Nationals Add Chris Duncan, Chuck James, and Tyler Walker

Farid RushdiAnalyst IJanuary 26, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO - MAY 31:  Chris Duncan #16 of the St. Louis Cardinals bats against the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park on May 31, 2009 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Call Nationals’ general manager Mike Rizzo the stealth GM. Unlike his predecessor, Rizzo shuns the limelight and speaks only when he has something to say.

Like now.

The team announced on Monday that they have come to terms with reliever Tyler Walker and starter Chuck James. Also—and this falls in the how did the entire baseball world miss this department—Washington also signed outfielder Chris Duncan a week ago.

Each move answers a question that has been swirling around the Nationals in recent days.

Rizzo has worked diligently to bolster the worst bullpen in baseball this off season and has done a credible job of it, already adding Brian Bruney and Matt Capps. Returning from last season is Tyler Clippard, Jason Bergman and Sean Burnett, leaving one spot still available.

Walker fills that spot.

Walker, 33, did a solid job last season in Philadelphia, going 2-1, 3.06 in 35 innings. Since 2007, his record is 9-9, 3.58, with a 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio. His opponents’ batting average /on-base percentage/slugging percent is an amazing .234/.300/.378.

He keeps the ball low in the zone and gives up few home runs. He has a low-90’s fastball and a great curve. He gets out lefties and righties equally well.

It seems that the bullpen is now set, with the only question being whether Jason Bergman or Eddie Guardado wins that sixth and final spot.

Walker is a great pickup for the Nationals.

Chuck James is one of those low risk, high reward players that the franchise used to thrive on.

In his first two years with Atlanta (2006 and 2007), James went 22-14, 4.02, allowing 8.5 hits, 3.3 walks and 6.8 strikeouts per nine-innings. His opponents’ batting average was .251 and he allowed just a .320 on-base percentage.

James is a finesse pitcher who uses his change to strike out a lot of batters. He does a good job of keeping them off balance. He’s very similar to John Lannan in that when he’s missing his spots, he gets creamed, giving up too many home runs.

But I’d love to have another John Lannan in the rotation if he’s healthy.

He tore his rotator cuff early in 2008 and underwent surgery for both that as well as a torn labrum. He’s apparently 100% healthy but he hasn’t pitched since early in the 2008 season. He agreed to a minor league contract so he’ll have to earn his way back to the major leagues.

If he’s healthy, he could fill one of those two remaining rotation spots very well. He’s only 28 and has plenty of career left if he can again take the ball every fifth day.

But it is too soon after his surgery to expect much from him this season.

Of the three signings, Chris Duncan is the most intriguing. The son of Cardinals’ pitching coach Dave Duncan, he spent his first five seasons with St. Louis before being trading to the Red Sox last summer for infielder Julio Lugo. He played for a month in their minor league system before being released.

In 2006 and 2007, Duncan batted .273-43-113 in 655 at-bats (.276-33-85 over 162 games). He had a solid .362 on-base percentage and struck out 195 times.

The 6’5” 28-year-old is similar in build to Adam Dunn and walks and strikes out like him as well. He has less impressive power numbers only because he can’t hit lefties. For his career, Duncan has averaged a homerun every 18.1 at-bats against righties while Dunn connects once every 17.3 at-bats.

Over the past two seasons, Duncan’s numbers slipped to .237-11-59 in 482 at-bats. Duncan’s agent blames the problems on neck and back problems that required surgery. Duncan says he’s 100% healthy and is ready for the upcoming season.

Defensively, Duncan is a slightly below-average fielder, along the lines of Josh Willingham.

My guess is Duncan will is the Nationals’ heir apparent in left field if Josh Willingham is traded for a starting pitcher. But he can’t play every day. He needs to be in a platoon.

What if Duncan faced just right-handers and Justin Maxwell hit against lefties? Based on their career averages, their production would look this way, assuming Duncan gets 350 at-bats and Maxwell 250:

Duncan: .270/.366/.476, 18 homers and 55 RBI

Maxwell: .286/.362/.429, 10 homers and 53 RBI

So, if both players hold true to their career stats, they could produce a .277-28-106 line with solid on-base and slugging percents.

This of course assumes Josh Willingham is traded. Rizzo had a deal completed last month that would have brought the Nationals a “Jordan Zimmermann type starter” but the other team backed out at the last minute.

If another deal is in the works, Duncan and Maxwell could replace his offense and another major league quality pitcher would certainly strengthen the rotation.

But this is pure speculation. Duncan signed a minor league contract which tells me that no one thought he was able to help them at the major league level in 2010.

But Mike Rizzo likes to work in the shadows, so we’ll never know anything is happening until it happens.

Stay tuned ….


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