For the first time since baseball returned to Washington, the Nationals will place three everyday players at each outfield position on opening day, the platoons featuring Brandon Watson or Willie Harris or Rick Ankiel buried mercifully in the past. From April 1 through October, only injury or an occasional day off will keep Bryce Harper, Span and Werth from sharing the outfield, occupying their spots in left, center and right. Each has experience in center field, and together they possess the talent to form one of the best defensive outfields in the majors.
“It’s three plus outfielders,” one National League scout said. “I thought Harper did a great job playing center last year. [Werth] gets great jumps, has great instincts.”
Harper, Span and Werth have used the spring to work toward becoming a cohesive trio. They have learned how much ground each other can cover, the sound of the others’ voices when calling for a flyball, how they align for certain hitters. Harper declined to participate in the World Baseball Classic, in part, so he could play more next to Span.
With two weeks remaining before spring training ends, Manager Davey Johnson plans to “go to the whip” on his regular starters, playing them every day and for nine innings at a time. For the Nationals’ talented outfield, it will be the best chance yet to gain comfort.
“It takes time,” Werth said. “You got to get a feel for each other. We’ve yet to have a ball in between us, or anything close, really. Even so, just standing out there, getting an idea of where each other plays, hearing each other’s voices, it’s good.”
If the Nationals had a different makeup in the outfield, the importance of communication would be minimized. “With a big, slow corner outfielder, it doesn’t really matter anyways,” Werth said. But all three outfielders, especially Harper and Span, have above-average speed, which raises the chances for confusion on balls hit to the gap.
As a measure of range, the statistical Web site FanGraphs.com tracks how many outs fielders record when venturing outside of their specified zone. Last season, Span made 93 such plays, eighth in the majors. Despite spending the first month of the season in the minors, Harper made 84 out-of-zone outs, 11th in the majors.
In the seventh inning of a 5-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers on Monday, a flyball soared toward shallow left-center field. Their speed would allow both Harper and Span to make the catch, and it would also create the potential for a collision. Harper charged in and yelled, “I got it!” As the ball started to descend, Span raced across the outfield and screamed, “I got it! I got it!”
Span “probably didn’t think Harp was going to be there that quick,” Johnson said. “He felt like it was still his ball.”
When Span called for it, Harper halted and backed away. Span cut in front of him and made a simple, running catch. Their chatter turned potential trouble into the routine out it should have been.
“You try to go off the center fielder, what he’s going to do,” Harper said. “He’s the leader out there, and everyone knows that. Just trying to see what he’s going to do, how he communicates, is always good for everybody. . . . He’s got pretty good speed. As many balls as he wants to go get, he can have.”
Span may take priority during plays, but before it, Harper and Span agree Werth is in charge. First base coach Tony Tarasco, who also oversees outfielders, has so far mixed the times when he aligns the outfield and when he simply allows Werth to make the decision.
“Even though I’m the center fielder, he’s really the captain out there,” Span said. “He has the most experience out of the three of us out there. He’s constantly positioning me and Bryce. If I see something, I’ll let him know. But I’m looking at him.”
Werth has less physical ability than Span and Harper at this stage of his career; FanGraphs’ ultimate zone rating, a catch-all stat that measures the sum of a player’s defensive contributions, rated Werth as 18.7 runs below an average major league outfielder over the past three seasons. Scouts and coaches disagree, citing his ability to diagnose situations and make quick jumps.
“He’s maybe not recognized for it, but he’s a very smart defender,” Tarasco said. “He sees things happen before they actually evolve.”
The Nationals have 10 more spring games before their outfield takes the field together in a game that matters, 10 more chances for the best outfield they’ve had to learn each other. It helps that they like one another. Werth helped mentor Harper last season, and Span and Harper are separated by just two lockers in the clubhouse.
Over the weekend, a reporter asked Harper about playing next to Span. “I hate playing with him,” he said, knowing Span was in earshot. Span glanced over and smiled, and Harper burst into laughter.
“They respect one another, and they listen to one another,” Tarasco said. “It’s nice to see them jelling the way they’ve been jelling.”