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Reviewing the Nats infield bench options

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We're just over two weeks from opening day. It's time for me to stop ranting about the Expos and get back to some current events. Today we'll look at what may be turning into the most interesting position battle in Nats camp.

Looking for a sleeper option to make the Nats bench?  How about this guy!
Looking for a sleeper option to make the Nats bench? How about this guy!
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Since the second base situation could factor heavily into which infielders make the roster, I'll start by addressing it.  If Yunel Escobar (or, gasp, Anthony Rendon at third) isn't ready to go on opening day, there will be more of a need to focus on making sure that the Nats have someone capable of manning the position.... it will also open up an extra temporary spot on the roster.

Nats GM Mike Rizzo made a minor move to address the second base situation in the offseason, acquiring Yunel Escobar from Oakland in exchange for Tyler Clippard.  Earlier this month, I took a look at Escobar, what he'll bring to the table for the Nats, and just how important that production from the second base slot will be.  Feel free to click the link to the article if you'd like to read it, but I'll paraphrase what I said....

Yunel Escobar has been a strong defender for most of his career.  He was a poor defender when playing through an injury in 2014.  He's nothing special with the bat.  Provided he can rebound defensively, the Nats lineup is deep enough so that having a below average bat at second base hitting near the bottom of the order shouldn't hurt them.

Well... It's March 22 and Yunel Escobar has zero at bats so far this spring.  After playing through a back injury for much of 2014 (which greatly hindered his defensive value), he's dealing with a Grade 1 Oblique Strain.  Reports are that Escobar is getting close to returning.  James Wagner of the Washington Post gave us an update on his status on Friday:

Escobar has been running, taking grounders for the past four days and hitting for two days. He said he hopes to go through his full normal routine on Friday. He has hit off a tee and hit soft toss but not yet tested his hurt oblique full batting practice.

Wagner also mentioned that Escobar could play in his first spring training game (minor league) as soon as Sunday.  Assuming all goes well, Escobar will be the opening day second baseman for the Nats.  He'll be the primary starter... as much as I think that Matt Williams should think about penciling in Danny Espinosa when left-handers are on the mound.

At any rate, we're not going to spend too much time talking about Yunel Escobar since a healthy Escobar will absolutely make this team.  Instead, we're going to focus on some players that could be involved in a battle to make the roster as backup infielders.

Emmanuel Burriss

Age: 30 Bats: Switch
Advantages Disadvantages
Best speed among the contenders He has no power.  1 career HR and a .026 career ISO
Has a passable, but slightly below average glove For a slap hitter, he's not much of an average/OBP guy (.243/.304)
Has versatility. Has played both MI positions, the OF, and a little 3b

Since I'm covering the infielders still in camp, I'm including Burriss.  He really doesn't have much of a shot, though.  The local kid did have a nice season in Syracuse last season, batting .300/.377/.412 with 6 HR and 22 SB.  That's where Burriss should stay.  He's an org guy.

Danny Espinosa

Age: 27 Bats: Right (Yay!)
Advantages Disadvantages
Best glove among contenders Has a minor leauge option remaining
Best arm among contenders Strikes out at an alarming rate (28.3% career, 33.5% in 2014)
Has flashed some power in the majors (38 HR in 2011-12, .159 career ISO) Has given up switch hitting. While this could be a plus long term, it's new
Doesn't have Burriss' speed, but a threat on the basepaths We're not sure if he can handle 3b (or 1b, but meh) yet
He's the incumbent Has a minor leauge option remaining

Yes... I did put the same disadvantage twice for Espinosa.  It's not a typo.  The fact of the matter is that the main players he's competing with don't have minor league options remaining, so Espinosa could end up getting squeezed out because they wouldn't risk losing him.  In truth, Dave Nichols of the District Sports Page made a very good point regarding Espinosa in his article about Dan Uggla yesterday.

Espinosa is not out of options. Perhaps the most sensible thing — if Uggla’s hitting seems sustainable — is to send Espinosa to Syracuse to concentrate on hitting right-handed

The transition from being a switch hitter to a guy batting exclusively right-handed can't be easy.  Espinosa has always been significantly better from that side of the plate, but he still doesn't have a lot of reps facing right-handed pitching while batting right-handed*.  While he'll have this small sample of spring training at bats, it might benefit him to get some more reps (and play every day) in a lower pressure environment at Syracuse.  The fact that he has an option year remaining would allow the Nats to send him down without risking losing him on waivers.

