As we approach mid-January, it is clear that despite a plethora of options to upgrade left field still on the open market, the Angels are likely to stand pat, as Arte Moreno cites "economics" as his reasoning to forego rectifying the Josh Hamilton blunder. I will not attempt to defend nor crucify Moreno for this decision (we have covered that topic enough the last few months). My interest now lies with what the team will look like when they take the field this spring, particularly the gaping hole to the left of Mike Trout.
A quick perusal of their respective Baseball-Reference pages will show an alarming number of similarities between Matt Joyce and his projected replacement, Daniel Nava. Both sport a healthy career OBP, with Joyce at .335 and Nava at .358. Both were considered solid left-handed bats before completely cratering last season. Most importantly, both are on the wrong side of 30.
So why in the world would Billy Eppler look to replace Joyce with essentially the same player, only older? For starters, Nava's lost 2015 season might at least be explainable. On May 28th, the Red Sox placed Nava on the 15-day DL with a sprained left thumb, an injury that, according to Rotoworld, "has apparently been bothering him for a while." Thumb injuries are notoriously tricky for hitters to overcome and it took much longer than 15 days for Nava to heal and properly grip a bat. Here is what he had to say to Masslive.com about the injury:
"I couldn't really hit off a tee very well," Nava said of the injury. "I couldn't control the bat with my top hand so I was predominantly swinging with my bottom hand left handed and when you can't control the bat with your top hand it just loses it. I was just hoping when I went into the box that I would take a good swing. Just rolling dice."
Nava did not return to the Sox until July 21, a full two months after spraining his thumb. Nine days and five plate appearances later, he was designated for assignment and scooped up by the Rays, where he hit .233/.364/.301 over 88 PA to finish the season. Those are not the numbers of a world-beater but a .364 OBP would play very nicely in front of Mike Trout.
Is it reasonable to expect that level of production? Unlike Joyce, whose usefulness vanished as his power diminished, Nava relies on spraying the ball to all fields. Even in his worst year, his spray chart lines up pretty well with the rest of his career: 34.6% of his batted balls are pulled, 35.8% hit to center and 29.6% go the opposite way. While we should not mistake Nava and his 20% strike out rate as a contact hitter, he has maintained a respectable 83.9% contact rate overall during his career, a mark that would have ranked 38th in all of baseball had he enough plate appearances to qualify. An excellent batting eye is Nava's bread-and-butter, offering at only 23.9% of balls outside the zone during his career, a number that has him among the very elite in that category the last few seasons. Even if he fails to reach the heights of his 2013 success (127 OPS+), Nava should get on base more frequently than any Angel not named Trout.
If we are willing to dismiss his lost 2015 due to his thumb injury, we can feel confident that we have a league-average hitter with excellent on-base skills on our hands, which would already be a stark improvement over what we fielded last season. So, how's his glove-work? A pylon would be an upgrade over what Joyce provided the team last year, though there is hope Nava can be even more than that. His defensive numbers have been a bit all over the map, perhaps a result of all the innings logged at Fenway. What is encouraging is his numbers have been more good than bad over the years, with at least three of the major metrics in relative agreement:
Note, the UZR and DRS numbers are strictly what he recorded as an outfielder, while the dWAR data does include time spent at first base (though with only 14 complete games at the position under his belt, I did not find it significant enough to worry about). 2013-14 are clearly the outliers, though they are also the years where we have the biggest sample. There is optimism seeing that his first three years are his worst, with the latter two seasons his best. His improvement should be viewed with plenty of skepticism, however, as players very rarely improve defensively as they enter their 30's. Still, with only one truly below-average season on the defensive end, we should be confident in his ability to be as average with the glove as he is with the bat.
Now, I'm not kidding myself. Daniel Nava is most certainly not Jason Heyward, Justin Upton or Alex Gordon. He is a plucky little player with no power, who gets on base and is average-at-best with the glove. He will also be 33 years-old when the season starts, so his decline could very well be blamed on much more than a busted thumb. That said, he was averaging 3-WAR per season before last year's debacle, which would put him right in line with Cespedes and Upton. If he provides just 1/3 of that production next season, the California native would still be a significant improvement over Joyce and for under $2 million total, an absolute steal. In a world where Yoenis Cespedes and his .319 OBP is looking for more than $20 million a year and teams are competing for the services of career-mediocrity Gerardo Parra, we just might be grateful to see Mr. Nava roaming left field come the middle of next season.