Dave Nichols: Rizzo defends remade bench against early criticism

The Washington Nationals spent much of the offseason trying to land a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, chasing after Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke and others to stabilize a starting staff that was in the lower third in the National League in almost every meaningful category in 2010. But general manager Mike Rizzo had a secondary goal: to strengthen the bench and to add players that would know and understand their roles as part-time players, something the Nats have had trouble with in the past.

Rizzo failed to land his headline starter, but he did completely make over the bench. But already this season, he’s been prompted to defend his choices. During an appearance on 106.7 The Fan on Monday night, Rizzo responded to a fan’s criticism that the players he’s assembled on the bench leave something to be desired.

“I could not disagree any more with that statement,” Rizzo said. “These guys are the mentors of (the Nats’) young players. We have a good core of good young players, and believe me, the addition of Matt Stairs and Laynce Nix and Jerry Hairston Jr. - along with they’re pretty darn good baseball players - know their roles and have exceed at the role of being a bench player. That is one of the big reasons that these guys are on the club, is to teach these good young prospect players how to be major leaguers.”

Anyone can look up the career statistics of the players Rizzo mentioned by name and formulate an opinion for themselves whether they think they are “pretty darn good baseball players.” You can argue with his choices of the specific players - especially keeping both Nix and Stairs, seemingly redundant left-handed power-hitting types - but it’s hard to argue with his logic. Generally, you want younger players playing everyday, not sitting on the bench. And having veterans that know their roles is better than having disgruntled former starters wondering why they aren’t playing and when they’ll play again.

For me, though, a follow-up statement by Rizzo was the most telling one of the entire debate: “None of those players that you mentioned is gonna take one at-bat away from a prospect.”

That’s the point. Other than Ian Desmond (25), Danny Espinosa (24 in two weeks) and Wilson Ramos (23), the Nationals just don’t have any more younger players pushing for playing time yet. The next level of prospects, including right fielder Bryce Harper, first baseman Chris Marrero and catchr Derek Norris, still need to spend most, if not all, of this season in the minors.

The Nats’ braintrust apparently made their decision on 26-year old Roger Bernadina though, who lost spring training battles to older players Michael Morse in left field, Rick Ankiel in center and Nix for the backup outfielder role. So despite playing almost the entire 2010 season on the roster and hitting double-digits in home runs and steals, Bernadina was sent back to the minors to play every day, waiting for another opportunity due to injury or attrition.

In fact, looking at the Nationals’ opening day roster, the Nats have only four position players 26 or younger on the roster (including face of the franchise Ryan Zimmerman), and the team is currently second in the N.L. East (behind the Phillies) for most players on the total roster older than 30, including all seven position players that Rizzo signed this past offseason. So who exactly needs to be mentored?

Dave Nichols covers the Washington Nationals for Nats News Network. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations this week, as MASNsports.com begins a season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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