Nationals Baseball: Off-Season Position Discussion : First Base

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Off-Season Position Discussion : First Base

As we went over in "lucky/unlucky" the Nats, or more precisely Mike Rizzo, actually did quite well in offensive pick-ups last year, bringing in a number of players who performed near the top of expectations. One of those players was Josh Bell, who the Nats traded for right before Christmas*. Along with Ryan Zimmerman, Bell manned first base for pretty much the entire season and after a dreadfully slow start (bottomed out at .133 / .198 / .289 on May the 12th) he'd perform quite well in the remaining 75% of the season (.287 / .375 / .513) and end up with a season like you probably would have hoped from Josh; ok average, a few walks, some good power. Add in passable defense and a likeable personality and he's a steal for his price (likely around 10 million next year)

Zimmerman hit just ok and can't really move anymore. The splits show that there is still a future there for a LHP killer (.291 / .319 / .582 vs LHP) but all indications from the last home stand pointed to a LAST home stand.

Presumed Plan : Bell returns at first base. He's backed up by some player they are evaluating who has nowhere else to play. Maybe Yadiel Hernandez, Riley Adams, or even Carter Kieboom if they just want to give him at bats. Maybe someone they haven't acquired yet.

Reasoning Behind Presumed Plan: With 2021 Bell proved he was good, not bad, which was a question after a weak 2020 and only one season that was clearly better than average. You have a good player at a reasonable contract. You have no immediate alternatives. Sometimes it isn't hard.

With the Nats in rebuild mode, signing a veteran to back-up Bell doesn't make much sense. Better use would be getting ABs / playing time for guys you don't have other positions for. I won't argue that Zimm for his token salary wouldn't be a decent choice but that's up to him and he seems to be checking out. 

My take : To trade or not to trade? The only way Bell improves on his value is if he is red hot out of the gate and is one of the best 1B in baseball in the first half. Otherwise his value goes down with less playing time for the other team. That's not even considering the real possibility he hits something more middling. A little less power, maybe a dip in average and/or patience. So if they Nats are really rebuilding, sending Bell off now makes a decent amount of sense... unless you are going to extend him. 

At 29/30 for next year you probably have a few more good years left in Josh's bat and a couple more seasons before you have to pull him from first. The Nats have no good alternatives coming up so if they aim to be good again sooner (2023) rather than later (2025) then extending Josh makes a lot of sense too. 

So really a lot of light about the Nats future will be shed based on their decisions on Josh. Extend? They are likely aiming for a quick rebuild. Sit? Less sure about whether they can put together that next competitive team so quickly.  Trade? They probably are giving up for a few years.... unless they sign a big name FA. 

You can be a lot more certain at being good at 1B quickly if you sign Freddie Freeman or Anthony Rizzo. Add in a SS and you've kind of got an offense back already. But Freeman will be a hard pull from ATL and Rizzo is on the way down and questionably worth the difference in price from Bell. Gurriel? OLD. Belt? Hurt now and also likely to want to go back to SF.  This sounds good but is unlikely.

Why not sign a true back-up?  I suppose you might if there's a D first veteran out there. Travis Shaw? But I don't see much of a point.  Bell is good enough to play pretty much everyday and back-up first is a good place to stick a bat you are interested in but don't have a position for. The Nats should have someone like that or should pick-up guys like that. If they keep Bell this is the right path forward for a season that doesn't matter outside of setting up 2023 or beyond. 

As for Zimm, I think he either truly hasn't decided (might be waiting for a DH decision, having a desire to just get up and whack the ball for 150 games before going home for good) or he has but the org hasn't exactly decided what his role will be and they are waiting for that to make an announcement. Either way he won't be playing much 1B and almost certainly not after next year. He'd only be there if you need him or he's hitting so well he has to play (hard to see in what should be a lost season) 

So I think the presumed plan makes sense to me provided they make a decision on Bell now. Trade or extend. Long term rebuild or quick one. But don't sit and take a chance he loses value. You can get something back for him now.  A completely average Josh in July gets back a lot less.

*traded for Eddy Yean and Wil Crowe.  How'd they do?  Yean, a 20 pitcher, struggled mightily in A ball. Really bad start, decent middle, bad finish. My guess is he's a full time reliever next year. Crowe pitched in the majors (he did for the Nats too last year if you forgot) and pitched a lot. Started 25 games and pitched 120 innings. Not good. He's not as good as Ross/Fedde but he can eat innings at the back of a terrible rotation for Pittsburgh for another year or two hoping something clicks.


DezoPenguin said...

