Washington Nationals: Middle Infield Chatter - Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Steve Lombardozzi And Anthony Rendon.

March 6, 2012; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Washington Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa (8) dives for a ground ball in the first inning of the game against the Atlanta Braves at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Ian Desmond's starting at short tonight when the Washington Nationals take on the Miami Marlins in Jupiter, Florida's Roger Dean Stadium. The 26-year-old infielder is penciled in at short Saturday afternoon too for one of the two split-squad games the Nats will be playing with the Detroit Tigers (in Lakeland, Florida's Joker Marchant Stadium) and the New York Mets (in Viera at the Nationals' spring home.) Desmond will backing up Chien-Ming Wang against the Tigers with Mark DeRosa at second according to the lineups released ahead of time by the Nationals and the Space Coast Stadium crowd will get a look at the middle infield combo a certain segment of the fanbase in the nation's capital wishes the Nats would use in the upcoming season, Danny Espinosa at short with Steve Lombardozzi at second.

Unproven as 23-year-old Steve Lombardozzi is at the major league level (32 plate appearances last September after a strong year at Double/Triple-A in the Nats' system), all the errors and the offensive issues Ian Desmond's had in his first 309 games and 1,302 plate appearances with Washington have some convinced his future in the majors is in a utility role...

Before last July's non-waiver trade deadline, FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal, in an article entitled, "The Nats: Ready to deal?", wrote that their was a difference of opinion on Desmond in the Nats' front office with some seeing the '04 Expos' 3rd Round pick as, "an improving defender, emerging leader and hitter capable of hitting .280 with 12 home runs and 70 RBI," while, according to sources, other team officials, "... would like to move Espinosa to short and promote Triple-A second baseman Steve Lombardozzi to play second." The FOXSports reporter speculated that Desmond, "... ultimately could evolve into a super-utility man for the Nats."

Espinosa was drafted as a shortstop out of Long Beach State in the 3rd Round of the '08 Draft, but he was flipped over to second since Desmond was already playing short at the major league level when Espinosa arrived after a .268/.337/.464, 18 double, 22 HR 2010 season split between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse. When Nats' skipper Davey Johnson spoke about his infield last September he said he was comfortable with Desmond and Espinosa at short and second, respectively, and he wanted to see if Lombardozzi was suited for the utility role it now seems likely he'll fill at the start of the 2012 season. Lombardozzi, the 2011 MiLB Gold Glove winner who had a combined .309/.360/.430 line last season with .996 fld% for the year in 122 games at second and 13 at short, played a little at short, second and third last September.

When the Nationals' manager Davey Johnson talked about his plans for using his infielders this Spring in late February, he told reporters, including the Washington Times' Amanda Comak that Lombardozzi would play third, short and second with Mark DeRosa getting time at first, second and short and Espinosa seeing time at short so that he was comfortable at the position, "... in case they lose shortstop Ian Desmond to a long-term injury." While noting that Espinosa had only moved to second because Desmond was the incumbent shortstop at the time Espinosa debuted, the Times' Ms Comak did add in the 2/23/12 article entitled, "Infielders are on the move in Nationals' contingency plans", that Davey Johnson was comfortable with his middle infielders and once again, "... made it clear they have no plans for that to change any time soon."

Both the Washington Times' Amanda Comak and the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore pointed to Johnson's comments from a few weeks back when they discussed Espinosa's start at short tomorrow today, with the WaPost Nats beat writer reiterating, while reporting that Espinosa got some work in at short in a Nationals Journal post entitled, "Danny Espinosa gets a second base lesson from Davey Johnson", that, "The Nationals want Espinosa to receive playing time at shortstop in case Ian Desmond gets hurt." As the WaPost's Mr. Kilgore's colleague Thomas Boswell wrote earlier this week in a chat with readers, however, this is indeed a big year for Ian Desmond to show he can put it all together at the major league level.

Espinosa has, "... a huge arm," and defensively, he's, "... as proven as you can be without actually playing SS in the majors," the WaPost's Mr. Boswell argued, so either way the Nationals will have a strong defender at short, "Either Desmond, with plus range and an acceptable number of errors or Espinosa."

"Nobody wants to put pressure on Desmond," Mr. Boswell continued:

"But that's part of the big leagues. And it's just a fact that Espinosa, who's a good friend of his, can play SS and Lombardozzi and, perhaps, [2011 1st Round pick Anthony] Rendon can play second. It's part of the picture. You have to produce with a lot of eyes on you and there will be a lot on Desmond. The Nats assume he takes the next step up this year. If he doesn't, it's the most easily fixable problem that the franchise has."

In two full seasons, discounting the 21 games Desmond played as a rookie, the third-year pro has a .261/.303/.374 slash with a 162-game average of 29 doubles, five triples and 10 HR's over that period. The Nationals are counting on Desmond performing more like the second-half of '11 Desmond who had a .289/.338/.417 line in 69 games and 290 PA's after Davey Johnson got in his head. But Lombardozzi's expected by some to make the Opening Day roster in a utility role so he'll be there if either infielder struggles this season, hopefully pushing each for playing time. Every discussion of this nature will have someone point to the fact that Anthony Rendon hasn't yet had a minor league at bat, but he's done nothing this Spring to dissuade those who see the former Rice third baseman as a quick-to-the-majors type of player, so if all goes as planned he'll be a factor soon too.

Don't read much into Ian Desmond's 1 for 11 start this Spring, though Davey Johnson did joke that he played Desmond when he might not have to get him a shot at that first hit (so he could sleep, Johnson joked), and try not to read into the fact that Desmond's already made three errors this Spring. Desmond will likely start the season at short, but he has something to prove and unlike previous seasons there is actually competition pushing for playing time in the Nats' major league infield. It's time for Desmond to prove he's the everyday shortstop in the nation's capital.

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