A possible Nationals bench matrix

While it’s clearly not the priority this offseason, improving the Nationals’ bench for 2012 is one of general manager Mike Rizzo’s tasks. And while Rizzo will make the moves, it will be in concert with manager Davey Johnson, who has to use the players to the best of their (and his) abilities. Therefore, GM and manager had better be on the same page in terms of roster construction.

Johnson has expressed a clear preference for a bench built on offense, while predecessor Jim Riggleman went with one featuring speed and defense. But whatever configuration the Nationals’ bench eventually takes on, Johnson has definitive ideas on how it should take shape. And he wants it to be better than the one he inherited in June.

Let’s start with numbers: eight position players, a five-man rotation and a bullpen featuring right- and left-handed long men, a couple of set-up men, a lefty specialist and a closer. That’s 20 players, leaving five spots on the 25-man roster. (If Johnson opts for a 12-man pitching staff, there’s one less bench spot to fill.)

Given that one of those five remaining openings will be filled by a backup catcher - for now, let’s assume that’s Jesus Flores - that leaves four spots. From those, Rizzo and Johnson need to come up with a couple of infield backups, a reserve first baseman and a spare outfielder or two. You have to make sure you have a nice split between guys who hit right- and left-handed, and a little speed is probably necessary.

If you’re good at math, you realize I just said there were four spots open and listed five job descriptions. That’s because one player could fill more than one role. For instance, with Chris Marrero working his way back from a torn hamstring and not expected to be available until July, Johnson could opt to get someone who could play both outfield and first base, or all around the infield. You’ve heard Mark DeRosa and Greg Dobbs’ names linked to the Nationals; these guys are versatile enough to play more than one position, meaning Johnson would have added maneuverability.

DeRosa has played everywhere but catcher and center field during a 14-year career, though second base and third base have been his primary homes. The 33-year-old Dobbs is a corner infielder by trade, but does have some experience at the outfield corners and has even played a few games in the majors at second base. While DeRosa is a right-handed hitter who used to be viewed as a super sub, Dobbs hits from the left side and boasts a .259 career average as a pinch hitter, with nine homers and 60 RBIs in 316 plate appearances. If Johnson wants someone who can run into a fastball, a hitter opposing managers will have to think twice about in the late innings, Dobbs could be a nice fit.

While both DeRosa and Dobbs can play the outfield, they hardly count as guys you’d consider as defensive upgrades or guys you’d trust if a double switch was needed. That’s where Rick Ankiel comes in, and why the Nationals are entertaining the idea of re-signing the veteran. The 32-year-old Ankiel is a plus defender, has a good arm and adds some speed in reserve (he stole 10 bases in 13 tried last season). He’s also a left-handed stick, which means he and 27-year-old Roger Bernadina, another lefty hitter, could be vying for the same position. Or maybe they’re not - Johnson could use Michael Morse as his backup first baseman, opening a spot for a fifth outfielder, though it’s doubtful the Nats could carry both Ankiel and Bernadina, who are similar players.

The last remaining spot? It’ll probably go to a right-handed hitter, likely someone like Dobbs who can play a couple of positions and has a little pop to counter left-handed pitchers in the late innings. Mike Cameron, a 17-year veteran in whom the Nats have some interest, might work. Even though Cameron has a dozen double-digit seasons to his credit, he’s hit only 13 home runs in the past two seasons, a substantial dropoff for a guy with power. Ryan Spilborghs, non-tendered by the Rockies, could also fit here - right-handed bat who can move all around the outfield.. Or the Nats could swing a trade to fill a need, targeting a specific type of player - say a right-handed-hitting outfielder or a right-handed hitting first baseman. Johnson desperately needs someone to give Adam LaRoche a break at first until Marrero gets back; once again, Morse could be that guy, or the Nats could be scouring the waiver wire in spring training.

If the Nationals fill a need with a player different than one of those described above - let’s say they decide that DeRosa really doesn’t work because his bat speed has been compromised by two years of wrist injuries - it’s not as simple as just plugging in another player to replace him. Maybe that happens, but if it doesn’t - if the replacement for the right-handed-hitter DeRosa is a left-handed hitter than suddenly tilts the Washington bench in that direction - there’s a trickle-down effect. One of the other lefty-swinging bench players has to become right-handed, and that move could force another if the replacement doesn’t cover the same positions as the guy he’s replacing.

Long story short, the search for bench help will continue through spring training. As other teams pare down to 25 guys, Rizzo and Johnson will be constantly on the lookout for someone who might fit. They’ll have plans and contingencies, and the final makeup of the Nationals’ bench might not be solved until after the April 3 exhibition at Nationals Park against the Red Sox. Even then, nothing will be carved in stone.

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