Nationals positional review, Part 1: Infield

Patrick McDermott / Getty Images

Each day this week, we’ll be taking stock of every Nationals’ positional group. In Part 1 of 5 today, we’ll look at the infielders.

2012 SEASON REVIEW

The Nationals’ two most valuable players this season were infielders, and they also may have been the two Nationals who faced the biggest questions entering the season. Could Ian Desmond step forward as a legitimate everyday player? And could Adam LaRoche rebound from his torn labrum?

Both provided emphatic answers. Desmond, despite missing four weeks because of an oblique injury, led Nationals position players in wins above replacement (FanGraphs version), made his first all-star team and emerged as one of the top shortstops in the majors. He exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, and in the National League Division Series, he was the Nationals’ best player, going 7 for 19 with a double.

Teammates and coaches regarded LaRoche as the Nationals’ most valuable player. He hit 33 homers and drove in 100 runs. While he slumped for some stretches of the season, he remained healthy all year and provided left-handed power in the middle of their lineup, a crucial ingredient missing last year. His knack for scooping throws in the dirt, while hard to quantify, seemed invaluable.

After signing a $100-million contract extension, Ryan Zimmerman slumped through an early-season shoulder injury. After he healed his shoulder with a cortisone shot, Zimmerman played at an MVP-level for the final three months of the season, hitting .321/.383/.584 with 22 homers over the season’s final 90 games.

He remains an elite third baseman, but his sporadic throwing inaccuracy on routine plays may hasten a possible move to first base. Not next season or anything, but the switch is something the Nationals have pondered for the future. Zimmerman relies on his athleticism to play third, and as he ages, he won’t have bedrock fundamentals to fall back on. He’s great, but it will be hard for him to stay that way for years to come.

At second base, Danny Espinosa flashed his immense potential but also fell into vicious slumps. He finished the season hitting .247/.315/.402, playing the final two weeks of the season with a bone bruise in his shoulder that required a cortisone shot. He and the Nationals insisted it did not affect him in the postseason, but in the NLDS he went 1 for 15 with seven strikeouts.

During the regular season Espinosa struck out 189 times, which led the National League. The strikeouts are maddening, and he needs to cut down on them, but to belabor his whiffs misses the point. Even during his worst slumps (he hit .186/.282/.235 for the first 28 games of the season), Espinosa provided above-average defense at second base and a threat at the plate. He hit 16 homers, not enough to offset all the strikeouts but enough to lengthen the Nationals’ lineup.

Chad Tracy was an infielder by position, but what he really did was pinch-hit, and he did it very well. The Nationals gave him a $1 million, one-year extension to come back and do it again next year. Steve Lombardozzi’s versatility was a major boost to the Nationals’ improvement. The Nationals never really had a player like him; he could be either a lead off as a capable replacement in left field or second base or provide a solid bat off the bench. The Nationals thought would need 300 plate appearances to make it worth not letting him develop one more year at Class AAA. He got 416, hitting .273/.317/.354 while learning a new position.

OFFSEASON OUTLOOK

After his breakout season, Desmond could be in line for an extension that would give the Nationals a long-term shortstop at a controlled cost and give Desmond stability. Something like six years for $45 million would take Desmond through all three years of arbitration and buy out three years of his free agency. The Nationals may want to wait to ensure 2012 wasn’t an outlier, but they believed in Desmond even when he scuffled his first two major league seasons.

The Nationals have already had initial discussions with LaRoche about an extension. The sides share a $10 million mutual option for 2013, but LaRoche’s season will allow him to make much more on an open market bereft of quality first basemen. The Nationals want to keep LaRoche, and LaRoche wants to stay, which should lead to a deal.

If the Nationals cannot re-sign LaRoche, they would need to find a first baseman. They have two internal candidates in Michael Morse and Tyler Moore. But both are right-handed, and part of what made LaRoche so valuable this year was his left-handed bat in the middle of the Nationals’ lineup. They would need to replace his left-handed power somehow, perhaps with a corner outfielder.

There will be cries for the Nationals to replace Espinosa with Lombardozzi, which sound an awful lot like the cries this time last year for Espinosa to replace Desmond at shortstop. Espinosa’s ceiling remains far greater than any other feasible candidate at second base. Even with all those strikeouts this season, Espinosa’s 3.8 WAR ranked sixth among major league second basemen. If he can step forward like Desmond did – cut down on the strikeouts, hit seven or eight more homers and push his OBP to around .330 – the questions will go away. Given the usual developmental curve, Espinosa can.

POSSIBLE FREE AGENT TARGETS

The Nationals have no glaring needs in the infield, unless they can’t sign LaRoche. The free agent first base crop is especially weak, especially from the left side, which explains both why the Nationals want to sign him and why it makes sense for LaRoche to test the market. He had one of the best years of his career, and there is a scarcity of quality free agents at his position. James Loney and Carlos Pena are probably the two most attractive left-handed first basemen on the market, which says a lot. Right-handed hitter Mike Napoli, who’s more of a catcher, is also a free agent this year.

The Nationals may also be in the market for a right-handed, veteran reserve who can bop around the infield. Jeff Keppinger and former National Alberto Gonzalez fit that mold, but at this stage of the offseason, it’s pretty much a wild guess to find a peg that fits that hole.

PROSPECT TO WATCH

The Nationals have built up their depth in the infield with recent drafts, and the best prospect in their system is sweet-swinging Anthony Rendon. Rendon can played third base, shortstop or second base. Rendon missed most of 2012 because of a fractured ankle, but he still made it to Class AA Harrisburg and hit .223/.363/.489 in 160 total plate appearances. Rendon, the sixth overall pick in 2011, likely will start at Class AA Harrisburg and rise quickly to Class AAA Syracuse. He figures to reach the majors next year, as a call-up at the very least.

Coming tomorrow: Outfield

Also on Nationals Journal

Thanks for following along this season