Free Agent Hitters in ’08

Alright, so we looked at the Free Agent pitching and didn’t see too much to get excited about. Time for the position players. Before we get going let’s think about where we definitely shouldn’t be pursing free agents. Young and Johnson can handle 1B, Zimmerman can handle 3B. The middle infield could use help. Guzman, Belliard and Lopez aren’t healthy or overly productive. For middle infielders, they hit ok (Guzman hit great once – in 2007, so maybe we’ll get that), and other than Guzman they field poorly. At catcher they have serious D with Schneider, and young potential with Flores. That wouldn’t eliminate them if they were looking for someone, but it shouldn’t be their #1 priority. The outfield is where they have some serious issues. Even if Church and Kearns performed below their abilities last season, and Wily Mo is a .900 OPS guy, are they really set there? No, because as we addressed a few weeks ago, their biggest hole in their roster isn’t a position, it’s a category – power. They have none. The OF is where this is probably the easiest to patch, and the furthest from where the rest of the league is. So if they are looking to sign someone, the OF should be the place. But of course they shouldn’t pass up on something elsewhere. And again, we’re gonna assume that they are looking to long term signings.

Torii Hunter may seem appealing. He can still play CF, although he’s lost a step he’s still better than most. And he’s got some power, he’s a 25 HR guy. But he has never posted a career OBP higher than .340. Listen, I know this isn’t organizational philosophy to have a high-OBP. But you can’t define your team as one that does NOT get on base alot. I mean, I guess you can, but it’s idiotic. The team with the 2nd worst OBP in the NL in ’07 does not need to sign a semi-power hitting CF whose fielding isn’t what it used to be (but still beats most) is going to be 32 next season, and doesn’t get on base enough. Hunter is an exciting player, but he’s not a solution for this team.

Andruw Jones is one guy that is going to expect lots of money for a long time this offseason. But does he deserve it? Well, clearly his .222 average was an aberration this year, he didn’t just completely fall off the map. His HRs are there, and he is a career .263/.342/.497 hitter. This is great and the Nats should take it, except that he isn’t likely to do that for much longer. He is going to be 31 next season, and has CLEARLY lost a step in the OF. He may keep winning gold gloves, but that is based on reputation. Last season people were arguing that he wasn’t the same in CF that he used to be, this season even the anti-stats guys concede it. He is bigger and slower than ever, but this hasn’t translated to more power. He may be on the back end of a great career, a long term deal seems like a trap on the back end. If he could be signed for 3 years, he’d be great, but that isn’t likely.

Aaron Rowand is a very good fielder, and had a career year this past season. At 30 he appears to be about 5 years younger than Andruw. When I first looked, Rowand was the most interesting to me. He can field, and he hit alot last year. But if there’s one thing I know about free agents it’s this: be wary of guys coming off of career years. This season he had all kind of career highs, but of course he was playing in the hitter’s paradise of Philadelphia. 27 HRs is more likely a peak than a portent of things to come. Other than his 2 great seasons, he has 4 seasons where his OBP is more around the .325. Even last season, the one where he broke his nose, he would have had to hit incredibly well in the last 2 months to get anywhere near 25 HRs.

Even though I love his nickname, Matt Stairs (“The Professional Hitter”) is probably not the solution for this team. He’ll be 40, he no longer has the kind of power he used to, but the fact that he deserves mention is a testament to how good he is, and probably highlights how underrated he is. He hit .289/.368/.549 this season with the Blue Jays, and could probably be expected to hit closer to his career splits of .267/.359/.488 going out. But his age is just too much of a factor, he probably wouldn’t be able to play full time, and the Nats shouldn’t be going around signing 40 year old outfielders.

Isn’t there anyone who will be undervalued this season? Well, what about Mike Cameron? He’ll be 35 years old, but unlike most guys, he hasn’t lost much in the field. Sure, he may not be the best fielder out there anymore, but he is still better than the vast majority of CFs out there. His season of .242/.328/.431 wasn’t terribly impressive. He’s always been a power/speed guy who strikes out alot, and that hasn’t changed. What has is where he has played. He hit .254/.341/.449 away from home, which is decent. He can still probably be expected to hit 25 HRs and despite lots of Ks, still have a higher OBP than most of the rest of this team.

Geoff Jenkins has spent his entire career in Milwaukee, and I’m guessing they figure out a way to keep him there. He’d be an effective part of a platoon, because he’s a lefty who can mash righties, but he’s pretty worthless against lefties. If used that way, he’d actually be a good addition to any team that needs power from its outfield. But nobody actually likes to platoon anymore, whether it’s the need to carry 35 pitchers or have the same starting lineup every day. He is career .288/.358/.525 against righties and even last season he was .262/.326/.482. I won’t embarrass him by listing his stats against lefties, but let’s just say he shouldn’t be hitting there. He is a power source, and I wouldn’t be against signing him if he’s used properly.

Brady Clark is nothing more than a role player.

