If the season were to start this minute the Nats bench would be Scott Hairston, Nate McLouth, Danny Espinosa, Chris Snyder, and someone else. The Nats could still sign John Buck to be the back-up catcher or a utility infielder to either compete with Danny Espinosa in spring or to supplant him, but that open spot is currently filled by nobody with no obvious answer as to who it should be. There are many that think it should be Tyler Moore to platoon with LaRoche but only 24% of Adam LaRoche’s career plate appearances have been against left handed pitchers and his career .729 OPS against them is better than Tyler Moore’s .659. Even though LaRoche is significantly worse against left handed pitchers than he is against right handers but his numbers against left handed pitchers is still better than Tyler Moore’s.
The idea of finding a platoon partner for LaRoche isn’t a bad one but it should be someone that can handle limited at bats and is a good hitter against left handed pitchers. In other words it shouldn’t be Tyler Moore. Earlier in the off-season the Nats were linked to career bench bat, and Garfield High graduate Jeff Baker. As of now he remains unsigned. Unlike Tyler Moore he has shown an ability to hit in limited at bats and has a career .875 OPS against left handed pitching. He can also back up third base, left field, and right field. Jeff Baker would give the Nats more versatility and a better bat than Tyler Moore as well as giving them the platoon partner they may want for Adam LaRoche.
There are other options as well. Matt Williams has talked about the need for speed on the bases. He wants the Nats to run more and be more aggressive, but that doesn’t mean he wants them getting thrown out. He isn’t going to send Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, or Wilson Ramos to steal a base, but he could get a player that he could pinch run for them in late game situations. The Nationals happen to have that player in their system. Eury Perez over seven minor league seasons has stolen 242 bases with a 77.6% success rate. Perez hasn’t shown much ability with the bat in limited major league time, but he has shown great defensive ability and speed. He has stolen four bases in the majors without being caught. That is an extremely limited sample size and as a sixth outfielder Perez as the final bench player doesn’t make a lot of sense unless he is no longer considered anything but a pinch runner.
The stolen base is no longer a big part of baseball. It is seen as more of a liability than a weapon. The cost for an unsuccessful stolen base is far more negative than the positives of a successful one, but in those late game situations when one run can tie or win a game then the advantages of taking an extra base becomes even more important. Perez could provide the Nats with a player whose job could be to pinch run in the late innings to go first to third on a single, first to home on a double, and steal a base if needed. The problem with this move is the Nats already have two outfielders on the bench in McLouth and Hairston and don’t have anyone that can back up first base.
Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa are the key to making this move work. Matt Williams has mentioned that he wants Zimmerman to learn to play some first base so he can fill in for LaRoche. This wouldn’t give the Nationals a traditional back-up but it would give them someone that could back-up LaRoche and Zimmerman has a career .850 OPS against left handed pitching. If Zimmerman can play first base then he can provide the platoon partner many want for LaRoche while leaving a bench spot open for a pinch runner. The other key to this move is Danny Espinosa. Espinosa has never played third in his career but he has both the range and arm to do so. The big question about Espinosa is his hitting. While this isn’t that important for a traditional utility infielder it is a big part of a platoon for LaRoche. Having Zimmerman move across the diamond does nothing if his replacement at third can’t hit better than LaRoche’s career .725 OPS against left handed pitching. If Espinosa is healthy he can destroy left handed pitching. In 2012 Espinosa had a .775 OPS against left handed pitching and in 2011, .857. If Espinosa’s rotator cuff and wrist truly are healed then the Nats would be replacing a .725 OPS in the line-up with a .787 OPS and would have a late inning pinch runner when needed.
There isn’t a single right answer to who should start the season as the 25th man on the roster. It could be Eury Perez, Jeff Baker, Omar Quintanilla, or someone not even thought of. A bench is a movable thing and no matter who starts as the 25th man on Opening Day there is a near guarantee they won’t finish the season in that position. My preference would be to see the Nats throw the baseball world a curve and go with a pinch runner that is something that is highly unlikely because it simply isn’t a position baseball teams use anymore, but because they don’t use it anymore it could create late inning problems for other teams and Matt Williams sounds like a manager that would enjoy that. As of now it is unknown who that final bench spot will go to, and discussing it now only highlights the need for Opening Day to hurry up and get here.