Bench roles starting to fall into place

Robinson Cano. Huroki Kuroda. Scott Feldman. Curtis Granderson. Ryan Webb. J.P. Arencibia. Nate McLouth. Mike Napoli. Carlos Beltran.

Most offseasons, that’s a busy week when it comes to free agent signings. In the winter of 2013, however, that’s just one day’s worth of free agent action.

All nine of the players listed above agreed to terms on contracts yesterday, crossing a handful more names off the list of available free agents going into the Winter Meetings.

I texted a major league evaluator last night after the news of the Yankees’ signing of Beltran broke, asking him if he’s ever seen so much action this early in an offseason.

“Nope. This is nuts,” he replied.

With the Nationals agreeing to terms with Nate McLouth yesterday on a two-year, $10.75 million deal with a $6.5 million team option for 2016, Mike Rizzo’s already brief to-do list got a bit shorter.

The Nats now have McLouth as their fourth outfielder, a guy who at the very least can contribute solid defense at any outfield spot and slide into the starting lineup should Jayson Werth, Denard Span or Bryce Harper go down with an injury.

Given that Werth will turn 35 in May and has appeared in a total of just 210 games the last two seasons, Span has battled concussions in the past and Harper is coming off minor offseason knee surgery, having a guy with defensive ability and versatility in the outfield is quite valuable. Doesn’t hurt that he had an OPS+ of 96 last season, which is pretty strong for a bench player.

Now that McLouth is on board, he’ll be the left-handed outfield bat off the bench, with Scott Hairston locked in as the right-handed-hitting reserve outfielder. Those two could form a nice platoon, given McLouth’s career .786 OPS against right-handed pitchers and Hairston’s career .815 OPS against lefties.

Tyler Moore is in line to be the Nats’ backup first baseman, although he isn’t a great fit as the roster currently stands, because he doesn’t play third base. Ideally, the Nats could have a reserve middle infielder with experience at both first and third, as they did the last two seasons in Chad Tracy. But Moore is a first baseman and corner outfielder, meaning he might need to prove his worth as a power bat off the bench in order to stick on the roster all season.

Should Ryan Zimmerman go down to an injury, the Nats could always move Anthony Rendon over to third base, although I bet they’d ideally like to have a guy off the bench that can play there so that the starting position players don’t need to get shuffled around.

As I wrote the other day, Danny Espinosa is currently the top candidate to earn the backup middle infielder job, but don’t be surprised if Rizzo signs a low-level, veteran infielder to compete for a roster spot with Espinosa during spring training. The fact that Espinosa can play plus defense at both second base and shortstop works to his advantage, as the Nats were lacking such a player off the bench the last two seasons. Steve Lombardozzi was a solid backup at second, but the Nats didn’t feel comfortable tabbing him to replace Ian Desmond at short, when needed.

Zach Walters could be another candidate competing for a backup infielder job, but he has very little minor league experience at second base and is still probably a bit too raw to earn a major league roster spot out of spring. The McLouth signing hurts Jeff Kobernus, who came up a second baseman but has been transitioned to more of an outfielder.

Then, there’s the backup catcher job. The Nats currently have Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon as the two catchers behind Wilson Ramos on their 40-man roster, and talent evaluators within the organization like the defensive skills that both guys bring to the table. But I still expect Rizzo to look to add a more experienced backup catcher at some point, given Ramos’ injury issues over the last couple of seasons.

The bench is starting to come together, and while it isn’t completely set just yet, the addition of McLouth probably gives the Nats their two backup outfielders, leaving them just needing to settle on reserve infielders and Ramos’ backup behind the plate.

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