All eyes on Escobar

VIERA, Fla. - All position players are due to report for Nationals spring training today. As of Monday evening, outfielders Jayson Werth and Mike Carp, and infielders Wilmer Difo and Yunel Escobar were the only players who had not yet appeared at Space Coast Stadium.

Much of the focus will be on Escobar when he trots out to his new second base position on Thursday, the first day of full-squad workouts. The Nationals traded Tyler Clippard, one of baseball’s most reliable relievers, in order to acquire Escobar from Oakland in mid-January.

Yunel Escobar points Rays.jpgThe 32-year-old Escobar has been primarily a shortstop throughout his eight seasons in the majors. He hasn’t played second base since he appeared in 21 games there in his rookie season in 2007. The lack of experience at the position in the majors didn’t seem to affect Rizzo’s thought process.

“We got ourselves a really good everyday baseball player that can play shortstop on a regular basis, has done it on a championship-caliber club, and this year fulfills as an upgrade at second base,” Rizzo said.

On paper, Escobar certainly appears capable of filling the offensive hole in the Nats lineup. He owns a .276 batting average for his career with 69 home runs and 393 RBIs. His best offensive season came in 2009, when he hit 14 home runs, drove in 76 runs and batted .299. But he hasn’t hit above .260 the past three seasons and slashed .258/.324/.340 with seven homers and 39 RBIs last year with Tampa Bay.

Escobar, a Gold Glove finalist in 2012, also experienced his worst season defensively last year. After acquiring him, Rizzo was quick to defend Escobar’s recent problems.

“We see Yuni as being an above-average defender at shortstop and at second base,” Rizzo explained. “He has been his entire career, except for last year. Last year, he played with a soreness in his shoulder that affected a little bit of his throwing, and a quad that affected a little bit of his range. We feel that getting him off the carpet in Tampa Bay and playing on natural grass at Nationals Park will just be a positive for him defensively. We have no qualms about his defense. We think he’s an outstanding defensive player that’s going to upgrade us offensively and defensively.”

Ian Desmond, who will be playing Escobar’s regular position, doesn’t see many difficulties making the transition from shortstop to second base.

“It looked like Asdrubal (Cabrera) had a pretty easy conversion, and (Escobar) is a pretty good fielder,” Desmond said. “So I think he’ll be fine.”

And Desmond is looking forward to turning double plays with Escobar.

“I’m excited about Yunel right next to me,” he said. “I think we can complement each other really well. I feel he does some things and we can learn from each other. He does a lot of things I think I can learn from him.”

The Nats have a few others fighting for time at second base, including Dan Uggla, a three-time All-Star who hit more than 30 homers in five straight seasons from 2007-11 while playing the position.

“They’ve expressed they need help at second base,” Uggla said. “They said it’s kind of an open competition type thing. I’m all about open competition. I’ve always enjoyed that. So we’ll see how it goes.”

Manager Matt Williams doesn’t see it like that. Second base is Escobar’s job.

“It’s not necessarily a competition, but we’ll look at everybody, and they’ll all get a chance to play,” Williams said. “There’s lots of games and lots of innings and lots of at-bats for guys to have.”

In the meantime, second-year skipper Willams is looking forward to having his entire team assembled at Space Coast Stadium today.

“Every spring is anew, and everybody’s optimistic,” Williams said. “All 30 clubs are optimistic, as we are. We’re looking forward to everybody getting in and getting going as a full squad. The pitchers are working really hard. They’ve been diligent about their work so far. They’ve got two more days of it, and then we’ll get everybody together and start the process. Everybody’s itching.”

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