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.