The Nationals roster has undergone massive changes in the last two years, but it may be more noticeable in the infield than anywhere else on the field.
Consider this: On the night the Nats won their first World Series title, they started an infield of Ryan Zimmerman, AsdrÃºbal Cabrera, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon, with Howie Kendrick serving as designated hitter, and Brian Dozier and Matt Adams coming off the bench.
At this moment, only 25 1/2 months later, not one of those players is employed by the Nationals. And the only one who might return for the 2022 season is Zimmerman, unless he chooses to retire.
Yeah, things have changed just a bit around the horn since that glorious October night in Houston.
There's nothing wrong with change, of course. It can be a good thing. Or, at least, sometimes it's a necessary thing. The greater concern with the Nats infield as currently constructed is the lack of guaranteed long-term solutions at any of the four positions.
If they needed to take the field for opening day right now - and thankfully, they don't - they would probably do so with Josh Bell at first base, CÃ©sar HernÃ¡ndez at second base, Alcides Escobar at shortstop and Carter Kieboom at third base. Unless recently acquired veterans Maikel Franco or Dee Strange-Gordon forced their way into the lineup. Or promising-but-erratic 21-year-old Luis GarcÃa, who also remains in the mix.
Some combination of the above names may get the Nationals through the 2022 season in one piece, but can you definitively say any of them will be on the roster in 2023? Not at this point, for varying reasons.
Bell clearly is the most proven offensive player of the entire group. And on the heels of a strong 2021 season - .261/.347/.476, 27 homers, 88 RBIs - despite needing to dig himself out of a massive hole beginning in mid-May, there's every reason to believe the big slugger will again put up strong numbers batting cleanup behind Juan Soto in the daily lineup.
But what's Bell's future in Washington? He's entering his final season of arbitration, due to make about $10 million, and at some point between now and midsummer, the Nationals are going to have to decide if they want to commit to him long-term. (And Bell, of course, will need to decide if he wants to commit to them long-term.)
If both sides do want to stick together, a contract extension could ensure the club is solidified at first base for several more years. But if they aren't sure, general manager Mike Rizzo is going to have little choice but to shop Bell at the trade deadline and see what he can get in return, just as he did with all his veterans on expiring contracts last summer.
The Nats could enter the season with veterans up the middle of the infield as well, though HernÃ¡ndez and Escobar both are on the downslopes of their careers at this point. Escobar is coming off an out-of-nowhere bounceback season, though, after the Nationals (desperate for healthy infielders) picked him up from the Royals' Triple-A affiliate in early July. He wound up taking over as the everyday shortstop following Turner's trade to the Dodgers and put up the best offensive numbers of his 12-year career (.288/.340/.404) in 75 games.
Is Escobar, who quickly re-signed for $1 million, the opening day shortstop? That remains to be seen, because the addition of HernÃ¡ndez for $4 million just before the lockout commenced changed the dynamic. HernÃ¡ndez hit a career-high 21 homers last season for the White Sox and Cleveland, but his .694 OPS remains below-average. Still, you wouldn't think the Nats signed him to a big league deal without the intention of starting him, and second base is his best position.
That, however, would bump GarcÃa from the spot he manned throughout the final two months of the season. The dynamic young infielder had his moments, though most were offset by lackadaisical moments that underscored his inexperience. You'd think a rebuilding club like this would make sure a 21-year-old with those skills would get a chance to play a lot, and maybe it'll happen not at second base but at shortstop, the position GarcÃa played coming up through the minors.
Escobar could then shift to a bench role. Or perhaps he could even find himself pushed to third base if club officials have determined the Kieboom experiment isn't worth it anymore. The 2016 first-round pick has been given ample opportunities to prove he's an everyday big leaguer but hasn't come close to seizing any of them yet. The Nats aren't necessarily going to give up on a 24-year-old altogether, but their acquisitions so far this winter do suggest they intend to at least create spring competition for Kieboom.
Among those who now figure to be in that competition for playing time is Franco, the former Phillies third baseman who really struggled with the Orioles in 2021 and then finished the season with the Braves' Triple-A club. (That's what made him eligible to be signed to a minor league deal during the lockout.) Franco, who over the last three seasons has hit a pedestrian .235/.286/.399 while also laboring in the field, doesn't seem like a clear upgrade over Kieboom. But he's still only 29, and a strong spring could force the issue.
Strange-Gordon, who like Franco finished the 2021 season in the minors and thus was eligible to sign a minor league deal, will get a look in spring training and try to make the club with his versatility and speed. Less-experienced infielder Lucius Fox (just claimed off waivers from the Orioles) will get a look as well but faces longer odds to crack the big league roster.
Who else is on the organizational infield depth chart? AdriÃ¡n Sanchez and Jake Noll are still around, though neither is on the 40-man roster anymore. Andrew Young, who put up big numbers at Triple-A but struggled in the majors with the Diamondbacks, was recently selected in the Triple-A Rule 5 draft. None are considered prospects at this point, though.
For those, look to the shortstop position, where Jackson Cluff is coming off an eye-opening performance in the Arizona Fall League in which his bat matched his already impressive glove, and Brady House is ready to play his first full professional season after the Nationals made the 18-year-old the 11th overall pick in last summer's draft.