In a recent bit about the onset of spring training and the things to pay attention to when it finally gets fully going, I pointed out the positional battles taking place at second base at a number of teams across the league. One team that didn't make the cut for mention in that write-up was the Washington Nationals, under the assumption that it likely wouldn't be a battle, and that if it was, it could be far more interesting than could be described in a sentence or two next to the situations in which the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees find themselves.
The basic gist of the situation that greets Washington as they enter camp is this: The man DC intended to be their everyday second baseman in 2013, Danny Espinosa, was a combination of hurt and horrible over the first half the season, hitting .158/.193/.272 in 167 plate appearances while battling a wrist fracture caused by a hit-by-pitch in late April and a shoulder injury he'd played through the entire previous season. During his early season struggles, he was spelled by utilityman Steve Lombardozzi, but following the HBP the Nationals called up then-third base prospect Anthony Rendon, a polished college hitter out of Rice University drafted by Washington with the sixth overall pick in 2011.
Though he essentially had to learn to play second base on the fly at the major league level -- an experiment with results that were mixed at best in the field -- Rendon finished the season hitting .265/.329/.396 as a 23-year-old with only 326 PA of minor league baseball before being thrown into the majors. Rendon is essentially done with the minor leagues, as he was already on the fast-track to the bigs when he stepped into the Nats system, before he backed his pedigree up with MLB production. The question becomes whether he or Espinosa gets the starting job out of the gate.
From the outside looking in, this first test of new manager Matt Williams and his coaching staff appears to be a no-brainer. Rendon is young, needs to play every day to continue his development and has far more potential than Espinosa -- Baseball America profiled his upside as a middle of the order hitter, and named him the best defensive infielder in the Nationals system when they ranked him the best overall prospect in the Washington organization at the beginning of last season. It's not unreasonable to think that with an entire offseason to dedicate to his new position, he'll be able to come into camp and win the second base job on merit alone, both at the plate and in the field.
Espinosa, on the other hand, is a known product: A solid defensive second baseman who, before his injuries last year, had a respectable bat given the current offensive climate, hitting .239/.315/.411 in 1270 PA. The wrist fracture that sidelined him last year shouldn't be an issue now. But the poor line he put up before suffering said injury could have something to do with him playing through a torn rotator cuff throughout the final weeks of the 2012 season, then opting against surgery to repair it in favor of preparing for spring training. While wrist fractures don't generally have long-term, career-altering implications, torn rotator cuffs certainly can. The good news is that Espinosa is a second baseman, not a pitcher, and the injury is in his left (non-throwing) shoulder.
So the race is on between the two of them, and there's a non-zero chance it's a "race" only insomuch that spring training is a great time for the Nationals to try to pump Espinosa's value as much as possible and deal him to one of the other teams in the league that's desperate for an actual solution at second base -- those aforementioned Cubs and Yankees and Dodgers and so on. The "worst" possible outcome of that race is that either the Nationals have probably the best backup second baseman in the league in Espinosa, or Rendon has to spend some more time at AAA -- it's far more important right now in his development that he play every day than that he be a major leaguer no matter what.
There is another option, however. One that not only addresses one of the major concerns of keeping Rendon at second base -- Rendon himself has an extensive history of lower body injuries that slowed his development, and second base is a dangerous position for him given big league players' propensity for take-out slides -- but one of the worst defensive regressions the Nationals suffered elsewhere in their infield last season. That option: Moving Rendon back to third base, and having All-Star, Gold Glove third baseman Ryan Zimmerman move to first base -- or, even more daringly, to second.
If one removes the two players' names and histories from the equation, it makes a whole of sense. The strong-hitting third baseman who still has ample range and a great first step moves to second, where the fact that he had very serious and obvious problems with getting the ball quickly and accurately from third to first last season will no longer be a major issue. In turn, the younger, hopefully just-as-strong hitting second baseman moves back to his original defensive position on the field, a position where it's much less likely that a baserunner's foot will collide with one of his extensively surgically repaired ankles.
It is not unheard of for star players, even franchise players, to move around the defensive spectrum when asked. Fellow third baseman and back-to-back AL MVP Miguel Cabrera is doing just that in Detroit this year with Prince Fielder off to Texas. But not every player is Miguel Cabrera, and considering that the incoming manager of the Nationals is essentially a rookie with only three previous years of scattered coaching duties in the Arizona Diamondbacks system, and was himself a third baseman, it seems unlikely that the first order of business on his watch will be fiddling with where the arguable face of the franchise plays on the diamond (I give it one more year until Bryce Harper's definitively overtaken Zimmerman there).
That appears to be precisely what Matt Williams is doing, however -- though not with the second base job. Williams instead confirmed to the Washington Post in December that he'll be giving Zimmerman time at first, presumably when Adam LaRoche sits against left-handed pitchers (whom Zimmerman has hit very well over the course of his career). Williams and the Nationals aren't wrong in their assessment that Zimmerman should be very valuable both at the plate and in the field in that position, but he's still so good at just about everything but delivering the baseball across the diamond that it seems like something of a waste to move him into the least valuable spot on the field defensively.
But given that Williams and Zimmerman have already set their priorities and made their plans, this is probably not a decision one wants to make a couple days into camp -- if the Nationals were concerned that Zimmerman's arm was going to be a lasting problem, they would probably be more aggressively pursuing Zimmerman's transition off the hot corner. Last season didn't happen in isolation, however; It's been two or three years since Zimmerman has been a clear plus defender at his position, and most of his problems have come not from getting to the ball, but from trying to get the ball to a bag.
That means that it's conceivable that both Rendon and Espinosa could "win" this positional battle, in a sense. If LaRoche has a truly horrible camp or is injured, the Nationals' opening day lineup could feature an infield with Zimmerman at first, Espinosa at second, Ian Desmond at shortstop and Rendon at third base. If it came to putting down money, though, I'd wager on Zimmerman remaining at third, Rendon at starting at second and Espinosa landing on some other team's roster in exchange for a nice bullpen piece or a high-upside lottery ticket prospect.
But there's room for all kinds of permutations in between, especially if the injury histories of both competitors come into play -- and the best way of minimizing the risk of that injury history cropping back up for one of the Nationals' best young players might be to think heavily outside the box.