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Nats: The Shape of Things

The Adam Dunn trade puts a lot of players back in lineup spots where they should feel fairly comdfortable and not overmatched. This is one of those team chemistry factors that is hardto measure but, if you watched the Nats last year, game after game, you could feel it. Young players, especially Milledge (hitting in a power spot) and Zimmerman (trying to do too much) were too anxious to play up to what appears to be their obvious physical talent.

With Dunn, and, as an operating assumption, without Nick Johnson, what do the Nats look like? Yes, the Nats would prefer for Johnson to create a nice problem by looking like '06 Nick. I'll believe it, and cheer it, when I see it. Assume he's traded, if he's still healthy in late March, as the Nats look for another bullpen arm. Or he's not "back" which speaks for itself.

On the eve of spring training, the Nationals roster and its possibilities:

Lineup

1) Cristian Guzman. He's hit .319 the last two years combined since Lasik surgery. OPS near .800. Average shortstop. 31 next month. That's who he is now, until proven otherwise. New eyes matter. I had Lasik, went from 20-19 vision at age 18 to 20-50 (ugh) before the surgery, then to 20-15 (!!!)__ better than most MLBers__ in a few weeks. And it's stayed close to that since. Hard to believe. But it's a real part of current sports. Guzman got it and he's just a different better hitter now. Doesn't get on base quite as much as you'd like or take many pitches. But the Twins made the playoffs with him when he wasn't nearly as good a hitter as he is now. Seldom gets credit. A strong point.

2) Lastings Milledge. He can now hit "in the rocking chair" at No. 2 where he belongs at this stage of his career. Who is he? For me, he resembles Amos Otis offensively at the same age. In CF, ohhhhh, no, he's no Amos. At 24, Otis had 80 runs, 79 BI, 15 homers, .345 OB% and .443 slug avg. Otis averaged 30 steals for his 10-year prime. So can Lastings, who had 24 steals last year. Look for Milledge to match Otis' #s. Or maybe more.

3) Ryan Zimmerman. Give him another year, with Dunn behind him, to show he's a No. 3 hitter. If not, he can certainly hit No. 5 for a very good team for a very long time. I've talked to him about it. He knows he now profiles as a No. 5. But he'd like to be good enuff someday to be a No. 3. At 24, lets assume he goes back to his '06-'07 health and production. Easy to forget how good that was for the two years combined: 90 runs, 45 doubles, 22 homers, 100 RBI, hit .282. Doesn't walk enough. Maybe he'll learn some selectivity, how to pick pitches for more power, from Dunn. The Nats should try to sign him to a (ballpark guesstimate) 6-year deal for ~$55-million before his arb hearing next week. Maybe less years. It can get done. The team-Zim relationship is good and Dunn adds credibilty. Zim wanted a big power lefty bat to hit behind him. They got the No. 2 HR hitter in baseball over the last five years to bat cleanup __a 29-year-old who's also one of Zim's friends. When "they" do that for you, then you sign with them. Right? The contract "models" are Nick Markakis, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, who all got multi-years at $10M/yr. Zim should be a bit lower per year off poor '08. Nats should remember that even after '08, probably as bad a year as he'll ever have, the players he most resembles statistically (baseballreference.com) at the same age are (by accident) all third basemen: Ken Keltner (good hitter, great fielder, robbed DiMag twice to end streak), Gary Sheffield (!), Eric Chavez, Scott Rolen, Hank Blaylock (gets hurt, but always hits) and Carney Lansford (batting champ).

