March 12, 2012; Melbourne, FL, USA; Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond (20) at the plate during the spring training game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Space Coast Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE

Spring Training Lessons So Far: Nats Need Depth

A bit past the midpoint of spring training, we’re seeing many positive signs that this year’s version of the Nationals may be a team that can contend for a postseason spot: Ryan Zimmerman‘s red-hot bat; Gio Gonzalez’ arm, Brad Lidge’s experience; Steve Lombardozzi’s promise. But also on display this spring are  problems that can be the downfall of even the most talented ball clubs:  injuries and lack of depth.

The positive signs this spring are numerous. Zimmerman has been on fire since signing his new six-year, $100 million contract, hitting .475/.538/1.000 in 21 at-bats. Gonzalez is making a strong bid to become the team’s Opening Day starter, yielding just three hits and four walks while striking out eight in 6.1 innings. Lidge has yielded just a .176 batting average and a measly 0.76 WHIP in four appearances and Lombardozzi has just about assured himself of a spot on the opening day roster by hitting .333 in his first 30 at-bats and looking sharp in the field. Even Jayson Werth, a popular goat last season, is hitting .286 and showing some power ( two homers, four doubles) in his first 21 at-bats.

But the guys who haven’t played a lot so far, Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche, are exposing a depth problem that could render all that promise meaningless. Morse has a strained back muscle and LaRoche has been dogged by a bone bruise and cartilage sprain in his left foot. They’re both on the shelf for at least another week. The two players and Manager Davey Johnson is playing it cool right now, saying they’re just playing it safe and everyone should be fine for opening day. Maybe they will — but maybe they won’t.

Who will play if the team is without its starting first baseman and starting left-fielder (who’s also the backup first baseman)? The Nats signed journeyman Xavier Nady last week, but he’s never been a consistent high performer with the power Morse displayed last season. Tyler Moore has been sent to the minors for seasoning, as has Bryce Harper. Morse, Werth and Rick Ankiel form a decent starting outfield, but if any of them goes down, there’s not much experience or talent behind them.

Another troubling aspect of the spring is potential leadoff man Ian Desmond’s .200 average, with 10 strikeouts, in his first 35 at-bats. With Lombardozzi breathing down his neck, there’s a good chance Johnson won’t let Desmond stay around the Mendoza line for very long. Instead of a weak-hitting starting shortstop, that would give the Nats a weak-hitting backup shortstop. Mark De Rosa (.429/.636.714 through 14 a-bats) gives the team some middle infield depth. But a long-term injury at one of the corner spots could put the spotlight on an unproven youngster (Moore) or a middling castoff (Mark Teahen).

Injuries are a fact of life in big league baseball. They can derail the pennant dreams of talent-laden teams, or they can be mere road bumps for a gang of overachievers. The key is depth. Few teams in today’s major leagues are stacked at every position, so most have to find it on their bench or within the organization. Unless their starting position players remain healthy, the Nats will learn just how far those bench players or minor leaguers can take them.

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Tags: Adam LaRoche Brad Lidge Bryce Harper Gio Gonzalez Ian Desmond Mark DeRosa Michael Morse Ryan Zimmerman Steve Lombardozzi Tyler Moore Xavier Nady

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