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Nats spring training question No. 5: Who plays shortstop?

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Nats spring training question No. 5: Who plays shortstop?

This week we are counting down the biggest questions for the Nationals as they begin their 2016 spring training in Viera, Florida with their first official workout on Saturday. The first installment focuses on the battle for starting shortstop...

As the 2015-16 offseason comes to a cold and snowy close, the Nationals are set defensively at every position around the field except one: shortstop. With the still-expected departure of Ian Desmond, there is no clear option for his replacement. Danny Espinosa would seem to have the advantage based on his experience and reliability on defense, but he will have some formidable competition.

Espinosa played well enough in 2015 to earn this opportunity, to compete for a starting role. In order to win, though, he will have to fend off Trea Turner, whom the team wants to see lock down the job at some point not only for the short-term but for many years to come. He will also have to outplay veteran Stephen Drew, who was signed to an inexpensive deal but is the most accomplished player on their roster at the position.

The question could simply come down to when the Nationals believe Turner is ready to start. If he comes in looking much improved from last year and plays very well through spring training, his potential as a top 10 prospect in baseball could be intriguing. Turner also boasts upper echelon speed, which Dusty Baker has already stated he covets.

The Nationals shortstop battle essentially boils down to Espinosa entering spring as the favorite, but with the clock ticking on that opportunity. If he stumbles in spring training, he could quickly lose his advantage in the shortstop race and perhaps even open the door for Drew.

Speaking of Drew, what chances does he have to win the job? According to GM Mike Rizzo, the Nationals believe Drew - who turns 33 in March - can still play the position everyday.

"Stephen Drew is capable of playing every day at both shortstop and second base," Rizzo said in January. "He’s... a guy that should get a lot of at-bats for us at a multiple array of positions."

Drew's average dipped to just .201 in 2015, which is a big reason why the Nats were able to sign him to a one-year deal. He did, however, still club 17 homers and his .652 OPS was higher than Michael Taylor's, for comparison. It's a longshot, but he could have a say in the shortstop competition.

The other name to watch through all of this is Wilmer Difo, the switch-hitting infielder who debuted last year and turns 24 just before Opening Day. Difo is on the outside looking in when it comes to starting jobs and is much more likely to compete for a bench role. But he still possesses considerable talent and a strong spring could vault him back into the discussion.

It was just one year ago that Difo hit .315 with 14 homers, 90 RBI and 49 steals at Single-A Hagerstown. His minors numbers last year dropped far off from that, but he still stole 30 bases and held a .738 OPS in 106 total games.

Set at nearly every position, Baker will be keeping a close eye on all of the aforementioned players as the competition for shortstop sorts itself out. We'll see how long it takes him to find his guy for the start of 2016.

[RELATED: 2016 Nats roster outlook: Can Rivero build off strong rookie year?]

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Soto, Harper homer in Nats' win over Padres

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Soto, Harper homer in Nats' win over Padres

WASHINGTON -- Juan Soto, the youngest player in the majors at 19, hit a three-run homer in his first career start as the Washington Nationals defeated the San Diego Padres 10-2 on Monday.

Mark Reynolds had two solo home runs for the Nationals, who snapped a three-game losing streak. Bryce Harper had a homer and an RBI double.

Soto's drive highlighted a five-run second inning for Washington. The promising outfielder, who played for three minor league teams this season, hit the first pitch from Robbie Erlin (1-3) over the Nationals bullpen in left-center field. Soto also singled.

Soto's homer traveled an estimated 442 feet at Nationals Park. He earned a standing ovation from the crowd and the teenager responded by taking a curtain call. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Soto became the first teenager to hit a home run in a major league game since Harper on Sept. 30, 2012.

Called up to Washington on Sunday, Soto became the first 19-year-old to make his major league debut since Dodgers pitcher Julio Urias in 2016. He entered that game in the eighth inning as a pinch-hitter and struck out.

Washington's starting left fielder began the season at Class A Hagerstown. He hit a combined .362 with 14 homers and 52 RBIs in his three minor league stops.

Gio Gonzalez (5-2) allowed two runs and two hits in seven innings.

San Diego's Franmil Reyes, playing in his seventh career game, also hit his first career home run.

Trea Turner hit a pair of RBI doubles for Washington. Reynolds had three hits.

Erlin surrendered six runs and seven hits over four innings in his third start of the season. San Diego had won three in a row.

Reyes connected for a two-run homer in the fourth inning, but the Padres' lineup generated little else against Gonzalez, who allowed one run over six innings in a no-decision at San Diego on May 9.

2018 MLB POWER RANKINGS AND OTHER NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.

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Juan Soto crushes a homer in the first at-bat of his first-ever start

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Juan Soto crushes a homer in the first at-bat of his first-ever start

Juan Soto, the highly-regarded 19-year-old Nationals' prospect, got his first major league start of his career tonight. 

How did it go, you ask? Surely it would take Soto - who was in Single-A less than two weeks ago - some time to adjust? 

What were you doing at 19??

2018 MLB POWER RANKINGS AND OTHER NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.