Manager Matt Williams changed his public stance on the plan for when Bryce Harper returns from the disabled list, saying Wednesday that the Nationals will shift multiple players around multiple positions based on several factors.
Prior to Wednesday, Williams had said Ryan Zimmerman will move back to third base and Harper would play left field, which would bump Anthony Rendon to second base and Danny Espinosa to the bench.
But Williams now said Zimmerman will move between left field, first base and third base; Harper could see starts at all three outfield positions; and Rendon will play both third base and second base. Williams would use the versatility to create advantageous match-ups and to give players rest. Under that scenario, center fielder Denard Span, right fielder Jayson Werth and first baseman Adam LaRoche would all receive occasional days off.
“We’ll kind of work our way through it, depending on who’s pitching, who needs a day,” Williams said. “I would assume that Bryce will not only play left field. He may find himself in right and in center sometimes, too.”
Williams wants to use Harper’s return to rest regular players who have comprised the lineup through injuries to other starters.
“If you have that scenario, that’s what you want,” Williams said. “I can give Denard a day or Jayson a day. You certainly can do those types of things. It’s been difficult so far this season, because we’ve had so many guys hurt. It potentially could allow us to give some guys some rest, too.”
There remains doubt that Zimmerman will play significant time at third base again. Zimmerman said he could play third base, but he also referred to playing left field “refreshing” after years of trying to coax his battered right shoulder into making precise throws across the diamond. Tellingly, Zimmerman has yet to take any groundballs at third base in pregame warm-ups or during batting practice since he came off the disabled list.
Moving his stars around the diamond would give Williams creative options. It would also provide ample headaches. While pulling players in and out of the lineup, Williams would face a steep challenge – providing everyone enough playing time to keep them fresh and keeping players rested for a stretch run without irking veterans who have earned their status everyday players.
LaRoche, for example, may be an all-star first baseman. When is it the right time to sit him on the bench? And what about Werth — in what game would Williams willingly bench his No. 3 hitter? Denard Span and Espinosa are the Nationals’ best defensive players; how often should they sit? There will undoubtedly be moving parts.
“It’s not easy, but it’s part of the job,” Williams said. “We do it collectively, too. The guys understand, hey, if you need a day, then come let us know. We’ll figure out where we could possibly do that. They’re honest. They let us know. We respect that. We all want to win games, but you have to look at the long run. And a day off for a certain guy at a certain time may be the best thing in the long run. It’s not easy. But we’ll deal with it.”
The Nationals could diffuse their lineup logjam once Harper returns with a trade. But General Manager Mike Rizzo said Tuesday he does not foresee any significant deals being prompted by Harper’s return.
Williams said Harper could return July 1 if the final stage of his rehab from thumb ligament surgery goes to plan. Wednesday, Harper took more swings in the batting cage and went through a full outfield workout with coach Tony Tarasco, including agility drills and catching with his bare hand. In the next couple days, Harper should take full batting practice.