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Meet the new LF, same as the old RF?

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[editor's note, by Basil] As I note below, I started this post during the morning but didn't finish it until later. Parts of it now seem untimely. I've tried to incorporate updates as smoothly as possible.

According to the Associated Press, the Washington Nationals offered arbitration to one player, Jose Guillen, prior to last night's deadline to submit arbitration offers to players eligible for free agency. The team declined to offer arbitration to starting pitchers Tony Armas and Ramon Ortiz, as well as reserve infielder Robert Fick.

As the AP story notes, the arbitration deadline, formerly set for December 7, has reduced importance under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. In the past, players not offered arbitration could not re-sign with their former teams until May 1; now, that is no longer the case. Pursuant to the new CBA, the deadline mainly serves to set free agent compensation. Guillen and Ortiz were both classified as Type B free agents, meaning they potentially netted the Nats a compensatory pick between the first and second rounds of the June amateur draft if they signed with other teams. Because the Nats offered arbitration to Guillen but not Ortiz, they can only receive draft pick compensation for Guillen.

Washington can now go any of three directions with Guillen. First, it can re-sign Guillen to a new contract. Second, assuming Guillen accepts the arbitration offer, it can go forward in the arbitration process (or, as with the first option, sign Guillen to a new contract prior to the arbitration hearing). Third, it can simply let Guillen go to another team, with the supplemental draft pick as compensation.

Reviews of Guillen's horrid 2006 stretch across the horizon, but a brief one is in order here. During the spring, Guillen struggled with a surgically repaired left shoulder and injured wrist, and did not make his spring training debut until March 20. In the meantime, he rejected a four-year contract offer worth between $26 and $28 million; reportedly, he held out for a five-year, $50 million deal, the same terms Alfonso Soriano rejected last offseason. Guillen hit .237 in April and .180 in May, as he resisted going on the disabled list until it was plainly apparent he had to go on the disabled list. Guillen returned to hit .185 in June. He rallied a bit in July, until he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He underwent Tommy John surgery, ending his season.

At the time, estimates of Guillen's rehabilitation time ranged from eight to 18 months. It has now been approximately four months since the surgery. Opening Day is just over four months from now. That would constitute eight months. According to Nats.com, Guillen started taking batting practice in late October and remarked the elbow was getting stronger.

* * * *

Two-thirds of Washington's outfield situation is in flux. While Austin Kearns has succeeded Guillen in right, the other slots carry several question marks. In many ways, the Nats' offseason plans (offensively, at least) are balanced by Nook Logan. Whether he is viewed as a starter or fifth outfielder will have a domino effect on the rest of the outfield's composition.

Logan appears to be the presumptive starting centerfielder, but in all likelihood, a regular role stretches Logan's offensive skills beyond usefulness. While Logan can certainly run, and his ability to chase down and capture fly balls in RFK Stadium's vast alleys would be of significant assistance, he's never hit well in extended action, regardless of level. Logan's .300-hitting stretch playing out the '06 string for the Nats after being let go by the Tigers seems little assurance of anything. But it does provide the team an additional rationale for starting the season with him in a regular role, hoping to put his speed and defense to advantage.

Assuming for the moment Logan is viewed as the starter in center, several other players are then viewed in light of the slot in left and reserve positions. The Nats say they are high on Kory Casto, a consistent hitter in the minors who has garnered commendations at every level. Casto does not project---on paper at least---as a significant hitting prospect. This is not to say he doesn't project to hit at all; rather, his bat merely appears less suited to leftward shifts along the defensive spectrum, as Casto did in moving from third base to left after Ryan Zimmerman's arrival and emergence. Will Casto hit enough to be a viable corner outfielder? There's only one way to find out, and considering Casto turns 25 next Friday, there's not too much time to tarry.

Even if you pencil in Casto for left, an outfield is not comprised merely of the three guys originally selected for starting roles. Casto struggled against lefties in 2006; presumably, the organization knows this. To facilitate an easier transition to the big leagues, the club might start off Casto in a time-sharing arrangement. In all likelihood, this arrangement would involve a righthanded hitting partner. Alex Escobar's name springs to mind---but, if the name is as injury-prone as the genuine article, it tore something while springing. Escobar was super-explosive in short action for the Nats after missing all of 2005, but his susceptability to injury borders on the ridiculous. The club can't count too much on Logan because of his bat; the club can't count too much on Escobar because of his body. Put the two together, and there might not be enough left to support Casto sufficiently.

That leaves two righty alternatives: Michael Restovich, a former prospect whose career stalled and who was recently added to the Nats' 40-man roster; and Guillen. For what it's worth (and probably not much, considering it was a 105-at-bat sample), Restovich hit .305/.403/.562 against lefties this past season for Triple-A Iowa. (Of only slightly more utility, for his career, Restovich has batted .278/.329/.458 against southpaws.) There's a reason why Restovich was out there, and a reason why he was picked up on the cheap: Restovich's opportunity for notoriety has passed, but his bat might still be potent enough to contribute in a marginal role.

