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Evaluating the Nationals' infield


Evaluating the Nationals' infield

As we transition into offseason mode, we'll start by breaking down the Nationals' roster by position (infield, outfield, catcher, rotation and bullpen) this week and examine where things stand at season's end and where things might stand moving forward. Today's position: Infield...

Stats: 154 G, 647 PA, 33 HR, 100 RBI, .271 AVG, .343 OBP, .510 SLG
7 E, 6.1 UZR, 3.8 WAR
2012 salary: $9 million
Contract status: $10 million mutual option in 2013, if declined becomes free agent
Where he fits in: Perhaps the Nationals' team MVP, LaRoche's contributions this season were immeasurable. He was the club's most consistent offensive player, setting a career-high in homers and matching his career-high in RBI. He played Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base, saving his teammates from being charged with countless errors. And he was a calming and popular presence in the clubhouse. For all of those reasons, the Nationals want to bring LaRoche back for 2013. The problem? He's likely to decline the one-year, mutual option, wanting a longer-term deal. The Nationals are open to that, and the two sides have begun preliminary talks. They'd ideally like to get something done before LaRoche is allowed to become a free agent (five days after conclusion of the World Series) so these next couple of weeks could be significant.

Stats: 160 G, 658 PA, 17 HR, 56 RBI, .247 AVG, .315 OBP, .402 SLG
13 E, 7.1 UZR at 2B, 3.8 WAR
2012 salary: $506,000
Contract status: Arbitration-eligible in 2014, free agent in 2017
Where he fits in: Despite periods of offensive success, it proved to be a difficult season at the plate for Espinosa, who in his second full season saw his on-base and slugging percentages and walk totals drop while his strikeout total rose to an NL-high 189. He ended on a sour note in the NLDS, going 1-for-15 and failing to drive in a run. Espinosa's defensive work, on the other hand, remains spectacular. He not only played brilliantly at second base, but he was well above average at shortstop while filling in for the injured Ian Desmond following the All-Star break. Though there are some who would like to see the Nationals give Steve Lombardozzi a chance to take over everyday duties, the organization remains committed to Espinosa and believes he can enjoy the same of offensive breakthrough next season that Desmond enjoyed this season.

Stats: 130 G, 547 PA, 25 HR, 73 RBI, .292 AVG, .335 OBP, .511 SLG
15 E, 4.8 UZR, 5.4 WAR
2012 salary: $512,500
Contract status: Arbitration-eligible, free agent in 2016
Where he fits in: Remember when there was talk of Desmond getting traded so the Nationals could slide Danny Espinosa over to shortstop? That was only seven months ago. It feels like seven years after Desmond put together an All-Star season and established himself as one of the best all-around shortstops in the majors. He finally found his offensive niche, embracing the idea of being a run producer who mostly hit sixth in the Nationals' lineup, and in the process raised his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentages to career-high levels. He even took his defensive game to another level, reducing his error total from 34 in 2010 to 23 in 2011 to 15 this year. Entering his first year of arbitration eligibility, Desmond is under team control for three more seasons. But now might be the time for Mike Rizzo to lock him up beyond 2015, before the price gets way out of control.

Stats: 145 G, 641 PA, 25 HR, 95 RBI, .282 AVG, .346 OBP, .478 SLG
19 E, -0.6 UZR, 4.5 WAR
2012 salary: $12.1 million
Contract status: $14 million in 2013, $14 million in 2014, $14 million in 2015, $14 million in 2016, $14 million in 2017, $14 million in 2018, $18 million in 2019, $18 million club option in 2020, free agent in 2021
Where he fits in: Zimmerman's season really has to be split into two pieces: pre-cortisone and post-cortisone. In 55 games before receiving the pain-killing shot in his ailing right shoulder on June 23, he was hitting a paltry .218 with a .285 on-base percentage and .305 slugging percentage. In 90 games after receiving the shot, he hit .321 with a .383 on-base percentage and .584 slugging percentage (MVP-worthy numbers). Zimmerman will probably need surgery now to repair the AC joint. The Nationals can only hope that allows him to stay healthy and productive for the entire 2013 season, and that a strong shoulder also allows him to correct his troublesome throwing mechanics at third base.

Stats: 126 G, 416 PA, 3 HR, 27 RBI, .273 AVG, .317 OBP, .354 SLG
4 E, 1.6 UZR at 2B, 1.3 UZR in LF, 0.8 WAR
2012 salary: $481,000
Contract status: Arbitration-eligible in 2015, free agent in 2018
Where he fits in: Davey Johnson wanted to give Lombardozzi about 300 plate appearances in his rookie season. He wound up needing the versatile player much more than that, resulting in 416 plate appearances spread out between second base, third base and left field. Lombardozzi proved adept at handling whatever was thrown his way, and he showed significant poise and a mature hitting approach for someone with his limited experience. A real luxury to have as a utility player, he might be good enough to play second base every day, though it doesn't appear he'll get that chance on this team in 2013.

