Saturday, July 09, 2005

Pressed into service

For about an hour yesterday afternoon, we almost had a recreation of Junior Spivey Day, as it appeared that the Washington Nationals had acquired veteran outfielder Preston Wilson from the woebegotten Colorado Rockies for doghoused sinkerballer Zach Day and the big dog himself, J.J. Davis.

And then it didn't happen.

The deal stalled, or Ken Rosenthal (my podcast colleague) jumped the gun, or something. Actually, we know what the "something" is, and it's money; thus, nothing Rosenthal reported was inaccurate. It was just . . . emotionally persuasive.

At current, the two teams are still at loggerheads, and the Rockies seem to be enjoying the attention paid by other clubs in the direction of Wilson---who knows, the Rockies well know, a thing or two or $12.5 million about being paid. Colorado general manager Dan O'Dowd informed the Rocky Mountain Times that:

"We have had ongoing discussions with several multiple clubs," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "Any time you are a seller you are going to have rumors like this going around. Preston Wilson has not been traded to the Washington club. No deal is imminent.
"We are still in the process of talking to other clubs. We have talked to the Washington club at length, and we will continue to talk to them."

O'Dowd appeared to press the rhetoric a little further with The Denver Post, stating that "there's absolutely no trade in place." Within the context of the article, however, it doesn't appear that Dowd disputes the principals involved in the deal---only that the money's not there and he might be looking for a better deal from someone else:

Wilson, who hit his 15th home run Friday and will be a free agent at season's end, has $5.7 million left on his contract. In a reversal from previous talks, Washington has indicated a willingness to absorb a portion of Wilson's salary.
The remaining amount owed by the Rockies - likely about $3 million - will become a central issue if the team asks him to defer without interest. O'Dowd would not comment on specifics, reiterating only that a deal "wasn't imminent." [. . .]
While pieces are falling in place with Washington, Colorado continues to explore all avenues with Wilson. Depending on what happens with Mark Kotsay - if he re-signs with Oakland or is traded - the Cubs remain a possibility. The Yankees, Rangers and Dodgers have also made inquiries regarding Wilson, but talks have not advanced.

Back within our bailiwick, St. Barry notes that the deal isn't dead, even if it's not necessarily imminent:

One club source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations are ongoing, said the Nationals would be willing to pay $2.5 million for the remainder of the season. Another source said the Rockies are continuing to shop Wilson, hoping to find a suitor who will pay more money. Wilson becomes a free agent at the end of the season. [. . .]
Because the deal wasn't complete Friday night, Nationals officials were working on creative ways to get Wilson, including a three-way deal that could involve Day going to the Chicago White Sox, who would in turn ship prospects and money to Colorado.

In today's WashTimes, Mark Zuckerman regards the deal as unlikely, noting that the financial hang-ups have remained for weeks and that Wilson might not be willing to waive his no-trade clause to go to DC (a possibility that the Denver papers seemed to regard with slightly less skepticism). In addition, Zuckerman's article doesn't paint a wholly rosy picture of Wilson's late-season potential as a new Nat:

Wilson is hardly a sure thing. Though he has 14 homers and 45 RBI in 68 games this season, he's batting just .258 overall and .224 away from Coors Field. His power numbers almost surely would suffer at spacious RFK Stadium, which has yielded the fewest home runs in the majors.

Zuckerman and St. Barry both note that, contrary to earlier reports, Wilson (if acquired, of course) would play centerfield. Perhaps this move is necessitated by Brad Wilkerson's recent statements that playing center take some energy out of him.


During yesterday's Yudite chat, we tried our best to break this thing down on-the-fly. We're not privy even to a percent of the full scope of what Bodes must consider (and, I should note, all this went down while he was at his grandmother's funeral), but as we saw it, the deal required a two-step analysis:

---> have we traded for equal or better value?
---> how does this affect those already on the team?

During the midst of yesterday's mess, Chris submitted an analysis which, to my mind, was more than sufficiently thorough and probing. Essentially, Chris found: [1] decent enough exchange of value, but [2] to no foreseeably good end.

Specifically, the trade would probably push early-season stud Ryan Church (who is currently rehabbing at Harrisburg) into a part-time role, and Wilson's just not good enough to justify such an alteration:

It's not that Wilson isn't a useful player. Coming off injuries, he's been pretty poor the last two season, but he still has his uses. If he's a fourth-outfielder, pinch-hitter and occasional platoon partner, it's a good deal. If he's playing centerfield while Wilkerson moves over to left and Church to the bench, it's a bad deal.I'm not sure that he's really an upgrade over what we have in his place, especially when you factor in that we gave up one of our attractive trading chits [Day].

