Grading the 2010 Nationals: The infielders

We’re continuing our grades of the 2010 Nationals this morning with the team’s catchers and infielders. Of any group on the field, this one underwent more changes in 2010 than any other.

Cristian Guzman, who had been the Nationals’ fixture at shortstop since 2005, began the year on the bench. By the end of the year, the team had installed its possible middle infield of the future, putting Danny Espinosa at second alongside Ian Desmond.

Ivan Rodriguez led the team in games played at catcher. And the Nationals head into the offseason with a big decision to make on Adam Dunn.

The one constant in all that, as usual, was Ryan Zimmerman, who hit over .300 for the first time and continued to evolve into one of the game’s best players.

Here are the infield grades for 2010:

Ian Desmond
Grade: B It was a solid rookie season for the shortstop, who flashed all the potential, and erratic tendencies, the Nationals expected to see from him in his first season. Desmond hit .269 with 10 homers and 65 RBI, flashing impressive range at shortstop (FanGraphs had his range rating at 3.6 runs above replacement) and sounding like a team leader in training at times. But Desmond has plenty to clean up; he made 34 errors, struck out 109 times and had an on-base percentage of just .309. He should get better, though, and has the potential to be a solid No. 2 hitter for the Nationals if he can develop some plate patience.

Adam Dunn
Grade: B+ Dunn’s production in 2010 was as automatic as ever in 2010, with his numbers falling within their usual paper-thin range (a .260 average, 38 homers, 103 RBI and an .892 OPS). He improved at first base, too, posting a -3.2 UZR after a -14.3 mark at first in 2009. But he continued to struggle as a run producer when he wasn’t hitting home runs - he hit .217 with runners in scoring position - and still shows plenty of defensive warts. The Nationals’ most immediate, and possibly their biggest, offseason decision will be whether or not to bring Dunn back.

Danny Espinosa
Grade: B Espinosa certainly showed some potential in his September call-up, hitting six homers, four of them from the right side and two from the left. He also played impressive defense at second base and showed the speed and intensity to stretch singles into doubles. As a hitter, he looked young at times, but that’s to be expected of a player who spent just a month at Triple-A Syracuse before coming to the majors. We’ll know more about Espinosa next spring, but the Nationals seem prepared to start the year with him at second base.

Alberto Gonzalez
Grade: B- Gonzalez is perfectly suited for what the Nationals asked him to do most of the year - be a backup infielder and defensive replacement who is only occasionally asked to help on offense. The problems surfaced when Gonzalez was asked to play enough that pitchers started to figure him out. He was hitting .288 on Aug. 15, after 81 games and 111 at-bats. The rest of the way, Gonzalez got 79 at-bats in 33 games, filling in for Ryan Zimmerman at third base, and hit .187. But he played superb defense in Zimmerman’s absence, and is probably the only player on the roster who could have filled in at third base so capably. Gonzalez is a nice utility player, but nothing more.

Cristian Guzman
Grade: B- In a manner of speaking, Guzman was one of the team’s better options at the top of the order before he was traded to the Rangers on July 30. But that probably reflects more on the dearth of options the Nationals had at the top of the order than it does on how effective Guzman was. His on-base percentage was just .327, though he actually had one of the higher walk rates of his career. But his declining range continued to show at second base, and when manager Jim Riggleman scuttled his three-man middle infield rotation in favor of playing Guzman every day, the 32-year-old’s average cratered in his final two months with the team, dropping from .327 to .282. The Nationals parted with him in advance of his free agency this winter, and his run in Washington, which included both an All-Star Game and one of the worst offensive seasons in modern baseball, appears to be over.

Adam Kennedy
Grade: C- Signed in the offseason to shore up the Nationals’ problem at second base, Kennedy never got the regular at-bats he expected, sitting behind Cristian Guzman first and Danny Espinosa later. But when he did play, Kennedy never did much to suggest he should be in the game more regularly, chafing at his limited role and the rustiness he felt it caused. He hit .249, though he did manage a .327 on-base percentage and proved himself to be one of the team’s craftier baserunners, stealing 14 bases in 16 attempts despite being possibly the slowest player on the team. Kennedy’s defense was mostly solid, but for $1.25 million, the Nationals expected more. Some of it was a result of the situation and how he was handled, but things never really panned out, and it would be a surprise to see the team pick up Kennedy’s $2 million option for 2011.

Wil Nieves
Grade: D+ Everybody’s favorite backup catcher played his third full season with the Nationals, getting less playing time than either of the two seasons before because the team finally had a healthy starter in Ivan Rodriguez. Nieves is a limited offensive player who’d gotten the most out of his skills the previous two seasons, but with a .554 OPS this year, he wasn’t worth much to the Nationals at the plate. He also made five errors in 43 starts, and threw out just 24 percent of baserunners. Nieves’ best attribute the last three years has been his availability; he’s stayed healthy at a position where the Nationals have had no one else who could. But with Rodriguez, Wilson Ramos and possibly Jesus Flores all back in 2011, Nieves could get pushed a ways down the totem pole.

Wilson Ramos
Grade: B In a September call-up, Ramos showed some flashes of why the team thinks he can be an everyday catcher in 2011, posting a .700 OPS in 15 games. He’s going to strike out too much early in his big league career, and needs to learn to handle off-speed pitches better, as most young hitters do. But Ramos has a live bat, and projects nicely as the team’s catcher of the future. We’ll see more of him in the spring, and probably throughout the 2011 season.

Ivan Rodriguez
Grade: B- Though he was never going to stay as hot as he was in the first 2 1/2 months of the season, when he was hitting .340, it’s safe to say Rodriguez gave the Nationals their money’s worth in 2010. The team’s decision to give him a two-year, $6 million deal last winter drew some chuckles around baseball, but Rodriguez played 111 games, fighting through some lower back pain, and improved on his 2009 season, though his offensive numbers still weren’t pretty (a .266 average, .294 OBP and .347 slugging percentage). The future Hall of Famer also served as a mentor to many of the Nationals’ pitchers, helping Sean Burnett take off when he started calling for Burnett to throw a slider to righties. And he’ll bring plenty of value to the team in 2011, with Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores on hand to learn from him.

Ryan Zimmerman
Grade: A- His final numbers aren’t as weighty as they could have been, since he missed 20 games between tight hamstrings early in the year and a rib strain at the end of it. But Zimmerman continued to progress as a hitter and moved up the ranks of baseball’s best players. He hit .307 and posted a .388 OBP (both career highs) and trailed only the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista and the Red Sox’ Adrian Beltre among big league third baseman with an .899 OPS. Zimmerman’s defense, which will probably win him another Gold Glove, continued to be superb, and his WAR (wins above replacement) was 7.1, which tied for fourth in the majors. In other words, there were only three players in baseball more valuable than Zimmerman. He was still subject to throwing errors with his sidearm delivery to first, and caused some worry about his long-term health with the throwing motion. But it helps him make plays few others in baseball can make, and Zimmerman should only continue to get better; he just turned 26.

As always, let me know what you think of the grades.