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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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Ex-Oriole Manny Machado homers off ex-National Gio Gonzalez in NLCS Game 1

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USA Today Sports

Ex-Oriole Manny Machado homers off ex-National Gio Gonzalez in NLCS Game 1

Sure, the Nationals and Orioles didn't make the playoffs, but that didn't stop a "Battle of the Beltways" moment from breaking out during NLCS Game 1.

Ex-National Gio Gonzalez started the game for the Brewers. In the second inning, ex-Oriole Manny Machado stepped to the plate for the Dodgers.

Here's what happened next:

If you squint, you can imagine the ball flying into the Nationals Park bullpen or the Camden Yards bleachers. 

And in case you're wondering, we have indeed entered the Twilight Zone. 

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Nationals get offseason started by acquiring righty reliever Kyle Barraclough from Marlins

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USA Today Sports

Nationals get offseason started by acquiring righty reliever Kyle Barraclough from Marlins

The Washington Nationals picked up righty reliever Kyle Barraclough from Miami in their first offseason move to rebuild the bullpen.

The Nationals said Wednesday that they gave the Marlins international slot value in the deal.

The hard-throwing Barraclough went 1-6 with 4.20 ERA and 10 saves in 17 chances, with 61 appearances this year. He allowed one hit in 36 at-bats in June, when he was chosen NL reliever of the month, but struggled with his command the rest of the season.

Barraclough's ERA ballooned to 10.24 over his final 24 games and he lost the Marlins closer's job.

He has a career ERA of 3.21 with 279 strikeouts and 134 walks in 218 2/3 innings over four seasons, all with Miami.

Washington general manager Mike Rizzo is in need of relievers after jettisoning Shawn Kelley and Brandon Kintzler late this season.

The deal helps the Marlins in their pursuit of top international free-agent Victor Victor Mesa, a Cuban outfielder who tried out for major league scouts at Marlins Park last week.

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