4) Adam Dunn, firts base. His hitting is known. He's a clone of Reggie Jackson __less hits, more homers, more RBI, a lot more walks, more strikeouts, less steals and a better OB%. At least as good an offensive player as Reggie at 29. Jax was a household name at the same age because A's played in 3 Series when he was young. But, at same stage, he'd had 2 100-RBI years, another year of 93 and no others above 80. Not really a fine RBI man. Dunn has had 100 RBI four of the last five years and 92 the other year. Okay, adjust for era. Dunn at 29 = Reggie at 29 is still true. Now, about defense. Dunn is poor at first base. Can he be worse than Ryan Howard? (Don't answer that.) As for life in LF, if he ends up there, Dunn is tough on the eyes. Everybody agrees. Some say he's absymal. The numbers say that, for his whole career, as well as recent seasons, he actually reaches an average number of flyballs for a N.L. outfielder. Gets far more "outs" per 9 innings than Manny Ramirez, Pat Burrell or Josh Willingham. And you only get an "out" by catching a fly ball. There's no way he's average, because he makes too many errors (.969 %) and everybody can't be blind. But it's also impossible that he's atrocious. You can't reach 1.96 balls per 9 innings for eight years and be an historically bad outfielder. Frank Howard averaged 1.70 balls per 9 innings in LF. That's a difference of about 40 outs a year, in Dunn's favor. Still, pray Adam can learn 1st base.

5) Elijah Dukes. Put him in CF and Milledge in LF or RF. Improve two position. Everybody can imagine how Dukes fails. Not interesting. What if he stays healthy and just plays? How good is he? Last year, he had 276 at bats __half a full season. Hypothetically, double his stats: 96 runs, 32 doubles, 26 homers, 88 RBI, 24 steals, 100 walks, .264-.386-.478. He can do that. Everybody knows it. Will he do it? Nobody knows that. He's 24. He only gets better, if... Zimmerman and Dukes have proved they can average 100 RBI over multi-year periods. (Zim has to reprove it.) Zimmerman, Dunn and Dukes, Heart of the Order, could you get used to it? That's the best-case scenario. Spring training is tomorrow. Don't worry. Be happy.

6) Josh Willingham/Austin Kearns. Until last year, they were the same player. Willingham a little better hitter, but poor in LF, Kearns is an elegant almost-Al-Kaline in RF. Now, Kearns stock has fallen like the Dow. On Thursday, Dunn called Kearns a truly fine player/hitter and can't believe he won't bounce back. They were Batman and Robin with the Reds for years. Some players feed off the presence/performance of others. Don't count Kearns out. With Willingham, you know what you get __a poor LF who has a .833 career OPS, third-best among all Nats. He's the team's mystery upgrade. If Kearns gets back to normal, the Nats have four good outfielders, plus Willie Harris, just like a...well...good team. Those who think Bowden's roster is poorly constructed may need to reevaluate now, post-Dunn. Subtract Johnson, put Dunn at first and it makes sense, with a deep OF that creates a potentially deep bench, especially if Dmitri Young contributes.

7) Jesus Flores. Now he's down as low in the order as a young hitter/catcher ought to be as he learns his trade. Flores, 24, has a clutch RBI knack and carries himself like a leader. He needs to get much better on foul pops. His OPS, a little under .700 in '08, is okay for a kid catcher. But he needs to get better in all phases. But maybe not a lot better.

8) Ronnie Belliard. Oh, right, Anderson Hernandez is going to beat out a veteran who has played on a world champ, hits .290 every year with some pop and is adequate on defense. And had an .845 OPS in '08 in 296 at bats. If the speedy Hernandez, who hit .300 twice in the minors but, overall, has mostly been a weak stick, takes the job, it's a bonus. He's played more sportstop. So, after being given a fair chance to take the job in spring, based on his brief .333 binge last fall, he probably ends up being a useful utility INF, pinch-runner, switch pinch-hitter.

Bench: Kearns/Willingham, Belliard, C Wil Nieves, spunky versatile lefty-hitting Harris, maybe switch-hitting Young, if healthy. With luck, a plus. Without luck, adequate.

The Nationals, painful to watch last season when they were so injured/young at almost every position that they could barely mount a rally, much less score, now may be on the verge of fielding a representative major league lineup, with potential to be surprising. Okay, at least on paper. And that's without Nick Johnson. What will happen on grass? This is still not a team that can surmount major injuries to many of the players in its top six lineup spots. But, if they stay reasonably healthy, the Nats finally have 20-homer power at 3-4-5-6, plus 15 from Milledge. And 20-steal speed with Milledge, Dukes and Hernandez, if he plays. Also, if Dukes doesn't pan out for any personal reason, the Nats still have a decent OF of Willingham, Milledge, Kearns and Harris. A worst-case lineup of Guzman, Milledge, Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham, Kearns, Belliard and Flores is worth watching. Add Dukes and, perhaps, Johnson, and it mght be downright entertaining. That's a lot better than '08. Or as recently as this Wednesday.

