Ted Leavengood: Is it time to fish or cut bait?

The end of a tough road trip may not be the right moment, but the time is coming for the 2013 Nationals to fish or cut bait. The basic facts were laid out in a USA Today article Monday that cited the Nationals’ offense as 29th in batting average and OBP, and 27th in runs scored among major league teams. It did not get better last night as another struggling pitcher, Ryan Vogelsong, found his A-game against the Nationals, crafting a three-hit shutout over five innings before leaving with a broken hand to lower his ERA to 7.19 for the season.

Eric Stults? Vogelsong? They they might as well be Bob Feller. The bottom part of the batting order cannot hit much of anything. Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina and Danny Espinosa were a combined 1-for-11 on Sunday. And for the season, their combined efforts have been woeful.

Moore and Bernadina were key bats off the bench in 2012. Yet this season, they have looked lost at the plate, overmatched. Moore is hitting only .127 and it is going to take a lot of 3-for-4s to pull that up. The chance he will do it at the major league level is becoming more unlikely with each passing day. Bernadina has done little better, though he has more of a proven track record than Moore. His outfield defense is impeccable and it is easier to make a case for Bernadina as a bench player than for Moore.

Then there is Espinosa. Everything pointed to Espinosa having a breakout year based on his play in March, but when a batter only puts the ball in play 70 percent of the time like Espinosa, the odds are always against you. Espinosa led the National League last season with 189 strikeouts and though his pace has declined slightly this season, it is still at the upper limits of all major leaguers. As good as his defense is, the question is whether a team that has as many offensive holes as the Nationals do this year can afford to carry a glove man who can neither get on base nor move the runners when needed.

Last season, the team’s offensive woes were addressed by the call-up of Bryce Harper and there are similar places to look for relief in 2013. At Triple-A Syracuse, Chris Marrero is showing signs that he has found the power stroke that made him a first-round draft choice in 2006, 15th overall. He is hitting .306 with eight home runs this year, and he has played in the majors before. He is no naïve rookie, but a proven talent waiting for his chance. He deserves his shot.

He is not Adam LaRoche at first base, but he has played the outfield as well as first base during his minor league career. He is Moore all over again, but with a better chance to hit major league pitching. It is time to let Moore find himself again in Syracuse and give Marrero his shoes to fill in Washington.

Anthony Rendon earned a shot in spring training and were it not for his need to play every day, he might have broken camp with the Nationals when they headed north. But he looked very good filling in for Ryan Zimmerman at the end of April and since returning to Harrisburg has hit over .400 with an OPS of 1.145. He showed remarkable agility at third base while filling in for Zimmerman.

The question is whether he can handle second base with equal dexterity. He has played the position for the Senators and also for Rice in college. The question as to where he will play in the majors has a short term answer: second base. Espinosa is the best defensive player on the team, and there is no way that Rendon can replace his glove. But Rendon flashed some impressive leather during his brief tryout several weeks ago and he has the chance to hit for a significantly higher average than Espinosa with more power. And then there is his strike zone judgment. His OBP during his cup of coffee was .367 and it has been .435 at Harrisburg so far.

Bringing up Marrero to strengthen the bench and giving Rendon significant playing time at second base are painful decisions. But watching the bottom part of the order put zeroes on the board is not fun with Dick and Jane, either. With the offense settling comfortably into the bottom of the major leagues, it is time to try something new. It is time for Espinosa, Bernadina and Moore to fish or cut bait. The Nationals need help and there are only a few places they can find it.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. 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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