What’s the Future of the Middle of the Infield?

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It’s never too early to start looking at the future. That’s why I want look at what the Nationals plan for the future of the middle of the infield, especially after acquiring Yunel Escobar from the A’s. Should the roster stay as is, Escobar should be the team’s everyday second baseman with Ian Desmond manning shortstop, but Desmond is eligible to become a free agent this offseason. According to Bill Ladson of MLB.comthe Nats and Desmond have not had any “significant negotiations” on a contract to extend him beyond 2015.

With that information, it sounds like both parties are comfortable with Desmond hitting the open market following this season. That leaves Escobar as the only natural shortstop under contract for 2016 at the moment. Will the Nationals move him over to short provided Desmond departs? If so, than who plays second, and if not who plays short? Will they settle the issue in house or through the free agency and trade markets? So many questions and very few answers.

A popular opinion that was going around prior to the Escobar trade was that Wilmer Difo and Trea Turner will battle it out for the shortstop job. Now there’s opportunity for them to play either second or short for the big league club depending on where the team feels their defense is in relation to Escobar’s. In theory, this sounds excellent. Difo is ranked as the 19th best prospect in the Nationals system according to MLB.com while Turner sits at 4th in the Padres system while he waits to be sent to the Nats. Both are top prospects who are expected to develop into very good everyday shortstops.

The issue is Turner has never played above A ball and Difo has just 6 games above that level back in 2013. They both have three levels to climb, and if one of them is expected to be ready for 2016, they have just one year to do it. While we’ve seen meteoric rises like Mookie Betts with the Red Sox last year, it’s not something that’s common place.

If either one has a chance to do it, I’d put my money on Turner. While Difo is a year older and has been playing professional baseball since 2010, Turner has a leg up. Difo has been with the Nationals ‘ organization for five seasons and just last year did people start to learn his name. It’s not surprising that he went unnoticed when he hit just .248 in his first four seasons in the lowest levels of the minors. It’s not like his glove carries him either. Many people believe that despite his elite speed, he doesn’t have the range to play shortstop and he fits better at second base.

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Turner on the other hand has a shorter track record, but a far more impressive one. While he only had the chance to play 46 games in A ball, the 13th overall pick in this past year’s draft made those games count, hitting .369/.477/.529 with 14 stolen bases. Compare that to Difo who played in 90 more games and hit .315/.360/.470 with 49 stolen bases at the same level. Turner’s numbers are far and away better  but they are unsustainable over a long period of time, especially with his high BABiP and strikeout rate.

In the majors, BABiP usually normalizes around .300. Turner was hitting at an unreal .478. That’s nearly half of the balls he put in play going for hits, but a big issue was putting the ball in play. His talent was so superior to his peers that he could get away with swinging at just about anything. This led him to striking out 22.2% of the time. As the pitching gets tougher, that’ll rise and his luck on balls in play will go down. Turner is an impressive talent, but his approach to his at-bats needs to change before he makes a huge leap. That’ll only come with time. If the Nationals put a hard deadline on him being ready, that might just make his problems worse.

So if those two aren’t ready, which is more than likely going to be the case, who is out there that can hold a middle infield position down for the next year or two? The trade market is always unpredictable. How many people thought Yunel Escobar would be available this offseason a year ago?  Come a year from now all kinds of players could be available, so to try to project who they will be is kind of foolish. Two players who could be either free agents or trade targets next offseason are Alexei Ramirez and Alcides Escobar. Both have a club option for 2016, so they’ll either be on the open market or a year away from free agency provided they don’t sign an extension in the meantime.

Both players are fairly similar. They’re defense first shortstops who are decent hitters at the plate. They both are very good doubles hitters with above average speed that don’t walk a lot. The main difference between the two is age. Ramirez will be 34 next offseason while Escobar turns 29. Also , I fully expect their options to be picked up. Ramirez would be scheduled to make $10 million compared to Escobar’s $5.5 million.

