Friday, December 07, 2007

Where's The Blade When You Need Him?

Now that the team has basically foiled my plans for the offseason. SINE DUN!!!!!! SINE ANDREW!1!1, it's time to round the roster into shape. They're fudging around the margins looking for a veteran starting pitcher to bring in, something that they really should do. Jason Jennings is the name that comes up, and he'd be perfect to add to the list of fat-bottomed players on the roster.

But I think there's one move they could make that would make a world of difference in the year coming up... a small move they could make that would make almost as large a difference in the team's runs scored / runs allowed total as my initial "Jones or Bust" plan.

Get a defensive shortstop.

First, basically ignore the bat. Just punt offense. Anything you get from the guy would be gravy. With Dmitri, Pena/Dukes and Boone on the bench, you've got a ready stable of PHers to come in late in the game should the Nats need a run or three.

Keep in mind that the Nats haven't really had great production from last year. Oh, they got some decent performance last year, especially with Guzman's hot streak, but I've written before that that was a house of cards built on Guzman's luck with more ground balls finding holes than ever before. It's something you definitely can't bank on next year. Lopez was passable offensively there -- thanks to his one hot streak coming while playing there -- but his overall seasonal performance (.245 .308 .352) made him one of the two or three worst players at that position.

Because the offense wasn't particularly good, a drop-off with the bat isn't going to completely cripple the team. It's not like you're subtracting Albert Pujols for a glove.

But what about the defensive improvement?

First, let's establish that the Nationals shortstop defense is terrible. No, that's not quite a strong enough word. Brutal. Spirit-crush. Soul-sucking. Gouge-my-eyes-out-and-smash-my-head-through-a-plate-glass-window-inducing? Yeah, that's more like it.

By any defensive metric you want to use, Felipe Lopez is one of the worst in the league. I'm quite partial to zone rating (which measures the rate of plays made on balls hit into that fielder's area), which shows Lopez' 2007 in a group with the three worst in the league. His performance with the Nats in 2006 was worst in the league. And his performance in 2005 was well below average (thought not in the absolute worst tier).

Guzman's record isn't much better. In '05, he was in that bottom tier. And in limited PT in 2007, he was basically tied with Lopez for ineptitude. When you consider his rustiness, the surgery to his arm/shoulder, and the decline in his foot speed, it makes sense. He ain't what he used to be. (and he never was really much of a gold glover)

In an attempt to quantify that impact, someone figured out a way to estimate runs from those range numbers, and Nats shortstops were basically about 20 runs below the average fielding NL shortstop. That number is consistent with different defensive methodology for fielders at or near the bottom of the league. It's hard to be much worse than that, because you'll get yanked. (see: Wilson, Josh)

Conversely, the best shortstops in the league are typically worth 20-30 runs above average, with 15-25 runs above average being a pretty decent target.

So if the Nats were to find a glove-first shortstop, they could conceivably find a net gain of 35-45 runs just with the glove. That's a HUGE impact, a three to four win improvement.

When I reviewed the Nats CF situation a month ago, I tinkered around with the numbers and what kind of impact Andruw Jones could have to the team. My conclusion was that if Andruw Jones returned to 2006 form (pre-injury), it would represent about 30-40 more runs over the performance they got from Church and Logan.

My mind is still spinning around that a bit and what that implies, but it is entirely possible for the Nats to come close to equalizing the signing of a big bat just by improving the shortstop defense! And all for what's likely to be under a million bucks!

Now, of course, that's certainly easier said than done. The Royals did this a year ago when they traded for SS Tony Pena. The guy doesn't hit, but he gets to everything between New Madrid and Lawrence. Stan Kasten's own Atlanta Braves did the same thing when they signed no-bat Rafael "Don't Call Me Ron" Belliard, another noted defensive whiz.

The Orioles of the 1970s followed this strategy. Earl Weaver, who never met a big bat that he didn't like, carried Mark Belanger in his lineup solely for his glove. He batted him at the bottom of the order and pinch-hit for him liberally when the game situation required it. Belanger's bat stunk, but his gold glove made up for it, making him a net asset to the team. The Nats really should adopt this strategy.

I certainly don't have the scouting knowledge of other team's farm systems to know which minor leaguer could be this team's version. But there's gotta be someone out there who can do that at the bottom of the lineup and who wouldn't cost too much in a trade. One target, if they're looking for more of a veteran, is Adam Everett from the Astros. Can't hit, but, man, can that guy field. He's a FA at the end of the year, so he's not a long-term project, and the Astros are probably too much in love with him, but it can't hurt to kick the tires.

So punt the offense! Rely on improvements by Kearns and whoever ends up catching, as well as the potential of Pena, Dukes and Milledge to carry the offense. And sit back and watch a sweet, sweet glove make beautiful love to those batted balls. The pitchers on the mound will certainly appreciate it, making their jobs -- especially those kids we're trying to develop -- so much easier.


