Having made several key moves this offseason, the Washington Nationals are roughly one left-handed bullpen pitcher and a debate for the 5th rotation starter away from having a set in stone 25-man roster for Opening Day. While the team looks fueled and ready to avenge last season’s disappointment, there are still some question marks around the diamond that will need to be addressed over the coming months and years, none of which appear more eminent than fine-tuning Washington Nationals infield of the future.
For this season, there is no denying the fact that the starting infield is locked up. With Ryan Zimmerman at third, Ian Desmond at short, Anthony Rendon at second, and Adam LaRoche at first, the Nationals have a solid first line of defense behind their impressive pitching staff.
The problem arises when you consider the fact that Anthony Rendon is playing away from his natural third base position and that 2-time Gold Glover Ryan Zimmerman has never really recovered completely from his shoulder issues. Posting a career-worst .945 fielding percentage and 21 errors (most of which were of the throwing variety), Zim still has the glove and reaction-time to play the hot corner, but not much else. Unless the play involves a hard charge and throwing off-balance, Zimmerman just does not have the arm to play the position anymore. Considering that he is under the team’s control through 2019 (with a team option for 2020) and still has a solid middle-of-the-lineup bat, the likeliest option is to shift him over to first base and let the emerging star Anthony Rendon play his natural position.
With first baseman Adam LaRoche entering the final year of his 2-year, $24 million contract, the infield should have a very different look in 2015. The only question remaining will be what to do about second base. In a perfect world, when Rendon slides over to 3B after Zimmerman shifts to 1B, former starter Danny Espinosa would re-emerge and take over up the middle in D.C. There is no denying the fact that Espinosa has a great deal of potential. He is a Gold Glove-caliber fielder with an absolute hose for an arm, however his struggles putting the ball in play at the dish have been quite disconcerting.
In 167 plate appearances with the big club last season, Espinosa hit .158 with a K/BB ratio of 11/1. When he is right, this guy has legitimate 30/30 potential and I believe the team would be just fine with him only hitting .240 or so as long as he was able to get the strikeouts down and the on-base percentage up. Hopefully, this 2014 season will give him the time he needs to iron out the kinks in his swing and get back to being the player we all think he can be.
If Espinosa does not progress enough to be a viable Major League starter in 2015, GM Mike Rizzo will have his work cut out for him as the 2015 free agent pool at second base is fairly scant. Players entering free agency that year include Rickie Weeks (will be 33 years old w/ a $11.55M vesting option), Ben Zobrist (will be 36 years old w/ a $7.5M club option), Emilio Bonifacio, and Nick Punto.
The shortstop position is but a mere afterthought at this point as Ian Desmond has really come into his own both in the field and at the plate. The only thing to keep an eye on is the fact that he is eligible for arbitration in 2014 and could become a free-agent by 2016. Rizzo and the Lerner family will need to make locking him up long-term a priority in the coming months.
Bottom line, its nice as a Nationals fan to be nit-picking this much in order to find issues with the roster for the next several years. Having said that, the thought that the Washington Nationals infield for the foreseeable future could ultimately rest on the questionable bat of Danny Espinosa is somewhat troublesome.