Jun 30, 2014, 12:00 AM EDT
For more than two months, Matt Williams has been waiting to fill out a lineup card that includes Bryce Harper in it. And for several weeks, the Nationals’ first-time manager has been contemplating just how much he wants to shake up the rest of his lineup as a result of Harper’s return.
The time has finally come. Harper, out since April 26 with a torn ligament in his left thumb, is expected to be activated off the disabled list today and play for the Nationals tonight in their homestand opener against the Rockies. Williams, who has gone out of his way not to reveal his plan moving forward in advance, must now make the decision so many have anticipated and debated.
You know what, though? This really isn’t a difficult decision at all.
Bryce Harper needs to play left field. Ryan Zimmerman needs to play third base. Anthony Rendon needs to play second base. And Danny Espinosa needs to return to the bench.
There are all sorts of ways to make this dilemma more complex than that, and certainly there are legitimate reasons to contemplate other scenarios because of the ongoing question of Zimmerman’s ability to throw a baseball with velocity and accuracy.
But in the end, it really boils down to this simple truth: The Nationals have to put Zimmerman back at third base and find out once and for all whether he can play his natural position at a level satisfactory enough to make all the other scenarios moot. Because if he can, the Nats are a much better ballclub.
This is the team Williams and Mike Rizzo assembled over the winter. This is how they expected to play out 2014, with Zimmerman at third, Adam LaRoche at first, Rendon at second, Harper in left and Denard Span in center. It is their best all-around alignment, certainly their best offensive alignment.
To refuse to move Zimmerman back to the infield is to completely alter the original plan, and to field a lineup that while perhaps better from a defensive standpoint would be severely diminished from an offensive one.
If Zimmerman can only play left field, then Harper must play center field, and Span must be benched and Danny Espinosa must play second base. The Nationals’ infield defense would be fantastic, but their outfield defense would be suspect, with Harper forced to shoulder far more of the load than he should sandwiched between a novice left fielder (Zimmerman) and an aging right fielder (Jayson Werth).
More significantly, though, the Nationals’ offensive capabilities would take a huge hit. Espinosa may be brilliant in the field, but he simply isn’t productive enough at the plate to merit a spot in the everyday lineup. Nor is there any reason to believe he will become productive enough.
Over the last two seasons, Espinosa’s numbers are abysmal: a .194 batting average, .249 on-base percentage, .567 OPS, 140 strikeouts and 19 walks in 435 plate appearances. The numbers are even worse from the left side of the plate: a .184 average, .226 OBP and .515 OPS. He has been given every opportunity to prove he can do better, and he has not shown he can do it.
Which isn’t to say Espinosa can’t still be a significant contributor to this team this year. Against left-handers, he should play, taking advantage of his career .793 OPS as a right-handed hitter. And when the Nationals hold a late lead, he should play, pushing Rendon to third base and bumping Zimmerman to the bench, strictly for defensive purposes.
But to suggest Espinosa deserves more playing time than Span is to ignore the facts. Span may not be a perfect leadoff man, and he may not draw enough walks to raise his on-base percentage to at least a league-average standard. But he remains a productive offensive player, ranking third in the NL in both doubles and triples, on pace for 50 two-baggers and 10 three-baggers this season. Most importantly, he puts the ball in play (his strikeout rate is a miniscule 9.4 percent), something Espinosa (34.7 percent) simply doesn’t do enough.
And Span’s defense in center field — despite whatever advanced metrics whose calculators themselves admit aren’t entirely accurate over anything less than a 2- or 3-year period say — remains excellent. How many times in 1 1/2 seasons in Washington have you watched a ball hit in his direction and remarked: “Boy, Span really should’ve made that play, but he didn’t”? You probably need only one hand to count them.
What if Zimmerman can’t play third base, you ask? Well, how will the Nationals ever know for sure unless they try?
Look, it may prove to be untenable. Zimmerman may launch throws into the grandstand and dugout, and he may cost his team some runs, perhaps even a game or two. And if that happens, then the Nationals need to adjust. Even in a best-case scenario, he should play left field and first base some of the time, when matchups dictate it. In a worst-case scenario, he’ll have to be kept away from the position he played his entire career until earlier this month, at which point the Nats will have no choice but to play Espinosa and bench Span.
But the Nationals owe it to themselves, to Zimmerman, to everyone, to give this a try. He may not prefer it, but he has consistently said he’ll do whatever best helps this team win.
And right now, at this moment, with the entire roster healthy at long last, the Nationals’ best chance of winning is with Ryan Zimmerman at third base.
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