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Evaluating the Nationals' infield

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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...

1B ADAM LaROCHE
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.

2B DANNY ESPINOSA
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.

SS IAN DESMOND
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.

3B RYAN ZIMMERMAN
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.

INF STEVE LOMBARDOZZI
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.

INF CHAD TRACY
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.

INF MARK DEROSA
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.

IN THE MINORS
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.

OFFSEASON NEED?
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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Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Gonzalez looks to rebound

ATLANTA -- One of the questions the Atlanta Braves brass must answer during the offseason is whether right-handed pitching prospect Lucas Sims belongs in the rotation or the bullpen.

Sims (2-5, 5.52 ERA) will make another start Wednesday against the Washington Nationals, who send veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez (14-7, 2.68) to oppose him in the second contest of a three-game series at SunTrust Park.

The Nationals won the series opener 4-2 on Tuesday to take a 9-8 lead in the season series. The loss guaranteed Atlanta (67-82) would have a losing record for the fourth consecutive season.

RELATED: WHEN WILL BRYCE HARPER RETURN?

Gonzalez, like teammate Max Scherzer, is a candidate for the National League Cy Young Award. The southpaw is coming off a poor showing against Atlanta on Sept. 12, when he allowed five runs in five innings despite eight strikeouts.

"You get the strikeouts and then all of a sudden, the hits came in," Gonzalez said. "It was just one of those games. You take it for what it was, sweep it up the rug and get ready for tomorrow. It was one of those games you can't really understand what happened, just pick up where you can and go from there."

The Braves have fared well against Gonzalez. In 20 career starts against Atlanta, he is 4-11 with a 5.27 ERA. This season, Gonzalez is 0-2 with a 6.48 ERA in three starts vs. the Braves.

Sims, a rookie who was the team's first-round draft choice in 2012, has made 11 appearances (seven starts). He has made it clear that he prefers to be a starting pitcher.

The Braves moved Sims to the bullpen after his Sept. 2 start against the Chicago Cubs, when he allowed seven runs in three innings. Because he was stretched out, Sims had the ability to throw multiple innings out of the 'pen, which he did in two of his subsequent four relief appearances.

However, on Sunday, the Braves announced Sims as the starter for the Wednesday game and moved left-hander Max Fried to the bullpen. Fried is another rookie who will be under consideration to join the rotation in 2018.

"The kid never quits," Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Sims. "He keeps pitching. He competes."

In seven starts, Sims has averaged 5 1/3 innings per outing. In 44 innings overall, he has recorded 31 strikeouts and 15 walks.

Sims has made only one appearance against Washington, that a perfect one-inning stint on Sept. 13.

Atlanta has had trouble scoring runs of late. Over the past five games, the Braves managed only 11 runs.

The Braves likely will be without catalyst Ender Inciarte on Wednesday. The center fielder left the game early Tuesday with right thumb soreness. Snitker said there was no structural damage and that Inciarte needs a day of rest.

"We just have to back off," Snitker said. "It's just sore."

Inciarte doesn't like to take a day off under normal circumstances, must less when he is chasing 200 hits. He was 0-for-2 on Tuesday, leaving him with 190 hits. He is trying to become the first Atlanta player to reach the milestone since Marquis Grissom in 1996.

Washington is close to getting its injured players back.

Outfielder Bryce Harper (hyperextended left knee) and infielder Stephen Drew (left abdominal strain) ran before the Tuesday game. Both are eligible to come off the disabled list whenever they are deemed healthy.

RELATED: MLB POSTSEASON 2017 BRACKET PROJECTION

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When will Bryce Harper return to the Nationals' lineup?

When will Bryce Harper return to the Nationals' lineup?

Bryce Harper hasn't seen the baseball diamond since August 12 and if you follow him on social media, you know the wait is nearly killing him.

In the past week however, he has been making positive steps in his road to recovery.

Before Thursday's game against the Braves, Harper was seen running foul pole to foul pole at Nats Park.

RELATED: NAT'S DANIEL MURPHY AND SON ATTEND CAPS PRACTICE

And prior to Sunday's game against the Dodgers, Harper took batting practice.

Then, on Tuesday, Harper batted in a simulated game prior to the team's road game against the Braves. He even ran around the bases to test out his injured knee.

These are all great signs, but when can we really expect him to return?

There have been rumors that it could be as soon as this week, so the Sports Junkies took matters into their own hands and ask general manager Mike Rizzo about it on their show Wednesday morning.

"Bryce had a very productive day yesterday, a very busy day," Rizzo said.

"He had a lot of work to put in yesterday. Harp came out looking good. The anchor leg, his left leg, which is Harp's back leg, his power leg, came through it fine. We'll see how he feels today, which will be very very important and see where we take it from there. He ran bases yesterday which was good and threw from the outfield, so he's slowly and cautiously getting back into a routine. Depending on how he progresses, we'll see where we take it from there. Hopefully, he can get a couple of games of live at bat under his belt before we have that four day break before the playoffs start."

RELATED: NATS FIRST MLB TEAM TO CLINCH PLAYOFF SPOT

So what exactly is Harper doing in a "simulated game?"

"It was just a hitting game for him. We brought up two minor league pitchers for him to see live stuff. What he and Steven Drew hitting, they probably had a total of about 10 or so at bats. 10 or 12 real at bats where four balls, three strikes type of thing, you hit a base hit you're out, that type of thing."

"You could do whatever you want in those games. So, we simulated with men on base, without men on base. The hitter did not know what the pitcher was going to throw and that was kind of the key to it, where you're recognizing spins and velocity and that type of thing. It's well beyond the batting practice that he's been getting recently. We'll continue to do this. We'll filter in some minor league pitchers as we go along and he'll get some time in that way until he can participating in game activities which we hope is sooner rather than later."

The magic date for Bryce Harper and the Nats is Friday, Oct. 6th when the National League Division series start and so does the Nats World Series run.