*This is part of the reason I wish the Nats would have made the decision to ask him to bat exclusively right-handed earlier in the offseason.  Playing winter ball could have done wonders for him.

That said, the Nats are in win now mode.  Projection systems have them winning the division handily, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they will.  The logical move is to field the best team possible, and when you're deciding between Emmanuel Burriss, Danny Espinosa, Kevin Frandsen, and Dan Uggla for two spots (or even one spot), Espinosa has the best glove, best arm, and (sadly) arguably the best bat of the bunch.  I could see them sending him down for a week or two, but I think that decision is more dependent upon how comfortable Espinosa feels facing right-handed pitching than any concerns about losing Burriss, Frandsen, or Uggla.

Kevin Frandsen

Age: 32 Bats: Right
Advantages Disadvantages
Is a glue guy While he's versatile, his glove is below average everywhere
Is a fan favorite Doesn't have much power… 15 career HR, .091 ISO
Versatile enough to play 1b, 2b, 3b, OF with a slightly below average glove Isn't a threat at all on the basepaths… 7 career SB
Is an incumbent For a slap hitter, he's a tad below average with the stick (.259 career Avg.)
He's out of options Is allergic to walks (2.5% last year, 4.7% career)
They'd have to eat $1 million to cut him.. Not much in baseball terms

Feel free to note that my assessments of Frandsen's five advantages include one thing that actually pertains to his play on the field.... and even that is something that he doesn't necessarily do particularly well.  The disadvantages?  Those all pertain to his talent as a ballplayer.  He's got virtually no power (well... better than Burriss, but really?). He's a station to station guy on the basepaths, which isn't what you expect out of a light-hitting middle infielder.  His glove is a touch below average at every position he plays.  He's middle of the road (to slightly below) with the batting average, and he sure doesn't make up for that by drawing a lot of walks.

I don't hate Frandsen.  I'm sure that if I ever got to meet him, I'd come away thinking he was a great guy to kick back and have a few beers with.  That said, on a baseball field, he's little more than a cheerleader who can go out and play first, second, or third base passably.  I did leave what I feel is his biggest disadvantage off, though....

Assuming that the Nats go with the option of taking the best 25 north with them, Danny Espinosa is going to make this team.  Espinosa is a terrific defensive second baseman who was drafted and developed as a shortstop.  While Espinosa's glove certainly doesn't profile as well at shortstop, the expectation is that he would provide league average (or thereabouts) defense there*.  Espinosa will enter the season as the primary backup at second base and shortstop (or they could play Escobar at SS and use Espinosa at 2b if something happened to Ian Desmond).... Espinosa also made his first start at third base Saturday.  While third base is different, it's considered to be a couple of steps down from the middle infield spots on the defensive spectrum.

*This isn't really relevant to Frandsen, who hasn't played at SS in the majors since 2009, but it does emphasize Espinosa's versatility a bit.

Why does this matter to Frandsen?  The only real advantage that Frandsen has over the other players vying for this/these spot(s) on the roster is that he has proven that he can play three positions passably.  If Espinosa shows he can handle the occasional start at third base, the Nats suddenly have another utility infielder who can play all three positions (paying no attention to first base, where Moore will likely serve as the primary backup... and just about any big leaguer can play anyway).... with a better glove, a better arm, better speed, better power, and similar on base skills.

Clint Robinson

Age: 30 Bats: Left
Advantages Disadvantages
Bats left-handed Can only play 1b and the outfield
Has proven he can handle AAA pitching (.303/.392/.494) in 1771 AB Has proven he can handle AAA pitching…. In the hitter friendly PCL
Has turned in a really strong spring: 10 for 25, 3 2b, 1 3b, 2 HR The numbers to the left aren't only a small sample, but spring training stats

Welcome to the courtesy club Mr. Robinson.  While the ability to bat left-handed is something that the Nats could certainly use, the fact that Robinson is limited to 1b and a corner outfield spot really doesn't help him here.  The fact that he's got 3,836 minor league plate appearances doesn't help him much either.  I hope he decides to stick around when the Nats option him to Syracuse, since he's shown some proficiency and pop in the minor leagues.  At the very least, Robinson could be a decent find to fill an organizational role in the high minors.  Maybe he could see some time in D.C. if Zim still has to make his annual trip to the disabled list even after moving across the diamond.

