Who hits second for the Nationals?

brushback_harperIan Desmond will not allow where he hits in the Nationals’ batting order to affect the way he stalks a pitcher. This spring he has often batted second, which is where Manager Matt Williams may deploy him once the regular season arrives. Traditional No. 2 hitters work the count, draw walks in bunches and slap the ball to the opposite field. Desmond wants damage, always. “The first pitch looks sweet no matter where you hit,” he said.

The second position in the lineup may the Nationals’ most pivotal. In 2012, Bryce Harper manned it for 117 games; No. 2 hitters for the Nationals batted .272/.336/.455 overall that season.

Last year, the Nationals never really found a second hitter; Ryan Zimmerman hit second 42 times, followed by Anthony Rendon (33 times), Jayson Werth (25) and Steve Lombardozzi. Except for Zimmerman’s September surge, they all did their best work elsewhere in the lineup. From their two spot, the Nationals’ line of .229/.289/.359 was under the league average for a second hitter: .262/.318/.392.

But the spot may also be the trickiest for Williams to fill. When Williams began tinkering with his lineup, he found a welcome dilemma. As he slotted hitters into place he believed they would fit best, he ran out of choice spots for good hitters.

Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper stood out as a representative 3-4-5 in some order. Desmond slugged like a No. 5 hitter last year, Adam LaRoche has batted in the middle of the lineup his whole career, and Wilson Ramos may match any Nationals hitter with pure power. Where to put them all?

“You worry about offending guys, putting them too low in the lineup,” Williams said. “But that’s a good thing to have.”

One way to alleviate the issue is putting Desmond second, even if his slugging outpaces his ability to reach base. Desmond will receive fewer chances to drive in runs hitting second, even though few Nationals thrive in those situations more. On the bright side, Desmond’s on-base percentage has steadily improved, increasing to .335 last season.

The best argument for Desmond hitting second is that when he does, it means Ramos can hit sixth and LaRoche will not hit eighth. The most obvious candidate to hit second, really, is Anthony Rendon. But if he bats second, then Desmond, LaRoche or Ramos would have bat to eighth.

“If you look at it, Anthony is probably that prototypical two hitter,” Williams said. “Hits the ball the other way. Gets on base. He’s got the ability to drive a run. You get in that situation, your eighth hitter gets on, you bunt him over with your pitcher, you get a couple of shots at him. He’s got all those capabilities.”

But when Rendon hits second, Williams runs out of real estate in his lineup – unless he wants to get creative and put Denard Span eighth, or risk embarrassing LaRoche by hitting him eighth.

“It doesn’t work,” Williams said. “That’s a good problem to have.”

Last year, Davey Johnson struggled to find a lineup he could write out using a rubber stamp. Williams has explained over and over again that he will adjust his lineup based on numerous factors, searching daily for small edges. And so the second hitter may well change frequently.

Still, on many nights it will be Desmond. And Williams will be fine if Desmond bends the spot in the order to his style, not the other way around.

“We can’t take away from his game,” Williams said. “His game is pretty good as it is. It’s a question of where he’s hitting in the lineup. If he’s hitting second, we’re not going to change him. You can’t. Because ultimately, you won’t play well. If that’s the case, we may make subtle adjustments – maybe he’s got to take a pitch early in the count if we want to steal. But I can’t tell him, ‘You need to get on top of the baseball and hit a groundball to second.’ He can do that. But it’s not what he does.”

FROM THE POST

The oldest living MLB player is a 102-year-old former Washington Senator who lives in Cuba, taught Livan Hernandez his curveball and still chomps cigars. A great story from Rick Maese.

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MATT WILLIAMS’S QUOTE OF THE DAY

“Steal third, hit and run, bunt for hits, hit the hole, knock the pivot man down. ***Play winning baseball***”

DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY

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