his ISO power declined as well from .214 to .143.

His previously pretty good defense went in the toilet too, as his UZR/150 fell from 11.6 runs above average to 9.6 below. He was miserable in center, which you could forgive, since he should never have been playing there in the first place, but he wasn't much better in right. And don't even get me started on the base-running.

The one redeeming factor was that he was only 25 years old. Physically, he has a lot of time left. Major League Baseball, however, won't give him many more chances. Mike Rizzo's made no secret of his desire to build a clubhouse of high-character guys, and it's not hard to imagine a scenario where Dukes has already played his last game as a National.

Still, Dukes is one of the most talented players on the team, and any scenario where the Nationals surprise people in 2010 will require a big bounce-back year from Dukes.
  • Fourth outfielder: Willie Harris
Harris continued to be one of the small joys for Nationals fans. He takes a walk, will steal a base, plays a great left field (a passable center, and in a pinch he can stand next to second or third), works hard and never complains. Although you'd really rather use him as a bench guy, there's no shame in starting him, and it's still puzzling how the Nationals managed to start Elijah Dukes in center for weeks and even Austin Kearns once before finally handing the job to Harris after Lastings Milledge was demoted.

He also backed up his surprising power surge in 2008 with another 7 dingers. Willie had 7 homers in his first 1405 plate appearances in the majors, and 20 in 817 since coming to Washington. Willie credits Lenny Harris--why shouldn't we?

In the Minors
  • Justin Maxwell
At this point, Maxwell could be most notable as a symbol of the team's failure to build minor league depth. He's 26 and still gets the Baseball America top-ten prospect treatment, a sure sign of the weakness of the Nationals' system. The rap on Maxwell for years was that he just couldn't stay healthy. Well, this year, like Dukes, he finally got the biggest monkey off his back, but he still wasn't very good. He hit .242 / .344 / .396 in AAA, while whiffing a stunning 35.4% of the time. He again was hot in September in his mop-up time audition. He needs to at least make the team this year, or time may run out on him.
  • Roger Bernadina
Bernadina had been rising nicely through the Nationals system, never really a top prospect but successful enough at every step to keep moving. He'll walk a little, has very good speed, and plays good defense. He also strikes out way too much, and it's not clear whether his bat will ever play against top competition. Then, he lost most of 2009 with a broken ankle, just at the time he might have gotten an extended look in center after the Milledge demotion. He'll turn 26 next year, and this needs to be his year if he's going to have a career. If he does, he might make Willie Harris trade bait. But chances are he's a AAAA guy.
  • Mike Burgess
He's 21, has a ton of power, terrible plate discipline, and lots of strikeouts. Think about Wily Mo Pena's combination of fatal flaws and tempting upside, and you're in the ballpark. Jim Bowden drafted a lot of these types of players over the years, and not many panned out. He plays a decent right field and has put up big outfield assist numbers over each of the last two years. This season will be a big test, as he'll face a much higher level of pitching talent at AA. Let's just hope if he ever gets to DC that Bob Carpenter is gone, because I don't think I can listen to much more "if he ever runs into one..."
  • Destin Hood
Still not 20 years old, Hood is another classic Jim Bowden tools guy. Quick hands, good raw power, not much with the glove, and no strike zone awareness. Hood was a two-sport player signed away from Alabama football, and he faces the challenge of developing from an athlete to a ballplayer. Between Burgess, Maxwell, Dukes, Milledge, Pena, and Hood, maybe just maybe one of them will turn into something.

