LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - When the hits kept coming last year - when the Nationals lost key players to injury seemingly on a regular basis - the bench stepped up and made absences much easier to tolerate.
Shortstop Trea Turner missed 51 games with a broken right wrist and an abdominal injury shelved backup Stephen Drew, opening the door for Wilmer Difo to prove he could play regularly. Center fielder Adam Eaton was limited to 23 games before sustaining a torn ACL in his left knee, giving Michael A. Taylor an opportunity to break through. When left fielder Jayson Werth went down with a broken left foot that cost him 10 weeks, Adam Lind got regular reps in his place, further enhancing his value as a masher of right-handed pitching. And when right fielder Bryce Harper was lost for six weeks down the stretch with a significant bone bruise in his left knee, the July 28 trade that brought versatile Howie Kendrick from the Phillies became an even more important transaction.
“I think the bench was a big part of our success last year,” general manager Mike Rizzo said Monday afternoon during his daily media briefing at the Winter Meetings at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort. “Given all the injuries we had at key spots at different times of the season, that bench carried us for a couple months at a time.”
That’s why restocking the Nationals bench looms as one of Rizzo’s chief goals this offseason, and he’s looking for specific pieces, including a left-handed hitting first baseman and a right-handed hitting outfielder. Rizzo wants to make sure first-time manager Dave Martinez has weapons at his disposal should regulars falter, get hurt or simply need a day off.
“We’ve got to get the right mixture to get the right skill set, but also the right character and the right attitude that accepts the job and really wants to do the job,” Rizzo said. “It’s a delicate balance. You’re talking with Davey about what he likes, how he’s going to run a game, and that’ll also go into our decision-making process on who we get, what type of person we get.”
Replacing the production of Lind and Kendrick won’t be easy. Lind, 34, signed for $1 million just as spring training kicked off in West Palm Beach, and was the offensive weapon the Nats were hoping for, slashing .303/.362/.513 with 14 homers and 59 RBIs in just 301 at-bats. The Nats figured he would be a backup to Ryan Zimmerman and a pinch-hitter, but wound up using Lind for 25 games in left field, his first action there since 2010. Kendrick played left field, second base, first base and right field, appearing in 52 games after the trade. He slashed .293/.343/.494 with seven homers and 25 RBIs.
The Nats declined their portion of the mutual $5 million option on Lind, instead paying him a $500,000 buyout.
“It was a mutual option. He had the option to decline, we had the option to decline,” Rizzo said. “We felt that at $5 million, we’ll get a capable bat for that - or less. It doesn’t preclude us from going after Adam Lind himself.”
Lind has been rumored to be of interest to the Mets, who are looking for a stopgap plan at first base. He could also return to his American League roots and serve as a designated hitter. Either way, he’s banking that his performance will get him a deal - in years or dollars - better than what the Nationals offered.
The Nationals have been linked to free agent first baseman Matt Adams, who was non-tendered by the Braves earlier this month. In 46 at-bats as a pinch-hitter for the Cardinals and Braves last season, Adams slashed .283/.320/.457 with two homers and 13 RBIs. He’s a career .382/.406/.798 hitter against Washington with nine homers and 26 RBIs, so they know he can do damage.
Kendrick is a free agent, and probably searching for a team that can guarantee him more regular at-bats. Rizzo isn’t closing the book on Kendrick, either, and liked what the 34-year-old brought to the Nationals.
“Love Howie Kendrick, love what he brought us in the clubhouse, with the young players,” Rizzo said. “He’s got a good skill set. It all depends on what value he brings to us. But he’s a guy that did nothing but great things for us between the lines and in the clubhouse.”
Rizzo seems confident in Pedro Severino, the main in-house option the Nats have to replace longtime backup catcher Jose Lobaton. But Severino took a step back offensively at Triple-A Syracuse in 2017, hitting only .242 with just nine extra-base hits in 211 at-bats. Still, the Nationals remain sold on Severino’s defense.
Difo is cemented as the backup infielder, and the Nationals must be comfortable with him at second base to start the season in case Daniel Murphy is slow to recover from microfracture surgery on his right knee. That leaves one bench spot, with Brian Goodwin currently the top holdover option as a reserve outfielder who can play all three posistions.