We’re down to just 9 days before the Nationals starting 9 take the field against the Atlanta Braves (tickets still available), and there’s a pretty decent chance a couple of those positions aren’t yet full. The Nationals have been sorting out the position struggles over the last month or so, and there are still a few places with more questions than answers.
Jayson Werth’s arrival in Washington this winter sewed up the right field position quite nicely, and Josh Willingham’s trade to Oakland opened up another slot. Turns out, replacing Willingham has been straight forward. Michael Morse has been flat-out crushing the ball down in Viera, batting a stunning 1.066 OPS, with 5 homers (1st) and 11 RBI (2nd), and playing solid left field. He’s your opening day starter.
That means we’ve got three guys looking for that third outfield position: last year’s everyday CF Nyjer Morgan, new pickup Rick Ankiel, and last year’s (mostly) RF Roger Bernadina. I’m taking dark horse Rick Ankiel to be your starting CF on Opening Day, though, as Nyjer Morgan hasn’t demonstrated a maturity on the basepaths this spring (just 5 for 8 in steals this spring), or in his interactions with other players (he had to be restrained as part of yesterday’s bench-clearing discussion in Jupiter) and fans (Morgan was quick to display the bird to autograph seekers in Viera this spring), which means he could well start the year in AAA Syracuse, as he has a minor league option left. Bernadina’s off-season bulk-up has him edging out Morgan in every capacity, and I think he’s more likely to stay with the club going into Opening Day.
Ankiel runs hot and cold, but when he’s hot, he’s hot, and he’s got the defensive mindset and an absolute cannon from the farthest reaches of the ballpark that makes him my choice to pickup the starting job. Look for Morgan to start with Syracuse, and Bernadina to remain up with the club as a spare.
LF: Mike Morse
CF: Rick Ankiel
RF: Jayson Werth
Spare: Roger Bernadina
The starting infield has long been set at LaRoche, Espinosa, Desmond and Zimmerman, but a fierce battle is pitched between Brian Bixler, formerly of the Pirates’ minor leagues, Alberto Gonzalez, Alex Cora and Jerry Hairston Jr to see which of the three would remain as utility players. The Nats will likely carry 12 pitchers and 13 position players come Opening Day, and with the 4 OF outlined above, and the likelihood of carrying 3 catchers (see below), that means two of those four players aren’t coming to Opening Day. Add in the likely case that Matt Stairs will make the club as a late inning bat, and that means three of those guys aren’t coming.
Bixler has hit well in Spring Training, and that may prove to be his edge, but the minor league options may force the hands of Mike Rizzo, as Gonzalez doesn’t have minor league options, while both Hairston Jr. and Bixler do. If the Nats do decide not to carry 3 catchers on opening Day, Bixler’s numbers are far superior, but it’s possible that Rizzo will go with “baseball man” Hairston instead of the young Bixler to ride the opening day roster.
Let’s not mince words, the utility player position is pretty weak here, and when you’re deciding between Jerry Hairston Jr and Alex Cora, you’re not doing yourself many favors. Of the two, I think you’re likely to send Bixler to Syracuse, and offer Alex Cora his freedom. Matt Stairs makes the club as a pinch hitter that can play first base or in the outfield without embarrassment and you’ve got your swing players.
1B: Adam LaRoche
2B: Danny Espinosa
SS: Ian Desmond
3B: Alberto Gonzalez
Util: Matt Stairs, Jerry Hairston Jr (and maybe Alex Cora)
When the Nationals traded Matt Capps to Minnesota last spring, what they got in return was Wilson Ramos. The young catcher had skyrocketed through the Twins’ system, and earned a place on the 40-man roster for the Nationals in last September’s call-ups. Ramos has hit fairly well this spring in his games, but so has Jesus Flores, who the Nationals had all but left for dead after more than year of injury and rehab. Flores has made the case this spring for serious consideration behind the plate time.
I don’t envy the Nationals their choice. It’s entirely possible that the Nationals could make a last-minute move and deal either of these fine young catchers to a needy team, like perhaps the Houston Astros, who are short a catcher after Jason Castro tore his meniscus this Spring. With both Ramos and Flores hitting well this Spring, either could bring in some much-needed pitching for the club in trade.
Pudge Rodriguez continues to be the top dog, and there’s much he can teach either or both Ramos and Flores. It’s hard to justify carrying three catchers on your opening day roster unless one of them can spend time elsewhere in the field, or if one of them is swinging a particularly hot bat, but neither is so overwhelmingly awesome that those circumstances appear likely. I won’t rule it, though, especially if a trade happens in the first week or so of the season.
C: Pudge Rodriguez
Backup: Wilson Ramos (and maybe also Flores)
Look for more on pitching early next week.