Washington Nationals: Bench Depth the Only Question Mark Heading into 2012

Kenny DeJohnAnalyst IIIFebruary 29, 2012

VIERA, FL - FEBRUARY 28:  Mark DeRosa #7 of the Washington Nationals poses during photo day at Space Coast Stadium on February 28, 2012 in Viera, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

With Spring Training games set to begin in just three days, the Nationals are gearing up for what looks like will be a very exciting summer. 

After going 80-81 last season, the Nationals have still yet to produce a winning season in the team's six-year existence. This season, though, there's a real possibility of that changing.

The Nationals placed 12th in the National League in runs scored last season (624), while posting a .242 team batting average and hitting 154 home runs. A down season from Jayson Werth hurt the offense, as did injury plagued seasons by Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman.

With everyone healthy in 2012, and possibly with the emergence of Bryce Harper on the Major League roster, the Nationals figure to score many more runs. It's definitely not out of the question to see the Nationals plate at least 700 runs in 2012.

Starting pitching was a weakness for the team last season. Even though the team finished sixth in the National League in team ERA (3.58), Nationals starters recorded just 79 quality starts, fourth worst in the senior circuit.

After enduring a season of Livan Hernandez, Jordan Zimmerman, Jason Marquis, Tom Gorzelanny and John Lannan as his top five starters, General Manager Mike Rizzo went out and made some nice upgrades.

He first sent a package headlined by top prospects Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole to the A's for left-hander Gio Gonzalez and then, earlier this month, signed Edwin Jackson to a team friendly one-year contract.

Gonzalez figures to be the ace in 2012, followed by Stephen Strasburg, with Jackson in the No. 3 spot. Zimmerman and Lannan will most likely round out the much improved rotation.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 28:  Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches during a game against the Florida Marlins at Sun Life Stadium on September 28, 2011 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The bullpen was a big strength for the Nationals last season.

The combination of Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen at the end of ballgames was a lethal duo for the club, and that figures to continue in 2012. The addition of Brad Lidge could be a nice addition to the bullpen, assuming he is able to stay healthy.

The only glaring weakness for this team is the bench.

If Harper makes the team out of Spring Training, the bench could get a little deeper, but it still wouldn't be strong enough to contend with some of the top benches in the league.

Should Harper make the team, Roger Bernadina would become the fourth outfielder, with Mark DeRosa as an emergency fifth option waiting in the wings if he can stay healthy.

Fourth outfielder would be the ideal role for Bernadina, as his skill set is not one that has translated well into an everyday role. Even then, the Nationals would be wise to consider making a move to improve the outfield depth.

Magglio Ordonez could be an interesting option for the team, but that would all be contingent on his health and his ability to play the outfield on occasion.

Wilson Ramos will be seeing the bulk of the catching duty in 2012, so highly touted prospect Jesus Flores will slot into the backup role. This is one of the few bright spots on the bench, as Flores has loads of potential that is just waiting to be tapped into.

With Ramos's breakout season in 2011, Flores will have to wait at least one more season before seeing significant innings behind the plate.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 18: Jesus Flores #26 of the Washington Nationals is congratulated by Jonny Gomes #30 after scoring a Cincinnati Reds at Nationals Park on August 18, 2011 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The versatility of Mike Morse allows the Nationals to get a bit creative when trying to backup the corner infield positions, but with no viable options to cover for him in left field should he need to play the infield, the Nationals would be wise just to leave him in left.

The team signed veteran Mark DeRosa in the offseason, so he'll be given every opportunity to win the job. As is the case with many other Nationals, DeRosa has had injury problems in the past, so he'll have to overcome those if he wants to earn his spot.

Steve Lombardozzi figures to back up Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa in the middle of the diamond in 2012. In limited action last season, Lombardozzi failed to produce at the plate, but considering the fact that he was named the Nationals Minor League Player of the Year in 2011, I think the team will be patient with him.

The lack of bench depth for the Nationals is a result of inexperience and injury history. If all the players mentioned can stay healthy or tap into their potential, the bench would definitely stand to increase.

A solid veteran bat may be a good pickup at this point for Rizzo and the Nationals, but there will be plenty of time for that once the team can really assess its needs during the spring.

Strong bench or not, the Nationals will be a team on the rise in 2012.