The Nationals’ Spring Training just got a little more interesting. While the general feeling for the last few weeks has been that the starting second base job belongs to Anthony Rendon, Danny Espinosa seems to have other plans.
According to Espinosa, general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Matt Williams have both told him that he will have a chance to compete with Rendon for the position this spring.
““Matt and Mike have both called me in the offseason and told me I’m going to get a fair opportunity to win my job back,” Espinosa told reporters at NatsFest on Saturday. “That’s all I can ask for. I’ve never asked for anything to be handed to me. But if I can get a fair opportunity to win my job, I feel like I can do it.”
Espinosa, once considered the team’s second baseman of the future, struggled mightily with the bat last season, posting a dismal .158/.193/.272 line with three homers and a 47/4 strikeout to walk ratio in 167 plate appearances with the big league club before being demoted to Triple-A Syracuse. Espinosa’s struggles continued at Syracuse, where he hit .216 in 75 games.
Espinosa has always had problems making contact, but his struggles last season may have been in part due to injuries. The switch-hitting second baseman played through a partially torn rotator cuff and a broken wrist for most of the season. According to Espinosa, the biggest issue was his broken wrist, which was originally diagnosed as a bone bruise.
“I shouldn’t have been [playing]“, Espinosa said. “At the same time, I’m not a doctor reading the film. So, yeah, I shouldn’t have been playing on a broken wrist the whole year. But when you’ve been told you got a bruise, you’re going to play through a bruise. Everyone plays through bumps and bruises. I’m not going to play through a broken wrist. If I would have known it was a broken wrist, I wouldn’t have been playing at all.”
Espinosa’s wrist injury may very well have been the main culprit for last year’s offensive struggles. While he has never had great success in the big leagues, he is certainly better than what he showed last season.
From 2011-2012, Espinosa was undoubtedly considered the Nationals second baseman of the future. While his .242 batting average over those two years wasn’t great, he still helped the team with his power, hitting 38 home runs. Espinosa also played gold-glove caliber defense, helping him rack up a 6.6 fWAR over those two seasons. He wasn’t perfect and he struck out more than anyone in the league, but he was nowhere near as bad as he was last season. Espinosa is simply too good a baseball player for his performance to have plummeted as it did in 2013 for no reason.
If injuries were in fact the reason for his decline, then Espinosa will have ample opportunity this spring to prove himself to the Nationals, as he is 100 percent healthy. That being said, he’ll probably have to play dominant baseball during Spring Training to beat out Rendon for the job.
Rendon had a solid season for the Nationals in 2013, batting .265 with 23 doubles and seven home runs in 98 games. Rendon’s defense wasn’t great, but it was good enough, especially considering he had played only eight games at the position in the Minors. Clearly Rendon had a much better season than Espinosa and many expect him to play even better in 2014, making things very difficult for Espinosa.
However, Espinosa is confident that if he comes into camp healthy and plays at the level he is capable of playing, then there is no reason for him to not earn back his job.
“If I can come and do what I did in spring last year,” Espinosa said. “There’s no reason I shouldn’t have my job.”
Espinosa also added that he feels much stronger than he did last year.
“I’m probably stronger at this point in my career than I’ve ever been in my life,” Espinosa said. “My trainer has done an unbelievable job. He’s put me in a really good place. I feel that physically, I’m at the top of where I could ever be, almost. He’s done everything for me to get back to where I was, and go beyond that, strength-wise. I feel great.”
If Espinosa does in fact earn back his job, Rendon could start the 2014 season as a super-utility player, similar to the role Steve Lombardozzi had with the team last year. It should also be noted that Jamey Carroll and Mike Fontenot will also be competing for the backup second baseman job, and Rendon would have to outplay them to make the team. If Rendon really struggles during Spring Training, the Nationals could send him to Triple-A Syracuse to start the 2014 season.
In my opinion, the dynamic of the team’s infield over the next couple of seasons depends solely on whether or not Ryan Zimmerman does in fact move to first base. If Zimmerman shows he can play first and both Rendon and Espinosa play well during Spring Training, then the Nationals have the option of putting Espinosa back at second, Rendon at third (the position he’d played his whole career up until last season), and Zimmerman at first.
While I believe that will be the Nationals’ infield of the future, I don’t see it happening in 2014. There’s no reason to expect Rendon to struggle this spring and I really believe the starting second baseman’s job is his to lose. If Espinosa is healthy, then he will likely start 2014 as an infield utility player. In any case, the Nationals still have Adam LaRoche under contract for one more year and Zimmerman would likely take time to adjust to the new position.
Regardless of who actually gets the job, this is a good problem to have. Having two good players competing for one spot is better than having no good players to fill that spot. Whether they are in the lineup every night or coming in to pinch hit in the seventh inning, both players could play a major role for the Nationals in 2014.