Monday, March 9, 2015

The Sky is Falling



Only a couple days into Spring Training games and the Nationals are already down a starting center fielder and a starting second baseman. In near succession, the Nationals announced that Yunel Escobar was out with an oblique strain and Denard Span underwent surgery to repair a core issue. While pundits have been busy writing proclamations of greatness and predicting success for the Nationals, players have started dropping like flies (no pun intended, although without Span roaming centerfield at Nationals stadium you might start seeing more fly balls dropping, so check that, pun intended).

As we alluded to here at Navy Yard Notes during our roster reviews and specifically in our analysis of the Steven Souza trade, while the Nationals starting lineup is star studded, the team lacks legitimate depth of position players on the bench. This is no more obvious than with the hole created by Denard Span’s core surgery.

That surgery will likely cost Span at least the month of April. A scary sounding surgery, at the least, it is pretty rare, although there have been some recent examples of baseball players undergoing a similar procedure, with results that don’t really paint a pretty picture. Miguel Cabrera had a similar procedure and his offensive output suffered. Since we are discussing Miguel Cabrera, that means he went from other-worldly numbers to just all-star level numbers, but a drop off none the less. Similarly, Justin Verlander underwent the same surgery and turned in one of his worst seasons in his personal history. Both of these examples, though, have a lot of other variables in play as both Cabrera and Verlander are on the latter half of their careers and fighting off father time as much as injuries.

Whatever the recovery may be for Span, he is going to be missing games and the Nationals will need to play someone in center field. Compounding the issue is Werth’s shoulder injury that he is busy rehabbing in Florida. While the Nationals seem optimistic on his time table, nothing is guaranteed. Last year, the Nationals anticipated just such a situation and signed Nate McLouth. Widely considered to be an overpay for the league’s most overqualified 4th outfielder, McLouth struggled in the early part of the season before undergoing his own surgery for a torn labrum that he is still not fully recovered from. That leaves rookie Michael Taylor to man centerfield and a big question mark in left field should Werth not be ready for Opening Day.

Michael Taylor shot up prospect lists in 2014 due to his breakout performance in the minors. Hidden in his eye popping minor league numbers was a high strike out rate that was really exposed in his brief cup of coffee with the big league squad. The Steamer projection system doesn’t expect big things from Taylor in 2014, due to these strike out struggles. The system projects a .225 batting average and .281 OBP with some flashes of power. Probably the best aspect of Taylor’s skill set, though, is his speed and defense, which the Nationals scouts have raved about for some time. That defense should carry over to the majors regardless of how he performs at the plate and be a major asset next to Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth/Jayson Werth backup.

After Taylor, though, the options are pretty thin if Werth isn’t full go. Rizzo brought in veteran Mike Carp to Spring Training to compete for a bench role after a difficult 2014 season limited to only 149 plate appearances and a batting average below the Mendoza line. A left handed hitter, Carp offers some batting lineup flexibility in a right handed heavy lineup, especially without Span hitting leadoff. The other obvious option would be Spring Training Terror Tyler Moore. After several failed attempts to stick as a reserve on the major league roster, this might be his last chance to make an impact as a National. Both Moore and Carp bring question marks to the plate and offer negative value defensively. The final alternative would be newly acquired Tony Gwynn Jr. who would also offer little at the plate, if his last few years mean anything, but more value on the defensive end than Carp or Moore.

Shifting to the infield, Escobar’s injury, on the surface, appears to be less serious and hopefully doesn’t result in any missed time. If Escobar does need more recovery time than anticipated, Espinosa gets penciled in at second base and his experiment to stick to hitting right handed gets tested early and often. As always, Espinosa offers value defensively even if he can’t hit. The biggest impact of Espinosa in the lineup is the reliance that places on Kevin Frandsen as a pinch hitter and defensive replacement. While Frandsen offers that impossible to measure “veteran leadership,” he doesn’t offer much value to the Nationals if he has to play consistent time. Similar to the outfield situation, a second injury to an infielder leaves the Nationals with a big hole (Rendon and Zimmerman both have extensive injury histories so it’s certainly not a far-fetched notion) and likely requires Rizzo to go out and pick up someone off the spring training waiver wire or pull the trigger on a trade.

While that is a pretty dark and gloomy assessment, the big picture is much brighter. With the talent on the rest of the roster, especially within the starting rotation, the Nationals can afford a hole or two in their lineup for short periods of time. More importantly, the competition within the NL East is the weakest of any division in baseball. The Braves are rebuilding, the Phillies should be rebuilding but refuse to accept that, and the Mets and Marlins are breaking in a lot of young players and hoping a couple young and/or injured pitchers can make big strides. This gives the Nationals some breathing room. My worst fear is that Span or Escobar is rushed back too soon and ends up with a more serious injury right in the middle of the season. Given the Nationals recent history of position players rushing back to playing time, I would encourage the Nationals to be overly cautious in letting Span or Escobar back on the field.

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