On to the Infield

Alright, last time we examined what starting pitching was available, and who would be used. Outside of the starters, the bullpen is probably the most stable slash best part of the team. We know Cordero is gonna close, Rauch is probably gonna setup, and everyone else will get innings. So other than that, let’s leave it alone for now. Instead, I’d like to talk about the position battles, for now, let’s talk about the infield. There seems to be a glut of position players that are of equal or similar value, so it should be interesting to see how it works out. Let’s begin with a non-battle:

Ryan Zimmerman will be the third baseman. He has played 319 games over the last 2 seasons, which is 5 short of the limit. He may get a few opportunities to sit, just so he doesn’t wear down, but barring injuries, he should be the best fielder on the team, the 2nd or 3rd best hitter, and the most consistent player.

Dmitri Young was the big pleasant surprise to the team last season (although some of us, like a year ago, suggested he would do well). Dmitri’s 2007 was great, and he set career highs in AVG and OBP. This is nice, but most players who set career highs at the age of 33 regress to their mean (which for Dmitri, a lifetime .292/.349/.477 hitter, is more than adequate). Don’t expect him to hit as great this season, but he can still hit better than most players on this team. Most players, however aren’t…

Nick Johnson, the oft-injured first baseman. I’m only gonna say this once (today), so read carefully. NickJNick Johnson is a better hitter than Da Meat Hook. His 2006 makes Dmitri’s last season look weak. 3 out of his 6 seasons he had a higher OPS than Dmitri had last season, which was his second best in 12 seasons (9 of which he played over 100 games). Nick can hit, he will get on base more than anyone in the league, and if he is healthy, he should be playing. The questions should be “where can we fit Dmitri in the lineup?” rather than “What will Nick’s role be?” Nick Johnson’s role should be set in stone: starting 1B. However, if Manny wants to play Dmitri in Nick’s place once a week, to keep Nick on the healthy side, that would be perfectly acceptable. Right now according to Bowden, the job is Dmitri’s, but that may be because Nick has to prove that he is healthy, and he hasn’t played baseball in over a year. But assuming he is healthy, he should be his job.

Ronnie Belliard is the middle infielder that will be playing for sure, at least according to the Nats. Most likely, the position battle will between Guzman and Lopez for SS, and Belliard is safe for now. Belliard’s 2007 was pretty similar to his other seasons, with a little understandable drop in power playing in RFK. Hoping for a little more power, and the rest of the numbers to stay pretty much the same, wouldn’t be too much to ask from a career .274/.338/.412 guy. That .412 is dragged some by some ridiculously bad seasons, and with or without the move you may expect more than that. Assuming he keeps that up, I’m guessing he’ll have the job most days of the week.

Christian Guzman is right now the starting SS, due to his unexpectedly crazy start last year. I don’t think Guzman knew he could hit like that, and I’m sure once we look at all the predictions, nobody think he can hit like that again. If he comes out in spring training hitting .350 again, well even I’d say they gotta at least ride that wave.

Felipe Lopez could be a solid leadoff hitter, if he could raise his OBP back to its previous levels. Last season was really bad for him, but 2005 and 2006, his OBP was over .350, and that is what stat geeks and the well-educated look for in a leadoff guy. Thankfully, Lopez has stated that’s what he’s looking for as well. If he can draw walks and get on base, he definitely has the speed to look like a leadoff in the eyes of more traditional baseball fans, so he could push himself into the lineup. Then again, if Guzman hits the way he has every season other than 2001 and 2 months in 2007, Lopez may be getting plenty of playing time anyway.

Aaron Boone is here to add depth to the bench that was one of the worst in the league last season. No more Robert Fick off the bench in the late innings, basketball star Boone is a much better option, and will serve as a good righty off the bench on a normal day, and possibly give the overworked Zimmerman a breather or two during the season.

Josh Whitesell is a first baseman currently on the 40 man roster, but it is hard to see him having much of a role on this team. He had a great season last year in AA, hitting .284/.425/.512. Yeah, that’s a .425 OBP. If he really pounds the ball in the spring, maybe he’ll get some time. But with Young and Johnson ahead of him, the best place for this 25 year old is in AAA showing he can do that again. If he can, he will probably force Johnson out after his contract ends, but for now, his place should be getting a full retinue of ABs in the minors rather than 3 ABs a week on the Nats. Plus he also has to contend with…

…rule 5 pickup Matt Whitney. Of course, we know that rule 5 guys have to stay on the major league roster all season or their old team gets to take them back. Because he’d have to be there all year, he will have a tough time making the roster, with all the other promising 1B they have. But if he shows the kind of power he’s shown in the minors, they just may keep him. What type of power you ask? Well 32 HRs in the minors last season was impressive, but they were done all done in single-A ball, so the 24 year old may not be that impressive. It is worth a flyer on him, but he is probably the kind of guy that needs to work in the minors. Of course, the Nats are the kind of team that can afford to waste a roster spot on someone they think is promising, so you never know. Maybe he’ll go all Shelley Duncan on everyone this spring.

Of course, when talking about the infielders, the catchers should be mentioned, at least a little bit. Not to beat a dead horse too much but:

Paul Lo Duca has had some problems this offseason. The Brooklyn boy has a bum knee, was implicated in some of the more recent steroids issues in the Mitchell report, and his cell phone is TOAST. Will the ever get old? Doubtful. Anyway, he’s probably the best catcher at this point that the Nats have in their organization, so let’s assume he’s healthy and not suspended, he’s gotta be the starter.

Johnny Estrada, like starter Pauly Walnuts, is another 1 year signing. He can’t throw, I just assume he can catch the ball, and he has had some success hitting. His bat, other than one season, isn’t quite where Lo Duca’s has been. However, Lo Duca is now hurt, defamed, and old while Estrada is 4 years younger. I don’t expect Estrada to win a starting role simply because regardless of the bat, Lo Duca has the edge in defense.

Jesus Flores deserves a mention because he was the backup last season. He stayed on the roster all last year because he was a rule 5 pick. But now with a year in the system, he can go down to the minors, which would seem to be what will happen once Lo Duca comes back. This is probably best for Flores. He’ll be 23, and may be the future of the position, but he hasn’t shown he can consistently hit in the majors yet, and should get time to face younger less experienced pitching this season.

Anyone else in the infield is probably gonna play a game or two at most, and are really outfielders, so we’ll talk about them next time.

2 Responses to On to the Infield

  1. Gary says:

    You seem to have left out something fairly important when talking about an infield — defense. If folks are healthy Lopez will sit, as will Young, precisely because they are below average defensively. Guzman is no great shakes either but Lopez makes more half-effort errors than anyone on the team. With the new smaller park, the club can’t afford it.

  2. cfliegel says:

    Actually, you may be right, but I personally believe the defense will be largely irrelevant. The reason is simple – the position battles involve no great defensive players. Guzman exhibited last season that his range has been reduced and his defense is no longer so much better than Lopez. As for Young and Johnson, well the defense at first base just shouldn’t matter. However, I will concede that if Lopez plays terribly at short, then he may be replaced.

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