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Position Battles: Nats’ 1B/OF Mess

The Washington Nationals’ roster is, to say the least, jumbled at the moment. Between first base and the outfield, the Nats have a consortium of promising youngsters, former and failed top prospects, injury risks and overlapping parts. Short of petitioning the league for an extra outfield spot or two, Washington is going to need to sort out how to deploy newly-signed Adam Dunn (1B? OF?), Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge, Josh Willingham, Austin Kearns, Wily Mo Pena and Willie Harris, and will also need to figure out if the brittle $10.5M combo of Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young can provide any value. Dave Cameron summed up GM Jim Bowden’s circus-like roster construction best:

“If Bowden was a general contractor, he’d build houses with nine bedrooms, six garages, no bathrooms, and half a roof.”

According to Washington’s official depth chart as well as this MLB.com story, Dunn will be taking over duties at first base for the Nats. While the 29 year-old is allergic to all things leather (-12.6 career UZR/150 in the OF, -11.3 at 1B), shifting him to a corner infield spot is the lesser of two evils in the non-DH league.

There’s not much to say about Dunn’s offensive profile: while not aesthetically pleasing to those who fancy batting average, the former Red and D-Back has tremendous plate discipline and a ton of raw power. He has posted wOBA’s of .365, .399 and .383 over the past three seasons. Granted, those wOBA figures aren’t park-adjusted, but Dunn’s offensive production is still very impressive once you strip away the benefit derived from Great American Ballpark and his short time at Chase Field. Dunn’s park-adjusted batting runs above average over the 2006-2008 period: 17.9, 34.5 and 27.4.

The slugger who has eerily posted exactly 40 home runs each of the past four seasons will now reside in Nationals Park. We have only one year of data for the new stadium, so making any sweeping conclusions about the offensive environment of the park would be fruitless. It played as a slight hitter’s venue overall in 2008, though it slightly suppressed homers. Odds are, Dunn’s production will slip to some extent without GABP (128 HR park factor from ’06-08), but the park adjusted runs show that he’s still a very productive batsman.

If Dunn will be settling in as the everyday first baseman, then that leaves Nick Johnson and his partner is medical commiseration, Dmitri Young, without a place to play.

In case you have forgotten (perfectly understandable, considering he missed all of ’07 and accumulated just 147 PA last year), Johnson is a wonderful offensive player when he’s healthy. With a career .370 wOBA and a near-.400 OBP, “Nick the Stick” could be a fantasy beast in a utopian society where world hunger, global warming and war have all come to an end. Unfortunately, Johnson remaining upright for a full season might be the least probable of those four scenarios: Nick’s 2007 season was wrecked by a broken leg, and his ’08 campaign was derailed by a tendon injury in his right wrist. He has taken 600 PA in one season exactly once in his career (2006). Owed $5.5M in ’09, Johnson could find himself on another roster come April. The Indians, Angels and Giants seem like possible fits.

If the gifted-but-breakable Johnson seems superfluous in Washington, then it’s doubly so for Dmitri Young. Young came to the Nats at perhaps the lowest point of his professional career, having played poorly for the Tigers while dealing with personal issues in 2006. The minor league free agent resuscitated his career in ’07, posting a .374 wOBA in 508 PA. However, GM Bowden got the warm fuzzies for Young and his other minor league scrap heap find, Ronnie Belliard, and signed them both to misguided, multi-year extensions. Young took just 180 trips to the plate in 2008, as complications from diabetes led to weight problems. Outrighted off the 40-man roster during the fall, Young is currently listed as a non-roster invitee. $5M commitment or not, his chances of making the club appear between slim and none.

Now that we’ve assessed the first base situation, it’s time to focus on the truly messy conundrum: the outfield. First, let’s get this out of the way: the two guys that positively, absolutely need to be playing on an everyday basis are Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge. While Washington has a lot of bodies for those three outfield spots, Dukes (24) and Milledge (24 in April) are two gifted youngsters who will be part of the next relevant Nationals team.

Dukes’ highly promising 2008 season has been chronicled here before: he posted a robust .382 wOBA and was worth nearly 3 wins to the Nats, despite taking just 334 PA. Dukes’ plate discipline, pop and athleticism figure to make him a well-rounded contributor. To do anything but give the 6-1, 240 pounder a full season’s worth of at-bats would be a masochistic act by the Nationals.

