There's no better reminder that the long-dormant race for the National League East's pennant is finally alive than Scott Hairston.
No, that's not a misprint.
True, the acquisition by the Nationals late Sunday night of the 33-year-old part-time Cubs outfielder is hardly the sort of transaction that sends ripples through baseball's July trade-a-thon. But teams preparing early-October vacation plans don't make these kinds of moves.
The Braves' once-daunting division lead has shrunk faster than B.J. Upton's batting average or the odds of his fast-starting younger brother, Justin, of collecting a Most Valuable Player trophy. And suddenly, after injuries (and even more injuries) and batting order shake-ups and a parade of minor league replacements and Davey Johnson doing everything but pull out his hair in front of the assembled press, the Nationals are back in the race.
That's why one can type "Scott Hairston" and "important" in the same sentence without resorting to sarcasm best reserved for the Nationals' occasional, much-pilloried inflatable mascot named Air Screech.
Hairston is scuffling at the plate. Let's get that out of the way. Sure, the sample size is small. But he's been awful. A .172 average and .232 on-base percentage in 112 plate appearances aren't the stuff that usually leads to long-term employment. It's the sort of line that gets one shipped off for a little-known Single-A prospect, which is, in fact, what happened to Hairston. But to focus on that is to miss the larger picture of a minor deal with major implications.
The addition isn't flashy. But the move is one the Nationals need.
As injuries robbed Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos and Jayson Werth of extended time in the field, the bench has been exposed as a significant weakness. Four main backups — Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Chad Tracy — combined for minus-3.2 wins above replacement and 17.6 percent of plate appearances by non-pitchers.
That, for those not inclined to sabermetrics, is as helpful as a ski parka on a 90-degree afternoon.
The bench's problems are part of the reason the offense, despite the recent surge as Harper and Werth returned to health, languishes among baseball's bottom five in most major categories. Fixing that group to be able to pair with a pitching staff that has weathered its own series of injuries is crucial to any effort to catch up with, or even surpass, the Braves.
Left-handed pitchers compound the problem. The already-anemic offense dips to a .218 batting average and .283 on-base percentage against them. Even regulars like Harper and Denard Span struggle here.
Enter Hairston and his two critical skills: power and the ability to mash left-handed pitchers. All eight of his home runs this season (as many as the four non-catcher backups combined) came against left-handers, along with a .500 slugging percentage.
That's in line with Hairston's career, in which he's mirrored that .500 slugging percentage along with 47 home runs over 1,009 plate appearances against southpaws. He's an ideal platoon outfielder who can play left field or right with serviceable defense and the ability to slide over to center in a pinch. (His versatility doesn't match that of his brother, Jerry, however, who played five positions for the Nationals in 2011 before being traded to the Dodgers.)
At the same time, the deal allows Tyler Moore to return to Triple-A Syracuse and ample at-bats. The young first baseman and outfielder already spent 12 games there earlier this season in an attempt to rediscover the stroke that smacked 10 home runs in limited action last year. That trip didn't work.
Moore's swing has remained jarringly absent, even, again, with a miniscule sample size. Of big league players with at least 100 plate appearances this season, Moore has the second-worst batting average (.151) and third-worst on-base percentage (.195). Also in that ignominious top three? Danny Espinosa.
Consistent at-bats to help Moore out of the funk haven't been there as the team's cloud of injuries has lifted and regulars returned. Hairston, though, is familiar with a limited role.
Adding the outfielder isn't the difference between another pennant to hang in Nationals Park and a hangdog October. But the cost is low and Hairston shores up a key weakness on the 25-man roster. The Nationals are better today. This is a move winning teams make, a move that reminds us the pennant chase is far from over.
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