Spring training preview, Part IV: The middle infield

Thanks to everybody who submitted music suggestions yesterday -- you can still chime in here. I’ll probably dive into some of the stuff you suggested later this afternoon. It’s so nice to have a large batch of suggestions to check out -- seems like you can always get that from discussing music with a big group.

Anyway, on to today’s installment of our weekly series previewing spring training:

For the Nationals, constructing a reliable middle infield has been something of a moving target ever since they arrived in Washington. Former GM Jim Bowden signed Cristian Guzman to a four-year, $16 million contract in 2005, and the shortstop had one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors that year, before missing most of 2006 and 2007 because of injuries. When Guzman finally returned to All-Star form in 2008, hitting .316 with a career-high .345 OBP, the Nationals had problems at second base.


They cut Felipe Lopez in August 2008 after unsuccessfully trying to trade him, and spent the rest of that year auditioning a trio of late-season trade pickups -- Emilio Bonifacio, Anderson Hernandez and Alberto Gonzalez. Bonifacio was shipped out in a trade that November, and Hernandez left in a trade last season after underperforming as a starter at second base.

The Nationals shuttled between Gonzalez and Ronnie Belliard until Belliard, too, was traded. And when Guzman’s range declined at shortstop, they openly discussed the idea of moving him to second base.

Washington enters the 2010 season still without a pair of long-term fixtures in the middle infield. But the Nationals might have their most stable pairing in some time.

They signed second baseman Adam Kennedy to a one-year, $1.25 million deal with a team option for 2011. Kennedy, who signed after the Nationals lost out to the Twins on Orlando Hudson, will be the starting second baseman, and Guzman figures to start at short -- manager Jim Riggleman has said his decline in range might have been because of persistent bunions on his feet that forced Guzman to play through pain for much of the second half last year.

Kennedy’s addition, which will certainly give the Nationals a fixture at the position for now, does have one consequence for the future: It likely means Ian Desmond, who had all but played himself into the 2010 lineup with an impressive September last year, will have no place to get everyday major league at-bats again this season.

The Nationals had talked about starting Desmond at shortstop and Guzman at second, even though it seemed Guzman was less than happy with the idea of switching positions and Desmond had a habit of making errors on routine plays at shortstop. Riggleman has talked about giving Desmond some time in the outfield -- an experiment he tried a couple times last year -- but it remains to be seen if the 24-year-old will wind up there or at Triple-A Syracuse, where he can play every day.

The addition of Eric Bruntlett and the return of Willie Harris gives the Nationals some depth in the middle infield, and both players can shift to a number of different positions. It seems, for now, the Nationals’ middle infield is set, but the questions that will have to be resolved this year deal more with the future of the position.

Guzman is a free agent after this year, and the Nationals would likely trade him if they could find a team willing to swallow some part of his $8 million salary. It’s possible he and Kennedy could both be free agents after this year -- and Harris’ contract is up at the end of the season, too. Desmond, meanwhile, will be 25 in September, and prospect Daniel Espinosa is gaining ground on him quickly. Both players are natural shortstops, and if one will move to second to form the Nationals’ double-play combination of the future, there’s some urgency to figure out which one it will be.

Stability, at least for the time being, is the state of the Nationals’ middle infield. But that stability might not last for long.

Question time:

1. What’s your ideal middle infield on opening day? Kennedy-Guzman? Kennedy-Desmond? Guzman-Desmond? I’d say that’s the order of probability, but you never know what will happen. What would you like to see?

2. How do you feel about the idea of keeping Ian Desmond on the team as a super-utility player of some sort? Do you want to see him in the majors, or give him more time to play shortstop every day?

3. What should the Nationals do with the position beyond this year? Do you like the idea of Desmond and Espinosa next year, or does Kennedy need to be kept around while those two players fight for the shortstop job? Or is there some other solution?