How the Nats 2014 Bench Should be Constructed
I am going to start off by mentioning that these are the types of posts that can turn bloggers bad. Laying out a way to build a team and then getting stuck in that way can lead to undue criticism of a GM when they then go out and build the team in a different way. Team building is a lot like cat skinning in the fact that there is more than one way to do it. So while this is how I would try to construct my bench if I were a GM, I am not and there is probably a good reason for that.
If I were in charge of putting together the Nats bench there would be a couple things I would focus on as weaknesses from the 2012 bench. The first one is obvious: the Nats bench couldn't hit. Most of the problem came from the left side as both Tracy and Bernadina were awful, but both Moore and Lombardozzi struggled as well. Lombardozzi, as a switch hitter, can be counted as struggling from the left and right. Scott Hairston provided some better production from the right side and while his overall .224/.246/.379 batting line doesn't look good, his .271/.294/.458 line against left handed pitching is acceptable from a bench player and better than anything that anyone else provided.
Fortunately, Hairston is the only one remaining under contract. Lombardozzi and Moore are still under team control but both have options to the minors and should start 2014 there. The overall impact of the Nats poor bench was a -3.1 combined fWAR for Moore, Lombardozzi, Tracy, Suzuki, and Bernadina. Three more wins wouldn't have gotten the Nationals in the playoffs, but it would have been closer than where they finished and that is with a replacement bench. A good bench would have gone a bit into the positive and would have gotten them to the playoffs.
As mentioned before the overall hitting of the Nats bench was the biggest issue. Washington Nationals pinch hitters hit .208/.250/.358 compared to the NL average of .221/.288/.333. The even larger issue with the bench is how they hit as starters. During the month of May Ramos, Harper, Werth, and Zimmerman all spent time on the DL, and for that month Roger Bernadina was the best of the bench bats with a .605 OPS.
The Nats bench in 2013 was putrid and it has to improve for 2014. If I were in charge the first player I would go after wouldn't be an obvious one. Another weakness of the Nats bench was defense. Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, and Chad Tracy were all negative in the defensive component of fWAR and while, inexplicably, positive Roger Bernadina is known to take some strange routes to the baseball. So not only was the Nats bench not providing offense they weren't providing defense either. Look back up at the previous paragraph and check those slash lines. Nats pinch hitters weren't that far off from the league average when it came to hitting. It was a negative but by providing no value through defense they made themselves an even more substantial negative, especially when they had to fill in full time due to injuries.
Think for a second about the construction of the Nats bench by defensive position. Both Tracy and Moore are DH types with no real defensive position, Scott Hairston is a back-up corner outfielder, Bernadina was a back-up corner outfielder, and Lombardozzi is a back-up second baseman that they sometimes stuck in a corner outfield. When the Nats needed to give Span a day off Harper would shift to center and when Desmond needed a day off the starting second baseman would switch to short. So when the Nats had their back-ups in not only was the offense weaker, but so was the defense, and that is why I would start my bench construction with a true utility player. There are a number of these guys available this off-season and this may be where the Nats should use the MiLB deal to bring in a multitude of them, but if I were going to offer one defensive player a major league contract it would be Brendan Ryan.
Brendan Ryan is one of the best defensive players in baseball, and nearly all of his value is derived from his ability to play defense. He has three seasons of 10+ UZR at shortstop and an overall career UZR/150 of 11.7. Early in his career with the Cardinals he played three infield positions and both corner outfield spots. The only reason he was ever a starting shortstop in the major leagues is that the Mariners decided that they were going to try to win with only defense. He is a career .619 OPS hitter and should only be used as a pinch hitter deep in extra innings. It would be better to use some pitchers as pinch hitters before him, but that wouldn't be his purpose on the bench. He would be able to provide excellent infield defense at three positions and could spell Zimmerman, Desmond, and Rendon whenever they needed a day off. When starting his value would come by improving the overall defense on the field which would soften the offensive drop off instead of making it worse, as the 2013 bench did. If not Brendan Ryan then some other names to watch here would be guys like Willie Bloomquist or Nick Punto as they can provide somewhat close to the same thing, but when picking my dream defensive utility player I am going to pick the best.
