First base options if Bell misses time aren't great

No injury is good news for any ballclub. But a Josh Bell injury would qualify as particularly damaging to the Nationals as currently constructed.

Bell, who departed Wednesday night’s game in the fourth inning with tightness in his left knee, is scheduled to undergo an MRI this morning. He was cautiously optimistic after the game it’s nothing serious, and described his departure from the game as “precautionary,” so there’s no need to panic yet.

That said, we got a glimpse of what the Nationals would look like minus Bell during the final six innings Wednesday, and it wasn’t pretty.

Maikel Franco moved from third base to first base. Lucius Fox came off the bench to take Franco’s spot at third base. That hurt the Nationals defensively, and it hurt them offensively. (The light-hitting Fox actually became their cleanup hitter in the process.)

Bell has been the only consistently productive bat in the lineup through the season’s first two weeks. His .977 OPS leads the club, and his 11 RBIs are tied for fifth in the majors. Remove him from the equation for any length of time, and the drop-off in production is staggering.

“I feel awesome, but I feel like (manager Davey Martinez) did an awesome job of making sure safety first,” Bell said of his removal from Wednesday’s game. “It’s definitely a long season. If I can come back ready to go tomorrow, I’ll be ready.”

If Bell can’t go, Franco seems the most likely choice to replace him at first base. Martinez shot down the idea of 41-year-old designated hitter Nelson Cruz playing in the field. And though backup catcher Riley Adams has been taking grounders at first regularly this spring, he has zero actual game experience at the position.

* Paolo Espino pitched the top of the ninth Wednesday night, the kind of mop-up appearance at the end of a blowout loss that doesn’t garner much attention.

In this case, though, it was notable because Espino – the team’s only designated long reliever – could’ve been used much earlier in the game after starter Erick Fedde was pulled in the top of the fourth. Instead, the right-hander pitched only one inning at the end of the game with his team trailing 11-2.

Why not use Espino more in a game like this? Because he appears to be the Nationals’ top choice to start Saturday against the Giants, and this made for a simple tune-up, the equivalent of an 11-pitch bullpen session between starts. It’s the kind of thing a starter would do three days before he takes the mound.

The Nationals haven’t announced rotation plans beyond today (Josh Rogers) and Friday (Patrick Corbin), but they’ll need a fill-in starter Saturday, the byproduct of Tuesday’s doubleheader that saw both Josiah Gray and Joan Adon pitch.

Espino is best positioned to handle the assignment, though it’s possible the Nats could call up someone else from their farm system to make the spot start. For what it’s worth, top prospect Cade Cavalli hasn’t pitched for Triple-A Rochester in a week, and he’s not listed among the Red Wings’ immediate upcoming starters. The organization may be holding Cavalli back in case he’s needed in D.C. instead.

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