Concern over having Danny Espinosa playing second base in the nation's capital on a regular basis in 2015 turned this week into concern over whether or not 32-year-old veteran shortstop Yunel Escobar can play second base in D.C. this season.
Washington acquired Escobar in this past Wednesday's trade that sent Tyler Clippard to the Oakland A's.
Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo was clear in a post-trade talk with reporters this week that the Nats were comfortable with Escobar playing second for the first time since he debuted in the majors in 2007 with the Atlanta Braves who drafted him in the 2nd Round of the '05 Draft.
Rizzo also said that they were comfortable that Escobar's defensive struggles last season in Tampa Bay were behind him.
"'We see Yuni as being an above-average defender at shortstop and at second base,'" Rizzo told reporters including NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman:
"'He has been his entire career, except for last year. Last year he played with a — especially down towards the latter part of the year — played with a soreness in his shoulder that affected a little bit of his throwing, and a quad that affected a little bit of his range. We feel that getting him off the carpet in Tampa Bay and playing on natural grass at Nationals Park will just be a positive for him defensively. We have no qualms about his defense. We think he’s an outstanding defensive player that’s going to upgrade us offensively and defensively."
Escobar made 16 errors, seven throwing, nine fielding in 136 games at short in 2014 with the Rays, with a .965 fld%, which was the lowest of his career, a -26.0 UZR/150 that was 22nd out of 22 qualified major league shortstops and -24 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), also 22nd out of 22.
As Rizzo explained in an interview with 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier this week, the Nationals did their homework on Escobar and are comfortable with his skills on defense.
"By all of our scouting reports and [internal] sabermetric evaluations, we feel that [Escobar is] more than capable of playing above-average defense at shortstop and at second base," Rizzo said.:
"The public defensive metrics are something that we take with a grain of salt. We have our own private internal defensive metrics that we utilize more often and the scout's eye and the analytics combined is what we always use in our evaluations and we feel that 'Yuni' is a really good defender at both middle infield positions, can really play shortstop and can play second base and has performed offensively throughout his career."
In his eighth major league season, Escobar posted a .258/.324/.340 line in 137 games and 529 PA's last season, connecting for 18 doubles and seven home runs in a +0.2 fWAR campaign, but for his career, the one-time Brave, Blue Jay and Ray has a .276/.347/.381 line in the majors and has averaged +2.6 fWAR per season.
"Had a little bit of a down year last year," Rizzo said. "We think he's a rebound candidate that's going to get back to his career norms and have a really solid year for us and upgrade our ballclub both offensively and defensively."
Rizzo explained how things will work defensively after the trade. Escobar will play second base this season with Ian Desmond at short (for one last run in D.C.?), and Danny Espinosa will move back into what the GM described as a "a vital bench role," as a, "... utility player that can play third, short, second base, and come off the bench for us."
The Nationals were rumored, over the last year or so, to be in the market for a potential future shortstop in case they lose Desmond to free agency or decide to trade him at some point this year.
The Nats acquired a young shortstop they believe can eventually play short in Trea Turner, the Player to be Named Later in last month's three-team trade with the Rays and San Diego Padres and this week added a shortstop who can play second for now or short later, until Turner or the next-generation of Nationals' shortstop is ready if Desmond isn't around beyond this season.
Next on the list of Nationals' needs this winter? Since they traded Clippard to get Escobar, maybe another back-end-of-the-bullpen arm?