With Ian Desmond moving on (to greener pastures? We don’t know yet...), the Washington Nationals will have a new starter at shortstop on Opening Day for the first time since 2009.
There are three primary candidates: the rookie, the utility guy, and the free agent.
The rookie, of course, is Trea Turner, who came in at No. 11 on MLB Network’s Top 100 Prospects List.
Turner, 22, debuted last August, and would bring on-base skills and speed to burn to the top of the Nats’ batting order.
In the minors, Turner put up a combined .322/.370/.458 line, with 24 doubles, seven triples, eight home runs and 29 steals in 35 attempts over 116 games between AA and AAA.
The utility guy, of course, is Danny Espinosa. Espinosa, 29 in late April (makes you feel old, eh?), had a bounce-back year of sorts in 2015, hitting .240/.311/.409 with 13 homers.
He was, as usual, more productive as a lefty, hitting .261/.343/.409 opposed to .233/.300/.409, though he produced similar power both ways. He’s always pined for the chance to start at short, and lobbied hard for the job to whoever would listen at NatsFest.
The free agent is Stephen Drew.
I know what you’re thinking. Drew? He’s got NO CHANCE to start at shortstop Opening Day. He’s just a backup and emergency plan. The new guy is nuts!
Not so fast, my friends.
It’s true, Drew’s best days are behind him. Those best days, for the Diamondbacks from 2006-2010, were pretty darn good. But injuries and age caught up to him, and he’s been replacement level, or worse, for several seasons now.
He hit .201/.271/.381 with 17 homers in 131 games for the Yankees last season with passable defense, though largely at second base.
I think it’s not out of the question Drew, 33 on Opening Day, starts at short, with Espinosa staying in the utility role, and Turner in the minors. Though trust me, I’m not advocating the idea.
Here are some reasons why:
- The Rizzo connection: Obviously Drew’s Arizona connection with Mike Rizzo plays a part (Rizzo was scouting director for Arizona when they drafted Drew in the first round in 2004). It would be naïve to think otherwise.
- He’s too valuable to start: Espinosa’s flexibility as a defensive specialist and switch-hitter is extremely valuable off the bench.
- Veteran presence: Dusty Baker has, throughout his career, been deferential to veterans over younger players. Search "Dusty Baker plays veterans" and you get 378,000 hits on your search engine of choice.
The question one has to ask is this: Why would Rizzo sign Drew in the first place, if he expected Turner or Espinosa to start? Drew has always been a starter. Only twice in his career has he logged fewer than 124 games and those were both years he was hurt (and, interestingly, traded).
Sure, it’s only one year and $3 million (only, heh), but why spend that at all if you’re comfortable with the situation?
The answer: Rizzo wasn’t. Whether Drew starts Opening Day, or makes the team as an insurance policy, either way Rizzo wasn’t comfortable with what he had coming in.
Personally, I’d like to see Turner start at short Opening Day, with Espinosa as the utility infielder and Drew relegated to pinch-hitter and emergency duty, if he, in fact, makes the team. Spring training should tell us all we need to know about the situation.
But there’s the rub – Turner could play out of his head in the spring and still get sent down.
It’s also possible that spring training tells us very little of the situation, and we still see Drew at shortstop on Opening Day, with Turner off for another half-season of seasoning at Syracuse and Espinosa riding the pine.