One spring competition just got a lot more interesting

As of yesterday morning, Danny Espinosa was the clear favorite to land a job as the Nationals’ reserve middle infielder this spring.

He and Zach Walters (eight career major league at-bats) were the only middle infielders on the Nats’ 40-man roster behind Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon. Former Rays and Tigers second baseman Will Rhymes was also an option, after the 30-year-old re-signed with the Nats on a minor league deal back in December. But with his major league experience the last few seasons and his ability to play both second base and shortstop at a high level defensively, Espinosa clearly had a leg up in the battle for a bench spot before players even report to Viera next month.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo had spent the last month talking up Espinosa as a strong bench option and a capable reserve this year, and despite his terrible 2013 season, Espinosa still had the best credentials and tools of any candidate for the backup middle infield job.

espinosa-grey-fielding-col-sidebar.jpgNow, if Espinosa is to become part of the Nationals’ opening day roster, he’s going to have to earn it.

That’s not to say that he wasn’t going to have to do that before, but the competition is a good bit stiffer now than it was 24 hours ago.

The Nationals signed two veteran middle infielders yesterday - Jamey Carroll and Mike Fontenot.

Carroll has 12 years of experience in the big leagues, is known as a strong leader and clubhouse presence, can play three infield positions and has terrific career numbers as a pinch-hitter. Fontenot is a left-handed hitter who has played seven years in the big leagues, has strong numbers against right-handed pitching and also has big league experience at three positions along the infield.

Carroll’s career slash line: .272/.349/.338. Fontenot’s career slash line: .265/.332/.401.

The competition for the reserve middle infield job now doesn’t just feature Espinosa, Walters and Rhymes. It also features two guys who have made a pretty nice living as versatile infielders who can help fill a number of holes.

Competition for jobs is obviously what spring training is all about, and last year, there wasn’t a whole lot of that in Viera. The Nats had a good idea who was going to end up on their 25-man opening day roster when they arrived to spring training, and really only one or two jobs were up for grabs. For the most part, that’ll be the same deal this year, as just a couple of bullpen spots and two or three bench spots will truly be open for competition.

I bet you that Rizzo would still be happy if Espinosa ends up breaking camp with the Nationals. We know how highly the Nats general manager thinks of Espinosa and how he sees him becoming a high-level major league starting second baseman.

If Espinosa ends up on the Nats’ opening day roster this year, that will almost certainly mean that he played well enough in spring to show manager Matt Williams that he’s deserving of the job. He won’t be handed the gig based on potential or a lack of other quality options.

If anything, Carroll will go into spring as the favorite to land the job based on his experience, versatility and strong on-base percentage over his career.

The Nats want to find the best reserve infielder they can, and they want to push Espinosa in the process. Yesterday, by signing Carroll and Fontenot, they helped to accomplish both.

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