With less than a week left until pitchers and catchers report the Nationals have made a clear statement as to how they are going to fill the last three spots in the bench. Heading into 2013 they looked those positions down with members of the 2012 team. It was startling how complete the Nationals roster was heading into Spring Training. I know I’d never seen it before and while other contenders where wondering who was going to start at third or short or who would be the third starter the Nationals had a full 25 men. That isn’t the case this Spring, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
There was a downside to the Nationals roster completeness. They couldn’t attract as many minor league free agents as other teams. So when things went wrong with certain members of the bench the Nationals were lacking in back-up plans. As of right now the Nationals have two set members of the bench in Scott Hairston and Nate McLouth. Both have good splits against opposite hand pitching and together should form the average 1.5 pinch hitters NL teams use a game. The rest of the bench is going to be composed of a back-up catcher, utility infielder, and one other piece that is assumed to be a right handed hitter that can possibly platoon with LaRoche.
Looking at it position by position the Nationals back-up catcher situation was the most set heading into 2013. Kurt Suzuki had a solid end to his 2012 and was one of the more important Nationals hitters down the stretch, but in 2013 he didn’t hit. He didn’t just not hit, he hit below the average .633 OPS of a primary back-up catcher on an NL team. Catcher in and of itself isn’t an offensive position and back-up catcher is even less so. Most teams look for pure defensive players as a back-up catcher, because if they had the offense to be a starter they would be. The Nats had traded for Suzuki and that gave them control over him and it appeared they had two starter quality catchers, but Suzuki failed as bad as any National in 2013, and this season the Nats are taking the exact opposite approach.
Between internal invites and minor league free agents invited to Spring Training the Nationals have six catchers competing for the back-up role, the three favorites being Snyder, Leon, and Solano. Between those three the Nationals will have a back-up catcher to start the season and if that catcher starts to struggle making the change won’t be as difficult as it was last season when that change would have involved cutting a player owed millions of dollars. The Nationals strategy this season is much more of a quality through quantity approach to bench construction and they still may make a trade before the season starts, but whoever wins the job the Nationals will have more depth and more importantly more flexibility than they had in 2013.
The approach at utility infielder is much the same. Again utility infielder is a mainly defensive position because good hitting middle infielders are hard to find and a utility infielder has to be able to play short and second it is even harder to find a good hitting utility infielder. The favorite as of right now is Danny Espinosa and he certainly has the defense and if he accepts the role it almost doesn’t matter what he hits because his defense is that good and that is the value he will bring to the team. Behind him are Jamey Carroll, Mike Fontenot, Zach Walters, and Jeff Kobernus, and any one of them would be a serviceable utility infielder if needed. Again this is the approach of quality through quantity with plenty of flexibility and low cost, easy to cut options, Between these five and any players that could be cut from other teams at the end of Spring Training or during the season the Nationals should be able to find a perfectly serviceable utility infielder.
The final bench spot is a bit of a mystery. The Nats pursuit of Mark Reynolds and Jeff Baker makes it appear as if they would like to have a right handed back-up first baseman in this final bench spot, but they could always go another direction. They could use this spot for a pinch runner or a second left handed bat as most relief pitchers will be right handed. This spot could simply be the best player available. With no clear role defined for this spot heading into Spring Training it is best that the Nationals keep their options open for this spot, but it is again a quality through quantity type of deal and could always be whatever utility infielder isn’t a first choice as Matt Williams does appear to be focused on defense and defense was something that the 2013 Nats bench lacked.
A bench player by their nature is going to be a below average hitter. The days of the big slugger that can’t play defense sitting on the bench waiting for his time to strike are gone. Modern baseball is played in a low run scoring environment and because of that any of these poor defensive sluggers that exist will be signed to be a starting DH in the AL. These players are simply not available to NL team and because of this the best move is to fill a bench with players that can play defense. The Nats didn’t have that in 2013. Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi, Chad Tracy, and Roger Bernadina were all below average defenders and gave the Nationals no options to even consider using a defensive replacement.
It may appear that the Nationals have more roster questions heading into Spring Training in 2014 than in 2013 but that isn’t a bad thing. They had a rock solid 25 man roster heading into Spring of 2013 and that ended up being a negative. When things went wrong they lacked the flexibility and the depth to make changes. Both of those issues have been remedied to some degree and while the quality through quantity approach may not work it gives the Nationals better flexibility to make moves when things go wrong. And compared to some of the roster questions of past Nationals teams wondering who the back-up catcher or utility infielder will be isn’t nearly as bad as wondering if the team will be able to field five starting pitchers.