Danny Espinosa was sure, as he told reporters this winter, that his struggles in 2013 were tied to the wrist injury he suffered when then-Atlanta Braves' lefty Paul Maholm hit him in an April 14th game and not the torn rotator cuff he discovered after the 2012 season ended. On June 2nd last season, six weeks after he was hit, the Washington Nationals sent Espinosa to the DL and then optioned him to Triple-A Syracuse where he continued to struggle at the plate.
"It was strictly my wrist," Espinosa said this winter. "My rotator cuff has been fine. My shoulder is unbelievable now, the weight that I'm doing and I'm lifting. Everything is completely fine. It was my wrist. There was times where I couldn't pick my bat up with one hand. So, my wrist was just in a bad place. I shouldn't have been playing on it, but I made the choice to try to play on it."
The Nationals, Manager Matt Williams and GM Mike Rizzo, in particular, were clear all winter about the fact that the Nats' 26-year-old infielder would be fighting for a spot on the roster this spring, if not at second base, then in the utility role Steve Lombardozzi filled in each of the last two seasons.
"I just think that there's great potential there," Williams said. "And again, I'm not alone. There were multiple calls, as I understand it, from teams throughout baseball about him this offseason, so I'm not the only one that's thinking that or the Nationals aren't the only ones that are thinking that."
"He's a terrific player," Rizzo told reporters. "He's got great skills and tools and [is] a guy who has proven that he can play and perform at the big league level."
FBB's Recommended Reading:
Told he was going to have a chance to compete for the starting job at second, Espinosa was supported by the organization and his new manager, even when the results weren't there at the plate early this spring.
"The at bats that he's taken so far have been really good," Williams assured reporters after the Nats' infielder was 0 for 10 in his first four Grapefruit League games.
"Okay, so you don't have any hits in 10 at bats," the Nationals' skipper explained, "but that doesn't really mean anything.
"He's pounded the ball pretty good left-handed the other way toward shortstop, he's lined out over there. He's had a couple of balls taken from him in the infield. Hit a ball hard to center field yesterday. So if those drop, all of a sudden now he's hitting .400. So, in those limited at bats, you just can't make a determination, but what we see is him having good at bats and putting the ball in play hard. It's exactly where he wants to be. I tell him every day, 'Stay right there. You're fine. That's exactly what you want right now.' The results aren't there, but what do they really mean right now anyway? So the fact that he's taking good at bats is important. That's how we look at it."
Espinosa went 22 for 43 the rest of the way, continuing to play strong defense all along as he worked to figured things out at the plate and started to see results. Williams said the offensive success served to reinforce what the Nationals' coaches were telling the infielder.
"It's hard to say it's a good approach when you're not getting any hits," he explained. "But it has been and it still is. So it's nice to see some results out of it, sure."
"We can tell him all day long that he's right on, he's right where he needs to be, but it helps when they fall in or over."
Two balls Espinosa hit fell "over" in a 2 for 4, two home run game on March 22nd, Espinosa's only two HRs of the spring, to go with four doubles. One of the two home runs, Williams said, served to show Espinosa that his power was still there too.
"The ball he hit to right-center, that's against the wind," the Nats' skipper said. "It just lets him know that he's got enough when he's under control and puts the head of the bat on it. There's plenty there."
As the Nationals optioned and cut round after round of players, it became clear Espinosa would make the Opening Day roster, though more likely in a utility role with Anthony Rendon set to start at second, but even as the Grapefruit League schedule wrapped up, Williams declined to name a winner in the battle for the job saying only that Rendon, who dealt with a cold in the last week-plus would start on Opening Day.
As Williams explained it early this spring, he wanted each of his players properly-motivated, knowing they have the opportunity to play themselves into the lineup.
Espinosa may not have won the starting job, but he outlasted the competition for the utility role and made the 25-Man Roster where he can provide strong defense at second base and short and push Rendon on an everyday basis. If it weren't for Aaron Barrett making the Opening Day roster, Espinosa's return to the majors might be the biggest surprise of the spring. Can he stay up and excel in a bench role?