Examining the Nationals' infield situation

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The Washington Nationals have a number of unresolved issues as the offseason begins in earnest this week with the General Managers’ meetings in California. Tops on the list, of course, is the fact that they don’t currently have a managerial contract for Davey Johnson ironed out for the 2013 season.

There seems to be little thought that someone other than Johnson would manage the Nationals — and both Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo have made it clear they’d like to continue the partnership next season — but it is a simple fact that no agreement has been reached to this point. Johnson is under contract as a consultant to Rizzo next year but the structure, and salary, of a managerial contract would be different.

This is the same process the Nationals went through with Johnson after the 2011 season, and they took nearly a month to make that announcement as well. 

But I digress. Because as the Nationals construct their roster for 2013 they have other pressing issues and the lynchpin for a lot of their offseason dealings is what happens with first base and veteran free agent Adam Laroche. 

When the season ended, both sides appeared moving in the right direction to strike a multi-year deal that would keep the well-liked, well-respected, talented first baseman in a Nationals uniform. But LaRoche officially became a free agent last Thursday and the Nationals did extend a $13.3 million qualifying offer to him to ensure themselves at least draft pick compensation if he declines and signs elsewhere. LaRoche has until Friday to formally accept or decline that offer. None of which means they couldn’t still workout a multi-year deal. 

But settling the situation with LaRoche, one way or the other, is imperative to the Nationals in moving on with their offseason. Whether they go after a center fielder, whether they use someone like Michael Morse as a trade chip, whether they need to find more left-handed power for their lineup, whether Steve Lombardozzi is looking at a utility job again — it all depends on if their 2012 infield is the same as their 2013 one will be. 

So let’s for a moment suspend all of the unknowns and go through a speculative exercise for the “if LaRoche does not return” possibility.

Conventional thinking in that instance is that the Nationals would move Michael Morse to first base. They could then insert Tyler Moore — a player several Nationals’ officials feel has the capability to be a 25-30-homer guy and drive in 100 runs in an everyday role — in left field (or at first base) and leave Bryce Harper in center. Or they could acquire a center fielder, put Harper in left field, move Morse to first base and keep Moore in a utility role. The options in that vein go on.

But what about the possibility of leaving the outfield as it is and speeding up a move that some seem to see as inevitable eventually. What about making Ryan Zimmerman the Nationals’ first baseman, putting shortstop Ian Desmond at third base, moving Danny Espinosa to his natural position at short and inserting Lombardozzi as their everyday second baseman. 

I know what you’re thinking: that’s crazy! But is it? At first glance it appears to be a weaker offensive team. At the core you’re replacing a guy who hit .271 with 33 home runs (LaRoche) with one whose strengths are elsewhere. Lombardozzi is never going to be a guy who hits for much power or in the middle of a lineup.

But in their longstanding search for a leadoff hitter, he would fit that bill extremely well. In 83 games as a starter last season, Lombardozzi hit .270 with a .309 on-base percentage. When he was playing nearly everyday (mostly in July and August), he had an on-base percentage close to .340 and he filled the leadoff role so well that it allowed the rest of the Nationals’ lineup to fall in place — and made it clear to Jayson Werth the best place for him to find a home when he returned from a broken left wrist.

There are plenty within in the Nationals’ organization who feel that Lombardozzi is an everyday player. If the decision is between him and Espinosa at second base, though, there’s few who don’t feel that Espinosa is stronger defensively. Plus he’s a significant power threat in the lineup, though that comes along with a rapid strikeout rate. So that leaves Lombardozzi to be the utility man he excelled at being in 2012. But putting him in the lineup everyday isn’t outrageous.

Plus he’d free up Werth to go back to hitting more in the middle of the lineup and, with a fully-healed wrist, perhaps replacing the power lost with LaRoche’s (hypothetical) exit. 

There are plenty of other questions that’d arise in this situation. Could Desmond transition to third base? Is it worth it for him to do so after he established himself as one of the best shortstops in the league in 2012, making his offense all the more valuable because of the defensive position he inhabits?

Does this make them a stronger team? Does it make it easier to find a place for top prospect Anthony Rendon if he can stay healthy and performs the way so many expect him to?

And then there is the question of moving Zimmerman to first base — where he’d likely excel with his superb glove and the amount of throwing he’d have to do minimized. Is now the time do so?

There’s also the injury factor. Perhaps, without flinging his body all over the left side of the infield making diving plays and the like, the Nationals’ franchise player — who has missed time due to injury in three of the past five seasons and just underwent surgery to cleanup his right AC joint — could stay healthier and, thus, keep his offensive production at it’s usual booming levels. 

This scenario would also mean every position on the field would continue to have a player under contract for at least three years, except for left field where Michael Morse is in the final year of his contract. 

The Nationals are in an interesting position as they embark on the season most had targeted for their true ascension to the major league’s elite level (before they went and won 98 games and the NL East title in 2012, anyway). They’ve got 22 players from the crux of their 2012 25-man roster under contract for 2013 and they’re only looking to help improve an already strong product. As they examine the ways to do so, it’s worth wondering if this might be one of the possibilities. 

I’m not saying it’s going to happen. I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t happen. I’m just saying it’s an idea to ponder on a chilly November evening as the offseason gets underway.

The Nationals have a litany of options this offseason, they just have to figure out which path they feel is the best one for them.

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About the Author
Amanda Comak

Amanda Comak

Amanda Comak covers the Washington Nationals and comes to The Washington Times from the Cape Cod Times and after stints with MLB.com and the Amsterdam (N.Y.) Recorder. A Massachusetts native and 2008 graduate of Boston University, Amanda can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com and you can follow her on Twitter @acomak.

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