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The Washington Nationals infield is healthy! Who sits? When?

For the first time all season, the Nationals four projected starting infielders are healthy enough to play at the same time. However, things may have changed while Anthony Rendon was on the disabled list....

Anthony Rendon's return means that the Nats finally have their entire projected starting infield on the field at the same time.
Anthony Rendon's return means that the Nats finally have their entire projected starting infield on the field at the same time.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals infield was supposed to be one of their many strengths entering the 2015 season.  Anthony Rendon quietly emerged as a superstar last season, posting the fifth most WAR in baseball among position players.  Ian Desmond has won three straight NL Silver Sluggers at the shortstop position.  The Nats finally found a spot where Ryan Zimmerman wouldn't have to throw the ball as often, moving the former gold glove third baseman across the diamond to first.  They even acquired a strong contact-hitter who has historically been a plus defensive shortstop in Yunel Escobar to take over the second base job.

Alas, that group has yet to finish playing an entire game together.  Rendon spent the first two months on the disabled list with knee and oblique injuries.  When Rendon finally returned on Thursday, Yunel Escobar left game after his first at bat.  Escobar returned on Sunday after a two game absence, but Ryan Zimmerman sat.  The next time that these four play an entire game together will be the first time it's happened all season.  While Rendon was injured, the rest of the infield hasn't looked quite as we expected it to look.

Ryan Zimmerman has been good with the glove over at first base, but that's about the only positive we can take from his play so far in 2015.  Zim has had the worst offensive season of his career thus far.  Through 230 plate appearances, he's batting just .213/.270/.353.  Among 166 MLB players who qualify for the batting title, his .273 wOBA and 69 wRC+ rank 150th.  Zimmerman's -8.4 Offensive Runs Above Average so far this season ranks 155th in the majors.  Zimmerman does have one statistical category in which he's excelled this season.  It may be an overrated statistic, but he's tied for 30th in the league with 34 RBI so far this season.  Of course, he has countered that by grounding into 10 double plays, the second most in baseball.

Ian Desmond has joined Zimmerman in getting off to a poor start.  Unlike Zimmerman, who has been a strong defensive first baseman, Desmond ranks 25th among 26 qualifying shortstops with -2.6 Defensive Runs Above Average and a -16.3 UZR/150.  The offensive production has also been lacking.  After winning three straight Silver Sluggers, the 29-year-old shortstop finds himself batting just .242/.286/.383 through the first two months of the season.  His .294 wOBA ranks 128th in the majors, while his 84 wRC+ ranks 130th.  His strikeout rate has come down a bit from his terribly high 28.2% last season, but it's still 3.2% higher than his career average.  His 4.9% walk rate is down 2.2% from last season and is 1% shy of his career average.  Perhaps most importantly, his ISO is way down.  In Desmond's breakout 2012 campaign, he finished the season with a .218 ISO.  It regressed and stabilized in the .175 range in each of the past two seasons.  In 2015, Desmond's ISO is just .141.  He's not striking the ball with authority.

Yunel Escobar has probably been a bit more than the Nats bargained for.  With Rendon injured to begin the year, the natural shortstop moved to third base instead of second base.  He's been below average defensively at third  base (-9.7 UZR/150 and -1.6 Defensive RAA rank 19th among 23 qualifiers at 3b... -7 DRS ranks 21st), but his bat has certainly been useful.  Escobar is batting .325/.383/.397 through the season's first two months.  His .347 wOBA ranks 55th in baseball and his 119 wRC+ ranks 59th.  Both figures rank third on the Nationals so far this season.  Escobar leads the team with 63 hits (54 of which have been singles) and has the second lowest strikeout rate (13.1%) on the team.

Of course, let's throw in a mention of the man who is second on the team in wOBA and wRC+.  That would be Danny Espinosa, who has really taken advantage of his opportunity to play a bit more this season.  We've known for quite some time that Espinosa is a fantastic defensive second baseman, so it shouldn't be surprising for anyone to hear that Espinosa leads the Nats with 4.4 Defensive RAA.  Judging Espinosa solely as a second baseman, his 5.1 Defensive RAA at the position ranks third in MLB and his 17.1 UZR/150 ranks second.

