As FOXSports.com's Jon Morosi noted on Twitter this morning (@JonMorosi), so far this season the Washington Nationals, "... have [the] worst OPS at second base of any team in MLB." The Nats have a .504 OPS from their second baseman in 47 games in 2013. After a 2 for 30 (.067/.097/.067) ten-game road trip, 26-year-old second baseman Danny Espinosa has a .163/.196/.291 line with nine doubles and three home runs in 39 games and 149 plate appearances.
24-year-old Steve Lombardozzi, the only other infielder to see time at second, has a .220/.245/.286 line in 37 games and 96 PAs. The two have provided strong defense at second, and as Nats' GM Mike Rizzo pointed out in a recent MLB Network Radio interview, the defense Espinosa, in particular, provides both at second and short if necessary should not be overlooked by those questioning why the struggling infielder remains in the lineup.
"When people discuss his value," Rizzo told the MLB Network Radio hosts, "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. And he's a tough player, he's tough on himself and a little bit stubborn. He needs to make some adjustments, and I think [Hitting Coach Rick Eckstein] and Davey [Johnson] are going to get to him eventually and he's going to get through this little malaise that he's in with the bat and start hitting like we think that he's capable of doing and he thinks he's capable of doing."
The Nationals' general manager wasn't ignoring the offensive issues Espinosa, who's playing with a torn rotator cuff, has experienced early this season. In fact, he stated quite clearly that the '08 3rd Round pick needed to make adjustments. "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."
FOXSports.com's Mr. Morosi's colleague, Ken Rosenthal, putting 1+1 together and getting 3, noted earlier this week, after seeing top Nationals' prospect Anthony Rendon's named penciled into the Harrisburg Senators' lineup at second at the same time Lombardozzi was in the Nationals' lineup at second instead of Espinosa, that the, "... obvious conclusion, now that Ryan Zimmerman is back playing third, is that the Nationals might be grooming Rendon to take over for Espinosa at second." But, when he asked Davey Johnson about that possibility, the Nats' 70-year-old skipper shot the idea down. As Mr. Rosenthal wrote, "Davey Johnson said that the team is not yet considering such a plan.":
"'We like him – we like him a lot,' Johnson said of Rendon. 'But putting him at second at the major-league level, he’s not there yet. He’s not (playing second) specifically. He’s just occasionally going over there.'"
If, and that's a big "IF," the Nationals were to replace Espinosa at second, Johnson told the bow-tied FOXSports.com reporter, "... both Lombardozzi and Triple A infielder Zach Walters rank ahead of [Rendon] as candidates to replace Espinosa." As Mr. Rosenthal countered, however, "Espinosa, Lombardozzi and Walters aren’t hitting. Rendon is," and the Nationals need an "offensive boost." Rendon, the Nats' 22-year-old, 2011 1st Round pick has crushed Double-A pitching so far this season, especially after returning from a short stint in the majors when he was called up to fill in for an injured Ryan Zimmerman. After 31 games and 143 PAs, the gifted hitter has a .339/.476/.642 line with 11 doubles, two triples and six home runs for the Senators.
Drafted as a third baseman out of Rice, Rendon worked around the infield in each of the last two Spring Trainings with the Nationals and even spent time working on fundamentals of defense at second with Davey Johnson, a former major league second baseman himself in case anyone forgot. So far in his minor league career, Rendon's played just five games at second, however, one at short and 56 at third. Of course, Danny Espinosa, who was drafted as a shortstop, played all of seven games at second in the minors (all at Triple-A) before he was called to majors and shifted to second since that's where the Nats' need was at the time.
If the Nationals are planning to bring Rendon up as fans in the nation's capital are clamoring for them to, they're not giving any hints that that's their plan, nor should you really expect that they would. Asked about Rendon on the latest edition of "The Mike Rizzo Show" on 106.7 the FAN in D.C. yesterday, Rizzo said even though everyone noticed his start at second last week the team's plan for their top prospect hasn't changed. "Our development process for him hasn't changed, our calendar, our philosophy for him hasn't changed for him since Spring Training," Rizzo said. "We're planning on playing him in Double-A several games at third base and then filter in some games at second base and at shortstop."
As for why the Nationals haven't rushed Rendon up? Aside from the reasons mentioned above, like the team's faith that Danny Espinosa has the talent to turn things around, the Nationals' GM explained his thinking this past March in an interview with ESPN980's Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro. "Anthony is a terrific talent," Rizzo said, "he's got a great skill set, he's going to be an impact player in the very-near-future, but he's a guy without many professional at bats due to injury."
"He's still a guy that has an extremely high ceiling," the Nats' GM and Vice President of Baseball Ops continued, "and I would hate to rush a guy like that to the big leagues and set him back in his developmental curve. So we, I still think we would take our time with him and do the right thing and develop him properly because there's so much at stake with him that we need to develop him properly, because he's got a chance to be really, really good."
If that all sounds familiar, yes it is similar to what the Nationals' general manager said about Bryce Harper before he was brought up early last season. When Harper was brought to the majors in late April, Rizzo admitted that it was not the ideal time developmentally to make the move, but the team made the decision because of a clear need at the major league level with both Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse injured at the time. Have they reached that point after 47 games this season, with the offense struggling as a whole and the team getting little production out of second base?