Jayson Werth, the right fielder the Nationals signed this offseason for $126 million over seven years, will bat
second in the lineup to begin the season, Manager Jim Riggleman said. The move comes as a surprise, but it is logical given Werth’s ability reach base and the Nationals’ needs at the top of the lineup.
For most of the spring, the Nationals batted Werth third and said they planned for him to bat there all season. But Riggleman had an inkling he wanted Werth to hit second since shortly after the Nationals signed Werth.
When they spoke this winter, Werth happily surprised Riggleman when he brought up the idea himself. And when Riggleman spoke to Werth about hitting second today, he remained supportive of the idea.
“He mentioned second a few times himself,” Riggleman said. “In a perfect world, it probably sets our club up best. I was a little reluctant to do that. I talked to [General Manager] Mike Rizzo about it. Mike and his staff, they put a lot of numbers together. Werth really wants to do that. Mike wants to do it. I’ve thought about it a lot.”
Ryan Zimmerman will hit third, Riggleman said, with first baseman Adam LaRoche batting cleanup and Michael Morse hitting fifth. Shortstop Ian Desmond will be the likely leadoff hitter.
With the Philadelphia Phillies, Werth batted second once last year, 11 times in 2009 and 31 times in 2008. In his career, Werth has hit .252/.340/.432 (average/on-base/slugging) as a No. 2 hitter in 381 at-bats spread over 107 games.
Werth fits as a second hitter because he typically reaches base with high frequency, the most important thing any batter, particularly one at the top of the lineup, can do. Werth’s career on-base percentage is .367, and last year he posted a .388 on-base percentage, which ranked eighth in the National League.
Zimmerman, the man who will bat behind Werth, ranked seventh at .389. The Nationals, then, will rely heavily on LaRoche and Morse to drive in runs.
Werth’s patience will also fit well at the top of the order. He saw 4.36 pitches per plate appearances last season, fourth-most in the major leagues.
“We feel like that’s the best chance for us to get at least one base runner when that fourth hitter in the inning comes up,” Riggleman said. “That’s our best chance to have a rally. It’s not the typical RBI slot. We’ll be looking for on-base and productivity, and he can give us that.”
Last year, Riggleman often felt a sense of deflation in the dugout caused by the inability of the Nationals’ first two batters to consistently reach base. Last season, Nationals leadoff hitters posted a .300 on-base percentage, 29th in the majors and 29 points below league average. Their No. 2 batters combined for a .326 on-base percentage, 20th in the majors and eight points below league average.
Moving Werth to second may be necessitated by the Nationals’ near-final decision to start Rick Ankiel in center field. Ankiel may have batted second on a regular basis had Werth hit third, but over the past two years he has a .298 on-base percentage. Much of Ankiel’s potential value comes from his power and slugging, so slotting him sixth makes far more sense than second.
The Nationals would not be alone hitting one of their best offensive players second. Last season, Dustin Pedroia, Shin-Soo Choo, Nick Markakis and Jason Heyward all hit second at least 50 games for the Red Sox, Indians, Orioles and Braves, respectively.
With Riggleman sharing the Werth decision, the complete Nationals lineup can be seen without squinting too hard. Here is a good guess at the opening day lineup:
1. Ian Desmond, SS
2. Jayson Werth, RF
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
4. Adam LaRoche, 1B
5. Michael Morse, LF
6. Rick Ankiel, CF
7. Danny Espinosa, 2B
8. Ivan Rodriguez, C
9. Livan Hernandez, SP