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How should the Washington Nationals rotate starters at 2b and 3b with Anthony Rendon out?

The Nationals enter the season a little banged up, with three starters projected to be on the disabled list on Opening Day. The outfield situation looks pretty clear, but Anthony Rendon's injury on the infield now gives the Nats two spots where three players will be trying to find playing time. How should the Nats rotate the three?

The Nationals would certainly be better with a healthy Anthony Rendon, but the trio of players who will vie for time at 2b and 3b can complement each other well if Matt Williams platoons them properly.
The Nationals would certainly be better with a healthy Anthony Rendon, but the trio of players who will vie for time at 2b and 3b can complement each other well if Matt Williams platoons them properly.
Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals will begin the 2015 season with three key position players on the disabled list.  There doesn't appear to be much of a question about how they'll handle the two outfield spots vacated by Denard Span and Jayson Werth.  Michael Taylor will play almost every day in center field.  Tyler Moore will handle the bulk of the work in left field until Werth returns.  Matt den Dekker will serve as a left-handed complement who can spell either of those players and handle the defensive workload.  How the Nats handle replacing Anthony Rendon early in the season is more up for grabs.

What makes the third base situation so interesting is that it's really going to be an extension of the second base battle.  If they'd carried the same group north with them with a healthy Rendon, Yunel Escobar, Danny Espinosa, and Dan Uggla would have been battling to share time in one spot.  The Rendon injury means that those three guys will carry the bulk of the workload at two spots.  The three do have vastly different skill sets, so how should the Nationals split up their time over the first month or so (hopefully not longer!) while Anthony Rendon is recovering from his knee sprain?

Skill sets

Let's start by examining their skill sets.  We'll begin with the most balanced of the three, Yunel Escobar....

Escobar has been a strong defensive shortstop for most of his career.  The expectation when the Nats acquired Escobar was that he would move across the bag to second base for 2015 and possibly become a stopgap (assuming Ian Desmond leaves) to hold down the SS job in 2016 and 2017 until Trea Turner is ready.  Defensively, Escobar seems like he should be able to handle third base, so he'll be an option at either position.  He's the best average hitter of the trio, though he's far from overwhelming in that department (.253, .256, .258 the past three seasons).  Escobar would seem to have less upside as a power hitter than either Espinosa or Uggla.  He's not really much of a threat on the basepaths either.

Strength(s): Glove, best average and contact hitter, versatility to play either spot

Weakness(es): Still not a great on base guy despite the edge over the other two, worst power of the three, below average speed

Espinosa is the lone returning National among the three.  He's proven over the past four (plus) years that he has a plus glove at second base.  The expectation was that Escobar would be the primary second baseman this season, with Espinosa moving into a utility role.  Espinosa could see a little extra time now with Rendon hitting the disabled list.  He spent some time at third base during Spring Training and looked pretty comfortable, so it seems reasonable to assume that Espinosa can handle either position.  Of course, we all know that Espinosa isn't a strong average hitter and has major contact issues (28.3% career K rate... 33.5% last season).  He does bring a lot more power to the table than Escobar does (averaged 19 HR in his first two seasons when he was an everyday starter), but not as much as Uggla.  He's easily the biggest threat to do damage when he does reach base or in a pinch running role.

Of course, Espinosa also has massive platoon splits.  He's now going to be batting exclusively from the right side to see if he can solve facing right-handed pitching that way, but he's always had a tendency to crush lefties (76 career wRC+ vs. RHP, 121 vs. LHP).  While each of the other two hitters he'll battle for playing time also bat right-handed, neither Uggla (113 vs. RHP, 99 vs. LHP) nor Escobar (99 vs. RHP, 104 vs. LHP)  have hit lefties as well as Espinosa has.

Strengths: Glove, decent power, best speed of the three, versatility to play either spot, crushes LHP

Weaknesses: Strikeouts, poor average hitter, doesn't draw enough walks to make up for the poor batting average, may struggle even more vs. RHP as he adjusts to batting only right-handed

Dan Uggla could turn out to be a nice under the radar grab on a minor league deal.  He's a 35-year-old veteran with a history of big power production (averaged 31.6 HR from 2006-2011) and big walk rates (11.3% career).  He also strikes out a ton (24.2% career, over 30% in 2013-14) and struggles to hit for average.  The walk rate helps to counterbalance his poor average hitting skills a bit, as his .337 career OBP is nearly 100 points higher than his .243 career average.  Uggla brings nothing on the basepaths and is one of the worst defensive infielders in the majors.  He's always played second base, and while third base is actually a slight move down the defensive spectrum, he's so poor defensively that trying to move him to another position could be disastrous.

