This winter, the Washington Nationals made their priority clear: to acquire the leadoff hitter they’d long felt they needed at the potential expense of one of the power bats crucial to their rise to the top of the National League East. They wanted Denard Span, his career .358 on-base percentage and smooth center field defense, even if it meant Michael Morse could end up a slugger without a position if Adam LaRoche re-signed. LaRoche returned, and the Nationals then traded away home runs for defense and speed.
With fan favorite Morse off to a torrid start with the Seattle Mariners, smashing five home runs in seven games, some may be yearning for last season’s power lineup that hit 194 home runs, the most since baseball returned to Washington in 2005. Time will reveal whether the Nationals made the right decision, but a week into the season they have already shown glimpses of how they could make up for the loss of Morse.
“The younger guys are becoming better hitters,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I’d much rather have a better hitter than a long ball. You do more damage when you’re a quality hitter and get on base and keep the line moving.”
Wilson Ramos, a better power hitter than any of the Nationals’ catchers last season, is back from a major knee injury last May. Jayson Werth, an atypical but effective leadoff hitter when he returned last August from a broken wrist, is pushed lower in the lineup with Span in the fold. Ryan Zimmerman’s shoulder is clean after offseason surgery. Ian Desmond enjoyed a breakout year in his third full major league season and Danny Espinosa, the Nationals hope, is on the cusp of his own advent.
“And of course you got Bryce, who could easily put up MVP numbers,” LaRoche said of Bryce Harper, 20, who is playing his first full season in the majors. “It’s a little hard not to think that after the first two swings of the season.”
Morse, who has one year remaining on his contract and will make $6.75 million this season, has some of the best power in the majors when healthy. In 2011, he carried the Nationals’ offense by clubbing 31 home runs, enough to earn fringe MVP votes. He produced 67 home runs over four injury-shortened seasons with the Nationals, including 18 last season in 102 games while playing left field. But the Nationals coveted Span’s range and glove. And they pursued LaRoche, who signed a two-year, $24 million contract in January, because of his left-handed power bat and slick glove at first base.
“We know Michael Morse is a good power hitter and at any moment can change the game,” Ramos said. “But we have to understand that this team needed a natural leadoff hitter.”
With Span and LaRoche in the fold, the Nationals’ lineup alternates left-handed and right-handed bats from top to bottom. Left-handed Harper is behind Span and Werth, both successful at getting on base. Harper, who has already hit three home runs, is followed by right-handed Zimmerman, who has five career 20-home run seasons to his name.
“The whole point is to make it harder for the other team to match up,” Zimmerman said. “If they bring in a lefty, then I’ll get to face a lefty. Or if they bring in a righty, those guys will face a righty. It’s the right thing to do and it makes sense.”
Last season’s leadoff hitters combined for a .325 on-base percentage (18th best in the majors) and scored 98 runs (tied for 15th), in large part because Werth reached base at a .388 clip over the 38 games as a leadoff hitter. If Span reaches base at his career percentage of .358, the Nationals’ on-base percentage from their leadoff spot would have ranked fourth in the majors. Through his first six games, Span has drawn seven walks.
With Span atop the lineup, the Nationals might also be able to avoid the feast-or-famine nature of power hitting. Maybe they can scratch out a run with a Span walk, then perhaps a stolen base, and a single. Werth, a veteran $126 million hitter who averaged 27 home runs between 2008 and 2011, is now somewhat freed from the main duty of taking pitches and working pitchers to get on base.
“Other than a handful of power hitters in the league, most of your power guys are a little bit inconsistent,” LaRoche said. “And if all those guys happen to be off for a few days, you don’t have a whole lot to fall back on.”
One of the biggest factors in replacing Morse’s power could be the presence of Ramos. Nationals catchers posted a combined .659 on-base plus slugging percentage last season, eighth worst in the majors. Ramos, who has already homered twice in 12 plate appearances this season, provides more power than Kurt Suzuki, Jesus Flores and the group of backup catchers last season. In his best season, Ramos hit 15 home runs in 2011. Suzuki thrived once he tweaked his swing after arriving in Washington in August and hit five home runs in 164 plate appearances.
“As a whole, the lineup’s a lot deeper and tougher to pitch to,” Zimmerman said. “I wish we could have worked out a way to have Denard and Mike in there, of course. But it’s tough. You can’t keep everyone all the time, I guess is the best way to put it. I think with the depth, the length of the lineup, and some guys being healthy all year, I think we have a good shot to score more runs than we did last year.”
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.
When: 7:05 p.m. at Nationals Park.