Pitching? We'll get to that. Eventually.

By Thomas Boswell  |  February 13, 2009; 12:06 PM ET
 
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Comments

Boz, why are you afraid to post completely Nats-related content on Nationals Journal instead of here? Not everybody over there hates you. Indeed, it may just be me that does. Are you afraid that if you go over to NJ you'll increase the hits on Nats-related content and eliminate any reason the Post has for not covering the team like a real major league newspaper should?

Posted by: nunof1 | February 13, 2009 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the post. Tomorrow pitchers and catchers report, along with chocolates and flowers. Don't worry. Be happy.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 13, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

wow Boz! you excited = we're excited... thanks for letting us enjoy this (this should be over at Nats Journal...)

Posted by: andreekless | February 13, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

regardless if Nick is on the team or not, there should be *NO* reason for Dmitri to be up here in DC. If Nick is gone, Dunn plays first and Willingham backs him up. If Nick stays, then obviously he's at first and Dunn and/or Willingham will back NJ up. Dmitri should only be called up if all three are traded/injured. No need to waste a spot on the 40-man roster (let alone the 25-man) until Dmitri can prove that he is 100% healthy and will remain healthy all season long. Let him be the 1B/DH in Syracuse, do not bring him back up to DC.

Posted by: erocks33 | February 13, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse

I've spent hours reading and thinking about what Nats should do with their newfound depth, but yours is the first analysis that I think gets it completely right. They really shouldn't trade any of these guys now, because every team suffers injuries and what looks like a glut of outfielders now is going to seem like the right amount in a month or two.
Incidentally, your column smashing the Lerners for not spending some cash on free agents made me say, "Hallelujah!" But I hope you buy a new season ticket package. (I don't work for the Nats). We need as many fans as we can get, and the Post's premier baseball writer should be one of them.

Posted by: jdsp2000 | February 13, 2009 10:22 PM | Report abuse

I feel bad raining on your parade, but look at the division.

At 1b, Dunn is competing with Ryan Howard and Carlos Delgado. He'll put up better stats than Delgado (more than likely), but Howard gets back to his 2006 stats (or even 2007), he'll be quite a bit better than Dunn. Otherwise, even if he repeats last year, Howard will be better.

At 2b, you have Utley (when he gets healthy) or Marcus Giles, Dan Uggla, Kelly Johnson and Luis Castillo. Ronnie Belliard is probably the 4th best 2b, 3rd if Utley is out.

At SS you're out of luck in the NL East. You have Hanley, Reyes, Rollins and Escobar. Sorry Guzman, you're dead last.

At 3b you have Zimmerman, who's solid. But you also have David Wright, Chipper Jones and Jorge Cantu. Zimmerman's a cut below Wright and Chipper and is right about even with Cantu.

In the OF you have Willingham against Raul Ibanez and Daniel Murphy, who looks like he could become a big deal. I'd put Willingham #2 but just barely a hair over Matt Diaz because of Willingham's power.

Then you have Milledge vs. Carlos Beltran, Shane Victorino, and Cameron Maybin. Milledge is clearly inferior to Beltran and Victorino, and Maybin has enough potential to surpass Milledge. Josh Anderson is a distant 5th.

In right you have Elijah Dukes fighting Jayson Werth, Jeff Francoeur, Ryan Church and Jeremy Hermida. I'd probably tie Dukes and Werth up top.

At catcher it's not pretty. Brian McCann is head and shoulders better than the rest. John Baker has some good offensive potential. I'd put Flores tied with Schneider for 3rd, but with a slight advantage b/c he's younger.

So you've got the #2 1b, the #4 2b, #5 SS, #3 3b, #2 LF, #3 CF, #1a RF and #3 C.

The Nationals probably won't lose 100 games, but I see very, very little chance they get out of the basement, let alone sniff the playoffs.