Matt Skole

Age: 25 Bats: Left
Advantages Disadvantages
Bats left-handed Is coming off of a poor season at AA Harrisburg
Is actually someone who could be a future MLB starter Has 551 career PA above A+ ball. Skipping a level could stunt his development
Has had a pretty good spring (8 for 20, 1 2b, 2 HR) Again….. Small sample size… spring stats
Can handle both corner infield spots, so Rendon's status factors heavily

Since he's 25, it may sound weird if I say that the Nats would be rushing Skole if they brought him north.  However, Skole did miss almost the entire 2013 season due to Tommy John surgery, so he missed a full year of developmental time.  The fact of the matter is that Skole has a grand total of 551 career PA in the high minors.  Those came last season, and (mind you, coming off of a lost year and rehab from a significant injury) he wasn't nearly as effective in Harrisburg as he was in Potomac and Hagerstown in 2012.  He still looks like he could have a future as a big league regular, so the Nats are probably best served by sending him back to Harrisburg.  From there, he can take a month or two and show improvement as he repeats the level before getting the call to Syracuse.

Of course, Anthony Rendon's knee injury is a factor here... as well as Espinosa's comfort level as Matt Williams tries to get him some starts at third base.  Skole could have a very remote chance of making this roster if Rendon isn't ready to go on April 6.

Ian Stewart

Age: 30... well... 29 for a couple more weeks Bats: Left
Advantages Disadvantages
Bats left-handed Strikes out a ton… 28.0% career, 43.1% in 2014
Has an average(ish) glove at 3b. Has played 1b, 2b, and OF While he's solid at 3b, he's below average with the glove elsewhere
Has enough power to be a threat at the plate (61 career HR, .186 ISO) Not much of an average hitter even when he makes contact (.229 career)
Has shown a willingness to draw a walk (10.0% career BB rate) Hasn't really had a good year since 2010

You know, I went into writing this article thinking that I'd mainly focus on three players and wrap it up in 1,000 words.  Not so much....

Based on the other options and the fact that these players are fighting for a bench role (which Stewart has accepted the past four years), I'm intrigued.  Stewart can handle every position on the infield but shortstop.  He bats left-handed, and the Nats lack left-handed bench bats.  He's capable of knocking one out of the park.  Finally, despite his poor contact rate/average hitting skills, he's willing enough to draw a walk so that a .325 OBP wouldn't necessarily be out of the question if he rebounds with his batting average a little.

Of course, my biggest skepticism would have to do with his performance in recent seasons.  Stewart is only 29, so it's not like his spot on the aging curve implies that his production should have fallen off a cliff.  He was on his way to a nice career based on his start with (of course) the Rockies before he suddenly fell apart early in 2011.  Stewart hit just .064/.154/.085 before being sent to Colorado Springs in May that season.  While he performed well in AAA (.275/.359/.591, 14 HR in 195 PA) before being recalled, he still ended up having a miserable season with the Rockies (.156/.243/.221 in 136 PA with 0 HR... from a guy who had hit 43 HR in the previous two seasons).  He was dealt to the Cubs that offseason and has pretty much been an up and down guy ever since.

Unlike Frandsen or Burriss, there's actually second division starting caliber talent here.  Of course, physical tools alone don't necessarily make a player great.  Unlike Skole or Robinson, there's a track record that shows he's at least capable of hitting in the major leagues, even if those recent seasons haven't been spectacular.  He'll also turn 30 just before opening day, so it's not like he should be completely washed up.  The Nats do have a talented, experienced left-handed hitter fighting for a bench spot that can play three infield spots.  Maybe.......

Dan Uggla

Age: 35 Bats: Right
Advantages Disadvantages
Has huge power for a second baseman (233 career HR, .208 ISO) Strikes out a ton
Easily the most accomplished player vying for a spot (22.8 career WAR) Brings a brick instead of a glove onto the field with him
It would really annoy the Braves, who will pay him $13.2 million this year Has only proven that he can play (?) second base
Willing to work the walk (11.3% career) to offset his poor average Is a poor average hitter on the rare occasions where he makes contact
Poor 2014 could be attributed to concussion and vision. Had Lasik surgery His .179/.309/.362 2013 campaign (pre-injury) wasn't exactly impressive
He's looked poised for a rebound this spring (9 for 27, 2 2b, 2 HR, 6:3 BB:K) Is it the Lasik? Or the fact that it's Spring Training?

Prior to writing through all of this, my expectation was that I was talking about two spots for three guys (Espinosa, Frandsen, Uggla) and that the decision between Frandsen and Uggla is a really, really easy one to make.  In terms of on-field performance in the major leagues, Kevin Frandsen sets the bar pretty low.  Now that I've written up seven players instead of three, I don't really think Uggla is a slam dunk.  Don't get me wrong... if it were my call, he's still a slam dunk over Frandsen.  However, he's not a slam dunk.

