While much of the focus of the Nationals’ offseason has been the potential loss of Bryce Harper, the club has been one of the more active teams this winter. Their big move brought in Patrick Corbin. They also signed Anibal Sanchez and traded Tanner Roark. They fixed their biggest hole last season by trading for Yan Gomes and signing Kurt Suzuki to play catcher. They also added Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal to improve their bullpen depth. With all of those moves, the Nationals were already going to have the best team in the division on paper, no matter who the Phillies signed. Despite that apparent lead, having missed the playoffs a year ago, the club filled it’s last obvious weakness by signing Brian Dozier to a one-year deal worth $9 million, per Jeff Passan.
While there are obvious concerns over the slow offseason and declining salaries, Dozier’s seemingly low contract is more a victim of circumstance than a league-wide issue. There have been a lot of second basemen available this winter, and not as many contending teams with holes. Add in Dozier’s disastrous 2018 season, particularly toward the end, and his market was going to be limited. The Rockies signed Daniel Murphy, and even if he plays first base, that seemingly puts Ryan McMahon at second. The Padres added Ian Kinsler as a stopgap. The Twins signed Jonathan Schoop. The A’s traded for Jurickson Profar. The Mets didn’t even really need a second baseman and they traded for Robinson Cano.
That just leaves a smattering of contending teams in the bottom half of our second base depth charts. The Angels don’t need to work too hard to justify giving David Fletcher a shot. Cleveland’s going to go with Jason Kipnis in the last year of his deal. That really just leaves the Rockies, who could go with McMahon, the Nationals, and the Brewers. The list of available second baseman along with Dozier includes DJ LeMahieu and Jed Lowrie, as well as Asdrubal Cabrera, and Josh Harrison. Utilityman Marwin Gonzalez can play some second base as well. That’s before we get to a trade market that might include Joe Panik, Whit Merrifield, and Jedd Gyorko. In our Top 50 Free Agent list, Kiley McDaniel correctly pegged Dozier for the one-year, $9 million deal he is receiving, though the crowd was a bit more optimistic, believing a multi-year deal worth more than $30 million would be possible. This is what Eric Longenhagen had to say about Dozier in that piece.
He didn’t miss any time due to the injury (and has still never been on the DL), but Dozier has acknowledged to the media that a right knee bone bruise — and the manner in which he compensated for it, mechanically — impacted his 2018 production. Dozier had the worst full big-league season of his career, slashing .215/.305/.391 and playing sluggish defense. The league-average line at second base in 2018 was just .254/.317/.395, so if there’s any dead-cat bounce in Dozier at all, he’s probably still an average regular going forward. Obviously, though, a return close to what he has shown for the last four years means he has a chance to be an All Star.
Dozier has also had minor back issues over the years, which has been known to sap some strength. Dozier’s reliance on homers means any decrease in power is going to stunt his overall production. As for what went wrong last year, Paul Sporer noted that Dozier’s plate discipline numbers were mostly unchanged, but Dozier’s home run to fly ball rate went way down. One thing slightly unusual about Dozier’s plate discipline numbers is that Dozier swung at fewer pitches out of the zone, yet his walk rate didn’t go up. He did make more contact on pitches out of the zone, and those pitches tend to elicit weaker contact, so it is possible his numbers were hurt a little by a small adjustment to not swing for the fences as much. His expected BABIP based on launch angle and exit velocity was about 20 points higher, but any contact on pitches out of the strike zone or batted-ball luck were relatively small issues compared to his lack of thump.
A quick look at his Statcast numbers on fly balls over the past two seasons shows the following:
|Exit Velocity||Launch Angle||Distance|
|2017||95 MPH||37.3||335 ft.|
|2018||92 MPH||38.4||324 ft.|
There’s not some big secret to explore here. Dozier just didn’t hit the ball as hard last season, so his fly balls didn’t go as far, and therefore Dozier’s home runs and ISO came down significantly. If we can chalk Dozier’s issues up to injuries that might resolve with an offseason of care and training, then Dozier is going to be a huge bargain for the Nationals. If any lingering issues follow him into next season, it’s possible we are just looking at the decline of a player in his 30s who has been selling out for pull power, which isn’t working as well anymore. Jeff Sullivan noted towards the end of 2017 that Dozier was going to the opposite field more often, and he made the natural assumption that this was an approach-based change to get better. However, Sullivan wasn’t quite sure the change was necessary. With another year in the books and similar spray charts in 2017 and 2018, it’s possible we are seeing a hitter who isn’t capable of pulling the ball as much rather than one choosing to be successful going the other way.
We don’t know which version of Dozier is going to show up next season. If he repeats his 2018, the Nationals should still have enough firepower to win the division. If he recovers some of his old form, he could help Washington be the best team in baseball. The Nationals won’t have to pay much for the opportunity to find out. The floor for players like LeMahieu and Lowrie is considerably higher than Dozier, but the former Twin is just one season removed a five-win campaign. He’ll get the opportunity to put last year behind him in a lineup that shouldn’t need his production. If he plays well, he could be in line for a much bigger contract a year from now.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.