* * * *

With one exception---to be addressed in a moment--this leaves us with Guillen. Unless he is simply unable to recover, Guillen offers a better offensive alternative than Restovich. Despite the lost season, Guillen will also be more expensive. Going forward, I perceive Guillen carries three broad questions for the Nats:

  • How is the recovery going? (When will he come back at full strength? Will the injury dramatically weaken his strong throwing arm?)
  • What is Guillen's value? (How do other teams perceive him? How much would he cost through arbitration and on the open market?)
  • Would Guillen be willing to accept a lesser role? (Will he be content with anything less than every day action? Would he cause disruptions if Manny Acta placed him in a supplemental role, such as Casto's platoon partner?)
Obviously, while I do not know the answers to these questions, I think they are important. If he's not able to come back until midseason, perhaps Guillen is most suited to a deal involving a club option for 2008. Guillen has earned about $4.5 million the last two seasons; I do not know what arbitration would bring him now. He's a 30 year-old outfielder (will be 31 in March) who produced well in the recent past but is coming off an injury year and Tommy John surgery. Who's a good comp for that? Finally, would Guillen freak out now that his main supporter (Frank Robinson) is gone, or would he be forced to get with the gameplan now that his apparent enabler (Frank Robinson) is gone?

Anyway, if the Nats are so far into rebuilding- and diamond-in-the-rough-modes that Michael Restovich counts as a "tasty pickup," then I guess Jose Guillen is fairly moot. As previously noted, Guillen is not above turning down easy money. At this point, I can barely conceive of a scenario where another team would shell out good money for Guillen's servivces, but this would certainly seem the offseason for such an occasion to occur. If Guillen is gone, he's gone. If the Nats can get a pick for him, they seem to want to do so. But, if he's reduced to coming cheap, Guillen could still have his uses in DC.

Update [2006-12-2 17:53:34 by Basil]: Well, this is the danger with starting a post in the morning, setting it aside because you've got real-world stuff to do, and then picking it up later. According to Nats.com, Guillen is expected to sign with the Mariners. Fare thee well, Angry Man.

* * * *

As for the other guys, I don't see much reason for complaint. Armas, a Type C guy, was a stone-cold lock goner. Some desperate team might try him as a starter, and some creative team might take a broad look at Armas---inefficient, inconsistent, and unreliable as a starter---and try him in middle relief. Either way, the teetering one-lane covered bridge collapsed into the icy water, so to speak. As with Armas, offering arbitration to Fick would have gained nothing, and not offering it has lost nothing. I could see bringing back Fick as a pinch-hitter, third catcher, and general bench guy (first base depth, for instance), but other than his ability to catch in a pinch, it's no real loss if not.

As for Ortiz, my guess is the Nats figure: 1) good gracious, he pitched horribly for us; 2) he might be due for a raise via arbitration because, if nothing else, he can pile up some innings; and/or 3) both. Given this offseason, I have no clue what market there is for Ortiz's services; for all I know, he'll be paid $7 million a year . . .

. . . But most likely not. If he can be brought back for his 2006 salary ($2.5 million) or less, I can see doing it. At least he can go three straight starts without straining, pulling, popping, or tearing something. But there's no rush. Last season, the Nats signed Ortiz on December 29. Two seasons ago, they signed Esteban Loaiza in mid-January. I trust the market for him---or someone like him---will be sufficiently thin when the Nats are ready to buy.

Update [2006-12-2 17:53:34 by Basil]: The same Nats.com article speculates Ortiz could have received up to $8 million in arbitration. Two thoughts: 1) That seems pretty crazy, but what do I know? 2) Either way, that's one spicy meatball. Pass. The article says it's doubtful Ortiz will be back at any salary, but then notes he was praised for a positive work ethic and added versatility as an occasional pinch-runner. So we'll see.

* * * *

Finally, there's Ryan Church, who appears officially in the team's doghouse for his refusal to head on down to Mexico this winter. What you reap is what you sow---for both parties. Church can hit; there is little serious doubt about that. If his trade value is high enough, perhaps he can bring some pitching depth or a pitching prospect in return.

It's a real shame: The Nats want to put together a decent team without spending too much money. Church can play, and he's not even arbitration-eligible. Can't ask for a better match, but I suppose in reality you can.

Update [2006-12-2 17:58:24 by Basil]: Little did I know that Capitol Punishment published a nice and long post on the subject late last night. Lots of good insights there. But I have a feeling he'd be as shocked as I am about that $8 million figure cited in reference to Ortiz.