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PUT ME IN COACH, I CAN PLAY ... CENTER FIELD

[September 10th] -- In the coming months, the Washington Nationals will have some tough decisions to make, the most prominent being who will be the team's opening day center fielder next season. Who ever they choose (if indeed they do choose one), the cost is going to be exorbitant. Will it be worth it?

Let's take the case of Alfonso Soriano. Obtained in a trade for Brad Wilkerson et. al. two winters ago, Soriano stunned the baseball world last year by 1) playing an adequate left field and 2) turning into a real slugger, batting .277-46-95 with 41 stolen bases. He signed with the Chicago Cubs last fall for $17 million a year over 8 years ($136 million dollars in all).

Going into Monday night's game, Soriano is batting .295-24-53 with 18 stolen bases and a .332 on-base percentage. That's not a lot of return for $17 million, is it? To be fair, he's only played in 116 out of the Cubs' 142 games played. That said, based on playing every game, Soriano's numbers are still not worth $17 million; he'd end up the year .295-31-69 with 22 stolen bases.

For Cubs' fans, Soriano isn't judged by the size of his contract because the team can afford a dozen Soriano's if needed. The Nationals, however, cannot, and the Nats' faithful would be howling had he signed here for that kind of money and than reverted back to the player he was with Texas and New York (that being a good -- not great -- player)

Given that, what then should the Nationals do regarding the hole in center field? Yes, Nook Logan has played well, but he doesn't provide enough ooomph in the lineup; the Nats are bat-barren and can't afford a sub-singles hitter in center.

Going into this season, there were several star center fielders that would have been available in the free agent market. Two of them, Eric Byrnes and Ichiro, resigned with their teams earlier during the season. That leaves Aaron Rowand, Torri Hunter and Andruw Jones as the team's three best hopes for a productive center fielder.

So who's the best fit for the Nationals?

Aaron Rowand: Age 29 -- 2007: On pace to hit: .316-26-91 w/.382 OBP
Rowand, who was traded to the Phillies by the Chicago White Sox in the Jim Thome deal, is a career .286 hitter, but his yearly averages fluctuate a great deal. He's as apt to hit .316 as he is .262. His power numbers have increased in the past few years, averaging 17 homers from 2004-2006. He plays solid defense, though it's nowhere close to the level of Andruw Jones and Torri Hunter. He is a very hard nosed player and because of his willingness to run into walls, he can't always be counted on to play a full season. Estimated Cost: $12-$14 million a year

Torii Hunter: Age 31 -- 2007: On pace to hit: .290-32-112
At 31, Hunter is the oldest of the three players. Though he has power (he's averaged 25 homers a game the past 6 seasons), he's not much of an average hitter, which really surprised me. His career average is just .271. Another surprise: he doesn't get on base as much as I thought, as his career .324 OBP indicates. His defense is every bit as good as Andruw Jones, which says a lot. Estimated Cost: $14-16 million a year

Andruw Jones: Age 30 -- 2007: On pace to hit: .223-27-96
Oh boy, this could be trouble. Jones has a long and valued friendship with Pat Corrales and respects former boss Stan Kasten. He has recently said that if he has to play somewhere other than Atlanta, he might as well play with the people he knows. That would be us, I think. To be sure, Jones didn't become the 5-tool super stud that everyone thought he would be in 1996. I expected him to put up A-Rod numbers over the last decade and he hasn't. And he won't in the future. His career batting average is just .263 and he sports a .342 OBP. Since 2001, he's hit above .263 just once. You would think that he'd be available more cheaply because of his off year, but most baseball insiders have said that he'll probably end up costing more than Soriano did last year. More than $17 million a year? Sheesh. Estimated Cost: $18-20 million.

So, who do the Nationals go after? After a month of watching Wily Mo Pena flail-n-fail on off speed pitches, I'm not sure that I want another all-or-nothing player in center. Andruw Jones is not the same player he was six years ago, and I just don't believe he's going to be worth Soriano-type money. Torii Hunter is a great player, but - again - I'd like to add a player who gets on base on a regular basis and .324 is just too low, especially if Pena is a starter next year.

I think my vote goes to Aaron Rowand, especially if the Nationals bring in another thumper, someone like Adam Dunn. He gets on base, he hits for enough power, he can steal bases when needed, and goodness knows that he isn't afraid to run into walls for his team. If the Nats can sign him for, say $12 million a year, the team would still have another $10 - 15 million for another bat or bats to round out what will be a pretty impressive lineup.

Unless something very very weird happens, the pitching staff is all but set with players currently under contract (both major and minor leagues). As of right now, there are only two positions up for grabs, center and left (assuming Pena isn't the answer). Trade Pena and a pitching prospect or two for a slugger. Sign a slugger. Kidnap a slugger. Add him and Aaron Rowand to the mix and the Nationals will be an above .500 team. How much above .500 depends on: 1) if Jesus Flores continues his maturation, 2) if Ryan Zimmerman blossoms next year, 3) if Austin Kearns fulfills his promise of being a .275-25-90 player, 4) and if Shawn Hill becomes a real #1 pitcher while Jason Bergman and Matt Chico pitch as well as they are now.

Aaron, Aaron, he's our man, if he can't do it ......






Comments:
Farid,

Appreciate the post, but couldn't disagree more - Rowand has as many miles on him as Jones, you correctly imply that he's having an absolute career year this year (for which someone will have to pay a premium next year). His career numbers are much more in line with Kearns, which is the fundamental root of the problem - this team has too many guys (Kearns, Church, Young, Pena and Rowand if you added him) who are decent guys to bat #6, but nobody who can really plug into the #4 spot as a real slugger. Dunn fits that bill, and I'd much rather see if Pena can play center or push Maxwell before he's ready between Dunn and Kearns than I would overpay for Rowand, or Hunter for that matter. Seems to me if you can get Jones at a discount, that would be worth it since he's likely to bounce back, but I don't think he's a great #4 hitter either.
 
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