Stats: 73 G, 105 PA, 3 HR, 14 RBI, .269 AVG, .343 OBP, .441 SLG
1 E, 0.3 UZR at 1B, 0.6 UZR at 3B, 0.5 WAR
2012 salary: $750,000
Contract status: $1 million in 2013, free agent in 2014
Where he fits in: The Nationals were so pleased with Tracy as their top pinch-hitter off the bench, they already signed him for another season. The veteran corner infielder will be back in 2013 and hope to provide as many clutch hits from the left side of the plate as he did in 2012. Though his appearances were almost entirely limited to one at-bat per game, Tracy did perform surprisingly well at both first and third bases, which is nice to know in case he's needed there.

Stats: 48 G, 101 PA, 0 HR, 6 RBI, .188 AVG, .300 OBP, .247 SLG
1 E, -3.8 UZR in OF, 0.4 UZR at 3B, -0.4 WAR
2012 salary: $800,000
Contract status: Free agent
Where he fits in: A beloved clubhouse presence who kept his teammates loose all season and then fired them up before Game 4 of the NLDS by reaching a speech from Teddy Roosevelt, DeRosa simply couldn't stay healthy enough to make an impact on the field. Though his surgically repaired wrist felt fine, the 37-year-old has lost his power stroke and was a liability in the field. He's unlikely to be re-signed by the Nationals, but should he elect to retire, the Nationals could offer him a coaching position somewhere in the organization.

Remember Chris Marrero, the 2006 first-round draft pick who was supposed to become a major producer in the Nationals' lineup? It never happened. Beset by injuries once again, the 24-year-old first baseman played in only 37 games at Class AAA Syracuse and didn't homer. The club did get a nice performance out of 24-year-old third baseman Carlos Rivero, who after getting claimed off waivers from the Phillies hit .303 with 10 homers at Syracuse. The star infielder in the system, of course, is Anthony Rendon, the Nationals' first-round pick in 2011 who missed most of the season with a fractured ankle but finished strong at Class AA Harrisburg. He's currently playing in the Arizona Fall League and could be big-league ready by Sept. 2013. Shortstop Zach Walters put together a really nice season at three levels (Class A Potomac, Harrisburg and Syracuse) and hit a combined .266 with 12 homers. Third baseman Matt Skole burst onto the scene and was named organizational player of the year after clubbing 27 homers with 92 RBI at low-Class A Hagerstown. Skole was paired up early in the season with shortstop Jason Martinson, who totaled 22 homers and 106 RBI between Hagerstown and Potomac. And then there's our old pal Carlos Alvarez, aka Esmailyn Gonzalez, who at 26 still hasn't advanced beyond Hagerstown, where he hit .171 in 20 games.

It all boils down to whether the Nationals are able to work out a deal to bring LaRoche back for another season, two or three. If they are, this team is set around the infield. If they aren't, they'll have to decide whether to move Michael Morse back to first base from left field, give the job to Tyler Moore or look outside the organization. With DeRosa likely gone, the Nationals also might be in the market for a veteran infielder, preferably a right-handed hitter who could play the corner positions.

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Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Majestic’s reign as the maker of MLB jerseys are about to come to an end. 

In 2020, Fanatics and Under Armour will be teaming to make on-field jerseys and apparel for all MLB teams, according to a Sports Business Journal report. 

The news outlet also reports that the deal means the MLB’s licensing relations with Nike will be over as well. 

Under Armour will produce the jerseys starting in Spring Training of the 2020 season, and “broad apparel rights” will go to Fanatics. 

New Era will continue to be the maker of MLB hats. 

Given that Maryland native Kevin Plank founded Under Armour, and that the business' headquarters are in Baltimore, it’s sure to be a splash with baseball fans in the DMV.

You can read the full Sports Business journal report here. 

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Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Here is an early look at the biggest questions facing the Washington Nationals as they embark on another offseason in their quest to build a championship team...

What to do with Wilson Ramos and the catcher position?

The Nationals' biggest question entering this offseason is without a doubt at catcher with All-Star Wilson Ramos on the mend after having the ACL in his right knee repaired on Friday. Not only is the recovery a long one - he could be out until well into the 2017 season - it is the second time he's had the ligament fixed. At 29, his viability as a primary catcher moving forward is a real question. Even Ramos admitted he may have to transition to the American League with his next contract.

