Bourgeois, Ethier and Incremental Upgrades

The Nationals have been trying to solve their center field situation for quite some time, having their trade efforts rebuked and their name linked to mediocre stopgap solutions.

Last season, they were in the mix for both Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton but watched as division rival Atlanta acquired the former, while the latter stayed in Tampa and helped the Rays make the playoffs on the season’s final day. This offseason, the Nats have reportedly expressed interest in Gerardo Parra as a long-term solution, have considered Jason Bourgeois as a temporary stopgap, and have toyed with the idea of moving Jayson Werth over to make room for Bryce Harper.

In the meantime, they signed Mike Cameron and Rick Ankiel to minor league deals and are still considering Roger Bernadina for an extended look. Cameron retired, which leaves the in-house options at Bernadina or Ankiel if they want to keep Werth in right field. The only realistic external option at this point is Bourgeois, and when he represents the best anything, we’re discussing a problem without a clear solution.

If Bryce Harper is going to make the major league team, moving Werth to center field is the Nationals best bet right now. If not, the talent they have internally is just as good as the realistic external options. They shouldn’t make a deal if the upgrade is merely incremental, as that represents a short-term patch for a problem they need to solve long-term.

While center field is a position integral to the success of a major league team, the Nationals situation speaks to the larger issue of their overall roster construction: they have several similar pieces that will potentially get shuffled when Harper arrives.

If Parra is acquired, for example, and Harper makes the team out of spring training, then Michael Morse probably shifts to first base, which makes Adam LaRoche an expensive bench player. Teams aren’t exactly going to bombard the Nats with phone calls regarding LaRoche’s availability, so they either play him and lose production by sitting Morse, or play Morse and pay LaRoche to sit on the bench or to play elsewhere through an outright release.

If Harper doesn’t break camp with the team, there is no need to trade prospects for a Bourgeois, when he, Ankiel or Bernadina are only going to man the position for a month or two. Plus, Bourgeois doesn’t offer anything that the other two don’t. He doesn’t have much major league experience and has only played 400 career innings in center field, and at 30 years old doesn’t have an age advantage either. It isn’t as if he represents a junior varsity version of Bourn, one of the highest-rated centerfielders over the last few seasons. In fact, since 2009, there is virtually no difference between Bourgeois, Ankiel and Bernadina:

Name G PA wOBA Fld BsR WAR
Rick Ankiel 318 1059 0.296 5.6 -1 2.2
Jason Bourgeois 186 428 0.297 7.6 1 1.6
Roger Bernadina 228 803 0.308 -4.2 2 1.4

In looking at those numbers I struggle to see any reason to actually trade something from the Nats system to acquire Bourgeois. He may be a more natural fit in center than Ankiel, but there isn’t enough evidence to bear out the advantage of playing him at the position over Bernadina. And considering that, by most accounts, Harper is going to play for the Nationals this season, why bother trading for a two-month player, let alone one that isn’t any better than players already on the roster?

However, all of this is predicated on the belief that Harper plays in the major leagues. If the Nationals’ interest in players like Parra or Bourgeois is signaling that Harper may spend more time in the minors this season, then there is a better way to improve the team and potentially contend for a playoff berth: move Werth to center, regardless, and look to acquire Andre Ethier or a similar player for right field. The Nationals have a long-term center field problem to solve, but for 2012, it seems reasonable to think Werth could handle the position as well as, if not better than, Ankiel or Bernadina.

Ethier is only under contract for this season and is set to make ~$11 million. The Dodgers haven’t been quick to discuss an extension with him and, let’s face it, aren’t going anywhere this season. The Nationals could unload a mid-level prospect or two to bring him in and create a very solid outfield with he, Werth and Morse.

They don’t have to extend him beyond this season, with Werth and Morse under contract and Harper knocking on the door. And while Ethier isn’t a superstar, he is somewhat known around households, would create some more buzz and, most importantly, would improve the Nationals’ playoff odds this season more than Bernadina, Ankiel or Bourgeois.

Credit the Nationals for attempting to solve their problem in a creative fashion, by using an effective stopgap in Cameron, acquiring Parra or considering Harper-placeholders like Bourgeois. But this is a situation where they can improve the team by acquiring another corner outfielder and moving Werth to center for the upcoming season.

If Harper is going to make it to the majors before July, their most optimal outfield alignment is he, Werth and Morse from right to left field, and the most reasonable solution is to just use Bernadina or Ankiel until he arrives.

Otherwise, the Nationals are better off looking at Ethier as a one-year rental until Harper is ready, and making a stronger push for Upton or Bourn after the season. Werth isn’t a long-term solution in center, but using him there and shoring up right field in his wake is a happy medium between punting center field altogether with Ankiel, Bourgeois or Bernadina, and making the major splash with Upton or Bourn.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

27 Responses to “Bourgeois, Ethier and Incremental Upgrades”

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  1. Eminor3rd says:

    Man, the Werth signing was SO bad.

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  2. Jim Lahey says:

    They would have the worst OF defense.. By far I imagine. Ethier is horrible in RF

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    • pdowdy83 says:

      That sure hurt the Cardinals last year with Holliday in LF and Berkman in RF…

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      • Anon says:

        Holliday is above average on defense.

