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Free agency primer: Bench players

Nov 8, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT

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With MLB free agency officially underway — don’t get too excited yet, because players typically don’t start signing for several more weeks — we’re taking a broad look at players the Nationals could pursue, based on positions of possible need. We continue today with bench players…

The Nationals’ bench, touted as a real strength on Opening Day, proved to be a major weakness by season’s end. Backup position players hit a combined .207 with a .264 on-base percentage, while the .250 on-base percentage posted by pinch-hitters was the NL’s worst mark.

So, Mike Rizzo will seek to address this area over the winter. Problem is, the Nationals already have Scott Hairston, Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore signed or under team control for at least one more year, so there aren’t many roster openings.

With Chad Tracy gone, the Nationals will need to add at least one left-handed bat to come off the bench. And with that in mind, let’s look at some possible free agents who could fill that role…

ERIC CHAVEZ
It’s been nearly a decade since his Silver Slugger/Gold Glove days in Oakland, but Chavez has reinvented himself as a potent bat off the bench. In 567 plate appearances over the last two seasons with the Yankees and Diamondbacks, he has hit .281 with 25 homers, 81 RBI, a .341 on-base percentage and .829 OPS. No, he can’t play the field anymore, but the Nationals don’t need someone to play first or third base on any kind of regular basis. They just need a good, left-handed bat coming off the bench. Chavez certainly would fit that bill.

BRENNAN BOESCH
An everyday outfielder for the Tigers only two years ago, Boesch has since lost that status. Released by Detroit last winter, he signed with the Yankees but appeared in only 23 games due to a shoulder injury. If healthy, the 28-year-old makes for an intriguing, left-handed, bench bat. This is a guy, after all, with three double-digit homer seasons on his ledger.

KELLY JOHNSON
A starting second baseman for much of his career, Johnson became a jack-of-all-trades this season with the Rays, also appearing at first base, third base and in left field. He’s still got pop from the left side of the plate, having launched 16 homers for Tampa Bay. He could fit into a utility role if the Nationals were interested.

WILLIE BLOOMQUIST
A versatile utilityman, Bloomquist has done it all throughout his career and hit over .300 each of the last two seasons with the Diamondbacks. Two potential problems, though: 1) He’s right-handed, and the Nationals already have Hairston and Moore hitting from that side of the plate, and 2) He doesn’t hit for any power (17 homers in 2,689 career at-bats).

MICHAEL MORSE
Wait, seriously? Well, probably not. As much as the Nationals love the big galoot, they really wouldn’t have much playing time to offer him (barring injury to Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper or Jayson Werth). And Morse, coming off a disastrous season with the Mariners and Orioles, likely wants to re-establish his value by signing with somebody who will offer him a chance to play every day. The Nats can’t offer that, so this is probably a pipe dream. But it would make for one interesting reunion, wouldn’t it?

  1. nats128 - Nov 8, 2013 at 7:31 AM

    Nice list of names but where is a catcher on the list?

    Also, seemingly pre-reserving spots on the bench already to players who just aren’t good is a problem. Hairston, Lombo, Moore, Solano, etc.

    Per Mark on Bloomquist: “He’s right-handed, and the Nationals already have Hairston and Moore hitting from that side of the plate,”

    I just dont think NL clubs can go with a 5 man bench and reserve 1 spot for a catcher and use 1 to 2 remaining spots on players like Stairs, Tracy or Scott Hairston.

    • Faraz Shaikh - Nov 8, 2013 at 8:51 AM

      totally forgot about catchers. buck, molina, olivo, etc are all available.

      • Mark Zuckerman - Nov 8, 2013 at 9:30 AM

        I’ll have catchers tomorrow as their own category.

  2. Faraz Shaikh - Nov 8, 2013 at 7:32 AM

    eric chavez and kelly johnson, given that johnson can log some time in OF.

    • sjm308 - Nov 8, 2013 at 7:54 AM

      I like those two as well and since Johnson is younger, he would be my first choice. Also agree with N128 that we should not be locked into last years bench group, especially Hairston, just because they are either signed or young. I also wanted to let whoever wrote about Williams and his ability to work with Ryan at 3rd in the last post that I think that will be the key to how long Zimmerman stays at 3rd. If Zimm is healed and still has problems then I think Williams might pull the trigger on that move quicker than we think. If what he said about defense on his first day is true (& I think it is), he won’t suffer through what we had to last year.

