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SO WHO'S COMING AND WHO'S GOING?

[October 3rd] -- Things are beginning to happen quicker than expected regarding the comings-and-goings around the major leagues. Andruw Jones, for example, is no longer an Atlanta Brave. I guess the combination of Scott Boras an the agent and 7 years/$140 million as the contract request will do that. We'll also be finding out in the coming week many of the players that the Nationals will be either cutting lose or non-tendering. With that, I thought now might be a good time to look at the 40 man roster and try to get a feel as to who's a lock to stay, who may return, and who's long-gone.

We'll cover the position players today.

1B: Nick Johnson: Maybe - Although all of us want him to return to his 2006 form (.293-20-77), Johnson's age (29) and past history (he's only played 54% of the team's games since 2004) suggest that we just can't count on him come spring training. And even if he is 100%, what's to say he'll stay that way. Since 2005, he's hurt his knee, heel, lower back, and had a cervical strain, all before breaking his femur last year in New York. Some guys just can't stay healthy, and there is no reason to believe that will change as he gets older. Just ask Alex Escobar.


Another concern is his production. Nick, at his best, is no Albert Pujols or Ryan Howard. He's more like Mark Grace or Lyle Overbay. He'll give the Nationals a good average with below average homers and RBI's for a first baseman (though his on-base percentage is tremendous). Teams can afford good field/good enough hit first baseman only if they have power at another, non-traditional position, like short or catcher. Remember, Johnson got 500 at-bats in 2006 and drove in just 77 runs, pretty low for a cleanup hitter. I read one person write that was because Ryan Zimmerman drove in all the base runners before Johnson got the chance. I don't agree with that. Chase Utley drove in 103 runs this year (in 132 games) while Howard, batting behind him, drove in 136 (in 144 games). To succeed, the Nationals need someone in the four-spot who is a real slugger.

Dmitri Young: Maybe - Young, the Comeback Player of the Year, had a tremendous year for the Nationals, batting .320-13-74 in 474 at-bats. The .300 average is no fluke; Young batted over .300 four consecutive seasons for the Tigers. But his power production isn't much different from Nick Johnson. He averaged a homer every 35 at-bats this year, down from 1:27 for his career (no doubt, RFK played a roll in that). But based on a 162 game season, Young has averaged .291-21-83, almost identical to Johnson's production (when healthy).

Nick is 29, Young 33. Both have two years remaining on their respective contracts, both for about $5 million a year. Nick's OBP is 50 or so points higher, and his fielding is far superior. Both are capable players, but neither will give the Nationals 30 homers and 110 RBI's, something they desperately need at first. Sadly, their combined salaries of nearly $11 a year would have bought the Nationals just such a player.

I have to believe that if Nick's not ready by spring, or is ready but is no longer the same player, then Dmitri plays first in 2008. But if Johnson is happy, healthy and upright, Young is just too expensive to keep as a reserve, especially for the entire season. Somewhere, some American League team will be in need of a DH, and the Nationals will likely trade Young away.

2B: Ronnie Belliard (Lock) - Unlike Dmitri Young, the signing of Ronnie Belliard to a minor league contract made no sense. Over the previous four years, Belliard averaged .279-13-71 and showed no sign of slowing down at age 31. True, he had some legal issues during the off season, but that shouldn't have stopped someone from giving him a multi-year, guaranteed deal. That said, he was one of the Nationals most consistent players, hitting .290-11-58 in 511 at-bats. He committed just 6 errors in the field. He's signed for two more years, and at a much cheaper rate than Felipe Lopez. No way the Nationals could have won 73 games in 2007 without Belliard.


SS: Felipe Lopez (Long-gone) - I wasn't sure whether I wanted Lopez to return next year until I read that he was the only National to refuse to greet fans at the gates for the team's last game at RFK. Combine that with the Guillen-like grumpiness with the poor defense with the bad offensive year and I say see--you--later! Sure, 2007 might have been an anomaly offensively, but the Nationals don't need players who implode when the going gets rough. We just got rid of someone like that in Jose Guillen. Defensively, he has to play 2nd; he committed one error every 43 games at 2nd compared to one every 5 games at short). Because the Nationals are better with Belliard at 2nd, Lopez will probably be non-tendered rather than give him a raise on his $3.9 million dollar contract.

Cristian Guzman (Lock) - We all know the story of Cristian Guzman's struggles in Washington. He either looked like the worst player in the National League or he couldn't stay healthy. He was supposed to hit .260 and play flawless defense from 2005-2008. Unless 2008 is a career year for Guzman, he will have been a total bust in D.C.

While his offense was horrid in 2005, his defense was stellar. After missing the entire 2006 season, he came back to hit .328 in 46 games. Strangely, his defense was bad, as Guzman committed 8 errors, a pace of nearly 30 miscues over a full season.

You would think that Cristian Guzman will be able to "get in right" in one out of the four years of his contract. Count on him staying healthy, hitting enough and playing Guzman-like defense.

3B: Ryan Zimmerman (Lock) - Don't look at Zimmerman's .266-24-91, 23 errors and think the kid regressed. No way. His stats weren't as flashy because he didn't have the same supporting cast that he had the previous year. He tried to take on too much, and his production suffered as a result. That, and there is still such a thing as the "sophomore slump." He'll be the face of the Nationals for the next decade. No worries.

