Get To Know Some Nats: Infielders

Every year, we put together player profiles for the Nationals players likely to make the 25 man roster. This way you’ll have a better idea of just who is taking the field. Except for a few notable exceptions, the Washington Nationals of 2015 will be the same team you’ve been watching for a few years. So we’re going to forego lengthy profiles of stuff you already know, and focus on capsules for a few players at a time. A quicker, more forward focused view for the savvy fan.

You can read our outfielder preview here, and our starting pitcher preview here.

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Ian Desmond, SS

Fangraphs | 2014 Preview

On a team when every infielder has a story going into 2015, Desmond’s demands the most attention. Lo beware the shortstop who can hit, for they shall be in demand and cost lots and lots of money: And Desmond can hit. The list of shortstop with three 20 HR / 20 SB seasons is very short: Alex Rodriguez, Hanley Ramierez and Ian Desmond. (Seriously, buy Baseball Prospectus).

So he’s about that good. He’s put up three straight 4+ WAR (read All-Star Caliber) years in a row, even if 2014 was his weakest of the three. His 4.1 was behind only Jhonny Peralta’s 5.4 amongst all shortstops (and tied with Erick Aybar). So, you’re asking, what’s the hold up? Why haven’t the Nats inked this guy yet?

Well, everything has its price, and no matter how good a player is, there is only so much you can (and should) be willing to pay. I don’t exactly know what’s been offered to Ian Desmond yet, but if they can sign Jayson Werth and Max Scherzer to very long expensive contracts, I don’t think you can assume its because they’re stingy. They know what they want to pay for, and most likely Desmond and the team disagree on what he should be paid.

The Nats aren’t entirely unjustified to be a bit cautious in what they offer Desmond, either. Despite his excellent production it is hard to ignore that his numbers have dipped for three straight years. Batting Average, OBP, Slugging, wOBA, WR+, ISO: all of these have been trending downward. His strikeout rate has gone up as well, from 20.7 to 22.1 and then 28.2% last year. He’s still doing all-star well, but there is a question of when and where his steady is. Is he going to be a 5 WAR player or a 4 WAR Player for the next few years? That’s worth about 6 million a year to a player – and if Desmond and the Nats disagree on where he’ll ends up, that’s going to snarl the process. Desmond is a 29 year old who is going to be looking for (and deserving) a huge payday, but over a just a 6 year contract that 1 WAR a year is a $36 million difference.

The Nationals have prepared for a future without Desmond just in case. Although they are transitioning Yunel Escobar (see below) to second, he is a shortstop by trade. This and the acquisition of highly touted prospect Trea Turner (who is going to be a National but isn’t technically yet) paves the way for the Nats to experiment in a post Desmond world.

As with Jordan Zimmermann, it seems much more likely that they’ll keep Desmond through 2015 than trade him. Assuming they are playing well and heading towards the post-season Desmond represents the same type of “rental” player that ZNN does. The only teams that would be interested in that type of player is one looking to make a playoff push- or those exact teams the Nats are now competing against. Unlike starting pitching, the Nats don’t have a MLB caliber shortstop ready to go behind Desmond. The concept of getting something back for a guy before he walks goes out the window when you’re all in for a championships. The Nats are hoping that what they “get back” for Desmond is that championship.

As it turns out, the best thing that Desmond can do for himself happens to be the best thing he can do for the Nats as well. If he puts in a repeat of the 2014 year, that’s okay and ought to be “good enough.” Cutting down on strikeouts might be all the difference between the near All-star and actual All-Star performance everyone knows he can put together, and it might be just what the Nats need to push over the edge.

Otherwise, as with Zimmermann, get your Desmond fix now. The show could be going on the road before you know it.

Rendon at Bat

Anthony Rendon, 3B

Fangraphs | 2014 Preview

I am going to confess that as I sat down to write this post I still hadn’t fully comprehended how good Anthony Rendon’s season was.

To wit: The Bill James Online website has this thing called “runs created” which, based on the table laid out on the page, seems pretty intuitive. How many runs do they think a player scored with his bat, his baserunning, saved with his glove, etc. There is an adjustment for players who play tougher positions, and then you add it all up and see who added the most runs to his particular team.

At the top of that list is Nationals sensation Anthony Rendon. Conspicuously ahead of players like Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, and everyone else in the MLB apparently, this chart broke my head because it seemed to be saying that Rendon was arguably the best player in baseball last year. The fact he is on this list at all is astounding to me, and I was really paying attention to Rendon last year. To double check that, I ranked all players on Fangraphs by WAR. He’s tied for second amongst all batters in MLB last year behind Mike Trout, which lends credence to the Bills James list, further breaks my head, and makes one thing abundantly clear.

If you thought B4R was a thing last year, you might need to invest in some stretchier pants this year.

