Can Washington Nationals' Stephen Lombardozzi Fill Bench Role With 2012 Nats?

We've had this discussion before, but the Nationals haven't added a veteran infielder yet, though there's still a good deal of time before Spring Training starts. Did the signing of 36-year-old utility infielder Mark DeRosa signal that 23-year-old Nats' infielder Stephen Lombardozzi is headed back to the minors in 2012 for more time at Triple-A Syracuse after he played 69 games and made 325 plate appearances with the Washington Nationals' top affiliate before making his MLB debut last September? When the one-year deal with DeRosa was announced, FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) wrote on Twitter that the veteran infielder/outfielder, "will play super-utility role, serve as RH hitter off bench."

The Nationals, in the press release announcing DeRosa's deal, touted his versatility, noting that he's, "... started games at six different positions during his career, including 75 or more starting assignments at third base (282), second base (265), right field (135) and shortstop (79)." In a 12/20/11 article by MLB.com's Bill Ladson entitled, "DeRosa still interested in joining Nationals", Johnson talked about DeRosa mostly in relation to first base, explaining that he'd called the veteran infielder after Chris Marrero suffered a hamstring injury that will delay the start of the young first baseman's 2012 campaign. "With Chris Marrero down and maybe some question marks regarding Adam LaRoche," the manager told the MLB.com writer, "DeRosa just fits."

Have the Nationals talked at all about any targets among middle infielders available via free agency? DeRosa can play all infield positions, but hasn't played short since 2008. There's no one else on the 40-Man roster who could serve as a backup infielder, is there? NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman had Lombardozzi pencilled in as the backup infielder on the bench in a 1/4/11 article entitled, "Nats won't have many spots up for grabs", though he noted that he was there barring the addition of, "another veteran, especially a middle infielder who would bump Lombardozzi to Class AAA."

MASNSports.com's Pete Kerzel looked at Lombardozzi's future in an article entitled, "Is Steve Lombardozzi ready for the majors?", concluding that, "[Lombardozzi's] blocked for at least a year by the Nationals' signing last week of veteran utility man Mark DeRosa, who can back up all around the infield and play the corner outfield spots, as well."

Will an eventual injury to DeRosa's put Lombardozzi in the utility role sooner or later regardless? DeRosa's played in just 73 games in the last two seasons, putting up a combined .253/.313/.279 slash in 201 plate appearances in which he's hit just five doubles and one home run. After returning from a DL stint last August, DeRosa had a .367/.439/.388 line with one double in 57 plate appearances. In his last full (healthy) season with the Indians and Cardinals in 2009, DeRosa had a .250/.319/.433 line, down some from his career .272/.341/.416 slash.

The possibility of Lombardozzi beating out either Ian Desmond or Danny Espinosa seems unlikely. Davey Johnson talked to reporters about what role the infielder might play in the future in a press conference this past season after the Nats brought Lombardozzi up with the expanded rosters in September. Johnson explained then that he was happy with the play of Espinosa and Desmond, "I'm very comfortable with the guys that we have up the middle," Johnson said, but, "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." How much you can judge the infielder based on his small sample size last September is unclear. His resume in the minors is impressive, however.

Following the 2011 season, Lombardozzi was named one of nine Rawlings Minor League Gold Glove Award winners chosen from amongst, "... qualifying players from the 10 domestic-based, full-season Minor Leagues," as a press release on the awards announced. The infielder finished the 2011 season with a combined .309/.360/.430 slash, 25 doubles, nine triples, eight HR's and 30 stolen bases. Defensively, the '08 19th Round pick had a .996 FLD% in 122 games most of which were played at second between Double-A Harrisburg, where he made two errors in 66 games, and Triple-A Syracuse where he played 59 games without making an error.

Lombardozzi's received praise from team officials throughout the Nats' organization for his efforts on his way up to the majors. In an article this year entitled, "Lombardozzi continues in groove following promotion to Triple-A", the Nats' Director of Player Development, Doug Harris, told MASNSports.com's Byron Kerr that though the son of former major leaguer Steve Lombardozzi (1985-90), "... is not blessed with tremendous tools... he gets more out of what he has than most guys. He continues to put himself in position to be recognized at the big leagues."

Pat Corrales, a roving instructor in the Nats' system who became Davey Johnson's bench coach last year but will return to the role in the organization in 2012, told MLB.com's Bill Ladson last year that Lombardozzi simply "'... does things to help the team win. He bunts, plays great defense, hits behind the runners," and, eventually Corrales said, "'He is bound to make his move.'" Do the Nationals need a veteran infielder, or can they go with the young product from their own system in that role this year?

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