      • Joe Seamhead - Nov 8, 2013 at 8:50 AM

        As to the bench, I would like to see a player that not only can pinch hit and give an occasional spell as a defender, but also wouldn’t mind seeing a speedster available to pinch run. Lombo is a pretty smart baserunner,but pretty slow afoot. Hairston, Moore, and Solano would generally be no better then the guy they might go in to run for.

        I thought Ryan Zimmerman was obviously still recovering from his off season procedures for much of last season, but looked pretty good at the end of the season. Moving him now creates more problems then it would solve. If you move him to 1st, move Rendon to 3rd, and put Who, What ,When, or Where on 2nd, you effectively are weakening three positions defensively. Sure, RZ could play the position, but I really doubt that he’d excel at it for at least two years. I still don’t see it happening.

        Another question, related to the bench,: Do you shift Harper and Werth this year? Jayson really didn’t look great in RF for a good bit of the season because he just physically couldn’t make the plays due to hamstring and pulled groins. Jayson will more than likely need a few breaks throughout the year. Personally, I never want to see Tyler, Lombo, Kobernus, or any other minor league infielder in the outfield again. Give me a 4th outfielder that can also run, and I mean an outfielder, not a converted infielder.

  3. tcostant - Nov 8, 2013 at 9:12 AM

    There was talk on the board about an extention for Jordon Zimmermann, take a look at
    what Ervin Santana wants this offseason and he can’t hold Zimm’s jock strap.

    http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2013/11/07/rosenthal-ervin-santana-wants-more-than-100-million/

    • Faraz Shaikh - Nov 8, 2013 at 5:12 PM

      I want a $100 million extension also.

  4. tcostant - Nov 8, 2013 at 9:16 AM

    We need a back-up catcher too!

  5. Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 8, 2013 at 9:29 AM

    This is a key discussion. I think no bench player should feel he us a lock for a spot now.

    • Theophilus T.S. - Nov 8, 2013 at 10:08 AM

      I don’t really disagree, with the possible exception of Lombardozzi. A known quantity who will pinch-hit .260+ has earned a spot. Not that I ever would want him in the day-to-day lineup on an extended basis but there is a role for him to fill so long as he is inexpensive. I also have a level of contentment w/ Moore — although it’s only as strong as the comparison to an alternative. If you said the choice was between Moore at $1MM and DeJesus at $5MM, Moore would lose. The history of the Nats’ last few seasons shows they need to cultivate guys who can play a position for a whole month if one of the regulars goes down.

      • tcostant - Nov 8, 2013 at 10:46 AM

        I still think Lombardozzi will be traded in the offseason and the Espi will be the utility IF, who can play SS and 2B with no issue. Right now Lombardozzi is the better player, but he has value and Espi STILL has more upside and they won’t just give him away and it is very unlikely you can carry Lombardozzi and Espi on the bench, so one needs to go.

      • NatsLady - Nov 8, 2013 at 10:47 AM

        @tcostant–agree on Lombo/Espinosa. Wonder why Rizzo didn’t keep DeJesus.

  6. NatsLady - Nov 8, 2013 at 9:59 AM

    Matt Skole didn’t have a good day yesterday. Here is the comment from Baseball Prospectus.

    Matt Skole, 1B, Nationals (Mesa Solar Sox): 0-5, 4 K. Patient hitters are prone to these kinds of days as a product of the deep counts they consistently work. Skole hasn’t hit well this fall (just .163), but even with his nightmare on Thursday, he still has just one more walk than strikeout on the AFL season and a .357 on-base percentage.

  7. Theophilus T.S. - Nov 8, 2013 at 10:00 AM

    I’m interested in knowing how many teams keep eight pitchers in the BP. I don’t see it — if there’s a crisis a replacement is less than 24 hours away.

