Washington Nationals Spring Training Preview: Infield
On a snowy post-Superbowl Monday, what better way to think about the coming Spring than a Washington Nationals Spring Training preview. Our previous two previews, starting pitching and outfield, are linked here.
Today we preview the Nats 2014 infield. One starting slot will be open to competition. The other four positions are locked up. Uncertainty resolves around depth positions.
First Base: Adam LaRoche is the entrenched starter, based solely on his contract. LaRoche signed a two year deal after his big 2012 season and is in the final year of that deal, which will pay him $12 million in 2014. He has an option for a third year, but the Nats will likely not pick that up. LaRoche’s gaudy 2012 numbers included 33 home runs and 100 RBI while batting .271/.343/.510. LaRoche never came close to reproducing those number in 2013. He had a highly disappointing season and the Nationals missed that offensive production. His batting averaged plummeted from .271 in 2012 to .237 in 2013. His home run fell from 33 to 20 and RBI totals fell from 100 to 62. The Nats would likely be happy with just a happy medium between the two seasons in 2014. The key will be consistency and health, as LaRoche has battled bicep and elbow issues. With the significant reduction in production in 2013, first base will be one of the bigger questions marks on an otherwise solid Nationals team.
Depth: Tyler Moore will serve in a depth position at both first base and the out field. The first base prospect also had a down year in 2013, compared to 2012. Moore has tremendous talent and power and will likely have a much better 2014 season. If LaRoche struggles, Moore’s time could come in 2014. He is the obvious prospect of choice at first base, given the fact the Nationals released former first round pick Chris Marrero in the off-season. Ryan Zimmerman may also see 10 to 15 games at first base.
On the Horizon: Matthew Skole is one of the overall top prospects in the Nats system. Skole missed most of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The 24 year-old smacked 27 homers and drove in 104 runs in 2012 at Class A Hagerstown. He batted .184 with 3 home runs and 7 RBI in 15 games this season at the Arizona Fall League. He will be one of the most highly watched prospects in the system this coming season. Skole is ranked 4th in the Nats system by Baseball America.
Second Base: An unsettled position entering spring training, the Nats have told former starting second baseman Danny Espinosa that he will directly compete with Anthony Rendon and have an opportunity to win his starting job back. That is all Espinosa could hope for.
“Matt and Mike have both called me in the offseason and told me I’m going to get a fair opportunity to win my job back,” Espinosa said. “That’s all I can ask for. I’ve never asked for anything to be handed to me. But if I can get a fair opportunity to win my job, I feel like I can do it.”
Espinosa popped 21 homers in 2011 and 17 homers in 2012. He became the mainstay at second base, playing in 158 and 160 games, respectively. He entered the 2013 season with a rehabbed rotator cuff injury, rather than opting for off-season surgery. However, it was his wrist that caused him problems in 2013, not his shoulder. Espinosa was hit by a pitch in his right wrist in April last season. He returned to the lineup and played with a diagnosed bone bruise with swelling. Turns out that diagnosis was incorrect and he actually suffered a fracture in his wrist. It was that injury that Espinosa blamed for his poor 2013 season. He struggled so bad, batting just .158 in 44 games, that he was banished to the minor leagues for the remainder of the season.
Meanwhile, super prospect Anthony Rendon took over at second base. Rendon held his own after being rushed from the minors to the majors and switching from his natural third to second base. Many MLB draft experts had Rendon listed as the best pure hitter and most major league ready hitter of the 2011 MLB Draft. He provided examples of that with the Nationals last season. He did experience some struggles at the plate, but none that would not be expected from a rookie. His seven home runs also provided a glimpse of power that will continue to be cultivated by the Nats. Learning second base off the cuff provided some challenges for the young 23 year-old, but given the fact he never played the position before, he passed muster. Through 98 games in 2013, Rendon batted .265 with a .329 OBP, .725 OPS, and a .396 slugging percentage. In 93 hits, Rendon added 23 doubles, a triple, and 7 home runs with 35 RBI. Solid numbers for a rushed prospect. The Nats likely tried to trade Espinosa in the off-season, but given his lack of production and injury history, a deal never materialized. So Matt Williams will do the next best thing — continue to develop and cultivate both of these players, by thrusting competition upon them. Competition is healthy. It will be the most watched battle of the spring for the Nationals.
Depth: The Nationals traded reserve infielder Steve Lombardozzi to the Detroit Tigers in the off-season, a deal that landed the Nats their fourth starter, Doug Fister. While the deal with the Tiger filled a huge void in the rotation, it opened a void at the utility infield role. The Nationals have signed two older veterans to compete for that role, former Nat Jamey Carroll and veteran Mike Fontenot. Both were signed as non-roster invitees. Carroll was a member of the original 2005 Washington Nationals and will instantly be a fan favorite. In 121 career at-bats as a pinch hitter, Carroll has hit .339 with a .417 on-base percentage. There is no doubt that a big part of the 2013 Washington Nationals offensive struggles, outside LaRoche and Espinosa, came from poor bench production. Carroll batted .211 last season in a reserve role in Minnesota last season. Fontenot played for Philadelphia in 2012 and Tampa Bay’s minor league system in 2013. Those two veterans will join Zack Walters and Will Rhymes in a fight for a utility role on the roster. Walters batted .375 in 8 brief games with Washington last season.
