VIERA, Fla. -- Willie Harris is conflicted. On one hand, he understands his role with the Nationals is to come off the bench, to serve as a utilityman capable of playing five different positions at a moment's notice. On the other hand, he believes with all his heart he could be an everyday player for this team, and he doesn't understand why nobody's willing to give him that shot.
"I mean, I know I don't even have a chance to win a job," he said, looking around a Nats clubhouse that now includes designated starters at every position in the field. "It kind of takes away the extra momentum, as far as spring training goes. I don't even have a chance."
Does that bother Harris?
"Yeah, it bothers me a little bit," he said. "It tells me a few things. When they don't include your name as far as a competition goes, that means: 1) They either don't think you're good enough, or 2) They think you're really, really good at what you do, being a utility guy. So it can go both ways.
"I look at it like this: They feel like I'm a really good utility guy. And that's the decision they make. You deal with those decisions. And I'm cool with that, as far as my job goes. But on a personal level, it pisses me off, because I want to play. But I'm not the type of guy who goes around saying: 'Hey, give me a shot. Give me a chance.' That's not me. But it irks me to know, on a personal note, you're not even being considered. That's what bothers me."
A veteran of nine big-league seasons now with five different clubs, Harris has long since accepted his place in the game. Once a highly touted second baseman in the Orioles' system, he couldn't produce consistently enough in his early years, then showed an ability to play the outfield with aplomb, convincing GMs and managers across baseball he was best-suited as a utilityman.
And Harris, 31, is fine with that. He really is. He's made a nice living off his versatility, and prior to 2009 earned the first multi-year contract of his career: a two-year, $3 million deal with the Nationals.
But there's also a competitive fire inside this 5-foot-9 pistol from Cairo, Ga., that drives him to want to be better. There's some swagger, too, the kind that comes from the knowledge that whenever he's been called upon by the Nats the last two years, he's delivered more often than not.
"I do accept my role, and I know my role," he said. "But I mean, if you find a utility guy in the game who's happy with being a utility guy, something's wrong with him. Don't think for one minute that I don't want to play. It's in me. I want to play. But I also know my job and I also know what my role is."
For two years, Harris has done whatever Manny Acta or Jim Riggleman asked him to do. Play for weeks at a time in center field. Give someone a day off at second or third base. Pinch-hit in the seventh inning with Washington trailing by a run and needing somebody to get on base and ignite a rally. Take over for Adam Dunn or Josh Willingham in left field with the Nats clinging to a one-run lead in the ninth.
And he's done it well. His batting average (a combined .243 the last two seasons) is nothing special, but his on-base percentage is a sparkling .354, he's produced 62 extra-base hits (including 20 homers) and he's made more than his share of highlight-reel plays in the field.
But during an offseason that saw the Nationals make a concerted effort to shore up their middle infield, Harris' name never came up as a possible answer.
"I don't feel like they even considered me as the second baseman," Harris said. "I don't even know if it came across somebody's mind. I don't even know if they said: 'Hey, we got Willie. Let's give him a chance.' I don't know if that happened. Nobody ever told me it happened."
It didn't. After watching a merry-go-round of unspectacular second basemen -- Anderson Hernandez, Alberto Gonzalez, Ronnie Belliard, Pete Orr, Alex Cintron -- take turns plugging the hole, general manager Mike Rizzo made a strong push to sign free agent Orlando Hudson. When Hudson chose to go to Minnesota, Rizzo immediately settled for 34-year-old Adam Kennedy.
Truth be told, Harris has always been more reliable in the outfield than at second base, and there may not be a team in baseball willing to make him an everyday infielder.
So the Nats will once again try to find ways to squeeze Harris into the lineup on a semi-regular basis, though it's going to be tougher this year compared with the previous two. With Kennedy entrenched at second base, Nyjer Morgan in center field and Willingham in left, it's going to be tough for Riggleman to give Harris the 345 at-bats he's averaged since coming to Washington.
"That's a lot of at-bats for the person who's in that role, but that just shows how important he was to us the last two years," Riggleman said. "It's a challenge for Willie to maintain the quality of at-bats if the at-bats are fewer, but Willie's one of those guys, he just finds his way into the game. We need Willie, and we need to try to keep him sharp. I don't think any team goes into the season saying that guy's going to get 350 at-bats. But if the other guys stay healthy, we've got to get Willie as many games as we can to keep him sharp."
Harris, who admittedly found himself facing the same dilemma entering 2008 and 2009, knows something's bound to happen that opens the door once again. Someone will get hurt. Or someone will get traded. Or maybe he'll be the one dealt to another club.
Until then, the guy who's not valuable enough to start but too valuable to cut loose will keep preparing himself for that moment when his number is called and his chance to make a difference has come.
"When it's in the ninth inning and we're winning by one run, Willie Harris is going to be on the field," Harris said. "That's what I take pride in. That's what gets me going. That's what I like doing. There's nothing better than saving a run for, say, [John] Lannan, who has just thrown eight innings. There's nothing better for me. I love it. Ain't nobody else can do that. ... I'll be on the field, somewhere."