With the emergence of utility player Steve Lombardozzi and the struggles of second baseman Danny Espinosa, a conflict has emerged as to who gets playing time. Espinosa showed such promise last year hitting over 20 home runs, a rare feat for a second baseman, however his average currently sits at .230, making it hard to justify starting him. The challenge becomes even more difficult with Lombardozzi (a natural middle infielder despite his ability to play third base and left field) hitting .276, sitting 46 points higher. So the question becomes this: What do you do with Danny Espinosa?! I decided to hold a roundtable and talk it over with a few of our staff members and here’s what they had to say.
Andy Linder: With Steve Lombardozzi becoming the ever-consistent leadoff man manager Davey Johnson has been looking for, I think that Danny Espinosa should be demoted to an off the bench, situational hitter for the Nationals, especially when Jayson Werth returns to the lineup. I like Lombo and Espinosa to remain in the scorecard together until Werth comes back (Ankiel has proven to be more of a pinch hitter anyways), but nevertheless Espinosa is certainly pushing his breaking point. While his bat has somewhat heated up recently, Espi is still hitting for a measly .230 batting average as of June 17 and also boasts an ugly 77 batting strikeouts thus far.
Would I be up for trading Espinosa if a reasonable deal comes into play? Definitely, but since Davey seems to perpetually trust Espi to perform daily, I don’t think he’ll be dealt. When Werth does come back presumably at the end of July, I would most certainly move Lombo to 2nd base, Morse to left field, and Jayson to his natural position in right. Among Nationals with at least 120 at-bats this season, Lombo leads the team with a .289 BA and Espinosa ranks last at, again, .230—you make the call, but I think the discussion ends right there.
Bradley Herring: I would argue for a platoon with Steve Lombardozzi at second base.
A look at the splits of Lombardozzi and Danny Espinosa provide some evidence for this. (Take with a HUGE grain of salt; some of these numbers are based on vanishingly small sample sizes, especially Lombardozzi’s.) Both are switch-hitters, but if you look into how they perform from each side, you could make a case for Lombardozzi to face righties, while Espinosa comes in to face lefties. Lombo is hitting .352/.410/.451 with 1 HR from the left, .105/.190/.158 from the right. (Again, the latter is based on 23 PA and a .118 BABIP so caution please.)
Espinosa on the other hand, .333/.429/.611 from the right, .196/.284/.308 from the left. His righty numbers include a totally unsustainable .476 BABIP but his lefty numbers come from a .278 BABIP which is right about average for his career. A little down time against pitchers he struggles against could help Espinosa’s confidence while we’ll get a chance to see if Lombardozzi is for real while keeping Espinosa in the lineup when he’s most productive. (And please let’s end this charade of Lombardozzi in the outfield ASAP. Ankiel in center, Harper in left, Morse in right makes the most sense until a trade sends Ankiel to the bench where he belongs.)
Marty Niland: Davey Johnson has shown that he is extremely loyal to his players and reluctant to give up on them, giving them multiple opportunities to prove themselves, even after they’ve failed.
His treatment of Danny Espinosa has been no exception. Despite the fact that his starting second baseman has been hitting around the Mendoza line for much of the season, Espinosa has played in a team-high 57 games through Sunday. Espinosa has picked up the pace lately, hitting .261 over his last 30 games and in his last 10, even outhitting Lombardozzi over the latter span. In fact, he was back in the leadoff spot in two of the three games against Boston, going 2-for-4 in each.
The common element in each of those contests was a left-hander on the mound for the opposition. Espinosa is hitting .391 against lefties and .188 against righties. Conversely, the rookie Lombardozzi hits .314 against righties and a paltry .105 against lefties.
That would make a platoon seem optimal, but Johnson obviously trusts Espinosa more than the young Lombardozzi, so he keeps him in at second for his defense, dropping him to the No. 7 spot against right-handers. He’d rather platoon Lombardozzi with Nady in the outfield than with Lombardozzi at second base. It makes sense that he would continue that strategy unless the team goes into a prolonged tailspin.
Steve Walker: At this time last season, Washington Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa astonished the world of baseball. He hit for power, got on base regularly (often through the painful process of getting hit by pitches) and made the ESPN “Web Gem” highlights every other night. His throwing arm was so strong and accurate it seemed the stuff of legend until folks saw him with their own eyes (or on YouTube).It seemed like the Nationals had their own version of Phillies’ All-Star second baseman Chase Utley — only better. Espinosa, a switch hitter, looked poised to become a younger, healthier, better fielding version of Utley.
At the All-Star Break, Espinosa had good enough numbers to warrant mention as a possible member of the National League squad and seemed certain to finish in the top three – or better – for NL Rookie of the Year. Then it all came crashing down. While he still fielded with grace and skill, his hitting deteriorated. He finished the year with pedestrian numbers: .236/.323/.414 (.737 OPS). Even with his hitting woes, Espinosa finished with a respectable 2.4 wins above replacement value for the 2011 Nationals. While Washington expected Espinosa to rebound under Davey Johnson’s tutelage, he has still struggled to hit. Currently, Espinosa’s OPS is a paltry .668. Worse, he is striking out at an alarming rate. His K-rate is 31.5%, one of the worst in baseball and 11% above the league average. Of all Nationals position players, only Rick Ankiel (33.1%) strikes out more often.So, what should the Nationals do with their enigmatic whiff machine of a second baseman? He still has minor league options remaining. Should Mike Rizzo relegate his young infielder to AAA duty until he fixes the physical and mental problems with his hitting?
Absolutely not. First, despite his flaws with the bat, Espinosa does have power, speed and bunting ability. He can steal a base or score from second on a single. In addition, he is probably the best defensive player in the entire Nationals organization. While Stephen Lombardozzi is more consistent and makes fewer errors, he lacks the range and breathtaking arm strength of Espinosa.
Second, who would replace Espinosa? Lombardozzi could fill in well there, at least against right-handed pitching, but moving him from left field leaves one corner outfield position for a Xavier Nady/Roger Bernadina platoon or Ankiel in centerfield while Bryce Harper and Michael Morse man the corners. None of those three hit any better than Espinosa. The Nats are better off with both him and Lombo in the line-ups.
Mark DeRosa, still on the disabled list, is versatile, but a poor option at second base or even left field. He simply lacks the talent and durability to be an everyday player.
The paltry options at Syracuse offer no solutions. Jarrett Hoffpauir, Jim Negrych, and Seth Bynum, besides having unusual surnames, all have severe limitations that leave Espinosa, even in his current state, the better option. Jeff Kobernus, at AA Harrisburg, is perhaps as talented as Espinosa, but is not quite ready and currently injured.
Middle infielders with Espinosa’s raw talent, especially with his arm and glove, are rare. Patience to cultivate such gifts usually pays off. While it may irritate fans, sticking with Espinosa and letting him try to solve his hitting problems with the Nationals is the only realistic option.
Back to Michael: So in compromising all the points made it appears that the verdict is to go the good ol’ platoon route. Espinosa clearly hits lefties better than Lombardozzi and vice versa. The offense needs hits wherever it can get them right now, especially as it looks to get back on track after being held quiet in the weekend sweep against the Yankees. Look for Espinosa to see more playing time this week as the Nationals host the Rays, as both David Price and Matt Moore (the probables for Tuesday and Thursday, respectively) are left-handed. Also be sure to check in for nightly recaps of those games here at District On Deck!