With one week to go, Nats still figuring out lineup

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Opening Day is one week away. At this point, we should have a pretty clear idea who’s making the roster, who’s filling what slot in the starting rotation and how the back end of the bullpen is set up.

We should also have a pretty clear idea what the Opening Day lineup is going to look like. Except, when it comes to the Nationals, we don’t.

Davey Martinez hasn’t even offered up that many clues so far this spring. That’s mostly because he had been without a couple of lineup lynchpins in Joey Meneses and Jemier Candelario, who both spent considerable time away from the team while competing in the World Baseball Classic. But it’s also because the Nats manager doesn’t appear to have entirely decided how he wants to arrange his hitters one through nine yet.

“We have so many different options,” Martinez said Wednesday.

There are perhaps two ways to interpret that. The cynic would suggest the manager wouldn’t have so many different options if he merely had a better lineup filled with established major league hitters. The optimist would offer that the Nationals’ plethora of interchangeable parts is a good sign of versatility and a way to show opposing clubs different looks on a daily basis.

The correct answer probably lies somewhere in the middle of all that. The Nationals, to be sure, do not have many established hitters. (Quick: Can you guarantee any single player will hit 15 home runs this season? You can’t, for a variety of reasons.) But they do actually have some intriguing hitters who could fit into a lineup in a number of ways, depending on how the manager wants to arrange it.

Wednesday’s game against the Yankees offered Martinez his first real opportunity to trot out a potential Opening Day lineup. What he came up with: Lane Thomas leading off, with Dominic Smith batting second, Meneses third, Corey Dickerson cleanup and Candelario, Luis García, Keibert Ruiz, CJ Abrams and Victor Robles following in order.

Only a few of those guys, though, are locks to be in that specific batting position one week from today. Thomas is almost surely going to lead off. Meneses probably will be the No. 3 hitter. And Robles is pretty much assured of batting ninth.

The other parts, though, are movable. Martinez likes what Smith could do as a No. 2 hitter, but he has also touted Dickerson as a possibility there. He believes Candelario can drive in runs and rack up doubles, whether batting near the top of the order or somewhere in the middle.

“I think Dom gives us a good bat in the two hole,” Martinez said. “Meneses, the same thing. I may switch left vs. right. Dickerson’s not going to walk much, but he’s going to put the ball in play. Candy, obviously better right-handed than left-handed, so we might move him up and down depending on who’s pitching.”

That last point should be considered. There’s a decent chance Martinez will move guys around depending on the opposing starter. Against a righty, he might prefer Smith and Dickerson in prominent spots. Against a lefty – and it looks like they’ll see one Opening Day in the Braves’ Max Fried – Meneses may move up to the No. 2 spot.

This much does appear certain: Martinez prefers to keep his less-experienced hitters in the bottom half of the lineup for now. Ruiz, García and Abrams certainly could work their way up to more prominent positions as the season progresses – the Nationals would love for exactly that to happen – but they are likely to open the season lower in the order.

“The young guys at the bottom, just keeping them down there to not put that much pressure on them to begin with and see how they fare,” Martinez said. “We’re still working with these guys about not chasing and doing the little things, situational hitting and all that stuff. That’s kind of how we’re looking at it right now.”

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