Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Chris Duncan is hoping to make the roster as first baseman/corner outfielder.
There are, plain and simple, some really tough decisions facing the Nats at the end of the month. There are a lot of different ways Mike Rizzo and Co. could go with this thing.
Really, there are only two guarantees on what figures to be a five-man bench: Willie Harris as a super-utilityman and Wil Nieves as the backup catcher. After that, things get complicated.
The best way to break this down, I believe, is by position. The way I see it, there are three other bench positions the Nats need to fill: backup outfielder, backup middle infielder and backup corner guy. So let's dissect each position...
Obviously, Harris will see some significant time in left and center fields (in addition to second and maybe third bases). But the Nats would like to have a true fourth or fifth outfielder who can play all three positions. In that regard, there are three candidates for that spot: Justin Maxwell, Roger Bernadina and Willy Taveras.
Of the three, Maxwell is the most-talented and has the highest ceiling. But he also struggles to produce at the plate with any consistency, and we've seen that again this spring (currently batting .158, though he's drawn seven walks). Defensively, he's gifted enough to play any of the three positions, and play any of them well. So that's a plus. There are some in the organization, though, who feel he's best-suited to play every day at Syracuse and shouldn't be in the majors unless he's going to get regular at-bats.
Bernadina is also gifted defensively, and he's a speed demon on the bases. He doesn't have Maxwell's pop, but he's an adept bunter and a guy who can ignite a rally. Like Maxwell, injuries have derailed his career, but if he can stay healthy he could be a valuable commodity off the bench.
Taveras is the veteran of the group, a seasoned major leaguer who has led the league in stolen bases before. He's one of the fastest guys in baseball, and a slick defender who can track down balls to the deepest gaps of the park with ease. The problem: He doesn't get on base enough to really take advantage of his speed, and he provides zero power.
Who makes it? This is going to be a really tough call, and it will probably be one of the last decisions made at the end of camp. For now, let's say Maxwell gets the nod, with Jim Riggleman trying to find ways to get him into the lineup twice a week to keep him fresh.
BACKUP MIDDLE INFIELDER
This one's pretty simple: It comes down to Alberto Gonzalez or Eric Bruntlett. (I suppose Pete Orr could be in the mix, too. But Orr doesn't play shortstop, and that's something this team needs.)
We've seen what there is to see out of Gonzalez. He's an OK defensive middle infielder who provides very little at the plate. Guys like him are a dime a dozen out there.
Bruntlett, meanwhile, has some nice experience as a key member of postseason squads in Houston and Philadelphia. He doesn't hit much at all (career .231 average, though he's 4-for-14 with a homer this spring) but offense isn't the key to this position. He's a versatile defender who can play shortstop, second base and even the outfield, which is an advantage over Gonzalez.
Who makes it? Bruntlett seems like the obvious choice over Gonzalez, who is out of options but might be able to pass through waivers unclaimed. Even if Gonzalez doesn't clear, the Nats wouldn't be losing much from their system. With Ian Desmond likely to be the shortstop at Syracuse (unless he somehow beats out Cristian Guzman for the job in D.C.) and Danny Espinosa the shortstop at Harrisburg, Gonzo's services aren't required any more.
BACKUP CORNER GUY
Here's where it gets tricky. The Nationals have two guys in Mike Morse and Chris Duncan who are identical players in many ways. Each provides some nice punch at the plate. Each is capable of playing first base and the corner outfield positions, though defense is not a strength for either guy. The only difference between them is that Morse bats right-handed and Duncan bats left-handed.
Common logic suggests only one of them can make it, but Riggleman admitted the other day there is a scenario in which both Morse and Duncan are on the roster. It would require some finagling elsewhere (perhaps not keeping a true backup outfielder and trusting that job to the combination of Harris, Bruntlett and these two) but it is possible.
The decision, then, comes down to what the Nats feel is more valuable in this case: Offense or defense. If both Morse and Duncan make it, it will be for offensive reasons, because neither is adept with a glove in hand. If only one makes it, it will be for defensive reasons, because the club feels the need to have a sure-handed outfielder capable of taking over for Josh Willingham, Nyjer Morgan or Elijah Dukes at any time.
Who makes it? Morse has been fabulous at the plate this spring (two homers, seven RBI) and has actually shown he can hit .300 at the big-league level in spurts. He makes it. Duncan (2-for-18) has not looked comfortable at the plate or in the field so far. He's still got time to turn it around and force the Nats' hand. But if the decision was made today, he wouldn't be making the trip to Washington.