In acquiring of Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers, the Nationals lost reliable backup infielder Steve Lombardozzi, among others. Over the past two seasons, Lombardozzi filled an obvious need for the Nationals as a versatile player who could play shortstop, second and third base. Last season, he took over second base after Danny Espinosa struggled with injuries and his own swing, and then spelled Anthony Rendon when he slumped and needed rest during his decent rookie season.
But what happens to the second base situation now? It has been stated here before and is worth repeating again: the Nationals do not need an infielder. Rendon, a natural third baseman, posted a .329 on-base percentage and .725 OPS in his first season in the majors while learning to play second base. General Manager Mike Rizzo has hinted that the second base spot will be an open competition in spring training with Danny Espinosa and others, as he reiterated on Tuesday, but added that Rendon is the starter for now.
“Anthony Rendon finished the season as our starting second baseman, he’ll go into spring training as our starting second baseman,” Rizzo said in a conference call with reporters. “But we’re going to have competition at that position and there’s going to be competition for several roster spots.” Rizzo also added that Rendon, along with top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito, were young players the Nationals told teams were not available.
When asked about a top second baseman on the free agent market, however, Rizzo’s response was measured — and interesting. The Nationals have been linked to Robinson Cano for various reasons: the deep pockets of the team and owners, the Lerner family; the team’s window to win is now; Cano is one of the best available players and the Nationals have shown a willingness in the past to sign best available players, often regardless of the money and position. Last year, the Nationals did not need a closer but signed Rafael Soriano with the hope of strengthening an already-good bullpen. So, here is what Rizzo said when asked, half-jokingly, about any progress in signing Cano:
“Well, those are things that of course I’m not going to address with the media on the phone, but like I said, we’re going to do what we have to do to improve the ball club,” Rizzo said. “We’ve taken a step forward in acquiring Fister and we’re looking forward to tweaking things and making us a better ball club.”
Rizzo could be playing his cards close to the vest, as he has in the past. Cano is reportedly seeking nine years and $252 million, which the Yankees are balking at, according to a Yahoo! Sports report, and are sticking hard to a seven-year, $160 million offer. At $252 million, it’s hard to see the Nationals getting involved. But if the asking price gets driven down by other teams’ sticker shock over Cano’s reportedly large demands, the Nationals could consider Cano and do their due diligence on him. And if that could turn out to be the case, why would Rizzo flatly and publicly reject Cano as an option now?
Hours later, Rizzo was more specific about the Nationals’ interest in Cano during an XM radio appearance: “I don’t rule anything out but I don’t foresee us jumping into that market. It’s not a place we need to upgrade. We think that we have really good options at second base and happy and looking forward to going into spring training with them.”
Second base is the only position without an entrenched player or a player not declared a returner. Rizzo has said that he didn’t consider moving Ryan Zimmerman to first base during his throwing woes last season and even recently said that Adam LaRoche would be playing first base next season while hoping for a bounce-back season. Ian Desmond will, obviously, play shortstop for the Nationals. But Rizzo has been more coy about the second base situation because he has Rendon and Espinosa, who he has regarded highly despite his injuries and hitting woes.
“I like our second base situation,” Rizzo said. “We certainly have talented players at that position. We have depth in the minor leagues at that position and we feel comfortable there.”
If the Nationals were to sign Cano, which still seems like a remote possibility, they could always move Rendon to the bench and make him a super-sub while still finding a way to get him 300 to 350 plate appearances. LaRoche is in his final guaranteed year and Zimmerman’s shift across the diamond could begin in 2015.
But if the Nationals stay with Espinosa and Rendon as the main second base options, as Rizzo made it seem on Tuesday, the general manager is confident in both. Espinosa, who played with a torn rotator cuff and fractured wrist last season, could also serve as a back-up shortstop to Desmond because it is his natural position and he is an elite defender.
“Danny Espinosa is going to go to spring training and battle for a job on the roster,” Rizzo said. “He’s an excellent defender, Gold Glove caliber at second base and shortstop. He gives us speed, he stole 20 bases in the big leagues in a season so far, he hit 20 home runs in a season so far in his young big league career. He had a down season last year, but this guy’s a makeup guy. He’s a grinder and a guy that his personality and his makeup plays well on this club. I’ve always been a Danny Espinosa fan and I still am, and I think he’s gonna have a good major league career.”