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Point/Counterpoint: Espinosa as utilityman?

Dec 27, 2013, 2:00 PM EDT

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THIS WEEK’S DEBATE: SHOULD THE NATIONALS MAKE DANNY ESPINOSA THEIR UTILITY INFIELDER, OR SHOULD THEY LOOK ELSEWHERE TO FILL THAT POSITION?

MARK ZUCKERMAN: This may be the unpopular answer, but I say the Nationals absolutely should give Espinosa a shot here. To me, the most important trait for a utility infielder is defense. And you aren’t going to find anybody out there who’s better in the field — at both second base and shortstop — than Espinosa. Yes, he’ll still need to hit better than he did last season before (and, for that matter, after) his demotion, but we know it’s in there somewhere. This is a guy who hit 21 homers in 2011, produced 37 doubles in 2012, gets hit by a lot of pitches and runs the bases well. The bar would be lower for Espinosa as a utilityman than as an everyday player. Maybe that would be good for him. Lower the expectations and he could yet prove quite valuable to the Nats.

CHASE HUGHES: I think Espinosa deserves a chance … to an extent. You can’t knock his defense, but he was so bad at the plate last year — even at Class AAA — that it’s hard to envision him contributing even at the level you expect from your bench. The Nats got so little from their reserves last season, they may want a guy in that role with more to offer offensively. I feel like a veteran option would be the smarter move here, at least one to have in the mix. I’m not saying they need a borderline starter like they have in Nate McLouth for the outfield, but a proven veteran would be nice. Plus, if Anthony Rendon struggles terribly in 2014, or gets hurt, you could be looking at Espinosa as your starter again.

MZ: Look, it’s going to take a significant mindset change from Espinosa. He’s going to have to embrace the idea of being a bench player and not think he’s still trying to prove he can play every day. But what other choice does he have this year? Would he rather get 600 at-bats in Syracuse or 300 at-bats in Washington? Prior to 2013, he owned a career .239 batting average, .315 OBP and .727 OPS. (His OBP and OPS, by the way, were far superior to Steve Lombardozzi, whose only offensive advantage was in batting average.) Combine those offensive numbers with Gold Glove-caliber defense at both middle infield positions, and that’s one heck of a bench player. Are you saying you’d rather have Robert Andino, Paul Janish or Cesar Izturis? Because that’s what’s still available on the open market right now. Given the choice, I’ll take Espinosa.

CH: Well, in his defense, Izturis did hit .500 in his five games with the Nats in 2012. Anyways, you make very good points about Espinosa’s ceiling as a bench player. If he could bring the power he showed two years ago and the defense he’s always had, he could be a valuable asset for the Nationals behind Rendon. Plus, you can’t deny his work ethic and intensity both on the field and in the clubhouse. He is a positive presence. I think it’s more about his ‘basement’ being so low that I think the Nats would be wise to have a backup plan. When struggling, he is a black hole in the lineup. They have depth at second base if you look down into their system, but there is a lack of experience. I doubt they are ready to rely on Jeff Kobernus, and Tony Renda is a ways away. I think that lack of experienced depth would easily be exposed if Rendon doesn’t continue his development this season. As for specific names, Jeff Baker and Jayson Nix would be options. One more veteran for peace of mind so you don’t have to acquire one midseason in case of emergency.

  1. shawndc04 - Dec 27, 2013 at 2:27 PM

    If he hits as poorly as he did last year there is no way on God’s green earth that he gets (or should get) 300 at bats next year. Unless he hits in ST he’s nothing other than a late inning defensive replacement or an occasional start when Desmond or Rendon are given a day off.

  2. Eugene in Oregon - Dec 27, 2013 at 3:20 PM

    There’s no question that Danny Espinosa should be given a chance. At a minimum, he demonstrates that whatever he had once is gone and the Nats act accordingly. Somewhere in the mid-range, he again demonstrates sufficient hitting skills — to go with his fielding — to be a solid utility player either for the Nats or another team. At a maximum, he returns to starter form (over the course of the next season, not in Spring Training), and becomes either a piece of the Nats future (if either Ian Desmond or Anthony Rendon falters) or (more likely) a significant trade chip. You’ve got to give him chance. Just not the kind of extended chance he was given in 2013.

  3. philipd763 - Dec 27, 2013 at 3:31 PM

    To be fair, Espinosa played last season with a torn rotator cuff and a broken bone in his wrist. Rather than let him embarrass himself, which he did big-time, management should have shut him down for the season. If he comes back healthy this season, he just might surprise a lot of fans.

