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Determining the bench for the Nationals' postseason roster

The primary goal over the final nine games of the season should be to secure home field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. However, two of the five bench spots on the Nationals' postseason roster should be up for grabs.

A healthy Ryan Zimmerman will really only leave one bench spot up for grabs.  Who <i>should</i> claim it?  Who <i>will</i>?
A healthy Ryan Zimmerman will really only leave one bench spot up for grabs. Who should claim it? Who will?
Jonathan Ernst

The Nationals accomplished their first mission on Tuesday night in Atlanta when they clinched the NL East. While the main thing that the Nats will be trying to do over the final week and a half is lock up the best record in the National League, there are also a few key questions that need to be answered regarding the postseason roster.

Today we're going to focus on the question of which position players should make the roster. For the purposes of this exercise, we're going to assume that the Nats will go with a four man rotation and eight man bullpen. This will leave thirteen roster spots for position players.

The Basics

  1. Wilson Ramos
  2. Adam LaRoche
  3. Asdrubal Cabrera
  4. Anthony Rendon
  5. Ian Desmond
  6. Bryce Harper
  7. Denard Span
  8. Jayson Werth
  9. Jose Lobaton
  10. Danny Espinosa
  11. Kevin Frandsen
  12. (If he can avoid a setback) Ryan Zimmerman
  13. Up for grabs
Ryan Zimmerman will fill that twelfth spot provided that he can show that he's healthy. Given that he's back with the club now, I'd like to include him, but let's at least see the Nationals get him into a game or two before automatically putting him on the postseason roster. If Zimmerman is completely healthy, the Nats will have a decision to make with the starting lineup. Even if he's only at about 75%, he'll still provide the best pinch hitting option that the Nationals have on the bench.

Regarding the rest of the bench players that I've included:
  • Lobaton is the backup catcher. It's pretty much non-negotiable that they carry a backup catcher, and he clearly gets the spot over Leon. He's an obvious choice.
  • Espinosa provides a fine right-handed bat off the bench while being the only player that can provide a backup at both middle infield positions. Just don't let him face a right-handed pitcher. He's also capable of providing a boost as a pinch-runner. His defense alone makes him an obvious choice.
  • I've never been Frandsen's biggest supporter. He's been the go to bat off the bench for the Nationals. In terms of his seasonal numbers (.262/.302/.317, 1 HR, 0 SB) that's not saying a whole lot. Frandsen does at least have some recent production on his side, having hit .313/.318/.359 since the break (one walk?). Frandsen is a natural 2b whose bat has never been strong enough for him to become a big league regular. As such, he's learned to fake 1b, 3b, and LF. He doesn't really provide any positive defensive value. He's a glue guy who brings the old "veteran presence." While I kind of felt dirty typing that last sentence, he's a shoo-in to make the postseason roster.
Toss in Zimmerman and the Nats will have one really good pinch hitter available off the bench that can hit both RHP and LHP. Espinosa can hit LHP (.307/.375/.495 in 101 AB this season) but not RHP (.181/.244/.298 in 215 AB). Frandsen has also been considerably better against LHP (.306/.315/.333) than he has against RHP (.238/.296/.308). Lobaton will not be used unless the Nats have to pull Wilson Ramos from a game for one reason or another. This is a scenario that I'd like to try not to think about.

Anyway, this begs the question of who the Nationals should use for that final spot. We'll start with the obvious choices (one of whom will probably get the last spot) before considering a couple of under the radar options.

Status Quo Option #1: Scott Hairston

Hairston is immediately crossed off my list. There is only one reason that Hairston is still on a big league roster at this point: He has a reputation as a lefty killer. I emphasize reputation because that simply hasn't really been the case this season. Hairston is batting .250/.293/.327 against LHP in 58 plate appearances. He has hit 1 HR all season long, which was actually against a RHP. That doesn't mean he suddenly learned to hit RHP, as he's batting .095/.125/.238 against them in 21 plate appearances.

Are these ridiculously small sample sizes? Of course they are. Scott Hairston's job at this point in his career is to be a guy who thrives in small sample situations, though.  So.....
  1. He hasn't performed well in the one area where he's supposed to perform well (crushing LHP)
  2. The Nats figure to be carrying Espinosa and Frandsen, who are much better against LHP themselves
  3. Hairston actually carries a significant amount of negative defensive value
Add those three factors up, and there's just no place for Hairston on the postseason roster.

Status Quo #2: Nate Schierholtz

A commenter in the game thread the other day asked whether Schierholtz would bring anything to the postseason roster other than his ability to stand in the left-handed batter's box. There weren't a lot of positive reactions to that question. Based on his play this season, there shouldn't have been.

Just one year ago, Schierholtz (30) had the best season of his big league career, batting .251/.301/.470 with 21 HR for the Cubs. This season, he was so poor that those last place Cubs released him in August. Surprisingly, he's been even worse since joining the Nationals, batting just .179/.207/.286 in 29 plate appearances.

Still, Schierholtz does bring a couple of things to the table that Hairston doesn't:
  1. Yes, he does bat left-handed. He doesn't really have much of a platoon split one way or the other. He actually has a slightly higher (.003 in each) career batting average and on-base percentage against LHP. He does hit for quite a bit more power against RHP (.165 ISO vs. RHP, .093 vs. LHP).
  2. He has an above average glove as a corner outfielder.
I'm not a huge fan of carrying Schierholtz on the postseason roster either. If it's a choice between him and Hairston, I'd much rather carry Schierholtz. He at least gives them a defensive replacement option (if necessary); He doesn't make the other bench options redundant (put more honestly... he's not redundant because of the other bench options); If Matt Williams uses Schierholtz to pinch hit against a RHP and the opposing manager counters with a LHP, Schierholtz has proven that he can handle losing the platoon edge. Hairston hasn't. Nate Schierholtz may not be a very good option off of the bench right now. On this roster, though, he's a better fit than Hairston.

