SAN DIEGO — As Washington manager Davey Johnson sat at his desk Sunday morning, rain pounding on the field outside, he reflected on his team’s 12-4 record. The second-best mark in the National League and the East division lead belonged to the Nationals.
As was an offense that ranked in the league’s bottom third in almost every category.
“Every day,” Johnson said, kicking his feet up on the desk, “another guy gets feeling a little bit better offensively.”
The season is young, and few players are where they’d like to be offensively, but the most glaring hole appears to be in left field. Michael Morse is out until at least June with a torn right lat. The three players the Nationals have used in his place have combined to hit .151 with one home run in the first 16 games.
And then there’s this: news that first base prospect Tyler Moore, who has hit 31 homers in each of the past two seasons and is off to a torrid start at Triple-A Syracuse, is getting time in left field.
“We wanted to just introduce the possibility,” said third base coach Bo Porter, who gave Moore a private outfield tutorial for four days in Houston this offseason and worked with him again at spring training. “Not knowing what could happen, it just creates more flexibility for him and increases his value.”
The timing is convenient. Moore is third in the International League with six homers in 17 games and has hit .290 with a .357 on-base percentage and .657 slugging percentage. It’s led to speculation the hot-hitting right-hander could provide the offensive boost the Nationals lack. But it wasn’t a decision made on the fly.
Moore spent 12 days at Instructional League last fall immersing himself in the position. He worked with Porter in Houston and spent time each day in the spring shagging flies there during batting practice. Three of the 17 games Moore has played for the Chiefs this season have come in left. And while he’s trying to remain focused on what he’s doing there, as the Chiefs have stumbled to a 4-13 record, it’s difficult not to recognize what’s going on at the major league level and the opportunity that could be in front of him if he keeps hitting.
“I definitely try not to [pay attention to the situation with the big league team],” Moore said in a phone interview. “But you hear buzz about what’s going on. If my time comes and they feel like I can help, then that’ll be it and I’ll try to do my best. But until then, I’m not really worried.”
The suggestion to learn left field was presented to Moore toward the end of the 2011 season. It was a way for the 25-year-old to expand his versatility and not necessarily as a speedier path to the big leagues, because the Nationals didn’t anticipate Morse’s absence.
But Moore was open to the move and has been adjusting accordingly. Reading the ball off the bat and learning various game situations have been his biggest hurdles, he said, but most of those issues likely will fade with time and repetition. Team officials believe he’d be adequate in left at the major league level. Porter has few doubts.
“He can definitely play the outfield in the big leagues this year,” Porter said. “Whenever you have a guy who makes that transition, there will be a learning curve. But he is a hard worker who takes instruction easily and is able to apply it in the game once you give it to him - so his learning curve is not going to take a long time.”
Said Moore: “If the team needs a left fielder and they feel like they need a right-handed bat, maybe I can fill that. I don’t really know what the plans are, but if they have a suggestion, ‘Try this, try that,’ I’ll definitely consider it and try to do my very best.”
Notes - Outfielder Brett Carroll, who was designated for assignment April 14 to make room on the roster for Rick Ankiel, cleared waivers and accepted outright assignment to Syracuse on Tuesday … The Nationals have been alone in first place in the NL East for the past 12 days, their longest stretch from that perch since a 46-day run in the summer of 2005.