Daniel Murphy, Nate McLouth, and the Future of Rendon
During this past weeks podcast, the topic of Anthony Rendon and his future came up and we all agreed he playing second wasn't the best position for him, but circumstance may have it it is the only position for him. If Anthony Rendon starts playing second in the minors, even if he does so poorly, little to no harm will come from it. Rendon can more easily be moved off of second to left field or first base than he can from one of those positions to second base. This isn't a change of heart by me as I still believe if Rendon can play second he would have done so in college, but their is precedence for a major league club to move a corner infielder to middle infield.
When the New York Mets drafted Daniel Murphy in the 13th round of the 2006 draft they already had David Wright at third, and honestly no one really expects a 13th rounder to even make it to the majors. It wasn't until his third year in the minors that Murphy started to put it together, batting .315/.379/.493 between three levels. Now the Mets had a decision to make. When Daniel Murphy first came up the Mets stuck him at first base and let him try a little left field. He was a good first baseman and a terrible left fielder. His future appeared to be at first base, but then he got hurt and missed the entire 2010 season and Ike Davis debuted and had the more traditional on base and power skills one expects from a first baseman.
Daniel Murphy needed a new position. This was put on hold a bit as Ike Davis returned the favor and missed the entire 2011 season which allowed Murphy to stay at first for one more year, but before the 2012 season it was decided one of them was playing second. In the minors Murphy had played 196 games at third, 21 at first, and 19 at second and in the majors up until 2012 he had played 153 games at first, 60 in left field, 28 at third, and 24 at second. But at the start of the 2012 season the minor league third baseman and major league first baseman was going to be the Mets primary second baseman. In 2012 he had a total fWAR of 1.8, UZR of -9.0, and UZR/150 of -11.7. Not great by any stretch of the imagination, but his bat somewhat made up for the poor defense and he was still a positive WAR player.
Why the Nats may do this for Anthony Rendon is that he is batting lucid, a savant with the stick. The boy can hit. In Saturday's 6-2 victory over the Cardinals Rendon was 2-3 with a homer and a double bringing his Spring Training batting line to .438/.471/1.000 after he hit .338/.436/.494 in the Arizona Fall League. They are both small sample sizes and one is Spring Training and the other is in a pitching light instructional league. Neither being indicative of his true talent doesn't make them less impressive. Anthony Rendon's batting prowess is turning heads, but he still has to prove he can put up good numbers at AA and AAA. At the pace Rendon is going though he may have proven he is major league ready by the All-Star Break, and then the Nationals have a decision on their hands.
Anthony Rendon is smaller than Daniel Murphy and perhaps more athletic, but it is still doubtful that he can learn the position to the defensive proficiency of even a league average second baseman, and definitely not to the elite level of Danny Espinosa. His bat is going to have to make up the difference and because Espinosa was a 3.5 fWAR player his rookie year and a 3.8 fWAR player in 2012 Rendon's bat has a lot of making up to do. It can also be surmised that Espinosa won't be nearly as bad on offense in April of 2013 as he was in April of 2012 which if nothing else changes will give him better overall offensive numbers.
Espinosa playing well and Rendon not being able to transform into a defensive wunderkind doesn't make Espinosa safe. Think of the 2009 case of Nate McLouth and Andrew McCutchen. Now McCutchen was an upgrade both offensively and defensively over McLouth, but at the time Nate McLouth was the Pirates best player and before being traded he had a 2009 OPS of .819. McCutchen in the minors in 2009 had an OPS of .853. Figure a penalty for facing better competition and they didn't look that much differently offensively. The difference was that McLouth's defense in center was starting to slip. In 2008, the year before he was traded, McLouth had a -12.9 UZR and the year before that -8.0. While McCutchen wasn't likely to be anything more than just as good offensively as McClouth, he was much better defensively.
Daniel Murphy is a case of a corner infielder learning the middle infield to a non-embarrassing level, and Nate McLouth is an example of a player who was preforming well but was still traded because of a younger more promising player in the minors. Combine those two and we are almost to the Nats situation. Espinosa is not the only player that could be moved. Desmond is coming off a career year and his trade value may never be higher, and Adam LaRoche doesn't have a no trade clause and the 2014 first base free agent class isn't very good. The real question is what does Rendon have to do to force the Nats to make a move.
There were many scouts that believed his bat was major league ready when he was drafted, but he still has to prove it in the minors, and more than that he has to prove he can stay healthy. If the Nats really want him to be able to play second base he also has to start getting consistent reps at the position in AA and AAA. When we are talking about either Desmond or Espinosa we're talking about a low OBP high SLG bat. What Rendon brings is superior contact skills, plate discipline, and equal if not superior power. Rendon projects to be a .300 hitter that can hit around 25 homers and will walk close to 100 times a season. Some projection systems already have Rendon as a .265/.344/.461 major league hitter. That isn't enough to make up to defensive difference between he and Espinosa, but it is interesting that a projection system is that optimistic about a prospect that didn't hit all that well in AA last season.
The answer as to what Rendon has to do in the minors to force the Nats to make a decision is simple. Continue to do what he has done with the bat in the AFL and Spring Training while staying healthy and becoming a serviceable defensive second baseman. If he can do all that before the All-Star break the Nationals may suddenly turn to a team with minor league pitching depth and offer up Espinosa or Desmond. There are a lot of major league teams that could use a short stop, and to insert some personal bias here I wouldn't mind having Chris Archer on the Nationals. I still do not believe it is likely that Rendon can play second base, but what I believe doesn't often have a lot to do with what happens. It has happened before in the majors where a minor league corner infielder has become a major league middle infielder, and players that are preforming well at the majors have been moved to make room for higher upside prospects. If Rendon continues doing what he is doing in Spring Training in AA and AAA the Nats are going to find a spot for him, and it will be sooner rather than later.