We're now officially inside of a week until pitchers and catchers report. And in true Viera fashion, it's time for me to look at the weather forecast and get a shred of hope about warmer temperatures. This, of course, will be followed with the traditional forecast re-check on Saturday, where I find they're not forecasting anything warmer than 60 degrees in the near future. Such a tease, that Viera.
(I have a no-complaining-about-Florida-weather policy while I'm at spring training. Fortunately, this comes with a complaining-about-Florida-weather-being-overrated-while-not-in-Florida rider.)
Anyway, we're continuing our series of stories to watch this morning, and today, we're going to take a quick look at the Nationals' middle infield. Last spring, the team handed the shortstop job to unproven rookie Ian Desmond, effectively taking a chunk of playing time away from two veterans (Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy). This year, they're going young again, and there's not nearly as much of a safety net in the event Danny Espinosa falters at second base:
What's changed: The Nationals are fully committed to a youth movement this spring in their middle infield. They brought Espinosa up last September, and have made the second base job his to lose this spring. That's an even bolder move than the one they made with Desmond, who had to win the job last year after a strong call-up showing in 2009. The Nationals know both players still have room to grow, but they think they could have one of the game's most athletic middle infields for years to come. They weren't shocked at all with Desmond's error total last year (34), and they expect that to drop by a third this year. Espinosa is a natural shortstop, and gives them great range at second. He's also a switch-hitter with some pop in his bat. The Nationals firmly resisted trading either player this winter, and are now hoping they'll see their faith rewarded.
What to watch: Desmond and Espinosa played a month together last year, but this spring will be where they really get a chance to hone their connection in the middle of the infield. Desmond started to show better judgment late in the season, eating throws he knew he wouldn't be able to make, and the Nationals also expect the presence of Adam LaRoche at first base to help both players. Both Desmond and Espinosa are likely to strike out more than 100 times this year, though, and each one could benefit from some work this spring on a more refined plate approach with hitting coach Rick Eckstein.
Who's on the hot seat: Neither player is in serious danger of not starting on Opening Day, but Espinosa does have less of a track record than Desmond. The Nationals also signed Alex Cora and Jerry Hairston Jr., who can give Espinosa a break during the year. Either player could see some time if Espinosa struggles, but the Nationals' plan is to give the 23-year-old plenty of leash, as they did with Desmond last year, and let him find his way in the majors.
What will happen: The Nationals are counting on this to be one of the most improved areas of the team this year, and if you see Desmond making sharper decisions at shortstop while both players are maturing at the plate, the Nationals might have something special here. It's rare to find middle infields in baseball with this much athleticism and raw talent at both shortstop and second base. Both players have the potential hit double-digit homers and steal 20 bases. They're probably both going to strike out too much, particularly Espinosa, but the Nationals are content to let their middle infield mature over time.
Leave your thoughts on the middle infield below - whether you're excited about the youth movement, or whether you would have liked to see the Nationals pick up a more seasoned player.