Nats still seeking candidates to fill bench vacancies

For all the attention paid - and rightfully so - to the Nationals’ ongoing search for a new closer, that’s not the only significant roster hole they still need to fill.

Saturday night’s trade of Danny Espinosa created an opening on their bench, one that they probably prefer to address from outside the organization rather than from within.

Had Espinosa remained with the club - and that seemed unlikely, given his dissatisfaction with a reserve role - the Nationals would have been in good shape on the bench. Clint Robinson would be the backup first baseman and emergency corner outfielder. Chris Heisey would be a backup outfielder and top right-handed bat off the bench. And Espinosa would have become a utility infielder, backing up not only Trea Turner at shortstop but Daniel Murphy at second base and Anthony Rendon at third base.

Now they need to find someone else for that job.

Wilmer Difo is a legitimate in-house option, and there are some with the organization who believe the 24-year-old rookie is ready to be a full-time major leaguer.

But general manager Mike Rizzo might not be ready to anoint Difo as the guy quite yet. He might particularly want a more proven infielder capable of starting for an extended stretch should one of the regulars get hurt along the way.

Drew-Red-Walkoff-Swing-Sidebar.jpgSomeone like Stephen Drew.

Drew became an indispensable part of this season’s roster, his absence felt when he missed six weeks with an inner-ear condition that left him with vertigo-like symptoms. When the veteran did play, he was a major offensive contributor, hitting .326 with a .404 on-base percentage and 1.056 OPS over his final 43 games.

Now a free agent, Drew remains unsigned, weighing his options. The Nationals have said they would like to bring him back, but agent Scott Boras said during last week’s Winter Meetings that the 33-year-old could land a starting job elsewhere.

“He’s been offered some,” Boras said. “So he’s just kind of evaluating the options of carrying out a multiple-position role and probably playing more than he did last year, or pursuing something more along the lines (of what he was for the Nationals this year).”

Drew, who earned $3 million on his one-year contract with the Nats, was popular not only for his contributions on the field but for his personality and leadership off it. Which has plenty of returning players hoping he returns.

“I would like him to, obviously, if the Nationals want him back,” said Heisey, who has been in touch with Drew this winter. “He was a big, big part of why our bench was good. Hopefully, we have a chance to sign him back.”

Heisey, likewise, was a big part of the Nationals bench success this season. Their pinch-hitters combined to produce a .721 OPS (fifth-best in the National League) and 12 homers (third-best in the majors).

Heisey, whose 14 pinch-hit homers are the most in baseball since 2010, also was a free agent but was among the first wave to sign this offseason, returning to the Nationals on a $1.5 million deal.

For the 32-year-old outfielder, it was an easy decision.

“The familiarity of it,” he said when asked his reasons for re-signing early. “But being on a really good team is important, too. I wanted to have a chance to go back to the playoffs and go to the World Series because I’ve never been there. I figured this was as good a chance as any.”

Heisey will be one of the Nationals’ reserve outfielders in 2017. They’ll need another one, as well, with Ben Revere now gone after being non-tendered at the start of the month.

Michael A. Taylor could get another shot at the role after struggling mightily this season. Rookie Brian Goodwin, who turned some heads in September, will also get consideration, along with outside options still being explored.

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