VIERA, Fla. — If nothing else, Steve Lombardozzi at least looks like a big leaguer: The five o’clock shadow at 8 a.m. The short-cropped hairline that, despite his being just 23, is already creeping backward above the temples. The cool, practiced nonchalance when he talks. The way his batting gloves stick out of his back pocket, just so.
This is no idle, pointless description. Part of what drew the Washington Nationals to Lombardozzi in the first place, back in 2008, was the way he carried himself, the way he looked like a big leaguer. Another part: How it was that he came to acquire that look.
Steve Lombardozzi Sr. was a big league infielder from 1985 to ’90, and while his career ended too early for Steve Jr. to have gotten the chance to grow up in a big league clubhouse, the way some sons of big leaguers do, through a combination of genetics and design the youngster came to know at an early age what it meant to carry oneself like a big leaguer.
“When I was young, my dad would take me to some spring training games, and he’d always know some coaches,” said Steve Jr., a Columbia native and product of Atholton High. “We’d watch some BP, talk to some guys. I think just him showing me around and seeing what it’s like, what guys are like and what their routine is, was definitely helpful.”
“He’s picked the brains of everyone from Rod Carew to Cal Ripken to Gary Gaetti,” said the elder Lombardozzi. “He’s been around [the game] his whole life.”
As the Nationals try to decide whether the younger Lombardozzi is ready to be a big leaguer — whether he should make their opening day roster as a reserve infielder (a decision that, really, may not be so difficult) — they can already say, with certainty, that one of the key components of their draft-and-development strategy has paid off in this case.
“We really bear down on guys like that in the draft — ‘pedigree guys,’ we call them,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said of Lombardozzi, whom they took in the 19th round of the 2008 draft. “Growing up in the game, the exposure to professional baseball — they have a better feel for [the game]. It’s huge for us.
“That’s a philosophy we employ here. We like big power pitchers and athletic players up the middle. And then, pedigree is one of the things we look for, especially when you’re down in that [lower] area of the draft.”
If the Nationals didn’t think so highly of Lombardozzi, the decision facing them would be a slam-dunk: He would make their roster as the utility infielder, playing sparingly as a fill-in at second base, shortstop and third base.
But since they do, the calculus is a little more complex. The Nationals believe 300 is the magic number: If Manager Davey Johnson can get him that many at-bats in the big leagues in 2012 — starting, say, once a week at second, shortstop and third in place of (respectively) Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman — the team is inclined to keep Lombardozzi on the roster. If not, he would go to Class AAA as the everyday second baseman.
Though all signs point to Lombardozzi making the team — including the absence of another viable candidate who can handle the middle infield positions — the Nationals remain publicly non-committal.
“He can’t be strictly a utility player,” Rizzo said. “He needs to get 300, 325 at-bats a season — otherwise it doesn’t make sense for us to put him there. But I think Davey is so smart, he can figure out a way to give every one of those guys a day off a week, or bounce some guys around, to make it work.”
For Lombardozzi, given a choice between 300 at-bats in the big leagues or 500 at Class AAA, the choice, were it his to make, would be obvious: “This is where I want to be,” he said, “and if it’s only for a certain amount of at-bats, well, that’s what it is. But I’d also be here watching games, sitting next to these guys and learning. That’s important, too.”
“He’s ready for the big leagues,” said the elder Lombardozzi, who knows something about player development, having spent 41 / 2 years in the minors before breaking into the big leagues. “He’s there [in terms of development]. He can help and contribute to building a winner at this level. It’s just a matter of what capacity.”
After a relatively rapid ascent through the Nationals’ farm system, Lombardozzi, a switch-hitter with good speed and a solid .298 batting average in the minors, was called up to the big leagues in September, hitting just .194 in 32 plate appearances, but impressing everyone with his work ethic — and yes, his look.
“He looks,” Rizzo said, “like a big leaguer.”
Still, taking nothing for granted, Lombardozzi spent his offseason at home in Columbia, making the almost-daily drive to Nationals Park to lift weights with Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and other veterans. He added some muscle-weight to his 6-foot, 170-pound frame.
This spring, he is hitting .321 while seeing time at second, short and third. On Friday, he had three hits — two of them, including a homer, off New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia — sandwiched around a spectacular diving stop at third base. After the homer, he found himself seated on the Nationals bench next to Johnson, who said kiddingly, “What, are you trying to make the team or something?”
A big leaguer, in that situation, would play it cool, so that’s what Lombardozzi did.
“He nodded,” Johnson said, “and went out and got another hit.”