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COMPARING THE NL EAST: FIRST BASE

[October 3rd] -- How many days to spring training? Man.... I'm not going to make it.

To see how good (or bad) the Nationals were last season, and to get a better understanding of how good they might be next season, let's see how they compare to the other teams in the National League East on a position-by-position basis. We'll look at a different position every Tuesday.

First base is one of the strongest positions in the division, though you wouldn't have thought that in April. On opening day, there was one all-star, a rookie-of-the-year, two players who had yet to reach their potential, and a very raw rookie. Six months later, each team has to be very pleased with what they saw over the summer.

#5: Mike Jacobs -- Florida Marlins Jacobs came to the Marlins from New York in the Carlos Delgado trade. He had shone promise in a late summer call-up, batting .310-11-23 in 100 at bats (impressive considering Ryan Zimmerman had no homers and only 11 RBI's in 58 late season at-bats), making him a highly prized rookie. Joe Giardi, speaking of his youngster in spring training, said, "I'm not going to make predictions, but certainly I'd hope that he hits 15-20 homers and drives in 70 or so RBI's." He was close. Jacobs batted .262-20-77 in 2006. He has holes in his game, though. He walked only 45 times in 469 at-bats and his .798 OPS was the lowest in the division and one of the lowest in the league. Defensively, Jacobs had a .993 fielding percentage, 3rd best in the league. Long Term Future: Jacobs was a rookie like Zimmerman, but any comparison beyond that is apples and oranges; Zimmerman is five years younger. At 26, Jacobs doesn't have much time to hone his skills. He'll likely be a steady, but not spectacular first baseman, hitting .270-25-80 or there abouts.

#4: Carlos Delgado -- New York Mets Look, I know what you're thinking. Carlos Delgado, "Senor Swat," only the 4th best first baseman in the division? In a word: yes. For the second consecutive year, Delgado had a low batting average, ending the season at .265. His OPS of .919 was only 3rd best in the division. His home run and RBI totals are still strong, but pretty much the rest of his offensive numbers have been in a slow but steady decline for several years. He is 34, and you just have to wonder when his contract-to-production quotient becomes too top heavy. Defensively, Delgado can still pick it, owning the second best fielding percentage in the division (.994). Long Term Future: If he continues at the present pace, he's going to be a liability for the Mets by 2008.

#3: Adam LaRoche -- Atlanta Braves Heading into 2006, LaRoche was one of those players with unlimited, but unreached, potential. No more. After hitting just 33 homers his first two years, LaRoche went .285-32-90 in 2006. At 27, he's only going to get better. Defensively, LaRoche was the best fielding first baseman in the division, making only 5 errors while compiling a .996 fielding percentage. Adam LaRoche swings for the fences every time he comes to the plate; he has one of the more unique swings in the league. He's never going to be a 'complete' player (how many first baseman are?) but what he does he does well. He needs to walk a lot more than he does now (only 55) though his strikeout total (128) is acceptable for his level of power. He's not glitzy, but he's very, very good. Long Term Future: He should be a fixture at first base for Atlanta for many years. He's no longer an automatic out against left handers (.188 in 2005, .241 last year), so his batting average should continue to rise. Look for him to hit 35+ homers for many years to come

#2: Nick Johnson -- Washington Nationals Finally, an injury free season for Nick Johnson (not counting that freak leg break in New York), and he did exactly what all the pundits said he could do if healthy. They said he'd hit near .300 (.290), hit 25 homers (23) and drive in 90 RBI's (77). Granted, those are some of the worst power numbers in the division, but Nick Johnson isn't the one dimensional player that you usually find at first base. His ten steals represented 77% of all the steals by NL East first baseman. He lead the division in most walks (110) and fewest strikeouts (99). His OPS was .948, trailing only Ryan Howard in that category. Without question, Nick is not the prototypical cleanup hitter, but then Nick isn't the prototypical anything. He's one of a kind. Johnson is 28, and has three more years remaining on his below market contract. His defense inexplicably took a down-turn this past year. After making only 13 errors in his past three seasons combined, Nick made 14 in 2006 and came in dead last in fielding percentage at .988. Don't sweat it. It's an anomaly. Aint gonna happen again. He enjoys playing in Washington and doesn't have an ego that requires being in the limelight. In other words, he's here to stay. Long Term Future: If Nick can remain healthy (if - if - if), he should become an anchor for the Nationals' drive to respectability.

#1: Ryan Howard -- Philadelphia Phillies The only strike against Ryan Howard is his age. You don't see too many 26 year old rookies become a franchise's cornerstone. That said, Howard doesn't need any more time to polish his game. His 1.084 OPS is Bonds-esque, and his 58 homers led the major leagues. He is very disciplined at the plate, joining Nick Johnson as the only other first baseman in the NL East to draw more than 100 walks. His stats reflect the fact that he plays in that band-box in Philadelphia. He hit 58 home runs but only 25 doubles -- either it left the park or was caught in the outfield. By comparison, Nick Johnson hit 46 doubles but had only 23 homers, numbers skewed by RFK's deep fences. Put Nick in Philly and he hits 30+ home runs easy. His defense would have been the worst in the division had Nick Johnson not had his off season. Howard made 14 errors and finished with a .991 fielding percent. Howard is slow in the field and his body is just not made for defense (he reminds me of Frank Howard in the field). He'd be far more valuable as a DH in the American League. Long Term Future: Howard is going to be the premier first baseman in the division for years to come. As mentioned earlier, his only downside is his age. He'll be 32 when he is eligible for free agency, and will likely play only 10-12 years before retiring. That said, if he keeps hitting 58 home runs every year, it really won't matter.

If the Nationals are hoping to leap frog any teams in the standings in the next few years, Nick Johnson isn't going to be the guy who causes it to happen. While I love him, and he's an integral part of the team's current composition, he's a complementary player, not a stud. Championship teams win divisions with sluggers at first base. What did the Cincinnati Reds do when they believed they were ready to contend for a division championship? They traded Sean Casey to Pittsburgh. Casey is a near-clone of Nick Johnson. What did the Milwaukee Brewers do when they believed they were ready to contend for a division championship? They promoted Prince Fielder to the big leagues (a pure power hitter) and traded Lyle Overbay to Toronto. Overbay, like Casey, is a Nick Johnson look-a-like.

As much as I love the guy, one thing is for certain: The Washington Nationals aren't going to win any championships with Nick at first base. By the time they are ready to contend, say three years from now, Johnson will be a free agent, will be 32 years old, and will probably not be re-signed because, like the Brewers and Reds before them, the Nationals will probably look for a pure power hitter at first.

But three years in baseball is a lifetime. Let's just enjoy his unique confluents of speed, power, plate discipline and defensive prowess. The time will come for him to move on, but until then, he'll continue to bring smiles to fans of the Washington Nationals.


Comments:
I think Jacobs has the opportunity to be better than that -- closing in on 30 homers once he matures.

You're right about Delgado, though. I don't see him being an impact player for much longer.

Nice article. Thanks!
 
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