For 2019, the second base position is a complicated issue after the departure of Daniel Murphy. For the past 2 1/2 years, the man for the position was Murphy who missed a good part of the season due to his microfracture and debridement procedures in his right knee last off-season, and then he was traded in mid-August. In 2016 and in 2017, Murphy put together exceptional offensive numbers, and despite below average defense Murph was a 5.7 and 4.4 WAR player in 2016 and in 2017; all in all, one of the best free agent signings in the team’s history and at an a very reasonable level of compensation.
There is no denying that Daniel Murphy is one of the best pure hitters in baseball combining bat control, power and excellent situational understanding. In 2017, unfortunately brought with it a broken down Murphy towards the end of the season, one who returned from a major knee surgery with a noticeable limp, even less range and an inability to use his legs to drive the ball with power. Still by the time the Nats flipped Murphy to the Cubs, most of his game was back and he remains a scary hitter as the playoffs are about to begin. With Murphy gone, the Nationals might want to fill second base with an acquisition from the outside for 2019 or look to internal options.
A thing to keep in mind when lamenting Murphy’s departure was the simple fact that he was entering the last couple of months of his contract and given his age, his declining defense and his likely asking price it made little sense for the Nationals to consider bringing him back in any capacity in the critical spot playing the middle infield. It was definitely time to say ‘thanks for the memories and good luck’.
For 2019, it brings with it any number of potential approaches to 2nd base:
1) Acquire another established player (Jed Lowrie ?) via free agency or trade.
2) Give the position to Wilmer Difo and pair him hopefully with a healthy Howie Kendrick while keeping an eye on our next top prospect, Carter Kieboom, who finished the season in Double-A and could be ready at some point in 2019.
3) Go to Carter Kieboom right away.
Let’s examine; option (1) and like everything else in Nats land, it is probably tied to the Bryce Harper situation. If the Nats sign Harper, it’s highly unlikely that the Nats will spend big dollars on 2nd base, but if the Nats don’t sign Harper they might go after a free agent. It’s also tied to how close management feels Carter Kieboom is from being counted on as a starter in a Major League lineup. Interestingly enough, the Nats never shifted Kieboom from SS to 2nd base in the Minors. It seems to be organizational philosophy to keep players at SS as long as possible as the transition from that to 2B or 3rd base is reasonably simple. My own feeling is that Kieboom is still a ways away, his tenure at Double-A was good — but not steady. Another full year in the minors might do him good.
Option (2) is a little un-appetizing because Wilmer Difo is not a good hitter and his instincts on defense are also questionable at times, and we also saw the closest depth in Triple-A with Adrian Sanchez. If Howie Kendrick is healthy from his achilles injury, I would feel much better about this solution to pair Difo with Kendrick. Howie will turn 36 years old next season and we have to see how he rebounds from his injury and the anticpiated age regression. But when Kendrick is healthy, he is a much better hitter than Difo and is overall a good player. The other mitigating factor is ‘what happens with the catcher position?’ If the Nats get a good hitting catcher (Wilson Ramos ?) then they can probably afford to have a weakness offensively at 2nd base where they can go with a defensive minded 2nd baseman, but we all saw what happens when you have 3 automatic outs at the bottom of the lineup.
Option (3) is extremely unlikely, it’s not Rizzo’s way to promote a player prematurely and before anyone jumps to say “Juan Soto”, it’s not the same comparison with Carter Kieboom who does not posses Soto’s natural skills (few humans ever have at his age) and Soto would have not been promoted without many simultaneous injuries. As a reasonable comparison, I would say the Braves did Swanson no favors in promoting him too soon.
Lastly, Rizzo has a way of making surprise moves which none of us anticipate so I am not betting the farm against a 4th option which would be creative.