Espinosa also ranks second on the club with 1.6 fWAR and 1.1 rWAR.  Skeptics may point to the fact that defense plays a significant role in calculating a player's WAR.  However, his performance in the offensive components of WAR has also been the second best on the Nats so far this season....

Espinosa seems to have put two miserable seasons behind him and posted a .257/.360/.459 line so far in 2015.  He currently ranks second on the Nats with a .354 wOBA and 123 wRC+.  He falls just a handful of plate appearances shy (actually, if my math is right, 0.6 PA) of qualifying for the batting title, but his wOBA ranks 50th in MLB and his wRC+ ranks 54th.  Espinosa has slashed the strikeout rate that plagued him to 21.4% so far in 2015 and boosted his walk rate to 12.1%.  He's getting on base.  He's hitting for power.  His production this season hasn't been all due to his glove.

Of course, the expectation is that Anthony Rendon will dwarf the production of any of the four players we've talked about above.  Just 25 years old, Rendon was one of the ten best position players in the majors last season.  He hit .287/.351/.473 with 21 homers, 39 doubles, and 17 stolen bases.  He ranked 27th with a .361 wOBA and 31st with a 130 wRC+.  He was also one of the better defensive third basemen in the game, finishing eighth with 6.1 Defensive RAA and ninth with a 4.6 UZR/150 at the position.  A healthy Rendon is an MVP candidate.  If performing at peak levels, Desmond, Escobar, Espinosa, and Zimmerman are merely very good players.

When combined with the disappointing seasons that Desmond and Zimmerman are having, Espinosa's emergence can/should cause quite a conundrum for Matt Williams.  If he trusts everyone to revert to what their track records say they will, he'll end up benching the guy who has been the second best hitter on the team so far this season.  If he trusts Espinosa's start and tries to ride the hot hand, he'll end up sitting an established (and well-paid) star on his bench.  What might be most logical would be to find a way to platoon the infield, but we haven't seen much in the way of flexibility or creativity thus far in Williams' managerial career.

Since you're stuck with my ramblings, I'm going to go with the third option and see if I can come up with a plan.  It would be wise to trust the track record.  That track record tells us that Escobar and Espinosa aren't this good.... It also tells us that Desmond and Zimmerman aren't this bad.  Still, it's hard to ignore two months worth of data that says Espinosa should be playing regularly right now.  Two months is a small sample size, but it's not like we're dealing with a week long hot or cold streak at this point.  Espinosa has earned more playing time with his performance this season, while Desmond and Zimmerman have earned a little more time watching from the bench.

1) Espinosa should be the primary "bench" option, but he should start regularly

Regularly means three or four starts per week....

  • Rendon has still been back for less than a week after suffering two injuries earlier this season.  He's going to need at least a day off per week.
  • While he hasn't had quite the poor injury luck that Rendon has had, Escobar has been dinged up a bit this season as well.  He missed time this spring with an oblique injury; he had to miss a few games over the weekend with a wrist injury; He's had to leave a couple of games because of a stomach flu and because his side was barking.  Escobar played through back and leg injuries last season and had the worst season of his career.  Sitting more regularly may help keep him healthy and productive.
  • Desmond has always prided himself on his durability, but he hasn't been able to get it going so far in 2015.  With both Escobar and Espinosa capable of playing shortstop, it may be time for him to stop trying to be the ironman.  Taking the occasional day off should help him stay fresh.. and it would likely improve the defensive alignment.
  • Zimmerman is battling plantar fasciitis.  This figures to bother him all year whether he's playing every day or not, but he's liable to need a little extra rest.

Of course, there's still some question as to how the Nats would align these players on the field when Espinosa plays.  Who plays where?  Why?  Before we go into the entire infield alignment, let's start with the simplest spot to answer.

