LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The numerical realities of big league camp are shoved aside this time of year. At-bats are available because regulars are easing into regular duty. Non-roster invitees are given a shot, mingling in the clubhouse as teammates and friends despite the inevitable culling of their ranks. Few spots are available on the Nationals bench. Most, and perhaps all but one of the eager horde, will earn one. But on days like Saturday, they play together in hope.
The Nationals are built to contend again, which means they are set at most positions. Jayson Werth, Ben Revere and Bryce Harper will be in the outfield, and Michael A. Taylor seems likely to be around, too. Anthony Rendon, Danny Espinosa, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman project as the opening day infield, and the Nationals gave Stephen Drew $3 million to back them up. Wilson Ramos will catch, and so will Jose Lobaton. Assuming all that is correct, the five-man bench has three occupants: Taylor, Lobaton and Drew. First baseman/outfielder Clint Robinson seems likely to be there, too.
Barring the unexpected, such as Trea Turner playing his way into the starting shortstop job, for example, there is probably one truly available spot — and 12 players remain in camp competing for it.
Dusty Baker said the best benches he’s seen have three things: “Balance, determination, experience.”
“That’s the hardest job in the world, in baseball. You might not play in 10 days, you’re called upon to usually come in in a key moment in the game,” Baker said. “…you have to be strong mentally. You hope it’s an older player for him not to take that 0 for 1 to sleep with him for the next week.”
Those players still in camp, and therefore potentially competing for that bench spot include outfielders Tony Campana, Reed Johnson, Matt den Dekker, Logan Schafer, Chris Heisey and Brian Goodwin, and infielders Turner (who would probably only make the roster as a starter), Scott Sizemore, Tyler Moore, Matt Skole, Chris Bostick, and Jason Martinson. Goodwin, Skole and Bostick are still young players, still highly thought of minor leaguers who have not had the kind of sustained success Baker says allows older players to transition to bench roles more easily.
“The best benches I’ve been on are ones where I had former everyday players or at least guys that had success in that role,” Baker said. “You’d like some speed, you’d like some guys that have shorter strokes because it’s easy to keep a shorter stroke together.”
Johnson is one of the best pinch-hitters in recent baseball history, with more pinch hits than any major leaguer since 2010 by 19 hits — despite not playing most of last season. Den Dekker brings speed, strong defense and occasional power, and Baker said he was impressed by his increased production down the stretch last season.
With Drew, Lobaton, Taylor and probably Robinson on the bench, the Nationals do not have a proven right-handed pinch-hit option. Heisey provided right-handed power during his years with Baker in Cincinnati, and has the third-most pinch hits in baseball since 2010. izemore has compiled a remarkable spring, with three home runs already. Baker has options from which to fill his bench, speed, power and proven pinch-hit options included.