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:
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.
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