The Nationals manic series with Atlanta over the weekend included squandering a 9-run lead Friday night, a crushing loss in the first half of Saturday’s doubleheader only to be followed by John Lannan’s stellar performance Saturday night to lead the Nationals to win the nightcap and split the twin-bill, and concluded with a dominating effort Sunday from Ross Detwiler and the entire roster to clobber the Braves and split their 4-game series. What a weekend! Unfortunately, moments after Sunday’s win the Nationals announced that Ian Desmond was heading to the disabled list in an effort to heal his ailing oblique muscle, meaning Danny Espinosa becomes the everyday shortstop and Steve Lombardozzi reverts back to his natural position of second base, with Mark DeRosa now serving as the primary backup middle infielder.
Desmond will be missed during his absence, as he has clearly been the Nationals MVP so far in 2012 and his .286/.322/.503 batting line and 17 home runs will be extremely difficult to replace. The typical oblique injury keeps a position player on the disabled list an average of 26 days (Nationals Journal James Wagner 7/22/12), and assuming Desmond is sent on a short minor league rehab stint, he should return around September 1st. The Nationals play 36 games between today and the aforementioned September 1st, virtually a quarter of the season, which begs the question, how badly will this hurt the Nationals.
Certainly Danny Espinosa is more than capable of playing shortstop, and has the potential to be close to Desmond’s equal, not to mention Espinosa’s bat has heated up in July with a .343/.382/.543 hitting line with 9 extra base hits. While not on par with the standard Desmond has set this season, Espinosa should adequately manage the position in his absence. With Espinosa the everyday shortstop, Steve Lombardozzi now becomes the starting second baseman and has an excellent opportunity to prove that he is a starting-caliber major league middle infielder, a longtime schism amongst scouts. Lombardozzi is not the defensive equal to Espinosa at second base and his season numbers of .268/.317/.336 with 1 home run and 3 stolen bases in 235 at-bats point toward a utility player: how Lombardozzi produces is one of the major storylines for the Nationals the rest of the summer.
Now that Espinosa and Lombardozzi are manning the middle infield, Mark DeRosa becomes the only middle infield backup on the Nationals roster, a particularly scary thought considering he has not played shortstop since 2008 and played 55 unimpressive innings at second base the past 3 years. At 37 years of age and a 2012 batting line of .148/.288/.222, DeRosa is a guaranteed defensive liability and unless the organization has some reason for optimism with his bat, the numbers say he is a liability offensively as well. With only 54 total at-bats this season, his struggles have yet to affect the team, but now that his playing time will dramatically increase in the next 30-45 days as a result of Desmond’s injury, the Nationals should attempt to upgrade from DeRosa.
Because Ian Desmond is expected to return this season, the Nationals do not need to seek a permanent solution at second base, but rather a right-handed hitting second baseman that can platoon with Steve Lombardozzi (.205/.271/.250 against LHP in 2012, career .200/.265/.244) until Desmond returns, then revert to a bench role as a pinch hitter and occasional starter against left-handed pitching. I recommend GM Mike Rizzo call the Chicago Cubs and check on the availability of Jeff Baker, a versatile 31-year old right-handed hitter with reasonable defensive skills at second base and a career .306/.354/.521 hitter against left-handed pitching. Baker is hitting .282/.323/.470 in 2012 and appears to be a solid fit as a platoon partner with Lombardozzi in the upcoming weeks and would provide the Nationals with a potent weapon off the bench once Desmond returns. Given that he is a free agent at the end of the season, Baker should not be especially costly in terms of prospects and the Cubs should be amicable to a deal.
Assuming the best case scenario that Espinosa does a wonderful job at shortstop and the Nationals trade for a platoon partner to pair with Lombardozzi, the loss of Ian Desmond could still cost the Nationals 1-2 wins over the course of the next few weeks, hardly a crippling amount but further narrows the gap between the Nationals and their competition. The schedule works in the team’s favor in the next few weeks as they play 5 consecutive series against teams under .500, and the addition of Werth into the lineup within the next 2 weeks should help offset some of the Desmond loss offensively. Therefore, the Nationals should be able to survive yet another injury to a critical player, but the front office should look to bolster the team by upgrading their middle infield depth and protect them in case Desmond does not recover as quickly as expected. Buckle up Nationals fans, the recent Braves series is going to be nothing compared to the rollercoaster of the upcoming pennant chase.
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