The Nationals acquired a veteran left-handed outfielder in a late-season move to bolster their bench and provide proven depth for an improbable playoff push they believe still rests within them, adding David DeJesus from the Chicago Cubs on Monday in exchange for a player to be named later while clearing room on the roster by cutting one of their longest-tenured players, struggling Roger Bernadina.
“I certainly haven’t given up on this season,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said before Monday night’s game at Wrigley Field. “And I think that with the talent level that we have on this ballclub that we still have a run left in us.”
DeJesus is an expensive upgrade for the Nationals and their struggling bench but shows a willingness by the front office to still push for this season while planning for next. Entering Monday’s games, the Nationals trail the Cincinnati Reds for a second wild-card spot by 9 1/2 games with 39 games left. The Nationals bench is among the worst in baseball, a collective .188 average, second to last in the National League. After a breakout 2012 season, Bernadina was hitting .178 and had only played six times this month.
“(DeJesus) improves our left-handed side of the bench immediately,” Rizzo said. “He’s also a guy that is capable of being an everyday player. He can step in there for extended periods of time if there are injuries. He helps us in a variety of ways. He’s really wearing out right-handed pitching right now. He’s a high on-base percentage guy in his career. A consummate professional hitter.”
DeJesus, 33, was hitting .250 with six home runs and a .330 on-base percentage and a .732 OPS in 84 games for the Cubs before he literally switched sides on Monday afternoon, walking from the home dugout to the visiting dugout in street clothes. DeJesus is earning $4.25 million this season, the second year of a two-year, $10 million deal he signed with the Cubs last season, but the Nationals could be on the hook for only a quarter of this season’s salary.
What also attracted Rizzo to DeJesus was the team’s control for next season, a common theme in Rizzo deals. DeJesus’s contract includes a 2014 team option for $6.5 million and a $1.5 million buyout. Rizzo declined to say if any money was also exchanged in the deal, but the Cubs could be saving as much as $2.5 million in the trade. Rizzo said the Nationals would make a choice on the option year later. Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer said, according to CSNChicago.com, that they would be open to bringing back DeJesus in the future.
The Nationals were interested in DeJesus before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, Rizzo said, but the two teams couldn’t agree on a deal before then. The Nationals then placed a waiver claim on DeJesus after the deadline and hammered out an agreement. In a strange twist revealed late Monday night, the Nationals placed DeJesus on waivers after acquiring him, according to Fox Sports, raising questions about whether the Nationals actually want him. (A player who clears waivers can be traded to any of the other 29 teams. If a waiver claim is placed by another team, the Nationals can pull him back or trade him.)
At first thrown off by timing of the deal, Manager Davey Johnson now will find a role for DeJesus. (“I was kind of surprised at the timing, to be honest,” Johnson said.) After beginning the season with Chad Tracy, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Bernadina on the bench, the Nationals have moved to address those weaknesses. The Nationals acquired Scott Hairston in a July trade with the Cubs to address the right-handed side of their bench after Moore stumbled in his second season. And now DeJesus helps, too.
“He’s a quality player,” Johnson said. “If anybody gets hurt, he can step right in and play at a high level…. He doesn’t have anything he needs to prove to me. I’m sure that he wants to play. But [Bryce] Harper needs to play, most definitely. [Jayson] Werth is having an outstanding season. [Denard] Span is doing a great job defensively, his bat is picking up. I’m more concerned with where we’re at in the standings, getting the young guys more at-bats than some of the veteran-type players.”
DeJesus, known for his defense, is capable of playing all three outfield positions and can hit leadoff. He will serve as the Nationals’ fourth outfielder, a pinch-hitter or could even spell left-handed center fielder Denard Span in the midst of a down year at the plate. He is an 11-year major league veteran and has a career .771 OPS, while left-handed Bernadina has a .670 OPS. DeJesus is a career .252 hitter against left-handed pitching, but is hitting only .156 against them this season. Against right-handers, DeJesus is hitting .268 this season and .290 for his career.
Bernadina, 29, is one of several struggling Nationals bench players. He hit .291 last season but that dropped to .178 in 85 games this season. He was one of the last remaining holdovers from the franchise’s days in Montreal, signed in 2001 out of his native Curacao by the Expos, and reached the majors with the Nationals in 2008. Bernadina, beloved by fans for his athletic defensive plays that earned him the nickname “The Shark,” was earning $1.2 million this season, his first season of arbitration, and was likely a candidate to be non-tendered this winter.
“Mechanically, he never got himself righted,” Rizzo said. “He is a guy with an abundance of tools and skills and really hit within himself last year and utilized his speed and line drives and that type of thing. He just could never get on track this year, and it was something that we were waiting for throughout the season and it just didn’t happen.”
DeJesus wasn’t expecting to be traded. He and his wife, Kim, were out together on Monday afternoon grabbing vegetable shakes when he missed a call from Cubs President Theo Epstein. His wife joked that he had been traded, as he was at the center of trade rumors before the deadline. He called Epstein back and was given the news of the trade.
“It’s a surreal moment,” he said.
DeJesus then had to find his way to the visitor’s clubhouse, which he said he had never been to. He saw familiar faces, such as Kurt Suzuki and Gio Gonzalez from his 2011 season in Oakland, and Hairston from this season in Chicago. DeJesus was playing every day in Chicago but will now morph into a bench player, a transition he believes he can handle.
“I’m comfortable because that’s my game,” he said. “My game is grinding out at-bats, making the pitcher pitch and giving it my best. I’m going to work both sides of the plate, get on base and let the guys behind me do their job.”