PHILADELPHIA - SEPTEMBER 20: Catcher Erik Kratz #31 of the Philadelphia Phillies tags out second baseman Stephen Lombardozzi #1 of the Washington Nationals during a game at Citizens Bank Park on September 20, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Nationals won 4-3. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
"As far as I'm concerned, I think the parts that we have in the system are there," Washington Nationals' manager Davey Johnson told ESPN980's Thom Loverro and Kevin Sheehan in an interview last week when asked how active Washington will be in free agency this winter. "Maybe utilizing them on the major league level may be a little bit of a rush, but [at] this day and time, I always like to see guys come from within the system, they've earned the right to compete at the major league level and they have the talent."
Does the center fielder the Nats need exist in-house? Not at the upper levels of the Nats' system? Is Davey talking about pitchers like Brad Peacock and Tom Milone? He seems to be referring to position players or everyday players. Bryce Harper? Johnson told D.C. GM Mike Rizzo to keep an open mind going into Spring Training. Steve Lombardozzi? Chris Marrero? Lombardozzi, who turned 23 in September, had an award-winning defensive campaign in 2011, in which he also hit 25 doubles, nine triples and eleven home runs with an impressive combined .309/.360/.430 slash between Double and Triple-A. Lombardozzi put up a .194/.219/.226 in 13 games and 32 plate appearances with the Nationals after his call-up and debut.
The '08 19th Round pick played just 69 games at Triple-A Syracuse, so if he doesn't somehow force Danny Espinosa or Ian Desmond from the middle of the infield (or if one of the three isn't traded this winter) Lombardozzi could return to the Chiefs this season, or fill the utility role in the infield that the Alex Coras, Jerry Hairstons and Brian Bixlers have previously filled. Chris Marrero turned 23 in July. He's played 620 games over six seasons in the Nats' system since they drafted the right-handed hitting and throwing first baseman in the 1st Round of the '06 Draft. Marrero had a .300/.375/.449 line, 30 doubles and 14 HR's in 127 games and 546 at bats in a full-year at Triple-A Syracuse.
"A lot of times, the kind of old baseball philosophy is, well if he's young and he's not playing every day, then don't take him on the ballclub," Johnson told ESPN980's Mr. Loverro and Sheehan, "Send him out for more seasoning. Well, I think you can fill a lot of the roles that we're lacking in-house." When Lombardozzi was called up in September, Johnson spoke to reporters about the role each of his infielders would likely be play going forward. "I'm very comfortable with the guys that we have up the middle," Davey Johnson said, "As far as I'm concerned, could [Lombardozzi] be an every day second baseman? Yeah, [but] could he fill a utility role? That's what he's up here to see."
Lombardozzi saw time at second, third and short and came of the bench as a pinch hitter at times in September, will he fill that role as a utility player with the Nats in 2012? The versatility surely helps. MASNSports.com's Byron Kerr talked to Baseball America's Aaron Fitt for an article entitled, "Baseball America's top Nats prospects - No. 10: Steve Lombardozzi", in which Mr. Fitt described Lombardozzi as having, "... the unique combination of hitting and defense that could make him a consistent player at baseball's top level." Is Lombardozzi suited for a bench role? Should he be playing every day somewhere?
Chris Marrero's an even more difficult case because of his limitations as a player and the current structure of the Nats' roster with Adam LaRoche expected back at first and Michael Morse a better option there than Marrero right now should LaRoche suffer any setbacks in his recovery from surgery to repair a torn labrum and some rotator cuff damage. ESPN.com's Keith Law wrote in a late-August article entitled, "Scouting high-profile debuts", that the Nats' 23-year-old '06 1st Round pick is going to have to, "... hit to establish himself as a big league regular, as he's limited to first base and doesn't add much value there on defense, but I don't see his bat playing every day there." Mr. Law's projection for Marrero? "He could hang around for a long time as a platoon bat or below-average regular."
"Chris Marrero's a good one," Davey Johnson told the ESPN980 hosts last week, "I think you've got to answer the question about how good are the guys you've got? They need to be up playing and playing at their top level. Then you think about adding somebody, that's the formula. You don't go out and do it, spend a lot of money right now to get some big masher." But what do you do when those players are blocked, Lombardozzi by Desmond and Espinosa and Marrero by LaRoche. Do you put the two in bench roles this year, send them to Syracuse for another season and hope they improve the aspects of their games that are lacking? Will one of the two be traded this winter? Or will one of the incumbents be dealt?
Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell spoke recently in a chat with readers about the number of players in the system who are currently being blocked as a sign that the team is, "probably about to become a good team,":
"Lombardozzi is blocked. Peacock and Milone are blocked. [Anthony] Rendon will start off being blocked. Three years ago, [Derek] Norris, Lombo, Peacock and Milone might have all been starters next Opening Day with Rendon and Mike Purke being pushed fast to the majors."
The Nationals have spent the last few years building up the depth they have in the system, so that position players at the major league level are being pushed and challenged for their spots. They also have the depth now to deal for what they need if it's not available on the free agent market. Having to decide which players of a group of suitable options are the best of the bunch is a problem this franchise hasn't had to deal with much in the past. It's a sign of improvement, sure, but it doesn't make the decisions any easier.