And so it begins…

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.

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