I'm an OBP guy, so I'm a lot more concerned with Uggla's .337 career OBP than his .243 average.  Both figures were significantly worse in each of the past two years, but if he can hit .220, he'll likely keep a .325 OBP with power as a right-handed bat off the bench.  In other words, he'd be a billionaire's version of Scott Hairston... with more power and far less of a platoon split.

The Lasik surgery and the details about him playing through an undiagnosed concussion last season certainly make him an intriguing bounceback option who the Nats would pay the league minimum.... while the Braves fork over $13.2 million (an added bonus) to him to play in D.C.  I'll emphasize that I really don't put much into spring stats.  However, when it comes to a player whose erosion in performance last season has been tied to an injury, I feel that his performance (even against quite a few pitchers who won't be in the majors this year) is a bit more important.  He's showing that he's healthier and at least doing something to justify the belief that the injury was a factor in his 2014 performance.

What hurts him?

  • He wasn't real good in 2013 either, so it's not like we can look at last season as an outlier.  At 35, his spot on the aging curve implies that he should be showing some signs of decline.
  • He's also always been a poor fielder that has only played (or faked playing) second base.  While I would assume that he could play first base in a pinch, Uggla would mainly be limited to pinch hitting duties.
  • On top of that (assuming all starters are ready on/near opening day outside of Denard Span), the other bench players figure to be Tyler Moore, Danny Espinosa, Jose Lobaton, and... well... with McLouth now seeming doubtful for opening day, that's slightly up in the air (Tony Gwynn, Jr.?).  Lobaton is a switch hitter, but the backup catcher is usually the last man off the bench.  Gwynn is a left-handed hitter, but he brings very little to the plate offensively.  Uggla's right-handedness hurts him here.
Who would I go with?

Let's start by reiterating that (assuming Rendon and Escobar are good to go opening day), I'm assuming that the list of players I just covered are vying for two spots.  Traditionally, we're looking at a backup catcher (Lobaton), two backup infielders, and two backup outfielders.

Whether he has a minor league option or not, if Danny Espinosa feels comfortable enough facing right-handed pitching to start the big league season, he gets one of the spots.  He's the best defender at second base and shortstop (honestly, the only option at shortstop) of the bunch and (again, sadly) arguably the best offensive option in the group as well.  I don't think that RSOD is going to turn himself into a monster against RHP, but we know that he can hit lefties... we know that he can make a difference on the basepaths... we know that he's capable of running into one every now and then.

Let's eliminate the rest.  Burriss and Robinson are org guys.  Frandsen is an org guy who could fill a utility role if there wasn't already somebody better filling that role.... but there is.  Skole is a prospect coming off of a down year in AA that looks like he could benefit from some seasoning.

That leaves us with Ian Stewart and Dan Uggla.  I do think that it's an awfully tight race between the two, and I actually think that (offensively) they have very similar skill sets.  Both are poor average hitters who strike out a lot, have shown a willingness to work a walk, and have terrific power.  While I fully expected for Dan Uggla to be my choice for the second spot coming in, I'm going with Stewart.  Why?  There are two legitimate reasons and one speculative reason....

  • Stewart bats left-handed, and the Nats really don't have anyone useful off the bench from the left side
  • Stewart plays a solid third base, and has proven that he can at least play a passable 1b, 2b, and corner outfield spot.  Uggla is more... ummm... limited defensively.
The speculative reason is that while I do believe that the concussion had something to do with Uggla's performance last year, I'm more optimistic that the (soon-to-be) 30-year-old Stewart is more likely to rebound than the 35-year-old Uggla.  I don't really think I'd say Stewart has upside, but I would say that I think he's more likely to hit as he did when he was 25 (.256/.338/.443, 18 HR) than Uggla is to hit like he did when he was 30 (.287/.369/.508) or even 32 (.220/.348/.384).

In truth, I could see either of those two guys (with Espinosa) as being a decent fit.  Outside of Tyler Moore, who still has plenty to prove at the big league level himself, the Nats lack a player who could be an impact bat off the bench.  While neither Stewart nor Uggla would be guaranteed to provide an impact bat, they're both far more likely to do so than the other players on this list.  They have a good (better) utility infielder in Espinosa, so while Frandsen's (the incumbent!) versatility is useful, it's kind of redundant.