Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is set to return to the club from a thumb injury Monday. It will mark the healthiest the club has been all season, but it also creates a crunch in the starting lineup, as Ryan Zimmerman has been playing left field in recent weeks.
In five rehab games, Harper played center field twice and he's logged 104 games in his MLB career in center, too, so he can handle it.
With that in mind, the Nationals have several options and obviously don't have to stick with one for the rest of the season. Here they are:
Play Harper in center, Zimmerman in left and bench Denard Span
This is probably the least likely to happen and the option that would be viewed as the wildest for most, but I actually like it from a certain point of view. Since Span is kind of small, fast and plays center field, he's automatically viewed as a prototypical leadoff man. He's also sporting a .313 on-base percentage. That's basically league average, so it's not like he's flashing some great skills at the top.
I don't think this hurts the defense as much as some people would think, either, because you're keeping Zimmerman away from third base and Span to Harper isn't a huge gap in terms of range (advanced metrics score Span as below average, by the way). Definitely not as big a gap as ...
Espinosa is clearly an inferior hitter to Span, so one could argue that maximizing the offense would be to bench Espinosa. He's hitting .217/.284/.348, after all. Of course, he's an excellent defensive second baseman and Rendon is far superior at third base to Zimmerman. I feel like this is the most frequent lineup scenario the rest of the season, but it drastically harms the defense, specifically the infield. Given that the Nats induce ground balls 46.4 percent of time (11th in MLB heading into Sunday), I'd rather the infield be great at defense than the outfield.
He's hitting .233/.302/.383 and is a defensive liability, whether in left field or at third base. Considering Adam LaRoche is having a big season, they can't hide Zimmerman at first, either. If we're only looking at this season, benching him seems like the wise move, but we can't throw out his pedigree. Zimmerman is a career .284/.351/.474 hitter. He has six seasons with at least 20 home runs and has driven home at least 85 runs five times. He's only 29, so it's not like he's declining due to age.
Basically, they have to stick with him, whether it's in left or at third. Too bad the NL doesn't have a DH, right?
Bench Harper or Rendon
The Nationals will head into next week down 0.5 games to the Braves in the NL East, thanks to a Sunday victory by Atlanta, and right now it doesn't feel like either team is going to separate from the other. Thus, every single game is of paramount importance and even seemingly minor lineup tweaks matter. Due to this, how rookie skipper Matt Williams deals with Zimmerman definitely bears watching.