At some point during the prospect fatigue that settled in around Bryce Harper the “Rendon is better than Harper” narrative settled in. This always struck me as a way to denigrate Harper rather than laud Rendon. I still have no doubt that Harper will be performing on this level very shortly, as soon as this year perhaps, but it is in retrospect a factual statement that Rendon’s 6.6 WAR in 2014 was better than any of Harper’s so far. Indeed, you could add 2014 to either 2013 or 2012, and Harper’s total WAR wouldn’t be as much as what Rendon did in 2014.

Fun Fact: Rendon’s 2014 campaign is only behind Ryan Zimmerman’s 2009 and 2010 campaigns (6.8 and 6.7 WAR respectively) in the list of best single seasons by Nationals position players.

In order for the Nationals to succeed, Rendon needs to not be a fluke. Craig Mac feels comfortable that Rendon can avoid a sophomore slump in 2015, and that’s good enough for me. Indeed, even if he did “slump” in 2016, he set the bar so high last year that he might still be an All-Star caliber third baseman.

An increased walk rate, decreased strikeout rate, power went up, wOBA went up, his BABIP roughly the same between 2013 and 2014. These are evidence (though not conclusive) of a maturing batter. That’s key for a player whose bread and butter coming out of college was his ability to hit. With any luck Rendon is comfortable with the MLB level of play now, and he can keep putting up 2014 type season for some time to come.

Rendon also serves as another feather in the cap for the Mike Rizzo and the scouting staff, who more than once has found value where other teams did not. In Rendon, the Nationals took a risk on an excellent shortstop with ankle issues. They took him earlier than a lot of teams would believing he could be healthy, and so far that belief has been justified. What’s more, in typical Rizzo fashion, Rendon is under team control until 2019. Even if the likes of Harper and Strasburg depart before then, the Nationals may very well still have a 28 year old superstar on the books with lots of cash freeing up just in time to pay him.

399px-Ryan_Zimmerman_helmetless

Ryan Zimmerman, 1B 

Fangraphs | 2014 Preview 

Have you heard? Ryan Zimmerman will play first base this year. We wrote about this a bit in our Monday post, and there is tons of ink on it everywhere: with good reason. For nearly as long as the Nationals have been in DC there has been Ryan Zimmerman at third base. Shoulder inflammation in 2012 begat arthroscopic shoulder surgery in 2013, and it might be too simple to connect the dots to his sudden inability to throw safely to first base, but there you go. Last spring, the Nats floated the idea of Zimmerman occasionally playing first base, mostly as a way to get him into (and LaRoche out of) the line up against left handed pitching. At the outset, Zim said he was going to step aside when he felt he was no longer the best third baseman on the team. Until then, he planned on playing third on the regular.

The plan did not come to fruition as Zimmerman missed more than 100 games due to injury (one on his hand, the other his hamstring). In fact, Zim played more time in LF (replacing the also injured Bryce Harper) than he did at third last year. Plus, if you’ve read the above (and all due respect to Zim) you’ll know he’s not the best third baseman on the team anymore. #B4R

Zim, to his credit, is taking this all in stride. All reports indicate he is ready to enter Act II (or III?) of his career with Washington at the less hot corner. He’s taken extra work at first to get prepared. He’s looked just fine in a few spring games, and the guys throwing to him seem to think he’s doing well.

Regardless of how quickly Zim does or doesn’t take to first base defensively, Zim’s bat is what makes such a move even worth considering. In his “slump” years, Zim routinely posts a wOBA at or above .340 (above average). He’s a remarkably consistent hitter. Walks enough, strikes out at a low enough rate, gets about 20-25 home runs.

Concerns of reduced power in 2011 were abated in 2012 and 2013. I like to think that his injuries affected his power in 2014 (that and no regular playing time) and he ought to be able to return to form this year. That’s certainly what the Nats are expecting. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Zim could be moved down to the five spot where he’d take over the LaRoche “second clean up” duties.

It’s perhaps a strange bit of confluence to see Ryan Zimmerman move to a new place in what might be the last year of the band being together, but I’ve found it rather fitting. For as long as there have been the Nationals in DC, there has been Ryan Zimmerman at third base. But, by mutilating this immutable truth, Ryan Zimmerman gets to keep playing baseball in DC. If he refused to move, neither the Nationals nor Zimmerman would be able to succeed. By being flexible, they can both be. It is the nature of what the Nationals have spent these last ten years building: a team that is not too much of any one thing.

They avoid the cycle of permanence and nihilism, acknowledging the four noble truths and walking along the fundamental path of the middle way. It’s pretty Zen, actually, and probably deserves its own post at some point.

The Nats that can be spoken of are not the true Nats, and all that jazz.

The Nationals have always had Ryan Zimmerman at third. But the Nationals can’t be those Nationals, not forever. The Nationals must be willing to change so they can always be the Nationals, and what better exemplar of that the man who has been there since the beginning?

Buffalo and McCatty.

