VIERA, Fla. - It will likely take new Nationals manager Matt Williams a good while before he settles on a set lineup that he’d like to use during the regular season.
First, Williams needs to see all his hitters take some cuts, both in the cage and in games, with his own eyes. Then, he needs to get a sense of where they feel most comfortable hitting in the lineup. Then, he needs to figure out what makes the most sense in terms of batting orders and how he can maximize the talent that he has and play to the style that he wants by positioning his guys a certain way.
Managers are always kicking around ideas in their heads, however, and even though Williams probably won’t finalize a batting order for a few weeks, he has some early thoughts on how things might shake out.
Perhaps the biggest lineup question mark at this point is Bryce Harper, who reported yesterday that he feels great physically after offseason knee surgery and is good to go for the spring. Harper has primarily hit second in the Nats’ batting order in the past two seasons, but he also saw his name written into the leadoff spot last season, as well as the three, four and five holes.
So where does Williams see Harper being slotted in his lineup? The Nats skipper is considering a few options at this point.
“If we’ve got a tough matchup for him, we may put him in a different spot to allow him to do some other things,” Williams said. “With all the things he can do on the basepaths, defense and giving him the opportunity to be free to play, I could see him (hitting second). I could see him (third or fourth). I can also see him (fifth) a lot. Which is an interesting spot. We’ll examine all of those, and we may see him hitting in a number of different positions in spring training, just to get a feel for where he’s most comfortable.
“I think back to my day, and the five-spot is a really nice spot. It allows him to get freed up a little bit. He’s not necessarily worried about running in front of the 3-4 guys, if he’s hitting (second). There’s a lot of cleanup RBIs there. And it may provide protection for the 3-4 guys as well, depending on the matchup, righty-lefty. Two is certainly a spot that he can hit in. He’s done that. He’s led off as well. He’s hit (third). So all of those spots play. We’ll see. We’ll experiment a little bit in spring and find out where he feels good and examine that as well.”
Harper hitting fifth would be a bit of a change for him; his name was written into the lineup in that spot just once last season and never below that, even with him battling a knee injury for much of the season.
As Williams noted, there are certainly positives to hitting Harper fifth. The Nationals’ stats guys view the No. 5 spot as a big-time RBI position with this team’s talent, and Harper could use his gap-to-gap power to plate quite a few runs hitting out of the five-hole. The Nats could also stack Harper between a couple of righties - say, somewhere between Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond - and allow him solid matchup opportunities against a right-handed starter.
The problem with hitting Harper fifth, however, is that it would end up giving arguably the Nats’ most talented and potent hitter fewer at-bats than if he was hitting higher in the order. Over the last five seasons, players hitting in the No. 5 spot in the order have averaged around 4.25 plate appearances per game, while players hitting second have averaged around 4.55 plate appearances per game.
That might not seem like much of a difference, but over the course of a 162-game season, that’s a difference of 50 plate appearances.
Williams talked about possibly shifting the lineup around from one day to another, adjusting it based on the opposing team’s starting pitcher and other variables, and that sounds like something he could end up doing a bit.
“I come from the era when you had a pretty set lineup. These days, it jumbles a little bit,” Williams said. “Sometimes it shuffles around. I’d like to get them in a spot where they feel good. The hope of every manager, especially a first-time manager, is to say, ‘Guys, it’s going to be this way, and don’t even bother looking at the lineup card when you come into the clubhouse, because you’re going to hit in this spot.’ When in reality, that doesn’t happen.
“So my objective this spring is to find out where they’re comfortable, and try to put them in that position as much as I can, so they feel comfortable going out to play and it’s not foreign to them. You liken it to defense. A guy plays shortstop and then all of a sudden he’s got to play right field, it’s foreign. And you’re not free to play as you want to be. So we’ll see how it plays and how it works this spring. But there could be some shuffling down here until we get accustomed to where we should be in the lineup.”
The good news in all of this, from Williams’ perspective, is that he has a bunch of guys who seem willing to hit wherever the manager wants them to hit, as long as it benefits the team. That includes his star players.
Werth, a guy who has hit in the middle of the order most of his career, led off for the Nats down the stretch in 2012. Zimmerman hit second for much of last season, despite never previously starting a game at that spot in the order. Desmond has hit anywhere from leadoff to sixth over the past two years.
“I think we’ve got guys here who really want to win,” Williams said. “And regardless of any other variable, they’re willing to do whatever they need to do to help us win. If that means moving somewhere else in the lineup, they’re willing to do that. Because ultimately, they want to get to a championship. That’s great. It’s great to have that kind of attitude, and I think we have that throughout our clubhouse, which is good.”
Here’s today’s quote of the day, written atop the morning schedule sheet: “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.”