Monday, March 15, 2010

Breaking down the bench

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Chris Duncan is hoping to make the roster as first baseman/corner outfielder.
VIERA, Fla. -- I've been meaning to post a breakdown of the competition for spots on the Nationals bench for a week now but kept getting sidetracked by other news. Thanks to the spring's first night game -- 7:05 p.m. tonight against the Braves -- I've finally got a moment to catch my breath and delve into this subject.

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.

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.

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.


Andrew said...

This one's pretty simple: It comes down to Alberto Gonzalez or Eric Bruntlett.

Honestly, I didn't see this coming although I like your analysis.

Anonymous said...

i'd prefer adam kennedy or guzman for backup middle infielder.


jcville said...

OK, but what if Desmond forces his way onto the roster as starting SS? Then Guzman's on the bench -- I guess replacing Bruntlett/AG? No big loss there, I suppose.

In fact, I like Desmond as a Zobrist-type who's in the lineup every day for his bat, but at different positions. His bat *and* glove would seem to play at both middle infield positions better than either of the other 2 backup options. Plus he can play outfield.

markfd said...

Mark, thanks for the update, you read my mind great insight as you are seeing the guys everyday. For 3 spots I think two of your picks are dead on Bruntlett and Morse, but I think the outfield spot is too close to call but I would like to see Rog get the spot. My question is WHY are we going to carry 12 pitchers north? I think we should carry 11 pitchers and 6 bench slots which gives Riggs more versatility.

Rich said...


I think it's because our pitching is stinking it up and can't be relied on...

Positively Half St. said...

Excellent post. I personally don't need to see any more Alberto Gonzalez. I would take Bernadina over Maxwell, and it is hard to pass on Morse. I really wanted Duncan to show he is back offensively, and he certainly has not done that yet.

Section 222 said...

I'm definitely in the "Desmond should play every day in Syracuse, if he doesn't make the team as the starting shortstop" camp. But he's hitting better than either Bernadina or Maxwell, and since Harris can play both second and third, he could take MI infielder slot, while also filling in in the outfield. That would allow them to keep both Morse and Duncan.

That's a pretty decent hitting bench if Duncan can find his batting eye. Super Willie and Morse can be the late inning defensive replacements in LF and 1B. It sure would be nice to send up pinch hitters late in the game who have some pop and batting averages above the Mendoza line.

Anonymous said...

What are the chances of a trade involving Guzman? Probably slim but if you package him with Maxwell or Bernardina?

Doc said...

Mark your experience with the team says that Duncan and Morse are equals on defense. Wouldn't Morse have the edge on defense, over Duncan, with all his past work in the middle infield? He's got to better than Duncan, doesn't he?

Anonymous said...

They should trade Guzman now for whatever they can get. He's not part of the long-term solution. Desmond could be, and it's worth a season-long tryout to determine whether he is the shortstop of the future. Guzman would likely make a sullen bench player, subtracting more than he adds. The Nats would doubtless have to swallow part of his salary to move him, but that's the sort of financial sacrifice the club has to be willing to make if it is to become a winner.

Steve M. said...

The mistake this team and others make is not putting the best 8 in the field because of high salaried player trumps guy at the league minimum. If Desmond is better than Guzy, then Desmond has to be the SS and Guzy can be the able backup at $8 mill a year.

Otherwise, I echo the thoughts here:
Positively Half St. said...
Excellent post. I personally don't need to see any more Alberto Gonzalez. I would take Bernadina over Maxwell, and it is hard to pass on Morse. I really wanted Duncan to show he is back offensively, and he certainly has not done that yet.

BaseballinDC said...

Anon 10:29,

Guzman and Kennedy are starting - don't know who else you'd have in mind for those roles.

My question is who they're going to start in right field? Dukes? Really?

SpringfieldFan said...

After seeing Saturday's game in person, I would want to see a LOT of improvement in Duncan's fielding at 1st before I could get excited about having him on the 25-man. As much as I like Desmond offensively, I quake at the thought of a lot of Desmond-Duncan 6-3 attempts.

How much playing time has Taveras gotten this spring?

Sunderland said...

1 - Duncan has to go to Syracuse and play everyday and see if he can hit again circa 2006 - 2007. We're not going to find out in ST and we're not going to find out on the bench in DC. Syracuse for at least a couple months.

2 - Harris, Nieves and Morse and locks.

3 - I'd prefer Bernadina, he's just more useful, and let Maxwell play everyday in SYR.

3 - The Guzman / Desmond decision affects the rest.
I'm betting the Nat's leave Guzman at SS everyday and send Desmond to SYR and keep Bruntlett in DC.
I'd prefer Desmond becomes our everyday shortstop, Guzman goes on the 15 days DL until we agree with the Mets how much of his salary we have to eat.
Either way, Bruntlett comes north.

