The Washington Nationals find themselves with a unique problem this year, in that they have six capable players manning a total of just three available positions in the outfield (and a fourth for your purposes in your leagues if you count DH). While having this kind of depth in the real world is an advantage in case of injury or poor production, the playing-time situation is not so grand if you’re a fantasy owner who has some of these guys on your own team. Since part of the problem arose just as the season was about to begin-long after I had finished the rankings for each position, and somewhat out of nowhere in one particular case-I wanted to devote today’s article to looking at each of these players in depth and revising what we might expect out of them.
Left field may be the only one of these positions where there is no real issue, thanks to the man patrolling the spot. Adam Dunn is making $8 million this year and $12 million the next, and he was signed this winter despite the Nationals’ being nowhere near competitive in the National League East and already having plenty of outfield options to choose from. I love Dunn’s bat-he hit a combined .236/.386/.513 for the Reds and Diamondbacks last year, and PECOTA has him down for .241/.378/.473 this year. That forecast seems a little low even if he’s leaving those two hitter-friendly parks from ’08, solely because his BABIP was a below-average .262 last season.
Even with the improvements though, he’s not good for more than a handful of wins thanks to his atrocious defense. According to UZR, he was worth -28 runs defensively last year; his three-year average is -20.6, and chances are that it’s going to get worse, not better, given his age and already limited mobility. That’s neither here nor there in most fantasy, as you only care about his bat, but it does raise an eyebrow if wondering why the Nats would have picked up this erstwhile DH to man a position where you need to wear a glove. If you have Dunn, you’ve got the cream of the Nats’ outfielder crop, if only because he’s the most likely to play in 150 games while his most significant shortcoming won’t hold back his fantasy value.
Things are not as simple as that in the other corner outfield spot. It looked as if Elijah Dukes would have the job in right field; he hit .267/.417/.554 after the All-Star break and has the kind of talent that could result in a 30-30 season. Fantasy owners love those kinds of magical combined power/speed numbers, so the desire to have someone with his ability in a starting gig was a saliva-producing proposition. PECOTA is all about Elijah Dukes, forecasting a .278/.386/.485 line for the 25-year-old along with some impressive upper limits on his projections. It was a bit jarring when manager Manny Acta-known among the sabermetric crowd for his statistical acumen-named Austin Kearns as the starter. Unless the Nats had spent much of their scouting budget over the past few seasons researching a functional time machine (whether to put a stop to the Kearns trade with the Reds, or to pluck the more productive Kearns from the past for use in the present), Dunn’s former and current teammate is probably going to be far less productive than Dukes. PECOTA certainly thinks so, giving Kearns a disappointing .264/.354/.416 line devoid of the power he was once known for.
While this makes no sense in terms of real-world or fantasy production, it is in the best interest of the Nationals in the long term, as Kearns is making $8 million this year, and has an option for $10 million in 2010 that has a $1 million buyout. The Nats need to boost his trade value and get something for him at the deadline, if not sooner-that value isn’t going anywhere if he doesn’t play. Let’s be honest, this situation sucks from a fantasy perspective, especially given Dukes’ potential, but as a baseball decision, it makes a great deal of sense. Remember that forecast for Kearns, though-you don’t need him on your team, even if he is the starting right fielder, unless the Nats do have that time-travel technology in working order. If you have Dukes on your roster and the room on your bench, keep him around, because halfway through the year the Nats will probably start playing him, and you may still be able to get 15 or 20 home runs and steals out of him, depending on how much playing time he accrues in the interim.
Then again, there is still a chance that he picks up nearly as much playing time as we expected if the Nats’ other young player continues to struggle with his glove in center field. For his career, Lastings Milledge hasn’t been that terrible as a defender-he was a few runs below average in both of his years with the Mets-but he was awful last year in extended playing time in center. We’ll forget about the fact that he hasn’t been hitting during the first few days of the season, but the Nats are concerned about his defensive misgivings in the early going, enough so that we’ve already seen quotes on the subject from outfield instructor Marquis Grissom in the Washington Post. He needs the practice, as Grissom said, but the Nats aren’t about to keep Elijah Dukes out of the lineup if Milledge isn’t helping them either offensively or defensively. This will hurt owners of both players in the short term, until a long-term solution is found in right field (one without Kearns). I still like Milledge, since he has plenty of talent and performed well after the break in 2008 (.299/.355/.448), but if the Nats start messing with his playing time, then his value will be diminished significantly.
Finally, there’s the issue of what they should do at first base. Nick Johnson is there for now, and his forecast has him down for a line of .267/.410/.472 and an EqA of .312, well over the average at the position from last year (.283). Of course, there’s one slight problem that arises whenever you talk about Nick Johnson and try to project his season: his health is on shakier ground than the plot lines from the past two seasons of Heroes. He’s made 600 plate appearances in a season just once in his career, and has averaged 411 PA over the course of the past six seasons. Things looked to be on the brighter side during his first two years with his new team, but he was only around for 147 PA last season, and hit .220/.415/.430 while he was there. If he’s healthy for the Nats this year, great! They have themselves a productive first baseman, and you’ve got yourself someone that you probably picked up late in the draft or even off of the waiver wire, since many folks are nervous about his ability to stay in the lineup.
If he’s not healthy, then Josh Willingham gets a shot-first base is the only position where he’s #2 on the depth chart. The former catcher isn’t as young as you might think; he’s 30 years old, and without the upside or room for growth that he’s had in the past. PECOTA still thinks he’s a capable hitter though, with a forecasted line of .266/.357/.465 (.287 EqA). The problem is that he’s going to see little to no playing time in the outfield with the game of musical chairs already being played out there, and unless Johnson gets hurt, he won’t see much time at first either, making his fantasy value nonexistent unless and until a job is actually handed to him.
What looked like a simple and reasonable arrangement during spring training has turned into something far more complicated thanks to the decision to bench Dukes in order to boost Kearns’ trade value, as well as Milledge’s inability to turn himself into a quality center fielder quickly enough. That last isn’t a knock on Milledge; it’s going to take some time before he’s accustomed to the position, but the transition period may also affect his fantasy value if the Nats become impatient, especially with Dukes right there on the bench. You’ve gone from having three obvious fantasy selections and a few more sleeper-oriented picks in Johnson and Willingham, to having just Dunn and two players you may want to stow away on your bench until things are (hopefully) sorted out by the midpoint of the season.