The Nationals have questions right now at left field, first base and center field with Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche dealing with injuries and Rick Ankiel not yet having claimed the everyday center field job. With several players who can play both first base and corner outfield, the possibilities are many.
The Nationals end up with all three players in the lineup each day. Or they could find themselves with Steve Lombardozzi, a rookie and career infielder, in left field. Or they could use Chad Tracy, who played in Japan last season, splitting time at first base. They may use platoons in center, left and first, or they may not.
“The equation,” Johnson said, “has gotten a little more difficult.”
Two things seem most clear. Johnson plans to use a platoon at first base to rest LaRoche, and you will see a lot of Mark DeRosa.
The Nationals’ plans will hinge on the health of Morse and LaRoche. It is important to keep this in mind: Teams are allowed to backdate disabled stints that begin on Opening Day to March 26. In other words, if LaRoche and Morse do not play in any major league spring training games after Monday, they could begin the year on the disabled list but return by April 10. At that point, they would have missed only four games.
The Nationals’ plan for Morse, recovering from a strained lat muscle, to begin throwing again Wednesday, which could allow him to play in minor league games by the end of the week.
“I have a feeling he could be close,” Johnson said. “Two or three days, I’d have said definite, he’s going to start the season on the DL. At this point, I’m not so sure.”
Trainers will permit LaRoche to begin cutting around bases on his bone-bruised left foot starting tomorrow. (“We haven’t been turning left very much lately, anyway” Johnson joked.) At one point, Nationals trainers wanted to put LaRoche’s left foot in a walking boot, but LaRoche shot that down. Johnson still feels far more confident about LaRoche beginning the season with the Nationals than Morse.
Regardless of LaRoche’s status, Johnson envisions sitting him frequently early in the season. LaRoche underwent major surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder last year, and Johnson wanted to give him an easy early workload regardless.
In LaRoche is healthy, that means he would start against right-handed starting pitchers and DeRosa would start against lefties.
“I had a conversation with Adam,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Even just coming off the shoulder injury, I was planning on starting the season in a platoon.’ He said, ‘I don’t want that.’ I said, ‘It’s out of your hands.’ ”
With the uncertainty surrounding LaRoche and Morse, Johnson will experiment this week. Lombardozzi is starting Sunday against the Mets in left field because “I want to see if he can handle that,” Johnson said.
Johnson wants to gives Brett Carroll starts this week against a left-handed pitcher to gauge the possibility of platooning him and Ankiel in center. Roger Bernadina will also receive playing time in left in case he takes part in a platoon, perhaps with Jason Michaels.
DeRosa will continue to bounce between first and left. Tracy, a non-roster invitee, could find himself in a platoon with DeRosa at first should LaRoche begin the season on the disabled list. Jason Michaels is also a possibility to play left, perhaps against lefties if LaRoche and Morse are both out and DeRosa is at first base. Johnson even mentioned the possibility of bringing Bryce Harper earlier than expected if necessary.
Basically, with a week remaining before the Nationals head north, every option is on the table.