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How important is the Nationals "hole" at second base?

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Entering the offseason, the most glaring hole in the Nationals lineup appeared to be at second base. Danny Espinosa and Asdrubal Cabrera (after being acquired from Cleveland) combined for just a .222/.292/.364 line in 564 plate appearances. Cabrera, who was the stronger offensive performer of the two, was a free agent. That led to a pretty reasonable conclusion that the Nats would make second base a priority. Did they? Does it matter? Let's find out.

The Nats didn't exactly go big at second base, but did they have to?
The Nats didn't exactly go big at second base, but did they have to?
Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

It's been quite a while FBB.  When last we spoke, I was sorting through a handful of the Nationals' potential options to replace Asdrubal Cabrera as their starting second baseman in 2015.  While we discussed quite a few second basemen that the Nats could go after, Yunel Escobar was never on my radar.  Today, we're going to have a look at whether Mike Rizzo really patched the biggest hole in the the lineup.  We're also going to examine just how important that hole in the lineup really is.

Yunel Escobar

I can't lie.  When I first heard that the Nats had traded Tyler Clippard for Yunel Escobar, I uttered a few words that I'm not allowed to use on this site.  I realize that Clippard is entering his final year of arbitration and that he was likely to earn more than $8 million in 2015 (8.3 million, to be precise).  I also realize just how volatile relievers can be from year to year, so it's often a good idea to sell them before they suddenly drop off of a cliff.  I have to admit that part of the reason for me being disappointed was the fan in me, though.  I've always loved it when Clippard comes out of the bullpen and starts huffing and puffing on the mound.  He was one of my favorites.  Still, my disappointment was more about the return.

The Nats did well to get three years of a player at a reasonable salary ($19 million assuming they pick up his option year in 2017) for an expensive reliever who will be a free agent after this season.  However, there's some question about exactly what Yunel Escobar brings to the table.  Over eight big league seasons, Escobar has always been a glove first shortstop.  Early in his career, he showed the potential to develop into a pretty nice offensive player as well, batting .301/.375/.426 with 75 doubles and 29 homers in his first three seasons.  Then suddenly, without warning, his offensive game took a huge step back.

Escobar had a miserable first half of 2010 with Atlanta, batting just .238/.334/.284 without a single homer in 301 plate appearances before being traded to Toronto.  He started to find his game a bit north of the border the rest of the way, turning in a .275/.340/.356 line for the Blue Jays.  However, it ended up looking like a lost season for a player who theoretically should have been hitting his peak.  His final line for 2010 ended up being .256/.337/.318.  Compared to his averages from his first three big league seasons, Escobar's batting average was down 46 points, his OBP was down 38 points, and his sluging was down a ridiculous 108 points.

Escobar rebounded in his first full season with Toronto, batting much like he did in his first three seasons in Atlanta.  He finished with a terrific .290/.369/.413 line and even crept into the double digits with 11 HR.  Unfortunately, it didn't last.  Over the past three seasons, his offensive production has looked an awful lot like the guy who fell off a cliff in 2010.  He's hit .256/.318/.350 since 2012.  His batting average has been fairly consistent (.253, .256, .258).  His 2012 walk rate (5.8% in his worst offensive season) appears to have been an outlier, and he has typically hovered around 9%.  It would be a pleasant surprise if he reaches double digits in home runs.  Escobar won't be much of a contributor on the basepaths either.

It would seem foolish to hope for more than a .255/.325/.340 line from Escobar this season.  I'll confess that I was hoping the Nats would do more to address the second base spot than this, but I'm not sure that it makes that much of a difference.  More on that in a bit.  Let's focus on what Escobar does bring to the table to help.

What does he bring to the Nationals?

