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LOOKING FORWARD: OUTFIELDERS

[October 4th] -- We've been taking a peek into next year to see which current Nationals' players will, or will not, return in 2008. Yesterday, we reviewed the infield. Today, we'll take a look at the outfield. Are they a lock to return? A maybe? Perhaps a long-gone?

Left Field:

Wily Mo Pena (lock) - Jim Bowden has been trying to pry Pena away from both the Reds and the Red Sox the past two seasons. He was the main player obtained from the New York Yankees for former QB Drew Henson, so you can tell that Bowden holds him in high esteem (of course, who knew that Henson would crap out?)

Without question, Pena has been an enigma during his short career. He's never played more than 110 games in a year even though he averages a homer every 18 at-bats (33 in a typical 588 at-bat season). I think its the strikeouts, particularly the three pitch, three swing variety that makes fans and managers and GM's shake their collective heads in disbelief. And to be sure, he's right up there with Ryan Howard. Again, based on 588 at-bats, he'd whiff 196 times (Howard struck out 199 times in 2007, a new major league record).

There was a lot of talk (and a lot of it came from me) about his willingness to hit to right field this year, particularly with two strikes, making contact more while striking out less. While it sounds good, and while he did make an effort to hit the other way, it didn't slow down his strikeouts. If anything, it made it worse. He averaged one whiff every 2.6 at-bats with the Red Sox this year while trying to pull everything down the line and one every 3.7 at-bats with the Nationals while trying to "just make contact." Maybe Lenny Harris and Manny Acta should just point to the left field fence, shake their finger and say, "Hit it there." His career stats suggest that he'll hit .265-33-90 if given the chance to play every day next season. I'd guess that if given that chance, he'll do better by being more consistent, maybe .275-35-100 or so (though his talent level suggests that he could hit 45 homers). His defense isn't as bad as we were led to believe and is certainly no worse than that of Alfonso Soriano. He's young (25) and could be the team's cleanup hitter for years to come. I was particularly impressed that he called Jim Bowden after the final game of the year and told him how greatful he was for being given the chance to play every day. That says a lot.

Center Field:

Nook Logan (Lock as reserve): Nookie, Nookie, Nookie. I think that the Nationals hoped he'd become the next Willie Wilson, you know, .280 with 50 or 60 stolen bases and solid defense. What they got was .265 with a .304 OBP and 25 steals. His defense seemed okay because his speed could make up for his many mistakes, but he seemed to always break back before reading the ball properly and then sprinting to reach the ball. It helped to give up switch-hitting, but there is nothing overwhelming about any part of his game that should suggest he return as a starter.

That said, he'd be a tremendous 4th outfielder. He'd be a good pinch hitter and great pinch runner. He could do so much for the Nationals from the bench. I'd love - love - to see him return.

Ryan Church (Maybe): I've been a Ryan Church fan since day one, though to be sure I have suggested here at the Beltway Boys a far higher upside than he really has. His .272-15-70 in 2007 extrapolates out to .272-19-86 over a full year. He is a .993 career center fielder, though his arm and speed is nothing more than average. He has excellent pursuit angles, however, which allows him to get to balls in the alley's very well.

Church would be a fine center fielder for the Nationals if Pena hits 40 homers and Austin Kearns hits 25; that would be a great outfield. But if Pena doesn't blossom, if Kearns doesn't rebound, then Church becomes a liability, especially if the team can find a power hitter to play center.

My guess is that Church is the piece that can complete a trade for someone like Jason Bay or Adam Dunn. Church, along with a couple of decent prospects, will likely look good to general managers at the league's cash-strapped franchises. So Church is a win-win, either traded for a better player or as the team's center fielder next year.


Right Field:

Austin Kearns (Lock) - Kearns is a former Red, a Bowden favorite, and is tied to the Nationals with a very favorible multi-year contract. Need I say more? Kearns' second half (11 homers, 44 RBI's) tells me that 1) the first half was a fluke and 2) he'll probably hit .270-24-85 at the new park, great numbers from such a tremendous right fielder. Though he has a very so-so career .265 batting average, his .359 OBP more than makes up for it. And he's not the strikeout machine that most fans (including me) believe he is. He struck out 106 times in 587 at bats, acceptable for a run-producing outfielder. Defensively, he committed just 2 errors all season.

Kearns is a nice complimentary player, a guy who can help the Nationals win but can't carry the team on his back for more than a few days at a time. But then, if Pena and Zimmerman and Johnson/Young do their job, that's all we'll need him to do.

Reserves:

Ryan Langerhans: (Long-gone) - I don't know what happened to Langerhans. His first year with the Braves was impressive for a rookie, but he's regressed the last two years, going from .267 to .241 to .167. He has limited power and average speed. Defensively, though, he's a stud, making just 7 errors in 3 years.

Langerhans will be a 5th outfielder at best next year, and frankly, even a 5th outfielder should hit better than .167. I'd guess that he'll be invited to spring training next year with Manny and Jim looking to see if they can help him with the bat. Otherwise, he'll be jettisoned for sure.

Kory Casto, the Nationals' two-time minor league player of the year, looked over matched in his short trial earlier this year. Since that time, his name hasn't been mentioned by Stan or Jim or Manny. His poor showing (.246-11-55) at 'AAA' Columbus didn't help either. I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't part of a winter trade, this year's version of a Brendan Harris throw-in. And then there's Alex Escobar, a guy with truly unlimited potential but also a guy who has never been able to stay healthy. I feel bad for him, because he looked sooooo good in his short stint with the Nats last season (before he got hurt, of course). The assumption is that the team will cut ties with him this off-season, but I don't think that will happen. The Nationals don't have any outfield prospects who played higher than Potomac last year, so they'll probably give him another shot in 2008. It's not like he's costing the team very much. Brandon Watson looked good in his short stint (.278), but he's not going to play again in the big leagues, at least in Washington.

Tomorrow: Pitchers

This-'n-That: Time to see how some of the former Nats did in 2007 playing for other teams:

Marlon Byrd (Rangers): 307-10-70 ---- Jose Guillen (Seattle): .290-23-99 ---- Jose Vidro (Seattle): .314-6-59 ---- Brad Wilkerson (Rangers): .234-20-62 ---- Livan Hernandez (D-Backs): 11-11, 4.93 ---- Alfonso Soriano (Cubs): .299-33-70 ---- Brendan Harris (D-Rays): .286-12-59

There are others, but these guys are the most interesting. Of this group, Harris and Byrd are the two that the could have been kept without much fuss. The Nationals didn't want Vidro, Guillen and Livan, and couldn't afford Soriano. Would it have been nice to have Byrd in center this year? No, because the team wouldn't have known what Church could do in a full, healthy season. And Harris? Those numbers came out of the blue, which tells me that come this time next year, we'll probably be saying, "Brendan who?"


How many days until spring training????

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