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Spring training storyline No. 4: Espinosa’s challenge

Feb 9, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT

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As the countdown to spring training reaches its final days, we’re counting down the Nationals’ five biggest storylines of camp. We continue today with storyline No. 4: Danny Espinosa’s attempt to bounce back from a disastrous 2013…

To say Danny Espinosa has something to prove this spring is a gross understatement. Espinosa has everything to prove after a disastrous 2013 that saw the young second baseman hit .158, battle shoulder and wrist injuries, get demoted to Class AAA, hit .216 in Syracuse and never earn a promotion back to Washington.

On the heels of a year like that, Espinosa seemingly would be an afterthought at Nationals camp this spring. Except club officials, general manager Mike Rizzo chief among them, remain huge supporters of the 26-year-old and have vowed to give him a fair chance to win the starting second base job back.

How realistic is that possibility? It would require a phenomenal performance this spring from Espinosa, who needs to prove not only that he’s healthy but that he can cut down on his swing and produce more hits and fewer strikeouts. And it would probably require a sub-par performance from Anthony Rendon, the organization’s top prospect who took over second baseman following Espinosa’s demotion and impressed in his rookie campaign.

Espinosa certainly has the skills to do it. He has already proven his ability to hit 20 homers in a big-league season (2011), steal 20 bases in a big-league season (2012) and play elite defense (throughout his career). It’s those skills — not to mention the fact his value is at a low point — that have kept Rizzo from trading Espinosa despite calls from several other clubs.

Espinosa remains as confident (and defiant) as ever, insisting two weeks ago at NatsFest that his performance last season was “a fluke” and was a direct result of a fractured wrist that wasn’t accurately diagnosed until after the fact.

The Nationals don’t entirely agree and maintain he needs to take some personal responsibility for his own performance, injured or not. So the club’s decision-makers will be watching not only how Espinosa plays this spring but how he mentally approaches the entire endeavor.

Whether it results in a starting job, a spot on the bench or a ticket back to Syracuse, Espinosa’s camp figures to provide a compelling storyline.

  1. Doc - Feb 9, 2014 at 7:25 AM

    That pretty much summarizes it, Mark.

    Stop the K’s, and swinging like a wildman.

    And sue the medical staff! for lost wages!

  2. Joe Seamhead - Feb 9, 2014 at 8:13 AM

    I have somewhat mixed feelings when it comes to this guy and his future here. The interview from a couple of weeks ago wasn’t the first one that gave an insight into this guy’s self-centered attitude. I also remember his statements of having no intention on helping Steve Lombardozzi out when the Nats first called Lombo up. It came across as not being being very team first, but instead a very much a “me, me, me” mentality. Some here felt that Davey stuck with him too long, others felt that Davey threw him under the bus. I’m of the former group and I felt nobody threw this guy under the bus, he jumped. As to him getting a shot to regain his starting position? I wish him luck and I hope that he plays so well that he makes for a tough decision for Williams and Rizzo. I also think that Scott Boras has a lot to do with the present mentality of giving Danny every opportunity to regain a roster spot, or least a level of respectability. Boras’ client just isn’t worth very much right now. Best case he plays good enough to make the opening day roster, or plays at least good enough to trade him for more than a minor league fill in. Otherwise Rizzo keeps him in Syracuse as the emergency backup middle infielder.

  3. sjm308 - Feb 9, 2014 at 8:22 AM

    I’ll say this: I think Mark has nailed the first two story lines. Guessing here that the #5 starter is another and perhaps how the team adapts to a new manager (or how he adapts to the team). My 5th would be the health of our two super stars but others might say its how LaRoche rebounds from a difficult season. I am probably missing something. The battle for the backup catcher just didn’t make my cut although it certainly is important to the total team effort.

    I wrote in a post yesterday that I have sort of waffled on Danny. My first thoughts a month or so ago were that I had hoped he would recover and provide excellent defense and at least minimum offense as our utility guy. This would give us a boost from what Lombardozzi provided in my mind. The more I think about that, the more I wonder whether he can accept that kind of role and even more important, I want Rendon to continue to grow and improve and would Danny’s presence help or hinder that? Not sure there has ever been a guy who led the league in strikeouts and then “figured it out”. Again, he has positives: Young – under team control for a bunch of years and I don’t even think he is eligible for arbitration until 2015 with his minimum playing time last year – great defense. Like I said, I am confused here and not sure what is best for him or this team but I want Rendon to be my starting second baseman. Notice I did not even write about his attitude or mental makeup because I honestly don’t know him except for what we hear in interviews or see on a camera.

