February 12, 2009

Trade Nobody

Nationals fans, like mothers-in-law, are adept at quickly finding the gray cloud in any silver lining. All offseason long, the refrain has been "We need a lefty bat for the middle of the lineup!" When we get said slugging lefty, the conventional wisdom immediately becomes, "OMG! Too many outfielders! Why did they (trade for Willingham/sign Dunn)?! The Nats are soooo dysfunctional!!1!".

Now, I would have thought the answer to the question above was obvious. Willingham and Dunn are both good (not great, but good) professional baseball players, something a professional baseball team needs to be successful. Last season is not nearly far enough in the past for Nats fans to be forgetting that their beloved team played Felipe Lopez in LF and Kory Casto at 1B last season. Not as some sort of existentialist commentary on the folly of roster construction, but because those were the best available options at the time. So the sudden angst at having too many good (not great, good) players for too few starting spots strikes me as odd to say the least.

First things first, let's address the wierd, "Why trade for Josh Willingham if you're going to sign Adam Dunn?" complaint that has arisen in some corners of the Natmosphere. Seems to me that the answer is, "We weren't going to sign Adam Dunn, we were going to sign Mark Teixeira. And when we made the trade for Willingham we hadn't signed either." The Nats aren't the Yankees. They can't plan to go out and sign anybody and feel anything close to 100% certain that the deal will get done. The Teixeira saga, and Dunn's reported initial reluctance to come to DC, should make that abundantly clear. To suggest that the Nats should have avoided making any moves to improve the club while they waited for the Teixeira market to shake out is just, well, wierd. (How'd that work out for the Angels? Kendry Morales and Bobby Abreu?)

Next is the question of where everybody plays. It's true, the Nats have too many outfielders on the 40-man roster. Nine (Bernadina, Davis, Dukes, Harris, Kearns, Maxwell, Milledge, Pena, Willingham) even before accounting for Dunn. But if you look closely those numbers decline fast. Three are likely headed back to the farm. Bernadina so that he can play everyday, Davis to get a little more seasoning in the outfield, and Maxwell because, God love 'im, he makes NJ look like Cal Ripken, Jr. It's clear that Willie Harris is Manny Acta's super-utility safety blanket and he probably has as good a shot at starting at 2B as in the outfield.

Just like that we're down to five (Dukes, Kearns, Milledge, Pena, Willingham) plus Dunn for three spots. I don't think it's a stretch to say that Pena is the odd man out of this group. I love me some Wily Mo, but he's a trade low/waiver claim waiting to happen, unless he's still reovering and can potentially be stashed on the DL. That gives you four outfielders rotating through three spots, which isn't a problem given normal days off, injuries, platoon splits, etc. Except now there's Dunn. Disaster? Catastrophe? Disastrophe? Hardly. This is where Dunn and Willingham's overlapping skill sets (good eye, good power, suspect LF/1B defense) can become an asset.

First baseman Nick Johnson is an exceptional talent with an incredible knack for freak injuries (broken cheek, bruised heel, broken leg, torn forearm tendon). Getting 120 healthy games out of Nick is a blessing. Counting on him for 120 games is pure folly. Both Dunn and Willingham can "play" 1B in a pinch, and while neither is Albert Pujols, both are likely to be an upgrade on the Dmitri Young/Ronnie Belliard/Kory Casto alternative. When Nick plays, Dunn is in left and Willingham spells both of them off the bench. When Nick sits Dunn and Willingham share LF/1B duty, with Milledge, Dukes and Kearns rotating through the other 2 outfield spots. If (when) Nick breaks down, the Nats' roster "problem" becomes a necessity.

To suggest that the Nats have to, or even should, trade one of these guys is short-sighted. With Willingham and Dunn on board the club has the flexibility to listen to offers, but is not, as some have said, forced to move anyone. Yes, the club could still stand to improve second base or the starting staff. Now they have the pieces to do that without exposing themselves to a potentially season-altering injury.

FWIW, this seems to be the team's position as well. (But I swear I started writing this first!)


Basil said...

Good post, Nate.

I could see Willingham being traded perhaps, since he's inexpensive enough to be attractive to someone like (just guessing here) the Braves, who need corner OF thump. And, since neither Milledge nor Dukes appears to be a 'true' CFer, too many games of Dunn in LF and Willingham in RF might prove hazardous.

But you're right. Depth is hardly a bad thing.

Nate said...

Thought for sure you were dead, (or at least frozen in carbonite,) Basil. Thanks for checking in.

Basil said...

Not quite Boba Fett in the Mightly Sarlaac, but thanks for your concern!

Much smaller selection these days, but I still check out teh blogs every now and then.