Division-deciding decisions just ahead for Braves, Nationals
JUN 16, 2014 10:05p ET
Often a midseason trade can alter the course of a division. But in the NL East, internal decisions by the Nationals and Braves could prove even bigger factors in deciding the race.
The Nationals’ stated plan is to put back Zimmerman back at third once Bryce Harper returns from left thumb surgery, perhaps by early July. Well, the Nats denied that Zimmerman was preparing to play left field when he was, uh, preparing to play left field. For a D.C. team, they’re not very good at running covert operations.
Likewise, the Braves are downplaying a report that appeared on their own website, a report that said the team is discussing the possibility of promoting catcher Christian Bethancourt and creating an entirely new outfield, one that excludes Upton.
I’m not saying either team is skirting the truth. But as with trade discussions, neither club would gain anything by divulging its actual thoughts. And teams consider anything and everything, no matter what they say.
The promotion of Bethancourt would create a domino effect for the Braves, forcing Evan Gattis to move from catcher to left field, Justin Upton from left to right, Jason Heyward from right to center. B.J. Upton would become a $13.45 million reserve, and – ahem – he is still owed $46.35 million from 2015 to ’17.
The Braves already have benched Dan Uggla, who is making $13 million this season and guaranteed $13 million next season. Benching Upton would be a far more dramatic and potentially divisive step, particularly when the overall upgrade would be debatable.
Gattis’ offense provides much more of an advantage at catcher than it does at left field, and his defense in left is below-average. And B.J. Upton, for all his offensive issues, still rates positive in Wins Above Replacement – albeit barely – due to his defense and baserunning.
Would the removal of Upton’s bat, combined with the defensive upgrade of Heyward in center and potential upgrade of Bethancourt at catcher, create a net gain for the Braves?
Heyward is the top-ranked defender in the majors, according to the defensive runs saved metric on BillJamesOnline.com. Bethancourt, meanwhile, is considered an elite defender but would need to learn the Braves’ pitching staff – no small challenge at midseason – and might not be any better than Upton offensively, at least short-term.
For now, the entire notion amounts to nothing more than a mental exercise – or perhaps an idea floated to kick-start Upton, seeing as how nothing else has worked.
As I reported in my Full Count video over the weekend (below), Braves officials are frustrated that the team remains in a malaise and are open to making a trade to snap it to attention. Problem is, Upton is the only obvious trade candidate, and he’s practically immovable.
Benching Upton, in theory, would provide the same type of jolt as a trade, but one team official said, “We’re not in that mode right now.” Fair enough, it’s only mid-June. But a month from now, if Upton’s WAR slides to negative, Bethancourt could become the catching version of Tommy La Stella, assuming he keeps hitting at Triple A. Why wouldn’t he be?
The Zimmerman question, in the Nats’ view, is an even more tangled web. General manager Mike Rizzo told me that he is not looking to trade center fielder Denard Span or first baseman Adam LaRoche to open a new position for Zimmerman (center is Harper’s preferred spot). So, once Harper is back, the Nats say they essentially have no choice but to return Zimmerman to third.
We may be getting ahead of ourselves; these things have a way of working themselves out, as baseball people often say. Zimmerman already has demonstrated that he will do whatever club officials ask – that’s how he ended up in left upon returning from a fractured right thumb. But considering how difficult it is for Zimmerman to throw from third due to his chronic, arthritic shoulder, it would be almost cruel to force him back at third.
Zimmerman, in describing his move to left, has used phrases such as “refreshing” and “a new chapter.” A scout who saw him play the position on his minor-league assignment said, “It looked like the weight of the world was off his shoulders.” So, why burden him again?
In this case, there is a way out:
Trade or bench Span.
Several Nationals veterans scoffed when I broached the idea to them last weekend, saying Span was one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. The advanced metrics, while not always reliable in rating defense, do not support their contention. Span ranks only 20th in defensive runs saved among center fielders, compared with 16th last season and third with the Twins in 2012.
Offensively, Span is barely adequate – his .305 on-base percentage ranks 21st among hitters with at least 150 at-bats batting leadoff. True, the Nationals lack an obvious alternative in the leadoff spot, and they would keep second baseman Danny Espinosa and his .289 OBP in their lineup if they displaced Span. But the domino effect defensively would be considerable.
Zimmerman’s arm is less of an issue in left than at third. Anthony Rendon is the Nats’ best defensive third baseman, Espinosa their best defensive second baseman. And Harper might be at least comparable to Span in center, considering Harper’s performance at the position in 2012.
Keeping Span as a $6.5 million reserve might make sense, considering that his trade value could be limited. But the Nats already have a competent left-handed hitting backup outfielder, Nate McLouth, and Span’s contract includes a $9 million option for 2015.
The Nationals could exercise that option, especially if they want Zimmerman to play first next season. But they also might want to exercise their end of a $15 million mutual option on LaRoche, who ranks ninth in the NL in OPS, offers above-average defense and loves playing in D.C.
It’s only a matter of time before Span is the odd man out – Double A center fielder Michael Taylor, an elite defender and highly regarded prospect, is batting .331 with a 1.011 OPS . Yes, it would be a gamble to re-install Harper in center, a position where he has made only 11 starts since 2012. But playing Zimmerman at third is the most troubling option of all.
Maybe Upton starts hitting and the Braves need not entertain the promotion of Bethancourt. Maybe Zimmerman becomes more functional at third after stretching out his arm in left and the Nationals need not make a move with the well-respected Span.
Let’s resume this discussion in a month. Let’s see then.