Continuing with the theme of this series and just to reiterate, it’s difficult to find any significant weakness with this Nationals 25-man roster. The infield and catchers are no exception. All five projected starters are among the best in the league at their positions defensively, and none of them are offensive slouches by any stretch of the imagination. On top of that, the bench players could be starters for a number of MLB teams.
Catcher: Kurt Suzuki – This is a position that could go either way for the Nats this season, and I imagine that Suzuki and Wilson Ramos will split a whole lot of time over the course of the season as Ramos gets his legs back under him following knee surgery. With the Nats last year, Suzuki hit .267 with five home runs in just 43 games, and he was a critical piece down the stretch offensively and as a mentor to the best pitching staff in the major leagues. Suzuki has earned the Opening Day start, and I think he just may get it.
First Base: Adam LaRoche – The Nationals first baseman had a career year in 2012, which led to him being re-signed to a two-year deal this past offseason. A .271 batting average, .853 OPS, and 128 OPS+, among many other factors led to LaRoche finishing sixth in NL MVP voting and earned him the first Silver Slugger of his career. His 6.1 UZR was a factor in earning his first career Gold Glove. LaRoche’s defense makes the already great defensive infield around him look even better, and his ability to hit for power in the middle of the lineup is invaluable. While I expect he’ll regress from a career-best season, I think he’ll be around career average numbers for 2013.
Second Base: Danny Espinosa – It turns out that Danny Espinosa had a torn rotator cuff through September and October last season, but he decided to try rehabbing the injury rather than have it surgically repaired. Only time will tell if that’s the right decision, but he insists he feels fine. Espinosa will also try to recover from a disappointing sophomore campaign, where he led the National League in strikeouts. He earned a 3.8 WAR, which was good for fourth best on the team, but he will have to work on a few things. For now, he’s certainly nothing to scoff at for a number eight hitter in an MLB linetup.
Shortstop: Ian Desmond – Desmond was another Nationals infielder who had a career-best year, and for the young shortstop, it’s the breakout year Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson saw on the horizon. He still did what he’s best known for: swing at the first pitch. A lot. But when he made contact on that first pitch, he hit .391 and sported a .979 OPS. When he was moved down to the number six spot in the lineup, it certainly helped, because his role changed to more of a power guy, and his 25 home runs show exactly that. I expect Desmond to pick up where he left off as his career starts to reach the peak of his success.
Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman – Coming off of the season that will forever be known as The Year Of The Cortisone, Zimmerman’s had his shoulder cleaned out, and he doesn’t expect any problems for 2013. After he started his cortisone regimen in late June, Zimm worked his way up toward career average numbers offensively, but his shoulder never was quite right for throwing. He’s working that out in spring training, which should help him have a better year at the hot corner. He is among the top two or three defensive third basemen in baseball when fully healthy, and I hope the Nats are able to see that return this season.
Bench: Wilson Ramos (C), Steve Lombardozzi (2B, 3B, LF), Chad Tracy (1B, 3B) – Wilson Ramos is coming off of surgery to fix a torn ACL, which is among the worst injuries a catcher can go through. Without Suzuki, Ramos would still likely be the Opening Day starter. However, Ramos isn’t likely to start a spring game until sometime in the middle of March, so I think he’ll be eased into the regular season.
Steve Lombardozzi is a little guy and a former 19th round pick. He has no business being as good as he is at baseball, but here he stands. He’s learned to be versatile, playing both infield and outfield positions, and he rarely strikes out. He provides above-average defense, and he can make contact off the bench. I don’t expect to see Lombardozzi on the team for many more seasons, because he’s just too good to be riding the bench, but he’ll be crucial to the team in 2013.
Chad Tracy is the leader of the “Goon Squad,” the great name for the Nats bench. In just 93 at bats in 2012, he managed to knock in 14 runs. He can play the corners of the infield in a pinch, but his personality and ability to provide pop off the bench are his real value.