Wednesday, December 08, 2004

His Name is Rios and He Dances on the Sand

The Pixies were great again. The austerity of the performance (no chit-chat between songs) made it all the more hilarious when Joey Santiago went all Nigel Tufnel during "Vamos," doing some kind of weird theremin thing with his guitar. I would have liked a little more variety to the set lists (they never did play "Dig For Fire" or any of the B-sides except "Winterlong"), but I don't mind hearing "Debaser" twice.

Time to weigh in on Johnson v. Rios before it's old news. First off, I'd rather have 150 games of Nick Johnson than 150 games of Alexis Rios. Johnson provides the on-base skills this team so desperately needs, and as a Baseball Prospectus subscriber I don't think I have a choice but to like him. The problem, of course, is getting 150 games out of Johnson - it's more than he's ever played in a year. The D.C. Baseball blog misses the real problem, I think, with this comment:
Nick, obviously has an injury history that needs to be accounted for. However, his most recent injury seems so random and unrelated that it is hard to hold it against him. Still, he is less likely to play a full season.
True, his most recent injury was random (he got his pretty face busted by a baseball), but that's not the only time he missed in 2004. Let's not forget that he started the season on the disabled list with the same wrist problems that have cost him scores of games over the years. Let's also not forget that wasn't even very good when he did play (.251/.359/.398, 7 HR). This isn't the kind of injury that goes away, and I'm becoming increasingly skeptical that Johnson will ever put in a full season or match his 2003 output (.422 OBP!).

What would Rios bring to the Nats? Our outfield at the moment consists of Brad Wilkerson in left, Endy Chavez in center, and Jose Guillen in right, with Terrmel Sledge and Ryan Church on the bench. Chavez, as you've probably heard, needs to go. He doesn't get on base, he has no power, he doesn't steal bases, and he's not a particularly hot centerfielder. Rios' rookie season was better than any year Chavez has had with the bat, and he was only 23 last season. Rios' defensive skills are open to question, but if he's put in center he wouldn't exactly be replacing Andruw Jones. Centerfield is the one position on this team that most needs an upgrade, and Rios could be the guy to do it. Meanwhile, Wilkerson should stay in left for two reasons: he's an above-average fielder there, and it keeps Terrmel Sledge out. I've wanted to keep Sledge on the bench ever since I saw this column on MLB.com:
Sledge will be the first to tell you, however, that he needs to improve his defensive skills. He often had problems with fly balls in the outfield and hard ground balls at first base.
So here we have a guy who didn't make the bigs until he was 27, put up a less-than-inspiring-for-a-corner-outfielder 799 OPS, can't hit lefties (643 OPS), and admits that he has trouble not only with fly balls but also with grounders. He sounds like a useful fourth outfielder/pinch-hitter type, but to entrust him with a starting job would be foolish.

So that leaves us with a gap at first base. When faced with a gaping whole like this, I find it instructive to look at last year's Cardinals. Having let Fernando Vina go, the Cards were faced with the challenge of finding a second baseman. They had Hector Luna in the system already, and they signed Tony Womack and Marlon Anderson for $300,000 and $600,000 respectively - three second sackers for less than $1 million total. Thus, the Cards found themselves an effective 2B (Womack, as it turned out) and deepened their bench all for less than the cost of one-fourth of Cristian Guzman. This is what the Nats should do with first base. Bowden has been pursuing Team Leader Wil Cordero, so bring him on. I like Tony Clark (he looks like a mad scientist and slugged .472 and .458 the last two years), so throw him an offer. Give Sledge a chance at some of those scary grounders. Nobody gets more than a million and one year, and no one gets promised the starting job; if they don't like it, get someone else. It's the concept of replaceable talent at work. You give yourself flexibility and the chance to find a guy having a surprising year, like Womack last year. I'd be shocked if you couldn't get Johnson's .251/.359/.398 line out that or a similar group.

If this trade offer is real, it's an easy decision. Replacing Johnson with Rios might hurt the Nats' offense slightly in 2005. But what about after that? Rios is two years younger than Johnson, and Nick is very unlikely to age well. He is possessed of old player skills (good strike zone judgment, no speed), and big, slow first basemen don't age gracefully. Add in his chronic injuries, and you have a player who's much older in baseball terms than in years. Rios would add youth and potential, save money, improve the defense, and is much more likely to play 150 games.

In other news, is Jim Bowden consulting for the Yankees on the side?

8 comments:

John said...

Plus, Sledge has that whole steroids thing hanging over his head... Still, I think you're overrating defense. There are plenty of horrible left fielders getting the day to day starting job. I'd rather see the guy play day to day, particularly if the option is Chavez. If you look at this move, what I think is going on in Bowden's head is that he knows he doesn't want to play Chavez, and would prefer to get someone who looks like a real CF, instead of using Wilkerson there.

Also, while Nick is an OBP guy, he is not expected to grow into a power hitter, whereas Rios is. Rios clearly needs better plate discipline, but he's not too far off from Johnson's level of performance to date. He's likely to make some sort of improvement next year (hopefully in walks). He also seems less likely to spend lots of time on the DL, as you noted.