Adam Dunn is probably getting love letters from Bowden as we speak. The Reds might not want to pay him $13 m, and maybe they shouldn’t. If they Nats have a chance to, maybe they should. He is only going to be 28 next season, so even a 5 year deal doesn’t leave you with an old man. He is the classic 3 outcome guy – strikeout, walk or HR. His last 3 seasons he’s hit 40 HRs in a hitters park, but his home/road splits are almost even in that department. The last 2 seasons, his OPS splits were pretty even, with a slight advantage at home. In a neutral park, he’s still going to hit. His fielding is bad, though, and he does strike out alot. People have called Wily Mo “Dunn Light” and it’s not a bad comparison. But Wily Mo doesn’t walk, despite striking out alot. So the question may be who is better to have in LF, Wily Mo or Dunn? Well, Dunn is the better hitter, and that is what the Nats need. If you look at his numbers, Dunn compares closely with Ryan Howard. Howard gets a few more hits, but their OBP is about the same. Go ahead, check their numbers. I’ll be here. Anyway, Dunn seems to be one of the best free agents on the market, and he does fit in with what the Nats need.

Barry Bonds is an interesting case. He will probably play short term and will most likely STILL be one of the top players in the game. His OPS of 1.045 would have ranked him first in the NL and third in the AL (behind ARod and Large Father) if he had the required number of at bats. And there is the big problem with him. Besides being the most hated player in baseball, he also is one of the least ambulatory. He just can’t play LF for a full season anymore, although his 28 HRs in 458 PAs (that’s about 2/3 of a season) would still be better than anyone else on the team. But this isn’t what a young team needs. And as for the “Glavine” role of teaching the young guys a thing or two, unless he can teach them how to see the ball the way he does, all those affects would assume to be negative.

Moving on from the OF, to look at the middle infield we find there isn’t much help out there. Kaz Matsui has made a name for himself that doesn’t involve cursing and a thick Queens accent with the Rockies this season. He has been a spark at the top of the lineup, but he has little power. And he definitely benefits from Coors field. His ’07 home vs. away splits of .330/.381/.482 vs .249/.303/.333 shows that unless the Nats can figure out a way to play their home games in Denver, he isn’t a worthwhile addition.

Tad Iguchi is a free agent as well. But his isn’t any better than Ronnie Belliard, signing him wouldn’t really be much of an improvement.

Omar Vizquel is available. He’s still an amazing fielder, even at 40 years old. But his bat was non-existent this season. Never a power hitter, he slugged a ridiculous .316 this season. There are enough gloves in the minor league system that could slug .316 that this signing would be ridiculous. Now as a fielding coach, I’m all for it, but not as a player.

There is one potential middle infielder that I am positive, absolutely 100% sure would be a solid addition to the roster, but Alex Rodriguez is most likely out of the question. But if he could play SS (and he can) for the Nats, he’s worth anything. You want to talk about bringing people out to the games? Wow, he’d be something. And against NL pitching? The perennial MVP candidate would be incredible. He certainly isn’t the type of player who should experience a precipitous decline in the next few years, despite his age. He’s just that much better than everyone. So you have to have him when he’s 38, only hitting .275 and breaking the all-time HR record. Seems worthwhile to me. But, he aint coming here, and we aint signing him. I just wanted to say something positive about one guy. If he loses his mind and falls in love with cherry blossoms or traffic circles or free museums and wants to come here, the Nats should do what they can to accommodate. I have a feeling he’ll be with the Yankees again next year, but you never know.

Verdict

The outfield class is thick with talent, but nothing that really warrants long-term contracts. Regretful contracts are what seems to be available. Long-term deals for Hunter and Jones seem to be destined to be bad. Jones, if he can mash 35 HRs a year for the next 3 years, is very intriguing, but he’s not likely to go short term. Cameron is interesting, but if they want a CF who can hit like that, strike out less and steal a less, they already have Ryan Church.

But if they do pick up a OF hitter, they have 3 guys they could trade in Church, Kearns and Pena. None are going to carry this team, but all will have trade value. Both Ryan Church and Wily Modesto have contracts ending in 2008. They would seem to be guys you can send to a contender for some sort of value. So maybe picking up a guy like Adam Dunn will be worth the money.

All the talk this year was that the free agent class would be unimpressive. As much as I want Bowden to pull the trigger on SOMEONE, there just isn’t much out there to go for. This team needs more power somewhere. But this may just be a bad year to do it. Just like we can’t will Kearns and Church to hit 30 HRs each, we can’t create young power hitters on the free agent market. Dunn is the best option out there, but I am not convinced that they need to run out and pursue him. Now, Alex Rodriguez, on the other hand, should be receiving hs DC visitors guide in the mail any day now, courtesy of The Nationals Review and The Washington DC Convention and Tourism Company. Seriously though, if you’re not convinced Dunn is worth it, maybe the best thing to do is wait a season, and save all that money to go after Mark Teixiera.

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