Sunday, January 23, 2005

Nat of the day, Jan. 23

Vinny Castilla: When a one-year deal just is not enough

Name: Vinicio Castilla Soria
Position: Third base
Age: 38 in July
Height/weight: 6-1, 205
Bats/throws: Right/right
Relevant 2004 statistics: 583 at-bats; .271/.332/.535 batting line; .218/.281/.493 road batting line; National League-leading 131 runs batted in;
Garden variety scouting report: Good fastball hitter; susceptible to breaking ball away; prone to slumps; hard to tell really how good a hitter he still is, given his success at Coors Field; extraordinarily slow; good hands; accurate arm; skilled at charging a ground ball.

The Inquirer wants to know:

1. Two years, $6.2 million for this guy? Okay, smartguy. You've got a question: "If not Castilla, then whom?"

There were 18 Major League free agent third basemen this offseason; a third of those guys remain unsigned to this date. One of the free agents was the Expos' Last Ever Third Sacker, Tony Batista, which is why the (contemporary) Nationals' Inaugural Third Sacker would be a new guy, probably fresh off the free agent market. As it turned out, the lucky man is Castilla, who was richly rewarded for hunkering down in his Happy Place last year and riffin' off the Coors Field advantage to the NL RBI crown.

That leaves 17 free agents; I'll try to categorize them in a somewhat organized manner:

---Out of our league: Adrian Beltre (LA to Seattle: 5 years, $64 million); Troy Glaus (Anaheim to Arizona: 4 years, $45 million); Corey Koskie (Minnesota to Toronto: 3 years, $17 million). These were some spicy me-ah-ta-balls-ah. Even Koskie's contract was too spicy for our Seligian trustees---plus he's from America Junior, so maybe there was a hometown discount factor at play. Have fun with your moolah, guys.

---Option picked up: Mike Lowell (Florida); Bill Mueller. Worth a mention, I guess.

---Club AARP (35+): Todd Zeile (39; NY Mets to TBA); Joe Randa (35; Kansas City to Cincinnati: 1 year, $2.15 million); Mike Mordecai (37; Florida to TBA); Mark McLemore (40; Oakland to TBA); Dave Hansen (36; San Diego to TBA); Shane Halter (35; Anaheim to Tampa Bay: minor league deal). If you're scoring at home, this is also Castilla's classification. Most of these guys, of course, aren't regular third baseman---or, in McLemore's case, not really even a third baseman at all.

---Utility swine: Andy Fox (Texas to TBA); Juan Castro (Cincinnati to Minnesota: 2 years, $2.05 million). If these guys ever got 500 ABs for the Nats, we might as well just jump off the Wilson Bride.

---Non-tendered, sucks to be you: Mark DeRosa (Atlanta to TBA); Eric Munson (Detroit to Minnesota; minor league deal). DeRosa convinced the naysayers that he, really truly, isn't that good. Munson is a third baseman in theory but still struck me as somewhat interesting. Of course, these guys were non-tendered long after we signed Castilla, so discussing a theoretical third baseman like Munson is in itself entirely theoretical. My head is starting to spin, in reality.

---Sayonora, dude: Tony Batista (Mon/Was to Somewhere in Japan: 2 years, $15 million!!!). Unjust enrichment. Cash those checks fast, Tony!

All right. To quote Al Pacino's adorably Smithfield Ham performance from Heat: "Whattya got? Whattya got?"

Well, some True Scotsmen on the Ballpark Guys DC baseball board have defended general managed Jim Bowden for the Castilla signing by asking, "Well, what else was out there?" To tell the truth, that's a compelling argument, as far as it goes.

Strike the "Out of our league" guys. Strike the "Option picked up guys," obviously. Strike most of "Club AARP." Strike the "Utility swine." Strike "Non-tendered, sucks to be you" as a literal impossibility. And strike Batista, for too many reasons---both procedural and substantive---to name.

I'm left with two alternatives to Castilla, one of whom---Munson---is a chronological impossibility. So I'm left with Joe Randa.

I would have preferred Randa to Castilla.

Randa is younger and does something that Castilla won't do, even if Castilla's power translates to a non-Coors environment: get on base at a decent clip. Randa has put up at least a .340 on-base percentage the last three years, five out of the past six, and in seven of his nine full years in the bigs. Castilla hasn't met that standard since 1998. To put this in context, Smashmouth was really popular in 1998.

One knock on so-called "statheads" is that they are obsessed with on-base percentage. Well, there's a reason for that---OBP correlates quite well with actual runs scored---but maybe it's a fair criticism. That said, your 2005 Washington Nationals are going to need guys who can get on base. Between Chavez, Guzman, Castilla, and the pitcher's spot---well, four spots in the order will really put the outs on the scoreboard. I would have taken Randa's OBP over Castilla's SLG, especially considering Castilla's slugging is sort of a variable factor.

Add in that Randa's deal is for one fewer year at one million less per year than Castilla's deal, and I would have taken Randa. [I'll add that I also would have taken a shot on Munson, but that would have required Bowden to be anything other than impulsive, which in itself is an impossibility.] Not that any practical free agent option was particularly appealing, mind you.

2. Okay. If not a free agent, then whom?

There were two in-house options: Jamey Carroll, our current utility infielder; and Brendan Harris, a B-grade prospect who was acquired from the Cubs in the O-Dog Cabrera trade.

Carroll, who will be 31 by Opening Day, was pretty darned good last year in part-time duty, putting up a .289/.378/.372 line. I should caution that he's never been that good before, certainly not on the big league level, and he hasn't shown that much since he was a 25 year-old in AA-ball. Making Jamey Carroll sort of akin to making Mark DeRosa your third baseman, I guess.

Harris is a 24 year-old 2B/3B type who was rated by Baseball America as the organization's No. 5 prospect and won the vaunted "Best Hitter for Average" honor in the organization by the same publication. Harris has been nothing special since joining our vagabond organization, both at AAA Edmonton and in a cup-o-joe with the big club, but he's been at least impressive everywhere else---including a pretty neat .311/.353/.511 half-season at AAA Iowa (keep in mind it is the Pacific Coast League, of course). Maybe he could use a full year at AAA, or maybe he'll be kept there for a half-season if Bowden or his successor decides to trade second baseman Jose Vidro.

The other option would be to pick up a minor league third baseman type of guy. The name of Russell Branyan comes to mind.

Okey-dokey. Here's my list of preferences with what Bowden could have done at third base:

1. Wait for the non-tender list and just go from there (and, maybe, subsequently sign Munson).
2. Give Carroll or Harris the job and just let it ride.
3. Sign Joe Randa to that one-year deal.
4. Acquire a minor league third baseman like Russ Branyan.
5. Sign Vinny Castilla.

See? Castilla makes the top five.

3. Well, yeah, but Castilla really is a Nat. What can we expect?

Just a guess: .260/.305/.440.

Not bad, I suppose, but probably not worth $3 million for a team on a budget. And then you consider we'll start over and do it again in 2006.

Personally, I'm just really hoping he gets off to a fast start -- 15 or 20 home runs by the ASB -- and that Bowden has the presence of mind to flip him for prospects.
I would have gone with Harris. Actually, I would have considered asking Vidro to move to third (his defense is atrocious) and playing Harris at 2B.

Also worth nothing is that Adrian Beltre settled for only (!) $13 million. No telling if he would have signed here, but we could have swung that if Bowden hadn't squandered the payroll on Guzman, Castilla, Guillen, and Loaiza.
Hadn't thought of Vidro as the 3B, Ryan. Interesting.

Yuda, if Vinny has 15-20 jacks by the ASB, I'll dance a jig.
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