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

Steve O Speak

In Part I I explored the major free agent options available for the Nationals if they were to lose Adam Dunn to free agency. In Part II I looked at some lesser options available through minor trades, as well as internal options. In Part III I will look at possible long term solutions that the Nationals could add to their impressive young infield. I will focus on prospects (or young players), who might be available, who would be ready by 2012 at the latest.

Big Names:

Billy Butler: (Royals) There is a lot to like with Butler as he has improved both his offense and defense each year, and is just going to be 25 next season. Last year he posted a .318/.388/.469 with a wOBA of .372 and a WAR of 3.4. While there was a time where he was considered a DH only, Butler has improved to be an adequate 1B (roughly what we saw with Dunn this past year). Butler has yet to show the power he was supposed to have, with a career high of 21 home runs in 2009, but makes up for it with his on base skills. Butler’s walk rate has improved every year and was just over 10% last season. His strikeout rate is extremely modest and was in fact just .2% higher than Albert Pujols. Compared to guys like Dunn or Carlos Pena, Butler’s K rate will be less than half and even closer to 1/3 of their K’s.

Now as to why the Royals might look to move Butler, considering his youth, production and potential, it boils down to two reasons. The first is Kansas City is still probably 2 years (could be less) away from contention, and by that time Butler will almost be out from under their team control (Butler is entering his first of 3 Arbitration seasons with KC). The other reason is the glut of 1B/DH/OF types behind Butler on the Kansas City organizational chart (see below). With Alex Gordon, Kila Ka’aihue, and Clint Robinson, to say nothing of uber-prospects Mike Moustakas (may have to move off 3B) and Eric Hosmer, the Royals are set at 1B/DH for quite some time. The Royals have the best farm system in all of baseball and a number of their prospects will be making their way to Kansas City over the next few years. While Butler might be a nice building block, he is pretty redundant. There is a thought that the team could look to trade either Zack Greinke or Joakim Soria in the next year or so (possibly both). If the Royals move them, then Butler could easily be on the way out to further stock the team for when they are ready to contend. He would cost the Nationals a pretty penny in return, but he’d be a great cornerstone for this team moving forward.

Gaby Sanchez: Sanchez just finished a pretty good rookie campaign for the Marlins where he posted a solid .346 wOBA and a 2.4 WAR. Sanchez is known to be solid defensively, and has the offensive potential to hit 25 home runs a year with a solid average and on base percentage. It wouldn’t be easy for the Marlins to part with him, but it is possible that they would deal him this off season. Top prospect Logan Morrison came up as a left fielder late in the year because of injury but he is a natural first baseman. He is a superior hitter to Sanchez, and really projects as their first baseman of the future. He could be passable in left field, but the Marlins have other options there. Even if Florida opens up 2B, by trading Uggla, to allow LF Chris Coghlan to move to his natural position, I could still see the Marlins moving Sanchez. Sanchez disappeared down the stretch, which kept him from having a much better year. Also, Sanchez is already 27, so by the time his team control is up he will be 32. While he should have some very productive years in the mean time, his 5 years of team control help increase his value to other teams, and get Florida a nice return.

Top Prospects:

Yonder Alonso: Alonso is one of the Cincinnati Reds top prospects but look for him to be firmly on the trade block this offseason. While the Reds have tried him in LF, he is a natural first baseman, but won’t ever get the chance in Cincinnati with Joey Votto there. He is a solid defensive first baseman, with good power and a great approach at the plate. He won’t replace all of Dunn’s power, but will still be a significant offensive force. Alonso is nearly major league ready and would fit in nicely with the Nationals young core. If Washington was willing to move Josh Willingham or one of their top relievers a deal could make sense for both teams. The Reds are looking for more immediate help, hurting the Nats chances somewhat.

