Since the demotion of Lastings Milledge and Cristian Guzman's current stint on the DL started, both the middle infield and leadoff situations have been a complete mess. I hate to go all sabermetric on the Nats, but Manny's decisions regarding lineup construction simply don't make a lick of sense. I'll start with the middle infield situation, as (hopefully) Guzman is expected to return on April 29 when he's eligible. Someone's going to have to be trimmed from the roster when he returns, so let's bust out the candidates.
Ronnie Belliard - Belliard is the one guy that we can be sure will stay with the club upon Guzman's return. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that Belly Bombers has been battling back trouble all year, leaving him day to day for much of the early going. He finally got a start the other day to replace the struggling (not so sure that's how I'd put it... more on that in a bit) Anderson Hernandez, so the assumption is that he should be OK to make a start every now and again for the time being. Ideally, he'd be starting, as he's clearly the best hitter of the four. Belliard's lifetime .274/.339/.415 numbers show that he has the best OBP and Slugging numbers of the four. In truth, he probably did more as a part-time player last season than Hernandez, Gonzalez, and Cintron have done in their entire careers.
Alex Cintron - Honestly, I've never been a fan. Once upon a time, he was considered an above-average power hitting SS/3b prospect in the Arizona system. He lived up to the hype as a 24-year-old rookie in 2003, batting .317/.359/.489 with 13 homers in 487 plate appearances. The next year was when he got exposed, though, and he's never really seemed to be able to make the proper adjustments. His worst trait (by far) is his lack of plate patience, which is why it was so unacceptable that Cintron was batting leadoff in his only start so far this season. Cintron walked 29 times in that magical rookie season, and walked 31 times in 613 plate appearances on his way to a .301 OBP in his sophomore effort with Arizona. This sparked a move to a utility/platoon type of role for him in Arizona, Chicago, and Baltimore. Over the past four seasons, as he's averaged 248 plate appearances, Cintron has walked just 38 times (9.5 per season). Is there any wonder that in that game where Cintron led off, he saw a total of 8 pitches in four at bats (three of those were in his final at bat, a three pitch strikeout that saw him chase two pitches out of the zone). That's unacceptable from a leadoff man.
As for the power, that's dried up as well. Cintron has hit 20 homers in 1,505 plate appearances since hitting 13 in his rookie year. He's an average defender who can back up the entire left side of the infield (i.e., he can play SS or 3b). While he maintains a pretty good contact rate (roughly a strikeout every 10 AB throughout his career) and he's not horrible as an average-hitter, he doesn't bring much else to the table.
Anderson Hernandez - Why did I say that I didn't think Hernandez was struggling when I was talking about Belliard? Because he's hitting as well as anyone really should have expected him to. I said it before the season (you can read my musings at Fantasy Info Central) and I'll say it again now. I don't know what Manny's obsession is with Anderson Hernandez. He's above average with the glove (though he hasn't really shown it this year), but that's about it. Hernandez has been the primary leadoff man since the roster moves involving Milledge and Guzman, which would be funny apart from the fact that... well.... this has been my favorite team since the '80s when they were in Montreal.
Hernandez had a fantastic month (REAL small sample size) last season, batting .333/.407/.383 in 91 plate appearances. In truth, his entire MLB career (just 213 plate appearances) is a small sample size, but I'll bring up those overall numbers (excluding tonight's 0-5 game) just for the heck of it. Hernandez is a lifetime .228/.286/.279 hitter (for those not used to it, that's average, OBP, Slugging). For starters, to be slugging under .300 is just pitiful. When your slugging is lower than your OBP, which is below the OBP Mendoza line (.300) itself, there are some serious issues. For those into sabermetrics, Hernandez's career OPS+ is 49. For those who I'm speaking Greek to by talking about OPS+, a league average hitter would have a 100 OPS+. Adam Everett, a player who many think the Tigers signed this offseason to act as their pitcher in the lineup because of his outstanding glove, has a career OPS+ of 69. Hernandez may be a worse regular than Kansas City's Tony Pena was last year, and that's really saying something.
We shouldn't be surprised by those numbers at all, though. While his MLB time shows a small sample size, we can check out a much larger sample and look at his minor league numbers. In 3,824 career minor league plate appearances, Hernandez has hit .264/.309/.354. Yes.... that's a .309 lifetime on base percentage and a .663 OPS in nearly 4,000 minor league plate appearances, quite a few of which came in instances where he was old for the level he was playing at. There's a reason Hernandez was never really given much of a shot at becoming a big league regular in the past (keep in mind, he's 26). His bat does not belong in the major leagues! What's worse, he's not only in the majors, but he's been the guy the Nats are asking to set up their best hitters by (ideally) putting a man on base for them.
I know Manny loves him (I still haven't figured out why), but there's absolutely no excuse for the team keeping him up when Guzman comes back.
Alberto Gonzalez - I actually like Gonzalez a bit, and think he could develop into a solid utility man. On this team, that might mean that he'd be good enough to take over a platoon role with Belly Bombers and his injured back at second base when the roster moves are made. Gonzalez hasn't shown a lot more promise than Hernandez in the minors, but he has shown more. In 2,040 career minor league plate appearances, Gonzalez is a lifetime .276/.327/.383 hitter. He doesn't draw a lot of walks himself (roughly one every 16.5 plate appearances), but he is more useful in that area than either Cintron or Hernandez. He boasts a fantastic contact rate (1 K: 8.90 Plate Appearances), and he seems to have carried that over to the majors, fighting to stay alive in several of his at bats so far this year before eventually putting the ball in play.
