VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals’ roster lists infielder Steve Lombardozzi at 170 pounds. At the end of last season, the Nationals told him to “have a good offseason, work hard and come ready to compete.” Even if you don’t count the bushy beard he grew over the winter, Lombardozzi checked into spring training at least 25 pounds heavier than that figure would lead you to believe.
Even Nationals manager Davey Johnson was impressed by Lombardozzi’s physique — the result of the Columbia, M.D., native working out at Nationals Park all winter with Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Nationals’ strength and conditioning coach, John Philbin.
“I thought of him as a skinny little beanpole,” Johnson said — and he’s not far off. Lombardozzi estimated that the roster wasn’t exactly giving him much credit, figuring he finished the 2011 season at 180 pounds. Either way, he’s checked in somewhere between 195 and 197 this spring.
“I looked over there (in the training room Monday) and I’m throwing around 30-pound weights and he’s got 75-pound weights in his hand,” Johnson said. “I’m saying, what did you take over the winter? I want some of them vitamins you’re taking. He and (second baseman Danny Espinosa) were in there working out and they’re both two strong guys. I didn’t know that about him.”
If anything Lombardozzi’s physical appearance has only increased the Nationals’ belief that he will be a valuable asset on their major league team this season, even if it’s not in an everyday role.
It’s a fine line to walk: Lombardozzi is still a prospect, still a guy the Nationals view as an every day player, but he’s also a versatile infielder who can play second base, shortstop and third base as well as a speedy contact hitter Johnson could use to pinch hit without the fear that he’d strikeout.
It’s a small sample size, but in his big league call-up last September, Lombardozzi struck out just four time sin 32 plate appearances. In the minors last year, Lombardozzi struck out in just 12.6 percent of his plate appearances. Last year, the Nationals bench infielders combined for a 16 percent strikeout rate.
“He won’t be a true utility infielder,” said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. “But a hybrid role where he can get more at-bats, we can utilize his skill-set to win games up here and still have him develop as a player. We see him as an everyday major league player and I think Davey sees him the same way. I think Davey’s going to utilize him to get those 350, or more, at-bats in the major leagues so we don’t regress him.”
For his part, Johnson was careful to remind everyone that Lombardozzi, who’s in his first major league camp, “Hasn’t made the team yet — but I like him.”
But with Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman entrenched at the positions Lombardozzi can play, wriggling 350-plus at-bats for Lombardozzi will be interesting. Espinosa and Desmond combined to miss just 12 games in 2011 and when Zimmerman goes through a full season healthy, he’s rarely missed more than five. Last September, when asked about the prospect of giving up playing time for the expected call-ups, Espinosa wasn’t too keen on the idea, feeling he and Desmond had earned the right to finish their seasons strong.
Sitting them all down for rest more often, though, will be part of the plan if Lombardozzi earns the playing time.
“I think it’ll be a challenge for Davey but he’s got it planned out and mapped out,” Rizzo said. “I think what Davey does best is he gets guys to buy into roles and opportunities and I think he’s going to do that with this situation, too.”
None of the three starting infielders are in danger of losing their starting spot in the lineup. That’s not what Johnson and Rizzo are getting at. Johnson noted as much Monday: “Barring injury a lot of guys don’t have to prove anything to me this year. They’re not going to lose their spot in spring training by somebody hitting .500 against some Triple-A pitching.”
But they believe having a player like Lombardozzi will strengthen their bench. Andres Blanco, a non-roster invitee, was another name Johnson brought up who could fit the bill.
Either way, asked if he expects any resistance because Espinosa, Desmond and Zimmerman are three players who simply love to be on the field, Johnson was frank: “So did everybody else I’ve ever had.”
“It goes on merit,” he said. “If (Lombardozzi) shows me that he can do the things we all know he’s capable of doing, yeah (I’ll get him the at-bats)… What you try to create on a ballclub with the guys that aren’t starting, that are utility players, the better (they) play, the more you expand the role. Am I going to get him 300 at-bats? Well, it’s up to him. Then you ask, ‘Well how are the guys going to take it?’ Well first, he ain’t showed me he deserves 300 at-bats or to make the team, so let’s go that way.”
Lombardozzi didn’t blink when asked about the utility role position. The son of former major leaguer Steve Lombardozzi, he knows exactly how long the path to the major leagues can be and, as long as he’s on the big league roster, he’s “comfortable with whatever my job is.”
“I don’t think I’m looking at it as ‘I’m looking if I can do this or do that,’” he said. “I think whatever role I’m going to be able to fill, fill it… That’s kind of where my head’s at. I’m going to come into this thing and work my butt off and play as well as I can. Those are things I can control. Then, it’s out of my hands.”