Next up is another position that is mainly thought of as a defensive first position. Traditionally the back-up catcher is more often the catch and throw guy while the starter is the stronger offensive player. As Wilson Ramos has struggled with injuries over the past two seasons it is my opinion that the Nationals shouldn't go with the traditional catch and throw guy and should get someone that can provide some offense as well. Carlos Ruiz would be my number one choice here, but it is likely that there is a starting job out there for him and so having him as the Nats back-up is a bit too much of a pipe dream. Number two on the list is also a current NL East catcher and one with a fair amount of pop, for a catcher, John Buck. For his career Buck has hit .234/.301/.400 and if he wasn't a catcher no one would even mention him as a starter, but he always seems to end up in that role. He also has a positive defensive ranking over the past four seasons and can provide both power and defense when spelling Ramos. The only question with Buck is if he is willing to take a back-up role or if he will go to a second division team in order to start every day. If he isn't willing to take a back-up role then other catchers on the market this off-season that might are guys like Geovany Soto and Yorvit Torrealba.
So far we have the defensive utility player in Brendan Ryan, back-up catcher in John Buck, and the hold over Scott Hairston for right handed pop. That leaves us needing a left handed power hitter to replace Chad Tracy and a fourth outfielder. For the left handed power hitter I am going to go with a player formally of this region, Luke Scott. Scott is a player that has attracted some controversy in his career, but never in the clubhouse and teammates have nothing but good things to say about him. As far as the important part his hitting against right handed pitching is excellent with a career batting line of .266/.351/.494. Scott wouldn't provide much in the way of defense and can really only serve as a back-up at first base. But that isn't his job, and that is why you have a utility player and fourth outfielder. Those are the two players that give the starters days off. Luke Scott and Scott Hairston would be the pinch hitters. They would occasionally get starts when multiple everyday guys needed days off or due to injuries, but their main purpose would be to pinch hit. Which works perfectly as the average NL team used a pinch hitter for 1.5 plate appearances a game.
The final spot is fourth outfielder and because the Nationals are already sacrificing one hitter to have the super defensive sub they can't do it here. They need a fourth outfielder that can provide some offensive value and is close to a major league starter. In my ultimate pipe dream world the Nats would go with a four man outfield rotation instead of a fourth outfielder and end up with either Curtis Granderson or Carlos Beltran for this spot, but as that is too much of a dream for the dream bench we're going to get a little closer to reality and go with former Washington Nationals outfielder David DeJesus. DeJesus was barely with the Nationals before being traded to the Rays for a minor league pitcher, but while here he represented what the Nats bench had been missing all season.
Once a proven major league player who had been a starter, but was now on the downturn of his career. That is the type of player a bench should be made out of on a contending team, and it is going to cost a little more than a MiLB deal or a $1 or $2 million deal. DeJesus currently has an option for $7.5 million for next season and the Rays are unlikely to pick it up. DeJesus for his career has hit .279/.353/.417 and can play all three outfield positions. DeJesus is better against right handed pitching than left handed pitching, but in those cases where a manger makes a change to face him Hairston can be brought in to face the lefty. DeJesus' main purpose would be to get a start a week at all three outfield positions and help keep Harper, Span, and Werth fresh and to fill in when any of the three get injured.
To review. In my dream world the Nats bench has a super utility plus-plus defender who will never pinch hit and bat eighth every time they have to start, but can play three infield positions and possibly the corner outfield positions all while providing well above average defense, a right handed power hitter to take care of left handed reliever and to get starts for either Span or Harper against extra tough left handers, a left handed power hitter that should rarely appear in the field but can absolutely mash right handed pitching which would come in handy late in a game, a back-up catcher that provides good defense and occasional pop which could be handy if the new manager isn't afraid of pinch hitting a back-up catcher, and finally a fourth outfielder that isn't an offensive waste and can play all three outfield positions. This is accomplished by having a bench of free agents Brendan Ryan, John Buck, Luke Scott, and David DeJesus to go with hold over Scott Hairston. That both sounds and looks like a strong bench and one that would be a positive for the 2014 Nats. I am certain it won't turn out that way but I do expect to hear the Nats rumored to be in on a couple of those names and wouldn't be surprised if Rizzo and the next manager follow the blueprint I laid out. Or Rizzo could go in a completely different direction, but roster building is cat skinning, and while I like my way because it is my way it isn't the only way.