Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Meet the Nats: Shortstop

For better or worse, it’s Cristian Guzman. The four-year, $17 million contract is clearly too long and too expensive, especially given all the names available this winter.

Guzman turns 27 next year and has already played 6 full seasons in the majors. Originally a Yankee prospect, he went to Minnesota in the Chuck Knoblauch deal and was installed as the team’s shortstop at age 21.

For his career, he’s a .266/ .303/ .382 hitter. He’s maddeningly consistent, nailing those numbers in every year except his rookie year and his excellent 2001 season. During that year, in which he played in his only All-Star Game, he batted .302/ .337/ .477.

Those numbers probably represent the high-point of what we can expect offensively for him. If he’s at or near them, he’s definitely helping the team. Typically, we can probably expect 25-30 doubles, 5-10 home runs and a maddeningly-low on-base percentage for a player, I’m assuming will bat lead-off.

Guzman shows flashes of speed, having twice hit 14 or more triples and stealing as many as 28 bases. But we probably cannot expect those numbers, particularly as he ages and slows down. Despite the steals, he’s not a particularly effective base runner, having stolen 102 out of 154 in his career--right around the break-even mark.

Baseball Prospectus gives him a dismal .229 career EQA and rates him 3-5 wins above a replacement level shortstop per season. He’s certainly not going to win many games for you with his bat. And with the poor on-base percentage, he’ll probably stifle quite a few rallies.

Defensively, is where the problem comes in. Bowden claims he signed him because of his defensive value. But, up until this year, most of the defensive metrics have rated him at, or near, the bottom of the league. This year, however, he jumped up towards the top on most of them. Win Shares even had his as worthy of the Gold Glove.

What happened? I think it comes down to the turf. I think that this year is the first year that the Metrodome went to the field turf. They were one of the few teams holding out with the old concrete artificial turf. The turf game is dramatically different than the game on grass--with different positioning required. The field turf aims to replicate the grass game, pretty dramatically changing how the game is played.

This is all just conjecture, but I’d anticipate that Guzman’s reaction times--his read off the bat--aren’t exceptional and that balls were getting ripped through the infield before he could get a glove on them. With the slower speed of batted groundballs on the new turf, he could use his speed more effectively to make up for the lack of instincts, accounting for the increased performance. His double play partner, Luis Rivas, whom the defensive metrics also hated, also say improved numbers across the board. Unless there’s something in the water in Minnesota, it’s gotta be something else. The field seems as likely as anything, to me.

All-in-all, Guzman isn’t a bad player. He’s probably an above average fielding shortstop and a below average hitting one, netting you a pretty average player. He, like so many of the other Nats, is not going to push you towards any pennants, but he’s not going to prevent you from winning them either. He’s a good complimentary player on a team and, if he lives up to the offensive potential he showed that one season, could be a solid player. Regardless of that, his contract is inexcusable. He’s getting paid too much, for too long. We probably could have had him, or a reasonable substitute cheaper.

Aaron Gleeman probably knows him best and is much more pessimistic about him as a player. I can understand his frustration at his consistent inability to progress as a hitter. Hopefully, we won’t feel the same pains.

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