VIERA, Fla. - If there's one characteristic a Jim Riggleman bench must have, it's versatility. The Nationals manager makes liberal use of the double switch, and will often put a player in the on-deck circle to force a pitching change, only to replace him with another player. He learned the game in an era where players had logged time at a number of positions, and you'll often hear the manager talk not of specialized positions, but of "ballplayers" whom he wants to move from one station to the next.
The Nationals' bench had some elasticity last year, but this year's group probably has even more. Jerry Hairston Jr. has played every position in the majors except pitcher and catcher, and Alex Cora has played four infield spots as well as left field. Even the team's outfielders will move around; Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel can both play first base, and Ankiel, Roger Bernadina and Jayson Werth could all see time in center field.
Especially when the Nationals have a starting rotation that forces some early-game moves, they'll have to keep their bench active. The group they'll have this year should allow them to do that.
Here's my understanding at the moment of who could play where on the diamond:
C: Ivan Rodriguez, Jesus Flores, Wilson Ramos. Werth has done it, but there's probably no need to put him there.
1B: Adam LaRoche, Michael Morse, Ankiel, Matt Stairs, Cora, Hairston, Alberto Gonzalez, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman.
"Morse can play there, all my infielders can play there," Riggleman said. "We've got a lot of options there."
2B: Espinosa, Cora, Hairston, Gonzalez, Desmond.
SS: Desmond, Espinosa, Cora, Hairston, Gonzalez. Morse has played there at times, though not with the Nationals. And Zimmerman played there in college. "
3B: Zimmerman, Gonzalez, Hairston, Cora.
LF: Bernadina, Morse, Ankiel, Werth, Stairs. Riggleman said Stairs has lost 20 pounds, and would be a more viable last resort in left field than he has been in the past. "The way it's been told to me, he'll never embarrass you in left field or at first base," Riggleman said.
CF: Nyjer Morgan, Bernadina, Ankiel, Hairston, Werth. Bryce Harper will also play in center field at times this spring, though he won't be on the club on Opening Day.
RF: Werth, Ankiel, Bernadina, Morse.
So essentially, the Nationals could put together a 25-man roster where they have at least four players who can play every position except catcher. And if they're confident enough in Hairston's ability to play around the diamond, they might be able to keep Stairs - the game's all-time leader in pinch homers - in place of a second middle infielder like Gonzalez or Cora.
"We brought Matt in hoping he's the same player he's been for the last several years, and that he can still get some big pinch hits for us, but with no guarantees," Riggleman said. "There's some scenarios where it would be tough to carry that many left-handed hitters, and there's some scenarios where it's a lock that he would be part of the club."