And, I'd say:
Nieves, Harris, Morse, Bernadina, Bruntlett - one of the worst benches in the NL.

Anonymous said...

Why is everyone saying Willie Harris is a lock? Really? A career .246 hitter is a lock to make the team...please!

I would rather see the following happen:

Nieves as backup catcher

Maxwell and Bernadinha as reserve OF (this gives all of our OFers a chance to rest occassionally).

Morse and Bruntlett as reserve IF (they both also can play OF).

Anonymous said...

I think Willie Harris is a lock. He can play IF and OF and is a good pitch hitter. I'll take Willie Harris on my team, any day of the week.

jcville said...

Yeah, roughly .350 OBP the last 3 years while playing all over the diamond. I'd say Willie Harris is extremely valuable as a bench player.

That said, if I was Rizzo, I'd be gauging Willie's trade value. The Orioles come to mind as a team that needs a stopgap 2B and has lots of prospects...

Anonymous said...

Mark, I like your analysis. I just think if they go with 3 righties in Nieves, Bruntlett and Morse they'll probably take Bernadina (who seems to be playing better than Maxwell anyway) to Washington. Just my .02.

peric said...

As jcville said, you have to factor potential trades in. And this week is when GM's start looking around to fill the obvious holes. The Nats are 0-10 what do they have to offer?

Unfortunately, its probably pitching ... Detwiler seems a good candidate right now perhaps?

Be nice to hear Mark's guestimations on trades, where and for what positions they would like be made.

Section 222 said...

No one is going to take Detwiler while he is injured. And no one is going to give up anything of value for Guzman, or for any of our bench contenders. Sorry to say this, but if Rizzo wants to trade for another established starter, he's going to have to give up Willingham, Dunn, or Dukes, or a few of our young starters. That seems highly unlikely at this point.

Mark Zuckerman said...

Willie Harris is making a guaranteed $1.5 million this year. Unless he's traded, he's on the roster.

Maxwell-Bernadina-Taveras really is a toss-up at this point; any of the three could still win the job. If I had to guess someone today, I'd take Maxwell, but he's far from a lock.

As for the Morse-Duncan fielding debate ... Morse is indeed a better defensive player at first base (and probably in the outfield), plus he can play third base in a pinch. But he's not going to make this team because of defense. He's going to make it because of his bat.

Anonymous said...

Mark, If the Lerners were to eat say $6 or $7 mil of Guzman's contract(I know its a pipe dream but still), do you believe they would be able to trade him even if it was just for a bag of balls to clear room for Desmond?

Doc said...

The Nats could do with Guzman, what Toronto did with Alex Rios--all $80 million of him. Give him away!

Anonymous said...

Guzman on the bench would be poison. Unfortunately he's guaranteed big money and is just not a very good shortstop anymore. Between him and Willingham, they make a fragile pitching staff look even worse then they are.Maxwell is running out of time to show that he belongs in the majors. He plays better then average "D" at all three OF positions, but you need more consistency at the plate then he's shown, plus his whole career, beginning at Univ. of MD has been one injury after another. Harris would be my general back- up utility guy. Bernadina would get my nod over Max. As to Tavares, it doesn't take his speed to go back to the dugout from the batter's box. The guy just doesn't hit, but I love his glove. Morse and Duncan? Based on this spring Morse gets the nod.
Love your blog, Mark

JCA said...

Apologies, Mark. I posted something like this over at WNFF today and will pull most of it.

How much of a given is it that they go 13 position players and 12 pitchers through most of April? They need a 5th starter once before 4/17 - 18. If they go with a 6 man bench, they can pencil in Stammen for the start on 4/10 or 11, and if they have to use him as a long guy on the 7th, 8th, or 9th, can either send him down and call up another of the "Fungible Fourth / Fifth" (FFF) brigade of starters who has options for that start and either send Stammen down or the extra OF (JMax/Bernardina).

Once they hit the stretch of 15 games in 15 days, 4/14 on, they may need to give a 5th starter the ball 2 -3 times, depending on rain. They could continue juggling the 12th pitcher / extra OF among guys with options and keep both Duncan and Morse. Duncan gives them lefty pop off the bench, which is nice when your corner OFs are right handed.

After 4/28, they have 2 off days surrounding the Marlins series to reshuffle the rotation if they want. Then there is a long series of days in a row. My main point is with that they could operate most of the time with a 6 man bench if they swing in and out the FFF Brigade members when one gets gassed in relief and the 5th starter slot is up.

Post a Comment