The Ronnie Belliard era is over in Washington.
So which second baseman is coming to DC this winter?
Taking a look at 2010 free agents, second base looks thin. Mark DeRosa and Orlando Hudson head the class, but having starred since moving over to contending teams. That makes it hard to see them skipping town for the worst team in the league. Hudson was actually a Nat’s target this past offseason—but shunned them for the Dodgers.
That leaves the B-list: Felipe Lopez, Aki Iwamura, Adam Kennedy, Placido Polanco, and Freddy Sanchez. Nobody on the list is young enough to be a cornerstone, but there are certainly a few solid stop-gaps that won’t embarrass DC.
We can rule out Lopez right away. He moped and whined through a couple execrable seasons in DC and then, as if by magic, remembered to hit as soon as he started playing for a team with hopes of contention. Nothing burns me more than a guy making millions who doesn’t try, and the Nationals will be better off without his losing attitude.
Good teams are all alike; every poor team is poor in its own way.
The Nationals can score runs alright—4.47 per game, compared to a league average of 4.45—but cannot field to save their lives—their .678 defensive efficiency is dead last in the league. For DC, a second baseman who can flash the leather will be more important than one swinging a big stick.
Aki Iwamura is the odd man out in the Rays’ infield. While he was injured this season, Ben Zobrist decided to have an eye-popping atomic supernova breakout, leaving Iwamura without a starting job, and likely headed out of Tampa Bay after the season. That isn’t to say he shouldn’t be starting somewhere.
Defensively, Iwamura is decent, at 1.5 and 1.6 UZR/150 (runs above average over 150 games) in the past two seasons. Offensively he’s about league average, with a career line of .282/.355/.395. Put together the glove work with decent batting and you have a player who has been worth 2.4 and 2.6 wins above average in two full seasons.
Adam Kennedy is a Moneyball player, so it’s not surprising he’s ended up on the A’s. An unsexy veteran, he manages to put up average offensive numbers (.280/.335/.399 this season, .276/.329/.390 career). The defensive picture, however, is more clouded. Over his career he has been good—8.2 UZR/150—but the past three seasons he’s swung like a pendulum between daft and deft. Chronologically, his UZR/150 has been: -5.7, 21.8, and -10.6.
If you believe in natural karmic cycles he should be slick again next year, but if you want a little certainty it would be better to pass Kennedy by.
Fans might remember Placido Polanco from his 2007 season, when he hit .341/.388/.458 and was probably on the team that won your fantasy league. This season his bat has slipped a little—to .273/.318/.395—but given his unlucky .280 BABIP, he’s likely to move back towards his career norm of .303/.347/.414.
Perhaps more exceptional than his hitting, is his fielding. He owns the longest errorless streak for a major league second baseman, set from the end of 2006 to the beginning of 2008—which includes an entire year (2007) without an error. In the past three seasons, his UZR/150 has been: 12.0, 3.6, 9.0 (chronologically).
At his worst, Polanco is the best free agent second baseman we’ve looked at. At his best, he’ll give a team more than a win just with his glove. Polanco has been worth 5.3, 3.1, and 2.2 wins over the last three seasons, and his skill set is exactly what the Nationals need.
Freddy Sanchez has a similar profile to Polanco: a career year in 2006 in which he hit .344/.378/.473 and a career line of .300/.336/.420. His defense has been just a touch worse than Polanco’s over the same time period. His UZR/150 for the last three seasons: 11.6, -1.8, 7.5.
During that aberrant 2008 season, Sanchez was recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and dealing with a rotator cuff inflammation that made it difficult for him to throw. That is an explanation, but also raises concerns about his health.
This season, Sanchez was on the 15-day DL with a shoulder strain. Although his numbers this year have been good, the repeat shoulder injury casts doubt on whether he has completely recovered—and whether he is the kind of player who can stay healthy for a full season.
Overall, Sanchez has been worth 3.8, 0.4, and 2.4 wins above replacement the last three seasons, making him a strong second choice if the Nationals can’t get Polanco. The only difficulty is whether San Francisco picks up his option for $8 million next season. They gave up their fourth-best prospect (according to Baseball America) to get Sanchez; it’s hard to imagine they would let a .300 hitter, at a hard–to-fill position, walk after that.
To review, the Nationals should pursue: (1) Placido Polanco (2) Freddy Sanchez (3) Aki Iwamura. Sanchez may not be available, and Adam Kennedy is out there, but isn’t really worth it.
If last season’s offseason can serve as a model, teams are leaning towards the “stars and scrubs” system of compensation—in which star players get enormous paydays (see Mark Teixeira’s 8 years/ $180 million) while everyone else gets much more moderate contracts (see Adam Dunn’s 2 years/ $20 million). In that climate, the Nationals should easily be able to afford a solid veteran at second, even if they have to pay a small premium to lure him.
So, Mike Rizzo, next season, let’s put someone at second fans can cheer for.