Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the Washington Nationals’ 2014 campaign was the constant stream of injuries.
The NL East champions struggled to consistently field their opening day lineup. Injuries to critical producers, including left fielder Bryce Harper, catcher Wilson Ramos and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, caused doubt and frustration throughout the season. The team’s success in spite of these circumstances earned then-rookie manager Matt Williams the NL Manager of the Year Award for his successful lineup adjustments.
The 2015 season looks to be just as problematic for the Nationals, as serious injuries to third baseman Anthony Rendon, outfielder Jayson Werth and center fielder Denard Span, along with other smaller injuries throughout spring training, are raising serious concerns about the Nats’ early-season lineup. The injuries to key players have also made spring training roster decisions all the more interesting, as projected backups are competing for a starting role.
The troubles began at second base when Yunel Escobar strained his oblique, forcing him off the field until last week. Escobar’s injury might have opened up space for Danny Espinosa, but a mildly resurgent Dan Uggla is batting .278 in 36 spring training at-bats, leading some to wonder if he has the potential to return to some semblance of his past form and earn the exorbitant salary the Braves are still paying him.
At third base, the solution to Rendon’s absence is less simple. The Washington Post recently outlined some of the possibilities to replace Rendon at third base, which include moving Espinosa or utility player Kevin Frandsen to third base, but neither of these replacements is particularly desirable.
All of these third-base options are tenuous stopgaps at best, representative of the position with probably the least depth on an otherwise well-rounded squad. Especially with Zimmerman firmly at first base, the Nationals may have trouble finding a solution during Rendon’s absence.
Nevertheless, the biggest question mark for Washington right now is its outfield, as the injuries to Werth and Span have left the outfield in flux as the season approaches.
Werth has been dealing with shoulder problems throughout the offseason and has yet to see an at-bat in spring training. According to masnsports.com, the television affiliate of the Nationals, Werth remains in a “defense only” role in the minor leagues with no set return date. The Nationals will have to resort to a solution like Frandsen or another bench option to compensate for his absence; outfielder Nate McLouth can fill in if he can recover from his own shoulder problems.
To complicate things further, Denard Span is currently recovering from core muscle surgery he underwent in early March. Estimates range as high as two months of recovery time before he will be able to take on a starting role. Span’s absence leaves a critical shortage of contact hitters in the Nationals lineup, an area of consistent struggle for the team.
Without Span, the Nationals’ leadoff man who batted .302 in 2014 with a .355 on-base percentage and 35 doubles, cynical Nats fan might predict that the team will regress into the power-dependent, home- run-or-nothing identity that plagued it in 2013.
Fortunately for Washington, top prospect Michael Taylor will probably be able to handle a starting role for the duration of Span’s absence, although he is by no means a replacement for the production Span provides.
To top it all off, injuries to relief pitcher Craig Stammen and starter Stephen Strasburg have caused concerns for Washington’s pitching staff. Zimmerman added his name to the list of injured players Friday, hurting his shoulder on a diving stop.
While they’ve proven themselves capable of shaking off injury problems and producing, a testament to the depth of this team, the Nationals have already set themselves up for a challenge in 2015. Although these health issues should be sorted out by mid-May, Harper is prone to removing himself from the lineup for extended periods of time, while Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos have also struggled to play full seasons.
The Nationals should be able to overcome these issues. The team has pulled it off in the past and is now supported by a stronger pitching staff. But, it seems that the front office and Williams will again have to make some early adjustments this year to put a full team on the field.
Matt Raab is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. AROUND THE DISTRICT appears every Tuesday.