    A bench requires, at a minimum, a fourth OF, a utility IF, a catcher, two RH bats and two LH bats (not including the sub catcher). There is so little flexibility. Hairston and Moore seem cast in concrete. Both are strictly corner OFs, meaning a shuffle if something happens to Span. No room for another OF except someone like Lombardozzi, Johnson, Bloomquist who could play there in a pinch. Lombardozzi is also cast in concrete — and earned it with his pinch-hitting performance in the second half. It would be nice if he had even a little bit of power but a pinch-hitter who hits singles is better than one who makes outs. The imperative, therefore, is a LH corner(?) IF with power — clearly Chavez. Even then they are vulnerable in the event of an injury to the SS or 2B — no backup for the backup. (As an aside, I expect Johnson to go somewhere he thinks he can start. Bloomquist, too, maybe.)

    The fantasy solution is that Espinosa shows up in Viera suddenly able to hit ML pitching, particularly from the LH side. Probably not happening but it’s nice to imagine a situation in which one of the IFs goes down and the defensive net gets tighter. How deep is Williams’s commitment to defense?

    Molina is the clear choice at catcher. At anything less than $5MM per he’s affordable for a team whose starting catcher hasn’t yet made it through much more than a half of a season. Maybe Williams starts everybody w/ a clean slate but there’s too much ambiguity about Suzuki’s contributions for me to want to spend a lot of money to bring him back. Neither Solano nor Leon has shown enuf smoke in his bat to rely on for the whole season.

    All this would be much easier if the Nats carried only six RPs. Or if they weren’t already locked in to 60 percent of their alloted “bench” slots. This is reminiscent of the bind in which Rizzo found himself w/ the BP last season — he over-valued his RH RPs, ended up w/ no viable LHs.

  8. NatsLady - Nov 8, 2013 at 10:34 AM

    Speaking of backup catchers, the Reds just signed Brayan Pena.

    http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2013/11/reds-to-sign-brayan-pena.html?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

  9. Section 222 - Nov 8, 2013 at 10:55 AM

    Theo raises some interesting points. IIRC, the Phillies used a 6 man bullpen a few years back. But that was when they had Halladay, Hamels, and Lee all going 7 or even 8 innings on a regular basis. Maybe this year, our big 3 will show that kind of stamina and efficiency but we can’t count on it at this point. Davey said he’d like to get to a 6 man bullpen, but was never able to. And to do much bullpen numbers shuffling, you need the bench guys to have options, or to be able to fake a lot of injuries.

    Espi as a reserve is an interesting thought. — if, and only if, he has re-discovered the ability to hit. Last year, he not only couldn’t hit major league pitching, he couldn’t hit minor league pitching either. That doesn’t bode well, especially since he resisted having surgery on his shoulder.

    By the way, I’m still intrigued by the idea of Espi always hitting RH. Victorino showed it can be done, so spare me the “switch hitters can’t go back to one side only” response. An Espi who can hit is a lot more appealing on the bench than Hairston or Lombo.

    I agree with Ghost that no bench player should have a lock on a roster position. Unfortunately, Mark is probably right that in Rizzo’s mind Moore, Hairston, and Lombo will come North. That’s too bad, but at least we know the bench can’t be worse than it was last year. — Chad Tracy won’t be on it.

  10. Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 8, 2013 at 11:47 AM

    3 interesting DBacks in Wil Nieves, Chavez and Bloomquist. I wonder if Matty will tap some of his AZ boys.

    If Espi can’t be traded he’s an upgrade defensively over anyone on the roster to backup and if he can play 3rd can really be the utility answer. Lombo is not the answer, sorry, love the guy and his grit but he’s not good enough to step in and start and that’s the first test if you upgrade. Yes, I realize Espi isn’t either but he is better than Lombo and a huge defensive upgrade.

    • Section 222 - Nov 8, 2013 at 11:54 AM

      Wil Nieves? Who?

    • Section 222 - Nov 8, 2013 at 12:25 PM

      If we are looking for a backup in the pantheon of Nats ex-catchers, I’d choose Suzuki over Nieves. But Nieves would certainly be cheaper. Looks like Jesus Flores’ MLB career is probably over. He was last seen playing 52 games for the Ray’s AAA team. Sad.

