VIERA, Fla. - Less than two weeks before his March 31 opener against Atlanta, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman still hasn't decided on a primary center fielder, a fifth starter and several of his bullpen slots.
But some of the toughest decisions Riggleman will face as he firms up his 25-man roster will be bench spots, and those considerations represent a sea change for an organization that used to fill out its roster with healthy bodies rather than solid major league contributors.
Right now, it looks as if two of the most difficult choices will be the team's backup infielder and a bat off the bench. Jerry Hairston Jr. will make the club based on the fact that he can play multiple infield and outfield positions, giving Riggleman increased flexibility. But the Nats still must decide between Alex Cora, Alberto Gonzalez and Brian Bixler for one infield spot, while Matt Stairs seems to be the favorite to come off the bench as a pinch hitter.
Cora's signing in the offseason generated little more and a line of tiny agate type,but it's become clear that he's established himself to head north, bumping Gonzalez off the roster and perhaps out of the organization. The Nationals' front office was unhappy last year that Gonzalez chafed about a lack of playing time, preferring that he'd be happy to be collecting major league service time and willing to lend his good glove when called upon. Bixler, who has hit .375 with two homers and seven RBIs this spring, has opened some eyes. But he's still probably destined for Triple-A Syracuse after re-signing in the offseason. Bixler was acquired from Pittsburgh in a minor league deal last August.
Riggleman likes the way Cora, a 13-year major league veteran with a decent glove, handles himself. Cora is always ready to play, but rarely complains. In short, he's the perfect complementary player.
"I would say that Alex is an overachiever," Riggleman said. "He's a real student of the game. He's gotten maximum production out of his ability. The one thing Alex can do as good as anybody in the game is he's got great hands, a really good arm. You combine that with the smarts, and when the ball gets hit, he always seems to be there. He's a productive hitter, too, because he understands the game and he understands when to take pitches. He understands the value of a base on balls. He's just a very heady player. There's a lot of players with his skill set who got a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and didn't get 12 years."
Cora isn't sure he agrees with the skipper's use of the word "overachiever," because he considers it to have a negative connotation.
"I think if you play 12 years in the big leagues, you do something good," Cora said. "Not everybody has the five tools, but I know how to play the game and not everybody knows how to play the game. I think overachiever is a bad word for that. I maximize my ability."
Cora has carved a niche as a reliable role player, and has gone to the postseason four times, once with the Dodgers and three times with the Red Sox. He's primarily a middle infielder, but can also play the corner spots and has even played left field and first base. Gonzalez has backed up at second, short and third since being acquired in a deal with the Yankees in July 2008. He can play first base, too, but the Nats have plenty of guys who can fit that role and less need now that Adam Dunn is gone.
"I don't know about (making the roster); that's out of my control," Cora said. "The only thing I can control is just go out there ... and show these people I can play the game. I'm willing to do that. I'm having a blast doing that. The decisions, well, that's Mr. Rizzo and Riggs. They make the decisions and you've got to respect them."
Assuming the Nationals keep Stairs to pinch hit, Riggleman said that only one of the three backup infield candidates would make the team. The 43-year-old Stairs has 18 major league seasons under his belt and is 99-for-377(.263) as a pinch hitter, with 23 homers and 86 RBIs. The Nats haven't had a left-handed hitter with Stairs' power to call on and Riggleman and general manager Mike Rizzo made it a priority to upgrade the manager's bench options in the offseason.
"We brought Matt in here because of what he has done in the past and we've seen no indications that he can't do that and continue," Riggleman said. "He's got a real good chance to be on the club."
Stairs, however, does face a challenge from Laynce Nix, and Nix has the ability to play the outfield, something Stairs would only do in an emergency. Once a highly touted prospect in the Rangers organization, Nix fizzled out, never living up to the hype. But he's a serviceable backup and because he's performed well in a reserve role with the Reds the past two seasons, there are doubts whether he would accept an assignment to Triple-A to serve as an insurance policy.
Riggleman said there were scenarios where both Stairs and Nix could make the club, but that that would require either Nyjer Morgan or Roger Bernadina being sent to the minors.
"It's a big deal, that opening day roster," Riggleman said. "But sometimes, within a week, it's different. It's important who's there for the 200-at-bat utility guy, the 600-at-bat regular - how that shakes out - than who's there the first week of the season.long look."