The thought process behind the Washington Nationals’ strategy for choosing their bench players can be detected in some unusual places, such as the top of Alex Cora’s head when he removes his cap. It is mostly barren, flecks of gray dominating what hair remains. Cora, 35, sat Sunday at a major league locker, a place not always assured for him last season, inside the Nationals clubhouse. He understands, like the rest of the players the Nationals chose as reserves, why he is there.
“I’m not the most talented player,” Cora said. “But to play 12 years in the big leagues, there’s something good about me.”
This offseason, the Nationals constructed their bench with concerns beyond sheer production in mind. They could have acquired reserves with comparable — or even more — talent to populate their bench. They focused on veteran players who would both accept their roles and foster a clubhouse climate in which young, core pieces of their future, mainly infielders Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos, can develop and learn intricacies of major league life before, during and after games.
“To have a strong bench, you need a guy that’s been through it,” Nationals front office assistant Davey Johnson said. “He’s been there and done that, has been in the tough situations.”
On days Ramos starts in place of Ivan Rodriguez, so long as the rest of the Nationals’ typical lineup starts, the Nationals’ reserves will be Rodriguez, Cora, Matt Stairs, Laynce Nix and Jerry Hairston. On average, those players are 36 years old, with 11.2 seasons of major league experience.
Late in most players’ careers come two crucial points: one at which management decides they’re no longer everyday players, and a second at which they accept that decision. Last year, the Nationals’ signed players still stuck between those two points. This winter, they identified players who had grown to accept their job. Only Rodriguez, 39, played on an every-day basis last year, and by the final month of 2010, Rodriguez had started alternating games with Ramos, 23.
“We were looking to get some guys who had been in this role before instead of asking them to adapt to the role,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “It might be 80 at-bats; it might be 300 at-bats. Whatever it turns out to be, it’s understood. You’re coming in a particular role. You need not come here if you think otherwise. It’s very important to have people there who get it.”
General Manager Mike Rizzo selected veterans to fit the Nationals’ specific needs, but they do not fit perfectly together. They will not challenge Riggleman with their attitude toward their role. But the composition of the bench will create problems during certain game situations.
Cora, Stairs and Nix all bat left-handed, making Hairston the Nationals’ lone right-handed bench player who is not a catcher. If the Nationals use Hairston in the middle stages of a game as a pinch-hitter, they will be at the mercy of an opposing team’s left-handed reliever. On Saturday, the Atlanta Braves intentionally walked Hairston when he hit in the pitcher’s place in the seventh inning, leaving the Nationals vulnerable to a lefty had they needed a late run. (They eventually won, 6-3.)
The Nationals could use Rodriguez or Ramos to pinch-hit, but teams typically deploy their second catcher only in emergencies, not wanting to risk playing a position player at catcher if injury strikes. Riggleman has toyed with double-switching out Adam LaRoche late in games and playing Rodriguez at first if he needs to use Ramos off the bench as a pinch hitter.
“That’s an issue,” Riggleman said. “There’s just going to be some times when we’ll be left-on-left. That’s not to say we can’t be successful with it. Sometimes, a lefty comes in and walks a left-hander. Sometimes you get locked in a left-hander and you’re okay. There’s no avoiding it.”
One day every spring training, at every team’s complex, players and staff rotate through and pose for a series of pictures — media headshots, baseball card portraits, that kind of thing. This February, when Stairs, a pinch-hitting specialist, walked toward one station, the photographer saw a bald 43-year-old with a gray goatee.
“Right this way, Coach,” he said.
Stairs laughed off the mistake, which held a kernel of truth. The Nationals want and expect Stairs to deliver in crucial moments, for Hairston to provide the same versatility and athleticism he gave the San Diego Padres last season, for Nix to provide power off the bench, for Cora to play flawless defense when called upon. But the veterans also realize part of their mission in Washington is to impart what they have learned.
“That’s the nature of the game,” Hairston said. “It’s up to you to make sure if something happens or if you see something, it’s our job to let the young guy know how they can correct it.”
Said Cora: “The last few years, I think that’s part of what we bring to the table. That’s something we understand. For us to be better, we need to do more than just go out there and produce.”