For some time now, Nationals Manager Matt Williams has outlined several possibilities about how he will handle the upcoming playing time conundrum when Bryce Harper returns. But with that day just around the corner, perhaps as soon as Monday, Williams admitted Saturday morning that he has a specific plan in mind.
Asked about how he would handle egos of regulars players having to sit, Williams said something vague, yet revealing.
“Without getting into too much detail, I would say not as much as you might think,” he said. “The plan going forward is to win games and to put guys in position to do that. Without giving up all the secret stuff, it wouldn’t be as much [upheaval] as you might think.”
Reading between the lines about what Williams said and what he repeated about Zimmerman on Saturday, perhaps Danny Espinosa may be the odd man out of the upcoming lineup. Espinosa is hitting .219/.286/.351 with 91 strikeouts. He is also 0 for his past 16. Before the season began, Anthony Rendon was the team’s starting second baseman and Espinosa was his regular back-up. That may be what will happen again with Harper’s return.
The reason? Williams again said that Zimmerman could play third base next week. Zimmerman has taken grounders at third base twice this week, including Monday in Milwaukee, for the first time since he returned from the disabled list to begin strengthening his worn shoulder.
“He’ll play all over,” Williams said. “He’ll play some first, some left, third certainly. That’s the plan going forward. It’s going to be a daily thing. But the plan going forward is that he’ll see time at all three.”
Simply by revealing the lineup for Saturday’s second game, Williams offered the biggest clue the Espinosa may indeed be headed to the bench to be the team’s infield back-up. He could have started Espinosa in the second game after starting Kevin Frandsen in the first game. Instead, he turned to Frandsen for both games.
Espinosa appeared in the first game as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of the first game and struck out on five pitches, swinging the bat once and dropping to 0 for his last 17. Although Espinosa provides Gold Glove-level defense at second base, he appears lost at the plate and has slumped since a strong first month of the season.
The Nationals offense has been inconsistent and the best lineup, regardless of defense, may include Denard Span, Harper and Zimmerman all together.
When Zimmerman plays third, Rendon would be the obvious choice at second base, and the outfield configuration would be Harper, Span and Jayson Werth. When Zimmerman plays in the outfield, perhaps Span would sit, Harper could play center and Espinosa could man second, pushing Rendon back to third. Zimmerman can also play first base. When Werth is given time off, Harper could play right field. (Harper has played all three outfield positions while rehabbing, including nine innings in center field on Friday night.)
Harper is serving as the designated hitter for Class AA Harrisburg in Akron on Saturday night. Harper had the option to serve as a designated hitter or rest Saturday, and then play nine innings in left field. The Nationals want Harper to play back-to-back full games, so he could play again on Sunday if needed. But by playing Saturday, Harper could get Sunday off and return to the Nationals on Monday.
“I feel good about [Monday],” Williams said of Harper’s potential return. “We’ll have to see how he comes out of it, though. I think he’s progressing really well. I would say I feel good at some point this coming week. Monday is a possibility.”