Washington Nationals Analysis: The Offensive Rebirth of Danny Espinosa

brandonconner
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For the better part of recent memory, Danny Espinosa has spent life on the fringe, constantly walking the delicate line between being an everyday player and being replacement level. In spite of being armed with a defensive skillset bordering on elite, Espinosa never managed to produce at the plate consistently. Instead, he was relegated to the bottom third of the order to serve as fodder for opposing pitchers, while Washington Nationals fans were left wondering where they could find a second baseman with a little more offensive prowess.

Even the organization had its doubts about the viability of Espinosa as a staple in the lineup. At the trade deadline last year, GM Mike Rizzo sent Zach Walters to the Indians in exchange for Asdrubal Cabrera. When Cabrera signed with Tampa Bay in the offseason, Rizzo traded away Nats setup man Tyler Clippard in a deal that netted Yunel Escobar. Discerning that Danny Espinosa’s offensive shortcomings were behind those moves doesn’t require a deep reading of the proverbial tea leaves; a cursory glance should be enough to tell you that.

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The want to Espinosa never stemmed from his fielding. At second base, the position he played most frequently, Espinosa was a plus defender every season. When he and Ian Desmond were on top of their game, you’d have been hard pressed to find a better pair up the middle than what the Nats trotted out on a consistent basis. Espinosa’s ability to play other infield positions, albeit not quite as adeptly,  allowed the Nats to rest the likes of Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, as well as Desmond.

The problems with Espinosa have always stemmed from his bat. After posting an OPS of .737 in 2011, his first full season with the club, Espinosa saw his numbers fall quickly. In 2013, he hit so poorly that he spent most of the year in the minors, and his 2014 OPS of .634 was bad enough to force the team to explore other options, resulting in the Cabrera deal. Espinosa’s elite defense, it seemed, came at too high a cost. At that point, Espinosa’s offense seemed all but destined to damn him to a life of platoons and spot starts.

But at the halfway point of 2015, all that has changed. Danny Espinosa looks like a completely different player.

At the outset of the season, it looked like Espinosa would be a different player. A career switch hitter, Espinosa announced that he would hit solely from the right side of the plate in 2015, a promise he kept all throughout spring training. Five games into the regular season, however, that plan went out the window. Espinosa went back to picking his side of the plate based on pitching.

That means, of course, that a change in the batter’s box isn’t responsible for the change in results. But if switch hitting isn’t behind Espinosa’s offensive breakthrough, what is? Could the majestic mustache that he cultivated during spring have imbued him with a newfound confidence?

Whatever it is, it’s working. Espinosa is in the midst of his most successful season in the majors by a longshot, and he’s doing it at a time when his team needs it the most. The Nats have been without Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, and Ryan Zimmerman for the majority of the season. Yunel Escobar and Denard Span are currently nursing injuries. Even Bryce Harper has missed time with a tweaked hamstring.

In their absence, Espinosa is stepping up. His .774 OPS is easily a career high; he’s nearly equaled his RBI totals from 2014 in just 74 games; and he has more home runs (9) than everyone on the team not named Bryce Harper. Sure, he hasn’t morphed into the second coming of Alex Rodriguez, but he’s far from being the weak link in the order that he used to be.

Meanwhile, Espinosa’s defensive versatility has only served to make him all the more valuable. As injuries have hit almost every conceivable part of the lineup, Espinosa has become a sort of Swiss Army knife for Matt Williams. Espinosa has logged time at five positions over the course of 2015, including his first career starts at first base, in which Espinosa acquitted himself nicely (the questionable decision to start him there notwithstanding).

For the Nationals, Espinosa’s offensive outbreak pays off twofold. For one thing, the Nats should no longer feel the need to rush back Rendon or Escobar from injury just to get Espinosa out of the lineup. It also means that Mike Rizzo doesn’t have to ship off valuable prospects at the trade deadline trying to replace an offensive liability. Adding depth is still an option, of course, but this season Rizzo won’t feel the same sort of burden to make something happen as he did last year.

As for Nationals fans, they should celebrate Espinosa’s renaissance. Bask in the fact that Espinosa is no longer living on the edge. He’s no longer that most maddening sort of player, the one who forces you into the dreaded world of sports hypotheticals. You no longer need to ask yourself, “How good would Danny Espinosa be if he could hit?”

Because now, it seems, he can.

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