  • I concur.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/07/2007 12:13 PM  

  • I'm just shocked you used New Madrid and Lawrence in this article. Are you from Missouri? Or did you throw a dart at a map? Interesting choice. And great idea!

    By Blogger Natsfan74, at 12/07/2007 1:00 PM  

  • natsfan74: I assume it is a tribute to Bob Carpenter.

    By Blogger WFY, at 12/07/2007 1:03 PM  

  • Everyone (right?) knows New Madrid because of the old earthquake.

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 12/07/2007 1:12 PM  

  • Nope. That comment confused at least one of you Canadian Expos hangover readers. Good point about the shortstop. Maybe they can just trawl Baseball America's list of organisational top prospects. That's what I do, and it's bound to reveal something of more use than Lopez.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 12/07/2007 1:22 PM  

  • IIRC, the New MAD RID quake reversed the flow of the Mississippi for several days.

    By Blogger WFY, at 12/07/2007 1:24 PM  

  • I was thinking we should have thrown some cash at Omar Vizquel, but the Giants resigned him for $5 mill. Think how many pitches a great SS would save Sean Hill. There's got to be someone out there.

    Does anyone have Pokey Reese's number?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/07/2007 1:42 PM  

  • Ballester and a couple other prospects pitch to contact too. No way to bring a youngster through, having them watch Lopez and Guzman flail around the 2nd base bag.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 12/07/2007 1:49 PM  

  • Dude (Ben),

    All of our pitchers pitch to contact. We have zero flame throwers....unless you count Adam Carr, which I don't b/c he's a outfielder/reliever.


    This is so spot-on. You da man.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/07/2007 2:04 PM  

  • Chris, will the slower speed of the new infield (bluegrass vs. bermudagrass)have any impact on your thoughts. Seems like a slower surface would help the zone rating half the time?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/07/2007 2:19 PM  

  • Let's agree never to bring up the name "Josh Wilson" ever again, shall we?

    By Blogger JimBo hidden flask, at 12/07/2007 2:24 PM  

  • Sounds like you know more about the latest in grass technology than me!

    If it IS a slower field, it would help the range of the mediocre fielders. But it also stands to reason that it would make a great fielder even better, too, right?

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 12/07/2007 2:36 PM  

  • And while we're wishing for things for ChrismaChanuKwanzivus let's get a high OBP leadoff guy to fill our other problem position, which would be... ummm, hold on a minute... carry the 9.... square root of 168.... catcher. So, a high OBP catcher to hit leadoff.

    What? Jason Kendall's off the market (and years past good)? Well, feck then.

    By Blogger Nate, at 12/07/2007 2:44 PM  

  • Great analysis, but the Dimitri factor at first base may negate the overall gain of a defensive wiz...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/07/2007 3:26 PM  

  • Well, the new SS might make a few more errors, but it's not going to affect the guy's range.

    It's really the range we need to focus on and not their hands -- just as in the case we made for Zimmerman as Gold Glover.

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 12/07/2007 3:29 PM  

  • Elijah Mo Millege will get to anything out of FLOP's range.

    By Blogger OleShu, at 12/07/2007 3:33 PM  

  • The only problem is that trading for a decent SS will be difficult because one of our main trade chips (and there are only three) is a not-at-all decent SS. Kearns is on the block but I think that would be a mistake given the temperamental nature of two other parts of the outfield and Cordero is apparently not worth much on his own which leaves everyone's favourite hair shirt, Mr. FLOP. Hard sell "can we have your talented, defensive shortstop. We'll give Chad Cordero, a very good closer and... well... an offensive shortstop who hit under .250" Pretty short negotiations you'd think.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 12/07/2007 3:53 PM  

  • Not necessarily. This is the minor league scrub the Royals gave up for Pena.

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 12/07/2007 3:56 PM  

  • Touche!

    By Blogger Unknown, at 12/07/2007 4:30 PM  

  • A no bat defense shortstop would be great but if we wanted that why didn't we take Diory Hernandez in the rule 5

