After hitting .259/.278/.338 in 2013 and only being able to play second base at an above average ability, the likelihood that Steve Lombardozzi was going to be a part of the Nationals Opening Day roster in 2014 was slim to none. While many fans of the Nationals saw Steve Lombardozzi as a solution the numbers show that he was more part of the problem. Replacing him shouldn’t be difficult but it is going to come at a price. Willie Bloomquist just got a two year $6 million contract from the Mariners and Kelly Johnson a $3 million contract from the Yankees. Both could have served as utility men for the Nationals but neither represents much of an upgrade over the cost controlled options of Danny Espinosa or Jeff Kobernus. Of those two Espinosa is the better option as the one thing a utility infielder needs to be able to do is play plus defense at multiple positions. Espinosa has already shown he can do so at second and short and with his range and arm there is no reason to believe he can’t do so at third, but there are a lot of questions surrounding Danny Espinosa.
Espinosa in 2013 was putrid with the bat. A lot of it had to do with a rotator cuff, that has still yet to be operated on, and wrist injury and if he is over those then he should return to more of the .715 OPS hitter he was in 2012. As a bench player that is a good OPS as the average pinch hitter in the NL in 2013 had a .622 OPS and per game the average NL team used 1.5 pinch hitters. It is unlikely that the main defense-first utility player would be the guy to get that at bat and a half. Danny Espinosa also has other advantages as Matt Williams has mentioned wanting to be aggressive on the bases. Espinosa has a career stolen base success rate of 73% and could serve as a late inning pinch runner to get the Nationals that one run they need in a close ballgame. Matt Williams sounds like a manager looking to take any advantage with the knowledge that in the long run multiple little advantages will add up to a big advantage. Danny Espinosa could serve as a good utility player but there are still a lot of question marks. The main question comes down to the Nationals willingness to spend money for a bench player and with the going rate seeming to be $3 million a year for players no different than Danny Espinosa it is questionable whether they would want to.
One player that stands out above the other free agent utility men on the market is Omar Infante. He has a career .279/.319/.402 OPS and has been one of the more consistent and healthy players in baseball over the last few seasons. He can also play multiple positions, but hasn’t played short stop since 2010 with the Atlanta Braves. Heading into his age 32 season it might be unlikely that he could play short, but he can’t be any worse of an option at the position than Anthony Rendon. Infante doesn’t have the risk that Espinosa does but did earn $4 million in 2012 and 2013 and would likely demand the same as a free agent. Infante would give the Nationals a bench player who knows and is familiar with the role, is consistent with the bat, and can stay on the field. The final benefit to signing Infante is that at some point and injury to an infielder will happen and in that case Infante would move into a starting role with Espinosa grabbing the bench job. That level of depth is also something that the 2013 Nats lacked and an issue that needs to be addressed for 2014. While Infante isn’t a clear upgrade over a healthy Danny Espinosa, Omar Infante and a healthy Danny Espinosa serving as additional depth is.
The other main improvement the Nationals need is the bullpen. Most people see this as left handed relief but it needs to be the correct left handed reliever and baring that it should actually be the most talented reliever. If for some reason Grant Balfour and Oliver Perez are both options the only reason to take Perez over Balfour is because he is left handed. The same would go for JP Howell vs. Joaquin Benoit or Boone Logan vs. Fernando Roodney. In all three of those cases the right handed reliever is vastly more talented than the left handed option and would therefore be the correct option. One huge downside to someone like Boone Logan is his extreme splits meaning he would be a one out only guy as right handed batters have a career .855 OPS against. The latest rumors have the Nationals linked to Scott Downs. Downs is a career 3.48 ERA reliever with an OPS against of .605 vs. left handed hitters and .762 against right handed batters. That is nowhere near as extreme as Boone Logan’s but Downs is heading into his age 38 season. This means it would be a short term deal, but it also means regression could come quickly for him.
Oliver Perez has only been a reliever for the last two seasons but has a 3.16 ERA in that role, is heading into his age 32 season, and doesn’t have as extreme splits as other left handed relievers. If the Nats are really adamant about adding a left handed reliever then either Downs or Perez could be good options, but there is another way. With the new posting system looking to be accepted Masahiro Tanaka could be posted any day now, and while with Fister joining Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann it looks like the Nationals rotation is set no team can have too much starting pitching. Ross Detwiler has pitched 32 1/3 innings in relief with a 1.11 ERA. Detwiler will be an excellent addition to the bullpen but only should be moved if an obvious upgrade at the back of the rotation is added. Tanaka would be that and would give the Nationals the best rotation in baseball. Trading for Fister didn’t add much in the way of salary to the Nationals’ budget and shouldn’t stop them from going after Tanaka if that was their intent to begin with.
The final option for improving the depth of the Nationals bullpen would be to trade Drew Storen to a team looking for a closer for multiple left handed relievers. The Tampa Bay Rays need a closer and have two left handed relievers in Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos coming off of disappointing seasons. It would be a good two for one deal giving Drew Storen the change of scenery some believe he needs as well as filling the Nationals bullpen with two talented left handed relievers who are both bounce back candidates.
As with any question about team building there is no right answer for how to get a utility infielder or left handed reliever. Any of the above outlined moves could succeed or fail, but they all make sense on some level. The Nationals need a deeper bullpen and bench in 2014 and that is what should be addressed at next week’s Winter Meetings. I have to say my favorite option would be to sign Masahiro Tanaka and Omar Infante and to let those signings push other players into depth roles, but those are both also plan A moves and if they don’t work then other moves will still be there.