Ted Leavengood: Nats need to find a straw to stir the drink

Reggie Jackson famously described his presence on the Yankees and other teams as “the straw that stirs the drink.” In his 1984 autobiography, he said, “if the other ingredients were there ... if the mix was just about right, I could make the difference.”

The Washington Nationals desperately need that kind of presence in their lineup. It has been showing all along, but Davey Johnson kept saying that when everyone was healthy, everything would be OK. Everyone is healthy, the mix is about right, but there is no one to stir the drink.

The Nationals have a legitimate major leaguer at every position. The question is how to make a change. Where do you make a change that alters the chemistry in a perfect way?

Denard Span is a gifted center fielder, one who can bat at the bottom of the order when there is adequate cover for him in the rest of the offense. But the first half of this season has called into question whether he has adds enough to hit leadoff. The truth of the matter is that a batting order with Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche at its heart does not allow for Span to hit leadoff or anywhere else for that matter. Compensating for a defensive specialist in center requires the kind of power that has been missing in D.C. all season long.

As it currently stands, the Nationals have four hitters who have carried their weight: Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Zimmerman. They can hit with men on base, they can hit for power, they can hit for average. But not one of them provides a consistent power presence in the lineup, nor do they do so as an aggregate. No, the Nationals are a team without an offensive champion. There is no one to stir the drink.

Last season, it was Zimmerman or LaRoche. When the Z-man was hurting, LaRoche was putting up career-best numbers. Together they were the difference-makers. But this season, neither is performing at the same levels.

The most alarming factor to surface this season is the downward trend in Zimmerman’s offense. The Z-man’s defense has gotten better as the season has progressed. But it is legitimate to ask whether his physical problems have taken a toll on his power. Zimmerman was a difference-maker in 2009, ‘10 and for long stretches of ‘12. Currently, the Z-man is a good hitter, but not a dominating force.

The current starting alignment is scoring 3.7 runs per game, 29th among major league teams. Having a healthy Wilson Ramos and Harper has done nothing. The numbers continue to slide south.

In all cold-hearted truth, the best subtractions to make from the Nationals lineup are among the oldest players, Werth and LaRoche. Werth may be as productive as anyone in the lineup, but is still owed $83 million by the Nationals, so there is no chance that anyone takes him off the Lerner family’s handsome ledger books.

And that leaves LaRoche and his very attractive $12 million contract for 2014. There are numerous teams that need someone of LaRoche’s character and skill to help in their push for the playoffs. Unfortunately, Washington is not one of them now. Not a single sports fan in D.C. wants to admit that it is time to pull the plug on the 2013 baseball season, but this is a trade deadline where the Nationals need to fix what is wrong for 2014, not waste any more prospects on the likes of Scott Hairston.

Trading LaRoche allows Mike Rizzo to add a power bat at first base, second base or third. Without LaRoche, he can slide Zimmerman to first and Anthony Rendon to third, and add Robinson Cano in the offseason. That dream is unlikely to come true. But it illustrates the point that by replacing LaRoche with a bona fide slugger somewhere in the infield, Washington can go from an offensive mediocrity to something foreboding for National League pitchers.

It is time to pull the plug and move on. The Nats need someone who can stir the drink, a difference-maker like the Yankees got in Jackson. Finding one is not easy and that is why baseball is such a hard game.

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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