The Odd Outfielder Out
This has been an unusual spring training, P.T. Barnum-ish, and that hasn't made us forget about the guys on the field, but it sure has subtracted from the focus they're getting. And that's a shame. On this point, SK and I would agree.
Anyway, I just wanted to briefly disunite us from the Bowden frenzy and talk about one player in the Nats clubhouse and what he's doing, very quietly, this spring. See, Ryan Langerhans is always quiet. You see him in the clubhouse, reading hunting magazines, watching video, never talking above a whisper. You get the sense his heartrate never tops about 15 beats per minute. Still, teammates almost universally use the same words to describe him: He's a hard worker. He's reliable. You know what you're gonna get.
"He's a great defender," Kory Casto said. "He did great in the pinch-hit role last year."
Well, maybe not great. He spent 73 games with the Nats last year, finishing with a .234 average. But he settled into a reliable player as the year went on, particularly after he was recalled for the second time from Class AAA Columbus in mid-July. (His average before the break: .188 / His average after the break: .253.)
After the season, in October, Washington decided to drop Langerhans from its 40-man roster. Langerhans was moose hunting with a few buddies in Montana at the time; he looked at his cell phone and saw a message from Jim Bowden. When the two finally talked -- Langerhans only got reception when he came into town of Dillon, Mont. -- Bowden explained the team would like him back as a non-roster guy. Which meant that Langerhans, at 28, had a job offer. Kind of. It was the kind of job that could lead two ways: If he excelled in spring training, Langerhans had the chance to continue the big league life. If not... well, he'd be making $16,000 per month, a salary spread across only six months.
For a while, Langerhans considered looking for a different organization. But he'd been around, starting with Atlanta, then getting traded to Oakland, then landing in Washington after yet another trade. Did Langerhans really want to start over -- again?
"I have a comfort level here," Langerhans explained. "They know I'll go out there and play hard all of the time. Going somewhere new, I would have needed to reestablish that."
In December, Langerhans signed a minor league deal and re-joined the Nats.
Only one downside to that scenario.
"You don't have to re-prove yourself," Casto said. "The only bad thing is that people kind of label you as a guy, and who's to say he can't get better? He's a fourth outfielder, labeled as a fourth outfielder. And what's to say he can't be an everyday guy someday."
People talk a lot about the ramifications of Washington's improved outfield depth this year. It'll present the lineup with more power, and it supplies the team with trade options. But sometimes, people forget about how that depth trickles down and changes the life of somebody like Langerhans. Last year, Langerhans spent half of his time as a big-leaguer. This year, the team has said, he has little chance of making the roster, no matter how well he takes care of his own business.
"Listen, I don't think it's a secret," Manager Manny Acta said. "Everybody knows that we have a lot of outfielders. So for guys like him, it will take not only being very impressive in camp, but also for us to make some moves. Because not everyone can make this club."
Recently I talked to Langerhans about this notion -- to have your standing as a big leaguer jeopardized by so many circumstances outside of his control. Langerhans has been through this before, of course; he's been up and down between Class AAA and the big leagues for much of his career. He's what many in baseball describe as a Class AAAA player.
"It is a little bit weird, but like you said, a lot of guys go through it," Langerhans said. "Dmitri [Young] and Ronnie [Belliard] went through it a couple years ago, coming to camp as longshots to make the team, and they did. And things worked out well for them since then. So I try not to think about ending up here or there. The only thing I want to do is go out every day this spring and feel very prepared."
"I know I can play at this level," he said. "I've been productive before. It's just a matter of me doing well."
In 2008, Langerhans felt like he got a better sense of how to be an effective bench player. Many of the NL's relief pitchers became familiar to him, either because of film study or facing them multiple times. When he homered off Atlanta closer Mike Gonzalez late in the year, it was a result of preparation, Langerhans said. He knew Gonzalez, knew that he'd get a breaking ball.
"I just got better at going up there with a gameplan," Langerhans said.
Now, Langerhans has a taller order.
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