Chris Carter: (A’s) Carter is an interesting case as at one point he was considered a DH only, but has transformed into being not only an adequate 1B, but worth a shot in the OF as well. He is a big time power hitter, and projects to be very similar to Dunn. High walk and strikeout rate (though at times he has shown improvement), with massive power and little defensive value (despite his recent work). His cup of coffee this season didn’t meet expectations, but at 24 next season he has plenty of potential. Whether the A’s move him or not is another story. They seem set at first with Daric Barton, and have been recently using more athletic outfielders. I have a hard time believing they would make Carter a full-time DH at this point in his career, meaning the A’s might have an interest in dealing him if the price is right. The Nationals might not be the best fit and Carter won’t win any Gold Gloves, but he has the power and youth to hold that position for the next 6 years.

Allen Craig: Craig is a 26 year old, who can’t find a home in the Cardinals organization. He has no shot at playing 1B or LF with Pujols and Holliday and the team seems committed to David Freese at 3B and John Jay in RF, leaving Craig a 4 corner defender without a home. Craig has murdered both AA and AAA pitching these last 3 years, and deserves a major league shot somewhere. While he has put up excellent numbers he doesn’t have a top prospect status which makes him an affordable option for a team like the Nats. His versatility and hitting ability work in his favor, while his low walk rate is a strike against him. Even if the Nats find a better option, Craig could be an OF bat for Washington.

Lars Anderson: Anderson like many of these options doesn’t seem to fit in to his team’s long term plans. The Red Sox are likely going to look to upgrade their 1B/DH position from the outside this year, and still would have Anthony Rizzo in the pipe for the future. This makes Anderson very expendable, though he could be dealt as part of a deal for a Prince Fielder, or Adrian Gonzalez. If Anderson isn’t moved for a 1B bat, he could make sense in a move to the Nationals. Boston could be interested in trying to acquire Willingham or one of the Nats relievers, or a deep team like Boston might want to acquire younger prospects. Either way the Nationals could make this deal happen and would be pretty happy if they did.

Some of the luster has worn off Anderson’s prospect status, but he still should be a very good starter going forward. He’s got good power and pretty good plate discipline, as well as projecting as a solid 1B defensively. He struggled mightily in AAA this season, and will probably need at least half a season in AAA this year, but I like his promise going forward. Because of his struggles I wouldn’t ‘break the bank’ for him, but his potential is worth a serious look.

Royals Galore: Under the Butler discussion I mentioned that the Royals have a glut of 1B/DH types. Here are three more that could be interesting to the Nationals. Now all three won’t get dealt, and maybe none will if Butler is moved, but the Royals will likely take offers on any of them.

Alex Gordon: Gordon who was taken 2nd overall in the 2005 draft, two places ahead of Ryan Zimmerman, has not lived up to his top prospect status. But he is still quite young, and has a lot of promise. Gordon has moved off the hot-corner (though could still back-up there) and moved into left field, but he could also be an option at 1B. He has three more arbitration years remaining, and for at least this year should come at a fairly reduced rate. Given his limited time left under team control, the Royals may look to deal him to get some value while they can. Like Craig he offers plenty of versatility and given his minor league numbers quite a bit of hitting potential. Gordon would be a great buy low candidate even if he plays the outfield (which actually has more positional value). He won’t cost as much as some of the top prospects on this list, and a change of scenery should do him quite a bit of good.

Kila Ka’aihue: Ka’aihue has never caught a break with the Royals organization. First he was blocked by Butler, and now he is about to get passed up by Hosmer. His future with the team will be tied to what the Royals do with Butler. If they move Butler, then Ka’aihue will be the first baseman until Hosmer arrives (then likely switch to DH). If they plan on keeping Butler, look for the Royals to try to get value out of Ka’aihue. Ka’aihue isn’t a ‘top prospect’ but, he has hit like one in the minors. He is still pretty young, and plays solid defense that he would be a solid secondary option for the Nationals. He is major league ready now, but might not be up to the task of being an every day starter just yet.

Clint Robinson: Robinson isn’t a major prospect, but he broke out in a big way this season in AA. At 25 he is a bit old for the league, so it’s hard to tell if he can be a future starter, but his prospect star began to rise. He is completely blocked in Kansas City and very well could be moved. He wouldn’t bring back much, but if Kansas City decides to hang on to more proven options, Robinson will be dealt. Robinson probably needs at least one more full year in the minors (potentially a late year call up), but could be a cheap option for the future.

