Plenty of options for Nats in center

Plenty of options for Nats in center
November 2, 2012, 12:15 pm
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The big free agent signings of the MLB offseason are likely weeks away, but it is probably a good idea for Nats fans to get used to hearing the name Michael Bourn. Because of a logical fit in the lineup and an obvious connection with his agent Scott Boras, nearly everybody in the national baseball media sees Washington as the favorite to land the speedy center fielder. Take Jon Heyman of CBSsports.com or Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated for instance.

But for Bourn to land in Washington, several things would have to happen. For one, the Nats would have to fork over a lot of money, potentially $100 million according to some reports

At 29 (30 on Opening Day) and with an inconsistent 2012 (.311 BA in first half, .225 in second half), Bourn and Boras may end up settling for something less than nine figures. But either way the price will be high and the years included may become the biggest issue. 

The Nationals would also probably have to create room in their lineup by either letting Adam LaRoche walk via free agency or trading Michael Morse.

One other obstacle for the Nationals, if they are indeed as interested as many speculate, could be the Philadelphia Phillies. Philly is said to be looking for an outfielder who can hit at the top of the order. They are a lefty-heavy lineup and could be looking for someone different, but Bourn represents familiarity having coming up through their farm system.

The two top position players that fit the need both the Nationals and Phillies seem to have are Bourn and B.J. Upton. Sports Illustrated rates them as the second and third best position players available in this year’s class. Both players are excellent base runners and very good defensive center fielders. Bourn has traditionally hit for a higher average and slots better in the leadoff role, but Upton packs power and could make up for the removal of Morse’s production from the lineup.

Here is a look at the last two seasons for each player:

Michael Bourn (29 years old)

2011 – 158 G - .294/.349/.386 – 94 R – 2 HR – 50 RBI – 62 SB

2012 – 155 G - .274/.348/.391 – 96 R – 9 HR – 57 RBI – 42 SB

B.J. Upton (28 years old)

2011 – 153 G - .243/.331/.429 – 82 R – 23 HR – 81 RBI – 36 SB

2012 – 146 G - .246/.298/.454 – 79 R – 28 HR – 78 RBI – 31 SB

Both players strike out at a high rate, but Bourn’s on-base percentage would rank second on the Nationals behind Jayson Werth based on 2012's numbers. Meanwhile Upton’s OBP would have been the worst in the Nats’ lineup. Bourn also gets the edge defensively with a .992 career fielding percentage and two Gold Glove awards. 

Upton, on the other hand, is much more proven in the postseason. Bourn has played just three career playoff games, a small sample size. But Upton has appeared in 25 and has an impressive seven home runs and 18 RBI in those games. He was a big piece on the 2008 World Series runner-up Tampa Bay Rays and knows what it takes to make a playoff run. 

If the Nats signed Upton, say to replace Morse, there would essentially be a dropoff in batting average and power but a significant upgrade defensively and on the basepath. Signing Bourn in the same scenario would give the Nats a traditional leadoff hitter and a top notch defensive player, but the slip in power would be dramatic. A big step by Bryce Harper or a full season by Ryan Zimmerman would likely be needed to offset that.

According to Heyman, the Nationals are seen as the favorites for Bourn while the Phillies are Upton’s most likely suitor. But the Nats have more money to play with and could have the upper hand.

If the Nats are intent on upgrading at center field as reports suggest they are, they could always go for someone cheaper. Washington does, after all, have a potential center fielder of the future in 2011 first round pick Brian Goodwin.

Here are a few second tier options for the Nats at center field:

Angel Pagan (31 years old)

2012 – 154 G - .288/.338/.440 – 95 R – 8 HR – 56 RBI – 29 SB

Melky Cabrera (28 years old)*

2012 – 113 G – .346/.390/.516 – 84 R – 11 HR – 60 RBI – 13 SB

Shane Victorino (31 years old)

2012 – 154 G - .255/.321/.383 – 72 R – 11 HR – 55 RBI – 39 SB

*Suspended for season’s final 50 games for performance enhancing drugs

Pagan is a terrific defender and could be a good signing for one or two seasons. Cabrera is a wild card as his numbers were enhanced by PED's, but he may be willing to sign for one year in hopes to re-establish his reputation. Victorino next to Werth in the Nationals' outfield would be a bizarre sight, but his down year in 2012 could make his production a bargain.

As far as free agent classes go, the Nationals certainly have options at center field. But will they solve the problem now or wait until Goodwin is ready? The Nats could, after all, play 2013 just as they did 2012 with Morse, Harper, and Werth in the outfield. While it would appear that isn’t Mike Rizzo’s longterm plan, the Nationals have shown in recent years they can be unpredictable in the offseason.