How the Nats 2014 Bench Should be Constructed

 

I am going to start off by mentioning that these are the types of posts that
can turn bloggers bad. Laying out a way to build a team and then getting stuck
in that way can lead to undue criticism of a GM when they then go out and build
the team in a different way. Team building is a lot like cat skinning in the
fact that there is more than one way to do it. So while this is how I would try
to construct my bench if I were a GM, I am not and there is probably a good
reason for that.  

If I were in charge of putting together
the Nats bench there would be a couple things I would focus on as weaknesses
from the 2012 bench. The first one is obvious: the Nats bench couldn’t hit.
Most of the problem came from the left side as both Tracy and Bernadina were
awful, but both Moore and Lombardozzi struggled as well. Lombardozzi, as a
switch hitter, can be counted as struggling from the left and right. Scott
Hairston provided some better production from the right side and while his
overall .224/.246/.379 batting line doesn’t look good, his .271/.294/.458 line
against left handed pitching is acceptable from a bench player and better than
anything that anyone else provided.  

Fortunately, Hairston is the only one
remaining under contract. Lombardozzi and Moore are still under team control
but both have options to the minors and should start 2014 there. The overall
impact of the Nats poor bench was a -3.1 combined fWAR for Moore, Lombardozzi,
Tracy, Suzuki, and Bernadina. Three more wins wouldn’t have gotten the
Nationals in the playoffs, but it would have been closer than where they
finished and that is with a replacement bench. A good bench would have gone a
bit into the positive and would have gotten them to the playoffs.  

As mentioned before the overall hitting of
the Nats bench was the biggest issue. Washington Nationals pinch hitters hit
.208/.250/.358 compared to the NL average of .221/.288/.333. The even larger
issue with the bench is how they hit as starters. During the month of May
Ramos, Harper, Werth, and Zimmerman all spent time on the DL, and for that
month Roger Bernadina was the best of the bench bats with a .605 OPS. 

The Nats bench in 2013 was putrid and
it has to improve for 2014. If I were in charge the first player I would go
after wouldn’t be an obvious one. Another weakness of the Nats bench was
defense. Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, and Chad Tracy were all negative in
the defensive component of fWAR and while, inexplicably, positive Roger
Bernadina is known to take some strange routes to the baseball. So not only was
the Nats bench not providing offense they weren’t providing defense either.
Look back up at the previous paragraph and check those slash lines. Nats pinch
hitters weren’t that far off from the league average when it came to hitting.
It was a negative but by providing no value through defense they made
themselves an even more substantial negative, especially when they had to fill
in full time due to injuries.    

Think for a second about the
construction of the Nats bench by defensive position. Both Tracy and Moore are
DH types with no real defensive position, Scott Hairston is a back-up corner
outfielder, Bernadina was a back-up corner outfielder, and Lombardozzi is a
back-up second baseman that they sometimes stuck in a corner outfield. When the
Nats needed to give Span a day off Harper would shift to center and when
Desmond needed a day off the starting second baseman would switch to short. So
when the Nats had their back-ups in not only was the offense weaker, but so was
the defense, and that is why I would start my bench construction with a true
utility player. There are a number of these guys available this off-season and
this may be where the Nats should use the MiLB deal to bring in a multitude of
them, but if I were going to offer one defensive player a major league contract
it would be Brendan Ryan.  

Brendan Ryan is one of the best
defensive players in baseball, and nearly all of his value is derived from his
ability to play defense. He has three seasons of 10+ UZR at shortstop and an
overall career UZR/150 of 11.7. Early in his career with the Cardinals he
played three infield positions and both corner outfield spots. The only reason
he was ever a starting shortstop in the major leagues is that the Mariners
decided that they were going to try to win with only defense. He is a career
.619 OPS hitter and should only be used as a pinch hitter deep in extra
innings. It would be better to use some pitchers as pinch hitters before him,
but that wouldn’t be his purpose on the bench. He would be able to provide
excellent infield defense at three positions and could spell Zimmerman,
Desmond, and Rendon whenever they needed a day off. When starting his value
would come by improving the overall defense on the field which would soften the
offensive drop off instead of making it worse, as the 2013 bench did. If not
Brendan Ryan then some other names to watch here would be guys like Willie
Bloomquist or Nick Punto as they can provide somewhat close to the same thing,
but when picking my dream defensive utility player I am going to pick the best.
 

