Is Steve Lombardozzi ready for the majors?

In all the discussions about how the Nationals are trying to improve their bench for 2012, Steve Lombardozzi’s name comes up - but only at the end of the conversation. Most agree that the 23-year-old infielder has a promising career ahead of him; the question remains whether he’s ready to contribute at the major league level or whether he needs some more at-bats at Triple-A Syracuse. And then there’s the pesky question about where the Nats can use him.

Lombardozzi is a favorite among Nats fans for two reasons: He’s a local product, having graduated from Atholton High School in Columbia, Md., and he’s a second-generation major leaguer, the son of former Twins and Astros second baseman Steve Lombardozzi.

Unfortunately, the younger Lombardozzi is also a second baseman, like his old man, and that presents a problem in his long-range future with the Nats, given Danny Espinosa’s presence. While Espinosa has his struggles during his first full major league season, the organization is pleased with his glovework and the perception is that his second-half slump was something that was caused by the rookie hitting the proverbial wall.

There’s some sentiment that Lombardozzi could be slotted at second base if Ian Desmond is traded and Espinosa is moved back to shortstop, his original position. Right now, Desmond is the Nationals’ leadoff hitter - there’s really no one else on the roster who can handle that responsibility - and barring a trade for a center fielder/leadoff man, Desmond will be back at shortstop and atop the batting order in 2012.

Ultimately, Lombardozzi’s future could be as a utility player and regardless of his role, he’s likely destined for Triple-A out of spring training. Perhaps he could learn to play enough positions that he could fill the role of super sub, a guy with decent defensive skills and enough of a bat to play four times a week at different positions. For now, he’s blocked for at least a year by the Nationals’ signing last week of veteran utility man Mark DeRosa, who can back up all around the infield and play the corner outfield spots, as well.

So Lombardozzi appears headed back to Syracuse for some more seasoning. It’s not like he was particularly impressive in a September call-up to D.C. last season - he batted only .194 (6-for-31) with a double and one RBI in 13 games. The switch hitter looked overmatched at times, finally seeming to reach a comfort zone at the plate by the end of his first month at the bigs.

Offense is nice, but defense is what will keep Lombardozzi in the majors, especially if he embraces the utility role. He’s a career .298 hitter in four minor league seasons and handled the jump from Double-A to Triple-A last year fine, batting .310 in 69 games at Syracuse after hitting .309 in 64 games at Harrisburg. He had four homers and 23 RBIs with the Senators, then four homers and 29 RBIs as a Chief. Sixteen of his 30 stolen bases last year came at Harrisburg. As statistics go, it’d be hard to find someone who had more identical seasons before and after a promotion.

So far, Lombardozzi has played 421 of his 442 minor league games at second base. He played second, short and third with the Chiefs, and how he’s used at Syracuse this season will help determine his future with the Nationals. If he stays at second base, it will be difficult for Lombardozzi to ascend to D.C. unless Desmond or Espinosa are moved. General manager Mike Rizzo could use him as trade bait, packaging him to fill another hole. But If Lombardozzi learns to play more positions, he could be a future low-cost alternative to DeRosa, and hitting from both sides of the plate only adds to his value.

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