WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Silence is as much a part of spring training as blue skies and sunshine, as common in the clubhouse as playing cards, as crucial to chemistry as anything in that world. Silence is what rookies try to maintain in the midst of veterans twice their age. Silence is what allows grown men to play as a team while wrestling for their careers, to play catch with one another while battling for their livelihoods. Unspoken awkwardness is unobtrusive awkwardness, and that is precisely the kind of awkwardness baseball’s shut-up-and-play culture prefers.
Derek Norris, for example, spent nearly a month practicing and playing with a team he knew he would soon leave. The Washington Nationals released him on Wednesday, thus ending an awkward lame-duck tenure that did not feel particularly uncomfortable from day to day. Norris joked, worked, and played like the rest of the Nationals. He stayed quiet, so his situation did not become disruptive.
But silence does not eliminate uncomfortable spring training situations like Norris’s, or the one Adam Lind and Clint Robinson find themselves in now, as similar players on a team that probably only needs one of them moving forward.
“That’s another tough situation,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “We have to come up with a resolution in the next couple of weeks. You hope not to come up with a resolution too late for whoever needs to get a job.”
For two seasons, Robinson filled the role of the big, powerful lefty off the Nationals’ bench. He was the 30-year-old rookie who had never made an Opening Day roster before the Nationals gave him a chance in 2015. He filled in admirably for Ryan Zimmerman that season, then struggled in more limited playing time last year.
Robinson is out of minor league options, meaning he would have to clear waivers if the Nationals decided he did not fit on the major league roster. He seems unlikely to find regular playing time in Syracuse, where former highly touted prospect Matt Skole will probably play first base everyday. Replacing Robinson on the major league roster probably means losing him.
Early in spring training, the Nationals brought in big, powerful lefty Lind, who fits the same mold as Robinson — a backup first baseman who can play the outfield if needed, but fits the Nationals best as a part-time, pinch-hitting type. Lind signed a major league deal that will pay him $1 million this season — about $350,000 more than they owe Robinson in his pre-arbitration deal. The Nationals’ investment in Lind, then, is not significant.
But the fact that Lind signed a major league deal, instead of a minor league deal that would require him to earn his way on to the team, suggests the Nationals expect to give him a serious chance. For reference, Stephen Drew and Chris Heisey both signed major league deals this winter. All indications are that both will have spots on the bench this season, and are not in danger of losing them this spring.
So cue the awkward silence, because nobody wants to publicly declare Robinson gone, nor Lind secure. Robinson said he chatted with the Nationals officials who told him he was now involved in an open competition for a spot on the bench. Outside the three locked-in positions (Drew, Heisey and a catcher), Robinson was told, the Nationals would take the two best players for the job.
Baker echoed something similar when talking about his bench this spring. Perhaps the Nationals could find a way to keep both Lind and Robinson, he mused. But Baker acknowledges he has to say things like that. Making promises this time of year only serves to undermine players’ motivation.
Besides, if it is an open competition, neither Lind nor Robinson has made a strong case for the position. Lind is hitting .208 with a .519 OPS in 12 games. Robinson is hitting .200 with a .486 OPS in 13 games as of Wednesday. Evaluating either on such small and unproductive samples would probably not yield trustworthy conclusions.
“You look at their past. That’s the only thing,” Baker said. “I haven’t seen Lind play very much, but you see his track record.”
Lind’s track record reveals six 20-homer seasons, a .271 career average and an .849 OPS in more than 3,600 plate appearances against righties. The 33-year-old is a proven, everyday major leaguer with experience in platoon duty and a .921 OPS in more than 100 pinch-hit appearances. Robinson’s track record includes two major league seasons and 15 home runs, as well as reverse splits — a better OPS against lefties than righties. A bench including Drew, Heisey, Lobaton, Lind and Robinson would lack speed and a defense-first outfielder. Baker relies heavily on speed and defense-first outfielders, and the Nationals always hunt balance on the bench.
Robinson is used to springs like this one, spent on the brink and on edge, wondering where he will spend the next season. Lind is less used to this kind of spring training experience, in which he subs instead of starts, and therefore has to play the second half of spring training games for the first time in a while. Both he and Robinson entered Wednesday’s game in the seventh inning, Lind at first base, Robinson in left field.
“I put myself in that situation by not having as good a year as I would have liked,” said Lind, who hit .239 in 126 games with Seattle last year. “Actually, I think it’ll help because that’s how my role will be in the summer. It will help me get used to coming in to that part of the game.”
Neither Lind or Robinson says much in the clubhouse, both under-the-radar types most often seen with a bat in their hands heading off to hit. They both take ground balls at first and fly balls in the outfield. Sometimes they hit in the same group, or even in the same lineup, like they did on Wednesday afternoon. But such is the strange reality of spring training that Lind and Robinson do not seem likely to coexist this season, though nobody is willing to say so just yet.