Free Agents
Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here's this year's list of free agent outfielders:

Left fielders
Garret Anderson (38) - Type B, not offered arb
Marlon Anderson (36)
Jason Bay (31) - Type A, offered arb
Emil Brown (35)
Marlon Byrd (32) - Type B, offered arb
Johnny Damon (36) - Type A, not offered arb
David Dellucci (36)
Cliff Floyd (37)
Joey Gathright (28)
Matt Holliday (30) - Type A, offered arb
Reed Johnson (33)
Laynce Nix (29)
Greg Norton (37)
Wily Mo Pena (28)
Dave Roberts (38)
Gary Sheffield (41)
Fernando Tatis (35) - Type B, not offered arb
Marcus Thames (33)
Randy Winn (36) - Type B, not offered arb

Center fielders
Rick Ankiel (30)
Rocco Baldelli (28)
Marlon Byrd (32) - Type B, offered arb
Mike Cameron (37) - Type B, not offered arb
Endy Chavez (32)
Coco Crisp (30)
Darin Erstad (36)
Jeff Fiorentino (27)
Ryan Freel (34)
Joey Gathright (28)
Jerry Hairston Jr. (34)
Reed Johnson (33)
Corey Patterson (30)
Scott Podsednik (34)

Right fielders
Jermaine Dye (36) - Type A, not offered arb
Brian Giles (39) - Type B, not offered arb
Vladimir Guerrero (35) - Type B, not offered arb
Joey Gathright (28)
Eric Hinske (32)
Geoff Jenkins (35)
Austin Kearns (30)
Jason Michaels (34)
Xavier Nady (31) - Type B, not offered arb
Randy Winn (36) - Type B, not offered arb

FJB's Take
The Nationals outfielders aren't bad. In fact, you could win with this group, if the rest of your team was average or better. The problem is that the rest of the team, especially the pitching, is pretty much terrible. And the outfielders aren't getting better. Hopefully there's going to be improvement from Dukes, but that will probably be offset by declines from Morgan and Willingham. And by the time the cross-your-fingers rotation of Strasburg-Zimmermann-Free Agent-Lannan-Stammen is ready to compete and win, these guys will be on their way out of the league. And there isn't much help coming from the minors.

Ideally, you could trade Willingham, since he's the oldest and closest to free agency. But chances are the window of opportunity for that closed at the deadline last August. He would have fit nicely in Atlanta, Seattle, or San Francisco, but now, the contenders are going to chase Jason Bay, Johnny Damon, and Matt Holliday, and the consolation prizes of Jermaine Dye, Mark DeRosa, Xavier Nady, Marlon Byrd, Mike Cameron, and Rick Ankiel aren't much if at all worse than Willingham. Then you have guys like Brad Hawpe, Ryan Ludwick, Pat Burrell, Curtis Granderson, and Carl Crawford all trade candidates, not to mention Adam Dunn, there's just not that much of a market for a 31-year-old DH who ended the season hitting like Miguel Olivo.

Truth be told, if the Nationals were a good team, they'd be looking to transition away from this group, the way the Angels are transitioning away from Vlad Guerrero and Chone Figgins. But with so many other needs, and so few resources, it they'll probably have to just let these guys play and reevaluate in a year. Maybe Bryce Harper will play outfield someday.


Todd Boss said...

I think you need more Homers out of your RF spot than Dukes provides (8 last year in 107 games). But there's not much RF power on the market unless you want to roll the dice with Nady or Guerrero. So we'll probably stick w/ Dukes one more year.

We keep hearing Willingham's name in trade rumors; i could see a scenario where Willingham gets traded, we move Dunn back to LF and look at Morse at 1B. But we'd really need a #5 hitter if this happened.

I think Maxwell and Bernadina have reached their peaks as players unfortunately. And i think Burgess/Hood are still 2yrs away. We'll need to acquire some OF depth via trades.

Section 222 said...

Pretty much of a downer review, and it's hard to argue with the numbers. I hope they hold on to Willingham (or obtain someone else to play LF if they trade him), just to spare us the sight of Adam Dunn trotting out to LF. Yikes.

So why did the Nats give up on Marlon Byrd, now a good enough Type B to be offered arbitration. Do you remember the history? I remember him making some pretty great plays in LF in '05. The guy hustled all the time.

Steven said...

