Who Can Be Center Field?

The loss of Adam Eaton for the season is a brutal one for the Nationals, but that doesn’t mean it will be debilitating. What they need in center field, rather than a true replacement for Eaton, which is not going to happen, is someone who can be more than a replacement level fill-in.

Their offense has looked strong, and as long as a few things remain, they’ll continue to rank in the top 5 of NL runs scored. Ryan Zimmerman has to stay good, not as incredibly good as he’s been, but good. The same for Matt Wieters and Jayson Werth – they don’t need to keep their .800 OPS (although it would be nice) – but staying productive is important. If everyone else stays healthy, this offense will be fine. Heck, Anthony Rendon hasn’t even started hitting yet didn’t even start hitting until today.

As for someone to play center field, Mike Rizzo said it is a position of depth for the organization, and he is right. Now, if you are thinking organizational depth means they have another Trea Turner ready to go, you’re going to be disappointed. But, if you’re hoping they can find someone who can perhaps improve the defense, while being serviceable on offense, there is a chance.

From the Organization

The Nats organizational depth comes in two types. They have a few who have been, in some ways, disappointments. The first three here have mostly passed prospect age, but are still young enough that they have potential. There are plenty Major League players who have finally, after years of not getting there, put it together at the age of 26 or 27.

The next ones are the other type – they look good, are young enough and have had enough success to remain real prospects, but haven’t shown it at a high enough level for the Nats to go to them first. So let’s start with the first group:

Michael A. Taylor – We’ve seen him play for a few years now, and most would agree he probably deserves the first crack at the job. He is a very athletic, toolsy player, and with those kind of guys, you never know when something will just click. He is a strong defensive outfielder – if he can turn that into truly plus defense, that may be enough. Comparing his offensive skills to Eaton, his is almost the complete opposite. In his first 819 PAs, he’s hit 22 HRs and struck out 263 times, whereas Eaton hit 6 HRs and struck out 131 times in his first 819 PAs.

That’s not the whole of it, but it highlights what Taylor is, and what he isn’t. He has some real power, more than just raw power, he has demonstrated he can use it. But, Taylor simply has not made enough contact to be effective with the bat. If that doesn’t change, his season will probably look something like 2015, when he hit 14 HRs, but couldn’t clear a .650 OPS. But if he can make a bit more contact, take advantage of his speed, and reduce those strikeouts, even at the cost of some home runs, he could be enough.

Rafael Bautista – Called up once Eaton was placed on the DL, Bautista was actually playing LF for AAA Syracuse, but he played CF all of 2016 in AA. His style profiles closer to Eaton’s – little power but real speed. He was decent in AA last year at the age of 23, hitting .282/.344/.341. He hit .316 in spring training (without many walks or much power) so I expect him to at least get some chances on off days for Taylor, rather than some lineup shuffling like putting Bryce in CF.

He’s very fast, though, and is a good defender with a strong arm. So if he ends up impressing, and putting some hitting streaks together, he’s the kind of guy that Dusty likes to use in the lineup. If he can pull together something close to his AA line from last year, with a complete absence of power but a fair enough OBP, he’ll be a positive addition and could see plenty of time.

Brian Goodwin – If one of either Taylor or Bautista don’t work out at all, I’d expect to see Brian Goodwin get a shot. First, because he’s on the 40-man roster, so it’s easier to do. Second, he looked good in his MLB debut last year, playing well in September and looking comfortable. He probably won’t strike out as much, or hit as many homers, as Taylor. He’s not as fast as Bautista but he’s got more power.

Goodwin has a solid mix of speed and power, so why wasn’t he called up? He’s never put it all together to be the solid regular he was once projected to be. Swing mechanics haven’t solidified to the point of giving him consistency, and being good at everything but great at nothing probably hurts when you’re among a group of guys who can’t put it all together.

Goodwin might get a chance because he is a lefty. He is awful against left handed pitching, but if one of the other two looks like they could be a solid platoon partner, Goodwin might get a shot. He is a reminder, too, that any one of these three is young, and COULD put it all together, and at least the Nats have some potential here.

Andrew Stevenson – Stevenson is the first of the other type of organizational depth, a guy who’s still a prospect. He’s 23, and this year he’s doing something that is usually considered a good sign that you’ll make it – he’s hitting in AA. But 23 isn’t young for AA, and he may not yet be ready for the majors.

He is a speedster who can play good defense, he is not going to provide power. He ranked 9th in the Baseball Prospectus Nats prospect ranking, who wrote of him

Stevenson is a gazelle in the outfield. He boasts plus-plus run times and flashes enough leather to entice Chris Berman. His speed and glove will carry the profile, though he shows the potential for a solid-average hit tool thanks to good hands and an ability to control the barrel

But he has yet to really demonstrate he can hit more advanced pitching. His first month in AA has looked good, but I suspect he would need at least another solid month before the Nats would consider calling him up.

