So, ever since the end of the season… all we have heard from the Nats front office is that we need high OBP leadoff-man who plays CF. The reasons are clear - a lack of runners on base for the top of the lineup, and a desire to lock down the one position up the middle where there is questions. No one is debating the need for a speedy, heads up, center-fielder. No one is debating the need for a real life leadoff-man, capable of igniting rallies and create havoc on the base paths.
The question then arises… how exactly do we do this? Through free agency any team can expect to overpay and be underwhelmed; it’s the nature of the beast. Trading for premium positions, like Centerfield, can also be cost prohibitive. And looking for an internal answer is problematic because we know roughly what the Nats have and so far no one has come along with the tools and mindset to blow us away.
So what’s out there, in terms of free agents. The straightforward answer is Jim Bowden’s dream crop; reclamation projects, veterans looking for another chance and toolsy guys who may just need a change of scenery. So, are we going after a veteran, a stop-gap to The Chosen One… or are we seeking a long term solution. If the answer is for a long term solution, the free agent cupboard may be bare.
Only Felix Pie, Grady Sizemore, and Nate McLouth are 30 or under. McLouth has a $10+ million dollar team option for next year and a career OBP of .337 and total zone rating of -25 in CF. Pie’s OBP is much worse, but his zone rating in CF is far superior. Sizemore was once a special player, but 5 injuries in the past few years as well as a 2012 club option make this a less than likely option. Pie would be cheap, but for a reason he doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table. McLouth and Sizemore are both on the cusp of their careers and forking out 5 or 6 million a year for 4 or 5 years is seemingly too large a gamble.
If the Nats brass thinks Bryce Harper will be the solution by the end of 2013, a stop-gap solution may be the right course of action. There are a plethora of 31-34 year old outfielders who could bridge the gap to Bryce, either playing CF or RF while Jayson Werth roams center. Xavier Nady, Ryan Ludwick, and David Dejesus are just a few of the names out there. I think Dejesus actually has the most upside, with a career OBP just north of .350 and a good glove in center. I would not be surprised to see the Nats make a run at him, as he will not likely cost a draft pick.
But I think the best option, whether Bryce is ready or not, is to trade for a young, high OBP outfielder because it will create the most value for the franchise. The stats On-base Percentage and On-Base Plus Slugging have become over-valued, and the positions up the middle have always been at a premium especially on the defensive side (C, SS, 2B, CF). Paying for these stats for this premium position creates a situation where you are overpaying, in a huge way. In free agency, that is compounded by competition from other teams, exacerbating the problem. The best way to mitigate this problem is by trading equally over-valued pieces - young starting pitching. By trading away a what-if for a young, team controlled outfielder, the Nats can make their on-field product better without compromising the make-up of the current roster.
Rizzo wants to make a move. Davey wants to make a move. Denard Span and BJ Upton are the ones to watch for on the trade market. BJ is not a traditional lead-off man but could fit Davey’s schematic. Span is the real prize to be had, he has the tools to really be great - but a history of concussion problems. DeJesus, as I alluded to, should be a target in free agency if the Nats can’t figure out how to make a trade. Keep an eye on Sammy Solis in the Arizona Fall League. If he can stand out, he may create enough value this winter to bring what Rizzo wants, without trading away any of the core prospects.