The Washington Nationals entered the offseason with only one true question mark: second base. After second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera left the team via free agency, the Nationals were left with a void that needed to be filled at position.
While there were certainly concerns about who would man the position, the Nationals had several options. They could’ve gone with Danny Espinosa, they could’ve gone with Kevin Frandsen, or they could’ve gone with some combination of both. Of course, the team could have also given former-superstar Dan Uggla a chance to earn the position this spring after signing him to a minor league deal earlier this offseason.
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But none of those options were ideal, and general manager Mike Rizzo knew that. If the Nationals wanted to find a true solution at second base, they would have to find it on the trade market – which is exactly what Rizzo did.
Earlier this offseason, the Nationals acquired infielder Yunel Escobar from the Athletics in a trade that sent long-time setup man Tyler Clippard to Oakland. Escobar was a far better option at second base than any of the other names the team was considering, and although he has spent most of his career at shortstop, Escobar would surely accept a position change to help his new team, right? Well, apparently not. At least not at first.
According to a report from CBS Sports’s Jon Heyman, Escobar was originally against the idea of moving to second base – a position he had only played 21 times in his eight-year career. After a productive meeting with the Nationals, however, Escobar quickly accepted the position change and appears eager to work to become the best second baseman in the National League, as Heyman writes:
"There was said to have been disagreement over the planned move from the moment following his surprise second trade from the A’s, and even some friction between player and new team, but that all changed after the confab in the conference room at Nationals headquarters in Viera, Fla.”After what they expressed to me and what their vision is, I feel more comfortable,” Escobar said through Alex Esteban, his agent who acted as interpreter. “I am going to play second base with an open mind.”"
While it’s concerning that Escobar was apparently against the position change at first, it’s a big relief for the Nationals that he has come to accept the position change. It won’t be an easy transition for Escobar to make, but it’s one he needs to make if he wants a roster spot on this team and if the Nationals want a solid option at second base.
Of course, Escobar has plenty to be concerned about when it comes to his new position. Not only does he have minimal experience at second base and will have to learn on the fly this spring, but he’ll also have to do it after turning in the worst defensive season of his career in 2014.
Escobar’s UZR/150 – which measures the number of runs a fielder saves (or gives up) in range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined – dropped dramatically in 2014. His UZR/150 was 12.2 with the Rays in 2013, which FanGraphs considers to be just below “Gold Glove-caliber.” Last year, however, the shortstop’s UZR/150 dropped to -26.50, which FanGraphs considers to be “awful.”
Rizzo, however, isn’t concerned about Escobar’s iffy defense. In a conference call with members of the media last month, Rizzo said injuries were to blame for Escobar’s defensive struggles last season and that the team is not concerned about his defense. Here’s what Rizzo had to say about Escobar, via MASN’s Pete Kerzel:
"“We see Yuni as being an above-average defender at both shortstop and second base.,” Rizzo said. “He has been his entire career, except for last year. Last year, he played with, especially at the end of the year, a soreness in his shoulder that affected a little bit of his throwing and a quad that affected a little of his range. We feel that getting off the carpet at Tampa Bay and playing on the natural grass at Nationals Park will just be a positive for him defensively. We have no qualms about his defense.”"
Whether or not Escobar can overcome his defensive struggles and adapt to a new position remains to be seem. But for now, it looks like Escobar has accepted the fact that he will be playing second base for the Nationals in 2015. And while that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll succeed there, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.