Nationals’ bench now area of strength
The Nationals bullpen still ranks near the bottom in ERA for National League clubs. And first baseman Ryan Zimmerman is in his annual spring funk, with a batting average of .121 in games through Tuesday.
But while the Nationals have had some early-season woes, one area of strength for first-year manager Dave Martinez is the play of his bench.
That is a good thing, since the Nationals have already seen stints on the disabled list for several everyday players, including catcher Matt Wieters, left fielder Adam Eaton and second baseman Daniel Murphy.
In addition, third baseman Anthony Rendon fouled a ball off his toe Friday and did not start the next four games.
Martinez has not hesitated to use his bench, even when regulars are healthy.
Here is a look at the Nationals bench to start this season compared to the bench players they replaced who were on Washington’s roster during the first half of last season:
Catcher Pedro Severino (2018) vs. Jose Lobaton (2017)
This is one of the most pleasant developments for the Nationals.
Severino is becoming a clear upgrade over Lobaton, who spent four years in Washington as the backup catcher and is now with the New York Mets.
Severino, 24, made his big league debut with the Nationals in 2015 and spent most of last year at Triple-A Syracuse. Some pitchers didn’t like throwing to Severino, according to a source who followed the club, but Severino has put time into learning each of the Nationals pitchers and keeps a notebook with information on the staff.
He is a good athlete who runs better than many catchers and can be cat-like quick back off the dish, like the play he made Tuesday night to throw out Asdrubal Cabrera of the Mets at third after a pitch bounced in the dirt.
“My concern with him is not really his hitting, it’s catching the way he did (in a game earlier this month), and that was outstanding. If he can do that for us, that’s what we want him to do. The hitting is a bonus, but we want him to call good games,” Martinez said.
Lobaton hit .175 last year with the Nationals and had an OPS of just .575. In games through Tuesday, Severino was hitting .313 with an OPS of .811. That’s a major upgrade and Severino could start getting more starts over Wieters.
Infielder Wilmer Difo (2018) vs. Stephen Drew (2017)
Difo has developed into a sparkplug for the Nationals. He has a strong arm on the infield and can play second, shortstop and third and was even used in the outfield last season.
He made his big league debut with the Nationals in 2015 and this is his fourth year in a row he has seen time in the majors. “He’s a nice player who can move around a lot,” said an American League scout who follows the Nationals.
Difo started at third base on Tuesday against the Mets with Rendon still banged up. He had one hit in three at-bats and lifted his average to .275.
First baseman/left fielder Matt Adams (2018) vs. Adam Lind (2017)
Both can play first base and left field, and Adams is a better defender at both places than Lind.
Adams may end up being an upgrade at the plate, though he is off to a slow start with an average of .200 and two homers in games through Tuesday.
Adams hit .271 with 19 homers in 100 games last season for the Atlanta Braves after he was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that drafted him out of Division II Slippery Rock.
Lind had a strong season in 2017 and hit 14 homers with 59 RBIs in 116 games while backing up Zimmerman at first and playing some in left.
But he was a free agent and the Nationals decided to go with Adams, while Lind signed a deal a few weeks ago with the New York Yankees. The American League scout said one area the Nats bench may be lacking is with veteran pinch-hitters, such as Lind and Drew, no longer around.
Outfielder Howie Kendrick (2018) vs. Chris Heisey (2017)
This isn’t really a fair comparison. Both have played extensively in the outfield, mostly in left, but Kendrick has big league experience at second base while Heisey just played the outfield in parts of two seasons in Washington.
Kendrick is just the type of a player a contending team needs. He was hitting .300 going into Wednesday’s game in New York against the Mets.
Heisey, who was let go by the Nationals last season, was released this year by the Minnesota Twins.