It's dangerous to look too closely at spring statistics for a couple reasons. Primarily, though, it's because there's a small sample size. Teams play about thirty spring games; most regulars don't travel to the average road game and few players get more than three at bats in a game. So you're left with about 50 at bats on which to judge a performance and a commensurate number of innings pitched for the pitchers.
I prefer to imagine that Frank Robinson is using this time to look at the young talent and figure out what he can use later. From what I've been reading in the Post
, it seems that the team is actually using this time to make player evaluations for the present, and I think that's a mistake.
The two biggest questions that the team has going into the regular season is (a) who bats leadoff and (b) who is the fifth starter? I think the fifth starter question is less relevant here, because no matter what, the guy's going to be lousy. I've never heard of any of the names that have been thrown into the mix for the discussion, so it's either a D or a D minus, barring miracles or me being wrong. Either is possible.
The team has a few options for leadoff hitter. Endy Chavez
batted leadoff in the opener against the Mets, and I get the feeling that he's Frank Robinson's first choice. Chavez's on base percentage last year was a paltry .318, and is .303 for his career. Twenty-seven teams
had a higher on base percentage last year. Giving him the most plate appearances -- which is the main effect of batting leadoff -- would count as a mistake.
I'd rather see Brad Wilkerson
in this role. Wilkerson is not a particularly good hitter. His batting average is perilously close to .250, but he gets on base just fine, with an on base percentage of .374. Figuring that the leadoff hitter gets 700 plate appearances in a season, the difference between Wilkerson and Chavez -- were they to duplicate their 2004 numbers -- is 262 to 223 trips to first base. Thirty-nine bases. Now, I'm not an expert on how these things break down, but thirty-nine bases versus thirty-nine outs is an important difference.
I'm assuming that Robinson's preference for Chavez is a bit old-school: Chavez stole 32 base last year and was only caught seven times. Not too shabby. If he can get himself on base more, the difference in speed between Chavez and Wilkerson could make a difference. I'm generally not a believer in the importance of stolen bases (Mike Scocia's Angels test this theory), but I think it's obvious that their importance declines with the number of home runs a team hits. If you've got a team with a lot of power, it doesn't matter if the lead runner was on first or second when the player behind him hits a homer.
The Nationals are not a team with a lot of power. Vinnie Castilla's Coors-aided numbers notwithstanding, I don't think anyone on the roster (other than Wilkerson) hit 30 homers last year. So getting an extra base here and there is definitely to this team's advantage. I hope they run a lot. But first, I hope they get on base. The cliche is true: you can't steal first base.