Wilson Ramos 

Fangraphs | 2014 Preview 

Everyone knows Wilson Ramos has a problem staying healthy, Wilson Ramos included. Since 2012 he’s played in 25, 78 and 88 games in each of the last three seasons. To put that into context, there were 30 catchers in baseball that played more games than he did in 2014. So, he ranks 31st in a league of 30 teams.

Ramos apologists will point to the incredible things he can do when he is on the field. To be sure, he’s great when he’s up and running. But for three years I’ve been writing the “Ramos needs to give the Nats a full season” posts, and he’s yet to come through on that front. I don’t doubt that no one is more disappointed by his run of bad luck than he is, but at what point is it no longer a question of what he’s been trying to do and instead is a question of what he has done?

Working in Ramos’s favor (and potentially against the Nats) is there isn’t a much better (or even comparable) option available, either on the team or otherwise readily available. The Buffalo is strong. He hit a home run in every 19 at bats in 2013, and I don’t doubt he’s a 20 home run threat if he could get 500 plate appearances.

If.

It’s not just his offense though. He’s pretty solid behind the dish as well. Since 2011, he’s ranked 16th amongst all catchers despite his limited play (and in the overall catcher ranking category he’s 17th in WAR.)

There is no doubt that 70 or 80 games of Wilson Ramos is better than no games with Wilson Ramos-but that logic only extends so far. At some point the Nats are going to need a catcher that can play in 120 games a year. Every year you run Ramos out there to catch is a year you’re not looking for that catcher, and the Nats minors are not full of great catching prospects.

I have said it before, but the Nats need to have a better strategy to deal with Ramos’s injuries than Jose Lobaton. Lobaton is a totally great backup…for a backup. You want Lobaton starting 40 games, 50 tops. He’s been playing a lot more than that.

But what’s to be done? The list of free agent catchers starting in 2016 (who might be available for trade) isn’t exactly stellar.  And any prospect you could trade for is just that: a prospect, not a plug and play player, MLB ready.

I know, I know, its thin: me picking on a guy who is down because of injuries. But 2015 is a big year. It’s easily the biggest year in the short history of the Nationals. The Nats are already starting the season without Denard Span and probably Jayson Werth. How long can the Nats weather another stint of missing Wilson Ramos?

Here’s hoping that Ramos puts together his most complete year since 2011. If he doesn’t… well, I’d say the Nats should think long and hard about Wilson Ramos, but frankly, they won’t have the time to think very long about it.

464909170.0

Yunel Escobar, 2B 

Fangraphs

Yunel Escobar is coming off of his worst year as a major leaguer. The 32 year old had a few good years with the Braves at shortstop, before going good/bad/good/bad at short stop with the Blue Jays and Tampa Rays. Never a power hitter, Escobar is a entirely average batter. He’s had basically as many .300ish wOBA years (poor) as .340 years (Above Average). He doesn’t exactly have a sterling personal reputation either, as the Toronto eye-black incident is evidence of.

Of course this is the depth of the problem at second base for the Washington Nationals: A converted shortstop with average hitting who may not win any GLAAD awards anytime soon presented their best option to fill the void. So far from grace has Danny Espinosa fallen that the Nats would prefer Escobar. Not by much, mind you, but still.

Nat fans might do well to think of Escobar as a less cuddly, older, cheaper Asdrubal Cabrera that also cost the Nats Tyler Clippard. Personally,I’d rather have signed the 1 year $7.5m contract the Rays offered Asdrubal Cabrera and kept Tyler Clippard (or traded him for something else), but the Nats have largely done the right thing with contracts. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt for now.

The conversion from short to second helped Cabrera cut down on his defensive liability, and he ended up contributing nicely to the Nats down the stretch. And while Cabrera was no Danny Espinosa defensively at second, he was much better at the plate….even if he wasn’t very good at the plate either. The hope is that the same can be done with Escobar, and that much like the Star Trek movies and Giants championship years,the Nats are due for a good year from him after a bad one.

Escobar doesn’t strikeout nearly as much as Espinosa does (about 12% of the time vs. about 28% of the time). That’s a good skill set for your eight hole hitter, not giving away free outs right before the pitcher spot. He’s not going to clear the bases very often, but he might get a guy in before the pitcher spot comes up.

The best thing Escobar has going for him is this: The Nats are stacked everywhere else. Take a look at the last 15 championship teams and the Nats are easily more talented than most of them, and as talented as the rest of them. That is to say, they don’t need very much from Escobar at second base to do well in 2015. In fact, in a podcast earlier this year, I was pretty sure you could just field the highly disappointing Danny Espinosa and bat him 8th all year and do just fine. I still think that, though I fully admit the margin for error would be a lot smaller.

The good news for Escobar is he’s not going to languish in Tampa on a terrible team. The dog days of summer won’t be a countdown to vacation. The Rays sold off a lot of pieces last year before the GM and manager departed in the offseason. he’s a part of something here, and if he can contribute in the least, that’s all the Nats will really need. If he can’t, the Nats are not overly invested in him and can move on fairly easily.

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