Marlon Byrd left after 2006 as a free agent. Money wasn't the issue though. Jim just gave up on him, because he was given every oppy in 2006, and was terrible.

He is mostly a product of playing in Arlington. His home-road splits are huge. If he gets signed to be a starter anywhere else, he'll bomb.

That said, the Nationals would have been better off in 2007 with either Byrd or Endy Chavez, whom they traded for Byrd, in center, rather than Nook Logan. Byrd and Chavez would have been upgrades over Wily Mo Pena in left in 2008.

So count it as a minor mistake.

Will said...

I'd love to see the Nats deal Willingham or Dunn, just so Willie Harris can get more playing time. Over the course of a full season, Harris is much more valuable than Willingham in left. His career 18.6 UZR/150 in LF says it all.

Since Dunn probably has more trade value, they should deal him, then move Willingham to 1B. Even though, Willingham hasn't played first in years, he can't be worse than the -25 UZR/150 Dunn posted last year.

phil dunn said...

Truth be known, Marlon Byrd was a very inconsistent hitter in both Philadelphia and DC. The real reason that Byrd blossomed into a good clutch hitter with some power was Rudy Jaramillo, the best hitting coach in MLB. Trust me, Byrd won't come back to the Nats. He's been there, done that. He can sign for more money with a much better franchise like the Braves.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe your "right track, wrong track" poll, which is currently registering 85% right, 15% wrong. Are your readers delusional? This is a franchise that gets worse every year. It is a franchise that has a totally bare cupboard of prospects, except for a seriously injured Steven Strasburg. It is a franchise with extremely wealthy ownership that is unwilling to spend the money necessary to field a competitive team. If that's the right track, then I'd hate to see the wrong track. That would be painful.

Steve Shoup said...

I think they should move both Willingham and Dunn. Willingham is obviously making some noise on the trade market right now, Mets, Braves, Giants have all been linked. WOuldn't be shocked to see the Reds get involved as well as a few other teams if Bay and Holliday's prices are too high. I would love to see a deal with the Reds for OF Chris Heisey and a lower pitching prospect or two. Heisey may not be ready for the majors by opening day, but should be by June or July. He offers some pop, speed, solid hitting and great defense.

To bolster the OF I'd try to trade for David DeJesus, he won't come cheap and could even cost Dukes+, but he is an excellent defender.

As for Dunn he's not going to bring much in return for a trade esp since AL teams are the only ones likely interested. But getting his money off the books could beneficial for the Nats as well. For that $12 million they could sign LaRoche and reliever or two. Given what they could get in return, in addition to having the money for other additions makes moving Dunn a good decision.

I realize everyone will hate the idea of losing 2 of the Nats 3 best hitters. But the Nats finished with the worst record, with both of them pretty much having their best statistical years. Even taking the prospect return out of the equation (which is the biggest benefit) the Nats could sign LaRoche and someone like Randy Winn or Nady for that kind of money and get just as good if not better all around production. And still have a couple million to spend on other positions.

Sasskuash said...


There is reason for optimism in this franchise. For the first time in its short DC history, they have a competant GM running the show at the top. Rizzo has filled in the front office with respected baseball minds and bolstered both the domestic and international scouting departments.

The new front office structure is a far cry from last offseason, which was characterized by a fraud GM in Jim Bowden struggling for power with a salesman in Stan Kasten. Neither really knew how to build a baseball team and both had very different ideas and goals with respects to personnel choices. Now, you have a proven builder in Rizzo leading the baseball operations on the MLB field in in the minors and scouting departments, while Kasten is doing what he does- selling tickets and advertising. And Jim Bowden is using his BS skills appropriately as a hack on sattelite radio.

For those that follow the franchise, and not just the standings in the paper, this is a large reason for hope. It might not show in the standings in 2010, or in BA's prospect rankings coming out this month, but this team finally has the proper infastructure to build a professional organization the right way. This is why I vote "right track" on the poll.