Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Wait… Your Poll Says “Trade Nick Johnson”?

I have already pointed out that outfield defense should be a point of emphasis on the Nationals. They are currently 7-17, though their run differential suggests that they are slightly better than this. There are a variety of reasons they have failed to close out games, but one can only heap so much hate on the pitching staff. Frankly, the defense hasn’t done much to help out the guy on the hill.

The Nats do not have a natural CF on the roster, and only Willie Harris has had any success while out there. Harris rarely starts and is mainly used as a utility defensive replacement. He is regarded as an above average fielder and below average hitter, but given the chance to play significantly last year he squeezed out a second consecutive season during which his OPS justified consideration at a premium defensive position (OPS+ 98).

Instead, Lastings Milledge was sent out there for several games despite being the worst everyday centerfielder in 2008… not just barely, either. We are talking a Reagan-Mondale margin. If he were hitting, maybe there would be an excuse to send him out there, but considering he couldn’t out-hit Willie Harris, somebody should have reassessed the outfield configuration.

Given two solid corner outfielders in Elijah Dukes and Austin Kearns (yeah, he was down in ’08, but he was going to play this year to justify his salary), Jim Bowden addressed the need in centerfield by bringing in two more corner outfielders, neither of whom bring anything to the table defensively. Statue Adam Dunn was stolen via free agency at below-market value and is able to compensate for his diminishing defensive value by representing a power bat the Nats sorely need. Aspiring statue Josh Willingham was acquired via trade and has all the tools to be Adam Dunn-lite, just at 1/20th the cost. Jim Bowden’s plan to build the perfect fantasy baseball outfield would have worked, had it not been for those pesky investigators.

It has taken the Nats management a month to collect the pieces, demote Milledge, and move Dukes over to CF, where he is overmatched. It may look fine right now, but the additional stress of CF is bound to catch up to him and sap his bat, especially once it gets hot in DC. The ideal scenario would be to get out from under Kearns’ contract, start Harris in center, and rotate Dukes, Milledge, and Willingham on the corners. That would have Dunn DH-ing during Interleague play and playing 1B mainly, leaving Johnson to pick up a few innings or starts here and there. However, barring Austin Kearns pulling a 2008 Xavier Nady, the trade market is non-existent. The Lerners won’t buy him out to clear the roster spot, so he is staying, which is fine. He is a high-IQ player who is currently hitting like the player he was in Cinci, and fields his position better than average.

If Kearns stays, that all but guarantees Dunn getting more work at 1B. Johnson is a good guy, and a good hitter, but no longer a premium power hitter. He also has a tendency to find the DL after an intense bowel movement. The smart play, given that the Nats may threaten to climb out of the cellar but will not challenge for the division given their dearth of pitching, would be to hold on to Johnson through Interleague play, then put him out on the market before the All-Star break. He is a free agent at the end of the season, and while a compensatory draft pick would be nice, an arm with a proven minor or major league track record would be substantially better. Right now his stock is as high as it will ever be during the rest of his career, as he is healthy with an OBP at .425.

There are potential suitors as well:
1. Boston: They really need some Big Papi insurance, especially Youk hurting too. Jeff Bailey and Jonathan VanEvery are career minor leaguers who will regress to below-average. Johnson fits Epstein’s profile, as well.
2. Chicago Cubs: Derrek Lee has been awful and clearly not right... if he can’t get right, they will need another bat.
3. Milwaukee: They have been crafty, and really want to get some value for Fielder. If they are on the cusp of contention, they may shake things up. They want to move Braun to 1B eventually, anyways, so renting Johnson for 2-3 months while subtracting Fielder for several prospects and picks might make the most fiscal sense.
4. Detroit: Unlikely to add payroll, but Johnson’s salary is manageable, and they have some arms available if Carlos Guillen pulls the Miggy T and reveals he is also 2 years older than his listed age, which he is currently looking like.

A few others may pop up as well. Management brought in several big bats to address what they apparently thought were the issues with the worst team in major league baseball. They remain the worst team in baseball, and should probably take a new approach.

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