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/07/2007 5:20 PM  

  • Chris, your analysis makes great sense but only if one assumes there is decent pitching to go along with that defense. Belanger was a luxury the Orioles could afford because it was a) a power-packed lineup and b) the Palmer-Cuellar-McNally pitching rotation was nonpareil. The Nats' pitching rotation is questionable at best and shoddy at worst. Hill and Bergmann are injury-prone, Chico is shaky and everybody else is just a question mark. That's one problem. The other is the bottom of the Nats' lineup. Going with your own projected lineup with Pena batting sixth, after that it's Belliard, Kid Flores and the pitcher. Presuming you move Belliard up with a no-hit shorstop batting seventh, that's basically three outs at 7-8-9. The Nats tried that last year. Their lineup of 3-4-5 seems to get on base enough. But then came Pena-FLop-Schneid/Kid Flores and the pitcher. Since we traded Livan, that's basically four outs. Check out Pena's .143 average with RISP (4-for-28, 4 RBIs) and you'll see my point. The new ballpark is not going to be as conducive to 3-2 games, and there weren't really that many of those at RFK in '07. With this retread staff, I think you have to think 9-7 rather than 3-2. But I like your theory, if this were a good team on paper. It's not.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/07/2007 9:37 PM  

  • Wow, there goes my optimistic mood. You are a shade hard on Chico, who is going to be better this year, and Bowden has vowed to improve pitching. Whether he will or not is up for debate but at least he has proven that he'll try...

    By Blogger Unknown, at 12/07/2007 10:58 PM  

  • Guzman is a FA after this year, right? I'm wondering with his hot stretch last year if he is a reasonable shot to play himself to B FA status if puts up average numbers for some decent PT this year.

    Obviously, that's a low end consideration, and it's not clear that the Nationals would risk offering arb to a Guzman they were done with, but I do think if they take Chris' logical advice here, it's an issue how the handle it to maximize the value of their other assets (incl. Guzman, and Lopes, and yes, I called Lopez an asset).

    By Blogger Unknown, at 12/07/2007 11:47 PM  

  • This whole conversation is moot because our tight-wad owners will not let 4.2 million sit on the bench (Guzman) and no other team is dumb enough to take on that salary.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/08/2007 3:00 AM  

  • "This whole conversation is moot because our tight-wad owners will not let 4.2 million sit on the bench (Guzman) and no other team is dumb enough to take on that salary."

    As things stand right now, our "tightwad owners" will have to let either ~$2M (Belliard), $4.2M (Guzman) or ~$4M (FLop) sit on the bench at any given time. So I can't say I get your point, other than I guess it gave you another chance to take a cheap shot at "our tightwad owners".

    By Blogger An Briosca Mor, at 12/08/2007 12:37 PM  

  • Face Facts ABM, Pay roll is heading down and holes are not being addressed. What Chris is saying makes perfect sense but it means putting some money towards a SS who can field. People keep giving you options to improve the team yet you keep blowing like the north wind. They are not spending money to improve the team and there are better players out there to sign. None of these SS would hinder the development of young SS coming up that’s for sure.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/08/2007 1:45 PM  

  • There really isn't any options for upgrades at the ss position on the free market. If the nats want a defensive upgrade they will probably have to trade for one and that will probably also mean another decline in payroll.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/08/2007 2:34 PM  

  • True and what they need to do is then use that $ to sign Livo and Jenkins to one to two year deals even if they have to 'overpay'. Use the money they have to put the best team on the field they can. It will not block any pitching prospects.

    Sitting on all this cash is not fair to fans that are paying increases in seat prices and parking fees now. Earn it now and spend it now. That approach will not hurt the long term development. In 2012 they will have the cash needed to sign that missing piece but we will have a lot more fun while we wait.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/08/2007 3:07 PM  

  • That would assume that Livan's going to be healthier and give you more innings than one of the kids...His total innings pitched have gone down every one of the last few years, plus, his ERA has never been that great. There just aren't really good options through free agency and we lack trading pieces.

    There's really nothing much good to spend on this year, and I think otherwise, we'd be doing that. The Nats aren't the Marlins, but they're also not the Giants either, which in my opinion puts them in an acceptable middle ground when it comes to payroll.

    By Blogger Michael Taylor, at 12/08/2007 4:25 PM  

  • Chris - along the lines of your thinking, Juan Uribe is an above-average glove who is going to be out of a job and even has one useful offensive skill (power). May make too much, though. I'll spare you other names so this does become brainstorming session.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/08/2007 5:23 PM  

  • gagne to the brewers? i guess that takes away one suitor for chad.

    By Blogger OleShu, at 12/08/2007 6:19 PM  

  • With young, untested pitchers, it must be demoralizing to go to the mound and know that your SS is not going to be much help. Earl Weaver understood that even with great pitchers, they're as moody as race horses and they don't like to have to look behind them and see a ball go through the infield that should have been caught. So Belanger was extra security who pumped up the pitchers' morale. Also, as I recall, their center fielders were pretty good as well.