Milledge remains a fairly raw player, having drawn a walk just 6.8% of the time in 2008 while swinging at about 32% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone. However, he managed to post a decent .268/.330/.402 line, chipping in 24 steals in 33 attempts. A highly-touted prospect with the Mets, Milledge posted a career .303/.376/.477 line in the minors and possesses the skill-set to turn into a big asset for Washington in time. As with Dukes, Milledge needs everyday playing time to smooth out the rough edges in his game. Platooning a guy like this would be detrimental to the club’s overall rebuilding effort.

If Milledge and Dukes occupy center and right field, respectively, then the left field gig will likely go to newly-imported Josh Willingham. “The Hammer”, picked up from Florida along with Scott Olsen earlier this offseason, has been remarkably consistent at the plate over the past three seasons. From 2006-2008, Willingham has posted wOBA’s of .364, .365 and .363. 30 years old tomorrow, Willingham has some deficiencies with the leather (-6 career UZR/150 in LF), but his patience and solid pop make him a worthwhile contributor.

So, Willingham, Milledge and Dukes are the likely starters. That still leaves a couple of former top prospects and a defensive whiz to fight for roster spots. Former Reds outfielders are sort of like erstwhile Cincy GM Jim Bowden’s “White Whale”: in addition to bringing in Dunn, Bowden had previously swung trades to acquire Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena.

Kearns has been a pretty valuable player at times in his career. A plus defender with good plate patience, Kearns racked up 4.1 Value Wins between the Reds and the Nats in 2006, and was worth 3.6 wins during an ’07 season where he supplemented mild offense with great D. However, the 28 year-old’s offensive production has essentially fallen off of a cliff over the past two years. Kearns was never a hulking slugger (career .175 ISO), but he posted a .145 ISO in ’07 and a paltry .099 ISO in 2008. He still worked the count well and was the victim of poor luck on balls in play in 2008 (.251 BABIP), but the lack of punch is disconcerting. Kearns was beat up last year, dealing with a stress fracture in his foot and an elbow injury. Perhaps I’m just stubborn, but I think that Kearns could be of some value if he ends up taking his $8M salary elsewhere. It wasn’t that long ago that he was a solid contributor.

It’s almost impossible to fathom, but Wily Mo Pena has been in professional baseball since the end of Bill Clinton’s second presidential term. The Mets originally tried to snag Pena out of out the Dominican Republic, but later voided the contract. The Yankees swooped in during 1999, handing him a hefty $2.3M bonus. Later shipped to the Reds for another ill-fated prospect, Drew Henson, Pena was in the majors with Cincinnati by the age of 20. Pena has since played sporadically for the Reds, Red Sox and Nats, and owns a career .253/.307/.447 line.

One has to wonder what sort of player the 6-3, 245 pounder might have developed into had he been given sufficient time to hone his craft in the minors. That’s not to say that the 27 year-old is a lost cause, but the song remains the same for Pena: feats of strength sprinkled in with few walks (career 6.3 BB%) and a whole lot of whiffs (32.7%). Pena is coming off of a wretched 2008 (.227 wOBA in 206 PA) and appears to be lost in the shuffle with Washington. His skill-set just doesn’t appear suited to part time or pinch-hit duties: with a long, convoluted swing and a propensity to chase (33.2 O-Swing% from ’05 to ’08), Wily Mo might not be that useful off the bench.

Would you believe me if I told you that Willie Harris was Washington’s most valuable position player in 2008? I swear, I’m not making it up: the light-hitting utility man somehow managed to pop 13 HR in 424 PA, good for a .340 wOBA. He also posted a +32 UZR/150 in about 700 innings the outfield. All together, Willie managed to be worth 3.2 Value Wins, surpassing Christian Guzman‘s 3.0 (honest, that’s true too) and Dukes’ 2.9. Of course, there’s little reason to take Harris’ offensive outburst as more than a blip: the 30 year-old has a career .343 slugging percentage and .303 wOBA in the majors. With so many other bats ahead of him, Harris figures to use his outstanding glove (career 15.2 UZR/150 in the OF) to carve out a role as Josh Willingham’s legs in the late innings. For fantasy purposes, he’s a non-factor.

Every time I think about Washington’s outfield/first base glut, I keep on getting this image in my head. I mean, how are they all going to fit in there? Odds are, one or possibly two of the fellows listed above will be changing addresses sometime soon. With Dunn now in D.C., the Nats must not sacrifice the development of either Dukes or Milledge- those guys need to play.