Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Meet the Nats: Third Base

Meet Vinny Castilla. The 37-year old native of Mexico signed a 2-year deal and will be one of team’s ‘feared’ ‘sluggers’. (Which one of those deserves scare quotes more?)

Castilla came up as a shortstop in the Braves’ system, but was lost to the Colorado Rockies in the Expansion Draft, where he thrived in the thin air. In a fluky occurrence, he batted .304 with 40 home runs and 113 RBI in back-to-back seasons. He followed that up with 46 home runs and 144 RBI the next year. Despite the natural advantage of Coors’ Field, he definitely earned his stripes as a fearsome slugger, routinely putting up a 900 OPS. Even when park-adjusted, that still comes out as well-above average--especially for a third baseman.

Unfortunately, those were the halcyon days of yore. Until last year’s park-aided numbers, Vinny had not slugged .500 since 1998, falling as low as .348 in 2002 with Atlanta.

He exemplifies old player’s skills--a low batting average punctuated by an increase in walks and the occasional home run. Last year, he fell two walks short of his career high, 53, while batting .271. If you break that out further, he batted a paltry .218/ .281/ .493 on the road. The slugging is certainly acceptable, but the on-base percentage is certainly Batistaesque. (How come my spell check doesn’t know that word?)

Baseball Prospectus has him all over the place the last few years. His EQA the last three years: .272, .262, .216. I’m not holding hope that that upward trend will continue! In his good years, you can expect 4-7 wins above a replacement level third baseman.

Defensively is where he excels. Despite his age, he continues to put up excellent defensive numbers at third base--really showing off his shortstop roots. He has markedly above-average range and an excellent fielding percentage. While in Atlanta, Bobby Cox raved about his defense, and really wanted the team to re-sign him. While no one will confuse him for Brooks Robinson, he’s certainly well-above average.

That being said, this is a horrendous signing by Bowden--way too much money for way too long. Vinny is an acceptable stop-gap solution. I just don’t see the value in signing him to a multi-year deal considering his age and park-related offensive stats. I think he has a chance to be a decent player for us this year--at least compared to the Joe Randas of the world that our budget confines us to. But, we shouldn’t be committing to him beyond this year, especially with as dismal as our offense was (and probably will be).

We’re going to need to fix some of these holes soon and with this move, Bowden has probably closed one of the areas with which we could have a major upgrade for at least two years. I suppose that the $3 million or so isn’t going to be a big deal when the new owners get here, but right now, it’s a killer. Ideally, Vinny will serve his time this year, then serve as Nick Johnson’s injury insurance/pinch-hitter next year. If we’re counting on more than that from him, we’re going to be in even more trouble than I fear we’re in already.