His defense has been lacking a bit this season, as evidenced by his 5 errors in 39 chances. Gonzalez's minor league numbers are solid defensively, and he's primarily been a shortstop during his time down below. The fact of the matter is, however, that at least two of those errors (for those who have watched the games) can be attributed to a simple fact that the numbers don't show. He doesn't have the arm to play shortstop in the majors. He's trying to rush himself so he can rush his throws, because the arm strength just isn't there. A move to second (where the throws are shorter) could correct that, which is why I support him staying up and backing up/platooning with Belly. As the primary utility infielder, he could spell Guzman from time to time, but shouldn't be expected to do so on a regular basis.
By no means should Gonzalez see any time near the top of the order, but he's probably the player I'd most like to see up when they clear room for Guzman. While his age (25) wouldn't be a great indicator that we should see much improvement, he has considerably less professional experience (though he has enough to be given a serious shot in the majors) than Hernandez and Cintron. We know that the other two aren't really going to improve at this point. Gonzalez is a guy I could see turning into a .280 hitter with slightly below average plate patience and some speed.
My Verdict: When Guzman is healthy, he's obviously the everyday shortstop. Hernandez should be sent to Syracuse, regardless of Manny's obsession with him. Cintron could arguably be another option to head back to AAA (if/when Belliard is completely healthy), as you'd think that the club would prefer to have some heavy hitters on the bench rather than carrying four middle infielders. Until Belly's healthy, Cintron should stay up as he also provides an option to spell Zimmerman (if necessary) because he's the only guy who can handle third base of the options available. Gonzalez should be given 2-3 starts a week between second and shortstop. All of them should bat seventh or lower in the order when they're in the lineup!
The Leadoff Spot
Manny has fallen into a trap. He's convinced that he needs speed from the leadoff spot above anything else. This is why he went with Milledge there (more on him in a future post... I know he's taken a lot of bashing) despite Lastings' lifetime .326 OBP in the majors, his .330 OBP last year, and his apparent allergy to the base on balls. This is why he's gone with Anderson Hernandez (just look up if you want to see how poor a decision that appears to be), who boasts a .286 lifetime OBP (to go along with that whopper of a .309 minor league OBP) as his leadoff man since the front office sent Milledge down. This is why he's going to go with Cristian Guzman in the leadoff role when he returns, which makes me (again) wonder what he's thinking.
Don't get me wrong. I love Guzman. He's great in the field. He runs well (though he doesn't steal many bases). He's a fantastic hitter with an outstanding contact rate (1 K for every 7.5 Plate Appearances in his career...even better last season, at 1 K per 10.74 PA). However, despite batting .316 last season, Guzman had just a .345 OBP (23 BB in 612 PA... he's yet to draw a walk this year, but we'll forgive him because of that ridiculous .515 average). Ideally, you're looking for a .350 OBP or better from your leadoff man. To do that, Guzman would probably have to bat about .320. His contact rate makes him an ideal fit for the number two spot, which is where he's hit for most of his (crossing fingers, healthy) stay in Washington.
I was on record in the preseason when I saw a post on here with suggestions about what the batting order should be for the Nats this season as going with an unconventional choice (this is when we assumed Milledge would be here all year). If I'm writing the lineup card, here's my leadoff man, and there's no question in my mind about it.
Why would Dukes make a good leadoff man? For starters, let's take a look at that .386 OBP he had a year ago. Dukes drew 50 walks in just 334 plate appearances, and ended up with that OBP despite batting just .264. Including this season's small sample of at bats, Dukes has (in roughly a full season's worth of plate appearances ) hit .242/.361/.451 with 88 walks. That .361 OBP is just south of his career minor league OBP (.366), as he's a .280/.366/.448 lifetime minor league hitter in 1,779 plate apperances.
Want a faster guy leading off? Check. Dukes averaged 23 steals in his final four minor league seasons, and stole 14 bases in the majors last season in about half a season's worth of at bats. He can run.
Worried about putting one of your better power bats in the leadoff spot? Don't be. The fact of the matter is that the Nationals don't have anyone else who should bat in the leadoff spot. When you don't have any better options, it makes perfect sense to take one of those better run-producing bats that would be fairly well suited to give those other big bats in the lineup a chance at... well.. producing runs and place him in front of them. With Zimmerman, Dunn, and Johnson (my backup for Dukes... no speed, but does everything else) all in the lineup as guys who could handle the middle of the order, you're just wasting opportunities for them to drive in runs by putting someone who won't be on base that often in front of them. Ideally, Dukes would hit in the middle of the order, but if there are no better options, he needs to bat leadoff. There's nothing wrong with putting someone who can take it out of the park in the leadoff spot. If you think I'm kidding, just ask Rickey Henderson.
As for that backup plan, it's Nick Johnson. He doesn't run, but there's certainly something to be said about his lifetime .397 OBP. He's going to get on, and he's going to do so frequently. By putting a high contact, smart hitter that does the little things (ummm.... Cristian Guzman, anyone?!?!) behind him, the Nats will move him over more often than not, putting a runner in scoring position for Zimmerman/Dunn. Isn't that what the game's all about?