September 15, 2007

The Counterintuitive Case for Doing Nothing

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Nationals must make a big splash in free agency this offseason. In conjunction with the opening of their brand new, publicly financed, six hundred and umpteen million dollar stadium the team has to commit to improving the on-field product. And the surest way to do that is to sign an Andruw Jones or Torii Hunter, or trade for Adam Dunn or another middle-of-the-order slugger. Anything less is a betrayal of the city, the (dwindling) fanbase, and our American way of life, by cracky. In essence, if the Nats don't sign a big name free agent this winter, the terrorists have won.

Allow me to suggest that this line of thinking is horse hockey. Over the last few years major league baseball's free agency period has resembled nothing so much as an oil embargo-era gas station. Sure, there are things that everyone needs, but not at these prices! In any given year there might be one or two difference-making players, as long as you have 7 years and $150M to spare. After that there are the guys that would be upgrades next year but who will turn into real anchors in the fifth year of their $60M contracts. But that's the invisible hand of the free market at work, right? Ask the Rockies if they wouldn't like to have some of that Mike Hampton/Todd Helton money freed up to pay Matt Holliday next season.

The so-called "deepest" position in this year's free agent class is centerfield, where Andruw Jones and Torii Hunter headline a class that also includes Aaron Rowand, Mike Cameron, Milton Bradley and Kenny Lofton. Fortuitously, this is also said to be a position of need for the Nationals, who have been auditioning centerfielders since Opening Day 2005, with limited success. Clearly it's a natural fit. The team needs an outfielder, and there are outfielders to be had. But is it a good match?

No one who has seen the Braves play this season can be enthusiastic about committing half a decade or more and tens of millions of dollars to Andruw Jones. Maybe he's playing through an injury, and will bounce back fine next year. Or maybe he's playing through an injury and won't. Maybe he's declining and his swing, never a thing of beauty, is broken beyond repair. That's a lot of maybes for a centerfielder who gets kudos for his defensive reputation more than his defensive prowess these days.

Torii Hunter is having himself a Soriano-like contract year. .293/.337/.527, 42 doubles, 28 home runs. Those are the numbers he'll get paid for, but his career line is a more pedestrian .272/.325/.471, for an OPS topping out just under .800. Not bad, to be sure, but nothing to make me want to give a 5-year, $80M contract to a guy who will be 33 next season. For sake of comparison Ryan Church's career line is .267/.344/.453, and his .797 OPS comes in a tick higher than Torii's.

The rest of the lot I'll dispense with quickly. Rowand will cash in on numbers inflated by Philly's Citizens Bank Park, and will commence to turn back into a pumpkin if he signs somewhere else. Mike Cameron would be a nice acquisition, but he is 34 and his price tag will be inflated by the spillover from the Jones/Hunter/Rowand bidding. Bradley has a reputation as a head case and clubhouse cancer, without any obvious advantages over the guys currently on the roster. Lofton just older than dirt, and there's a reason I didn't even mention Corey Patterson.

If they do nothing the Nats are not without options. Ryan Church, though unloved by the front office and possible unsuited to play every day, is a better than average centerfielder who will likely benefit from the slightly more friendly confines of the new Nationals Stadium. He could have 40 doubles and 15 homeruns before the season is out, and it's no great stretch to imagine 30-35 doubles and 20-25 homers next season, a respectable offense output from centerfield.

Nook Logan seems destined to have a place on the team, and would make a good compliment to Church against left-handed pitching or when a little more defensive range is needed. Twenty three-year old Justin Maxwell has not been overwhelmed by the big leagues so far. If he shows well in Arizona this fall and Harrisburg next season he could be part of the centerfield solution for a long time to come.

As for left field, a "TRADE 4 DUNN!!1!" movement is well under way, and honestly, it's not a terrible idea. The big slugger has a rare combination of power, strike zone judgment, and whiffability that allows him to simulateously post high HR, BB & K numbers. His defense in left makes Wily Mo Pena look like Ryan Langerhans, but more importantly he's a Cincinnati Red. If Wayne "Sweaterpants" Krivsky has the stomach to deal with the Nats again he's going to ask for the moon in exchange for Dunn. Somehow I just don't see him settling for Matt Chico, Saul Rivera and a return-to-sender Felipe Lopez this time. I'm not a fan of gutting our just barely functioning farm system to land Adam, even if a reunion with his BFF Austin Kearns rejuvenates his desire to catch fly balls.

More important, to my mind, is the presence of Wily Mo Pena. Yes, it's just 25 games at the end of the season, but Wily Mo is batting .289/.340/.589. His 25 to 6 K/BB ratio is gawdawful, but 8 HRs in 90 AB does take some of the sting out of it. Even if he manages nothing better than .260/.320/.490 over a full season, an .810 OPS is nothing to sneeze at, and it comes a heck of a lot cheaper than whatever Mr. Dunn will require in cash and players. A Pena-Church-Kearns outfield, in a more hitter-friendly park, has the potential to provide better than average offense and defense for much, much less dough.

It's nowhere near as sexy as a Jones signing or a trade for Dunn. "Nationals Stand Pat" won't be a banner headline across the country. But that doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to do. I'm not carrying water for our thrifty overlords here. I'm as ready to spend Ted Lerner's money as the next guy. (Incidentally, I'm available for adoption, Uncle Teddy.) I'd just like to be sure there's some kind of value for the money. Because we all know that however loose the purse strings get there's no chance of the Nats making a run at the Yankees payroll. And if the Yanks and Redskins have taught us anything, it's that even if you have money to throw at the problem there's no guarantee the problem goes away. A team rebuilt with free agents every year is a team destined for continual mediocrity. (Hi Danny!)

This team doesn't have one or two holes to fill, it has a half dozen gaping canyons. Nevertheless, when the Nationals open the checkbook, I'd rather they break the bank on a bona fide superstar than sign two or three "nice" players in their early to mid-30s to help the team win 82 games next season instead of 75. I know that puts me in the minority, but there it is. This winter the free agent market will open again, but that doesn't mean this team needs to go on a shopping spree. If the Nats expect to be contenders, the real improvement will have to come from the Maxwells and Marreros, the Balesters and Detwilers. In the meantime, please, please, please stay the hell away from Aaron Rowand and Kyle Lohse. Next time I won't ask so nicely.

2 comments:

Eric McClung said...

Greetings,

I'm a writer for The Jaunt and I'll be attending the Nationals game this Sunday against the Phillies for the last game at RFK Stadium. It will be my first time at RFK and seeing the Nationals in person.

I will be in section 310, row 17. If you or any of your visitors will be attending the game I'd love to hear from you. I'm gathering information and getting fan comments for an article I'll be writing about RFK Stadium. My email address is ericmcclung@thejaunt.com

http://the-jaunt.blogspot.com/2007/09/nats-begin-final-homestand-at-old-rfk.html

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