Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Perils of Free Agency

Over the weekend, ESPN's Keith Law published his rankings of the top fifty free agents in baseball this winter.  Law is an incredibly talented baseball mind, and very astute when it comes to evaluating players.  And this winter's list is, well, pretty grim.  This is because of the trend over the past few years for teams to lock up their best players with extensions that carry them through their three years of arbitration and the first couple of free agent eligibility.  A partial list of players who would be eligible for free agency this winter had they not inked extensions already would include the following: Matt Kemp, Dustin Pedroia, Nick Markakis, Troy Tulowitzki, Ian Kinsler, Adam Jones, Ben Zobrist, Andre Ethier, Cole Hamels, Jered Weaver, James Shields, and Ubaldo Jimenez.  That is a lot of talent that has already been taken off of the market.

You need look no further than the second name on Law's list, Tampa Bay center fielder B.J. Upton, to come to that conclusion.  Upton is ranked so high because even though he seems to have been around forever (he debuted in 2004), he's still just 28 and thus in the midst of what should be his prime.  But Upton is a deeply flawed player.  A converted shortstop, he is an excellent defensive outfielder, with great range and a strong arm, but maddeningly inconsistent as a hitter.  At 6'3" and 185, he is pretty much all fast-twitch muscle, with surprising power for someone his size, but has failed to post an on-base percentage higher than .331 since 2008, while striking out at least 150 times in every full season but one (also 2008).  He owns a career OPS+ of 105, making him slightly above league average, and more career strikeouts (1020) than hits (910).  And this is the best position player available!

There are rumors that the Nationals are pursuing not Upton (who would be a bad fit as a right-handed strikeout machine in a lineup already full of those) but Michael Bourn, Law's fourth-best free agent.  Bourn, who will be 30 in December, is a defensive standout who since 2009 has managed to consistently get on base at about a .350 clip, but with very little power (22 career home runs).  He is a terrific base stealer who led the National League from 2009-2011 and owns a career success rate of 81%.  Like Upton, he's also somewhat prone to strikeouts, with 155 this year and 140 in both 2009 and 2011.  As a lefty batter, he would also fit better in the Nationals' lineup.  But why are the Nats so heavily rumored to be pursuing him?

In the short term, at least, the pursuit of Bourn is a hedge against the possible departure of Adam LaRoche.  Without LaRoche, the lineup gets very right-handed, with only Bryce Harper and switch-hitter Danny Espinosa hitting from the left side.  And if the Nats choose to find a lefty bat on the free agent market, the palatable options apart from Bourn are Josh Hamilton and switch-hitters Nick Swisher, Melky Cabrera, and Angel Pagan.  But Hamilton is both fragile and somewhat undisciplined, Swisher provides minimal defensive value, Cabrera is coming off of a PED suspension, and Pagan is 31 with only two seasons of more than 123 games under his belt.  So they all have some big question marks.  Since I have already looked at a scenario under which the Nationals keep LaRoche, let's investigate what the team might look like with Bourn or Hamilton joining the outfield.

If the Nationals sign Bourn, it will be to play center, meaning a complete shuffling of the deck in their outfield.  We can probably assume that Harper and his rocket arm would move to right, pushing Jayson Werth to left and either Michael Morse or (hopefully) Tyler Moore to first base.*  On paper, at least, this would give the Nationals probably the best outfield defense in the majors.  Bourn we have covered.  Harper handled center in 2012 extremely well for a player who was essentially learning on the job, showing impressive range and proving a quick study on reading balls off of the bat.  Werth is a very capable right fielder who can handle center in a pinch, and would likely prove a superior fielder in left.  That's the kind of outfield that, coupled with a stellar defensive infield, will continue to make the Nationals' pitching staff look brilliant.  As for paying him, Bourn will probably command something in the "five years, $100 million" range, which is a big commitment when top prospects such as Brian Goodwin (also a CF) and Anthony Rendon are only a year or two away from the majors.

*For what it's worth, Moore is a natural first baseman, and I still think that the team should try shopping Morse's big bat to Tampa Bay or another team in need of power for another quality starting pitcher.

A Bourn signing would also force the team to re-order the lineup, presuming that Bourn would lead off, because otherwise the two lefties would bat consecutively.  How about this?

