Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Meet the Nats: Left Field

Brad Wilkerson presumably starts the season as the left fielder after spending a majority of his time at first base replacing the perpetually ailing Nick Johnson. For the rest of his career, he’s split time at all three outfield spots, with the majority of his starts coming in left field. Next year will be his fifth season and also his age-28 season. Wilkerson is the team’s best player. It shouldn’t take him very long to become a fan favorite.

Offensively, he’s a machine. OK, so he’s not a great slugger, but he gets on base at a .370-.380 clip and rips out doubles. Last year, he hit an excellent .255/ .374/ .498 with 39 doubles and 32 home runs. He also set a career high with 106 walks. It’s probably pretty safe to say you can expect 35 doubles and 25-30 home runs for him next year.

He spent the majority of the season as the team’s lead-off hitter, a role he excels at. If he and Nick Johnson produce up to their abilities and bat in the first two spots in the order, there will be plenty of RBI opportunities for Vidro and Castilla. He doesn’t have blazing speed, evidenced by his career-high 13 steals and mediocre success rate, but he’s not a base-clogger either. What he lacks in blazing speed, he more than makes up with his on-base skills.

Baseball Prospectus rates him as a very good batter, with an EQA of .290 last year and .281 for his career. For his career, he rates 6 or so wins above a replacement level player per season--definitely the kind of player that’s moving the team forward.

Defensively, he’s not a star, but he’s not killing the team either, ranking above average in left. In center, he could probably battle the position to a draw. He has a strong arm, nailing eight outfield assists last year and eleven the year before.

If Nick Johnson’s inevitable breakdown forces Wilkerson to first base, Termel Sledge can slide into the position pretty comfortably. While not the hitter or fielder that Wilkerson is, Sledge serves as an excellent fourth outfielder. Last season, his first, he hit .269/ .336/ .462, which, while not exceptional, was very good for a player receiving his first extended playing time, even if he was 27.

Left field should be a strength for the Nationals. With Wilkerson manning the position and Sledge capable of competent fill-in work, it’s definitely one of the few positions where there aren’t any questions.