Mar 28

Nationals Preview: The Infield

Aside from their deep pitching, what sets the Nationals apart from most other teams is an infield that can truly boast outstanding defense, dependable hitting and defense at every position. From their catching corps through the “Face of the Franchise” at third and the most versatile middle infield in baseball to a Gold Glove slugger at first, the Nats boast an infield that just won’t quit, with players who have the potential to carry each other through slumps.

Behind the plate, the tandem of Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki is tough to beat in baseball. There are questions about whether Ramos can come all the way back from a torn ACL that ended his 2012 season after just 25 games. If his spring training performance is any indication, fans have nothing to worry about. Ramos has hit .353 in 13 games, with a pair of home runs in one contest. He is also playing defense at the same level he was when he was injured last season.

After determining that none of their minor leaguers could do the job, the Nats made a deal with Oakland for Kurt Suzuki, who was known as a defensive specialist with a light bat.  But he raised his average 49 points in Washington, with splits that earned him the nickname “Klutch Kurt:” a .275 average with 33 of his 43 RBI with runners in scoring position, a .360 average in “late/close” situations and a .301 average with 18 RBI in September and October. Cather is a position where a player who isn’t a defensive liability helps his team. The offense and clutch hitting these two provide is a plus.

Ryan Zimmerman‘s bat never suffered during a 2012 season that was marred by a shoulder injury that required cortisone shots. His numbers (.282/25/95) compared to any full season he has ever played in the majors. He is crushing the ball again this preseason, hitting three bombs in a game last week. Manager Davey Johnson has proclaimed him ready for the regular season. What suffered last year, of course, was his defense. Despite his solid glove and quick reflexes, had trouble making routine throws to first base. He says he feels “free and easy” this season, but the proof will come only with chances to make those routine plays.

At shortstop, Ian Desmond earned an All-Star selection despite playing trough an injury that sidelined him for the first few weeks after the break. He blew away his career highs with a .292 average, 25 homers and 73 RBIs, most of them coming after Johnson moved him to the fifth spot. His strikeout rate dropped, too. Couple that with all the stellar plays he made in the hold and all the base hits he kept from getting through, and it’s easy to see why the Nats are set at shortstop for a few years.

Danny Espinosa‘s defense is a given, especially when you consider tat he is a natural shortstop playing second base. His problem last year was an NL-leading 189 strikeouts. He will probably be as free swinging as ever this season, but that might not be as much of a problem now that the Nats aren’t counting on him to hit leadoff or bat second. He also revealed during the offseason that he was playing with a partially torn rotator cuff last year. His average and power improved last year after Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper were established as the No. 1 and 2 hitters, so look for him to continue his above average power production hitting out of the 7-hole.

Steve Lombardozzi does not have Espinosa’s power, but hits for a higher average, strikes out less often and is gifted defensively. While his patience at the plate could use some work, he provides versatility by playing second, short, third or outfield.

Adam LaRoche put together the kind of season last year that he and his teams have been seeking for years. With a career-high 33 homers and 100 RBIs to match his career best, he was an offensive leader who came along at just the right time. Couple that with a Gold Glove at first base that turned what might have been multiple throwing errors into outs, and it’s easy to see why the Nats re-signed him for two years and jettisoned the popular Michael Morse.

Chad Tracy may be best remembered for his opening day heroics in Chicago last season, but what makes him so valuable to the team is his pinch/clutch hitting ability: .286 with 10 RBI in 24 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

Next: The Outfield.