We should get some resolution to the Nationals' first base search either this week or early next week, and I continue to believe Derrek Lee will wind up playing the position for Washington in 2011. Should that happen, it would leave the Nationals without a legitimate left-handed power threat, which got me thinking: How important is it to have power from the left side?
General manager Mike Rizzo said earlier this month he puts more emphasis on a batter's platoon splits than which side of the plate he hits from. At the time, I took that as Rizzo's way of planting the seeds for a Lee signing, and while Lee is a better hitter against lefties than righties, it's not a drastic difference. He's got a career .950 OPS against lefties and an .880 OPS against righties. Last year, he was .777 against lefties and .773 against righties, so it's not as though the 35-year-old has only feasted on one type of pitcher throughout his career.
But a look around the game would suggest that to have any lasting success against right-handed pitching, it's vital to have at least one decent power threat from the left side. Of the top 10 teams in baseball last year, in terms of OPS against righties, seven had at least one left-handed hitter with 25 homers or more. The Blue Jays, who had the top OPS in baseball against righties (.795), didn't have a 25-homer lefty, but had two with 20 or more. And seven of the eight teams who made the playoffs had a 25-homer lefty.
That's not to say it can't be done; the Braves went to the playoffs without much power from the left side, or from anywhere, for that matter. They hit just 139 homers, and left-handed hitting catcher Brian McCann led the team with 21 home runs. But they had one of the game's best rotations and a deep bullpen.
And in the long term, the Nationals believe they'll have power from the left side in Bryce Harper; it's one of the reasons why locking up Adam Dunn was deemed unnecessary if it was for that reason alone. They're also confident this year in Jayson Werth, who had a .937 OPS against righties (compared to an .881 mark against lefties) in 2010. Adam LaRoche -- the last respectable lefty power threat on the first base market -- is seeking a three-year deal, and though he's better defensively than Dunn, he brings nowhere near the game-changing power Dunn had. If the Nationals were going to give LaRoche a longer deal than they'd like -- and the same length of deal they would have given Dunn -- it probably needs to be for a better reason than securing a left-handed bat, since their plan would include Harper before the end of that three-year deal.
If the Nationals do sign Lee, though, they'll present few matchup headaches this year for opposing managers. Roger Bernadina can give them a little power against righties, and they'll have Matt Stairs and Rick Ankiel on the bench. But the lineup will be mostly full of right-handed hitters, many of whom return from a team that posted a .684 OPS against righties last year.
But this year isn't the one where anyone expects the Nationals to put it all together, anyway. They might field a less-than-balanced lineup this year in the name of giving themselves flexibility for the future, knowing Harper is on his way. And if they sign Lee, they'll have to hope he can join Werth and Ryan Zimmerman to help them survive against righties in the meantime.