VIERA, Fla. - The way the Nationals' roster was structured last year was the worst possible scenario for Alberto Gonzalez to get playing time. The utility infielder had carved out nearly 300 at-bats for himself in 2009, but by 2010, the Nationals had signed Adam Kennedy and brought Ian Desmond to the majors. Cristian Guzman was still there, and Willie Harris could play second base occasionally. Gonzalez was blocked, and he wasn't happy about it.
On a handful of occasions last year, he and manager Jim Riggleman hashed things out. Gonzalez chafed at his lack of playing time (he was down to 186 at-bats in 2010); Riggleman told this was the way it was going to be, and reminded Gonzalez he wasn't doing himself any favors by not being ready to go when called upon.
"Alberto is competing for a spot on the club that's tough to accept," Riggleman said. "When you're a young guy, you feel like those days of being that utility player are later in your career, not now, not early in my career. That's what we had for Alberto last year. That's what we would anticipate having for him this year. It's a role he's got to get comfortable with."
Gonzalez's position with the Nationals this season is as tenuous as ever; he was fantastic at third base when Ryan Zimmerman missed the final 10 games of the season, but he was anemic at the plate, driving in just five runs in his plate appearances. He didn't walk much, didn't steal a base and, Riggleman felt, let his lack of playing time affect his approach at the plate.
"I think the feeling he had about how miserable the season was for him personally (and) now it was, 'Wow, I'm going to play every day,'" Riggleman said. "I think it took him about four or five days to get back into the swing of things offensively. You don't know when that time's going to come. Is it going to be in April? Is it going to be in September? Is it going to be in June? You don't know, but it's your job to be ready when called upon."
He'll be fighting for a utility spot this spring with Alex Cora and Jerry Hairston Jr., among others, and he's out of options. If Gonzalez is going to make the team, accepting his spot in a crowded middle infield will be the first step.
The way things sit now, it would seem tough for Gonzalez to crack the Nationals' roster. They'll likely carry five outfielders (Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina, Nyjer Morgan, Michael Morse and Jayson Werth) and two catchers (Ivan Rodriguez and Jesus Flores or Wilson Ramos).
That leaves six infield spots, four of which figure to be occupied by Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Adam LaRoche and Zimmerman. Hairston is a virtual lock to make the team, which leaves Gonzalez fighting with Cora and Matt Stairs for the final spot. Gonzalez probably can't afford to hurt his case this spring.
"I had a lot of those conversations with him last year," Riggleman said. "I know his feelings about it. He knows my feelings about it. The playing time just wasn't there. I think it bothered him to the point he really got down about the whole season."