    So Chris has made a very good point. SS needs improvement. The only problem is the Nats have three mediocre infielders and no place to put them--except at SS and 2d for another season. Watching Dmitri catch throws is always entertaining as well. So the pitchers, mediocre or not, will not be confident on the mound, no matter what they will tell you.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/08/2007 9:18 PM  

  • Since the Cardinals want to unload him, wonder if the Nats could get Scott Rollen? That would allow Zim to move to short and thus address that problem. Then Guz or Belliard could play 2nd.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/09/2007 12:12 PM  

  • Could you just hear Carpenter with that news. I do think Zim could move to SS for a few years. Did not hurt Cal any to move around that side of the infield. Zim at short really opens up the lineup to a host of changes. Inge at 3rd Zimm at short....I like that better than Lopez anywhere or Guz at SS.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/09/2007 1:33 PM  

  • Christina Karhl of Baseball Prospectus on the Nationals' moves this offseason.

    "It's easy to mock Jim Bowden, and easier still to decry some of his moves—or in the case of the non-deal of Alfonso Soriano, his non-moves—but credit the man for his willingness to play for big stakes and make a blockbuster trade now and again. I've kidded in the past that there are points in time when it seemed like “makeup” could be an area for Moneyball-style arbitrage, where talent with a capacity to turn people off can be picked up at something less than a straight market price for their abilities; it's almost unavoidable when you bring up someone like Milton Bradley, for instance, although obviously Bradley's fragility is another factor which has handicapped his ability to get that monster contract.

    So it's sort of entertaining in a way to see a team add first Elijah Dukes and then Milledge, when it's the same team that gave Dmitri Young what might have been his last chance. Putting any one of these guys on your team can be seen as taking a huge risk, where the decision to pick him up might blow up in your face. But unlike Young, adding Dukes and Milledge has the opportunity to also radically change this team's fortunes for the better. Both have breakout potential as hitters, and both are so young as well as so gifted that they can be building blocks of the first great Nationals team. In terms of sheer upside, I guess I immediately think back to the great Blue Jays outfield of the '80s, although the distinction there is that the Jays drafted Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield, and then snagged George Bell in the 1980 Rule Five Draft. There's sorting out which of the Nats outfielders play which roles, since either Milledge or Dukes could be this team's center fielder, but that will be one of the entertaining stories to follow in camp.

    In terms of the deal itself, it's not even close. The only reason Milledge gets flipped for this kind of package is over his reputation as a bad egg. That might have been a problem with the Mets, but not on a Nats team where there is no tradition but the one they create themselves, and where the club has the good fortune to employ a manager with Manny Acta's gifts, which are not limited to simple strategy and tactics. Acta's not afraid to use these guys, Bowden's not afraid to acquire them, so maybe this is just me—someone who grew up on the admittedly insane legendry of how Al Davis assembled the Raiders year to year in the '70s—but I love the possibility that this is the team and the situation where fresh starts lead to franchise-making breakouts.

    Consider that Milledge is seen as a disappointment after hitting “only” .272/.341/.446. At 22 years old, in the major leagues. Now yes, most of it was against lefties, and most of it was hitting eighth in a great lineup, but that's a great cherry on top of the promise already developed by his hitting in the minors. As a place to start, with what you can hope for in the next five years—right up through the front half to the crest of what most analysts would expect to be a guy's peak period—damn straight I'll give up a politely well-regarded backstop of limited offensive utility and an adequate corner outfielder pushing 30 who's about to start getting arbitration-induced raises. Even if Milledge blows up, even if the makeup issue derails his career, for what the Nats gave up, you have to take the chance, because Milledge has still not done anything on the field to discourage the expectation that glory—in the form of All-Star Games, and at least down-ballot MVP-level productivity—is in his future.

    There's even something sort of sly about bringing back hefty lefty Ray King for another pass at situational work like he was attached via organizational bungee cord; who knows, if he makes the team, maybe they'll be able to extend his services to another team at the deadline yet again."

    By Blogger Michael Taylor, at 12/09/2007 9:03 PM  

  • Royce Clayton is still a free agent.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 12/10/2007 9:06 AM  

  • Royce Clayton was a pretty mediocre fielder 2 years ago, and he's even older now.

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 12/10/2007 9:11 AM  

  • I tried to be funny and it came off as just a little depressing. Sorry...

    By Blogger Unknown, at 12/10/2007 11:04 AM  

  • Hey, I'm a literalist sometimes!

    And besides, after reading some of those dunderheads over at a certain wapo-approved blog, I've gotta take any wild suggestion seriously! ;)

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 12/10/2007 11:06 AM  

  • Well dang. Svrluga reports that the Nats were close to a deal with the Pads for Khalil Greene. Not only is the guy an adequate fielder, but he has some serious pop in his bat. A move from Petco could make him a 30-homer guy. It's hard to imagine a better fit for your criteria.

    By Blogger JimBo hidden flask, at 12/10/2007 2:25 PM  

  • You have to wonder what it would take to pry Alberto Gonzalez from Arizona.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 12/10/2007 3:22 PM  

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