Who Will Lead Off for the 2016 Nationals?

Trea Turner

The 23-year-old is coming off a strange but highly productive 2015. Turner had been traded from San Diego to Washington in the offseason, but because of legal minutiae, he was only able to join the Nationals system halfway through the year.

This weird set of circumstances must have been mentally taxing. And it could have been a useful excuse for a down or uneven year. Instead, Turner raked at every level, for both franchises. (He only played 10 games at Double-A for Washington, so I only looked at his San Diego numbers.)

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Those are some otherworldly BABIPs he’s put up. His career BABIP mark, across all levels, is an actually earth-bound .296. He has hit for some power in the minors, but that’s trending downward. His strikeout rates are ticking up – to around league average, roughly 20 percent – and his walk rates are going down. None of those are necessarily disasters, but neither are they ideal trends for a present or future leadoff hitter.

(If I may refer back to Escobar in Kansas City, one positive thing to say about his offensive game is that he has never struck out much. His minuscule on-base and microscopic slugging in 2015 were paired with an above-average 11.3 percent strikeout rate; during his playoff tear, he struck out at similar 13.3 percent pace.)

Turner’s raw speed is an offensive weapon in itself: it gives him the ability to turn routine plays into close plays and so forth. In fact, he nearly earned his first major league hit by beating out an infield grounder. He was called out, but the play was excruciatingly close.

Rizzo has said that Turner will have an opportunity to win a job – either at shortstop or second base – coming out of spring training. But I doubt that Rizzo would want to hand the leadoff spot over to a basically untested 23-year-old. More realistically, if he makes the big league club as a shortstop or second baseman, he could be slotted in as the eighth or even ninth hitter, like the Cubs did with Addison Russell.

Yunel Escobar

As one of the only generally healthy and effective Nationals in 2015, Escobar hit all over the lineup. He led off; he hit seventh; he hit cleanup; he seemed to hit everywhere, and he put up his best year since 2007 while doing so.

I focused on the three holes he hit from most frequently:

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Clearly, Escobar was a productive hitter for Washington. He goes up looking to swing and swing he does. His strikeout rates and walk ratios from either of the top two lineup spots are surprisingly Span-ish.

The main concern with Escobar is that he ended the year with a BABIP of .347. The last time he sniffed that was 2007, when he posted a .364 mark. In 2013-14, Escobar landed around .280.

That’s a significant difference, and one has to be worried that much of his strong offensive 2015 was related to an unrepeatable peak in BABIP.

Michael Taylor

Taylor led off several times in 2015. His rare mix of power and speed make him a tantalizing, dynamic, explosive player to top off a lineup. But we shouldn’t expect to see him batting first much more, because his approach is strikeout rich. And unfortunately, there is nothing in his track record suggesting that will change.

Taylor has a staggering 31.6 percent strikeout rate for his career. In his last season of Double-A ball, he slashed an impressive .313/.396./.539 – while striking out 29.5 percent of the time.

His defense made huge strides by year’s end; if his offense makes strides in 2016, as it seemed to in stretches of 2015, he could be a powerful fifth or sixth hitter – an Ian Desmond-type of force. But he’s not a “leadoff guy” now and he simply may never be cut out for that role.

If none of these internal options are good enough, there are several external options – trade targets – who would be appealing.

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