If Ramos does leave, behind him will be a significant hole on the Nationals. They have several in-house options, but none that are anywhere close to Ramos, who emerged this season as the best offensive catcher in baseball. Pedro Severino is a nice young player, but has a career .632 OPS in the minors. The drop-off on offense from Ramos to him would be significant. The same can be said about Jose Lobaton.

It won't be easy replacing Ramos with an external option, if that's the way the Nats opt to go. Catchers who can hit and play defense like him are a rarity. Matt Wieters of the Orioles would be the best option in free agency, but he's a year older and is also a step down offensively. Unless they like Wieters - who does happen to be represented by Scott Boras - they may have to trade for a new backstop, and that won't be easy either. 

This is all not to rule out the Nationals re-signing Ramos, but right now it's difficult to project what type of contract he will garner and whether that could fit in their plans. Surely it would be tough for them to offer a long-term deal, but maybe they make sense if he decides to take a short-term contract to reset for free agency either next offseason or the one after that.

Any major upgrades needed?

The Nationals are in an interesting spot, having won 95 games and the NL East, but with yet another disappointing end to their year. General manager Mike Rizzo loves to make big splashes in the offseason. Every single winter he does something aggressive and unexpected. What will he do this year? There aren't many areas where he could potentially upgrade, but that hasn't stopped him in the past.

If Ramos leaves, catcher is obviously the biggest need. But beyond that, the two major problem areas in their lineup this season were at shortstop and first base. Danny Espinosa played solid defense and hit 24 homers, but held an unsightly .209 batting average. His .552 OPS in the second half was worst in baseball among those with at least 165 at-bats. 

Espinosa is always looking over his shoulder this time of the year and just this past winter appeared to be the odd-man out when the Nats traded for Ben Revere and signed Daniel Murphy. Espinosa managed to overcome the odds and play 157 games. He has one year left on his contract, so one way or another the Nats will need to start thinking long-term about his position.

Shortstop is an easier situation to evaluate than first base, where Ryan Zimmerman is due to make $14 million each of the next two seasons and $18 million the year after that. He had the worst season of his career with a .642 OPS through 115 games. Bringing in a first baseman to flat-out replace Zimmerman seems unrealistic, given his contract. But perhaps they can find someone who plays both first base and left field, with Jayson Werth having just one year left on his deal.

Who will be the closer?

The Nationals found success in the ninth inning with Mark Melancon after they acquired him at the trade deadline in a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But it was just a rental. Now Melancon is due for free agency and the Nats once again have questions at the position. They could opt to re-sign Melancon, or go with another free agent option. Aroldis Chapman, whom they have coveted in the past, will be available. So will Kenley Jansen, who just helped end their season with the Dodgers. It's an unusually deep crop of star closers and it would be a surprise if the Nationals didn't snag one of them. Another option would be to promote Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen, but that would be out of the Nationals' character.

Are they content with the rotation?

If one were to pick the biggest reason the Nationals lost their NL Division Series against the Dodgers it would have to be the starting rotation. It was their most glaring weakness and it wasn't even close. This is despite the Nats being built on starting pitching and boasting one of the best regular season rotations in baseball. Losing Stephen Strasburg to injury didn't help, but they still had four capable starters left over. Max Scherzer struggled in Game 1, while Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross combined to pitch just 11 1/3 innings in their respective outings. 

If you look at the year as a whole, starting pitching was not a major concern. But the Nats are always aggressive in addressing their needs, whether big or small. They have top prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, but neither distinguished themselves this season. Do they sit tight and hope things improve, or do they try to make another game-changing move? With a weak free agent class, any outside upgrade would have to come through a trade. Also, Gonzalez' $12 million team option is definitely something to watch this winter.

Will extension talks with Harper heat up?

Both the Nationals and Bryce Harper, one could argue, may have incentive to back away from the negotiating table this winter, given the Nats have to be less confident in giving Harper a record-setting contract after his disappointing year, and that Harper may not be wise to sign his new deal when his stock has lowered. But if the Nats and Harper do not come to terms this winter, that sets up a lot more pressure for the following offseason. Harper has two years left on his contract. Heading into next offseason without a deal, with just one year remaining, would create a lot of uncertainty for all sides involved, including the fans who certainly want to see the 2015 MVP remain in Washington for a long time. The storyline would dominate their offseason.

This upcoming winter always seemed like the best time to broker a deal to avoid that scenario, but the timing has not worked out with Harper's production on the field. Also, would anyone be surprised if it turns out Harper was dealing with an injury this season that held him back at the plate? If it were a serious one, he wouldn't have kept playing. But any injury has to be factored in those discussions.

[RELATED: Bullpen, baserunning leads to Nats heartbreak]