Danny Espinosa finished his third season in the majors in 2012 with a .247/.315/.402 line. Espinosa said, after the Washington Nationals' first division title and postseason run, that he finally got comfortable at the plate in the second half that summer when he put up a .293/.344/.482 line from mid-July to early September, but then he injured his left shoulder on a diving defensive play. An initial exam revealed a bone bruise and swelling.
He finished the season, playing 160 of 162 games for the NL East champs, but Espinosa struggled and put up a .171/.247/.271 line over the last few weeks of the season, and he went 1 for 15 with seven strikeouts in the five-game NLDS with St. Louis. A few weeks after the season ended, he told reporters at last year's NatsFest, he discovered that he had actually suffered a torn rotator cuff.
With the team and his doctors' input, Espinosa decided to rehab the injury and build strength around the shoulder rather than have surgery.
After a strong Spring Training, the 26-year-old infielder struggled from the start of the 2013 campaign. He was also hit by a pitch in his right wrist in the second week of April. The Nats' '08 3rd Round pick sat for a week, but returned to the lineup and played with what was initially diagnosed as a bone bruise with swelling, but when the pain persisted, he had a second exam which revealed a fracture in his wrist. It was the wrist injury, not the shoulder, Espinosa said today during an interview at the 2014 edition of NatsFest, that was behind his issues at the plate last season.
"It was strictly my wrist," Espinosa told reporters gathered at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, where over 8,000+ fans turned out to see the infielder and his teammates.
"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."
Espinosa posted a .158/.193/.272 line over 44 games and 167 plate appearances before he was first DL'd and then optioned to Triple-A Syracuse. In 75 games and 313 PAs with the Nationals' top affiliate, he put up a .216/.280/.286 line. Espinosa said today he shouldn't have been playing at all.
"Initially, I think what everyone has confused, I was told it was a bone bruise," he explained. "I've said it before, if someone tells you it's a bone bruise, you're going to try to wait until the swelling and some of the pain goes down and you're going to try to play again [with] a bone bruise. No one feels 100%. It's like hitting a ball off your shin, it's a bone bruise, you're going to try to get through it. But not finding out until four or five weeks later that it was actually broken and then them saying, well it's never going to be 100% until the offseason, so actually give it time. So, they gave me 15 days on the DL, I tried to do what I could when they took me off the DL [after] 15 days and I tried to play through it and I tried to see what I could do, it just didn't work out this year."
In hindsight, he shouldn't have kept playing. "An afterthought, I shouldn't have been playing," Espinosa said, "but at the same time, I'm not the doctor reading the film. So yeah, I shouldn't have been playing on a broken wrist the whole year, but like I said, you're told you've got a bruise, you're going to play through a bruise. Everyone plays through a bunch of bruises. I'm not going to play through a broken wrist. If I would have known it was a broken wrist, I wouldn't have been playing."
He's healthy now, however, and as Espinosa said today, he's been told that he'll be given a chance to compete for the starting job at second as the Nationals have said all winter.
"He's a terrific player," Nats' GM Mike Rizzo told reporters this afternoon. "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. He's going to come to Spring Training with a great attitude and ready to take a job and make the team."
"There is an open competition," new manager Matt Williams said. "There's going to be open competition in Spring Training at a few spots, so it's good. That's a good thing to have because guys come ready to play every day." Williams likes what he's seen from Espinosa in the past and he thinks the infielder can make significant contributions in 2014.
"I viewed him from across the diamond and I know that he has Gold Glove-caliber defense," Williams said, "not only at second, but at short as well, which plays an integral part in our team potential. I know that he's got the ability to hit 21 homers and  homers in successive seasons and that last year was a down year for him. So, that being said, I want him to be him and I want him to play and not have expectations going in other than competing for a job and letting it fly in Spring Training. And do what he does, because if he does that then he is a valuable part of our team if he can go ahead and relax and play."
