Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Campaign '06: First Base

The Incumbent, Nick Johnson

Nick Johnson was the one National who exceeded expectations, and the one National who most lived up to them.

The latter first: He played in just 131 games. That's his career high. He can't stay healthy. Last year it was a bad back and a broken face. This season it was a heel. Next season, a pulled urethra? who knows? On one hand it's hard to say he's injury prone -- it's not like he's Ken Griffey blowing out his hamstring three nights a week. They're all separate injuries, but add them all up, and he's missed half a career. Do we have any reason to believe that he can stay healthy next year? Probably not. But as they taught me way back years ago in Boy Scouts, Be Prepared -- more on that later though.

Now that the ugly's outta the way, let's get to the good: Nick's bat. He set career highs in most every major category. On a team of hackers, his steady, patient at bats stood out like a fanny-pack-wearing tourist in Georgetown.

One at bat in particular sticks in my mind. Against Greg Maddux, with the team down by one, NJ out-waited Maddux. NJ knew that Maddux would likely be pitching around him. Ball. Ball. Ball. 3-0, Maddux got the gimme pitch, to bring it to a 3-1 count. Then he laid a sinking fastball low in the zone and Nick Johnson got the pitch he had been waiting all AB for, golfing it deep to the mezzanine in right field.

That's typical Nick. Too many other batters on the team would swing at the first good pitch. Some of Maddux' pitches were tempting, but Nick knew that he'd eventually have to give in.

He's not the ideal cleanup hitter. He's not a slugger, but his level, line-drive swing, combined with his excellent eye would make him a perfect 2 or 3 batter.

Nick Johnson is still under the team's control (assuming the no-brainer decision of arbitration). He made just $1.45 million last year. He's sure to double that, at least, this season. He'll still be a bargain.

Despite the injuries, he'll cruise to an easy reelection.

The Issues:
With the incumbent's uncertain health, it's important to have a strong, commanding vice -- someone with gravitas.

The Nationals are in luck. Brad Wilkerson, the jack of all trades, plays a capable first base -- which he did during Nick's Achilles slumber. (That Brad chose that month to forget how to hit is a separate matter!)

But it's still important to have depth, preferably someone with some right-handed sock. They could spell Nick when appropriate. And if they can play an alternate position, all the better.

The Contenders:
Jeff Conine: Mr. Marlin lost lots of his power (park? age?), but still got on base. He can play the corner outfield and is an excellent defender at first. I'd be surprised if the Marlins didn't re-sign him anyway.
Julio Franco: Older than Bobby Cox, but man, can he hit -- especially in a platoon role. He's one of the few batters (three, I think) to hit an opposite field homer at RFK.
Wes Helms: Half the age of Franco, and capable of playing third. He's another all-or-nothing hacker.
Olmedo Saenz: Back from the dead, he's always been a great platoon player. Hypothetically he could fill in at third, but he's a miserable fielder.

A less than inspiring slate of candidates, huh? I almost feel like an Iowan.

The Dark Horse:
Paul Konerko
is making millions with each run he drives in in the playoffs. Whoever signs him for the kind of money he'll probably get (15 MM per) will come to regret it quickly. He's an excellent hitter, but Cooperstown won't be clearing space for his plaque anytime soon.

The Trilateral Commission Recommends:
Nick Johnson's never going to be healthy. And he doesn't have the true power that this team could reallllly use. Trade his carcass somewhere before he breaks his sternum sneezing.

Meanwhile, look at Jim Thome. While Philly would be hesitant to trade intra-division, Thome, til this year, has been the model of health and power consistency. He has Nick Johnson's batting eye, AND the ability to hit 40 a year. As a dead-pull hitter, the park wouldn't be as big a factor as it is for Guillen and the other spray hitters. Plus, Philly would probably pay part of his contract. Why pay Konerko 4/60 when you could have Thome (a better hitter) for 3/30?

What About My Vote?
Considering how crappy the other candidates are, I'm going to vote a straight National-party line. It pains me to type this, but the person we're looking for is Vinny Castilla.

Vinny looked done, but in fairness to him, his knees were shot. If the offseason of rest (and surgery) is able to help him, he could hypothetically come back to his early-season form. Even in a down year, he still did mash left-handed pitching: .314/ .401/ .432. OK, so it's not really mashing, but on this team that counts!

Carlos Baerga filled in at first a few times. I'd give him a golden watch. Invite him back as a coach/mascot, and say thanks.

But I'd also look at Rick Short. We were screaming for him all year, but truthfully, he's about as bad a defensive infielder as Baerga. I didn't see a lot of him, but I saw enough to convince me that the assessment was right. Still, with the bat he had last season, he'd be capable of holding down first in a pinch.

So stick with the familar faces: Vinny and Rick. They're both under contract next season, so the team wouldn't incur any additional cost.

With Nick, Vinny and Rick, the team is certainly in capable hands.


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