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The Nationals Offseason Plan To Replace Adam Dunn, And Begin to Contend: Part I

Steve Shoup

Though I wish the Washington Nationals could go back in time and make the best deal possible at the Trade Deadline, it is time to begin to look for other options for the 1B spot in the Nationals lineup card. At this point my first choice would be to resign Dunn at the 4 years $60 million he appears to be looking for. This becomes even more pressing if Dunn ends up being a Type B Free Agent, meaning the Nationals would only receive one supplemental round draft pick as compensation. If Dunn leaves, I hope the Nationals are smart about replacing their power hitter and one of their clubhouse leaders, and keep an eye on the long term.

While I hope the Nats continue improving next year, any and all moves they make should be weighed by how will this affect the team in 2012 and 2013. With Stephen Strasburg set to miss all of next year, and not much left in the minors in terms of help for next year, the Nationals need to focus on making this team the best possible team two years from now. A time when Strasburg shall be back, current young players (Desmond, Ramos, Espinosa, Storen) will hopefully be established, and the next crop of minor leaguers will be ready or close to it (Harper, Solis, Norris, Burgess, Marrero etc.).

Now this is not to say I believe the Nationals should ‘punt’ on next season, far from it, I believe the Nationals can be competitive if they can do some wheeling and dealing and add to this team. If you aren’t going to resign Dunn, as it appears to be the case, than I would rather the team not waste their time pursuing Cliff Lee, Jayson Werth, and Carl Crawford. All of those guys were longshots to sign with the Nats if Dunn was part of the team, I can’t imagine him not being there makes their outlook any better. So why do I mention it? Well I think the Nationals have to be aggressive on the trade market and lesser free agent market if they want to compete. If they sit around waiting for Werth all offseason a number of quality options will pass them by.

My strategy for Nationals would be multi-faceted this offseason. As I think they need to find a short-term and long term replacement for Dunn at first, completely revamp their outfield, and add some front line starting pitching. First up let’s look at what the Nationals need to do with their hole at 1B. There really aren’t any good long term solutions on the free agent market, but luckily with the way the free agent market has been going teams are no longer expected to offer long term contracts to middling free agents or aging veterans any more. While these names and the production that come with it won’t be equal to Dunn, at least the Nationals shouldn’t have to ‘overpay’ them as well. I believe that the Nationals should look to add both a veteran 1-2 year (but with the possibility of trading him earlier) stopgap and a young first baseman that will hopefully be ready by at 2012/2013 when the Nats hope to really contend. First, I will address the veteran options in order of preference and then I will look into the young guys, who should have a future with the Nationals.

The Free Agent Market: (Numbers will be from 2010, unless noted, and advanced stats are courtesy of Fangraphs) *Note i’m not including Victor Martinez, despite the face he has played a good bit of 1B over the past couple of years, he is best suited as a catcher/1B/DH and doesn’t make much sense in Washington.

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1. Aubrey Huff: 2010 numbers: .290/.385/.506 with a wOBA (an additional statistical tool that helps evens out OBP and Slugging, and is more accurate than OPS) of .388 and a UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating, which is probably the best defensive measurement out there, though isn’t as accurate for 1B) of 6.7, and a WAR (Wins above replacement, which factors in offense, defense and positional value, compared to a replacement level player) of 5.7. Huff had 26 home runs and a walk rate of 12.4% and a strikeout rate of 16%.

The Good: While a number of these were career (or close to them) numbers Huff has put together a number of similar seasons throughout his career. Huff is also helped by his versatility as for the first time in years he played in over 80 games in the OF (starting over 50 of them there) this season. Huff has also played 3B in the past further increasing his versatility. At 34 Huff still showed that he can play in the field and should still have a couple solid to good years left in him.

The Bad: Although Huff has put up good numbers in the past, he isn’t the most consistent hitter. It is possible that he has one of his down years, and/or his defense regresses. Huff also is likely to be pretty well sought after on the free agent market after the big names go. While I don’t think he will get mega years or money, he likely won’t sign for just one year. Also, Huff’s walk rate was well above his norm, if it comes down it will limit his value.

Overview: Huff is my top target given his overall career numbers, versatility, solid defense (though not always the case). If whatever young first basemen forces his way to the big league club Huff could always see time in the OF, or would make a good trade candidate. His offense isn’t ever going to be as good as Dunn’s, but he’s been fairly close a number of years.

2. Adam LaRoche: Numbers: .261/.320/.468 with a wOBA of .339, a UZR of 5.2 and a WAR of 2.1. With 25 home runs and 7.8% walk rate, and a 30.7% strikeout rate.

