This week, District Sports Page will take a look at the players that should comprise the 2013 roster of the Washington Nationals. Following a record-setting season last year that saw the Nats finish first in the N.L. East and advance to the playoffs for the first time since the relocation, GM Mike Rizzo has tweaked the roster a bit and expectations have never been higher for the organization, which is expected to be a legitimate World Series contender this season.
PROJECTED OPENING DAY INFIELD: 1B–Adam LaRoche, 2B–Danny Espinosa, SS–Ian Desmond, 3B–Ryan Zimmerman. Bench: 2B/SS Steve Lombardozzi, 1B/3B Chad Tracy. First callups: 3B Carlos Rivero, 1B Chris Marrero, 2B Will Rhymes. On the Farm: 3B Anthony Rendon, 1B/3B Matt Skole, SS Zach Walters
Adam LaRoche — 1B: The big question for the Nats over the winter was whether or not to resign their offensive MVP from last season. The 33-year-old first baseman wanted a multi-year contract, and rightfully so, after enjoying his career year in 2012, hitting .271/.343/.510 with 35 doubles, 33 homers and 100 RBIs. He was the only middle of the order bat to stay in the lineup all season and really held things together early for the Nats while Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Michael Morse all had stints on the D.L.
LaRoche spent much of the off-season looking for that three or four-year deal, but it never did materialize so he accepted the Nats two-year offer of $24 million with a mutual option for 2015. When healthy, LaRoche’s numbers are remarkably consistent, both at the dish and in the field. A repeat of last year’s numbers might be asking a lot, but LaRoche probably won’t be too far off, while still providing top-notch defense around the bag. His range isn’t the greatest, but he’s excellent at picking throws in the dirt.
Danny Espinosa — 2B: This is going to be interesting. Espinosa revealed two weeks ago that he played late in the season with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder and did not have surgery over the winter, hoping that rest would alleviate the inflammation and strengthening his core and muscles around the injury would allow him to play without the effects of the injury this season. Rotator cuffs don’t just heal themselves, that’s why the injury is still so damaging to pitchers. Now, this isn’t Espinosa’s throwing shoulder, but it definitely affected him at the plate.
Espinosa had an MRI in mid-September, which at the time reportedly showed a bone bruise and swelling. He received a cortisone shot and only missed a couple of games, but was ineffective when he returned. Down the stretch, Espinosa had a .171/.247/.271 line and was miserable in the playoffs, going 1-for-15 with seven strikeouts in the five-game NLDS against the Cardinals. Espinosa brings a solid combination of power, speed and defense at second base, but he has to be better at making contact. A 20-homer hitter shouldn’t lead the league in strikeouts, as he did last season. How much of that is attributable to the injury?
Ian Desmond — SS: Another Nats hitter who enjoyed a career year in 2012, Desmond really blossomed for the team, especially after being removed from the leadoff spot in the order. Manager Davey Johnson moved Desmond into more of a run-producing spot in the lineup in mid-May and he really flourished, posting career-best numbers across the board: .292/.335/.511, 33 doubles, 25 home runs, 73 RBIs — all career highs. That he accomplished all this while missing 32 games makes his numbers that much more remarkable and shows how valuable he was to the Nats last season.
Desmond enters his age 27 season, typically when a player with an upward trajectory such as Desmond enters his “peak” years, so a repeat isn’t really out of the question. Desmond is best when he plays within himself and just allows his game to come through. A natural leader, sometimes he tries to make things happen instead of letting the game “come to him” and that’s when he gets in trouble, both at the plate and in the field. Desmond said at Nats Fanfest he wants to be more patient at the plate, signs of a more mature player, maybe, as he enters the prime of his career.
Ryan Zimmerman — 3B: The Face of the Franchise had a very interesting and well-chronicled season in 2012. He got off to an absolutely miserable start, hitting .232/.339/.309 with just one home run through May 17. That next morning, he received a cortisone shot in his ailing right shoulder’s A/C joint, which he injured on the base paths earlier in the season, forcing a two-week stay on the disabled list. He went 2-for-4 the next day, and for the rest of the season he put up MVP caliber numbers, hitting .293/.348/.510 with 24 homers and 84 RBIs in the following 120 games. Zimmerman had trouble all season throwing, however, due to an unnatural change in mechanics to alleviate the discomfort in his shoulder.
Zimmerman had arthroscopic surgery on the joint in October and should be completely healed and healthy for the start of spring training. In his seven MLB seasons, Zimmerman has played more than 155 games just three times. The other seasons he’s had to spend significant time on the disabled list, which is the only reason he hasn’t ascended into the upper stratosphere of superstars in baseball. He’s a lifetime .287/.353/.479 hitter in the prime of his career. Health is the only thing holding him back.
Steve Lombardozzi — 2B/SS: Lombardozzi, son of the former MLB infielder of the same name, size and aptitude, spent the entire season on the big league roster last year in the role of utility player, appearing at second base, shortstop, third base and even left field. He amassed 416 plate appearances in 126 games and played a good amount of time filling in for the injured Michael Morse in left field (until a certain phenom was summoned from the minors) and at second base when Danny Espinosa had to slide over to short to cover for an injured Ian Desmond. Lombo acquitted himself well for a 23-year old just trying to establish his MLB bona fides.
