I often find myself fascinated by what sports fans value in constructing a roster. Sometimes they prefer veterans who have seen success in the past, but have struggled recently. In other situations, they’ll talk themselves into unproven prospects who appear to have solid ability, but have seemingly limited upsides.
In Washington, the conversation surrounding left field seems to have taken on a life if its own. Should it be 34-year-old Corey Dickerson’s job to lose, or would turning to a less proven player in his late 20s be more worthwhile?
It’s a topic I introduced in my piece addressing the top five spring storylines, but it’s proven to be worth doubling down on.
Dickerson has been a decent but unspectacular hitter and defensive liability for his entire career, whereas Alex Call and Stone Garrett have succeeded everywhere they’ve been but not reached the majors in a limited capacity until last season.
Which of those two archetypes should the Nationals be chasing this spring?
Finding Pieces To The Puzzle
When teams are bad and clearly starting over from the ground up, the younger option is generally the better option. Some degree of veteran leadership is certainly important, but when discussing filling out the margins of the roster, youth is typically preferable.
That’s not to say, however, that all youth is the same. Players like Cade Cavalli and CJ Abrams get preferential treatment over the Calls and Garretts of the world.
Still, not all players progress the same way. Some players – like Garrett – take longer to reach their potentials, and former college players – like Call – will inherently be older than those who were drafted from high school.
The ultimate question at hand is whether the Nationals see either of them as important pieces on their big league roster in the future. Are they likely to become starters (or at least No. 4 outfielders)? Or, do the Nationals see them as not much more than “AAAA” filler – in essence, capable of filling into a roster spot when needed, but ideally spending most of their time in Triple-A?
If the organization isn’t enthused about them, rolling out Dickerson until the trade deadline – or perhaps all season – makes the most sense. But if Dave Martinez and company like what either of them offer and believe they’re ready, Call or Garrett should see the field more often.
Free Agent Appeal
This argument favors Dickerson. The type of affordable one-year deal the Nationals signed him to looks much less appealing to players in future offseasons if Dickerson doesn’t play.
Generally, players sign one-year contracts for one of two reasons: for a chance to win a championship (which the Nationals won’t be doing in the immediate future), or to rebuild their value entering the following offseason.
If Dickerson is passed over for unproven prospects, what does that signal to future free agents? Would they be viewed the same way if they signed in Washington? That would likely push such players to pursue other options when the Nationals offer them a similar contract.
Of course, that conversation is probably null and void if the franchise is sold soon. But even so, players don’t always consider every factor. Perhaps they’d see how veterans are treated, disregard the ownership change, and still shy away from Washington.
The usage of Dickerson won’t impact players that the Nationals offer larger contracts to. Teams can usually secure anyone if they simply outbid the rest of the market. But let’s face it, there’s no way to craft a roster without some players on cheap, short contracts.
This discussion is far less black and white, but every bit as important – because it drives tickets sales and, ultimately, team revenue.
What type of player pleases the largest group of fans: an okay older player, or a young lottery ticket? If there’s no substantial impact to wins and losses, would fans rather see a name they know or a face that may or may not matter in the future?
I’m genuinely not sure what the answer to this question is. Call and Garrett intrigue me more, but Dickerson comes with more certainty.
Most of the people I surround myself with would favor the younger player who could perhaps become a valuable long-term asset and a great story. I’m not convinced that more casual fans think that way, though. How many of them even know who CJ Abrams is – not to mention a late bloomer like Joey Meneses?
Then again, how many more times do fans want to see past-their-prime players like Nelson Cruz, Cesar Hernandez or Alcides Escobar take away valuable plate appearances from possible building blocks like Abrams, Luis Garcia and – dare I say it – Meneses?
Controlling The Narrative
Mike Rizzo has openly stated that he doesn’t want this team to lose 100 games again in 2023.
That’s a very reasonable thing to say. There’s no harm in saying it, and fans will appreciate it. What does it really mean, though?
Washington could improve by 10 games this season and still have 97 losses. That appears on paper to be progress, but it would still stack the Nationals as one of the worst teams in the league. Does that numerical improvement change outside perception of the team in any way?
People arguing that such an improvement makes a difference typically express that it’s justification for signing Dickerson and playing him over Call and Garrett. Their case is that playing a known commodity boosts Washington’s expected win total, and if that’s the team’s stated goal, Dickerson needs to play.
Of course, there are cracks in this argument. First, the roster as a whole appears to be stronger than it was at the end of last season – when, despite the losses of Juan Soto and Josh Bell, there was no difference in the team’s win percentage from the first 104 games prior to the trade.
That’s most evident in the starting rotation, where MacKenzie Gore, Trevor Williams and perhaps Cade Cavalli replace Erick Fedde, Anibal Sanchez, and likely Paolo Espino. It’s also reasonable to expect further development and positive regression from Josiah Gray and Patrick Corbin – who were statistically two of the worst starting pitchers in the league last season.
More relevant, however, is that I’m not sure where the idea that Dickerson significantly improves the on-field product comes from.
He’s been within nine percentage points of league average at the plate (in terms of OPS+) in each of his last three seasons, batting almost exclusively against right-handed pitchers – meaning that he’s OK in a specific role, but requires a platoon partner. He’s also posted below-average grades defensively for most of his career, especially during the last four seasons.
I still think Dickerson is a major league player. I think there’s a role for him in the lineup most days. I don’t see him making a tangible difference in Washington’s outlook in 2023, though. It’s possible, although not certain, that they win a few more games with him than they would’ve without him. Does that matter, though?
The Early Status Update
Without a doubt, there isn’t enough data from Spring Training to reach a conclusion. However, if this truly is a close race that performance throughout the next month will determine, it’s worthwhile to assess how each member of the trio is doing so far.
The best of the bunch – if it’s even fair to refer to it as such this soon – has been Dickerson, who went 2-for-2 with a double in Sunday’s game against the Astros. That’s been his only game action so far.
While his numbers are less gaudy, Call has also seen plenty of success. Through five at bats across two starts, he’s batting .400 with two doubles and an RBI. He’s avoided any strikeouts thus far, and he’s also played in both left and center field – which has become a lukewarm discussion point, considering the trials and tribulations of Victor Robles.
Garrett, on the other hand, has struggled. Through four at bats, he’s sprinkled a bloop RBI single between three strikeouts. Six of the nine innings he’s played have been in right field as opposed to left, and he came off the bench – which typically isn’t an encouraging sign – in relief of Dickerson against the Mets.
The debate will rage on, and quite possibly decide itself during spring games.
Nonetheless, who would you prefer?