A bench where young, hungry collides with proven, poised

February 20, 2013

Davey Johnson manages one of the most talented rosters in baseball, and he harbors a fierce belief in the power of focusing on the present. After five decades in the game, he can also sense trouble before it peeks over the horizon. He knows when one of his largest advantages may come wrapped around one of his most pressing sources of consternation.

Johnson gets that feeling when he considers the enviable depth beyond the Washington Nationals’ cadre of stars. Chad Tracy became a pinch-hitting ace last season, so effective the Nationals gave him $1 million in September to ensure he came back. Wilson Ramos is in the final stages of recovering from torn knee ligaments but remains part of the franchise bedrock. In most other spring outposts, Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore would challenge for places in the starting lineup.

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.

After winning the NL East in 2012, the Washington Nationals are coming into the year with a cacophony of hype. But Thomas Boswell says focusing on this year’s potential is missing the point. (Brad Horn/The Washington Post)

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.”

For the past several years, Bernadina arrived in Viera with a chance to win an outfield spot. Denard Span, Werth and Bryce Harper figure to lock down those three spots for the foreseeable future.

“For now, that’s the situation we have,” Bernadina said. “But I don’t see myself as a fourth outfielder. I keep in mind I’m a player who can play every day. That’s what I keep telling myself.”

Last year, Moore hit 10 homers in 156 at-bats and hammered right-handed and left-handed pitchers with equal force. He had the kind of rookie season that begs for more playing time, but that does not mean it will come.

“We all feel like we’re everyday starters, all the guys on the bench,” Moore said. “Until that opportunity comes, we’re going to know our role and do our role the best we can do.”

How long can a young player remain content as a backup?

“As long as I need to be,” Moore said. “I’m not pushing anything. I want to see everybody succeed. I’m going to come in and do my job. We’re all rooting for each other.”

Last year, Corey Brown swatted 25 home runs, stole 18 bases and reached base at a .365 clip at Class AAA Syracuse. “Corey Brown,” Tracy said, “is a big leaguer.”

And yet, Brown stands to need an injury or a trade to start the season anywhere but Syracuse again, waiting for his chance to help. Even beyond their five main backups, seven players in the Nationals’ camp played in the majors last season. That doesn’t include Anthony Rendon, their sweet-swinging top prospect, or Carlos Rivero, a member of the 40-man roster who is out of options.

“It’s real tough,” Brown said. “You look at the amount of talent that we have here, this is a team that Rizzo and the rest of the guys in the front office put together because they want to win a World Series. They’re going to put together the best at just about every position. For anyone that didn’t quite solidify themselves as one of the main dudes, it’s going to be harder for us.”

When Johnson took over as manager, he identified his biggest priority as improving the bench. Not long ago, the Nationals’ spring training served as a bastion for veterans trying to keep a major league job or a rookies hoping to break through. Now, few rosters are more difficult to crack. Johnson has succeeded, and it led to a different kind of problem.

“I love having them, but I want to see them get 600 at-bats, get to play every day,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “Selfishly, I’d love to have them here the next couple years, being our bench guys, our role guys. They’re almost too good for that.”

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