Aug 25, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT
Matt Williams will get a chance to do something tonight he hasn’t been able to do since July 6: Fill out a lineup card that includes Denard Span’s name. And he very well may get a chance to do something he hasn’t been able to do at all in 2015: Fill out a lineup card that includes everybody who was projected to be there on Opening Day.
It’s a long-awaited and much-welcomed development for the Nationals, who are planning to activate Span off the disabled list following a seven-week stint with a lower back injury and who hope Yunel Escobar is ready to return after missing a couple of games with a minor neck injury.
But it also leaves Williams facing a dilemma he never figured would be an issue way back when this season began nearly five months ago: What does he do with Michael Taylor?
Taylor has played admirably all season, filling in both for Span in center field and Jayson Werth in left field. The 24-year-old rookie ranks third on the club with 13 homers, second with 55 RBI and first with 15 stolen bases.
Taylor also has started 64 consecutive games, a streak that dates back to June 11. The Nationals can’t just stick him on the bench now, can they?
Well, not exactly. But don’t expect to see him remain in the lineup on a daily basis, either.
Span is this team’s starting center fielder, and he is vitally important to the club’s fortunes. It’s been noted several times before, but it bears repeating: The Nationals are 35-24 this season when Span plays, 27-37 when he doesn’t. Of course his presence alone isn’t responsible for that disparity in wins and losses — no player in history has made that kind of difference — but there’s no denying that he is tremendously important to this team.
And there’s no denying Span is a significantly better player than Taylor right now. For all that he’s done this season as a rookie thrust into a major role, Taylor remains a below-average offensive player (.242 batting average, .290 on-base percentage, OPS+ of 85). Span, meanwhile, is hitting .304 with a .367 on-base percentage, .430 slugging percentage (surprisingly, second on the club to Bryce Harper) and OPS+ of 118 (also second-best to Harper).
So, it’s obvious Span needs to be the Nationals’ starting center fielder once again. Less obvious is whether Werth needs to continue being their starting left fielder.
In the big picture, Taylor has outperformed Werth, who is batting a scant .202 with a .278 on-base percentage, paltry .303 slugging percentage and embarrassingly low OPS+ of 59 (worst of any Nationals player with at least 50 plate appearances this season).
But in the small picture, Werth has suddenly turned quite productive again just within the last week. Since moving into the leadoff spot while the club was in Colorado, the 36-year-old is hitting .320 (8-for-25) with a .393 on-base percentage, four extra-base hits and .913 OPS. He looks like the old Jayson Werth at long last.
If he can maintain anything close to that kind of production over the season’s final five weeks, Werth will be more valuable at the plate to the Nationals than Taylor. And given his track record over his entire career and over the last five seasons in D.C., Werth has earned some benefit of the doubt.
None of that, however, means Taylor should waste away on the bench. The Nationals need to keep finding ways to get him on the field on a somewhat regular basis. Both because of his potential to contribute, but also because of Span and Werth’s needs for more regular rest.
Both veterans have battled through multiple injuries this season, and both have been dealing with lingering ailments that could benefit from the occasional day off. Getting Taylor at least 2-to-3 starts per week between left and center fields would be a wise plan.
So would declaring once and for all that Werth is a defensive liability at age 36. Williams referred to a couple of misplayed balls in left field the other night as an “aberration” but this isn’t new. We started seeing the decline in the field last season and it has become much more apparent this year.
If the Nationals hold a lead in the seventh inning or later the rest of this season, Taylor needs to replace Werth in left field.
Put it all together — at least two or three starts per week between both positions, plus the late-inning defensive move — and the Nationals can still make sure Taylor plays a significant role down the stretch while at the same time making sure Span and Werth are put in the best possible positions to be successful and contribute in their own ways.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
ON THE RADIO
As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.
*All times Eastern. You can also listen to the station on 94.3 FM, 92.7 FM and online at ESPN980.com. Click here for past audio clips.
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