  4. dgourds - Dec 27, 2013 at 3:32 PM

    The big question with Espinosa is his health and if it was the cause of his horrific 2013. Because he wasn’t forthcoming about his shoulder and refused to have surgery, he’s an unreliable source. Assuming he’s healed and that the injury was the cause of his lousy hitting, I’d give him another shot. It shouldn’t be too difficult to trade for a good bench player midseason if we need to.

  5. letswin3 - Dec 27, 2013 at 4:23 PM

    Health smealth. He either misled the club regarding his health, or he made a poor decision about getting surgery in TWO offseasons, or he’s health as an ox and just wants to send every pitch into the stratosphere and whiffs as a result (I’m pretty sure that he nearly led the league in K’s in parts of 2 seasons). Yeah, give him a chance in ST, but no more of “the shoulder is coming around” or “I’m working on a couple of things”. Put up, or shut up. We need another weak bat on the bench like we need a hole in the head. If he isn’t hitting, start him off at AAA and find an adequate infielder with a much bigger bat to start the season in Washington…..and, if Rendon or Desmond get hurt and will be out for some time, bring Danny up to fill that defensive gap. But don’t start the season without a utility infielder who can be a legitimate option for consideration when a pinch hitter is needed. The mistake of hoping that Danny would, or will, become a major league hitter should not be repeated…… he either displays it, or they stash him in AAA for emergency use only.

  6. veejh - Dec 27, 2013 at 5:00 PM

    give Espi a shot. I highly doubt he’ll suddenly be able.to hit like 1st half 2011, but one can dream. I dont care how good his D is, if a player cannot hit they font deserve to be in the bigs….period. we need a bat more than D.

  7. pchuck69 - Dec 27, 2013 at 6:49 PM

    Mark is giving Espinosa way too much leeway. At the plate, Espinosa’s floor is exceptionally low, as low as any MLB player’s, too low to be on a major league roster, particularly the roster of a team that has championship aspirations. His floor is so low that his defense doesn’t matter.

    He shouldn’t be on the major league roster. He shouldn’t be at major league camp. He should start at AAA with no chance of making the major league roster because there’s really nothing he can do in spring training to make up for what he did last season.

    I’m afraid that the closer we get to the 2014 season, people (particularly Rizzo) will forget how bad Espinosa was last season.

    • David Proctor - Dec 27, 2013 at 8:46 PM

      I’m afraid that the closer we get to the 2014 season, people forget that Espinosa was a 3.5+ WAR player in both 2011 and 2012. I put more faith in the 1,270 ABs prior to 2013 than the 150 ABs in 2013.

      • pchuck69 - Dec 27, 2013 at 9:04 PM

        First 3.5 WAR over two season isn’t that good but despite that, there’s absolutely no evidence that he’ll suddenly get better this season over last season. His eye is terrible and his swing is worse and that’s always been the case. He just hit homers and walked more in his first two seasons but his eye and swing were still bad.

      • David Proctor - Dec 28, 2013 at 12:36 AM

        It’s not 3.5 WAR over 2 seasons. It’s 3.5 WAR each of those two seasons.

      • unkyd59 - Dec 27, 2013 at 9:36 PM

        +1

      • letswin3 - Dec 27, 2013 at 9:59 PM

        David, Danny led the entire National League in K’s in 2012, with 189. That means that he also failed in advancing runners, driving in runs and getting me off his tail. He wasn’t, isn’t and will likely never be a hitter worthy of even a bench spot in the bigs. We all love his glove, but the Nats have to score more runs in 2014, and that will necessitate the use of every bat on the bench….can they afford a soft-hitting glove guy? I vote no.

      • David Proctor - Dec 28, 2013 at 12:37 AM

        Espi was about league average in productive outs and better than Steve Lombardozzi.

  8. nats128 - Dec 27, 2013 at 8:26 PM

    Izturis. That is funny Chase!

  9. Theophilus T.S. - Dec 27, 2013 at 9:15 PM

    Baker and Nix are options only in the event you need someone to throw sandbags around Jimmy Carter.

    They got rid of Lombardozzi so they could make the bench better, not tread water.

  10. Sec 3, My Sofa - Dec 27, 2013 at 9:17 PM

    Off-topic entirely, but RIP Paul Blair.

  11. sjm308 - Dec 27, 2013 at 9:50 PM

    I was not sold on Espinosa doing anything for the Nationals after his results from the end of 2012 and his entire 2013 season. Yes, he is a wonderful defender and that is certainly a plus for any team that has him. He also has tremendous power for a middle infielder and he shows decent instincts as a baserunner with above ave. speed.

