Nationals positional review, Part 1: Infielders

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Each weekday, we’ll be taking stock of every Nationals’ positional groups. In Part 1 of 5, we look at the infielders.

2013 SEASON REVIEW

The Nationals entered the season with an established infielder at each position. After a stellar 2012 season, Adam LaRoche returned on a two-year, $24-million deal. Ryan Zimmerman produced 25 homers and a .824 OPS in 2012 despite a bad right shoulder, so it was cleaned up during the winter. Danny Espinosa struck out 189 times in 2012 and worked to strengthen his torn rotator cuff in the winter, and flashed an improved swing in spring training. Ian Desmond had a breakout 2012 season and was entering his prime years.

Instead, the Nationals season faltered, in part, on the worst case scenarios for some of these infielders. Espinosa’s hitting struggles continued and a fractured wrist only damaged him more. He was shipped off to Class AAA Syracuse to get healthy and work on his swing. After a brief stint in the majors earlier in the season, Anthony Rendon returned but this time to man second base everyday. Zimmerman rehabbed his shoulder on the fly during the season and his inconsistent throwing became an issue, even leading to speculation that he couldn’t play third baseman past the 2013 season. LaRoche slumped and struggled with weight loss and lack of strength because of his ADD medicine. Bench players Chad Tracy and Tyler Moore, both primarily corner infielders, struggled.

Desmond was the steadying hand force of the infield. This season, he again proved again he is among the best shortstops in baseball. He shrugged off early defensive miscues to play solid defense for the rest of the season, although he finished with 20 errors. He played 158 games, the most on the Nationals’ roster. He posted a triple slash line of .280/.331/.453 with 20 home runs, 80 RBI and 21 stolen bases. He became the only Nationals player to produce multiple 20-20 seasons. His .784 OPS ranked third among major league shortstops. Davey Johnson considered him, along with Jayson Werth, the MVPs of the Nationals’ season. He posted a 5.0 fWAR, best on the Nationals roster and 23rd in the majors.

Zimmerman, however, needed an entire season to prove that he was still the Nationals’ cornerstone third baseman. Through 135 games, he was hitting .275 but with less power. On Sept. 1, he had only 15 home runs. Then, Zimmerman went on a torrid hitting tear that brought his season totals closer to his career averages. He smashed 11 home runs in September and finished with a line of .275/.344/.465 and 26 home runs, his highest total since the 2009 season.

In the field, too, Zimmerman took time to settle in. Through his first few months, his throwing was inconsistent and arm strength weak. It was worrisome. During his worst stretch in April, he committed four errors in six games, three of them directly leading to losses. Even in May, Zimmerman admitted he wasn’t sure about his own future because of his shoulder. But by the end of the season, Zimmerman was zipping the ball across the diamond with more ease and consistency. He finished with 21 errors, second most among third basemen, and 16 of those errors were throwing mistakes. He may have lost a step in the field, but the return of arm strength coupled with his quick reflexes proved that he could be the Nationals’ everyday third baseman.

Espinosa looked better in spring, his swing more direct and compact, but once the season started his regression continued. He was hitting .175 when he was hit on the right wrist by a Paul Maholm pitch on April 14. The fracture wasn’t discovered until over a month later, an omission attributed to the initial swelling and Espinosa’s strong-headed belief in playing through the pain. Even after resting and treatment, Espinosa was clearly damaged. By June 2, his last game before his disabled list stint and eventual demotion, he was hitting .158 with a .465 OPS and only three home runs.

This opened an unexpected opportunity for Rendon. The rookie impressed the Nationals during spring training with his hitting. But he hadn’t played second base since little league. The natural third baseman, plucked only a few days after his promotion to Syracuse, learned the intricacies of the position on the fly. His teammates and Johnson spoke highly of Rendon’s quick learning. He possesses an accurate, strong arm but he still committed nine errors at second. At the plate, Rendon’s bat shined. In his first 35 games, he hit .312 with four homers. Opponents then adjusted to him and Rendon slumped. He adjusted slowly back, but displayed an aptitude to handle the difficult task of hitting eighth. He finished with a .265/.329/.396 slash line along with seven homers in 98 games.

Not unlike some of his teammates, LaRoche struggled, but for longer. The 33-year-old lost as much as 20 pounds because the medication he took for his attention deficit disorder killed his appetite and even prevented him taking batting practice. He switched medicine at the all-star break and drank protein shakes and felt some improvement. But the weight loss caused the already streaky hitter to feel weaker at the plate. Other than his injury-shortened 2011 season, his .735 OPS was the lowest of his career. His 20-homer total was his lowest since 2005.

Tracy and Moore also slumped. Tracy, who produced important hits as a pinch hitter in 2012, couldn’t find the same success in the difficult role in 2013. He hit .202 with four homers, but as a pinch hitter hit only .172 (11 for 64). Moore showed terrific promise as a rookie in 2012, hitting 10 home runs in 75 games, but couldn’t adjust again to the role of back-up outfielder-first baseman-pinch hitter. He was demoted to Syracuse for much of the summer and finished the major league season with a .222 average and only four home runs in 63 games. He returned late in the season improved, but again relegated to a bench role.

