Nationals’ middle infield appears set for 2011

At this time last year, when Ian Desmond was finishing up his impressive September audition for next year’s roster and the Nationals were trying to decide whether to move Cristian Guzman to second base, their middle infield was as in flux as any spot on their roster. It doesn’t appear that will be the case headed into 2011.

Manager Jim Riggleman said today he would be comfortable with Danny Espinosa - this year’s September call-up - starting at second base at the beginning of next season. Espinosa has had a streaky September; he’s currently hitting .226, but has six homers this month and has played impressive defense at second base.

“I think all of us have to not give any predetermined notions about what they’re going to do,” Riggleman said. “I think we just let them play - him and Desmond both - let them play defense, and let the numbers end up what they are. If (Espinosa’s) offensive numbers kind of roller coaster a little bit, then we can stick somebody else in there, but put him right back in there after a couple days.”

Riggleman compared the situation to what the White Sox did with second baseman Gordon Beckham this season, sticking by the second-year infielder even after he hit .216 in the first half. Even through the middle of a pennant race, the White Sox never wavered, though, and Beckham is hitting .310 after the All-Star break.

And there’s certainly precedent for Espinosa in the way the Nationals handled Desmond. Riggleman began the year talking about a plan to rotate Desmond, Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy, but Desmond started 63 of the team’s first 74 games, even though a June slump dropped his average to .248 at the end of that stretch.

The experience, though, paid off for Desmond in the second half. He’s hitting .292 after the All-Star break, and his OPS jumped 53 points from the first half.

“Ian hit OK in that first half, but he really came on somewhere around the All-Star break,” Riggleman said. “He and Espinosa are both there for their defense and their range, and if they give us offense, that’s better yet.”

The Nationals’ certainty in their young middle infield, though, raises the likelihood Adam Kennedy will return. The team has a $2 million option on Kennedy for next season, and while it would have been surprising to see the Nationals pick it up even without Espinosa, they appear to be all the more set on going in a different direction now that Espinosa has given them some confidence.

Kennedy’s at-bats were scarce early this season, as Riggleman’s rotation turned into more of a Desmond-and-Guzman combination with Guzman hitting over .300 into mid-June. But the Nationals won more games when all three players were getting time early this season, and Riggleman called not playing Kennedy more his one regret of the season.

“I kind of fell into the trap of how hot Guzman was early in the year,” Riggleman said. “Desi was doing a good job at short, so I sat Kennedy quite a bit there. And Guzie kept hitting, but we weren’t winning. So when I went back to Kennedy to get him more involved, Kennedy was rusty, and it took him a while to get it going again. That whole thing didn’t work out.”