Phil Wood: Tough call on the bench for the Nationals

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The Nationals' Opening Day roster featured what appears to be their best bench since baseball returned to the District in 2005. Mark DeRosa has played left field, right field and all four infield spots over his 15-year career. Chad Tracy has played left, right, first and third since he debuted in 2004. Brett Carroll has played all three outfield positions. Steve Lombardozzi is nominally a second baseman but can handle short and third -- and got some reps in left this spring. Xavier Nady has seen action at first, third and all three outfield slots over the past decade. These guys are versatile, no question about it.

So what's the problem?

When Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel come off of the disabled list -- as soon as next weekend -- two of the aforementioned utility players will be sent to Syracuse. Figuring out exactly who that's going to be doesn't require an advanced degree but will be a difficult decision nonetheless.

Carroll is a fine defender, an intelligent baserunner and a career .203 hitter. He topped the .200 level just one time in his big league career, with the Marlins in 2009. He's a right-handed batter, but likely not a major pinch-hitting option for manager Davey Johnson. Ankiel and Roger Bernadina can also play all three outfield spots. Carroll's time with the big club will likely be brief.

The other player likely headed for upstate New York is Lombardozzi. He's hit at or near .300 every year he's played in the minor leagues. He's a sure-handed fielder who's very athletic. He basically has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. And Johnson even said he was confident he could find 300-350 plate appearances for Lombardozzi coming off the bench. It made some sense, certainly, since a switch-hitter like Lombardozzi could face any pitcher and put the ball in play. He doesn't strike out a lot and can steal bases.

But, as we learned in John Lannan's case, what the skipper says one week is subject to change, even just a few weeks or days later. The thing that Lombardozzi has, as did Lannan, is options. He can be sent out without having to worry about losing him on a waiver claim. He can play every day at Triple-A ball and be back in Washington within a few hours if necessary.

If Lombardozzi does get sent down, the club will likely point out that he has fewer than 70 games of Triple-A experience, and a demotion has nothing at all to do with what they think of him as a player. Scouts I've talked to believe Lombardozzi will have a productive major league career. With the Nats' middle infield slots under constant scrutiny, no one will be shocked if he's back pretty quickly.

Priorities change if and when someone else gets hurt. Young bench players know it's nothing personal, just business.

Examiner columnist Phil Wood co-hosts the "Mid-Atlantic Sports Report" and is a regular contributor to "Nats Xtra" on MASN. Contact him at philwood@washingtonexaminer.com.

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