Steve Lombardozzi was the team’s best pinch hitter and utility man extraordinaire. He received more playing time at second base late in the season as Rendon rested more during the longest season of his career. Lombardozzi posted a strong second half, finishing with a .259 average and two home runs. As a pinch hitter, he hit .295 (13 for 44) with a homer.

OFFSEASON OUTLOOK

Several questions, perhaps more than last season, hover over this unit. Will LaRoche rebound? With a normal offseason of working out and rest, will Zimmerman be more consistent in the field in 2014? Will Desmond earn a long-term extension? Is Rendon the Nationals’ second baseman next season? What will happen to Moore, Espinosa and Lombardozzi?

With another strong season, Desmond has built an even stronger case to merit a long-term extension. The Nationals and Desmond’s camp discussed the possibility of one before last season but it amounted to nothing. Desmond earned $3.8 million in 2013 in his first year of arbitration and stands to earn a sizable raise next year.

General Manager Mike Rizzo said, if the deal was right, that an extension for Desmond ranked high on the team’s offseason priority list. Desmond has been open to an extension in the past. He loves the organization, he grew up in it, he is a team leader and the Nationals view him as a model ambassador. Desmond is under team control through the 2015 season, so there is time to work this out. But buying out his two remaining arbitration years and some or all of his first three free agent years would make sense to do now before he gets more expensive. He plays a premium position, has remained relatively healthy and only just turned 28.

The Nationals view LaRoche’s season as an anomaly. His weight and lack of strength doomed his season. He has vowed to fix the medication so that he can return strong next season. The Nationals owe him $12 million next season and he has a mutual ’15 option. Because there is no immediate need to move Zimmerman to first, that position belongs to LaRoche next season. The Nationals could try to move LaRoche to another team in need of a left-handed power bat, but he will be 34 next season and coming off a down year. And given his struggles this season, the Nationals don’t appear to believe Moore is ready to play first base every day yet. LaRoche also maintains the balance of left-handers and right-handers in the lineup.

So, the Nationals could likely be hoping LaRoche bounces back next year. Because of the natural regression with age, LaRoche may not be able to produce his average 22-homer and .811 OPS season, but anything closer to that would certainly help the Nationals lineup next season. Moore may see more playing time next season at first base, but he is still learning to hit left-handed pitching consistently. The Nationals bench is in need of changes given the poor season. Moore could be on the bench next season, but Scott Hairston, who is under contract for 2014, and Lombardozzi are likely the only sure bets to make up that unit.

Rizzo indicated that the second base job next season is Rendon’s to start but still open for competition between him, Espinosa and Lombardozzi in spring training. Espinosa didn’t earn a September call-up because he didn’t make the improvements the Nationals wanted while he was in Syracuse. He hit .216 and struck out 101 times in 75 games there. Offseason surgery on his shoulder doesn’t seem likely, so Espinosa will spend the winter working out and hoping to prove he has improved his swing. Because of his stellar defense, he could be on the bench next season. Lombardozzi played well in the second half this season, but his value is highest as a utility man and pinch hitter. Rendon will likely be the Nationals second baseman on opening day, and given his aptitude for adjustments, he could made the needed steps to improve as a hitter.

POSSIBLE FREE AGENT TARGETS

Tracy is one of two impending free agents on the Nationals’ roster. After a down year, the Nationals are likely to part ways with him after two seasons and perhaps turn to the free agent market to fill the bench with a veteran hitter. The Nationals likely need a fourth outfielder for next season, a left-handed hitting one, so one bench spot may be filled with that. Lombardozzi may fill another, perhaps Espinosa with another or a young prospect, and a back-up catcher. So there may be only one or two bench spots open next season. It’s hard to tell what infielders, perhaps left-handed hitting bats, may be most attractive for the Nationals given all the other factors.

PROSPECT TO WATCH

Zach Walters talks with Jason Benetti, the voice of the Syracuse Chiefs, before a June game in Fort Hill, S.C. (Jonathan Newton/TWP)

Zach Walters talks with Jason Benetti, the voice of the Syracuse Chiefs, before a June game in Fort Hill, S.C. (Jonathan Newton/TWP)

Zach Walters, 24, is an intriguing prospect who could factor into the Nationals’ 2014 season. As the roster is currently constructed, the Nationals don’t have a true backup shortstop. Espinosa could fill that role, but he hasn’t served as a major league backup before. Lombardozzi could play shortstop in a pinch, but he’s better suited for his natural position of second base. If Desmond were to get hurt and be out of action for a stretch, the Nationals’ best bet may be Walters. Johnson even suggested as much in the final month of the season.

Walters is expected back in big league camp next spring. He is still learning and growing. He made 38 errors in 134 games at Syracuse this season, the majority of the time spent at shortstop. His arm is rated as the strongest infield arm in the Nationals minor leagues. He worked to develop his power stroke last season and smashed 29 home runs. He posted a slash line of .253/.286/.517 along with 77 RBI and 66 extra-base hits.

Coming tomorrow: Outfielders

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