I’ve often thought that the bottom or the roster is the manager’s domain. When Davey Johnson took over for Jim Riggleman his first two complaints were about the bench being too full of defensive specialists and the bullpen lacking a left handed and right handed long reliever. Both the bench and bullpen ended up set up in the manner that Davey Johnson specified in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, and in some ways it was a mistake. The focus on offense first bench players left the Nationals in a bad place in 2013. In an era where the league average OPS is around .715 and the average NL team is scoring 4.00 runs a game any player with a modicum of offensive talent is going to find a starting job somewhere. The bench is a place for below average offensive players and with the average so far down the talents of those players is going to be even worse. So when the 2012 bench regressed in 2013 they not only weren’t good at offense, they also weren’t good at defense.
Still heading into the 2014 off-season I looked at the bench in the way Davey Johnson constructed it. The Nats needed a right handed power hitter, a left handed power hitter, a back-up catcher, utility infielder, and fourth outfielder. Mick Rizzo and Matt Williams didn’t see it that way and the Nats bench has ended up with a right handed power hitter, a fourth outfielder who is also a decent left handed hitter and base stealer, a back-up catcher, utility infielder who can actually play three infield positions, and a second utility infielder that can back-up the corners. The one thing to really notice about the Matt Williams’ version of the bench is that the players on it are more versatile than the ones on the Davey Johnson’s bench.
Think about Steve Lombardozzi and the one phrase the cult of Lombo trucks out more than any other, “All he does is hit.” That fact that it is wrong doesn’t make them any less right. The real phrase should be something more along the lines of all Lombardozzi does is put the ball in play. There is a perception that making contact equals hitting even when it doesn’t lead to a base hit. So to many people all Lombardozzi does is hit, and if you take hitting as making contact that is all Lombardozzi does. He lacks the range for the outfield, the arm for third base, and the arm and range for shortstop. He lacks the versatility, the defensive ability, base running skills, and power of Danny Espinosa. Espinosa may not be a guy that only puts the ball in play, but he doesn’t need to be because he can do other things.
Compare Chad Tracy to Nate McLouth and much the same conclusion will be reached. All Chad Tracy could do in theory was hit while Nate McLouth can play three outfield positions, hit against right handed pitching, and be inserted into the game as a pinch runner if that type of thing is needed. The same can be said of Scott Hairston versus Tyler Moore. While Tyler Moore was supposed to be a right handed power threat, Scott Hairston has been for most of his career. Put a left handed pitcher on the mound against Hairston and there will be a double. It really is quite annoying if you’re rooting for the team playing against Scott Hairston. In 2012 he had a game with three doubles off of Gio Gonzalez and they may have been the only three hits he gave up that day. Hairston is the one guy that has got lost in the shuffle on the Nats bench because he came over in the midst of a bad season last year, and people have judged him for that without looking at the total body of work. In other words Scott Hairston is better than most Nats fans realize and is a good addition to the bench.
This all brings us to the final couple roster spots on the Nats. In the waning days of Spring Training I was still judging the team as if Davey Johnson were in charge. Certainly the veteran left hander would earn the final spot in the bullpen and the final spot on the bench would go to the hairy chested Tyler Moore, but neither of those things happened. The Nats brought in Kevin Frandsen from outside the organization simply because he is younger than Jamey Carroll and more reliable than Jeff Kobernus. It in essence gives the Nats two utility infielders. Danny Espinosa for second and short and Frandsen for third and first. It is a different look to the bench but one much more in line with modern baseball. Those big hairy chested beefy men that Davey Johnson was looking for don’t exist anymore. The Phillies just cut Bobby Abreu because he couldn’t do anything but hit, and poor defensive players like Delmon Young and Raul Ibanez are finding jobs in the AL. Modern bench players, especially in the NL, have to be able to do more than sit and wait for their opportunity to bench hit. They have to be able to play multiple positions, play defense, and be good on the base paths.
The final decision that was surprising was Aaron Barrett making the team out of Spring Training. If you listen to the podcast I’ve continued to list him as someone to watch in 2014 and someone that I thought would compete for the closer role in 2015. It turns out I was more right than I thought I was with Barrett earning the Opening Day nod. He is the seventh man out of the bullpen, but it is much better to go with a young promising talent than an aging match-up pitcher on his last major league legs. Valuing youth is important in the modern game of baseball. Lots of old school managers will trot the veteran out there night after night and talk about how the young player has to pay their dues and earn their spot when all they’re really doing is harming the team but keeping a lesser player in the line-up. The Aaron Barrett move is only one sign and can’t be taken as much but if Matt Williams is a guy who is going to let talent play then that will be good for the Nationals going forward.
Detwiler, Cedeno, Garcia, and Souza Jr. were my picks for fifth starter, two bullpen spots, and the final bench spot. The fifth starter spot is still undecided but it isn’t Detwiler, he is in the bullpen. The other bullpen spot went to Barrett and the final bench spot to Kevin Frandsen. I was as wrong as a person could be in my predictions, but that is because I was judging things through Davey Johnson colored glasses. I favored the veterans and power when I should have been looking at talent and utility.