This is Part 2 of our look at the potential options available that could help address the center field need currently facing the Washington Nationals. Part 1 may be found here.
The Free Agent Market
The only viable long-term CF in this off-season’s free agent pool is Yoenis Cespedes, the 26-year-old Cuban defector with the mind-boggling 20-minute-long training video. Despite playing against A-ball level competition in Cuba, Cespedes is considered by most to be ready to make an immediate impact in the majors, and has been called the greatest player to come out of Cuba in a generation. He plays passable, though not stellar, defense, and his main strength is his bat. According to projections by ESPN’s Dan Szymborski, Cespedes will have an approximate triple slash of .265/.330/.435 with 20-25 home runs in a hitter-neutral park, which Nationals Park most certainly is. Those numbers imply that Cespedes will be a strong middle-of-the-order bat, and a nice addition to any team. For the Nationals, he solves the problem of needing a warm body to play centerfield, and would contribute nicely to the lineup with his hitting ability. However, he is not the high-OBP, leadoff-hitting centerfielder that Rizzo is looking for. While he may be a good player and would be a solid addition to the lineup, he is not the perfect player for the Nats as they are currently constructed.
Among stopgap corner outfielders, who would be options if Werth moves to center, the market is thin this late in the offseason. The only remaining full-time or semi full-time corner outfielders from 2011 are Raul Ibanez, J.D. Drew, Juan Pierre, and Cody Ross. None of these players had an OBP above .330 last season, and all of them are 31 or older with careers on the decline. Ibanez has been productive with the Phillies, and has killed Nationals pitching over the years, but had an OBP of only .289 last year, and will likely not be a MLB starter this season. Drew played in only 81 games for the Red Sox while battling various injuries, hitting only .222. He is also unlikely to start for an MLB team this season, and, being 35, may retire. Pierre performed the best of these four last season, hitting .279/.329/.327 and stealing 27 bases. However, Pierre is an ex-centerfielder who began playing in the corners in 2008 and, at age 34, is in the twilight of his career. He may be worth a flyer, but would likely not hold up well for a full season. Ross is the youngest of the three, but only played 121 games with the Giants last year. He hit a paltry .240 but also earned a respectable .325 OBP. He is the most likely of these four to have a successful season next year, and if the Nationals were looking for a whole-season corner outfielder, they would do well to sign Ross. However, Ross is reportedly looking for a 2-year deal, so the Nationals are unlikely to get him to D.C. with the one-year deal that would suit their needs.
If the Nationals decide that they want a centerfield stopgap, the most viable free agent option this offseason is 32-year-old Coco Crisp, formerly of the Oakland Athletics. Crisp played 139 games for Oakland last season, playing great defense but only hitting .264/.314/.379. Crisp’s career is on the decline, but he still projects to be a serviceable starting CF in 2012, especially considering that he stole a career-high 49 bases in 2011. He would likely not hit leadoff, and his bat would not be extremely useful, but he could still contribute somewhat on offense. His greatest impact, however, would be on defense, where he could take some of the load off LF Michael Morse and combine with Werth to form a solid defense behind the Nats’ young starting lineup, including Crisp’s ex-teammate in Oakland, Gio Gonzalez.
Rick Ankiel started the majority of the Nationals’ games in CF in 2011, and is now a free agent, but he is unlikely to resign with the Nationals. He hit .239 with an OBP of .296 in 2011, and would likely not have contributed to the team as anything more than a 4th outfielder, a role now likely occupied by Mike Cameron.
Any stopgap, whether in center or in right, would hold the team over until the 2012-13 offseason, which has a bounty of centerfielders. The biggest name on that list is current Atlanta Braves centerfielder Michael Bourn, who will turn 30 before the 2013 season. He had his best season yet in 2011, hitting a career-high .294 with Houston and Atlanta, while also posting an OBP of .354 and stealing 61 bases, perfectly fitting the description of a leadoff-hitting centerfielder. Bourn is also a great fielder, having won two Gold Glove awards. However, center fielders have a short shelf life, just look at the durable Torii Hunter transitioning to a corner in his age-35 season. This means that the team that signs Bourn will have a maximum of five seasons with him in center, with declining play after two or three seasons. This same concern holds true for another free agent, Shane Victorino. Victorino is productive, hitting .279/.355/.491 last season with 17 home runs. He is also a great fielder, winning the Gold Glove award in 2008-10. However, he will turn 32 during the 2012-13 offseason, and will likely have to soon move to a corner spot.
If this short career concerns the Nationals too much for Bourn or Victorino to be the CF of the future, another 2013 free agent will be the previously discussed B.J. Upton, who will be only 28 years old. As mentioned before, Upton is not an ideal leadoff hitter, but that fact could be refuted by Upton’s performance this season, even though that is unlikely. Despite that flaw, Upton could still be the Nationals’ top target if Ian Desmond proves himself to be the leadoff hitter this season, eliminating the need for a top-of-the-order bat. The need for a leadoff hitter could also be satisfied if Desmond falters and minor leaguer Stephen Lombardozzi, widely considered to be a prototypical leadoff hitter, thrives in replacing him.