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Nats' recent surge shows importance of depth

Veterans Adams, Kendrick, Hellickson have produced as fill-in options
MLB.com @RichardJustice

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo looks like he's going to have those Executive of the Year awards wrapped up without anyone needing to waste time counting votes.

Take a bow, Mike. This season has reminded us why there's pretty much no one in the sport better at his job. Now we understand why Rizzo thought it was so important to add Matt Adams, Howie Kendrick and Jeremy Hellickson to your roster.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo looks like he's going to have those Executive of the Year awards wrapped up without anyone needing to waste time counting votes.

Take a bow, Mike. This season has reminded us why there's pretty much no one in the sport better at his job. Now we understand why Rizzo thought it was so important to add Matt Adams, Howie Kendrick and Jeremy Hellickson to your roster.

And why Rizzo worked so hard to convince Mark Reynolds to accept a Minor League deal.

Some wise baseball man once said roster-building is as much an art as a science. In a season in which the Nationals have been hit ridiculously hard by injuries -- we'll get to the ugly details later -- Washington is still positioned to make the playoffs for the fifth time in seven seasons.

That would be, in large part, because Rizzo did a remarkable job acquiring depth all over the diamond. In doing this, he was preparing for a string of worst-case scenarios.

For instance, losing your center fielder (Adam Eaton), second baseman (Daniel Murphy), third baseman (Anthony Rendon) and first baseman (Ryan Zimmerman) to injuries.

All remain on the disabled list except Rendon. In all, the Nats have used the list 26 times, the fifth-most times in baseball, and lost 374 days (and counting) to injuries. Only three teams -- the Rangers, Padres and Yankees -- have had more.

Video: ARI@WSH: Kendrick smacks a 2-run homer to left-center

For the Yanks, injuries opened the door for some of the stars of baseball's best Minor League system, including second baseman Gleyber Torres and third baseman Miguel Andujar.

For Rizzo, the injuries forced him to rely on the veteran depth he built in the offseason. While our questions to Rizzo were almost always about adding a big-ticket starting pitcher -- "So, Mike, have you talked to Jake Arrieta lately?" -- his most important work got far less attention.

Kendrick, Adams and utility infielder Wilmer Difo have started a combined 88 games and contributed 24 doubles and 16 home runs. And there's Reynolds, just up from the Minors. He belted two home runs in his first start Sunday.

Video: Must C Clutch: Reynolds homers twice in Nats debut

Reynolds was one of Rizzo's last additions, coming after an offseason in which he had been disappointed by the lack of a market for someone who hit 30 home runs for the Rockies last season.

If Rizzo hadn't had a long personal history with Reynolds -- he was Arizona's scouting director when the slugger was a 16th-round pick in 2004 -- the signing might not have happened.

In the end, Reynolds knew Rizzo and trusted him, and when Zimmerman went down, the Nationals didn't skip a beat.

Washington has won 13 of 15 since an 11-16 start that tested an entire organization. Now at 24-18 after Tuesday's suspended game and Wednesday's scheduled game, both against the Yankees, were postponed, the Nationals are a mere two games out of first place in a tight National League East as the Dodgers come to Nationals Park for a three-game series beginning Friday. The Nats have won more regular-season games (579) since Opening Day 2012 than any other Major League team, but they have yet to get over the hump in the postseason.

The Nationals are one of a handful of teams that wouldn't surprise anybody were they to win a World Series. With a rotation led by Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and a lineup constructed around right fielder Bryce Harper, the Nats are a team with virtually no weakness -- when healthy, that is.

Now with Harper approaching free agency, this season has played out with an added sense of urgency. Had Rizzo not accumulated so much depth, things could have gone off the rails. They didn't because Adams, 29, has a 1.011 OPS while playing both left field and first base.

And Kendrick, signed probably as much for his veteran presence and leadership as whatever he'd provide from a production standpoint, leads the NL with 14 doubles and has an .808 OPS.

Hellickson has been magnificent filling in in the back of the rotation, with an 0.86 WHIP and 2.20 ERA in six starts. Adams, Kendrick, Hellickson and Reynolds are making around $10 million, which is the definition of efficiency. At one point in late April, Harper waved off the slow start, saying, "OK, we're 13-16 with the Syracuse SkyChiefs."

Video: WSH@SD: Hellickson's perfect-game bid ends in 7th

That reference to the Chiefs became a rallying cry around the team, and things changed shortly after that. But the reference is valid.

The Nationals have used 36 players, including 10 who started the season at Triple-A. In attempting to calm the waters, Harper inadvertently pointed to his organization's greatest strength.

Rookie manager Dave Martinez passed his first test with flying colors. His next one will be how to balance the playing time when Murphy, Zimmerman and Eaton return from the DL.

This is the kind of challenge every manager would love to have. Compared to the first one, it ought to be a breeze.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Washington Nationals