Jun 6, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams (9) before the start of the Nationals game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Stan Liu-USA TODAY Sports

Nationals' New Secret Weapon: The Double Switchblade

If you’ve listened to sports talk radio at any point over the last week or two, there’s a good chance you’ve heard hosts and callers alike give their two cents on who should be playing where once Bryce Harper comes back from his thumb injury. Until yesterday, my gut was telling me that the whole exercise in forecasting was moot since the odds were high that another starter would get hurt before Harper’s return. But this all changed for me after seeing video last night of a still very jacked Bryce hitting out of the cage while wearing a cutoff tee. His return is imminent and everyone else seems in good health. So what should the Washington Nationals do with him when he does return?

The current plan, according to Matt Williams, is to install Harper in left, return Ryan Zimmerman to 3rd base, shift Anthony Rendon to second, and bump Danny Espinosa to the bench. I hate this plan. Sure, it helps improve the lineup significantly (as any roto-head would tell you, a straight Harper for Espinosa trade would be the steal of the century). But the defense would suffer significantly in 2.5 spots (if you count the special double-play connection formed by Espinosa and Ian Desmond) and would only partially improve in another (LF arm). Taken on the whole, this game of counter-clockwise musical chairs appears to be a verifiable net-negative. But are there any real alternatives?

Some folks think the Nationals should expedite the “Zimmerman to first base” discussion, which is nutty given Adam LaRoche’s production this year. Others want to sit Denard Span, although this has lessened considerably after his rather productive June. I think there is actually some merit to this one, but let’s come back to that. Heck, a few hyper-charged individuals have such a problem with Danny Espinosa’s plate appearances that they think the only course of action is to skip benching him and would rather instantly teleport him onto a bus full of minor-leaguers driving down a dirt road in upstate New York.

Honestly, the easiest answer is to give every non-battery position one day off a week. Seven positions. Seven days in a week. At first blush, it’s tough to argue against this line of thinking; especially now that we’ve seen Zimmerman is not afraid to play 1B on the day LaRoche would be cycled out. People would get the rest they need to come out fresh and focused. Nobody would feel slighted. But this also assumes that we would be okay with Ryan at third on Rendon’s and Espinosa’s off-days. I’m not sure anyone wants that anymore… not the team, not many fans, not the pitching staff, and maybe not even Ryan himself. There has to be a way to improve on this model… and thanks to Washington’s place as a member of the senior circuit, there is.

Everything revolves around that most National League of rules, the double switch. To start, Washington’s regular lineup would be virtually the same as the one that they’ve been using for the last two weeks, except Bryce would always be in CF. [This allows the team to keep its hands down best defensive infield in tact without removing either of Zimmerman or Harper’s bats. True, Span is better at reading balls off of the bat and doesn’t make boneheaded plays, but Harper is virtually as fast and has a better arm, so even the outfield defense wouldn’t fall precipitously.] But once one of the five aces begins to lose effectiveness, Matt Williams would be best served employing a two-pronged strategy that will forevermore be known as the Double Switchblade. Here’s how it works…

Assuming Washington is winning at the time the starting pitcher is pulled from the game, Matt Williams should always execute a double switch where the first reliever out of the pen (usually Storen or Clippard) and Span come in, Harper moves to LF, and Zimmerman comes out. Such a move shores up two defensive spots while only sacrificing at most one plate appearance for the Z-Man (unless the other team comes back against the best bullpen in baseball {by ERA as of 6/20/14} and sends a game into extra innings). On the more difficult to calculate level, team psyche would actually rise as well, thanks to Zimmerman’s consummate professional attitude in doing what is best for the team and the boost Steve McCatty’s crew would feel knowing that Williams was putting the best possible defense behind them.

On the flip side, if the Nationals happen to be trailing when Stephen Strasburg or one of his cohorts is forced to leave, Williams should leave the Double Switchblade in its case in order to field the best possible lineup, which happens to be the one he pencils in two hours before gametime. If the pitcher spot inconveniently comes up in the batting order, he should use any one of the guys on the bench other than Span to pinch hit, in the hopes that the team can come back and implement the Double Switchblade at that point.

The only downside of this strategy revolves around Denard’s willingness to accept it. That said, he can’t gripe too much about playing at crunch time in every game of consequence. Furthermore, he’ll always know that he’s just one injury away from being right back in the starting lineup, especially given the teams’ track record over the last two years.

In closing, let me leave you with one last thought: how could the Nationals’ opponents not fear bringing a couple of measly bats and gloves to a knife fight? Exactly.

Tags: Bryce Harper Denard Span Washington Nationals

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