Nats lineups: Another season of shuffling?

Nats lineups: Another season of shuffling?
January 30, 2012, 1:43 pm
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Since we're now inside of three weeks to the start of spring training -- and since it doesn't appear there are any major roster shakeups still in store between now and then -- it's time to start considering the Nationals' potential starting lineup.

Jim Riggleman, John McLaren and Davey Johnson tried out no shortage of combinations last season. Together, those three managers submitted 121 different lineups (excluding pitchers). And no single lineup was used more than six times. (The most common: Rick Ankiel, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Jayson Werth, Laynce Nix, Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos, pitcher).

Is there reason to believe Johnson will stick with one lineup a bit more often this season? As much as you'd like to think so, the odds don't look too strong.

The problem is that there remain a couple of major question marks when it comes to the Nationals' potential lineup: 1) Can Desmond handle the leadoff spot long-term? and 2) Who's the third outfielder alongside Morse and Werth?

Neither question can be answered yet, and it's quite possible we won't get a firm answer for either over much of the season.

For now, let's assume Desmond produces enough to warrant the leadoff spot. And let's assume Bryce Harper is not on the Opening Day roster. Here's one possible lineup Johnson might consider:

1. SS Ian Desmond 2. RF Jayson Werth 3. 3B Ryan Zimmerman 4. LF Michael Morse 5. 1B Adam LaRoche 6. 2B Danny Espinosa 7. C Wilson Ramos 8. CF Roger BernadinaMike Cameron
That's far from a perfect-looking lineup. One problem: It stacks four right-handed hitters at the top, then puts three left-handed hitters over the final four slots (if Espinosa bats from the left side and Bernadina starts). Not quite the lefty-righty balance many managers prefer.

So, here's one way to alleviate some of that problem:

1. SS Ian Desmond
2. CF Roger BernadinaMike Cameron
3. 3B Ryan Zimmerman
4. LF Michael Morse
5. 1B Adam LaRoche
6. RF Jayson Werth
7. 2B Danny Espinosa
8. C Wilson Ramos

That does bring some more balance to the lineup. But it also places perhaps the worst hitter(s) of the bunch in the No. 2 spot while also relegating the highest-paid player on the team to the 6-hole.

Werth's proper place is perhaps the most fascinating (and difficult) aspect of this lineup to figure out. Johnson seemed to prefer to keep the 126 million man in the fifth spot after taking over as manager, and Werth did produce better there (.256.346.419) than he did at his two other most-common spots: No. 2 (.222.327.389) and No. 3 (.236.332.379).

On the other hand, the Nationals simply don't have many regulars who reach base at a high clip. Werth, despite his overall struggles last season, did lead the club with 74 walks and posted a respectable .330 on-base percentage. Compare that with Desmond's .298 OBP and Bernadina's .301 OBP.

In an ideal scenario, Werth probably should be batting second for the Nationals. But that ideal scenario probably won't be possible until Harper reaches the big leagues. Look at what a difference the 19-year-old's arrival could have on the lineup:

1. SS Ian Desmond
2. CF Jayson Werth
3. 3B Ryan Zimmerman
4. LF Michael Morse
5. 1B Adam LaRoche
6. 2B Danny Espinosa
7. RF Bryce Harper
8. C Wilson Ramos

It's still not perfect. The right-handed hitters are once again stacked at the top, while the left-handed hitters are all bunched together at the bottom. But that's certainly a more imposing lineup than the pre-Harper one.

Perhaps we could see something along those lines on Opening Day in Chicago, though the safe bet remains one that has Harper beginning his season in Syracuse.

So if that common wisdom holds true, what's the Nationals' best lineup option?