The Nationals’ centerfielder search thus far this winter has proven fruitless. Even going back to last season, deals for at least two centerfielders, Denard Span and B.J. Upton, have been discussed in depth but resulted in nothing. However, an opportunity may have finally appeared, and the onus is on the team to get a deal done.
The Angels have an outfield logjam, as young CF Peter Bourjos is blocking the path of über-prospect Mike Trout. Their glut of young OFs is matched only by their dearth of quality relievers, as exemplified by their recent signing of Jason Isringhausen, who has thrown a total of 46.2 innings since 2009. The Nats, meanwhile, have the exact same issue in reverse. Centerfield is a perpetual black hole in D.C., but the bullpen is full of incredible young talent. The teams match up perfectly for a trade, and it’s up to their respective front offices to take advantage of this chance.
The Angels side of this deal is much easier to figure out. Bourjos is the odd man out in the LA outfield, as trading Trout would be inconceivable. He hit
.271/.327/.438 in his first full year in the majors, showing the potential he has to be a prototypical leadoff hitter. Bourjos also plays stellar defense, earning 1.4 defensive WAR last year, good for 4th in the AL. However, he had some discipline issues at the plate, as he walked only 32 times while striking out 124 times. While this may look concerning, it should not be much of an issue, as plate discipline is a skill that can be taught to still-improving young players. Bourjos’s youth also makes him more attractive, as he does not reach free agency until 2017. Obviously, a great young CF such as Bourjos will not come cheap. However, given the Nats bullpen depth, they likely have the piece to make a deal happen.
It will be painful for the Nationals, but getting Bourjos will likely cost the team one of its best relievers. Tyler Clippard established himself as one of the league’s premier setup men in 2011, earning an otherworldly 1.83 ERA in 88.1 IP, accompanied by a dazzling 10.6 K/9, all on the way to his first All-Star game appearance. In addition, Clippard led NL pitchers in WPA (win probability added) at 5.6, .6 above the second place finisher. For those who don’t know, WPA is the sum of the win probability added or detracted by a player throughout the season. For example: if a player hits a walk-off home run and increases his team’s chance of winning from 70% to 100%, he has added 30% of a win, or .3 WPA.
He is a key part of the bullpen, and his great numbers make him invaluable as a trade chip. Any team would salivate over the chance to acquire such a stellar reliever, especially a team with such bullpen deficiencies as the Angels. Losing him would certainly hurt the Nats, but the addition of Bourjos would unquestionably offset that.
With the Nationals’ bullpen depth and desperate need for a CF, they can justify trading Clippard for Bourjos. If Clippard were to be traded, his replacement would likely be Ryan Mattheus, who posted a 2.81 ERA in 32.0 MLB innings last year but will probably be bumped to AAA to start the year in order to manage the now-crowded bullpen. While a drop-off of almost a full run in ERA may seem like a steep price, it should also be noted that Clippard is unlikely to maintain his statistical excellence from 2011. Opponents had a batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, of almost 100 points below the league average, and very low BABIP is usually a good indicator of potential regression. Since Clippard is likely to regress, his trade value will never be higher than it is right now. If the team ever plans to deal him, this would be a good time and situation in which to do it.
Losing Clippard would deal serious damage to the Nats’ bullpen, and unloading an All-Star is not an easy decision to make. However, when the addition of a young, leadoff hitting center fielder with All-Star potential is at stake, the decision should not be a difficult one. It may take adding a prospect or two either way to get a deal done, but this basic framework for a trade could potentially give the Nationals the centerfielder of the future they have sought for so long, while minimizing the loss inherent in acquiring such a player.