Nationals strike gold with role players a year after floundering in that department


PITTSBURGH -- The so-called scrap heap isn’t always kind. General managers are sifting through what other general managers didn’t want in search of a solution for a problem they have. The odds of success in such an equation are low. Think about it in real life: there’s an issue and the strategy is to resolve it with someone else’s previous problem. Not great.

But, that’s where injuries and under-performance push GMs each season. The Opening Day nine don’t make it through the season. They got hurt. They fail. Sometimes both. Which leaves the water-carrying to the role players.

How those fill-ins -- whether in-house or later acquired -- perform can pivot a season. 

They failed in Washington last year. Wilmer Difo hit .230. The year before, he hit .271 as a supplemental part. Brian Goodwin played 48 games, good for a 79 OPS-plus in 2018. The season before? An .811 OPS. Mark Reynolds was serviceable at the plate thanks to 13 home runs and a 110 OPS-plus. Otherwise, the fill-ins didn’t work.

Similar troubles spilled into the start of 2019 when April and May jeopardized the season. Difo again under-performed. Top-prospect Carter Kieboom wasn’t ready when Trea Turner was hurt. Michael A. Taylor played his way to Double-A Harrisburg.

The opposite occurred for dice rolls Gerardo Parra, 32, and Asdrúbal Cabrera, 33, and bench mainstays Howie Kendrick and Matt Adams. Parra’s .814 OPS has paired with defensive versatility and dugout bonanzas to make him among the most valuable role players in the league -- a surprise to most. Cabrera homered again in Wednesday’s 11-1 win in Pittsburgh. He’s hitting .324 since arriving with two home runs in 37 at-bats. 

Cabrera is in his 13th season; Parra his 11th. Both dealt with similar paths to end up in Washington. 

Cabrera was released for the first time in his career when Texas sent him out Aug. 3. The news was a jolt.

“That surprised me at that moment,” Cabrera said. “I got my son with me that day and he's always been with me. He was crying. ... But, I keep it in my mind I know I've still got a chance to still play baseball and trust myself. Washington called me and I feel really good to be back here and show the people I can still do it.”

The Nationals signed him three days later. Parra joined the team two days after becoming a free agent. He took one call -- from Washington. Then, he immediately turned his season around, too.

They were added to Adams and Kendrick, two of the league’s better bench players. Adams hit his 14th double Wednesday to go with 20 home runs and serviceable first base play. Kendrick has a .913 OPS despite a second-half slowdown. Both have been key in keeping the Nationals afloat.

They were here from the start. Parra and Cabrera showed up after being discarded elsewhere, adjusting midseason, trying to figure out what’s next after a decade in the game. And their additions were giant supplements to Adams and Kendrick, rounding out a roster the same way role players did in division-winning seasons under Dusty Baker.

“It’s tough, cause you don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” Davey Martinez said of the adjustment. “For me, cause I got traded many times during the season later in my career, it’s more about family. 'Oh man, I’ve got to pick up, I’ve got to get my family here.' On the other hand, when you do get picked up, you feel pretty good about yourself. 'Hey, there’s a team out there that wants you.' And especially a team that’s in the playoff hunt.

"You come and you get an ability to help somebody get to the playoffs, for these guys when they come in here they’re ramped up. They’re ready to go. All the new guys we got. They’re fired up. They see what’s going on. They love the clubhouse. They love their teammates. We welcome them in like they’ve been here all year. And they appreciate it.”