    Go Nats!

    • DaveB - Feb 9, 2014 at 8:49 AM

      sjm … I think you nailed the 6 key story lines. it will be interesting to see which one Mark rated lower – I think you are probably right there also, I think how well ALR rebounds will probably have more impact on the team results than Danny’s “challenge”, but Espi does seem to be the bigger story.

    • Jb - Feb 9, 2014 at 9:18 AM

      Adam Dunn led the league in strikeouts three straight years – 2004, 2005, 2006. Did he ever “figure it out”? That’s a matter of interpretation, I suppose, but he has played seven years as a starter since then and made millions of dollars.

      BTW, Espinosa has never led the league in strikeouts.

      • sjm308 - Feb 9, 2014 at 10:02 AM

        Jb – I am pretty sure his 189 in 2012 did lead the NL if not all of baseball. At least that is what Baseball Reference.com is telling me

      • sjm308 - Feb 9, 2014 at 10:05 AM

        Oh, and just to pile on, Danny’s 2011 totals came in 3rd in the NL – Just for fun, I went and checked on our guy Adam Dunn. His strikeouts are just amazing. Did you know he has over 2,200 K’s in his career? That is crazy.

      • Jb - Feb 9, 2014 at 10:39 AM

        How about this tidbit from baseball-reference.com. Espinosa in his age 25 season had 189 strikeouts. Bobby Bonds in his age 24 season also had 189 strikeouts. Did Bobby Bonds ever “figure it out”?

      • therealjohnc - Feb 9, 2014 at 11:27 AM

        If you have an impact power bat, leading the league in strikeouts is acceptable. If you are a middle infielder with occasional power, leading the league in strikeouts (which, as sjm pointed out, Danny did in fact “achieve”) is not so useful.

        I have no problem with a good field/no hit backup middle infielder with occasional power. Frankly, after Desmond I don’t see another viable SS candidate in the upper levels of the organization (Kobernus and Souza were moved to the OF for a reason, Walters has to work on his plate discipline and defense, Carroll is too old, Rhymes didn’t even play SS last year in AAA (and only has 30 games at SS in nine minor league seasons). If Desmond gets hurt, Danny is the next best option there. The Nats would be nuts to deal that insurance policy for the bag of baseballs that they would get for Espinosa at this point.

  4. Doc - Feb 9, 2014 at 8:42 AM

    sjm308 you make a good point about guys that K, ‘ever figuring it out’. Just a guess, but I don’t think that it’s ever happened. There are a lots of guys in baseball history who K’d but still had good stats. And then there are the Dan Ugglas who mostly just K.

    Maybe somebody can dig up some contrary stats.

    • senators5 - Feb 9, 2014 at 4:02 PM

      Its not just the Ks that infuriate me about DE, it is the number of backward Ks. Do any of you stat guys know the number or percentage of taken third strikes DE has had compared to Dunn and other free swingers? Other than a game losing error nothing is worst than a called third strike, especially for a second baseman, a position designed for contact hitters.

  5. Joe Seamhead - Feb 9, 2014 at 10:24 AM

    Well, Babe Ruth held the career strikeout record for many years. Now, I’m working from memory, but I believe Mantle broke Ruth’s record and then Reggie Jackson broke Mantle’s. Now, Ruth isn’t even in the top 100 for K’s, and a bunch of guys have since passed Micky, but Reggie still holds the career record at 2597. Dunn is getting close.
    And I do believe that Espinosa did lead the NL in K’s in 2012.

    • scbilly - Feb 10, 2014 at 10:55 AM

      I remember that when people wanted to interview Mantle about Jackson passing him on the HR list, Mickey wondered where they’d all been when Reggie passed him on the K list several years earlier.

  6. #4 - Feb 9, 2014 at 10:29 AM

    Just a thought on whether Espinosa can “figure it out”. One player who hit .188, .205, .and .202 in his first threee major league seasons with about a 25% strike out rate….. Matt Williams. He ended being a pretty decent player and may have some insight to share.