Posted by: adampschroeder | February 14, 2009 12:57 AM | Report abuse

Great post Boz, love having your expertise here on the Nats. Why isn't this on NJ?? You're only feeding the mob. And it's apalling that the most experienced baseball writer at one of the best papers in the country doesn't have season tickets to the only team in the city he lives. You don't work for the Baltimore Post, your paycheck has the word Washington in it. Get over your little fit and go to every game you can get to and write a column about them like 3 times a week like a prominent columnist should. Enough already.

adampschroeder has decent analysis but his conclusion doesn't support it. His analysis has them average out to #2.8 in the division but he says they can't do better than 5th. Factor in weak pitching and they are 4th at worst, maybe sneak into 3rd with some strong performances. The analysis definitely supports them climbing out of the cellar.

Posted by: Avar | February 14, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

I think he forgot Wily Mo - always on the fringes. Yeah, Milledge in CF is a little ambitious for me, too.

So glad that Boz helped us get Dunn.

Pitchers and catchers. Nice

Posted by: Brue | February 14, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

"The Nationals probably won't lose 100 games, but I see very, very little chance they get out of the basement, let alone sniff the playoffs."

Yes, but this isn't the Ryder Cup. In baseball, teams don't play each other one on one. Relative strength of lineup is never the determining factor over the course of a whole season. It's pitching: you get it, you win. You don't -- well, it may not matter all that much how many stars you have in your lineup.

How's the pitching look, Boz?

Posted by: Samson151 | February 14, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

"So glad that Boz helped us get Dunn."

Yeah, a Boz and $20M will buy you an Adam Dunn any day. But then you're still stuck with the Boz.

Posted by: nunof1 | February 14, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Nice job, Boz, and nice comments, Adam (I'm guessing it's not "ada, member of parliament, . . .).

Boz, I'm also interested in Milledge's age comparisons to another ex-Royal, Johnny Damon. At age 23, his 2d full year in the majors, Damon hit .275 / .338 / .376, with 16 steals in 26 attempts, 8 HRS in 472 ABs and 146 games. Milledge was .268 / .330 / .402, with 24 steals in 33 attempts, 14 HRs in 523 ABs and 138 games. If anything, Milledge's first full year at 23 in the majors was better than Damon's 2d at the same age. The next year Damon jumped to 18 HRs and added about .070 to his SLG. I think Damon developed into a pretty good leadoff hitter.

Otis makes Milledge's list of comps on Baseball Reference at #7. His top comps are Gary Geiger, Tommy Agee, Vic Wuertz, and Ron Northey. I don't see the Agee comp off the stats, but Wuertz looks right. Also, Joe Adcock is about the same as the Otis comp.

Perhaps the #2 spot is right, but if Nick is on the roster and Willingham moved or a backup, then I'd be tempted to put Nick #2 like he was with the NYY and look for an opportunity to move Milledge to the Damon slot.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | February 14, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

And what would be so wrong if Ryan Zimmerman turned into our version of (dare I say) Brooks Robinson? A .260+BA/.340+OBP/.450+SLG 3B who catches darned near anything hit near him for the next 10-15 years? I'd take that in a heartbeat.

Posted by: BinM | February 14, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

GEE? WHAT ABOUT LEFT HANDED HITTING? WITH JOHNSON NOW YOU HAVE TWO BONAFIDE SLUGGERS. JUST TWO. Even your 2nd basemen is only a switch hitter. The rest are all right handed. Most pitchers in baseball today are right handed. It is a well know statistical fact that left-handed hitters have an advantage over right-handed hitters against right handed pitching.

YOU CONVENIENTLY LEAVE THAT FACT OUT in order to create line up into your "image".

They need Johnson, health, and at first base.
For his bat and glove. Dunn is still young, has good wheels for his size and can play left field.

If anything they need to trade some of their right handed hitting outfielders for left-handed hitters or at least switch hitters. They really don't have anyone like that down in the minors now that Larry Broadway is gone.

Yeah they've got Kasto so maybe he should be a backup outfielder because he is left-handed? If he learns to finally hit.

Posted by: periculum | February 15, 2009 9:49 PM | Report abuse

Willy Mo bats right-handed. They need left-handed. Dunn and Johnson are ONLY TWO.

Posted by: periculum | February 15, 2009 9:50 PM | Report abuse

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