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July 1, 2014

Overthinking It

The Nationals' Non-Problem

by Ben Lindbergh


You’d think Bryce Harper’s comeback from his latest long-term injury would be cause for unbridled celebration, and in some contexts, it has been (see the standing ovation Harper received from the fans at Nationals Park before his first plate appearance on Monday). However, the 21-year-old outfielder’s return also been cause for consternation. Harper’s presence, coupled with Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing problems from third, have given the Nats more qualified position players than they have open positions, which has made everyone around the team wonder: Where will they put their surplus player(s)?

Most teams suffer from the opposite issue—too few productive players—so the Nationals’ quandary is an example of the proverbial “good problem to have.” Still, it seems as though there’s no easy answer, and so the discussion has staying power. Twice last month, two weeks apart, I appeared on MLB Network’s MLB Now; both times, Washington’s positional logjam was a featured topic, and both times, the panel was split over what manager Matt Williams should do. The discourse in print hasn’t been much more decisive.

There are a few reasons why Washington’s cluttered depth chart has been subjected to such scrutiny. The situation concerns a team that’s tied for first place in the loss column, and it involves Harper, who’s inherently interesting. It stems in part from the strange circumstances surrounding Zimmerman, the original face of the franchise and a former slick-fielding third baseman whose shoulder and/or psychological issues have rendered his arm unreliable. And perhaps most importantly, the problem has persisted because the easy ways out aren’t available. There’s no raw rookie to bump back down to the minors or replacement player to release or banish to the bench. Whoever takes a seat is bound to be an established veteran, and longtime major leaguers typically don’t take too kindly to part-time play, particularly for reasons largely unrelated to their own performance. Williams’ lineup card has become a Rubik’s Cube that not even Brian Dozier could solve.

The Nats could consider trading someone to free up some space—impending free agents Adam LaRoche or Denard Span, for instance, or Danny Espinosa—but in case you couldn’t tell from the fact that their problem is having too many good players, they don’t have any holes that scream for significant upgrades. Another position player is the last thing they need, and both their bullpen and their rotation have the best FIPs in baseball. (Again, good problem.)

For now, the Nats can take one of two approaches. If they’re confident that Zimmerman can make the throw from third, they can play him there, start Harper in left, and bench Espinosa. If Zimmerman were certainly of sound arm, then moving him back to his former position and subtracting the worst bat from the lineup would probably be the team’s best bet. Even as his situation stands, that’s the solution that Williams seems to favor, or at least the one he went with on Monday. Zimmerman, in his first game at third since April 12, wasn’t tested by the kind of routine play that seems to trip him up, but he did start a slick double play.

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Baseball Therapy: Do S... (07/01)
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