Around the Horn: Nats have stud at 2B in Murph

Around the Horn: Nats have stud at 2B in Murph

With the start of Spring Training just a few weeks away, anticipation is building for the 2017 season. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to West Palm Beach, Fla., by Feb. 14, and it's time to break down the Nationals' roster.

This is the third installment of a multipart Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at the projected starters and backups heading into the season, with the latest examining the Nats' second baseman.

WASHINGTON -- Second base is a particular strong position around the Majors, especially at the top, with players such as Jose Altuve, Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Brian Dozier and Jason Kipnis among the best. And yet the Nationals had the most productive second baseman in baseball last season and are set up to be among the best again in 2017.

Daniel Murphy set career highs in virtually every offensive category last season in a breakout campaign that made him the runner-up in the voting for the National League Most Valuable Player Award.

Murphy hit .347/.390/.595, finishing one point shy of the NL batting title while leading the NL with a .985 OPS, a career-high 25 home runs and 156 Weighted Runs Created Plus. Those results were better than even the wildest optimist could have envisioned for the Nats when they were searching for a second baseman last offseason. They were unable to acquire their first two targets in Ben Zobrist (who eventually signed with the Cubs) and Brandon Phillips (who would not waive his no-trade clause to leave the Reds), before turning to Murphy.

Murphy has proven after his breakout postseason in 2015 and stellar '16 season that he has evolved into one of the elite hitters in the NL, and his expectations should be adjusted. He might not repeat his stellar performance from last season, but it's likely his numbers will look closer to those than any of the previous seasons in his career. Murphy is projected to hit .317/.362/.482 with 14 home runs and 121 wRC+, according to Steamer projections, a bit of a drop-off, but one that would still make him one of the premier second basemen.

"Probably give away less at-bats, it's one of the things in my control," Murphy said last month about his goals for 2017. "From a numbers standpoint, I can't really tell you because you've seen enough guys go out there and lay out four bullets in a ballgame and have nothing to show for it, so the process is within my control and staying engaged for 162 games is within my control as well."

Murphy has also acknowledged that the hamstring issues that hampered him at times last season could be recurring, and that's something the Nationals will have to monitor. That makes their backups at this position even more vital, especially considering Murphy has appeared in more than 150 games only twice in his career, and not since 2013.

Once the Nats traded Danny Espinosa to the Angels this offseason, they were left with just one backup middle infielder on their 40-man roster in Wilmer Difo. They think highly of Difo and were impressed enough during his short stint in the Majors last season to put him on the postseason roster. After making a brief Major League debut in 2015, he appeared in 31 games last season and hit .276/.364/.379. But Difo's experience in the Majors is still limited and he's played only one game in Triple-A, so how he would respond to an increased role is far from a certainty. Washington has high hopes for Difo eventually and like what he has shown defensively, but his inexperience has the club still searching for more bench options as Spring Training draws closer.

One of those potential options is re-signing veteran infielder Stephen Drew. He was one of the key pieces to a strong Nationals bench last season, even though he was limited for much of the second half during a battle with vertigo-like symptoms. Drew posted an .864 OPS with eight home runs in 70 games last season and has been trying to land a starting job this offseason. If he can't find one and is willing to accept another bench role, expect the Nats to be among the teams interested. Emmanuel Burriss received an invite to Spring Training as well, so he could also be in competition to make the team as a backup infielder.

But as long as Murphy is healthy, the Nationals should enjoy one of the premier players at this position.

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.