John Markon, an uncommonly good major league columnist for a paper in a minor league town, chronicles Brandon Watson's ascent in this morning's Richmond Times-Dispatch. Markon employs as his theme for the column a nostalgic return to the old-style "spring training open competition," Watson v. Ryan Church, straight-up, for the centerfield and leadoff roles.
In truth, it is difficult to discern whether Markon considers the return of the open competition construct particularly wise, and he certainly does not paint the Nats' adherence to the concept as consistent:
"To me, the nature of baseball is that every player should be winning his job every day in spring training," Nats General Manager Jim Bowden said. "I know that it's not that way everywhere."
And it's really not that way with the Nats. When Bowden acquired Alfonso Soriano's $10 million contract in a mid-winter trade, there was no requirement that Soriano "win" his job in left field. One of Washington's starting pitchers this spring will be Pedro Astacio, who has a 10.50 spring ERA.
Markon writes that, by winning the centerfield/leadoff competition, Watson---who cleared waivers two seasons ago---essentially validated himself in the organization's eyes. Watson impressed the organization by taking instruction and by improving as he moved up the minor league chain:
"I had reports from both Jose Cardenal and Bob Boone [assistant GMs] that Brandon had turned a corner in New Orleans," Bowden said. "I know he was considered just kind of a slap-and-run hitter, but he's improved at every level, and now, he's outperforming the scouts' judgments."
It is, of course, not uncommon to see a player "improve at every level." The prospecthounds call this "repeating a level," and it's not altogether a good thing; often, it is more a sign that the player is a year older and consequently taking advantage of younger, less seasoned competition. But, truth be told, "repeating a level" doesn't really apply to Watson---until he got to Triple-A. In 2004, Watson was nothing special at Edmonton; in 2005, he was quite a bit better at New Orleans. I would imagine that the "repeating a level" hit does not apply as broadly at Triple-A, where the competition is older and often filled with so-called "Quadruple-A" retreads---guys who can definitely play.
But, unless the scouts see something significant that escapes the statistical record (which, of course, could well be the case), there is not much pointing to Bowden's contention that Watson has evolved past "slap-and-run" hitter status. In an excellent year at New Orleans (.355 batting average), Watson lashed all of fifteen doubles in just over 400 plate appearances. Watson's "Isolated Power" (SLG-BA) was a meager forty-five points, entirely consistent with the rest of his minor league record. Watson was "hittin' 'em where they ain't," just as he always had, except more effectively.
This spring, Watson has added only twenty-nine points of Isolated Power to his .299 batting average, chipping in two extra-base hits, both doubles.
So, Watson won this competition. But keep in mind that, unless Watson's improvement has heretofore escaped the statistical record, he'd have to hit pretty close to last season's .355 batting average at New Orleans to be a plus-performer at the big league level.
Perhaps recognizing that Watson's improvement seems subtle at this point, Markon notes that Watson should be as grateful as he is for the opportunity:
He should be. Not many organizations would have left such a key role open, and even fewer would have made a commitment to Watson, who still has many questions to answer.
But, as Markon remarks, at least Watson can answer these questions in Washington.
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I think my position on the matter is pretty straightforward: Church and Watson should not have been competing for a single job, and if they were, the entirety of Church's performance last season (not just his poor numbers upon his return from injury) should have given him a contextual boost. It strikes me as ridiculous that one of the team's most effective hitters last year---in a nearly 300 plate appearance sample---is starting the year in the minors.
But I will note my confusion as to how Church could have been oblivious to the existence of this competition. It was reported quite a bit in the papers, on the Nats' official site, and elsewhere in the media. One would imagine that word filtered to Church at some point, no?