    • scbilly - Feb 10, 2014 at 10:57 AM

      I remember that Mike Schmidt was pretty vulnerable to the K for his first couple of years in the bigs – Danny Ozark was often defending some low-percentage move in those years by saying “well, Schmittie was up next and he strikes out a lot” and he got over it. I’m not saying Espinosa is ever going to be Mike Schmidt, but people do figure it out sometimes.

  7. sjm308 - Feb 9, 2014 at 11:00 AM

    I am not saying at 26 he can’t “figure it out” but I am betting that its much harder then just typing these words.
    I hope he does “figure it out” but I also wish much more strongly that Rendon is starting at second base when the season begins. There are three positive solutions for this as I see it.

    1. Danny has a great spring and Rizzo trades him for valuable prospects
    2. Danny has a great spring, Rendon has an even better spring and Danny accepts his role, getting play at all 3 infield positions and also pinch hitting and pinch running when needed.
    3. This one is not quite a total positive, but if LaRoche does falter and Williams does make the move to replace him with Zimmerman ( I honestly just don’t see this happening by the way) then Espinosa starts at 2nd and Rendon moves to 3rd

    I don’t bet, but I would not put a single dollar on any of those solutions happening.

    One last thought on Espinosa that sort of troubles me. When you use Matt Williams as an example, he struggled in his first 3 years and was shuttled back and forth between the majors & minors. Espinosa had a GREAT season in 2011!! He was a 2+ WAR and since then he has regressed. I realize a big part of that was injury in 2013 but he is tracking the wrong way IMO.

    Jb – good call on Bonds BUT he also hit .302 in that year he had 189K’s and had a WAR of 5+. Espinosa not only had the 189 K’s but his WAR fell to 1.7 and while his batting ave. was his best in his short career (.247) it was not what you would call good. I would say that Bonds was already established at age 25 and continued to perform at a fairly high level for several more years. I think if Espinosa has not been injured and had continued to hit close to 20 HR and 20 doubles and play great defense they could have lived with his strikeouts. I wonder what would have happened with Rendon in that case? Great thing about baseball is you can speculate about all sorts of things.

  8. sunshinebobby - Feb 9, 2014 at 11:20 AM

    Attitude and plate discipline. He’s got too much of one, and not enough of another.

    I like Jamey Carroll’s chances of contributing to the big club a lot more than this guy’s. Ship has sailed. Quit waving goodbye.

  9. letswin3 - Feb 9, 2014 at 1:35 PM

    Don’t count out Zack Walters. He hit something like 250 last season, with more homers than Danny ever hit (29 for Zack). He may just come out of ST with a job in the majors. That could leave Danny as the odd man out, and pretty much seal his future with the Nats. Like some of you, I’m hoping that Rendon takes the next step toward being a very solid hitter….. I like pretty much everything I’ve seen from him so far, including improved fielding as the season ended last year.

    • David Proctor - Feb 9, 2014 at 1:52 PM

      Walters is atrocious defensively and Matt Williams clearly values defense.

    • therealjohnc - Feb 9, 2014 at 2:02 PM

      Well, I don’t count Walters completely out, but I certainly don’t count him in. Yeah, he hit 29 HRs last year, and that’s great. In the previous three seasons he had hit 25 – so assuming that he’s going to hit 25-30 HRs is not a good bet. Yes, he hit .253 last year, but his plate discipline sucks – he whiffed 134 times in 134 games, all while only walking 20 times (twice intentionally). How bad is that? Espinosa was unintentionally walked 19 times in 75 AAA games last year; Walters was unintentionally walked 18 times in 134 games. As a result of his lousy plate discipline, his batting average is essentially empty – his OBP was a lousy .286. And that’s in AAA – it’s anyone’s guess how he would do against MLB level pitching, but it’s unlikely to go up.

      Oh, and Walters made a lot of errors last year – 38. That’s … not good.

      In 2013 Walters played his way back onto the prospect radar – before that he had slowly slipped into organizational depth status. But he has so many things to work on both offensively and defensively that it would be a mistake for the Nationals to bury him on a bench as a utility infielder.

      • scnatsfan - Feb 9, 2014 at 4:34 PM

        We once spoke the same way of Ian’s defense. You can always hope Walters is a late bloomer.

