Maybe the Nationals want to win

February 26, 2007

This post is over a week old already… Go to the frontpage to check out the latest!

 

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:

Ronnie Belliard

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 ofThe svelt Belliard swings with power 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

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.

Robert Fick

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.

Dmitri Young

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 Is that a sandwich I see?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.

Tony Batista

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 Broadway

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 nationalsreview@gmail.com


And so it begins…

February 16, 2007

As this is the first column in The Nationals Review, a bit of introduction is in order. The point of this is to give statistical analysis of the Washington Nationals based on numbers, historical trends, and other concrete pieces of evidence of how a player could perform.
Rather than going on about the usefulness of a player’s stats over his charm and personali
ty to judge how many wins his team will end up, for now, it may be best to just get down to business and figure out what to look for this season with the Nationals.

Spring training is just beginning, and there is plenty of time to look at what needs to be changed, how players compare to others and all of those critical analyses that hopefully you will come to expect from this page. But for now, perhaps its best to start with who is going to be on this team and how they have performed in the past. This week, the view is of the infield, as there appears to be no questions about who is going to be starting where.

Ryan Zimmerman
Zimmerman can do it all

The only potential superstar on this team may not find his way to an All Star game for a few years thanks to Rolen, Wright, and Cabrera. And he may not win a Gold Glove until Rolen retires, but he still looks to be among the NL’s best third basemen in the next few years. Statistically speaking, his value last season was most likely overrated by most fans. His splits of .287/.351/.471 (Average/On Base/Slugging), while nothing to discount, are a little weak in the power department. Compared to other corner infielders, he needs some more weight behind his bat.

According to Baseball Prospectus, his VORP (value over replacement player – a complex formula we’ll go into another time that tells how many runs a player is worth to his team over Johnny Stand-in from AAA) was 26.9 last season – in comparison David Wright’s was 54.3 and Miguel Cabrera’s was 78.7. Zimmerman was much closer to ORLANDO Cabrera’s 29.5. But David and Miguel are exceptional hitters - Zimmerman is ahead of Edwin Encarnacion, Morgan Ensberg, Joe Crede, among other young, talented 3rd basemen. Also, he is 5th among all rookies in VORP, which is more than just a footnote. It must be remembered Zimmerman is a 21 year old rookie, and the full extent power is most likely yet to develop.

If he was 27, there may be concern that this is all the power we’d see out of him, and he’d be a relatively (although not terribly) light hitting third baseman who at least has a good ability to REACH base. But he is only 21, and with age should come power. And with power comes responsibility. Zimmerman will probably never mash 50 in a season – he doesn’t have the swing for it. But 30 HRs a season is not far off, and taking into consideration that he is likely be a .300+ hitter, was called by Baseball America “a once in a generation fielder”, and is just old enough to order a beer (because they don’t drink at UVa unless you’re 21, right?), the Nationals are set at this position for a long time.

Nick Johnson

Let’s remember that the oft-injured first baseman is, not surprisingly, injured. After a brutal collision with his buddy Austin “Danger” Kearns last season, Nick once again hurt himself. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s assume he’s not hurt and will be back at full strength at the beginning of the season. There’s a very good chance that this will not be the case. There may suffering through the light hitting (but excellent fielding) Travis Lee as he gobbles up outs on the offensive side and presumably a few on the defensive side as well (although not enough gets hit there to make a full meal for him on that end) for a month or more. But pretending that isn’t the case, Nick Johnson is a fine first baseman. He is no Albert Pujols, his name isn’t nearly as funny and his bat pales in comparison. But his numbers were impressive nonetheless at .290/.428/.520. This put him #4 in the NL for OBP, and top 10 in OPS (on-base plus slugging, a very crude offensive indicator poo-pooed by many sabermetricians, but easy enough to understand that this column in turn mocks them for ignoring it). The injury won’t cost him any speed, because one cannot lose what one does not have. Also positive – his righty/lefty splits have improved over the last few years. Perhaps he makes an adjustment against lefties, because although his power diminishes when facing them, his average actually improves. Assuming the 2006 Nick is the one we’ll see for at least the next 3 or 4 years, which is not unlikely, the Nationals have a formidable corner infield pair. In fact, while Johnson will never (much like Zimm) hit with enough power to be the most prolific first baseman in the league, his numbers belie his effectiveness and he may be able to stake the claim of most underrated. For comparison’s sake, Johnson’s VORP last year was 51.0.

