The question: Who would be the Nationals’ everyday right fielder after Elijah Dukes was released? The answer: Willie Harris, if the season started today.
That said, by no means does Harris have a stranglehold on the position. Justin Maxwell, Mike Morse, and Roger Bernadina, all certain to remain on the 40 man active roster, if not on the major league team, will continue to compete for playing time. While there is obviously no star among the bunch, the hope is that each player’s individual skills can be exploited in the most advantageous situations, thus creating a competent, if not stellar right field platoon.
Also, as was reported on Thursday, the Nationals and 1B/OF Adam Dunn have begun contract discussion; however, the slugger does not want the negotiations to interfere with the season. While no concrete deadline has been set, Dunn has stated that an extension would ideally solidified by summer. Both Dunn and general manager Mike Rizzo appear optimistic about the likelihood of such an extension, but both have declined to set a definitive date in order to avoid unnecessary tension.
Additionally, Nationals’ manager Jim Riggleman repeated Rizzo’s comments regarding Ian Desmond’s current and future position; however, Riggleman’s remarks were in reference to Cristian Guzman. In spite of persistent arm troubles stemming from offseason shoulder surgery, playing Guzman at second base is apparently not a viable option. Adam Kennedy has been signed as the everyday second basemen, and while Riggleman maintained that Guzman and Desmond are in “open competition” for the title of starting shortstop, the loser does not stand to earn meaningful playing time at another position.
The decision to start Harris in right field to begin the season is very logical. With over 500 more games played than Maxwell, Morse, and Bernadina combined, Harris’ experience and consistency gives him the edge. Although he will neither hit .300 nor 20 home runs, the 31 year-old Harris will provide solid outfield defense and a steady, calming presence both on the field and in the clubhouse. While the Nationals could pursue a more offensively potent solution through free agency (Jermaine Dye?), Harris represents a low-risk, low-reward situation; he is, if nothing more, a quantifiable commodity.
Dunn’s response, though very political, is definitely a positive sign. Rather than ignoring questions regarding his contract situation or expressing a desire to once again explore free agency, Dunn seems perfectly content to continue his career in Washington. The Nationals would do well to at least come to terms with their cleanup hitter sooner rather than later (assuming those terms are reasonable) to ensure that the rigorous schedule that a full major league season provides does not become an obstacle that leads to Dunn’s unrestricted free agency. Though the team does not appear prepared to compete for a playoff position at this point, Dunn’s powerful bat is extremely important for both fan appeal and team respectability.
Finally, the Nationals’ position on Guzman’s present and future with the team is very curious. Although the team signed Kennedy to start at second base, the combination of Guzman’s lingering shoulder problems and Desmond’s impressive spring performance seem to call for a reevaluation. In light of Rizzo’s statement debunking any association between salary and playing time, one would infer that such reasoning applied to Kennedy as well. Though his $1.25 million deal pales in comparison to Guzman’s $8 million contract, it seems only logical that, assuming Guzman can transition to second base defensively, he compete with Kennedy for the position. Management’s rigidity in labeling Guzman as a shortstop could easily be perceived as an attempt to maintain his trade value. With shortstop being a far more “premium” position than second base, the Nationals could conceivably receive more in return for Guzman if he proves that, in spite of his decreasing range, he can still make all the throws required of a major league shortstop.