Let's try and find some more exciting options

Before I go to the more exciting options, let's talk about the last few World Series winners.
  • The Red Sox carried Xander Bogaerts on their postseason roster despite not making his big league debut until August 20 last season. Bogaerts took over as a starter in the World Series. While he wasn't particularly effective offensively (.238/.261/.333), he contributed to their winning effort.
  • The 2012 Giants got solid postseason contributions from Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford, each of whom were in their first full season as starters.
  • Allen Craig had a combined 443 PA between the 2010 and 2011 regular season for the Cardinals. He would end up getting 47 PA during St. Louis' 2011 World Series run, hitting 4 HR between the NLCS and the World Series.
  • Buster Posey hit .288/.354/.390 in the 2010 postseason as a rookie when the Giants won the World Series.
I don't bring up this list to say that experience is useless, because that's certainly not the case. If you give me a choice between two players whose skills and numbers indicate that they have similar talent levels, I'll take the one who is more experienced nine times out of ten. At this point in (all of) their careers, I feel that Steven Souza and Michael Taylor are more talented players than Scott Hairston and Nate Schierholtz (and Kevin Frandsen, for that matter). Talent trumps experience.

Are Steven Souza or Michael Taylor in the class of the players mentioned above? Well. They're certainly not in the class that Posey is in... It's doubtful they're as good as Bogaerts may go on to be. Are they as good as Belt, Crawford, and Craig? There's been no real evidence that they can't be. This is why (for the past month or so) I get frustrated when guys like Hairston and Schierholtz, who have pretty much done nothing with their opportunities this season, continue to get more chances than the youngsters.

Steven Souza, Jr.

I wrote a lot of words about Steven Souza, Jr. a month and a half ago. At the time I started the article, my argument was supposed to be for the Nats to call Souza up and send a certain lefty-killer that no longer kills lefties packing. Before the article went up, Nate McLouth hit the DL with his season-ending injury and Souza got the call, so I had to change the tone of the story a bit.

At any rate, Souza was the International League player of the year this season, leading the IL in all three triple slash categories (.350/.432/.590) while posting a 180 wRC+. He has terrific power (19 HR in 426 PA between AAA and the majors), a good corner outfield glove (he can play CF), and can even help on the basepaths (26 SB, 7 CS). The problem is that he's seen a grand total of 19 plate appearances at the big league level.

Michael Taylor

The expectation is that Taylor is a more exciting long-term prospect than Souza will be. In terms of using a player as a specialist, he also has an edge over Souza. Taylor would instantly be the fastest player on the roster (see: pinch runner) and he's a rock solid defender. While Matt Williams may have gone a little overboard with the praise in the preseason when he called Taylor an 80 defender on the 20-80 scouting scale, Taylor would provide them with an elite defensive replacement option in the outfield.

While the raw talent is there and his offensive numbers at Harrisburg (.313/.396/.539) say that he has the potential to develop into a solid big league hitter, I'm not sure I'd trust Taylor batting in the postseason. AA was the only place where Taylor had a sample size of more than 52 plate appearances this season, and he struck out nearly thirty percent of the time there. In just 27 big league plate appearances, Taylor has struck out 44.4% of the time. He'd likely be overmatched with the bat, but he could be a weapon off the bench if Wilson Ramos reached base in a tie game in the ninth inning or as a replacement for Jayson Werth in right field if the Nats are clinging to a one-run lead in the ninth.

Tyler Moore

OK.... Less exciting. He'd fit closer to the Craig profile mentioned above, as he's actually had 437 plate appearances at the big league level. He hasn't done much with his 266 PA the past two seasons, though, and wasn't even all that impressive when he was playing in Syracuse this year. No thanks.

Jeff Kobernus

Kobernus would pretty much be there in a pinch-running capacity. His bat isn't all that exciting and his best defensive position is already backed up. He has great wheels, though, and was 24 for 28 in steal attempts across four levels despite missing much of the year with injury.

What would happen if it were up to me?

If it were up to me, Souza and Taylor would have been getting any starts/pinch hit appearances that Hairston and Schierholtz have gotten in the past month. I would have liked to see them each given at least a start a week over the past month, but I certainly would prefer that the starters get the bulk of the action in a playoff race. I don't necessarily feel that Souza or Taylor are ideal fits for the playoff roster, but the alternatives for that last spot just don't set the bar particularly high. I do confess that I'd feel awfully nervous about one of the bench bats on the postseason roster only having around thirty career big league plate appearances. Again.... that's why I would have preferred to see them used a bit more earlier this year.

When we're talking about the last man off the bench, I'd rather gamble on the upside of a player who has performed well all season (even at a lower level) than carry a guy like Hairston or Schierholtz who has been disappointing all year just because they have more experience. Between Souza and Taylor, Souza is more well-rounded (at this point) and his skill-set appears to be more major league ready. He would get my final bench spot. I could be content with Taylor.... in fact, I wouldn't have a problem with Souza as a bench bat and Taylor as a specialist (pinch runner/defense). If Zimmerman's healthy, the Nats will have two backup infielders with Zimmerman and Espinosa, so Frandsen's primary use suddenly becomes to be the grit and glue guy, which isn't something that I value all that highly.

What will happen?

I suspect Schierholtz gets the last spot. Schierholtz has the experience, the left-handed bat, and the defensive ability to contribute if they want to pull Werth for defense with a late lead. Unfortunately, they haven't made much use of their opportunities to give Souza or Taylor more experience at the big league level this season. I don't see them carrying a player with less than 50 big league plate appearances on the postseason roster.