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Maybe… The Nationals have invited several curious and interesting names to spring training this season, and some of the biggest names are in the infield. This week, we’ll look at some prospective players, and the void left at 1B until Nick Johnson returns.
If you read last week’s column, there should be no surprise in the excitement of our first prospective National (nobody will be called a Nat here) listed below:
Let’s get one thing straight. Just because he was a World Series champ in 2006 doesn’t necessarily mean he’s good. Tony Womack, mortal enemy of good statistical sense in recent years, was another second baseman that left the National League (not World) Champion St. Louis team in recent years. By that same token, just because Belliard is an ex-Cardinal 2B, does not mean he is Tony Womack, either. In fact, despite a rough second half of last season, he is not a bad hitting 2B. His .272/.338/.411 career splits are pretty accurate to what would be expected from him… The Bill James Handbook predicts him at .270/.330/.410 next season. Not exactly among the premier middle infielder’s of the league, but nothing debilitating either.
The most important thing about Ronnie Belliard is that he would allow Lopez to play his natural position of Shortstop, and Guzman to play his natural position of not-playing-a-position. His numbers may not overwhelm, but they aren’t bad. His numbers last year put him just out of the top 20 in VORP and EqA (Equivalent Average- a sort of batting average that takes in all offensive stats including power – something to go over another time). But this includes a terrible time with the Cardinals, where he had an extended bad streak after being traded last season. This shouldn’t scare anyone too much, Belliard has always been streaky – inconsistency with the bat and the glove is his calling card – so this is most likely not an indicator of future progress. Rather, it is a reminder that some stretches are going to be downright awful with him. More importantly, in very recent memory (2004 and 2005 with the Indians) he ranked as the #8 and #12 2B in MLB in terms of VORP.
Ron’s .237/.293/.371 Aug/Sept with the Cards doesn’t seem any worse than what Guzman has to offer. So basically a bad month for Belliard is a normal month for Guzman. Belliard and Lopez makes for an above average hitting middle infield, guys that can do a decent job of getting on base, and could put up a combined 25-30 home runs. To put that in context, Jeter and Cano combined for 29 last season, albeit with higher averages.
What could be really scary for fans and enticing for RFK hot dog vendors is that if Lopez gets hurt, Belliard and Guzman could combine to form the pudgiest middle infield in the history of the game, possibly only the addition of Deivi Cruz at third base could make it any funnier. Regardless, even if he has an awful spring training, that Nationals would be wise to give Belliard a few months to prove he can still hit, because it beats the alternative. The way the club uses him could be a good litmus test to their commitement to winning THIS season, or at least valiantly trying to, even if its a lost cause. If Guzman’s in there, you’ll know they are only building and they don’t care if you’d like them to win a game this season.
First base is wide open…
Unless you followed that Nats at the end of a dismal season last year, you might not know that Nick Johnson has a broken leg thanks to a crash into Austin Kearns. The latest from rotoworld.com (a great fantasy resource, by the way) says:
Nationals team doctor Ben Shaffer … originally thought Johnson would be ready for spring training, but he’s been proven wrong and he’s now acknowledging that Johnson is a slow healer… “Is it possible the fracture could be healed enough for him to really start pushing it in April? Yes, it’s possible. Could it be May, or as he put it, June? Yes.”
In other words… yikes. Unfortunately that means someone else will be starting at 1B for a month or more. Who is going to fill that role? Well, it looks that some of the likely candidates include Robert Fick, gloveman Travis Lee, Dmitri Young aka Da Meat Hook (awesome, I didn’t make that up), and Tony “did you really just say Tony Batista?” Batista. So here goes nothing:
Travis Lee, to put it simply, is perhaps weakest hitting starting 1B in MLB over the last few years. His power is minimal, his average is bad, and other than being able to walk, he impresses nobody at the plate. But he can field. He is known as a great fielding first baseman, perhaps the best in the league. Without getting too much into it, first base is a hitter’s position. Period. Not enough fielding happens there to make up for lack of plate production. Corner outfield and corner infield positions must have hitters or your team is at a disadvantage. For anyone who points to a team with a great hitting shortstop and says “well, you make up for it there”… you don’t get the point. Any good hitter can play first base, with a little effort. So if a team plays a bad hitter there and a good hitter at SS, they are effectively losing the advantage over other teams of having a good hitting SS. Their monster SS doesn’t make them better than the competition, it makes them just as good, until they get good hitters at other positions. Teams settle for lack of hitting at 2B, SS, and C especially, because so much of the defense runs through those positions. But a lack of hitting in RF or 1B is just a waste of a roster spot. Last year Lee hit .224/.312/.364. That slugging percentage places him LAST on the list of first basemen with more than 250 plate appearances. He has TOTALED 23 HRs in the last 2 seasons. He is NOT the answer.
