If you need an everyday second baseman for 2019, and the Washington Nationals finally admitted at the winter meetings that they probably do, then there has never been a better time to get one at a sane price as a free agent.
That is, if you can figure which of six possibilities still have good seasons ahead and which are just aging fool’s gold.
On the surface, this looks like a can’t-miss opportunity. Look harder and you realize that, while the Nats probably can’t pass up such a glutted-market chance, they also face a daunting challenge for their scouting and analytics brain trusts.
DJ LeMahieu, who has won a batting title, and Ian Kinsler, who will someday be on the Hall of Fame ballot, won Gold Gloves this year. They are the position’s slickest fielders right now, according to their peers. Brian Dozier, who has averaged 28 homers for the past six seasons, won the AL Gold Glove in 2017. The Nats, after three years of watching Daniel Murphy wrestle alligators on every groundball, say they want strong defense. That trio is about as good as it gets.
However, Jed Lowrie, 34, has been better than any of them over the past two years, averaging 18 homers, 84 RBI and a superb, do-everything-well 4.4 wins above replacement.
If you want versatility, Marwin Gonzalez, 29, and two-time all-star Josh Harrison, 31, can play second and third base, and corner outfield spots, too.
Asdrubal Cabrera (23 homers) and hit-machine Murphy probably aren’t targets for the Nats because their hit-first skill sets make them better suited to the AL. But also throw in switch-hitting but fading Neil Walker. They drive down the market price of the previous six. Talk about a glut.
Add one new factor to the offseason equation because everything interlocks this time of year. On Wednesday, the Nats traded workhorse starter Tanner Roark to subtract his $10 million salary. That means Washington can add more than $26 million to next season’s payroll without going over the luxury tax threshold.
The Nats’ essential priority is to replace Roark in the rotation. Maybe a first step is with a free agent such as lefty Wade Miley at perhaps $5 million annually.
Or, if you want to dream, imagine a trade in which the Nats swap a hot middle-infield prospect — Carter Kieboom or Luis Garcia — plus “others” for a much better-known pitcher. I’d mention flashy names such as Cleveland standouts Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber, who are rumored to be on the trade block, but even with Santa’s help, I can’t make such a deal with the Nats seem plausible.
Most likely is that the Nats now have enough room to sign a free agent second baseman to a sensibly priced one- or two-year deal that doesn’t block Kieboom’s arrival. Feel free to concoct other scenarios. For now, that’s mine.
Maybe the Nats saw this coming and didn’t want to show any of their cards when, weeks ago, General Manager Mike Rizzo said the team was “satisfied” with a second base platoon of good-field, not-much-hit Wilmer Difo and professional hitter Howie Kendrick. However, with Kendrick’s ability to come back from a torn Achilles’ an unknown, how could the Nats ignore all those second sackers? After all, a less-mobile Kendrick could get time at first base and left field.
Last week, Rizzo updated the script, saying: “If there was a definite everyday second baseman that we liked, we’d certainly consider that. If it was more of a hybrid role, we would consider that. We are . . . open to a lot of options.”
The most obvious solution would be LeMahieu, only 30 and a slick defender. Nobody knows how well he will hit when he isn’t playing half his games in mile-high Denver, where he has a career .329 average. On the road, he has hit .264. Because most teams assume that “.264,” with diminished power, is closer to reality, he may get lowballed. LeMahieu may want a one- or two-year deal to prove ’em wrong. That would suit the Nats. A longer deal, with Kieboom or Garcia arriving, might not.
Kinsler, with little fanfare, has had a near-Hall of Fame career with a lifetime WAR of 57.3 vs. the average HOF second baseman’s WAR of 69.4. Since he’ll be 37 in June and hit just .240 last year, he may get shunned. A one-year deal might be so low-risk, and Kinsler such a class act, that the Nats could be tempted.
My target might be Dozier, who hit 42 homers in 2016. Let him bat near the bottom of the order and hack away. He’ll soon be 32, and his .215 average last year will crush his value and contract length. But he still hit 21 homers with 72 RBI. He’s one year removed from a Gold Glove, and stat projection sites predict a return toward past form with 25 homers and a .777 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in ’19.
The safest option, and maybe wisest, too, could be Gonzalez, whom the Nats seem to prefer over Harrison, who has similar utility skills. Like all of these others, he’s a bargain for a reason: His WAR dropped from “star” (4.7 and 19th for MVP in 2016) to merely good (1.9).
Fans (and media) love to play general manager in the winter. You will seldom find a more fascinating or brain-twisting puzzle than figuring out how the Nats will use their new post-Roark salary flexibility.
The Nats have subtracted two rubber arms in Roark and Gio Gonzalez. With the elbow surgery histories of Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg, are the Nats in danger of being pinched in the starting pitching market, entering the season with their fingers crossed that their rotation stays intact?
Free agent starters Lance Lynn and Charlie Morton went off the board within hours of the Roark trade. Will that force the Nats to consider adding a bigger and more durable name to their rotation through free agency or trade?
Whatever the Nats do about their pitching, it’s hard to believe that they won’t take a shot at one of these six respected second basemen. You don’t get such a selection, and at such prices, very often. And, depending on whom they sign, and for how many years, what dominoes and trades may follow?
And you wonder why Rizzo has no hair.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.