As a former major leaguer himself, Williams said that he understands what Espinosa went through. "I've been that guy. And I've said this to other folks. I've been the guy that led the league in RBIs and then the next year hit .227. And sometimes it starts going that way and you can't stop it. So I understand that and what got me out of it or what gets most players out of it is just the ability to relax and play. That's what I want him to do. We're going to get him a lot of reps at short. We're going to get a lot of reps at second base. He's going to get a lot of at bats and get his stroke feeling good and if he can do all those things then he has a chance to be a really integral part of this team.
"I just think that there's great potential there. 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."
The Nationals' GM and manager have told Espinosa the same thing they've told reporters all winter. "Matt's called me in the offseason," Espinosa said. "Matt and Mike Rizzo have both called me in the offseason and told me I'm going to get a fair opportunity to win my job back. That's all I can ask for. I've never asked for anything to be handed to me, but if I can get a fair opportunity to win my job I feel like I can do it."
There are some things he learned from his struggles last season, Espinosa explained. "As far as statistically and performance-wise, I forget it," he said. "As far as the mental side of it, I remember what I had to go through. I remember what I had to grind through. It wasn't an easy year to go down to Triple-A, be on a rehab, have a broken wrist the whole year. That was the toughest thing in the world and knowing that I couldn't be 100% prepared every single day the way I wanted to be. So, mentally, to get through that it was tough at first. But, to know that I got through it, to know that I got through the struggles that I went through and come home and clear my head and be ready for another Spring Training. I took that out [of it]."
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Espinosa went home, spent time with his family and started working on building his strength in ways that he couldn't last winter.
"This offseason," he said, "I made a conscious effort, I went out and got my own personal trainer that I've worked with for five years, but I hired him personal to be my own guy to really get the strength that I needed back, to get through a season, and to be in a place where I've never been before. I don't know, I guess I feel physically really ready. I feel strong. My wrist feels great. I'm just ready to go and I know, I guess the basic thing is, I know that if I'm given a fair opportunity to win my job, I can win my job."
If he doesn't win the starting job, Rizzo has talked about Espinosa possibly filling a utility role. He hasn't talked to Espinosa about that possibility though. "He's never talked to me about that," Espinosa said. "Mike's never said anything about being a utility guy or being a backup role guy. The only thing he says is that he's going to give me a fair opportunity to win my job back, so I guess if I don't win my job that could be something that I fall into maybe, but he's never said, 'You're a utility guy now,' he said, 'We're going to give you the chance to win your job back.'"
Espinosa said today he hasn't made any big changes this winter, though he's tried to get back to being the type of hitter he thinks he always was.
"I've just kept it simple," Espinosa said. "I've kept it real simple. Trying to use the whole field. I'm not going to be sitting here and pull the ball the whole time. That's not the type of hitter I am. When I'm doing my best I'm hitting the ball gap-to-gap. I'm not going up there trying to kill the ball. I don't want to be, I was never that type of hitter. I was always a contact hitter coming up and in the minor leagues I had some strikeout issues, but to me that was more, they're adjusting to my swing, what they want me to become. But as an amateur and stuff I was more of a contact hitter. I never had power. That's what I'm trying to get back to as my swing is more of a pure swing just to hit. Have a simple state of mind and going up there and seeing the ball and hitting the ball, rather than looking inside, looking outside, try to pull the ball, try to go the other way. I'm just trying to keep it as simple as I can to make contact, put the ball in play and be on base."
Espinosa has no issues with fighting for the job this Spring. "I was never handed my job in the first place," he said. "So I feel like, yeah, I can win my job again. If I come and do what I [did] at Spring Training last year, no reason that I shouldn't have my job."
Espinosa had a .333/.358/.474 line with five doubles and two home runs in 27 games and 78 at bats last Spring. Anthony Rendon, who took over at second when Espinosa was optioned out, had a .375/.412/.875 line with four doubles and four home runs in 13 games and 32 Grapefruit League ABs and then put up a .265/.329/.396 line in his first 98 games and 394 major league plate appearances.
If Espinosa can get back to where he was at the start of last season, be could make a real battle out of the fight for the starting job at second. Can he get back there?
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