As Nats enter the season, status quo in right field

When the Nationals cut Elijah Dukes in spring training, they opened themselves up to the possibility that they would start the season without an everyday player in right field. With a day to go before Opening Day, it appears that’s how they’ll start the year. And though they’ve made some inquiries about a handful of high-profile options in right, they’re prepared to get by with their in-house options for now.

A club source said the Nationals have discussed a trade for right fielder Corey Hart with the Brewers, and talked to the Cubs about outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. They have even inquired about Rays outfielder B.J. Upton, though they came away feeling Tampa Bay wouldn’t part with the 24-year-old speedster unless it was out of the AL East race this summer.

But none of those talks have been particularly substantive; the Nationals and Brewers haven’t found common ground on a deal for Hart, who is making $4.8 million in his second year of arbitration. Fukudome, who has underperformed in Chicago since coming over from Japan, still has two years left on a deal that will pay him a combined $26.5 million this season and next year and offer him limited no-trade protection. Unless the Cubs were willing to eat a decent portion of the 32-year-old’s contract, it’s unlikely the Nationals would land him.

The Nationals believe the position is particularly barren around the game, and with so few possible deals, they’re hoping their combination of Willie Harris and Willy Taveras will provide a large enough defensive upgrade to offset their marginal offensive skills. Taveras, who made the team after signing a minor-league deal this winter, had an 8.3 Ultimate Zone Rating last year. His on-base percentage was just .275 last season, but he’s an above-average defender, and the Nationals hope he and Harris will be able to man the position for now.

It’s a similar formula to what the Mariners have used to win in recent years; the three outfielders who played the most games for them last year (Franklin Gutierrez, Ichiro Suzuki and Endy Chavez) all had UZRs of 7.8 or more last season, and their top six outfielders were all over 4.9 runs saved, as measured by UZR. Suzuki and Gutierrez are solid hitters, but the offensive contributions of the Mariners’ other outfielders are unimpressive. Still, the team won 88 games last year, one season after finishing with the game’s second-worst record behind the Nationals.

The Nationals, for now, will try to suceed with a similar approach. They’re likely to continue putting out feelers for a permanent solution in right field. But if there’s not a reasonable solution available, they’ll try to win with defense first at the position.