CHICAGO — Matt Williams today acknowledged, for the first time, that he knows what he’s going to do with the Nationals’ starting lineup once Bryce Harper returns. He’s just not ready to tell everyone what exactly that plan is.
“Yeah, I’m not going to share it just yet,” the rookie manager said prior to Saturday’s doubleheader at Wrigley Field. “But yeah, I do. I have a plan.”
Harper played nine innings in center field Friday night for Class AA Harrisburg, the first time he has played a full game during his rehab assignment. He will either serve as the Senators’ DH tonight in Akron or take the game off, then return to play nine innings in left field Sunday. Assuming all goes well, he’s on track to come off the disabled list and rejoin the Nationals’ lineup Monday for their series opener at home against the Rockies.
“I feel good about [his chances of playing Monday],” Williams said. “We’ll have to see how he comes out of it, though. I think he’s progressing really well. I would say I feel good at some point this coming week. Monday is a possibility.”
Once Harper does return, Williams faces a decision that has been looming for weeks. With his entire lineup healthy for the first time since Opening Day, one of two things must happen: Ryan Zimmerman either must play third base for the first time since mid-April, or somebody else must be benched.
Williams had been suggesting he’ll mix and match lineups, moving Zimmerman (and others) from position to position on a daily basis, but today he suggested the answer may not be as complicated.
Asked if several veteran everyday players are going to have to not have egos throughout this process, Williams responded: “Without getting into too much detail, I would say not as much as you might think. The plan going forward is to win games and to put guys in position to do that. Without giving up all the secret stuff, it wouldn’t be as much as you might think.”
Interpret that as you wish, but the suggestion appears to be that Zimmerman will be moving back to third base, with Anthony Rendon moving back to second base and Danny Espinosa going back to the bench. That would be the same alignment the Nationals used on Opening Day, the alignment they prepared this team to utilize all along.
Whether that arrangement can work long-term remains to be seen. If Zimmerman (whose chronic shoulder problems severely hinder his ability to throw) cannot play third base at an acceptable level, the Nationals would need to adjust.
The debate ultimately comes down to this: Does Zimmerman’s defense at third base hurt the Nationals more than Espinosa’s offense? Espinosa enters today’s doubleheader hitting .219 with a .286 on-base percentage, .637 OPS and 91 strikeouts in 266 plate appearances.