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With Anthony Rendon’s status up in the air, who will play third base?

Ian Stewart enters the field in Tampa. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

brushback_harperVIERA, Fla. — Anthony Rendon’s left knee is still bugging him when he twists it so, after a second MRI showed healing but not enough yet, his status for opening day is in question. Rendon’s absence from games over the past two and a half weeks has given ample playing time for his potential replacements should he not be ready for April 6 against the Mets.

Before running through the options for third base, let’s first establish this: Ryan Zimmerman isn’t going back to third base. He is the Nationals’ first baseman and has looked good there this spring. His throwing shoulder isn’t equipped for third base anymore. The Nationals aren’t going to put him through that while Rendon is out for, what the team hopes, is a short amount of time.

Ian Stewart: He has played the most of anyone at third base this spring: 15 games, including nine starts. The left-hander is hitting the best of the bunch so far, too: .323 (10 for 31) with three home runs, five strikeouts and four walks. He has been an adequate defender: one error in 73 innings.

Stewart, once a top Rockies’ prospect, has struggled at the plate the past several years. He hit .176 with two home runs in 24 games with the Angels and .198 with five home runs in 36 games at their Class AAA affiliate. Stewart has power but he hasn’t played nearly every day in the majors since 2009-10, when he hit 43 homers in two years. Since 2010, Stewart has a .182 average in 127 major league games. Stewart attributes his strong showing so far this spring to being healthy, relaxed and consistent.

 “It’s hard to pinpoint something,” he said. “All I can say is that I worked hard over the winter. It just seems to be working. Just hard work paying off, to be honest. It wasn’t one thing that I really tried to do over the winter, tried to fix. I guess the only thing I can say is just getting in the cage with (hitting coach Rick) Schu. He got my hands in position to fire, and the rest was up to me at that point.”

Stewart, 29, isn’t on the 40-man roster. He is in camp on a minor league deal so, if the Nationals choose to break camp with him, a roster spot would be needed. Stewart signed with Washington in the offseason because he thought there was a chance to make the team as a backup corner infielder — he can also play first base — but he has seen more playing time than he expected.

“I thought it might be different circumstances, just because you have such a good player in Rendon that was already here, so I thought I’d be battling for more of a bench job, left-handed bat off the bench,” Stewart said. “With him going down, I guess there’s been an opportunity for more playing time. I don’t know how long he’s going to be out. It’s nice to be able to get the at-bats here and to be able to play and at the same time show them if Anthony’s not ready, I can step in.”

Kevin Frandsen: He has played only six games at third, including five starts. He has seen more action in left field than third, and has even played some at second base. Frandsen doesn’t have much to show for his hitting this spring: .103 (3 for 29) with two walks and four strikeouts. Frandsen is a utility man by trade, so his role is to bounce all over the field. But the Nationals have passed over him at times to give Danny Espinosa, who has never played third base before now, the chance to try the position.

Frandsen, 32, is due $1 million with incentives in 2015, his final year of arbitration. He hit .259 in 105 games last season, the brightest spot on the bench and the multipurpose fill-in that helped carry the team through injuries. Because of injuries to Rendon and Jayson Werth’s return from winter shoulder surgery this spring, the makeup of the Nationals’ bench is still in flux.

“My role is to play everywhere and to pinch-hit late in games,” Frandsen said. “I know that. If they call upon me to start a few games here and there, I’m prepared with all the work I’ve done and continue to do. The results don’t matter for me in spring training as much as being consistent with your barrel and hitting the ball good. I feel like the amount of at-bats all of us have gotten has been great as far as for being prepared for a situation like this with (Rendon).”

Danny Espinosa: He has done a lot this spring. He is learning to hit right-handed only, which has required extra work on the side. He is hitting .147 (5 for 34) with a home run. Three of the hits have come against right-handed pitchers.

And now, the Nationals have asked him to try third base. Before last week, he had never played over there before. Now he has played there four of the past six games, including two starts. Espinosa is the most gifted defender of this bunch, but he is a natural shortstop who has played second base most of his major league career. He could eventually become a solid defensive fill-in at third for a short amount of time — but he needs the practice there to get comfortable. He made a good play on Wednesday at third, showing off his strong throwing arm.

Espinosa, 27, is set to make $1.8 million in 2015, his first year of arbitration. But if the Nationals need a roster spot, he could be optioned to the minor leagues, and perhaps he can work on the right-handed hitting, too. Espinosa, however, is the best defensive fill-in at second and shortstop. With Yunel Escobar on the team, should anything happen to Ian Desmond, Escobar could handle shortstop, too.

Others: Cutter Dykstra is still in big league camp but the Nationals see him as a middle infielder. He has also yet to play above Class AA Harrisburg. Matt Skole had a strong spring, showing that he is finally healthy after his elbow and wrist surgeries, but he has already been reassigned to minor league camp.


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