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Washington Nationals: Spring Training 2010: Position Battles.

As I mentioned at least once last Fall, there weren't then and there aren't now too many questions that remain about the 25-man roster of the 2010 Washington Nationals. The starting lineup is more or less decided, with Josh Willingham, Nyjer Morgan and Elijah Dukes left to right in the outfield, Ryan Zimmerman, Cristian Guzman, Adam Kennedy and Adam Dunn third to first around the infield, and Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and Wil Nieves behind the plate until Jesus Flores is 100% recovered and able to play. Will Ian Desmond remain in Washington to play a utility role or start full-time at short in Syracuse with Alberto Gonzalez and Mike Morse and maybe Pete Orr or Eric Bruntlett backing up the starting infielders? In the OF, Chris Duncan, Kevin Mench and Jerry Owens have invitations to Spring Training, where they'll compete for playing time with Justin Maxwell, Roger Bernadina and Willie Harris. Can any of those players unseat Elijah Dukes in right? Only two spots in the starting rotation are seen as guaranteed, and there's a full bullpen of arms to sort through...After the JUMP, a quick run through of the position battles that remain...then tomorrow night, projections for the starting rotation and DC bullpen...

Middle Infield?

Starting: Was the middle infield situation decided by the Nationals' acquisition of veteran second baseman Adam Kennedy? Kennedy signed with the clear intention of playing every day, and after he did the questions about Ian Desmond immediately turned to whether or not he could stay in DC to play a utility role. The Nationals are putting faith in the fact that Cristian Guzman's bunion and shoulder issues are resolved heading into Spring Training, but all three starting options (I'm dismissing Alberto Gonzalez sorry) are coming off down years defensively, though both Desmond and Kennedy saw an increase in offensive production last season. Guzman's clearly the biggest question mark. If he suffers a setback of any kind, it's Desmond and Kennedy up the middle. Even when healthy, however, in 2009, Guzman posted a depressingly low OBP (.302, 2nd worst amongst NL starters) and a weak OPS (.696, 2nd worst amongst NL starters), with 23 less walks than any SS in the NL not named Miguel Tejada

Bench: Mike Morse makes sense backing up first and third. The 27-going-on-28-year-old infielder tore up Triple-A pitching, particulary in Washington's system, where he hit .339 with a .404 OBP, .558 SLG and a .962 OPS in 44 games and 165 AB's with the Syracuse Chiefs in which he collected 12 doubles, 3 triples, 6 HR's and 35 RBI's after he was acquired from Seattle in return for Ryan Langerhans. Alberto Gonzalez was given every chance to claim a starting role in the infield last season, and he failed to do so, so now it's time to see if he can fill the utility role backing up Guzman and Kennedy or if Washington needs to keep Ian Desmond around. Pete Orr's going to be in DC one way or another at some point next year. Count on it. Eric Bruntlett? It would be easy to dismiss Bruntlett's career .231 AVG, .303 OBP and .330 SLG if he hadn't spent the last two seasons on the roster of the NL Champion Phillies. 13 of Bruntlett's 72 games were played at second last season, when he did everything but pitch and catch for Philadelphia.

The Outfield...

It's Josh Willingham in left, Nyjer Morgan in center and Elijah Dukes in right going into Spring Training. Willie Harris will fill in when needed in left or center, so you have to think Washington is looking for someone to spell Dukes in right occassionally after unsuccessfully auditioning Josh Willingham for a role in right field last season, and someone who can play center as well. Justin Maxwell, (.242/.344/.396 in Triple-A in '09), who turned 26 in November, hit just about as well in the majors once called up as he did in Syracuse, collecting 4 doubles, 4 HR's, 9 RBI's and 6 steals to go along with 32 K's in 89 at bats, over which he hit (.247/.343/.449). Roger Bernadina's 2009 season was lost to a fractured right ankle. If Bernadina can perform like he did at Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Columbus in 2008 when he collected a combined 24 doubles, 10 triples, 9 HR's, 54 RBI's and 41 stolen bases, while hitting (.335/.400/490) in 120 games, he'd be a good candidate to make the Opening Day roster...but so far in the Majors, Bernadina's hit just .213 with a .300 OBP and a .263 SLG in 29 games with the Nationals...Both Maxwell and Bernadina and Dukes for that matter have to prove they belong in the Majors this season. Chris Duncan, Kevin Mench and Jerry Owens...? 

Last year the Nationals left camp with seven infielders (one injured) and five outfielders. Before pitchers and catchers have reported, before a single pitch has been thrown, here are my projections for the 2010 Opening Day infielders and outfielders:

The DC IF:

  1. Ryan Zimmerman - 3B 
  2. Cristian Guzman - SS
  3. Adam Kennedy - 2B
  4. Adam Dunn - 1B
  5. Alberto Gonzalez 
  6. Eric Bruntlett/Mike Morse 
The DC OF:
  1. Josh Willingham - LF
  2. Nyjer Morgan - CF
  3. Elijah Dukes - RF
  4. Willie Harris
  5. Roger Bernadina

• Tomorrow Night: Starters and Relievers.