Despite the ups and downs with the bat, Escobar has always been terrific with the glove at shortstop..... until last season.  From 2007-2013, Escobar ranked third among big league shortstops with 50 Defensive Runs Saved.  Most of the defensive metrics seemed to love him prior to last season.  From 2008-2013, Fangraphs Defensive Runs Above Average had him at 6.1 or better in each season, with three seasons of 10+ and a high of 17.5 in 2013.

While he has a reputation of being a strong defender from earlier in his career, we can't simply ignore last season's performance.  After compiling 50 Defensive Runs Saved in his first seven big league seasons, Escobar finished 2014 with -24 DRS. He did deal with shoulder and quad injuries, but for a glove first middle infielder to suddenly fall apart like that is troubling.

Apart from the glove (which I'm a bit worried about after last season's dropoff), I'm not sure just how much he brings to the table.  He hits right-handers (.274/.343/.379) better than Danny Espinosa does.  He doesn't necessarily hit left-handers better than Espinosa does, though.  He has hit for a higher average (.281) and maintained a slightly better OBP (.358) than Espinosa against left-handed pitching, but Espinosa's power production against lefties (.460) dwarfs Escobar's (.384).  All told, Espinosa has a .350 career wOBA against LHP... Escobar has a career .331 wOBA against them.  A platoon could make sense, though Escobar is actually stronger against LHP than RHP himself.

How important was it for the Nats to upgrade at second base?

Let's begin by looking at how the Nats offense performed last season.  They ranked 9th in MLB (3rd in the NL, and one of those teams ahead of them was the Rockies) with 686 runs scored.  They finished 12th (.253), 8th (.321), and 10th (.393) in Average, OBP, and Slugging respectively.  Their .317 wOBA ranked 8th in the majors.  Despite getting little production from the second base spot throughout most of last season, they had one of the better offenses in the National League.  Perhaps more importantly, they did this while Bryce Harper missed two months, Ryan Zimmerman missed almost four months, and Wilson Ramos missed a month and a half.

Apart from Adam LaRoche and Asdrubal Cabrera, the Nationals will return all of their starting position players from last season.  A healthy (crossing fingers) Ryan Zimmerman will be replacing LaRoche at first base.  Based on career production, this may actually improve upon the offensive performance (Zimm career 120 wRC+, LaRoche 113) that the Nats will see at first base.  However, since we're looking at LaRoche's production last season (127 wRC+) as the number that would have to be replaced, we'll say that it's not really a significant downgrade.

Escobar will replace the Cabrera/Espinosa tandem at second base.  Since that tandem hit a measly .222/.292/.364 with the Nats last season (and the offense was still one of the better offenses in the National League), the bar is set pretty low... as long as his defensive performance returns to form.  The free agent market didn't really have any studs at second base (though they could have gone after a third baseman and moved Rendon back to second), so it was unlikely that Mike Rizzo could have made a play to significantly upgrade the second base situation without overpaying in a trade.

If the Nats offense is better in 2015 (and there's a significant chance it will be), it won't be because of Yunel Escobar.  It will be because Bryce Harper stays healthy; It will be because Ryan Zimmerman stays healthy; It will be because youngsters like Harper and Anthony Rendon have had more time to mature as hitters.

Yes, this was about six weeks late, but I thought I'd drop in and share my thoughts with all of you since I haven't written here in a while.  I hated to see Clip go.  I'm not crazy about Escobar.  I don't think the Nats needed to go get a world-beater to fill second base, though (nor do I think there was one to be had).  The $272 million (!) Dodgers are likely to have Juan Uribe starting for them.  The Cardinals are likely going to give Jon Jay 500+ plate appearances.  The Pirates will be running Jordy Mercer, Francisco Cervelli, and the all-or-nothing Pedro Alvarez out there on a daily basis.  Even the World Series champion Giants have replaced Pablo Sandoval with (cough) Casey McGehee.  You just can't have a superstar at every position... and it would be boring if you could!

Oh... I heard they signed some guy named Mad Max, too!  Maybe I'll jot down some (belated) thoughts on that next time.