Dusty Baker got a good look at Danny Espinosa's swing this afternoon when the Washington Nationals held their first rounds of live batting practice at their Spring Training facilities in Viera, Florida.
Espinosa was part of a group that faced off against new Nats' reliever Shawn Kelley.
"Espinosa really looked good," Baker told reporters. "I asked him, I said, 'You can tell,' I said, 'Man, you been hitting?' and he said, 'Yeah, I've been hitting hitting a lot,' and so... he's ready to take this job."
The job Baker is referring to is, of course, the starting shortstop job in the nation's capital. Espinosa, veteran infielder Stephen Drew and the Nationals' top infield prospect, Trea Turner, are all in camp competing for the position in what promises to be the the most hotly-contested battle for a roster spot this Spring.
Nats' GM Mike Rizzo broke down the battle in an MLB Network Radio interview before things got started at Spring Training, explaining what each of the Nationals' options brought to the table.
"We know [Espinosa] is a plus, plus defender," Rizzo said. "He's got a great arm, great range, he's got a good set of hands. His natural position is shortstop. We had seen him play shortstop many, many times both at Long Beach State and here in the big leagues. So we feel defensively, [Espinosa] is as good as anybody we've got, maybe as good as anybody in the league defensively."
"We've got a proven shortstop in Stephen Drew," he continued. "We've got an unproven, high ability-level prospect in Trea Turner and we feel that there's going to be good competition and see what shakes out.
"We're going to do what's best for the ballclub, obviously and the thing that helps us win both now and in the long run.
"So it's going to be interesting to see how that plays out and we're looking forward to being extremely competitive there and in several other spots."
Holding Turner back until sometime around June 1st would, of course, as has been discussed ad nauseam this winter, guarantee the Nationals one year of control of the highly-regarded prospect in the future after he put 45 days on the service clock when he was called to the majors last August. It would also give the Nationals a long look at Espinosa at short, a position he's played for a total of just 59 games in the majors since Ian Desmond was entrenched at short when he came up.
With Desmond gone now, Espinosa could get the shot to start at his most comfortable defensive position, and having him there would allow the Nationals to keep Drew around while Turner continues to develop.
If Turner's on the major league roster, Espinosa's likely the Nats' utility infielder and Drew is redundant as an infielder who has spent his major league career at short and second as well.
If, however, the Nationals view Turner as the shortstop of the future, and they plan to compete this season... which they clearly do, doesn't it make sense to get the slow start he's had at each new level so far as a pro, out of the way early this season?
That's the argument ESPN.com's Keith Law put forward today in an article about the top prospects league-wide who might make an impact this season.
[ed. note - "We've wondered, and asked before if the point of having Turner come up and not play much late last year was an attempt to help him get comfortable with his surroundings so that the transition is easier this season."]
While acknowledging that Baker "loves his veterans" and could go with Espinosa at short (where Law parts with Rizzo in saying that Espi is a "poor defender"), he writes that, "... [t]his would be foolish, especially for a team in the hunt that needs every win it can get."
Espinosa, he notes, has more potential for power, but in his opinion at least, Turner would provide superior defense, speed and on-base percentage that Espinosa hasn't yet provided.
Baker provided some reason for hope from his own past, however, when he was asked about the success his teams have enjoyed in the past in the first year after he took over.
He mentioned the tough decision he had to make in '08 in Cincinnati when he inserted Joey Votto at first early in the season in place of Scott Hatteberg, who was then 37 years old and coming off an impressive .310/.394/.474 season with the Reds.
"That was a tough decision, because I had to take a job away from Scott Hatteberg and give it to Joey Votto, cause I had Hatteberg in the Fall League on my first team when he was with the Red Sox. But at the time I saw something in Joey Votto that I needed to bring out at that time," Baker explained.
Is that one of the rare exceptions to the rule of how Baker leans when it comes to experience vs potential? Are we stretching for a comparison, any comparison, that convinces us Baker will go with Turner on Opening Day? Is that actually what's best for his development?
Votto, of course, was 24 at the time, (Turner is just 22) with six-plus years of minor league experience, as compared to the one full season Turner has played as a pro after he was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the first round of the 2014 Draft and subsequently traded to the Nationals.
Will Baker see something in Turner this Spring that he has to bring out and that he needs at the major league level or will the Nationals, as many expect, wait until June to bring the shortstop of the future up?