This season, the nationals have introduced much hyped and highly rated prospect Danny Espinosa to the major league. This filled a Nationals infield, which, with the exception of first base, is comprised of home-grown, young players. However, with the exception of Ryan Zimmerman, who has spent most of this season on the DL, the infield has not yet produced enough to win baseball games. Espinosa is currently hitting .212, third worst among qualified 2B in the major leagues. Desmond is hitting .234, fourth worst among qualified SS in the majors. Espinosa has the benefit of power, ranking in the top five among 2B in homeruns and RBI. Desmond has the benefit of speed, ranking 3rd among MLB SS in stolen bases. But both of them need to produce far more than they are if the Nationals are to be competitive. I am not suggesting that the Nationals give up on either of these players. That said, if it becomes apparent that one or the other is not improving at an acceptable rate, or if the Nationals are primed to contend sooner rather than later, they have an option currently in the minor leagues that could provide a boost to that middle infield.
This option is Stephen Lombardozzi. I saw Lombardozzi play at high-A Potomac twice in 2010, and a few things stood out. First, he was the best player on the team. In both games, he was the player of the game, with his combined statistics being 5-8 with four runs, one RBI, three BB, one SB, one 2B and one 3B. Additionally, he made seven total plays in the field at second base without committing an error. This is a small sample size, but seeing Lombardozzi in person left me with the impression that the guy was a true ballplayer; that he could drive the ball to all fields, ran the bases well, was slick with the glove, and also very importantly, did not strikeout at any of his 11 plate appearances. This ability to make contact every time and put the ball in play shows that Lombardozzi has good hand-eye coordination, and will consistently produce productive outs, even if the balls do not fall in for hits.
Aside from this small sample size, Lombardozzi’s minor league statistics are still impressive. His combined minor league career batting average, which spans rookie, A, A+, and AA baseball over three and a third seasons, currently sits at .297. For comparison, Danny Espinosa’s minor league career batting average was .270. Ian Desmond’s minor league BA was .259.
Additionally, Lombardozzi’s bat control shows itself in his strikeout totals; 224 in 1,648 plate appearances. This is a far lower number than Desmond’s 519/2,662 and Espinosa’s 262/1,205. Strikeouts are a buzz and rally kill, and the Nationals have plenty of them, ranking second in the MLB this season. They do not advance runners, and they do not give the batter a chance to reach on an error or lucky bounce. Simply put, strikeouts are useless, and Lombardozzi gives the Nationals an opportunity to cut them down.
Also worth noting is that, while he might not have as strong an OPS as Espinosa’s .820, Lombardozzi’s .784 is significantly higher than Desmond’s minor league .714. Additionally, Lombardozzi’s OPS in AA Harrisburg last season was the highest number posted by any of the three players in the minors at .897. Simply put, he is displaying better hitting than Desmond did through his minor league career, and he is on the upswing, and his OPS has improved every season that he has been in the Nationals’ farm system.
A final important point is defense. The old saying is that offense wins games, defense wins championships. In 2007, the Boston Red Sox were 5th in the league fewest errors; in 2008 the Phillies were 8th; in 2009 the Yankees were 9th; in 2010 the Giants were 4th. So while it is not necessary to be the best defensive team, it does appear that top-10 status is a requirement for a World Series title. The Nationals’ ranks since 2007 are as follows: 25th, 29th, 30th, and 29th out of 30 teams in professional baseball. Clearly defense is an area where the Nationals must improve if they want to contend. Stephen Lombardozzi can make the biggest difference in this area. In his minor league career, Lombardozzi has produces a better range factor than either Desmond or Espinosa as well as a much higher fielding percentage. In 1691 total chances, Lombardozzi has made a grand total of 27 errors, and eight of those errors came in his season in rookie ball. Lombardozzi’s biggest asset over Espinosa or Desmond is his fielding, and it is an area the Nationals simply must get better.
I do not believe that the Nationals should give up on Desmond or Espinosa. They are young players and they have shown raw talent that seems to say that they can be successful major league players. However, the Nationals must also make sure that they do not miss a better player developing in the minor leagues. The weaker of the two major league players right now is Desmond, and Espinosa spent most of his minor league career at shortstop. If Lombardozzi continues to produce at a high level in the minor leagues, and Desmond continues to struggle, the Nationals must consider moving Espinosa to short and inserting Lombardozzi into the lineup at second base.
Perhaps the best thing that Lombardozzi gives the Nationals is flexibility. Instead of being tied down in their infield and hoping things work out for the best, the Nationals can platoon, mix-and-match, or demote a player who isn’t performing for coaching before bringing them back. In the short term, this will allow the Nationals to maximize the improvement of their young players. In the long term, the Nationals will need to make some decisions. If Desmond and/or Espinosa continue to struggle, and Lombardozzi continues to provide evidence that he is the best player of the three, the Nationals will need to consider shopping Desmond as a trade piece to make room for the rapidly rising prospect from Fulton, Md.
Stephen Lombardozzi Minor League Statistics & History
Ian Desmond Minor League Statistics & History
Danny Espinosa Minor League Statistics & History
2010 MLB Team Fielding Stats
(Also used for 2009, 2008, 2007)