When Steve Lombardozzi arrived at Nationals spring training, Manager Davey Johnson told him to forget about the outfield, one of the many positions he played during his rookie season, and focus on second base. Lombardozzi already expected to do exactly that.
“I didn’t need to hear it personally, because I know what I’m capable of,” Lombardozzi said. “That was my goal coming into spring. That’s where my head was already at.”
Lombardozzi is not the kind of player to complain about his role. But he also made his intentions clear: He wants to wrest the regular second base job from Danny Espinosa, and he believes he has a chance.
“I want to be an every-day guy,” Lombardozzi said yesterday, when I interviewed him for a story on the Nationals’ bench. “I’m fighting to be the starting second baseman. That’s where my head is at now. I know we all want to play, but we all want to win, too. We want to make it to the playoffs and go all the way this year. I know I can speak for Tyler [Mooe], too. We want to help this team win.”
Espinosa-or-Lombardozzi has been a semi-debate all offseason, likely spurred by Espinosa’s 1-for-15, seven-strikeout showing in the playoffs, which we now know was due in large part to the torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder. Some in the Nationals’ organization will tell you Lombardozzi should be starting. Those folks are not, however, at the top of the organization. Some in the Nationals’ organization also will tell you how much Mike Rizzo loves Espinosa.
As one Nationals official said this winter in regard to Espinosa and the idea of second baseman competition: “He may put that to bed real quick.” In his third major league year, if he stays healthy, Espinosa could be headed for the kind of leap Ian Desmond made last year.
The “if he stays healthy” clause is no small thing. Espinosa, of course, opted against offseason surgery so he could be ready for opening day and will play through that tear in his rotator cuff. His doctor advised him to build up the muscles around his shoulder, and he has supreme confidence it’ll sustain him through the year.
“I don’t need to test it,” Espinosa said yesterday, after ripping several line drives during live batting practice. “As the games start coming, it’ll tell me. But it feels strong enough to just do whatever I need to do. Like I said: Just keep up on my maintenance; I don’t think it’s going to be affected.”
My thoughts on second base have probably become clear over time. Given the available evidence, Espinosa is simply a better player than Lombardozzi. He is probably not capable of a worse offensive season than 2012, and he still does so much so well — defense, base-running, just enough power — that he was one of the more valuable second basemen in the majors.
Even with his 189 strikeouts, an area in which the Nationals know he must improve, Espinosa notched a .315 on-base percentage. In his 384 plate appearances, Lombardozzi managed a .317 on-base percentage. Espinosa had the advantage of regular playing time, but still, Lombardozzi’s advantage in making contact was not helping him reach base at a better rate than Espinosa.
Lombardozzi also hit for almost no power. His ISO — a stat that measures extra bases per at-bat — finished at 0.81, ninth-lowest in the majors among hitters with at least 350 plate appearances. Espinosa’s ISO was .155.
The problem with comparisons is that arguing for one player appears to be a knock on the other. That shouldn’t be taken as the case here. Lombardozzi’s contribution last year helped the Nationals in ways that can’t be really be measured. His willingness and ability to learn the outfield in a week kept them afloat early in the season. His defensive consistency is a marvel. He’s good.
Lombardozzi was a huge part of last year’s team, the organization believes in him, and because of his history of significant improvement in the minor leagues from year-to-year, one can easily see him becoming an every-day major league player. But so long as Espinosa stays healthy, it just won’t be this season with the Nationals.
FROM THE POST
The Nationals’ bench is one of their biggest advantages, but Davey Johnson can see how it could become one of his biggest concerns.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY