The Nationals’ bench consists of one archetype reserve and four 20-somethings thirsting for more playing time. The depth gives the Nationals an edge and Johnson a problem.
“Nobody in that lineup wants out,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the concerns. It’s one thing to have a talented bench and they’re veterans. They can handle more sitting time, then come off and be productive. But it’s more difficult for a young player to sit. In their mind’s eye, I’ve got two or three sitting over there that think they should be playing.”
In the course of baseball’s marathon season, when injuries are inevitable, a team’s backups – and even the backups for the backups — can matter. Last year, the Nationals received 1,663 plate appearances from 15 reserves or call-ups from the minors, which accounted for 27.8 percent of the plate appearances taken by their position players.
Earlier this spring, Philadelphia Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon explained to the Philadelphia Inquirer his opinion on why the Phillies faltered in 2012. He believed the franchise could not overcome the injuries to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.
“Any team, any front office, any manager would panic,” Papelbon said. “You take [Jayson] Werth and [Ryan] Zimmerman out of the Nationals’ lineup — done. It’s that simple.”
Only the Nationals did play without Werth, who missed three months with a broken wrist, and Zimmerman, who sat out 17 games and was limited by inflammation in his shoulder. They also missed Michael Morse, Ramos and Ian Desmond for extended periods. Without their best players, the Phillies fizzled. With their starters injured, the Nationals won 98 games.
“I doubt people realize it,” Tracy said. “You see the names of the starters, and people just assume they’re going to be there all year. In this game, there’s always tweaks and pulls, 15 days here and 15 days there. You need quality bats, guys that can fill in, and you don’t lose.”
There is a second edge to that sword. The Nationals believe their youthful bench players will soon become overqualified for the job. The players believe the same.
“I want to be an everyday guy,” Lombardozzi said. “I’m fighting to be the starting second baseman. That’s where my head is at now. I know we all want to play, but we all want to win, too. We want to make it to the playoffs and go all the way this year.”