(Note: This piece is the second of a two part series debating what the Nationals should do with their lineup upon Bryce Harper’s return)
The reintroduction of Bryce Harper to the Nationals lineup means there’s no longer enough outfield spots to go around. At first glance, this might appear to be a good thing, one of those so-called “good problems to have.” After all, now Matt Williams will have the option to rest his players, getting Werth or Span or Zimmerman a day off to keep them fresh down the stretch.
Unfortunately, this strategy is a disaster waiting to happen. Baseball players are creatures of habit and repetition; they need to settle into a position to play to their full potential. Bryce Harper has voiced concerns with that sort of rotation, too, and, truth be told, his caution is well founded. The better option is to stick a player in one position and use them there.
Now, the question becomes “who plays where?”
Obviously, Bryce Harper isn’t coming back to sit on the bench. He’s a key piece of the Nats’ future, a player that the team hopes to build on going forward. Jayson Werth isn’t going anywhere, either. Like it or not, Werth has become one of the veteran cornerstones of the franchise, and he’s owed at least $20 million each of the next four years.
This leaves Denard Span and Ryan Zimmerman. One option, as Scott wrote, would be to let Bryce Harper man center field (which is certainly Harper’s preference), keep Zimmerman in left, and demote Denard Span, using him off the bench in defensive or pinch running situations late in games. This strategy also means keeping the infield status quo.
This strategy certainly has plenty of merit. After all, Denard Span’s streaky bat and inability to consistently get on base as a leadoff hitter have contributed to the Nationals’ offensive woes. Replacing him with Harper would almost certainly be a boon to a lineup that has battled inefficacy all season long.
But, as with any plan, there are still certain questions that have to be answered. Bryce Harper seems like he has the ability to play center field, but how much are you sacrificing defensively by taking Span out of that spot? Furthermore, how will Span react to the benching? Will he take it like Zimmerman took his move to the outfield, with grace and a sense of “team first,” or will he balk at the notion of having his everyday player status stripped? It may not seem like much, but an upset Span could certainly befoul the Nats’ team chemistry.
If that’s the case, it may better serve the Nats to make that other move: bringing Zimmerman back to the infield. Now, I know most of you are rolling your eyes at that suggestion, but just stay with me for a moment. I promise that I’m not crazy.
Obviously, moving Zimmerman back to his old spot at third base (and moving to Rendon to second) is not a viable option. Zimmerman’s arm problems are well documented, and there’s no reason to believe that he’s gotten over whatever it is that’s caused them. Rendon has also proven more than up to the task of playing the hot corner, quickly moving toward being one of the league’s premiere third basemen. Shortstop is out for pretty much the same reasons. And as for putting Zim at first? That idea’s pretty much laughable. LaRoche is the better defensive first baseman, and he’s the Nationals’ best hitter. Barring an injury or the odd day off, LaRoche has to be in the lineup every day, without question.
That leaves second base, currently occupied by one Danny Espinosa, he of the .224 average and .286 on-base percentage. Espinosa is easily the worst hitter in the Nationals lineup; in only 59 fewer plate appearances, Espinosa has just four fewer strikeouts than Ian Desmond. Only the pitcher’s place in the order is currently more of a sure out than Espinosa’s spot.
On the defensive end, it’s certainly fair to ask whether or not Zimmerman can actually play second. But Zimmerman’s infield issues aren’t glove related. After all, Zimmerman was a Gold Glove third baseman just five years ago, and, judging by the diving catch he just made against the Brewers, he can still flash the leather.
As for Zimmerman’s arm, the throw from second isn’t as trying as the one from third. In short, if you assume it’s okay to play Zim at first at times and that he can make throws from that position, it isn’t that much of a stretch to assume he can handle second.
This plan isn’t without its caveats, either. With Zimmerman at second, the outfield would have to rely on (shudder) Nate McLouth to be the utility outfielder. Something would likely have to be done about the order, too. There’s just no way to justifiably keep Span in a leadoff spot that would be better suited to Rendon. And the big question, of course, is how quickly could Zimmerman pick up playing second base, a position with more nuances than first or third?
If the team can’t stomach forcing Zimmerman to learn yet another position, though, there’s also one other option. With the trade deadline approaching, and the Nats in “win now” mode, they’ll most certainly be buyers. It might be best for them to try and move Span and some prospects for an upgrade at second base. After all, if this team wants to contend for a World Series title, there’s no way that they can continue to waste at-bats with someone like Espinosa.
In short, the return of Bryce Harper may seem to most directly affect the outfield, but its implications for the infield are just as strong. And if the Nats are able to move the pieces correctly, they may get a pickup at more than just one position.