I think the one reason why Rizzo might not trade Bell now but doesn't extend him either (apart from his general dislike for extending position players) is if he *thinks* that he has a long-term answer at the position (or at least wants to find out) but doesn't have the confidence to just say "it's your job now" at this moment. Specifically thinking of Adams here, if they don't think he sticks at C but they do believe the bat is real, they can go into the season with him as the backup, then if that doesn't blow up in their face and they're not somehow back in the playoff race they can trade Bell and let Adams play out the season at 1B.

Otherwise, yeah. We have a good player at the position now under a reasonable contract. If Zim wants to come back as the backup, then at this point he'll be allowed to do that until/unless his bat becomes unplayable, and if not there are enough spare gloves hanging around to do the work. Don't think about this too hard.

Positively Half St. said...
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Positively Half St. said...

I am interested when you do each of these analyses what might change if a new CBA rearranges draft order and maybe competitiveness payments to discourage tanking. What should the Nats do at 1st base and elsewhere if it were advantageous to at least try to approach .500 in a year you clearly won't win? It could encourage teams to rent relatively cheap veterans and then decide whether or not to trade them for prospects at the trade deadline. It might still mean that Freddie Freeman doesn't make sense yet, but perhaps getting another player of some value to back up Bell instead of Zimm would. (Deleted and then edited for grammar)

Harper said...

1/2ST > 0 : How would you define tanking though? It can't just be by record (a spate of injuries could cause a big drop and then you'd be tempted to sell at the deadline and ... well look at the Nats) so it'd be some payroll/record combo and the Nats paying for Bell should cover that enough.

IOW - I don't think it matters for this position. For the Nats it would be more of a SP/RP situation where next year they might just throw junk out there but if they need to have a decent payroll and record could sign a guy to eat innings and a couple decent arms

SM said...

Long term rebuild or quick one, indeed. "Long term" and "quick" are rather elastic terms in baseball, and the Nats are in a position this off-season to determine how elastic.

If Bell is the proverbial canary in the coalmine to decide whether the rebuild is long-term or quick, then the answer is self-evident (It ain't gonna be quick.)

If, however, the Lerner clan is willing to spend the money--and why not? there are enough sheep-like counties and municipalities to shear to more than make up the difference--then at least make the team interesting.

Stick Bell in left field and sign Freddie Freeman for 3 years at $30 million/per (no deferrals), with his contract expiring the year Soto declares free agency. (We'd get to see how well a real hitter can protect Soto again, too.)

Assembling a good rotation and decent bullpen, maybe adding an infield piece, in the meantime shouldn't be beyond the ability of Rizzo, should it? . . . well? should it?

Cautiously Pessimistic said...

I think this presumed plan makes sense. I definitely think Zimm will be the presumed backup if the universal DH comes into play, but otherwise the backup will be some OF/1B bat-first guy they always tend to grab on a one year deal (see Schwarber, Adams, Kendrick, Lind, Peterson, LaRoche, etc)

Ollie said...

Love the optimism but Freeman’s on a team-friendly contract at an AAV of $16M+. Yeah he’s 32 but maybe the best pure all-around hitter not named Juan Soto? I’ll bet he gets something more along the lines of 5 years, $130M.

elchupinazo said...

I feel like the prospects of a fast rebuild are completely unrealistic? They would need:

- FA shortstop
- FA OF(s), unless you want to roll with Thomas and Robles
- FA 1B (assuming you move Bell to LF and figure out what you've got in Thomas/Robles)
- FA 'pen arms (several)
- At least two FA SPs (assuming Strasburg is magically back to his old form, Corbin magically figures it out, and one of Ross/Fedde/Gray/Cavali emerges as MLB-caliber.

That doesn't even address 3B, and also assumes Garcia will continue to improve at 2B. I still think they should lock up SOMETHING this winter (particularly a SS since the deluge of talent may suppress contracts a little), but in no universe do I see the Lerners spending enough money to fix all or even most of it in one swoop. Especially given Rizzo's penchant for SP, and considering at this moment in time they have virtually zero MLB-ready pitchers on the roster.

Harper said...

Sm /Ollie - Agree that I don't see Freeman taking that. Really he has his choice - stay in ATL and get paid for years or find a contender and get slightly more paid for years. Getting maybe MOST paid but for a shorter period of time for a possible non-contender? I mean if he's going to do that he'll go to the Angels (his fav team as a kid in SoCal). Rizzo would have to make quite a pitch and I think he'd have to be the last piece - not the first hoping everything else falls into place.

el chupo - Fast rebuild means by 2023 so this off season and next. I don't think it's unrealistic but yes, it would mean getting some young player and injury luck. I think though they can do something like sign a SS, extend Bell, do something else (4 yr deal on a decent SP or maybe couple of relief arms) which keeps the possibility open. If you don't do those then you resigning to a 2025 target. That's really what it's about - are you taking a little risk and leaving yourself open for 2023 to be good.