When Washington Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo talked to 106.7 the FAN In D.C.'s Grant Paulsen about the 2013 Nats' outfield at NatsFest a few weeks back, the general manager said he thought that ultimately 20-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper profiled as a right fielder, but for now he would most likely play left, "... because you've got an extremely talented and experienced Jayson Werth in right field." The Nationals also brought Denard Span in to play center this year, acquiring the 28-year-old, fifth-year pro from the Minnesota Twins. Harper played 92 of 138 games in center, 65 in right and seven in left in his rookie campaign, but as Rizzo explained to Mr. Paulsen, the young outfielder, "... needs to learn how to play both left field and right field."
In his first conversation with reporters at Spring Training on Wednesday, Rizzo extolled the virtues of the Nats' new center fielder and talked about what the acquisition of Span meant for Harper's near future, though he said that so far no official decision has been made on the outfield alignment. "Denard is a guy that we feel has a specific skill set that we were lacking the last couple of years," the Nats' GM said, "He really fulfilled two things that we were looking for. He's a table-setting, top of the lineup guy with a high on base percentage that can set the table for the middle-of-the-lineup boppers and hits left-handed, which was important for us, really balances our lineup out, gives us more athleticism and another base stealer and gives us a terrific defensive center fielder with great range. He takes good angles and routes on the ball. And it also strengthens us in left field because now you have Bryce Harper in left field and we feel it's three center fielders in our outfield. [Span] helps us out on a bunch of different levels."
Davey Johnson was non-committal earlier this winter when he spoke with Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore about where each of his outfielders would play in 2013. The 70-year-old veteran of 16 seasons on the bench in the majors joked with the Washington Post's Nats beat writer, saying that before he made a decision, "'I would probably check with my resident genius Werth and see what his preference is. I'm comfortable with him there [in right]. The young stud could play either one." As NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman reported on Wednesday, the Nats' manager and his right fielder have talked and decided where Harper will play this year:
"'I think Jayson's already decided that,' Johnson said today. 'He told me early on after we made the trade, he said the perfect spot for the kid is left field because he hasn't hit a cutoff man in two years.'"
Denard Span got a good sense of the dynamic between Harper and Werth that allows them to joke like that when he attended NatsFest and met with his new teammates for the first time. In an interview with KFAN Sports Radio FM 100.3 in Minnesota, the Nationals' new center fielder said he also got a chance to dispel some of the rumors about Harper that he'd previously heard. "The short time that I got to hang with [Harper]," Span said, "definitely, everybody's all over him. Jayson Werth is kind of his big brother, per se, the guy that kind of looks after him, but gives him a whole bunch of crap. But, the time I was around [Harper], funny guy. Real good sense of humor. You can just definitely tell he knows he's learning. He knows he's a good ballplayer, but everything I had heard prior to meeting him, it didn't seem like any of that was true. Ask me the same question maybe in a few months and hopefully I have the same answer."
The other question Span's acquisition has raised has to do with the order in which the Nationals' outfielders will hit this season after Werth and Harper hit 1-2 at the top of the order when they were in the lineup together last year. Span told KFAN Sports Radio's host he hasn't been told where he'll hit though he assumed he'd be leading off. "I haven't even showed up to Spring Training," Span joked, "but I would assume so." As for who'll hit behind him? "I'm not sure how Davey's going to do it," Span said, "But, I mean, we've got Bryce Harper that can probably do it. I'm not sure if they want to put him in the latter part of the lineup. You've got Jayson Werth. You've got Ian Desmond. I think there's a handful of guys that can probably bat behind me."
When Davey Johnson talked with reporters on Wednesday, he gave them the impression, as NatsInsider.com's Mr. Zuckerman wrote, that, "... his choice appears to be between hitting Werth second to take advantage of his ability to get on base or down in the lineup to take advantage of his RBI capabilities." The decision, Johnson explained, might depend on how Werth's wrist (which Werth said is still not 100%) is doing and whether or not his power has fully returned:
"'We'll see how he comes along this spring on the wrist. He's got good power. He's a run producer. He's also awfully good at taking a lot of pitches and getting on base, too. It might be I hit him low in the lineup because his wrist is not fully healed, but that's something we'll look at this spring."
The Nationals' GM, in an MLB Network Radio interview this winter, suggested that he thought the Nationals were better off with Werth hitting in the middle rather than at the top of the lineup. "I think [Werth's] skill set profiles as a middle-of-the-lineup type of hitter," Rizzo said at the time, adding that in his mind, "You're a much better team when you have a good leadoff man and Jayson driving in runs in the five-hole or six-hole or wherever it might be for the team."
When Werth himself spoke to reporters, including the Washington Post's James Wagner, during NatsFest, the 33-year-old outfielder said if it was up to him, "'I’d want to hit in the middle of the order. It’s the best place for me. But with the guys we had [in 2012], I think just for our team that is what was best for us.'"
As for this season, the Nats' $126M dollar outfielder, whose opinion apparently carries some weight with his manager, was quoted in the WaPost's Mr. Wagner's article saying, "'I think I got like five or six different lineups that we can roll out there. We’ll see what Davey wants to do. I feel confident in every one.'" Where does Werth have Harper hitting? There's been chatter about Harper hitting third. Before the Nationals re-signed Adam LaRoche, Davey Johnson joked with Harper about having to hit him in the cleanup spot this year. "He said, no, I want to hit third," Johnson told reporters at the Winter Meetings, "But he could move out of that No.2 hole because I think he's going to have‑‑ he had a good year last year, but I think he's going to have a breakout year coming up." Where will Harper hit? How about Werth? Luckily, Davey Johnson has a long history of working out and coming up with optimal lineups.