Matt Williams has acknowledged that he needs to find a way to keep Danny Espinosa in the lineup going forward. Espinosa has never played left field, but the Nats are low on options and desperate for offense. Let's take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of moving Espinosa to left field.
Danny Espinosa is batting .263/.361/.481, which is nearly 30 percent better than league average. He has put up this level of production consistently in April, May, and now in June. He is one of four Nationals with above league average numbers (the others are Harper, Escobar, and Span). Yunel Escobar is not far behind offensively (20 percent above average), and Anthony Rendon's 2014 numbers are equal to Espinosa's production this year.
If the Nationals want to keep Espinosa's bat in the lineup without sitting Escobar or Rendon, they really only have two options. They can either sit shortstop Ian Desmond with Escobar starting at short, or move him to left field.
Where is the Nationals biggest offensive need is right now?
Second Base - The Nationals rank 10th in offense at second base, with most of that value coming from Espinosa. The average qualified second baseman in the majors is hitting .280/.334/.405.
Shortstop - The Nationals rank 12th in offense at shortstop. That's all Ian Desmond. The average qualified shortstop in the majors is hitting .260/.306/.384. Even when he struggles and is batting 20% below league average, Desi is more valuable at the plate than the average shortstop.
Left Field - The Nationals rank 27th in offense at the left field position (thanks to six players, all at least 20% below league average). As a group, the Nationals left fielders have hit .214/.277/.333. The average qualified left fielder in the majors is hitting .270/.334/.419.
Where is Espinosa's bat most valuable?
First off, as much as some fans complain about Ian Desmond's offense this year, it is still above average for his position. Even if Desmond never gets things to click, he will still continue to be a competitive offensive shortstop. Nobody expects his bat to play worse than this, and it is quite likely that he will turn things around a little before too long.
Left field, on the other hand, has been an offensive black hole. Michael Taylor has shown flashes of power, but he has not shown an ability to provide consistent offensive output. Espinosa's bat would be a huge upgrade in left field. It would be like playing Alex Gordon or Yoenis Cespedes and nearly as good as having Nori Aoki or Matt Holliday.
It would fall to Anthony Rendon to replace the offensive production of Espinosa at second base, but the Nationals have every expectation that this is something he is capable of.
But how much does moving Espinosa to left field hurt the Nationals defensively?
Second Base - Danny Espinosa is a top 5 defensive second baseman in the majors this year behind Addison Russell of the Cubs. Anthony Rendon has shown in the past two years that he is an above average defender at this position and with the potential to slot in as a top 10 defender. Yunel Escobar has not played second base in eight years and would almost certainly be a huge downgrade defensively. If Rendon takes over the position this is a defensive downgrade, but not a noticeably big one.
Third Base - If Rendon takes over second base, that leaves Yunel Escobar holding down the fort at third base going forward. Escobar has shown that he can play the position, but this is a noticeable downgrade compared to Rendon who is a plus defender at the position. This is a price that the Nationals appear to be willing to pay, however.
Left Field - Espinosa has only ever spent one third of an inning in the outfield, subbing for an injured Span. He did field a few balls there before the game on Tuesday in New York, but it sounds like Matt Williams might want him to get more comfortable before he gets a start in left. Matt Williams told reporters "It's just a matter of getting him familiar," and talked about the coaching Espinosa is receiving in left: "We worked on footwork and throwing to bases to get a feel for that. It's not a one-day thing, but the other day when Denard was at the top step of the dugout and had a back spasm and all of the sudden we had to make a move. We feel comfortable throwing him out there. He can handle it."
In left, Espinosa would be replacing the current platoon of Michael Taylor, Moore, and Robinson. Michael Taylor's glove is fantastic in left, while Tyler Moore and Clint Robinson provide negative value on defense there. Regardless of his defensive ability, Espinosa would almost certainly provide a defensive upgrade over Moore and Robinson, but Michael Taylor is an experienced outfielder and there is no way that Espinosa matches him defensively.
The strongest lineup defensively keeps Yunel Escobar on the bench, but Escobar has proven as integral to the lineup as Espinosa. It makes sense to keep him at third base where he has been underwhelming but adequate. Moving Espinosa to left field means a defensive downgrade at three positions.
Danny Espinosa vs Michael Taylor
Most of Michael Taylor's offensive woes have come against lefties. His line against lefties is .172/.219/.276 (and Tyler Moore, Robinson are even worse in this respect). Espinosa is hitting .375/.459/.625 against lefties.
Against right-handed pitching, Espinosa's line is a much more tame .218/.326/.403. Taylor comes in at .237/.295/.402, which is unfortunately not any better.
Espinosa is a big upgrade over Taylor offensively thanks to his much more balanced and consistent bat. Taylor strikes out over 50 percent more often than Espinosa does and his lefty splits mean he is easily countered in high leverage situations. We cannot predict exactly how big the defensive downgrade would be either in the short term or after the position has been learned, but if there is any position where it is acceptable to sacrifice some defense for a bigger bat it is certainly left field.
Should the Nats move Espinosa? Will they move him?
Unless it turns out that Espinosa inexplicably can't handle the defensive pressure of left field, his presence would be a welcome upgrade there. It is unlikely that Espinosa will be a defensive liability at any position given some experience, but the Nationals would certainly be taking a risk starting him in left field without the weeks of minor league practice that usually accompany this sort of move.
The ideal time to get Espinosa's feet wet in left field would be against left-handed starters, but unfortunately all four starters that the Nationals will face in Milwaukee are righties. This leaves Matt Williams with the dilemma of either having to sit one of his valuable infielders or throwing a potentially unprepared Espinosa out into left field to make a fool of them both.
Taking into consideration the Nationals' need for offense and Danny Espinosa's proven physical prowess, a trial by fire may be just the ticket. The other left field options have not been getting the job done, and Espinosa has made it clear that he is willing to play anywhere, anytime.
Is Matt Williams willing to send him to left field in Milwaukee and let him learn on the job? The move would definitely deepen the Nationals lineup, but if Espinosa struggles defensively then Williams would add a new managerial miscue to his resume. Is it a risk he is willing to take? Is it a risk he should take?