The Washington Times - December 6, 2011, 08:01PM

DALLAS — The Nationals front-line needs have been clear for some time. In case you haven’t heard, they’re interested in a starting pitcher and a center fielder.

But where the majority of their offseason work truly sits is in assembling their bench. It was, quite frankly, one of the worst in baseball last season when it came to pinch hitting and offensive output. That’s something the Nationals would like to fix — with an eye on acquiring versatile players who are solid defensively at a number of positions.

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Nationals manager Davey Johnson prefers his bench be more offensive-minded. Less politely, and in his words, he’d like to look down the bench and have a hairy-chested slugger he can match-up with the other team’s bullpen. He wants a bench filled with players other managers have to manage against.

“Davey’s mentioned before that we like well-rounded players that can drive in runs, that are offensive-orientated, versatile, flexible and allows Davey to be creative as a manager — to play the matchup game and show his strategic abilities in the dugout,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said Tuesday. “(We want to) give him the players that he needs to outmanage the other team and give himself the best matchups to win the game, especially at the end.”

So who could the Nationals target here? Tops on their list appears to be veteran Mark DeRosa, whom Johnson managed in the World Baseball Classic in 2009 but who’s missed almost the entirety of the past two years with wrist issues. 

Johnson made no secret of that fact on Monday, noting that he’s spoken with DeRosa directly about the possibility of joining the Nationals.

“I looked at his last two years,” Johnson said. “They weren’t too stellar. And I know he has injured his left wrist or something about a tendon in his left wrist. But I had him in the World Baseball Classic, really quality guy.  I really like him. If he’s healthy, he fits the role about as good as you can get.”

DeRosa can play almost any position on the field — and has — so he’d be a good option for the Nationals as a right-handed bat off the bench. When healthy, DeRosa is a solid hitter and had 10 or more home runs from 2006-2009 with 21 and 23 in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Even last year, when he played in just 47 games for the Giants and didn’t even register 100 at-bats, he hit .279 and had a .351 on-base percentage.

The catch, however, is the if in ‘if he’s healthy.’ There are no guarantees that any player will make it through a season healthy but for someone with DeRosa’s immediate history, there certainly aren’t. Still, in discussing the option with one Nationals official Tuesday at the winter meetings, it was pointed out that in order for him to be that bench player, his health will most likely not come into play. With the majority of their regulars solidified in every day roles, his use would be minimal to begin with. If someone in the infield (second base, shortstop, third base) were to suffer a major injury, the Nationals could turn their eyes toward Steve Lombardozzi.

Lombardozzi doesn’t appear to be a primary candidate for the bench at this point, the Nationals preferring to let him continue to play every day in Triple-A if possible. Still, Johnson noted that Lombardozzi could fill the role as long as Johnson was committed to getting him pretty regular playing time. Odds are, though, that the Nationals would prefer to have a more veteran bench and let Lombardozzi continue to develop in the minor leagues. 

Another candidate would be Rick Ankiel, who could help the Nationals fill the gap in center field between when the season starts and when they deem Bryce Harper ready to arrive in the major leagues (if that’s not right out of spring training) before transitioning to a fourth outfielder role. He’d also be able to serve as a left-handed bat off the bench and, as we saw several times last year, he does have some pop. Ankiel was drastically better when he got regular playing time, though, and that will likely be taken into consideration. Still, the Nationals haven’t closed the door to Ankiel and he is a client of Scott Boras, with whom we know the Nationals have a good working relationship. 

Whoever they end up collecting, expect Johnson to have heavy input here — as he does in all facets of the Nationals’ roster construction.

“It’s vital to have the manager in on every decision we make,” Rizzo said. “He knows the minor league system, he knows the players that are coming, he knows how he’s going to utilize them, he knows his managing style and he puts that information into managing against our division.

“We make cognizant decisions when we construct a team about: ‘What’s the best way to beat the Phillies.’ ‘What’s the best way to attack the Marlins?’ ‘Do we have enough left-handers to combat such and such lineups?’ That type of thing. The manager’s input is vital and he’s been in on every step of the decision process.”