The Nationals’ offensive struggles have reached a point now where they’re less a temporary state and more a permanent condition. They’re ninth in OPS and eighth in homers, though they’re sixth in batting average and on-base percentage. And though they’ve got possibly the best 3-4-5 combination in the National League, they’re 10th in the NL in runs.
A big part of that is because of the production - or lack thereof - they’ve gotten from the top two spots in the lineup. The Nationals’ leadoff hitters have a combined .314 on-base percentage; their No. 2 hitters have a .325 on-base percentage. That means more often than not, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham are hitting with the bases empty.
The effort to set the top of the lineup has been an ongoing struggle, particularly because of leadoff hitter Nyjer Morgan’s problems. The Nationals have used five batters in the leadoff spot and seven in the No. 2 hole.
There’s a number of different directions the Nationals could go with the top two spots in the lineup, and with that in mind, we’ll take a quick look at the solutions:
Nyjer Morgan: He’s hit better in the No. 2 spot (.267 vs. .241 leading off), but hasn’t gotten on base as frequently (.298 to .311). If Morgan is playing well, the problem is solved; he’s leading off. But his struggles have caused some of the Nationals’ quandaries at the top. He could start to get more days on the bench, too, if Roger Bernadina plays second and Michael Morse plays right.
Cristian Guzman: The Nationals have made Guzman their leadoff hitter when Morgan isn’t playing well, but he’s actually been better in the No. 2 hole (.326/.354/.379 vs. .298/.322/.368) than he has leading off. And given manager Jim Riggleman’s proclivity toward putting Guzman at the top of the lineup, he’s going to take one of those spots when he’s in the game. If Morgan’s not in the lineup, Guzman is likely to lead off. But who hits No. 2?
Roger Bernadina: He hit No. 2 on Thursday, and his .353 on-base percentage makes him an intriguing option there. But Bernadina has shown some pop lately, and might be better lower in the lineup as a run-producing option. If you put Bernadina in the No. 2 hole, it’s likely only if he’s in center field, and that would mean Michael Morse is playing well enough to lock down the right field spot. It’s more likely Bernadina stays in the sixth or seventh hole, though.
Ivan Rodriguez: There’s been some talk about batting Pudge second, but I don’t see the benefit. He’s much like Guzman in the sense that he doesn’t walk, and he’s more likely to drive a ball than Guzman is. So if you don’t like Guzman there, is Rodriguez any better? He probably stays in the sixth hole.
Ian Desmond: This is an intriguing option; Desmond has hit all over the lineup without any fuss, but his numbers are best in the No. 2 hole - a .353 average and .971 OPS in eight games. Desmond doesn’t draw a great deal of walks, but his speed makes him a possibility, and though he’s driven in 33 runs, he’s not exactly a run producer right now, with just a .407 slugging percentage. Still, Desmond could hit there, particularly against lefties.
Adam Kennedy: He draws walks (a .329 OBP against a .246 average) and is a smart baserunner. But he’s not playing enough right now to be a top-of-the-order solution.
Josh Willingham: I’ve heard him mentioned as a No. 2 hitter, mostly because of the number of walks he draws. But taking him out of the No. 5 hole removes protection for Adam Dunn, and the Nationals’ middle of the order has been too good to break up.
Some of this depends on who’s in the lineup, but if Morgan’s leading off and Kennedy’s at second, I think I’d try Desmond in the No. 2 hole. That allows you to keep Bernadina in the seventh spot and make Kennedy a No. 8 hitter who can get on base, move over with a sacrifice and get in position to score with the top of the order coming up. To me, it can work with Morgan out of the lineup and Guzman leading off, too; that’d mostly be against left-handed pitchers, and Desmond hits lefty starters so well that a Guzman-Desmond combo can do some damage at the top. In that configuration, you’ve got Bernadina batting sixth or seventh and playing center field, and Morse hitting seventh or eighth while playing right. That’s actually got the potential to be a decent lineup.
But there probably aren’t going to be any permanent fixes for the top of the order, at least until some players sort things out. Until then, the Nationals will have to keep tinkering and hope they hit on something.