Next up is another position that is
mainly thought of as a defensive first position. Traditionally the back-up
catcher is more often the catch and throw guy while the starter is the stronger
offensive player. As Wilson Ramos has struggled with injuries over the past two
seasons it is my opinion that the Nationals shouldn’t go with the traditional
catch and throw guy and should get someone that can provide some offense as well.
Carlos Ruiz would be my number one choice here, but it is likely that there is
a starting job out there for him and so having him as the Nats back-up is a bit
too much of a pipe dream. Number two on the list is also a current NL East
catcher and one with a fair amount of pop, for a catcher, John Buck. For his
career Buck has hit .234/.301/.400 and if he wasn’t a catcher no one would even
mention him as a starter, but he always seems to end up in that role. He also
has a positive defensive ranking over the past four seasons and can provide
both power and defense when spelling Ramos. The only question with Buck is if
he is willing to take a back-up role or if he will go to a second division team
in order to start every day. If he isn’t willing to take a back-up role then
other catchers on the market this off-season that might are guys like Geovany
Soto and Yorvit Torrealba.  

So far we have the defensive utility
player in Brendan Ryan, back-up catcher in John Buck, and the hold over Scott
Hairston for right handed pop. That leaves us needing a left handed power
hitter to replace Chad Tracy and a fourth outfielder. For the left handed power
hitter I am going to go with a player formally of this region, Luke Scott.
Scott is a player that has attracted some controversy in his career, but never
in the clubhouse and teammates have nothing but good things to say about him.
As far as the important part his hitting against right handed pitching is
excellent with a career batting line of .266/.351/.494. Scott wouldn’t provide
much in the way of defense and can really only serve as a back-up at first base.
But that isn’t his job, and that is why you have a utility player and fourth
outfielder. Those are the two players that give the starters days off. Luke
Scott and Scott Hairston would be the pinch hitters. They would occasionally
get starts when multiple everyday guys needed days off or due to injuries, but
their main purpose would be to pinch hit. Which works perfectly as the average
NL team used a pinch hitter for 1.5 plate appearances a game.  

The final spot is fourth outfielder and
because the Nationals are already sacrificing one hitter to have the super
defensive sub they can’t do it here. They need a fourth outfielder that can
provide some offensive value and is close to a major league starter. In my
ultimate pipe dream world the Nats would go with a four man outfield rotation
instead of a fourth outfielder and end up with either Curtis Granderson or
Carlos Beltran for this spot, but as that is too much of a dream for the dream
bench we’re going to get a little closer to reality and go with former
Washington Nationals outfielder David DeJesus. DeJesus was barely with the
Nationals before being traded to the Rays for a minor league pitcher, but while
here he represented what the Nats bench had been missing all season.

Once a proven major league player who had been a starter, but was now on the
downturn of his career. That is the type of player a bench should be made out
of on a contending team, and it is going to cost a little more than a MiLB deal
or a $1 or $2 million deal. DeJesus currently has an option for $7.5 million
for next season and the Rays are unlikely to pick it up. DeJesus for his career
has hit .279/.353/.417 and can play all three outfield positions. DeJesus is
better against right handed pitching than left handed pitching, but in those
cases where a manger makes a change to face him Hairston can be brought in to
face the lefty. DeJesus’ main purpose would be to get a start a week at all
three outfield positions and help keep Harper, Span, and Werth fresh and to
fill in when any of the three get injured.  

To review. In my dream world the Nats bench has a super utility plus-plus
defender who will never pinch hit and bat eighth every time they have to start,
but can play three infield positions and possibly the corner outfield positions
all while providing well above average defense, a right handed power hitter to
take care of left handed reliever and to get starts for either Span or Harper
against extra tough left handers, a left handed power hitter that should rarely
appear in the field but can absolutely mash right handed pitching which would
come in handy late in a game, a back-up catcher that provides good defense and
occasional pop which could be handy if the new manager isn’t afraid of pinch
hitting a back-up catcher, and finally a fourth outfielder that isn’t an
offensive waste and can play all three outfield positions. This is accomplished
by having a bench of free agents Brendan Ryan, John Buck, Luke Scott, and David
DeJesus to go with hold over Scott Hairston. That both sounds and looks like a
strong bench and one that would be a positive for the 2014 Nats. I am certain
it won’t turn out that way but I do expect to hear the Nats rumored to be in on
a couple of those names and wouldn’t be surprised if Rizzo and the next manager
follow the blueprint I laid out. Or Rizzo could go in a completely different
direction, but roster building is cat skinning, and while I like my way because
it is my way it isn’t the only way.  

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