Are Desmond, Espinosa long-term answers in the middle?

Manager Jim Riggleman has talked about it before. Build solid defense up the middle and your pitching staff will look a whole lot better.

The Nationals already have a Gold Glove third baseman in Ryan Zimmerman. This year they added a quality glove at first base in Adam LaRoche.

Now, they hope the pairing of two young, energetic infielders at shortstop and second base will protect their defense for seasons to come.

Shortstop Ian Desmond said he was disappointed in his defense last season. The 25-year old said he made it his off season goal to eradicate unforced errors in the field.

He started to kind of get that at the end of last season. Desmond would get to almost every ball, but more times as the season wound down, he would eat a grounder so a forced throw to first base would not open the floodgates for an opponent to rally.

Riggleman is not worried about the error total when asked about Desmond, who led the majors with 34 errors in 2010.

"I can't think of any shortstop in baseball that I would rather have than Ian Desmond," Riggleman said. "The leadership qualities that he displays, the physical talent he displayed, the running the bases, the ball jumping off his bat, the arm strength, the range (offset) whatever errors he makes. I would be hard-pressed to think of anybody else I would rather have than Ian Desmond."

Second baseman Danny Espinosa came on the scene late in the year, and although the 23-year old is a natural shortstop, he showed great range and versatility in his one month with the big club.

"I don't want to get ahead of myself with Danny because he doesn't have a year in the big leagues yet," Riggleman cautioned. "Desmond does. I am still very excited about the possibility of those two guys playing together for a long time.

"You have to go out and do it. That is the same way I felt about Desmond last year. You didn't want to get too excited about the September he had in '09, because I was looking forward to seeing him in '10."

Riggleman says Espinosa needs to play to show what he can do, and that means for a full season.

"That is where I am at with Espinosa," Riggleman said. "I don't know if you can find who a second baseman who is more rangy or has as good an arm as he does because of the physical tools. We have got a chance to really help our pitching staff with those two guys up the middle."

Riggleman also is excited to bring aboard experienced veterans like Alex Cora and Jerry Hairston Jr. The manager said they weren't signed as protection in case Espinosa falters.

"They are two good major league players that really know how to play the game," Riggleman said. "We hand-picked these guys. We targeted these guys as guys we liked to have in the organization because of the knowledge they have and the ability that they have. I just feel like they are really good fits for our ball club."

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