The acquisition of Gio Gonzalez certainly bolstered the Nationals starting rotation and bumped up their postseason odds. It wasn’t a splash of the Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder ilk but with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, Gonzalez will help form a fairly formidable trio. However, the Nationals aren’t finished just yet.
In addition to their rumored interest and pursuit of Prince Fielder to replace Adam LaRoche at first base, the Nationals are also in the hunt for a centerfielder. Last season, they expressed interest in both Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton. The former was eventually traded to the division-rival Braves, while the latter posted a .449 wOBA in September as the Rays won the Wild Card on the season’s final day.
But the Nationals are still looking to shore up their outfield. Center field remains a legitimate weakness on a team with sights on significantly improving and potentially contending for a playoff berth. As it currently stands, there are four realistic options: trade for Marlon Byrd, trade for B.J. Upton, sign Coco Crisp, or shift Jayson Werth over while installing someone else in right field.
First, it’s interesting to note that few legitimate centerfielders were available via the free agent market. Filtering our free agent leaderboard shows quasi-CFs like Ankiel or Carlos Beltran and various guys listed there because they could conceivably man the position without completely embarrassing themselves, like Scott Hairston, Mike Cameron and Cody Ross. Coco Crisp is the only legitimate CF on the list. The Nats already signed Cameron to a minor league deal but it’s safe to assume he isn’t a viable solution.
If the Nationals don’t intend to fill the role internally and prefer to avoid further depleting the farm system in a trade, Crisp is an interesting option. He tallied 2.2 WAR last season and 3.3 the year before. His fielding marks suffered last season but he is generally regarded as a very good outfielder. If he can post a wOBA in the .320-.330 range — around the league average given the sorry offensive state of the league — his solid fielding and baserunning will easily push him over the 2 WAR threshold.
In that scenario, Crisp would be worth almost $10 million yet won’t sign for anywhere near that value. His last contract was actually worth slightly over $10 million for two seasons as the Athletics exercised his 2011 club option. Crisp isn’t going to sign for much more than that, and while he lacks the upside of some other trade targets, his relatively low salary and decent attributes could combine to produce more value than some other options.
One option floating around is moving Werth to center to open up a spot for Bryce Harper or some other rightfielder. There are several issues here, most notably that Harper may not be ready and that Werth is not a suitable full-time centerfielder. He has played the position before, but sparingly, and while Harper could prove studly right away, the combination of his readiness and Werth’s ability to handle CF on an everyday basis is fairly unrealistic.
Trading for B.J. Upton would provide the Nationals with the best available centerfielder. While his bat hasn’t impressed the way many initially thought it would, Upton is still just 26 years old. Further, he has produced two straight above average seasons at the plate, with identical .337 wOBAs. Combine a better bat than Crisp’s with better baserunning and more highly reputed fielding and Upton has tallied 4+ WAR in four of the last five seasons.
Upton is entering his last year of arbitration and the Rays have made no real gesture towards re-signing him to a long-term deal. The Rays are also an incredibly savvy organization, and may decide that the compensation picks received when Upton signs elsewhere after the season are worth more than the prospect platter the Nats offer.
Finally, the Nationals could offer a lesser prospect package to the Cubs for Marlon Byrd. The former Nationals outfielder is in the final year of his contract, makes a modest $6.5 million and can still produce. Since 2008, Byrd has 11 WAR to his name, which is a full 4-win season south of Upton’s output, but still very productive. Byrd has been, on average, a 3-win centerfielder, and at that price and the likely lessened load of farmhands required to appease the Cubs, he may represent the most realistic option.
Then again, Byrd is 34 years old, and while he can still run the bases well and field his position, the Nationals are in a position to shore up the position for both the current and long-term. In that guise, Upton makes much more sense. If he isn’t made available, however, the Nationals would be better off trading for Byrd or signing Crisp and making an offer for Upton at the trading deadline, or when he hits the market next season.
Buster Olney was right in linking Byrd to the Nationals, as a fit exists and he would certainly satisfy their short-term need. But the Nationals should be thinking bigger than acquiring a 34-year old outfielder they used to employ to serve as a stopgap.