The Nationals went into the season believing they could get by with the internal options they had in right field, that a platoon of defense-first veterans and untapped talent would at least be better than what they had in Elijah Dukes. People I’ve talked to in the organization still believe the Nationals are better off without Dukes; his potential far outweighed his actual production, they believe, and see the fact no one in baseball has picked him up as some validation for their decision. But while they might be better off without Dukes, it’s getting harder and harder to argue they’re going to be okay at the position.
Thursday’s game was the latest example. Rather than leave Mike Morse - who was expected to be one of the solutions in right field - in the game, the Nationals went with Cristian Guzman, a converted infielder who has actually played more innings in right than Morse because of his injuries. Guzman lost Lance Berkman’s ninth-inning fly ball in the lights though, and rather than claiming a 4-3 comeback victory, the Nationals went on to a 6-4 loss to the Astros, their third in four games.
If the decision to go with Guzman hinted at desperation, the numbers in right field provided cause for that feeling. The Nationals have two outfielders on their roster with positive UZRs (Willie Harris at 1.5 runs above replacement and Josh Willingham at 0.4), and had already replaced Willingham for Harris in the ninth. The numbers are just as bleak offensively - the Nationals’ right fielders are last in the game in batting average, second to last in on-base percentage and third to last in slugging percentage.
So where’s the fix? I wrote back in April that the team had inquired about Corey Hart, Kosuke Fukudome and B.J. Upton. Upton might be the best solution; he’s young, cheaper than the other two options and GM Mike Rizzo speaks glowingly of his family. But he’s not having a good year at the plate, either, and the Rays aren’t in sell-off mode with the way they’re playing.
Hart would add some pop (he’s already homered 14 times), even though he’s a below average fielder (-1.9 UZR) and expensive (making $4.8 million). But the later into the season we go, the more of his salary the Brewers have already paid. Fukudome doesn’t seem to make much sense; he’s had a good year at the plate, but he’s 33, defensively limited and expensive.
David DeJesus, the right fielder for the Royals, has come up, but word is the Royals want bullpen help and a prospect for him. Are you willing to part with Tyler Clippard or Matt Capps, plus a position player like Chris Marrero, for him? That seems like an awful lot to give up, and I have a hard time believing the Royals would get something like that for a 30-year-old who’s an average fielder.
One name to watch might be Xavier Nady. Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that the Cubs might dump the outfielder, who’s making $3.3 million and is due to be a free agent after the season. But he hasn’t put up big numbers since 2008, and I don’t know if a rent-a-player fits into the plans.
At some point here, the Nationals will have to determine if they’d have the appetite for a quick, semi-palatable fix to make a push. They’re three games below .500 and already 5 1/2 out of the Wild Card, but playoff spots in the NL look eminently winnable. The Nationals certainly have some sell-high pieces (Capps, Clippard and maybe Livan Hernandez), but at what cost? If they get another bat, can they make a run? Or is this team destined to fall short even with an upgrade?
That’s bound to be a key question the next few weeks, and how the team plays will help determine the answer. If they can’t stay in the race without a workable solution in right field, they might not get the chance to prove they need one this year.
So those are my thoughts. Anybody have any other ideas?