With Nick Johnson staying healthy and having one of the best starts of his career (.336/.434/.467 with four homers and 25 RBI), he’s become the subject of some pretty frequent trade rumors. An ESPN.com report earlier this week said the Nationals offered Johnson to the Red Sox, who have seen David Ortiz’s production drop drastically, for reliever Manny Delcarmen.
We’ve heard the Giants could be interested if they’re still in the NL West race around the trade deadline, the Mets could have some interest with Carlos Delgado injured and the A’s inquired about Johnson last offseason.
There’s definitely a school of thought that Johnson is at his most tradeable right now, since he’s producing so well and has shown no ill effects from a long injury history. I’ve heard from team officials that former general manager Jim Bowden thought he’d be able to trade Johnson and move Adam Dunn to first base once Johnson proved he was healthy this spring. That might have been premature, but the way he’s playing, coupled with the number of deep-pocketed teams needing a first baseman, makes this an interesting time to consider the possibility.
For his part, acting general manager Mike Rizzo said little about the rumors Saturday afternoon.
“He’s an extremely valuable player to the Nationals. We need him here, we like him here and we want him here,” Rizzo said. “If someone overwhelms us with a deal that we can’t refuse, of course we’re going to listen to a deal about Nick or about anybody else. But he’s an extremely valuable player for us.”
Johnson’s contract, which pays him $5 million this year, is up after the season, so the Nationals essentially have three options: 1) Trade him for a player or two during the season, 2) Let him walk after the season and hope he brings one or two draft picks back in return, or 3) Resign him to give the position some stability until Chris Marrero is ready.
There’s a viable case to be made for any of these options, and what makes the problem so interesting is the way Johnson is playing. He’s having a revelatory start to the 2009 season, but the injury history is always there. Bowden got caught in that trap by not trading Chad Cordero when he had the chance, and Cordero tore his labrum last season.
That said, the Nationals’ lineup is unquestionably better with Johnson in the No. 2 hole. He’s a solid defender (you’d notice the dropoff if Adam Dunn was at first base every day) and like Dunn, he’s good at working pitchers and getting on base. If he’s kicked the injuries, he can be an above-average first baseman and a very good No. 2 hitter for several more years.
The other interesting piece of this problem is what the Nationals were rumored to have asked for in return: a relief pitcher. Delcarmen is 26 and has plenty of promise—his ERA this season is 0.95 in 18 appearances—but until the Nationals get better, is it frivolous to trade one of their best position players for a reliever who isn’t going to help them contend anytime soon? Or is a better bullpen the only thing holding them back.
I’d love to hear from some fans on this front. I’ve heard some arguments for both sides of this issue, and it’s one we’ll probably be talking about for a while. Next to the draft, it could be the most interesting roster decision the Nationals face this year.