We’ve reached the final countdown to spring training, so we’re counting down the most important storylines surrounding the Nationals this spring. We continue today with the lineup decisions Davey Martinez must make ...
It’s surprise quiz time, folks. Do you remember who batted leadoff for the Nationals on opening day last season? Who hit sixth? Who hit eighth? (No peeking allowed.)
Do you know the answer? You’ll be forgiven if you forgot that Adam Eaton was the Nats’ first batter of 2019, or that Yan Gomes hit sixth on opening day, or that Max Scherzer actually hit eighth with Victor Robles ninth.
You do probably remember that none of those things were true on the final day of the 2019 season. The Nationals’ World Series Game 7 lineup looked far more like the one we’ll always associate with that championship club. Trea Turner hit leadoff, in front of Eaton. Gomes, filling in for the banged-up Kurt Suzuki hit eighth. Robles did hit ninth, but that’s only because the pitcher didn’t bat in the American League park. Davey Martinez gave up on the whole pitcher-batting-eighth thing on May 19 (aside from one final use July 27 when Matt Grace started a game as an “opener.”)
Point is, a team’s batting order on opening day isn’t necessarily a preview of what’s to come. As a season plays out and certain guys do well while others struggle, as injuries force changes and the pressure to score runs supersedes everything else, a new standard lineup takes shape and, hopefully, sticks.
But every manager has a lineup plan going into spring training. And the truth is, we really don’t know what exactly Martinez’s plan is going to be as pitchers and catchers make their way down to West Palm Beach.
Anthony Rendon’s departure, of course, is the biggest reason why this is the case. The Nationals didn’t go out and acquire a comparable No. 3 hitter to replace Rendon, so now they must choose someone else from within to assume that high-profile spot in the order.
Will it be Juan Soto, moving up from the cleanup position? Could Howie Kendrick take on that responsibility and allow Soto to remain the No. 4 hitter? Or might Turner actually move out of the leadoff spot and see if he can be more of a run-producer than a table-setter?
Martinez appears to be open to everything.
“We’ll see,” the manager said last month when asked who he expects to bat third this season. “I’ve thought about Juan, thought about Howie when he plays. Honestly ... I might try Trea there and see how that works out. Like I said, I like the fact that we got a bunch of different options and guys who can put the ball in play throughout our lineup.”
The notion of trying out Turner as a No. 3 hitter isn’t crazy. Though we think of him as the kind of speedy ballplayer who should bat leadoff and then try to steal as many bases as he can, he really does profile as more of a run-producer. The 26-year-old shortstop is coming off a season in which he launched 19 homers and piled up 61 extra-base hits in only 569 plate appearances. His .497 slugging percentage actually ranked 30th in the National League.
If Turner moves down in the order, though, someone else will need to move up to the top. Eaton, who owns a .377 on-base percentage in three seasons with the Nats and has hit leadoff in 77 percent of his career starts as a big leaguer, would be an obvious choice.
Robles also could be asked to take a big step in his career, moving up to either the leadoff or No. 2 spot after spending the bulk of his rookie season batting at the bottom of the lineup.
Speaking of the bottom half of the lineup, it could feature a different configuration every day of the season if Martinez ends up mixing and matching between several players at first, second and third bases. One night, his 5-6-7-8 hitters could be Kendrick, Eric Thames, Suzuki and Carter Kieboom. The next it could be Starlin Castro, Ryan Zimmerman, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Gomes.
Suffice it to say there are a lot of potential combinations in play here. And don’t be surprised if Martinez uses the next six weeks to try every one of them out in search of a batting order that works best for his team.
Then again, if history holds true to form, don’t be surprised if the lineup you see on opening day ends up bearing little resemblance to the one you see come September or beyond.