At the height of the Washington Nationals’ early-season struggles, the team’s roster was seemingly exposed for a lack of infield depth.
Shortstop Trea Turner hit the Injured List in the first week of the season. Third baseman Anthony Rendon missed 10 games with a bone bruise in his elbow. First basemen Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Adams both spent time on the shelf with nagging ailments.
Washington was forced to trot out some combination of the struggling Brian Dozier, an overmatched Wilmer Difo, 35-year-old Howie Kendrick, outfielder-by-trade Gerardo Parra and rookie Carter Kieboom to fill out the infield spots on the lineup card.
Once the starters returned to the lineup, however, Washington began to catch fire. Since being swept by the New York Mets on May 23, the club is 25-10 — good for the best record in baseball over that span. cIt’s put Nationals (44-41) just six games back of the Atlanta Braves in the NL East and right in the mix for the second Wild Card spot.
Yet with that success have come tough decisions for manager Davey Martinez.
When Zimmerman was activated off the IL on Friday, the Nationals finally had their entire infield healthy and on the active roster: Zimmerman, Adams, Dozier, Kendrick, Turner and Rendon. It’s created a logjam that’s forced at least two of them to take a seat each game.
On the left side, Rendon and Turner have been fixtures in the everyday lineup — and for good reason. Rendon is the best hitter on the team and should finish the season with at least 140 games played if he stays healthy. Turner adds an element of speed on the basepaths unmatched by any of his teammates and is the only player in that group who plays shortstop.
At first and second base, things get a bit more complicated.
Kendrick has been one of the Nats’ most valuable players this season, entering play Thursday with a .323 batting average as well as 12 homers and a .938 OPS in 68 games. He’s made at least 10 starts at first, second and third base while proving to be Washington’s most clutch hitter in tight situations.
However, Kendrick is only a year removed from tearing his Achilles and has played just one full season since 2015. Martinez expressed earlier this season his desire to give Kendrick regular rest to keep him healthy.
“You want to put him out there every day, but I’ve got to make sure he’s rested and that he stays healthy throughout the whole year,” Martinez said in late May. “We talk a lot and he lets me know when his legs are heavy, because he’s had a lot of hamstring issues and I know that, so like I said, if I can plop him in in a game where he can pinch hit in a big moment, that means just as much to us as it does if he’s getting four at bats.”
Adams has been swinging a hot bat lately, slugging .660 over his last 16 games with eight of his 12 hits going for extra bases. He’s going to have to cede playing time to Zimmerman, who missed 55 games with plantar fasciitis and needs reps to find a rhythm at the plate.
“Let’s be clear, if Zim is healthy, he’s our first baseman,” Martinez said Tuesday. “With that being said, I know Howie is doing well, I know Adams is doing well, they’re going to get plenty of playing time. I like the fact, and for me, this is a great problem to have: When Zim does play, Matty is on the bench ready to go and we can plop him in in any situation at any time, knock in some big runs, same thing with Howie.”
That leaves Dozier, who has put his slow start behind him and sports a .948 OPS since the start of June. With Zimmerman and Adams holding down first base, Kendrick will probably see most of his playing time at second and push the former Minnesota Twin and Los Angeles Dodger into a rotational role.
At the heart of this problem is Zimmerman’s performance, which has been disappointing — albeit in a small sample size. After an injury-plagued 2018 campaign that saw him finish with a modest .824 OPS in 85 games, Zimmerman is hitting .209 this season with just three homers in 98 plate appearances.
It’s fair to wonder how long the career National’s leash will be, given how well Adams and Dozier — who both homered Wednesday — have been hitting. Zimmerman crushes southpaws, so it would make sense to platoon him with the left-handed Adams if he continues to struggle. That would at least give Adams the chance to start on a more regular basis.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t really help Dozier, who will still be valuable as a plug-and-play starter on Kendrick’s semi-regular off days but appears destined for a more permanent bench role. Kendrick does also have experience at third, so Martinez could put him there and give Rendon the occasional day off to allow Dozier to start a few consecutive games.
While there are certainly worse problems for Martinez to have, every game is important at this stage of the season — especially after Washington struggled like it did out of the gate. If Zimmerman isn’t hitting, it’s going to be difficult to justify keeping him in the lineup with capable everyday players on the bench behind him.