Nationals 2014 Position Battle: Anthony Rendon vs Danny Espinosa vs Steve Lombardozzi

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Nationals' second baseman Anthony Rendon impressed with a strong rookie campaign for the Nats after he took over at second for Danny Espinosa. Is Espinosa done in D.C., or does he have a chance at working his way back up to the nation's capital?

Before the disappointing 2013 campaign ended, the Washington Nationals' retiring manager Davey Johnson predicted in an interview with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s The Sports Junkies that the Opening Day lineup in 2014 would look a lot like the one that finally took the field late this past season when everyone who was expected to play every day was finally healthy and producing.

The Nats finished strong with a 34-20 run over the last two months of a season that ended with the 2012 NL East Champs 86-76, 10 games behind the division winning Braves from Atlanta.

"It's a heck of a lineup," Johnson said, before adding that he didn't foresee any major changes. "I don't think so," he told show's hosts, "unless [Danny] Espinosa or [Steve Lombardozzi] beat out [Anthony] Rendon."

"We brought Rendon up," Rizzo said, "because he'll lengthen our lineup. He's a guy who can put the bat on the ball at the bottom of the lineup..." - Mike Rizzo on Anthony Rendon

Rendon, 23, the Nats' 2011 1st Round pick and the Nationals' top prospect before the season began, was called up in June to replace Espinosa, 26, when the fourth-year infielder struggled at the plate and put up a .158/.193/.272 line in 44 games and 167 plate appearances. Espinosa was put on the DL, then optioned to Triple-A Syracuse where the '08 3rd Round pick had a .216/.280/.286 line in 75 games and 313 PAs.

Espinosa told the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore late this year that he'd spoken to Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo after the Nats decided not to call him up in September. According to Espinosa, the general manager, "'... said I’m a big part of this team. He said next year I’ll come back in and fight for a starting spot, just like last year.'" Rizzo said much the same when he spoke to reporters including NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman in the last week of the season.

Rendon impressed as he learned on the job in the majors, Rizzo explained, but he would still have some competition come Spring Training:

"'Let’s not forget about Danny Espinosa, who hit 20 home runs and stole 20 bases in the big leagues already and is a stalwart defensive player. And [Lombardozzi], who is one of the most steady players that we have on the ballclub. We’ve got a lot of good options over there and we’re going to roll them out there in spring training and see what happens.'"

"I see him as an everyday impactful second baseman," the Nats' GM said, "both offensively and defensively. A guy that's hit 20 HRs and stole 20 bases in a single season." - Mike Rizzo on Danny Espinosa's future

Lombardozzi, 25, got off to a slow start in 2013, with a .234/.246/.293 line in 73 games and 142 plate appearances in the first half of his second full season, but as the Nationals made their late run, the '08 19th Round pick picked it up and posted a .302/.333/.415 line over his final 45 games and 113 PAs. After a +0.6 fWAR campaign in 2012, Lombardozzi finished at -0.7 fWAR in 2013. Espinosa went from +3.2 and +3.4 fWAR in his first two full seasons to -0.6 fWAR over the 44 games he played with the Nats in 2013. Rendon was worth +1.5 fWAR in 98 games and 394 PAs.

In an interview with MLB.com's Bill Ladson published on Friday night, the Nationals' GM reiterated that each of the three are, "'good, talented second basemen,'" and, "'also talented baseball players,'" who, "'can play multiple positions.'" Asked twice, however, if Rendon would be the starting second baseman, Rizzo declined to say anything definitive. Was he doing so out of respect for both Espinosa and Lombardozzi? Or was he reluctanct to hand Rendon the job without qualification after just 98 major league games?

It would seem like the job is at the very least Rendon's to lose going into Spring Training. Can Espinosa's defense at both second and short earn him a spot on the major league roster? Who is the backup shortstop right now? Does Zach Walters have a shot at inserting himself into the conversation after a breakout campaign at Triple-A in 2013? Can Lombardozzi produce like he did in 2012 and late '13 in a bench role in 2014? Can Espinosa find his power again? Does Espinosa have to prove he can produce at the plate in Triple-A before he's brought back up?

Davey Johnson explained this past August that he didn't want to bring Espinosa up to sit on the bench in September and told reporters that a call-up was a reward and the infielder hadn't necessarily earned. "It's a reward on how you did down there," Johnson said. "And he's not doing the things I know he's capable of doing." It won't be Johnson making the roster decisions this Spring, however, but new Nats' skipper Matt Williams. Is it a clean slate for everyone involved with a new manager next season?

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