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      • rickeycanstillplay says:

        I think Holliday was above average last season and has been a plus defender throughout his career.

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      • pdowdy83 says:

        Ethier was listed as postive in RF too last year…I’m just saying some defensive metrics are inconsistent. I’ve watched Holliday play LF and while he looks adequate sometimes I would definitely not call him “above average.”

        I would still take Bourgeios over Ethier in this scenario as a platoon partner for Ankiel. The cost in prospects would be significantly less and Bourgeios is a better defender and base runner than Ethier with team control on his side to be a 5th outfielder who can play all 3 positions in a pinch.

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      • jim says:

        since when is matt holliday a bad defender?

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        Remember that one time in the playoffs Holliday missed a flyball against the Dodgers? That’s why (people think) he’s a bad defender.

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    • hayzer13 says:

      But he won the gold glove!!!11!

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  3. Marc says:

    Bourgeois make sense in a platoon with LaRoche. Against lefties (or with a flyball pitcher for the Nats) La Roche can sit, Morse moves to first and Werth moves to left (w/Harper) in right. If Harper isn’t on the team, it’s a platoon w/ Ankiel or Bernardina

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    • JCA says:

      Eric – it is only 200 PAs, but Bourgeois has a .369 OBP v. LHP for his career in the majors, with a .777 OPS. He is the type of guy who fits well for the short side of a platoon, and is kind of a natural job share for Ankiel, who is also a big platoon split guy for his career. The most significant difference difference between Bourgeois and Bernardina/ Ankiel is the side the plate they hit from.

      Bourgeois would be substantially less costly in terms of the type of prospect the Nats would have to give up than Ethier would be.

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      • blovy8 says:

        Exactly. They are tinkering a bit with Bourgeois as a would-be platoon partner for Ankiel in center before Harper comes up later in the year, since Cameron retired and the other righty options in camp are lousy. They’re not giving up Lannan for that guy. As it stands now, if Mark DeRosa shows decent power this spring, he could see significant time at right and first with Werth or Ankiel in center. I think Davey Johnson would normally opt for offense, but what worries me is that Carroll is getting a lot of playing time, which probably means he’s in line to make the club and they won’t have much coming off the bench. Flores could end up being their best pinch hitter if the roster doesn’t change. I don’t see them trading for Ethier, if they cared so little about outfield defense, they’d have signed a guy like Damon on the cheap by now and not given up anything but money. I don’t actually think that’s a bad gamble, really if he’s taking less than 5 million now. Maybe he’s gotten more aggressive going for 3000 hits, but he still would be better at the top of the order than what they’ve got, and Werth needs to get used to center regardless.

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  4. reillocity says:

    I’ll project that come 2013 the Nationals’ OF will be Werth, Bourn, and Harper moving from LF to RF … aka, the all-Boras OF.

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  5. Fletch says:

    No one buys Ethier’s positive UZR last season? Not that I mind one way or the other, but I’m just wondering what the reasoning is.

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  6. gabriel says:

    Maybe it was Baseball America – I’ve forgotten – I’ve heard it suggested that if Harper makes the majors, he should play centre over Werth- he’s just so much faster. Makes sense to me; Harper certainly has the self-confidence to tackle the position.

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    • AG3 says:

      While I can believe Harper is faster, Werth isn’t what I consider slow. Plus Werth has CF experience.

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  7. Uli440 says:

    You would know about incremental upgrades…

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  8. Dodgersbythebay says:

    Just mid-level prospects for ether!!! A lot more than that buddy!

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  9. SeanP says:

    If the Nationals are serious about contending this year, it might make more sense to hold on to LaRoche, even if they acquire another player for center or right. The Nats might not be able to get full salary relief if they trade LaRoche, so they may want to make him an expensive bench bat until one of the starters is injured.

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  10. Brandon says:

    I wonder if the Red Sox and Nationals could work out a trade involving Werth, Rendon and Youkilis? It opens a spot for Harper and fills a hole at 1B, while Rendon can actually play 3rd, which Youk can’t really anymore, and fills a hole in RF. Given the Werth’s huge contract, I’m uncertain how much more the Sox would have to add in to balance the sheet — but I’m afraid the Nationals might have trouble selling this to the fan base.

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    • Dane says:

      Youk wouldn’t be much of an upgrade at 1b at this point in his career. Nats already have an injury prone 3b on the roster, don’t need to add an injury prone 1b and lose their 2b of the future in the deal.

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  11. John says:

    Love the people ripping Ethier’s defense after likely having never seen him play in person. Gotta love the baseball know-it-alls.

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  12. Dane says:

    Nobody brings up the easiest CF to get in baseball… Borbon. Why wouldn’t we go for Borbon over Bourgeois? Probably cost about the same amount since Rangers want to start Gentry in CF and have Martin in AAA already getting everyday ABs. I know he didn’t have great defensive stats last year, but he’s a MUCH better leadoff hitter than the Nats have right now, and his defensive stats in 2010 show he can be much better in the field.

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  13. Math Nerd says:

    Maybe they should have kept Crazy Nyger…

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  14. Ludwig von Koopa says:

    So what you’re saying is… Jason Bour is the new Johan Santa?

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