The Cubs signed Carlos Pena yesterday to a 1-year $10 million deal, reducing the Nationals potential first base replacements by one. Now that both Pena and Lance Berkman have signed, we have a better sense of the market for first basemen—and who the Nationals should go for.
Carlos Pena helped the Rays turn things around in their 2008 run to the World Series, but he has never been as good. He has decline every year since his breakout 2007, when he hit .282/.411/.627 with 46 HR.
Two of his core skills—drawing a walk (14.9% BB rate in 2010) and hitting for power (28 HR last year, even hitting below .200)—have stayed constant, but his batting average has imploded. From 2008 on, here is the trend: .247, .227, .196.
Yes, last year Pena didn’t even hit .200. Though Pena’s decline in average appears to be due to an abnormally low BABIP (.250 in 2009, .222 in 2010, versus .279 career average), it’s hard to bank on a turn-around when so many teams are starting to invest in their defenses.
Mike Rizzo was apparently interested in Pena, probably because he had a similar skill set to Adam Dunn plus good defense. In a November interview, Rizzo said “We've been Carlos Pena guys here. He fits what we're doing. He's one of a handful of guys that would give us what we're looking for.”
Still, Pena is, right now, a lottery ticket. He could be a nice addition for the Cubs, or he could hit below .200 and be benched by June. Maybe it’s better the Nationals didn’t sign him.
Right now, that Nationals need more solid investments. We might be able to tell a story in which the Nationals are a good team next season—Jordan Zimmermann looks like the ace he can be, Danny Espinosa replicates his numbers from the minors and goes 20-20, Werth stays healthy and belts 35—but it’s not a sure bet. We’ve already got our lottery tickets.
What are our options?
(1) Adam LaRoche
-Bill Ladson reported today that LaRoche is the Nationals next most likely target now that Pena is gone. In that piece, LaRoche commented that he would listen to offers from the Nationals.
-LaRoche is as consistent as you get, hitting exactly 25 HR each of the last three seasons and contributing between 1.7 and 2.6 wins. His career line of .271/.339/.488 would be very solid in the 5 or 6 slot.
-LaRoche will only be 31 next season, putting him in the prime of his career. This means there is little likelihood of a drop-off.
-LaRoche plays better defense than Dunn, playing at about league average over the past three seasons, with 2010 being his best defensive season.
-Last season, LaRoche signed a one-year deal for $6.5 million with the D’backs. After having a slight down year (.261/.320/.470), he will probably be available for a similar price.
(2) Derrek Lee
-Although he has not been mentioned in talks with the Nationals, teams with similar needs—including the D’backs, Orioles, Athletics, and Padres—are all looking at him. If Lee is willing to move to Baltimore, you have to assume he’d consider DC—especially after the Werth deal demonstrates their commitment to winning.
-Lee is not as consistent as LaRoche, but he has more upside. In the past three years, he has hit 20, 35, and 19 HR. That means, at minimum, the Nationals are getting another 20-HR bat. Bill James projects him to be a little better next year: .278/.365/.475 with 23 HR.
-Derrek Lee has the best defense of anyone the Nationals are considering. He has won three gold gloves (2003, 2005, 2007), and has ranked as above average in fielding stats each of the last three seasons.
-Although it may sound trite, Lee does bring veteran leadership. He has been to the playoffs four times (with the Marlins, Cubs, and Braves) and won the World Series with the Marlins. Also I’ve also heard he’s a really good guy.
-In terms of a contract, Lee will probably cost around the same as Lance Berkman--$8 million for one year. He has a similar pedigree—former All-Star who is entering his twilight—and put up similar numbers last year to Berkman (Lee: .260/.347/.428 versus Berkman: .348/.368/.413).
(3) Mike Morse
-Morse is already under team control and proved he is ready to step into a larger role after a big year last season. A former Mariners prospect, Morse will already be 29 next season, but has never been given a full season of at-bats in the Show. Other late bloomers like Dave Roberts, Raul Ibanez, and Phil Nevin have gone on to have several productive seasons despite not earning full seasons of playing time until they were at least 28.
-Morse already has pretty decent career numbers. Over 162 games, he has hit .291/.353/.456 with 14 HR and 23 2B. Although the HR total is a little low, that triple slash line would be comparable to both LaRoche and Lee.
-Morse’s glove is a question mark. He has been pretty bad in the outfield, but has only ever had to make 22 plays at first base. Adam Dunn had a similar deficiency—he was awful in the outfield—but was about average defensively last season once he moved to first base. The same could be true with Morse.
-The best thing about Morse is his cost: he will be paid around the league minimum next season, making him a huge bargain.
What’s the best move?
As much as I like Morse and think he should be given more playing time, I think the Nationals should sign a free agent first baseman. Morse is unproven over a full season, and, as I mentioned, I don’t think we need another lottery ticket. Also, I think people underestimate the importance of depth. Willingham always misses several games due to injury, and so having Morse around as his back-up—with the ability to give a couple days off to Werth and LaRoche or Lee—will still give him the opportunity to prove himself.
Between LaRoche and Lee, I would prefer Lee. Yes, LaRoche is a little younger, but Lee is better defensively. Given that Mike Rizzo has prioritized defense for the 2011 Nationals, Lee fits. His glove will help make their pitching staff look good, and allow ground ball pitchers like John Lannan to thrive.
In terms of offense, LaRoche and Lee offer similar packages. While LaRoche will probably hit out a few more homers, Lee is better at getting on base. As anyone who has read Moneyball remembers, this is the most important skill in baseball, and something the Nationals were lacking last season (team-wide .318 OBP).
Regardless of what happens, the Nationals have several good options available—something fans could get used to.