Felipe Lopez

A valuable trade made by Jim Bowden? Say it aint so! Washington unloaded very little of value (unless Majewski can prove his 2005 wasn’t a fluke) to get two young veterans in Kearns and Lopez. This is a great way to build a team’s core, with guys under 30 who have been in the league for five years already. Lopez’s career stats don’t look impressive, even for a middle infielder, but he spent his first few seasons getting his sea legs. 2005 when his VORP was 45.8 (its helps to play SS), he slugged .486 which was probably a park effect/lucky influence number. But last year’s .274/.351/.381 wasn’t bad. RFK clearly had an affect on his power so one hope that will improve a little as his comfort does. Regardless, he can get on base, which would make him a great leadoff hitter – getting on being much more important than being fast. You can’t steal if you don’t ever reach base (we’re looking at you, Mr. Womack). But Lopez shocked the world by stealing 44 bases last year, so it appears he’s got the speed, too. His average dropped last year but his OBP went up, showing he’s developing some more patience or a better eye. This is a less statistically proven advantage to this as well. The more pitches he sees at the very beginning of the game, the more pitches guys like Johnson and Zimmerman get to see before they bat. A subtle but useful thing to have in front of you, if you ask most players.

Brian Schneider

Schneider followed up an impressive 2005 campaign with an atrocious 2006 season. Not to dwell too much on power, but his slugging dropped from .400 to a paltry .320 last year. This doesn’t cut it, even for an NL catcher playing in the grand canyon for 81 games a year. Harkening back to VORP, Schneider’s was -4.9 last year, meaning anyone with pads may have done better. If he doesn’t come back in a big way, the Nationals may need to find other options here. Not that they currently seem to have any in the farm system. Schneider has had some very good seasons in the past, and he isn’t yet old, even for a catcher. If his ability to handle a pitching staff is a plus, it better be a big plus, because if his hitting doesn’t improve, you’ll probably see some mid-season auditions behind the plate.

Christian Guzman
Guzman displaying his fielding skills

What can be said about Christian Guzman without using a string of expletives? Signed to one of the worst deals in recent memory (although some of this winter’s deals may eventually cause us to change perspective), Guzman is entitled to 2 more years – so the Nats are gonna play him. Baseball executives need to be sat down and thoroughly explained the concept of a “sunk cost”. A sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and which cannot be recovered. Once you pay for something, it is paid for. No amount of success or return on your dollar makes it unpaid for. Even if Guzman hits .400 and they sell out every game, he won’t GIVE BACK any of his pay, those revenues are earned separately. So you can then look at the asset in a vacuum and decide whether it is worth using. Guzman is clearly not. He has no power, doesn’t walk, doesn’t steal anymore (except maybe pastries) and needs to hit over .300 to be even a mediocre hitter. One a flashy fielder, 2005′s season showed he may not even be good at that. In 2005, according to Baseball Prospectus, his performance hurt his team more than any position player other than Corey Patterson (who hit .215 in a much more bat friendly position), putting him lower than such luminaries as Tony Womack (the reason the Yankees decided to start playing rookies) and Miguel Olivo (a catcher who hit .151). There is no redemption here. It is only causing Lopez to play out of position and making almost an automatic out every 9 ABs. The question here is what’s in the farm system? And the answer is – it doesn’t matter, anything is better. Because the definitely terrible player that you know is always worse than the possibly terrible player you don’t. If anyone is available, they should see what he can do, because there is little use in allowing Guzman to show off what he can’t. They’re not yelling “Gooz”, they’re actually just booing.

Until Next Week

The Nats recently signed Dmitri Young and Tony Batista to minor league deals. Neither of these breeds true excitement, but we’ll take a look at them in the near future to see if either should pay off. Next week, we’ll try to tackle what’s set in terms of pitching. Since one can only say so much about John Patterson and Chad Cordero, there may be some players fighting for spots included as well.


Welcome!

February 12, 2007

Welcome to the Nationals Review!  This blog is an attempt to create an unbiased perspective on the Washington Nationals, and their players.  We will try to show what is going on with this team through statistical analysis, and try to keep our emotions in check.  This website is inspired by the excellent work of Steven Goldman in The Pinstriped Bible, and we will try to pattern our unbiased review after his excellent coverage of the Yankees.  We are by no means endorsed by Mr. Goldman (yet) but we hope he will enjoy reading this column.  More importantly, we hope that Nationals fans will enjoy a fresh perspective on a team that does not get enough coverage.


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