2) Anthony Rendon plays third base... period

Yep.  My plan's already dead in the water.  Keeping Rendon at third base does a handful of things:

  1. It eliminates the threat of him aggravating his knee injury on a takeout slide at second base. It also cuts down on his lateral movement. While there's a threat that Rendon can get injured again at third base, a player recovering from a leg injury seems to be put more in harm's way at second base.  Try and limit his exposure to injury... please.
  2. It panders to a player that you're trying to build your franchise around rather than a player that is a one or two year stopgap.  You don't move around a franchise cornerstone.... You move the guy who's holding down the fort for a year or two.
  3. It gives the Nats their best defensive alignment. Rendon was one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball last season.  Escobar has been well below league average defensively at third base so far in 2015.  Escobar can be equally below average with the glove at second base

3) Danny Espinosa may be the "bench" option, but he should always play at second base

Once again, let's try and get that best defensive alignment on the field whenever possible.  The Nats best defensive alignment includes Rendon at third base and Espinosa at second base.  In truth, it probably includes Escobar at shortstop as well, but the gap between Desmond and Escobar is more of a gray area.  Escobar was an elite defensive shortstop for most of his career, but he was terrible there last season and hasn't looked good with the glove as he's moved down the defensive spectrum in 2015.  Zimmerman figures to be the best first baseman, but first base is a spot where teams hide poor defenders anyway.

We'll start with the player who is sitting on a particular day and then move our way around the infield....

  • Zimmerman sits: Escobar plays 1b, Espinosa plays 2b, Rendon plays 3b, Desmond plays SS - Seems simple enough.  I've heard people say that Espinosa may be too short to play 1b (the more important thing is that the Nats would lose the advantage of having an elite defender at 2b by playing him at 1b, but sure... I'll bite).  Zimmerman is 6'3.  Desmond is 6'3.  Escobar is 6'2.  I don't see a height issue here.
  • Escobar sits: Zimmerman plays 1b, Espinosa plays 2b, Rendon plays 3b, Desmond plays SS - There's not really any question about how they align the infield here.
  • Desmond sits: Zimmerman plays 1b, Espinosa plays 2b, Rendon plays 3b, Escobar plays SS - I think a case could be made that Espinosa may be the best defensive shortstop on the team, but why mess with a good thing?  We know that Espinosa is an outstanding 2b and that Escobar has been a good SS in the past.  Keep more players at their natural spots.
  • Rendon sits: Zimmerman plays 1b, Espinosa plays 2b, Escobar plays 3b, Desmond plays SS - We've seen this for most of the year.
  • Espinosa sits: Zimmerman plays 1b, Escobar plays 2b, Rendon plays 3b, Desmond plays SS - Leave the franchise cornerstone at his natural position and let Escobar move across the bag from his natural position to play 2b.

Choosing when to bench which player based on matchups

This actually isn't all that difficult a call.  It isn't weird to those of us who have been following Danny Espinosa's career, but it would be to the casual fan who isn't familiar with these five players.  The lone switch hitter of the bunch has (by far) the most extreme splits of the bunch.  Over the course of his career, Espinosa's wOBA is 70 points better against LHP (.358) than it is against RHP (.278).  While he's hit right-handers better this season, that gap has actually widened (.466 vs. LHP, .322 vs. RHP) in 2015.  Espinosa takes his day(s) off against tough right-handed pitchers, but he always, always, always starts against left-handed pitching.  Of course, the majority of big league starting pitchers are right-handed.....

Of the four right-handed hitters, the guys with the least extreme splits are Desmond (+.013 wOBA vs. LHP) and Escobar (+.007 vs. LHP).  Rendon (+.018 vs. LHP) and Zimmerman (+.037 vs. LHP) have had more extreme splits so far in their careers.  Before the season, I suggested that Espinosa should play over Escobar against LHP anyway. However, when the rest of the infield has players dealing with nagging injuries and/or are performing below expectations, it opens up other opportunities.

  • Escobar should usually be the odd man out against LHP.
  • If the Nats face multiple lefties in a five game stretch, Desmond could be an option to sit in one of those games.
  • Rendon and Zimmerman are the two players who seem to have the biggest problems battling/recovering from injuries right now, so they should each be taking a day off a week (against RHP).  Espinosa gets those starts.

Yes.... Clint Robinson, Tyler Moore, and Dan Uggla are absent from this plan.  No... None of those three should ever be getting even semi-regular starts.  At this point in their careers, those three players don't appear to be more than bench bats on this team.  Moore and Robinson will continue to poach time from Michael Taylor in left field until Jayson Werth is healthy again.  A five man infield rotation (four once Rendon shows he's completely over the knee/oblique injuries, since he should be starting every day if he's 100%) wouldn't leave much time for Moore, Robinson, or Uggla at the only infield position(s) they can play.  None of them figure to provide enough value with the bat to outweigh their lack of defensive value.