In baseball, change usually comes subtly, but fast, so fast we barely notice — until after it’s happened.
In 2011, with Ryan Zimmerman’s injury, manager Jim Riggleman’s sudden resignation, and Stephen Strasburg out until September, who imagined that the Washington Nationals would win 80 games and finish in third place in the National League East Division?
Yet, soon, perhaps by this year’s All-Star break, Nationals’ fans will likely see, right before their eyes, the end of a five-year transformation of the Washington bench from league laughingstock to one of baseball’s best.
For years, the Nationals’ bench has been a landing place of last resort for players with limited abilities, over-the-hill vets having one last go-round in the Show, and guys just plain not good enough to play anywhere else (remember Nook Logan?). Once Michael Morse returns to the 25-man roster and Bryce Harper – and perhaps Anthony Rendon – arrives, that will change.
But before looking ahead to 2012, let’s look back at the wreck of the Washington benches since the club began play at its lovely new ballpark in 2008.
Nationals 2008 Bench Players: The team was so bad and beat up, it’s difficult to find five guys who qualify as regular “bench players.” These are the closest candidates.
Ronnie Belliard 296 .659 A decent option for average, a little power.
Wil Nieves 171 .650 Actually hit some in 2008!
Kory Casto 163 .610A classic AAA player.
Aaron Boone 232 .683 A decent freakin’ player for the Nats that season.
Ryan Langerhans 111 .776 Overachieved; helped get Morse in 2009 deal.
Nationals 2009 Bench Players: Another bad, bad team, but with a good enough offense to not need much off the bench. The guys below certainly obliged.
Ronnie Belliard 187 .670About the same as 2008.
Wil Nieves 224 .612 Showed 2008 was an aberration.
Alberto Gonzalez 291 .650Classic good glove, no hit utility IF.
Willie Harris 323 .757Excelled as a versatile super-sub.
Austin Kearns 174 .641Injured, a shell of what he was.
Nationals 2010 Bench Players: With Mike Rizzo now at the helm, pitching became the priority and the talent on the bench became something to fix later, but Morse became a great find.
Wil Nieves 158 .554Bat worsening as he ages.
Willie Harris 224 .653Hitting regressed from 2008, but still useful.
Alberto Gonzalez 186 .578Good glove, even less bat than 2009.
Michael Morse 266 .871Showed Nats taste of his beast-mode bat.
Justin Maxwell 104 .593Good eye, great in field, can’t hit.
Nationals 2011 Bench Players: With Ryan Zimmerman missing 60 games due to injury, Jerry Hairston‘s versatility helped make the Nats bench passable. Overall, though, hitting was weak, with Bernadina, Cora, Pudge Rodriguez, Bixler, and especially Stairs disappointing with the bat. Pudge played his usual strong defense and Bixler added speed, but the Washington bench remained extremely weak overall.
Roger Bernadina 309 .663 Great at stealing bases, not getting on base.
Jerry Hairston 213 .727 Excellent in many roles then traded to Milwaukee.
Alex Cora 156 .563 Veteran’s approach to game helped a bit.
Pudge Rodriguez 124 .604 Helped tutor Ramos, got a few clutch hits.
Brian Bixler 83 .532 Classic good run, no hit player.
Matt Stairs 65 .426 Retired one year too late.
What does 2012 hold? Breaking camp this Spring, the bench looks like a mix of these six: Mark DeRosa, Jesus Flores, Brett Carroll, Xavier Nady, Stephen Lombardozzi, and Bernadina, with DeRosa, Carroll, Nady, and Bernadina, maybe even Lombardozzi, sharing center and left field duties.
Once Michael Morse returns in mid- to late-April, either Carroll or Nady look to lose their jobs, barring further injury. When Harper comes up, say, on June 1, someone else will lose a job.
For further speculation, let’s say Rendon tears up AA and AAA and either Ian Desmond or Danny Espinosa loses their job to the young phenom. That would leave a bench of DeRosa, Desmond or Espinosa, Lombardozzi, Flores, and one of Ankiel, Bernadina, Carroll, Nady or perhaps even Corey Brown if his Spring performance wasn’t an illusion and he can remain healthy.
Both the early-season bench and the post-Harper (and perhaps post-Rendon) bench have more talent, versatility, power, and youth than any Washington team in the Nationals Park era. That’s just one more reason to get excited about Opening Day, now just five days away.