On the Horizon: After a successful season at Hagerstown, Tony Renda is ready to leap to High A Ball at Potomac this season. The 2012 second round draft pick batted .294 in 135 games with 99 runs, 51 RBIs, 30 stolen bases, 43 doubles, 3 triples and 3 home runs for Hagerstown. Renda will be a top prospect we will keep an eye on this coming season. Rick Hague is also a highly touted prospect in the Nationals system. Hague batted .245 with 55 RBI with 437 at bats with AA Harrisburg last season.
Short Stop: Ian Desmond has this position nailed down. After failing to secure a long term deal in the off-season, the Nats chose to sign Desmond to a two year contract extension.
Desmond is a favorite among fantasy baseball players because he exerts power at a position where power is not typical. Over the past two seasons, Desmond has solidified himself as one of the best shortstops in all of baseball. After an excellent 2012 season that saw Desmond bat .292 with 25 home runs and 73 RBI, He batted 280 with 20 homes runs, 80 RBI, and added 21 stole bases in 2013. His offensive prowess earned him back to back Silver Slugger awards. Beyond offensive production, the Nationals value Desmond’s clubhouse leadership, humbleness, and character. The 2004 draft pick is the most tenured Washington National on the current roster. The Nats will look to Desmond to continue to provide power and speed to fuel the offense and continue to make defensive strides that he has made season to season. The biggest question surrounding Desmond is whether the Nats will ante up big bucks on a long term deal.
Depth: Look above at second base.
On the Horizon: Jason Martinson put together a fine 2012 season in which he batted .245 and hammered 22 homers and drove in 106 runs while crossing the plate 104 times. Those numbers dropped last season between A and AA. Martinson batted a combined .234 with 16 home runs and 72 RBI. David Masters and Brennan Middleton were just drafted last season and are years off. Both will likely start their 2014 season in Auburn.
Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman will enter his ninth season as the starting third baseman for the Nationals. Zimmerman is coming off a struggling season in which he lacked power at the plate and was even worse on routine throws from third to first, thanks to a bum shoulder. As disappointing as the season was for the Nationals, it was even worse for Zimmerman. Zimmerman ramped up his offensive production in the second half of the season and finished with decent performance numbers, indicative of his career, batting .275 with 26 home runs and 79 RBI.
Zimmerman enters spring training fully confident that he is 100% recovered from shoulder surgery and that errant throws will be a thing of the past. The Nats hope that he is right. The Nats will also likely give Zimmerman a 10-15 game look at first base. With Adam LaRoche in the last year of his deal and super prospect Anthony Rendon a natural third baseman, Zimmerman could begin a transition to first base.
Just like health is a critical component to what type of success the Nationals will have in 2014, it is no bigger than for Zimmerman. Zimmerman certainly has the ability to smack 30 plus homers and drive in 100 plus runs. It largely depends on health and whether he can carry forth late season offensive momentum into 2014. The Nats need Zimmerman’s production in the middle of the lineup.
Depth: Rendon is a natural third baseman and will be ready to roll if something happens with Zimmerman.
On the Horizon: Of course, the future at third base is Rendon. The Nationals also have top prospect Matthew Skole, which can play bother corner positions. Two other big prospects here are Drew Ward and Cody Gunter. Both were 2013 draft picks. Ward is a young 19 year old that the Nats selected in the third round last year. In his first season, he made the GCL All Star Team, batting .292 over 168 at bats. Ward also recorded a .402 OBP, .789 OPS, and a .387 slugging percentage. Gunter was also a top end 2013 draft pick. Gunter spent his first season at Short A Auburn. He batted .224 with 3 homers and 19 RBI.
Catcher: Wilson Ramos is looking forward to a fully healthy season. After an injury plagued 2012 and early 2013. After returning from the DL, Ramos appeared in 64 games and batted .276 with 14 homers and 53 RBI. In total, Ramos smacked , .272 with 16 home runs and 59 RBI in 72 games. Hopefully in 2014, Ramos can put hamstring issues in the past. Last last season Ramos put up 23 consecutive games behind the plate, a clear indication that injury problems could be over. If any player on the roster is ready for a big breakout year, Ramos has to be the number one candidate. The Nationals would love to see Ramos behind the plate in 120+ games this season. If they get that, Ramos has the potential to add 20+ home runs and 80+ RBI.
Depth: The backup catching spot appears to still be unresolved. The Nats have two young catchers behind Ramos, mainly Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano. They are prepared to go into the season with one of them, likely Solano as backup, but would prefer a trade to bring in a veteran backup. The Nats are still working on that. Solano appeared in 214 games last season and batted just .146. He only provided the Nats 7 hits in 50 plate appearances. Clearly, the National must get better production behind Ramos than that. Leon only appeared in two games in 2013 after appearing in 12 games in 2012. The Nats have signed veteran Chris Snyder as a non-roster invitee. Snyder appeared in 76 games in 2012 for the Astros and batted just .176. He only appeared in 9 games last year for Baltimore.
Depth: The depth position at catcher is unresolved. I still suspect the Nats will make a deal at some point and bring in a veteran to backup Ramos. The latest rumor has the Nats speaking with Tampa Bay about veteran Jose Lobaton. Lobaton hit .249 with 15 doubles and 7 homers in 100 games last season. If they fail to secure a veteran backup, the battle will go down between Snyder, Solano, and Leon.
On the Horizon: The Nationals do have some decent prospects in the system. However, none are close to the bigs yet. Craig Manuel is a decent prospect that will start his season in High A Potomac. Manuel batted .273 over 154 plate appearance for Hagerstown last season. Geoffrey Perrott, Pedro Severino, and Spencer Keiboom are also way down in the system and will not provide an y immediate relief.