Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa in middle of everything for Nationals

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

Washington's fortunes may rest with success of infield duo

The full squad has only just assembled at spring training, and the roster is virtually identical to the one that finished the 2012 season with baseball's best record.

The Nationals lost a back-end starter (Edwin Jackson), their starting left fielder (Michael Morse) and three left-handed relievers (Sean Burnett, Michael Gonzalez, Tom Gorzelanny). They added a veteran starter (Dan Haren), traded for a center fielder (Denard Span) and added a closer (Rafael Soriano). Lefty reliever Zach Duke was already in the organization and pitched for Washington in September.

That leaves few unanswered questions for the Nats as spring training gets under way unless you look at established players. Maybe a good place to start is middle infield, where Ian Desmond is coming off a breakthrough season at shortstop and Danny Espinosa insists an offseason of rehabilitation has his shoulder in shape for the coming season.

"I think [Desmond] and [Espinosa] are coming into their own," first baseman Adam LaRoche said last month.

Desmond, 27, enters his fourth straight season as the starter at shortstop. He made the All-Star team last season, raised his OPS from .656 to .846 and hit 25 homers. He led all qualified big league shortstops in those categories, cut down his errors (15) again and had 21 steals in 27 attempts.

But with those numbers comes a commensurate rise in expectations. Can Desmond match them? Or does he slip back to the offensive player he was in 2010 and 2011?

"Having been in an All-Star Game, after doing that you're never nervous again. You really know that you can continue to be a big-time player," MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds said. "So I think anything less than that is kind of a disappointment after that point in your career. It changes your whole mindset. And that's a great thing. It's not a negative."

Espinosa faces a similar set of questions with one tricky addition: Is he healthy? And can he stay that way all season? Espinosa, in consultation with his doctors and Washington's medical staff, decided against surgery on a tear in the rotator cuff of his left shoulder. The hope is that the shoulder will be strong enough now to last the season and beyond.

But it's also clear that Espinosa was hampered at the end of last season. He batted 2-for-24 in his final nine games, including the postseason, and struck out 11 times. The injury, Espinosa told reporters at NatsFest last month, dated to a Sept. 7 game against Miami when he dove for a ground ball and jammed the shoulder.

Surgery likely would have kept Espinosa out until June. This way, with the strength added during the winter, he can continue to play and hope that extra work helps the shoulder hold up through the rigors of a long season. Espinosa's OPS dipped from .737 to .717, his home runs fell from 21 to 17 and his strikeouts increased to 189 from 166.

But a player equally comfortable at shortstop -- in case Desmond gets hurt as he did last year -- as at second base is too valuable a chip to leave on the disabled list for two months. The Nats and Espinosa will take a chance.

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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Brian McNally

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner