The Nats have a chance to play the most exciting player they’ve brought up since the spring of 2009, Ian Desmond, as their starting SS in 2010. I put him as the most exciting since Jordan Zimmermann, but will soon lose that title to a certain starting pitcher whenever he arrives. Anyway, the point is that they have some options here, but I want to assume that one of those options is switched off. I am going to put Guzman at 2B, as the team and the coach have both explicity said that will happen. So at SS it’s either Desmond or an outside interloper. Let’s start with the first option, playing Desmond.
If he starts, one thing the Nats have is the chance to see a guy who has the potential to be a core member of this team for years to come. At 23 years old this year, he still has some work to do and some time to do it. He could go back to the minors to tighten up his game a bit, as it were. What is there left for him to do in the minors? Well in terms of hitting, maybe not much. In his short time in the majors, he hit .280/.318/.561, which looks great (ok the OBP is a tad low) but that power is based on 4 homers in 82 ABs. He had other extra base hits as well, 7 doubles and 2 triples, but in terms of keeping those numbers, he’d have to be a 25+ homer a year guy. That may not be realistic, so let’s take THOSE numbers with a grain of salt. His AA and AAA numbers should tell us more. In 2008, he spend most of his time in AA, and did alright, nothing special, hitting .251/.318/.406 over the course of the season.
Then all of a sudden he broke out in 2009, first hitting .306/.372/.494 in 189 PAs in AA, then smashing AAA, hitting .354/.428/.461 in 205 PAs. There may be nothing left to learn for him there, in terms of hitting, other than incremental help. He may get sent down to prove to the franchise that 2009 wasn’t a fluke, but if it was, it was quite a long fluke.
On the other side of the ball, he does have something left to learn. He has a great arm and has incredible range. He also is a very good fielder, all things that make you think starting SS. But whether it’s poor concentration or something else, on the “easy” plays he often has problems. He’s error prone, but it’s not necessarily due to range – the old “well he gets to more so he’ll have more errors” argument really doesn’t apply. He needs to work on that, and the organization may feel he’ll be better off doing that in the minors. Then again, they may think if he can hit, he might as well work on doing everything in the majors, since ABs at AAA won’t do him as much good anymore.
On to the other choice, the binary complement to the Ian Desmond starting situation. Of course there are a multitude of trade options out there, but since Trader Jim is no longer the GM, and the team would probably try to trade for a pitcher over a SS, let’s just look at the possible FA acquisitions.
Everett is still considered a viable shortstop thanks to his incredible fielding. At 33 years old, he should be expected to experience some sort of decline, and it is possible that the decline has already started. According to fangraphs, his UZR/150 (look at the Stats Definitions page if you don’t know it) peaked at age 30, and in the two years since it’s gone down significantly. That year, 2007, he only played 1/3 of a season, but in 2006 he had his full-season high of 27.2. From 2003-2005 he was in the high teens. In the last 2 seasons, he’s been at 11.2 (in only a few games in 2008) and 13.6 in 2009. You may look at this and say “so what?” because he’s still a very good SS. True, but when you hit like Everett, very good may not be enough. Unless he’s great defensively, the .239/.287/.344 that he’s hit over the last 5 seasons isn’t going to cut it. I don’t think Everett is the great glove that he once was, and although his WARP may be positive, it’s just barely.
And then we come to Marco Scutaro, the much-talked about soon to be richer than he already was guy. I can’t tell you why, but I know for a fact that there is no better name to hear Bob Sheppard say than Marco Scutaro. Rob Neyer just wrote a little profile on Scutaro which is definitely worth a read. The message is pretty much that he can hit, he’s always been able to hit except for his first few years in the majors, so now that he’s playing full time, everyone sees it. Over his last 5 seasons, he’s hitting .266/.346/.384, which is not at all bad numbers for a SS. Last year he had what was considered a great year, but he still only slugged .409, so it’s not like his 12 HRs were something exceptional. A dropoff is likely, but it shouldn’t be precipitous. Instead, I’d expect him to hit about as well as his averages over the last 5 years, again, pretty decent for a starting SS. As for fielding, Neyer points out that Scutaro has been up and down, and he has, but he can play anywhere and his bat sustains a slightly below average glove. He’s also a type A free agent, which may mean the Nats could get him for cheaper, and they would have to give up a 2nd rounder not a 1st, but that is probably still too much.
Cabrera was brought in to provide some offensive pop to the Twins, but that should be taken as a slight on the Twins, not as a complement to Cabrera. He has hit ok over the last 5 years .282/.329/.385 is pretty similar to his total career numbers, and while you may remember him hitting 17 HRs in a year, that happened in 2003. He hasn’t hit more than 10 HRs since then, and is reaching his 35th year (on the planet, not in the league). As for his defense, it’s been up and down. In 2009, his UZR/150 was -13.7, while in 2008 it was on the plus side at 13.1. You don’t know what you’re gonna get, and his bat can sustain enough, but he is nothing to get excited about. Meanwhile, there is talk of him getting a 2 year $10 M contract, which seems like a bit much to me, and he, too is a Type A free agent. Plus, he was an Expo from 1997-2004. Livan needn’t have opened the floodgates.
Another great defensive SS, Gonzalez was brought to Boston midseason after stinking up the Reds offfense. And if Dusty Baker doesn’t think you get on base enough… anyway, he actually saw marked improvement moving from one bandbox to another, and hit well in Boston. If the last few years give any indication, and they usually do, his average and OBP are both improvements over Everett, and his power is quite a bit better. Including a lost 2008 and a would-have-been-better-off-lost early 2009, he has hit .258/.306/.396 over the last 4 seasons, going back to 2005. In that time, he’s played in Cinci and Boston, but he also played in flyball death parks in the NL East playing home games in Florida. He seems to be recovered and should hit pretty decently for a SS, but he is also turning 33 this year, so a decline is something to look for. As for his fielding, he has been pretty good, although still not as good as a fading Everett. His numbers have spiked along the way, but a 5-10 range for UZR/150 is probably to be expected. This, coupled with his ability to his a ball once in a while, makes him more appealing to me than Everett or Scutaro. However, the Blue Jays just signed him, so if the Nats were considering a SS free agent, they lost one of their best options without making too much noise.
Without Gonzalez, the mix looks much less attractive to me. Cabrera and Scutaro could both be ok if they have one of their good fielding years, although they’re probably both gonna cost over $3 or $4 M a year and want several years. Meanwhile, Everett may not be able to field enough to excuse his poor hitting. That brings me back to the original scenario, which is to let Desmond play there. I think that is their best choice, he should be able to hit as well as any of those guys available, if not better. And his fielding, assuming he can get the easy stuff, is more than adequate for the position. Plus, he’s only going to be 24 next season, with room for improvement. The other guys have probably already played their best baseball, and if everything else is equal, you take the guy who may get even better. There is nobody available that makes me think Desmond shouldn’t be the guy going in to next year, we’ll see if the Nats think the same thing.