This morning, I woke up with a mind to force myself into a positive evaluation of the trade (if it occurs, of course). I figured it would be an interesting thought exercise---and, since most other things seem to be going right for the Nats this season, maybe I'd be able to stumble into an insight and get in on the ground floor of the Preston Wilson Era.

Therein lies the folly of constructing an argument based on a pre-conceived premise, because the record itself doesn't really yield such unmitigated optimism. Thus, I'm going to narrow my view to view questions, which I'll get to in a second.

But first, let's start with a point of fact that I glossed over during an earlier, cursory analysis of a potential Preston Wilson deal. In amplifying value that Marlon Byrd would hold over Wilson, I noted that Wilson is probably not "a legitimate center fielder" anymore. This assessment was based on the earlier reports that Wilson would be asked to move to left field. If I had done my work, though, I would have noted that Wilson has been exclusively a centerfielder this season. Of what quality, though, I cannot be certain. According to Zone Rating, Wilson rates as the third best in the National League at the position; according to Fielding Win Shares (accessed at The Hardball Times), Wilson is little better than middling---and has provided roughly 40% of the value that Brad Wilkerson has. So I suppose Wilson's value as a centerfielder is open to debate.

Otherwise, I see no reason to speak tremendously highly of this potential trade, unless it's a sign that Nick Johnson's recovery from a heel injury is going worse than expected. (And, considering Johnson's injury history, maybe that's a realistic assessment.) In such an event, the trade is more of a C-Y-A manuever than an actual bonus. As Chris and Zuckerman both point out, Wilson has been anemic on the road this season (and last season, too). Remove his Colorado numbers from the back of his baseball card, and Wilson's not starting for anyone this year---or last season, for that matter.

So, let's take a more nuanced view:

1. Are Wilson's road numbers the indictment they seem to be?

Maybe this is one of those deals where Coors Field (euphemism for "high elevation hitter's paradise") obscures everything, and if Wilson's road numbers have been hampered by the so-called "Coors Field hangover," then he could potentially offer a power bat to complement Jose Guillen in the middle of the order. That's the best (non-Nick Johnson getting injured) justification for the trade, you know. It goes something like:

---> we need another potent bat now; and,
---> if we add one, maybe we could take some pressure off Brad Wilkerson, who can know that his sole focus will be to remain the best lead-off guy he can be.

The only problem is that this line of thinking assumes that Wilson really is a potent bat who suffers from a hangover effect that might not actually exist. Last year, discussing the subject at Slate, Chris Kahrl referrred to a study conducted five years ago by a couple of mates over at , which seemed to debunk the hangover effect from a couple of research perspectives and ended with this humble assessment:

The conclusion? The problem with the Rockies’ hitters is not that they get fat on a steady diet of straight pitches at home, and just need time to cure their problems at sea level. No, the problem appears to be this: their hitters simply suck.

Ouch. And that would explain why Wilson is so bad on the road, eh?

Neverthless, Wilson has some measure of power in his bat, and we're talking about only a 200-250 at-bat contribution until the rest of the season, which is a sample still quite vulnerable to fluctuation. It's not inconceivable that Wilson could enjoy a hot two-and-a-half months and help sweep us into the postseason.

2. Is it possible that Church could drop off with the bat enough to justify Wilson's playing time?

Sure, I suppose. He is probably not truly a .325/.381/.544 player. More specifically, Church's on-base percentage is rather reliant on the high batting average; if he's good for, say, a .270 average from his return until the end of the season, his contribution goes way down.

Still, we're starting to stack scenario-upon-scenario here. In order for this trade to make sense as a Church-for-Wilson substitution in the lineup, we'd have to anticipate 1) Wilson to catch fire to some degree, and 2) Church to backtrack rather significantly. I'm not sure I'm willing to take both of those steps.

Otherwise, we're looking at issues like "Is this the best use of the team's available money?" and "Does the team need to do something now?" Those are important considerations, and I'm dubious as to whether they guide us to a safe conclusion that Preston Wilson is the guy for the Nats.

Unless Nick Johnson can't be counted on physically, I'm not sure the move (if it occurs) makes much sense at all. I'm rooting for "Money" to unleash its evilness and kill this trade for good.

BP has him 11 runs below average as a center fielder, which is pretty much dead on at replacement level out there.

By comparison, Wilkerson is 2 runs below average but 9 runs above replacement.
Is a bigger bat as pressing a need right now as some more pitching? I suppose if we have the $ available to handle both sides all will be well, but I wonder just how much longer this luck in one-run games will manage to carry.

I stumbled by accident into this blog. Fantastic. Just the thing for a Nats fan who lives way out in Cubsland. Not that I get much traffic, but I've linked to you from my blog.

Fascinating reading here. Thanks. Back to it...
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