- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2016

VIERA, Fla. | As Adam Wainwright stared down Daniel Murphy at the plate, Trea Turner began positioning himself a comfortable distance from first base. The St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher had barely started his delivery when Turner bolted for second, just like he has done so many times this spring.

Brayan Pena’s throw had no chance, but really no catcher has. The Washington Nationals’ baby-faced shortstop stole his seventh base of spring training and is yet to be caught, exhibiting the type of speed manager Dusty Baker said makes him an impact player.

Turner stole the base after a leadoff single in the bottom of the second inning of the Nationals’ 8-2 win against the Cardinals on Thursday, but only after making an error on the first play of the game. He was unable to backhand the ground ball hit sharply by Kolten Wong and St. Louis jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the opening frame. In the bottom of the fourth, Turner struck out on three pitches to end the inning with outfielder Michael Taylor stranded at third base.

It’s these types of performances that paint the picture of a 22-year-old prospect that is incredibly gifted, but also raw, which is why Baker stopped himself short of evaluating Turner’s performance this spring as opening day approaches.

“I can’t tell you that yet because it’s not over yet and we’re not exactly sure what we’re going to do,” Baker said on Thursday.

What Baker does know is that he wants to see Turner get more at-bats, whether they come in the Majors or Triple-A, though the Nationals’ manager has hinted it is more likely to be the latter once the season starts. Entering this spring, Turner had just 808 at-bats to his professional career — 500 of which he got last season as he climbed the ranks through Double-A and Triple-A until he ultimately made his major-league debut with the Nationals on Aug. 21.

“Let’s face it, he hasn’t had many minor league at-bats,” Baker said. “You’re reluctant to rush a kid. Hank Aaron used to always say he’d rather bring a kid up a month later than a month earlier because most of these kids have never failed in anything in their entire life. You’d rather have em here killing it than you would start off with them and fail and send them down and build them back up. The need of the world is to have another Taylor Swift, am I right? To always have somebody new. Sometimes it’s counterproductive to the person and the team. The world is his. He just has a few things … very few young shortstops, how many have had fewer at-bats in games than he did?”

After Ian Desmond’s departure from the Nationals — he rejected the team’s qualifying offer and signed with the Texas Rangers — after starting at shortstop since 2010, Baker said in February that there’d be an open competition. That competition featured Turner, second baseman Danny Espinosa and veteran Stephen Drew, who joined the team on a one-year deal in the offseason.

The Nationals have a sure-handed defender in Espinosa, who was Desmond’s counterpart in the middle of the infield since 2011 and is ticketed to be the team’s starting shortstop on opening day. Espinosa played shortstop until he made his debut with the Nationals. With Desmond already entrenched at shortstop, Espinosa welcomed the switch but is excited to be playing his natural position again.

“To me, the responsibility at shortstop is greater defensively but there’s also more challenging plays,” Espinosa said. “I’m more excited just looking forward to getting back at short. I know I can play short. I figured at some point I’d get back. I didn’t know when.”

Espinosa, who is hitting .120 in 11 games in spring training, started 0-for-18 but has three hits in his last seven at-bats. It was frustrating at times, but for Espinosa, spring training stats carry little significance. It’s about the quality, which is why he spent time with Baker fine-tuning his mechanics and sharpening his approach.

“It took a little bit of an adjustment period to get through it,” said Espinosa, who had the day off on Thursday. “The last three games or so, my at-bats are better, my timing is better so I feel better.

“As it gets closer [to the season], you start catching a few more balls on the barrel, you’re starting to get that crisp feel. You get your fastball timing and then you start adjusting to seeing off-speed and good and bad off-speed and adjusting to hit it or take it.”

Baker said he has seen subtle changes in Espinosa’s approach, which he believes will lead to more success at the plate. Those improvements, combined with Espinosa’s strong defensive skills, can stabilize the position, which would allow Turner to develop at the rate Baker desires.

If Espinosa is in fact the starter and Drew the utility infielder, Turner knows starting the season with the Nationals is out of his control. He’s embraced the idea of starting in Triple-A and values getting regular at-bats, something that will help him get more comfortable as he continues to improve.

“I worried a little bit when I got here early and it didn’t do anything for me,” Turner said. “I just want to go out there, play, have fun and compete.

“Just getting as many reps as I can and I’ll start to get comfortable, make adjustments wherever I can and the only way you can make real adjustments is get real reps in real games.”

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