All in all, I wouldn't throw Armas into the deal as has been rumored, but I'd sure throw in Chavez, even eating his salary, just to open up a new roster spot for the Rule 5 draft ;-)

BTW, I don't think Clark is a great asset. All he has is his power, so he is always swinging for the fences. As a result, he has not broken above a .300 OBP since 2001. And if you want his power to pay off, he's probably going to bat under .225. He looked so desprate to get big hits last year, I suspect he's even got a good shot of battling the Mendoza line all year. But half of however many hits he does get will be doubles or homers, sure.

Washington Baseball said...

I think the comment that Nick won't age well is a bit misplaced. First off, I don't think the Nationals need to worry about either of these players aging as neither one has hit their prime years yet. Second, the patient player tends to age much better than the free swinger (like Rios). Nick isn't really overweight in the Cecil or Mo mold that has had some problems, so I really don't think Nick is prone to follow their career paths.

As to his injury history, I think all of us are guessing a little. Nick's wrist injuries have been cloaked in secrecy by both the Yankees and Expos. It is unclear (although I agree probable) that they are related. Still, without knowing the exact nature of the injury and having someone like Will Carroll interpret the significance of that injury, I don't think any of use can assess the probability that it will repeat.

I'm still sticking with my belief that Nick is a better bet until Rios proves his one year at AAA wasn't a fluke. Nick's track record is just better, IMO.

Ryan said...

Nick Johnson is a perfect example of a guy with "old player skills." That alone shouldn't prompt a trade, but combine it with his injury history (and I don't think those wrist problems are going away), minimal defensive value (he's already at the bottom of the defensive spectrum, so where does he go if he gets worse?), mediocre power potential, extra two years of age, and a couple million extra in salary, and I'd much rather have Rios. Yeah, he's a free swinger now, but he put up a 286/338/383 at age 23. Jose Guillen at 23 had a 253/315/340 line. Sosa? 260/317/393. The fact that Toronto apparently wants Armas thrown in shows just how lopsided a straight-up Johnson for Rios trade would be in our favor.

Chris Needham said...

I was with ya up until the Tony Clark comment. I had to watch that POS strike out 4 times in a cold October rainstorm, costing us game 6. He may be a great person, but as a ballplayer, he'd make a good well... umm... he wouldn't be a good anything. /Yankee fan rant.

I agree that you're overrating defense a little. Wilkerson's a pretty good defensive outfielder and Sledge is probably below average--but I don't think he's the second coming of Greg Luzinski either.

Sledge isn't a great offensive player, but he has a decent track record in the minors and he's cheap. I really don't think that either Wil Cordero or Tony Clark--hell, even Julio Franco--would be an improvement.

I'd be just as inclined to find a platoon partner for Sledge in left and take the few hundred K and upgrade the bullpen a bit.

Ryan said...

Yeah, I've got an unreasonable thing for Tony Clark. I do think he could be a useful part-timer, though.

I don't know anything about Sledge's performance in the minors, but would he have been three years older than everyone else for most of it? Regardless, I don't think he deserves to start full-time at any position. Left field defense isn't the most vital thing, I realize, but it seems kind of a waste to put a fine athlete like Wilkerson at first when he should be roaming free on the outfield grass.

I think we're getting Wil Cordero no matter what - there's your Sledge platoon partner. That might not be so bad, actually. Cordero's pretty effective against lefties.

Washington Baseball said...

I think the comparisons between Rios and Sosa and Guillen are misplaced. Guillen was a Rule 5 pick so his development path was distorted in the way that many Rule 5 picks are. Sosa is a very unique player and hoping Rios will turn into him is pretty much playing Powerball and hoping for the big prize.

Looking at Rios's comparables from PECOTA (which I expect will be less spectacular after his lukewarm 2004), there are some impressive names:

Frank Thomas
George Bell
Don Mattingly
Dave Concepcion

However, the list is filled with no-names and failures. David Green was the most comparable player (beating out Frank). If his PECOTA projections account for 2004, I expect to see a bunch of washouts move up on the list (like Tatis, Mateo, and Easley). In fact, Rios reminds me a lot of Mateo. If the trade goes through, I hope I'm wrong, but I still think Nick is the safer bet.

Olivier said...

Oï...

Johnson's got, for what it's worth, emerging power. To my knowledge (I don't read Caroll UTK, but I do live in Montreal), the injury that disabled johnson at the beginning of last season wasn't wrist related, it was something piched in his back. When he came back, he flat out raked, and then slipped into some nasty funk. Then, as somebody wrote somewhere, his face broke.

But From what I've seen, the guy has 30HR potential; he can hit HR at any field and could make a great #2 hitter nested between Wilkerson (whom I'd keep leadoff until someone proved he can take a walk) and Vidro.

That being said, Rios is really intriguing. If they hadn't sold Pascucci to some Japan team for 300k, He and Sledge would've made a nice 1B platoon. But hey, Bowden has provided me so much Shadenfreude over the last month, I shan't criticize.

Randolph said...

J.J. Davis might work as a Sledge platoon partner... I'm probably the only one who thinks so, but I think it's more worthwhile to find out if he can play than to fill in with guys like Cordero or Clark.