Lombardozzi hit .273/.317/.354 with three homers in 2012 while playing decent defense wherever he was in the field. But that’s his thing. Much like his father, Lombardozzi’s greatest baseball strength is his willingness to do whatever it takes to stay on the roster. He isn’t blessed with power, great speed or even exceptional defense. He’s a “gamer”, and while that has value to a big league club for the 25th spot on the roster, that also expresses the ceiling of his talent level. If Espinosa eventually has to have surgery on his torn rotator cuff, Lombo will be an adequate replacement, slapping singles occasionally and playing average MLB defense. Just don’t expect more.
Chad Tracy — 1B/3B: Tracy signed a contract extension with the Nats for 2013 in August last season to be the backup corner infielder and No. 1 pinch-hitter this season. It’s a luxury GM Mike Rizzo decided he needed to have, as the Nats have had a virtual parade of MLB retreads float through the roster in the position without much success. Tracy had a couple of very key hits early in 2012, but missed all of June and July with a sports hernia injury and resultant surgery. he picked up where he left off and hit .273/.360/.364 the rest of the season, mostly in one-at bat appearances, but had just four extra-base hits, all doubles.
Tracy, 33, is at the point in his career where if someone needs a day off at first or third he can give it to you, but if there’s a significant injury, the Nats would have to look in the minors or outside the organization to fill the spot. He’s just not an everyday type of player anymore.
Carlos Rivera — 3B: The Nats have protected Rivero on the 40-man roster each of the last two off-seasons since acquiring him from the Phillies organization following the 2011 season. In seven minor league seasons, the 24-year old Venezuelan has hit .265/.322/.386 with 57 homers in 780 games. Last year for AAA-Syracuse, he went .303/.347/.435 with 10 homers and 64 RBIs in 498 plate appearances, playing third (98 games), first (16 games) and shortstop (17 games). Should the Nats need a third baseman or utility man to cover an injury this season, he might get the first call.
Chris Marrero — 1B: If it seems like we’ve been talking about Marrero forever, we have. The Nats first round pick (15th overall) in the 2006 draft, Marrero’s been in the system since he was 17-years old. Still only 24, Marrero’s a testament to the perils of drafting a high school hitter that high in the draft. Of course, his injury history is as long as his stats sheet by now. Marrero tore a hamstring playing winter ball in the D.R. in November 2011 and spent much of 2012 on the D.L. nursing both the hamstring and shoulder injuries. He was limited to 144 plate appearances for AAA-Syracuse and when he was in the lineup, he didn’t hit, going .244/.333/.307 with just six extra-base hits, all doubles. Marrero’s time as a prospect has almost run out, and he needs to prove health and talent this year or the Nats likely won’t protect him again.
Will Rhymes — 2B: Rhymes will turn 30 on opening day. He has spent the last three seasons shuffling between AAA and the Majors with Detroit and Tampa Bay, amassing 499 plate appearances and hitting .266/.328/.343, playing mostly second base. Perhaps it speaks to Espinosa’s injury that Rhymes was given a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Position redundancy and depth in Major League experience is important to teams that expect to contend, and Rhymes offers that for the Nats in the case that Espinosa can’t answer the bell this season.
DOWN ON THE FARM
Anthony Rendon — 3B: Rendon is heralded as the Nats top prospect by all the publications that specialize in that sort of ranking. A natural third baseman with quiet hands and strong throwing arm, Rendon was perhaps the most polished college hitter in the 2011 draft, when the Nats selected him sixth overall. He had foot and shoulder injuries that limited to DH his final collegiate season, and he’s been plagued by the injury bug ever since. He was limited to 160 plate appearances across four different levels of the minors last season and struggled mightily at the last level, AA Harrisburg, where he hit .162/.305/.368 with three home runs (and three RBIs) in 68 plate appearances. Still, he’ll only be 23 in June and he’s lauded for his smooth swing and command of the strike zone (evidenced by 23 walks in 160 plate appearances) and most folks think he’s a sure-fire MLB All-Star in the very near future… if he can stay healthy.
Matt Skole — 1B/3B: Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Big guy without a natural fielding position provides massive power numbers in the minor leagues and is largely ignored by scouting services because of his limitations. Sounds a lot like Tyler Moore, right? Well, Matt Skole has slugger written all over him. The 6’4′, 230 lb Georgia native was drafted in the 5th round of the 2011 draft by the Nats and all he’s done is hit home runs since. Last year, between Low-A Hagerstown and High-A Potomac, Skole mashed 27 homers and drove in 104, hitting .291/.426/.559 in the process. He struck out a lot (133 Ks in 524 plate appearances) but also walked a lot (99 BBs), so he’s a classic “three true outcomes” type of hitter. He played exclusively at third base, committing 23 errors in 107 games and his eventual position might be Designated Hitter. But power — and plate discipline — plays, and Skole is already refined in those aspects at his level.
Zach Walters — SS: Walters was obtained by the Nats in the trade that sent Jason Marquis to the Arizona Diamondbacks at the trade deadline in 2011. Walters played at three different levels last season, ending up at AAA-Syracuse. Overall, he hit .266/.302/.418 with 12 homers. Walters was ranked No. 10 on the Nats list of top prospects by Baseball America this off-season, but that might be due to the lack of legitimate high-end prospects in the Nats system right now. Walters probably profiles more as a utility player in the Majors and his invitation to big league camp this year might be as an introduction to that pursuit. It’s easier to make a utility player out of a natural shortstop though than to ask a second baseman to make that switch, so Walters should have the athleticism to make the transition.