Monday, February 14, 2005

Nat of the day, Feb. 14

On Valentine's Day, it's a Nat everybody loves: Brad Wilkerson

Name: Stephen Bradley Wilkerson
Position: Who knows? He's a 1B/corner OF type stretched to CF on occasion
Age: Turns 28 on June 1
Height/weight: 6-0, 206
Bats/throws: Left/left
Relevant 2004 statistics: .255/.374/.498 batting line; 112 runs scored (7th in NL, on team that ranked next-to-last in runs/game); 13-for-19 in stolen base attempts; 106 walks, 152 strikeouts; did not qualify for league leaders at any one defensive position (mainly played 1B and LF, also a little bit of CF and RF)
Garden variety scouting report: Patient hitter; vulnerable low and away; not tremendously fast, but smart on the bases and in the field; good blogger
The Inquirer wants to know: 1) Where will Wilk play? 2) Where will he hit? 3) Will he be the first "star" for these Nats?

1. So . . . left field, or first base, or center field (or right field) . . .

Well, right field is straight out. Guillen's got a freakin' rail gun out there.

Centerfield was an intriguing idea, sort of a Davey Johnson-style manuever. But the Nats just acquired Alex Escobar and have some slappin' swifty Rule V guy, plus Endy Chavez---for however he imitates a major league regular. So I would presume that center is out.

Okay; left field or centerfield? Well, as many other bloggers have pointed out, if's Bill Ladson is any indication, "complete player Terrmel Sledge" has become F-Robbie's mantra. (Similarly, Jim Bowden repeats "Cristian Guzman, a franchise cornerstone" at evening vespers.) A recent article did raise the possibility, though, of Sledge being on the market. It's been generally assumed that the "other guy" in the equation, Nick Johnson (and who would have guessed that Johnson would plummet to "other guy" status when the Expos traded for him?) would be the trade bait. I actually prefer this recent news regarding Sledge, though. To summarize my "Nat of the day" on him awhile back, he's kind of old for being a "young player" and unless he develops some power, he's nothing special, a glorified Derrick May.

At any rate, Wilkerson's future in the field depends on the resolution of the Sledge/Johnson/Chavez jam. Tell us something new, right? Well, the only development I see is that, at least initially, Chavez is no longer part of the traffic jam. If he fails, Wilkerson probably won't slide in; presumably, Escobar would get the next clear shot.

In that event, it's now Sledge v. Johnson. I guess one will be traded.

2. A lead-off hitter who isn't all that fast and STRIKES OUT?

Maybe so, depending on Chavez's stock with the team.

Wilkerson, of course, is no stranger to the spot, having spent a considerable amount of time leading off in 2003 and then compiling nearly 500 plate appearances as the table-setter last season. I happen to think he was rather uniquely effective there; as the stats summary above states, he scored a bunch of runs last year despite batting in an anemic lineup.

Now, every article that refers to Wilkerson leading off notes that the Nats would like to employ his power further down---usually third or fifth---in the order. I'd be all for it if, you know, Washington had ANYBODY ELSE WHO COULD GET ON BASE. (Vidro counts; Guillen might; Johnson certainly does---but you know what I mean.) In addition, wasn't the point of the Guillen and Castilla acquisitions to add oomph to the middle of the order.

Using Wilkerson as the lead-off man isn't a perfect situation, of course, and it might well lead to a bit of dysfunction in the line-up. (On the other hand, some people believe that the particular order of hitters makes little difference; if you fall into that category, you shouldn't have read the above paragraph.) As for the strikeouts: who cares? I'm certainly not going to take the time to explore an issue that is only referred to in a conclusory fashion (e.g., "Wilkerson hit lead-off despite 152 strikeouts."). If a writer would bother to explain precisely why lots of strikeouts are worse for a lead-off hitter than in another spot, especially when the guy doesn't really have the speed to put pressure on a defense and cause errors, I might look into it.

3. What's this about Wilkerson being a "star"?

I mean the star---the face of the franchise. My question is, "Who is going to achieve that distinction first?"

My inquiry is a bit different and quite a bit less sophisticated than that in a recent post by Ryan from Distinguished Senators, who concluded that Livan Hernandez---not Wilkerson---was our best player (in fact, an elite player).

My question concerns who is going to earn popular acclaim (local or national?---I guess I should refine my question, but I won't for now) as the "star" on the team. The answer might be as simple as who is our first all-star, though probably not (and what if we have more than one?). The answer might also be someone not yet on the team, or maybe we won't have an indentifiable star until we reach contention.

At any rate, I think we have a few candidates:

a) Jose Vidro: This assumes he isn't traded away, as has been occasionally rumored. He's been considered an underrated minor star for a few years. If he busts out, his image could bump up some. He strikes me as a quiet guy, for what it's worth.
b) Jose Guillen: This is the "RBI man" pick, combined with his still-remembered '97-'98 comparisons to Clemente. His arm will inspire plenty of "Web Gems," too. Much depends on his sanity, to be honest.
c) Livan Hernandez: Ryan makes a convincing case that he's a really good pitcher nowadays, but aside from a big 20-22 win season, I don't see him making much of a dent as a perceived star. I could be wrong, of course, but I find it strange that a guy who was a big star in '97 is something of a footnote now, especially since he's pitching very good ball.
d) Nick Johnson: I think, provided he gets a real shot and stays healthy, this one is possible. He's got the ability to hit, say, .325/35/100 in a very good year.
e) Chad Cordero: A bit random, but he could save 40-45 games if we win lots of close games (which can happen even with a losing record; see, e.g., Todd Jones for the 2000 Tigers). That would make him a star young closer.
f) Wilkerson: Probably depends on his place in the order. If he's hitting third and has a good year, he'll probably drive in runs and be perceived as more than an up-and-comer.

That's how I see it, anyway.

I think Wilk will be the face of the team. He's our best position player, the assistant player rep, good with the media, and speaks English.

As you mention, Livan won't be star unless he wins 20 games, and he'll have a hard time doing that on this team.
I hadn't considered the fact that he "speaks English," but it's certainly a relevant consideration. Also, he's photogenic, seems a pretty good guy and---as you well know---does some writing himself. I guess he could be sort of the Nats' version of Schilling.
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