With Adam LaRoche now officially back for 2013 (and beyond), the Nationals' entire starting lineup is now set.
Or, more accurately, the names who will comprise the Nationals' entire starting lineup are now set. The actual order in which they'll step to the plate still must be determined.
There are a number of ways Davey Johnson could choose to approach this venture, with several of his regulars capable of hitting in a variety of lineup slots.
This much we do know: The Nationals will have a new leadoff man in 2013, with Denard Span taking that role away from Jayson Werth, who performed admirably over the season's final two months but doesn't fit the traditional mold of a leadoff hitter.
Span's acquisition gives the Nationals a speedster who reaches base at a high clip, the classic table setter who can thus be driven in by the big boys behind him in the lineup. But who should hit directly behind the club's new center fielder?
Bryce Harper proved quite a dynamic force as a No. 2 hitter last season, offering up both power and speed in a manner not typically found from someone batting that high in a lineup. Johnson could choose to keep his 20-year-old star in that same position, a decision that would likely leave Ryan Zimmerman in his traditional No. 3 spot, with LaRoche returning to his cleanup and then Werth and Ian Desmond following as the Nos. 5 and 6 hitters (in one order or the other).
That alignment, though, might not play to the Nationals' strengths as well as another. It would put Werth in a run-producing slot as opposed to a run-scoring slot. And it would probably limit Harper's RBI opportunities just as he appears poised to take his game to new heights in his second big-league season.
Johnson, for what it's worth, seemed to hint last month he would be moving Harper down into a more traditional power position. In retelling a conversation he had with the cocksure outfielder, the veteran manager explained he might hit Harper fourth.
The kid's response: "No, I want to hit third."
That actually would make a lot of sense. Consider the following potential lineup, how it takes advantage of just about everyone's strengths and offers near-perfect balance from each side of the plate...
1. CF Denard Span (L)
2. RF Jayson Werth (R)
3. LF Bryce Harper (L)
4. 3B Ryan Zimmerman (R)
5. 1B Adam LaRoche (L)
6. SS Ian Desmond (R)
7. 2B Danny Espinosa (S)
8. C Kurt Suzuki/Wilson Ramos (R)
By hitting Werth second, the Nationals would keep their best on-base hitter near the top of the lineup. Werth would still get opportunities to drive in runs behind Span while also giving Harper and Zimmerman plenty of RBI opportunities by reaching base so much himself.
And if Span happened to make the final out of a previous inning, the Nationals would still essentially be sending a leadoff hitter to the plate to open the next frame, with the same Werth-Harper-Zimmerman trio that was so successful late last season all due to come to bat.
Harper seems destined to hit third or fourth over the bulk of his career, his power numbers likely to explode as he matures physically and mentally with each passing day in the big leagues. And even if he's still a bit raw to take on such an important responsibility at age 20, he'll have two veteran, quality hitters sandwiched around him in Werth and Zimmerman, offering plenty of protection.
Zimmerman has been the Nationals' No. 3 hitter almost every day for the last seven seasons. But a shift to the cleanup spot would by no means hinder his ability to do what he does best: Produce big hits in big spots. You could pretty much pencil him in for at least 100 RBI right now (assuming, of course, good health).
LaRoche would bat fifth in this alignment, some of the pressure he assumed last year as a cleanup hitter taken off his shoulders without reducing his RBI opportunities one bit.
Desmond also would have some pressure taken off him hitting sixth rather than fifth, with the switch-hitting Espinosa right behind him and then whichever catcher is starting batting eighth.
This lineup ensures perfect left-right balance against right-handed pitchers and doesn't give opposing managers the option of summoning a lefty specialist from the bullpen to face more than one batter late in a game.
In short, this appears to be the best lineup for this team at this time. It's got speed and high on-base percentages at the top. It's got some big-time power threats in the middle. And it's got some streaky hitters capable of coming up big at the bottom.
What more could a manager ask for?