Of the two, I’d expect Escobar to be more available. The White Sox have shown their committed to winning in 2015 based on their aggressive presence in free agency this offseason. I doubt they’d drop that philosophy in just a year, especially after making long term commitments. They also dealt away their near big league ready shortstop in Marcus Semien, so they no longer have an heir apparent for Ramirez.

The Royals on the other hand may be committed to winning, but they don’t have the same amount of money the White Sox do. With their young core getting closer and closer to free agency every year, some pieces are going to have to be let go. If the Nationals put together a competitive package for Escobar, he definitely could be moved.

They aren’t the only options though. The free agent market should yield names like Howie Kendrick, Daniel Murphy, Jimmy Rollins and Ben Zobrist. None of them are superstars, at least not anymore in the case of Rollins, but they have all been very effective players throughout their careers. They’ll also range between the ages of 31-37 next offseason, so the Nats will know that they won’t be getting the best years out of these players. That’s the danger of playing the free agent game. Almost all players who hit the open market are already beginning to decline and teams are always risking that they’ll be paying someone market value for a player on the precipice of having their production fall of a cliff.

With this class of players, there’s a little less risk involved. Their age and career production suggests they won’t be demanding 4+ year deals, so the Nationals can feel a lot more comfortable about giving short term money to one of these guys to keep the seat warm for Turner and Difo.

The Nationals could always stay in house too and have Yunel Escobar and Danny Espinosa be Matt Williams’ double play combo. In 2012 , his wouldn’t have sounded like an awful idea. Espinosa was a young and upcoming star it seemed. In his first two full seasons in the majors, he hit .242/.319/.408 with 38 home runs and was just 25 years old. Yeah he struck out a lot, but he was providing a lot of pop from second base, was really young, and had time to work out his kinks.

Fast forward two years and he’s hit .200/.255/.326 since then. The strikeouts have gone up, with him reaching an unreal strikeout rate of 33.5%, good for third highest of hitters with at least 350 plate appearances. He’s still just 27 and has potential, but he’s way too much of a wild card to put any stock into right now. Maybe somebody gets hurt this year and he turns in a big season. That would change the picture, but right now he’s nothing more than a last resort.

Of all the possibilities I’ve outlined, there’s a considerable amount of risk involved with all of them. The move that seems like the least risky would be to re-sign Desmond. The past three seasons he’s been as good as any shortstop in the game and is comfortable here in D.C. Since 2012 he’s led all shortstops in WAR, a full 2.2 wins ahead of Troy Tulowitzki, the next closest shortstop. He’s also 3rd in wRC+ and 7th in UZR. Looking at more traditional stats, he topped all shortstops in homers and RBI in that span while placing 6th in batting average, 8th in on-base percentage, and 3rd in slugging percentage.

Essentially he’s one the best shortstops in the game, but what will it take to sign him? As I mentioned earlier, Desmond is likely to reach free agency, so the Nationals will have competition from 29 other teams for his services. The Washington Post reported that Desmond shot down a $107 million deal over 7 years last offseason, so the numbers can only go up from there. While I expect the years to go down, I expect the money to go way up. If you look at Hanley Ramirez this offseason, whose offense has been comparable to Desmond’s over the past 3 seasons, he received a four- year, $88 million deal with an option for a 5th year this offseason from the Red Sox. Desmond will be the same age as Ramirez when he becomes a free agent, but he’s a far superior defender and doesn’t have the same injury concerns.

Desmond could feasibly get a contract as long as six years for potentially $25 million as an AAV. That’ll sign him through his age 35 season and will be paying him top dollar to play a premium defensive position at that age too. Unfortunately, that is the price of doing business in Major League Baseball. Desmond has been essential to the Nationals’ recent success and the risk of letting him go might be greater than paying him the big bucks.

All in all, the team is in a very interesting situation. They have one of the best shortstops in baseball about to hit free agency, but have two top prospects a couple years away from being major league ready. There’s several good, not great options to hold down the fort while they progress through the minor leagues. However, as more and more young Nationals players inch closer to free agency, particularly their pitchers, the team’s window of opportunity may be closed by the time either of them are ready. While they’re just addressing one position, a decision like this could be what pushes the team over the top or what makes them fall just short once again.

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