This Nationals spring training is defined, in part, by its lack of competition. The clear picture at 22 of 25 spots shows the progress the Nationals have made building a stable, mostly homegrown roster.
The most interesting spring decision to watch, then, might be the competition for utility infielder between Steve Lombardozzi and Andres Blanco. It’s possible both make the team, if the Nationals opt for four outfielders and seven infielders. Lombardozzi seems to have the initial edge over Blanco, a slick-fielding veteran the Nationals signed to a minor league deal this winter. But “he hasn’t made the club yet,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
If Lombardozzi does make the opening day roster, it will create a delicate situation for Johnson. The Nationals view Lombardozzi, 23, as a solid part of their future. If he made the major league team, they would have to balance his development with his role on the bench, getting him enough at-bats in an infield that includes stalwarts – Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa – at every position.
“He won’t be a true utility player,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “But a hybrid role, where he can get multiple at-bats and we could utilize his skill set and still have him develop as a player … We see him as an everyday player. And Davey sees him the same way. And Davey is going to utilize him to get those 300 at-bats in the major leagues.”
Lombardozzi, the son of a major leaguer with the same name, earned a reputation as a mistake-free player in his four minor league seasons. He struck out just once every 7.5 plate appearances. Playing a full season between Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Syracuse, Lombardozzi incredibly made only two errors last year. And he had a combined .360 on-base percentage.
The Nationals believe they can throw almost anything at Lombardozzi, and he can handle it. After his promotion to Class AAA Syracuse, coaches told him he would occasionally be placed at third base – a position he had never played before. He played just once at third in Syracuse, then started three games there during his September call-up.
“They threw me over there,” Lombardozzi said. “It was funny at first. I was like, ‘Alright.’ But it was fun. I enjoyed it. I just told myself, Be aggressive on everything.”
By the end of last season, Lombardozzi had lost weight and worn down. During his call-up, he looked like “a skinny little beanpole,” Johnson said. He weighed 180 at the end of last season. He gained 10 pounds before he even began weightlifting. Lombardozzi, who still lives in Atholton, where he grew up, shot up to 197 before arriving at camp.
“I’m coming in here with the outlook that I’m going to do everything that I can control,” Lombardozzi said. “And then it’s out of my hands. It’s not my decision. But I want to help this team win. I think we all want to start, but I’m here to help this team win, whatever it is.”
If Lombardozzi makes the team, Johnson would be tasked with moving him around the infield, creating enough opportunity for him to not curb his development. Espinosa, Desmond and Zimmerman are pretty protective of their playing time, but then “so is everybody else I’ve ever had,” Johnson said.
“I think it’ll be a challenge for Davey,” Rizzo said. “He’s got it planned out, mapped out. I think what Davey does best is, he gets guys to buy into roles and opportunities.”
If the Nationals decide Lombardozzi’s future would be better served if he played everyday in the minors, they have a quality option in Blanco. He’s been overlooked as a possibility to make the roster, but his steady glove gices him a chance.
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