Victor Robles – Robles is the center-fielder-in-waiting, star of the future. He’s currently on the DL with a hamstring strain, but more importantly, the 20 year old is still in high-A. He’s looked great in his 2 or 3 weeks there, but that isn’t enough to go on. Assuming he comes back healthy and good, I’d expect him to make it to AA before the end of the year. But I’d be pretty surprised if he got futher than Harrisburg, no matter how good he is.

Juan Soto – is 18 years old, is not a center fielder, and is only in low-A

Ok, so what it looks like is the Nats have four chances to get lucky. None of these guys are potential stars, but they are organizational depth in the form of actual potential borderline starting outfielder types. These aren’t four guys who are just bodies needed to fill out a minor league roster, this is better CF depth than most teams have. That being said, even if they’re all real MLB 4th/5th outfielder possibilities, it’s not the kind of depth you really want – a guy who you were gonna slot in next season but just have to bring up a year early. They’re all risks, not just to succeed now, but to succeed as a full time player at all. So, what if none of them work out?

Outside Help

The next possibility for the Nats is to explore the trade market. Now, every team has a starting center fielder, but let’s narrow it down a bit. I don’t expect the Cubs, Indians, Astros, or Yankees (wait, what?) to be sellers at the deadline, but there are always some teams that will be willing to trade away solid players in July.

I’ll throw in another caveat, though, to narrow this list down. Guys who will be free agents at the end of this season. That narrows the list significantly, but it also gives somewhat of a discount, so maybe the Nats won’t have to trade Robles to get it done. Here is a non-exhaustive list of center fielders with expiring contracts that the Nats might be looking towards:

Lorenzo Cain (KC) – Cain is the best CF available, but don’t think he’s necessarily the 7 WAR player we saw in 2015. Outside of that year, when he had an .838 OPS, he’s been more like a .750 OPS guy, or worse. That being said, he’s a plus defender out there, which means he’s still at least a 3 WAR player even when he doesn’t hit the cover off the ball. He’d be a great addition, and KC is currently sitting with the worst record in baseball, but he’s going to be expensive, and probably highly sought after at the deadline.

Rajai Davis (Oak) – Davis is about to come off the DL with a hamstring strain, and he is 36 years old. But he can still play CF, and can be serviceable with the bat. A .306 OBP over the last 2 years is nothing to get excited about, but that will probably go up slightly in the NL, and he is good for about 10 HR a season. He’s still fast, too, leading the AL in SBs last season. If the internal option completely fail, Davis is better than replacement level, and he probably won’t be expensive.

Carlos Gomez (Tex) – When the Nats were trying to figure out how to address CF this offseason, I thought Gomez would be worth taking a flyer on. He ended up staying on with Texas, with a one-year, $11.5 M deal, and so far, results have been mixed. He’s hitting .239/.317/.457, which the Nats would gladly take, although that’s immediately after hitting for the cycle. His OPS was 120 points lower the day before. That being said, he can still play adequate CF, and he’s got 20 HR and 20 SB potential that most just don’t have. Texas, of course, won 95 games last year despite only having a +9 run differential, so we’ll have to see if they continue to be that lucky (or good, I guess) and stay in it long enough to not be sellers.

Colby Rasmus (TBR) – Rasmus is, how should I put this… interesting. It’s seems like the 30 year old has always been a prospect who could never put it all together. But don’t confuse don’t being real good and not fulfilling potential with being bad. He has managed to be a 2.5 WAR player most seasons, give or take. The big exception was 2013, when he actually hit above .250. He’s not a great defensive CF, but he has been in the past and will probably be fine there. He doesn’t hit for enough average, but he’s good for 15-20 HRs a year. Only slightly faster, hitting something like Wieters with more power and more Ks might not be a bad way to picture it. The Rays will probably play him in LF for Bourjos when he makes it out of the minors as he is still recovering from injury and working on getting his timing back. They will also probably be happy to get anything for him in a trade come July.

Jarrod Dyson (SEA) – He’s not a great hitter, and as a lefty, he’s even worse than that against left handed pitchers. But he’s a plus plus defender, and he’s managed an OBP of .323 for his career, something the Nats would probably gladly take if indeed they are looking for replacements in July. The Mariners, though, might not be out of it come July, despite their 2-8 start. They’ve actually outscored their opponents, and the AL West, outside of Houston, could still flip.

The Nats are going to miss Adam Eaton, and his production won’t be replaced. But they have a good enough lineup to be a top scoring offense without him, and options internally that could end up working out for them. If they don’t they’ll have to look outside, and there are some decent options there that might not cost them the entire farm system.

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