Recent acquisition Escobar shifting from short to second; Zimmerman moving to first
By Andrew Simon
The Nationals might have a new Opening Day starter in Max Scherzer, and the infield standing behind the right-hander figures to look plenty different as well.
With Spring Training less than a month away, Washington is set to move trade acquisition Yunel Escobar from shortstop to second base, and longtime third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to first. While both of these shifts are down the defensive spectrum -- in other words, to easier spots -- that doesn't mean they don't come with challenges.
For Mark DeRosa, who played all four infield positions and two outfield spots during a 16-year big league career, the transition from shortstop to second was the toughest he had to make.
"I just felt a lot more went into second base than I even realized when I started playing over there," said DeRosa, who was with the Nats in 2012 and now works as an MLB Network analyst.
There certainly is no shortage of precedent for Escobar's move. Almost every second baseman is a former shortstop, whether that was earlier in his big league career, in the Minor Leagues or in college. The Nationals have plenty of recent experience in this regard, converting Danny Espinosa when he was a rookie and veteran Asdrubal Cabrera when the club traded for him last July. Third baseman Anthony Rendon also spent significant time at second over the past two years, his first action there since Little League.
Escobar has played a total of 45 professional games at second base -- 24 at Double-A Mississippi in 2006 and 21 as a rookie with the Braves the next year. As a shortstop with a history of strong defense until an injury-marred 2014, Escobar figures to have more than enough range and arm strength to play a solid keystone.
The potential issues, according to DeRosa, are more subtle. When he began working at second after manning only shortstop for his first four pro seasons, the whole perspective changed.
"Everything [on the left side] happens at perfect angles in front of you," DeRosa said. "Your whole body is going toward first base. It just seems way more natural than moving over to the right side of the infield, where everything feels like you have your back turned to it."
The toughest part is probably turning the double play. While a shortstop moves forward across the bag and then has his momentum working with him on the throw, a second baseman is often blind to the runner barreling down on him. The trick, DeRosa said, is "manipulating the bag and not getting crushed by the runner," while still getting off a strong throw.
Though DeRosa struggled to ever feel 100 percent comfortable with that challenge, what helped him the most was following the advice of Glenn Hubbard, his infield coach with the Braves: "When in doubt, be an athlete." In other words, trust your natural ability.
"You work on your craft as much as you can in Spring Training and pregame, but once the game starts, you've got to let it flow," DeRosa said.
Sliding across the diamond from third to first doesn't require learning anything so harrowing as a double-play turn, and it should help that Zimmerman has expressed excitement for the change after a few years of battling shoulder problems that hampered his throwing. Zimmerman played 18 innings at first last season, but he is now slated for full-time work there after the departure of free agent Adam LaRoche.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said last week on MLB Network's Hot Stove that he expects that transition to be "smooth and seamless," with Zimmerman becoming a "Gold Glove-caliber first baseman."
DeRosa agreed that the adjustment shouldn't be a big one, considering Zimmerman's hands and range.
Still, there are intricacies that take time and experience to master. For example, on a ground ball to the hole between first and second, Zimmerman will have to balance his instinct to go after the ball aggressively against the need to cover the base while making a quick decision about which way to go. The smartest course of action could depend on several factors, including the range and positioning of the second baseman and the pitcher's ability to get to the bag in time.
"I think one of the toughest plays in the game is a first baseman who really ranges hard to his right and then has got to hit the pitcher on kind of a slant pattern to first base," DeRosa said. "A lot of things have to go right for that play to be executed -- especially with the second basemen in today's game who have the range to be right behind you and make that play look so much easier. It's all about getting comfortable and building a rapport with the guys who are out on the field with you."
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.