Until the Tigers finally fill the holes in their roster at second and third base, I will continue to search out young, lesser known players who would fit at those positions next year and also, ideally, possess lead-off skills. The latest prospect to catch my attention is Stephen Lombardozzi. Like another prospect I recently profiled, Eric Young Jr., Lombardozzi is a namesake of his father who was a major-league second baseman before him.
You will be forgiven if you haven’t heard of either Lombardozzi. The elder, during his very short career with the Minnesota Twins in the mid to late eighties, was essentially the second base version of Brandon Inge. His career average was just .223, but he stuck around in the big leagues for about three full seasons thanks to his fielding prowess; in 1986, his .991 fielding percentage was the best among major-league second basemen. Interestingly, he capped off his relatively uninspiring career by playing 62 games with the Toledo Mudhens in 1990 before retiring at age 30.
His son, though he inherited much of his father’s defensive ability, is a much more talented hitter who has infinitely more potential to have a prolonged, successful stay in the majors.
Like his father, the younger Lombardozzi is primarily a second baseman. He was selected by the Washington Nationals at 19 years old in the 19th round of the 2008 amateur draft out of St. Petersburg Junior College.
Since then, many have projected him as a utility player; a bench option to complement the Nationals’ young middle infield tandem of shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa (who was picked by Washington in the third round of the same draft in which Lombardozzi was selected.) Lombardozzi’s steady rise through the minor league system and the success he’s had at every level has caused many to re-think that belief.
Almost all of his numbers have seen consistent improvement as he’s ascended the ranks of the Nationals’ organization. This year, his fourth as a professional baseball player, he posted a .309/.360/.430 triple slash line with eight home runs 30 stolen bases in time split almost evenly between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse. The numbers that will stand out to Tiger fans are his .360 on-base percentage and his high stolen base total; both fantastic for a lead-off hitter.
Recently, Baseball America ranked Lombardozzi tenth on their list of the Nationals’ top prospects. That ranking prompted a piece by Bryon Kerr of MASNsports.com. In it, Kerr included this assessment of Lombardozzi by Aaron Fitt of Baseball America; “I think he is a pretty exciting player. The guy has tools. I think the bat is pretty special. He controls the strike zone. He is a switch hitter. He makes good contact from both sides. He uses all fields. He has got some strength in his swing.”
More concisely, he is a switch hitter with a good plate approach who can drive pitches all over the field with limited power. He is the type of player who would add a new dynamic to the Tigers’ lineup. Contrary to Austin Jackson, Lombardozzi has just average speed but smart and aggressive base running ability. He is also, like his father, more than adequate defensively at second base, rarely committing errors. His walk rate (6.5% at Triple-A) doesn’t sparkle, but his low strikeout rate of 12.3% is impressive; good enough, in fact, to rank fifth among second baseman with at least 250 plate appearances in the International League this year.
But will all that translate to major league success?
Fitt concluded his assessment of Lombardozzi with this projection; “If all things come together for that guy he could be an All-Star. That is an ambitious projection, certainly, but I think you are looking at a guy that could be a solid every day player.”
Marc Hulet of FanGraphs wrote that Lombardozzi “projects to be more of an average regular than a star” despite his “very good numbers throughout the minors.” Fortunately, a star isn’t what the Tigers need, and Lombardozzi, should his skills translate in the majors to numbers even close to what he posted in the minors, would fill not just Detroit’s hole at second base, but their glaring need for on-base skills at the top of their lineup.
Despite the fact that he seems to be blocked, he may be difficult to acquire. The Minnesota Twins tried to do just that by asking for him as part of a package in a deal that would have sent Denard Span to Washington at this year’s trade deadline. The Nationals, like the Tigers, need a lead-off hitter, which Espinosa is not and Lombardozzi could be (and was at Triple-A); this fact could mean they’d be much more willing to part with the former than the latter. There is also talk that Desmond, their shortstop, could be moved to make room for Espinosa to shift to the left side of the infield and Lombardozzi to take over at second. Should they address their lead-off situation in another way, however, Lombardozzi could likely be had at a fair price.
The Nationals have a few left-handed pitchers under contract, but the only sure-thing lefty out of the bullpen appears to be Sean Burnett. Might Washington be interested in Daniel Schlereth or a similar pitcher from the Tigers? Maybe they would be willing to exchange Lombardozzi for a pitching prospect. If that’s the case, this is a guy I believe Dave Dombrowski should take a good, hard look at. He seems to me like a legitimate prospect with realistic potential to become a good second baseman and lead-off hitter for a long time.