Over the weekend the Tampa Bay Rays agreed to sign first baseman Carlos Pena, filling one of the last remaining holes that they hoped to address over the offseason. Once the deal was formally announced, most of the analysis looked back at Pena’s 2010 season with the Rays and how his presence will affect the team’s lineup in 2012. But that analysis also included numerous mentions that the team’s biggest remaining need appears to now be at shortstop and there is renewed speculation that the organization may once again look to move center fielder B.J. Upton. As one would expect, this has instantly brought back speculation regarding the possibility of a trade with the Washington Nationals.
The Rumor Central section at ESPN.com (Insider Sub. Required) started some of the renewed interest in this idea, speculating that the two sides could be a match. Right now Tampa Bay is likely looking at Sean Rodriguez as their starting shortstop, with Reid Brignac receiving a share of the playing time. Meanwhile the Washington Nationals will likely head into the season with Ian Desmond in the starting role. However, Danny Espinosa, the Nationals’ starting second baseman, is a natural shortstop and could easily slide back over to the position. According to ESPN.com, he’s the one the Rays could target.
Upton has been tied to Washington since last July’s trade deadline and it’s a story we’ve discussed here, so I won’t get too much into that side of things for now. I’m not opposed to a deal involving the Nationals sending a shortstop to Tampa Bay as part of a package for Upton. But I’m hoping it isn’t Espinosa that is dealt.
Washington is fortunate enough to have some depth up the middle right now. Between Espinosa, Ian Desmond, Stephen Lombardozzi, and eventually Anthony Rendon give the organization a number of options for the middle infield. And the possibility exists that someone could be used as a trade piece in the hunt to resolve other areas of need (i.e. center field).
Rendon is the youngest of the group, having just been drafted this past June, but he’s highly thought of in most of the recent prospect rankings to be released and could make his MLB Debut sometime in 2012. He’s the least likely of the group to be involved in any trade talks, in part because he can’t be dealt until summer under MLB regulations. Lombardozzi has the least MLB experience of the remaining three, having only appeared in 13 games this past September. He’s also a less than ideal option if a team was focused on finding a shortstop. While he is certainly fully capable of handling the position, he’s better suited for second base on an everyday basis. Espinosa and Desmond are just simply better defensive options at short with regards to this group.
Over the past two seasons Espinosa has received 770 plate appearances in 186 games. He’s batted .232/.316/.419 with 27 HR and 81 RBI. Desmond has received 1,302 plate appearances in 329 games over the past three seasons. He’s batted .262/.304/.387 with 22 HR and 126 RBI in that time.
While Desmond has the extra year of MLB experience, Desmond is the better overall offensive option. To date he’s batted 30 points lower than Desmond, but some of that is because he is still adjusting to MLB pitchers. He’s walked nearly as many times as Desmond, in nearly 450 fewer plate appearances. Espinosa was a much stronger hitter throughout his minor league career as well and it’s worth noting that he received roughly half the plate appearances in the minors as Desmond. Desmond is a little more aggressive on the basepaths, but the difference there is a marginal one.
Desmond’s occasional struggles defensively are well known, particularly during the 2010 season. He committed a league high 34 errors that year. That number improved to 23 in 2011, but it was still a high volume of fielding errors at a highly important defensive position. While this could give pause to some organizations, there is progress that can be cited and there is reason to believe that Desmond will continue to improve.
Espinosa’s offensive potential and defensive abilities make him a more ideal candidate for the Nationals to hold onto, in my opinion. He only has a year of service time – though with a spot in the daily lineup starting in April he could achieve Super Two status by the end of 2012 – and won’t be a free agent until after the 2016 season. With continued development, Espinosa could be a regular .280/.315/.425 hitter with 25-30 HR potential. The current trend these days seems to have these players stick at second base (see Chase Utley, Dan Uggla, Robinson Cano) but there used to be a time where these types of offensive bats were found at short. Today the position doesn’t feature many all around offensive talents (think the likes of Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada, or Alex Rodriguez). Should Espinosa develop into the kind of player I mentioned above, he’d stand above many of his peers*.
* For the record, the best overall offensive shortstop in the game today is likely Troy Tulowitski. I don’t, in any way, see Espinosa developing into a better offensive option that Tulo and I won’t begin to pretend that he’ll become the best in the National League. But, find me another everyday shortstop that could potentially match that type of production?
It’s clear why Espinosa would be appealing to a team like Tampa Bay. In fact, he’s just the type of player they would covet as they continue building a competitive team. He’s under team control for five years and could make for a nice offensive compliment to the lineup. In fact, if Espinosa were to join Ben Zobrist in the Rays’ middle infield they would be the only duo in the Majors with 25+ HR potential from each player. Considering the potential, it could be possible for the Rays to have interest in an Espinosa/Upton swap if the two sides were to discuss such a deal.
But, would they consider Desmond instead?
He has four years of team control remaining, meaning he would still be affordable to the budget conscious Rays. Offensively he isn’t going to develop into the type of player Espinosa may become, but he should still be a useful piece of any lineup. At the very least he should be an improvement over either Rodriguez or Brignac.
The concern may lay in his defense and how much weight the Rays place on some of the defensive metrics that have become more common. One of those metrics, UZR, places Desmond as the worst of the three potential options for Tampa Bay. He grades out at a -13.7 over 2,662.0 career innings at shortstop. That’s just under 14 more runs allowed than the average MLB shortstop. Rodriguez, for comparison comes in at 0.9 in 459.2 innings. Brignac is at 0.2 in 1,254.1 innings.
I’ll admit, I’m not a complete subscriber to the value of UZR quite yet. Perhaps it’s the uncertainty to the mathematics. Or maybe it’s just the complexity of how the statistic is determined that throws me off some. But based on these numbers, the Rays current projected starter is their best defensive option at shortstop – despite the limited sample size.
Bottom line, Desmond certainly be of value to the Rays. But he likely isn’t enough for them to give up a player like Upton – even if the deal is being made mostly to move Upton’s salary as he enters his final season before free agency. A second player would likely need to be added to the package, though I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be one of the Nationals’ higher ranked prospects. One of the organization’s Double-A pitchers, perhaps, could potentially be enough if Washington doesn’t ask the Rays to pay any of Upton’s salary.