Zach Walters is off to a hot start in Grapefruit League action. In four games, the 24-year-old switch-hitting infielder, acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a 2011 trade for Jason Marquis, is 6 for 7 with two doubles, a triple and a home run.
Danny Espinosa, 26, and an '08 Washington Nationals' 3rd Round pick, is another switch-hitting infielder competing for a spot on the major league roster.
In his first four games of the spring, he's 0 for 10.
New Nats' skipper Matt Williams said this morning that he's been impressed with Walters.
He also said he isn't worried about Espinosa being hitless, because he likes what he's seen.
"I think we've talked to [Espinosa] a lot about what he's done so far," Williams told reporters. "The at bats that he's taken so far have been really good. Okay, so you don't have any hits in 10 at bats, 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."
In addition to battling for the utility role, Espinosa is also competing for the starting job at second in Spring Training after starting at second base for the Nationals in 2011 and 2012.
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Espinosa struggled with injuries and looked lost at the plate last season, however, as he put up a .158/.193/.272 line with nine doubles, three home runs, four walks and 47 Ks in 44 games and 167 plate appearances in the majors. He posted a .216/.280/.286 line with 12 doubles, two home runs, 19 walks and 101 Ks in 75 games and 313 PAs with the Nats' top affiliate.
In Walters' second season in the Nats' system in 2013, the hard-hitting infielder hit 32 doubles, five triples and a Triple-A International League-leading 29 HRs in 134 games and 521 PAs, more home runs than he'd hit in his previous three seasons in the minor leagues. He put up a .253/.286/.517 line, and walked just 20 times while ringing up 134 Ks and making 31 errors in 104 games at second.
The Nationals called Walters up to make his MLB debut in September, and he was 3 for 8 in limited action.
Walters has played 347 of his 417 games in the minors at short, 57 at third and just 11 at second.
He was pencilled in at second initially this afternoon before he was scratched late with no immediate explanation...
• Update: 4:30 pm EST:
Zach Walters was scratched from today's lineup because of flu-like symptoms, per Matt Williams.
— James Wagner (@JamesWagnerWP) March 5, 2014
As Williams explained it this morning, the Nationals are just making sure Walters has some exposure at second since you never know where they'll need help at the major league level.
"We just want to make sure that he gets some time there," the Nats' skipper said. "So he'll start over there today. It may be limited, the amount that he plays over there, but he plays short, he plays third certainly. We want to get him some time at second. He stayed back yesterday and got some work done at second base, so we'll get him a feel out there. Because... you never know. You never know whether he'll be asked to play there or not, so it's something we've got to do, we've just got to make sure he's comfortable. It will be the same type of scenario we'll do with [Ryan Zimmerman] at first. We want to make sure he gets out there in a game, feels it, so he's got experience if he's ever called upon to do it."
Asked if Walters could potentially fill the utility role in the majors, Williams initially had a one-word answer.
"Could," he said.
"I think last year he proved that he came into his own in that regard," Williams continued. "Hit 29 homers or whatever it was and drove the ball and played every day, so in that regard he's done that. But you never know what kind of need there may be at the big league level either. He got a call up last September, played in some games, got his feet wet, got used to playing in the big leagues a little bit, so you never know and that's why we want to make sure he's prepared in case there is ever a need. So, the way it shakes out, we don't know yet, but if there is a need for him to play, especially to play second base, then we're going to make sure that he's done it."
Espinosa and Walters aren't the only ones competing for the utility role of course. Mike Fontenot, Will Rhymes and Jamey Carroll are also in camp with the Nationals this Spring and in describing the type of player he thought was best-suited for a utility role, Williams expressed his opinion that veterans are often useful in the role. Carroll, in particular, has impressed Williams with his versatility.
"He does a lot of things," Williams said. "Plays the game the right way and does all the things that you would ask of him to do. Again, he's a pro, if you need a guy to move a guy to third, he does it. He can play all three infield positions and he's a valuable guy. So we're going to take a long, hard look at him as well during spring and see what may lie there. You never know."
Experience, Williams explained, is a big consideration as the Nationals go through the decision-making process.
"Not knowing the league is difficult," he explained. "With younger guys you have thoughts just like you talked about: Is he a guy that's on your bench or does he need to play? Is there more development that needs to happen? So, you don't know that until you know that, but generally your guys that are on your bench are older guys that have experience, that know the league, that have been everyday players and don't panic in those situations. Things like that."