- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

LAKELAND, Fla. | The ramifications of Esmailyn Gonzalez becoming Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo - or rather, Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo ceasing to be Esmailyn Gonzalez - have been whipsawing through the Washington Nationals‘ organization all spring, like a tempest upturning everything in its path.

The changes are well-documented: special assistant Jose Rijo being fired in the fallout of the Alvarez scandal, followed by general manager Jim Bowden resigning because questions about his role in the Nationals’ Dominican operations were becoming a distraction.

Lost in that din of activity, however, was this realization: Now that Gonzalez is Alvarez, four years older than originally thought and something less than a top prospect, the Nationals’ rebuilt pipeline of middle infielders doesn’t look quite as good anymore.

When the Nationals thought Alvarez was a 19-year-old with a Gulf Coast League batting title last September, he was a key piece of a group that had been bolstered through trades. The Nationals boasted they would have a major league prospect in the middle infield at every level of their farm system in 2009.

Alvarez hasn’t caused the only shift. Emilio Bonifacio, touted as the second baseman of the future when Washington acquired him from Arizona last July, was traded for Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham in November. Ian Desmond, the Nationals’ best Class AA prospect at shortstop, went to see a physician after his spring physical showed an “abnormal finding” in his surgically repaired left wrist.

Anderson Hernandez has entered the spring full of promise after logging nearly 900 at-bats last year among the minors, majors and winter ball, but he has played just 63 major league games. Alberto Gonzalez has played 57. Somewhere in that group, the Nationals hope they have a legitimate progression of major league-caliber infielders.

Hernandez, who was the last of the three infielders Washington acquired last season, might be the biggest key this year. He’s the favorite to start at second base, provided he can sustain something close to the offense he showed in 28 games last season, when he hit .333.

Asked if Hernandez is ready to play every day, third-base coach Pat Listach said: “Defensively, yeah. I’m sure [manager Manny Acta’s] decision to keep him on the team is going to be both the way he swings the bat as well as his defense. If he swings the bat, I don’t see why not. He can do it defensively.”

Assuming Hernandez is the starter and Ronnie Belliard the backup, Gonzalez likely would head to Class AAA Syracuse. Things get more uncertain from there. Desmond missed most of last season after fracturing the hamate bone in his left wrist, and his chances to live up to the buzz he created in 2005 are fading away.

If the Nationals keep Alvarez, it’s conceivable they’ll rush him to Class A Potomac or Class AA Harrisburg - a 23-year-old prospect doesn’t have nearly the luxury of time that a 19-year-old would - and that might mean the Senators have not one, but two prospects running out of chances.

For what it’s worth, Desmond seems to be making the most of his this spring. He went 2-for-3 with two runs in Tuesday’s exhibition against Italy’s World Baseball Classic team, and Acta said he has seen more from Desmond this spring than in the past two years.

“He caused a big impression way back in Frank’s first season here, and then he struggled a little bit,” Acta said. “This year, he’s looked more secure in himself, especially the way he’s swinging the bat. We keep working with him at short. He shows flashes of being a good shortstop at times.”

None of this leaves the Nationals with any assurances they have a better complement of young middle infielders than they did last year. But spring training is the time to talk about what could be, and after Alvarez’s revelation, the Nationals are allowed a little optimism about the rest of their middle infield.

”The biggest thing is repetition,” Listach said. “When we take our ground balls, we take them at game speed. There won’t be a ball hit that you don’t know whether or not you can get to it. They’re working hard.”