For all the attention we've given so far this offseason to the Nationals' desire to acquire a veteran starting pitcher and a starting center fielder, we should be careful not to overlook another roster dynamic desperately in need of a major upgrade: The bench.
It may not seem as important as a deep rotation or a bolstered lineup, but there's no portion of the Nationals' roster that needs more improvement than its bench. Don't believe that? Have you looked at the numbers from this season?
Nationals pinch-hitters batted a collective .186 (38-for-204). And that's not even the most pathetic stat associated with that role. Those same pinch-hitters combined to drive in 14 runs (fewest in the NL) while producing a whopping five extra-base hits for the season (leading to a .240 slugging percentage).
Having trouble coming to grips with those anemic numbers? Wait, it gets even worse.
Let's look only at the five batters who were most-often called upon by Jim Riggleman and Davey Johnson in pinch-hitting situations: Matt Stairs (46 plate appearances), Alex Cora (36), Laynce Nix (34), Brian Bixler (23) and Jonny Gomes (18). Combined, those five players posted a .150 average, .255 on-base percentage, .165 slugging percentage and a .420 OPS that's merely 87 points lower than the immortal Mario Mendoza's career mark.
Do we have your attention yet?
If not, here's one more stat to support the need for an improved bench in 2012: According to baseball-reference.com, the Nationals had the highest "Pinch Hit Leverage Index" of any team in the NL this season. What does that mean? It means the average pinch-hitting at-bat by a Nationals player came in a higher-pressure situation than the average pinch-hitting at-bat by players from any other team.
In other words, Nationals pinch-hitters were thrust into the most pressure-packed situations in the league and came away with the worst results. That's a bad combo.
This is why GM Mike Rizzo needs to make bench improvement a top priority this winter. Plain and simple, the Nationals need more proven hitters who can be counted on to come off the bench cold and deliver a quality at-bat with the game on the line.
A bench overhaul probably won't come in the next week. The focus at the Winter Meetings usually falls upon the big-name free agents who will be playing every day. But over the next month or two, Rizzo needs to start assembling a bench that can produce better than this year's group did.
Those additions could prove just as important as the No. 3 starter and center fielder who are sure to draw more attention and earn a lot more money.