Nationals' depth separates them from the pack

Nationals' depth separates them from the pack

VIERA, Fla. -- If there's anything that indicates how far the Nationals have climbed in standing, perhaps more than the individual accolades or even last year's division title, it's the collection of role players and organizational depth general manager Mike Rizzo and the franchise have built over the last few years.

Former All-Stars like Chris Young, signed to a Minor League deal on Thursday, and Dan Haren, expected to be Washington's fourth or fifth starter, have come in to round out the staff rather than lead it, as they potentially could elsewhere.

Young position players like Tyler Moore (10 homers and 29 RBIs, and a .840 OPS in 156 at-bats last season) and Steve Lombardozzi (playing outfield and infield last year when Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond were out with injuries) hold down backup spots when they otherwise could likely start for a number of clubs in baseball.

"I've never had guys that I think could play regularly on other ballclubs on my bench," manager Davey Johnson said. "And I have that here. It's gonna be one of the more challenging years to manage because I've got a lot of gamers out there that'd like to bite my head off if I don't have them in the lineup. But I like my choices."

The Nationals' bench last season -- known affably as the Goon Squad -- was a vital part of the team's success. Returning bench players Moore (171 plate appearances), Lombardozzi (416), Chad Tracy (105) and Roger Bernadina (261) combined to account for more than 15 percent of the Nationals' plate appearances. Eight non-starters received more than 100.

"We knew that our bench was producing as well as anybody's bench in the league," Tracy said. "We took a lot of pride in it, and as a whole, we're a very close-knit group. We talk about the game during the game, figure out where we're gonna be best utilized and try to think along with Davey. Taking pride in it, not just coming in there and saying 'I'm not playing tonight. I'm gonna let down my guard.' No, we always have our guard up and try to stay as prepared as we can. The big thing is accepting the role and taking pride in it."

Rizzo says it's not easy to get players to come to Washington as non-roster invitees. Young, whom Rizzo said has an opt-out clause to turn down being sent to Triple-A, has nine years of big-league experience. Other non-roster invitees Bill Bray, Ross Ohlendorf, Will Ohman, Chris Snyder and Micah Owings all have significant Major League time.

"We like the group that we have," Rizzo said. "I will say that it was very, very difficult to get guys on that scenario to come in on Minor League contracts just because of the roster we have intact. The front office did a great job of acquiring guys on the field that have a chance to help us if not at the beginning of the season, sometime during the season, always with the forethought of having depth at multiple positions."

The time for those players to prove their worth is now. Johnson has said he will rest most of his veteran players -- Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos and Jayson Werth are all working their way back to full strength, and Adam LaRoche doesn't require many spring at-bats -- early in the Grapefruit League schedule, so it leaves the door open for players like Moore, Corey Brown and Lombardozzi.

Also, trips to the World Baseball Classic for starters Ross Detwiler and Gio Gonzalez allow for opportunities for pitchers like Zach Duke, Young, Ohlendorf, Christian Garcia, Nathan Karns and Matt Purke.

"Davey's gonna look at a lot of guys during spring because everybody knows how important it is to be deep," Tracy said. "When you have injuries to your main guys, you always like to have that security blanket to fall back on. ... He knows what his team's gonna be, but at the same time, he wants to know what kind of talent he has in the organization."

Joey Nowak is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak.‬ This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.