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Nationals can use Anthony Rendon's injury to evaluate Danny Espinosa

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With a starting middle infield spot expected to be open for the 2016 campaign, there may be a silver lining to Anthony Rendon's early season injury woes....

Danny Espinosa has taken advantage of the opportunities he's gotten so far with Anthony Rendon injured.  With Rendon's rehab halted again, the Nats will have more of an opportunity to evaluate if his improvements are for real.
Danny Espinosa has taken advantage of the opportunities he's gotten so far with Anthony Rendon injured. With Rendon's rehab halted again, the Nats will have more of an opportunity to evaluate if his improvements are for real.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
The Washington Nationals front office has always emphasized that their goal is to be a consistent winner. Since the team is expected to challenge for (at least) a division title in 2015, the ideal situation would be to have their entire lineup healthy. This entire lineup includes star third baseman Anthony Rendon, whose rehab was recently been shut down again with an oblique injury. While Rendon's injury certainly isn't the best thing for the 2015 Nats, it could actually help the Nationals next year. Why?

The Nats will have a decision to make this offseason about their middle infield. Shortstop Ian Desmond will be a free agent after the season ends, and the perception is that the Nats are unlikely to re-sign him. Desmond is coming off of three consecutive 20/20 seasons, a feat that only two other shortstops (Alex Rodriguez and Hanley Ramirez) have accomplished. Desmond does have his flaws, though. He strikes out a lot. He has a career .316 OBP, which may not be terrible, but it's not exactly the kind of OBP that the Nats should be shelling out a $100 million contract for. He's also going to turn 30 before he hits free agency, and the likelihood is that his next contract is going to carry at least two or three "decline" seasons. Desi has earned a big contract with his performance thus far in his career, but it doesn't seem like the Nats are going to be the team that gives him that big deal. I certainly don't think that they should, but that's a topic for another day. For today's purposes, let's just assume that he's gone next season and discuss the other middle infield options.

The Nats did acquire Yunel Escobar this past offseason as a player who could be a short-term replacement for Desmond defensively. Escobar figures to have a starting spot all season in 2015, be it at third base (where he's been playing with Rendon out) or second base (where he was expected to play). He's done quite well so far for the Nationals this season, putting a rough 2014 campaign behind him. Escobar is under contract through 2016 with a reasonably priced option for 2017, so the Nats would appear to have one of the middle infield spots figured out for next season.

The two future options to fill that other spot don't appear as if they'll be ready for the start of the 2016 season. Wilmer Difo and Trea Turner certainly look like they'll be contributors down the road, but neither have much experience at the upper levels of the system.

23-year-old second base prospect Wilmer Difo had a breakout season in A ball last year, batting .315/.360/.470. He was only recently promoted to AA Harrisburg, though, and has just 28 plate appearances above A ball. It's possible that Difo starts moving through the system more quickly, but it seems unlikely that we'll see him reach the majors for good until at least late in 2016.

Expected future National Trea Turner began the 2015 season at AA in the Padres organization. The potential future leadoff man is supposed to be strong with the glove at shortstop and has terrific on-base skills and speed. Still, he's technically not even in the Nats' organization yet and has just 116 plate appearances above A ball himself. It's hard to project him being a member of the opening day roster in 2016.

This brings us to the incumbent. Danny Espinosa has certainly shown us some of his flaws over the years. In parts of six big league seasons, Espinosa has accumulated a .229/.301/.391 triple slash line. He's struck out in 27.8% of his plate appearances over the years, including an insane 33.5% in 2014. A switch-hitter, Espinosa has actually been pretty solid against left-handers (.273/.345/.458) in his career, but he's generally been miserable against right-handed pitchers (.214/.286/.368). In fact, Espinosa has been so poor against RHP over the past few seasons that the club asked him to give up switch-hitting in spring training. The experiment ended (or was at least put on hold) when the regular season began.

Since I bring up some of his weaknesses above, let's give equal time to some of his strengths. He does mash against left-handed pitching. He ranks seventh (among players who haven't retired) among second basemen with 22.1 Defensive Runs Above Average since his first full season in 2011. Espinosa is also one of the better baserunners on the ballclub. Finally, he's got plenty of pop in his bat for a middle infielder. In Espinosa's two seasons where he was a full-time starter, he combined to hit 38 home runs.

With Rendon injured, Espinosa has had to play a bigger role for the Nats early this season. He's started 21 of the Nats 30 games so far in 2015, and has shown improvement over his performance the past couple of years. He currently finds himself batting .254/.346/.479. He's shown dramatic improvements with both his walk rate (9.8% compared to 7.0% career) and strikeout rate (17.1%, just a little over half as high as last season). Espinosa has even shown some improvement against RHP early on, batting .232/.328/.500 against them with all four of his home runs.

Of course, we're dealing with an extremely small sample size. Danny Espinosa has had just 82 plate appearances so far this season. We often see mediocre hitters have a month long hot streak. We even see great hitters have a poor month every once in a while. We can't say that he's really established a new baseline based on a month's worth of regular at bats. However, a little more consistent playing time could tell us whether Espinosa has improved or whether he's just had a hot month.

This is relevant more for 2016 than when the Nats (crossing fingers) have a healthy lineup later this season. Like Escobar, the 28-year-old Espinosa has two years of club control remaining. The Nats certainly shouldn't be expecting him to suddenly become a star, but it would be great if he can return to being nearly as good as he was in his first two full seasons (6.8 fWAR). With Difo and Turner looking like they may be ready at some point in mid-late 2016, the Nats don't need him to become a star.

They need him to be competent offensively, stellar with the glove (as he has been), and give them a nice affordable stopgap until the next wave is ready to produce. This would be preferable to digging into the trade or free agent market to find someone to man the keystone for next season. It would be cheaper for the ballclub if they could count on Espinosa. It would also keep them from signing someone for a handful of years who may end up blocking Difo or Turner.

It's impossible to say that Espinosa has really improved based on 82 plate appearances. Still, his performance so far this season has been encouraging enough so that it's probably worthwhile to see him continue to play more regularly and see if these improvements are for real. While losing Anthony Rendon for a few more weeks will likely hurt the Nats a bit in the short-term, it may help them determine how big a role Espinosa can play for them in 2016.