Over the course of the NL East-leading Washington Nationals’ first 113 games in 2017, they’ve used twelve different outfielders. Rookies, veterans, journeymen, Dusty Baker has done what he can with the players he has as Adam Eaton, Jayson Werth, Michael A. Taylor, and Ryan Raburn have all succumbed to injury (with Eaton’s season-ending) and Werth and Taylor’s costing them significant time on the DL.
Wilmer Difo (for a short time), Brian Goodwin (for longer than expected), Chris Heisey (who ended up being released), Adam Lind, Howie Kendrick, and even prospects Rafael Bautista and Andrew Stevenson have all stepped in and stepped up with Bryce Harper holding things down in right and an ever-changing cast filling in in left and center.
“How many teams can lose two center fielders and then the next one steps up?” Baker asked rhetorically after Thursday’s win over the visiting Miami Marlins, in a game which saw Goodwin hit a go-ahead homer late, before Stevenson made a game-ending, diving catch.
“Tonight was a game of our youth,” Baker said. “That’s a tribute to our minor league system. They’re thrust into the fire and they’re performing well.”
“There aren’t many organizations that have twelve outfielders that they can really rely on and count on,” Baker said before Friday’s eventually postponed series opener with the San Francisco Giants.
“I mean — boy, that is a lot, especially when you only play three at a time. I’m just glad we have them, and I’m glad that some of them had to develop here at the big league level.”
“I’ve got to give a lot of that credit to my batting coaches, and outfield coaches, the instruction.
“Because when you have that many, you are indeed teaching at the big league level, and not having finished products to work with.”
Baker’s set to get two of his expected everyday outfielders back in the near future.
Jayson Werth, out since June 3rd with a fracture in his left foot, told reporters earlier this week that he was close to returning to game action.
“Luckily there’s some light at the end of the tunnel here and I think I’m going to get back right in time for the postseason and the run in September,” Werth said, “... and not that those are the only games to play in, but if you had to choose, you’d want to be ready for those games versus not, so hopefully this is our year.”
Taylor is ten games into a rehab assignment already, though he’s seemingly still getting his timing back (5 for 37, .135/.220/.216) after landing on the DL with an oblique strain back on July 6th.
Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo talked to 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies on Wednesday about the plans going forward as Werth and Taylor work their way back, when he was asked if Taylor earned his spot with his play before he went down with the latest injury last month.
“I think he’s earned playing time for sure, and so has Goodwin,” Rizzo said. “I think both of them their stock has really risen this season. And that’s what opportunities give you.
“Goody has really never had an opportunity to play regularly in the big leagues.
“We bring these guys up, Difo, and now [Adrian] Sanchez, and Goodwin before that, and they sit for four days and you say, ‘Okay, we’ll roll you out there and let’s see if you can get a couple hits,’ and they’re thinking in their mind, ‘I’ve got to get three hits or I’m going to be on the bench for five more days.’ And that’s just a tough place to have a young player who has played their whole career every day in the minor leagues getting to this point.”
So... what is the plan for when Taylor gets back? Do they have one?
“I think the plan is — again, I think we’ve earned the luxury of going slowly into this thing, where you get Michael Taylor back into the flow of it playing in the big leagues once he’s rehabbed and healthy — and he hit a home run [Tuesday] night in Double-A, so he’s getting his stroke back,” Rizzo said.
“He’s a dynamic player when he can play. We talked about this early in the offseason.
“He was a four-tool player coming into this, but the biggest tool that he didn’t have was contact. And he’s getting more consistent contact because he’s in the strike zone more often, and we’ve always said if he could learn the strike zone and quit chasing, he can be a dangerous guy.”
Baker will have to balance getting his returning outfielders up to speed while keeping the others sharp before he has to make roster decisions should the Nats earn a fourth postseason berth in six seasons. The tough decisions will come when he has to make a numbers of choices in October between the veterans who’ve missed time and the new bats who’ve helped the Nationals maintain and even pad their lead in the division.