Taking a swing at the Washington Nationals’ opening day lineup

Bryce Harper, Drew Storen and Adam LaRoche of the Washington Nationals share their superstitions and favorite songs. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist March 16

With opening day two weeks away, the Washington Nationals now face their hardest puzzle. It’s not their fifth starter or their final bench players. What is their batting order?

If you like baseball brain teasers, the Nats’ lineup is one of the trickiest you’ll find. For the past two years, their lack of chemistry and batting-order synergy has helped relegate the Nats to 10th and 15th place in the majors in runs scored.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

If the Nats’ offensive sum is again less than the apparent talent of their players, then the lack of a lineup in which abilities interlock likely will be a villain. Now it’s Matt Williams’s turn to ponder; there’s nothing like getting the final exam on the first day of school.

Davey Johnson was so frustrated he tried every player in three to six spots in the lineup, often for extended periods, trying to see who felt most comfortable where. Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper started in six places for Johnson, while Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon, as a rookie, were in five slots.

Johnson figured out the biggest problem — finding adequate No. 1 and No. 2 hitters who could get on base. But he never found a sustainable solution. At various points, he hit Werth, Harper and Ryan Zimmerman more than 1,000 times at 1-2. It helped. But for the long term, they are exactly the wrong men to set the table. They’re hired to clean it. Over their careers, all three hit less at the top of the lineup than they do in the middle.

The Post’s Adam Kilgore discusses how much he expects the offseason acquisitions of starting pitcher Doug Fister and outfielder Nate McLouth to impact the Nationals in 2014. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Williams’s job: Get enough men on base in front of them. Sounds easy. Oh, it’s not.

Here is the ideal Nats lineup with every player batting in the spot where he has had his best success over his career as measured by on-base-plus-slugging percentage:

1st: Nobody.

2nd: Nobody.

3rd: Harper (.876).

3rd: Zimmerman (.829).

4th: Werth (.996).

6th: Desmond (.854).

7th: Adam LaRoche (.990).

7th: Denard Span (.956).

7th: Rendon (.795).

8th: Wilson Ramos (.873).

If you could get eight everyday players to produce anywhere near that ridiculous collective OPS level (almost .900), that team would burn the league to cinders.

Unfortunately, baseball is stodgy. It’s ready for instant replay but not the 3-3-4-6-7-7-7-8 batting order. Couldn’t the Nats just print up a lineup card with lots of “7’s” or maybe even toss in some hypnosis: “You are feeling sleepy. Ignore the Number 2 by your name. You are hitting seventh. No pressure. No expectations. Just relax.”

This may seem comical, but it’s not funny to the Nats. When your first two hitters are weak, you have a perverse gift that keeps on giving. You’re awarding the largest number of at-bats to the worst producers; they also reduce the number of men on base for the good hitters who follow them. It doesn’t doom an offense, but it sure crimps it.

The Nats have enough ability that they could pull lineups out of a hat every day and, when the hot and cold, injured and healthy periods evened out, end up with a decent offense. And that’s what’s happened the past two years. But what if they ever clicked?

Look at Boston. Many of its at-bats in the World Series went to Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava, David Ross, Xander Bogaerts, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Stephen Drew and a bunch of pitchers. You don’t think there’s lineup synergy in baseball? Boston had two 20-homer men, the Nats five. The Red Sox are much better but better by 197 runs in one year?

The solution would seem simple. Even with a 29-game hitting streak late last year, Span still had a poor on-base percentage for a leadoff man (.327). But his career mark (.351) would be adequate. Also, Span was one of the hitters who improved after hunt-fastballs hitting coach Rick Schu replaced Rick Eckstein. I thought Eckstein was a scapegoat. But maybe the hitting gods like human sacrifice. Span hit .303 under Schu.

The mystery is No. 2. Anybody should be able to hit in the spot called “the rocking chair” because, in front of the thunder, you see so many fastballs. How hard can it be? For the Nats, impossible. Desmond, Rendon, Werth and Danny Espinosa all tried hitting there and were either awful or hit far enough below their normal levels that they were dropped lower to get full value from them. Even Zimmerman and Harper dipped some.

This spring, the top contenders to bat second are Desmond and Rendon, who hit .225 at No. 2 but .291 when he hit anywhere else. So go with Desmond, right? Let Rendon establish himself in the relaxed confines of the sixth or seventh hole. Unfortunately, Desmond’s slugging average drops 100 points at No. 1 or No. 2. How can you sacrifice the thump he has generated in his career at No. 6: 27 homers and 84 RBI in 544 at-bats with 25 stolen bases in 30 attempts?

This year, if either Rendon or Desmond hit as well at No. 2 as they do lower in the lineup, everybody will be happy. They may. But if they don’t, does Williams sacrifice RBI by putting Harper, Werth or Zimmerman at No. 2? Tough call.

Williams has other issues. Ramos has slugged so much when healthy that No. 6, where he has hit well in the past, looks like a logical place for him to get more RBI. But then who hits No. 8, often a hellhole for overanxious young hitters? Do you inflict that on Rendon? Where does super sub Nate McLouth bat when he and Span are in the lineup? Both have spent their careers as leadoff men. Are they good enough to hit 1-2?

The matchups and permutations go on and on. We kid ourselves if we think we’d make good managers. But since I brought it up, I shouldn’t duck. Most good offenses have a base lineup, a core concept of what works and why, then you vamp off of that.

Span leads off. He’s good enough. Rendon hits second because his all-field hitting and eye for walks offer the best high-ceiling solution, both short and long term. If he’s not ready, then go to Desmond, though it hasn’t helped him in the past. Werth gets to lock in at No. 4 every day, something he has never had a chance to do despite his gaudy cleanup stats. Zimmerman and Harper flip-flop at 3-5 because both hit significantly better against the pitcher of the opposite hand; that way, Harper bats fifth against lefties.

Then hit Desmond sixth because you put your field leader in the spot where he can succeed — and thus lead the most. LaRoche bats seventh because we just have to find out why he has hit .323 and slugged .601 in 439 career at-bats in that spot. It’s looks like a fluke, but what if it isn’t? With Ramos protecting him, LaRoche will still get pitches to hit.

Everything looks smart on opening day. Then they play Game 2.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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