Washington Nationals Spring Preview: Steve Lombardozzi, Utility, Triple-A Or Trade?

PHILADELPHIA - SEPTEMBER 20: Second baseman Stephen Lombardozzi #1 of the Washington Nationals throws to first base during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on September 20, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

23-year-old, Fulton, Maryland-born infielder Steve Lombardozzi was drafted out of St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Florida 571st overall in 2008 with the Washington Nationals' 19th Round pick. Over four seasons in the Nats' system since he was selected the 6'0'', 170 lb switch-hitter has a .298/.369/.411 line with 90 doubles, 28 triples, 17 HR's and 74 stolen bases in 447 games and 2,001 plate appearances. Last year, at two stops in the Nats' organization with Double-A Harrisburg and then Triple-A Syracuse, the then-22-year-old second baseman (who turned 23 in September and played a little short) had a combined .309/.360/.430 line with 25 doubles, nine triples, eight HR's and 30 stolen bases.

Defensively, Lombardozzi had a .996 FLD% in 122 games played in 2011. The son of former major league infielder Steve Lombardozzi (MIN, HOU) made just two errors in 66 games at Double-A, and he played 59 games at Triple-A without making an error.

Lombardozzi earned a call-up to the major leagues last September, where he made his MLB debut against the LA Dodgers on September 6, 2011. The infielder looked overmatched early, going 0 for 15 before connecting for a two-out RBI single off Mets' right-hander R.A. Dickey to drive in the winning run in a 3-2 Washington win over New York. After collecting his first hit, Lombardozzi was 5 for 15 over the final seven games of a 2011 campaign which resulted in him being named the second-best infield prospect behind 2011 1st Round pick Anthony Rendon (and the highest-ranked middle infielder) in the Nats' system on Baseball America, MLB.com and Keith Law's list of the Nationals' top prospects for 2012.

Baseball America recognized Lombardozzi as the Best Defensive Infielder in the organization. "The son of the former big leaguer," the MLB.com's scouting report says, "... knows how to play the game the right way and all of his tools play up because of his all-out style and baseball IQ." MLB.com's scouts predict a utility role in Lombardozzi's future. The Nats' farm director, Doug Harris, told MLB.com's Jon Star last month in an article entitled, "Lombardozzi made great strides with Nats in '11", that he was impressed with the season Lombardozzi had last year, saying the young infielder was, "'... extremely well prepared, very detailed in his work and preparation, both offensively and defensively,'" before noting as most reports on Lombardozzi do, that, "'[He's] not blessed with the biggest tools, but gets the most out of who he is.'"

ESPN.com's Keith Law wrote on Twitter that he sees Lombardozzi as a future utility man in the majors as he noted when the Nats' infielder's name came up in trade talks last July. Lombardozzi wasn't dealt, of course, and he was awarded a Rawlings Gold Glove Award for his defensive work in 2011. Minor League Ball's John Sickels praised the infielder and gave him a (B-) grade in his Top 20 Prospects list this past January, writing that Lombardozzi, "Plays above his tools and will likely continue to do so. Terrific defense and bat keeps improving."

Baseball America's Aaron Fitt told MASNSports.com's Byron Kerr this winter in article entitled, "Baseball America's top Nats prospects - No. 10: Steve Lombardozzi", that the Nats' infielder has, "... the unique combination of hitting and defense that could make him a consistent player at baseball's top level." Nats' skipper Davey Johnson, asked earlier this winter if the Nationals needed to be active in the free agent and trade market, told ESPN980 hosts Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro that he thought Washington could fill some roster needs from within.

"As far as I'm concerned, I think the parts that we have in the system are there," Johnson said, "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."

Davey Johnson told the Washington Times' Amanda Comak this winter that if Lombardozzi was on the major league roster in 2012, "... they'd have to know they'd be able to get him a lot of playing time," as Ms. Comak wrote. "'When you carry a young player that has the talent that Lombardozzi does, I'd have to get him in a lot of games,' Johnson said. 'I can do that if it's just one young player.'"

Lombardozzi and 23-year-old Venezuelan-born infielder Carlos Rivero, who had a .270/.326/.440 combined line at Double and Triple-A in the Phillies' system last season and was claimed off waivers from Philadelphia this winter, are the only two middle infielders on the Nats' 40-Man roster after presumptive starters Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa.

27-year-old former Royals, Cubs and Rangers' infielder Andres Blanco signed a minor league deal and was invited to Spring Training. In 235 games over six MLB seasons, Blanco has a .255/.301/.333 line. 28-year-old infielder Jarret Hoffpauir signed a minor league deal as well. The right-handed hitting infielder has just 21 major league games on his resume, but he had a .281/.356/.428 line with 26 doubles in 91 games and 356 PA's at Triple-A in the San Diego Padres' system where he played second, short, third and left. Whether or not it's the best thing for his development, Lombardozzi looks like the best option for the utility role on the 2012 Nats' roster.

Asking a 23-year-old to fill that role? Any chance Lombardozzi bumps Ian Desmond out of the infield? There's a certain segment of Nats fans, frustrated with Desmond's slow development and impressed by Lombardozzi who are waiting for the day, but for now Lombardozzi appears to be blocked. "Good teams always have good players who are blocked!" Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell wrote in a chat last November, "That's one reason you know the Nats are probably about to become a good team."

"Lombardozzi is blocked," Mr. Boswell continued, and he then put Lombardozzi on a list of players that would have started for the Nats in the years past. "Three years ago, Norris, Lombo, Peacock and Milone might have all been starters next Opening Day," the WaPost writer noted, "with [Anthony] Rendon and [Matt] Purke being pushed fast to the majors." Is it a bad sign for Lombardozzi that the other three MLB-ready players Boswell mentions were dealt this winter?

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