July 1, 2014
The Nationals' Non-Problem
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.
If the Nats decide that Zimmerman’s tendency to throw the ball away is too great a liability, or that his stated preference for the outfield is of paramount importance, they can leave him in left, start Espinosa and Anthony Rendon at second and third, respectively, stick Harper in center, and bench Span. That way, if anyone is unhappy, it’s a guy who might be on his way out at the end of the year. Harper clearly prefers that alignment (and evidently doesn’t realize—or doesn’t care—that questioning Williams’ lineup decisions won’t endear him to his manager any more than failing to hustle on an all-but-certain out).
Either way, the Nats will be sitting someone who could start for most teams, but that’s not an awful outcome (unless you’re the guy who gets benched). If the 2014 Nats have had a weakness, it’s the same one they had last season: an unproductive bench. With Espinosa and Span in the lineup, the Nats have Nate McLouth, Scott Hairston, and Kevin Frandsen in reserve. Frandsen isn’t the defender that Espinosa is, and Span is a better all-around outfield option than McLouth. When one of their starters sits, the Nats’ bench gets better.
The really good news for the Nats (and especially for Espinosa and Span) is that their players offer a lot of defensive flexibility. Harper and Span can play all three outfield positions. Rendon can play second and third. Zimmerman can play left, third, and first. Espinosa can play second and short. As a result, if anyone in the lineup (save for catcher Wilson Ramos) gets hurt, someone else can slide into his spot, the rest of the roster can rearrange itself accordingly, and the “too many players” problem disappears.
So how likely is it that someone(s) will get hurt between now and the end of the season? Last month, Robert Arthur wrote about the factors that lead to position-player injuries, and as part of his research, he came up with a simple injury prediction model based on days lost to injury from 2011–13 and player age. Here’s what the model predicted in 2014 for the eight Nationals who are currently competing for playing time, with prorated rest-of-season projections for the Nats’ remaining 80 games in the rightmost column:
Robert’s model projects these eight players to lose 97 games to injury between now and the end of the year, without any upward revision because of the ailments some of these players have suffered so far. (Said Harper: “If I hurt it, I hurt it. If I blow it out, I blow it out…sliding headfirst is what I’m comfortable doing and I’m going to keep doing it.”) Injury projections are extremely imprecise, but that table gives you some sense of how unlikely it is that the Nats’ roster will remain overstocked for the rest of the season. And it doesn’t even include routine days off, which Williams would want to work in even if he didn’t have extra incentive to get bench guys into the game.
So yes, for now, the Nats have nine players for eight positions, and the odd man out’s ego will need some massaging. That’s why teams employ former players like Williams, who’ve been on the other end of similar situations and know how to take away playing time with a minimum of fuss. (As Span said of Williams, “He's not that far removed from the game, so I trust that he's going to do what he thinks is best.") Before long, though, it’s likely that Williams won’t have any difficult decisions to make. The Nats have too many moving parts for one (or two or three) of them not to need servicing at some point over the rest of the season, and all of them have obvious substitutes. So while “What will Washington do?” is a fair question to ask, it’s also one for which “wait and see” is a perfectly acceptable answer.