Washington Nationals Face Decisions on Opening Day Roster

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Washington Nationals Face Decisions on Opening Day Roster
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Over the weekend, the Washington Nationals declared Ian Desmond the winner (sort of) of the starting shortstop job over incumbent Cristian Guzman, outfielder Justin Maxwell was sent to Triple-A, and the team reopened a spot on the pitching staff we thought was previously closed.

Let's take a closer look at these three developments from the Nats' spring training as they whittle down their options toward the 25-man roster for opening day.

THE BATTLE FOR THE LAST ROTATION SPOT

Manager Jim Riggleman told reporters that John Lannan, Jason Marquis, and Craig Stammen would start the first three games of the season. With Livan Hernandez all but assured a spot, that leaves Garrett Mock, Scott Olsen, and J.D. Martin in the running for the last spot.

Actually, they are probably fighting for the No. 4 spot, since Livo is on a minor league deal, he doesn't need to be activated until necessary, leaving a spot on both the active roster and the 40-man roster to another position player to start the season.

Anyway, a couple weeks ago Mock was penciled in at the No. 3 spot, but all of  a sudden, because Mock had some trouble in a minor league start and Olsen was semi-competent against a group of Florida Marlins, the spot is now up for grabs again.Olsen has pitched 14.2 innings this spring.  He's surrendered 11 earned runs on 30 hits and a walk, striking out just six.

Olsen has given up more than two hits per inning. His velocity hasn't been better than mid-80s. He's due $1 million if he's in the organization on Wednesday. These are all factors that should lead to his release, not inclusion in the pitching rotation.

MAXWELL SENT DOWN, RIGHT FIELD STILL A QUESTION MARK

Justin Maxwell was demoted. After the spring he's had (5-for-49), it's not shocking. Riggleman said of Maxwell:

"I think that he's going to hit 25 home runs some day.  He's very aggressive on the bases. He's a guy who could hit 25 and steal 35. But he's just going to have to make more contact for that to really show itself. He knows he's going to do it. He's confident it's going to happen."

Nats' fans need to take that with a grain of salt.  Maxwell had one minor -elague season (in 2007, split between low-A Hagerstown and high-A Potomac) where he put it all together to hit 27 homers and steal 35 on the nose.  But again, that was split between to A-level leagues, and he's always been advanced age-wise in the minors.

He's a career .257/.351/.442 in the minors. He's 26. The job was open. He failed.

It leaves the right field situation in a great big mess. Willie Harris is slated to play there opening day. It's a position he's played exactly twice in a big league game. Roger Bernadina, Willy Taveras, and Mike Morse will probably all get looks there too.

Maxwell was the player the Nats hoped would win the job, but now it's left up to three slap hitters and a corner infielder to man the spot.

DESMOND CHOSEN OVER GUZMAN AT SHORTSTOP, VET MOVES TO UTILITY ROLE

Finally, we get to the Great Shortstop Debate.

I wrote several times over the winter that the Nats 'should give the job to Desmond and let him sink or swim with it.  For a team like the Nats, the decision should have been a no-brainer. 

Desmond is 24, a six-year minor league veteran. He blossomed last season after a couple of years toiling in the system. He showed in a Sept. call-up that he wasn't going to be completely over-matched against big league pitching. He has continued that into spring training, pacing the club in RBIs and getting on base consistently.

Desmond possesses great athletic ability, speed, and acumen on defense.  He still has some issues on defense, though, and that gives the casual fan cause for concern.  It shouldn't.  Desmond has terrific range and a solid throwing arm, and he can work out his problems on the better fields of the major leagues.

Remember, the man that will stand 45 feet to Desmond's right on opening day had all sorts of throwing problems, clear up until the middle of the season last year.

Guzman is an old 32. He has foot problems. His on-base percentage is terrible (zero walks this spring). He has never had any power. He's lost what speed he had at the beginning of his career. His defensive range can be compared to a postage stamp.

To top it all off, offseason shoulder surgery has compromised his ability to make all the throws from his position.

All Guzman brings is an uncanny ability to get his bat on the ball; an empty batting average.If Guzman wasn't due $8 million this year in the last of his reward contract given by former GM Jim Bowden, we wouldn't even be having this conversation.

But now, the team has decided to make Guzman, who has played no other position in a regular season game, a super-utility, getting at bats at short, second, and possibly even first base.

Riggleman even hedged his bets on Desmond, stating: 

"Desmond isn't going to be a 600 at-bat shortstop for us, because Guzman is going to play a lot of shortstop.  Guzman will get some games at second. Basically, there will be some days where I decide I want the right-handed bat of Guzman in there against certain left-handers. [Adam]Kennedy will get a day off on those days."

How about having some confidence in the kid? His manager is already planning for his failure. 

"[Desmond] may not be playing good in May, so Guzman may be our shortstop. To open the season, we're going to give Dessie a shot there to hold that position down. We hope that works."

The Nats' made the right decision, even if Desmond fails. The point is to play him and find out if he's going to be a piece of the future. They KNOW Guzman isn't. But in order for this experiment to work, the Nats HAVE TO have a long leash with Desmond.

If Riggleman manages this team with the idea of winning ballgames this season, and benches a slumping Desmond for any period of time, then it's a waste of time and energy. 

Fans want to see wins this season, I understand that. But good fans have to understand that to break this string of failure, desperate measures must be taken.  Desmond must be given every opportunity to succeed. Not just into May, or even the all-star break. They have to let the kid play.

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