  10. Sonny G 10 - Feb 9, 2014 at 2:06 PM

    I’ve always been a big supporter of Danny Espinosa and hoped he would get it together. However, him not accepting any personal responsibility for his problems is a very negative factor as far as I’m concerned. How can he improve if he never accepts responsibility for his actions. At least the Nats FO is aware of this problem and will do whats best for the team.

    As to Anthony Rendon, no way he becomes a utility player unless he has a severe regression. I expect to see him in our starting lineup for many years.

  11. natsguy - Feb 9, 2014 at 5:42 PM

    Schmuckanosa is the one guy on this team I cannot stand after last year. I truly hope he does not come North and that he rots in Syracuse all year and gets traded next year. After the crap he pulled last year her does not deserve to be in MLB.

  12. JayB - Feb 9, 2014 at 7:06 PM

    Man it is amazingly consistent how so many of you dog me for months and then come to the same view I posted months ago……what an retaliation for many of you – Danny is Selfish and pigheaded and must more harm than good. He is a clubhouse killer….comments have leaked out in the past few months about how many of current Nats wanted him gone last year.

    Luckily Rizzo is smart…he will never let him make the team…..Best case for Nats is a trade in late March after he has a good spring.

    • Chazz - Feb 9, 2014 at 7:23 PM

      just asking … who, specifically, disagreed with you on Espinosa, and now agrees? Because if Poster A disagreed last year, and Poster B agrees with you now, that may not be irrelevant but it is not the same as people changing their minds.

    • sjm308 - Feb 9, 2014 at 10:31 PM

      JayB – I dog you for your negative and hurtful attitude – plain and simple

  13. JayB - Feb 9, 2014 at 7:26 PM

    308, Joe, JD….list is long

    • sjm308 - Feb 9, 2014 at 10:28 PM

      Whoa JayB – I called YOU out for the name calling and where did you read anything I wrote as negative towards Danny. I pointed out his deficiencies and am worried he will never be the player he used to be but I did not trash him like you usually do. My point is, I want Rendon at 2nd base. I will not get into again but you continually use language I am not crazy about to describe a player. I am not happy with his strikeouts, his pouting, his inability to move runners etc. but I am not into the juvenile name calling that you love. To be clear, I want Rendon at 2nd base and I think he will be. I want Danny to bounce back and then lets see what Rizzo does with that. If he doesn’t bounce back, I will not be calling him names. If he can get us even one prospect I will be thrilled. If he ends up in Syracuse, oh well. If he is our utility bench guy I just hope he handles that like a professional which you obviously have no clue how to do. Can I be any clearer?

  14. JayB - Feb 10, 2014 at 5:51 AM

    I just hope he handles that like a professional which you obviously have no clue how to do…..good thing you do not participate in name calling :)

    You have moved quite a bit on the whole attitude area….go back and read 2 months ago where you would not even admit he makes excuses for his poor play and that his attitude is a negative in the club house….that is starting to be well documented by his teammates from last year and before……

  15. Joe Seamhead - Feb 10, 2014 at 6:57 AM

    Jay B? When have you and I ever discussed Espinosa? When did I disagree with you, much less now agree with you on Espinosa?
    Coach, you are dealing with a person that has a persistent false psychotic belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.

  16. breakbad1 - Feb 10, 2014 at 3:26 PM

    Something about Espinosa really brings out the anger in people. His name has come up a few times here over the winter, and man does he ever draw strong, even vitriolic, responses.

    He was SO frustrating to watch. It was so maddening, how long Davey kept him in the starting nine, when it was clear that Espi–and his giant swing–were toast.

    I love Rendon. It seems like everyone does. But I have two theories about how Espinosa could be a huge factor in the Nats going deep into the playoffs this year.

    1. Some guys have a good year early in their career, then really sag, due to the sophomore slump or injury or whatever. Some of them never make it back to the bigs, some come back as good as they were before, and some come back even better. I believe Espinosa could–repeat could–come back as good as before, or better.

    2. When I watched the 4 teams in the ALCS and NLCS, it occurred to me that those teams had something intangible that the Nats might lack: a completely remorseless killer instinct. It struck me that when the Nats were playing miserable baseball much of last season, they were pretty Zen about it. Likewise when they got knocked out in Game 5 in 2012–plenty of Zen comments about the sun coming up tomorrow, and playing golf won’t really be that bad, etc. Espinosa might give the team more killer instinct, more intensity, and more wins.

    Two theories in February, worth approximately the electrons they temporarily occupy.

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