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Daniel Nava Reconsidered

 Daniel Nava #66 of the Boston Red Sox and catcher Brett Hayes #9 of the Miami Marlins watch Nava's RBI single to put the Red Sox in the lead during the eighth inning of the game at Fenway Park.  (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
Daniel Nava #66 of the Boston Red Sox and catcher Brett Hayes #9 of the Miami Marlins watch Nava's RBI single to put the Red Sox in the lead during the eighth inning of the game at Fenway Park. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
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With Carl Crawford gone for the year with elbow surgery, Daniel Nava has returned and will likely see significant time in LF and, until David Ortiz comes back, at DH. Prior to a July slump and his subsequent trip to the DL, Nava was one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 season. He has surpassed his 2010 total for plate appearances and even after a dreadful July where he hit just .133/.257/.217, he is still hitting 11% better than league average by weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). His success is almost entirely the result of his patient approach at the plate; among American League hitters with over 200 plate appearances he is 22nd in walk rate, drawing free passes in 13% of his trips to the plate. Nava has been a savior for the Red Sox in the wake of the injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford, but even with 430 plate appearances under his belt, he still remains a difficult player to project.

The main problem in understand Daniel Nava’s potential as a player is and always has been his age. Age can be the single most important number when you are looking at a player at any level, but for players in the minors, it definitely takes precedence over everything else. If a player is two years older than average (as Nava was), he should be better than the other players around him. This issue informs every step of Nava’s career progress and even now, as he appears capable of being an everyday player, his age presents a challenge in evaluation.

When Nava entered the minor leagues playing for High-A Lancaster, he was not consider a prospect at all. He was an interesting story and promised to be a solid organizational guy, but he wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Even after he rode a .424 OBP and 10 HR to the team’s highest OPS (minimum 300 PA), topping Lars Anderson, Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish, he wasn’t going to attract much serious attention from prospect experts. After all, he was 25 playing in a league where the average age was closer to 22. He is not a big guy and he doesn’t hit for plus power. He made good contact but his one elite skill was his patience and that skill rarely persists as the quality of competition increases.

However, Nava maintained his elite walk rates and OBP through the next season and a promotion to AA, the real testing ground for prospects en route to the majors. In 144 PA with Portland in 2009, Nava posted a .364/.479/.568 line. He was 26 at that point and the average age for AA players is typically between 23-24, but people started to take notice anyway. The next season he was facing Joe Blanton at Fenway Park on national television and, after his first swing, everyone in New England knew his story. Still, he was a 27 year old rookie and he would wind up hitting just .242/.351/.360 for a wRC+ of 93. As a mediocre defender at an offense-first position, replacement level looked like a fair estimate for Daniel Nava’s abilities.

Now that Daniel Nava has produced at a rate that would make him between a 3-4 win player (by Fangraph’s Wins Above Replacement metric, fWAR) over a full season for 246 plate appearances, we need to re-evaluate his abilities. He has been well-above replacement level thus far and there is evidence that he can remain that way.

Nava’s major league experience is still short of a full season worth of plate appearances, but his career batting line of .247/.363/.379 is good enough for a wRC+ of 103. Combined with around average defense, that line is good enough to make Nava nearly an average everyday left fielder. His offense is driven by his ability to draw a walk and walk rate tends to be one of the more stable statistics, so there is little reason to believe that his on base percentage will plummet dramtically. He has not been particularly lucky either with just a .299 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) which is essentially league average and below his career average. His power is below average and will likely stay that way, but it is not as bad as it may look. Major League Average Isolated Power metric (ISO) over the past three seasons is .147 and Nava has a .143 ISO this year and a .137 average ISO at the major league level. That is not great for a corner outfielder but his fairly elite OBP skills more than make up for that weakness in his offensive game.

While his advanced age makes his minor league track record problematic, his performance at AAA should give people some confidence that Nava can be close to the player he has been this season for a least a few more years. In 2010, Nava was barely a year older than the average age for a AAA player and he hit 27% better than league average. Last season, Daniel Nava played the entire year in AAA and was 18% better than league average.

While everything Nava has done to this point indicates that he could be a viable major league regular, there is one number that still haunts him, limiting his potential and negating nearly all the value his affordability and upside might lend to a potential trade. That number is 29. 29-year-old second-year players do not have good track records. Neither do 27-year-old rookies. Since 1980, there have been 18 positional players who played their second season at age 29. Five of those players are catchers, who have a longer development time than other position players; two are Japanese players who played in the Japan prior to coming to the US. Of those 18 players, Jamey Carroll is by far the most valuable among them, with 14.6 fWAR. Almost all of these players are replacement level guys. Of course, that makes sense. If they were capable of being even average players, they would have broken into the majors earlier. Daniel Nava may have given us reason to believe he can be better than replacement, but even now that he is at the major league level, his age still suggests otherwise. His on-base skills are superior to everyone else on that list, but we still need to temper expectations with this in mind.

If there is a silver lining here, it is that Nava’s value to the Red Sox is likely to outweigh any trade value he may have. If he was better defensive player, teams might view him as a viable fourth outfielder option, but he is major stretch in right field. His value would be best achieved as either an everyday left fielder or the lefty-hitting side of a platoon and it is difficult to imagine any team paying to take that chance on him for a full season. With Crawford recovering from surgery, he is almost certainly better as depth than trade bait.

As a fan of his, I am happy that at least his limited potential will likely keep him in Boston, but I have to wonder what he might be able to do if he did get a chance to play everyday. He has the perfect combination of skills to make him perpetually underrated. He is an on-base machine with little power, no plus defensive skills and he plays a position low on the defensive spectrum. His current production would be an improvement for six or seven teams over a full season, but there is little chance that he will be sought after this off-season. If he is fully healthy now and can hit as he did prior to his July slump, he might change that. 80 more plate appearances of above average hitting could put him on someone's radar. A surge in power could make Nava a real option for other teams. For now, though he is one of the better Plan-B options in the game and he is likely to remain just that.