Uggla is coming off of two miserable seasons with Atlanta (a little time in San Francisco last season).  While August 2013 Lasik surgery and a couple of concussion problems in 2014 may give us a reason to explain some of his struggles the past two seasons, it's hard to put too much faith in him.  The 35-year-old had a nice Spring Training, but it's fairly likely that some of his decline is age related.  The power/walk combo is intriguing, but his glove and strikeout issues are considerable liabilities.

Strengths: Power, walks

Weaknesses: Stone glove, strikeouts, poor average hitter, will have to prove that 2013 & 2014 were blips on the radar screen even though they could be a sign of age-related decline

Absorbing the above information

Here's what we've got:

  • Unquestionably, the best defensive alignment involves both Escobar and Espinosa... most likely with Escobar at third because he's more used to playing on the left side of the infield
  • The best offense against RHP almost certainly includes Uggla and Escobar, since Espinosa hasn't shown much of an ability to hit RHP when he was switch-hitting.  While Espinosa may eventually improve against RHP as RSOD, it's probably going to take some time
  • The best offense against LHP probably includes Uggla and Espinosa.  Escobar actually has a stronger wRC+ against lefties in his career than Uggla does, but unless the rest of the offense is really clicking, I'd rather play the guy more likely to go yard
  • Escobar and Espinosa could both probably handle third base for a little while.  Uggla has enough on his hands trying to play something close to a competent second base
The way to handle this seems pretty clear to me.  I'm not sure Matt Williams would be the biggest fan of this idea, since I'm proposing a lot of lineup tinkering depending upon who the starter is for either the Nats or the opposition, but here's what I've come up with.........

Strasburg, Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez starting for Nats: With the biggest P2K guys on the hill, you worry less about Uggla's lack of a glove impacting the ballgame.  You start Uggla... If the opponent is throwing a lefty, Espinosa plays third... If they're throwing a righty, Escobar plays third.

Fister, Zimmermann starting for Nats: In most cases, you worry more about defense here.  Zimmermann did have a career best 8.20 K/9 last season, but he's always been kind of a P2C guy.  Fister is certainly a P2C guy, so you focus more on putting your best defensive alignment on the field (Espinosa at 2b, Escobar at 3b) and have Uggla available to pinch hit off the bench.

Opponent starting a lefty: Espinosa starts.  You can factor in the Nats starter to determine whether he plays third base with Uggla at second or whether he plays second with Escobar at third.

Opponent starting a righty: More often than not (particularly while Werth and Span are on the DL), you play for offense here.  This means Espinosa rides the pine and is available to sub in for Uggla........ unless Fister is on the bump.  Then you try and play your best infield defense.  I'd say that it's far more important to have the best defensive alignment behind Fister than Zimmermann.

Nats have a lead after the sixth inning... or Uggla reaches base in a close game after the sixth inning: If Uggla started, you thank him for his contributions and replace him with either Espinosa or Escobar.  If Espinosa was the player who was on the bench for that game and Uggla reaches base in a tight game, it's time to pull him for some more speed on the basepaths (and strengthen the defensive alignment).

Are there more situations that we could have included?  Sure... However, this sets up a basic platoon/rotation where all three players can be involved.  There's no such thing as a perfect ballplayer.  All players have flaws.  The fact of the matter is that Uggla and Espinosa (Escobar isn't as flawed, but has less areas where he can be exceptional) is that they're both pretty deeply flawed, though they do have certain things that they do really well.  While we can look at this as a fault, Matt Williams should look at it as an opportunity!

The wonderful thing about players who are as deeply flawed as Espinosa and Uggla is that they're usually not blind to that fact.  Uggla can work as hard as he wants on his defense, but it's always going to be a massive black hole in his game.  Espinosa can try as many ways as he'd like to become more productive against right-handed pitching, but he's acknowledged that he has issues against them (why else would he have agreed to give up switch-hitting?).  The hope is that their awareness will leave them less susceptible to getting bruised egos when they're pulled for defense (Uggla) or on the bench because a RHP is on the mound (Espinosa) or sitting because one of the other players performs better against LHP than they do (Escobar).

Williams has two deeply flawed players and a third who just doesn't do anything exceptionally well to fill two spots in his lineup each day.  If the 2014 NL Manager of the Year can rotate them properly, he should be able to get plenty of value out of those two spots.  Would I rather have a healthy Anthony Rendon?  Of course... but these are three players whose skills can be combined to make two pretty good players if used properly.