MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Nationals in good hands with Rizzo, Baker

General manager, skipper have team rolling early in season

Nationals in good hands with Rizzo, Baker

CHICAGO -- Trea Turner played shortstop and hit leadoff on Tuesday night. Isn't that what so many Washington Nationals fans have been clamoring for? Not so much, as it turns out.

Turner was in Syracuse, N.Y. He packed up his 1.000 batting average in his Nationals equipment bag and headed back to Triple-A after spending the weekend in Cincinnati.

Danny Espinosa, the supposed place-holder who took over for Ian Desmond, is still standing as the regular shortstop. And guess what?

Whether the fantasy baseball analysts and players like it or not, Espinosa could still be playing short for Dusty Baker in October, when the Nats try again to give Washington, D.C., its first successful October since 1924.

There's a lot of baseball between here and there, of course. But the Nationals got out of the gate 9-1 and have looked like a postseason team every day since then, the only question being whether they'll hold off the Mets to win the National League East or grab one of the two NL Wild Card spots. They passed the Mets to take first place on May 29 and extended the lead Tuesday, when the Pirates swept the Mets in a doubleheader.

You can say that the Nats are behind schedule, as 2012 was the season that general manager Mike Rizzo shut down Stephen Strasburg in September. They won 98 games that season and 96 in 2014. The gift of landing Strasburg and Bryce Harper in back-to-back Drafts could have helped Washington into at least one World Series by now, no doubt.

But the Nationals never retreated from the high expectations -- seemingly doubling down when they invested $210 million in Max Scherzer before the 2015 season -- and are in great shape to make up for lost time. Give Rizzo and his front office credit for making a lot of right decisions since the end of last season, including the plan to play Espinosa in front of Turner.

The bigger decisions were what to do with the manager's job, as well as what to do with Strasburg as free agency approached. Rizzo aced both of those decisions.

Matt Williams, hired to replace Davey Johnson, will forever be haunted by the decision he made to lift Jordan Zimmermann with a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning of the NL Division Series against the San Francisco Giants in 2014. That opened the door to a memorable 18-inning loss and a four-game defeat at the hands of the Giants, who would roll to another championship.

When the Nats missed the playoffs last season, Rizzo decided he had made a mistake by putting an unproven manager in charge of a team with a win-now timeline. He reached out to Baker after almost hiring Bud Black, and this is starting off as a terrific marriage.

Baker's 67th birthday is around the corner, but he remains the 26th man, wearing his sweat bands and chomping on his toothpick at the end of the dugout. He pulled a hoodie over his uniform on a 60-degree night at U.S. Cellular Field but still looked like he might pull it off and pinch hit himself, if it was needed (and he probably could get a hit, if he ever got a chance). Baker's been-there, done-that presence and supportive nature plays well with players.

Baker has been a good fit for Harper and Washington's other position players, and he's been blessed with something of an all-star coaching staff.

Mike Maddux, who might have been Theo Epstein's first manager with the Cubs if he hadn't pulled his name out of the mix at the last minute, took over the pitching staff. The other newcomers include bench coach Chris Speier, who has worked with Baker before; first-base coach Davey Lopes, a baserunning savant; and assistant hitting coach Jacque Jones, who played for Baker with the Cubs.

When the Nationals went to Spring Training, this seemed like a win-or-else sort of year, in large part because Strasburg was set to headline next offseason's class of free agents. The Nats have a deep enough inventory of starting pitchers -- in part thanks to Lucas Giolito, the game's top pitching prospect, who is on the doorstep of beginning his Major League career -- to have shopped Strasburg last offseason.

Rizzo dismissed that idea out of hand. He had a better idea. Rizzo kept the door open for a long-term deal and Washington shocked the world by announcing a seven-year, $175 million contract last month.

Strasburg wanted to remain a part of the organization, which speaks to how well he's been treated. Part of that was the organization's concern for his health after Tommy John surgery, including the willingness to shut him down after 159 1/3 innings in 2012.

That was an unpopular decision at the time, sort of like Rizzo's current support of Espinosa.

Turner, the 13th overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, has been the team's shortstop of the future since he was acquired from the Padres in a three-team deal that sent Steven Souza Jr. to the Rays. The narrative this spring was that he would take over early in the season, and he's done his part by hitting .315 and going 18-for-18 in stolen-base attempts.

Espinosa went into Tuesday night's game hitting .196. However, that tells you very little about his value.

Espinosa has always had some power, which helped him be a third-round pick coming out of Cal State Long Beach. He hit 21 homers in 2011, playing regularly as a second baseman for Jim Riggleman and Johnson, and this year, he has eight homers (tied for sixth among Major League shortstops). Espinosa has also been solid defensively, if not spectacular.

Turner's on-base skills would help set the table for Harper and Daniel Murphy -- another Rizzo decision that is working out -- and could create a little more scoring for a team that ranks ninth in the NL. But there are questions about his fielding. The bigger question is this: If it's not broken, why fix it?

Rizzo and Baker have the Nationals humming along. Turner will be there when he's needed, but it doesn't look like that time is now.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.