C: Brian Schneider (Lock) - Was it just two years ago that Brian Schneider batted .268-10-44? In 2006, he had to hit .333 in August and .289 in September to raise his average to .256. Defensively, he's as good as ever, matching his career .992 fielding percentage in 2007. Had Jesus Flores not shown promise, no one would be talking about who was going to catch for the Nationals in 2008. But Schneider is now 30, and isn't going to get better over the next five years. He's a barely average hitter and a superb defender. The Nationals have to accept that's what he is and embrace what he does for the pitching staff.

Jesus Flores (Maybe) - Based on a full season, Flores' stats would look like this: .244-8-51 with 18 doubles. Defensively, he committed 4 errors and had a .986 fielding percentage. Basically, his offense was a little better than Schneider's and his defense a little bit worse. Sounds like an ideal backup catcher, except for the fact that the kid is 21 and this was his first foray above 'A' ball. If he's able to play at Brian Schneider's level now, imagine how good he'll be in two or three years.

But to get better, to become as good as he can be, he needs to spend some time in the minors playing every day. Let him get 400 at-bats next year at 'AA' Harrisburg or 'AAA' Columbus before bringing him up for good later in the season. This will hurt the team in the short term but Flores needs the polish to become a star catcher in the National League. How good can Flores be? His arm looked every bit as strong as Schneider's and his power looks like 20 homers / 80 RBI's.

No reason to rush him. Let Flores mature in the minors in 2008, split playing time with Schneider in '09 and then make him the starter in 2010.

Reserves:

Tony Batista (Maybe) - Batista was a fine pinch-hitter and part time starter for the Nationals, and should return in 2008, but reserves are difficult to predict because they are nomads, moving form team to team. I guess I should say that I hope Batista returns.

Robert Fick (Long Gone) - I like Fick as a player and as a crazy guy but the Nationals can do better. I understand the difficulty he faced with the death of his mother, but even at his best, he's an adequate defender and a hitter without power. There is a chance that he could return if Dmitri Young is the team's starting first baseman, but no way he returns if Young becomes a pinch-hitter deluxe.

D'Angelo Jimenez (Lock) - Jimenez batted .270-12-67 as a starter for the Reds in 2004, so the guy can play baseball, and his horrid start is a distant memory as he hit .300 in July and .395 in September to raise his batting average to .245. The more he plays, the better he produces. I have a feeling that Jimenez will be brought back in case the team gets rid of Felipe Lopez and as insurance in case Cristian Guzman crumbles again this year. Based on past performance, Jimenez could play short on a semi-regular basis for the Nationals in 2008. In 2007, he batted just .103 (50 AB) as a pinch hitter but .338 as a starter (62 AB). I think he's a credible backup for Guzman.

So the only uncertainty in the infield is at first, where Nick Johnson's health issues remain. The Nationals might try Wily Mo Pena at first if needed, or perhaps trade for Adam Dunn (he's played 108 games at first). Other than that, the players who will man the other positions are already on the roster. And without question, the infield will be a strength again in 2008.

Tomorrow: Outfielders
This ... 'n .... That: Justin Maxwell is going to be a star. Now, before you start laughing, let me first say that I have no empirical evidence to justify my prediction. I guess his size, his general appearance, and his swing, remind me of Alex Rodriguez. Stop laughing! Seriously, they are - again generally - very similar. Maxwell has more s-w-o-o-p in his swing, but he seems every bit as athletic. And have you noticed that the ball travels much farther than you initially thought it would? Now, I know that his age (23) is old for 'A' ball, but Ryan Howard had a similar slow progression through the minors. He spent three years at 'A' ball and a full year at 'AA' before being promoted for good after a hot start at 'AAA.' I mean, the guy was 26 during his first full year in the major leagues. If Maxwell continues to play well, he'll likely start next season at 'AA' Harrisburg and might finish at 'AAA' Columbus with another September call up. That would make him a rookie at age 25, the same age as Kory Casto was when he played in D.C. earlier this year ...... So what is this Bob Carpenter bru-ha-ha all about, anyway? He gets canned, then when Stan Kasten can't get the guy he wants, he calls up Carpenter and tells him that maybe the Nationals will keep him any way. Sheesh. Sure, Carpenter's blown home run calls got a little annoying at times, but overall, I thought he was a perfect companion to color man Don Sutton. I can only hope that Carpy gets another contract with the Nats.

Comments:
Farid, I needed to comment even though I've only gotten through the Nick Johnson part of the post.

Of course if you are talking solely about HRs, Nick is kind of lacking. I can see that, but only a little bit. The 35 HRs hitting 1st baseman is more of a aberration than an standard. The 10th best 1st baseman in the MAJORS the past 8 yrs has only had more than 30 HRs one time. 35 Hrs as an average would be the 5th most powerful first baseman over the past 8 yrs. Sure Nick can't hit 35, but he can hit 25 which would put him in the upper third of hr hitting firstbaseman.

2) Ryan had 198 ABs with runners in scoring position, Nick had 129. Howard actually had more ABs with runners in scoring position than Utley (170 to 161). Not being a HR guy hurts here true, but nick does as well as anyother 25 hr 50 double guy at driving in runs. which is to say pretty well when presented with runners on base.

(your injury concern though...can't find any fault with that)
 
Harper,
You mean you expect me to back up by opinions with fact? I'm all about factless factoids here.

Seriously, your points are well taken. Were I not enjoying a replay of a 1984 BYU-Utah football game, I'd revisit my post.

Be well, my friend
 
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