Around the Horn: Hot corner a strength for Nats

Around the Horn: Hot corner a strength for Nats

With the start of Spring Training drawing closer, 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 latest 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' third baseman.

WASHINGTON -- One of the questions Nationals manager Dusty Baker wrestled with the most entering his first season was where in the lineup he wanted to slot Anthony Rendon. It was a bit of a quandary for Baker, given that Rendon's diverse skill set made him viable for so many roles. Baker saw a player who could hit for power and drive in runs if he hit in the middle of the lineup, or draw a ton of walks and get on base if he hit higher in the order.

Rendon went on to put together a solid all-around 2016 campaign, including a scorching second half in which he was one of the Nationals' most productive hitters. It silenced any doubters wondering what to expect from Rendon, who was a National League Most Valuable Player Award candidate in 2014 before injuries hindered his season and limited his production in '15. He bounced back from a slow start in '16 to win the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award while establishing himself as one of the building blocks for Washington at third base.

Rendon, who is still only 26 years old, just completed his first year of arbitration eligibility and will not reach free agency until 2020 at the earliest. It may only be a matter of time before the Nats approach him about a potential contract extension, as his value only figures to increase.

The Nationals know they have third baseman with a variety of skills. Rendon can hit for power (20 home runs in 2016), drive the ball in the gap (38 doubles, which helped him earned the nickname "Tony Two-Bags") and get on base (.348 OBP). He also has some speed (12 stolen bases) and plays stellar defense (eight Defensive Runs Saved and a finalist for the NL Gold Glove Award). That all made him worth 4.7 Wins Above Replacement last season, according to Fangraphs.

Rendon is projected to give the Nats similar production in 2017, according to Steamer, which has the third baseman projected to hit .276/.354/.450 with 19 homers and a 3.9 WAR.

Rendon plays a lot when he is healthy; he appeared in 156 games last season, although Baker admitted he wishes he could have rested Rendon more often. And the Nationals made a big move to improve their depth on Thursday when they re-signed Stephen Drew to a one-year contract. Drew was Rendon's primary backup last season and he will likely serve the same role this year as he bounces around the infield. Washington also gave Wilmer Difo some reps at third base near the end of last season, and the club would like for him to eventually be able to contribute at that position.

But last season, Rendon established himself as one of the elite third basemen in the NL and an important member of this Nats core.

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.