If you’ve followed the Nationals with any type of regularity this season, you’ve probably read quotes from Davey Johnson where he discusses how tough he thinks it is for young players to occupy bench roles on a major league team.
Johnson knows that Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi haven’t produced much from an offensive perspective at the big league level this season. Moore’s level of play was low enough that the Nats optioned him to Triple-A Syracuse last weekend in order to get him on track in a less stressful environment where he can get a lot of at-bats.
Currently, Johnson’s bench is made up of Chad Tracy (33 years old, with 889 big league games), Roger Bernadina (29, 436 games), Lombardozzi (24, 197 games), Chris Marrero (24, 36 games), Jeff Kobernus (24, 13 games) and Jhonatan Solano (27, 25 games).
There isn’t a ton of big league experience among that group, and thus, the bench is an area of his team that Johnson still views as a work in progress.
“It’s no secret that last year, I did have a couple veterans on my bench that were very good for the ballclub and that was (Mark) DeRosa and also Tracy,” Johnson said. “This year, with just Tracy, not the right-handed complement to it, I thought Tyler Moore would be able to handle it, although it was going to be a tough situation going in because we had a regular outfield ... and a regular first baseman. So there really wasn’t any regular playing time for him, and he didn’t handle it as well, as most young players don’t handle that well.
“My conversation with him, he still feels he can handle that job, but it’s awfully difficult for a guy that hasn’t had a full year in the big leagues to come off the bench and hit. We’re in the same situation. We’ve got a very young bench with Kobernus and Marrero, also Lombo. So they’ve got to learn on the job and it’s a tough job. The bench has always been more veteran. But last year, the job they did as rookies, filling in for some everyday players, I’ve never seen it happen before and it was second to none. I was hoping from that experience, maybe we’d be different.”
So far, the Nats haven’t really been different from that norm. They’ve lacked quality production off the bench, although things have gotten a little better lately, with Tracy hitting two pinch-hit, game-tying home runs on the recent road trip and Kobernus slugging a pinch-hit homer of his own two nights ago.
Still, Nationals pinch-hitters have a slash line of just .172/.206/.323 this season, which leaves you wondering if the Nats will need to make a move at some point in order to add more offensive firepower to the bench. Johnson clearly makes it sound like he’d prefer more of a proven, veteran presence on the bench, but while general manager Mike Rizzo might look for another right-handed bat, he won’t do so solely to add a guy who offers more experience than his current bench players.
“I think that the bench we had last year was a really young, inexperienced bench, and it was very productive,” Rizzo said. “I think what we would be looking for would be a productive bench, whoever that we can get that does the job and help us win jobs.”
Why does Johnson feel that coming off the bench is so tough for younger players? He’s got a number of reasons, actually.
“When you play on a team that’s got everyday players and you don’t get to play but maybe once or twice a week, not everybody can welcome the role as a challenge. It’s more of an audition,” Johnson said. “It has a different feel to the ballclub. There’s not the relaxation that you would expect when you have some veterans situated around you and they’re not concerned about their contract for the next year or whatever. They know they’ve been successful at this level and they’ll be playing baseball next year probably in the same role. Younger guys feel like this is my chance to establish that I’m a big leaguer. And then when you throw them in a different role, it’s just hard. It’s very hard.”
The Nats still view Moore as a guy that can come back up and help give them some pop from the right side of the plate. The 26-year-old is hitting .250 with two homers and eight RBIs in his eight games with Syracuse, and it might not be too long before he’s back in the big leagues, giving Johnson another weapon in the late innings.
“He’ll probably be in the mix pretty soon,” Johnson said. “He fits more of a right-handed bat that can come off the bench and drive in a run. We’re not right where we need to be, but we’re getting there.”