When the Nationals arrive at Space Coast Stadium in a few weeks, it will be without the usual uncertainty that has accompanied the team to Viera, Fla., in past spring trainings. Up and down the roster, there are more sure things than question marks.
Rotation? So many legitimate starting pitchers that either Ross Detwiler or John Lannan will likely end up in long relief. Bullpen? So many arms that someone like Ryan Mattheus or Henry Rodguez could be squeezed out. Starting lineup? Pretty solid, one through nine. Bench? Much improved. And general manager Mike Rizzo says he’s not done “tweaking,” so stay tuned.
About the biggest uncertainty revolves around Jayson Werth - will he play center field or right field, and if it’s center, who’s in right?
Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson insist Werth is capable of manning center. They think he’s got sufficient speed to cover the gaps and there’s no doubt that he’s the kind of take-charge outfielder that can play traffic cop (in other words, none of that silliness where the center fielder allows himself to be called off a catchable ball, which has happened occasionally in the past). In his brief trial in center at the end of last season, Werth acquitted himself well, making good reads and taking good routes to the ball. He’s no stranger to center, having played the position in each of his nine major league seasons, but his 31 games and 233 1/3 innings at the position with the Phillies in 2008 were his career highs at the spot.
If Werth plays center and Bryce Harper forces his way onto the 25-man roster as the primary right fielder, most of the Nationals’ outfield questions are answered (assuming Harper doesn’t struggle and require the Nationals to return him for more minor league seasoning). Johnson is confident that the 19-year-old Harper’s skills are advanced enough to handle the adjustment from Double-A to the majors; Rizzo isn’t so sure, and would like Harper to get at least half a season at Triple-A (especially since he’s got only 37 Double-A games under his belt). Then there’s the whole financial incentive for stashing Harper in the minors until at least late May or the beginning of June - the Nationals could save untold millions by delaying the start of his arbitration clock. Yet Rizzo said last week he’s at least open to the notion of Harper starting the season with the big league club.
“We’re going to bring the best 25 north,” Rizzo said. “If that includes Harper, it’s Harper. When I believe Harper is ready to play in the big leagues, he’ll be in the big leagues. We’re not going to hinder his progress but we’re not going to accelerate it to a point where I think it endangers his development and curtails his overall performance.”
Now, if Rizzo and Johnson agree that Harper needs some more minor league at-bats - or if Rizzo overrules his manager - then the Nationals have to get creative. Right now, a lefty/righty platoon of holdover Roger Bernadina and veteran Mike Cameron, in camp on a minor league deal with a spring training invitation, would probably be the top option. The same duo could handle center field if the Nationals wanted to keep Werth in right, but Bernadina’s much better as a corner outfielder, where the foul lines can help compensate for some bad reads, and Cameron is 39 and his speed, once his calling card, has diminished. Mark DeRosa could also get some at-bats in right field, but that would take him out of the super utility role the Nats are hoping he’ll fill.
Not sold on Bernadina, Cameron or DeRosa? This is where Rizzo comes back into the discussion. The free agent ranks are thinning, but maybe Rizzo re-signs Rick Ankiel or takes a shot that he can coax another season out of a veteran looking for a job. Perhaps he swings a trade for either an established veteran or a minor leaguer whose path to the majors is blocked. Or he goes to spring training with what he has, keeps an eye on the waiver wire as cuts are made or just sucks it up and waits for next offseason when guys like B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn and Shane Victorino could be available to fill the Nationals’ hole in center field.
The Nationals will have competition in spring training, just not the open casting calls that were commonplace for several positions in years past. Instead, they will be able to focus on getting over .500 and becoming a player in the National League East race.