    Those are the positives but the negatives certainly out weigh the positives. His strikeouts are out of proportion, his batting ave. has been dismal, and the fact that he has had two major injuries in the last two seasons is worrisome as well. But, even more than that, the way he pouted and the fact that he withheld the severity of his injuries bothered me more.

    So, IF and I will capitalize it again, IF, he can understand what his role would be this year. And, IF he can accept that role and work to help the team in that role, then I am fine with him on our bench. I just have to think he will hit much better and I know his defense will continue to shine. He is still under team control for several more years and his contract is a steal if he returns to the form we saw when he first came up.

    Go Nats!

    • dgourds - Dec 27, 2013 at 10:08 PM

      +1

  12. Section 222 - Dec 27, 2013 at 10:45 PM

    I’m done worrying about Espi. In my view, no matter what he does in spring training, he should start in AAA and not come up until he proves he can hit. And DP, I haven’t forgotten about Espi’s 2011 and 2012, but if you are willing to give him a spot on our 25 man roster based on that, and ignore what happened last year, both in the majors and in the minors, you are delusional.

    I trust Matt Williams to not want a guy on his bench who can’t hit. But if he decides Espi is the best option, so be it. Because I also trust him to not allow Espi to hang around hurting the team as long as Davey did.

  13. Sonny G 10 - Dec 27, 2013 at 10:53 PM

    I recommend he be given a chance to make our team. If he can show a lot of improvement, he would increase his trade value in the event we did not want to keep him for our team.

  14. rogieshan - Dec 27, 2013 at 11:08 PM

    I’m sorry, but I’m still bitter with Espinosa and his stubborn decision to play through the 2012 NLDS with an injury that had a significant impact in the loss to St. Louis. (15 AB 0 R 1 H 0 RBI 7 SO – .067 BA)

    Davey may have praised him as a “little warrior”, but from my cheap seats, I see a player who is too wrapped up in his own head and is incapable of making the necessary adjustments to improve his game.

  15. Section 222 - Dec 28, 2013 at 12:46 PM

    The question for those who think Espi deserves a chance is how much of a chance? Is it just based on Spring Training? If he hits relatively well then, do you give him the utility infielder spot and live with whatever he does during the regular season? He won’t be getting regular ABs, so how do you judge whether he’s been given enough of a chance? If he’s lousy in the first month, do you say, well, he’s not playing regularly so we have to give him more time?

    My view, which I’m sure some of you are tired of hearing, is that you have to make sure that he can at least hit minor league pitching playing everyday in AAA before you put him on our bench. I don’t care much how great a fielder he is if he can’t give us some good ABs and clutch hits off the bench. And I don’t think he gets a season in MLB to try to prove himself. He already had that, and more.

  16. Mcross - Dec 28, 2013 at 1:20 PM

    Listen, I think some of you want a mythical bench guy who can hit.300 and have an OBP over .800. Not gonna happen. Do you want to give Espi a chance with another veteran getting a minor league contractility an invite or not? That is what most of your bench guys are really. Especially middle infielders. If you can play reasonable defense up the middle and hit .250 guess what, you are a starter now adays anymore. Rizzo should sign a backup plan veteran and let them battle it out for the spot. Janish would be my choice personally but I’m not the professional GM. I’m still angry at Espi for hiding his injuries to but I have to imagine the organization has let him know that will not happen again in no uncertain terms. You can also let him know he has a short leash if he makes the roster out of ST.

    • Section 222 - Dec 30, 2013 at 3:51 PM

      An OBP over .800? Now that would be really something. :-)

      Assuming you meant OPS, somebody whose OPS is over .517 (Bernadina with Nats) .568 (Tracy), .607 (Moore), .616 (Lombo), or .625 (Hairston with Nats) would be an improvement. By the way, Moore’s OPS in 2012 was .840.

    • Section 222 - Dec 31, 2013 at 12:14 PM

      I should probably also add, for the sake of completeness, that Espi’s OPS in 44 games last year was .465. His OPS in 75 games in Syracuse was .566. That’s just not major league ready, even for a bench position.

  17. davebinmd - Dec 30, 2013 at 5:09 PM

    Since there’s no mention of it in the point-counterpoint of the article or in the comments, I thought I’d point-out, if from nothing more than a perspective of middle infield/utility depth, the Nats do have DC-native Manny Burriss now. If Espinosa’s offensive struggles continue as the start of the season approaches, and Burriss has a strong training camp, would the Nats send Espi packing to AAA and put Burriss on the 25-man?

    • Section 222 - Dec 31, 2013 at 12:17 PM

      I certainly hope so. At least he’s not a K-machine like Espi.

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