The lineup is set: we have acquired an aged, overpaid third baseman; a lazy, overpaid shortstop; a manager-slapping right fielder; and a back-up catcher whose name I didn't even know a week ago. Now talk has shifted to Jim Bowden's next move, probably a free agent pitcher. Paul Wilson is off the market, having found another sucker. Matt Clement and Brad Radke are apparently out of our price range, so we're left with Russ Ortiz, Jaret Wright, Odalis Perez, Esteban Loaiza, and Derek Lowe. I give my endorsement to Odalis Perez, who could be a real bargain, and I shudder at the thought of any of the other guys (check out this Mariners-specific analysis from Jeff Shaw at Mariner Musings). That's not really the point of this post, though. I'm going to use Derek Lowe as a nifty segue into the state of our infield defense. I'm pointing this out now so you won't be surprised when it happens.
Derek Lowe became a full-time starter in 2002 after five years as a reliever, and he was totally off the hook. He supplied Boston with 219 innings at a 2.58 ERA, good for a 171 ERA+, the latter two numbers second-best in the league. His performance dropped in 2003 (4.47 ERA, 105 ERA+). He allowed 50 more hits 24 more walks than he had the year before, resulting in 38 more earned runs. His 2004, of course, was a disaster - 5.42 ERA, 90 ERA+ (and still a 14-12 record, which is why I ignore wins and losses for pitchers). I don't know why Lowe's fallen off so badly. Supposedly the guy's a headcase; I don't follow the Sox, so maybe one of you can tell me. The bottom line is that he's headed in wrong direction and that his superb '02 and good postseason record will probably get him more money than he's worth.
He might be worth taking a flyer on, though, if you have a great infield defense. Lowe has an astronomical 3.34 ground ball/fly ball ratio for his career. A disproportionate number of balls put in play off Lowe are hit on the ground and are thus the responsibility of infielders. For comparison, Jose Lima's career G/F is 1.07, meaning he gives up nearly as many flies as grounders and would thrive with a great outfield behind him. So the next question is, do the Nationals have a great infield defense? Let's go one position at a time, from least interesting to most. NB: I'll mainly be using two Baseball Prospectus stats: Runs Above Average (RAA), a counting stat that expresses how many runs a defensive player saves over a season compared to an average fielder; and Rate2, a rate stat where 100 is average.
First base is fine. Nick Johnson is likely to be the starter as long as he stays off the DL, and he's solid, with a 105 Rate2 over his career and 9 total RAA. If (when) Johnson goes down, Brad Wilkerson would take over, providing the same 105 Rate2. That leaves Terrmel Sledge in left, but we'll talk about that another time.
Third base is also fine. For all the ragging I do on Vinny Castilla, he is a good defender. He was below average in 2002 and 2003 but has been very good for most of his career, including a 107 Rate2 and 10 RAA last year. Utility guy Jamey Carroll has been very good at third and pretty poor elsewhere, though sample size is an issue with a player without a regular position.
Shortstop is an interesting case, one I've adressed before. But what the hell, I'll do it again. Cristian Guzman was signed in large part owing to his allegedly stellar defense. According to my BP stats, he was good, really good, last year. His 15 RAA was better than any season Rey Ordonez ever had (Ozzie Smith, by the way, could put up 15 in his sleep with a broken leg). However, it was the only time in a six year career that Guzman was even average. Why the sudden surge in defensive production? Chris at Capitol Punishment argued that it was the result of a change in turf at the Metrodome, 2004 being the first year with a new, more lifelike substance. The most compelling evidence in favor of this idea is that Guzman's partner at second base, Luis Rivas, experienced a similar jump in his stats (91/8 in '03 to 115/29 last year). The stats of backup infielder Michael Cuddyer and former Twins Chuck Knoblauch and Pat Meares bear it out as well. If this is the correct explanation, we can expect Guzman to be pretty good playing on real live grass (and I don't mean in the same way Jeremy Giambi plays on real live grass).
Finally, second base. Jose Vidro has a great reputation, and it's largely deserved. He's a good hitter and actually signed a contract extension with the Expos before he knew their fate. Unfortunately, he's a lousy fielder, and this is not a recent development. In a seven years, Vidro has been above average once (2002), exactly average once (1997, and that was in only five games), and below average five times. His career RAA is -50 and his Rate2 94. Consider that Jeff Kent, widely considered to have the range of Michelangelo's David, has marks of 8 and 101. Given Vidro's age and the injuries he's dealt with, there's very little chance that this is going to improve. Now, I'm insistent that we should not rely on just one defensive stat. They still can't be trusted. Fine, but Ultimate Zone Rating and Win Shares don't like him either. This is not to say that Vidro isn't a helluva player; while RAA, UZR, et al. may hate him, OPS and EQA think he's great. The guy can hit, and his bat more than makes up for his glove. He's like our very own Derek Jeter, except that you don't want to punch him in the neck.
In conclusion, our infield defense is pretty good, except for all the grounders skipping past our valuable but glacial second baseman. I personally wouldn't give Derek Lowe more than two million a year if we had Clete Boyer, Mark Belanger, Bill Mazeroski, and Vic Power around the horn, but we should all thank Mr. Lowe for making us think critically. Thanks, Derek. I hope the Mets sign you so we can beat the crap out of you.
I hope this was enough DS action to tide you over for a while, because I'm out of commission until Sunday. Keep your heads up and use the ever-expanding link field to your advantage.