  11. Section 222 - Nov 8, 2013 at 11:53 AM

    At this point, I agree that Lombo is not the answer, but I don’t agree that Espi is better than Lombo. Do you really want to send Espi up to pinch hit in a tie game with a man on third and one out in the bottom of the ninth? Lombo delivered a game winning sacrifice fly in that situation last year. Espi would more than likely K. We cannot have a guy on the bench who cannot hit, no matter how good his defense is. (We definitely can’t have a guy who can’t hit or play defense, which is why Tracy was such a waste last year.)

    Our bench players have to be able to hit. They did that in ’12, they didn’t last year. Defense is much less important. To be honest, I wouldn’t be sad if we replaced the entire ’13 bench this year. But it doesn’t look like that will happen.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 8, 2013 at 12:25 PM

      I’m with you. I wouldn’t be sad to blow up the bench and start over. The Goon Squad were that bad in 2013 but yes, Lombo was productive as a pinch hitter but not as a spot starter.

    • tcostant - Nov 8, 2013 at 1:12 PM

      Why would you send Espi up in that spot? There will be other guys on the bench too. Espi will be there as a defensive replacement and pitch runner and pitch hitter in non-stress situations. Once he proves he can get some hits maybe he an AB late in a close game.

    • naterialguy - Nov 8, 2013 at 1:45 PM

      I also think it is important to have people on the bench that can run! The idea of wasting a slot for a guy off the bench to come in and pinch hit, and then if he gets on, having to put in someone to run for him is crazy and wasteful. I would rather have some one who can get on base and run then a lumberjack who sometimes can crush one but when he doesn’t needs to be replaced on base to keep from clogging the bases.

      Speed kills,

      • Section 222 - Nov 8, 2013 at 2:08 PM

        Good point. At least we have JZnn who can motor. E-Jax was our best pitcher/pinch runner. Maybe they should have time trials for all the pitchers this spring.

  12. trochlis318 - Nov 8, 2013 at 12:50 PM

    In response to Theophilius, if span were to go down, Byrce would just be shifted to Center, and then they probably call up a Eury perez if the injury is prolonged. Personally i feel like for a bench you really need a 4th outfielder (i guess that’s hairston?) a utility infielder (lombo sorta fits the bill except he can really only play 2nd what happens if desi goes down?) a DH bat/ 1b if need be (Moore) backup catcher (hopefully not solano or Leon) and i guess i LH bat who idk what we will do with that.

  13. Section 222 - Nov 8, 2013 at 1:30 PM

    My answer to tcostant is that if we can only have four bench guys (not including the backup catcher), wecannot use one for a pinch runner/defensive replacement who can’t hit in stress situations. And the fact that he can play SS is nice, but not enough to keep him over Lombo if he can’t it. Desi doesn’t need rest. If he’s out for a game or two, we squeak by with Lombo or Rendon at short as we did last year. If he’s injured you bring someone up from the minors — maybe Espi, maybe Walters.

    I repeat, if he cannot hit, he simply cannot come North (except to head to Syracuse). I’m pretty sure Rizzo feels that way too.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 8, 2013 at 2:30 PM

      Absolutely contingent on a Espi who can hit and also show he can play some 3rd base which I’m sure he can.

      Chances are it won’t happen. Espi needs a change of scenery, but you never know as the Nats have been willing to give 2nd chances and may see him as a viable option.

  14. Section 222 - Nov 8, 2013 at 3:07 PM

    Hopefully they fixed that batter’s eye in Viera. That was giving Espi a lot of trouble IIRC.

  15. sjm308 - Nov 8, 2013 at 5:37 PM

    I am on the team that still wants to see what Espi can do this spring. He is my choice if he can show his offense is fixed. I am going to accept the high strikeout rate but need to see a player that can hit at least .250. With his power, and his defense and speed and ability to play multiple positions he could be a positive.

    I still laugh when I see people actually consider Moore a corner outfielder. He is a total liability in the field and while I love his personality, I am ok with blowing up the bench as well. I will say that Moore provides a better option than Tracy but that was a given.

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