Prospects with some question marks and not definitely available:

Mark Trumbo: Trumbo had a huge year for the Angels AAA affiliate, but could find himself dealt this year as the Kendry Morales returns from injury. Trumbo doesn’t have much of a future in L.A. and could be used to pry a useful piece or two, for the Angels to contend. Trumbo has shown great power but has always been hindered by his low walk rate. His stock is at it’s highest peak right now so, I really do believe the Angels will cash in, but he might not be worth the ‘top prospect’ value. At the very least he should be an everyday starter, but might not be at an All-star level.

Brandon Allen: (D-Backs) Allen is basically a slightly lesser version of Chris Carter, with similar numbers and similar positional value. He is being tried as a corner outfielder, but I wouldn’t bet on that being his career path. Adam LaRoche will likely leave Arizona this offseason, which should open up the door for Allen at 1st. But I wouldn’t pencil him in just yet. The Diamondbacks might be rebuilding, but I could see them adding a veteran 1B, relying on their minor league depth for the future and moving Allen. Arizona doesn’t seem to be locked into Allen which does make me believe that scenario is possible. Only time will tell how motivated they are to move him.

Prospects who may become available: These guys are all top prospects but their availability will hinge on what their team does in the offseason.

Freddie Freeman: I think the chances are slim here of Freeman being on the move, but it is a new era in Atlanta. They might think their time to win is now, while they have that talented pitching. If they go out and sign a Dunn or Huff, Freeman could be dealt for a multiple players. Freeman is one of the best first base prospects in the minors, though he lacks major power. He is very young, and just about major league ready. He will cost a bit, and I really don’t know if the above scenario will play out, but he should be on the Nats radar.

Brandon Belt: (Giants) Brandon Belt came out of nowhere this year, to be one of the minors best hitting prospects. He tore through both High-A and AA, before ‘cooling down’ in 48 AAA at bats where he posted a .419 wOBA and a .958 OPS. He is an athletic 1B, who has even dabbled in the OF, but will stay at 1B where he is a good defender. He might need a bit more seasoning to ensure his meteoric rise isn’t a fluke, but has plenty of potential. While it seems unlikely the Giants would move him, they might do just that if they sign an Adam Dunn type this offseason. San Francisco is in a position to win now, so if they add a big 1B bat, they could move Belt for more pieces this year. It would cost the Nats quite a bit this year, but Belt has the potential to be the Nats long term answer at 1B

Final Analysis: It won’t be easy for the Nats to replace Adam Dunn, but they do have options. Unless they trade for a Billy Butler or Gaby Sanchez, they need to sign a veteran free agent like Huff, Berkman, or LaRoche. I’m not too keen on Pena, as I’m unsure if he can rebound. Any veteran they sign should be with the eye to trading them in July, if a prospect steps up.

Even with Morse in the fold, the Nationals should look to acquire at least 2 of the guys I’ve listed (the one exception is if they acquire Butler, as he is close to a guarantee to filling the position long term). Given their OF issues, a guy like Craig or Gordon would make sense to offer insurance at both spots. If Brandon Belt becomes available he would probably be near the top of my list, but right now I’d look to focus on Alonso and Carter for long term options. If the price gets too high on them, Ka’aihue or Allen would be intriguing fall backs. If the Nationals have to go down to that level, they need to bring in that OF/1B insurance.

Now if the Nationals strikeout on the big free agents then that makes trading for an Alonso/Carter much more important. I really am not keen on the lesser options (Garrett Jones, Loney, Davis), but wouldn’t mind giving Chris Davis a flier if you can get him cheap. Otherwise the Nationals need to be looking to the future, and keep an eye on the prize. I don’t mind trading some of their young prospects (Norris, Burgess, Marrero etc.) or Willingham or Burnett given their contract situations, but don’t overvalue a veteran and not make a deal for a young 1B. If Billy Butler is available, maybe you can expand the deal to include Gordon (a la the Willingham and Olsen deal of a couple of years ago…it will cost more this time around) to fill two needs. The Nationals are at a tipping point, and could quickly be on the road to contention if they make the right decisions this offseason, but they can’t get ahead of themselves and forget about the future.

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