CF Bourn
LF Werth
3B Zimmerman
RF Harper
1B Moore
SS Desmond
2B Espinosa
C   Ramos/Suzuki

With more home runs as a teenager than anyone other than Tony Conigliaro, I think it's fair to say that Harper has the power to hit cleanup; it would not be surprising in the least for him to clear 30 home runs next year given a full season, as he hit those 22 in just 139 games.  And with the exception of Bourn, everyone in that lineup would have 20-to-25-homer power, with four or five guys all capable of 30 or more.  On defense, this lineup gets an A+, with a solid A on the offensive end.

Although the rumor mill has been much quieter with regards to a potential Hamilton signing by the Nationals, it is certainly worth a look.  Hamilton's personal struggles are well known, and a significant risk given that he's now 31 and has missed a significant number of games in four of his six major league seasons.  While he is one of the most dangerous lefty hitters in baseball, he has acknowledged issues with his focus and approach on a day-to-day basis. Given that he can't be counted on for more than 80% of a team's games, and can't be trusted to carry more than $20 on his person, I would be extremely leery of anything more than four years or $100 million.  Still a decent center fielder, Hamilton would surely provide good to great defense in left, and look at this lineup:

RF Werth
CF Harper
3B Zimmerman
LF Hamilton
1B Moore
SS Desmond
2B Espinosa
C   Ramos/Suzuki

Yikes.  It has balance and even more power than before, with maybe the two best raw power lefties in baseball in Hamilton and Harper.  A+ on offense, and an A or A- on defense.

But should the Nationals really be going after any of these big names?  As we covered in this space before, they don't really lose much from a team that went 98-64, and next year at least five of their eight regular position players, four of five starting pitchers, and three principal relievers will be 28 or younger.  There is a temptation to make at least one big splurge after a disappointing loss in the Division Series to the Cardinals, but what if they're better off saving that money and promoting from within?  There are three possible candidates apart from Moore, who we've already covered:

Corey Brown, OF (L/L), DOB: 11/26/85
Brown does not really fit the definition of a prospect, as he will turn 27 later this month, but he has hit for power throughout his minor league career, and this season posted a .285/.365./.523 slash line with 25 bombs at AAA Syracuse.  As with many other Nationals, strikeouts are a concern; Brown whiffed 139 times this year in 126 minor league games, and 9 times in 27 plate appearances in the majors.  Still, it's entirely possible that he could be another Michael Morse, who didn't get a chance to play regularly until his age-28 season.

Anthony Rendon, 3B (R/R), DOB: 6/6/90
Rendon was the Nats' first-round pick in 2011, widely regarded as the best college bat in that draft but also injury-prone (he was limited to 43 minor league games this season).  He did go and play in the Arizona Fall League for Salt River, hitting .281/.382/.404, with almost as many walks (10) as strikeouts (12).  If he stays healthy next year, there's a chance that he could make the leap to the majors (he will likely start the season in AA, where he finished 2012), particularly as he is signed to a major league contract already.  Currently, of course, he is blocked by Zimmerman, but either of the two (due to health issues) might wind up finding a home at first base.

Brian Goodwin, OF (L/R), DOB: 11/2/90
Like Rendon, Goodwin finished his first year of pro ball at AA Harrisburg before competing in the AFL, where he hit .268/.359/.571, with nine of his fifteen hits going for extra bases.  Drafted by the Nationals with their compensation pick in 2011 for losing Adam Dunn to free agency, Goodwin is a center fielder with power and speed (14 home runs and 18 stolen bases in the minors this year) who might bump Harper over to right, but for far less money than signing Bourn.

Even while they were losing a staggering amount of games in 2008 and 2009, the Nationals were looking at the long game, and kept building for the future even as a bad major league club played its games in front of empty seats or a majority of Phillies and Mets fans.  Now the mountaintop is in sight, and the organization might opt for the quick fix.  But they don't need to.  Moore and Brown are as ready as they're going to be, and Moore at least has proven he can hit in the bigs.  Rendon and Goodwin, along with 2012 Minor League Player of the Year Matt Skole, are close to contributing, perhaps in 2013.  Baseball is getting younger, and there aren't any compelling reasons why the Nationals should purchase something just because it's there, and overpay for someone on the wrong side of 30 who may very well turn into a lemon before their contract is up.  If the Nationals remain prudent, they are still the favorites to win their division next year and have another shot at October glory.