Davey ensuring Nats' outfield pieces fit together
With Span in center, manager testing regular configuration early in Spring Training
ORLANDO, Fla. -- It only took seven batters before the Baseball Gods made Davey Johnson look like a wise man.
Mets catcher John Buck was leading off the bottom of the second inning in the Nationals' Grapefruit League opener on Saturday, when he popped a fly ball into no-man's land between shortstop and center and left field.
Ian Desmond backpedaled while Denard Span and Bryce Harper converged. Harper, relatively new to the left-field position, called off Span, new to the organization and the Nats' outfield. And in the first-base dugout was a perceptive Johnson.
While Johnson has been fairly staunch about resting his veterans in the first week of Spring Training games, he's been equally committed to getting his new-look outfield acclimated with playing together.
"I'm more concerned with the middle of the diamond, some of the outfielders, because of Span," Johnson said. "I want him getting comfortable. I want to get comfortable with the middle infielders with cutoff positioning for Span, so that's my main concern early. Since we have a week early in games, we just hit the things that I think we need to hit the most. I want the guys we play most early to get comfortable playing up the middle."
While Span, acquired this offseason from the Twins, is the only new outfield piece, he causes a ripple effect. Harper, who played 92 games in center last year, and Jayson Werth, who played 11, will move to left and right, respectively.
"He gives us a terrific defensive center fielder with great range, and he takes good angles and routes on the ball," general manager Mike Rizzo said of Span. "And it also strengthens us in left field, because we have Bryce Harper in left field. We feel it's like having three center fielders in our outfield."
When drafted out of College of Southern Nevada, Harper was a catcher. He gave that up when selected by the Nationals, and last year he played all three outfield positions (though only 58 of 1,188 innings were in left). The move to outfield was intended to protect the former No. 1 Draft pick, and the move to left goes a step farther in doing so.
"I know I'm not going to the bullpen," Harper joked. "I started out there last year. So it's just another spot, trying to make some plays, throw some guys out. And just hit. That's the biggest thing. As long as I'm in the lineup, I'm hitting, doing anything I can do to help this team. That's good for me. I think having Denard out there in center field is going to help us a lot."
This year -- barring unforeseen injury -- the Nationals will be able to achieve the stability in the outfield they couldn't find last year. Innings were split between Harper, Werth, Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi and Michael Morse. Now, with the Span manning center and Morse in Seattle, the Nats intend to have three regulars across the board, with Moore and Bernadina backing up.
"It's obviously nice to have [Harper] out there," Desmond said. "He's a big kid, but he's no Morse. I'm not quite as scared of him as I was of running into Morse. Having him in left, and having Denard in center, there's not going to be too many balls I'm going to have to go after over my head. That's good for me, and that's good for my body."
Werth is expected to make his Grapefruit League debut Wednesday in Viera, where he's set to play right field and bat third. Harper was scheduled to get a day off, but he pleaded with Johnson for the opportunity to start.
"I'm already getting it," Johnson said. "He's in."
Harper, 6-for-8 this spring, was asked why he requested the start. And he channeled his manager:
"I thought having Denard in center and Werth in right, to put our outfield set together," Harper said. "I really just wanted to try to work with them."