The Nationals outfield took another hit earlier this week when word leaked of Denard Span’s surgery to repair a core muscle, an injury likely related to his rehab from sports hernia surgery earlier in the offseason. The starting center fielder could miss up to six weeks, which means that, barring a miracle, he’ll miss at least a couple of weeks to start the season.
This just adds to an already tenuous situation. Jayson Werth won’t start throwing until next week, barely three weeks before Opening Day. The team is still targeting the April 6 start of the season for Werth’s return, but any sort of setback could blow that plan to pieces and leave the Nationals scrambling to figure out a solution.
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Per Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post, Michael Taylor (not Bryce Harper) is the player the team is tapping to fill in while Span works his way back. It makes sense. Taylor is the Nationals’ most developed outfield prospect. He has the long gait, easy stride and good range to cover the sort of ground that playing center field requires. He’s started off well-enough at the plate this spring as well, hitting 3-5 so far.
That’s all well and good for spring, but the regular season is another beast entirely. Taylor played in 17 games in 2014, and though he showed flashes, for the most part he looked overmatched. It’s hard to imagine one spring training making that much of a difference, even if he is getting the reps of a starter. For now, Taylor needs a little bit more polishing in the minors before he’s ready to take Span’s place.
Jayson Werth just exacerbates the concerns about the outfield. The team is still targeting an Opening Day return, but, as they say, “Even the best laid plans of Matt Williams and Mike Rizzo go awry.” If Werth were to miss time, things in left field are a little less clear than they are in center when it comes to Werth’s successor.
It’s likely that Nate McLouth, the 10-year veteran who played in 79 games for the Nats last season, would be the frontrunner to take Werth’s place, unless the team likes what it sees from Tony Gwynn, Jr. to give him a shot, either as a regular or in a platoon. Neither situation is ideal; McLouth hit for a line of .173/.280/.237 in 2014, while Gwynn had easily his worst year in the majors.
But what if Werth really is ready? Does that automatically set the minds of Nats fans nationwide at ease?
Shoulder surgery for a power hitter is always a concern, and Werth is no different. Maybe the operation fixed the injury that sapped Werth of his power last year, and maybe he’ll return to form. But even if he starts game one against the Mets, it’s likely going to take time for Werth to shake off the winter rust. If his acclimation stretches on for a prolonged period of time, it might be time to worry that Werth’s best days are behind him.
It’s all of these factors that make one wonder if the Nationals outfield, which just a few months ago looked like one of its best assets, is quickly devolving into a liability. Time should have brought some answers, but with the injury to Denard Span and the rehabilitation of Jayson Werth, all they have now is more questions.
All in all, the Nationals outfield situation is starting to look shaky at best. If things go poorly for Werth’s recovery and Span’s replacement, only Harper stands between the group and abject catastrophe. But for now, Nationals fans can simply do what they’ve done all winter: hold their breath, keep their fingers crossed, and hope that the replacements can hold up until the cavalry arrives.