Fick is another light hitting 1B, like Lee is over 30, and like Lee never really hit with much power for his position. Can he field? Who cares, he plays FIRST BASE! Didn’t you read the paragraph before? If a statue could hit 30+ HRs in a season, he is a viable 1B. In fact, Jason Giambi IS a statue that has played plenty of games at first, adding many many more wins than losses for his team. Fick is a little better at getting base hits than Lee, a little worse at hitting home runs. Fick has the ability to play catcher, however, so if you’re gonna take one light hitter, you might as well get a third catcher on your roster.
Everyone should be excited that the Nationals signed this man just for his nickname. Young had a horrific season with Detroit last year, but outside of that, he’s a decent hitter. His career splits are .289/.346/.476, all of which are pretty good. A little more power would be nice, but it’s the old “beggar’s can’t be choosers” adage here. This may have been the best hitter available, the Nats did good to try him out. Baseball Prospectus predicts him to hit .265/.322/.458 but if last year was just an injury riddled disaster and not a predictor, 2005’s .271/.325/.471 is likely (Bill James Handbook predicts .274/.334/.463), and would be welcome compared with most other options. Young is not very athletic though, he’s slow and he’s not a good fielder. And he makes Belliard look trim. The addition of Young and Belliard should put fear in the hearts of those responsible for catering the Nats locker room. Anyway, players like that don’t always age well, and Da Meat Hook will be 33 this season. But he should have a few more years of effectiveness, and the Nats could use his bat much more than Fick’s or Lee’s glove.
The Nats obviously are not looking at him as a 3B to take Zimm’s spot, they are just looking for someone to hit at 1B. Batista is known for his power and horrendous batting average. He has had a few impressive seasons, 1999 and 2000 he slugged over .500, although his career numbers are not great (.251/.298/.455). Other than those years, his OPS is usually well below league average, and that average includes everyone except pitchers. If he could come in, bat .240 and hit 32 home runs like he did for the Canadian Nationals in 2004, he’d be somewhat intriguing. But he was out of MLB in 2005, and he was on the Twins, but sucked, in 2006. And he is not Adam Dunn, who batted .234 and hit 40 HRs last season. That is because Dunn still had an OBP of .365, something Batista won’t do. The same amount of HRs is very different from these 2 players, in terms of overall affect on the team over the course of the season. Statistically Dunn is not a liability, but Batista could be very easily. He is worth taking a look at, but at 33 and fading fast since 2002, don’t expect much here.
Larry is the wild card in the first base equation, and with the Yankees looking for someone to play here, don’t the newspaper headline writers wish he was playing in New York. Luckily, he is with Washington, so there will be no “Broadway hits Broadway” headlines when he plays for them (or gets punched by the street). Speaking of the Yankees, Broadway may be the new Andy Phillips. Fans think he’s young and ready to develop… but he’s not. He is 26, a little old to have never played in the majors, unless Jim Thome is blocking your path. He spent last year in triple-A and slugged an adequate .468, with 15 HRs… RFK is not going to be kind to him. He hit .293, so he can rake the ball and if he could do that in the majors it would be all bad (Power is important but Wade Boggs was a great hitter in a power position who hit more than 10 HRs only twice, but still finished in the top 10 in OPS 7 times). But the scariest number is 116 – the number of strikeouts he had. He only had 499 PAs, so basically he strikes out every fifth AB, a little bit scary. All that being said, he deserves a real shot in spring training. As with Guzman, they know what Lee and Fick will do in the majors, might as well see if Broadway can do any better.
In summation, it appears that statistically speaking, the best bets are Dmitri Young, assuming he isn’t in the process of decomposing, and Larry Broadway just to see what he can do. Other than that, they might as well just pray for Nick’s speedy recovery.
Next week, we’ll try to take a look at the pitching staff, that being Cordero and Patterson. Apparently other teams carry more than two pitchers, but it may not be in Washington’s best interest. And please send comments in, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Post a comment or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org