Peter Gammons of ESPN reported on Friday morning that the Nationals have offered to trade first baseman Nick Johnson to the Boston Red Sox for relief pitcher Manny Delcarmen, but Theo Epstein—for the moment, anyway—has said no.
Johnson, 31, is playing at his career best this year, batting .338, four home runs and 25 RBI, with a .436 on-base percentage. At this pace, he'll end the year .338-16-100, with a .906 OPS. Delcarmen is 0-0, has an 0.95 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 19 innings in 2009.
For his career, he is 4-3, with a 3.25 ERA.
Of all the decisions facing the Nationals, what to do with Nick Johnson is probably the most difficult. Prior to Opening Day, I would have taken any low level prospect in return for the oft-injured first baseman, but at this point, he's worth so much more than that.
Batting second in the lineup, Johnson is on base 43 percent of the time ahead of Ryan Zimmermann and Adam Dunn.
He's on pace to either score or drive in 210 runs for the Nationals this year from the number-two spot in the lineup, more than Adam Dunn's 204 in the cleanup spot.
Here are the National League East rankings for runs scored and driven in for the five team's number-two batters:
1. Nick Johnson (WAS): 52
2. Shane Victorino (PHI): 51
3. Jeremy Hermida (FLA): 34
4. Luis Castillo (NYM): 31
5. Casey Kotchman (ATL): 30
That says a lot about Nick Johnson's worth to the Washington Nationals. The offense has been at or near the top of the National League this season and Johnson is no less important, and perhaps more so, to the Nationals than sluggers Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn.
Twenty-five RBI from the number-two spot? That's unbelievable. Among the above players, Johnson's 25 RBI is also first, followed by Victorino (23), Kochman (18), Hermida (16), and Luis Castillo (11).
Now, I understand that a nine-year veteran who has lost almost half of his career to injuries, and who will be a free agent at the end of the year, isn't worth a whole lot as a four-month rental to another team.
And receiving a top reliever like Delcarmen will certainly help stabilize the worst bullpen in the major leagues. But the Nationals will be a far worse team without Nick Johnson for two very important reasons:
First, Nick is a very special hitter, in that he has a high average, has good power and walks a lot. He is just as apt to hit a long home run to right as he is to bloop a single over the shortstop's head. He gets on base, he moves runners along, and he scores a lot of runs.
And if he's traded, who takes his place? Christian Guzman would make the most sense, but the Nationals have no one else to bat first in the lineup. Trading Nick would leave a gaping hole in the offense that can't be solved by plugging someone in-house into the lineup.
And second, who would replace him at first base? Dunn would be the logical choice, but the powerful slugger, who is below average in the outfield (and I'm being gracious here), has shown he's even worse at first. I mean, Frank Howard was a better fielding first baseman than Adam Dunn.
It's a tough situation. The Nationals are desperately trying to field a competitive team, and the loss of Nick Johnson will make the team worse. But Rizzo understands that the Nationals could lose Nick to an injury at any moment, and with his loss would go any hope of getting anything of value for him.
Also, regardless of how well he plays this year, the Nationals won't allow themselves to get burned again by re-signing him to a multi-year contract.
As bad as it will hurt, Rizzo has no choice but to trade Nick now, knowing that the team will (gasp!) be even worse than they are now. They can only hope that Dunn can man first base adequately, and that Josh Willingham hits better when given the chance to play every day.
There is no win-win situation when it comes to Nick Johnson right now. Any deal, any situation, any positional change, is going to hurt the Nationals.
And there will be fewer fans in the stands, if that's even possible.