FILE - In this June 19, 2014 file photo, Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Yunel Escobar attempts to throw out Houston Astros' Jose Altuve at first base on an infield single during the fourth inning of a baseball game in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Oakland Athletics have acquired right-hander Tyler Clippard from the Washington Nationals for shortstop Yunel Escobar, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)
WASHINGTON — For the moment, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo plans to head into next season with newly acquired Yunel Escobar at second base and possible free-agent-to-be Ian Desmond at shortstop.
That does not mean Desmond definitely won't be traded, if the right offer came along.
"Our approach with Ian Desmond has not changed one bit since the end of last season. Ian Desmond is our shortstop. He's a leader of our team. He's one of the best shortstops in all of baseball. And he's going to be the shortstop of the Washington Nationals," Rizzo said Thursday during a conference call with reporters.
"With that said, (for) Ian Desmond — or any other player on the roster — if a deal comes up that we can't refuse, we'll always look to improve ourselves for 2015 and beyond," he said.
Heading into this offseason, Desmond was one of five key players for the Nationals who could become free agents after the next World Series. Another was reliever Tyler Clippard, dealt Wednesday to Oakland for Escobar.
Escobar, who hit only .258 for Tampa Bay last season, has been a shortstop most of his career. He started 20 games at second base for Atlanta in 2007.
"We see Yuni as being an above-average defender at shortstop and at second base. He has been his entire career, except for last year," Rizzo said, explaining that limitations Escobar had in 2014 at shortstop for the Rays were due to shoulder and quadriceps problems that are now fine.
"We have no qualms about his defense," Rizzo added.
Asked about Escobar's three-game suspension in 2012 for wearing eye black displaying an anti-gay slur while playing for the Blue Jays, Rizzo said: "We're not going to be an apologist for poor behavior. But that was years ago and when he was a younger kid. We believe he has matured. ... We vetted him quite a bit."
With Escobar's arrival filling the Nationals' need for a starting second baseman, Danny Espinosa will "move to a vital bench role," Rizzo said.
As for Clippard, a two-time NL All-Star, Rizzo called him "maybe the best eighth-inning setup man in the history of the game."
Rizzo said he's thinks Washington can replace the right-hander with someone already in the organization. If not, there could be another move.
"We're not ruling out adding any more personnel via trades or via free agents or minor league free agents," Rizzo said. "We're still a month away from the start of spring training and, believe me, we're not taking any vacations or anything like that."
NOTES: The Nationals avoided arbitration with four players by agreeing to one-year contracts — $3.55 million for C Wilson Ramos; $2.25 million for RHP Craig Stammen; $1.8 million for 2B Danny Espinosa, with performances bonuses of $25,000 each at 200, 250, 300 and 350 plate appearances; and $1.2 million for C Jose Lobaton. Ramos hit .267 with 11 homers and 47 RBIs for the NL East champions last season, when he made $2,115,000. Stammen, mostly a middle-innings reliever, was 4-5 with a 3.84 ERA in 49 appearances in 2014, when he earned $1.35 million. Espinosa batted .219 with eight homers and 27 RBIs, while earning $540,850. Lobaton, Ramos' backup, hit .234 with two homers and 12 RBIs; he made $950,000.
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