“The younger guys are becoming better hitters,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I’d much rather have a better hitter than a long ball. You do more damage when you’re a quality hitter and get on base and keep the line moving.”
Wilson Ramos, a better power hitter than any of the Nationals’ catchers last season, is back from a major knee injury last May. Jayson Werth, an atypical but effective leadoff hitter when he returned last August from a broken wrist, is pushed lower in the lineup with Span in the fold. Ryan Zimmerman’s shoulder is clean after offseason surgery. Ian Desmond enjoyed a breakout year in his third full major league season and Danny Espinosa, the Nationals hope, is on the cusp of his own advent.
“And of course you got Bryce, who could easily put up MVP numbers,” LaRoche said of Bryce Harper, 20, who is playing his first full season in the majors. “It’s a little hard not to think that after the first two swings of the season.”
Morse, who has one year remaining on his contract and will make $6.75 million this season, has some of the best power in the majors when healthy. In 2011, he carried the Nationals’ offense by clubbing 31 home runs, enough to earn fringe MVP votes. He produced 67 home runs over four injury-shortened seasons with the Nationals, including 18 last season in 102 games while playing left field. But the Nationals coveted Span’s range and glove. And they pursued LaRoche, who signed a two-year, $24 million contract in January, because of his left-handed power bat and slick glove at first base.
“We know Michael Morse is a good power hitter and at any moment can change the game,” Ramos said. “But we have to understand that this team needed a natural leadoff hitter.”
With Span and LaRoche in the fold, the Nationals’ lineup alternates left-handed and right-handed bats from top to bottom. Left-handed Harper is behind Span and Werth, both successful at getting on base. Harper, who has already hit three home runs, is followed by right-handed Zimmerman, who has five career 20-home run seasons to his name.
“The whole point is to make it harder for the other team to match up,” Zimmerman said. “If they bring in a lefty, then I’ll get to face a lefty. Or if they bring in a righty, those guys will face a righty. It’s the right thing to do and it makes sense.”