If you are reading this article, you likely know that the Nationals recently traded four highly touted prospects to the Athletics in exchange for starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez. This acquisition fulfills Rizzo’s stated desire for a top-of-the-rotation starter. The team’s need for a centerfielder, however, persists. Despite the loss of these prospects, many centerfield options remain for the team to pursue, whether through trade, free agency, or internally. A popular option is to shift Jayson Werth to center and find another corner outfielder, and perhaps chase a long-term CF after the 2012 season. In light of this, each of the following sections looks at center and corner options for the Nationals this offseason and centerfield options the next.
The Trade Route
Any discussion of centerfield trade targets for the Nationals this offseason has begun with Rays CF B.J. Upton. A hotly discussed commodity before the Gio trade, Upton plays stellar defense in center but is not an ideal leadoff hitter, with an on-base percentage below .335 and a batting average below .245 in every year since 2008. He has said, however, that Washington would be a preferred destination of his if he were to be traded from the Rays, as he was a childhood friend of Ryan Zimmerman. Earlier, trade rumors had players like Derek Norris and A.J. Cole at the top of Tampa’s wish list for Upton. I discussed potential Upton deals before and after the Gio trade with two of Fansided’s best: Nathaniel Stoltz, the senior editor at our prospect website, Seedlings to Stars, and Robbie Knopf, a staff writer at our Rays website, Rays Colored Glasses. Before the trade, Norris was the center of the discussions, logical considering the Rays’ need for catchers. Afterwards, a quick conversation made it clear that the Nationals have little left with which to tempt the Rays. However, Upton could be a National yet, even without a trade, as he is a free agent after 2012.
Beyond Upton, there are not many centerfield trade options for the Nats this year, regardless of their assets. The Twins have stated their disinclination to trade either Denard Span or Ben Revere, and most other teams are simply unwilling to deal leadoff-hitting centerfielders, like Peter Bourjos of the Angels, and understandably so. However, if Werth were to be moved to center, the Nationals could delve into the wide-open corner outfielder trade market.
A name being widely discussed among corner outfielders on the block is Colorado’s Seth Smith. Smith would be a nice addition to the lineup, having hit .284 last year with a .347 OBP, better than all Nationals but Morse and Zimmerman, and 15 HR, albeit with the thin Coors Field air. Smith’s glove, however, does not match up to his bat. He had a -7.8 UZR/150, meaning his fielding was 7.8 runs worse than that of an average corner outfielder. Having a poor glove in right field would provide no help to Werth, who could be somewhat overmatched in center, especially if bracketed by two poor fielders. The team would do well to add a solid glove in right to aid Werth in his transition to center. Smith will also likely be somewhat expensive in terms of prospects, considering the high interest in him across the league, making him a less-than-ideal trade candidate.
Unlike the problem-ridden Smith, there is no better option for the Nationals among corner outfielders on the trade market than Diamondbacks outfielder Gerardo Parra. Parra hit .292 in 2011 with an OBP of .357, better than every Nat except Morse. With such a high OBP, he could also fill in at leadoff at times. In addition to his potent bat, Parra is a stellar fielder. He won the 2011 NL Gold Glove for left field, and posted a UZR/150 of 10.2 across all 3 outfield positions, 18 runs better than Smith. While such a player may sound extremely valuable, Parra has been demoted to a 4th outfielder role with the Diamondbacks now that they have signed Jason Kubel. He could likely be had for a low-end starter such as John Lannan, who could potentially be the odd man out in the Nationals’ rotation regardless of potential trades. Parra is also 24, and arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason, meaning he is under team control until 2016. He could be demoted to a bench position in 2012 once the Nationals find their future CF and bring up Bryce Harper, given how inexpensive he is. However, if he impressed enough after a season in right field for the Nats, he could be traded for a bounty to an outfielder-needy team. Given his fielding prowess in left, it is also not inconceivable that he could transition to center field and maintain his offense to the point where he could become the mythical centerfielder of the future. Regardless of what the future may hold, Parra would be an excellent addition for the Nationals if they choose to move Werth into center field.
If the Nationals do end up opting for a short-term fix in right or center and find themselves in this same predicament next offseason, they could once again look to the trade market. However, it is very difficult to predict that market. If Minnesota falls from contention, and Revere establishes himself as the future in CF, Span could be trade bait. If Andrew McCutchen has a falling-out with the Pirates, and the team becomes concerned about its ability to sign him to a long extension, he could become available, albeit for a high price. It is nearly impossible to know who might be available.