Mike Rizzo said something today during an interview with MLB Network radio that I had been meaning to point out (I e-mailed myself a note about it and everything, Rizzo just beat me to it) about the Nationals’ center field situation. That is: This year’s center field free agent class is barren, and next year’s looks like it’ll be loaded.
“We see the 2013 free agent class at center field is much stronger than it is for the 2012 season,” Rizzo said. We know [Jayson] Werth can handle the center field position. It’s not a perfect world for us. … We recognize that we need a true gliding, defensive, rangy center fielder out there in a perfect world. As far as the 2012 season we’re not going to make a kneejerk reaction and lock ourselves into anything long-term if it doesn’t make sense for us.”
Rizzo seemed to wave the white flag on landing a top-shelf center fielder this offseason. Having just dealt four prospects for Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals would risk significantly depleting their farm system in trying to swing a trade for a center fielder – and the kind of center fielder the Nationals want does not seem to be available on the trade market now, anyway.
Barring a high bid on Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, the Nationals will enter the 2012 season with Jayson Werth in center field. Like Rizzo said, that’s not ideal and it’s certainly not a long-term solution. You don’t see many (any?) 34-year-olds excelling in center field. But waiting for next winter to find a long-term center fielder seems to make sense for a number of reasons.
The free agent center fielder pool next winter is deep and attractive. Some will either sign extensions or regress, but Michael Bourn, Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino, Grady Sizemore, Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera could all hit free agency after next season. It will take only money, and not prospects, to acquire them. The Nationals had keen interest in Bourn last year, starting initial trade talks with the Astros that didn’t materialize.
Internal factors also make patience the sensible play in acquiring a center fielder. Next offseason, the Nationals will no longer be paying Adam LaRoche if they don’t want to — he has a team option for 2013 — and they will have more evidence to determine if Michael Morse can play first base every day. In other words, they will definitely (if they want to) move Morse to first base, Werth or Bryce Harper to left and then fill in the hole in center field. If they find out they need a first baseman and a center fielder, they can adjust their budget accordingly. At least they’ll know.
A year from now, the Nationals will also have had one more season to evaluate Brian Goodwin, Michael Taylor and Eury Perez, three minor leaguers who could, in seaons down the road, play center for the Nats. That’s another factor that will help the Nationals – do they need a long-term answer, or could they try to sign someone like Victorino as a two- or three-year stopgap?
Either way, unless the Nationals hand over about $40 million for Cespedes, who should officially become a free agent within a couple weeks or so, they won’t be fulfilling one of Rizzo’s stated, primary goals — getting their center fielder — this winter.
And it’s logical. You could fault Rizzo for saying he wanted to land a center fielder in the first place way back in October, but things changed this offseason. Bryce Harper tore apart the Arizona Fall League, they failed to sign a free agent pitcher like Buehrle and they traded prospects for Gonzalez. It may be disappointing for the Nationals to wait to land their center fielder. But it probably makes the most sense.