The Good: LaRoche is basically the model of consistency as he hits about 25 HR’s a year, adds another 35 doubles and plays solid defense. He is pretty young so there should be little concern of his numbers collapsing or of any major injuries. His walk rate was down this year and K rate was up, but he should be able to return to normal. LaRoche will probably be one of the best bargains on the free agent market considering the year he is coming off of.

The Bad: LaRoche is definitely a big drop off offensively to Dunn, and while his defense makes up for some of the difference there is still a talent gap. Even in LaRoche’s best years he is not going to be a top 10 first baseman in the league (he probably comes in 12th-15th range). LaRoche consistency also works against him, he is a notorious slow starter and has never taken his game to the ‘next level’, meaning what you see is what you get.

Overview: LaRoche offers great value for the Nats and should be had for a steal. He’s a good consistent first baseman who can keep the seat warm while a prospect is developed. If his numbers rise up a little bit, he will offer some midseason (or next offseason) trade value as well. Overall though he has been averaging a WAR of about 2.3. Now if his offense goes back to it’s peak and the defense is consistent, it could rise as high as 3.0, but he will never be much better than that. Despite that, given the price and consistency, I would have him as the Nats number 2 target.

3. Carlos Pena: Numbers: .196/.325/.407 with a wOBA of .326, a UZR of -2.8, and a WAR of 1.0. Pena hit 28 homers with a walk rate of 14.9% and a K rate of 32.6%

The Good: While 28 home runs are nothing to sneeze about, Pena has even better power, hitting 39, 31, and 46 each of the last three seasons. And his wOBA’s of .374, .374, and .430 is incredibly impressive. Also while his defensive numbers are down, he is considered more sure-handed then most other first basemen, and still solid overall defensively (the UZR numbers dropping are troubling though). Also coming off a bad overall season, his contract demands won’t be too high and he might even prefer a one year deal.

The Bad: Just about everything of this past season was bad as his offensive numbers just plummeted. And his defensive numbers fell as well, as his once impressive range seems to be lessening. What’s more troubling about Pena’s numbers is his walk and K rate remaining roughly the same. I’m not sure how much of a fluke this year is. While he should hit for over .200, his other numbers will be well below Dunn’s with the possible exception of Slugging percentage. I would question whether he is a .370+ wOBA hitter anymore, and if not the Nationals need to be wary not to pay him like one.

Overview: While I have Pena listed as third, overall I think their might be some other better options. I like him as a buy low candidate, but I don’t know if he truly will regain his form. I’m guessing any contract Pena signs will be for one year, but will have plenty of performance bonuses (MLB can’t do statistical bonus, HR, RBI’s etc., but will do Plate appearances and stuff like that) meaning he might not be as much of a bargain as the Nats are hoping for. Also, while one year sounds nice I’d rather see the Nats have control of someone for at least 2 years if not 3 (even if it is with team options). Whomever the Nationals long term solution may be at 1B they might not be ready by next season. I really worry if Pena will regain his batting stroke and be an effective hitter again. He’s not a bad fall back guy, but with that regression offensively and defensively I don’t know if he is worth it for the Nats.

Other Options:

Paul Konerko: Konerko has the name and power to replace Dunn in the lineup, but his age and defensive (in)ability work against him. Also, Konerko will likely look for a 3-year contract and there is no way an N.L. team should consider that. In addition if the White Sox offer him arbitration he would cost the Nats their 2nd round pick, making him even less valuable to Washington.

Derek Lee: Lee is an interesting 1 year stopgap and you could easily make a case for Lee over Pena, but he is 35 so there is a chance that he won’t rebound from his 2010 struggles. Keep an eye on him though, if he will sign for a one year deal, or one year with an option, for below market value it could be a steal for the Nats.

Lance Berkman: While Berkman has been stuck as a D.H. for the Yankees, his playing days in the field might not be over. Before this year Berkman has posted a wOBA over .380 in every season going back to 2000. He has for the most part been a pretty good defender at 1B and still should have another year or two. Age is a factor as he will be 35, but as long as the price isn’t too bad I’d chose him over Pena as well.

I’ll go over some of the other veterans that could be options for the Nationals later, but the fact of the matter is if they don’t get someone from this list, it will be a pretty long season in Washington (Unless they land a major league ready prospect which we will also get into later). None of these guys represent a long term solution, but all can help minimize the loss of Dunn. Huff is my favorite option given his versatility, power, and solid defense, with Berkman right behind him. LaRoche appeals to me because I think the market will under value him, making him a potential steal. Lee would be next on my list, though nagging injuries have always been a concern there. Although I know the Nats are high on Pena, I’m not very bullish on him. I question his ability to bounce back and think there are better options out there for Washington.

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