Nationals Appear Ready To Gamble On Danny Espinosa In 2014

Patrick Smith

Not even Danny Espinosa's plus defense could save the 26-year-old from a demotion to Triple-A Syracuse last season. Washington's Opening Day second baseman's offensive struggles were too much of an issue and they continued in the minors. So why are they counting on him coming back in 2014?

Before the Washington Nationals did finally make the decision to bring 22-going-on-23-year-old, 2011 1st Round pick Anthony Rendon up to play second base in the majors last season, General Manager Mike Rizzo explained to MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Bowden and Casey Stern why the Nats were sticking with struggling infielder Danny Espinosa long after fans in the nation's capital had given up hope of the 26-year-old '08 3rd Round pick figuring things out at the plate. Rizzo did, however, acknowledge that were was an obvious issue on the offensive end.

"When you have a guy that's playing second base that's your backup shortstop and you can throw at shortstop and not miss a beat defensively, that's [an] extremely important player to have." - Mike Rizzo on Danny Espinosa on MLB Network Radio, May 2013

"I think that we need to see a consistent approach," Rizzo said, "not only physically, but preparation-wise and the thought process. And once he gets that, I think that his talent should be able to take over."

But even when he wasn't producing at the plate, the GM said, Espinosa was still a valuable player.

"This is a guy that brings a lot of value to the team even when he's not hitting," Rizzo said. "So, when this guy starts hitting, he's going to be extremely important for us, not only because he plays great defense, he's got power and speed. He can steal twenty, hit twenty, play great defense at second base, but he's also extremely talented as a defensive shortstop.

"When people discuss his value, I think that's sometimes lost. When you have a guy that's playing second base that's your backup shortstop and you can throw at shortstop and not miss a beat defensively, that's [an] extremely important player to have."

Two weeks after he made those comments, the Nationals made the change at second base. Espinosa, who suffered a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder at some point late in the 2012 campaign and opted to strengthen the area around the shoulder last winter rather than undergo surgery, (with the Nationals and his doctor's approval), put up a .158/.193/.272 line with nine doubles, three home runs, four walks and 47 Ks in the 44 games he played and 167 plate appearances he made for the Nationals before he was DL'd and later optioned to Triple-A.

"Let’s not forget about Danny Espinosa, who hit 20 home runs and stole 20 bases in the big leagues already and is a stalwart defensive player..." - Mike Rizzo to NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman, Sept 2013

He stayed with the Nationals' top minor league affiliate for the remainder of his 2013 campaign and the offensive issues persisted. In 75 games for the Syracuse Chiefs, Espinosa had a .216/.280/.286 line with 12 doubles, two home runs, 19 walks and 101 Ks in 313 PAs.

Espinosa wasn't called up in September. The Nats' 2012 Opening Day second baseman told the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore then that he didn't think that his shoulder was the problem and he didn't see himself having surgery this winter either. The problem in Espinosa's opinion, as the WaPost reporter wrote, "... was that he could not build up his upper-body strength last winter.":

"'The shoulder feels good,' Espinosa said. 'I would say the big thing of my overall strength of my upper body is down not being able to prepare due to the shoulder rehab. This winter, I can go get strong again.'"

When the Nationals' GM spoke about plans for the offseason and 2014 at the end of the 2013 campaign, he told reporters, including NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman, that though Rendon ended the year as the team's starting second baseman and Steve Lombardozzi (who was subsequently dealt to the Detroit Tigers) was the incumbent utility man, there would be an open competition for the second base job in Spring Training, and not just between Rendon and Lombardozzi.

"Let’s not forget about Danny Espinosa, who hit 20 home runs and stole 20 bases in the big leagues already and is a stalwart defensive player," Rizzo said. Several weeks later, with Lombardozzi no longer in the mix having been dealt in the Doug Fister trade and rumors swirling about the Nats shopping Espinosa, the Nationals' general manager spoke to reporters, including NatsInsider.com's Mr. Zuckerman, at the Winter Meetings, and talked Espinosa up as the top candidate for the utility role, saying the infielder who was drafted as a shortstop and converted to second could also play third:

"'I think Danny Espinosa could go and play third base extremely well,' Rizzo said. 'A guy who can play shortstop the way he plays shortstop, and a guy who can play second base the way he plays second, I have all the confidence in the world that he can go to third and handle the position defensively.'"

The Nats' GM elaborated on the plans for Espinosa in an appearance on the MLB Network's MLB Tonight from the Winter Meetings:


"He's a guy who's hit 20 HRs in the big leagues in a season before. He's stolen 20 bases in a season before, plays Gold Glove-caliber defense at shortstop and at second base." - Mike Rizzo on Espinosa on the MLB Network, December 2013

"We're big fans of Danny Espinosa," Rizzo told the MLB Network hosts. "And he's a guy who's hit 20 HRs in the big leagues in a season before. He's stolen 20 bases in a season before, plays Gold Glove-caliber defense at shortstop and at second base. He runs well. He throws well. He's got a lot of skills and has proven it on the big league level. He had a down-year last year. We expect him to come to Spring Training ready to compete for a position on the club."

There isn't too much competition for Espinosa unless you think the Nationals will go with Zach Walters in the utility role? The Nats haven't signed or acquired anyone and there aren't any options in the organization that seem ready to challenge for a role at the major league level this year. By all appearances, the Nationals seem to be prepared to go forward with Espinosa in the utility role in 2014.

Since Espinosa wasn't called up in September, as the WaPost's Adam Kilgore noted, he'll fall a few games short, "...of achieving 'Super Two' status and qualifying for salary arbitration this offseason," and will therefore earn a lot less this year than he could have in arbitration. Espinosa's young, affordable, has had some success at the major league level, and he's a strong defender at two positions. The Nationals seem comfortable going into the season with Espinosa as the main backup at second and short. Are you comfortable with the infielder being an injury away from starting in the majors again?

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