NEW YORK -- The Nationals have survived without Jayson Werth for nearly three months now, and the time is fast approaching for the veteran right fielder to rejoin the club after recovering from a broken left wrist.
Werth played in his first rehab game with Class AAA Syracuse last night -- he went 0-for-3, grounding into a double play -- and general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson have both said they'll let the 33-year-old dictate how much more time he needs in the minors.
That could be as little as one more week, and Johnson acknowledged Werth could come off the disabled list for the start of the Nationals' next homestand. That just so happens to come on July 31, with the Phillies in town. And wouldn't that offer up a juicy storyline, with Werth returning to the field against his former club and against the same team he was facing when he broke the wrist in the first place (with many Philadelphia fans in attendance mocking him as he departed the field in terrible pain).
Obviously, Werth has motivation to make it back for that game. But the Nationals need to be careful not to rush him back too soon, for a couple of reasons...
1) As we saw earlier this summer with Michael Morse, it can take a while for a player who has missed considerable time with an injury to get his swing back on track. Morse (who played only seven rehab games before coming off the DL) needed almost a month in the big leagues before he looked like his old self again.
2) The Nats have been making do for awhile now without Werth, and they can make do for another week or two if they have to. Roger Bernadina is playing extraordinarily well at the moment, and his is the outfield and lineup spot Werth would take over.
There could be some temptation on the Nationals part to try to get Werth back in the lineup as quickly as possible now that they've lost Ian Desmond to an oblique tear. But that's the wrong reason to rush another player back from a serious injury.
Desmond's injury has actually brought some clarity to a Nationals lineup that might have needed to be jumbled up once Werth was back. His return would have left Johnson with two second basemen in Danny Espinosa and Steve Lombardozzi and only one starting job between them. And whoever would up starting would have to lead off, given the makeup of the rest of the lineup.
With Desmond out for at least a month, though, both Espinosa and Lombardozzi remain in the lineup, with Lombardozzi assuming permanent leadoff duties. That actually will save Johnson from making a difficult decision, and he can now just insert Werth into the No. 6 spot behind Adam LaRoche and in front of Espinosa, a natural fit.
But that arrangement only works if Werth is healthy and ready to face big-league pitchers. One week on rehab may not be enough.
The Nationals would be wise to take their time here. And Werth would be wise to listen to them and return only when he's truly ready.